I’m clinging to the edge of pine-needled trail. It is raining—the kind of October rain that is the harbinger of a White Mountains winter. It’s been raining for seven days, and autumn has moved on. The only leaves left are the copper ones, the beech leaves that, in the right light, look almost like bits of parchment, dried and brittle hanging from the trees.
I am in the Presidential mountain range, a thousand feet above the valley floor somewhere near Mount Washington, climbing the hills to find the tallest waterfall in New Hampshire. I can’t hear anything: not footsteps or water or animals in the underbrush. The forest is silent. There are no birds crying to the morning clouds.
My hiking companion is leagues ahead of me, the mud not sticking to his boots as heavily as it does mine.
I hate hiking.
So why am I doing this? It’s simple.
I want to be his hero.
It’s Friday night after a long week at work. I run a group home for high-risk teenage boys: it’s called the House on the Hill. The day has been filled with meetings and paperwork, the evening spent herding sixteen hormonal juvenile delinquents, trying to help them get back on track. There has been crisis over seating assignments at dinner, lack of ice cream for dessert, and a phone call home that ended in a broken chair, screaming, and tears.
I had had dinner plans, hoping to get off shift as quickly as I could. I had movie plans, to do something—anything—other than be someone’s stand-in parent. Instead, I am sitting outside his doorway, my feet propped against the far wall, dinner and movies and sleep forgotten.
He is two weeks shy of eighteen. He is tall and dark-haired. He’s the kind of kid most fathers want their sons to become. He is crying.
“I think I know why I do the things I do,” he says. The tears that roll down from his eyes come one at a time; as though they’re too expensive to waste in one great flood. I’ve known him for the last sixteen months. He never cries.
“Why?” I ask. I have been a counselor for almost six years. It is not the first time I have sat outside a student’s bedroom while they’re upset beyond the door. I know the words to say, even with dinner cancelled yet again, and a movie playing without me in the theatre, I say them because they matter.
“Because I want to be a hero,” he says, rubbing his hands against his eyes. “Everyone loves heroes. I just want to be loved.”
There are words fighting somewhere in my stomach that almost make me speak, but I swallow them. This isn’t my time to talk—it’s his.
“That’s why I want to be a firefighter. That’s why I wanted to be in the military,” he says, continuing, “the smiles those people get. Everyone loves them.”
There is a question behind my teeth that I can’t ask, as he sits alone and in tears. Not yet. Maybe not ever. I want to ask him who had been his hero.
I start off strong, keeping pace with him. He is a Summiter of Mountains. He was made to do this the way that I was made to sit on tired carpet. Our hiking trail snakes up into the woods and goes on and on. There are two dozen cars in the parking lot. As the steps increase, so too does the hill.
His legs are longer. Though barely ten years separate our ages, it is clear within the first ten minutes that I am not built for this. In less than a quarter-mile of rock-cobbled trail, my breath comes in ragged gasps. The cold air is raw down my throat. I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.
I wave him on.
He’s been waiting up the trail for me, where the incline gets steeper. We’re here for him, because the woods are quiet and the trail goes ever onward. We’re not here so I can pass out in the mud. Not for me to be a hindrance.
It’s strange, I think as I push myself up another few steps. I want to be the kind of person who can summit a mountain. I want to walk beside him and share this adventure. But my legs are already screaming, and it is raining and there is a pair of Octogenarian Canadians trooping up the hill.
They politely pass me as I cling to a maple tree, trying to catch my breath. A spray of water follows, shaken loose from whatever leaves remain in its crown.
It falls down my neck.
Things are not going as I planned.
His mother left. His father remarried. There are eight other children in his home. He hurt people. During their last visit, his father forgot to show up. Before coming to the program, his girlfriend threatened to kill herself if he ever left her. He wrote a suicide note and spent time in the state hospital.
And he is sitting on the floor with me, in tears, wanting to be a hero.
He hurt people. He wrecked his family.
He wants to be a hero.
“Crying makes people think you’re weak,” he says, even though the tears are coming faster.
I look him in the eyes. He is good at eye contact.
“Whoever told you that was lying to you,” I say in the softest voice I can manage. “And if someone tells you that? Fuck them.”
I pause for effect, thinking about what I’d just told him.
“Don’t actually fuck them,” I say. “That would be weird.”
He’s still staring me in the eyes.
“But yeah. Fuck them,” I say, in case he’s confused.
He isn’t done crying. One night of tears is never enough.
I have been lapped by the Canadians. My heart is beating fast enough where I am genuinely concerned for my cardiac health. Three groups of people have passed by me as I stand on the side of the hill holding onto the trunk of a tree. Each one looks at me, smiles, asks if I’m okay.
“Sure am,” I say to the last pair. They’re in their late forties, walking up the trail like they’re walking down the street. I sort of hate them. “Just catching my breath.”
He’s somewhere up the trail. I’ve waved him on again. I don’t want to be the anchor that holds him back from summiting his mountain. That’s not what this trip is about. This trip is—apparently—about me passing out and rolling head-first down the embankment.
