In the beginning…
First Blog Post!
It’s humbling to think as I sit here and write this that I’m participating in a tradition that includes such names as Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, Emerson and Thoreau. And while I would not include the quality or import of my writing in such esteemed company, here I am typing away, writing about the value of the outdoors. But whereas Thoreau desired to “suck out all the marrow of life … to drive [it] into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms”, the beginning of this journey is not so deliberate as that. It all happened rather by accident. In some ways I suppose this is what happens to all Nature writers: they set out to discover Nature, and end up learning something about themselves through a connection with the alien world they encounter.
The accident happened on July 20th, 2017, right around 9 am. I dropped my oldest son Logan off at camp Mi-Tena in Alton, New Hampshire for a month-long tenure as a CIT (counselor in training). The original plan was to travel with a group of friends (Jon Oullette, Pierre Castonguay, Jonathan Norman, Jared Bzdula and Bryan Faulkner—hopefully all you guys have found your way to this blog) to Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff Trail in White Mountain National Forest. But, being grown ass men with responsibilities they all had to work. Unlike myself, who chose teaching as a career—mostly for the great hours, fantastic pay, and awesome benefits provided to an adjunct—I have the luxury of Summers off, sans compensation. Having left my eldest son to his own devices, and having secured him with a sizeable fortune for his canteen to endure the first two weeks of camp, I plugged Frankenstein Cliff Trail into my GPS using the AllTrails app: roughly two hours to my destination. Did I really want to have to drive an additional two hours before even setting foot on the trail? No. I decided that I didn’t want to waste that much of my day driving, as I would already be facing a drive home that was probably closer to four hours than three. I am also in terrible shape. There are two possible trails for Frankenstein Cliffs on AllTrails. The “hard” Arethusa Falls trail covers 4.3 miles; while the “moderate” Ripley Falls loop traverses a more lengthy 6.9 miles. I didn’t think I could finish either one of these, so I decided to drive the much more reasonable fifteen minutes up the road to the Mt. Major Southern Loop: a 2.9 mile, moderately trafficked trail that I thought might be somewhat more manageable.
I pulled into the parking lot located on Rt. 11, just along Lake Winnipesauke around 10 am. At this point I still wasn’t sure that I would climb the mountain. My goal was just to get a solid hike in. Fifteen minutes in I already had my doubts. I haven’t really, truly, hiked anything even remotely challenging in a very, very long time. On my first water break, I started thinking about saying “fuck it”—the unfortunate motto with which I’ve lived much of my life—and heading back to the car. But it was just a passing thought. I figured, “I didn’t drive all the way up here to spend fifteen minutes on a trail and go home, so I continued on. Halfway up the mountain it became obvious that I did not bring nearly enough water for this hike; but I still wasn’t ready to turn around and thought I could probably make it. In fact, the thought to stop at a convenience store for water had crossed my mind on the drive up, but like I said before, “fuck it”. Not bringing water on short hikes at home where the elevation probably doesn’t reach higher than two or three hundred feet and where total elevation gained might not be much more than that is one thing; a rigorous climb involving over 1,200 feet of elevation something else entirely, especially with my 280 pound frame. Moreover, I haven’t done this in more than 20 years. Despite the fact that I’ve climbed Mts. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Chokorua, and perhaps a few others that I don’t remember, I’ve completely forgotten and totally underestimated the difficulty involved in hiking the mountains. Bad decisions: the story of my life.
About a quarter of the way up the Mt. Major, hikers following the southern loop have to decide whether they’re going to take the main trail up or take the more round about brook trail to the summit. I stopped and thought for a moment. “Which way?” I started hiking the brook trail. After perhaps 100 yards I turned around and headed back toward the main trail to the summit. I think this was the moment that I actually decided to attempt to summit Mt. Major. It was harder than I thought it would be. At least twice I thought I was at the top, or very near, only to realize there was more climbing—more and steeper climbing than I had already encountered. Out of breath, lungs screaming for air, heart pounding, chest on fire, legs burning and shaking, covered in sweat, bandanas unable to absorb additional perspiration… time to stop for a few minutes, sip and try to conserve what little water I had left and decide whether or not to summit knowing that I would have no water on the way down. At one break in the verdant tree-cover of the mountain, I thought I was pretty close. I sat to rest for a moment taking in the amazing view of Lake Winnipesauke and the surrounding range; the day was mostly clear, with only a slight haze to obstruct a hiker’s vision. In its own way the Lakes region is just as impressive as White Mountain National Forest and the views are just as breathtaking. While I prefer the rugged landscapes of the mountains, there is something to be said for the majesty of the open water. One finds perspective in the face of the magnitude of the world, and how small we are within it.
At this point I struck up a brief conversation with a small group of three or four hikers next to me who were clearly having a better time of it than myself. “I didn’t think I’d make it”, I said. “Oh, this isn’t the top”, one woman replied with a wry smile. I laughed a little, and they did too when I replied, “It might be for me”. But it wasn’t. I knew I was close and said, “Fuck it. Gotta finish.” This time I really was near the summit and made it to the top about fifteen minutes later where I sat to recuperate, finish my water and contemplate the surrounding landscape; but I didn’t spend much time there. There were a lot of people, perhaps thirty or forty, which seemed like a lot for a Thursday morning. Mt. Major seems to be a very popular destination indeed.
Down-hiking the mountain, the need for water—and the mistake I had made in not bringing enough—became apparent. My right bicep started to cramp, mainly because I was using my arms on the steeper parts of the descent, grabbing trees and limbs to slow my progress, prevent myself from having to jump from boulder to boulder or rock to rock, or land harder than I had to on my knees; and my legs were beginning to give; they were very shaky on the rocky parts of the descent. However, the brook trail lived up to its name. At first I thought it was the wind in the trees but soon realized the “breeze” was much to consistent: there had to be water nearby. I hiked about fifty or sixty yards off trail to the brook, crystal clear, bubbling and meandering through a series of boulders and smaller rocks. I took this opportunity to dry off, rest my feet, refill my lone water bottle, and hydrate. (If this were a tweet I would include #blessed.) I was alone for the first time all day on this mountain. I wouldn’t say the main trail was crowded, but very infrequently was there a time when I wasn’t being passed by groups of hikers. After a brief respite I continued on.
The hike down was very much uneventful, much smoother. Outside of encountering a father and son team who were running the mountain, I didn’t see any other hikers again until the brook trail met back up with the main trail. From there, it’s perhaps a fifteen or twenty minute hike to the parking lot on Rt. 11. In the parking lot I propped my phone on the “welcome” sign where hikers see the park map, read the rules, regulations, safety guidelines—like “do you have enough water?”, and “are you physically fit enough to hike this trail?”—and took a selfie. By the end of the hike, I began to think that today might be the beginning of something special and wanted to capture the moment.
This essay started by suggesting that this would be a nature writing blog in the spirit of the American Tradition begun by naturalists such as John Muir and Mary Austin, and continued by writers such as Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder. And in some ways this will be. However, I simply want to share this journey. Not in retrospect, but in real time, as it happens—or as close to it as my writing, revising and editing skills will allow. I don’t profess to know any of Nature’s secrets, nor do I desire to suck her marrow to discover them. In the end, I only hope that she will be a more powerful drug than the ones I’m used to. Aldo Leopold said, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot”. I like to think if I am not already one of the latter, I am fast becoming one.