Backpacking: the Next Generation

Ready to hit the trail

As we flew into Seattle, the tip of Mt. Baker to the right pierced snowy and pristine through a sludge of atmosphere – a few pristine looking glacier piercing through air that was brown and grimy and disgusting. I’d left Boston weather in the 90s looking forward to the break the Northwest would surely give me, only to land in 95 degree dry heat in Seatac. Wednesday was a blur as all the Camp Grampers arrived, we fed everyone, we stopped to pick up some gear, and then the minute I’d finished the 8 hour journey to Mineral I hopped back in my mom’s car to head up the mountain to Longmire.

Longmire in the heat

It’s a remarkable feeling, to have woken up in Boston and yet found yourself staring up the great rift of Longmire Valley, past Rampart Ridges to the Tahoma glacier. When I walked into the ranger station to get my permit, apparently my face transmitted my depth of feeling. “Are you ok?” asked the ranger?

Back in January, I came up with this scheme. For the first time in what feels like ever, I have a little more vacation than Adam does – 3.5 weeks this year and headed to a full 4 weeks next year. Woooo! And every summer there are three main vacation options: go international (like last year), go to my folks’ house and head down to Ashland, or go to my folk’s house and go backpacking. It’s been many long years since that last option was selected. This year, Adam really wanted to go to Ashland again. But I wanted to go backpacking. Then I had a genius idea – I’d go ahead of time without Adam and go backpacking without him. So I reached out to a guide group and signed up for a guided tour – since backpacking alone is dumb and not ok. Bliss!

In June, I got word from the company that no one else signed up for the tour. Cancelled. AAAAAGH! I came up with plans B, C & D, none of which panned out. So here I was, weeks before the trip, with no plan E. My gaze strayed over at my preternaturally tall 12 year old son. You know, the one who was the right size to carry a pack. And who was the same age I was when I first went backpacking. Hmmm…. I carefully felt him out on the topic “Man, I bet you wish you were a big strong adult who could go backpacking like me!” And … he bit! He said he’d be willing to come with me! Usually willingness to hike with me is a sure sign you’ve never hiked with me before (ask Erin) but then and there we arrived at plan E. Ha!

I was careful selecting my route. My natural inclination is to pick my favorite campsites that are available and hike between them, elevation and distance be darned. Many’s the deathmarch I’ve planned for myself. But I wanted to lure Grey in more slowly – maybe even get him to like this without the use of post-hike hypnotic techniques. So colluding with the Ranger, we picked a very scenic, very satisfying, pretty short trip. We’d spend two nights (so the plan went) at Upper Crystal Lake Campground – a pretty, alpine spot only 3 miles off the road – a dead end with two campsites. Then on the second day, we’d day hike out, and hike out the third day.

My way back I meandered – using the last light of the preternaturally long day to walk the trail of shadows and breathe the fragrance of firs. I noted with some unease just how haze-obscured Mt. Rainier was, even from the depths of the park, by the smoke. But hey, it beat the heck out of rain, right?

The next morning Grey and I set out at the crack of noon from the trailhead. His first discovery was how amazing water tastes when pulled fresh from a mountain stream, as we refreshed the water we’d brought with us. And oh, it does taste so very good.

Traditional trailhead photo

We were about a mile up the trail (and by up I mean *UP*) when I realized that my carefully procured, conscientiously updated permit was, uh, back down in the car. I ditched my kid and my backpack and headed back down. And then back up again. Did I mention it was 95 degrees? There was a little bit of observational despair when my son learned that we were taking switchbacks ALL the way up the mountain (I’ve gotten smarter in my old age and no longer point out the distant high peak where I suspect we’ll be stopping), but we got past that and the conversation flowed.

And my, Upper Crystal Lake is a beautiful, beautiful place.

Near where we got our water

We set up camp. We napped. We read our books. We made dinner. (Hiking with a 12 year old sure changes how much food you go through a day!) He taught me how to play spit and Texas Hold’em. I proceeded to get two straight royal flushes and completely wipe him out of hard candy not once, but twice. We fell asleep that night, rain fly off our tent, gazing up at the stars. Before I took my glasses off and roll over, I got to see our tent overflown by the long, silent wings of an owl.

