Posts Tagged ‘trailsnh’

Free, solo

Once a year, in June, I hike up Mount Isolation in New Hampshire to survey for the Mountain Bird Watch. It’s a citizen science project, so we are all volunteers contributing sightings, and sometimes I think it’s because you couldn’t pay anyone to do this work. Isolation lives up to its name in one respect: it’s seven miles from the nearest road, which is pretty far in New England wilderness terms. Last year, I took that shortest route in, but this year I opted for the longer Davis Path. I was seeking the brain calming effects that ten solitary trail miles usually brings.


For the first couple of miles, the trail is well used, leading to a spur at Mt. Crawford with good views of the Presidential Range. Most of the men I met along the way felt compelled to ask me questions that were so consistent and predictable, it seemed I was auditioning people who had studied a common script: “Camping out overnight? Are you alone? Where you headed?” Some asked out of curiosity, some bewilderment, some from concern, but it is universally creepy to be asked details on these things by men I don’t know. The people who would need to know where to look for my body have already received my itinerary, so I offer evasive or misleading responses to these men. Some go on to offer advice, which I benignly accept, despite my extensive experience in the wilderness. I did aid a father and daughter who had wandered off trail onto the ledges in finding their way back, listening to the aggrieved man bewail the lack of trail markings. I refrained from explaining that wilderness areas have deliberately limited signage, and at the next trail junction, we parted ways.

The last group I encountered before I passed into the farther reaches of the wilderness beyond the popular trails looked to be made up of four or so women in their 60s and 70s. As I stepped aside to let them by, I heard a reedy male voice from the back of the line saying, “and then the market collapsed, just like the market for sheep in New England back in the 1800s…” and so on. The women “mmmm-hmmmmed” and “really?”-ed along ahead of him. One of them, seeing me, almost said “good morning” and then stopped and said, “No, it can’t STILL be the morning, can it?” “Oh no,” I told her, “You are well into it now.” She smiled, and they all paraded past, his voice uninterrupted.

After that, I walked seven more miles to my camping spot without human contact. The trail gets vague in places, and wandered down a stream bed a while before realizing my error. I circled around, retracing the trail, searching for the broken end of it, briefly bushwhacking through a spruce stand before I picked up the trace again. In other spots, the ungroomed trail would disappear straight into a wall of balsam, becoming less a trail, and more a faith-based initiative in plunging in and through, hoping to set my feet invisibly right.

Some trails permit an easy rhythm of steps, and let the mind wander, but the Davis Path depends strenuous attention. The rigors, though exhausting, were what I craved. My mind has trouble staying where it is, instead slipping forward into the potential catastrophes of the future, or sliding backward to lament past acts. It lurches and wobbles like a person learning to roller skate. Hard trails dictate presence of mind. At the higher elevations, there was still, intermittently, snow pack, and places where moose had traversed it and punched through the crust with their enormous hooves. Mud pits and snowmelt sluices soaked my feet and legs to the calves.


Davis Path in June. No way through but through.

I planned a stop on Mt. Davis to see the views and eat something, but the moment I stopped moving, I was beset by black flies. They filled my ear canals and nose, and lodged in the canthi of my eyes. I could feel them in my hair and crawling up under my shirt cuffs. I scarfed my food and bolted back down the spur trail and kept moving. It was only five o’clock when I pitched my tent and crawled in seeking respite. For hours, I read and listened to the drone and pelt of insect bodies against the nylon.

The Mountain Bird Watch survey protocol requires a start time well before sunrise, so by 3:30 am I was on the trail again. At my first survey station, the dawn filters into the space left by a massive blowdown of trees that happened several years ago. All in the same direction they lie prostrate toward the east. Too dark to see much at that hour, I mainly listen for the birds. A white-throated sparrow announced itself and received a reply from a rival. A hermit thrush called at the very edge of my hearing. A Swainson’s thrush called close behind me and as I noted it in my data sheet, I heard a thrum of wings and felt wings brush against my pant leg. I turned around to see the Swainson’s on a branch ten feet from my head, one leg thrust in front the other, still, and staring at me, as I was at him, neither of us quite having expected the other.

x0Gi64HOSjePvCBBL5cMqQThere were five more stations to survey after that, and by the time I was done, it was past seven and I started back down the trail to go home. I mostly moved fast enough to keep ahead of the flies, but in the wet places the mosquitoes would rouse themselves at my passing. Their whine sometimes sounds like a suggestion of human voices, and I calibrate my time away from society by what feeling that elicits. Early in my hiking trips, the thought of engaging anyone in conversation, however briefly, fills me with tiredness, or sometimes dread. After a day away, I handle the prospect with more equanimity. Every time I mistake mosquitoes for people talking, the last line of Prufrock springs into my head, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown,” and then I puzzle over that line for a quarter mile or so.

