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.
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*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.