Last Tuesday morning, as the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, a flurry of jets descended into Manchester International Airport. The planes carried Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and most of the other candidates for president of the United States. Up front, where first class would be, the planes also carried the candidates’ entourages: opinion makers, deal cutters, spin doctors, strategists, and confidants. In the rear, in economy class, rode the journalists, bloggers, and television reporters who cover them. The American political establishment has two halves: those who govern, and those who want to. The former was in Washington, D.C., winding down the seventh year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The latter, who roundly debate Mr. Obama’s legacy, had flown through the night from Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, where polls had just closed, to New Hampshire, where in seven days the state’s 1.3 million residents would pull voting levers.
It’s a feeling of panic. Your heart races, your palms moisten, your eyes race down the page. Everything, all of it, looks like hieroglyphics. Frantically you search for something — anything — that you recognize. Something you can start with. You frantically flip to the second page, then the third, your eyes racing down the page, heart pounding in your ears. By the time you scan helplessly to bottom of the last page, there is nothing you know how to do. Suddenly hits you — you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
Surely others are panicking too? But a quick glance around you reveals that even those dullards are weaving their way crisply through the opening problems. Suddenly you feel completely, utterly stupid, and totally alone. Your eyes dart to the door. You want to leap up and run — but you can’t. They’d stare. They’d talk. Are they staring right now? Can they tell that you have no idea? Your heart races faster . . . You’ve got to find something you know how to do . . . You can’t pass in a blank test . . . Control your fear . . . But it’s too late . . .
Suddenly you’re wide awake. You’re sitting straight up in bed, heart racing, forehead dripping sweat. It’s 3 am and you’re a fully grown adult and you’ve just had a nightmare that has, strangely enough, become more frequent since you left school. As you try to catch your breath, two words come to your lips in a whisper.
“Math class . . .”
I’m 34 years old and haven’t opened a math book since before “Google” was a verb and I still get nightmares about being back in math class.
Back when I taught in Washington, D.C., my high school students were spectacularly bad at geography. Not only did they struggle with finding other countries on a map, they struggled with U.S. states.
They were especially bad at New England.
“Come on!” they’d moan. “Connecticut, Massachusetts — what’s the difference?”
“That’s not Massachusetts,” I’d say, glancing at their maps. “That’s Canada.”
Not long after we began dating, my girlfriend found a photo of me with my ex.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
I’m sure that for normal, mature folks — you know, people who’ve actually had at least a couple of serious relationships by the time they’re 31 — this is still a tough question, but one you get used to answering. You learn how to be honest about your past without dwelling on it. You learn how to talk about someone you once cared a lot about, without sounding like you still care too much. You learn how to avoid saying things like, “Oh, her? Well, you were asking me why I bought this gun . . . ” In other words, you get used to answering this.
“These guys are good, T.J.”
“Yeah, but they’re not from Detroit.”
–Aspen Extreme, 1993
It’s a great moment at the start of a very bad movie: two buddies are at the top of a steep mogul trail in Aspen, Colorado, waiting for their turn to show what they can do. If they make it to the bottom in one piece, they have a chance to become ski instructors at Aspen and make lots of money. Everything about this is absurd, of course. Like I said, it’s not a great movie. But then one of the buddies, Dexter, looks over at the other, T.J. Dexter is clearly intimidated by the great skiers around them: “These guys are good, T.J.” After all, these two guys have probably never skied a trail this steep before. They’re wearing jeans. Their home ski area? Mt. Brighton, Michigan — “200 feet of landfill.” Here at Aspen, they’re out of their league in just about every possible way.
But they do have one ace up their sleeve. Just as it’s their turn to go, the other buddy, T.J. — the more confident of the two — lowers his goggles. “Yeah,” he says, “but they’re not from Detroit.” Game on. They jump over the edge. Guess who’s ripping down the moguls, passing everyone, and throwing double helicopters like an early 90s Johnny Moseley? Guess who makes the Aspen Ski School? The guys from Detroit.
“It’s an Asheville winter.”
That’s what my fiancee and I have been telling each other this December. Usually during the week after Christmas we retreat to the warm temperatures of Asheville, North Carolina to hike the Great Smoky Mountains. This year we don’t need to: Christmas temperatures in the 50s here in the North Country of New Hampshire felt more like the Smokies than the White Mountains. So far, the winter of 2015-2016 has been the warmest and the least snowy I can remember. Normally I ski a lot during my birth month, but this December I’ve skied just once. Although most of the resorts are managing to stay open, the trails at Wildcat, Waterville Valley, and Cannon are mostly grass.
In lieu of skiing, I’ve taken advantage of the warmer temperatures and lack of snow to continue hiking the White Mountains. What follows is a list of the best off-season hikes I’ve been doing in the northern White Mountains.
