Mountain Oasis

 

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View of Mt. Lafayette from the deck of the house

We’ve just come off a 12 day trip to New England, most of which was spent in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. I had been looking forward to the trip ever since we planned it in back in February. Not only were we to take up the challenge of a half-marathon in the heart of the Green Mountains, we were also reconnecting with our tribe-our children, sister, niece and closest friends.

Emily and I at the summit of Artist’s Bluff

I love the new life I am building with my husband. He makes me laugh every day; we are true partners in our relationship. I am grateful that I am in a situation where I don’t I have to prove myself with every breath I take. Also, I have really enjoyed exploring some parts of this new landscape in addition to re-establishing myself as an educator in a supportive and positive school community. But hiking and being in the mountains is one of the things I miss the most about living up north.

If you are neither a hiker nor a runner, it may be hard to understand the joy found in the challenge of a long hard run or a long hard climb. Or even the purpose of arising early in the morning to begin the trek! Although my half-marathon time was slow and the hills nearly impossible to run, the landscape raised me up and the weather cooperated by staying cool. I was so happy to be there! Rolling hills, farm houses, red barns, fields of green and friendly folk enveloped by misty mountains had a medicinal effect even during the hardest parts of the race.

One of the best cures for post-race muscle fatigue (besides yoga) is a good, solid, short hike. My husband and I chose the Sterling Pond Trail at the top of Smuggler’s Notch. At 3000′, it is Vermont’s highest trout pond. With a 1000′ elevation gain, it proved to be the perfect antidote to the previous day’s rolling roads. Slippery, wet rocks and muddy paths were rewarded by the view at the summit.

Sterling Pond, Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont

I knew this was only the beginning of finding my joy and, despite my aches and pains, I was ready for what the White Mountains had to offer us for the rest of the week.

Upon our arrival at the house in Franconia, we were greeted  by this view:

Mt. Lafayette on a sunny afternoon

My eyes welled up. I felt as if I was coming home. And indeed, home came to us in human form as well. My friends rented a place five minutes down the road and we shared many a meal and hiking paths together that week. My sons and stepdaughter arrived a few days later along with my sister-in-law and niece. We had girlfriends, boyfriends and other young adults added to the mix. At times, it felt like herding cats for hikes, but in a good way. Emily and my youngest  and his girlfriend (along with my sister-in-law) were always up and ready to go. And truly, everyone else was a good sport about heading out and attempting (and completing) the climbs.

We talked a lot about finding the joy in the challenge. For me, it isn’t only about reaching the summit, but in touching the earth along the way.

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Wildflowers across from Cannon Mountain

Being in the mountains makes it possible to be embraced by nature in ways that living here does not. The silence, the evergreen scents and sounds and the refreshing tingle of cool air are a reminder of how blessed we are to live on this planet and the need to preserve it.

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Arethusa Falls, Crawford Notch

 

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A Day at the Beach(Elevated!)

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Anyone who lives in the Northeast region will tell you that the weather can change on a dime. We can have gasping heat as summer says goodbye one day and near frost temperatures by the end of the same week. Tonight as I write this, a cool drizzle has begun with promises of a rainy day tomorrow.

But yesterday, oh yesterday was indeed a brilliant Sunday! Perfectly warm with no forecast of precipitation. A day planned for one final ascent before our October challenge in 13 days (weather permitting!). Mt. Osceola-considered to be one of the 4,000 footers in the region-awaited our arrival.

For me, the  trip up is one of jittery anticipation. While I do extensive reading about and preparation for each hike, I am aware that one can never fully know a mountain until the boots start walking. The road to the trailhead lies seven miles off the highway on a barely paved then gravel road that is closed in the winter. Wilderness camping spots sporadically dot the roadside. No luxuries here. Seven miles feel like seventy when we finally locate the parking area. Full already with eager hikers like ourselves, we park the car roadside along with others and check in. I eschew the porta-potties for the privacy and cleanliness of the woods, risking only a mosquito bite or two.

