community column

Climbing an impossible mountain


Mom knew camp was my nightmare. I sobbed for a week before leaving Grand Central Station for the overnight trip to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. She had signed me up for eight long weeks when I was 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old. Back then, mothers won. In the 50s, kids didn’t have a lot of say about what they did or didn’t do.

On Sunday, August 16, 1955, we campers awoke to crystal blue skies and a cool breeze. I was looking forward to reading a Nancy Drew mystery on my bunk in the afternoon. But, oh no. A senior counselor made an announcement after breakfast. “All Mattagamites (that was the youngest group and included me) who are not going to play in the softball game at 1:00 should meet up at the hay truck. We are going to hike up Mt. Pisgah. Bring a sweater.” He never said a word about the shoes we should wear. I guess he assumed we’d be smart enough to wear Keds. Fancy footwear from Nike or Adidas did not exist. I opted to wear loafers. A poor choice.

I was not playing softball that day, so I had no choice but to go on the hike. As a ‘fraidy cat, I trembled at the thought of climbing a mountain. A mountain! I couldn’t call Mom or Dad to get me out of the climb. Dad was on a hunting trip. Mom, on a camping trip with my sister. Roughing it was her idea of heaven; she would have made me climb. I recently found descriptions on the internet of Mt. Pisgah as having a “rock overhang 650 feet above the lake (Lake Willoughby)…The trail’s total distance is 2.5 miles with a vertical rise of 1,590 feet….Elevation 2,785.”

There were no “fat camps” then, but Mom spoke to the camp leaders and told them she expected me to lose 20 pounds over the summer. Which I did every year for the four years I went to camp, and then during the school year I gained back every pound. My final year at camp, the day after I returned from Vermont, I passed out in church, most likely because I had to lose the last few pounds in a hurry before my weigh in. “Unconditional love” involved my losing that weight. I would get $20!

I made it through Sunday morning and then after lunch I lined up to climb the dreaded mountain. I envisioned pathways lined with field daisies, and gentle grasses. But no. The mountain was largely rock slab. Rock and loafers don’t go well together. The head of the camp noticed me struggling, and realized I was wearing the wrong shoes. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He pointed me out to the other campers, and guffawed as loud as he could. For a short time, I climbed up an easy path, and then I had to fight my way, gasping and sputtering, slipping back down the sheer rock, as I listened to the counselor point out how funny I looked. The kids didn’t say a word.

That night I wrote in my diary, “Peter (name changed) led an exciting climb up Mt. Pisgah. It is an exhausting mountain, but fun.” I couldn’t bear to record how he ridiculed me. But indeed he had. He was a bully in the true sense of the word.

I did make it, all the way up and back down again, and though I never did like that counselor, I often wonder if the achievement of climbing up the mountain helped me gain a bit of self-empowerment. If I’d known God was on my side that would have made all the difference. And now I’m sure he was.

mims cushing, by the way