I. Story Land

Among many of the badass women in New Hampshire history, there was the mountaineer Annie Smith Peck. The third woman to peak the Matterhorn, she spent the summer of 1897 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While visiting, she accomplished a feat known as the Presidential Traverse. She hiked the entire Presidential Range – a stretch of the most rugged rocks in the northeastern United States, gaining over 9,000 feet of elevation in 23-miles – in one day. Peck even admitted that one particular section was more challenging than anything she climbed before, including the Matterhorn. Few men had done the Presidential Traverse before – and one woman did in 1889, but she didn’t chronicle her adventure. Peck, however, drew considerable attention for one wild reason: she wore pants. At the time, women could be arrested for wearing pants in public. She’d carry a skirt and change before approaching crowds of people, but a photo of Peck wearing pants and holding climbing gear still made the rounds, defining her as a radical for the ages…

annie-smith-peck

A biographer of Annie Smith Peck described her as “a monster of persistence,” which is a badge I’ve decided to pin on myself. I grew up hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I still wander the primitive trails, deep forests, and rocky ledges. I won’t quit ’til I enter the realm of the wily pioneers and mad explorers like Annie Smith Peck. Sometimes I think that when I’ve had my share of this world, I’ll take a nice drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road and get out of my car, crawl down the Crawford Path, and hide under a rock. I’d like to watch the fog embrace the full moon and take one last look around, then go to sleep. Yes, maybe someday. They keep a big sign in the museum on top of the 6,288-foot-high Mt. Washington with a list of the hundred-and-a-half-ish people who have died – or disappeared – on the mountain, and I’d like to see my name on it someday – well, someone else can see it, I guess. The peaks up there are continuously exposed to violent, unpredictable weather. And by no means is the hiking easy: Just this year, some poor guy had a heart attack while climbing the Huntington Ravine trail and was air-lifted out. The deaths from Mt. Washington climbers only total about half the deaths that have been logged on Mt. Everest, but considering how accessible Mt. Washington is compared to the world’s tallest peak, that’s a staggering number.

The entire landscape of the non-flat part of New Hampshire is held up by mythos. More aptly viewed as piles of rocks that fell from the sky than “mountains,” I almost can’t believe that what we hikers are crawling over like ants is reality. From the Abenaki belief that the “Great Spirit” lived among the clouds on the summit of Agiocochook to the exploits of the pioneer Ethan Allen Crawford – a giant man, according to legend, who built a bridle path straight to its summit in order to lead dainty tourists into the Great Spirit’s domain. There are strange rocks and strange places, strange bugs and strange plants that exist nowhere else, strange weather and strange people like me who visit now and then.

What we call the White Mountains – the Crystal Hills, which ship captains claimed they could see from the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of years ago – was surely designed by some ancient form of life, one much larger and rugged and wild than the men who live today.

prezrange

In the 19th century, some white schmucks wearing buckle shoes decided to give all the mountains in the range “proper” names, aligning the U.S. presidents with the height of the peaks. Mt. Washington (known to the local Abenakis as Agiocochook, a much better name – “where the Great Spirit lives”); Mt. Adams; Mt. Jefferson; Mt. Monroe (due to a surveying error, Mt. Monroe was thought to be shorter than Mt. Madison, but is actually 22 feet taller); Mt. Madison; Mt. Eisenhower (which used to be called Mt. Pleasant); and Mt. Pierce (which used to be called Mt. Clinton, but not for the sax-blowing sociopath or his election-blowing wife). There are also “unofficial” peaks in the range known as Mt. JQ Adams, Mt. Clay, Mt. Franklin, Mt. Jackson (not the president), and Mt. Webster, all of which are optional in a Presidential Traverse. Think of them as bonus points – or bonus blisters for your poor feet.

I hiked the entire Presidential Range with my father when I was a young’un. We began one evening by climbing up Mt. Jackson and pitching the tent, then conquering the rest of the peaks the next day. We slept on the backside of Mt. Madison in sleeping bags under the stars, watching the headlights of the supply trucks lead the drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road to bring plastic forks and hot dog buns and souvenir t-shirts to the masses. Two night-time hikers wearing headlamps passed by while we dozed off, inspiring me to follow in their moonlit footsteps someday.

story-land

[source: awkwardfamilyphotos]

So one September morning, very early, two cars left from my house set for the White Mountains. Me in one, and my gal with the pup in the other, straight up Rte. 16, the transportation backbone of New Hampshire. “I’ll see you at Story Land,” she told me. Story Land is a very strange theme park trapped in the 1970’s that is up in mountains. You can go into Mother Hubbard’s cupboards, or visit the old lady in the shoe. A rickety log flume ride will flush you down the chute past an achey old dragon who leans in and snorts a burst of water before creaking back into place. We stopped here to let the pup take a leak and stretch out after being in a car for two hours. There is no better place for a 5:30 am photo op with a dopey grinning puppy than the giant lattice-covered Storyland sign, the creepy Humpty Dumpty waving at passing tourists, begging them for money.

