His name was Jean Moreau. He was fifty years old and lived in Becancour, Quebec. I know because I still have the newspaper clipping about him taped into a scrapbook. Below I wrote “Tough day at the office.” Reading the clipping now makes me cringe. Reading my own line helps me deal with it.
I was napping when he died. My shoes lay beside my bed, still muddy and damp from my day’s hike. Katherine burst into our crew bunkroom, yelling about something, someone. Part of the job is search and rescue—we help with a number each summer—so Brian, my brother Malcolm, and I leapt out of bed, still drowsy from our pre-dinner, post-hike naps. Another sprained ankle somewhere down the trail? No, something worse. Katherine wasn’t sure. The two French Canadian women that reported the incident weren’t either. Where? When? We got vague directions and prepared to leave. I grabbed my backpack; Brian got the handheld radio; Malcolm tied his shoes and started sprinting uphill, towards Mount Washington.
After a half mile, I had left Brian a bit behind, and Malcolm was a ways ahead. I had grabbed the radio from Brian’s pack as I passed him; I stopped for a breath so I could call back to Lakes for directions. They were still unsure. At the next trail junction, I looked left and saw Malcolm headed uphill. To the right, a quarter mile away, someone stood on the trail, waving. I yelled back to Brian, and then raced along the flat shoulder towards the small group gathered at a pile of boulders.
The woman who had waved, Jean’s sister I would later learn, stood crying quietly with her young daughter. A middle-aged man, a passing hiker, stood nearby with his own daughter. It was windy, and the brownish-green sedge whipped noisily about our feet.
“I think he’s gone.”
“There.” The man pointed behind the jumble of stones.
I stepped around the heap and froze. Jean was there, in the sedge, facedown, but his head was turned so I could his see cold, blue cheek. I knelt to take a pulse. His wrist was moist. I was eighteen years old. I declared him dead over the radio.
Forest Rangers, a litter, more volunteers. We wrapped him in a maroon wool blanket, lifted him into the litter. He felt limp and cool. Statements given, statements recorded. More tears from the sister; thanks given in broken English and beautiful French. Two hours later, we all stood on the summit, waiting for the undertaker to drive up the auto-road and take the body down to the valley. But it wasn’t just a body to us. We felt responsible; we, the welcoming ambassadors of this mountain world, had let a guest die. We heard later it was a heart attack; what could we have done? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
Half the hut crew was there on the summit, the other was serving dinner back at the hut. Knowing they were short-handed, we rushed back, feet flying over stone, splashing through puddles, traversing ground we knew well, but which had never felt so strange. Back at the hut, dinner finished smoothly and with few words. When it ended, we stood in a circle. Some cried.
* * *
I’ve passed the spot often since then. It’s impossible to not think of that day. My memory of it is still vivid, as if it was yesterday, though it was four summers ago. I still feel my home is on the trails, but now I feel slightly haunted when I’m out there. It’s a feeling that won’t fade, that I can be sure of. Once I had found peace on the trails; now I know though, sometimes lightning strikes, hearts seize, rocks fall. I feel forlorn, to think of the thousands of guests that pass through the hut each summer. They underestimate the mountain, and the toll it takes on you. The hut crew caters to these visitors—they spend a night, two—and then head back home. We can provide them with hot soup and a hunk of fresh, crusty bread, but this security inside the hut is lost once one steps out the door. I’m more wary now, but I know that I’ll keep tying my sneakers and stepping off the front stoop into the wilds.