Willie, ever modest, showed me the route he had laid out for our trip in the mountains, and told me he thought the White Mountains were really pretty, so we should probably go there. I told him I was willing to go along with any ideas he had about the trip. So that’s where we ended up going: the White Mountains.
Modest, because the Whites aren’t just really pretty. For anyone, but especially someone like me who’s never before climbed a mountain that had a name, the White Mountains are endlessly new and amazing. We drove—just me and him, since all our other friends couldn’t go at the last minute—and stopped at a parking lot next to the wilderness, outside Lincoln, New Hampshire. With the backpack I’d borrowed from his dad, filled with all sorts of food we’d bought, I left the van behind and we walked off to our big hike.
The trail started off flat and wide. Then, rather suddenly, it turned off up a hill. “I guess this is where we start climbing,” I said. It was. That trail got steeper and steeper. But I wasn’t really conscious that we were climbing a mountain until near the top, when I turned around on a steep part and looked behind me into what was now the open air, and beyond that a wall of mountains, all of them covered with uninterrupted dark green forest. “Whoa, jeez,” I pointed out. Willie said, “Yes: that’s why we’re doing all this hiking.” We kept at it, and thus I made it all the way to the top of my first real mountain, Mount Flume. The summit was made of rocks, all the trees being below us by now. The view was of 360 degrees of forest draped over the mountains around us on all sides, and which all seemed far bigger than I thought they were supposed to be. I stood and enjoyed it and let it seep in.
Then we had to climb another mountain. By now my feet were starting to hurt a little, because I wasn’t wearing shoes. I planned to do the whole 5-day trip barefoot; however, I was coming to appreciate that my feet might be a bit too out of practice, from two months of shoes in the city, to climb up mountain trails made entirely out of shattered rocks. I kept going by walking on the biggest, flattest rocks, but there weren’t too many of those. However, I didn’t give up, and climbed down Flume and up to our next summit, Liberty, all without the shoes. The view from Liberty was about the same and just as fantastic, except that now we could see where we had just been, at the top of Mount Flume.
We camped for the night at the Liberty Springs campground, which was down a steep trail made out of even sharper rocks than usual, but to compensate for that, we got a cold, clear spring right next to our tentsite. Willie and I set up the tent and made dinner with the spring water, and watched the sun go down from a bench on top of a boulder, and then without delay we went to sleep and slept well.
The next day I put on shoes, which turned out to be a very good decision, since the trail didn’t get any friendlier at all to bare skin. If you know me, you probably know that whenever there are big rocks around, I make a point of climbing up them if I possibly can. In most places it’s tacitly forbidden: “You shouldn’t climb those; it’s someone’s property and they won’t want to be liable for the injuries you might get.” Out in the White Mountains, I’ve found the first place I’ve known where it’s not forbidden but rather required. With my shoes on, I was stepping up big boulders; sometimes I had to use my hands; with the added weight of my backpack, the trail was slowly wearing me out, but I was definitely having fun the whole time.
That day was the day we climbed the Franconia Ridge. This is four mountains—Little Haystack, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield—arrayed in a line, and from the top of one to the top of another, the ridge sometimes doesn’t even dip below treeline. That meant great views for us the whole day. At the top of Lafayette, the tallest mountain in our trip at something over 5100 feet, we met some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers coming down from Maine. They asked us if we were thru-hikers, and Willie later told me that the reason so many people asked us that was probably the size of my beard. Their names were Slumberjack and Meatstick. We sat on the mountain, a little ways away from the crowded summit on an outcropping just as good but a little bit lower, and traded stories with them. Willie talked a lot with them about the mountains around here, but I couldn’t really say anything about them, since I didn’t know anything about any of them except the ones I’d climbed so far.
Our campsite was on Garfield, just below our last summit of the day. The cold, fresh spring was farther away that night, but still cold and fresh. We made dinner and set up our tent on a wooden platform with some other hikers who’d been making the same progress as us: a father-son twosome and a guy on a 47-day trip. We gave the latter guy our leftover falafels, since he was hungry from his policy of carrying as little food weight as possible. On the next platform were boys from two different sleepaway camps, with their respective leaders, who had made friends. They were nice girls our age, and one of them was going to play contact and cribbage with us (one a shouted word game, the other obviously cards). But before we could have fun, it rained.
Willie said it was probably the second-worst storm he’d ever weathered in that tent, only beaten by a hailstorm in the Grand Canyon. The rain came down with total abandon, for at least half an hour, but the tent stayed solid. We managed to get to sleep, and the only consequence the rain had on us was that water seeping up through the floor of the tent got my feet wet. (Willie, cannily, put his raincoat under his feet.) In order to achieve that, it had to rain several more times that night, each just as hard as the first.