After the pup showed Story Land’s grass who was boss, we bumped along some mountain back roads and parked my car where I hoped to emerge from the woods hours later, at a parking lot in the Dolly Copp Campground. I saw a sign that warned me I better have a parking pass, but there was no ranger in the office, so I left a note on my dashboard: I AM HIKING THE DANIEL WEBSTER (SCOUT) TRAIL. PLEASE LEAVE MY CAR ALONE. With a sigh, and a strange fear of federal Forest Rangers, I left my car to the whim of the boys in green. We drove to the starting point and an hour later, I was waving them goodbye from the side of the highway, ready to immerse myself in the real story land — the land of mythos — and begin my Presidential Traverse.

[source: currier]

[source: currier]

Even though I intended to be back in my car around 8 pm, I carried my scout tent, a headlamp, sweatpants, a winter hat, and my windbreaker. I also had my notebook, guidebook, map, compass, some coconut oil, a spoon, sea salt, nuts, a larabar, a digital camera, and my wallet. My wallet contained cash, my debit and credit card, my Starbucks card, and my state-issued identification, in case I was found days later. I wore sunglasses, a t-shirt, cut-off shorts, my watch, and my trailrunners.

There is cell phone service on Mt. Washington and most mountains surrounding it – the tourist-covered summit is accessible by trail, rail, road, and wind – but my cell phone was lying broken and forlorn in a corner of my house somewhere. This made my gal nervous, but I promised her I’d email her from the Starbucks parking lot once I was passing back through Conway, the gateway town to the mountains. My laptop hid in the back of my car. All I could think as I stepped onto the Webster Cliff Trail was that the Forest Rangers would steal my car. And all I wanted in that moment was a nice, big coffee. Not a good start.

II. Freecloud

But now my laptop was 23 miles northeast of me – and Starbucks was in another dimension – as I passed the Appalachian Trail marker nailed to a birch tree. An ancient, dented tin diamond, silver and white and black and rust. The infamous white blaze still proud. Welcome to the goddamned woods! it called, slapping me on the back like a hearty hiking companion, as I crossed a bridge surrounded by late-summer wildflowers. A dude crawled out of a tent just off-trail holding an empty whisky bottle – on his way to the river for some water to wash out the cottonmouth. Knotty birches above and ground that sounded hollow below. Centuries of dead trees and leaves and other plant matter pounded down by decades of hiker boots onto the rocks. A lovely sound that led me up my first steep climbs of the day toward the summit of Webster, while the sun climbed from the other side.

The old trail immediately climbed up, switching back and forth around mossy rocks, hiding all kinds of secrets. I was already panting and cramping – but sometimes it takes a little while to loosen up. A musty smell emanated from the rocks – stale air or bear breath? The rocks looked cavernous. Pangs of fear, tempests of irrationality filled me….just keep climbing! But I stopped to write it all down, eyeing around.

As I planned this hike, I told numerous people my intent to hike the entire Presidential Range in a day. One person asked an obvious but unexpected question: Why? Why do you hike? I’ve never had an answer to that question before: I just like to. In that moment, faced with the question, I answered like this: I want to find a story. I want to go out and find stories like a hunter goes out and finds animals to kill. I want to drag them back before they can drag me back and hold them up for the cameras. But like an ethical hunter, I don’t seek stories for sport: I seek them for sustenance. Living consciously, practicing mindfulness, seeking novel experiences, challenging my brain and body in new ways. It’s one thing to lumber up a hill; it’s a real challenge to crawl up those rocks, poke my head into the musty cavern and take a big whiff.

I didn’t meet any bears, but I was rushed by a chipmunk. “Hello chippy!” I shouted as it escaped my sight. After quickly peaking Webster and Jackson, I hiked down to an AMC hut to refill my water bottle. A large group of lively hikers were enjoying breakfast while I sought out the faucet, running deep to the Mitzpah Spring. The final ascent up Pierce promised to be rough, as it was straight up. I didn’t make it far before cramps pulsed through my thighs. I must have been dehydrated, I thought, so I drank some water, ate my larabar and spooned some coconut oil and sea salt down the hatch. The fats in the coconut oil were my main fuel source for the day and the minerals in the sea salt would help me stay less dehydrated, as it would be a long day. As I sat on a rock and rested, the long day still far, far ahead of me, I wished I had consumed more water and sea salt last night and this morning during the drive. But I was still chipper, and I figured the bad feelings would pass as the spoonfuls of goodies worked their way into my bloodstream. Plus, once I was on the summit of Mt. Washington, I could get whatever I needed. It wasn’t that far away.

Pierce and Jackson are linked by a popular loop trail so I was distracted by groups of hikers out for the morning hike. Three older gentleman stopped and cracked jokes about letting the young man by, since he was much faster than them. If y’all only knew how shitty I feel right now, I wanted to tell them. I whipped by and got my butt up to the summit of Pierce. I said hello to an old man sitting on a rock and gazed beyond Pierce to the bigger, tougher rocks ahead: rocks and lichen and clouds for miles. The rockin’ deejay in my brain dropped a 45 onto the turntable: “Doo doo doo,” I sang to myself, as I sat and rested on the final summit with any trees for the rest of the day, “lookin’ out my back door…” This certainly appeared to be a place where giants would do cartwheels and elephants played tambourines. I was tempted, but I politely declined the offer to ride the flyin’ squoiiil. I’d hike the rest of the way, but I hoped it would fly by once in a while and say hello.

