The secret to racing, writes Ross Bentley is “to drive over the limit at times, bring it back, hang it out there, dance with the car at the ragged edge.” I remembered Bentley’s advice a few weeks ago, while watching Top Gun: Maverick, with Tom Cruise as the aging fighter pilot who still feels, after all these years, “a need for speed.” Who still pushes jet aircraft over the limit at times, and people, too.
Later I was sketching out plans for a trip to New Hampshire, when the thought occurred to me — doesn’t everything worthwhile take place at some kind of edge? Call it the ragged edge of reality. A nebulous margin where knowledge gives way to the unknown. Where jolts of pain and pleasure provide intermittent light, like signal flares. Where the way forward, as Emerson wrote, “shall be wholly strange and new.”
In New Hampshire, the edge would lie for me along the White Mountain’s blade-like granite ridgelines, where I would attempt to climb a set of peaks without shoes or food (since that is how my practice works) — and to learn something, possibly, about myself and the world.
But first, before departing on the long drive north, I had some business in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Specifically, I’d volunteered to help out at the Mink Hollow aid station, situated at mile 38.5 of a 54-mile ultramarathon called Manitou’s Revenge, which snakes through some of the toughest terrain in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
It’s mid-morning when I arrive. For the next few hours the volunteers hang out and trade jokes and stories. A little after noon, there’s a hint of motion in the brush. A few seconds later the first runner appears. It’s hot out there, Steve Lange comments — he’s not moving as quickly as he’d like. Volunteers help him refill bottles. He eats something. Takes a salt pill. And disappears again into a green welter of foliage and shadow. Moments later, Ben Nephew hurtles in, shirtless, shaved skull beaded with perspiration — he wants Coke, waves off everything else — and in a flash is back out (he’ll finish in second place behind Steve). Jeff Adams comes striding in to Mink Hollow so quickly, and spends so little time here, that I miss the chance to meet him (he holds the record for the 358-mile Long Path). Aaron Anaya is looking gaunt — visibly red in the face, thick hair drenched — I’ve never seen this former Marine in such condition. Later on he gets a second win and finishes with an excellent time. Tom deHaan is as muscular as a body-builder – he rolls in looking like the Titan Atlas. In 2020 Tom ran 100 miles through the Catskills in under 30 hours. And he’s my age. Whereas Allen Meier is young and looks it — fresh, cheerful, boyish, he seems surprised to be feeling so good, explaining that he started out conservatively, sticking with an older runner. It’s around 5 pm when my friend Raymond Russell appears, relaxed and smiling — he will finish at the exact median of the pack.
My duties at Mink Hollow complete, it’s time to get on the move to my appointment in New Hampshire. I rocket north In my dirty black Jeep, swing across the Hudson River in the vicinity of Troy. Dusk falls. I break for food. Then push east along a winding road into Vermont. A quaint motels slips past, as does a restaurant with outdoors seating and the glimmer of torchlight, and then I’m crossing a river and coasting through a small hamlet where all the lights are out. And while driving I think about Manitou’s Revenge, which I once ran, finishing middle-of-the-pack, an accomplishment I am still quite proud of. I remember steep climbs, thick mist and steady rain, and how the rocks turned slick and treacherous on the descents.
I do love to race. For a moment I think about putting shoes back on running Manitou’s one more time. I’d have a whole year to train. But then I remember my knees, which I strained six months ago running too hard downhill. They’re slowly healing, but they still ache on steeper climbs. The left one in particular.
After motoring north for another hour, I make a final push east through undecipherable darkness. Around midnight I roll in to an undistinguished motor court, which is my final destination, and find they left the light on in my cabin for me.
Osceola and East Osceola
After such a long day, it would have been understandable to sleep in. But not when glorious sunbeams are filtering through the curtains. Suddenly I was awake and in high spirits. The Dunkin Donuts in North Woodstock provided me with a cup of espresso for breakfast, and a few moments later I parked the Jeep and started moving through deep forest. A root-laced path with tumbled rocks and scattered grit took me up. I have some experience hiking barefoot, although that doesn’t mean it’s fast or easy on trails like this. But this morning the path offers nothing insurmountable, provided I step slowly enough and thoughtfully.
