Adventures in the Whites

There is so much to say. The White Mountains are supposed to be the hardest miles of the trail. They have been challenging and rewarding. They have been both wild and full of people. And they have been surprisingly kind, weatherwise and otherwise.

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We did 24 miles on our first day, which is an insane distance considering we probably gained (and lost again) at least 8000 vertical feet over that span. It was hot and muggy with a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms, so we rose early and took on a 3.9 mile, 3500 foot climb up Mount Moosilauke. The top was above tree line, windblown and misty and gorgeous. It felt like Ireland (I imagine). Two fighter jets dove and rumbled above.

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(Regarding hot ascents:
Here’s a little hint you surely ought to know:
Horses sweat and men perspire, but ladies only glow.

In which case, I am a horse, Zippy is a lady, and the slick, steep rocks that constitute the trail next to the cascades down the other side of the mountain are, uh, men.)

We went 16 miles before eating lunch: down Moosilauke, and up and over the tedious Mount Wolf. Looking at the sky from the shelter after, it seemed quite fair, so we headed up a third mountain around 4 pm. The ascent was steep, with lots of boulder scrambling that makes a hiker feel tough.

But it’s strange how quickly the sky can change. Just as we were about to summit the first of Mount Kinsman’s twin peaks, a giant gray cloud flew toward our slope, flashing with lightning and rumbling, fast and dark. It was huge and we were specks; its power writhed and wrapped around the mountain, obliterating visibility, frightening me. I shouted to Zippy that I felt bad about summiting now. But it was too steep to retreat. We found a tiny rock outcrop, threw on our rain gear, and hunkered down, not really out of the torrential rain, and waited for the storm to smash into the mountain and, hopefully, pass quickly.

Then the strangest thing. We were deep inside the cloud, but the storm never arrived. It was suddenly silent except for the rain. The action must’ve been below us (and we heard later that it stormed hard in town), but we couldn’t hear or see it. We looked at each other. It was just rain. Better we get up and over this mountain and down to the next shelter now, rather than stay here and get cold. So we ran.

And it was fine. I felt protected, as if by a celestial hand. As if by the prayers of J’s mom, who is very good at that sort of thing. Though I don’t know what to think about the phenomenon, since bad things still happen to people with plenty of prayers behind them. But she was in our thoughts as we scrambled over and down the rocky twin summits.

Afterwards, we did an extra 4 miles to the road, which was a mistake. There is only so much limit-pushing I can handle in one day. It kept sprinkling, the daylight waned, the bridge was washed out, we forded a scary river over slippery rocks. By the end, we were the walking dead, stumbling down an unfamiliar bike trail to meet a shuttle to town, in the pitch black, fog diffusing our headlamp beams, each step powered by nothing but inertia and exhaustion.

I realized at that point that I needed to prioritize self care a bit more. By the time we got down to the valley from the third mountain, my brain was fried. I yearned for an airlift to a beachside resort.

Second best option: we ended up staying in town for a whole day, healing, eating pancakes, sleeping. I swore off the Weather Channel after a ten day forecast consisting only of thunderstorms and torrential downpours melted my spirit, and for no reason, as it turned out to be wrong. (Zippy is now my filter. He tells me only on a need to know basis.)

The rest of the Whites have been wonderful. We have been lucky with fairer weather than often happens here, near Mount Washington, “Home of America’s Worst Weather.” We have avoided hailstones, scuttled across exposed ridges towards rainbows and away from rising gray thunderheads. We have sat on a cloth in the shade of hemlocks and split pitas smeared with strawberry cream cheese. We have stealth camped on secret ridges. We have crawled into our tent, cozy and dry, just as the rain begins to fall.

We have also enjoyed the luxurious but simple backcountry huts between mountains… too pricey to stay in, but often with delicious leftovers the crew is only too willing to give to thru-hikers. These folks carry all the huts’ trash and recycling down from the mountain, and hike back up with up to 100 pounds each of munitions to feed and serve dozens of guests each day. They use old fashioned pack boards, lash their loads to the back, and climb, whatever the weather. One night, Zippy and I showed up at the right hour and were offered a deal: muck out the haunted basement, and we could eat hot soup and fresh bread, and sleep on the floor in the warm dining room, and lounge in the library full of wildlife guidebooks. Deal!

Oh, one last thing… Thanks for the wildflower guesses, everyone. I think that with the help of one of those wildflower guidebooks, it’s been identified: clintonia, aka bluebead lily.

Next time: my brother John joins us for a week. Maybe some great photos from his talented eye…

Squall

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It was not so long after this photo was taken. Roadrunner, Clark Kent, Zippy and I had eaten our lunches while swatting gnats at a shelter just before Tinker Cliffs.  We were full of peanut butter, except for Roadrunner, who is from Germany. (Apparently PB is a uniquely American taste, like Vegamite to Australians.) The day was warm, and we climbed quickly to the ridge. The trail in this section of Virginia has stayed mostly atop ridges, and so has been unexpectedly dramatic, despite relatively low elevations. But this afternoon’s walk would prove to be the most dramatic yet.

It often happens that the sky on one side of a ridge will be robin’s-egg-blue, and on the other side will be hazy or gray. Such was the case that afternoon. To our left, the valley and town below bathed in peaceable sunshine. But to our right, the green hills and blue reservoir were topped by an army of dark clouds, which marched toward our perch at a quick clip. The light on that side was strangely yellow, and a foreboding breeze puffed our sleeves and made goosebumps rise on our right legs and arms.

We’d seen the chance of a storm in the forecast, so we crouched behind a tall, toothlike row of rocks to secure our dry bags and ready our rain gear. One by one, we emerged from the windbreak and darted forward down the trail.