[southern peaks, right to left]

[southern peaks, right to left]

I studied the peaks on my map, then looked up and pointed at each, naming them to myself. The calm and round Eisenhower was closest, straight ahead of me. Mt. Pleasant was a more fitting name, I thought, but then again, when I hiked it last with my dad, a group of older ladies were pointing up to the summit and laughing. “It looks just like him,” one of them said. I pointed out Franklin (which, along with JQ Adams, I did not technically summit during this hike) and the double-peaked Monroe, and to its right I saw the base of Mt. Washington, the summit still in the clouds. Jefferson was behind Washington, the range flanking left/north, then the base of Adams. It, too, hid in the clouds, only a few hundred feet below Washington. A few lesser demigods in the pantheon of dead white dudes poked out here and there before Madison, the final spire, stood silently. I snapped a picture. “This will be the cover image in my article,” I said to myself.

I put my camera away and folded my map, already soaked with buttsweat. I stuck it in a dry pocket. I had a fresh bounce in my step from all the wind. I strode off for the rocks, prepared to sip nothing but water and bits of stoicism for the next couple hours. I passed a group of pretty girls with their dogs and biology prompted me to lift my head and say hello – a natural mood lifter – and I was off, the bad feelings from earlier diappearing.

I descended into the forest one final time, and I passed a big guy who did not look like he belonged miles away from civilization at 10:30 in the morning. Then I remembered that there are numerous huts which cost a lot of money to lodge in along the trail. He asked me, “Are you coming from Pierce?” I said ayup. “Have you seen a blonde? All by herself?” I said nope, sorry, but my brain was screaming WHAT! YOU DON’T DO THAT SHIT UP HERE! He didn’t look very experienced, and the way he described this missing woman – “a blonde” – didn’t give me much hope. I said good luck man and we diverged. It bothered me all the way to where the AT and the Eisenhower Loop split from each other. It must be annoying being a stickler thru-hiker on the AT who also wants to hit all the Presidential peaks, having to backtrack and rehike sections, knowing that all that time adds up and it’s going to start snowing soon in Maine.

I climbed Eisenhower. It was all rocks and wind. I saw above me – climbing down – The Blonde. She was wearing a fuzzy blue sweater, whiched showed off an inch of waist and her bellybutton. She also wore shorty-shorts with a faded 90’s color pattern on them. She had makeup on and that tired, burnt-out look makeup can’t hide. What the hell were these people doing up here? I passed her silently as she avoided eye contact with me, and realized as I now stood above her that the dude stayed on the AT while she either climbed Eisenhower – whether on purpose or by accident I’ll never know. I thought of her conundrum when she connected with the AT: would she keep on going to Pierce or backtrack? Or sit and wait? Would the Big Guy keep going past Pierce down to the Mitzpah Hut? Hopefully their goal was to get to the Mitzpah Hut and had both studied the maps. I imagined the wacky adventures these two unlikely companions go on. Two city slickers meet at AA. The Big Guy develops a crush on The Blonde. She is an emotionless wanderer who lets him drag her up to the mountains in an effort to impress her. It’s the tragic kinda funny. That’s a movie I’d pay for, though I might have to write it. I stop and write it down while a caravan of hikers pass me, each one thanking me for stepping aside as they descend Eisenhower.

Maybe Big Guy and The Blonde hike to stay clean, I thought. The wind was cleansing, blasting by. Zap! I felt refreshed, but dried out. I was on the summit of Eisenhower in no time, sitting around a giant cairn with a dozen hikers, hydrating carefully. It was a beautiful sunny day, though the clouds still shrouded the higher peaks in their rightful mystery. Mt. Pleasant was the better name, no matter how bald Eisenhower was in real life. I took a selfie and shared pleasantries with the rest of the hikers. We were all selfie-taking, pleasantry-sharing machines, but then I got up and joined the AT Shuffle, a traffic jam down to the low-point between Eisenhower and Monroe. Lots of people, all in a row, none of them in a hurry as they sauntered from hut to hut, a few miles a day to the peak for a cold lunch, to the hut for a white bean stew with kale and bacon, perhaps, imported from another world below. At my first opportunity, I pounded past the hikers in front of me, who were too focused on placing their poles in every perfect spot to let me slip past them, as I kicked rocks and sighed.

[mt. monroe]

But I was on the slab of rock that is the Monroe summit before I even knew it. We were getting into the clouds and it was wild. A little boy stood on the pointy peak as clouds blew by us fiercely, his arms in the air, his eyes seeking his dad’s approval of his freedom. The dad kept one watchful eye on him, the other on his map as he sprawled out in a crevice nearby, safe from the wind. I let them have the summit and sat just below.

Another 45 got spun in my mind: It’s so hard for us to really be, really you, and really me/You’ll lose me though I’m always really free. I patted the true summit from my seat – to know I’ve been there – and let my feet hang off the side of the mountain in the passing clouds. They were cooling and soothing – blankets smoke into the room – though I got going before they stiffed me up. Kicking back the pebbles from the Freecloud mountain

It was a short hike down to the Lake In The Clouds Hut, the most famous of all the huts ’round these parts, named for the body of water that rivals any loch in Europe for its pondering, simple beauty. The hut looked fun, with a group of hipsters drinking Pabst, pretty hiker girls, and a beagle sitting on rocks out front. The door read COME ON IN! so I entered, seeking water and a few minutes of respite from the wind. The tap hid in a dark corner next to a primitive wooden shelf lined with cans of beans and loaves of bread. There was a bake sale and a coffee pot. Hut guests sat at wooden tables minding their snacks, the view through the wide windows obscured by clouds that hugged the building. I craved the coffee, but I wanted the mud on the summit of Washington. There’d be coffee and snacks and gift shops and plenty of people-watching real soon.

