Above timberline, with sustained winds around fifty miles per hour and gusts approaching ninety, while the temperature hovers somewhere just under thirty below, Pierre and Jon hunker down behind a rock for shelter, Pierre’s side screaming in pain. He calls out to Jon, his brother, “Dude, for some reason the side of my body is so cold it feels like it’s gonna fall off.” In this “bitter, bitter, bitter cold” Pierre begins to fear that something has gone terribly wrong. They are hiking perhaps the most isolated stretch of New England back country at this point, The Bonds, when Pierre becomes concerned about frostbite.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire encompass somewhere around 3,440 square miles of New England landscape. Compared to the loftier ranges of the Western United States such as the Sierra Nevada or the Rockies, the Whites are a modest bump in the topography. The highest peak in the range, Mt. Washington, only stands at 6,288 feet. But taking these peaks and this range for granted can cost dearly. The weather changes fast here in New England and can be extreme. In fact, the highest wind speed ever recorded, not related to a tornado or hurricane, was clocked at 231 mph on the top of Mt. Washington. And, these forests and “hills” can be somewhat isolated. According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, “Mount Bond (4,698 ft.), the highest peak in the southern Twin range, represents, with neighboring Mt. Guyot, one of the two most remote peaks in the White Mountains. From Bond’s summit, there is virtually no sign of human impact in the form of roads or buildings.” In other words, if a hiker becomes lost or hurt, no one is coming to help.
At 6’4” and somewhere around 260 pounds, the adjective “strapping” applies most aptly to Pierre “Pete” Castonguay. Though he often wears a knit beanie or trucker cap, he keeps his dark-brown hair relatively closely cropped, not quite shaved, and has a thick mountain-man beard. Opie, from Sons of Anarchy, could be a long lost relative. He’s quicker with a smile or a helping-hand than he is with a frown or glare, though, and has a boisterous, bellowing laugh. Often, as we talked, he got excited, sat up and became animated, doing as much talking with his hands and body as with his voice. His excitement about the outdoors is contagious and bubbles right on the surface. When he describes the solitude of fishing in the early morning light, dawn’s rosy fingers peeling back the lavender blanket of night, alone, on a boat, it’s almost enough to make one want to fish—almost. Jon Oullette, a skosh shorter and slimmer than Pierre at 6’1” and around 200 pounds, has light-brown hair that he keeps shaved at times, sharp blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and a somewhat leaner frame. He barely moved during the entire interview other than to give and take the sausage-sized doobie Pete had rolled before we sat down to talk. (Full disclosure: I move between calling Pierre “Pierre” and “Pete” for this essay, comfortably. He goes by either/or and I’ve known these guys pretty much since forever: we’re cousins.) Unlike Pierre, whose booming voice would fit great in a lecture hall and who can clearly be heard on the recording, there were stretches of audio where I had to strain to hear what Jon was saying, and replay those several times to make sure I quoted him accurately. Partly, this was because I was recording on my phone as I had left my digital recorder behind; partly, this is a key difference in their personalities. While there is no question that Jon tends to be soft-spoken and measured in his speech and physical expressions, he harbors as much passion for hiking and the outdoors as anyone: he will regularly drive four hours to New Hampshire, climb a mountain, and drive four hours home the same day. As a fighter trained in Muay Thai, he’s disciplined through to his core, and this manifests as self-control rather than exuberant displays of excitement. Jon thinks and speaks deliberately, and comes off as that guy who plans everything ahead of time, whereas Pierre wakes up and says, “what am I going to do today?”
The creed of these outdoors-men springs from their experience with/in the natural world, and the filtering of that experience through their respective personalities produces interesting results. Jon is like the Mississippi: serene, peaceful and calm on the surface—think of Huck and Jim lazily lolling about on a wooden raft: it also runs deep, straight, with deliberation and purpose. Jon knows where he’s going and how he wants to get there. Whereas Pierre’s philosophical demeanor resembles the Colorado: sometimes a rushing torrent of thoughts, ideas and emotions bouncing off everything in its path—white-water rapids—while at other times meandering through every canyon along the way, not missing a single observation in explaining his point. At the end of the day he reaches his destination; and while there might be 100 different ways to get there, Pete’s comfortable knowing he’s explored them all.
This became clearer as the conversation began. It wasn’t long before talk shifted from “what’s up”, “what’s new” and “how ya’ been”, to Nature’s effect on the mind and body. Jon mentioned that Nature more resembles the “real” world than does our world of screens, games and digital media, and when asked to define or expand on what he meant by “the real world”, he explained:
“People see it as kind of foolish sometimes, just being out, getting back to nature, and having that kind of a mentality, living off the land; they kind of see that as foolish with all the technology we have” [here he shifts to the dismissive tone of someone who doesn’t understand] ‘Why would I want to do that when I can just see it on tv?’ But to me it’s truly the place where” [he pauses, thoughtfully] “ego and arrogance, self-importance gets left behind and your mind and body truly come together.”
A no-nonsense response. Jon has a very clear example in mind (the real vs. the virtual world) and gets right to the point. I might have pressed him on what he meant by the mind and body coming together, but it’s clear he’s talking about flow, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 4).
Pierre’s response was a little different:
“A blend of everything. You’re learning something about nature and at the same time you’re learning something about yourself.”
