TRIP REPORT: Pemigewasset Wilderness, White Mountain National Forest, NH
by Deek Speredelozzi •
Mr. Know-It-All’s Blues
Franconia Notch State Park
It’s just approaching mid-day when I pull Dawn’s white Saturn into the Whitehouse Trailhead parking area. There are surprisingly few cars in the parking lot for such a gorgeous Saturday in late April; and those that are there are all congregated at the far northern end of the lot, near a different trail than the one we’ll be using.
“Man, you’d think people would be jonesing to get out into these mountains after so many months of snow and cold,” I remark, nosing the car into a spot at the empty end of the lot. “Well, whatever—I’m not gonna argue with having our route all to ourselves for the day.” Dawn concurs. We get out of the car.
As I rummage through my daypack one last time to make sure I’m not forgetting anything we’re likely to need for the hike, Dawn stands a few feet away, stretching her legs in preparation for our march up to and along Franconia Ridge. As she methodically flexes her leg muscles out of the dormancy into which they have settled on the two-hour drive from Boston, Dawn’s position evokes that of a snowboarder plying his craft: half-squatting, knees bent, face pointed in a line parallel with the feet; though I have to add in the visual of the snowboard with my imagination.
After a few minutes of sorting through the items I’ve brought with me from Boston, I have the pack all ready to go: a couple of liters of water, two candy bars apiece, a pair of wool hats, two large seedless oranges, and a couple of deli sandwiches that I picked up at a place I know back in Massachusetts. There will be no need for flashlights of any kind, I decide, having done this hike in the opposite direction with my little brother just two years ago; and so I know from first-hand experience that it will only take us about five hours; and that’s if we linger on the ridge.
The Whitehouse Trailhead parking lot sits at 1,570 feet above sea level. We set off at noon sharp, and head south on the Whitehouse Recreational Trail—a relatively flat multi-use path running essentially parallel to Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch State Park, one of the many classic parklands in New Hampshire’s expansive White Mountain National Forest. The Whitehouse Trail is pleasant enough; but in and of itself it’s nothing to write home about—or, for that matter, drive two hours for. The trail’s primary value lays in the access it provides to the many rugged, scenic, and challenging trails serving Franconia Ridge, a sharp and precipitous mountain crest which towers over the east side of the valley, through which I-93 threads its northward course up and over Franconia Notch—one of the most rightfully-celebrated scenic mountain passes served by a paved road in all of New England.
The White Mountains
The White Mountains are a sub-range of the far more expansive and well-known Appalachian Range, a chain of mountains stretching for 2,000 miles up the eastern portion of North America, from central Alabama, in the south, to Newfoundland, Canada in the north. The Whites Mountains cover about 2,325 square miles of New Hampshire—approximately one quarter of the state’s total land area—as well as a small portion of western Maine. Like all of the ranges within the Appalachian system, the Whites lay in a roughly southwest-northeast configuration; and the range is served throughout by an extensive system of rugged scenic trails, including, most famously, the Appalachian Trail—first and most renowned of America’s so-called “long trails”—which cuts through the heart of the Whites, linking them with Vermont’s lush, rolling Green Mountains, to the southwest, and the scattered peaks of Maine’s Longfellow Range, to the northeast.
The White Mountains boast a full 48 peaks with vertical reach exceeding 4,000 feet, the tallest of which is the infamous Mount Washington, New England’s loftiest summit, and crown of the formidable Presidential Range.
Though its razor-sharp ridgelines and long, precipitous drop-offs offer, in and of themselves, more than adequate testimony to the mountain’s brutal nature, the infamy of Mount Washington stems primarily from the unpredictably harsh and erratic weather systems that routinely assail its upper reaches year-round, often with little to no warning.
Snow has fallen on the 6,288-foot summit during every month of the year; and due to the alignment of its parent ridge, and the fact that it is the highest thing around, the peak of Mount Washington sits directly in the line of fire of the frigid sub-arctic winds that race with pervasive regularity and menacing urgency down out of the North Atlantic and across the rolling plains of eastern Quebec, battering its slopes with winter weather year-round. In 1934, the weather station on the summit of Mount Washington logged what was at the time the fastest surface wind speed ever recorded on Earth, at 231 mph; but this record was finally surpassed in 1996 (though the figure was not officially confirmed until 2010) by tropical Cyclone Olivia, whose violently-spinning circular winds peaked out at 253 mph as the storm ripped its way across the western and northern coasts of Australia, and the Timor Sea immediately to the north.