The way back out is as long as the way in, but I was tired, and fly-bitten, and my thoughts mostly  narrowed to, “Can someone come and carry me?” But there were times when the trail was easier, where it was dry, where the thin veneer of glacial soil had worn away off the bedrock under decades of human traffic, and where the trail is like that, I think I am walking on an enormous skull with the skin split open and I am in the wound. I remember a fragment of a poem a student a year ahead of me in high school had written. It was left on a table in my English classroom, and it was about the goddess Athena. I remember only one phrase, “gray-eyed Aegean girl” and nothing else, except my astonishment that a girl my age had written her own poem, that she had dared to, that she claimed herself a poet, and written about this wise goddess born straight from the mind of Zeus, a headache from the very beginning.

KS2jCOksSMKmW95+5oDwwwThere isn’t much of that easy sort of trail on the Davis Path, and I was relieved to get back to the lower miles where I began to encounter people again. I could gauge my proximity to the trailhead by how dirty and tired people looked, so when I met a family, a man, a woman, and a teenager, looking utterly crisp and chipper, I knew I was almost done. The man stopped me and asked about the bugs. “Pretty bad,” I told him, and his face fell. “The moment I stopped to take in the view, I was under siege. It happened on the nice sunny ledges too.” He frowned and said, “That’s not what I read online on the trail reports. Online people said the bugs were bad on other trails but not this one.” He stared at me, and I shrugged. My face, I would discover later, was streaked with blood, and there were raised welts around my neck and along my jaw. My ears were swollen twice their normal size, their whorls and helices looking shiny and rubbery red, like a poor first attempt at balloon animals. My hat where it had been in contact with my ears was bloodstained. “I don’t know what to tell you. They are really terrible. Disfiguring, in fact,” I said to him. His wife was silent but looking more and more concerned. “Well, online no one said anything about that.” He questioned some more, and I told him where I’d been, and how long I’d been out. Finally I said, “I wish you the best, but it is the flies’ time out there. We are only interlopers.” The wife’s eyes tracked me, almost pleading, as I turned to go.  As I walked away, I felt the calm surety that always comes after exhausting myself in the wilderness. Whatever that man said or thought was not my concern, and could not trouble me. I existed fully in the moment I inhabited, sore, bloodied, blistered, but with my mind at ease, neither in front of me nor behind, and with my skates fully under me now.

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Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.

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Marauders descending

Last week, the boys and I did an overnight in the White Mountains. We broke what is generally a day hike for adults into two days, staying overnight at the Nauman tent site down the shoulder from Mt. Pierce. We arrived at 2pm, with hours to go before our supper, and still longer to sleep. Boredom sets in, and they whittled sticks into supports for a tiny lean-to, and Simon found a slug to live in it. He built a bridge of sticks and then smashed it. He found a spoon in the woods.

Malcolm, at nine, can hike at an impressive speed, but his seven year old brother still whinges and foot drags if given too ambitious a course, or too heavy a pack. We modulate, though he too is remarkable in what he can do. They are of an age now that I think I might possibly miss one day. So far, I have never felt that sensation. I have never missed having babies or toddlers, and have found the ever increasing freedom of older kids to be liberating. Both kids are now in the window of elementary age where they are easy to tend, independent, but still unabashedly enjoy our company. They still want to be read to, and the books are actually good.

IMG_8442.JPGIn the tent that evening, Simon sat next to me silently, looking down at the New York Times word puzzle we were working on. He made “clout” and “trout” of the letters after several minutes of hard staring. They read by headlamp for a while before sleeping.

In the morning, Malcolm was trying to zip his pant legs back up and couldn’t get the zipper to unjam. Exasperated, he threw up his hands and said, “Mom, can you help me?” and I found myself leaping to the task. He is nine, and almost preternaturally self-assured and mature. To be asked for help by this boy particularly sprang something inside me. I know the times when he will think to ask me for help are dwindling, as are the nights I will spend reading to him of bands of pirate ghosts and teenage boys in perilous wilderness situations. I don’t know if either of them will continue to want to join me on these trips. I suspect Malcolm, at least, will, but I have seen enough craigslist ads for youth backpacking equipment “used once; he didn’t like it,” to be a realist.