The mountain will be busy today but not overly crowded. Merely populated by others like us who are seizing this day, for we know old man winter will visit soon enough making treks like this a little less possible. We lose daylight in just over a month and the climate in the higher elevations (even as low as this one) changes rapidly.

The ascent is one of large rocky switchbacks surprisingly easy on the legs and lungs. The cooler air in the woods helps to keep the heat at bay just a bit but I am soon down to a mere singlet. I lead and my son chats away about work and other things. Conversation comes easy to him here as opposed to other venues. We are in a natural rhythm as the trail climbs higher with slanted rock and delicious muddy puddles that my boy delights in tramping through-still so much a playful child but this time with waterproof steel toed size 14s!

When you work hard and sweat, it is easy not to feel hunger but hard to ignore thirst. We drink a lot of water but I begin to feel low on fuel. I am hopeful the summit is just minutes away, judging by the changing skyline. More blue than green tells me the top is close and I can’t wait to eat!

Sure enough, it appears in all its glorious beauty. We are smiling at not just having arrived, but at the vastness before us. The granite turf is filled with many others cheerfully chatting and feasting on their well deserved nourishment and drinking in the view that is like no other we have seen this season.We take a big break and move closer to the ledge-a front row vista in real 3D!

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(Me in shadow, thankfully!)

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(The boy’s gunboats and the infinite expanse are a good match!)

Reluctantly, we take our leave of Nirvana. Admittedly, I dislike descents. Unlike my son, whose large feet propel him with seeming ease over slabs both large and small, my lower center of gravity has me twisting and turning and landing on my ass (always at least once every time!). But it is a social event as well. Dogs, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, groups of friends older than me, clearly glad to be anywhere but mostly here. We stop to let others come up past us and I recognize a woman who is climbing with her friend. “Excuse me, but do you go to South Church?” I inquire. She does and quickly confesses that she is not in church today (neither am I!). I always find it humorous when this happens-as if one has to feel guilty for some reason. The party behind assures us that we are a congregation and we laugh. I am sure our pastor would not mind at all. My son once again is amazed at the fact that I ran into someone I know somewhere far from home (It is true; it happens quite often).  He says that even if we went to Europe, I would see someone I know!

While each step down brings me more fatigue, I am filled with joy for this day. There’s an energy to this place that inspires one to keep on going. I’ll have to hold onto that feeling and bring it to my everyday life and harness it for the next big climb.

 

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Trails, Tales and Tails

Credit: www.taylorlenz.com

Sunday morning dawned perfectly. Cool, slightly humid and cloudy. My youngest son and my closest friend were headed up to the mountains for the day. I had spent the previous few days picking out a location and preparing the gear and gorp for the trip.  I was confident and excited; the hike was considered “moderate” and we had options to attempt other trails in the vicinity as time and energy allowed.

As we pulled into Emily’s driveway, her gorgeous black lab stood at the doorway. He is a special dude as far as labs go and I thought it would be great for him to join us.  He was unsure of where he was going (new car and why is Mom with me in the back seat?) but was quite delighted when we stopped at what was to be our first spot for the day.

Much to our surprise, the trail that we were originally going to start out on was inaccessible due to a bridge wash out. The woman at the desk gave us an alternative destination where we could pick up the trail a few miles up the road. Now, when you get to this part of the mountains, you have to do a lot of traveling in one direction in order to turn around to get to the other side of the road. This should have been an omen for the rest of the trip, but hey we were prepared, we could go with the flow. Time was on our side anyway.

After parking and checking our gear and the map, we set off. The dog was having a good time with the exception of the fact that he would bark at hikers coming from the opposite direction (it was his first hike-still a pup at 18 months despite his 75 pound size).  Soon, however, he became distracted by the presence of another dog whose company he kept for the remainder of our hike to our destination.

