Before I was even home from my day of climbing Mt. Chocorua, I was thinking about the 48. If I was going to set out on this journey, I had better start it now. Winter was fast approaching and who knew how much I would be able to hike through the end of the year. The question on my mind was where to start? My legs were still shaky on the trails and certainly, I could not just jump right into the bigger mountains. I mean had anyone started this journey by completing Washington and working their way down in elevation? Surely, that would be a feat but not one that I really wanted to consider. I was not even sure if I could tackle Washington let alone any of them. I knew that I had some research to do when I got home. After all, Hurricane Irene was coming and things were effectively shutting down (including my beloved White Mountains). I laughed at this thought… It’s a rainstorm. Nothing special. Nothing like North Carolina. In fact, as I was driving down I93 from my Mt. Chocorua trip, it was not even raining yet…. My phone chimed into my thought process with a message from my older brother, telling me I should try Mt. Moosilauke. And so, I arrived home to a week’s worth of research and gear gathering.
Of course, the first thing I seem to look at is the elevation and discovering that the mountain is 4,802ft at its high point; I am both thrilled and nervous. The three thousand footers were great and I was able to climb them with a moderate challenge and still I found myself wanting more. This wanting, I took as a good sign that this project had some longevity. And the nervousness I experience is more of a nervous wonder for myself. Can I really do this? More importantly, can I continue to do this on my own? At some point, the trips have got to get longer and a lot more complicated but I’m up for the challenge. At this point, there’s only one thing to do and that’s begin it and give it an honest try. Feeling as though I have not completed anything really challenging in my life, I’m ready to set out and climb no matter what gets thrown at me. More importantly, I want to do this before I turn forty next year… “Possible? Let’s hope so”, I think to myself.
I determine that my gear would need to be increased. I begin picking up first aid kits, a rain jacket, and more socks (I swear you can never have enough socks). I luck out and find a great pair of waterproof hikers that should be good though the fall and winter. Winter? I didn’t think I would be hiking in winter… But you just never know. This was an adventure to see how much I am capable of and to push myself a little. Winter hiking was not out of the question. I would make that decision closer to the time the snow flies up north.
On a Friday night in early September, I begin my usual rituals. Gathering my gear and packing my pack. Gone are the unnecessary items such as books and other baggage that I had been carrying thinking that it was something important. I replaced those items with extra clothing, the new rain jacket I had bought, my first aid supplies, food and water, and of course extra socks. My small backpack was almost over packed it seemed. The reality was that I had just enough gear to get me out of a jam for a day. I had decided what my route would be and marked off the map in my book of hikes that I promptly packed. I was all set to go. If only morning would get here and if only I could turn my mind off so that it would get to me after a good night’s sleep. After all, I had been looking forward to this next leap all week. And no matter how bad my weeks had seemed, I was always looking forward to hitting the trail on the weekend. This hobby had truly given me something that I could look forward to. A little peace to end my week with a walk in the woods. What would I see? Who would I meet (human or animal?)? And these walks gave me the opportunity to process the events of life that seemed to get shoved aside for work or other distractions.
Saturday morning came after a decent nights rest. The cat was getting use to me rising before the sun and maybe even being gone for extended times. Although, she also knows that my guilt will make it up to her upon my return. I pack up the car, make my traditional PB&J and I’m off for the White Mountains… Again. Music to accompany me and that allows the thoughts to just pass through without too much dwelling. I’m feeling the week slip away with each mile that passes. Approaching the parking area, it seems dark and kind of grim. I face the car heading out, lock it up, and get my pack on my back. A man approaches me wondering if I am with a group that is supposed to be hiking.
“No. Just hiking for the day solo.” I explain.
He smiles and wishes me a good day of hiking the trails. I am reminded about how friendly and supportive hikers can be. No one ever tells you that you can't do something and they are all helpful and ready to cheer you on to the summit. He explains that the group is Dartmouth College freshman orientation students that have been hiking all week. Today was the final hike and that there is a party at the end of the day for them. I smile partly because I remember my college days and partly because, I’m almost forty and this guy thought I was still in college. I found the trail head and headed down to begin my ascent. I was greeted by a sign that warned of storm damage from Irene and my mind automatically seemed to think that this hike would be over before it began. Everyone I knew said it was an easy hike so; I put the sign out of my mind. I signed in with my emergency information (just in case). I would later learn the importance of a safety plan. I continued walking, over rocks, and water, and roots, and dirt. There was a pretty unstable looking bridge and a stood to ponder if I could balance an make it across. I decide that it was possible and find myself on the other side. Again, I keep waling following the brook until the trail just stops. I look down and it’s washed out from the storm. I look to where I need to get to and I wonder how the heck am I going to manage this one? I’m not a fan of high water crossings but I climb down the bank anyway. I stand and look at the other side that I need to get to and start rock hopping. A reach a point where I’m going to have to either get my feet wet because the water is too high or I’m going to have to turn around. Then I remember that I have my Teva’s so that my feet will be OK walking on the rocks. I change my foot wear and hurl my boots to the other side of the trail. The water is like ice and I’m quickly over to where the trail picks up again. I realize that I don’t have towel so, I need to use the flannel shirt that I’ve got tied around my waist to dry my feet. I look back at where I was and I’m proud for not giving up and turning around.