As we ate our breakfast, I heard sounds in the trees unlike the red squirrels and usual birds. This was a purposeful sound, and I turned to see six or seven gray jays gliding down the ridge and into the spruces around us. The first dropped onto Simon’s arm and lunged at his food. One jumped to me and jabbed a chisel beak into my granola. Malcolm mantled like a raptor over his own energy bar, but Simon gleefully offered up our expensive dried figs and apricots. A boy from the next site stood staring and I gestured to him to see if he wanted to offer them a morsel. He mutely shook his head, mouth open.

After a few moments, I thought to take a picture or a video of Simon’s beaming face, giggling as the birds leaped between his hands and the trees. But my phone was frozen. I pressed the button over and over, and could watch Simon through the screen, but nothing was captured. I powered the phone down, thinking a restart would help, and went back to watching Simon while I waited.

The birds yanked a few more bits of food free from our hands, but then, suddenly as they had come, they moved on to the tents further down the ridge. It was clearly their daily routine, arriving and making their systematic plundering, moving on.

After they were gone, my restarted phone had indeed regained its photographic capacity. It was as if the birds had drawn an electronic disturbance in with them when they came, and that dissipated once they left. The birds had broken the ice between Simon and the boy who’d been watching, Henry, who now became his fast friend for the morning.

We packed up and headed off for our seven mile trek up over Pierce and Eisenhower, plodding at our 1 mile per hour pace in the humid day above treeline.

IMG_8460I thought about the gray jays all day. I thought about all the people who say, “cherish every moment,” about raising children as Simon and Malcolm bickered, and Simon whined for snacks, and Malcolm strained at the bit to walk faster than his brother was able. Children plunder you, ransack your life. They are messy, boring, tedious, and exhausting. Not every moment is precious. If I’d been told my children would remain toddlers forever, I would have wanted to die. The gray jays didn’t stay as long as I wanted them to, sweeping in from the trees, bead-eyed, the youngest one disheveled in molt. They moved on before I was quite ready. Their presence was outsized; they seemed larger than they were, more than their weight, which was never greater than when they pushed off us to go.

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Solitary animals

Last week, I went off on my annual solo overnight backpacking trip in the time between when I finish teaching and when my kids finish school. I headed up to the trailhead on Haystack Rd. to hike over North Twin mountain on my way to Garfield Ridge. Easy walking brought me to a crossing of the Little River that, though not at all high water, looked daunting. This was not a dry footed crossing. A sign across the water clearly indicated where the trail picked up again, but on my side, a bootleg trail ran up along the water’s edge where countless hikers had paced up and back, nervously scouting for a better crossing spot. There were none to be had, but I also followed the worn herd path out of the same vain hope. I passed a garter snake, to which I spoke briefly. I turned back after a while, trying to find the main trail and the official crossing spot again. The trails faded and reappeared, approached and left the river’s edge. I looked for the turn where I had taken a little connecting path, and saw the same snake. Normally, animals make poor landmarks, but this one was distinctively teal blue in its markings, and was sunning himself just where I’d left him. I thanked him and faced the river again.

IMG_8297 2There was nothing for it but to roll up my pants, unbuckle my pack straps, and pick my way across. For part of the way, there were rocks to step on just under the surface, but most of the time, I had to cross in water mid-way up my shins. I gripped my trekking poles, probing with them into pockets in the rocks, and I heard the Voice of Authority in my head saying, “Six inches of fast moving water can knock a person over.” Stepping down in places, my leg went sideways. Moving up river, I fought the drag of my waterlogged shoes. I reached the other shore. There were two more crossings like this, and I cursed the trail, and tried to trust in the wisdom of the trailwrights. After the second crossing, I met a woman coming down the trail toward me. “Have you seen a bald guy?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a soul,” I told her. She kept going, and then five minutes later I heard her behind me again. “No sign?” I asked. “We’ve been crossing back and forth at different places. We were scratching notes in the dirt, Bs and Es, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.” I didn’t see her again after that, but I did come upon her symbol in the dirt: a capital E with an arrow showing which way she’d gone. I decided her name was Evelyn, though this was ludicrously old fashioned for how young she was. Her hiking partner was Bald. I never saw his sign in the dirt. After a mile, even her signs disappeared. I wondered about Evelyn and Bald, star-crossed river crossers braiding their paths into the mountains. Was Bald her friend? Husband? Father? I was alone on the trail again, thinking solitary thoughts about what I would do if I were the last person on Earth. Probably commit suicide. Though how to know you’re the last? What if there’s a small, tenacious community somewhere in Mongolia and you go and kill yourself? But then, they’re dead to you because how would you reach them? There are no pilots, no captains to bring you across, and the Bering land bridge is currently closed.

