Six years is barely the blink of an eye for the White Mountains, which have defined New Hampshire’s landscape for more than a hundred million years. But to a father, six years can feel like a lifetime - as NHPR’s Sean Hurley discovered while hiking recently with his son.
We’re in the car in the Welch & Dickey parking lot. It’s 2010, my son Sam is five. Throughout the summer we’ll hike these mountains once a week.
“Daddy!” Sam says, “Three plus three equals six. Sixies!”
Sixies, I repeat. And then he does too.
6 years later, a little less often, we still hike Welch and Dickey. 11 years old now, Sam shows off a newer skill, reading the sign at the trailhead.
“Welch Dickey Loop Trail. Welch Mountain 1.9 miles. Dickey Mountain 2.3 miles,” he reads.
When he was five Sam would bring along his favorite marble which always became a little plane he’d zoom through the air.
“Eeyo! Eeyo!” Sam says. “This airplane is heading for a thundercloud. Filled with all different kinds of thunderbolts!”
“Oh no,” I say, as he crashes the plane into the cloud.
Nowadays Sam’s imagination is gripped by more likely adventures. Prompted by a lost hand towel near the start of the trail he comes up with a plan for this hike.
“I wanna see if I can find some things that people might have dropped,” he says. “Like for instance that towel. Like remember you said you were running and you found a gigantic pocket knife on the ground?”
“Oh yeah,” I say, “I still have that upstairs.”
“Oh, I thought you gave it back,” Sam says.
Who would I give it back to, I ask him?
“Someone,” he says. “Like some random guy on the street.”
Back then, the world was still sorting itself out. “Dadda,” Sam says, “I thought you were drinking water but really it was that tiny waterfall.
Back then, out of the blue, based on nothing, the sudden inexplicable exclamation. “Oh no!” Sam cries. “My watch is broken!”
Now - Sam knows he’s being recorded. He’s self-aware, self-monitoring - is restrained as we talk about the movie Everest.
“I don’t want people who are listening to this, listen to us go into the terrible gory detail of Everest,” he says, eying my recorder.
I ask 11 year old Sam if he remembers hiking Welch and Dickey when he was five. “Not really,” he says. “I think I might have a memory of me being in the Baby Bjorn maybe. But it’s vague.”
When he was 3 and 4, I used to carry him up Welch, down Dickey in the Bjorn. My memory of those hikes is as vague as his. It goes fast, seasoned parents will tell you. I’ve said it.
What isn’t said is how dream-like - how blurred– it is. It’s hard to keep track of all the different little people your children have been. Who they’ve become eclipses who they were.
But things echo. Old conversations recur, are rewritten. On both our hikes, now as well as then, Sam and I came upon two different trees, both stripped of the bark on their lower trunks.
“This could be from a bear,” I say, “scratching at it with his paws. Or it could just be people pulling the bark off.”
“It couldn’t have been people,” Sam says.
The conversation from six years before isn’t much different -
“See this tree with all the bark ripped off?” I say. “You know who did that?”
“Who?” Sam asks.
“I think a bear did that,” I tell him.
“How did a bear do that? I don’t see any bears,” Sam says.
At the time we both sat and began peeling bark from the dead tree.
“You know maybe it wasn’t bears,” I say. “Maybe it was little boys.”
“Nooo!” Sam says, not liking this idea one bit.
“Maybe every time little boys come past here they peel little bits of bark off,” I suggest.
“No,” Sam says, “it’s a bear.”
Sam’s imaginary watch will likely never break again. His marble that was a plane has probably flown its last mission into the thundercloud filled with all different kinds of thunderbolts.
But there are these trees in the forest stripped of their bark. And maybe it was bears that did it - or maybe little boys. And maybe one day an old man and his son will try, once again, to sort it all out – was it bears, was it boys? Or was it - maybe - somehow… us?