“It’s not about giving up and calling it quits. It’s about figuring things out and keeping going. It’s about overcoming things and admiring the view. No. It’s not about quitting for me.” I speak to no one except myself.
At about 3300ft up, the gloom is replaced by sun streaming through the trees. I felt it touch my face and I smiled from the warmth. It was a steady climb to the top now. Winding my way through the woods, I would be faced with the occasional set of rock stairs. These, I was getting use to and on this mountain; they were indeed stairs that seemed to be very evenly placed. It was easy to climb them without too much trouble on the knees. Turning one switchback on the trail, I am greeted with an opening and I notice that the clouds have not only returned, they are coming down to meet me. I raise my eyes upward and take in this sight. I’ve never had a walk in the clouds but I believed that today, I would experience just that.
As I continue walking, I break through the tree line for the first time and while I wish that there was a view for me to admire, I am happy that I have made it this far. Hikes for me are not always easy and today's had been more than a challenge for me on a few levels. I had made it this far though. No turning back now.
The trees were shorter and the rocks were more prevalent. I was presented with a field of grass as I moved through the cloud that seemed to situate itself over the summit. I had two thoughts: One was how odd it felt to walk through a cloud (heavy air and sort of like walking through a wall of water). And the other: Why was there a field on top of a mountain? Then, as I moved past the field, I saw the summit… 4802ft. I made it! I put my hand against the sign and smiled. Snapped a picture since it looked as though no one else was up there with me. But looks could be deceiving especially in near zero visibility of a cloud.
I settle after getting out my rain jacket and pull out my PB&J. I'm kind of disappointed that there is no view for me to admire and at the same time, I m happy fro this experience in the clouds since I had never had it before. I hear someone in the distance threw the harsh winds and dense cloud cover…. “Get her.” He says with a laugh. I think nothing of this but I look around to see the silhouette of a man in a small group by a broken down stone shelter. “Go get her.” He says again. I now wonder what he’s talking about and I’m getting more than a little concerned for myself. I see something black running around and think that it must be a dog…. A small dog which I am not a fan of. As I go back to my sandwich, I am greeted by the small black thing that had been sent to “get me” and I realize that it’s a cat. A cat on a summit? Really? I am invited to join the group and I find out that it’s a group of Dartmouth students that had been hiking all day. I did not get anyone name but I did get the story that the cat was the older hikers traveling companion and that he’d trained it to sit in his pack while they hiked the Appalachian Trail.
“My cat could never do that.” I thought to myself and as quickly as I thought that, the group disbanded and I was left to finish my sandwich.
I prepared to descend the mountain and left the summit with a renewed sense of accomplishment. The trees began to get larger again and I quickly found that the sun was out at the lower elevations. There truly was a cloud just hanging out at the summit and I got to experience a walk in the clouds. As I was descending through the trails, I came across a group of geocachers who were looking for a treasure.
“You’re hiking alone?” One of them asked.
“Yes. “Was all I could say as I felt a little put off by the declaration? As if hiking was something that needed to be done in a group only.
“I could never do that.” The woman commented.
“Well, everyone has their own way of getting up the mountain.” I tell her with a smile. As if because she could never hike alone, no one could hike alone. I keep walking down the trail and leave them to their treasure hunt. In truth, I could not be bothered with her comments about hiking alone.
As I am walking back to the car, through the trails and by the house where the college kids were having their beginning of the year party, it occurs to me that it’s really not about the mountains. It’s not about the elevations I’ll be climbing. It’s not even about the trails I’ll walk on. It’s about my chance to see where I can take myself on my own two feet with no one motivating me but myself. It’s about me trying to accomplish something that in reality few have been able to accomplish (even though it seems like the whole state of New Hampshire is hiking the 48). As I took my pack off back the car, it has yet to sink in that this is going to be a very interesting journey through myself and the forty eight peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. And the question occurs to me…. Where am I going next weekend?