IMG_8300 2I got up over North Twin and then to South Twin, which had been socked in by fog when I last came through a year or so before. I stopped in to Galehead Hut for water and to talk with passers-through and to choke down a meal bar that gave a chemical burn sensation in the throat. Then I headed for Garfield Ridge campsite a few miles on. My overnight there was quiet, and I was up at 4 to head back down. I’d decided I never wanted to cross the Little River again, so I took the Gale River trail down instead, electing to take a long road walk at the bottom to my car. For the last two trail miles, I followed moose tracks in the mud, smeared over and fresher than any human ones. Big as plates, each a cloven heart, they pointed down the trail where I looked and looked, hoping to see my first ever of the giant creatures. By 7:15 I was at the Gale River trailhead, crestfallen at the kiosk map that indicated a much longer road walk than my map had shown. I began trotting down the road, walk-running and calculating how long it would take to cover the five or so miles. A pickup truck came trundling up the gravel and a man leaned out the window to ask the way to Galehead parking, and I told him he was very nearly there, and then, making a fast assessment, determined him to be neither rapist nor killer, and asked if he’d give me a lift back to my car.

IMG_8302 2His name was Stephen King, a name, he tells me, that gets hotel clerks’ attention when he calls to book a room. The cab was strewn with hiking gear, maps and old water bottles. I’d never been as grateful for transportation. On the slow ride over dirt roads, he told me about his misadventures—hypothermic staggerings in Vermont, a November fall into the icy, cursed, Little River, sleeping on the porches of empty summer cottages along the Appalachian Trail, encounters with many, many snakes. On Route 3, just as we prepared to turn off onto another dirt road, I saw a moose loping across the road into the woods on the far side. We were pulled over onto the shoulder, and other cars slowed to look.

When we got to my car, he asked if I wanted to go hike Mt. Hale with him, a summit we’ve both, as it turns out, been avoiding or putting off. Reluctantly, I declined, having to get back south for an appointment. He went barreling down the road in his truck while I cautiously picked my way down in my low-slung Prius. I was back home in southern New Hampshire by 11am, unpacking my things and stowing them away. I thought of the solo hiker, a woman, who’d drowned in the Gale River last fall, swept miles down in the rain-bloated current. She was found eventually, after a protracted search, snagged up someplace near where we saw the moose. Maybe she’d have died anyway, even if she’d been with a companion, or a group. But at least someone else would have known where to look for her. Lone hikers lost are found by bands of searchers. Search parties. More eyes to see with.  I went into the woods alone, but when I saw the moose, I had someone to show it to.

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Old hat, new hat

On my way up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight, I stopped at a post office to mail some checks. I’m handling donations to my friend Sarah, who has breast cancer, and we were paying for quotidian things: tax bill, insurance, the will and trust she’d gotten drawn up in advance of her surgery next month. Her cancer is treatable, with a good prognosis overall, but cancer is always an odds game–survivability curves, and you don’t really know where one dot may fall on it. The people who say, “You’re gonna beat this!” are most likely correct. The people who say, “What if the doctors aren’t telling you how bad it is?” don’t understand how law and medicine intersect, but there is something to heed in their pessimism. And in any case, the treatment itself is a hard slog. I dropped the envelope into the mailbox and went on my way to the trailhead.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Climbing up Mt. Whiteface via the Blueberry Ledge Cutoff Trail, I scrabbled up the steep pitches, sometimes on all fours. When the trail leveled, I would pause a moment, look back at the elevation I’d gained, and listen to the drumming of my heartbeat in my ears. This is the way trails are in the Whites; some Yankee came along and said, “Well, what we want is to get from here to there. So let’s draw us a straight line.” There are no switchbacks, no meandering. There is the direct and straightforward route. By about noon, I was near the summit of Whiteface, which isn’t much to look at, being closed in by trees on all sides. I thought about Sarah, and her current reprieve after 12 weeks of chemo, but before the surgery. It’s what counts for freedom these days for her–not being tethered to a bag of chemicals once a week, not being governed by steroid psychosis. Meanwhile, I was free to walk these mountain trails, with a body that does anything I ask it too, and a mind that sometimes does.

