Hiked On: September 24, 2022,
Normally we hit the "usual" route, whatever that is. We have books and there are recommended ways to do these things. This trip, however, we chose a different approach. That happens sometimes when off-hike schedules and other issues conspire to require something different. This time there was also a less-used trail we had heard good things about.
There was strange weather predicted for the weekend, too. Early fall in the Whites can mean some fairly eccentric moments. We had planned to hit Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette but there was a cold wind coming through. With that in mind, we didn't feel like contending with freezing temperatures and ice on the exposed ridge. Instead we climbed Carter Dome; heading up Bog Trail to Wildcat River Trail, to Carter-Moriah then down the little-used Rainbow Trail to the Wildcat River and Bog trails again to the car. It was an adventure that took us what felt like forever. There were sketchy river crossings, a visit to the Carter Notch hut, a hang out near the top with some old guys we met on the way, and a fabulous descent that made the first part worth it.
This was a hard hike. It required a certain amount of mental discipline as well as physical exertion to get to the top. We started late for us--around 8:30--the air was clear and cold but there was plenty of evidence of rain the day and night before. Also, all the trails were littered with fallen branches, leaves and sometimes whole trees thanks to the windstorm that still packed a depleted but potent punch. Al and I saw a few other people as we went along. Mostly they were the usual sorts of hikers moving at slightly faster clip than our own. We got out of the way for each group to pass.
One group coming down consisted of a father and a daughter. He had an overnight pack on. Presumably he stayed at the hut where we planned to take our first long rest. The daughter was probably four or five years old. He was carrying her as well as the pack but seemed very cheerful. They had spotted a moose earlier and wanted to know if we had seen it. Sadly, we had not.
The hut is located in Carter Notch. On one side of the notch is the back end of the Wildcat ridge that boasts a number of peaks and a ski resort. On the other is the Carter ridge. We took a break and thought about plans to perhaps stay at the hut when we hike the Wildcats. We also talked to some backpackers who had spent a hairy night camping on the ridge. The storm winds pelted them with ice. They were in good spirits but very tired and hungry. We left them to their recovery lunch and moved on up to the Dome.
Carter Dome is steep and rocky while also--for the most part--encased in trees. This is actually part of why we chose it. The trees broke the wind somewhat. All around us were shards and chunks of ice, some still falling from the branches above. We were all a little damp and cold, changing layers every few minutes. That is the thing with climbing the tall mountains. The weather is different in different layers. It is why it can be so hard to get a view sometimes. It is also why--if you choose to respect what nature is telling you--new approaches and plans are made.
The Carter-Moriah Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail, so it always feels a little like US Route 1. It functions like that, too. No matter what one has plotted, it is likely that there will be a part of it that hops on to the AT. This is where--on any given day--you will encounter the most hikers. We ended up leapfrogging with a couple of amiable groups on this section. The slightly faster ones kept taking long breaks at the few lookouts along the way.
The other group was made up of men in their 70's who called themselves the "Gluttons for Punishment." Their mission--by their own description--is to "go on stupid hiking trips." They kept the mood very light, which I think we all appreciated. Their behavior reminded me a bit of hiking trips I made in high school. They ran back and forth between each other with a certain manic glee. They also made many, many, loud and self-deprecating jokes that the rest of us only vaguely understood.
After a long break at a false peak our combined group finally hit the actual top. There was no view for us to linger over...just a busy intersection of various trails. There was also another largish group who had decided to listen to music through one of their cell phones, broadcasting it far and wide. The music thing is truly annoying and a bit of a mood breaker. We have encountered this phenomenon before like its a mid-'80's no-walkman situation and there isn't another option. Here we all went our separate ways. The other two groups started over to Mount Hight where there are better views. We decided to start down on the Rainbow Trail. We had heard there was plenty to look at there.
At some point I will make a list of my favorite trails. However, so many of them can only be reached by hiking another trail that the list seems impractical for planning purposes. Still, some are better than others, obviously, and this one was special. We had actually noticed as much in our research and it was part of the reason we took the less travelled route. Rainbow is relatively unknown for so popular an area. When I told the Gluttons about it, they thought I was teasing them. We had to pull out maps so I could prove it existed. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is not well-maintained and a bit overgrown, but we were never lost or even confused.
Three things stand out. First, some thirty seconds below the peak we hit a section with absolutely no sound. Some trick of the landscape protected it not only from the wind but also from the noise of the music at the top. It was unique and very welcome. That deafening silence continued for a while. Shortly after the wind sounds resumed, we emerged on a flat place with some of the best views of the day. We could see the Wildcats and get a peak of the Great Gulf and Mount Washington still peaked in clouds. We could also see the massive pile of Carter Dome and Mount Hight. All of this was framed by more distant peaks. The weird point of Chocorua helped us identify some of them, many of which which we (or I or she) had hiked before.
That view was the second thing. The third thing that stood out was that it added about two miles to our trip. The trail hooked way out and then drifted back toward Wildcat River Trail. Our patience was worn pretty thin by the end as we counted about 13 miles on the day. I have mentioned earlier that every hike feels a little too long. In this case it had taken us more time than we had thought. We started later than we wanted. We also had a three hour drive home.
Our car was there in the lot waiting for us, however. We were almost the last to leave.
After my climb up Black Mountain, I went apple picking. I had noticed the place on my way to the trailhead and was tempted. Then the woman I talked to at the peak told me her family works there. When I was younger and the children more pliable, Al and I used to take them picking quite frequently. It got us out on a Sunday afternoon and was a low-stress social option for adults and families alike. Also, in the end there would be apples. Who can complain about that?
I grew up working for my grandfather on school vacations and during the summer. He had apple trees. That said, the apples--like the extensive garden next to it--were for family use. The big sale items on the farm were Christmas trees, actually. Also, he contracted out to raise heifers for Heifer International. He cut hay for himself and other local farmers. He grew corn and other crops primarily for the heifers. Once he boarded someone else's sheep for a while.
The apple trees were the personal passion of a guy with plenty of passions. They would be pruned and the pests abated in the off-season. Then we would harvest them throughout the fall and put them in barrels on the porch, pulling them out when we felt like it. I remember sitting on that porch the day before Thanksgiving munching apples while waiting for my cousins to arrive. I did this more than once.
At home we had apples, too. There was a big, old apple tree whose variety is best described as "green and wormy" along with a couple crabapple trees. My mom--not to be outdone by her father--built a cider press in our yard. We would spend days grinding apples and squeezing them, producing gallons and gallons of unfiltered, unpasteurized apple-and-bug juice that we would start drinking immediately. Jugs of the stuff would go down in the basement for safekeeping. Then it would slowly ferment through the winter. We usually ran out in early March.
As an adult, of course, the whole process has been a bit more commercialized. It is safe to say that the cost per bushel and peck is substantially over the free-with-labor rate of my youth. It took me a while to get used to that. There is something strange about paying to work instead of the other way around.
I have learned, of course, that this is how the local orchards survive; preserving an endangered economy along with varieties that would be hard to find otherwise. That there are more than Macintosh, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and Cortland apples in the grocery store is a direct result of these orchards maintaining their many trees in all their variety.
