Real Secrets of the Stoneham Mountaineering and Libation Society

Me and my partner in crime, I mean, hikes

For the last two and a half years, my hiking buddy Anthony and I have been waging a concerted campaign to show people how fun and beautiful hiking is, and to lure the unsuspecting from the comfortable back yards of sleepy Stoneham up to the ankle-breaking, muddy trails of the Granite State. After every trip, we post glorious pictures: sunrises, summits, friendly birds, glorious wildflowers, pictures of our boots hanging resting on granite slabs overlooking vistas of vast wildnernesses embraced by mountains whose names and journeys have been graven in our shared experience and captured on personalized “New Hampshire 48” maps on our bathroom walls.

Typically alluring scene: the summit of Carrigain

Yesterday marked my halfway point on my journey of New Hampshire 48 mountains taller than 4000 feet, as we strode along Signal Ridge to summit Mt. Carrigain. And instead of my usual glorious celebration, I’m going to give you the gritty insider view of the Real Secrets of the Stoneham Mountaineering and Libation Society*

SMLS Logo: Look up the motto yourself

Wednesday before, text: Brenda – “Free Saturday, thinking Carrigain. You free?” Anthony – “I hiked with you two weeks ago, did a 20 mile five mountain traverse last weekend and am hiking on Sunday too. So you have to drive.” Brenda – “Deal.”

The day before, 3 pm: text between the two hikers, just two things. A link (shared with the stay at home spouses) and the fateful words, 6:30 am. Brenda sets alarm for 5:45 am and plans to head to bed early tonight.

Pro tip: block the door with the stuff you don’t want to forget at 6 am

The night before, 8:30 pm, Brenda’s head: I should really go to bed. I have a hike early tomorrow, and I never sleep well the night before. I’ll just catch the women’s soccer game – two hours is perfect.

11:30 pm: Well, I didn’t really expect that to go extra time and penalty kicks. And I still need to make my sandwich and get my pack ready.

Midnight: I’m sure the next 5:45 will be the best quality sleep I’ve ever have.

1 am: Moves downstairs to guest bed due to husband who likes to dance flamenco in his sleep, especially on the night before hikes.

Fun fact: I hate sunrise

Hiking day
5:45 am: Alarm goes off. Birds are singing. The first light of morning is warming the Eastern skies and throwing golden light on the trees outside the window. Our hiker hero arises, stretches, and celebrates not sharing a room by launching into a stream of profane invective. Time to get up. She presses the button on the coffee, heads up to brush her teeth and don her traditional summer hiking garb. First breakfasts are a big bowl of Lucky Charms. It takes forever to fill the 4 liters of water she’s packing. The sticky note on the door reminds her to bring water and her sandwich. Everything else is already in the pack.

Fun fact: tiny cars are better for hiking. Read more for the shocking reason why!

6:35 am: Arrive at Anthony’s door. Celebrate most on-time departure yet with a surly welcoming growl and slurping on first of 64oz of coffee packed for the drive. Debate whether to take I93 or I95 and agree on a loop route. The mountain is 2.5 hours away no matter which way you go, so a minimum five hours of driving await our heroes. They enjoy the scenic rusting bridges, dump trucks and road construction along the way. Anthony refills Brenda’s coffee from thermoses twice.

The actual most common view

8:15 am: First stop of the day is the traditional fortification at the McDonald’s in Lincoln. It has very convenient access, bathrooms, and incredibly slow service. In exchange for a few measly dollars, our heroes use the facilities and come out armed with Sausage McMuffins (Brenda), Breakfast Burrito (Anthony), hash browns (both) and orange juice (Anthony). They still have nearly an hour to the trail head, but gloriously no one gets in front of Brenda on the Kankamagus and she can demonstrate to Anthony how she learned how to drive “on roads just like this” and tells him that the yellow speed advisory signs are for “amateurs”. Anthony comments how unusual it is for him to get car sick, and wonders what might be different today. They both agree it’s probably pre-hike nerves.

90% of our hikes start here. I haven’t yet figured out why frequent hiking hasn’t led to weight loss on my part.

