Suchors accomplishes much in her ‘48 Peaks,’ but readers might not endure trek’s every step
It’s a kick to see how Cambridge plays a role in Cheryl Suchors’ quest to climb the highest peaks of New Hampshire, which she tells in “48 Peaks: Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains” (publishing Tuesday, with Suchors reading Thursday in Porter Square). To get in shape for her climbs, she does “Porters” – walking the 113 steps of her neighborhood Porter Square T station, the “Mount Washington of subway steps”; goes to the Healthworks gym; and walks laps around Fresh Pond, not to mention meeting a very Cantabrigian kind of hiking partner. (A surprisingly large number of whom seem to be high-level political consultants, starting with her husband.)
Suchors’ accomplishment is immense. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she bags her 48 peaks despite starting at age 48, not fully in shape and experiencing physical setbacks along the way ranging from a damaged meniscus to recurring breast cancer. She’s mourning not just a mother but, as the journey goes on, friends and a sister. There are stops and starts – making clear it’s the act of starting that’s heroic when it would be easy to stop.
What Suchors does as a hiker is superhuman, and the astonishing level of detail she brings to the sights and experiences on her hikes and in her personal life will be appreciated by people contemplating the White Mountains or joining the same Four Thousand Footer Club, and especially by hikers of a certain age. She Writes Press, the publishers, has several books in the sweet spot where women, nature and life lessons intersect.
As a general-interest book of inspiration or narrative, though, “48 Peaks” doesn’t quite get there, because the stakes Suchors fights for along the way, it seems funny to say, are not high. She digs into interpersonal and emotional battles without fully investing the reader; climbs with what turns out to be a large and occasionally confusing cast of characters – some doing what amount to cameos – bring mild emergencies or conflicts and sometimes resolution, but mainly about climbing styles, with little dramatic payoff and sometimes only implicit or minor morals. On one climb, when the stakes really do seem high, her husband begins experiencing medical difficulties, and reader adrenaline starts surging; a paragraph later, the husband is “back to his sure-footed self.” It’s only one of countless anecdotes that surely must have seemed as big as a mountain while on the actual mountain, but in the retelling feel like molehills.
Such is a problem with responsible nonfiction, where big narrative liberties aren’t taken for effect: Climbing a mountain is an accomplishment, and climbing 48 of them of 4,000-plus feet is a huge one, but not every accomplishment makes for thrills – some just make for quiet inspiration. In reading this book about hiking, do what a hiker should: Go in prepared for what’s ahead.
Metaphorically and perhaps inadvertently, Suchors encapsulates the shortcoming perfectly in her tense climb of Mount Washington, which she notes has killed “well over a hundred people” with its capricious turns of weather. But when she succeeds finally in hauling her team to the top, she’s shocked to be reminded of the auto road that’s taken up the mountain by some 150,000 visitors annually (“This car climbed Mount Washington”). It doesn’t change the fact that Suchors is a badass who reached the top the hard way, but that summit is a parking lot, and there’s a cafeteria there that sells soup.
Cheryl Suchors reads from “48 Peaks: Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Porter Square. The event is free.