My family spent the Columbus Day weekend in Franconia, New Hampshire, through the beneficence of an acquaintance with an available condo there. Franconia itself is just north of Franconia Notch, access point for the trails up Franconia Ridge, a hike I’ve wanted to do for years. Malcolm, at seven, is supremely confident in his hiking abilities, and I am too often susceptible to his suggestions for overly ambitious trips. This time, I bowed to the realities of two young children, a husband with an unreliable knee, and the ever encroaching darkness at either end of the day gnawing away at the available hiking hours. I scrapped my hopes of hiking the ridge. Instead, we climbed Cannon Mountain, a 4100 foot peak across the notch from the Ridge.
The trail is short, and, typical of White Mountain paths, heads just about straight up the mountain, regardless of the obstacles. No switchbacks, no effort to avoid boulders or slab, so the trail sometimes resembles not so much a path as a dry creek bed. The route was direct, but difficult. Arguably, our trails are like our people in that regard.
There were other people on the trail, a few knots of college students with dogs, a passel of hedge fund types talking loudly about their returns, but overall, it was quiet and not crowded as we wound our way up the steep side and then the level secondary peak and little dip of a col before the final rise to the summit. At the end of the trail, we came to a gravel path, well-groomed and wide, which was disorienting enough. Then, a steady flow of people emerged from around a bend. They had just disembarked from the aerial tramway that conveys tourists up to the summit’s observation tower. A distance we had covered in two hours, with multiple snack and water breaks, and nagging thoughts of my whinging Achilles and overtensed hamstring, these people had traversed in twenty minutes. The coffee and hot chocolate they’d bought at the bottom hadn’t had time to cool. They wore leather equestrian boots and carried red purses. They tugged at insufficient sweatshirts or jackets and breathed into their hands. They crowded onto the deck of the observation tower and tried to coax their children to smile before the backdrop of the mountains.
The disorientation of emerging into this scene is not unique to Cannon. When Christophe and I climbed Mount Washington, we had a similar feeling as we crossed the last, barren scree field and came up over a ridge to see throngs of people ill-dressed for the conditions, but unconcerned in their flip flops and t-shirts, snapping photos and buying souvenirs before returning to their cars or the cog railway for transport back down the mountain. We put on our extra layers of fleece and contemplated the hours ahead of us to get back to the trailhead in Pinkham Notch.
What is that feeling, coming up into such a group when they’ve been carried up and I’ve walked? The fall foliage was a bit past peak as we sat there, but the yellow of the beeches was still licking up the flanks of Lafayette across to the east. Sitting on the only available bench, we received a glowering look from a harried mother with two kids of her own fresh off the tram. Christophe leaned over to me and said, “I don’t feel the least bit guilty about taking this bench.” Watching these people take panoramic pictures with their phones and jostle and cajole their kids, and rub their cold arms in the brief time they had before the return trip, I had the distinct sense of moving at half speed compared with them. They were still paced for the ordinary world–everything at least quick, mostly instantaneous. We’d climbed for two hours, and had two hours yet to climb back down. Our whole day was consumed by this mountain. I’m glad to see people get outside and into the mountains however they can. Those kids may, having seen the mountains from this perch, someday decide to climb them on their own power. It’s good for people to get outside. And there are other mountains that offer solitude, and no tramways or roads. I am still a few years from being able to climb them with any regularity, so they preoccupy me. While I’m preparing lectures or grading homework, the breaks I take are to read stories about hiking or long backpacking trips. I look at a lot of pictures. Someone, a family friend, once took me for a hike up a small mountain to a fire tower. Ever since then, I was captivated by the idea of walking up mountains. Taking kids up a mountain on the tramway is better than nothing.
The next day, we waited three hours for a seat at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. It was a cool, sunny day, and from outside the restaurant, there is a clear view across the notch at Franconia Ridge. As the morning progressed, clouds descended on the peaks. Not on little cat feet, but with broad, leonine paws, and then, lowering its full bulk down until the peaks were all obscured. How many years before I can walk up there myself and traverse that ridge? Maybe two or three, and my boys will be able to hike it without much trouble. For now, I look at it from any angle I can. From Cannon, across the notch, from a clearing in Sugar Hill, from Route 93 creeping along its base. We’ll get up there one of these days. But you can’t see the summit from the summit itself. The views are better at this remove.