Though Mount Washington enjoys many days of gorgeously sublime weather each year; the atmospheric conditions on the mountain can turn on a dime, on any of those days. It is not uncommon for hikers to reach the summit wearing only shorts and t-shirts, and spend an hour or more drinking in the 360-degree panoramic views, which on the clearest of days can include the distant blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, far off to the southeast, only to find their descent marred by bitterly cold storms of rain, sleet, and snow, which can come screaming out of nowhere at any time, turning their return trip into an all-out bid for survival. And these survival missions find unhappy endings with disconcerting regularity. The slopes of Mount Washington have claimed hundreds of lives over the years, more often than not as a direct result of nefarious weather systems, whose sudden onset can catch hikers completely at unawares. Regardless of the time of year at which one ventures onto the flanks of Mount Washington, and no matter what the actual or forecasted weather is for that particular day, it is critically important to always be prepared for the worst. Even experienced mountaineers seemingly sufficiently equipped to fend off whatever Mother Nature might dish out have met their ends on the rugged arms of this pitiless beast.
Today we will be climbing up to Franconia Ridge via the Liberty Spring Trail, then following the ridge south to the peak of Mt. Liberty, continuing south along the ridge to the summit of Mt. Flume, then descending the insanely-steep Flume Slide Trail, and finally closing the loop by circling back to rejoin the Liberty Spring Trail, in the thick forest at the base of the ridge. To gain the ridge, we will have to climb 3,000 vertical feet; but the views from the crest are, for my money, among the very best in the northeast, if not the entire eastern seaboard, and so are well worth the toil.
Down in the valley lowlands through which the first part of our route leads, springtime is ramping up. The snow is gone, the birds are out, the trees are beginning to sprout new leaves, and the flowers are readying themselves for the upcoming vernal bloom, its noontide mere weeks away.
Due to their more northerly latitude, and their higher average base elevation, spring comes to the White Mountains somewhat later than it does in most of the lowlands of New England. In the autumn, however, the explosion of radiant colors that infuses the region draws foliage-gawkers from all over the country. But I’ll have to save my tales of autumn adventures in the White Mountains for another day. This here’s a spring-time story, though it may not seem so by the time it is finished.
Liberty Spring Trail to Franconia Ridge
After a little less than a mile, we reach the Liberty Spring Trail, our route of ascent. The Appalachian Trail runs concurrent with this trail, entering in here from the west and departing away northward at the Franconia Crest. The Liberty Spring Trail, when viewed from its junction with the Whitehouse Trail, appears as a deceptively benign-looking woodland path. It starts as a seemingly run-of-the-mill New England alpine trail, winding away through a heavily forested swath of maple, elm, oak, pine, hemlock, beech and fir trees; but after a mile or so the trail crosses a small creek and begins to climb in earnest, steeply towards Franconia Ridge. The entire ascent of the Liberty Spring Trail is done under deep forest shade; and the thick tree-cover withholds any and all views back down into the valley, giving up nothing in the way of sweeping vistas until the summit of Mt. Liberty is reached. And this is fine with me. I’d just as soon save the scenic payoff for the top anyway.
We reach the Liberty Springs Campsite at around 2 PM, after about two and a half miles on the Liberty Spring Trail. We decide to stop here for a brief rest. We have already climbed 2,300 feet; and the ridge-line looms just above, not even a half a mile further up the trail. Due to the exceedingly steep western slope of Franconia Ridge, the Liberty Springs Campsite, which sits at 3,870 feet, offers no level ground sufficiently large for setting up a tent; but the well-run Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which oversees management of the area, has installed a series of 10 wooden platforms at the site, which collectively provide space for up to 13 tents. In addition to the tent platforms, the site includes a year-round spring, and a modest viewing area set off from the trail, from which both the Kinsman Range, immediately across the valley to the west, and the towering 4,800-foot Mt. Moosilauke, eleven miles away to the southwest, can be viewed, just over the tops of the trees reaching up from immediately below.
Legs dangling off the edge of a tent platform, each of us with Snickers Bar in hand, we discuss the hike thus far, both agreeing that it’s been a total ass-kicker, but that we are both loving it nevertheless. After all, we wanted to work for our dinner, so to speak. At this point, however, we’re both more than ready for some ridge-top views. Polishing off the last bite of my Snickers, I lean back and recline on the smooth wooden platform, stretch my legs, and stare up at the clear blue sky. It is a truly perfect day to be on this mountain. After a few minutes of quiet reverie, we rise to our feet and get moving, having no compelling reason to linger here any longer. We head up the trail towards Franconia Ridge.