This is part of the fun, of course. One place we used to go to when we were younger parents had a tree that was older than the memory of the family that ran it. Every other year those apples are the best ever. On the off year they taste like rotting grass.
Nothing compares to an apple so I don't know how to describe the flavor. They taste like fall, family, and farm work to me. I am going to pretentiously say they taste like America, or, rather, its best parts. That said, there are sweeter ones and less sweet. Some outliers have their own thing going on that can be pleasant or really not pleasant depending on the environment they are raised in. The taste also depends on the mood of the eater. Even the varieties themselves vary by tree.
Let's talk variety for a minute. When I was growing up it was either the green wormy variety or Macs at home. Mom still insists on Macs to this day. My grandfather's fruit were varieties of Golden Delicious although some of the trees were more delicious than others. Maybe because of how may of these particular apples I ate when I was a kid, I tend not to get them now. Also, I am not fond of off-season varieties. They are mealy and taste a bit manufactured.
It turns out only two members of my immediate family can be counted on to consume apples in any quantity. One is me. The other one is still living in a tent somewhere in the Appalachian Range. This means the demand these days is low. Usually, therefore, I forego the whole event of picking and just buy a half-peck of local apples that are in season. In fact, that was my plan when I arrived at this particular apple place. There was a school bus full of small children. There were family groups with their seniors. It appeared I was the only one flying solo and the smallest bag for picking is the $14 peck. What a frivolous pursuit for a serious middle aged man! At least that was my initial impression and fear. Then someone in front of me--probably a decade or so younger with a couple bags if donuts--bought an empty peck bag for himself, too. That was all the peer pressure I needed.
In the end I had a good time. It wasn't the full-on picking experience of some of those places closer to home. There thankfully wasn't a petting zoo or a pony ride. They sold cider donuts in theory...but that guy in front of me bought the last. There were also a few corny hand painted signs but they kept themselves to defining the boundaries of various varieties and warning people not to bring their dogs. The environment was pretty no-nonsense for an operation like this, which was just what I was looking for.
I took my bag and spent about 20 minutes filling it with Macouns and Paula Reds while munching on a Cortland held in my other hand. One of the painted signs said I could eat on the job; "Sample, Don't Feast!" After the Cortland I had a Paula Red. It is early in the season in New Hampshire--and the bigger apples go in bags for the orchard store anyway--so the apples in the field are small and tart. You can't find them at the supermarket like this, where the ideal of the big, puffy, red or green, unblemished apple reigns supreme. Maybe I will make a pie, but really these should be eaten straight up, on the porch.
It wasn't like when I was a kid. I didn't prune these trees, or mow between them, or fight the battle of the bugs. I did not feel like a farmer. However, I got my hands a bit dirty to get the freshest new apples I could and that is enough for now.
HIKED ON; September 21, 2022
Anyone who has ever made their hobby or passion into a job will know that it changes the relationship. I first did this with preaching. I have always been a performer. When I was in high school I was a theater kid. Somewhere in the back of my mind has always been the thought that I was most myself holding forth on stage and at the lunch table back in my senior and junior years. Now I am a pastor and there are lots of different parts of that job that have nothing to do with performance. Still, when I am in the pulpit I am happy. It is where I should be.
However, this type of performance is a job now. I have to take all kinds of things into account when preparing my worship services. I think about the people I see in church every week. How are they doing? What are they thinking about? I think about the seasons of the town and of the church. Are the kids in school? Is there a holiday or liturgical element I need to think about like water gathering, baptism, or communion?
Now it is sabbatical and I find that I am being rather businesslike in my approach to hiking as well. What is my schedule of mountains? What does each require? How is my body feeling, not for this one hike but for the next and the next? What do I hope to get out if it? Gone for now are the days of spontaneously hitting the trail, understanding that I can take all the time in the world until I do it again. This temporary change in relationship isn't bad...but it is different.
This was something of a pragmatic hike. I chose "Black of Benton" for a number of reasons. Partly it was because it is beyond the area I plan on exploring closely in October. The geographical diversity seemed desirable for right now. Partly it was because I wanted a moderate hike. I haven't climbed anything other than a flight of stairs since Mount Washington and need to stay in shape for larger hikes coming up. I also must make sure I don't injure myself. Black Mountain--a 52WAV mountain--fits the bill with an out-and-back trail of just under four miles and an elevation gain of just over 1,600 feet. I can be challenged and still recover in time for the next one.
Finally, there is an apple picking place just a few miles away. Not all outdoor time needs to be strenuous! My plan was to get a good workout with a full day pack, catch some views, and eat some apples without straining or pulling anything that would inhibit the next battery of hikes.
Another result of the temporary relationship change is that each hike feels a little bit like an appointment and obligation. There are days--I assume we have all had them--that contain an abundance of entropy. This was one of those days. Careening out of the parsonage at 5am I managed to lock myself out. Later, with that sorted, my car let me know that I was losing tire pressure. When I was figuring out what to do about that, I discovered that one of my water bottles had leaked all over my bag, my dry layers, and the maps and guidebooks I brought in the car with me. Somehow, though, I managed to hit the trailhead at 8:30, only an hour after my target time. I am not sure I would have persevered to that point if I didn't feel some responsibility. Apparently I have a schedule to keep.
This "hiking like its work" element had invaded my psyche. I have to admit that on this day in Benton I started way too fast. Maybe some of the stress of the morning influenced my mood. In any case it took me a while to figure out the office mentality I had brought to the trail. I specifically chose this mountain because it would be challenging but not exhausting. Yet there I was 30 minutes in...trucking right along and wearing myself out.
A socked-in scenic overlook--the views never really materialized--helped to slow me down. I waited for a minute to see if the clouds would blow away and then I turned around to see the remarkable stand of trees I was about to walk through. In the pause I was able to refocus.
If you are a mountain, you get to be called "Black" for one of two reasons. Either somebody with that surname lived on or near you for a while in the 18th or 19th century, or the trees that grow upon you are among the many varieties of dark-shaded conifers that grace our landscape. This Black Mountain--like most--falls into the latter category. Black mountain is full of tall old trees that from afar give it a gloomy appearance. On a rainy day in September, though, to be in among those dark trees is downright mystical. This slowed me down. How could I be missing the scene around me? Still, there was that feeling of work. The hike was still partly a task. I told people I was going to climb a bunch of mountains, after all.
One thing that I do in overly-businesslike situations is to actually add a fun and perhaps frivolous task that I can rationalize into being part of the project at hand. Enter photography. I had always wanted to do more with pictures. I was also a photographer in high school. I dressed all in black and did extensive studies of local gravestones. In my senior year I could be found either in the darkroom or near the stage. Just like hiking regularly, taking pictures slipped onto the back burner with the rise of work and children. To slow myself down on Black mountain I decided to try to figure out what capabilities my cellphone camera has. I always meant to, but there was the perpetual issue of something else going on.