I passed a monk in saffron robes and sandals in the col between Whiteface and Mt. Passaconaway. It occurred to me that only he on Earth knew exactly where I was at that moment, and only I him. I began feeling the usual afternoon anxiety of a solo venture–knowing I will soon be done hiking and there will be several hours left before sleep, and I will have nothing to do. That’s not my strong suit, sitting still, but I must challenge myself from time to time. I observed insect lives, and received the chattering abuse of red squirrels. The only words I spoke were occasional expletives or self-compliments on my own camp-making skills. I zipped up my tent door and accidentally snagged a wasp of some kind in it. The back end of its abdomen came off with a tendril of chartreuse slime and those were its guts. When the black flies descended in early evening, I crawled into my tent and read. I’d selected On the Road solely on the basis of its light weight and already bedraggled cover. The flies pelted the sides of the tent like a light, steady rain. Around eight, they left, and I emerged to sit outside for a half hour or so, watching the sky in the balsam smelling air.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

By nine, I began attempting to sleep. It took many tries, and every time I was just about there, I jolted awake, once from a dream that I was fending off a lioness with a whip and a bucket, and once that I was sleeping in my bed at home and couldn’t figure out why it was so uncomfortable, like being on the ground. Each time I woke, the words “You forgot the most important thing!” leapt into my mind. What had I forgotten? I had hung my bear bag unusually well, everything was put away, I’d left my itinerary at home… and still three or four more times I woke up like that. Perhaps it was neglecting to tell my husband to use up the leftover soup in the fridge. There would be no telling him now, fully out of contact as I was. Whatever it was, eventually, I did sleep, waking a bit after dawn. I broke camp and packed my things, and found that Warren Zevon had found his way into my brain, singing only the line, “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less,” over and over.

Making supper by the brook.

Making supper by the brook.

I had decided to take Dicey’s Mill Trail back to my car, even though I’d hiked it just last year and there were other trails I’d have liked to see. The truth was, I’d never entirely given up hope of finding the hat Malcolm left behind by the Wonalancet River almost a year ago. In the interval in between, I’d even considered making the drive to hike back in to look for it, but that seemed silly. Now, here I was anyway and why not? By 7:30 in the morning, I was packed up and headed out of camp and down the trail.

Last year’s campsite was well grown in, I was pleased to see, with beech and hobblebush slowing my travel, but I was at searching speed anyway. I considered how long I should devote to this foolish errand before giving up, and then, looking toward the rocks by the river where the boys had been playing, I spotted a dun-colored shape mashed into a crevice. The red ribbon was faded to gray, and there were holes in the brim and the top and it was dirt caked. Standing there over it, I realized that there had been two opposing thoughts in my head during this entire hike: that I would not find it (of course. How could a thin little hat survive the winds that funnel up these bowls and ridges, the snow we got this winter, the floods that swelled this river when they melted?); and that I would find it (why not? I find weathered human artifacts on the ground all the time that look like they’ve been there eons.) If I’d not found it, I would have at last given it up for lost, after almost a year, and it would have been the reasonable and expected thing. But I would have been pierced through by disappointment, I admit. That meant an almost equal share, or more, of me, expected to find it lying there. Until I did, I held both thoughts in my mind, bracing for one, hoping for the other, entertaining the alternatives.

I pulled it out and shook it and walked back out to the trail and told a man sitting there on a rock with his two well-mannered dogs about the situation, waving the hat at him. He let out a long “wow” and I marched across the birch log that serves as a bridge there.

The seasoned and the new.

The seasoned and the new.

I stopped at a thrift shop on my drive home, and, out of reflex scanned the hats as I’d been doing since we’d lost this one. There, on the rack, was a brilliantly white version of the rumpled, unraveling hat I’d recovered. The ribbon on this one was bright red and blue and the price was $1.99. I bought it, and took both home to Malcolm, picturing the way he’d give his high-pitched giggle.

He’s wearing the new hat today, but seemed reluctant about it. I offered to patch the old one for him, as best I could. He declined. “I love them both,” he told me. “Can we leave the old one the way it is and hang it in my room? And I could make a little tag, like a museum person? A curator?” He’s working on the verbiage now.

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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.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

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.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

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.