The second morning dawned just as hot. It had cooled off somewhat over night, but we hadn’t slept so much well as long and by the time the sun cleared the mountain walls, the temperature was rising again. There was little shade in the valley, and much bugs. I’d cultivated a blister. And the news from the boots making their way up the valley was that while the mountain – not 20 miles away from us – was currently entirely covered by haze, a cooling, cleansing rain was on its way to the mountains the next day. I prefer to experience my cooling, cleansing rains from indoors, when possible.

It looked like an infinity lake

We took a walk around the lake proper, stopping as is traditional every five minutes to take another picture.

I saw no fish to eat the plentiful bugs

Then we broke up camp and headed back down. And as we got to the bottom, Grey insisted we fill up from that self-same delicious stream to take the water home with us – a precious commodity. And I knew that I’d hooked him.

Backpacking buddy – getting the coldest, fastest water from a mountain stream

You can see all my pictures here!

Dreams can come true

Hiking the Fells with Baby Grey

I’ve been hiking with Grey since he was born. Pretty literally. Here’s a picture of us together in the Fells about 6 days after he was born. (For the record, too soon. I overextended myself pretty significantly on that hike.)

Six days old

I remember walking with him in the woods and imagining that day, someday, when his feet wouldn’t drag behind mine and I wouldn’t have to slow down. I knew that it was likely that in a twinkling, he’d go from being behind me to being ahead of me – fleet feet dancing lightly up trails that made me feel the gravity of my years. Many’s the hike I’ve dragged my children on when I told myself this impossible story – that some day they would be stronger, faster and more enduring than me.

Grey has had this phenomenal weekend. Saturday was supposed to be dedicated to cleaning out the attic. It’s amazing what sort of neat stuff you do when you’re procrastinating, isn’t it? Instead, we played a video game together as a family (Ultimate Chicken Horse – I was the hapless sheep and terrible at it). Then Adam and I found the *perfect* countertop, which happens to require us to find a brand new flooring tile because it works with the backsplash and beadboard beautifully, but doesn’t go at all with the flooring. This is something of a miracle, because neither Adam nor I have been able to stand a single one of each other’s selections until we got this one, and we both really like this one.

We’re thinking the darker gray in the countertop for the flooring.

After we got back, we decided to go for a hike. Thane really didn’t want to go, but we dragged him anyway. Grey was happy to come, and wore the really neat wool nurse’s cloak that his great grandmother (or great aunt – something like that – Laureen can you tell the story in the comments?) wore when people wore woolen cloaks with brass buttons. He was awesome on the hike, and the only thing he complained about was his brother’s complaining.

It’s a super cool cloak

The he came home and finished Raymond Chandler’s novel “The Lady in the Lake” which he clearly enjoyed very much. “Man,” he said, “All the characters seem to really dislike the private eye. Pretty much every single one of them has called him a bad name!” Adam replied, “Dick is the slang term for a Private Investigator. It doesn’t mean jerk.” “Oooooh that makes a lot more sense.” We finished the night up watching some Star Trek Deep Space 9.

Today, he cheerfully went to church and cheerfully participated in a lovely service. Then after we got home, he was struck by a brilliant idea. He wanted to go geocaching. And for once, his brilliant idea was brilliant. Honestly, I’ve wanted to do geocaching for years! It’s exactly the kind of thing I always hoped my kids would get into. Grey watched a Youtube video on the fundamentals of geocaching. He proposed a token to leave behind (a sticker of our family crest). He identified the best app, which he asked me to download. He found the nearby caches, and pointed out two that were in easy striking distance. And then he very politely asked me if I would go geocaching with him (since I’m the one with a smart phone). The weather was fairish today, and he’d also been talking about how much he really wanted to go ride a bike, so I suggested that we ride our bikes to the Fells (it’s less than a mile) and proceed on foot from there.

And we did!!

I’ve been wanting to bike to the Fells for YEARS. If this was my childhood, that’s what would’ve happened all the time. It’s so nearby, and so amazing that it’s within easy biking distance. And it is – less than 10 minutes each way. That’s nearly what it would take to drive it, and way faster than walking it.

The bounty of the first cache

Once in the Fells, I followed his lead in finding the caches. His joy and satisfaction and enthusiasm on finding his first ever cache just radiated from him. He was extremely diligent in logging the visit in the logbook, and putting the cache back just as he found it. The whole time he was just projecting happiness.