Soon, a funny word. I stopped to take some pictures of the Lake In The Clouds, expecting Excalibur to thrust from its depths, held by a ghostly white apparition. Nope – I was alone, though I could hear the tipsy, laughing hipsters behind me. I passed through a few shrubby trees no higher than my waist – the last I’d see until well after dark – and approached a sign that read something like this: TURN BACK NOW, IDIOT. THE WEATHER HERE IS CRAZY! AND IF THE WEATHER IS CRAZY RIGHT NOW, YOU MIGHT DIE. SO DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME. OR DO. I DON’T CARE, I’M JUST A SIGN. It was then that it began raining. It felt like the clouds were brimming over, spilling onto poor suckers like me who were about to crawl up the tallest, slippery-est pile of rocks in the entire region. I took a selfie blowing a raspberry in front of the sign warning me that any inclement weather equals imminent death and up I went, donning my windbreaker and hiding my camera and notebook inside its waterproof shell.weather-sign

I had a hard time being upset with the rain, though. I said I wanted a story and I was getting into it now. Holy pope’s nose, it was steep though. Endless rocks, up. Endless rocks, left and right. Looking behind me would have turned me into salt – which may have helped with the cramps – but looking up constantly reminded me I was a depressing glob of achey body parts. There was enough novelty to keep it interesting. Rocks were laid in slabs, as if this mountain was built by hand. I found many walls and lean-tos and caves built out of rocks, protection from those promised inclement moments.

Two guys ran down past me in shorts and running sneakers, with almost no gear. “Traverse!” I could swear one of them yelled to me as he blew down the rocks. Damn, I hoped he didn’t slip. If I heard him correctly, they were making excellent time. It wasn’t quite 2 pm yet. I fought through the first real exhaustion I felt so far. I had already been hiking for almost seven hours and was almost half-finished, though way behind my ideal schedule. I powered to the end of the Crawford Path, passing soggy, miserable day hikers, going both up and down. One muscle-bound woman nodded hello as she carried a huge pack on her back, supplies for the hut I had just come from. I nodded back with a knowing smile, jealous of her patience, scraping up a little of my own. I thought about nothing but that magical cup of coffee waiting for me at the highest café in New Hampshire.

The trail ended and I stood in a foggy, strange place. The ground was all gravel and pipelines. As I moved, towers and buildings and outlines of parked cars in the fog appeared and disappeared. There is an entire city on the summit of Mt. Washington and I merely stood in its back alley, a shadowy figure to most of the tourists milling about its metropolis streets. I waded through the fog and joined them.

III. Agiocochook

Mt. Washington’s summit had poked its head into a hornet’s nest of a late summer storm, yet it brimmed with people – the men with moustaches and sweaters, the women in colorful burkas and sandals, carrying bags and babies and cameras. They took turns posing for pictures, ignoring the rain and wind, just so happy to be standing in front of the Tip-Top House, a structure built of boulders and stone, which used to entertain guests overnight, but now is only open as a curiosity to passers-by. Perhaps inside, more folks milled about, or enjoyed the roaring fireplace – I imagine there is one – stretching their fingers toward the flames, coats dripping from hooks in the doorway of this retired hostel.

[mt. washington summit]

If I scheduled today to spend a lot of money to ride the Cog Railroad to the summit, I’d pose for pictures in the rain, too, I thought. I left the wet photo-taking family to their day and followed the gravel path to the summit cairn, a massive pile of rocks with a wooden sign jutting from the top: MOUNT WASHINGTON SUMMIT 6,288 FEET. I balanced on two large rocks, leaning into the wind, while a blonde woman with a gaggle of teenage girls, arms interlaced, asked someone to take their picture in front of the sign. The wait to stand on the summit was long – the group from the Tip-Top House was wandering over now, climbing up the rocks – so after the group of girls scattered, I snapped a photo of the summit sign, surrounded by a cloud of people, no different than the fog around this mountain, really. It wasn’t going to clear anytime soon. My photo was useless: a vague outline of brown in a blur or grey and white, water drops pressed against the image from the inside, wisps of smiles and puffs of hair.

Hmm, one more, I thought, and turned the camera back on. The lens did not open. The black screen read LENS ERROR! in its dated digital font. I stood there, shivering, pawing at the camera, refusing to believe it was busted. I could barely grip it after a few minutes, so I put it in my windbreaker’s pocket and looked around from my perch for a place to go.

The clouds around the summit gave it the feeling of being Inside, yet it was wet and drafty. The outlines of buildings just thirty feet away dared me to come find their entrances. Beyond them? I don’t know if that even existed. I pretended the swirling fog was steamy coffee and followed my nose, not feeling any warmer – or smelling any coffee – but trying to pretend.

Sliding doors opened to a sitting area overlooking the train station and auto road beyond. I exited the moon-like atmosphere outside and walked into the central hub of the metropolis. There was a food court, the gift shop, and a hall leading to the Observatory, which is famous for its team having once recorded the world’s fastest wind. They also have a pet cat that sometimes appears on the news with frozen whiskers. Downstairs was a museum and another gift shop. I passed a nervous girl in a band hoodie with a pierced lip holding a dog on a leash, then waded into a sea of grandpas and biker dudes and foreigners, finally sloshing my wet bag on a lonely table under a ten-foot-high carving of Ethan Allen Crawford, the man who blazed the trail I just hiked. I sat in good company.