15539742431_6d01846359_o-2The 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.

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Mid-week, I headed up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight. It was the first time I’d be backpacking alone in my life, and the first time without children along in two years. I had an idea to head into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and possibly do the Pemi loop, a 31 mile circuit that climbs the spine of Franconia Ridge and the Bonds, with their views, I had been told, unparalleled in the Whites. I got to the trailhead at Lincoln Woods around 10am, and after a brief stop into the Ranger station to talk about bears, headed out on the flat, broad old railroad bed that begins the trip. It was easy striding along the first four miles, but I knew I was settling into a pace that was too fast. Liberated from the excruciating slowness of kids, and also craving the physical anesthetic of exhaustion, I flung myself up Bondcliff Trail. I had some rational reasons: I wanted to get to Guyot campsite by late afternoon, and if thunderstorms were coming, I needed to scramble across the mile and a half of exposed ridge over Bondcliff before they arrived. It was a hot, humid day in the valleys, and a cold front predicted, so the possibility was real, but by the time I came up to the ridge, the sky was blue with only a few innocuous clouds. I had driven myself up through the dank lower woods, speeding past the stream crossings, and now was nauseated and trembling at the top of Bondcliff and I leaned against a rock and sobbed.

I tried to name what it was, and thought of a yoga class I took in vet school, when, at the end of the session, everyone would lie flat in the dark for relaxation. Sometimes, someone would begin crying quietly. Our instructor said it happens all the time–after the exertion, things can come up out of you unexpectedly, if you give them a moment to. My viscous sobs came bubbling up out of me, slumping alone on Bondcliff, and I thought about it. There was the anxiety that had pursued me up the trail, chasing me out here onto the exposed summit with thoughts of the new job I start next week, my son starting his first day of kindergarten, the simple fact that I was eight miles or so from my car and planning to sleep alone out here. I longed for my family, at their schools and jobs at that time of the afternoon, while I stood on this scoured ridge. There was not a soul to be seen in any direction, and mountains ranged on mountains. The flat jut of rocky fist where people stand to have their pictures taken was vacant, and I had no one to take my picture for me. I took its picture, forced down a handful of nuts and strode on, as if this hadn’t been my destination at all.


Bondcliff summit

Crossing the exposed ridge line over to Bond, I passed a pile of fresh bear scat seething with flies. People always mention bears when I say I’m going backpacking. They think of bears, and of rapists or murderers. I worry about more quotidian things–the weather, filling the hours when I’m finished hiking, loneliness. I got to the top of Bond and stood by the cairn feeling another wave of craving set in for my sons, my husband. I have been away from them all for days, a week on end and not felt this urgent need for them. Had I really wanted to, I knew I could have turned around and gone straight back to the car and been home that night. I felt miserable, standing up there, viewing the views unparalleled in the Whites, but I scurried back down below treeline and pressed on for camp.

The view backward from Bond.

The view backward from Bond.

By 3pm, I’d reached Guyot campsite. The caretaker, Justin, was friendly toward my hammock setup and found me a few likely spots to sling my shelter. I set it up, and then went to watch the comings and goings of other campers from the porch of the log shelter. There were the usual solo hikers and pairs set up at the various tent platforms, but three college groups were also staying that night and the cooking area filled up with their giggling and their banged up cauldrons of mac and cheese. I sat up on my perch with the supper I was slowly forcing myself to eat and spoke rarely. I know a lot of backpackers deride the campsites for this reason–so many people packed into one spot, talking, interrupting one’s pensive solitude. But I’d had enough of solitude, and also I appreciate the metal bear boxes for food so I don’t have to spend an hour finding an appropriate tree for hanging my food.

Near sundown, another large group arrived to use the shelter too. The campsite must have been beyond capacity. I headed down to my hammock to read, but got distracted by all the chatter around me. Two guys at the nearest platform talked food, “This one is a sweet, kind of roasty flavor.” “This one is more chickeny-beefy. But we need some fiber. It’s important to have fiber on the trail or you can’t poop.” “Definitely,” said the other, “Have you pooped?” “No,” said the first. “Me neither. I tried. Did you try?” “No,” said the first. And so on. On the other side of me, two college women made up medical facts about exactly how toxic shock syndrome occurs as a result of tampon use. But they spoke with conviction, and that’s more important. There was a 30 something Harvard grad who now builds chairs hiking with his dog, and a middle-aged man talking at two sullen teenagers about water filtration. We were a band of pilgrims in an inane, contemporary Canterbury Tales.


