One of my earliest backpacking trips was in early May of 10th grade, a school-sponsored trip to the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. The highlight was a brutal slog up Mt. Colden, reputed to have staggering views. The only thing staggering about it was me. Ice coated the trails, which were, in fine East coast tradition, mostly rocks and roots. Our guide warned us that conditions were ripe for hypothermia (cool and wet), and the summit was completely socked in. I remember quite clearly, as we ploughed through mud, tripping over rocks, on our descent, that several of us swore we would never.do.this.again.
Yeah…but there’s something addictive about hiking, isn’t there.
A few days ago, my old friend Melissa and I set out for a few days of traversing the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We’d passed this way before, in 1999, with two other friends, during the same first week of July. That trip had been glorious sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. And nearly ten years before that, in 1990, I’d done this same traverse, with two other friends, as a capstone to having hiked the first half of the Long Trail in Vermont. Sunshine, fairies, and choruses of angels, as I recall. I’d been up to the Presidentials two or three other times as well, all of them delightful, thank you very much.
Melissa and I figured this trip would be no different.
After all, there were lupines still in bloom! What could possibly go wrong?
We spent the-night-before-Day-One at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, a facility that hadn’t existed on my previous visits. We stayed in the el cheapo bunkhouse, the little building at the top right, and attended an evening talk by a guy, Mike Matty, who’d trained for climbing Everest on Mt Washington. That was pretty cool. Climbing Everest = not on my bucket list.
Day One. Goal: Mizpah Hut.
A visitor at breakfast the next day. I had my cell phone off to conserve the battery, so the guy who snapped this kindly emailed it to me. This picture makes me miss my dad.
We set out after breakfast in my favorite kind of weather: blue sky, puffy clouds. We got to our destination, Mizpah Hut, in the early afternoon, dropped most of the junk out of our packs, and set out for nearby Mt. Webster.
Glory, glory, glory. The view to the south from our picnic spot on a granite outcrop.
I had also come up to the Whites during grad school for a field studies trip in 2000, so I had me a good time re-acquainting myself with the alpine flora.
I don’t remember my lichens, but one of my classmates from school sure remembers them – he wrote a field guide.
Probably some kind of reindeer lichen.
Ahhh, diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) – a tiny perennial that forms dense mats to cope with harsh conditions above tree line.
In between the granite outcrops, we enjoyed the boreal forest’s teensies: bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)…
…and starflower (Trientalis borealis), among others.
We continued on to the summit of Mt. Webster, to take in the views of the northern range of the Presidentials.
The hump at left is Eisenhower, and just beyond it, the tippy top wreathed in clouds, is Washington. The plan for the week was to get up to just below the summit of Washington on Day Two, and go to the left and out of sight on Day Three. And back down to the road on Day Four.
In the meantime, we alternated between enjoying the views, chatting up our fellow hikers, and taking in the flowers. Our fellow hikers had summited pretty much every mountain within eyesight, after having done the AT (Appalachian Trail) on their honeymoon.
I consoled myself for my comparative inexperience with knowing that hey, I at least I knew the plant life. Here’s Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) still in flower…
…and forming berries.
The fog flirted with the summit of Washington, and I played with the super zoom on the Lumix. That’s the weather station with all attendant paraphernalia.
This is why we hike.
Bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum).
We were serenaded by awesome birdsong.
I can’t figure out who this is. It’s not a chickadee. It’s not a chestnut-sided warbler. Help!
I don’t know who this is, either.
Eventually we made our way back down to Mizpah Hut and settled in to the whole hut scene, in which you befriend your companions, drink copious amounts of hot chocolate, eat til way past full, and adjust your senses to the presence of many, many children. That evening, I flipped through the log book from the summer of 1990, where I found that yes, I had signed in:
6/29/90 Greetings, future historians. The people who wrote in here are REAL, NOW; but dead to you. I must be alive – the black flies tell me I am. We rolled in to the tentsite last night after dark, and depart in the afternoon. Thank you, croo member Dina, for breakfast. Steady-on Sarah B. [for boogie] Bonnie Tom
Day Two. Goal: Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
The next morning, the weather report called for fog, and possible rain showers. There are compensations for iffy weather: for one thing, it’s all the easier to tune in to the ground.
Diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) flowers, having gone to seed.
Cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata) sporting festive raindrop headgear.
This was the scene for much of the day. Those, by the way, are full-grown trees, not wee babies. At this altitude, with the winds and snow and whatnot, they don’t get too tall.
Mountain avens (Geum peckii), found only in the Whites and in Nova Scotia.
Up and up and up, headed towards Lakes of the Clouds.
Through one bonsai landscape after another. Heavenly. This is diapensia.