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We were feeling just fine, having hiked for about 1.6 miles over fairly easy terrain. I was looking at the map when another hiker peered over my shoulder to sneak a peek at possibilities for him and his kids. As we were chatting, my son gave me his secret signal- “You wanna try for the summit?” said his eyes. And if you know my friend Emily, you know she is always up for an adventure.

Now, I had already knew that the trail took on what was described to be a “rock scramble” as it got closer to the summit. Never mind the fact that it was also a 4,000 footer ( the Easter hike was 3,755). Of course, we had no idea what the rock scramble was actually like; but in these parts, climbing large slabs of granite are par for the course. Plus, time was on our side anyway.

So we set off into ignorant bliss. We were working hard, the sweat sharing space nicely between our backpacks and backsides, soaking our hair and dripping from our chins. The trail grew loud with a  silence so rare that we stopped for a bit to listen.

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And then the going got a bit tougher. Huge, somewhat slick slabs with gaps between. Not too hard for a human but terrifying for our four-legged friend.  At first the beast (as he is lovingly called from time to time), would stop to think about his next move.  But after one too many of these, he decided that he’d had enough. He started to walk back down the trail!  We managed to get him back and we commenced a new means of getting him through the rough bits.  We thought by showing him how to get up, he would follow along. This did work for a while but then he would stop again.Then Emily lifted his front paws onto the rock followed by his hefty rear. I don’t remember how long this went on but it became a series of stops and starts with my son taking over the role of the Dog Whisperer. Between Emily’s heavy lifting and my son’s sweet encouragement, the dog began to gain confidence.

And then the moment of absolute doubt and absolutely no turning back. The big boy just sat. Tired. Ready to give up. My son had climbed a few yards ahead, relaying the news that the next bunch of rocks were sideways.

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Impossible for the dog.  A risky possibility for us. Other hikers were descending at this point, having completed the summit from a much more difficult trail with ladders!! 

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They were certainly feeling the challenge of the descent and were not heartened by the news of what lay ahead just as were equally discouraged by the lack of a good trail alternative. They suggested we take the tram down for the dog’s sake.  (We were truly fine physically but exhausted mentally and the idea was tempting.)

As we were pondering our possible fates, the party that was at the lake caught up to us and brought with them it a bright spot of encouragement. First, a way to bushwack through the woods and second,  a mere 500 feet to the summit!

Once again, the butt lifting began, with me holding the leash, sitting down in case the dog pulled and sent me rock bouncing. Success! He made it to me as I quickly handed the leash to the Whisperer and began a series of slow twists upward in order to right my body for the remainder of the climb. The walk in the woods was easy and we were relieved that the summit was within reach while at the same time feeling a bit nagged about the descent.

My son and I climbed the summit tower with views that were stunning and affirming of why we like to hike.

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The dog rested and drank a bit, observing the endless “tourists” who arrived via the tram. This particular mountain is overwhelming popular in winter as a skier’s destination (one of many in the area) and the tram is put to full use in season by those who love the sport.

I have to confess here that I could not turn off the voice in my head about the dog not being allowed on the tram. But I did not to speak out loud about it until we knew for sure.  We took the short walk over into the noise of fast food, a bar and seemingly endless people. Sure enough, no dogs allowed and no real help from one of the operators about a good way to get down. Until… a wonderful man who works  at the food counter suggested we go down  a ski trail that while longer, we get us closer to where we wanted to go.

Now, I know hiking is not allowed on these trails, but I had a feeling that 1) he felt sorry for us and 2) this might be one they suggest to desperate hikers off the record! Going down the trail only validated why I don’t ski; you have no choice but to go fast for long periods of time at the whim of gravity. But the dog was great and we got down in an hour.