Two hours later I’m blinking in bright light. The summit of Osceola is marked by a broad granite shelf whose surface rolls off into space. The sky is blinding. Mountains race to the north, east, and south in parallax ridges shaded blue and gray. I study the route to East Osceola, my next objective. A narrow catwalk ridge plunges into a chasm, then soars back up the mountain’s shoulder. I think about feet and knees and hesitate.
I begin the descent toward East Osceola at a cautious pace, in a matter-of-fact state mind. Where the path works it way down some cliffs, I cross paths with two women coming up, panting with exertion. I grope my way down to the saddle between Osceola and its eastern brother, pad across damp black dirt. And now it’s time for a long climb. But the grade is steady and the trail’s not too bad. It’s on the return when my knees begin to ache. This time it’s the right one in particular. I feel twinges around the edges of the kneecap when I put too much weight on the joint in a flexed position. Or step wrong and jolt it.
I’m mentally prepared to be out all day and into the night (I’ve got a headlamp stowed in my pack with extra batteries) as my next objective, Owls Head, is a 19-mile round trip (the Osceola’s were only 9). Which is a daunting distance without shoes.
Dim morning, rain in the forecast, and once again an espresso from Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. I wince on the gravelly trail (pinpricks underfoot) which leads from the parking lot, but the stones fade out after a mile and now I’m making smoother progress — when suddenly I spot a sign to Black Pond. Yesterday I met a husky bearded young man with colorful tattoo sleeves from wrist to shoulder. When he saw me, he exclaimed “Savage!” Then shared that he’d done three peaks in three days, with which he seemed quite pleased, and when he heard Owls Head was on my list, encouraged me to take a shortcut. This might be it.
I follow the sign onto a path of soft black dirt — and now I’m flying. I pause at Black Pond as rain drops flicker across the surface. The miles pass, the rain intensifies, I shrug it off until clothes are soaked and I’m feeling chilled, and then out comes a goretex jacket.
With one mile left to the summit, the path turns steep. Soon I’m crawling across exposed granite. I place a foot, reach up to grasp a knob, spy a small rock cairn, edge over that way. Now the path moves into forest, but it’s still ascending at a difficult grade and the surface is covered in sand and tumbles of rocky fragments. I plant each foot thoughtfully, not wanting to slip. Not wanting to drag soft wet skin across the grit. Eventually I reach the summit, marked by a pile of rocks, and turn about to descend.
And realize I’ve missed a turn — I’m following a different trail. It’s very steep, just like the ascent, but the surface is black earth, soft and moist. I dig in heels to keep from sliding, place a hand upon the ground for balance. The husky bearded man had also advised me to bypass the slide — perhaps this is the unmarked bushwhack route he was referring to. I ought to verify my location, before wandering off on an unknown trail deep in the wilderness, so many miles from a trailhead. But my phone’s run out of batteries and is recharging. I look around at the wet forest and listen for the sound of water in the valley and with some anxiety press on.
In due course the unmarked path rejoins the main trail, which returns me to the trailhead. I speed back to town and make it there in time for dinner.
North and South Hancock
My knees were fine on the trip to Owls Head. But I woke up the next morning with a knot behind my left shoulder blade. I’d felt it on the drive up and made it worse, I think, by slouching in an uncomfortable chair. Of less consequence — an irritated nerve in my right hip (which came on when I sat all day in an office chair after running intervals at the track). An ache in my left elbow which I felt when grabbing trees to hoist myself up the scrambles (an old injury from too many pull-ups). Some weakness in the right shoulder (swimming? weight-lifting? archery?). Left butt feeling better (proximal hamstring tendinopathy after running hills too hard) but still a little sore nearly eighteen months later. I feel like Tom Cruise’s character Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, when he pushes the throttle, and warning lights start blinking.
