Whimsy in the White Mountains

August 11, 2017

This morning, Jay faced me as we packed up.  “What do you want to do?”  he asked.

I knew he was referring to yesterday’s panic on the mountain.  I knew I didn’t have to continue.  But if I stopped, I would give up the dream of this grand adventure.  Somehow, during the night, my decision had been made.  “I want to keep hiking.”  My voice sounded strong and sure.  “I might get scared again.”  My voice began to waver.  “But I think I can do this.  I really appreciate all your help yesterday.  If I keep hiking, maybe eventually I can conquer this fear!”

The trail led over Mt. Jefferson, past Mt. Clay, and up Mt. Washington, tallest mountain on the northern half of the Appalachian Trail.  I was delighted to see that for many portions of the trail today, someone had made an effort to change tumbled rocks into a path.  Numerous rocks had been moved, turned so the flat side was facing up, making steps and smooth tread.

Last night a thunderstorm had come through, and today the rocks were a bit wet, as well as the air around us.  Fog swirled, constantly playing peek-a-boo with sun and mountain peaks.  It cheered me, to see the playfulness of the weather!


*   *   *   *    *

As we hiked this morning, we met two hikers coming from the Madison Spring Hut.  “Were you outside during the storm last night?” one asked me.

‘Outside?’ I thought.  ‘Who would be silly enough to be outside in the night during a thunderstorm on a mountain?’

“Well, no, I was inside my tent,” I told the man.

The hiker waved impatiently.  “That’s what I meant.  Not in the Hut.  Outside.”

“Did the thunderstorm keep y’all up?” I asked.

“Yes, what a show!  We watched the lightning crackle over the mountain!  It was great … at least from the inside of a building.”  The man grinned with enthusiasm.

“I must admit, I watched the lightning from the inside of my eyelids,” I laughed.  “That was show enough for me!”

*   *    *    *    *

Later in the day, as we were climbing Mt. Washington, we met a group of young people shepherded by one adult.  Intrigued, I asked one of the teens, “What group is this?”

“Oh, we’re a Christian academy,” the boy answered cheerfully.

‘Wow!’ I thought.  ‘That is cool, a school that takes their students out hiking!  I wonder what academy it is?’

When the chaperone approached, I asked, “What religious affiliation are you all?”  The man looked confused.  I explained, “The student ahead said you were a Christian academy.”

The man laughed.  “Oh, he’s always joking.  We’re just a group of friends out hiking for the day.”

Just then the boy called back, “Come on ‘Father Paul’.  Don’t get too far behind us!”

“Shut up, you scalawag!” the man yelled.  “I told her the truth!”

I doubled over in laughter as the man passed me, still talking to the boy.  What fun!

August 13, 2017

This morning we saw Sasha and Dragonfly after several days of trailing behind them.  As we greeted them, Sasha informed us, “Dragonfly has been renamed to Firefly!”

“Oh?” I asked.  “How did that happen?”

“Well, when a hiker comes dragging into Lake of the Clouds Hut after climbing Mt Washington in the dark, we figure she’s really a firefly in disguise!”

*    *    *    *    *

Lunch time near Ethan Pond turns into a siesta.  It feels so good to just sit and rest, soaking in the warm sunshine!  As we finally marshal our forces to leave, I notice a spider spinning a web between my legs!  Jay laughs.  “You know you’ve had a long lunch when a spider manages to attach a web to your knees!”

*    *    *   *    *

There is actually a section of flat trail in the White Mountains!  Four miles of lovely trail lie between Ethan Pond and the approach to Zealand Falls Hut!  Even better, there are blueberries on part of it!  I’m in heaven as we stroll along the flat path, picking handfuls of blueberries!

August 14, 2017

We’ve met hordes of hikers today, and as the day comes to a close, more hikers appear!  We had been planning to camp at Garfield Pond, as we were sure the Garfield Ridge Shelter was full to bursting.  But approaching the pond, we could see a tent city springing up.  “Let’s keep looking,”  Jay suggested.  “There’s bound to be a flat spot somewhere before the next mountain.”

We hiked on, racing the coming dusk.  Jay pulled ahead, disappearing between the trees.  Suddenly he reappeared on the trail.  “I found a place,” he told me.  We followed a faint deer track a few yards until the trees opened in a perfect circle, flat and not too rocky.  ‘Oh thank goodness,’ I thought.  ‘But where shall we get water?’

“Do you think you could get enough water from the little puddle we passed a few minutes ago?” Jay asked.

I walked back through the deepening twilight and looked at the small pool.  Perhaps a gallon of water, with a sprinkling of frog eggs on one side, came from a slow seep on the side of the trail.  I dipped up a liter and looked at it.  Wow, clear, cold water!  We only needed three liters.  There would still be enough for the frog eggs until the seep replenished.  A perfect place for a quiet evening!

