Hiking trip leaves city boy pining for home
David A. Maltz '93: You are hereby informed that if you don't pay all my massage bills in full, you will find yourself sued in Cambridge District Court.
All I wanted to do was look at some leaves. It's supposedly something one does in New England during that autumnal season the local colonials insist on naming "fall." In all my long years as an inmate of this august institution I'd never had the chance to indulge in such trivial pursuits but, granted the remission my PhD had finally earned me, I determined to finally see what the fuss was all about.
I should have known better than to heed Maltz -- a somewhat goofy-looking overgrown Boy Scout of a fellow with far more energy than is becoming of respectable gentlefolk -- when he assured me that the "Fall Circus" trip planned by the MIT Outing Club in conjunction with the Wellesley Outing Club would have activities suitable for wimps and cowards such as me. But with an assurance that the trees would be "in full bloom" I agreed to venture into the unknown.
The club's Intervale Cabin is set a half-mile from the parking lot across a dark and fearsome forest, doubtless populated by bears, snakes and other outlaws from polite society. There are several bloodthirsty hounds to be encountered en route, specially trained so it seemed to sniff out the patent smell of well-cooked MIT nerd.
Lavatorial activities are ostensibly conducted in an outhouse; "Prepare to Unload" announces a sign on the exterior, and the advice is well-heeded since, once inside, it certainly isn't all roses. On the cold, blustery and rainy evening of arrival a majority of males did not feel obliged to complete the pilgrimage to the structure crowning an unlit hill. "That's the problem with large groups of men," Maltz observed. "They tend to piss." No wonder women suffer from penis envy. "Don't leave home without it," I say.
Oxford and Cambridge Universities' Joint Examining Board. Ordinary Level English Examination. Question 1. "Use the Outhouse, not the snow." Compare and contrast the figurative use of language in this statement with the alternative: "Go in the Outhouse, not in the snow." Which do you consider richer from a metaphorical point of view? Elucidate the different entailments of "using" and "going" and the consequences for a post-modern theory of literary meaning.
Cooperation is demanded in this place. As a sign resolutely declares: "We work on an honor system. Freeloaders have bad Karma and will be reincarnated as mosquitoes." The cabin has no electric power, but has some quite splendid gas lamps which endow it with a certain period charm. The lack of running water is not in itself objectionable. The New World colonials in fact generally seem far too concerned with scrubbing themselves clean, thus depriving themselves of natural body oils (and during my college days in the Old Country it would be a rare week that saw me bathe more than once). But, put some 60 bodies together in close confinement, and the rate of increase in Body Odor, described according to Bo's Law by an exponential function, can present a health hazard in the absence of Israeli-issue gas masks.
The cabin has three levels, and the activities of sleep are to be ostensibly conducted on the top and bottom. The top level consisted of a mass of mattresses laid side-by-side with not a speck of room between them. There weren't enough mattresses for each body-in-hot-storage to have one alone, making conditions decidedly cozy. There was no mint awaiting on the pillow. There was no pillow for that matter. The Marriott this was not.
I had, nonetheless, brought my green-striped silky English gentleman's pajamas, and determined to sleep. By 3 am, however, my resolve was falling apart. The sounds of guitars being lazily strummed filtered up from downstairs to mix with the operatic issuances of the writhing and odiferous serpentine line-up of hibernating bodies-in-bags. There were neither ear muffs nor Israeli-issue gas masks at hand.
At four the guitars ceased their toll, and I ventured downstairs, bag-in-hand. As I departed, the sleepers' chorus appeared to unite in "Hallelujah."
At seven I found myself plucked bag-and-all from the kitchen floor by a breakfast-bound Maltz. Such egregious manhandling will surely only increase the damages to be awarded in court. The breakfast which followed -- pancakes with such things as syrup, bananas and melted chocolate bits was, however, extremely good. And the choice Darjeeling tea I had myself brought from Selfridges made the world seem like a better place.