9:15 am: Three miles up an shockingly well maintained dirt road with a shockingly poorly maintained wooden bridge. Anthony comments on the narrowness of the single lane road right before a giant pickup truck flies by the opposite direction. Finally they arrive at the trail head. Of course, it’s completely packed and there is no available formal parking. There are about five cars trying to find a way to park, the inhabitants of whom will spend the next 10 hours passing and being passed by our hikers. As Brenda expertly executes a 46 point turn to get into an available section of ditch, they play the traditional game of “car accident or trailhead parking”. Eventually, they’re parked between the gigantic pickup truck with extra sized wheels, broomsticks holding up an American flag with a black stripe and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag – and on the other side a diesel Volvo with Vermont plates and a series of increasingly faded Bernie Sanders for President stickers. I feel encouraged by the fact that among all our differences, we are all here together and love hiking and mountains.

A comparatively nice parking lot

9:25 am: Finally time to hit the trail! We didn’t forget anything this time. In the past, we have discovered such adventurous forgotten elements as hiking boots (Anthony) and food (Brenda). Despite being the last day of July (we said it was the first of August all day, because time means nothing on the trail) it was about 45 degrees and snowflakes were seen the prior night on Mt. Washington. Brenda presses the “go” button on her satellite phone, knowing that the at home spouses will be anxiously checking the hiking pair’s progress all day. Or maybe once if they get curious to see just how slowly we’re moving.

I’m color coordinated, except for the sat phone

9:35 am: Suddenly the gallon of coffee consumed on the hike up makes its presence known, and the search commences for an appropriate tree/rock. Anthony says “at least we don’t have to worry about anyone coming down the trail at this time of day”. Seconds later a fit young man comes running down the trail at full speed with two fit looking dogs deftly trailing his heels. Hiking the Whites inspires a lot of humility, but appropriate trees are found with privacy from hikers in both directions.

Trail head signs have the least accurate distances of all your bad trail distance options

From then, the hiking. This has been a historically wet summer in New England. This time of year, all the trails should be completely dry, and definitely not muddy for miles. But not this year. The first two miles of trail are easy and even beside a glorious mountain stream. This increasing the foreboding because we have 3500 feet of elevation to gain and lose, and every mile you aren’t climbing a little means the trail will be that much steeper when it finally hits. And hit it does: the last three miles are an unrelenting forested UP. The trails are very crowded today, and we leapfrog with some hikers of similar speed, while being passed in both directions by the speedy. Discussion breaks out: which are the most depressing, the trail runners who effortlessly pass us breathing less hard than we do, or the 70 year olds who encourage us as they pass by telling us it’ll get easier once we get in shape in retirement?

Don’t. Fall.

Finally we break treeline. All along Signal Ridge groups are spread out watching the clouds break across Washington, making up stories about the red scar that dramatically mars Mt. Lowell, or talking about their upcoming wedding dress fittings. We linger for a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, Pringles, and fruit snacks. The cold winds carry the bite of October, and the stunted krummholz shows as clearly as a sign what the prevailing wind direction is. Eventually we doff our winter layers and tackle the last push to the summit.

Our lunch view – Mt. Lowell with the scar, Mt. Washington in the background

We linger at the summit too, reveling in the 360 views of old friends we have hiked or will hike or want to hike. It does take a while to orient ourselves and figure out that the Pemi wilderness is in the direction of the sign that says “Pemigewasset Wilderness”. I say my standard prayer that some day there will be a lightening strike on the Owlhead summit which would have the best view in all of New England … if it wasn’t wooded. A conversation breaks out on the summit as we share food and gaze in shocked amazement at the guy (wearing only bright orange shorts) who brought up a pulled pork sandwich. Boasts and exaggerations flow around previous gourmet foods we’ve consumed on the trails. Eventually, reluctantly, we part from our new friends and start down.

I wonder which direction the Pemi wilderness is?

When you are young, you complain about up because it’s hard on the system – real work. When you are old, it’s the down that gets you as your joints complain about the miles of basically controlled falls on to rocks that are sharp, unsteady, slick – or in special instances all three. I usually vow at this phase that I’m going to work on strength and flexibility between hikes. It’s hard to look up, because the footing requires all your attention, and you’re starting to get tired. By the time we hit the flat mud section again, we’re almost quiet having exhausted all the gossip, observations, upcoming plans, and discussions of trails we have hiked and will hike.

We went up all that. We will now have to go down all that.