First cache

His appetite whetted, he begged for just one more. Now I had serious attic-cleaning duties to attend to. But when my child begs me to hike longer, um, it’s possible I don’t have as much willpower as it would take to be like “No, I need to go clean up the curtains I bought 10 years ago and never got around to hanging.” So we headed further into the Fells, finding ourselves on a trail I swear I’ve never seen before and as previously mentioned I’ve been hiking there for over a decade. The second cache we found ourselves at the base of an 80 foot cliff with the sinking realization that the cache was at the top of said cliff. I put my foot down on scaling the cliff (How old I have gotten! But I’ve seen first responders try to get into the Fells and I don’t want to do that again.) So we took the long way around.

And then it happened. He was twenty feet up the trail from me, with wings on his feet and light in his eyes, bouncing up rocky slopes like a gazelle. He called back over his shoulder “Can we pick up the pace? Like a light jog or something?” And I realized that my “someday” was in fact “today”. Today was the day when he was faster than me – when he would fly up trails and leave me to admire him from behind. Today was that day I’d dreamed about so many years.

Widow and widower maker

We didn’t find the second cache, despite much hunting and searching at the top of the hill. It must be lost. But we did find a third cache. With the winds on Friday, one needs to be careful in the forests. Many trees are down today that were standing on Thursday. The third cache was in the shadow of the most astonishing widow-maker I’ve ever seen. There’s a dead tree resting on a dead tree, lodged in what I sincerely hope is a living tree. It gave me the chance to tell him about his great-great grandfather who died from the unhappy fall of such a widow-maker.

The second cache

To cap off the weekend of being perfect, after dinner he went into the kitchen and made us a chocolate cake from scratch. It’s delicious – moist, light and airy. It’s some of the best chocolate cake I had. Then he posed for a picture, mimicing the exact picture from last year which I have on our calendar for this month. And then we watched some M*A*S*H episodes to honor the memory of David Ogden Spiers.

Evil cake genius

Parenting is hard work. So many nights checking homework, insisting on chores and fighting to make sure everyone does what needs to be done. So many days getting the call from the nurse that you kid needs to be picked up. There are a thousand and one hard things about being a parent. But then every so often you have an amazing weekend with your kid and you realize that wow. You really like your child. This was that moment for me.

2017 in the rear view mirror

This was a strange and difficult year in the life of the world. For good or for ill, I think we’ll remember 2017 in the history of the world. (I mean, assuming there is a history to be written and that the triumvirate of Trump/Putin/Kim Jong Il doesn’t end our species in a blast of radiation.) (These are the kinds of caveats 2017 has felt like it’s all about.) It’s been a terrifying and uncertain year for many in the wider world – especially immigrants, people of color, non-CIS folk, or anyone with pre-existing health conditions. But in the life of my family, it’s actually been an excellent year, despite the background fear, anxiety and attendance at protests.

Here are the big things that went on in my family this year.

Lastours

We went to Europe.
This was the kind of trip you fantasize about and remember your whole life. We spent time in Barcelona wandering the narrow alleys, we took the train to Carcassonne. We ate cassoulet in the cooling evening in the shadow of an impenetrable fortress built on Roman walls. We found a local guide who brought us to the fastness of Lastours and guided us across the narrow chasm into the ancient, tiny town of Minerve which we’d visited last in a fantastic Cthulu game run by my husband. It was exceptional – the whole thing. The kids were great. The weather was hot hot hot. The history was amazing. I loved every minute of it.

Eclipse

The kids watched the eclipse.
As part of what must be one of the best summers of their lives, the kids did a cross country road trip with their grandparents and cousins and got to see an unobscured totality from the middle of Idaho. It was hard to fit it in between their weeks at Camp Wilmot (they want to go back for three weeks next summer!), tubing with friends, boating camp, and camping trips, but their sacrifices were duly noted. Truly, this summer was epic.

Our last night together

We said goodbye and hello to friends and neighbors.
Looking through my year in pictures, I was struck at how so many in the spring and early summer included our dear and loved neighbors. (I think we had about 12 goodbye parties.) And then how empty the spot felt in the summer. We miss you folks every day, and twice on Saturdays. But our new neighbors, while not the same, are pretty awesome in their own rights. It’s been a sort of generational shift in our little street. I can’t help but feel lucky to have not one, but two generations of awesome neighbors!

