Sunday was a glorious early fall day in the White Mountains. We opted to hike a pair of peaks that we had never hiked before: Mount Martha, named after the President’s wife, and Owl’s Head with its unique and sweeping view of the entire Presidential Range.
The mellow trail up Mount Martha and then across Martha’s Mile takes you through a col and on to Owl’s Head, a trail much less rocky than the typical trail in the Whites. Martha’s Mile, made gentle by time and footsteps, is in keeping with Martha Washington’s character. In the 1770s, Martha described herself as “steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.” Most agreed with her self-assessment. Abigail Adams praised her as “one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.”
When you’re hiking a mountain, if you’ve planned your hike well, there are few choices to make. Either you happily put one foot in front of another and enjoy the physical exertion, or you mentally struggle against what is. Either way, you’re going to the same place; but your mental activity will greatly influence your experience of the journey.
Off the trail, life seems to offer a lot of choices, but most of those choices are ultimately meaningless: LCD vs. Plasma, which television show to watch tonight, which new pair of shoes to buy tomorrow. We focus on these choices; and in the process, we lose track of our values and of our way of being of the world. Walt Disney’s brother Roy had it right when he said, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”
In Martha’s time, the choices to be made were fewer; and for many, values ran deeper. Most lived and died in the same town where they were born. They had a couple of changes of clothes a year, they ate what was seasonal and locally grown, and they entertained themselves.
No, I do not romanticize those times. Even for those of means like Martha, life was much harder than it is today. Two of her four children died in childhood, and the other two died as young adults.
She played the part of First Lady well—always putting guests at ease—but playing her part was not her favorite thing to do. She wrote, “(I would) much rather be at home” and “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from….”
After the Revolutionary War, Martha wrote: “The difficulties, and distresses to which we have been exposed during the war must now be forgotten. We must endeavor to let our ways be the ways of pleasantness, and all our paths Peace.”
All our paths Peace! What a beautiful thought. I’m not sure why Martha capitalized Peace. Did she recognize that Peace was something she allowed to live through her? Did she know that Peace is not something any of us creates? How many of us forget these simple truths. We spend our day rehearsing grievances—real and imaginary—about life. We are like the hiker who mentally curses the bugs, the heat, and the exertion and then wonders why the hike was unpleasant. In truth, those hikers are few; they simply give up the activity. But, we all have our miles to go and our life’s journey to complete. And just like Martha and her Mile, there will be some stones and rough spots; but our values can see us through.