Sugarloaf Mountain, located in Dickerson, Maryland, about thirty miles north of Washington, D.C., is not much of a mountain. At only 1,282 feet above sea level, it’s more of a hill — a small hill. But set amid the rolling farmland of northern Montgomery County, it doesn’t look small. In fact, Sugarloaf’s summit is so prominent — and so close to Washington, D.C. — that Franklin Roosevelt considered making Sugarloaf his presidential retreat (before deciding on the nearby Camp David). It was from Sugarloaf that Union troops first spotted the Confederate Army crossing the Potomac River in 1862. I first began to notice Sugarloaf in 2009, on one of my frequent trips to the nearby Dickerson whitewater slalom course. I’d driven past this hill since my first trip to Dickerson years before, but it wasn’t until my fifth year of living in Washington, D.C. that I began to notice it. That fall, as I drove an hour north out of the city and across the flatlands, Sugarloaf — really the closest mountain you hit when driving out of D.C. in any direction, looked taller and taller — and all of a suddenly, I wanted very badly to be on top.
This was a real change for me. I spent most of my life looking down — into river gorges — not up. I wanted to go to the places on the map where the river left the roads and plunged into a canyon so deep that it was like a secret world. These were gorges you had to bushwhack for thirty minutes just to get down to the river — or else you had to own a kayak, in which case you could see the gorge in its entirety. I can’t say if I started kayaking because I wanted to explore these places, or if I wanted to explore these places because I started kayaking. I only know that, when I was 14 years old and had just started boating, every time we drove over the 60-foot bridge on Route 44 bridge near my house in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, I’d look downstream and see two cliffs towering 100 feet over the river and I knew that something about it didn’t look right. It looked more dramatic than the usual rolling hills of western Connecticut. Something had happened to the Earth there, some kind of violence. And I wanted to go down inside and see exactly what it was.
Over the past few years of living with my girlfriend, I have gained a lot of insight into the differences between men and women. Some of these differences have been surprising. That nobody would ever comment on my eating habits or physical appearance in public (or that their remarks would seem odd, not offending even if they did: “It’s amazing you stay so thin eating like that” would just bounce off me), or assume I would babysit their kids, or expect me to mother them through a crisis were all pretty surprising revelations for me that came about by living with a woman who was subject to those indecencies.
It is in just the same way that the past few years’ revelatory videos of police mistreating or killing African American men has made me reflect on certain events in my life — for example, I believe that the time a good ol’ boy southern cop exuding a Napoleon Complex pulled over a young man with a scraggily beard, Yankee plates, and three kayaks on his car on the pretense of running a stop sign (???) and queried him about drug running substances the young man had never heard of (most of which sounded like “Benzomaltrodextrineiclocyde — you know, Horse Dust!“) — might have ended drastically differently than the young man offering the officer one of the substances he did have (Newcastle Brown Ale) and both of them laughing had the young man had darker skin.
There’s something riveting about the idea of perfection in sports. We dream of watching a pitcher throw a perfect game, a football team have a perfect season, and for a long time, I dreamed about having a perfect run in whitewater slalom canoe racing.
Many years ago, when I was first starting out in whitewater, the late Jamie McEwan forwarded me an article about Olympic slalom kayaking called “Two Trips to the Top.” It was a fascinating analysis of the history of the two of the best whitewater slalom racers of their generation — Rebecca Giddens from the United States and Oliver Fix from Germany.
The author was former US Slalom Team coach Bill Endicott — probably one of the twenty most interesting people I’ve ever met: a Harvard grad, a Marines Corps officer, the architect of the wildly successful US Whitewater Slalom Team in the 1980s, a driving force behind starting the Slalom World Cup and in slalom’s re-inclusion into the Olympics in 1992, the Director of Research and Analysis in the Clinton White House, author of numerous books about paddling and about politics, and father of a rock star.
In “Two Trips to the Top” — written in 2003 after countless interviews — Endicott delved into the question of how Giddens and Fix took such different paths to international and Olympic success in whitewater slalom. The Giddens profile was remarkable in itself. Sometimes students ask me who the greatest athlete I’ve ever met was. I tell them: Rebecca Giddens. She was amazing (even better than my high school idol Matt Striebel).
Here’s the introduction to Giddens’s section in “Two Trips to the Top”:
It’s never a good sign when people come up to you at work and ask, “So how’s the commute going? You surviving?” I get this all the time.
Or when neighbors hear where you work and say, “Really? Wow, how do you even get there from here?”
Or, “What is that, three hours away?”
In fact, my commute — from the North Country of New Hampshire to Montpelier, Vermont — is 57 miles and takes 65 minutes. I cross eight towns, four school districts, three counties, and two states. I spend just over 11 hours per week in the car.