Floundering in her second career, the one she’s always wanted, forty-eight year old Cheryl Suchors resolves that, despite a fear of heights, her mid-life success depends on hiking the highest of the grueling White Mountains in New Hampshire. All forty-eight of them. She endures injuries, novice mistakes, and the heartbreaking loss of a best friend. When breast cancer threatens her own life, she seeks solace and recovery in the wild. Her quest takes ten years. Regardless of the need since childhood to feel successful and in control, climbing teaches her mastery isn’t enough and control is often an illusion.
Connecting with friends and with nature, Suchors redefines success: she discovers a source of spiritual nourishment, spaces powerful enough to absorb her grief, and joy in the persistence of love and beauty. 48 Peaks inspires us to believe that, no matter what obstacles we face, we too can attain our summits.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Cheryl Suchors began writing at age six when she wrote a play starring her sister and herself. She continued to write poetry until she took a twenty-year detour through the business world. She holds degrees from Harvard Business School and Smith College. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Writer’s Digest , City Book Review , Limestone, The Distillery, RE:AL , and HerSports magazine, as well as in the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends. In her business career she coauthored the book Own Your Own Cable System. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and a plethora of plants. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and a plethora of plants. In her spare time she visits their daughter, travels, and engages in political activism. She continues to hike every chance she gets, most recently in Poland and Canada.
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Kate, my next-door-neighbor, best friend, and now hiking buddy, just explained why heavy leather sandals dangled from her overstuffed backpack. "My boots might be too tight." She confessed this now, at the beginning of a 12.1-mile climb, causing tiny frogs to trampoline from my belly to my throat.
Nothing could be done now, so instead I re-checked the sky. Still full of thick pewter clouds. On a Saturday in 1998 at the height of fall color in New Hampshire, mine was the only car at the trailhead. Did everyone else think it would warm up? On the drive over, the car had registered 34°F. I'd rather not have known that.
I shouldn't worry about Kate. I was just as likely to be the one who had to quit and ruin the day for us all. At least, I assumed if I turned back my friends would too. I glanced at Kate, then Sarah. Would they abandon me to reach the top?
I pushed the pack belt firmly down on my hips. That wasn't going to happen. This wasn't the Himalayas. Though hikers got injured, lost, and even died in the White Mountains, I didn't expect any of that to happen to us. No, what wound my clock was finishing. I had to finish.
In the Sandwich Range Wilderness of the Whites, Mt. Tripyramid would push me to my limits. Twelve miles was more than double the longest hike I'd ever done — two decades ago. No matter. Though I might be a month shy of forty-eight and potentially a fool for giving up a lucrative business career to write a novel, I would complete this "event."
For months, Kate and I had climbed subway steps in Cambridge and tested ourselves on small Massachusetts mountains. Even so, she had delayed committing to today's venture. Maybe she worried about her age, too. She had signed on only after two weeks out west tramping the Cascades with her friend Pauline, a fact that still rankled.
When Kate dithered about Tripyramid, I'd invited my college classmate Sarah as well. I'd get to spend a whole day as well as the nights before and after with Sarah, at my place in New Hampshire. We'd never hiked before, but we had rambled through Spain together on our junior year abroad. Though we went way back, we usually only saw each other if I initiated our getting together, a pattern we'd talked about over the years but one that hadn't much changed. I would have liked her to show she cared as much as I did by reaching out more. She was busy, of course. When I'd asked her to join us, I thought she'd take weeks to consult her patient schedule, her teaching calendar, her husband and kids, ponder for a while, and have to be asked again. Instead, she had agreed instantly. Neither of my friends had responded to the Tripyramid adventure the way I'd expected. How would we fare, driving ourselves up and down a rough mountain today, especially when they had just met?
Older than Sarah and I, Kate was an intellectual who also loved to cook, a feminist who didn't resort to sly jokes about men. With two kids who were already young men, and a marriage far longer than my own, she was a more experienced wife and mother. I looked up to her.
