This story first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Men’s Journal.
Guy Waterman drew up the itinerary of his last day as he had drawn up the daily plan for thousands of less eventful days, scribbling his schedule on a three-by-five index card. For as long as anyone could remember, he had carried a sheaf of the color-coded cards in his breast pocket. He would pull them out to make a note of some arresting detail: the song of a new bird, a shift in the wind, the name of a dog. Hiking an unfamiliar trail, he often would log every notable bend and cutback. People said his whole life was in those cards. It was hardly the case of his needing to jog an inferior memory — he could, for example, recite five hours of Paradise Lost with his eyes closed. If some people found his constant scribbling a touch obsessive, others saw it as an aspect of his exceptional character; not a symptom but a sign of his delight in the patterns that could be uncovered in compilations of data, of his intense relation to nature, his aptitude for noticing.
He once went to the library in the village of East Corinth, Vermont, where eccentric requests are not unknown, and asked if he could photocopy a log he’d found in the woods. When the page emerged, the librarians were astonished to see what looked like a perfect lithograph of a prairie — the trees, the grass, everything but the sod-roofed house.
“What does this look like?” Waterman asked.
“A prairie!” said one of the staff members, still unable to see in the wood what had been made so plainly visible on the paper.
“That’s what I think, too.”
The difference was that Waterman had seen it in the wood. He was meticulously attentive to detail in most facets of his life. His days usually began at four in the morning, when he would get up while his wife Laura was still asleep and work at his desk until seven. They had built their cabin together in 1973 on 39 wooded acres in east-central Vermont. They called the place Barra, after the Hebridean island of Waterman’s Scottish ancestors. It was about half an hour’s snowshoe from the road to East Corinth, where there was a post office, a Congregational church, and the library with the accommodating copy machine.
They had been back to the land for 27 years now, practicing the stringent economics of homesteading. Their annual budget was about $3,000, the money drawn from a small savings account, their earnings as freelance writers, and, since 1994, the windfall of Social Security. To live at Barra they had become vegetarians. Year after year they lugged their water up from a stream by bucket. They bathed in an old -cattle trough. They hauled and sawed and stacked their firewood by hand. They tapped a grove of sugar maples for syrup, and filled the root cellar with fruits and vegetables from their garden. Twenty-seven years without a phone or electric lights. No fax, no computer, no radio, no TV, no motors or mechanical devices of any kind except for windup clocks. It was not an easy life for a younger person, and now they were getting on. Guy had regraded all the trails to make hiking around the homestead easier on Laura’s knees. And where he used to bound down mountain trails, balancing on boulder crests, now friends noticed the shuffle in his step.
In those early morning hours, working by the light of a kerosene lamp, Waterman would often write letters. Mail was the couple’s only way of arranging visits, planning trips, soliciting news. Their stationery was standard homestead stock, which is to say any blank scrap of paper they could get their hands on: cardboard candle-box liners, the backside of renewal notices from the Society for American Baseball Research, even labels from 46-ounce cans of Grand Union pineapple juice. You could read a Waterman letter and then turn it over and find a solicitation from Sidwell Friends School: “Dear Guy, We’ve been alumni for more than 40 years. I’m not sure that it’s great to have been around that long, but it sure beats the alternative!”
He often wrote in first-person plural, speaking for himself and Laura. But the notes that he had been drafting over the last few days were his alone. They were addressed to friends whom he hoped would understand and accept the decision he’d made: John Dunn, a physician with whom he’d once climbed Damnation Gully on Mount Washington when it was 36 be-low and the winds were blowing 80 miles per hour on the summit; Dan Allen, with whom he shared a birthday as well as many backcountry adventures. He wrote the noted climber Mike Young, and Brad Ray and his wife, Rebecca Oreskes, who would remember that he gave her an especially heartfelt hug after what proved to be their final get-together at Barra the previous fall.
To his young friend Doug Mayer, he wrote: “On a less cheery note, one of us wants to mention what perhaps he’s hinted at in conversations over the past couple years. If you hear he’s off to the mountains in killer weather, he hopes you may respect that it’s his considered preference, and thus not sad news. . . .”
And to Tek Tomlinson, a former diplomat from Ethiopia: “Sorry to be taking this step as I was enjoying the developing friendship with Sally and you. I’ve discussed this at length with Laura. The prospect of aging with all its discomforts, indignities and limitations were even more than I cared to put up with. And there’s much about this world that’s too much for me. You’ve told me you’re from a culture which respects decisions of this sort. I hope you can respect my decision.”
At Barra he had always been the sort to think things out. He acted with deliberation. He lived by the Yankee ethic of self-reliance and personal responsibility. When he went somewhere, he was almost never late. So there was little doubt in the minds of anyone who knew him that if he had made an appointment, he would keep it. The last stop on his schedule for that Sunday, February 6, was scribbled on the card in
his pocket — “5 PM: Summit.”
Four days later, Laura Waterman knocked on the door of the parsonage of the Congregational Church at 9 A.M. and told Reverend Holly Ross Noble that her husband Guy had gone into the White Mountains on Sunday morning with no intention of coming back. Reverend Noble showed her to the phone. Laura reached Ned Therrien in Gilford, New Hampshire. Ned called Rebecca Oreskes, who worked for the National Forest Service; Rebecca called Jon Martinson; Jon called Doug Mayer . . . and so Guy Waterman’s wide network of friends learned of his death on Mount Lafayette.
