Having climbed the Catskills multiple times over, and having bagged the Adirondacks’ 46 high peaks, I am now slowly making my way through the next regional list — New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers, of which there are 48. Slowly, on account of the 5-6 hour drive to get there — and sometimes longer, as bumps in the road tend to knock the power cord out of my phone, which I notice at those inopportune times when I really need Google Maps. And slowly on account of the rough trails — steep, full of chunky rocks, dotted with mud pits, laced with roots — and my practice of going barefoot. Did I mention acorns?
This is the account of my latest trip — bagging 6 more peaks on a 20-mile trail over three rainy days.
Just getting to New Hampshire from my location in New York is like a military operation, with extensive logistics and planning — coordinating calendars, figuring out routes and where to park, reserving motels and shuttle bus rides, packing gear, buying food, checking the forecast. I head out Thursday evening after work, aiming for a half-way point in Vermont. Nearing the destination, I see my phone cable has fallen out — power is down to 2% — so I opt to follow signs (they lead me astray). A quick peak at the screen (power now 1%) gets me back on track, and I pull into the Super 8 motel parking lot just as the phone dies.
The next morning I’m on the move before dawn. No breakfast (the local diner doesn’t open until 7). Two hours later, I pull into Gorham, New Hampshire, where I find a coffee shop with good espresso. Then it’s time to settle onto a sofa in the basement of the next motel (my room’s not ready until the afternoon) to work remotely for the day. New Hampshire is a colorful place, where people are not afraid to express their point of view. On the way to Gorham I passed a small home with a prominent banner staked out on the lawn — “F*ck Joe Biden.” (By the way, I have lots of friends who talked that way about Trump.) Then another banner — “And F*ck You for voting for him.”
Saturday, 9:30 am — I walk one mile to the bus stop, wait twenty minutes, board the AMC shuttle. A short time later, I’m deposited at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Inside, the staff advises me to avoid the Wildcat trail, which is slippery in the rain and steep (“you have to use your hands”). I thank the man for the advice, which I reject. I’ve been to New Hampshire before and know what wet granite feels like.
I cross the road, find the trailhead, take off my shoes, head out. Across the way, a steep slope that leads up eventually to Mt. Washington. Green forest spattered with yellow. Fog shrouds the heights. The weather forecast called for light rain today. And light rain tomorrow. And the next day.
The trail passes a pond, turns west and heads up the mountain. Straight up. My first objective, Wildcat D, lies 2.0 miles away and 2,000 feet above. That’s an average grade of 20%. But the first half-mile is a veritable rock staircase — the average grade in this section is 38%. And here’s a scramble up an exposed slab with a narrow slot for your feet. Two young friends stand at the top, while a woman down below is hesitating. “You go first” she says. “Show us the barefoot way.” From the top I pause to offer some encouragement and then head off on my way.
I’m making good progress on the damp rock staircase, and actually my feet are fine — it’s my knees I’m paying attention to. It takes big steps to get up these rough granite blocks. My right knee starts complaining, so I watch alignment (use those glutes) and take smaller steps where feasible.
Just before Wildcat D, I spot a group of four or five standing in the woods — one looks at me and comments, “that’s bad-ass” — and a few steps later, there’s a ski-lift looming in the mist, gondola cars rumbling through.
I cross two more bumps on the ridge — Peak C and Peak B — before reaching Wildcat Mountain. There’s no view but dense gray, so I keep moving along, conscious of the 1,200-foot descent into Carter Notch which is waiting for me (25% grade). A rude stone staircase, fashioned out of irregular blocks, leads down into banks of fog. But some art must have gone into the stonework, because the steps are spaced apart just right. I move briskly.
I reach the Notch. Mountain shoulders on either side guard two small lakes. The surrounding fir-spruce forest is dotted with yellowing beech. Up above, hidden in the clouds, is Wildcat Mountain. I encounter a group of hikers standing at a junction. A young man wearing a Boston Marathon cap asks about my practice. A young woman cries, “I want to try that.” I nod my head — “Try it for 100 yards. See what happens. See what you learn.”
A few steps later, I reach the door of Carter Notch Hut, which opens into a small room, warm, dry, well-lit, and filled with a lively crowd. The caretaker, Brian, takes my credit card. I see he is reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The author Robert Pirsig wrote of technology as a “death force,” which was a common theme in the 1970s. Today we embrace technology as if it were religion. Brian has read only the first 20 pages, but he’s a fan of Edward Abbey, the self-proclaimed redneck anarchist and monkey-wrencher, so I think he gets my drift.
I fix a cup of tea and settle on a bench. A young man named Earl joins me, hands me a sticker advertising his cause. I learn that he left home at age 14. Joined the Army as an infantry officer. Became Airborne and Ranger qualified. Led a scout platoon in combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Left the service, got a law degree at Emory, and is now a corporate attorney — but he’s taking time off from his job to hike the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of veteran suicide (the full story is at www.son.vet).