The looking-up-to part began even before we met. Kate and her family had moved onto our street five years ago, a year after my family, and the woman showed moxie. Within weeks she held an open house, something no one else had done, inviting everyone on the street.
When my husband Larry, our three-year-old daughter Casey, and I arrived, Casey began her long love fest with Kate's enormous golden retriever by lying on the floor, her little corn-silk head propped on a red-gold canine belly as Marla thunked her tail against the oak floor. Tom, Kate's husband, welcomed Larry and me, got us drinks, and asked the usual questions people do when they first meet. I excused myself to check out the food. After three astonishing brownies, I noticed Kate. She stood behind a counter separating the kitchen and dining rooms, a tall, pale woman with light gray hair, broad shoulders, and good posture. She was cooking, admirably calm despite the strangers filling her home, but keeping busy at your own party was an introvert's strategy I knew well. I walked over. "What do you do to your brownies? I'm addicted."
Her smile turned her from someone you might overlook to someone you could not. "Dried cherries." She pulled a tray from the oven. "Shrimp puff chaser?"
We got talking about books. We both loved the novel A Thousand Acres and had just finished Getting to Yes, about negotiating without giving in. I felt so in tune with her I shyly ventured that I'd just picked up The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to help me handle the news about my mother's pancreatic cancer.
"I've found the book comforting," Kate said softly. "I'm so sorry about your mother." She didn't need to be told the diagnosis was a death sentence. Her own mother, when I asked, was a woman full of personality and verve, like mine. Both mothers lived in the South, something else we had in common.
My friend Sarah was a somewhat different story. She, too, was interested in many things and noticeably smart. Unlike Kate or me, though, you couldn't miss her in a crowd. I'd noticed Sarah immediately that first day back in Portuguese 101, and because the hunky professor called on her more, felt jealous. She had long, naturally platinum hair and big aqua eyes. Taking the same Spanish and Portuguese classes, we'd necessarily competed for grades. I thought an occasional frisson of competition still arose between us, but maybe it was only on my side. Sarah, like me, was an achiever. She was now at the top of her profession as a psychiatrist, not only because she was bright and worked hard but also because people fascinated her. She could always find a fresh angle on a situation or person. Her quirky sense of humor had taken some getting used to in college, but in the decades since then she had kept me in stitches.
If I sometimes cast Kate in the role of wise woman, Sarah stood in at times for the smart sister I yearned for, one who didn't have Down Syndrome and against whom it was fair to measure myself. I cared for both friends deeply and differently. I could only hope they'd get along and — I was counting on this — get me through the climb.
* * *
Despite the cold, Sarah wore teal-colored shorts, her pale legs mottling red. She must have known what she was doing, she ran in this weather. Kate tended to train only when she was with me. She had on shorts, too, but beneath a pair of dark pants. She had packed away her fleece, but now zipped her navy rain jacket up to her chin. The wind lifted her short gray hair into soft peaks. Sarah's long blonde hair sailed around her head into her eyes and across the shoulders of a neon purple windbreaker.
My spiky (dyed) reddish brown hair stood at attention. Beneath my rain jacket and heavy fleece I wore a green T-shirt (Smith College Class of 1972 — One Hundred Years of Women On Top.) Over that a red cotton long underwear shirt fell to the tops of my thighs. I didn't know yet that cotton was a hiker's bane. The fabric that felt so friendly retained up to forty times its weight in water, so my own absorbed sweat could put me at risk for hypothermia. The waistband of a pair of royal blue spandex leggings squeezed my belly, tender still from bouts of anxiety-induced diarrhea in the early hours. I pulled on a puckered pair of leather gloves, antsy to get going. The longer we delayed, the more time I had to question my readiness. Kate wore gloves, too, but after buckling on her pack, Sarah shoved her hands into her shorts' pockets.
Sarah was here, I suspected, mainly for a lark. A few years ago, she and her family had hiked up Washington, the biggest, deadliest mountain in the Whites and, by my lights, that made her an expert. Kate viewed hiking as a great way to lose weight, the only motivation she ever voiced. Maybe she hiked just because friends asked her. I preferred to believe she came today because we were in this together, shoulder-to-shoulder, hiking buddies and all.
