Durham was relaxed, not necessarily sleepy, but still alive, much in the way of an old man whittling a stick on the porch in his favorite rocking chair, watching as the world spun and moved about him. The clouds listed lazily overhead, gazing down as if a passenger on a boat nearing its shore. The sun hung high, making its presence felt through the warm, humid air. The group’s footsteps sounded in rough syncopation as we walked, with pace and purpose, towards the woods.
College woods was a public system of trails regulated by the University of New Hampshire. Many times I had walked and ran through similar trail systems that weaved their way through the campus of Miami University and the town of Oxford, Ohio. An image was therefore set in my mind of a dull, dirt trail with trees on either side, never out of earshot of roads or eyesight of some campus building. What we encountered was something that did not comply with these expectations.
Here was the trail. Earth beneath your boots, newfound friends by your side and all the glory of nature. The evergreen trees loomed large over the trail, providing a shaded respite from the unexpectedly-hot New England summer afternoon. The scent of pine hung thick in the air. Everywhere there were gorgeous extrusions of large dark, angular rocks poking through the forest floor. The group came upon one of these exposures that looked particularly impressive. This was an outcrop that stood taller than the rest. Its blunted edges stretched out through the ground like the nose of a great bear peeking through the snow in the first days after a long winter. The group clambered its way up the outcrop until we reached its top. At the top was a campsite, but not the type that most might expect. This had the look and feel of an improvised campsite, with a shelter jury-rigged from logs and overlain by a layer of pine branches, forming what resembled a roof. In the center of a campsite was a pile of burnt wood, coals and ash, evidence that someone had been here, not all that long ago, and most likely more than once.
Near the edge of this fire-pit was a tarnished piece of paper, smothered in dirt and curled in spots as if it had been wetted by the rain and left to dry. The page was mostly blank, except for one sentence at the top. It read simply, “It’s not the mountains we conquer,” an incomplete quote from Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the two first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. In its entirety, Hillary states, “It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.” Its meaning, and the placement of this note continues to elude me, but the more I spend time contemplating it, the more I begin to understand. Perhaps we will find once our work is done that our experiences in the summer of 2015 were our own mountain, a means of conquering ourselves and our own perceived limitations. We’ll know once we reach the summit.