Hiking in moderation

I have this funny thing about hiking.

I love it. Always have. The challenge, the outdoors, the accomplishment of reaching a goal. And the payoff of the view. Always the view. I am a view junkie.

If you were to ask me if I love hiking, I would answer unequivocally yes.

If you were to ask how often I hike, well…that’s a different story.

I’ve always felt that if only people in my life had been more in to hiking, or if I’d found myself in a relationship with a guy who likes it, I’d be a die-hard. I’d have all the proper gear. I’d know all the things like how to use a compass and how to judge pace, etc. I’d be confident and strong and fast on the trail.

Instead, I’m a wannabe. I can talk a good game, having (once) done a thru hike on the AT, and having also climbed a nice-sized hill in Rocky Mountain National Park this one time back in 2011. But I’m not experienced. I’m not strong and fast and confident. I’m just a small-town-turned-city-girl who likes to trek through the woods.

So when,  a while back, a friend and I started talking about hiking in the White Mountains, I figured, like most things hiking in my life, it was all talk.

But then, the weekend rolled around, and suddenly I was making plans to wake up before dawn, drive 2.5 hours north, and hike a couple of 4,000 foot peaks. You know, as one does.

I found myself sort of giddy. Because here’s the thing – I do love to hike. But doing it alone, for someone like me who doesn’t have the gear and doesn’t know all the things, is scary. And it’s also yet another thing I have to do by myself, with all of the self-propping-up stuff that goes with flying solo. So planning to hike with another human, and one who knows what he’s doing – well, the prospect of that was just awesome.

We met up for breakfast at Flapjacks Pancake House in Lincoln, NH (highly recommend it!) and made our plans. I, being the realist that I am, had already axed us doing an 11-mile “strenuous” hike along Franconia Ridge, because well, I knew I couldn’t do it. We’d settled on what the interwebs said was a “moderate” hike up Mt Osceola, followed by (what was supposed to be) a quick up-and-down of East Osceola, which supposedly had one really “challenging” section called The Chimney where we might have to bust out some rock climbing skills. Since I’d done that rock climbing thing once in my teens, I figured I could handle it. My friend concocted a plan to leave one car at each trailhead, thus avoiding any “out-and-back”. By the time we got to the trailhead, it was later in the day than we’d hoped, but it was a gorgeous day, the sun was out, the leaves were afire with fall color, and off we went.

And then, reality. This is the part about hiking I always forget. It’s like running. I love parts of it, and HATE other parts. Like the parts where my wimp-ass legs, used to running on flat city paths, burned after the first mile. Like the part where I knew I was setting a slower pace than my friend liked. Like the part where I needed to stop to let the lactic acid drain from my quads more often than I’d like before we reached the summit, about 3.5 miles in and up.

But there were good parts too. Much hilarity ensued when I, trudging in the lead, spotted a downhill slope and took us down it without hesitation, only for us to discover a few minutes in that I’d led us in to the New England equivalent of the jungle; machete required. We found our way back to the proper trail, running in to another couple who said, “Oh, I didn’t know that was a trail!”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” my friend replied dryly.

We encountered that thing about hiking that I love – people are really nice on the trail. We got many encouraging exhortations:

“You’re almost there! Just 20 more minutes!”

“Just five more minutes and a bunch of mud and you’re there!”

Because we (read I) were going so slow, they were all woefully aggressive in their projections, but they were just so darn friendly about it was hard to be angry.

And then, the summit.  That magical moment when suddenly your legs aren’t tired and you feel like you could stay there forever.

Since my mom wasn’t there to freak out, we hung our legs over the edge of the cliff and ate an orange and Chex Mix and marveled at the view. I fleetingly wished for my fancy camera, but only a little bit. It was enough to just sit and take it in and not really worry about capturing it perfectly. I only took a few pictures, actually – I was just enjoying being there. That was enough.

But the sun was moving steadily across the sky, and we were committed to the 2nd peak, so we left…too soon…and struck out. I took the lead, because, well, downhill is my friend.