And me? I was here because I needed to find a place where I could still succeed. After twenty years in the business world, I left to attempt something I'd aspired to since the age of six. For a couple of years now I'd been a raw beginner, a baby novelist living off of my husband's salary and our savings with no promotions or raises of my own, alone at my desk. Each day taught me how little I knew about writing fiction. Being a voracious reader didn't enable me to create the quality of prose I was used to reading. My business colleagues had considered me a good writer but expository writing and fiction, it had become clear, were as alike as construction projects and gazelles. I'd been taking classes and working on the novel part-time for two years and not only hadn't I finished my book, it was so bad I kept chucking it out and starting over.
I was also the older mother of an eight-year-old, with no benchmarks or comparative analyses to know if I was doing right by or inadvertently scuppering her. I'd been the youngest of three and my own mother, deceased for several years, wasn't available to consult. Apart from the terrible clarity of death, too much of my life felt uncertain at the advanced age of forty-eight. Things were not how I had expected.
* * *
Tripyramid rested in the emerald flats and folds of the White Mountain National Forest. From above, the mountain resembled a reclining elephant, the very one that felt like it had lain across my chest all night. Her head pointed north, her trunk unfurled westward and the rest of her body sprawled south. The triangular shape that suggested a pyramid, a word that clothed her in ancient mystery, was North Peak. We had to hike six miles to reach this summit that jutted from the top of her shoulders. From there, the knobby ridge of Tripyramid's spine marched southward a full mile before arriving at the second bulge, Middle Peak. Then her backbone curled for another half mile to reach South Peak, the final summit at her tail.
A lesser mountain called The Fool Killer guarded Tripyramid's back. Another subsidiary, the Scaur, a Scottish word for "sharp precipice," stood watch over her head. These neighbors with the ominous, foreboding names added to my trepidation.
I marked our official starting time — how it had gotten to be 8:00 a.m. none of us could figure — and we took off on Livermore Trail, a sandy, gravelly old logging road wide enough for five hikers to link arms. Though the way was easy, the trail immediately let us feel the silent embrace of wilderness. I craned my neck upward at soaring blue-green trees that topped their shorter, darker sibling firs whose names, besides balsam, I didn't know. Amongst the green and smoky blue gleamed ghostly white birches, their yellow leaves fluttered by a breeze that now, in the shelter of these woods, was too high for me to feel. Maples had gone red and gold, rich and wine dark against the wooly gray light. I breathed in deeply, happy to be moving, to begin our adventure at last. The fragrance of pine and balsam, sharp and Christmassy, tingled.
Within minutes, however, I found myself struggling to keep up with Sarah and Kate. Kate was six inches taller but how could Sarah be faster? We were the same height, same age, same Hispanics Studies major. I remembered she got a Distinction on our senior comprehensive exam when I did not, but I couldn't go any faster. I stomped along three steps behind, rushing when I wanted to be gently warming up. I had planned on a slow, easy start. At this pace, could I hang in till the end? Not-finishing would be outright failure. I felt the weight of the pack with every step, my scoliotic back twitching from strain. I didn't like being last. It reminded me of trying to keep up with my nine-years-older, bigger, smarter brother and, though I should have known better by now, apparently I did not.
An hour later, the real hiking began. We climbed. The Scaur Ridge Trail was ridiculously steep. We hoisted ourselves and our packs over big rocks we had to clamber up onto, sometimes on our knees, and my back felt every twist. We used our hands to haul ourselves up. In my hiking experience, hands went along for the ride. Hikes were for feet. And, I was learning, for shoulders. My shoulders had developed a voice. A rather whiny voice. Trying not to worry about the shoulder with the three-inch surgical scar, I conjured up images of thick foam slabs beneath the straps of my pack. At least my hands had leather gloves to protect them from the granite surfaces that scraped off skin like a cheese grater.