When we woke up, everything everywhere was wet. We squished around and made our oatmeal and put our soggy tent back into our soggy backpacks. Then we and the rest of the people camping there, including the sodden little boys and our parallel counterparts, squashed back up to the trail. Willie and I got there with no one else around, except the boys, who were going the other way, and so we had to discover all by ourselves that the trail we were to take was down a waterfall. I don’t mean that we had to find the trail at the bottom of a waterfall; I mean that we actually had to climb down the waterfall to keep going. That was a very entertaining start to the morning. And a wet one. The day didn’t get much drier, and we decided to cut out a day of the trip—we were going to go to a place called Thirteen Falls a short ways away, but it seemed a bit too wet and cold to spend a day lounging around and looking at the waterfalls. When we reached the top of South Twin Peak, there was no view through all the fog. The same went for Mount Guyot, but I liked that one anyhow because the landscape on top looked as if it had been transplanted to the Appalachians directly from the Scottish Highlands, all low-growing evergreens and rocky paths across what seemed like a broad flat area that had just been canted a few degrees. We stayed near Guyot that day, in a shelter where we just laid out our sleeping bags and didn’t even take out the tent. We got there early, so I tried foraging, but all I found was wood sorrel. Earlier, on the Franconia Ridge, I had found some nice bunchberries, but no such luck here in this foggy campsite. Willie and I made dinner and played cribbage and I taught him how to say “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg”, the name of a lake in Massachusetts. He relished yelling out “Chaubunagungamaugg!” over and over with total disregard for the possible strange glances from nearby people.
Eventually—actually, early as always—we went to sleep. When we woke up it was still foggy, but it didn’t seem like rain. That day we were due to climb South Bond and Bondcliff. From South Bond we could finally see, all the way down the ridge that led to Bondcliff. Bondcliff was holding a cloud on one side and a clear day on the other; wind rushing in from the clear day just couldn’t shake the cloud that was huddling on the other side. We reached Bondcliff, and I saw that it’s not called cliff for nothing. We took pictures overlooking the sheer drop, and of ourselves looking manly in various ways on the edge, and ate some blueberries growing on the top. To our other side was the immovable cloud.
We kept walking, and after a long time climbing down, we emerged into full sunlight. We also crossed the prettiest stream I think I’ve ever seen, gorged with rain and rushing down a slope that matched every horizontal foot with a vertical one. Logs lay across it and trees disregarded gravity next to the stream up above us. It splashed copiously and made its noise, and I drank from its water, kneeling down so I could finally have the pleasure of knowing what it’s like to drink straight from a freezing-cold crystal-clear mountain stream. I stood there memorizing it for so long that Willie had to snap me out of it and say, “We’ll be crossing this brook three more times.” So we hiked down, passing the brook as it gathered more and more water and finally ended up pouring into the Pemigewasset River along which ran the wide, flat trail that marked the last bit of our trip. We walked down that old railbed, having lunch next to a little tributary before we finally crossed the footbridge over the Pemigewasset and came back out into the parking lot where we’d started, which now looked a lot less exciting, as did everything else outside of the mountains.
I stayed at Willie’s house for three days, in which his family took me to the beach and to Spectacle Island in the Boston harbor. On the last day, we went to Walden Pond. These days it’s a place where people just go for a swim; Willie and I debated whether there was actually a much higher concentration there of people who had read Walden than anywhere else, and Willie argued that there probably wasn’t. Nonetheless, I did stand next to where Thoreau’s cabin was and admire the same view of the pond that he had every day for two years. He had good taste: it’s a tremendously pretty spot.
I ate lots of food from Willie’s family’s delicious garden, and enjoyed myself immensely in the Boston area. Now I’m coming back home, just briefly; I’m writing this on the train. We’ve just finally gotten moving again after spending an hour waiting for a replacement engine after ours blew out. I was looking out at a patch of industry and some plants, but I couldn’t go out and take a breath of fresh air, only sit in this hermetic train and look out the wavy plastic windows. I do enjoy Amtrak, and now we’re moving at a pretty good clip, but I’m looking forward to trains that are a little more open to the elements and offer me a little more freedom. It’s hard to believe the trip I’ve been talking up for so long, and defending to so many people, is coming up so soon. I’ve had one disappointment on it so far—Aaron got a job, so he can’t come—but I’ve still (hopefully) got Keith, and if not him, I’m pursuing other connections, friends of friends of friends and such. In any case, it’s still most of a month away, but it seems like a lot less, and I’m still looking forward to it.
[Note: I didn’t have internet on the train, so I’m posting this the day after I wrote it. After I wrote this, the train piled up a four-hour delay. First, the engine blew out, and we had to sit there on the track with other trains passing us until they could bring us a replacement engine. Then, a while later, the engine blew out again. This time they fixed it instead of replacing it, I think, and it worked now, but it tacked on another hour. Then, just outside Cincinnati, I woke up at 3 a.m. to find out we were stopped; we stayed stopped for another hour and a half or so, waiting for freight congestion to clear up ahead. Finally a single Norfolk Southern train went past us on the other track, and we immediately got our green light and left. Good old Amtrak.]