The initial response lacks clarity, might seem a little vague. But he’s getting there—remember, the Colorado. He then launches into a narrative about a friend that lives in Vermont who became an engineer married into a great deal of wealth and was part of the team that helped to build the nuclear reactor on the Nautilus the world’s first nuclear powered submarine whose current favorite activity is sitting and watching his chickens scratch about the dirt and grass. There were no pauses, no cogitative deliberations between points or sections of the story regarding what to say or how to phrase it; his narrative is uninterrupted stream of consciousness. You may be asking yourself, how do we go from flow-state to chickens? But then:
“You’re not going to be able appreciate this fully for like a week; You’re not going to be able to slow down, decompress from your city lifestyle to the woods and appreciate all the fuckin’ gifts that are around you, everything, you know, slowing down to match the pace of it.”
And that’s how these two philosophies complement each other. Jon references the end-point: achieving flow. Pierre concerns himself with the process of attaining flow. Same goal, different methods.
So how do two dudes from the city end up falling in love with the mountains?
Living in New England, more specifically, Southeastern Massachusetts, we don’t have “fourteeners”, grand canyons or “eight-thousanders”; hell, we don’t even have a peak that breaks 7,000 feet let alone 8,000 meters. What we do have, though, is forests: acres upon acres of forests. Five of New England’s six states rank in the top fifteen most forested in the country and all six crack the top twenty; Maine (89% of which is covered in trees) and New Hampshire are, respectively, one and two. Simply looking at a topographical map of the U.S. proves this easily enough. The most green space on that map? The Northeast.
The Freetown-Fall River State Forest straddles the city of Fall River and the town of Freetown, MA, and according to mass.gov is a “5000-acre forest [that] includes 25 miles of trails for hiking, horse-back riding, or off-roading (dirt bikes only). It’s also home to a Wampanoag reservation.” All three of us spent a good deal of our childhood there. In their late-thirties now, Jon and Pete credit this place with being responsible for their nascent passion for the outdoors. With an unabashed smile Pierre tells how when they were kids they used to hike out into the forest, take a hatchet or perhaps a machete, chop some dead wood or small trees to make a shelter/blind and spend the entire day in the woods. I recently posted some shots from the forest of the Assonet ledge (sometimes called the Freetown Ledge, it depends who you talk to) to my Instagram account. Jon commented within minutes, obviously sentimental and nostalgic, “Ah, the old stomping grounds.” Clearly, even thirty years later, the woods hold a special place in his heart.
Unlike the woods, society obsesses over progress. Who’s the fastest? Who’s the strongest? What’s the biggest? What’s the longest? Speed records and first ascents are everything in rock climbing, and no less true are speed records on major thru-hikes. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is probably the most famous for this. The speed record for the AT fell twice this past year within something like two weeks. With so many hikers having similar goals in terms of what they want to climb or hike, or how fast they want to do it, it made sense that maybe Jon and Pete would too. But, that turned out differently than I anticipated. In one of the rare stretches of silence in this conversation, both these hearty New Englanders took a moment to consider what their hiking goals were. Pete responded first:
“To just always be able to do it. I don’t have a specific peak in mind, or a number of peaks, or a distance or anything like that, but to be healthy enough that that could always be a part of my life.”
In typical fashion, as if Pierre had said it all, Jon simply agreed. In a follow-up, both admitted that given the opportunity, of course they would hike “fourteeners” in Colorado, or Mt. Rainier, Denali, or presumably even an “eight-thousander” (one of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks on the planet). It’s simply not on their bucket list is all. Part of Pierre’s reason for this, as he tells it, has a lot to do with the spirit of adventure. He points to Everest as an example—an extreme case, but it helps to prove the point. First, the cost of climbing Everest equates to nearly a full year’s salary of median household income in the U.S. Climbing Everest can cost upwards of $45,000, while the median income is just under 60k. Second, what people don’t see in the amazing cinematography in documentaries of Everest is the line of climbers moving to the top. Every body roped one to the other, or huffing up with the aid of fixed ropes. Experienced Everest climbers speak of the frustration of waiting in line to cross a crevasse because some inexperienced climber is taking all day to walk across an aluminum ladder, or how they might miss their shot to summit because there is literally a que waiting to get to the top. As Pierre sees it, way too many people are motivated to conquer nature, when the goal ought to be to experience nature. I also suspect that part of the reason that neither of these hikers have grandiose dreams of loftier peaks has a lot to do with time and effort as well. The itinerary and time needed to plan a major backpacking trip, or a serious multi-week climb, just doesn’t appeal to them. Why plan for days, weeks, months, invest thousands of dollars, take the time off of work losing much needed cash to live, when they can drive a couple hours North and be on-trail in the backwoods in less than three or four hours? The experience is all, and you don’t need the grandiose to experience nature: it’s right in your backyard if you take the time to look.
As for these nature boys’ near-disaster hiking The Bonds? Pierre admits to momentarily thinking the worst, that in this “inevitable moment” the “the highest price” was about to be paid. This is probably true for any hiker or climber who suddenly realizes there’s a problem. Our minds jump to the worst-case scenario, only to be quickly dismissed until we can analyze the nature and degree of the problem. In this case, apparently, Pierre forgot to zip his pocket. Jon closed it up and they lived to hike another day.
What’s your experience in nature? Are you trying to conquer something in yourself? Are you trying to conquer the mountain? Have questions for these two, or myself? Let me know in the comments below.