A woman comes over, wants to know my story. I explain I’m working on New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. She nods, then quickly changings topics, wants to know if I’m vaccinated. This question takes me by surprise. “That’s none of your business!” As someone who’s against mandates and bullying, I’ve decided not to share my vaccination status except with close family members. An argument ensues. She’s a healthcare worker. She trusts the government. I have evidently been taken in by conspiracy theories. A second woman joins the fray. Halal is a neuroscientist born in Turkey. She has had COVID, and she has also received the vaccine, but describes herself as anti-mandate. She, too, harbors concerns about the motivation of pharmaceutical companies. And about doctors’ judgment (mentioning an ailment and how she’s had to see five different doctors). Here’s the problem, I explain, look at modern people — so many of our contemporaries are overweight, unhealthy, decrepit. They don’t care about their bodies. Nature means nothing to them. Instead of cultivating strength, they want a magic pill to cure their ailments, or a jab.
I explain that some scientists are concerned that the vaccinated may become asymptomatic super-spreaders. As I head off to my bunk, it occurs to me that these people have been breathing in my face all evening.
Sunday morning I’m the first one up. I say good morning to Earl, wish him luck with his mission, and disappear out the door, for a long day and a lot of work awaits me. First there’s a steep climb to Carter Dome. Then a steep descent into a saddle, and then a steep climb to Hight Mountain. And then up and down South, Middle, and North Carter. What I remember now (all the peaks having blurred together) is marching all day through boreal forest. Tangled spruce and fir, sprouting from the steeply-angled slopes. Lush lime-green moss covering the lumpy ground and wood debris. Tree trunks festooned with hanging beards (a type of lichen). Other lichens adorning branches with hammered plates, tangles of ghost antler, puffs of silver and pale green — and tiny pixie cups with red fruiting bodies sprouting around the rims. And mushrooms, sprouting from the leaves and decaying wood — I am a visitor moving through their world. Orange, yellow, brown, black, and slick ghoulish white — the colors of Halloween.
The forest is silent. Then a raven calls. There’s a rush of wind, and a few drops fall.
I walk along the rough trails, patient on the steep climbs and descents, mindful of my knees. My feet sink into mud. I step onto granite blocks with rough wavy ridges or pock-marked textures or sometimes embedded quartz crystals, but my soles are like rubber tires — as long as I don’t slip or skid or scuff, they adapt themselves to the irregular surfaces without complaint. Mica chips dot the trail. I notice red stems lying on the black earth. And small red leaflets with serrated margins. These are from mountain ash, a small tree and member of the rose family. In 2018 there was a bumper crop of mountain ash berries in the Catskills and Adirondacks. You couldn’t take a picture of the peaks without red clusters hanging in the foreground. I ate them by the handful, the tart taste perking me up, as if each small fruit had enough vitamin C to last a lifetime. But since 2018, I’ve hardly seen a single berry.
I finally reach Imp Campsite. It’s been a long day. Barefoot is not fast on these rough trails — it’s taken me 9 hours to go 7.5 miles. I set up camp in the rain. I heat water for tea and a dehydrated meal, being careful not to catch the tent fabric in the flame. It rains all night. The wind picks up, and I shiver in my bag.
It’s still raining the next morning as I’m packing up. There’s a final climb to Mount Moriah. Then a long descent to the town of Gorham, 3,000 feet below. It’s slow work. The rough granite is starting to scratch my feet. The pain is a signal to slow down and step more carefully. Yet my knees are feeling better. My pack rides easily. A Goretex shell keeps out the rain. I cross long exposed slabs, admire the bright puffy clumps of reindeer lichen, so springy underfoot, mixed with berry heather turning bronze, and sprigs of fir or yew. The grade eases as the trail nears the end. Red and sugar maple leaves lie upon the damp earth, flashing like rubies. Then it’s into piles of beech nut husks and acorns. So I walk on the trail’s outside edge, where the ground is soft, but I leave no prints. The fog breaks. The town of Gorham appears and mountains to the north and west. The sounds of traffic echoes in the trees.
The hike ends at a trailhead in Gorham. With 6 more peaks bagged, the count is now 28 out of New Hampshire’s 48. I put on my shoes, step onto the road, walk back to where my Jeep is waiting. And now it’s time for the long drive home.
But first I have to check out a coffee shop called Dermody Road, which Earl described as offering excellent espresso, although he thought its ambiance was peculiar. Brian, the caretaker, agreed, called it the most pretentious place in town. Indeed, I found the place was full of creepy art, including a painting of four masked villains from popular horror films, the canvass spattered suggestively, with the following text — “Put your mask on, we’re going killing.” Then I noticed sitting at a table an older man sporting a handlebar mustache and goatee, wearing a veteran cap (U.S. Marines), and carrying a small 9 mm automatic on his belt. New Hampshire is an open carry state. No permit required.
On the long drive back to New York, where people don’t carry guns or joke about masks, I thought about this New Hampshire weekend — the rugged trails, the beautiful forests, and the interesting people who aren’t afraid of what you think — and tried (unsuccessfully) to keep my phone cord plugged in.
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