Our 17th anniversary

Adam and I had great years at work.
It was a very strong year, professionally. I had a huge (internal) project exceed all my expectations for success in March. It might be the most successful, amazing thing I’ve ever done at work. (And all the more so for being surprising in the process!) Adam made a huge difference in his job, and then was lucky enough to get a new role at a fantastic company where he’s getting to code more and learn a whole new programming language. In the waning hours of the year, I’ve also gotten great news about getting to transfer to a new team I’m super excited about within Alphabet. I do try to keep work and home life separate, but obviously work is a huge part of one’s actual life. For both of us, it’s been an intense year but with good results.

We hired a pastor
This was a huge part of my year. I spent so much time, effort, passion and energy on this search. I learned a lot. I prayed a lot. I felt a full range of human emotions. I got to know people very well. It’s not *quite* over yet, but we’re nearing the end. I’m very weary, so looking for how to recharge these batteries.

Dear friends on cold days

It was a Francophone year
In addition to our time in France, we also visited friends in Quebec City and took a lovely long weekend trip to New Orleans. One of these was very cold and one of them was very hot. Both of them were very fun.

Victorious Views!

I finally climbed Chocorua.
I’ve been passionately wanting to do this for a very long time, but it was a hard one to get done. This year was the year though! It was everything I’d been hoping. I had great company. I am not sure I’ve ever used my body that hard. The weather was excellent. The lodgings close and comfy. I loved it so much.

A few other highlights –
We worked with Fealty Design to create a family crest, which I have been LOVING. I think I managed to include it four times on this year’s Christmas cards.
We bought a new car
We practiced civic engagement, on both a local and larger level
I completed the two year project of listening to all of the Wheel of Time on audiobook
We went camping, but only twice. I’m still regretting bailing on the third time.
The children have both been thriving at school. It’s been an excellent year for both of them, with mental, physical and emotional health.

Conquering Chocorua

Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)… White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385

If only I’d seen this

About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.

Note how ominously close that sun is to the horizon – that’s also where we’d been a few hours prior

My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”

Not the steepest, scariest part of the trail

It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”

My usual view of Chocorua from White Lake State Park

The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.

Not enough information

We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”

I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!

Chocorua is on the left here. We’d be coming down where the white cliffs are to the right.

Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.

The wild blueberries were superb and I grazed continually as I hiked!

We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.

The view of Chocorua from Middle Sister

This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.

But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….

See more pictures here!

Sunset of summer

I love these guys.
I love these guys.

We mark the beginning and ending of summer the same way: with a camping trip. Although with the same cast of characters, and often in the same location, the two trips feel radically different. The one opens and discovers – checking to see where we are in this stage of our lifes. The other closes and revels – sure-footed patterns and a long lingering last kiss of summer.

I dallied this year when it came to booking the last trip of the year. I wanted to go back to Covered Bridge, which we’d enjoyed last year. Last year I hadn’t been early to book, but there had been many good sites available. But by the time I went to book this year, there were none. Hardly any spots were open in the entire White Mountains. Thus we are forced into innovation. We find ourselves at Campton Camground this time. It is much, much nicer than the execrable Wolfe Point campground in New Brunswick was, but not so nice as Covered Bridge. It’s scenically located between a major road – the noises of which never cease – and a power line clearing. But the sites themselves are quite nice. (The firewood is overpriced, scanty and wet. The bathrooms are ok.)

We found, setting up the tent, that New Brunswick had left quite an impression. Mildew was growing where none had ever grown before, on things that had not ostensibly gotten wet (like our air mattress). It’s a good thing that was not the last camping trip of the year, or some of our gear might have become entirely unusable!

Of note so far:

There was a lot of reading time this trip. Blessed reading time....
There was a lot of reading time this trip. Blessed reading time….

Grey is reading The Hobbit. He is nine, and in fourth grade, and he is reading the author with whom I fell life-changingly in love when I was nine and in fourth grade. I can’t tell you how my heart thrills to watch my son follow the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves. Tolkien is not so action packed, nor is he always easy. But Grey has embarked on the journey anyway.

Thane is also reading constantly. He’s currently on Book 51 of The Magic Treehouse. He’s read every single one, in order, starting from the first one on our vacation in Cozumel this April. If my math stands, that’s an average of two Magic Treehouse books a week (although he usually goes on binges). The big question, with the end of the series looming, is what to give him next. He’s a good reader, but he’s only going into first grade so probably isn’t ready for, well, Tolkien.