August 15, 2017

The trail undulates up and down between Mt. Lafayette, Mt. Lincoln, Little Haystack, and Liberty Mountain.  Franconia Ridge is so picturesque, it’s hard to know where to point a camera!  The ridge slopes steeply on each side, but the trail tread invites feet to walk safely, especially today, with bright sun shining!  “It reminds me of the Great Wall of China,” Jay remarks.  I look at the wall of the ridge, and find myself transported to China.  What a treat!

August 18, 2017

The fun thing about a day of rain is being able to decide, “Hey, we can quit walking anytime!”  At 3:00 p.m., as the rain continued falling, we stopped near Beaver Brook in the Kinsman Notch, and pitched our tent.  What a treat, to snuggle down into dry sleeping bag while the air outside is filled with water!

August 19, 2017

Mt. Moosilauke is considered the southern edge of the White Mountains.  We climbed from Kinsman Notch to the top of the mountain this morning.  The first 1.5 miles is notoriously steep.  It took us 2 hours!  But the climb was always in the trees, and wood blocks made easy steps up a few of the steep sections!  After that, the gradient gentled slightly, turning the trail to rocks, but not cliffs.


We marked the end of the White Mountains by staying at the Hiker Welcome Hostel.  They took us to a burger joint that served grass-fed beef, had live music, and a campfire!  What a way to celebrate some of the hardest miles I’ve ever hiked!

Misery on Mt. Madison

August 10, 2017

Today we climb Mt. Madison, an ascent of 3,300 feet from Pinkham Notch.  Beautiful sunshine and a gentle cooling breeze encourage us to leave the comforts of the Joe Dodge Lodge and begin our climb.  The first six miles are below tree line.  I am happy.

The trees thin, and we break out into high alpine countryside.  I discover Mt. Madison is not made of friendly granite.  The rocks are rough volcanic blocks, tumbled like a pile of rubble, haphazardly leaning against one another, for miles and miles.  I begin climbing, but acrophobia rises much faster than my bodily ascent.  I try to remind myself of the importance of living in the now.  Unfortunately, ‘now’ is terrifying, and I DON’T want to be here!  Panic brings on very real physical symptoms, and suddenly I’m not only fighting emotional upheaval, but also dealing with nausea, dizziness, and shaking muscles.

Mt. Madison strikes fear in my heart on a gorgeous day!

Jay stops to wait for me.  I approach, with tear-filled eyes and trembling lips.  “I’m scared,” I whimper.

A look of determined cheerfulness comes to Jay’s face.  “You know this is irrational,” he counsels.  He gestures around us.  “The weather is perfect.  These are just rocks we’re climbing.  It’s not even cliffs.  You can do this!”

“I know,” I whisper.  I try to marshal what little brain the panic has left me.  “Please, just tell me that you’re glad I’m along.”

Jay looks at me in disbelief.  “You want me to tell you I’m glad you are here?”

I nod miserably.  “It’s important for me to feel like you are glad I’m with you.”

“Well, okay.”  Jay spaces out each word.  “I…am…glad…you…are…with…me.”  Then he turns and quickly strides upward, putting space between us.

Mt. Madison has several false summits, all covered in tippy boulders.

I continue carefully inching along, grabbing rocks with a death grip, planting each foot as if it would grow roots.  I envy Jay’s quick stride, each foot skimming the tops of the rocks.  I watch him pause, arms akimbo, drinking in the incredible view.  In my panicked state, I can barely look from one rock to another.  The light breeze feels like a pounding force against my body.  The view is just so much empty air as far as my brain is concerned.

I try (oh how I try!), to conquer this fear.  I know this kind of mountain climbing is Jay’s favorite, and I hate to ruin it for him.  But I am gripped in unreasonable panic, and I have a long ways to go before reaching tree line again.

Jay relaxes and enjoys the view while waiting at a cairn.

Jay waits for me at each cairn.  I try to smile at him, but I know it’s a miserable failure.  In desperation, I try talking again.

“I’m sorry I’m so scared.  You really have done everything you could to prepare me for this.  You’ve helped me lose weight, gain muscle, learn to walk with better balance.  Right now you are waiting for me often, and it helps as I see how much you enjoy the views.  I’m just scared!”  I wail.  “And I hate that I’m ruining this experience for you!”

“You aren’t ruining it,” Jay replies.  “But I don’t want you to lose focus and break a leg out here, just because I brought you up this mountain.”

A dim light dawns through my anxiety.  I try to explain more.  “You didn’t bring me up here.  It was my idea to test myself on the AT, knowing it would include the White Mountains.  It’s just, we are doing this adventure together, and if I think my presence can make you happier, it might help me get over my fear.  That’s why I asked you to tell me that you wanted me along, earlier.  But I am responsible for myself.  I just hate that I’m failing at keeping my fear of heights at bay.”  I start crying again.

Our hike continues.  Nothing is really solved.  I’m still scared.  Jay’s still stuck with me.  But I do know that we love each other.  And eventually, we’ll finish this mountain.

Still climbing, with many false summits behind me.

