Assault on Washington, September, 2001

A trip I’ll never forget, for reasons both good and terrible.

Bobby drives up to Larchmont on Thursday, September 6 after work, getting in at a reasonable hour. We pack up our stuff and leave on Friday about 10 a.m. in separate cars in convoy. It is unseasonably warm and actually seems to get warmer as we go – soon I decide to run the AC, something I’ve never done before at this time of year. We arrive in North Conway around 5, buy some groceries and check into Forest Glen. Joe Jack and Peggy arrive around 7 with their friend Tripp from Vermont. Tripp has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but you hardly know it on meeting him – friendly, obviously intelligent, showing no more problem than I have in keeping track of people’s names and conversations. I guess his personality has changed from what it used to be, but, meeting him for the first time, I am unaware of this. His condition becomes more apparent when he has to do some spatial simulation, like reading a map or figuring out how to put on a shirt, or other abstract operations.

We plan on all fitting into my room at Forest Glen – fortunately, I have been able to get one of the larger rooms, with extra floor space. Then Martha arrives after we get back from Boston with dog Jack. Dogs are verboten, so Martha and Jack get to sleep in her car, but the rest of us pile into the room – Bobby and I in the swing-down bed, Tripp in the fold-out couch, Peggy in a cot and Joe Jack on the floor.

We get up reasonably early on Saturday, grab a bite from the fridge and spenda while going through our packs and coordinating supplies. Then Bobby drives me and Tripp up to Crawford Notch; Martha takes Joe Jack and Jack. She is planning to hike with Jack and the AMC has made it clear Jack is not welcome at the huts, but she will stay with us for 1½ days before returning to Crawford Notch and rejoining Peggy. We get on the trail just before 11 a.m. – not as early as planned, but I am looking forward to a not-too-tough day. We are planning to do the section of the AT from Route 302, up to the summits of Webster and Jackson, stopping to camp at Mitzpah for the first night and then continuing up the ridge to stay at the hut at Lakes of the Clouds for the second night. On the third day, we will scamper up Mount Washington and then descend via Tuckerman Ravine to Pinkham Notch.

Piece of cake, no? Well, no! The trail is rough and steep going up to the top of the ridge, along the cliffs to the summit of Webster. I have never felt so hot before in the White Mountains – indeed, we find out later that it was 68 F on the summit of Mt Washington, a new record. We sweat like crazy and take our shirts off. I confuse the trail with the Webster-Jackson loop and keep looking for the waterfall and stream – but we don’t run into any water at all.

Joe Jack and Martha Martha, Joe Jack, Tripp and Me

After a while, we start coming out onto ledges that afford lovely views of Crawford Notch. On one such, we stop for lunch. We continue to toil and sweat and water runs low. I declare we have made it on to the top of Webster at the site of a large cairn but am later disillusioned – just a local bump. We are fully loaded and in the heat we go a lot slower than I had expected, so the trip to Mitzpah ends up taking 8 hours rather than the 5 I had figured. Everyone starts out strong, especially Tripp who is generally hiking near the front with me. But as the day goes on and we get dehydrated, we get stretched out – Joe Jack and Martha going strong, Tripp flagging a bit and Bobby in his usual position in the rear. By the time the light starts to wane, we are within striking distance of Mitzpah and Martha strides ahead, reserves us a tent site, fills up all the water bottles and dashes back down the trail to succor the wounded. Man, that water tastes good! Tripp feels nauseous and has some trouble slugging down enough water to get him hydrated again. Most of us get cramps. But we recover, cook dinner on my stove, which is also dragging a bit, but which Joe Jack fixes by unclogging the jet. The sky is clear and full of stars and things start looking up. The nearby AMC hut gives us easy access to all the water we need and we have completed the toughest and least interesting part of the hike. We sleep, although I have some difficulty after my nasal passages seize up. (Martha’s do the same.)

We feel vastly better the next morning. We make a fairly early start and, after more scrambling for about an hour, we get above the tree line. The sun is still pretty brutal, but we get some breezes and it feels more pleasant. Up Pierce (no big deal), then over to Eisenhower (more of a slog), where we admire great views and say goodbye to Martha and Jack. She will see about hiking up from Pinkham Notch on Monday to join us as we descend from Washington. We cross Franklin without being sure even where the summit is. Still a bit dehydrated in the record-breaking heat, we arrive, after skirting Monroe, at the Lakes of the Clouds AMC hut by 5:30 p.m., in plenty of time for dinner. After stuffing ourselves, we all pile back out of the hut to watch the sun go down.

Waiting for sunset Tripp and me

Breakfast on Monday is at 7 a.m. and we toss down lots of hearty fare. The weather is still warm and sunny without a cloud in sight. Then we pack up and set out again, although Bobby is reluctant to leave Princess Leia, his new love, who is the young resident naturalist at the hut who bawled us out yesterday for sitting on the grass and with whom he exchanged several cordial words. But easy come, easy go, say I!