The trail to North Hancock is steep, and at the top my right knee starts hurting. It would have been nice to stride out on the lovely soft level trail that leads to South Hancock, but instead I step thoughtfully, focusing on alignment, trying to use just the right combination of muscles.
On the summit of South Hancock, I spot a family of four eating lunch. They’re startled when I noiselessly appear among them. “You didn’t have 360-degree security in place,” I explain, which might have been a cryptic way to introduce myself, but that’s what popped into my head. Debbie and Mike and their teenage sons, Lucas, and Nathan, are working on New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. Their beagle, Buddy, is resting (it’s been a long climb for an animal with short legs). Debbie’s surprised to learn I’ve been hiking all day without shoes. “May I tell you how impressed I am?” she asks, to which I smile and nod, having decided that she is a first-class person.
I leave the family to finish lunch (I’m not carrying food) and head down yet another steep sandy rocky trail. To keep torque off the right knee, I lower myself down each step mainly with my left leg, extending right foot gingerly in search of a soft landing. The family catches me a little later and moves ahead (I hear Buddy baying in the distance). Once back in town, by coincidence, we find ourselves eating dinner at the same restaurant (I hear Buddy baying on the patio). Debbie’s curious about my diet during hikes (she mentions she lost 50 pounds after being diagnosed with fatty liver disease). To which I reply that typically I hike in a fasted state, and then launch into my standard lecture — how it’s important to train the body to burn fat and avoid the dependence on processed carbohydrates, which seems to be pushing people toward metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, etc. She just stares. In surprise I think (although hard to know what she thought as she didn’t say a thing).
A Short Walk in North Woodstock, NH
In his new movie, Tom Cruise pushes a spy plane prototype past its limits and when the aircraft explodes, he parachutes to safety. But Ross Bentley teaches racing in the real world. His advice is to take the car over its limits “some of the time” — and then “to bring it back.” So now I took stock of where I was relative to my ragged edge and decided to take not just one, but two days off for rest. One day to let my knees recover, and one day for a work-related conference call, which didn’t go particularly well, but that’s a different ragged edge and another story.
Rest day number one starts with an espresso from Moon Bakery in North Woodstock plus a ham and cheese croissant. Then I take a stroll through town, first along the grassy lawn of the local school, then into a residential neighborhood on prickly sidewalks, under clear blue sky and broiling sun. Turning a corner, I see what looks like a giant gingerbread house covered in colorful shingles. The lawn is graced with whimsical sculptures and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence through which grow huge rose bushes. The petals are red, white, and pink and give off a wild fruity scent. I see a woman tending to a flower bed and thank her for sharing the lovely roses with passers-by. She explains, “I just like colors.”
Here’s a surprise — another barefoot hiker. I’d made it to the summit of Moosilauke on a splendid morning (and the knees were feeling fine) when just starting the descent, I met Xavier. He got the idea to try hiking barefoot after he learned to make leather moccasins for the winter. I think his logic was, in the summer why bother? A young man, he will soon be flying over these trails, without having to worry about shoes — or knees. Whereas I am turning into an old fool. At the summit, someone shouted at me. Then they pointed to the ground, where my reading glasses lay, having fallen out of a pocket when I stood up.
Next I run into a women with short-cropped auburn hair moving vigorously up the trail — I figure she’s 50 years old. Then Betsy tells me she’s been hiking in the Whites for 70 years.
The trail that takes me down is rockier than the ascent, and I’m moving slowly. Near the trailhead, I step aside for a couple to pass me. I used to be a strong runner, and sometimes I’d fly down the trails to the amazement of passers-by. But in barefoot mode on these rocky trails, everyone is faster than me. This time it’s Grandma and Gramps, with thin white hair, stooped posture, shaky steps, clinking by with trekking poles.