[source: accu weather]

[source: accu weather]

While the shivering subsided, I walked to the food court and pulled a lever that splashed hot coffee into a styrofoam cup. I paid the cashier – a tired looking gal that didn’t seem to give a y’know about anything, especially when I told her I had just climbed this mountain in the rain. She was in the haze of a part-time seasonal job, her only concerns the till and perhaps the time. She probably gets to ride the train up every morning, all of its excitement a tired routine by now. She serves tired, dying hikers a dozen times a day, I realized, and sat back down with my coffee to pick apart my camera, still shivering, dripping water all over the table. I deemed the camera officially broken and put it away with a sigh. From Humpty Dumpty and the happy puppy to the AT blaze to the summit of Mt. Washington, I hoped my collection of over one hundred photos could be salvaged later. The second half of my hike would have to be remembered much more dearly. Right, E.A.? I nodded up to the carved hero above me, leaning on his walking stick, staring proudly at all the humans crawling over each other in this inhuman place.

thisbodyclimbedI’m looking for my story, I’m seeking novel experiences, I’m being mindful, I told myself, slurping down the last of my steamy coffee, mindful of its lack of effect on my energy. I left my table, now floating in a puddle, and watched a pack of tourists swarm it, puddle-be-damned. I got in line to get downstairs to the gift shop – where my trophy awaited. My little way of saying that I am one of you, tourists (yet somehow I am better!). A THIS BODY CLIMBED MOUNT WASHINGTON t-shirt was waiting for me. There it was, a medium blue t-shirt, with the cheesy retro drawing of a climber dangling from those bold, proud words. It’s a stab at the THIS CAR CLIMBED MOUNT WASHINGTON bumper sticker, which is a common sight on the portly rumps of many automobiles around New England. The cashier down here was much nicer than the one in the food court. She told me I deserved that shirt. I smiled at her and bade her well, then put my wallet and broken camera into the white bag with the shirt, stuffing the entire package into my pack as I navigated the crowd, zipping the two zippers on the pack up to the top as I walked. I slung the bag around my shoulder and climbed the stairs, mentally preparing myself to exit the crowds and continue my expedition.

But first I had to have a look at the sign on the wall naming all the victims of Mt. Washington. Someday… I told it, winking. I stopped one last time to sign the guestbook before leaving. The person before me had written, “It’s raining!” I added my name and “Presidential Traverse! Yow!” Satisfied with that dash of ink, I ventured back into the rain through the wrong door. I immediately found myself behind the building at a dead end. I felt disoriented, and took a deep breath. I re-entered the lobby and walked back out the front, entering the howling wind and rain down to the Crawford Path. Not too far down, the Gulfside Trail split off and continued all the way to my last peak, Madison. If I could find it.

[cog railway]

I climbed over the railroad tracks, which was like hopping a big, clumsy fence. I felt my bag lift over my head as I tipped to the other side and landed in the rocks. “Woo!” I laughed. I tightened the shoulder straps when I stood back up. I came to a sign at the edge of a field of alpine grass, beaten and faded. A thin footpath wandered off into the grass. The sign read GREAT GULF TRAIL and RTE 16 —>. I went onward. The wind was still whipping and the rain was still blowing out of the clouds, pushing me to my left. I began descending rocks, leaving the field behind and above. The wind rushed down on top of me like a waterfall, rinsing the rocks clean of anything that wasn’t moss, lichen, or wildflowers. I was so focused on my footing and my balance – there’s a hell of a lot of moss down here, I thought – that it took about ten or fifteen minutes of descent before I realized I hadn’t seen a trail blaze or a cairn since I left that field. I looked back up and saw nothing but rocks and moss, much more moss than I remember seeing going down. Panic tried to take hold, but the wind blew it down into the Great Gulf. Whoooosh.

[source: wikipedia]

[source: wikipedia]

“I might actually die,” I said to, uh, myself. I was not on a trail, I was not even close to a trail, I was crawling down a cliff, into what may or may not be hell, and it was wet and windy and mossy and slippery and I was tired and dehydrated and cramped and disoriented and trying not to panic. Trying.

But I knew that I needed to go up to get back to where I came from. And I noticed that the slide I stood in had high walls – it’s what created this wind tunnel – so I climbed back up, focusing on staying as close to the side as possible, crushing flora with my feet and my greedy life-clenching hands. It was a beautiful place, actually, the sort of place I’d like to crawl when I go back up someday on my final adventure, but I was too busy keeping my head down so that I wouldn’t fall backwards. I ignored the pangs in my legs as I pounded the rocks back up to relative safety, not ready to crawl under a rock yet. I hopped across the wind from rock to rock, I clambered and scampered, my feet sunk into the moss. The mountain was trying to eat me. I stopped now and then to have a little water, only taking my bag off enough to reach the bottle and return it to its side pocket.