To take a good picture--or even a "just okay" picture--one needs to slow down and observe the context. This is what I did. The 19th century nature writer John Burroughs tells us that "There is nothing in which people differ more than in their powers of observation. Some are only half alive to what is going on around them. Others, again, are keenly alive; their intelligence, their powers of recognition, are in full force in eye and ear at all times."*
Observation is one of the key steps to creation and creativity. That can be a sermon or a story we are making. It can be a picture, or a sabbath walk, or any number of other creations. Burroughs--writing in a shack in the middle of his vineyard--made a practice of observation. We should too. Sometimes I need to trick myself into thinking it is part of work...albeit a happy part. Maybe we all need to find ways to think of it as part of our being.
In the end I had a great time noticing the striations on the rocks and the emerging fall colors. At the top of the mountain I set a timer for 40 minutes to sit and experience the space I was in. After about 20 minutes a very chatty woman and her dog came up off the trail. We sat their talking and--unsuccessfully--waiting for the clouds to part for about 40 minutes. Then we hiked down.
I left my new friend to go check out the old lime kilns at the foot of the mountain. Limestone is relatively rare in New Hampshire but this operation was quite large. They would heat the stone in these massive structures and the resulting lime would be used in agriculture and construction. The kilns were built in 1838 and 1842, operated for 50 years, and then were restored as a WPA project.
I would have stayed longer there if it weren't for the presence of friendly-but-barely-controlled dog. It was full-fantasy mode. After a few more pictures I went back to the car and life...or whatever.
I did go apple-picking. That, however is a different post...
* Burroughs may be worth checking out. This quote is from his essay "The Art of Seeing Things"
I am in the process of catching people up with some early hikes and other encounters with nature that I thought people might find interesting as part of a "How It Began" (HIB) series. Mostly this will describe specific hikes and perhaps some lessons learned along the way...if there are any. They are meant to be short and, perhaps helpful in some way to other hikers or fellow-travelers. I will post the dates of when I hiked a specific mountain since the ones in this series are NOT posted at or near the date I actually hiked them.
To add further confusion, I am not doing them in order! Here is a post about a winter hike. We did so many and have posted so few...
Today is the second day of my sabbatical and I am getting restless. Yesterday was all indoor work to prepare for various events to come. I arranged hiking companions and started on a schedule. Today it is raining off and on and I wish I was somewhere other than my living room. Oh well...I do have a pile of used books for the sabbatical and I can start breaking in to them.
To keep the content flowing I have a couple of relatively easy hikes that we did in the winter. Winter hiking is its own thing, with special equipment and special rules to follow. It is not like downhill skiing. Winter climbing requires a trudge uphill, after all--causing wide fluctuations in body temperature if one is not careful--and there isn't a lodge nearby most of the time. Some people--including my wife Allison--claim it is easier to hike in the winter. The dips between roots and rocks are often filled in and there is the ease of butt-sliding down the larger peaks. I am not sure that matters in the total summation, though. The packs are heavier. We are heavier. Also, with the cold and ice we have a whole new way to mess ourselves up.
Still, the views are something else. There is a whole winter-wonderland vibe that is different on the trail. Also, the trails are quieter. Many hikers hunker down for the winter. Others ski or sled. There are still people on the weekend but--as always--if you get out on the trail early or during the week, you can have plenty of space.
Anyway, the two hikes. They are relatively close to each other and both sport some of the best views-for-effort in New Hampshire. In the regular hiking season there are generally thought of as the easiest of the 52 With-A-View list. Whether you will find them easy is subjective, obviously, so be advised!
Mount Willard: Hiked on December 30, 2021
After our first hike up North Kinsman--which was less than ideal--we decided to get some more winter experience on smaller mountains. Willard shares a trailhead with Mount Avalon, one of my favorite mountains. We had hiked that after a long day of peak bagging in the fall. We knew that whatever Willard had to offer would be equally stunning...and include snow. It was misting a bit ("spitting" is the term I grew up with) and we moved on up with some trepidation concerning the weather. That said, the fog hanging over the snow was pretty special.
The trail was mostly straight. It just went up, and then up more steeply. However, true to the conventional wisdom, it wasn't so bad! The snow had indeed rounded out many of the edges. We shed layers as our bodies warmed up and then added them back on for breaks. Layering is a key element of the whole winter hiking experience. We need to pay even more attention to our bodies with this new weather development. Snacking is pretty key as well. It is a good idea to eat something (a protein bar or a handful of GORP) right before starting. It will give your body something to do at the beginning and the energy is helpful as well. I also found myself sucking on hard candies most of the time. That may have been for morale reasons.
After a while we hit the top and the clouds began to part. The only others up there that day were fellow peak-baggers testing out their Christmas gifts. In the clear winter air we were treated to highly technical conversations about hats, gloves, backpacks, and snowshoes. No doubt they were treated to ours. We actually packed snowshoes for this trip but did not put them on. That said, we wore micro spikes the whole way. For some other hikes snowshoes were essential. We want them when the trail isn't quite as broken out or if the wind has caused drifts. However, the spikes were always on otherwise. They are essential kit. Don't do serious winter hiking without them in your pack or on your feet.
One great feature of this climb was that the clouds had begun to part and the sun warmed the top. It was rather relaxing to plop down on the snow in our winter gear and take a break to soak in the view. Finally, though, we turned to head down. Honestly with was a lovely half-day hike for us, which helped me, at least, feel like winter hiking was something I would be able to do. The trail is 3.2 miles round trip with only 900 feet of elevation gain. The reward is a fantastic look straight down Crawford Notch.
Mount Pemigewasset Hiked on January 8, 2022
This was very similar to the hike of Willard in most respects. The view in this case was of Franconia Notch. The folks at the peak were more 52 WAV peak baggers and the whole vibe was very relaxed. It was a touch longer (3.8 miles) and quite a bit steeper (1,250 feet of elevation gain). Also, it was a cold, clear day which brought with it different challenges but, of course, a view untroubled by clouds.
This hike was not without its challenges. The steepness got to us and our post-holiday bodies so we needed to stop a couple times to catch our breath. Some of our water froze as well and we needed to re-pack a bit. The trail was icy in places which gave our micro spikes a work out on the way up and the way back. I do not love winter gear...but it is necessary.
There was one incident that reminded me of the importance of layering and of modifying your layers. The temptation is just to keep on hauling but, really, that can be a bad idea. On our way down we passed numerous groups heading up. Like I said, it is considered an easy mountain and--unlike our Willard walk--it was a beautiful day.
It was also a big vacation time in the Whites and a number of people who probably had spent part of the week skiing decided to take a hike, instead. Most of them were fine. However, there were a number of groups with children who were way too bundled up. Steam was rising from the open spaces in their heavy jackets and they were screaming bloody murder trying to tear them off while their adults were forcing all that gear back on. A few adults were in the same situation as the kids. They all looked like old fashioned cars with burst radiators still trying to move forward.
It is important not to be afraid of removing layers as well as adding them. We all know from sitting in our driveways during the pandemic that if you are staying still outside, the goal is to be as warm as you can be. However, with something a physically trying as climbing a mountain, it is more important to maintain a safe and comfortable average temperature. This requires using that big pack to take off and don clothing throughout the day. It is annoying and slows you down, but it is really for the best. I always start a little cold, knowing that I will warm right up when I move. Al always puts on a warm (but packable and lightweight) jacket for the first ten minutes then stops to take it off. Either way we are often bundled at the top where the wind chill requires it and we always wear hats and wool socks...and carry spares.