Emma C. Davis, the mushroom woman, had been up since dawn collecting the fungal objects of her desire. The treasure trove she had lovingly and artistically displayed on a board to the side was accompanied by a disclaimer, which was unnecessary to discourage the dismembering of her deadly-looking babies for a "pancake a la surprise."
The thing to do in the countryside, of course, is to either ramble or stroll, preferably pausing at an appropriate grassy knoll to partake of a picnic hamper from Fortnums. There were, however, only "hikes" -- no "rambles" or "strolls" to be found. But I took along my tweed jacket and an ample supply of Norweigian smoked salmon to at least partly rectify an otherwise inappropriate ambience, and set off on the "Beginner's/Intermediate" hike Maltz was to lead.
We headed up a mountain -- they really should install escalators up these things, or at least supply a sedan chair service -- and my ramblers' feet quickly turned to jelly. The multi-colored scenery, ever changing as altitude was gained, could not fail to cast a spell. The evergreens, doused in fresh water from the night before, gleamed a surreal steely shade of luminescent green, while the ambers and browns fallen from their deciduous brethren made a carpet that provided welcome repose for the eyes if not the feet. A miniature waterfall emerging from under a halo of leaves was espied by Emilio Mayorga '92, and the two of us paused to contemplate its charms. Maltz, spotting the sheep astray from the flock, beckoned us on and we continued to interlope across this landscape governed by Nature, not by Us.
The last mile took us above the treeline and across a barren and slippery rock face which repulsed our encroachment. As well it ought. No charabang could penetrate here, so why should we? At the summit there may have been no pub, but the sight of endless miles of leaf-bleeding trees made for a striking photographic backdrop as, surrounded by loneliness, we celebrated our arrival together at the top.
Saturday evening and, with more people arrived, the cabin was bursting at the seams. The MIT group had chicken stir-fry underway, while the troops from Wellesley had spaghetti on the boil. The chicken Maltz cooked vaporized before he got a hold of it, so he contented himself with inhaling spaghetti instead, while directing the masses to the compulsory campfire outside.
"Puff the Magic Dragon," "Kum-Ba-Ya," "Guantalamera," assorted syrupy Beatles songs followed, the sort of schmaltz nobody will admit to enjoying, but which casts a warm Linus blanket around the communal blaze. A regression of childish innocence, not mathematics. Bright, well-exercised faces lit up in song; problem sets and other problems were left many a mile away; the grey of infinite lonely corridors was gone.
One of the colonial fellows knew the good old loyalist song, "Lloyd George Knows My Father," but my attempts to invoke a three-part round of "London's Burning" drew the treacherous response of "Let it Burn, Let it Burn," with no demands to "Call the Engines, Call the Engines."
Quietly I polled the sorest of the masses on the possibility of organizing a "cowards' trip" on the morrow. We would motor through the countryside with the heater on and view the infamous leaves through the windscreen, perhaps partaking of just a whimsical stroll or two. Three emaciated souls vowed to be party to this escapist conspiracy but, come the morrow, when Maltz announced the choices of rock climbing, hiking -- or Jonathan's cowards' trip -- nobody would admit of a predisposition to this latter option.
Left on an island, I reluctantly joined a hiking group, but two miles down the road absconded, letting them flay their feet alone, while I pursued more civilized activities. First, there was the flush toilet to find: and one materialized in the North Conway tourist office. And then for a drive along leafy country roads equipped with many points where one could simply stop and stare at nature from safe quarters, while munching on a McDonald's hamburger. They should put moving walkways on the hiking trails as well as escalators up the hills, I thought.
I was supposedly returning next to Boston, but went by the cabin to pluck away Stanislaw Jarecki '95 to whom I had promised a ride. Stanislaw was not yet back from the rock-climbing trip upon which he had so foolishly engaged. Dinner took place, a mass of swirling bodies competing for the food in the confined quarters. And then the room divided in three: hearty conversation at one table, breathless card-playing at a second and the sounds of laid-back guitars and a mandolin issuing from the end of the room. It was oh-so warm and jolly, and I hadn't even had to take any exercise to earn my place there today.