I’m attempting to read the Silmarillion for about the sixth time. I’ve gotten farther than usual, which is a scanty accomplishment. I swear the intro is dryer than the Old Testament, or anything by Chaucer. Adam is reading and thoroughly enjoying Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The night before the mattress went pfllmph
The night before the mattress went pfllmph

Two of our air mattresses went flat last night. We have three – two twins and a queen. Without probable cause, the queen and one twin went phllmph last night. There’s nothing quite like waking in a divot with your spouse falling into the gravitational black hole with you, and your hip on the cold, cold ground to interrupt a night’s sleep. I threw the long-serving air mattresses away. They have done yeomen duty on many a camping trip, but their work was done.

The Flynns
The Flynns

Yesterday’s big adventure was a 4.8 mile hike of Dickey and Welch Mountains. The first twenty minutes were full of complaining, and I was afraid we might not make it this time. We hit a rocky slope with signs that pointed out that we were surrounded by rare and precious plants whick had started their growth as the first colonists landed on Plymouth Rock – and to tread carefully accordingly. About that time, the going got really rocky (ha ha! New Hampshire joke there!) as we scrambled up cliff faces and through precipices. The worse the footing, the more cheerful and enthusiastic the kids were. As we were about to summit Welch Mountain, I was really struggling and the kids were powering on. Thane practically ran down Dickey Mountain – held back only by his parents. Could this perhaps be the last year the hiking will be easier for me than for my young sons?

Not a bad kingdom, if I say so myself.
Not a bad kingdom, if I say so myself.

Today (after a quick detour to Walmart to buy new air mattresses) we lounged in the Mad River. Last year the boys and I had built castles in the river rocks and searched for buried treasure in the mica and quartz that richly line the precious waterways of the Whites. They longed to repeat the adventure, and Adam (who had chosen to take an epic nap instead last year) I think felt a little left out of the fun. So we found a good place to park and a section of the Mad River in full sun to counteract the chill of the running waters, and we built a castle in the creek, destined to last for eternity – or until the spring floods. Injuries being the price you must pay for such adventures, I waited to see who would bear the burden on their flesh. Smart money was on Thane, who can’t walk across a room without tripping. Tragically, it was I who fell before Neptune and paid the toll. I suspect it will be quite a lurid bruise.

If I had to say what I love most about camping, I think it is that it is about the only time in my life when I shouldn’t be doing something else. Right now, at this moment I write, there is nothing more pressing I should be doing than what I am doing: writing to you. There are moments when I can be quiet and look at this glorious nature that finds its way in the small spaces between the road and the electric lines in which to be lovely. I can deeply contemplate the glint of mica in a river rock as I chill my bruised shin in the fast currents of the river. I can stop on my way to the bathrooms at night and look up at the stars as long as my screen-crimped neck will tolerate. I can gaze into the mesmeric flames of the evening campfire and find in it remnants of my wild ancestors’ visions, and pause. And I can give one last deep thought to summer.

For this is high summer for me. It’s not just the meteorological summer of 2015, or the astrological summer. It is the summer of my life. I have grown to full growth. I have planted my own seeds, and am watching them germinate in the lazy warmth of my 30s. In the calendar of my life this is July, not September. But already the days shorten. It requires less imagination to picture dropping Grey off at college, say. I look in the mirror and the effulgence of youth is missing (or requires very flattering lighting).

It is the memory of these days that will warm my winter, when Adam and I have safely brought home the harvest to which we have been entrusted. I will see these moments most clearly, I suspect, when the present day grows dimmer and I begin to live more in memory than in hope. And so I linger in these sun-flocked forests, in the quiet of a warm Sunday afternoon, and drink deeply of the woodsmoke and freely-given snuggles. I take pictures, both on my camera in the camera of my memory. I write the story of those moments here, engraving them in my heart by sharing them. And I savor the sense of warmth, love and joy that sinks into my skin in this September sunset.


You can find pictures of our White Mountain adventures here!