Anyway, the drama of the descent aside, this was another fantastic hike that is probably doable for a lot of people who want to try winter hiking. I would suggest starting with Willard or Watatic as a shakedown. Then Pemigewassett and bigger peaks await. Actually we finished early enough from our Pemigewassett hike that we did another and explored Flume Gorge...
Not all walks are literal. Not all adventures take place in our world. When I got bored on a hike when I was a kid my mom would suggest I pretend to be a hobbit on a quest. A love for Lord of the Rings was--and still is--something we share. We also share a profession and, I think, these two things are not unrelated. It takes an active imagination to go through life living into the idea that there is something else beyond our existence. It is an act of both faith and imagination to try to make that dreamed-of world more of a reality.
Of course, having an active imagination is not always looked upon with affirmation. I am a child of the rigid adult-centered culture of the 1980's. The "satanic panic" that tried to lay the problems of the world at the feet of teen gamers (among others, including rap and metal musicians) was acting out of the id of a conformist culture. Fantasy, science fiction, comic books, and other outsider art presented something that wasn't really new but seemed strange and subversive in a corporatized society. Even today--when so much of that literature has been co-opted and sanitized--to be interested in a speculative universe puts a person on the outside. Being a little "nerdy" is in vogue. Being an actual nerd...well...that is still tricky isn't it?
In a sense--and from a certain view--this criticism has weight. To think outside the box in a way that does not have remunerative value has to seem strange if the cultural "good" is tied up in acquisition. However, the serious, rational, commercial world is neither fun nor humane. I believe that imagining others worlds may make our own better in the end. I believe it is necessary to do so, in fact, if we are to escape what we have created for ourselves. After all, we thought-up this way of doing things. I bet we can do better.
This leads me to a pursuit that has taken a certain chunk of my time for over three decades; tabletop roleplaying games. Right now I am in three regular games that meet somewhere between once and twice a month. The newest of these is one that I run with adult members of the church. It is a beginners' game, for the most part--there is one old-school LARPer--and we struggle to find time to meet. That said it is fun to get together and work through the rules. I am the "Dungeon Master." I keep the story flowing and play every character that my players do not play. Theoretically that is an entire world. I have gamed with many of their children over the years. Now it is the parents' turn.
In a sense that is my only actual D&D game. By this I mean it is the only one that uses a version of the official D&D ruleset. It is also the only one where we meet in person. Another group meets over zoom and isn't Dungeons and Dragons at all, but a rules-light horror game that emphasizes improvisation. I play a variety of characters doomed to madness or death. The dice rolling is saved for crucial high-risk moments and the rest of the time we act out our characters as we encounter difficulty. I do not run this game. I am a player, which is very liberating. The people I play with are either close friends or close friends of my close friends so the trust level is high. It is good sometimes to work though dark stuff with grace and humor, which is what we do.
A good tabletop roleplaying game needs geography, politics, and religion. It needs characters with motivations and depth well past what is provided in a 90-minute action movie or even in the most well-developed fantasy video game. It needs a world at least as complex as a quality novel. In some ways (because the players can literally travel anywhere) it needs to have eternal potential for even greater complexity. It also needs the commitment of the group--whenever they are able to be together--to build and live in to that world. In that way it is like church. It depends on its participants. Also like church, people are committed at various levels.
My own ability to participate is based on many things, the most basic of which is time. In each group I have been able to be more or less involved as the months permit. I wonder if I will have more or less of it during sabbatical. The last sabbatical I had involved developing a gaming world and then leading those children of my current church group through various scenarios. My plans in this area are less involved this time. I just want to stay part of the groups I am in right now. After all, I value the practice
So that is what I am doing. I am building--with others--three different worlds through acting out three different stories that are at least partly beyond our control. It is as vulnerable thing to do. Maybe that is what we are all practicing. We aren't just imagining. We are trusting. We aren't just building a story. We are holding out hope for each other and for the people we could have been...or in some sense are. This is part of the sabbath walk both when we are out on the trail and when we journey with our minds and hearts. I am delighted to get to collaborate with people in this way.
For the record. My mom's suggestion about pretending to be a hobbit wasn't taken well at the time. Hobbits spend a lot of time complaining, demanding snacks, and slowing the "big people" down. Still, living into a dream isn't a bad idea when the road gets tough, is it? There are ways to imagine out on the pathways of life. So I want to lift up five hikes that did, in fact, make me feel like I was in a fantasy novel. I could imagine some sort of magical, primordial "better place".
A quick note. None of these look like New Zealand. Also, Scotland--the only hikes I have done with castles on them--did not make the list. Don't make blockbuster movies your measure of what a fantasy hike should be like...
1) Mount Tecumseh: This mountain doesn't have much of a view from the top, but as a journey, it has all the feels. There are endless stone stairs and moody groves of old trees. When I hiked it there was an abundance of moss and fungi strewn about. Every once in a while you can catch a glimpse of a view down one of the ski trails which themselves--if it isn't winter--have the feel of an abandoned ancient civilization.
2) Mount Norwottuck: This mountain has to be on the list as the final hideout of Daniel Shays and his rebel farmers. It isn't fantasy, exactly, but there is something to being in a place where a variation on Robin Hood's band truly walked. Also, while the rest of these hikes can really knock you around. This one is easy and fun.
3) Mount Jefferson: This mountain is full-on "Houses of the Holy". The massive rocks and the wind whipping around the top as you navigate the relatively bald ridge make this place exciting. Be sure to pick a trail that loops around the peak so you can peer down into the Great Gulf. Just try to ignore the road heading up nearby Mount Washington.
4) Mount Galehead to Mount Garfield: This was a hard hike for me. We took a connector trail between the two peaks but it was beautiful. It has much of the same vibe as Tecumseh with the added benefit of massive views off of Garfield. Start early, though. It was over 16 miles and we finished the last couple hours in the dark...which was also like a fantasy novel.
5) The Osceolas: This was early in my rehab but this mountain had some epic hobbit hiking moments. Also it rained. Wet, rainy days are hard for hiking but they are atmospheric. I hiked this mountain with my brother, Dan, who loves and collects wild mushrooms like a real life (and very tall) hobbit.
6) The Kinsmans: I would say that North Kinsman the first time we climbed it definitely fits into the "Cruel Caradhras" category. Winter hikes naturally lend themselves to fantasy settings. After all, ice and snow make a wild place even more wild. Just...be safe OK? In fact, there are also some winter hikes that I haven't written up yet. Of these the Hancocks--a very difficult run in my opinion--definitely would have a place on this list. Also, much easier and very elfy Mount Willard would make an appearance. Liberty would have had the fantasy vibe but there were too many people out when we did it.
So much of this is situational, isn't it? I will stick with these, though. On the day I hiked them they were fantasy-novel perfect.
Wandering on through the notches which the streams had made, we at length crossed on prostrate trees over the Amonoosuc and breathed the free air of Unappropriated Land. --Henry David Thoreau
This photo shows our route pretty well. You can see our path up to the Ammonoosuc Hut through the trees on the right. The hut and the pond are just visible. That pointy rock in the middle behind the hut is Mount Monroe. The trail to Washington is clearly visible across the ridge and up to the cairns in the foreground.