The national-guard helicopter dispatched that afternoon failed to locate his body. The forecast was for a storm, which threatened to delay the search and recovery. Mayer and Oreskes informed the state fish-and-game officials and the Forest Service that people who knew Guy Waterman were determined to recover his body themselves.
“It was something we wanted to do,” Mayer said. “The forecast Friday was not good, and we wanted to bring some closure and get this done.”
“It was somehow fitting to go up there in a storm,” recalled Mike Young. “Guy believed people should rescue themselves, and in a way we were rescuing ourselves — one of us.”
And so the following morning, February 11, they gathered at a trailhead in Franconia Notch: Mike Young and his dog, Jamie; John Dunn and his dog, Brutus; Jon Martinson; and Doug Mayer. Mayer also invited Mike Pelchat, who knew Waterman only slightly but was the director of the ski patrol at Cannon Mountain and a veteran of many wilderness -rescues and recoveries.
It was an unusually introspective group that started up the Old Bridle Path for the summit of Mount Lafayette around 8:30. They kicked through the new snow on the trail. The temperature was in the low 20s, and the summit winds were blowing at about 30 miles per hour.
“I’ve retrieved people in the mountains before, but never a friend,” said Young.
“Intellectually I knew there was no chance that he was alive.”
When the group reached Greenleaf Hut, they put on snowshoes to traverse the knee-deep drifts. A short distance later, at treeline, they cached the snowshoes and climbed up into the icy fog in crampons. Visibility was about 100 feet. They followed the cairns. Around noon they reached the summit, 5,260 feet. The party fanned out along the ridge, walking toward the north peak of Lafayette. Mike Pelchat was on the ridge trail itself; after about 10 minutes, he whistled that he had found what they were looking for.
“I almost walked right by him,” Pelchat said later.
A foot of snow had drifted over the upper portion of the body. Waterman’s ice ax, planted like a headstone, was covered with frost feathers. He was wearing crampons on a pair of plastic double boots that Mike Young had given him, windpants, a blue 60/40 parka over a shirt and sweater, and a balaclava on his head.
“He was lying on his side, legs bent at the knees,” Pelchat said. “It didn’t look like he’d suffered. It looked like he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
When the others in the party arrived, they were in a little bit of shock. They gathered around their friend and said some quiet prayers. Gently, they removed his dark-green pack, which contained two water bottles, two flashlights, a tin of anchovies, a can opener, two clocks, and two small stuffed bears. They put his body into a bivvy sack and then lashed it to a fiberglass toboggan. The whole business took less than a half-hour.
And then they started down, three in front, two in back, hauling the red sled from the front, braking it from behind on steep sections.
“It was very much like a mountaineer’s version of a funeral procession,” recalled John Dunn. “We were pulling him along quietly in the sled, like it was a casket, each of us lost in our thoughts about the meaning of his life. It was as if he was still with us, as if there were six of us.”
They reached the trailhead around 4:30, as day was fading. The hearse arrived a little while later.
“Once we were down, it was over,” said Dunn. “It was painful to reach the road, because it broke the spell.”
In the weeks to come, many people would find themselves preoccupied by the meaning of Guy Waterman’s life. He was a singular man, and the vivid image of him in his trademark tam-o’-shanter singing arias to tentmates at 5 A.M. was not easily forgotten. Nor was his lambent spirit, how he pranced up gullies like a dancer, at a rate that winded hikers half his age. He was an army-surplus guy in a world of Gore-Tex. But his hand-knit sweaters and duct-taped windpants had served him well enough when he climbed classic rock and ice routes in the Adirondacks, on Cannon Mountain, and on Huntington Ravine, often in the most God-awful conditions, which he referred to in the understated vernacular of British climbing as “refreshing.” The worse the weather, the happier he was. Ice-climbing had broken most of his knuckles because he never adopted the hand-friendly, high-tech tools of modern practice. He never bothered to thread slings through his axes either, which made for some refreshing moments on frozen waterfalls. His bushwhacking skills were legendary and proved to be the key to his epic achievement as a hiker: He was the first person to make winter ascents from all four points of the compass of all 48 White Mountain peaks over 4,000 feet.
He wasn’t tall, topping out at around five foot six. In his later years he became even more elfin, thanks to his white chin-strap beard and his -canted-into-the-wind walk. He was highly intelligent but didn’t wear it on his sleeve. He had a playful wit that was expressed in things like the -wooden cellphone in Barra’s guest cabin, or the notice that certified the outhouse as Y2K-compliant.
“The secret to Guy is that he was a performer,” said his nephew Dane Waterman. “His tam was a symbol of that.”
He had performed professionally as a jazz pianist in his early days, and remained a lifelong storyteller who could enthrall a hut full of hikers. There was something of Shakespeare’s spell-weaving Prospero in him — an association he made himself when he titled his unpublished memoirs Prospero’s Options. He loved dogs and would often tell them stories that were inaudible to human ears. He would put his arm around the maples in his sugarbush as if he were personally acquainted with their virtues, and vice versa. He could make the woods come alive for anyone who hiked with him. Once, on a walk with a friend’s daughter, he planted ceramic elephants along the trail. The figurines were part of a herd he had gathered in the first half of his life when he worked as a Republican speechwriter on Capitol Hill. The delighted girl was drawn from bend to bend, amazed by the cornucopia of elephants, unaware of course that Waterman, who had agreed to carry her trophies, was surreptitously re-hiding the same three.
