July 22, 2018
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Fear of heights, er, edges at Mt. Washington

Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Last week I had two rare opportunities: I was able to go on a road trip with just my husband and our two older boys, and I was able to see my husband afraid of something.

All the stars had aligned so that our youngest son was away for 48 hours and his older brothers, Ford (16) and Owen (14), were without plans or excuses. I told them we were going on a road trip, and I lured them with the promise of playing golf. Although everyone denies this now, I did in fact tell them that I planned to drive up the Northeast’s largest peak, also known as the Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire.

Maybe all of this was buried under the term “road trip,” of which no one was particularly excited. But it turns out that a road trip with just two teenagers is actually quite pleasant. With their headphones on, it was like no one was in the car at all. No one yelled about someone else looking at them or crossing the imaginary line between seats in the back row. No one got shoved over. No one complained. No one said anything at all.

And then we arrived at the base of Mt. Washington, at a guard shack where we’d buy our tickets to summit 6,288 feet in just 25 minutes on an 8-mile drive. When my family (minus one) saw the warning sign in front of us, the feeling in the car was a mixture of disbelief and regret that no one had asked me exactly what we were going to do.

My husband read the sign and said, “Wait a minute —”

Our teenagers in the back took off their headphones and said, “Wait, what are we doing?”

The sign read: “Mt. Washington Auto Road is a steep, narrow mountain road with no guardrails. At mid-mountain, there is one mile of gravel road before returning to pavement. If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience. Guided tours are available.”

When I looked over at Dustin in the driver’s seat, his face was surprisingly white. Although Dustin has been a pilot for more than 20 years, he does not, to use the sign’s language, “appreciate” heights.

“It’s not the height,” he said. “It’s the edge. I won’t appreciate driving on that edge.”

“Would you like me to drive instead?” I asked.

Dustin stared up at the mountain and said, “I think I’d like that even less.”

Owen, who had climbed Mt. Katahdin the week before, said, “This is going to take forever. Let’s just go golfing.”

And then I lost my temper. “It’s not Mt. Everest, guys! We’re just going to drive up this thing, see the scenic views, and make some memories together, okay? Is that too much to ask? And you, Dustin, how can you not like heights and fly a helicopter every day? Come on! Geez!”

“It’s not the height, it’s the edge,” Dustin said again, still staring at the mountain.

“I’m not a big fan of scenic views,” Ford said from the back.

“Oh my gosh, just drive!” I yelled.

It’s important to note that this was, almost to the day, the three-year anniversary of when I refused to get on a plane at Reagan International Airport, hyperventilated on the tarmac, and made a really big scene when Dustin tried to pull me by the arm onto the waiting plane.

I don’t like to fly. So while Dustin said he’d fly, even in one of those winged squirrel suits, up Mt. Washington any day of the week rather than drive along its edge, I’m the opposite. Just keep my feet (or wheels) on the ground, thank you very much. It is a testament to my husband’s eternal patience that he never once turned to me and said, “Sure, you want me to drive right up this mountain just like you so willing got on that plane in Washington, D.C., right?”

Anyway, Dustin white-knuckled the entire 8-mile drive, and he crossed the centerline many times to avoid the edge (which was on my side, by the way). He rode the brakes and drove below the speed limit.

The views were amazing, but I don’t think Dustin realized that until we were at the top, safely behind a concrete half-wall. He pointed into the distance at all the purple mountain tops and told us how cool it would be to fly amongst them, which makes absolutely no sense to me.

When we returned to our car to go back down the mountain, a piece of paper was tucked beneath our windshield wipers. Dustin read it silently.

“Is it a parking ticket?” I asked.


“Is it from someone we know?”


Dustin showed me the note. Apparently the person behind us on the way up did not like Dustin’s driving. He told my husband to learn how to drive, and he used some very colorful language.

Dustin crumpled the note and threw it on the car floor. “It’s not the height, it’s the edges,” he groaned, and then we drove — very slowly — 8 miles back to the base of the mountain.


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