Hiked on September 10, 2022
Remember in my last post when I talked about why I hike? There were five reasons listed in descending order. First, I hike because of the spiritual connection it provides as I find ways to become part of "creation". Second, it is an aesthetic experience, witnessing the beauty and the "silence," though the silence is often quite noisy with wind and critters. Third, I can escape the suburbs, their dense population, and skewed values. All three of these were the primary motivators for that hike up Watatic in Massachusetts a day before attempting Monroe and Washington in New Hampshire. If these were the only reasons I did what I will describe now, it would have been pretty disappointing.
The good news is that there are two other motivators for me. In fourth place is the mental challenge of a hard climb. At fifth place is the physical challenge. This was a day to practice perseverance in the face of mental and physical challenges. It was a day to do a hard thing and become stronger.
Mount Washington, in particular, looms quite literally over its landscape. We have seen it from many tall peaks and--still looking up--wondered how one goes about tackling such a prominence. Frankly it put me out of sorts a bit and I had to find ways to not become overwhelmed. Also, it was a climb. Even the "easy" way up Ammonoosuc trail to the hut, over to Monroe, back to the hut, across Crawford trail to Washington, then down Jewell is demanding. What people don't realize about these mountains until they climb them is that height is only one measure of difficulty. There is also the length of the trail and its condition. The Whites are basically gigantic rock piles. You cannot stroll so much as pound and scramble much of the time. There was a lot of that, plus the heat of the sun.
We parked at the base station for the cog rail that goes up Washington. There was, of course, a bathroom and a snack bar here as well as a train. In fact, this loop probably has the most amenities of any hike I have ever been on. Needless to say I was way too wired for this. After a couple of awkward encounters with folks in the parking lot (nothing bad, really, just that my enthusiasm was a bit much) I managed to calm down enough to get going.
The walking, itself was pretty straightforward. Ammonoosuc (also called "Ammo") made a relatively straight--and very steep--line for miles toward a hut on the ridge between Washington and Monroe. It was a crowded day on the trail. Conventional wisdom among NH peak baggers dictates that if you are guaranteed good weather for Washington, you drop your other plans and nab it. I had wanted to do the Wildcats. Al wanted to climb Lincoln and Lafayette. The promise of a clear day on the biggest mountain, though, was impossible to resist for us and for a ton of other people.
It was good company, however, and their presence made the walk go easier. Some of them were up for conversation after all. This is key to my hiking experience. Talking--either to myself or someone else--gets me through the hardest of days. All along the way we would encounter knots of slower moving people taking breaks. We were passed as well. As happens, however, after about an hour we fell in with about three different groups leapfrogging each other to the ridge. It was nice to encourage and be encouraged by strangers as we struggle together over the hard parts. However, it was anything but isolated.
At the hut--more bathrooms, a snack bar, beds, and a water filling station--we turned right and climbed Mount Monroe. This was the high point of the trip. The peak rises steeply from the ridge and we found ourselves on all fours reaching out to grab the side of the mountain for stability. The top was relatively unpopulated. Apparently most of our new friends had not planned to hit Monroe. This was a plus. We weren't alone. However, it was a respectful crowd looking for the same thing. It was as close to reasons 1-3 as I got all day. I did a little recording for the church reminding them to go to worship the next day but avoided my usual panoramic video. The vibe among the groups wasn't right for that.
After that glorious climb we went back to the hut and started up to Washington. Here is where the physical challenge really began for me. We had already done most of the elevation for the day. Washington at this point was not as steep as the climb to the hut had been. Still, I had just gone up a 5,372 foot mountain and was attempting a 6,288 foot one. Mentally, too, I was tired and...there were so many people!
The views, however, were fantastic. As I wrote about Mount Jefferson, pictures don't really do the landscape justice. Even the unrelenting rocks were pleasant to look at. Scenery, plenty of water, positive self-talk, and good use of hiking poles got us the rest of the way.
Here is the thing about Washington, though. On tiny little Watatic I had the place to myself. Yes there was a slight hum from the road but there was no one there except wild animals and the wind in the trees. On Washington this was not the case. The large number of hikers were augmented by even larger numbers who had used either the road--yup road hum here too--or the train to get there. Hello suburbs! In 1858, when Henry David Thoreau climbed it for the second time, he encountered a hotel at the top called the "Tip-Top House". It is still there as an oddity next to the more modern gift shop, snack bar, bathroom arrangement that we were prepared to expect. Thoreau didn't stay long at the peak, disappointed by the encroachment. I will confess to having similar emotions. The "Unappropriated Land" of his first visit in 1839 is nowhere to be found now.
The trip down Jewell took a while. I was glad to be away from the top, though. There was a period where we marched single-file in a long line of fellow humans but--away from the cog rail--some modicum of tired camaraderie returned. The views continued to be spectacular and our spirits lifted at least until the tree line. For me every hike is about two miles too long. My feet hurt and I am tired of foliage. This was no different. When we saw (and heard and smelled) the cog rail and its base station, we were happy to be done. It had been quite a day.
I am glad I climbed Mount Washington--proud in fact! It was quite an accomplishment in many ways and I still kinda wish I bought a T-shirt. I doubt I would have been able to do it back when I managed to get to the top of Mount Roberts in July of 2021. If I had tried, it all would have ended in despair somewhere on Ammo. It is great to have that under our belts. Even though there are harder climbs to come, none of them are as symbolically important.
That said, I am not sure I would do it again without a specific reason. Monroe was beautiful and I may head up there then turn south over the southern presidentials. I am sure I will go up Jefferson again which is to the north on the other side. Washington is massive and inspiring. However, my step counter--not a good one, just an app on my phone--says that I worked about as hard as I did to climb Cabot and the Horn. It seems like I can get the challenges I require in places where the spiritual requirements are more likely to be obtained as well.
That said, if you haven't gone and you want a tough hike that people will recognize, get on up there when you are ready. You will be glad you did.
A stone on Mount Watatic in honor of when it became a local park. "Other stones in other places may commemorate the histories of people and things now dead and gone. This stone marks the site of a mountain that lived, a mountain that lives on because of people who cared, people who started with nothing but a dream and the will to work for it, until the dream became as real, as solid as this stone, as sure as this ground beneath your feet, as true as this mountain on which you stand, this mountain holding you up to meet the sky."
Hiked Most Recently on September 9, 2022
Most people I know--be they casual walkers or intense backpackers and peak baggers--have a favorite hike or walk. For some people it is the longest (or most difficult) trip they had. Maybe it is the hardest (or tallest) mountain. For others convenience and accessibility are key. Maybe there is a pretty spot involved. Sometimes it is a place where an important personal event occurred. As with most heart-centered choices, the reasons vary. For me, the decision really comes down to how it makes me feel.
What I want to talk to you about today has to do with the internal dimensions of hiking. We live in an anxious world. Some of us internalize that anxiety as we move through an era that tries its best to push us away from our center. Make no mistake, this is intentional. Anxiety (along with a number of negative emotions) makes us feel empty and unworthy. It also makes us buy stuff to fill the emptiness. The Man gets rich off our unhappiness.