Despite the isolation of Barra, the Watermans were not hermits. They tried to bring their community into the woods with them, inviting friends and family to visit during the sugaring season, or to join them on hiking and climbing trips. Guy gave jazz concerts to raise money for a church fellowship group in East Corinth. He served on the board of the Mohonk Preserve, which oversees the Shawangunk cliffs near New Paltz, New York. In recent years he and Laura had volunteered three days a week at the local library, doing the thankless work of updating the card catalog. For many years they had maintained a section of trail along Franconia Ridge, which reaches its apex at Mount Lafayette. They built scree walls to protect the delicate diapensia and alpine moss. They shored up eroding embankments.
But their greatest contribution to wilderness preservation was their writing. They wrote exhaustive histories of hiking and climbing in New England, and their two seminal tracts, Backwoods Ethics and Wilderness Ethics, helped inaugurate the no-trace camping movement in the United States. Asking questions such as what place cellphones and helicopters have in the backcountry, the Watermans became, in the words of Doug Mayer, “the conscience of the New England wilderness.”
For the people who knew Guy Waterman, the news of his death prompted the usual range of emotions — sadness, anger, bewilderment. Friends cast about for reasons. They wondered at the almost-never–mentioned grief and guilt he’d felt over having lost two of his three sons, one by the haunting precedent of a suicide in the mountains, the other under even more enigmatic circumstances. They weighed the paradoxes of character and asked themselves whether he had been caught up in the code of the Hard Man, who climbs at the sharp end of the rope and lives or dies by his ability to extricate himself from difficulties without help. It was not Guy Waterman’s nature to seek help from doctors, or to mitigate what he called his “demons” with pills and therapists. He owned his demons, until the end at least, when they owned him. He left the people who loved him to wonder whether his choice was the action of a noble figure who withdrew before old age made him an embarrassment to himself and a burden to society, or the action of a tragic figure doomed by his code or something in his nature never to find the strength to be weak: the strength to ask for help, to be a burden, and so ultimately to know oneself in the compassion of others.
“Guy never offered a complete picture of his life,” said his friend Tek Tomlinson. “My sense was that he was permanently grief-stricken, but that he did not feel the world deserved his tears. He was an unusually beautiful person. He had a way of getting into your depths.” To Mike Young, Waterman seemed like the main character in Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” which was inspired by a famous rock formation in Franconia Notch, just across from the ridge where Waterman died. “There was something in Guy that he couldn’t recognize himself,” said Young. “I think there are many of us who feel as if we failed, failed to convince him of how much he meant to us, what a good and loyal and true friend he was. I know his death has got to do with depression, and when depression speaks, it can’t hear. But there is a collective feeling of ‘What more could I have done? What could I have said? Why didn’t I tell him: What an amazing person you are. You made my world so much bigger.’ ”
But if he had a way of getting into someone else’s depths, it was almost impossible to get into his. Laura Waterman, in one of her only extended public -comments on her husband’s death, wrote in a local -newspaper, “Guy believed in the uniqueness of the individual. That we are all separate and unknowable in our deepest core, one from one another.”
He had two lives, really, one before Barra, one after. Where he was impulsive before, he was deliberate after. Where he was a city rat before, he was a country-man after. A self-described alcoholic before, a teetotaler after. From the one-time night owl and habitué of jazz dives emerged a man who liked to hit the hay by nine.
A similar polarity defined his sense of self. He was divided by what he called the “warring tendencies” of constructive action and self-destructive behavior. He saw his psychological dynamic symbolized in the characters of Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Caliban served as a metaphor for defiance and darkness; Ariel was the sky spirit of moral action and social responsibility. “These impulses are probably in conflict within everyone,” he wrote in Prospero’s Options, “but in me the swings, the vehemence of the contrast, seem remarkable.”
How much simpler things were when he was a boy, capering around in a deerskin loincloth and beseeching his family not to close the door on his imaginary friends. He was born in 1932, the youngest of five kids, and raised in a home steeped in science, literature, and music. His mother, Mary Mallon Waterman, was a graduate of Vassar and a former suffragette. His father, Alan Waterman, was a physics professor at Yale and a gifted viola player who eventually became the first director of the National Science Foundation and received the National Medal of Freedom.
Fourteen years separated Guy from his oldest brother, Alan, but the first decade of his life, before his siblings scattered to Vassar and Princeton and Yale, was a prewar idyll of family picnics and adventures. Or so he remembered it. The Watermans called their 10-acre patch of pasture and orchard in North Haven, Connecticut, ”The Farm.” The kids gravitated to the banks of a woodsy brook, where they could traverse -fallen logs and whack the mushrooms that sprang up after a rain. There was a tepee and a horse named Dolly. Mother read aloud to them at night — Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott. At a young age Guy was besotted with baseball and developed a preternatural command of players’ stats. He was also talented musically. He had absolute pitch and was picking out tunes before the age of three.
With summers off, his father took the boys to the Maine woods for canoeing and camping. “His Maine guide’s license meant more to him than the Medal of Freedom,” recalled Guy’s sister Anne Cooley.