I found a less windy spot and opened my map. I see what I did, there, I said, my finger tracing the dotted lines. The Gulfside Trail – the trail I should be on – stayed up and along the ridge around the Great Gulf Wilderness – a sprawling mass that goes on for miles and might as well be an ocean – and the Great Gulf Trail cut through the alpine grass and then descended in a different direction than the one I had taken. Somehow I had lost both trails.

old-timey-north-side-of-range

[northern peaks, left to right]

I had wandered into the outskirts of the Wilderness, itself. 40 days and 40 nights? Forty minutes was enough! Strange little plants and things greeted me, the wind tried to push me along. The mountain sucked at my feet, trying to get a taste, trying to catch up to Everest in the death toll contest. I did not want to know what awaited me at the bottom of the Gulf, hidden by clouds. I crawled the rest of the way back to the alpine grass, then ran back to the sign, where a man stood in the shrieking weather looking confused. With a strong french accent, he asked me if there was shelter nearby. “Don’t go that way!” I yelled to him and pointed behind me. Then I sadly pointed to the railroad tracks I had jumped over earlier and told him there was shelter on the summit – in fact, there was an entire city. Then I told him that just on the other side of the summit, which he could bypass if he wanted, was the Lake In The Clouds Hut. He told me Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Ah-dahms were very wet and slippery, so I thanked him for the warning. I told him I might skip the peaks and stay on the main trail, especially after all I’ve already been through, but I knew I wouldn’t do that. After all I’ve already been through.

Little did I know, this would be my final human interaction on the expedition. We said goodbye and I veered onto the correct trail, Gulfside. I could see now how the trail came to this intersection at the sign and cut left to follow the ridge, like an old New England road. In fact, all the trails up in the summit neighborhood of Washington were cut like old roads, turning and ending randomly, as if they’ve been there longer than the people have.

Then, the sun burst out in full force and the rain stopped. The wind continued to gush over the rocks, though, and down into the Gulf. Everything got air-dried, myself included. The sound of my windbreaker flapping in the wind was peaceful and I skipped along, whistling. My inner-deejay dropped another 45, though I just sang along to the part that goes “La-la-la, la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la-la…”

1037

Steam rose from the Gulf below me. I knew the monster down there still clashed its fangs and paced around waiting for its meal. I was determined to stay out of its reach. Before I even realized it, I had climbed and descended Mt. Clay. A few years ago, some bootlickers in the New Hampshire legislature legally renamed it Mt. Reagan. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (it’s a thing) voted not to honor the name change, and now everyone pretends that debacle never happened and continue to call it Mt. Clay, which is pretty awesome. I didn’t think anything of Clay as I hiked over it. I did, however, admire the curious masonry of geology in the vicinity of the Sphinx Col. The rocks indeed resembled those of the pyramids, layer after layer, hiding what secrets and treasures we’ll never know. I didn’t notice anything distinctly Sphinx-like, but perhaps that view is best from somewhere else.

I skipped through another alpine field, this one called Monticello’s Lawn. I stood at the intersection of the Jefferson Loop and Gulfside. Up I go, I thought. It was 5 pm. I still had two or three hours of sunlight left. Part of me began preparing for the inevitable sunset that would soon be upon me. I was really okay with the camera not functioning, with all the soreness and wetness, but hiking in the dark was another challenge altogether.

Before ascending Jefferson, I stopped to take a break and have a sip of water, and to cram my windbreaker back inside my pack. My pack…

…was open. The two zippers had separated and the flap of my bag fluttered weakly. I saw my tent and guidebook inside but the white bag was missing. The white bag with my t-shirt and camera and wallet. I instantly knew it was somewhere in the Great Gulf Wilderness. My tithe to the mountain. It did not fall out on the summit, or while I hopped the train tracks, or when I ran across the alpine field or anywhere on the trail behind me during the last two miles. It was half-sunk in the hungry moss on the desolate, windblown backside of the most dangerous place in the northeast United States, all of my trophies and proof of my accomplishment, all of the emotions I’d experienced all day. Oh, and my credit cards, my ID, and whatever few bucks I still had. I hoped that some nice hiker would find it on Gulfside and mail it to me, perhap using the few bucks to ship it. Perhaps he’d keep the t-shirt as a yer welcome, bub. It’s more likely that someday a police officer will knock on my door with my moss-covered ID and ask my gal if I’ve been missing for a few months, cos he, uhh, might have found me. Then I’ll jump out and yell BOO!

None of it mattered. I closed my pack properly this time, ensuring both zippers were pulled down to the bottom of the pack, thereby preventing it from opening by accident. I decided I had until midnight to get to my car and I’d die before I quit. Thank the Great Spirit I still had my headlamp, which was tied into a pocket in my pack. I’d have camped in that very spot without it.

[source: Everest]

[source: Everest]

I was numb to the cramping now and reached the conical summit of Jefferson easily. I found a stick jutting out of a hole on the summit cairn. I have a habit of taking a selfie or a picture of my foot on each summit I reach, so I felt a pang of disappointment as I wrapped my hand around the stick. I gave it a shake and felt myself smile. Something else rushed through me, a satisfied feeling of letting go. I didn’t spend much time on the summit of Jefferson, opting to race the setting sun.

