4000 footers

So Close, and Yet So Far

Thru-hikers are lazy, or so we like to say. Non-hikers often suspect that people who are willing to spend six months of their lives walking from Georgia to Maine will readily walk a few miles into towns along the way, but that is just not the case. We regularly hitchhike a mile or two into town, avoid the shelters that are more than 0.2 miles off the trail, and don’t bother taking the blue-blazed side trails that lead to interesting places. Thru-hikers are often wary of miles that “don’t count” toward the 2100+ miles toward Katahdin.

Familiar with this tendency of ours, I’d made a pact early on in my hiking that I would take blue-blazed routes that were 0.2 miles or less. And, for most of the trail, I adhered to this rule; however, when the footway grew more difficult in the White Mountains, where most of the highlights of the trip were on the AT rather than on side trails, I refrained from taking any blue blazes and just enjoyed the white-blazed journey.

The summit of Mount Moriah is 0.1 mi off the AT.

As a result, though I’d begun working toward hiking all of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers* in 2010 and though the trail passes near the summits of a great many of them, during my 2012 thru-hike, I only hiked the 4000-footers that the trail goes directly over.

Fast-forward two years.

It’s 2014, my AmeriCorps term of service has ended, my Lyme Disease is in remission, and I have two months until my next (short-term) job begins. I decide that there’s no better way to spend two months than hiking and backpacking, so I put my belongings in storage, create my own “Walden on Wheels,” and drive around to trailheads all over northern New England. Of course, during this adventure, I decide to finish hiking New Hampshire’s 4000-footers and realize my folly of two years prior.

Hiking multiple neighboring peaks in one day is easy. Or, at least, as easy as hiking high peaks can be. Neighboring peaks are adjacent prominences on one ridgeline; once a hiker climbs up to a peak, any neighboring summits can generally be reached by ridgewalking, which involves little elevation gain or loss.

While the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains does ascend many ridges, it often skirts neighboring peaks rather than going directly over their summits. For example, while it climbs the Presidential Range, the trail skirts Eisenhower, Monroe, Jefferson, and Adams, running over only Pierce, Washington, and Madison.

In some cases, the AT stays a half-mile or so away from a summit; in other cases, as with Mount Moriah, the AT comes within 0.1 mile of the peak. Because I didn’t take that 0.1-mile side trip during my thru-hike, I hiked 10 miles up and down Mount Moriah this summer.

Not that I’m about to complain about the past couple months. It was one of the greatest summers of my life and probably the most fun. And, that hike up Moriah? It ranks among my very favorite.

View of Presidentials from Moriah

The view of the Presidentials from the summit of Moriah.

*The 4000-footers are the mountains whose summits rise over 4000 feet in elevation. In New Hampshire, there are 48 of them, and many New England hikers engage in “peak-bagging”—that is, hiking all 48. To learn more, click here.

An Origin Story

Two years ago today, I stood atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and ended the journey I’d begun six months earlier in Georgia, a journey that was part of a lifetime of wandering and the kick-off to an era of my life that has been focused on adventuring.

While I don’t intend to retell the highlights of my adventures in chronological order, I think it best to follow Maria von Trapp’s advice here and “start at the very beginning.”  It seems fitting to begin my storytelling efforts with an origin story.

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Me measuring a birch

In the summer of 2010, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in one of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at Hubbard Brook Research Forest in New Hampshire.  Along with 12 other aspiring young scientists, I lived in an old farmhouse in the middle of the woods.  All week long, we spent every day hiking up and down mountains for our various research projects.  And, given that we lived in the forest, when the weekends rolled around, there wasn’t much else to do besides hike.

And hike we did.

Before my time at Hubbard Brook, the only hiking experiences I’d had were those I’d enjoyed as a Girl Scout in coastal Florida.  In my mind, a hike was simply a walk in the woods; I had no awareness that people even hiked mountains besides Everest and the other giants.  And, the bushwacking up muddy slopes that I was doing for my research was not earning this New England version of hiking a warm place in my heart.

Nonetheless, when some of my favorite members of the REU crew decided to hike Welch-Dickey, I decided to come along.  My friends at Hubbard Brook described the hike as “easy, with amazing views,” and I decided to believe them.  I had an amazing time on those little sister mountains and added “hiking” to my favorite activities on Facebook that night.

In the weeks that followed, my friends and I went on increasingly difficult hikes, and I loved each more than the one before.  The hike that changed my life was a peak-bagging hike of Tom, Field, Willey, and Avalon, which are found in the Crawford Notch region of the White Mountains.

The hike was exhausting.  We spent all day climbing up and over Tom and then Field and then Willey and then Field (again) and then Avalon.  The hike was longer and had more elevation gain than anything I’d hiked to that point, and toward the end of the day, I was riding a serious hiker’s high.

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On the summit of Willey

As I stood atop Willey, I noticed that the trail we were on extended beyond the summit.  This amazed me.  I asked where the trail led, and I was (erroneously) told that the trail I saw was the Appalachian Trail and that it continued on to Maine from its start in Georgia.  During much of the remainder of the hike, I was lost in a reverie about how wonderful it would feel to do what I had just spent a day doing every day for six months.  I thought about how much I’d love to spend a whole summer with the Appalachians as my backyard, with the eastern woodlands as my playground.  I imagined climbing peaks to stand above treeline and looking around me to identify those I’d come from and to size up those I’d go over next.  On Mount Willey, I decided that I would hike the Appalachian Trail one day.

 

The view from Avalon

The view from Avalon