When World War II broke out, the family relocated, first to Cam-bridge, Massachusetts, and then in 1946 to Washington, D.C. The departure from The Farm marked the start of Waterman’s tumultuous adolescence. Unhappy terms at prep school. The discovery of alcohol. It also marked his awakening to the glories of ragtime and Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans jazz.
In the fall of 1948, as a junior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, he fell for a girl in the senior class named Emily Morrison. In May 1950, they eloped. As Waterman noted many years later in his memoir, the marriage “was not a product of love but of a joint rebellion against the adult world. The resulting relationship was predictable, once there was no adult opposition to join forces against.”
They hung on for 19 years. In Waterman’s view, all but the first were strained and unrewarding, but the union produced three sons. Bill was born in April 1951, shortly before his father turned 19; Johnny arrived 17 months later; and Jim came 3 years after that, in 1955. By day Guy was studying for an economics degree at George Washington University. Three nights a week, he played jazz gigs with a group called the Riverboat Trio. He took his boys to the zoo, but the burden of caring for the kids fell to his wife.
After college, Waterman found work as an analyst with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and by the end of the 1950s he had made his way onto Capitol Hill, where he worked for the Senate Minority Policy Committee, writing speeches and reports, and analyzing economic legislation. He had thrown in with the Republicans partly out of a sense of establishmentarian loyalty, and partly out of a defiant refusal to carry his family’s liberal standard simply because it was expected. He wrote -speeches for Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign, but his days in Washington were numbered, owing to what he saw as the Caliban forces of self-destruction. He was drinking every night. He felt himself to be “borderline suicidal.” The night Nixon lost was his nadir: Waterman went on a bender and woke up in jail.
In early 1961, seeking a fresh start, he moved his family to a house in Stamford, Connecticut, and began commuting to New York City, where he had a job as a speechwriter for General Electric. The work proved to be drearier than he had feared. The hopes he’d entertained of entering Connecticut politics unraveled, and the malaise of his marriage deepened. His drinking got worse than ever. And then in the fall of 1963, he stumbled upon a series of articles in Sports Illustrated about the history of attempts to climb the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
“Mountains and climbing dawned on my drunken, shamed, lonely life like a beacon of hope,” he later wrote. “Here was a whole new world of aspiration and effort, contrasting with the nightmare my life had become.” He devoured mountaineering books. That October, he took a climbing course and was exhilarated to make his first forays onto the steep cracks and overhangs of the Shawangunk conglomerate. In November, he packed an old army tent and in lousy weather made his maiden voyage onto Franconia Ridge — the place that he would come to think of as his spiritual home, and that summoned him at the end of his life.
The discipline of climbing motivated Waterman to quit drinking. He reformed his habits with a characteristic display of independence — by will alone, without the help of counselors or AA groups. He began hiking to the railroad station from his house to get into shape. He climbed the 21 flights from the street to his office in the GE building, and often ran down the stairs trying to beat the elevator.
Hiking and climbing trips also gave him a way to be with his sons. When they reached their teens, Bill and Johnny began to join him, and eventually Jim did, too, though not to the same extent. Guy took the -older boys on long trips to Katahdin and the White Mountains. He and Bill took their first winter trip to the White Mountains, hiking up Lafayette in February 1967, when the temperature was 36 below zero. Guy tore his trousers with a crampon and developed frostbite on one of his knees.
After his climbing debut at age 13, Johnny quickly emerged as a prodigy. Whereas Bill had a more rounded life — he played the drums; he made friends easily — Johnny poured himself into climbing as if his identity depended on it. He would do 400 push-ups a night, walk the two-and-a-half miles from school to home just to touch the door of the house and then go back and make the circuit again.
By 1969, the Watermans’ marriage was finally over, and the sons had begun to grapple with the dissolution of their family. Guy set up life as a bachelor father. His youngest son, Jim, came to live with him for his final three years of high school, while Waterman went through the motions of his job at GE. He lived mostly for his weekend getaways at the Gunks.
Fresh out of high school in 1969, Bill headed west, hopping freight trains. One night in June, running away from railroad crews at a yard in Winnipeg, he scooted under a boxcar just as an engine gave it a nudge. A steel wheel rolled over his leg just above the ankle, irreparably crushing the bone. The leg was surgically shortened, but its function could not be restored, and eventually it was amputated and a prosthesis was attached. Four years later, in May 1973, when he was living in Fairbanks, Alaska, Bill wrote to his father to say that he was going off on a long trip and would contact him when he got back.
He was never seen or heard from again. To this day, what happened to him is a mystery.
That same summer of 1969, a few months before his seventeenth birthday, Johnny embarked on his first great adventure in Alaska. He joined a party of older mountaineers and became the third-youngest person ever to summit Mount McKinley, the crown of North America. One of the team members, the well-known climber Tom Frost, gave Johnny a pair of windpants after their ascent, and a couple of years later, Johnny passed them on to Guy, who wore them for the next two decades. In the end Johnny was the son with whom Guy identified most closely; the son whose fate he felt most responsible for. In his memoirs Guy wrote, “Poor Johnny embodied those impulses in me which have been destructive, as they were so finally for Johnny.” But it was possible to believe otherwise in the summer of 1969. It was possible to spill over with fatherly pride as Johnny threw himself into a climbing career that over the years encompassed some of the most difficult routes around, climaxing in his masterpiece: an incredible solo traverse via the unclimbed central buttress of the South Face of 14,573-foot Mount Hunter in the Alaska Range in the summer of 1978. Johnny climbed alone, with only the lice that had infested his body for company. He fixed ropes and ferried supplies up a fright-night ridge of crumbling cornices, friable ice, and overhanging rock. He made as many as 12 trips over each pitch in order to haul all the gear and provisions. There were times when he broke down and sobbed as the climb turned into an epic of endurance, stretching on and on for an astonishing 145 days. In the end he triumphed. The noted climber Jeff Lowe later wrote of the ascent: “There is nothing else in the history of mountaineering with which to compare it.”