We reach the junction with the Franconia Ridge Trail at about 2:30 PM. Here the Liberty Spring Trail ends; and the Appalachian Trail follows the crest of Franconia Ridge away northward towards Little Haystack Mountain, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Lafayette, before curving away to the northeast along Garfield Ridge, and on towards the Presidential Range, still further north. Though we have gained the ridge at last, we are at a relatively low saddle; and the trees keep the views hidden for the time being. We walk south on the ridge trail, climbing gradually upwards by a couple hundred feet, and soon reach the summit of Mt. Liberty.
Dawn isn’t exactly what I would call an avid hiker; but I attribute that more to the fact that she has little time in which to explore trails than to a lack of zeal for the activity. She might have become a trail queen if circumstances had allowed it. And at any rate, she is in excellent shape. A career in the armed forces is good for that, to be sure—as I’ve never once failed to appreciate when looking at Dawn naked—which is pretty much every time we get together. So thank you for that, Uncle Sam.
I met Dawn about two and a half years ago in Seattle, two days after my older brother John’s wedding. She was a college friend of the gal that he had just married. It was New Year’s Eve, and a bunch of us were out doing the bars in and around Pioneer Square. Dawn and I hit it off immediately, and proceeded to show each other a grand old time that evening—strolling arm-in-arm through the late-night empty city streets of Seattle, crashing a couple of loft parties that we happened upon randomly, and eventually finding our way back to my cozy downtown hotel room, which I was sharing with my other older brother, Jeff. I felt a little bad about bursting into the room at 3:30 AM, forcefully rolling Jeff’s drunken, mindless carcass out of the room’s one king-size bed, dragging it across the carpet, and depositing it on the cold bathroom floor to find restful comfort where and if it might; but he would have done the same thing to me. In fact, he almost did; but fate had turned on him a few hours earlier. Apparently, this was my night, not his.
Dawn is a spunky gal, extremely intelligent, very sexy, and generally just a blast to hang out with. She’s five or six years older than me; and although we differ somewhat in our politics, we’ve never let that be an issue between us. Actually, in a way, it’s the perfect relationship. A year or so after we’d met in Seattle, she was unexpectedly re-stationed at an Air Force base on the outskirts of Boston, where I was living at the time. Dawn spends at least 75% of her time overseas, installing computer systems at military bases around the world, usually in the far east. She’s normally only in the Boston Area for about two or three weeks at a time, every few months. Whenever she is around, though, we spend as much time together as we can; but she always has to fly off to the other side of the world long before either one of us begins to tire of the other. In this way, the relationship has remained fresh and exciting over the better part of a year or more, though we only see each other intermittently.
We stand on a rocky pinnacle, 4,459 feet above sea level—higher than all immediately adjacent lands, though a plethora of taller mountains can be seen from here: Mt. Moosilauke to the southwest; the three northernmost peaks of Franconia Ridge: Little Haystack Mountain, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Lafayette; and several of the summits along Garfield Ridge, north and east of here. To the northwest sits the hulking mass of Cannon Mountain, site of Cannon Ski Area, on the west side of Franconia Notch. Cannon is a rugged, hostile mountain; and its ski slopes, facing northeast, are prone to icing up much earlier in the afternoon than those ski areas with more favorable south and west-facing aspects. The east side of Cannon Mountain drops off in a sheer vertical face known as Cannon Cliff, which looms high over I-93, just above the spot where the highway crests the pass at Franconia Notch.
To the east and south, all lands fall away beneath our feet, though the striking west face of 4,328-foot Mt. Flume, a mere 130 feet shorter than Mt. Liberty, fills the view to the southeast, just over a mile away along Franconia Ridge. It is to this summit that we are headed next.
The Appalachian Mountains vs. The Western Ranges
Hiking in the Appalachians is an undertaking not to be taken lightly; and it is best attempted in sturdy, rugged boots, on account of all the roots, rocks, and steep vertical pitches found here. But for all its renown as a hiker and backpacker’s Mecca, there are many in the mountaineering community who see the Appalachians as a relatively underwhelming mountain range, compared to the much higher, and far more expansive, alpine terrain found in the western U.S. These opinions stem primarily, as far as I can tell, from two factors. The first is that the maximum vertical reach of the Appalachian Range is only 6,684 feet above sea level, which is reached at North Carolina’s Mitchell Mountain, though the Appalachian Trail does not traverse this peak. The highest point on the Appalachian Trail proper is the top of Tennessee’s 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited of all the U.S. National Parks. The second factor driving the idea, among some, that the Appalachians are somehow a lesser range than their western counterparts is that the generally rolling nature of the range, and the relative height consistency of neighboring peaks and ridges, offers far fewer long-range views than the through-trails which pierce the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Cascades, all in the far western U.S.
