The clouds in this picture of the summit cairn atop Parkman Mountain say it all. Yesterday’s weather was as fickle as a proverbial woman’s heart.

Both Bald Peak and Parkman Mountain are mere hills by New Hampshire standards: whereas a modest New Hampshire summit like Lovewell Mountain is 2,473 feet–a moderate morning leg-stretcher–both Bald Peak and Parkman Mountain are less than 1,000 feet. The numbers are deceiving, though: the challenge of hiking is all about vertical rise, the amount of “up” between start and finish. Acadia’s hiking trails start nearly at sea level, so most of the “less than 1,000 feet” to the top of Parkman Mountain is up, up, up.

The Parkman Mountain Trail to Bald Peak and Parkman Mountain is largely rocky, and yesterday featured intermittent rain (drat!) that made for slippery hiking conditions. So even though hiking Bald Peak and Parkman Mountain should have been a walk in the park–and even though I originally planned to hopscotch from Parkman to Sargent and then Penobscot Mountains before stolling down to the Jordan Pond House for tea and popovers–it was challenge enough to make it to Parkman Mountain and back again, the sideways-falling rain convincing me to turn back toward the car at more than several points.

One of my dissertation chapters talked about the “Zen” of mountain climbing. In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, the Zen approach to climbing a mountain involves renouncing all conscious attempts to “conquer” it. All three narrators approach their mountains with serious expectations–Pirsig wants to reconnect with his troubled son, Kerouac wants to impress his friends by attaining enlightenment, and Matthiessen wants to get over his wife’s death by seeing a snow leopard and attaining enlightenment. In all three cases, these seekers fall to achieve what they thought they were looking for, realizing instead that spiritual maturity is about accepting the hand that the Present Moment deals you.

Early into yesterday’s hike when the rain was falling sideways and I decided it was too dangerous to continue rock hopping on my own, I burst into tears right there on the trail to Bald Peak. Damnit, why wouldn’t the weather cooperate? Didn’t the Universe understand that this hike was Significant, my attempt to make a New Start after reaching the nearly simultaneous end of both my dissertation and my marriage? Somehow in my mind the challenge of Peak Bagging was connected with a desire to prove myself: I can climb one or even several mountains, damnit, without the help of any man. As I stood on a slippery slope with rain and tears streaming down my face, I remembered a passage in The Snow Leopard were Matthiessen too found himself inexplicably drawn to tears…and then to laughter as he imagined his deceased wife’s response to the image of him wailing for lost love on the top of a mountain.

The challenge of any mountain climb, of course, isn’t measured in mere elevation nor in vertical feet: these are spiritual summits, not merely corporeal. Looking over my shoulder at a summit cairn I’d just passed, I noticed how its wooden signpost looked exactly like a cross: of course! Any pilgrimage involves both joy and pain, and even Christ slipped and fell three times on that rocky road to Calvary. Sometimes hiking is a matter of Peak Bagging, the attempt to cut as many notches into your walking stick as you can physically manage. Other times, though, hiking is about Monogamous Mountaineering: instead of bagging as many peaks as you can muster, you bag one well and lovingly. It took most of yesterday to reach Parkman Mountain and back again, and I never made it to the Jordan Pond House. I’ll leave Sargent and Penobscot to some other day, some other lifetime…or not. Right now, the sun is out, my bags are packed, and there’s enough time for one last leisurely stroll (perhaps) before I drive 6 hours back to New Hampshire. There’s always a certain degree of disappointment when you head down from the hills back to your mundane life, but Returning Home is also a necessary part of the journey even though no signposts point the way.