A somber joy fluttered inside me like the torn clouds tattering across the mountain and I could have cried. I wondered if this is what dying was like. I felt a bit too much like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the film Everest as I touched the summit stick. A little loopy, but goddamned great! And absolutely terrible. I figured I’d be lying in a crevice if death had me pinned, so I laughed and moved along. Life is great sometimes. It was pushing 6 pm and I still had Ah-dahhms to climb, which isn’t really smaller than Mt. Washington – it’s just less tall. And all that bright sunlight that broke through on Washington was behind me now. Adams was brooding, choosing to cloak itself in cloud instead of enjoy the sunset. Deep breaths, mico-sips of water, and a real lack of concern for my fate led me forward.

IV. (Scout)

I believe in nothing. I don’t even believe in natural law. Humans are meaningless, as the sun sets like a dying god behind me. It plummets to Hades, reflecting off the strange alpine plants one last time for God knows how long. The clouds are swirling back up the mountain from the Great Gulf, tendrils of the beast below. I have to stop for a moment and reconsider my options: I have none. My car is still eight miles away, two peaks away, a long slog through the woods away, darkness be damned.

I swallow a precious mouthful of water, not much left since I forgot to top it off on the summit of Mt. Washington — in the rain, funny enough. I was more concerned with my camera at the time, with coffee, with keeping my windbreaker’s hood around my face. I was distracted by the cramps in my legs and licking every last bit of coconut oil and sea salt off my fingers. I consider wearing my windbreaker again as I enter this skyward abyss, a more taunting summit than Mt. Washington, pure evil. Here is where the Great Spirit lives, I think, the Abenakis got it wrong. There are parts of Mt. Adams where there is ice year-round. The thought terrifies me as I inch closer to its peak.

Rumbling wind – rumbling silence – clouds crashing on rocks and lichen. I zip my water bottle back into my pack and hear my lips smack dry already. I lean forward and pull myself up the rocks – giant’s steps – and sneak up its back stoop like a mouse seeking crumbs. I’m posed like the dude on the t-shirt I just lost – THIS BODY CLIMBED MOUNT ADAMS, but I’m not climbing, I’m scurrying. I’m a dummy who’s really glad my headlamp didn’t fall out of my open pack while I tossed and turned like a ship lost at sea in the Gulf.

And now, as the setting sun slips behind Jefferson – oh, it’d make a lovely photo, all that light bouncing off the dark clouds – I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m going to howl like a goddamned Indian on the summit, I tell myself. Adams is a highway of boulders and I have the entire road to myself.

Suddenly there’s no more up. My head smacks off the cloud ceiling so I squat on the summit, and try not to get blown into King’s Ravine, or down to Rte. 2 miles below. I’m too tired to howl, so I just whoop a little, the wind stealing my breath. I touch the summit and the cool, cloudy rock feels refreshing in my palm, like I’m holding a cold bottle of spring water.

It still digs at me a little, as I descend Adams and head toward the Madison Spring Hut – hope I’m following the right signs! – that all my “proof” of this amazing feat – my Presidental Traverse! – is lost, taken by the same gods who carved and smashed this wild playground. What if no one believes me?

The trail skirts past Mt. JQ Adams and leads past the Madison Spring Hut, a little stretch of trail I call the Walk of Shame. No money, no bunk – though I’m sure they’d send me a bill if I told them my tale. As I walk by, head low, I see hikers inside the tall glass windows reflecting more moon than sun at this moment, eating hearty carb-rich dinners and wearing soft, comfy sweats and Dartmouth hoodies and skicaps. How I wish I could sneak into a warm, scratchy wool blanket, showered and clean, filled with beans and bread and warm, hazy happiness from late-night conversations with other overtired hikers. Some of them look out to me and I go as quickly as I came. I’m sure at least one of them reflects on my persistence, and takes a bite of dinner to honor my effort.

But the moon must guide me up Madison now: a rock wall, the kind kids climb on their birthday with ropes and helmets. At least it feels that way. I muscle myself up rocks, leaning into the steep mountain. The temperature drops and I cough a little. “Last…peak!” I chant. “Last! Peak!” Cough. “Last!” Cough.

“Peak!” It’s a straight-up experience, ethereal with the soft oversight of the moon. Starbucks is still open, it’s only seven… the crescent moon coldly whispers, breathing harsh wind, laughing at me. The thought of beans and bread remind me I haven’t had a calorie in hours, though I haven’t felt the need to spoon any coconut oil into my mouth, either. My body has been fueling itself with fat and ketones, and perhaps the empty fumes of fight-or-flight. But now the fantasy of salad bar at the grocery store in Conway tugs me along. The container floats down like some kind of wacky commercial, each ingredient gliding by: the plastic lid, the olive oil, so much salt falling like snow, the shredded cheese, the lettuce, the carrots and mushrooms and broccoli bits, the tin bottom, some kind of vegetable-version of the Burger Time arcade game. I make arcade sounds and try not to laugh too hard in fear of the dreaded bonk, a common way to burn out in endurance athletic feats. Plus I didn’t want the moon to think I really am crazy.

I reach the summit of Madison without fanfare and it’s dark out. The Presidential Traverse doesn’t end until I’m sitting in my car. The summit of Madison is a watchtower in the dark, the entire city of Berlin (pronounced BER-lin) down below me, splayed out and well-lit. It is my only connection to humanity, my guiding light to civilization. The moon behind me grinning, We’re all mad here!