And oh, what glory filled my soul

Top of the world
Top of the world

When you tell people here in New England that you spent your summer vacation backpacking around an iconic mountain, they tend to think you’re hard core. I like to sprinkle in even more shocking details, saying things like “Yeah, nothing makes you appreciate civilization like a bathroom with walls and unlimited free toilet paper!” (I took a picture of each latrine on the mountain. I think I might make a gallery. You’re welcome.) It does feel impressive, from the land of cubicles.

However, when I was actually backpacking the Wonderland Trail – a 92 mile loop around Mt. Rainier that has so much elevation change it’s equivalent to summiting several times – I did not feel hardcore. Let’s start with the fact we were not doing the whole trail. Adam and I scored an amazing itinerary – absolutely my first choice. But it was only less than a third of the total length of the trail. People have run the Wonderland in the 40 hour range. I actually know some of these lunatics personally. Adam and I were on a pace for maybe a 13 – 14 day Wonderland circumnavigation. We’d stop on the trail and meet someone and they’d ask where we came from and were going. They’d give us a look, and lay out an itinerary often twice the length of ours. Any many of them WERE doing the whole trail.

Two particular meetings come to mind: the three young, map-challenged men we met outside of Mystic Lake around noon who thought they were going to Fire Creek (20 miles and 10,000 ft of elevation change). They weren’t running, so there was no way that they were going to make it. Then there was the dad with his two daughters who were doing the whole trail. The young women were having trouble with their boots, and had done 20 miles, with packs, in flipflops. We handed over our blister packs since our feet were holding up fine and they were in dire straights. These things conspire to make you feel like you’re doing the tourist edition of the trail.

Moonset over Mineral Mountain

Our choice was a good one, however. Adam and I had enough time to linger in some of the loveliest places in the world. We could stop and stare. We could rise when rested, and rest when weary. Our longest day was 10 miles. Our final day out was a mere 2 miles, which eager feet ate up. We never once raced to our goal with nervous eyes measuring the ever decreasing distance between horizon and sun.

The itinerary was this:
Day 1: Sunrise to Berkely Park 2.3 miles
Day 2: Berkely Park to Mystic Lake 10 miles
Day 3: Mystic Lake to Cataract Valley 7 miles
Day 4: Cataract Valley to Eagle’s Roost 5 miles
Day 5: Eagle’s Roost to Mowich Lake (out) 2 miles

The tactical travelogue is probably best enjoyed through the hundreds of pictures that survived the editing process. (The pictures are mostly captioned, so if you’d enjoy a day by day you can go through in slideshow.) Adam patiently stopped over a thousand times for the shutter to open and close.

Mt. Rainier above Mystic Lake

Why do I love this? We could have gone to Ashland for the Shakespeare festival, and stayed in fine accommodations with amazing food. (A fact Adam reminded me of not a few times.) We went through considerable expense and difficulty in order to walk 26 miles up and down the side of a mountain, on the week of our 14th anniversary. Why? It’s an answer I struggle to articulate. Because I can’t see these things anywhere else? Because I challenge my mind constantly and my body hardly ever? Because without the discipline of walking, I can never slow my mind down enough to listen? Because carrying everything you need forces you to embrace simplicity and to be grateful for what you have? Because I do not feel happier than I feel when I turn a corner and stare one of my oldest, deepest friends in the face, and see an aspect of that marvelous mountain I have never seen before? Because I enjoy the right kind of suffering? I’m not sure I ever have fully answered the why of loving to backpack, but I can assure you my heart exulted as soon as my boots hit the trail. (My heart promptly started to work overtime as those boots immediately pulled me up the hill to Frozen Lake.)

Since returning to the email-filled world, I have found myself as I so often do – lying in a hotel bed in some city, mind racing with the challenges of the day. There are few things I resent more than work dreams. So instead I pick a section of path, in my mind, and walk it as close to memory as I can. I pull out as many of the scenes, unwittingly recorded. The sights, the smells, the creak of the pack, the loam underfoot. I see the avalanche lily, the lupine, the columbine, the Jeffrey’s shooting star. I watch the moon setting over Mt. Rainier behind Mineral Mountain. The hike feeds and nourishes my true self, and gives strength for the labors that are needed.