This is a deception, though. Y’see, many of the ridgelines and peaks found in the great western ranges, which reach heights of up to 14,500 feet, are sufficiently steep and precipitous so as to render them largely impractical for routing trails directly through and over. As a result, the long trails in the west tend to thread their ways through the valleys in between the ridges, and over whatever available saddles offer the least difficult passage. The upshot of this is that these trails (particularly the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, to name the two most prominent) are, counter-intuitively, actually easier to walk than the Appalachian Trail, which, due to its less-precipitous nature, tends to run from peak to peak, always seeking out the highest points around, and following the path of most resistance to gain their summits. As a result, a hike through the Appalachians is actually a more grueling workout, mile-for-mile, than a hike on any of its western brethren.
Appalachian through-hikers know quite well that the trails serving this range are almost always either ascending or descending: you bottom out at a creek crossing, and immediately begin climbing steeply to the next summit, beyond which you immediately descend very steeply down into the next valley, and so on.
On the PCT and CDT, much of your time is spent walking through long, relatively-flat valleys, with your route typically framed by towering ridges on either side of you. It’s conceivable that one could walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail without ever having to use his arms to pull himself up any steep pitches. Along the Appalachian Crest, the trails often climb at such steep angles that hikers must, at points, use their hands to grab onto roots, trees, and rocks, and literally hoist themselves up the ladder-like trails, which typically eschew the mercy of terraced switchbacks for the more direct, calf-and-quad-busting ups and downs common to the range. In terrain like this, the potential for rolling an ankle, losing balance, or getting a foot stuck in a narrow crevice, is greatly amplified; and so sturdy boots are a must here. Leave your low-cut trail shoes at home when heading into this rocky granite country.
The Old Man of The Mountain
At its southern end, Cannon Mountain (which used to be known as Profile Mountain) was once the site of the famous Old Man of the Mountain, an overhanging granite protrusion that, when seen from the north, bore a haunting likeness to the chiseled countenance of a man. The formation, first noticed by a surveying team in 1805, has enjoyed a rich history in the local lore, inspiring writers, dreamers, and geologists alike. The profile of the face has been the state emblem of New Hampshire since 1945, and is featured on the state’s license plates, state highway signs, and even, on occasion, its currency. Over the years, the repeated thawing and refreezing of the mountain slowly opened up fissures in the rock of the Old Man’s face; and by the middle of the 20th century, costly efforts to preserve the structural integrity of the celebrated profile were under way, with cement, steel, and plastic coverings, as well as artificial diversion channels to funnel runoff away from the weakened spots, installed and rigorously upkept by state highway and park crews.
Despite man’s best efforts, however, Mother Nature always gets the last word; and so it was that on May 3, 2003, after a late-spring snowfall the previous night, the Old Man of the Mountain abruptly broke off from the southern face of Cannon Mountain, his great face collapsing earthward, scattering the remnants of his once-proud features all about the southern feet of the mountain, landing with a thundering report which shattered the night calm for many miles.
The collapse of the Old Man of the Mountain was widely mourned throughout New England; and since that time, a number of ill-conceived propositions for the face’s “restoration” (read: artificial reconstruction) have been put forth and, wisely, rejected. Today the site of the Old Man of the Mountain looks like any other steep mountainside cliff in the region, with little left to even hint at the magnificent countenance that once hung so prominently from the mountainside, standing sentinel above the Pemigewasset Valley.
Franconia Ridge to Mt. Flume
We follow the Franconia Ridge Trail as it bends eastward towards Mt. Flume, which sits atop a recessed valley cirque, set back from the rest of the peaks of Franconia Ridge by a good three quarters of a mile. The cirque formed by the Franconia Ridge Trail, Mt. Flume, and the Hardwood Ridge, which protrudes west from the southern flank of Mt. Flume, is a steep-walled, C-shaped bowl opening to the west, with Mt. Flume at its innermost eastern extreme.