I wish I had a million things right now: more food, a big cup of coffee – damn you, Starbucks – a helicopter, and a better headlamp. As the clouds and fog and moonbreath blow in, the light on the headlamp becomes more useless. The helicopter would be more useful: Berlin looks like a landing strip, all those lights and businesses along Rte. 16, providing a nice easy landing, right outside the grocery store. I think it’s funny that I didn’t need any of the gear I brought with me for the hike – the tent and sweatpants and  ski cap and  roll of toilet paper and lighter and whatnot. What I want is more calories. But the hunger goes into my back pocket with my map, which I have returned there now that the buttsweat has long since dried. I wasn’t far from my final trail intersection. This is not our fate, I hear playing in the depths of my mind. So let us stop talkin’ falsely now/The hour’s getting late… I turn my mental radio down so I can focus on what’s before me.

I find the Daniel Webster (Scout) Trail and move slowly across the rocks in the fog, going from cairn to cairn, refusing to budge in the dark until I see the next one. I crouch and move my headlamp’s glare left to right and left again, seeking the pile of rocks that guarantee a turn in the trail. Minutes pass before I move, but I am not going to get lost again. My cairn-hunting goes perfectly, except for the final time. That’s because there isn’t one: I wander down rocks that get steep awfully fast before realizing there are trees to my left. I crawl back up and investigate, finding the trail’s quiet cut into the forest – a welcome sight!

I smell the trees: fir, spruce, wet dirt, rot. Life. It is time to exit the dark, swirling madness, where the fog rejects light. It’s a black hole out there. The leaves of the trees warmly receive my light, shaping a hallway to lead me back to my car, now only 4.5 miles away. ETA: 10 pm.

Stoicism is the most important tool in my pack right now, so I take it out and apply it generously. I can be in my kitchen by midnight, I think, demolishing eggs and steak and glasses and glasses of water. I could line them up on the counter and have my pick.

This just isn’t fun anymore. I managed to convince myself it was fun for most of the day; being a monster of persistence, I still wanted to do it. I still want to do it, even all this time later. After 14 hours, 23 miles, and 9,000 feet of elevation and expedition on the Presidential Range, I still want to go back. Not because it is fun, but because I belong there. I am the mouse on the doorstep of the crazy gods. It is for me whom they leave their crumbs. I will take what I can carry in my swift paws until I am caught.

But the feeling of being caught is strongest in this moment. I just want to get back to my car, and fast. The woods are eerily silent. I feel like I’ll be dinner for something tonight. I will get caught. I’m the steak. But I know from experience that nothing is going to bother me. As long as I watch my step, and don’t go tripping into the trees. Moths fly at my headlamp, but they are nothing but annoying. I swat them away and eventually they fall behind. My inner-deejay has clocked out for the night, leaving a silent static to rumble in the night, so I sing some songs of my own –

Hey there, big black bear

Please leave me alone

I promise I don’t taste that great,

just let me go home.

– as the evergreens give way to the bony birches fluttering over my face, causing me to jump at every soft breath of wind. The trail splits suddenly and I panic and stumble. Wet leaves get intimate with my eyes and cheeks and ears, skeletons with globs of flesh in the dark, begging me, coaxing me, caressing me to join them. Pitch your tent, they whisper, spend the night

Hey there, bony birch

Please don’t touch my face

I know that you can feel my pulse,

just let me escape.

…Ahh! I tip-toe back to the trail intersection and realign myself, continuing down the proper path, singing just loud enough to keep the shadows away.

Oh no, Wendigo

Please don’t grab my feet

I’m going home, oh Great Spirit,

just let me proceed.

I feel the Dolly Copp Campground nearby, but it never appears. I stop singing, in case I’m keeping the campground away, too. There’s always another turn in the trail, another sudden descent into another patch of the same old trees. Until it does appear. Space runs out and it…just…appears. Total silence: not a light but my own. The headlamp shines ahead of me. Silver reflects like a spaceship, am I on Earth anymore? Oh, it’s my car. The Forest Rangers haven’t kidnapped my ride. My note is still on the dashboard. I dig my keys out of the deepest pocket in my backpack and the thought of losing my keys back there in the Gulf strikes fear into my heart.

V. RTE 16 —>

Wait, just wait.

I’m in my car now, I’m turning it on, I’m yawning, I’m too tired to drive, how am I driving right now, folks in the campground have big fires going, what a nice thought, I drive RTE 16 —>, I should probably pull over, I make it all the way to only a few miles away Conway, I pull into the Starbucks parking lot, they are so closed right now, but the wi-fi still works, and there’s a sip of cold coffee in my thermos still, I email my girlfriend, she emails me right back, her cell phone is next to the bed and the beepbeepbeep wakes her up, she’s happy I’m safe, she can sleep now, I tell her I’m not going to make it home, I find the Lowe’s parking lot, I turn my car off, I recline my seat, I close my eyes, I pass out for three hours, I wake up and decide to keep driving, I make it half-way home and am too tired again, I am coughing and the air in my car is thick, I pull over again and sleep, another hour, I wake up and it’s almost morning, I drive again, home now, I stuff my face with leftovers and just enough water that I don’t feel sick, I take off my shoes, stretch my toes, my ankles, my legs, I might not be able to do much later, my muscles hurt/my head aches, but I’m going to get into the bed, holy beds are soft I’m getting pretty sleepy now I can’t believe I just did that I’ll tell her about losing my wallet and her camera tomorrow wait, justwaitit’salreadytomorrowisthesuncomingupalreadyIcan’twaittogobackintothemythos