It’s weird, the sense of profound failure that grows in my chest. I brought a backpack, brought a raincoat, brought a bottle of water and brought a camera. I had decided I was going to be his hero today and I have failed pathetically.
Going head-first down the ravine didn’t sound like that bad an idea. At least it would get me back to the car faster.
Twinned with this desolation is a second thought: that maybe I can do this. I have done harder. There is a blue blaze a few feet up the trail. Maybe twenty steps. I can make that, I tell myself. I can make it that far. At least.
So I do. And pause. My breath is still coming faster than it should. There is another blaze farther up, painted on the thin trunk of a paper birch. I climb up to that and on a little farther.
I keep going.
There is this place where the body and the mind give up. This place between evergreens and the granite cliffs where memory lives. This place where I want to be something, for someone, I am not.
I can do this.
He grows silent as the minutes pass by. I’m thinking about heroes. I’m thinking of my life when I was two weeks shy of turning eighteen. My father had died, my world had turned upside down, and I was minutes from graduating high school.
My hero was a woman named Deb.
She had blonde hair and wore stilettos. She was my teacher, she let me hide in her classroom when I needed it and didn’t ask me questions I didn’t have the words yet to answer. Deb saw me. I’m thinking about legacies and what it means to be alone in the world.
I had been the kid sitting on the edge of the gymnasium when everyone else was dancing. I had read books so people wouldn’t talk to me. But I wanted them to talk to me. I wanted people to say hello and see the wall I’d made of silence and book pages. See that the loneliest spot in the room was a cry for help that I could never make with words.
Deb had done that. And Deb was gone like my father, like my mother, like my childhood. But what they had done for me, I could do myself.
“How many times,” I ask him, “have you hid in your room hoping someone will know you well enough, care about you enough, to come after you?”
“Fifteen minutes ago.”
I love him a little then, as much as I am allowed. As much as I can when I am a paid employee whose job it is to watch him, whose job it is to help him gather the jagged pieces of his life and try to fit them together.
We are not so very different, even if we’re not terribly alike. He will never know it, but that has never been the point.
“If you’re able to cry,” I say, “it means that you’re not as broken as you think you are.”
I’m running out of words. I hope he is running out of tears.
I am telling myself parables, and stories, and fairy tales. I am walking slow, letting the mud cake on my sneakers. I am watching the people pass me as I step carefully up the trail. There is beauty all around me: the sound of water off the hill to my left, a place where there is a tangle of trees and the light is clinging to the last of the leaves.
My body is telling me that this is important. The ache in my legs matters somehow. The trail climbs ever upward and at the end of it will be something special.
I haven’t seen him in an hour. I know he’ll be waiting patiently.
There’s another moment when I pause. The trees have faded to evergreens and the pine needles have turned the black-muck trail pale gold.
I wonder if a hero is something someone does, or if a hero is something someone is. I think about the waterfall that they tell me that is at the end of this trail. Where he should be waiting. I hope that it means something to him, something that I can’t imagine with my out-of-shape body.
An older woman passes me, coming the other way.
“Almost there,” she says. She is old enough to be my grandmother and she wields her walking sticks with confidence. She has done this before.
I smile at her, because somewhere down the trailhead this trip had stopped being about the waterfall. The waterfall is for him. For me—the journey. One foot in front of the other. Going on, pushing farther. Trying. Sometimes being a hero is trying.
“If you rush, you never get to see anything.”
I nod to her, because there’s not enough air for me to do anything else. I can see the place where the water is falling and the trees part.
I keep trying.
Arethusa Falls is a three-hundred-foot jut of Conway Granite, flanked on both sides by evergreens. The water cascades against the rock face in a white curtain before going farther downstream. I have seen better; places where there is more water, but none so high.
It makes me dizzy.
My hiking companion is at the base of the cliffs, looking up. I know he’s considered climbing it. He would find a path, a goat trail, an outcropping. He would do it to prove that he could. He would do it to be a hero--if not to me, or the other hikers admiring the water--then to himself.
“How long have you been here?” I ask. This trip was for him. This fall was for him. The hike was for me.
“Only about half an hour,” he says. “I thought about trying to get higher, but there’s nowhere else to go.”
I laugh at him, and at myself.
When I pull my camera from my bag, I almost suggest we get a picture of the two of us in front of the water. But I don’t. For a lot of reasons. He is not broken here in the woods, with the October spray falling. He is not the almost-man who sat on the floor of his room with me outside his doorway.
I snap a photo of the water, because it matters, because it is important.
“Ready?” I ask him. I want to sit for an hour. I want to listen to the quiet and the water until I am ready for the descent.
He smiles and takes off down the path. I watch as he walks away. Every step he takes is perfect, as if the trail rises up to meet him. He walks with the quiet surety of a man who knows his place in the world. As if he knows there is nothing in this world, away from the world, that will hurt him. The rhythm of his steps as he goes out of sight echoes like the heartbeat of the waterfall.