Energy rose in the wind. The high-altitude, intoxicating smell of ozone filled my lungs. For some reason, I welcomed the rain. I had seen the clouds and knew it was coming. I suspected it would be brief, and then it would be gone. Best to accept it, relish it even, and let it go. Why hide? Why shrink? So I kept jumping between the jagged rocks and following white blazes, glancing between footfalls at the incoming spirit to the west.

It did not disappoint. There was no thunder or lightning, but the wild, windy rain was magic. It started with scattered drops and grew to a gusting, symphonic force. It filled the springs from below, the rivers from above, and soaked my right pants leg but left the left side dry, blowing in only from one side. The tiny speck that was me disappeared into the greater force of the front. I was only another mouse or moss or stone, subject and witness, not actor.

And then, the light appeared. Even as the rain hurled down and the gray squall pressed from above, the reservoir and hills below were illuminated. The sun had cut through, and though it was invisible upon the ridge, its light mirrored below. It was the light people see in near-death experiences. It was at once golden and white. It radiated and attracted. It was like a birth canal. And the land looked like Eden, like heaven, like Hawai’i, like the Appalachians before man touched them. We shouted and pointed. I was the happiest mouse or moss or stone. My heart felt as large as the mountain. Something touched me, though I couldn’t say what the message was. It was enough to be there.

The rain blew past and we began to dry off, savoring the glow and dwindling energy. Giant power lines rising from the reservoir’s dam sliced through the woods at intervals, buzzing and humming, and each time we entered one of their clearings, we were given astonishing, if unnatural, views. Roadrunner crowed over a fragment of rainbow, and I knew the storm was past.

We walked down the hill and I felt myself coming down, literally, but also as if from a drug. I felt content, inert, spent. The newly unfolded green leaves canopied over us, bright as the lithe, yellow-eyed snake Roadrunner had spotted across the trail that morning. Like me, the trees were still quivering from the squall.

The reward for a good soaking

imageLook… look! Can you see them from my low-quality cell phone photo? There are now tiny red buds, beginning to open, swaying on the tips of nearly every tree out here. It happened overnight. It was the reward for a good soaking.

Last post, I signed off in the tent awaiting a wave of overnight thunderstorms, after two days of very hot hiking. The storms arrived, breaking the heat wave in typical Southeastern dramatic fashion. Our tent performed valiantly, keeping us mostly dry when the wind changed direction in the wee hours. I didn’t sleep until the storms finished, but reckoned there’s some value in lying down with a serene state of mind. I observed the storms passing overhead. Even a faraway flash of lightning is the most brilliant blaze imaginable in an otherwise black universe.

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep during quieter rains, we broke camp in record time. Rain makes for quick packing. We had thought of everything the previous night… we’d even dug our morning latrine holes pre-rain. (TMI? Sorry.) Oh wait… we didn’t think of quite everything. We’d left a toiletry bag on the ground overnight. After brushing my teeth, I discovered a slimy gray slug taking refuge in my toothbrush holder. Yum!

We hiked in the rain for about three hours. They were more pleasant than you’d imagine. Songbirds sang contentedly. The mist lifted and fell again. And it was not freezing rain. Then we hiked in fog for a few hours. And then, in the early afternoon, the sun burst through the swiftly-moving clouds. The sky turned the cleanest, kindest blue, and the world was reborn. The air was fresh and temperate. It was excellent weather for walking, sitting around between bouts of walking, and walking some more. And those buds! They were there, and now no matter what cold weather may come, they are not withdrawing. They will soon burst into leaf, and we will watch it happen day by day. Birth and death, spring and fall, the cycles inevitable.

We passed another milestone, too: we are now in Virginia! Virginia, as we all know, is for lovers. And so is spring.

 

Limits

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We’re out of North Carolina. That’s the view from our campsite on Doll Flats, just over the Tennessee border, a couple nights ago. It was lovely, obviously. We had just cruised over the Roan Mountain area, a series of balds with views for miles, and had been lucky enough to do it on a sunny, warm afternoon. (We are working on some extremely silly farmer’s tans… even sillier if we get gaiters.) We met Fast Lane, a nomadic trail angel with a trunk full of discounted post-Easter candy, and Pop and Gweem, a local couple on a day hike, whom we hope we are very much like when we’re old. They wrote down our trail names in a tiny spiral notebook.

Lately, it’s been hot. Funny that I left the Trail in freezing rain, six days ago, to attend a wedding, and returned to a few scorchers in the mid 80s. The sun was punishing during afternoon climbs. We don’t yet have leaves overhead, though suddenly there’s been a glorious profusion of wildflowers. Also funny, we did our longest day yet during just such weather: 29 miles. I slept well that night, lulled by white noise from the nearby waterfall.

I won’t lie, my limits are often stretched out here. Not just with mileage. I believe it is mostly good, though not easy. For instance, tonight we are camped in the lee of a ridge, a mile past the shelter. It’s sprinkling. We await the thunderstorm, which will arrive any minute, and if the forecast is correct, will include wind and maybe hail too. The tent is pitched low and tight. We had planned to stay at the shelter, had finished our miles for the day. I had hung the perfect bear line, and was quite proud of it. But J. pointed out that we were completely exposed up there on the mountaintop. The shelter was full and the campsites were all vulnerable. He suggested we walk on as dusk approached, and seek a better place. This rattled several of my limits: to go on when I thought we were done, and to look with no guarantee we would find. J. has an automatic trust that I lack. But he also had the voice of reason in this case, so I plunged ahead with him. And so here we are, cozy and dry so far, and full of Knorr’s Sides Broccoli Alfredo Noodles.

The owl is hooting, time for bed. Time, I hope, to let my limits rest for an hour or eight. Good night!