Bobby at the hut

We take the Crawford path, branch off on to the Cutoff trail to Tuckerman Junction where we dump our packs. Now we see wispy clouds chasing across the summit, presaging a change in the weather. With just wind shells and water bottles, we trudge from rock to rock up to the summit of Mt Washington, to mingle with the tourists from the cog railway and auto road. We watch Breakfast of Champions, fill up the water bottles and check out some of the displays. By now, the summit is socked in and there are no views. We finally make cell phone contact with Martha, who is starting up Boott Spur trail, planning to take the cut-off to Hermit Lake where we will meet. Back down to our packs and over the lip of the Tuckerman headwall. The trail is rougher than I remember and there is some evidence of rockfall at one point. Near the top, Tripp stumbles and slips head-first down the trail – not far and he is not hurt, but he ends up in an awkward position and has trouble getting back up. We quickly haul him upright, but the footing is still treacherous and he is a bit spooked. Joe Jack takes his pack and Bobby stays with him to guide him down the steep part. After a while, I offer to take Tripp’s pack from Joe Jack and sling it over my right shoulder. No problem – I am full of energy! After a while, however, we are still picking our way down and my right arm is getting tired, so I shift it to my left shoulder. Joe Jack points out that there is a risk to doing that, since the drop-off is to my right and if I bump the pack on a rock, I could take a long fall. I reply facetiously that we are most of the way down, so I don’t have so far to fall, but a few minutes later I do indeed bump the pack, lose my balance and topple to the ground – Joe Jack grabs for me and I stay on the trail, uninjured but feeling rather foolish. Joe Jack retakes the pack.

Joe Jack and Tripp leaving the hut Looking back up Tuckerman Ravine

A little while later, Joe Jack and I are finished with the steep part and he waits for the others to get down while I go on to Hermit Lake to meet Martha. She has been there for half an hour or so – she arrived very hot and immediately jumped into the lake, which cooled her way down, so she is now trying to warm up again. The others arrive and we set off for the remaining couple of hours down Tuckerman to Pinkham Notch. Now it begins to rain steadily, although it is warm enough so that we decide not to put on our rain gear. Joe Jack and Martha go on ahead so they can get a start on retrieving Bobby’s truck and the rest of us straggle on behind. Our bodies ache in all of the usual ways and some unusual ones but our spirits are high and Tripp tells stories about bailing out of a Navy jet over Tokyo. Wow! We arrive at the Pinkham Notch lodge and Tripp and I share a shower and change into dry clothes. The truck arrives and victory is declared!

Bobby decides not to go back to Larchmont on Monday night – instead, he will bunk with me in North Conway and then drive all the way to DC on Tuesday, September 11. Peggy feeds us on chips and delicious leftover pizza and Martha contributes wonderful cherry tomatoes she picked just before leaving Boston. Peggy has arranged to move the Davis clan (and Tripp) to a guesthouse nearby, so my room is no longer stuffed to the brim with people.

The next morning, Bobby and I get up and have a quick bite at the Blueberry Muffin before stopping by the Davises where Bobby says his good-byes. Then Peggy drops me back over at Forest Glen on her way to do some shopping while Bobby heads south. Another lovely day, although I feel a little too creaky to do any real hiking – perhaps I will do my laundry. So I head down to the basement where the TV is on, with no-one watching it, showing pictures of one of the World Trade Towers in flames. Then they show the second plane hitting the other tower while I sit, stunned, with my dirty laundry in my lap.

Peggy flies in at some point and we commiserate. After she leaves, I watch a couple of more hours of TV and then go over to the guesthouse where they are staying. We sit out by the pool asking Why? How can this be? I consider how this has likely affected my friends and neighbors in Larchmont, who work disproportionately in the financial district. I also reflect gloomily on Larchmont real estate values and how my retirement portfolio will have fared when the stock market reopens. Nothing looks remotely good. I try to call Louise but, unsurprisingly, the circuits are busy. Then I go on back to Forest Glen, pack up and return to New York.

In the end, when we start getting some real facts about the catastrophe, things don’t look quite so black. Far fewer people have died than I initially suspected, thanks to the delay before the towers collapsed, which allowed most people to escape. Larchmont has maybe 30 or so not accounted for, none of whom I knew personally. There are plenty of friends of friends stories, though, and the papers have a seemingly unending stream of heroic deaths to memorialize. (It makes me wonder what they would have found to say about me, had I been caught in it.) People pull together, the flags come out, and then the politicians start trying to figure out how to avenge the loss and discourage further attacks.

At this point, I don’t know what the politicians are going to come up with although I do know that I fear the consequences of our responding unwisely a lot more than I fear bin Laden. I am desperately hoping that it will not turn out to be the start of a Vietnam-type morass or a rallying call for all Moslems (over 1 billion of them world-wide) to hurl themselves onto the US. That leaves such actions as an ineffectual token bombing followed by a declaration of victory, which I think might be just fine but which doesn’t sound macho enough for the current national mood.

Although I don’t have a clear idea of what the smartest direction might be, I am quite ready to consider more unconventional approaches. Perhaps we should pass a law requiring all U.S. citizens to become followers of Islam? That might at least give the holy war crowd a moment of confusion. Sometimes, I think the U.S. should attack Britain, since it is after all Britain’s fault that the first lunatic step was taken to carve Israel out of Palestine. I do think that some curtailment of individuals’ rights to privacy is called for, allowing us to use some of the high-tech terrorist-sniffing tools we have been developing. This does, however, go against my grain and I don’t really think that such proposals will get very far politically. Perhaps the only useful solutions will the ones that follow naturally from people’s actions, not from government fiat – a tendency for concentrated financial centers to be replaced by a more geographically dispersed power structure.

Anyway, as Tripp says, better dead than looking bad!

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