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First Light: Mount Cardigan in NH

First Light: Mount Cardigan in NH
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From the upstairs room where I’m writing this, I can look out across a 30-acre pond to the broad shoulder that slopes southward off the summit of Mount Cardigan. The summit itself–a bare, gray, granite dome–towers above west-central New Hampshire but is blocked from my view by smaller Hoyt Hill, which butts between us in un-neighborly fashion. No matter. Cardigan is a familiar mountain to me, my home mountain, one I can see in my mind’s eye from many different vantages and from the vantage of time.

It was the first mountain I climbed. Its graceful summit ridge, steeply scooped on one side, then gently rounded and falling off on the other, struck the writer W. D. Wetherell as “a bass clef sign turned on its side.” To me, that distinctive profile, seen hundreds of times from the flats of Route 4 heading into Canaan, has always, somehow, symbolized New Hampshire.

My mother looked up at Cardigan every day from her bedroom window in a farmhouse down by the old Canaan fairgrounds. It was the first mountain she climbed, too. She sometimes hiked to the top with her 4-H club or with schoolmates, and picked blueberries below the south peak in August. Her own mother, and her grandparents before that, farmed in Cardigan’s rocky shadow on the family homestead in Orange. In their lifetimes, climbing the mountain was a rare indulgence. I’ve seen photos of those earlier generations posing formally below the fire tower on the summit. Those were big events, worth recording, and they ended with the responsibilities of adulthood.

From my house, Cardigan is a close, easy hike with a big reward. The view from 3,155 feet–thanks to the fire that cleared the summit of its trees back in 1855–is far more expansive than it has a right to be, and wilder than it was a century ago. The view connects me with familiar ground. The memories ripple out in glaciated rings: north to massive Mount Moosilauke, northwest to Holt’s Ledge and Smarts Mountain, and west to the long, humped back of Moose Mountain, encompassing my years in the Dartmouth Outing Club; another ring northeast to Lafayette and the Presidentials, where I spent a glorious summer and fall doing trailwork my first year after graduation; circling west and south across into Vermont and back in time, to Ascutney and Okemo, where I skied as a teenager; and, far to the southern horizon on the most distant ring, the unmistakable triangular tip of Mount Monadnock, in whose region I was born and grew up and found work before moving back here to ancestral land.

The long view gives me perspective, reminds me how far I’ve come. Ten generations of my mother’s family lived and worked in the foothills below me. She knows few details of their lives. They were probably very much like her parents and grandparents, though: taciturn Yankees scratching out a living in hard soil in a hard climate. They were deeply rooted to the land, but I wonder whether they ever looked up at the mountain and appreciated the purple it turns just after sunset, or noticed the play of clouds across it in warm summer; I wonder whether they ever gazed up from their tools at the early snow frosting the summit weeks before it touched the valley floors, and saw the beauty, not just the winter coming. My mother felt calmed by the sight of Cardigan through her window, but couldn’t wait to move to town. Once she left, she never climbed another mountain.

And what about me, so different from them, who learned to see mountains differently after going off to college? Who is interested in the large-landscape, two-state conservation effort now under way called the “Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership”? Who knows that the “Cardigan Highlands” have recently been mapped and identified as the highest-ranked wildlife habitat in New Hampshire? Who married a climber from the Pacific Northwest who needs mountains even more than I do, and who lifts her eyes to that long, sloping shoulder every morning and breathes small thanks for such heights? What would they make of my climbing Cardigan with our children as toddlers, to make sure it was their first mountain, too? Or climbing it, as I occasionally do, before breakfast, just for exercise? What connects us if not this place?

I can’t say I know Cardigan in the full way that many serious outdoors people know their home mountains. After four decades of hiking Cardigan’s western trails, the Alexandria side of the mountain is a complete mystery to me. Weeks, sometimes months, pass between hikes. I haven’t completed the long Skyland Trail that runs along the ridge I look out to every day. I’ve never skied the trails that the Civilian Conservation Corps built during the Depression–though I know they’re among the few trails in the White Mountains cut specifically for that purpose.

Despite the gaps, Mount Cardigan has become an intimate landmark for me–rising daily from my exterior landscape and grounding me in my interior one. Perhaps having a home mountain isn’t, in the end, about fully knowing the mountain. It’s about simply knowing the mountain is there, and knowing where I come from, and where I am.

Perhaps it’s less about the mountain than it is about home.

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