At the last, a few tenths of a mile from the trail head, we linger at a sylvan pool with crystal clear waters crashing down polished granite into deep and mysterious pools whose clarity leaves you wondering if they are 4 or 40 feet deep. The roiling waters seem impossibly consistent, an impossibility of constant motion and change as the dying light slants down the steep sides of the mountain we just climbed to the dark green of the pines and maples clinging to a carpet of soil over the granite bones that are never far away. When we attempt to stand and resume our packs, it takes three tries.

We often record water crossings in hope of getting good blackmail material in case the other person missteps and gets doused.

6:10 pm: Like Mr. Rogers, we end our day like we began it, changing our shoes in car. Sore, but happy. And not looking forward to the drive home. But we are the Stoneham Hiking and LIBATION Society, and one more thing remains to be done in our traditional hike.


7:30 pm Almost There Tavern: The after hike meal is highly anticipated event, and the topic of great conversation on the trail. This is one of my favorite spots, due to having Tuckerman Pale Ale on tap and friend green beans, both known health foods. They also have outdoor dining – not only important due to Covid but also due to the distinctive fragrance of people who have hiked through mud for 10 hours.

Preparing to libate

10:15 pm Finally back home again. Barely able to climb the stairs. The shower descends over blistered feet and aching knees, washing through sweat-tangled hair. As a last act of consciousness, I color in the trail and note the date.

My tracker – by SherpaAnt

24 down, 24 to go. The real secret is … it’s totally worth it and I can’t wait to go again.

*Fictionalized and exaggerated, because that’s how the SMLS rolls.

Days when the world changes

Today, I was supposed to be in Washington State with my parents and siblings, remembering a man who meant so very much to me. There were going to be hundreds of scouts – old and young. I was going to play my trumpet. The former governor of Washington was rumored to be planned to attend – he was one of Del’s scouts.

I still dressed up for Pi Day

Instead, I’m in my attic, brushing off a dusty blog. I have not run an errand, bought a taco, or hung out with a neighbor today – and it may be some time before I do. A few weeks ago, my parents were here and we planned to see each other soon. Now, we will not. It’s time for some serious social distancing.

Thursday, I took the day off work and went for a winter hike. The snowpack on the trails was still favorable and firm, but the bright March light and warmer March air made it a pleasure to hike up and down the various mountains. But just as we left cell service, I got a text from my husband. “I kept Thane home from school. He has a fever and cough.”

This art counts as social distancing – there was a bunch of new stuff today

That night, still sore and stinky from the hike, wondering if I should send Grey in for the last half-day of school to pick up their things and his brother’s chromebook, I paged Thane’s pediatrician to see what the recommendation was. Dry cough and fever. Now. Surely there was some list I should add him to, some registration. Maybe testing. His doctor called back right away, sounding deeply unhappy. Did he have contact with someone from Biogen? If not, there is no testing. No lists. No records. Nothing to do but treat symptoms and be smart. So we have no idea if Thane has a cold, or something much more dire. Shortly after the call with the doctor, we learned there was a presumptive positive case for a kid in our town schools. We have to assume the worst, for the sake of everyone. So we’re even more isolated than the standard isolation – wondering if we’re going to get sick next. Two weeks is a very, very long time to wait. THERE IS NO TESTING for people who have all the symptoms and live in a community where the virus is.

This time is giving us a chance to catch up on little chores

So far, Thane is fine. His fever mostly broke last night. The cough is painful, and he has a sore throat, but it hasn’t slowed him down very much. So far, the rest of us are also fine. I went on a great run today. We went for a hike – the Middlesex Fells were PACKED – I’ve never seen so many cars – but there was plenty of room for all of us in the gracious, greening forest.

It’s such an odd thing, to watch the world change in twinkling. I’ve been watching Coronavirus very closely (slightly obsessively) since it escaped from the first rings of quarantine. I actually called the “work from home” instructions to the day – two weeks ago. Just watching the litany of cancellations – one after the other – flooding through my email is astonishing. Our 20th anniversary trip to Italy this April vacation is not happening. Del’s funeral will likely be in the fall (if at all). I had to move Piemas (to the Saturday closest to 6-28, Tau Day!). Church will be empty tomorrow – we will worship digitally. Everything is shutting down, shuttering. But the sidewalks are vibrant with people out and about on a beautiful day, seeing each other from a safe distance, enjoying exercise and health and sunlight from suddenly luxuriously (dauntingly?) empty schedules.