We can see from here that much of the west face of Mt. Flume is covered in snow, which seems somewhat odd considering how relatively light the snow cover was on the summit of Mt. Liberty. Undaunted, though, we continue our rolling traverse of Franconia Ridge, passing over several un-named low rises in the ridge-line before we reach the summit of Mt. Flume, sometime after 3 PM.
Despite its being slightly less lofty than its more patriotically-named neighbor to the northwest, the view from Mt. Flume is the more dramatic and satisfying of the two, in my opinion. The view down the back side (eastward) is now uninterrupted by any significant nearby features (as opposed to that from Mt. Liberty, whose eastward view is blocked by the mass of Mt. Flume itself). The canyon of Birch Island Brook, which begins high on the eastern flanks of Mt. Flume, can now be traced all the way down nearly to the confluence of its namesake stream with the Pemigewasset River, 3,000 feet below, to the east and south. To the northeast sits the Owl’s Head Formation, a remote, isolated 4,000-footer sandwiched in between Franconia Ridge and the Bond Cliffs, five or six miles due east of Mt. Liberty. The Owl’s Head sits quietly in between Lincoln Brook, whose canyon cuts along the eastern feet of Franconia Ridge, far below our current vantage point (and hidden from view by the bulk of Mt. Flume’s northeastern flank), and the Franconia Branch of the Pemigewasset River, which has etched out a course through the valley on its far side. Back to the northwest, Mt. Liberty dominates the near-view; and the long view is of the upper end of Franconia Ridge, rising and falling as it extends away northward, crossing one summit after another, gaining overall elevation as it makes its way up to the 5,260-foot summit of Mt. Lafayette, tallest and most northerly of the Franconia Ridge Peaks. The view to the south looks over the top of Hardwood Ridge towards the lower Pemigewasset Valley. To the west, the vista is wide and unhindered. The Kinsman Ridge and Mt. Moosilauke dominate the far ridge-lines in this direction.
The Great Cirque
Under our toes, the west face of Mt. Flume, known quite appropriately as the Flume Slide, drops precipitously away from the summit in a vertigo-inducing cliff of dreadful steepness. The upper wall of the slide is marked throughout by huge swaths of barren, exposed granite, which cover much of its forested slope. With one ill-placed footfall, you could easily find yourself tumbling headlong down the near-vertical rock-face, extremely unlikely to save yourself from a dicey end amidst the jagged teeth below.
My eyes trace the debris lines far below, rocky paths etched into the mountainside by earlier rockslides. Their courses appear to all converge at one central spot, far below in the lower cirque, like the spokes of a giant wheel.
I pick up a basketball-sized rock, place it on the lip of the abyss, and shove it off the edge with my boot. The granite projectile wastes no time picking up speed as it tumbles down the steep west face of the mountain, kicking up a pillar of dust, dirt, and smaller stones as it goes. With each bounding leap, the rock is rocketed ever further out from the mountainside; and each time that its trajectory re-intersects with the slope, the concussion of falling debris grows louder and more guttural; though soon the cacophony begins to diminish in volume as the tumbling rock recedes into the distance far below. After a tumultuous flight of twenty or thirty seconds, the projectile rock disappears into the tree cover at the foot of the Slide, ending my visual tracking of its trajectory; though the thunderous report of it ricocheting and crashing through the woods can still be heard for a few moments more, echoing up from the depths of the lower cirque.
Picnic In The Bleachers
But for all of the implicit peril of this abrupt drop-off to the Flume Slide, the jagged fins of granite sticking up out of the ground all over the summit provide for secure, if not exactly comfortable, seating. The tiered layout and angled configuration of the granite outcroppings form a sort of natural bleacher seats, facing, conveniently enough, to the west. We sit ourselves down to rest and revive. I pull our sandwiches out of my day-pack, along with the two oranges; and a picnic is born. We sit eating and discussing the splendid view, to which we have a front row seat—even if we are in the nosebleed section. I point out and identify notable peaks for Dawn’s informational benefit. The lush green forests of Franconia Notch State Park are spread out below us in all their budding spring glory, having already begun to flourish in the post-winter warming, which at the lower elevations is now well underway. More than 3,000 feet below, the narrow ribbon of pavement that is I-93 can be seen, threading a course up through the bottom of the valley. Through Franconia Notch, the I-93 highway is technically classified as a Super-2 Parkway—divided, limited-access freeway, with only one lane in each direction—one of only a few such thoroughfares to be found in the United States.
