It was short notice. On Friday, I got an invitation to hike up to Carter Notch and stay at the AMC hut with my hiking buddy Mary and her husband Nick. She’d made reservations weeks ago, but the couple that had planned to join them fell ill at the last minute. It was too late to cancel the reservation, and the weather was supposed to be excellent. So Mary called me and another friend who lives near me. It all fell into place. Lorraine picked me up Sunday morning at 7am and we met Nick and Mary at the 19 Mile Brook trail head in Jackson for the 4 mile hike up to the hut.
It was, of course, Labor Day weekend, the last great hurrah of summer. By the time we passed Pinkham Notch, the parking lots had overflowed and cars lined both sides of the road for half a mile. No doubt every campsite was filled for miles around. Tourist traps were packed with prey. Nick and Mary had saved us a spot in the 19 Mile Brook trail head parking lot so we didn’t have to start our hike by walking up Route 16 from the end of the line of parallel parked cars. I expected the trails would be busy. They were. And the hut was overrun with families. The normally peaceful Carter Notch ponds reverberated with the shrieks of children and barking dogs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am delighted to see parents sharing the wonders of nature with their children. I am pleased to see the wilderness being appreciated. This is a good thing. But it was not the best thing for me. At my best I am not fabulously good with people, particularly children. And I was, if not at my worst, hovering down near the bottom. The first thing I did was wade around to the far side of the pond and hide in the bushes.
Dinner at the hut is boarding house style, a very social occasion. I was late getting to the table and wound up having to sit between two strangers. I sucked into my shell and closed the lid. Excused myself as soon as decently possible and retreated to my bunk with a book. I was, in short, lousy company and no doubt my friends were thinking twice about their decision to invite me.
I slept badly. At around 10:30 or so I got up and slipped out to sit down by the pond, finally having it to myself. Just me and the fish, toads, and whatever was rustling furtively in the bushes. And uncountable billions of stars spread out above me in the kind of breath-taking spectacle that you only see in remote places far from the light pollution of human civilization. I should have been enjoying myself, and I was miserable. All my failures danced before my eyes like midges. I toggled between feeling sorry for my wretched self and feeling like I deserved to be drowned in the pond for being such a stupid, self-pitying jerk.
The plan for the next day was to take our time and hike out the way we’d come. Four pretty easy miles. Mary is recovering from knee replacement surgery and Lorraine is in her sixties and, while quite healthy and fit, is not used to really strenuous hiking with a backpack. Nick, however, relishes a challenge. He proposed to take the long way around, hiking up the steep side of Carter Dome, going over to Mount Hight, then down to Zeta Pass and pick up the trail that intersects with 19 Mile Brook. An additional two and a half miles, and hard ones. He looked over at me. “Want to come?”
He actually wanted my company? I’d only slow him down. And bring him down with my lousy attitude. I was a waste product. A failure with a bad attitude who couldn’t get out of my own way. I’d regret it if I went. I’d hiked that trail before when Mary and I were peak-bagging back in 2011. I knew how difficult the slog up Carter Dome was, like a steep, irregular staircase made of rocks, gravel and tree roots that seems to never end. And then the descent to Zeta Pass from Mt. Hight is just as bad. Plus I’d feel pressured to keep up with Nick and worry that Mary and Lorraine would get to the intersection where we were supposed to meet, and they’d be waiting for us, we’d be running late and it would be all my fault. It was a stupid idea.
“Sure,” I said.
Bless Nick. As we labored up the rocky incline, I started to apologize for being slow; he threatened to throw me off the mountain if I said the word “sorry” one more time. He got me talking about politics, religion, philosophy. Every time I was forced to stop to catch my breath, panting like an old dog, he kept me distracted from embarrassment with metaphysics. I realized after a quarter mile or so of climbing that I wasn’t doing all that badly. I had to pause frequently, but not for long. Evidently my summer of being grounded, commuting to work by bicycle and walking everywhere else, had improved my wind and muscle tone. I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. As we approached the summit the grade moderated a bit and I was able to move right along.
It wasn’t like hiking with Mary, pausing frequently to remark on a flower or a bird call, or to take a photo of a toad or interesting mushroom, or to gaze into the the brook trying to spot a trout, or admiring the view and trying to identify which mountain or ridge we were looking at. No, we powered up that trail like the jihadists were in hot pursuit. At the summit of Carter Dome we paused briefly to shrug off our packs and suck down some water, and to chuckle over a cairn wearing sunglasses. Whoever had put them there likely hoped the owner might pass back by and see them, reclaiming them. In the meantime, it gave the rock pile a distinct personality, way cooler than all those other rock piles.
We checked the map, figured out where we were going, then hoisted up our packs and motored off. Now the trail sloped downwards or held fairly level and we made for Mt. Hight, which is a bit shorter than Carter Dome, but commands the best view of all the peaks in the area: a full 360 degree panorama of the White Mountains, dominated by Mt. Washington to the west. It was less than a mile of pretty easy grade. I was rolling right along.
There’s a long-standing debate in the scientific community about what causes “runner’s high”, that sense of euphoria that comes on during an extended session of strenuous exercise. Whether it is attributable to a release of endorphins, as has long been believed, or some more complicated bio-alchemy, it’s real and measurable. And somewhere between Carter Dome and Hight I started feeling it.
We paused briefly to get our bearings and take in the glorious view at the top of Hight. The breeze was deliciously cool as clouds rolled over the peaks of the Presidentials, a good thousand feet higher than where we were. A spruce grouse was feeding in the low alpine vegetation just off the trail. Hikers were passing by it barely three feet away, and although it kept a watchful eye on this parade of crazy humans, it felt unthreatened. After all, there are signs sternly warning hikers to stay on the trail and not to damage the fragile plants and lichens that grow in this harsh environment. The grouse trusted that we would obey the rules. Most hikers do. The whole reason they’ve come is out of love and respect for the wilderness. Rare are the contemptible scum who ignore the rules and violate the sanctity of a place like this.
Now, I was truly enjoying myself. Nick led the way down to Zeta Pass, a treacherous scramble down rocks and roots and over loose dirt. Just as steep going down as Carter Dome was going up. I could feel the stress in my knees. But I kept up. The grade got easier as we made our way through the hardwood forests of the Carter Dome Trail to meet 19 Mile Brook, and I booked along, minding my step, watchful of slippery or loose rocks.
Wow, I thought, I feel like myself again. I feel good. I feel great!
When we reached the intersection and met up Mary and Lorraine, they said they had only been waiting for about 45 minutes and hadn’t minded at all. They thought Nick and I had made pretty good time, considering that we’d hiked a hard four and a half miles to their two easy ones. We had some lunch and then made our way down the last leg of the trail, a pleasant couple of miles of gradual descent along side the brook. We hiked Mary-style, stopping frequently to look for trout (we spotted four good-sized adults and a number of smaller fry). I breathed deeply and was mindful of every step.
The mood stayed with me as we said our goodbyes and parted in the parking lot. I clung to that sense of normalcy right through until the next day, when I began to feel the weight of reality tugging me down again. Two days later, my legs hurt like hell, but I am still clinging to the clarity of thought and mood that mad race over the peaks gave me. The past several months have been difficult on me. Bad habits of thought and behavior have crept in as events and emotions have worn me down. It’s discouraging to realize that I’m back to where I was a year ago. I’m dealing with all the same crap I was then and more.
I’ve been down this hole before. But I know the way out. And I have the will to do the work, because I remember now what it’s like to feel good, to feel normal, and I want to be there again.