I met this handsome guy on my run today

I’ve now exceeded my prediction powers. School will definitely resume in the fall. But how much of the spring do we lose? The planned 2 weeks? Six, like in Washington State? All to year? College tours are cancelled. Proms are cancelled. We face this long, quiet uncertain period of being only with family, and going only to places disinfected by sunlight. There’s a hope to that – a slowing and quieting that our society is so deficient in. But there is also fear. Am I ready to nurse my family and friends, if needed? Who will nurse me? Just how crazy will we all go locked in a house together? What about those who are locked in much worse situations than we are?

I take comfort in this: we are kinder to each other than anyone expected. We are resourceful, and thoughtful. And we will come through this wiser than we went in. I only hope the wisdom is not too hard-earned.

Measureless Mountain Days

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. -John Muir

I spent about 12 hours over the last week or so going through the pictures I took in 2019. I believe the tally is about 10,000 pictures, give or take. I’m deeply lamenting that Google stopped automatically syncing drive and photos, since now backing up my collection requires actual effort. But at the end of each year, I create a “Best of” album that I use for creating calendars, making physical prints (so that some hacker can’t erase my children’s childhoods), and as the background scenes for my screensaver at work.

I’m always struck at how the photographs work. In the moment, my kids start groaning when I take my camera out. There’s a fake-feeling when you arrange them artistically and cajole them to smile. When it’s just me, sometimes I wonder if I’m really seeing things when I have my phone out, or if I’m just postponing the seeing to some later date which may or may not ever come. The moments that surround those pictures have all sorts of feelings: annoyance, exhaustion, aggravation, anger, humor, relaxation, exasperation. But by the time I’ve picked my favorite photos, the entire year looks beautiful, joyful, peaceful and full of familial bonding.

This transformation of life from banal aggravation to beautiful memories is a miracle of modern alchemy. The best part is that, as you pull out your memories along with these pictures, they start to conform to what the photos say. It was a great day. We all had fun. We get along wonderfully. We spend most of our time doing meaningful things together as a family. Memories are not the truth of what happened, or of what we felt at that time. They are changed by, and even created by, what we do with them after they are first born. I work hard to make those memories largely lovely (although I do save a few less beautiful ones for authenticity’s sake, and because given enough time they usually become funny).

Presidential Traverse, near Eisenhower

During this marathon session of photographic goodness, I couldn’t help noticing something about my year. There were a LOT more mountain scenes than in past years. My memories of those moments don’t include aching knee-muscles (impossible to photograph) or the pounding heat on Chocorua. But they instead evoke moments of peace, majesty, and a bigger and more lovely world. I’ve recently begun hiking a lot with an old friend who is the same kind of crazy I am about hiking mountains. On grim, cold days we sometimes text each other pictures of where we wish we were. With his not-so-great example, I was recently talked into doing my first ever winter hike, which required a massive re-kitting for appropriate gear. (OK, by talked into, I mean I said “Hey, want to go hiking on Wednesday?” and he said, “Sure!”.)

New pants, new gaiters, new boots, new microspikes.

It was a beautifully soul-clearing hike, starting in the dark of the morning before dawn. We climbed to beat the weather, due in at some uncertain time of the afternoon (the forecasts were wildly inconsistent). The skies at times darkened ominously and scarves of white clouds wrapped themselves tightly around the necks of Lafayette and Lincoln, across the valley. But there were glorious moments, too. A perfect boulder, covered in pebbly ice. A southern exposure with bright moss shining through the white snow. The expanse of Lonesome Lake perfect below us. The sound of bitter winds whipping above our heads, with short summit-pines protecting us from the greatest heat-stealing wrath of winter’s icy breath.

The ice was fascinating
The moss was shockingly vibrant amid all the monochrome of snow and sky

As Boston braces for our first real snow of the winter on Monday, the experienced yankee might feel a mild claustrophobia setting in, as the world begins its process of shrinking to the size of the shoveled path. But perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps this year, I’ll be able to brave snow and ice, and meet my mountains again before spring.

So little colored, so much yet to hike!