I know this feeling very well. I start worrying before I get out of bed in the morning. I worry all day. Sometimes I worry in my sleep. Every moment of every day, even when I am doing or thinking about something else, I am anxious about something. What that thing is doesn't really matter. It can be big or small...but it is always there. So when I think about what I need in a hike, the "challenge rating" is not foremost in my mind. Availability is. Remoteness is. Primarily, though, I am looking for a chance to transcend that worry.
I want to be away from everything. I want to be insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe. I want to sink into my surroundings until I know that whatever personal failing or foible that is concerning me is insignificant, too. This technique is different from things like positive self-talk designed to build ourselves up. I am a believer in that too. However, when I hike (or walk or whatever) I am trying to find my way to a positive connection with the Divine. I am trying to be part of a whole that will lift me up as I swim in its current.
I want to snicker at the trippy prose of transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes in his book Nature, "Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." I can't though. Not really. After all--when I am out in the world trying to feel the wind in the air and the rock beneath my feet--what the heck am I doing if not stumbling toward the same thing?
This brings me to my current favorite mountain. A couple of posts ago I included a picture of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up. It is where I learned to connect with the natural world and where I learned a certain sort of nature-spirituality that stays with me even here in the suburbs where I live now. These days Bradbury is too far away to really be my current favorite. That said, it is a good indicator of what I am looking for. It needs to be near enough so I can visit when I need to. It needs to be far enough that I have the process of physical as well as spiritual journeying.
It also needs to be challenging enough that not everyone uses it for this purpose. It doesn't need to be--in fact it shouldn't be--risky. It just needs to be inconvenient. When I manage to strategically select my time, I want the place to myself or, at least, to be in the company of other people seeking the same isolation. I climb plenty of mountains and hike around a large number of lakes. If there are too many people--and I love people--then it is a different sort of walk.
So when I need to clear my head, Mount Watatic gets the nod these days. It is right of Route 119 (in Ashby and Ashburnham) and a little over an hour from my house. The climb can easily be made into a 4 mile loop by including Nutting Hill and heading over to the New Hampshire border at the end. It gets busy on the weekends and on many weekdays too. However, if you get up early, you can have the place to yourself.
This is what I did on Friday. I left the house at 4:45 and arrived a bit after official sunrise. I walked to the top--getting turned around a couple of times--and made it to the ledge just below the peak where I sat alone for an hour.
Watatic is a Monadnock which--as I have mentioned numerous times--means that it juts out alone over an otherwise flat landscape. Wachusett is easily visible. That is another great hike. To the north one can see a number of larger peaks across the NH border. It also serves as a trail end for the Wapack trail that heads up the Pack Monadnocks to the north. It is also the northern end of the Mid-State trail that heads south across Massachusetts. Or, at least, the NH border just beyond it is.
Anyway, on Friday I spent the hour at the ledge not thinking very hard. There is plenty going on in my life right now, which is typical for most everyone. We need to slow down and shake off some of that burden when we can. As often happens, this became a theme in my sermon Sunday. It was already a theme for sabbatical just around the corner.
It took a while to get in the mood. I put my bag down, had a snack, and wandered around the ledge trying to decipher the 19th century graffiti scratched into the rock. Finally, though, I settled in. After that there isn't much to say. I didn't make it to "transparent eyeball" status by a long shot. However, there was a moment when my brain stopped sprinting toward numerous finish lines. That was the longest period of not worrying I have had for a long time. Both my body and my mind were grateful for the break.
When I think about what attracts me to walking and what makes a "good hike" I can make a list.
I take sabbath walks because...
1) I can connect to nature, "creation," and God
2) I can to witness the beauty and the silence
3) I can escape the suburbs and the often-mindless busyness they represent
4) I can experience the mental challenge of doing something difficult
5) I can experience the physical challenge, too
All of these are spiritual reasons. They are good Watatic-climbing reasons, too. Does this activity constitute a "church"? No of course it doesn't. Churches are communities first and foremost. They have a call and a hold on a person. On the face of it, these are potentially solitary reasons even when they are shared among others. Still, they do form a framework for a discipline, or a prayer. They make a walk a "walk"--both literal and metaphorical--which gives me strength to head out into the world.
This may not be your bag. If so, what is? What do you love doing? Can you make a list like this one as to why? What is your "walk"? I would love to know.
HIKED ON: September 4, 2022
Not every hike goes exactly as planned. However, sometimes all your planning means you hike the hike anyway. The Mount Cabot loop is just outside of Berlin, NH and required an overnight stay. While Cabot, itself, is one of the shorter of New Hampshire's 4,000 footers (4,160 ft) the prominence--or the amount if climbing you have to do--is substantial. Also, I wanted to hike to the Horn, a slightly shorter peak that resides on the 52 With-A-View list.
I will write up a post at some point about the two lists I am hiking. Until then, you can find which mountain is on which list in the "Categories" section on this weblog. I will also post link to to more information at the bottom. What is worth knowing for this hike is that in order to take in both Cabot and the Horn, we needed to form a loop, crossing one more peak--the Bulge--in the process. Normally the best view--not surprisingly considering the list it is on--is the Horn. This trip, however, epic views were hard to come by.
Anyway, we woke up at 5 and drove about 30 minutes to the parking lot. Our starting time was a little before 6am. The "Cabot Loop" starts on Bunnell Notch Trail, hits Kilkenny Ridge trail, and then heads down on Unknown Pond Trail for a total of about 11.5 miles. It is not a technically difficult but...it is long and there is climbing involved so we felt like an early start was in order so that potentially, at least, we could drive home when we were done.
What we couldn't count on was the weather, of course. The peaks during this hike were socked in with fog. The whole day was humid and hot. Still, we were there as we planned...so we did it anyway.
The loop was pretty straightforward, actually. The first mile (as often happens) was flat and then we climbed. This trail did not have much in the way of rocky parts. It was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and avoiding the random trail hazards; small boulders, roots, and mud. The loop is not maintained at the same level as some but that was a plus after hiking the groomed trails and back roads of Scotland on the Great Glen Way. The soft earth was more hospitable by far!
Our experience on the Way certainly helped with this one. Partly that was because of the differences. It was so very nice to be climbing! We could feel certain muscle groups that were underutilized as of late. The relative ease of the footing will help to get us back in practice for whatever we climb next.
Near the top of Cabot, there is a hut and--the best of all blessings--an outhouse. We hung out there for a while and chose to continue even though the views were non-existent. Here our time in Scotland was useful. During that hike (you can check out the posts under "Great Glen Way" for more info) we had to focus much of the time on small things. In this case it had nothing to do with the elevation, just fog. In theory we should have seen something. Still, as we went along we noticed the diversity in the trees, the moss, and the prolific undergrowth. Mushrooms of various kinds were also in abundance. At one point I think we could smell them.
Also, there was mud. I haven't seen mud in months. Normally I am annoyed by how it sucks my boots in and forces me to alter my pace by jumping from dryish spot to dryings spot. This, though, was spectacular. The dryness has bothered everyone. It was great to see it again. This summer it has felt like mud is endangered too.
