In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight. I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.
A few nights ago, before embarking on a cross country road trip and going AWOL from the blogosphere for a couple days, I wrote about my unsuccessful attempts to summit Vermont’s high point, Mount Mansfield. Last Sunday, the Fates smiled upon me, and I reached the summit in one of my favorite day-hiking expeditions of all time.
I don’t know exactly what it was about last week’s hike that left me so high on life. The day wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for a hike: The sky was ominously cloudy, and the wind chills in the mountains were in the single digits above zero. As I was driving to the trailhead in Underhill State Park, the sky was spitting snow, and the road up to the trailhead was covered by a dusting of powder.
A Southerner who’d considered herself a fair weather hiker until this autumn, I seriously considered just heading home without trying to hike. However, when I got enough traction on Mountain Road to drive to the gate, I decided I’d give it a try, resolving to head back down the mountain after a short hike. Basically, I just wanted to try out the Kathoola microspikes the mountain had inspired me to purchase the day before.
I set off around 9:45 and soon, as I always do, found myself deeply content walking in the woods. The snow was falling gently around me, and the branches of the evergreens, blanketed by white powder, hung with heaviness.
Yet again, I took the Eagle Cut-off Trail up to Sunset Ridge Trail and signed in, still assuming that I’d only hike for a couple hours. Yet again, I crossed the footbridges near the trail head. Yet again, I climbed nearer the ridge line.
This time, however, when I came to the first of several wide swaths of icy terrain, I donned my microspikes. Sure, the contrast between them and my lightweight Salomon trail shoes was amusing, but it was love at first crunch. Instantly, ice was transformed from a beautiful but potentially hazardous trail decoration to a surface that was actually fun to walk on.
I marched onward toward the krummoltz and considered, for the first time since getting out of my car, to attempt the summit that day. Alone on the mountain, listening to the wind whistling through the trees and leaving the first footprints in the snow, I resolved to go as far as I felt comfortable and to turn around if following the trail, staying warm, or remaining upright became beyond reasonably difficult.
Happily, I never reached that threshold.
From the top of the treeline to the top of Mansfield’s Chin is roughly one mile. In the winter, what in the summer would be a great opportunity to catch a suntan becomes a bit more treacherous. However, I carefully followed the small mountaintop cairns and occasional blue blazes on rocks that the fierce wind had exposed. Some of the snowdrifts the winds created were nearly knee-deep; in other places, I walked on bare rock. Adding layers before I thought they were necessary, I never let myself become chilled, and only my eyes were exposed by the time I got to the summit. The few blonde hairs that had freed themselves from my hat and balaclava froze stiff from the cold.
Rounding the corner of the spur trail to the peak and climbing the final hundred yards to the summit felt incredible. Alone in a snow-covered wilderness, higher than any surrounding mountain, I seemed to be on top of the world. Up that high, I could discern a distant break in the clouds, and the low winter sunlight that shined through tinted the furthest reaches of the clouds pink. I spun around, taking in the panorama, awestruck.
And, then it was time to descend to the safety of treeline.
Over the last couple Thursdays, I’ve recounted the beginning of a hitchhiking voyage across New England. By being willing to change our plans and experience whatever came our way, my partner and I ended up at a commune in eastern Massachusetts before we resumed our northward journey.
Before setting out on our adventure, Quiver and I had decided that we wanted to spend some time in the White Mountains again, and the best time to make that happen was after leaving the commune. Therefore, we pointed our thumbs toward Gorham, NH, and headed to Pinkham Notch and Mount Washington.
We ascended Mount Washington via Huntington Ravine, the infamous trail that I love too much. On the way down the mountain, we saw a moose trailside — the first (and, thus far, only) moose I’d seen in my life! If that wasn’t enough, as I was coming out of the restroom at the trailhead, I ran into Sunbeam, a woman who tends to spend as much time in these woods as I do. Quiver and I had hiked near her for several days in 2012, and we’d all stayed at Kincora (arguably the best hostel on the trail) together. It was so fun to see her again!
Sunbeam informed us that she was working in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s High Huts and that, in keeping with the theme of serendipity, none other than Gluten Puff, one of Quiver and my favorite 2012 thru-hikers, was working in Greenleaf Hut that summer. And, with that and hugs goodbye, we headed to Franconia Notch.
The most direct route to Greenleaf Hut is the Old Bridle Path, a trail that climbs from the Franconia Notch Parkway (where US-3 and I-93 coexist). In getting there, Quiver and I hitched a ride in a police car. Seriously. (But, that’s a story for another day.)
Walking into Greenleaf Hut and completely surprising Gluten Puff was a blast. Quiver and I had had these grand hopes of hiking our beloved Franconia Ridge after a short chat with Gluten Puff, but the conversation was so enjoyable that neither of us wanted to leave. Besides, one of the most important take-aways from all the traveling I’ve done is that (apart from the Old Man in the Mountain) beautiful places are much more stationary and long-lasting than people; while seeing beautiful places is exciting and worthwhile, it’s also important to take advantage of the time we have with friends and family. And so, Quiver and I spent a gorgeous summer day inside a hut on the shoulder of Mount Lafayette, talking with a special trail friend until lengthening shadows forced us back down the mountain.
From Franconia Notch, we hitchhiked to Burlington, VT, where (after swimming/bathing in Lake Champlain) I caught up with and introduced Quiver to Monica, a friend of mine from college. After a wonderful night near a vineyard somewhere south of Burlington, we headed down Route 7 to Williamstown, MA (where we’d been just a few weeks earlier to hike Greylock), and then back to central Massachusetts along the Mohawk Trail (a highway).
As dusk was fading on the night before the day of Quiver’s flight out of Portland, ME, we seemed to be stuck 12 miles or so from my car. Just as we were on the verge of making camp, a petite Asian American woman pulled up beside us and, in broken English, invited us into her car. While her home was on the way to mine, she decided to take us all the way back to my place, and we arrived home just as darkness fell in earnest.
(One year later, I had the opportunity to thank that final driver when her name appeared on a sign-in sheet/mailing list from a project another AmeriCorps member had hosted. She seemed as astonished as I was at our reconnecting. Talk about a small world!)
The next day’s drive to the airport was uneventful but bittersweet. The weeks of intentional spontaneity, of mountains, of community, of old friends and new, had come to an end. I worked to cherish the memories and not cry because it was over but, rather, smile because it had happened.