Sweating, we paused to stuff jackets and fleeces into our packs. Of the three of us, only Sarah didn't seem challenged by verticality. When we started up again, she rapidly regained her lead. Looking up, I mostly saw her butt and then her smaller and smaller self, scaling boulders as if she had sticky pads on her hands and feet. She turned and yelled down, "This is gorgeous! Isn't it fun?" Then she took off and disappeared from sight.
I could have smacked her.
After months of preparing for this hike, I still didn't know if I was strong enough, tough enough, brave enough. As it had during the night, worry eroded my confidence. Would I finish? Other possible problems — storms, rutting moose, bears — I didn't have the experience to be troubled by. It was me that worried me.
We continued leveraging and hoisting, maintaining the line-up that would continue for much of the day: Sarah in the lead, me in the middle, and Kate slowly and with no apparent angst about it, bringing up the rear. Kate's face was sweaty, but determined. I thought, She really is stronger than I am. Not as fast, but stronger. At some core level, she was unfazed by this trail. Sarah was fast and Kate was sure, but what was I? I no longer defined myself as a partner in a national organization or president of my own consulting firm and I could hardly call myself a writer. I needed to be a hiker, a good one. But I relied on a blend of fear and willpower with neither Sarah's agility nor Kate's character. At least, I consoled myself, the hardest part of the hike would be over early and the day wouldn't further test my fear of heights.
* * *
"Hey, look at that," Kate called up, gesturing. She unzipped the small pouch belted at her navel and pulled out a camera. Moving to her side, I leaned down to where she crouched on the trail. She pointed out a whole row of icicles hanging from a boulder to our right. They glistened, wetly silver against a backdrop of emerald moss.
"Wow," I whispered as Kate moved in for a close-up. I stood to yell to Sarah, but she was nowhere in sight. I pulled off a glove and reached out to slide my finger down one of the six-inch sparkling daggers. Cold, slick, solid. I yearned to break one off and lick it, but they were too beautiful to ruin. I remembered my mother coming into my childhood room in the early morning dark to murmur, "It's a snow day." The exhilaration. The sense of freedom. A day in the white glare of snow making lopsided snowballs and forts, plucking icicles from tree branches until I grew chilled, then the warmth inside the house that fogged my glasses. My mother pressing her warm cheek to my cold one, saying this was her favorite part of winter. Offering her a bit of icicle that still clung to my mitten. The taste — gritty, with bits of bark and the strange, bloody tang of dirt.
Perhaps Kate was remembering, too. "Aren't they amazing?"
I looked at her and she looked at me, and it settled into my brain that we were here on the spine of one enormous mountain, just as we planned, just as we trained for, and it was cold and cloudy but we were warm and we were climbing and we'd probably hiked five miles already, as long as I'd ever hiked in my life. We grinned big wolf grins at each other.
As we resumed our upward scramble, I didn't mind how loudly I sucked in air or how my right knee complained. On the lookout now, I saw more mini-forests of icicles and slowed down to share them with Kate, wondering if Sarah had seen them, too. Kate marveled at clumps of red berries that blazed from tangled gray branches. We were slower than Sarah, but slow had become advantageous.
It occurred to me that I wasn't worried about Kate the way I sometimes was when we trained. Sarah and I were younger and more active, but Kate was doing just fine. The quiet aloofness that could exasperate me in the city made her a perfect companion in the mountains. She didn't need a thing from me beyond my staying within shouting distance — a restful rarity for the mother of a young child. I was free to fully engage with my surroundings, a gift of rare value.
An hour before noon I spied a tiny glen to the left of the trail, a circle of rocks with elegant little mosses jutting up like tiny trees in the middle of the ring. Stonehenge Reduced. The place exuded a sense of serenity and comfort and, somehow, beguilement. The sun came out for the first time and drenched the spot with warm golden light.
"I found a fairy circle," I shouted. If there were such things, this surely had to be one.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "48 Peaks"
Copyright © 2018 Cheryl Suchors.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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