It was my 39th birthday on September 11, 2011… I had planned on a party with a few friends to celebrate. Those plans were later changed to climbing yet another mountain on my list of four thousand footers. The [party was not exactly panning out and I was determined to do “something” on my day. Again, it didn’t much matter if I had someone with me or not. At this point, I wanted to hit the trails and it was as if a fire was growing inside me. It was as if life was coming back to me. I had planned on bringing a small cake along with my traditional PB&J and like most things in my life; the cake has to be different. It was a cayenne pepper and chocolate cake mix with vanilla cream cheese frosting and of course it all was, gluten free. I had begun the usual prep the day before with a family trip to EMS to pick up some new gear for my day. A new fleece jacket, waterproof pants, techwick top, and socks were in order. A new multi-use safety tool, a pack towel, Nalgene bottle, trekking pole, and a decent camp knife were also much appreciated. Equally appreciated was the support that I found in my parents. They seemed to know that this journey was something that I wanted to do and that I would enjoy doing. With all the gifts I had gotten that day, I was well on my way to building up my gear and also well on my way to needing a bigger pack. After a nice day with my parents, I began packing up and getting ready. There were maps to look at and routes to decide. The trail was easy enough… The Osceola trail at 4.2 miles out and back and covering two summits. As usual, I was planning this to be a solo experience. As I laid my head down that night, I smiled knowing that I was on the verge of something really important to me.
The alarm went off at its traditional hiking time: 4 am. I crawled out of bed and mumbled something to the cat. Probably something to the effect of, “Give me 5 minutes and I’ll feed you”. I was trying to get myself together and moving since sometimes its really tough waking up and 4 am was not helping me this morning. It seemed that no matter how much my mind said “get moving, you’re hiking a four thousand footer today!” the rest of me was a little slow. Of course, seeing as it was my birthday, the messages were already rolling in on my phone. I was happy for the acknowledgments and tried to tell myself that I would carry them all with me today. I gathered my things, fed the cat, and poured myself a big travel mug of decaf (Yes, I am doing this journey completely decaffeinated). With a quick pat on the head and my ritual saying of “I’ll see you later tonight, you have the house.” for the cat, I was out the door. Pulling the car from the garage and into the driveway, I was greeted by the most beautiful moon in the morning sky. I smiled and said a quick hello as well as snapped a picture and I was off and heading down the road.
The exit this time was the famous Tripoli Rd off of interstate 93. I say famous because as I use to drive this interstate to get to college, I would often wonder what was off that exit and why I was drawn to it so much? There may have even been a few feelings of “I’ll go down that road one day”. Now back in the present, here I was, going down that road. That road of course quickly turned to dirt and then turned to unmarked turn offs for trailheads. I was on my own save for keeping track of the mileage. I passed the trailhead and quickly turned myself around. Pulled into the parking area and was not surprised to find I was not alone. It seems that I am never alone when I am hiking. Well, except for the fact that I’m still considered a party of one when make out my fee envelope. I pay my parking fee and hang my tag off my GPS. I begin to unload the gear and get myself ready for the day. I hear a voice behind me.
“Are you hear for Flags?” the gentleman asked
“No. Nope… Just a solo hiker here for the day. ” It was my standard answer “What’s Flags?”
“Flags on the 48. On September 11th, a group goes to each of the 48 summits and raises a flag in honor of the day.” A woman who was with him joined the conversation and handed me a small flag. “You are now.” She smiled.
“Thank you.” I said. “It sounds like a great thing to do.” I didn’t want to say that it was also my birthday. Too much to explain and I wanted to get on the trail. Everyone was back to getting ready and I was heading off as the first one on the trail. Within 10 minutes, the trail was over 50 percent rocks and started climbing steadily. My head was filled with thoughts of the day. It was my birthday after all and it was also the tenth anniversary of that day… The day that changed our lives. The day that changed my family. My phone had ceased to chime with birthday messages so, I turned it off. I needed to conserve battery life.
As I was hiking, I was remembering the party I had been planning and how 2 weeks prior, I had just canceled it. No poll taken to see if I should. I just did. Knowing that there were some unreachable invites out there, I hoped that no one showed up at the house to find me not there. I figured that was not possible and still there’s always the ‘what if’… I put it all out of my mind as I continued to climb. I came to a section of new rock. By that, I mean rock formations I had not come in contact with. Slanted granite slabs that were slick and wet. They looked challenging from a distance but coming closer, I realized that I could just walk as if on a balance beam at the bottom. A kind of tight squeeze for the feet but it beat walking on the wet granite that I could slip on. I was enjoying the hike and the conversation with myself seemed to be lighter than normal. I felt like I was paying attention more to the trail and less to the thoughts in my head. I was finally actually looking around at my surroundings and listening to the sounds that the woods were making. Every now and again, the trees would part and I’d get views of the surrounding mountains. I still did not know the names but some of them I could tell were ski resorts.