North and South Kinsman
It’s 6:30 am, time to start my final climb, and I’m staring out the windshield into rain as I sip the last of my Dunkin Donuts espresso. The gravelly path is initially unbearable — grit sitting on top of cement. After that, it’s grit and rocks on hard-packed dirt, which is merely antagonizing. I drag myself along in slow motion. Reach a lake. Pass a hut. Move along a ridge and then climb steeply. They’ve bolted wooden steps onto boulders, to keep you from having to crawl on all fours. These are big steps, and the angles are not ideal for my knees. But I make it eventually to North Kinsman, where there’s nothing to see but mist, and then plow ahead toward its southern neighbor.
Up ahead I hear a shout. I recognize the tone (my patience, too, sometimes runs out). A few steps later I catch up to Rush. He’s a heavy-set man waring tan pants (right hip pocket unzipped), green shirt soaked with sweat, a big pack. “I slipped back there,” he explains, then clarifies “I fell.”
The path turns downhill into the saddle between the two peaks, then drops sharply down a granite chute. I inch along the edge, ducking under wispy fir trees, while Rush aims for the middle. He sits down heavily. “I do not bend anymore.” Throws his trekking poles down the rock face. Works his way down slowly, grunting with the effort.
From the thin white straggly hair, I place Rush in his 70s. In between grunts I learn that he completed the Appalachian Trail once before, but was injured. During convalescence he drove out to reach the high points in each of the 48 continental states. Prior to that he was a canoe guide. Now he’s doing the Appalachian Trail again, but this time section-hiking it. When he turns to talk, I see a cut on his forehead.
We reach what appears to be the summit of South Kinsman. But a pile of rocks blocks access to the ledge. This doesn’t look right. I check the navigation app on my phone and see a comment about a false summit. Rush pulls out a paper map. “My son calls me a technological dinosaur,” he admits, but his map corroborates my information — we have another quarter-mile to go. At the summit, finally, I ask what’s next, as his section hike is nearly complete. The answer is, nothing. “That’s it, I’m kaput.”
On the way back the sun finally breaks out. I pause on the narrow summit ledge of North Kinsman and settle down next to a pair of young women deep in conversation who take no notice of an aging barefoot hiker. Across the way, a long ridge with a row of mountains: Lafayette, Liberty, Flume, and others, which I climbed in 2020, incidentally. Below us, Lonesome Lake, which I’d passed on the way up. To the left, the summit of Cannon, marked by a gondola lift with a tall antenna. Cannon was on my list today, but it will have to wait. I am running out of time.
One of the women gestures toward the sky — above us soars a glider. It flashes past. But later it reappears, circling lazily. Another one appears, and now there are two floating in the currents, yawing slightly, drifting.
The long, rocky descent has me stepping carefully on account of feet and knees. A quarter-mile from the parking area, a family stops to wait for a toddler. So I was able, finally, to pass someone on the trail.
New Hampshire has 48 4,000-footers. I’ve completed 36. I like to finish what I start. Maybe in October I will come back here and bag a few more.
But now it’s time to point black Jeep south toward home. I motor through the valley of the Connecticut River, past large red barns and fat cows attentive to the short-cropped grass, everything warmed by the evening’s golden light. Aiming for the racing line through a corner, I swing the wheel and give the Jeep some gas, but the vehicle sags a bit in turns and the sun is in my eyes, so I back off. I climbed eight peaks on this trip and tried to put Bentley Ross’s advice into practice — push forward, back off, keep the objective in your sights, see what you discover. I think of those two gliders drifting over North Kinsman, and it occurs to me that the glider’s journey is destined to end in the depths. But catch the right thermal and you might stay aloft longer than you thought.
I pass the Bennington Battle Monument in southern Vermont standing out in the gathering dusk, dance on down the road into New York, where once again it’s a break for food on the outskirts of Troy, and as I’m eating my hamburger a stratus cloud drifts languidly overhead, tinged salmon and dull purple (reminiscent of an agitated octopus). And then it’s back into the Jeep and into darkness and fog so thick I need to use the windshield wipers.