Whether I’ll ever climb another mountain is still an unanswered question, I reflect.  Why couldn’t this mountain have a trail?  Negotiating this pile of rubble would have been a lot easier then.  Of course, it would take an army to turn this mound of debris and fragmented boulders into a mountain with a trail.  And I’m sure our generals think their soldiers have more important things to do than make a path for the comfort of one small, scared hiker.  Sigh.

The rest of the climb over Mt. Madison is spent in irrational misery.  That night, as we pitch our tent just a mile from the top of the mountain, I’m still very near tears.  Jay reaches out and gives me an hug.  Suddenly, I know tomorrow will take care of itself.  I am in the present, and that includes hiking with my husband, hiking with fears, just hiking.

Now is All the Time There Is

August 9, 2017

We have now hiked north for four months, and hiked south for one month and five days.  Each day has brought us closer to the White Mountains, a milestone in the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  People love to tell horror stories of hiking through the Whites.  Howling winds knocking hapless hikers off ridges, pelting hail, slick rocks, frozen fingers, impenetrable fog … the list gets longer as the campfire burns lower.  The more I have heard of the White Mountains, the more fearful I have become.  Jay has tried to reassure me.  “People like to make things sound worse than they really are.  A story seems only worth telling if it exaggerates a bit.”  But even Jay has worried over how to get me down Wildcat Ridge safely.  And that, frankly, scares me witless!

I have always been a bit clumsy.  (At the age of nine, I fell off a sidewalk and broke my arm!)  So far on this trip, I have broken my clavicle, injured my knee, jammed my thumb so badly it swelled to twice its size, and received numerous bumps and serious bruises from various falls.  The looming hazards of the White Mountains has brought on an unwelcome state of terror.

We’ve crossed some rough countryside since the Mahoosuc Notch.  We’ve ascended and descended several thousands of feet of mountains and rocks, sometimes in rain (slick!), sometimes in sun (hot!).  Each day there have been times of fear as I negotiated tough spots on the trail.  There has also been fun and delight; picking blueberries on Mt. Hayes, seeing a rabbit on Mt. Moriah, changing into warm dry clothes each evening in the tent.

As we begin today’s hike, climbing 1,000 feet out of Carter Notch, I reflect upon my emotions.  I realize that I learned something important in Mahoosuc Notch.  When all my concentration is being used, there is no time.  The present is all around me, encompassing.  I live in the present, and there is no use in worrying over the future.  Now is what matters.

Wildcat Ridge – a climb out of a notch, over four mountain peaks, then a descent into another notch.  Only six miles, but length of trail has little to do with amount of effort needed in this stretch!

The first two miles, out of Carter Notch, took me three hours.  Many times I was slowed by vertical rock scrambles.  Fresh muscles, and my newfound wisdom, helped the climb go by quickly.  For the next two miles, we walked the ridge, just below tree line much of the time, among stunted pines and soft moss.  We crossed over four of the peaks of Wildcat Mountain, often slowed by rough tread.  We paused at an observation tower to enjoy the view, then passed a ski gondola on Wildcat Mountain peak D.  It was tempting to take the gondola to the bottom of the mountain!  Instead, we utilized a sunny picnic table sheltered from the wind, and ate an early lunch, preparing ourselves for the 2,000 foot drop into Pinkham Notch.

Jay enjoys the view from the observation tower on top of Wildcat Mountain peak D.

It’s hard to describe that trip down Wildcat Ridge.  Measurements tell me we took four hours to hike 2 miles and descend 2,000 feet.  Adjectives include steep, long, steep, rocky, steep, tough, steep, strenuous, and steep!  My focus narrowed to each separate footstep, taking care to place feet and hands safely as I descended.

One place on our trail profile is described as “rocky crevasse, stairs”.  In reality, the bedrock of the ridge pokes outward and splits, providing a fissure into which the trail builders threw smaller rocks.  Those that stuck became “stairs” for hikers.  Halfway down the fissure, the rocks end, and we had to climb out onto the edge of the bedrock again!

Sarah, with a grin born from terror, climbs down Wildcat Ridge. The road through Pinkham Notch is still very far below!

There were a couple of places where trail builders had bolted blocks of wood onto the sheer surface of the cliff, giving hikers a different type of stairs to use while climbing or descending!

I did lose focus once, as the trail turned, providing a tiny spot of flat ground.  My loss of focus coincided with a waver in my balance, a catch of my foot on a root, and a fall.  A rock thumped my knee, and a sharp point on a branch snatched at my neck.  For a few moments, fear and pain overwhelmed me, and all I could do was lay on the trail, taking deep breaths and trying not to cry too much.  Jay sat down above me, giving me time and space to work through the accident.  Later, when it was established that all I had was a few scratches and a couple of formidable bruises, Jay told me, “You get hurt in the creepiest ways!”

Pinkham Notch, when finally reached, was a welcome change of the present!  Jay had arranged for us to celebrate our first major challenge of the White Mountains by staying the night at the Joe Dodge Lodge, along with a delectable all-you-can-eat dinner and breakfast!  Yes, now is all the time there is, and I am trying to live there!