Updated: Dec 15, 2020
I enjoy hiking, especially New Hampshire's "4,000-footers". Many individuals strive to check off all 48 in their lifetimes - some in a decade, some in a year. I, on the other hand, am taking my sweet time. Before last week I had only done 9 (8 in the last two years). My personal reasons for hiking are as follows:
2) Sense of accomplishment
3) Solitude or companionship (depending on the day)
5) To check mountains off a list
In other words, I'd rather hike a 900-foot bump with a stunning view than a 4,500' mountain without one. Quality over quantity. As the hot mess that is 2020 saw September roll into October, I still hadn't "bagged" a taller peak. With the weather looking good on October 9, I knew I had one final chance.
Unfortunately my usual hiking pal couldn't make it, so I knew I'd be going it alone. I packed up and headed to Mt. Whiteface, one of the shorter 4,000-footers.
October driving in New Hampshire is a visual delight, with brilliant gold, orange, and auburn flanking nearly every roadside. Early morning driving turns beauty into utter magnificence. At one point, alone behind the wheel, I just whispered 'wow!' The scene to my right was magnetic, seemingly pulling the car over by itself. Steam rose lazily off Little Squam Lake's glassy surface. A lonely boat floated to the left. Several cars whooshed by at 50mph behind me, adding a sense of realism to the masterpiece before me.
I then motored past otherwise humble settings that, in their fall finery, would make postcards jealous. The town of Sandwich was particularly appealing, a folk art tableau come to life. Sometimes the most beautiful scenes are right in front of us if only we look hard enough. They might even appear ordinary at first.
I arrived at the very crowded Ferncroft parking lot at 8:15. Temperature: 32 degrees F. The sun was shining though, and I knew I'd be working up some heat.
The beginning of the trek was deceptively easy - really more like a walk in the woods. I like when hikes start this way - gives my old bones a chance to ease into things. The foliage was stunning, and there was a calmness to the air that was enhanced by the cool, colorful surroundings.
Making my way up was a treat until the trail markings began to fall short of helpful. At one point I was as confused as I've ever been in the woods; at an intersection where neither choice was marked, I pondered for 5-10 minutes then decided the safest thing to do would be to backtrack to the last trail junction. After a bit of backtracking, I saw another couple on what looked to be the proper path and decided to follow them.
The same thing happened again, perhaps 45 minutes later. As if I needed further proof that a higher power was looking out for me, I got it - twice in a row. Cliché as it may sound, hiking symbolizes life in so many ways. Sometimes just when you're most lost, a friend comes along to help point out what was there the whole time. The journey is tough, but with perseverance comes great contentment - and sometimes magnificent views.
2/3 of the way up, gasping for breath and legs burning, I began to take breaks more frequently - like every 5 minutes. My unprepared muscles were giving up. The last 800 vertical feet or so were going to be tough. Patches of ice began to appear on the rocks beneath my fatigued feet. One step at a time. You got this, old man.
Views started opening up, which somehow filled my tank just enough to keep going. Mount Washington loomed on the horizon, snow-battered and merciless. Agiocochook, king of the northeastern US.
I scaled a few more rock faces, willing my spent muscles forward and fantasizing of the hot egg sandwich that awaited me at Dunkin several hours hence. Maple bacon. Everything bagel. Flavored coffee. A few munchkins perhaps. Mmmm-mmm.
Finally the last turn, and the bare, windswept summit appeared. There were a handful of fellow hikers taking a short rest, but no one lingered long. The sun was warm, but I would guess it was only 40-45 degrees with winds gusting at 15-25 mph.
I stood looking south toward the distant Lakes Region. The scene below was unspoiled by humankind, scarcely changed in thousands of years. Extraordinary. Momentarily proud of having persevered, I suddenly craved great quantities of food. I greedily consumed nearly everything my backpack and lamented not bringing a lunch, as it was now about 11:30 and I still had the return to that tiny green field (you can see it about 3/4 of the way to the right on the panorama above) where my speck of a car was parked.
The downward trek was uneventful until the end, when the scene went from ho-hum to spectacular as the trail came alongside the sublime Wonalancet River. The gently gurgling waterway was framed by so much vibrant foliage that despite my hunger and desire to get back to civilization, I kept stopping to take more photos. The word 'magical' escaped my lips in an incredulous whisper.
I cannot stress enough how little justice these photos do. I literally felt like I was in an adventure movie, alone, the very air around me glowing gold. It was a fantasy scene come to life, but here it was, right in front of me.
The peace and tranquility were so powerful that I struggled to resist tearing up. Not another soul around - what could I have possibly done to deserve such a reward? Spiritually overwhelmed, I reluctantly hiked on, conscious of the fact that sometimes the grandest beauty is the most short-lived and must be savored like a precious morsel of food. I was out of the forest and back to reality 15 minutes later.
As silly as it may sound, the experiences of the day had overpowered me. To keep them internalized seemed selfish; I needed to share them with someone, hence this post. Perhaps I've been able to do them a modicum of justice.
Next time you're in north central New Hampshire in the fall, I truly hope you will experience the deep peace I felt on October 9, 2020 - but don't forget to stop for a hot sandwich at the end of the day. Heavenly.
My 4,000-footer list:
1) Cannon Mountain (8/18/06)
2) Mount Osceola (5/25/18)
3) East Osceola (5/25/18)
4) Mount Moosilauke (6/29/18)
5) Mount Jackson (9/14/18)
6) North Kinsman (9/13/19)
7) South Kinsman (9/13/19)
8) Mount Monroe (9/25/19)
9) Mount Washington* (9/25/19)
10) Mount Whiteface (10/9/20)
11-48) Forthcoming (?)
As you can see, I did very little hiking from 2007-17, but rediscovered the thrill in 2018. The hikes I did in "the lost years" were sporadic and less challenging.
*I also did Washington as an ~18 year old, technically my first 4,000-footer. However, due to inclement weather we took a van down from the summit, hence why I don't count this one on the list.