As I climbed higher, I found evidence of moose and a lot of dog tracks. I came to some rocks that would give me a view above the tree line and saw the surrounding area. Again, it was a breathtaking and beautiful sight as the mountains mixed in with the towns. I felt really fortunate to be looking down and seeing all that was before me. From this high point, I made my way down a little and over to a ledge where a fire tower once stood. This was what people would call the summit however; I would later find out that the higher point was the actual summit. Since I stood on it, this one counted. Slowly people began to filter in behind me and also, the wind was picking up. The same gentleman and now 2 ladies that I met in the parking area joined me with a big hello and congratulations. It turns out that the gentleman was from Philly and the two women were from New Hampshire. They asked me to take a series of pictures for them which is something I am always glad to do. And they did the same for me. One of them shouted out… “What’s your number?”
“My number?” I questioned standing on the cement footing of the old fire tower.
“What number peak are you on?” She laughed.
“Oooh! Well, I guess this would be…” And I thrust out a peace sign for the number two and shouted back. “TWO!” And with that, she snapped the picture.
Deciding to hang out for a while and see what the fuss of the day was about, I settled in to have my cake. More people were coming off the trail and on to the ledge and they would comment on my food choice. I smiled and kept the reason to myself. They were up here for another reason. I didn’t want to hear the usual comments of “I’m sorry.” Or “Gee, that’s awful.” I just wanted to have my birthday to be quiet and unobtrusive. It sure seemed to beat the usual conversation to me. As I was eating my cake, the wind was picking up and I settled into my new fleece coat. I was thinking to myself that I should have also gotten some gloves and a hat but then I guessed I had another shopping trip to make after I got home from this trek. The ledge was getting crowded with people and dogs and everyone was really friendly. I heard someone calling after Abby who I assumed was a dog since I didn’t see any young kids on the summit. Turns out I was right. It was a couple and their rather spirited pooch. They seemed fun. I went about my business and packed up my pack. Stood and snapped a few pictures of the view. Noting that at one particular point, the clouds looked as if they were melting out of the sky. Feeling satisfied with my time on the ledge, I began to watch people leaving for the second summit. I soon followed as I wanted to get both peaks in for my day. I had left shortly after the couple that were with Abby the dog and managed to catch up with them.
At first, they were going to let me pass but I had explained that they were keeping a good pace and I would not mind following them. It was agreed but apparently, I would have to listen to conversation. Not really a problem I agreed. And with that, we were off. And I knew what was coming next…. The Chimney.
This was what looked like a particularly difficult section of the trail. I had found pictures of it on line the night before the hike and was eagerly and somewhat nervously looking forward to it. As we walked, my new traveling companions and I discussed the trail and alternately looked out for Abby who was having a whole lot of fun herself. The east peak of Osceola was only a half mile away so; we came to the chimney rather quickly. Lucky for us, there was a bypass which was billed as an easier way down but still tricky. Abby, seemed to handle the down well. Her human companions and I were a little more cautious. So, as we kept walking and talking, I found out that my two new companions were Chuck and Cheryl from Derry New Hampshire. They seemed fun and really friendly and I was grateful for the company which was a big shift for me considering my solo hiker status. I was really enjoying the conversations and getting to know them as well as sharing myself with them. We made it to the second summit of East Osceola and it was time for a customary summit picture. I found out that they were on their sixteenth and I quietly wondered if I would ever get there. When it came my turn I proudly held up my three fingers. There were more congratulations and a few Woo Whoos to go around. The summit itself was locked in the trees so; there was not a lot to stick around for. So we headed back and once again took the bypass over the actual chimney. It was just easier for the dog and probably a little easier for at least me as well. As usual, I really liked the concentration and the fact that I needed to use my whole self on section such as the bypass.
We arrived back at the ledge on Osceola and they were raising the flag in memory of the fallen so, we stayed back on the trail as to not disturb the ceremony. Once it seemed clear to pass, we joined the rest on the summit and continued to laugh and joke around. I was telling Chuck about the cat on Moosilauke throughout the hike and as we were talking again, we heard the familiar sound of a helicopter flying in the area. It began to get louder and the next thing we knew we were watching a fly by from our summit.
“Sure beats the cat on Moosilauke.” Chuck said to me.
“Way beats the cat. That was so cool.” I smiled.
I had told my new hiking companions that it was my birthday but thankfully, a big deal was not made. Again, I felt like I wanted to keep it quiet today. Mostly because I often feel that I share my birthday now and this was my year to just lay low. Next year would be big… I’d be forty then and done with my first pass of the 48 peaks. The helicopter made a second pass and Cheryl was able to get some good video. We exchanged email addresses on the peak and I hoped that I would hear from them again but I was not sure. We did part on the trail. I wanted to get home to see if any guests I forgot to uninvited to the canceled party showed up and to just have a quiet glass of wine to celebrate the beginning of what would be a very interesting year in my life.