A fire was lit outside, and a crowd walked out to examine the star-spattered sky so full of bright-glowing objects that it was surely artificial.
And then, as the evening drew on, it dawned on me that Stanislaw had still not returned; and neither had Maltz nor a substantial number of others. And the next moment things were quieter as anxiety descended on the crowd now concerned at the rock climbers' perhaps unintentional disappearing act.
A group took off to alert Conway Mountain Rescue, whom they joined to scour the dark in a vain search for seven of our absent friends. They returned to the cabin after 1 am, together with a part of the climbing group who had earlier safely come down, to announce that the search had been given up for the rest of the night. The climbers who had returned had seen the others still on the rock as dark had enveloped them, and had seen them no more. Dismay descended. The guitar playing grew softer, and while nobody openly expressed their fears, there was fear in peoples' eyes.
At 3 am it was decided that sleep was in order until six, at which point search operations would be re-commenced. Three mugs volunteered to drive off at that unearthly hour to check if dawn had brought the lost souls off the mountains. Surely it would have made sense to have a slept a bit longer; perhaps the climbers would have endured frostbite in the interim and lost a few toes, but the experience would be good for the character and encourage them to in future eat McDonald's hamburgers in motor vehicles, rather than engage in such overenergetic and altogether inadvisable pursuits. Perhaps the toes could be amputated in public to bring the point home.
But at six everyone's sleep was disturbed and the mugs departed on their search. At 10 am everyone was reunited, and we learned that the Gang of Seven had climbed up past the point of no return on White Horse Ledges when dark had fallen and, at the top had failed to find the trail which would bring them down.
"At a key junction we missed a sign, so we continued along for a while, and realized we had gone the wrong way," said Maltz.
"So we did the old Indian routine. We found a protected area with a nice big rock, and built ourselves a windbreak and lit a fire against the rock and had a sing-along. We did the "Gory-gory Climbers' Song," describing the fate of two unhappy climbers. People were in good spirits. This was one of the best groups I've ever worked with. . . . No-one panicked. People shared food, water, shared clothing. At fist light we broke camp, doused our fire and walked out. We walked back up to the top of the mountain, found the right trail and walked down from there."
Maltz thought the experience was so successful that he was considering including it as a future planned Club event. "We'll take the group out. Half will get lost; half will go to find them," he said.
Back at the cabin pancakes -- with chocolate and bananas, but without mushrooms -- were being stuffed down gullets, photos were posed for and general merriment reigned. The group which had come together mostly strangers two days past had eaten each others food, worn each others clothes, and experienced our mutual frailty in a way that the grey factory of MIT cannot teach, was now inescapably a group of friends. The laughter mixed with the autumnal colors, and the mountains sang the Kaddish from which we had been absolved.
Denied the adequate sleep a person of my station demands, I nonetheless set off with passenger Stanislaw on board, for the journey back. Pausing at Wildcat, I went up in the gondola while Stanislaw got out some textbooks to induce some much-needed sleep. Route 16 was packed with clenched-teeth drivers enduring the Columbus Day return to Boston, but 153, meandering like some ages-old English country lane, proved to be a more pleasant, less crowded alternative. Oh for England's Green and Pleasant Land!
Stanislaw kept up the conversation, on Shakespeare and Chopin, politics, science, education, not quite aware that he was engaged in a monologue with a sleeping driver whose finger responded just adequately to the curves in the hypnotic road. We finally got the car back to Avis in Boston, and Stanislaw declared an urgent need to return to his textbooks. "I'll only need to read for five minutes, and I'll be asleep," he said.
Now, M is for Massage as well as for Maltz. Maltz: get your checkbook ready, or meet me in Cambridge District Court. . .
Jonathan Richmond, who received his PhD degree from MIT in June 1991, is a former arts editor and senior editor of The Tech.