When Johnny returned to Fairbanks, his life began to unravel under warring tendencies of his own. Several friends had died in the mountains. He felt himself to be a social outcast, loveless and isolated. He was prone to bursts of rage. He made obsessive notes of his conversations and encounters with people on the street, eerily echoing the note-taking of his father. But what seemed like constructive idiosyncrasy in Guy was spinning into madness in his son. Political spirit had driven Guy to write speeches for Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford. In Johnny it inspired a quixotic bid for a local school-board seat on a platform of liberalized drug use. After his defeat, he decided to run for president under the banner of his own Feed the Starving party. Seeking publicity for the cause, Johnny set out to solo McKinley in the winter with only flour, sugar, margarine, and protein powder to sustain him. He trained by immersing himself in a bathtub of ice cubes.
His initial try on Denali failed. He returned to his base in Talkeetna. When his cabin burned down, he checked himself into the Anchorage Psychiatric Institute for two weeks. In 1981 he made a second attempt to solo the mountain, but unlike most Denali climbers, who fly into the Ruth Glacier, he planned to walk in all the way from Cook Inlet, carrying an enormous pack for about 100 miles. He got to 2,000 feet on the Ruth, then retreated. In March, he turned toward the great mountain for the final time, telling his friend, bush pilot Cliff Hudson, “I won’t be seeing you again.” He was last spotted on April 1, walking toward Denali’s east buttress. He had no sleeping bag, no tent, no dark glasses, no sunscreen. The route led toward an area known to be seamed with crevasses.
While the circumstances of Johnny’s disappearance were hardly as mysterious as those of his older brother, he was — like Bill — never seen again.
The news of Johnny’s death would bring to an end what for his father had been the happiest period of his life. For most of the 1970s Guy had been graced by the blessings of a second marriage and the good life that was promised to those who quit the rat race and went back to the land. He was growing his own food and hauling his own water and cutting his own wood. No electricity, no phone. Then came that April morning in 1981. . . . The cabin was half an hour from the road, and some high-school kids from the village came running in to tell him there was a ranger calling from Alaska.
Guy Waterman’s second act — the half that made his death so compelling to so many people — began with a chance encounter at the Gunks in 1970, when he met Laura Johnson. She was seven years younger, the daughter of the noted Emily Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Waterman was smitten and quickly had her on belay. They were perfectly matched — a 38-year-old Republican rock-hound with three kids could have searched a long time before finding someone who not only loved roping up as much as he did, and shared his ardor for books and music, but was also willing to abandon her career as an editor at Backpacker magazine to pursue the countercultural dream of
a cabin in the woods. They were married in the summer of 1972 and spent their honeymoon night on a Shawangunk belay ledge big enough for a small tent.
On June 9 of the following year, they moved onto land they had bought in Vermont and began building Barra. They poured the foundation on the Fourth of July and trucked in the Steinway grand when the roof was up in August. It was a race to get the 16-by-32-foot cabin finished before winter. Over the years they added a porch, a woodshed, and then a sugar shed where they could boil the syrup drawn from their maples. They built footbridges over streams. They cut trails through the woods that you would hardly notice. They planted pear and apple trees. They bartered their labor for loads of manure, and each year enlarged their garden. The earth erupted with lettuce and kale and Swiss chard, with broccoli, carrots, beets, rutabagas, potatoes, and buckwheat. What they couldn’t grow — peanut butter, some flour, cereals, Tang — they bought in bulk. They fashioned a root cellar where they stored carrots and beets in sand, and turnips and onions and potatoes on the shelves. Laura canned rhubarb and rose hips and blackberries. Guy cut firewood — oak and hop hornbeam, ash, beech, and yellow birch — seven cords of wood, winter after winter.
People often asked them why they had moved to the woods, why they lived under circumstances that were closer to life in the fourteenth century than the twentieth. Waterman often demurred, saying he was a “doer,” not a “deep thinker,” and that his ideas were “full of inconsistencies and doubts.” Part of the answer was that he didn’t want appliances around if he couldn’t fix them. There was a side of him that disliked dealing with people, especially when his mood was sour. But he also sought to exercise mind and body equally. He relished the chore of sawing wood. He counted each stroke. At the outset, he and Laura had avowed their objectives: “To live simply, cheaply, unhurriedly, basically.” They drew up a set of principles that included staying out of debt, not using machines, keeping up with friends, creating beauty, and, fatefully, given the forethought that went into Waterman’s suicide, “planning all activities in detail and well in advance.”
The life itself was the attraction. They lived the way they lived in order to live the way they lived.
So the years unfurled in the rhythm of the homestead seasons. It was impossible for many people to imagine the two of them apart. They wrote their books together. They tented, snowshoed, and climbed together. Laura cooked at home; Guy cooked in camp. In the early years, they played four-handed piano. After supper, he read to her from the library that lined the cabin walls. They devised the best way to clean windows: Laura would wash on the inside while Guy washed on the outside, the one mirroring the other with only a pane of glass between them.