Alas, downhill lasted only a short while before were back on the uphill, and this time, there was nothing moderate about the slope. No switchbacks. Just up. I won’t lie, it was pretty tough for me. My legs were shot, and I had to stop a lot. And there wasn’t much to look at. But there was still good stuff. At one point, we stopped for a break, and I found a rock with moss to sit on – basically the most comfortable seat I have ever sat upon. My friend found his own rock around a bend, and for a few minutes there was just the sounds of the woods and the wind, until some fellow hikers’ words drifted up to us. And, being the super-awesome prepared companion he is, my friend busted out his GPS and announced we were actually pretty close to the top.

“How close is close?” I asked plaintively, striving not to whine, but probably not succeeding.

“Close,” he said. So up we went, and sure enough, we were close to the top. The top was nothing to write home about – a cairn of rocks and someone’s sweatshirt adorning a tree.

We’re home free! I thought to myself. Just The Chimney and then a nice stroll down to the pond, where we’d promised ourselves a picnic and maybe a nap. At this point in the hike, we’d done just over 4 miles of a 6 mile trek to the pond. I thought we were nearly done. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The downslope of East Osceola was basically straight down. No switchbacks. No gentle grade that allows you to pick up the pace and cover lots of ground. No sirree. This was bonafide mountain goat territory. The Chimney did indeed require some rock climbing skills, but we made it through, me with a little help from gravity and my friend propping me up. But that was only the beginning.

For almost two hours, we clamored down what was basically a rock slide, made slippery by runoff and dead leaves. I probably did 25% of it on my butt, taking the coward’s way out, but recognizing that my legs were jelly and one false step could mean breaking a limb. I hugged a bunch of trees, using them to slow my momentum as I carefully and deliberately placed my feet. Love those trees. They are my friends. All the disastrous hiking stories I’d ever heard were running through my head… “inexperienced hiker gets injured, has to be rescued by rangers.” I felt bad for my friend, who was also taking it slow, but not nearly as slow as I was.

Allow me to pause for a moment to say this dude is a pretty great guy to have around in such scenarios, him being a doctor and all. And he also has the patience of a saint. Never ONCE did he make me feel lame for being as slow and careful as I was. Never once. Nor did he ever hover and try to “help” in that way that just makes an independent gal like me get all pissy. It must have been stressful for him, wondering if I would get through the hike intact, but he never showed it. That’s a good human.

Anyway, miraculously, we made it down our rockslide. At one point, I looked up at a sheer cliff to our left, and we both started laughing as we realized we’d basically come down that very face of rocks, and were unscathed. Crazy.

As we (finally) reached the bottom, we saw that most welcome sign of civilization – an actual sign on the trail. It said that the pond, our target, was another half mile in the opposite direction from where we’d parked the car. The sun was going down, but we decided to take the payoff and trek to the pond. By god, we were going to have our picnic.

So, on a deserted little pebble beach deep in the valley (for real, I’m not just writing silly words here), we chowed down on turkey and pesto and mozzarella sandwiches (did I mention my friend is awesome? He carried that stuff up and down both peaks). The only thing missing was beer, but we agreed that carrying the bottles wouldn’t have been worth it. The peace and quiet and view was enough.

There were hints of pink in the clouds – there must have been a wonderful sunset happening, but we got just a taste of it, surrounded by mountains as we were. I had a moment to just lie back and stare at those clouds, and then we were up and moving again, because we were still a good 1.5 miles from the car, and it was getting dark.

Flashlight at the ready, we set out, racing the dark and losing, setting a pretty good pace for the end of a long day, trekking over rocks and bridges and tree roots and fording a couple of streams. This was really the only part of the hike that was on mostly flat ground, and I found it the most zen-like, simply following my friend’s footsteps, placing my feet as close to where he’d placed his as I could, enjoying the beat of my heart and pace of my breath,  watching the beam of the flashlight and reminding myself how much it would suck to roll an ankle or fall on my face after all we’d managed to get through that day.

At 7.3 miles, we spilled out onto the trailhead parking lot, a little muddy, really tired, uninjured, and laughing that semi-delirious laugh of “that was awesome” – now that it was over. 🙂

Things I learned on this adventure:

  1. It’s good to have a resourceful friend around when you’re a wannabe hiker.
  2. “Moderate” is all in the eye of the beholder.
  3. I’ve gotta do more of this hiking thing.

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