The view from West Bond.

Fortunately, the college students were all so utterly exhausted that within a half hour after sunset, they were asleep. I slept only fitfully, but during one of my dozes, I woke to a guy in one of the college groups moaning in his sleep. He yelled out “No!” a little while after. Then, clear and drawn out, he howled, “Frogs and stones!” None of this bothered me; I was glad to be in this gathering, rather than alone in some narrow berth in the trees the requisite distance from any trail or water. In the morning, I made myself some tea and ate a few handfuls of granola. A French Canadian man sitting on the log next to me farted exuberantly. I was back on the trail by 6:30, headed out to hike West Bond without my pack. I got to the summit to look across to Bondcliff’s ridge and down to the green knit of unbroken trees on all sides below. Fog was closing in–the weather reports had promised that all summits would be “firmly in clouds” today, and I watched, transfixed, as it descended, closing down my vision beyond 100 feet or so. It was the last summit view I would get that day, so I decided to save Franconia Ridge for another time and head home straight down the trail from Galehead Hut a few miles west.

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

I crossed over to South Twin Mountain on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The long corridor of balsam and spruce reminded me of the murky col where I’d read The BFG to the boys on our backpacking trip earlier in the summer. By the time I reached the summit of South Twin, the clouds were opaque and white as a cataract, obliterating anything much more than a few paces away. I barely paused and dropped back down into the trees for Galehead. The hut was empty but for a morose pair of preteen girls bandaging their blisters under the cheerful gaze of their persistently optimistic father. Staying only long enough to eat a quick snack out of the clouds and wind, I headed straight down Twin Brook trail and was quickly leaving behind the boreal forest and grading into paper birch. A stand of hobblebush, already deep red for fall, reminded me of Simon, who, once he learned the low growing habit of the plant, and its notoriety for tripping horses, now blames it every time he falls, even when he’s on a suburban sidewalk or inside the house.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Once I reached Franconia Brook Trail, I made quick time on the flat, easy trail, and traveled the six or so miles back to the trail head without stopping at all. On that stretch, I thought about my sadness up on the Bonds, my anxiety and loneliness. It hadn’t been the distance, or the time away. It hadn’t been missing my younger son’s report of his first day of kindergarten. It wasn’t guilt, or homesickness, or even the exhaustion. It was what I had gone to the wilderness for. I had emerged up above tree line to look out on the immensity of this remote place, terrible in its broad indifference. It is awesome in the traditional sense–unnerving, unsettling, and not always pleasant. I was utterly alone, days or even weeks from rescue had anything gone seriously wrong. It was beautiful in the disturbing way of open water; it leaves a person dwarfed, obscure as any individual tree in the brindled forests on the mountains’ flanks. As the elevation fell away, I felt the pang of leaving the alpine zone behind again and reentering the familiar, comforting northern forests of home. I had not felt comfortable on those mountains, but I had not come for comfort, or ease, or even pleasure. The mountains had done what I had actually needed: to be obliterated, for a little while by their immensity. And if I needed to huddle with a group of strangers for the evening, it was only to recollect myself and do things on a human scale again.

This summer, Malcolm became transfixed by the story of the North Pond Hermit in Maine, who lived alone in the woods for 27 years one pond over from where we rent a cabin each year. The man had walked into the woods when he was twenty and between then and when he was captured and arrested last year for repeated burglaries of nearby homes, he spoke only one word to another soul. I know many backpackers who avoid campsites and huts for the same reason. They seek a solitude that is absolute. Maybe I’m just not as good at being alone with myself yet. Maybe it’ll come. For now, I’m glad of other people, despite the aggravations they come with. I’m not sure I will ever come to a point when I can see something like what there is to see from that ridge, and not long to say to someone else, “Look at that.” Without it, those views have some small measure of hollowness at their core, a little cavitation in the awe. But I would consider myself poor indeed if I did not have people I longed to show it to, and instead, I am rich with them.