Every morning at 7 A.M., Waterman collected temperatures from three weather stations on the property. He added the data to the immense store of “Barra-stats.” He tracked the monthly household consumption of Ben & Jerry’s by flavor. He knew which of their bushes produced the most blueberries and followed the yearly variations, from the lean harvests of 5,000 to 10,000 berries to crops like the one in 1998, which netted 43,000 berries. He knew the number of gallons of maple sap issued by the 88 trees they tapped, all of which had names. Some trees, like Ozymandias, were chronic underperformers. Some were sap issuers of almost heroic enthusiasm. Eight times the tree known as Mad Dog won Waterman’s Tree of the Year award.
If there was a Faustian price for the happiness Barra brought Waterman, it was the lingering feeling of guilt that he had abandoned his boys. Particularly Jim, who had graduated from high school just as his father was heading to the woods with his new wife. Waterman had put some money aside for his sons’ college educations, but it wasn’t nearly enough. As an advocate of personal responsibility, he had to confront his shortcomings on that front. “What it came down to is that I walked away from that responsibility, leaving my sons with a difficult time to finance their own college,” he wrote in his memoirs. “My mind was on my own future, from which there was no turning back for me.”
When the news of Johnny’s death reached him on April 21, 1981, at 4:30 in the afternoon, the happiness of Barra began to crumble from within. For a year Waterman did not play the piano. He buried a pair of Johnny’s boots under a cairn off Franconia Ridge, near Mount Lincoln. Each year on the anniversary of Johnny’s death, he and Laura hiked up to the memorial to commune with the memory of the lost son. He began to brood about the origins of Johnny’s woes. It was one thing not to have provided for his sons’ tuition, another not to have been able to save them from themselves — from warring tendencies you possessed yourself and had perhaps passed on to them. Johnny’s death also forced Waterman to confront the possibility that Bill, whom he had not heard from in eight years, was also gone — if not actually dead, then so deeply estranged he might as well be.
“One of the secret things about Guy,” said his oldest brother, Alan, an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, “is that for a long time he wouldn’t believe either of his boys were dead.”
But increasingly it seemed there was much about the world that was too much for Waterman. He described the 1980s as a time when the “gloom about my sons” spread “a darkening shadow over the main currents of my life.” Age did not mellow his unease. By 1990, he had stopped rock climbing, and two years later he quit venturing onto steep ice — pastimes that had been his salvation as a younger man. He withdrew from committee work for the Appalachian Mountain Club. He turned his attention to writing articles for baseball journals and completing Twin Firs, the guest -cabin. He drew detailed maps of Barra. He and Laura had sold some land, and the homestead now encompassed 27 acres. Guy took the same pains making maps as he did carving the wooden dowels that pinned the hand-hewn logs of Twin Firs. It eased his dour moods to roam Barra’s woods, visiting Hop Hollow and Middle Earth, stopping by Sandy Point, the Forest of Arden, or looking in on the graves of his dogs Ralph and Elsa.
In 1997, he began composing his memoirs. Late that year, he asked Doug Mayer, who worked for the National Public Radio show Car Talk, if he would bring a tape recorder out to Barra on one of his visits. For “various morbid reasons,” he said, he and Laura had been thinking about their funerals, and Guy wanted a selection of music that could be played at his service.
The next summer, in June 1998, his brother Alan and his nephew Dane came for a visit. Guy gave them a copy of his memoirs, all but the pages that appeared to be missing at the end. The text stopped at 178, and then the appendices began at 183.
“Where are the last pages?” Alan asked.
“I haven’t written them yet,” Guy said.
Had they not been written, or had they been held back until he was ready to explain the plan taking shape in his head? The visit disturbed Dane and his father, though they said nothing to Guy. “My dad and I were both disappointed at how bright and superficial it was,” said Dane Water-man. “It has bothered me for the last two years. It wasn’t a phony mask Guy was wearing, it was a deflecting of things — of not wanting to get below the surface. I know now we saw him only a few weeks before July 3, when he went out to kill himself.”
It was not the first time. Back in 1992, after his sixtieth birthday, he had written but never delivered a note to Laura declaring his intention to commit suicide. He’d drawn up a list of 17 physical ailments, some of them, such as ingrown toenails, absurdly trivial. When he returned that day in July 1998 from a hike in the White Mountains and confessed that he had thought about taking his life, Laura was dumbfounded. As she later wrote: “My first thought was, as I watched him pace as he was telling me: Am I married to a crazy man? But I knew I wasn’t, and I realized how much I loved him, and that the most important thing was to go on loving him as hard as ever I could.”
Was Waterman suffering from a physical illness? That same summer he had complained of abdominal pains. He was concerned — his father had died of pancreatic cancer — but he refused to go for tests despite the urging of John Dunn and his wife, Linda, both physicians. “He didn’t see any point in it,” said Dunn. “If it were a malignancy, he wouldn’t have treatment.” The Dunns and Mike Young, who was also a physician, kept an eye peeled for symptoms in Guy, but saw none. “He didn’t appear to be losing weight,” Dunn said. “He wasn’t jaundiced, he didn’t appear to be anemic. He had a vitamin B12 deficiency from his strict vegetarian diet, but his strength was good.”
