Over the hill, past my peak, on my last legs, going downhill: all of these hackneyed expressions for aging floated through my mind – quite appropriately for a mountain hiker, I might add – as I tried and failed last month to reach the summits of two of New England’s highest hills.
J and I were on an 8-day road trip around New England, starting in Stowe, Vermont. Our goal was to hike for at least five of those days and attempt to reach the tops of Mt. Mansfield, the uppermost point in Vermont, and Mt. Washington, whose elevation of almost 6300’ is the highest in New Hampshire and all of the Northeastern U.S.
The first was in our grasp – easily in J’s, and probably in mine with another thirty minutes of good, hard slogging. With a slightly too-late start, intermittent rain, and my exasperatingly slow speed on the steeper, rougher ascents, though, we found ourselves on the final pitch above Taft Lodge in the early afternoon, calculating how long it would take to finish getting up, maybe slip and slide back down, drive back to the hotel, take showers, and waltz into a wedding on time.
Our guess was “too long” and we were correct, showing up only shortly before the bride came down the aisle. While I was very exasperated with myself for this failure, and remorseful at holding J back, I grudgingly gave myself props for kicking off the hiking boots after all those hours and managing high heels for the remainder of the day and night!
Between Mansfield and Washington, we did not just sit around eating Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot cheddar, and maple candy (and looking in vain for cider doughnuts) although those fuels may have been consumed in larger quantities than usual. But we worked them off, and more, on other trails in the two states, all in an effort to prepare for the big one – a hike up Mt. Washington, an assembly of tree root- and boulder-strewn paths with about a 4000’ elevation change to reach the summit. As it turned out, all those hours going straight up and down in the woods may have burned me out.
Juggling my absolute desire to at least BE on the top and to reach it on my own two feet, I vacillated on a plan. We contemplated going up on the first cog train of the day even though everything we’d read said we were going to need 9-ish hours to climb up and back down, and this would delay our start. We toyed with hiking up and catching the cog back down, but that’s the only ticket they will not sell you because there is never a guarantee the train will run if the weather changes suddenly, and it often does. Attempting the hike first and failing might mean we’d not see the view from the top at all as the trains stop running at 2:30 pm.
Dilemmas, dilemmas … and we’d already shot our chance to take the cog train the day before because we just didn’t want to rush through our shorter hikes and other rural sightseeing. We were there to relax and enjoy the scenery as well as conquer heights, we reminded ourselves.
And so we didn’t conquer heights, at least not fully and on foot, the way I’d wanted to. J didn’t even care that he hadn’t reached the summits, which he could have readily accomplished; he was thrilled to simply be out in nature and exerting himself. I, on the other hand, radiated disappointment and felt an impending doom, a portent of trail failures to come. I was always the hiker; I’d walked up iconic mountains all over the world, and J got dragged along the first few times. Now he was whizzing up the trails while my backpack felt heavier, my knees more quivery, my confidence shakier.
“It’s the journey, not the destination,” say books, friends, and inspirational posters. Bah! I enjoy the woods; I love the fresh air, and I adore walking all day long. But I don’t pant and scramble, claw and sweat for an entire day just for exercise or for fun. When I work that hard, it’s for a peak, or at least some target. By the time I realized we would not summit Mt. Washington on foot, I set the goal of simply getting above treeline, but we failed – I failed – even at that, spending hours and hours in the long green tunnels that characterize a lot of eastern hiking. We’d been wrapped in the woods for four days straight at this point, and I was sick of it. The forests that I generally love began to close in on me, and then my thoughts did the same, rendering me a crabby old lamenter of my departed youth.
We had ultimately elected to take the cog train that morning, which was a consolation prize of sorts. While it probably cost us the chance to chug to the top under our own power, I’m thrilled that we saw the summit views and meandered on the upper slopes for a short time on one of the sixty or so clear days the mountain gets per year. Score one after all.