And there we stood at the base lodge.  Thinking about hitching a ride, then ditching the idea. We started to walk ‘south’ to the car hoping to find a path. We came upon a state park and asked directions but the teenage girl only confused us and we only confused her. ( In reality, she knew what she was talking about!)  She did suggest we take the bike path, warning us that they don’t usually let pedestrians on it (second time in one day we bent the rules).

Onward we trudged. Anxious for the end. We came to the inevitable fork in the road. Right or left? Which way is south? No sun to act as a guide. The notch’s highway above a beacon of hope. We go left. It starts to rain.  The path is eerily quiet with just one viewing of a cyclist.

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Next, a beautiful bridge with a view of a 5,000 footer my son wants to climb some day.

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And then I realize something is not quite right. If we were going south, the mountain would be behind us on the other side of the bridge! We go back and forth about this for a bit, walking further, then stopping to get out my phone.

Now you may be wondering why we didn’t use any of our phones in the first place. Truth is, we thought we were going in the right direction. Plus, I am not in the habit of using it as a GPS regularly; it never crossed my mind. Until now. And we were so wrong.

At this point, Emily was ready to sit at the park with the dog while we walked back to the car. A seven minute drive and probably a 30 minute or so walk. Then she spies a group of 3 people and their dog.  She walks quickly toward them yelling “Excuse me, excuse me!” She explains the situation and they happily offer us a ride. Of course, they can only fit 2 of us in the car with their dog so my son and I agree to hop in with these complete strangers who looked like they dropped out of the sixties. Beads, bare feet, flowing clothes and a cold bottle of wine in one of their backpacks that was clearly being consumed by just one of them. Her glassy eyes and dreamy look were a dead give away.

I am realizing as I write that this is the first occasion in which I have accepted a ride with strangers!  Possible dire scenarios streamed through my head but I had to dash them and trust nothing bad would happen. Plus, my son is big and strong and tough. Nothing like good physical reassurance!

Penny and her brood were nothing but sweet and when I mentioned that my son probably would love a beer now, the younger woman offered some of her wine. He politely declined as we made small talk about memories in the mountains.

At last we arrived back at the car (actually in 7 minutes!). We said our goodbyes only to be heartily greeted by two other strangers who were hanging out at the car next to ours. We were quite confused and were thinking that maybe something happened to the vehicle. Something did; but not what we expected.  The gentleman handed us a note that he was going to leave us if we didn’t come off the mountain soon. Here’s what he wrote:

                      Hi,

I am apparently an idiot! It is my gear in your backseat. I though it was my friend’s car, and when her keys wouldn’t work, I apparently locked it, then went to ask her what the secret was to getting her car started. My car keys are in the pack, so I am stuck here. Please call me at xxx xxx xxxxx to try and connect.

My son and I burst out laughing. Nancy and Dan were relieved. Of course, of all things, we had forgotten to lock the car up!  All of our valuables were with us, thankfully. This incident just added to another set of unexpected events.  Once Dan got his gear, they invited us down the road to his car for a beer (see, wishes for a 21 year old can come true!). We explained our situation and told him we would join him in half an hour.

We hit the Notch highway hard, trying to remember which exit to get off. Nothing looked familiar but a sign on the right indicated to me that we overshot the one we wanted.  We quickly got off doing 60 mph in a 50 zone, found a turn around and head south once again. Tires were definitely squealing as my son righted the car ( another 21 year old’s wish come true I suppose!).

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At last we found Emily and the beast! We told her our new tale and of the invite. She was game of course!  The clock said happy hour anyway.  We got to Dan and Nancy quickly, relaxing with  a PBR and Long Trail, swapping stories and relaxing before the long ride home.

On the drive back, we reflected upon our day, at first thinking “Well if we hadn’t decided to go to the summit or “if we hadn’t decided to bring the dog”…. But really that is just silly. We were safe. We had plenty of fuel and gear. We were physically fit. The decisions led to us to one of the region’s more beautiful vistas, a sense of accomplishment and meetings with perfect strangers who helped us remember that most of humankind is generous and good.