Sick or not, one can only guess what called Waterman back from the brink that summer day. Perhaps it was the conviction that he owed it to Laura to ensure her future when he was gone. Certainly that summer of 1998 marked the beginning of an effort to lay the plans that ultimately concluded on the summit of Mount Lafayette 18 months later. The Watermans arranged for the eventual transfer of Barra to the Good Life Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the homestead philosophy. Barra would be preserved and perhaps provide a livelihood for some young couple who wanted to live simply, cheaply, unhurriedly, and basically.
Perhaps the most pointed sign of Guy’s intentions was the property in East Corinth, on which the couple began to build a pretty, machine-cut log house with a view of the Tabor Valley branch of the Waits River. The foundation was poured in February 1999. Guy always referred to the place as “Laura’s house,” where Laura would live after he was gone. The more he mentioned it, the more his friends began to grasp its implications. After their visit to Barra in late November, Rebecca Oreskes and Brad Ray stopped by “Laura’s house” and half-jokingly asked the contractor if he could slow down the construction.
The Watermans celebrated New Year’s at Barra with Dan Allen and his wife, Natalie Davis, toasting the new century with glasses of Tang at 7 P.M. (which was midnight Greenwich Mean Time) so Guy could turn in by 9 as usual. In January the co-authors completed a new book, a collection of mountain stories called A Fine Kind of Madness, which will be published this fall.
In mid-January Guy had a concert date at the Corinth Town Hall — a final gig he meant to keep. And after that . . . it was just a matter of waiting for one of those spells of killer New England weather. The night temperatures in east-central Vermont that first week of February ranged from the low teens to zero. In the White Mountains, they dropped well into minus figures.
Laura had never been sure of the date, only that it would be sometime that winter. She had come down with the flu the week before, and perhaps that had delayed her husband. When she was well, Guy told her he was ready. They had one last day together, Saturday, February 5. Waterman wrote some final -letters. He filled the wood bins.
He told her where he would be and at what time as he was hiking up Lafayette, a mountain he had climbed more than a hundred times. He told her where the authorities would be able to find his body. They agreed that she would wait at least until Tuesday to begin notifying their friends.
On Sunday morning, he gave her the last three pages of his memoir. He told her that if it wasn’t cold enough out, he might be back. He suggested that to assuage the anguish after he was gone, she might immerse herself in the ritual of baking bread.
And then he was gone, and she was sitting down with the pages he had given her. She took comfort in the passages he had written. They spoke of his fear of getting old, his regret at the failure of their books to have had more influence. He wished he could have done better, have made more of a difference. He spoke of the depression he had endured, how the last seven years had passed numbly. He had put on the face of genial host and wit, but his real feelings had been off-limits even to his most intimate friends. And he spoke of his family, his father, Johnny, how they embodied the quarrel in himself. “Ariel versus Caliban,” Waterman wrote. “As I look at where I have come to, after 66 years of struggling, I see that Caliban has won.”
Meticulous as ever, he had crossed out “66” and written in “67.”
He came from the north. It was a trip he had made countless times. He preferred back roads — Route 5 to Wells River, Vermont, then across the New Hampshire state line on Route 10 to Littleton, and then south into Franconia Notch.
It was a beautiful winter day, clear and windy. Eight degrees that morning in Benton to the west of Franconia Ridge; five degrees in the town of Bethlehem north of the mountains. The conditions in the valleys did not approximate those in the higher elevations. The observatory on Mount Washington recorded an average February 6 temperature of three below zero; winds averaged 78 miles per hour, gusting to 130.
He parked his Subaru in the lot across from the trailhead of the Old Bridle Path. He left his snowshoes in the car and tucked the keys in his pocket. He was wearing his plastic double boots, crampons, heavy mittens, and gaiters, and carrying his ice ax, two pencils, and two pens. In his green pack were two water bottles, two flashlights, a tin of anchovies, a can opener, two clocks, and two small stuffed bears. Whenever he and Laura went anywhere, the bears were always with them in the bed.
His 5 P.M. appointment with the summit coincided with sunset at 4:58. He seems to have taken his time climbing up.
A hiker named Marty Sample, coming down from Lafayette that Sunday, posted a note on a website saying that he had seen an older man with a long ice ax headed up the Old Bridle Path, and remembered thinking that it was pretty late in the day to be going up.
The trail ascended through the leafless birch and ragged mountain ash. Higher on, it became a snowy defile through the dark-green curtains of red spruce and balsam fir.
Near the halfway point, it opened on a series of ledges with panoramic views across Walker Ravine, where Waterman had often bushwhacked up to the ridge. Mount Lincoln rose to the south, and hidden on its flanks stood the cairn for Johnny. Further on, the trail cut up the steep hills known as the Three Agonies for the test given to the AMC hut crews hauling 100-pound supply packs.
Around 4,200 feet the trail reached the frozen bed of Eagle Lake, where the Greenleaf Hut was boarded up for the winter. The icy white dome of Lafayette rose 1,000 feet above. People often stopped here and strapped on crampons before venturing up into the hammering west wind. The glassy slopes ahead lay above treeline, except for the dwarf growth of the alpine zone.
