Family vacation

My brother John has joined us to hike for five days in New Hampshire. He’s the only person from the “outside” to hike with us… and it just so happens he joined us for the hardest part. Right now he’s sleeping. Sore muscles, maybe a baby blister, scratches and bug bites… all healing, I hope, under the mighty, restorative powers of deep sleep. I am impressed that he chose to use a week of his precious vacation time to sweat and haul himself and a bunch of gear around in the clouds. He is uncomplaining (unlike me… how did all the whining end up in my genes?), willing to speak up when he needs a sit-down break, and probably a little shell shocked.

It has been insightful to observe a non thru-hiker out here. One forgets what an odd lifestyle we have evolved into on the trail. For instance: we sit down for a lunch break, and John pulls out his bag of trail mix… and eats it one or two nuts at a time. My usual caloric handfulling method (to say nothing of Zippy’s direct inhalation) seems suddenly barbaric. And for instance: we are reminded that normal trails are made of dirt or pine needles, and are a foot or two wide, and gradually and methodically ascend and descend to their destinations. Here, in the twisty, steep, narrow, devious Whites, John says that his tango lessons have been as influential as his rock climbing lessons.

He’s done very well. He’s no speed demon, but he keeps on…. and I watch the Trail throw him obstacle after obstacle every day, always something new, just like it does with us and with everyone. The trail’s rude introduction to him was a 2200 foot climb up Wildcat Mountain, with the reward of views back to Mount Washington and the Presidential Range from the ski hill up top. Then came the knee-pounding downhills… the (thankfully unfulfilled) threat of rainy and stormy days… scrambling over wet boulders, walking through a path that doubled as a river and sometimes waterfall… easing down slick rock slabs without handhold… and just when the trail finally flattened out for a few miles, a series of rushing, deafening, rocky, deep streams to ford. I hope the feelings of accomplishment, and our slightly dirty company, more than make up for the tribulations he’s borne!

Meanwhile, he keeps walking with us, seven or eight miles a day. He notices veins in rocks, the red color of the tree roots, the small wild plants. He listens to all the birdsongs, and later seeks them out on his phone’s bird identification app, which tweets and chirps as we sit in the shelter and watch the rain fall. He waits for a trail name to attach itself (Bad Swig?). He pitches his new tent, dressed like a skinny ninja in his black Cap 4s. He has the joy of using privies from deluxe to shudder-inducing. He watches four thru-hikers devour a turkey carcass with their fingers. He asks questions. He is quiet. I wonder how he likes it all. I tell him that someday I will ask him to take me camping on his home turf. Then I will do things his way, and live in his terrain. I hope I will be as open to it all.

Thank you, John, and may your toe blister be but a painless memento of your time here with us!

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…