Mysterious flower along the trail

I’ve thought of a thousand things I want to tell you about my five days of bliss. How much I love my purple hiking shirt. How Adam and I learned just how little water people truly need compared to how much they use. Why Eagle’s Roost is so lovely. What it feels like for me to walk in the dark without my contacts. How beautifully my knee held up in extremis. What five days without any sort of internet access was like. How desperately I need a much better point and shoot camera for my next trip. Perhaps those thoughts will sneak out, but I struggle enough just to tell the primary stories, never mind the quirkier, flashing tales that sneak across my mind and are gone in a twinkling. So you shall have to be content with this:

Hymns play through my mind as I walk, unbidden. There is less atmosphere so high to interfere between me and God.

Cairn, looking over Mist Park, headed into Spray Park

Short but mean: thoughts on the White Mountains

Mt. Chocorua as seen from White Lake State Park
Mt. Chocorua as seen from White Lake State Park (last year!)

I’m a mountain girl. I always have been. For most of my life I’ve lived within 100 miles of the sea. For the last 15 years, I’ve lived within 10 miles. Entire years have been strung together when I haven’t once gone to a beach or gazed over the crashing waves. Back in my dorm room, in college, where other people had pictures of their dogs or their high school friends, my wall was plastered with Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier is 14,411 feet tall. If you ask me what the proper height for a real mountain would be, I’d venture that between 14 and 15 thousand feet is just about right. Anything you can drive to the top of can categorically not be a mountain. This was, at least, my opinion for years. But it has mysteriously come to pass that I am living in New England, and have lo these fifteen years. And while I might make condescending noises about the so called “mountains” that top out at a piffulous five thousand feet (barely a hill!), my sons are New Englanders and my weekends for the forseeable future will be spent in New England.

For three summers, now, we have camped at White Lake State Park, which is a lovely combination of rustic and convenient. We have driven over the Kankamangus on our “Car Walks” in foul and fair weather. And I’ve been lured, I confess, to thinking about hiking those trails branching off appealingly to the sides of the road.

This weekend, a strange collection of events made it possible for my beloved husband and I go camping up there, BY OURSELVES. After the 4th of July trip, replete with great whining, we were wondering whether we actually LIKED camping. (In retrospect, camping is less fun with a massively swollen knee and several torn ligaments – FYI.) The answer by the way is yes – we do like camping!

Yesterday after a leisurely and late morning, we went to the ranger station for the White Mountain National Forest for advice on trails and to buy a parking pass. The advice was greatly needed, since Irene had actually closed the Kankamangus. The ranger pointed us to a moderate 4 – 6 hour hike, which was exactly what we’d asked for.

Little did we know he was a maniac. The route in question was originally intended to summit Mt. Chocorua by way of Champney Falls. It gained roughly 3000 feet over the course of 3 miles. Much of the trail looked like this:

Our heroine, winded, less than half way up.
Our heroine, winded, less than half way up.

Other sections of the trail were steep and had bad footing.

Sadly, good sense caused us to turn back .6 of a mile short of the summit of Mt. Chocorua. (There were thundrous looking clouds overhead and I was concerned regarding whether we had enough daylight to safely navigate our way down.) But altogether, it was a splendid hike. I’m delighted to report that my knee, shredded as it is, endured remarkably and gave me hardly any trouble the entire hike. It was a lovely farewell to mobility for me.

Of course, drying my foot in the shower that night (see also: civilized campground) I managed to activate my torn meniscus and I am once again limping and moaning, but that’s not the fault of the Champney Falls trail!

I have backpacked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier – much of it more than once (and sans ACL, by the way). I have hoisted 40 pound packs over 7000 foot high glacier-ridden saddles between great mountains. I have watched eagles soar beneath my feet and clouds break on the shores of alpine meadows like waves. This trail was as mean as any I have known, and I have known many.

Over time I have come to realize that these tame, worn-down, solid, glacier-riven granite mountains of my adopted home are, perhaps, shorter than their younger Western siblings. You may be able to drive your station wagon to the top of Mt. Washington. Coming down from the Kankamangus, you may have your choice of (bad) burgers and beer to slake your hunger and thirst. But for all that, these are no less mountains. Their trails are no less treacherous and difficult. Indeed, perhaps they are more so. My beloved Cascades flaunt their glory and majesty. The White Mountains are crafty and guilesome in their old age, revealing their splendour more in their rainment than in their bodies. But, grudgingly, I am coming to respect them. Perhaps even to like them.

We’ll see how this goes.

Mt. Chocorua

Here are some more pictures of the summer