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Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

The day after my elder son finished school for the year, we set out for a three day backpacking adventure in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. This is backcountry camping–no shelters, no designated campsites–just find a likely spot and hang the hammocks and make some supper. So we did, following the easy grade of the Dicey’s Mill trail up to the Wonalancet River for our first night. We found a length of rope tied to a tree by some previous unruly campers who had also left scorch marks on the boulders and a wide swath of burnt away vegetation. We tried to tread bit more lightly, and the boys spent a few hours messing about in the river with the rope. We kept the rope, but somehow, Malcolm misplaced his beloved fishing hat, the one that makes him look like a very prematurely retired person. Should you be hiking along Dicey’s Mill Trail and come upon such a hat, with a navy and red band, perhaps you might help it find its way home.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Next day, we headed up the trail for Mount Passaconaway’s summit, but our pace was so slow (the youngest of our party being only five) that I elected to skirt the summit and take the east loop to the Walden Trail instead. We intended to camp wherever we came upon water, and the afternoon wore away as we crossed the waterless, windy ridge and then a sheltered col with a boggy stream where we stopped to snack and for me to read a few chapters of the BFG aloud. We couldn’t camp there, as it would have left us too many miles to cover the next morning when we had an appointment to keep. So we pressed on, and the trail turned into the steep, scrabbling sort of dropping down that make these mountains notorious. Staring down the umpteenth of such stretches, Simon moaned, “Mom, please can you call Mountain Rescue and they can carry me out?” “I can’t,” I told him, “even if we wanted to, my phone can’t communicate with the outside world.” “Mom,” said Malcolm, “We’re in the outside world right now. We’ve been in it since yesterday.” “Oh, yes,” I said, “The inside world then. Civilization. That’s what we can’t reach.” We saw only two other people the whole day: two young Quebecois men, speaking heavily accented English and warning us that the trail was about to get worse. That is when I admit to the feelings of dread that inevitably strike me at some point on a backcountry venture. What if I can’t get them out of here? What if we can’t walk to water before dark? What if, one of these times I am sliding down a rock face or teetering on a ledge, I fall, and crack my skull, and my children circle my insensible body for hours, howling in a literal wilderness? What if I can’t get Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” out of my head this entire trip?

The indignity of sharing a water source with one's little brother.

The indignity of sharing a water source with one’s little brother.

There was howling. There was crying. There was carrying of the younger son. And I could not shake Dreamlover. As we traversed that ridge and descended though, the dynamic between the two brothers and me came clear. When one boy was in a trough of despair, and my spirits tugging down with him, the other would announce, “But I suddenly feel a turbo boost of energy, Mom!” and indeed, Malcolm hauled himself uncomplainingly down some frightening terrain. Then, when he began complaining of blisters, Simon offered to carry his water for him. We made it to the end of the Walden Trail and turned down Old Mast Road, and I dropped my pack and applauded them and nearly cried into their hair with relief. Old Mast Road is an easy stroll, though we did not find the stream indicated on our maps and by the reports of hikers earlier in the season.

The view over to Chocorua.

The view over to Chocorua.

As evening approached, I realized we’d probably be all the way back to our car before we found water, and it was so. A clear, sand bottomed stream came into view two tenths of a mile from the trailhead. Though Malcolm wanted to camp again, I offered a consolation prize of candy and Gatorade at a gas station on the way home. And so it was decided. As we finished the last bit of the walk, Simon, in his piercing, piping voice, yelled, “Another toad!” and something big went crashing off into the underbrush. Then, a few moments later, a young, rangy black bear loped across the trail a hundred yards ahead. We stood there, watching it go, and Malcolm whispered, “In my whole life, that’s the first time I ever saw a bear.”

Would it were so for us all, that we need wait only seven years of a lifetime to see a bear, to cross a ridge with a view to Mount Washington and be alone and away from the “inside world.” I don’t know what possessed me to start coming to the Whites like this; my family never even went camping, let alone backpacking. I suppose it came upon me like the urge to travel the world comes to other people. Whatever it was, it gets more deeply rooted all the time. I still get nervous, and sometimes genuinely scared, but it’s my hope that these trips will seem so normal and routine to my sons that they will feel even more at home out there than I probably ever will, not having been reared in that sort of wildness. So we take these trips, covering six miles in almost ten hours, our progress so slow as to seem imperceptible. I shoulder loads approaching my own body weight to keep their burdens light enough. Sometimes, I long to be able to stride at my own pace, though it’s been so long since I was able to, I’m not sure what it would be. But I remember that these trips are an investment. That one day, they will be bigger than I am, and able to hike fast and carry their own provisions, and I will sometimes long for the feel of my little boy’s weight in my arms, and the stink of him in my nose, and his arms around my neck and his face buried happily against my shoulder as I stagger down the trail. Even the little miseries are fractured with joy.

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