From cairn to cairn, up to the summit. He could have checked his clocks or told the time from the slanting sundown light on the Presidential Range to the east. Darkness was pooling in the great basin of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. West in shadow lay the cliffs of Cannon, where his son Johnny had put up a route called Consolation Prize. Behind the long fin of Whitney Gilman Ridge was the Black Dike, which he had climbed with Laura, one of her finest ascents on ice.
Down from the summit, 10 minutes in crampons on the gentle grade along the ridge. He stepped into an alcove of rocks just off the trail. In spring the diapensia would be blooming at his feet. He sat down in the snow facing north. In his breast pocket, inside a plastic bag, was a map of Barra, the one he had -taken such pains to draw. It showed the streams, the orchards, the gardens, the buildings, the trails, almost the life that he and Laura had choreographed on the homestead. On the back, he’d written a message:
“Please: 1. Do not take special efforts to save life. Death is intended. 2. Return pack and VT Subaru (green) in south bound parking lot to Laura Waterman, East Corinth VT, 05040. Thank you. Guy Waterman.”
On the same paper he had also scribbled six lines. They were from Paradise Lost, Book II. The fallen angel Belial is lamenting the “sad cure” that is the destruction of life, and asks:
. . . for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity
To perish rather, swallow’d up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated Night
Devoid of sense and motion?
It would be 16 below that night on nearby Mount Washington, and unimaginably more frigid given the winds. It was a matter of hours now. The sweat of ascending wicked away Waterman’s envelope of heat. Involuntary shivering begins when a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Below 93, shivering stops, and drowsiness and apathy set in as blood rushes to the organs at the core. Below 90, the heart begins to balk, the breath grows shallow, the eyes dilate, and then, ineluctably, with magisterial indifference, the curtain descends.
When the map of Barra was brought back by the friends who retrieved his body, Laura Waterman imagined that she could see in her husband’s shaky hand something of his spirit flaring in a final burst of verse as he waited on his mountain in the cold and wind, with the darkness coming on.
In a way, Waterman was too many people: Caliban, Ariel, Prospero; Melville’s Ahab, Prometheus from the Greek canon; Milton’s Belial and the Satan of Paradise Lost, who says, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” — a line Waterman -never tired of quoting. He had a million literary masks and metaphors to interpose between himself and others. “He could never just be Guy,” said his friend Bonnie Christie. “He could not open himself up, even to Laura. The core of him was off-limits.”
Not to say there weren’t glimpses of it, times when the Hard Man went tender with the innocent joy of his boyhood on The Farm in North Haven. Maybe it was the wild happiness of getting up into a winter storm, or deftly negotiating a long line of rock, or rolling with the cadences of ragtime, something that made life seem like paradise again . . .
Three weeks before he died, he performed for the last time at the Town Hall in Corinth. He accompanied a local jazz singer named Danuta Jacob at a fundraising benefit for the Tabor Valley Players and the East Corinth Fourth of July Parade Committee. Danuta Jacob had been looking for a pianist and was excited to find one as versatile as Waterman. They’d been rehearsing once a week since the summer and were booked for a two-night stand, January 15 and 16, the concluding act of an evening cabaret. Both nights were sold out.
Waterman was keyed up about the show. He paid to have the piano in the Corinth Town Hall professionally tuned and he took the even more extravagant step of renting a tuxedo from College Formals in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
On the evening of the first show, he came into the library at East Corinth and asked if he could change into his tux in the bathroom. “It took him 45 minutes to put it on,” said Janine Moore, the librarian. “He was wringing his hands and pulling the sleeves. Usually he would hold my daughter Daelynn in his arms but this time he felt he couldn’t because she might wrinkle the tux.”
They had worked out a set of four numbers: “Our Love is Here to Stay”; “I Had Someone Else Before I Had You and I’ll Have Someone After You’re Gone”; “Body and Soul”; and their closer, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” All songs Waterman had been playing for almost half a century.
As it happened, a videotape had been made of the final performance. Danuta put it in the VCR. There they were: She on a small riser, swaying in her long brown velvet dress, Guy in his rented tux, hunched over the newly tuned upright, his back to the audience.
His elfin form seemed hardly big enough for the music he was teasing from the keys. When Danuta finished the first song, Guy turned and applauded her. He had a big stomping solo on the next number, but when they had finished, again he clapped for her. It was all over too fast for her — four songs and they were done by 9:30. A photographer got a few pictures. Someone suggested they try out for Garrison Keillor’s talent contest. A few days later, a letter from Guy arrived in Danuta’s mailbox, expressing his gratitude to her for helping him fulfill a lifelong dream of performing with a singer.
“I was looking at it as our debut,” Danuta said. “But he was looking at it as his grand finale. I can only guess that what was going on that night was a celebration of things never completed for him. Maybe he wanted the world to see that side of him one last time.”
She dabbed her eyes. On the tape, she and Guy had just finished “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The audience was clapping, and Danuta was trying to coax Guy onto the stage to acknowledge the applause. She almost had to tug him up there. It was poignant to see the mix of shyness and happiness when he actually turned and stood before the crowd to receive the sweet balm of their acclaim. It was as if he couldn’t believe he had done anything to deserve it. But then maybe he had, and the uncertainty of not knowing made him awkward. Or perhaps it was just the strange textures of the rented tux, and knowing that he was up past his bedtime, and that he had to change and make the hike home to the cabin in the woods. The ovation petered out, and with no further ceremony, he slipped quietly from the stage.