We arrived at Lakes in the early afternoon, scored our first choice of bunks, and settled in to the hot cocoa scene, hoping that the fog would lift.
It eventually did, and I explored the area for more flower goodness. The summit of Washington is to the right, out of frame.
One of the lakes.
More bunchberry, farther along in the baby-making process.
Cranberry. Vaccinium vitis-idaea
The fog lifted and we got a decent view of the Ammonoosuc Ravine, on the west side of Washington.
I was bummed to notice an increasing amount of crap on my lens.
A late afternoon lightning storm rolled in, followed by a raucous dinner with 90-some other hikers and a glorious sunset.
I found where I’d signed the log my last time through.
July 3, 1999 Happy Birthday, U.S.A.! Happy birthday, Jake! Jake, Liz, Melissa and I are grateful to be here after a hike up from Crawford Notch this morning. Sun and clouds, light and shadow, cool stiff breeze, a gorgeous day overall. I was here 10 years ago but didn’t sign in, so for my next visit – HEY THERE SARAH!
Hey back, Younger Self.
By now, I was feeling somewhat…ripe. Some AT through-hikers entertained us with a show-and-tell of all their gear. They were each carrying half the weight I was carrying. Embarrassing. I contemplated what it must be like to feel as grimy as I was feeling, for six months straight. Hmmm. Everest is a clear out, but I might be able to adjust to constant stickiness.
Day Three. Goal: Madison Springs Hut.
This day was to be our longest. Presumably the sun rose. Nobody saw it, but it must have happened because it got light out.
We loaded up our packs and commenced an eight hour slog over wet rocks in fog, making our way from one cairn to the next.
8:47 am. Fog, fog, fog. Drizzle, drizzle, drizzle. This was Full Battle Regalia weather – full-on rain gear required, unless you want to court hypothermia.
10:21 am. The fog lifted just enough for this epic view down the Ammonoosuc Ravine. Tip: don’t stray from the path, unless you want to lose a battle with gravity. We ran into other hikers: some, way more studly than us, wearing shorts and no raingear, but moving quickly and efficiently. Others, wearing jeans or cotton shorts: a sure-fire recipe for bad consequences.
Four and a half long hours later, we were still at it. There was no point summiting the intervening peaks (Clay, Jefferson) because there would have been no view. But after Jefferson, the clouds lifted for a few minutes and we got a quick glimpse of Vistas.
By now, I was living the story from Arnold Lobel’s “Mouse Tales”, where the mouse goes to visit his mom, and he wears out his car, his boots, his roller skates, and his sneakers. Finally, he resorts to getting an entire new pair of feet to complete his journey. That story struck me as damn funny when I was seven, but less so now. Walking on rocks all day tires a girl out.
We got a glimpse of the auto road snaking its way up the back of Mt Washington, and then another bank of clouds rolled in and we scurried along ahead of it. The through-hikers from the previous evening practically sprinted by us at this point.
We’d spent the better part of the day cheering ourselves up at the thought that things could be worse: it could be raining harder, it could be way the F colder, the rocks weren’t as slippery as they were earlier today, hiking is grand no matter the weather, et cetera.
We were still secretly relieved and delighted when the clouds opened up and we got a sense of where we were. This is Kings Ravine.
Finally, finally, finally, we glimpsed Madison Springs Hut nestled between Mt Adams and Mt Madison.
Madison Hut was completely deeee-luxe, having been rebuilt in 2010-11: shiny clean triple-decker bunks, with reading lights and plenty of hooks from which to hang our increasingly stinky gear.
Day Four. Goal: pavement.
Naturally, our final morning, the day we were to hike out, looked like this:
skipped staggered down the trail, at times right next to a babbling brook.
That’s water sheeting over a slab of granite.
At the bottom of the trail, we waited for our shuttle ride back to Crawford Notch, where Melissa’s car was parked. I got all gleeful at the sight of Canada mayflower in full-on berry mode. The speckly look is just like false Solomon’s seal. Best of all, on the hour-long ride back, I learned that the folks behind me on the bus were both plant people – a horticulturalist and a perennial nursery staffer. Awesome! We geeked out together, and I learned that there is actually a difference between brown-eyed susan and black-eyed susan, and I’d better clean up my act and not use those names interchangeably.
Anyhoo. Why DO we love the things we love?
Whether it’s sunny and I’m all clean and sweet-smelling…
…or stinky and bedraggled…being outside is being outside. It makes for a happy camper. As an AT section hiker observed of me and Melissa, whenever he saw us, we were always smiling. “But I’m always bitching about how much my feet hurt!” I protested. He replied, “but you’re smiling. It’s not a complaint if you’re smiling. It’s just an observation.”