There is power in the details sometimes. This walk forced us to connect to the moment we were actually in. There was no spectacular aesthetic payoff at the end to work toward and then savor on the way back. The challenge on a day like this is to find joy in spite of the weather, the strain, and the discomfort. I think we did a pretty good job.
Once we got to The Horn we didn't even bother to take a picture of yet another bank of clouds. Instead we settled in to eat our snacks (GORP and power bars). We also passed the time with the others on the top. There was a family with young kids who camped at Unknown Pond the night before. They were fun. We talked to the parents as the kids scrambled around on the bald rock that marks the peak. We had a lot of the same interests. It was good to pass the time with people who were also enjoying themselves.
Then we chatted with a woman who was waiting for her family to come back from Cabot. They were all doing a an out-and-back. However, she didn't feel the need to bag the 4,000 footer as she had been there before. Besides, it was totally worthwhile to sit on The Horn and soak in the atmosphere. Everybody we met--and everyone I just mentioned was pretty much everybody, a rarity on Labor Day weekend--was in the mood for a walk in the fog. Everybody also found a way to experience and value the sounds, smells, and beauty of this off-weather day.
Will I hike Cabot again? I don't know. I may hit The Horn on a clear day when I go up Roger's Ledges nearby. Honestly though. It was a good day, sufficient in itself.
Like I said earlier, I do plan--there is that word again--to write something up about the two lists I am doing in NH. Most of the hikers I know are picking away at both but show a preference for one or the other. We are a divided family on that point. Al likes the 48 4,000 Footer list more. I lean toward the 52 With a View list because I like a view. Usually when I can hike with my wife we do the 48 list. This was fun because we knocked off one of each! Cabot was 26/48 for me. The Horn was 13/52.
We still haven't had much time for hiking since getting back from Scotland. Today--with everyone off at their various schools--I put on my day pack and walked a 7ish mile walk that I like. It starts and ends at the parsonage door. It cuts downtown. Then I loop to home through the Wellesley College campus. The college is pretty this time of year. It has this sculpted-nature look popular with Olmstead-influenced parks. The campus pretends to be wild around the edges but you can see the artifice behind it. Still, it is pretty and my body doesn't know the difference.
I probably won't be walking there for a while, though. The students are slowly returning and the place was starting to get crowded. I feel like I am in the way then. There is a certain energy and bustle at a college campus when it is in session. Everyone has a reason to be there...except me.
Walking around and thinking of the new school year I found myself reminiscing to myself about a hike I took back in March. It was a road trip with a hike in it, actually. That was when I drove my eldest son down to Georgia to begin the Appalachian Trail. I am not great at transitions, so I volunteered to drive to the trailhead and do some of the approach trail with him before he got on his way. I am glad I did. We took a couple days to get there and then we hiked for most of a day. I was with him half the time and then left him in a grove of trees chatting away with other through-hikers. They were speculating on the adventure rolling out before them.
This phase of parenting is strange. When my eldest was born it was all hellos. Slowly the goodbyes crept in and now the goodbyes are more frequent and more difficult.
I have seen the boy a couple times since. Once we got to spend a few days in Harper's Ferry at the symbolic halfway point. Once we took him and his friends out to dinner in Woodstock, New Hampshire for his birthday. They all call him "Trumpet" which is a cool trail name based on his tendency to rehearse before others get to camp.
Yesterday I helped his middle brother move into his first apartment with his girlfriend. It was quite a summer for both of them. He went to study in Oxford, England (this is the first sabbatical I will have that doesn't include his unschooling). She visited family in Michigan and got them both ready for the move. They are doing the sorts of things people do at their age. I remember a similar moment in my own life, of course. Here is the thing, though, each time is still the first time.
I was invited to visit today as well but didn't go. I regret it. Like I said, I am not good at goodbyes. They just live a couple hours away. It is a chore to drive out but doable. I think they will get lots of visits from many people. Neither his mom nor his girlfriend's mom have been able to get out there yet. I am already thinking about hitting them up next week and do some hiking in the valley. I also have a couple of nieces out there who might let me buy them lunch...
I drove the girlfriend's dad home yesterday and we were both in a thoughtful mood. We were remembering the kids we once knew and feeling proud of the adults they have become. They are great people and this new chapter is very exciting. I cannot wait to see what it brings.
I didn't go up today partly to give them some space but there is another reason. The littlest brother's first day of Junior year was on Wednesday. This is Friday. With Allison still away at grad school I thought a hello was in order for that boy, too. We will have dinner, talk about the week, plan for the weekend and probably watch TV. Then we will wait for Mom to come home. As with his brothers, I value the time I get to spend with him.
Anyway, I have gotten some practice at these goodbyes over the years. They aren't any easier and every time we reach this period, I wonder where the children are--the former children really--who I used to spend time with. The year Trumpet went away to college there were a number of other youth groupers who also went away and ceased to be youths. This morning walking through Wellesley College I remembered a letter I wrote to them all back then. Here is a part of it.
"I want to point out something that as kids you may not have noticed but that you might notice as you get older and hang around Eliot Church. What I hope you notice (because it is true) is that this congregation loves you.
Imagine Thanksgiving Sunday--the first one after graduating high school--and you go to church with your parents (actually some former youth groupers show up on their own these days). You get there at the usual time--right before we start--and the deacon at the door says your name and gives you a hug. Then when you sit down, the old woman in front of you (who you may never remember ever talking to) turns around to pat your hand and welcome you back. I may have waved to you from the chancel. Other adults come to say "hi".
Then what happens? We do church. It is just like it has always been except there are some new faces and a few people who aren't there. Maybe--now that you are a college student--you fidget a bit less. The familiar hymns sound better. Hopefully, even the sermon makes some sense. Then it all starts again at the potluck. You look around for your high school friends but it takes a while to get to them. It's those darn old people. The pastors want to talk to you and see how you are doing. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of your time.
Please be patient with us. Whether you remember us all or not, we are the people who saw you crawl down the aisle as animals in the pageant. Since that time we have witnessed your development. We saw you reach the exalted heights of "Innkeeper". We saw you sing in the choir, or play in the Ukestra, or do readings. We even saw you when you held back. We saw you at the ski trip and the baseball game. Some folks taught your classes (we hope you remember us!). Others didn't, but they still noticed you. Your parents have kept us informed of your adventures.
I could go on. We remember when high school got busy and you couldn't make it. Some of you might feel even that you "dropped out" of church. It doesn't actually work that way. We still notice--and appreciate it--when you do make it. We are always happy to see you.
The church--particularly a small church like ours--is a kind of family. We have always seen you as a part of that family. We keep a place for you. When you return to fill that place, it brings us joy. Next year, and for a number of years after, there will be a lot of you moving on. We know that is part of the drill. I hope that wherever you go, you remember us fondly. I will remember you and so will all those other people whose lives you touched and who touched yours.
Don't be strangers. You can't be, after all.
Faith and Hope,
Here is to all those adults who say their hellos and goodbyes to the young people they love and care for. Let us remember that there will be more hellos.
I am back at work now. Al is at grad school for the week. Sabbatical and more hikes are in the future but seemingly far away. With this summer in the rear view mirror, it seems to make sense for some final thoughts and...some cool links when I can find them.
