Nature Boys from the ‘Hood

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 relativeHe’s quicker with a smile or a helping-hand than he is with a frown or glare, though, and has a boisterous, bellowing laugh.img_386512087848812.jpg  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 img_6871148334707.jpgwho 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.

 

 

68 thoughts on “Nature Boys from the ‘Hood

  1. Love their story…but then again I’m biased—I’m Jon’s mom & Pete is also like a son to me in the true sense of the word. These 2 are true compadres.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. I miss New England. It’s beautiful country. Now I’m in the south. Love the warm weather but this story makes me miss the mountains and even the snow-capped mountains. Thanks for sharing this story. All the best.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thanks Henry. Carry in carry out. Leave only footprints. I feel like so much of hiking and climbing is just about being decent. It’s hard to connect with nature if you don’t get out there. Thanks for reading. Happy climbing!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And, I would extend that same ethic to international travel to some degree as well, although it’s difficult to carry in and carry out everything we touch, consume etc, which is just good manners in the wilderness. For me, the most important aspect to exploration is to be respectful to both the planet and the locals whose homes we invade.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi K!! Yeah, these mountains are definitley underrated and easy to underestimate. Unlike trails out west some of these paths go straight up to the summit, no switchbacks 😥. So glad you enjoyed it. Happy Hiking!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love the way these two think – it’s unfortunate that travel tourism has become a rat race amongst tourists. Like the insight mentioned about Mt. Everest in this post, I just read an article in the NYT the other day about New Zealand and how tourism is wreaking all kinds of havoc for the locals and natural habitats because of the “Lord of the Rings effect”, as it’s coined. Examples include: trash everywhere – which I have seen firsthand, because there are people who approach nature and their wrong doings in it like, “out of sight, out of mind”, since this isn’t their home, why should they care? The NYT piece also mentioned how a man started changing geography (i.e. digging a canal to shift the passing of loud speed boats in his lagoon where he lives), and how the state integrated to stop him… but I mean, to be pushed to that level of craziness, shouldn’t the State being doing something about the daunting and endless tourism and loud traffic that comes with it? Not to discourage travel, because that provides education that traditional institutions just cannot provide, but I do agree that there are worlds waiting to be discovered and appreciated directly in our backyards. When it gets to this point of causing danger for habitats, its inhabitants and visitors, I think it’s pointless. Thanks for telling this story – lots of lessons and pieces of wisdom to pull from it. I know I did.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Wow, Jess! Thanks for such an insightful comment. I think you’re right, people (including me) need to be more conscientious about what they leave behind. We all have a responsibility to be more socially and environmentally conscious. Also, we don’t need to travel across the planet to have an amazing experience in the natural world. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Love your comment and more awareness needs to be brought to this growing problem. Too many people have this idea that nature will just repair itself. They don’t realize that it doesn’t work the way they think it does as long as we’re still around and piling more and more trash on top of it. Your absolutely right about the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that exist and how it’s not their problem if they don’t live in it but when it comes to the natural world, it’s all of our problem.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. I know right! Some of the material that just didn’t make it into the piece included advice from Pierre and Jon about always being prepared, knowing what you’re walking into. Ultimately, they were fine, but I think that’s one of the lessons that they personally took away from this adventure. Happy hiking!

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  4. Thank you so much everyone for all of the positive comments. Definitely put a smile on my face seeing that there are so many other people out there who love nature as much as we do while having an understanding of the respect and protection that the natural world deserves. There’s truly no better way to be at peace within yourself and obtain a spiritual/emotional connection to this amazing rock covered in natural wonders that were lucky enough to be a part of. Thank you to all the people who took the time to read Mountain Buddha’s piece and major thank you to Mountain Buddha himself for taking the time to interview my stepbrother and I about our love for nature and hiking. Now if we could only get more people to get off their couch and get out in nature haha… Friluftsliv!!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. After I looked it up I felt like I remembered seeing it before. Another one I like is hygge, pronounced hooga, that basically means getting warm, snuggly and cozy on a winter’s day. Like, we need words like that in English…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Another wonderful Nordic concept lol is described by the Norwegian word Allemannsretten. I’m sure these ties to nature have a lot to do with the Scandinavian countries having the highest level of happiness on average in comparison to the rest of the world.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. There’s no doubt that Nature has alot to do with it. One of the problems, as I see it, is that in much of western culture nature is often portrayed as a barren wasteland that ought to be dominated, tamed, brought under human control, as if we aren’t, ourselves, a part of the vast, living, breathing, ecosystem. That thinking needs to change.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Absolutely we do. This connection to nature is one of the biggest influences on me having such an interest and admiration for Nordic culture. Even stared teaching myself Norwegian a few years back through books and YouTube haha.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved this post!I feel like I could read it over and over-your style is so engaging!also-these guys sound amazing and I particularly liked their descriptions that you paralleled to nature. Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

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