First, I want to bring up some basic advice that might be helpful:
General Statement: This trip has some beautiful views and wild scenery. However, by the standards of hiking in the United States, this is not remote. Also, the daily cumulative elevations are not that high. This is worth factoring in to your plans in a number of ways. For us, part of the attraction was getting to see the towns we passed though and to experience something of Scotland in its entirety. It was less an exercise in survival as it was a chance to be tourists in slow-motion. I really feel like I have a sense of the Great Glen now that I wouldn't have gotten by skipping the middle parts and taking the train or bus to Inverness.
This may not be your bag if hiking your hike includes being out away from civilization for days at a time or if you want the challenge of climbing all the big peaks. If self-sufficiency is key then this probably isn't for you. Even the people camping were setting up near multi-use trails and in commercial campsites from time to time.
That said, it was challenging in many different ways, particularly as foreigners. There was plenty of problem-solving and there was plenty of walking. There were also new things revealing themselves constantly as we went along. If you want a physical challenge that also has those elements I mention above; people, food, culture, etc. This might be the right hike for you. Here are some thoughts based on our journey that might be helpful if you are planning to do it yourself.
Shoes: This was a bit of a sketchy area for me. One thing that I heard from everybody when I was researching this hike was that my feet were going to hurt. Part of this was the mileage, no doubt, but I have hiked plenty of long-mileage days. The biggest issue, actually, is the amount of road walking. The majority of the trail is on some sort of road. Usually they are small and picturesque. Mostly they are dirt roads. What is important to know, however, is that they are all very very hard surfaces. The impact of repeatedly stepping on them creates plenty of cumulative shock. For this trip I purchased a set of lighter and more springy boots than what I normally wear. I think they helped but I was in plenty of pain by bedtime.
If I had to do it again I would have probably gone even lighter and grabbed some trail runners. I am a big boot guy. Still, the more "trail" parts are not like where I usually hike. For the most part they were well groomed and clear of rocks, sticks and whatnot that might trip you up. Also, I may not have needed the level of ankle support I thought I did. As it was I had a pair of sandals and an old pair of sneakers for walking about town after the day was done and when I woke up each day I was not much the worse for wear.
Hiking Poles I had heard that I could not bring hiking poles in my carry-on. Since we had decided not to check our bags this meant I went without. In the end I picked up a single, cheap, pole in Fort William. I needed something! That said, pole users know that really to get the best effect you need two. Next time--if we ever manage to pull off a Scotland hike again--I will make sure to have two high quality hiking poles for the trip. It is what I usually have, after all.
I know that there is still a dwindling group of people who don't like poles or feel goofy using them. To me they are essential. Most of the time I use them for almost every step of a hike. They get stowed for scrambles but that is it. They save your knees, not just in the moment but for future hikes as well. They distribute your weight more broadly. They actually slow me down a little, which is a good thing. I suspect that my feet hurt more each day because I didn't have two poles on this trip.
Camping v. B&B There are a huge amount of camping options on this hike and there were a number of times I envied the campers we encountered. The lochs are beautiful. Also, even if you aren't on a loch, it is nice to be able to stop and start when you want to. We were bound to the schedule of our reservations. If we had more time, I think we would have at least considered camping more seriously.
As it was we chose to do it the way we did because of time. We actually had to finish in 5 days for family reasons. There was also the logistical bother of bringing our gear from the states. In the end it was a matter of expediency for us but I could easily see going the other way. Both are good options on a hike like this one.
Time: This brings up my next suggestion. Next time we will find a way to take a rest or low-mileage day mid-hike. As I mentioned earlier, this is a tourist trip as well as a hiking trip. The long mileage days meant that we could check out some things but not all of the things. We did take a day in Inverness at the end. I would have also liked another in Drumnadrochit or Laggan to do some shorter hikes and just soak in the atmosphere. Oh well. Maybe next time we take more time, camp a bit, and explore.
Day-Pack: This is not as relevant if you are camping through because you have everything and probably will re-supply in Fort Augustus. We carried relatively heavy day-packs. Part of this is habit. We do most of our hiking in the White Mountains where basic safety equipment--the "10 essentials"--are...well...essential. However, I think it was a good move in general. We each packed rain gear, a light extra layer, snacks, socks, water purification tablets, an emergency blanket, and tons of water. I also had a compass and a whistle.
The rain gear didn't get used, but that was because of the global ecological disaster we have gotten ourselves into. You cannot guarantee that level of dryness in Scotland. When we hiked a few years ago in the Lake District we basically lived in our rain clothes. The other things we brought are just sound. You do not know when you might need the safety gear. Also, even though this trail has all that road-time and there are some cute picks of tea shops, there aren't very many shopping opportunities if you are hungry or thirsty. Again, it ain't the hardest multi-day hike but 17 miles a day is still 17 miles a day. No rain means high heat as well. I carried three liters of water and drank about 2.5 liters every day.
Were there others who carried less? Yes. But I did not envy them.
OK, that is it for advice unless you can think of a question and want to ask, then I will update it! This next section is mostly links to sites or services that we liked. We actually didn't find much to complain about in general. It was a wonderful time. That said, in each of the days of the hike I noted a few things in the post that are worth lifting up again. There is also a link to each of the day's posts at the beginning of each section.
Day One: Fort William to Spean Bridge On the first day we hiked mostly along the Caledonian Canal to Spean Bridge past the Commando Memorial. The memorial is quite moving and worth a visit. However, it does at quite a bit of road mileage to the day. Finally, I gave a shout out to Hillwalk Tours who arrange our rooms and the bag service for taking our non-essentials to the next B&B. I cannot thank them enough. They made it so we could enjoy the walk without the worry of logistics.
Day Two: Gairlochy to Invergarry This was one heck of a day. We departed from the canal and walked farther above with occasional views down to the loch. Of note on this day--other than the amazing hike, itself--was the Eagle Barge Inn which is very much worth a stop for food and/or drinks along the way to your bed/campsite. Also, the grisly tale of the Well of the Seven Heads and the quite lovely Invergarry Hotel. These last two are on the Invergarry link route of the trail.
Day 3: Invergarry to Invermoriston This was a good day but mostly it was spent in the beautiful forest and the fabulous high route. We did, however, pass through Fort Augustus. We also took a moment on the Bridge of Oich which was early in the hike and probably still on the Invergarry link.
Day 4: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit This day, too, was all abut the high route. We saw the viewcatcher and way too many cool views. A couple more links are in order, however. The Loch Ness Clayworks is definitely worth a visit. Also, Al's favorite B&B of the trip: The Kilmore Farmhouse
Day 5: Drumnadrochit to Inverness I am going to buck a trend and say that Day 5 was my favorite day. The varied landscapes and the general adventure of it was wonderful. Yeah, not much for loch views but the journey itself more than made up for it. We walked through Drumnadrochit at the beginning and then dove into the forest. Of interest might be the Abriachan Forest Trust whose property we walked through. The Abriachan Eco-Cafe in the middle of the woods has the best lemon cake ever. Also we stayed at the Dionard Guest House who saved the day by booking us for dinner across the street at the Crown Court Townhouse. Also, you will note we found a good deck from which to watch people completing the Great Glen Way. That would be the Castle Tavern.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.