After twenty minutes of lounging about at the summit, a chilly late-afternoon breeze blows in—a gentle warning from Ma Nature to keep it moving. I take one last pull of cold water from my bottle, close up the pack , tighten my boot-laces, and stand up to go. We head south on the ridge trail towards the junction with the Flume Slide Trail, which, breaking off from the Franconia Ridge Trail no more than a handful of yards south of the summit, plunges directly down the mountain’s west face.
The sky is still a solid turquoise. There isn’t a cloud in sight. So far, fate seems to be with us today.
The Flume Slide Trail
A minute or two after dropping off of the summit, we encounter a small rectangular wooden sign nailed to a tree. Etched onto its frontispiece, in faded red paint, are the words “Flume Slide Trail,” and an arrow pointing sharply down and to the right. Here the Franconia Ridge Trail bears slightly left, and then continues southward towards Lincoln, and the awesomely-named Kancamagus Highway, arguably New Hampshire’s finest mountain thoroughfare, linking the I-93 corridor in the Pemigewasset Valley with the towns of Conway, North Conway, and Ossippee, along NH State Highway 16, on the east side of the range.
To hear the arrow tell it, the decent of the Flume Slide Trail should be an exceedingly steep descent; and one look down the trail immediately squashes any doubt. The Flume Slide Trail disappears over a ledge almost instantly after leaving the crest of Franconia Ridge. We take a few steps towards the edge; and a daunting sight greets our peering eyes: The trail is buried deep in snow—at least 3 feet, maybe a little more than that, even. In front of us the lands falls away at a grade of more than 80%. We look out clear over the tops of trees whose trunks, if you could flatten the steep slope and bring it horizontal, would be no more than 15 or 20 horizontal yards away from us, though some of them are as much as 50 or 60 feet tall.
It’s impossible to gauge what becomes of the thick snow-cover as the trail descends; but I am stunned to see just how heavy and pervasive it is here on the upper flanks of the mountain. Given the exposure up here, I had expected that most of the snow would have blown off weeks ago; but standing here looking down the barrel of this beast, one could be forgiven for mistaking the date for sometime in mid-February. It strikes me as odd, too, because the snow-cover on the Liberty Spring Trail was substantially thinner—more in line with what one might reasonably expect for late April. One upshot of this profound disparity in snow-cover between the two mountains is that no omen, no warning sign that might have forebode this most troubling development, was revealed to us on our ascent. This could be bad.
It Might Get Steep
“Well, at least we can count on great views all the way down!” I offer, in a weak attempt at levity; though Dawn withholds the validation for which I was vaguely fishing with this quip. She stands beside me, staring down into the abyss, wordlessly.
The truth is, we are simply not equipped for deep-snow travel. We’re both clad in only shorts, t-shirts, and light windbreakers. We do have those two hats in my pack, though; but we don’t have any gloves; and it’s obvious from the looks of things that a descent from here will, without a doubt, mean prolonged submersion in deep, hard snow for both our hands and our legs. Furthermore, we have no rope, no mountaineering gear, no snow gear, and no additional layers of clothing to put on.
I briefly consider a retreat, back north along Franconia Ridge and down again via the Liberty Spring Trail; but I quickly dismiss this idea, noting the hour (4 PM), and the time it has taken us to get this far (four hours). I don’t have a map of the area; and so I can’t determine of a certainty what the relative distances of the two possible routes are; but I do feel confident that I know this area fairly well; and my memory tells me that the Flume Slide Trail is definitely the shorter route back to our trailhead. I decide that going back the way we came will, despite being virtually free of serious obstacles to quick progress, doom us to still being on the mountain when night-time falls, which I deem unacceptable. Also, you might recall that, like a tool, I left the headlamps in the car, idiotically choosing to forego their negligible weight burden, for some dumb-ass reason that is far from me now. I need to remember to stop doing that, I tell myself.
After a minute or two of contemplation, I resolve that our best option is to just drop perforce down the Flume Slide Trail, and attempt to reach the woodlands below while there is still sufficient daylight to see by. I recall from my previous mission on this trail (albeit traveling in the opposite direction) that, once we reach the foot of the slide, the last several miles of the route, along a pleasant trail winding through the forest, should be non-problematic. I expect that the snow will have long-since disappeared by the time we bottom out; and if need be, that stretch can even be negotiated in the dark. Better there than high up on the Liberty Spring Trail. And anyway, I reason, it shouldn’t take us all that long to drop down the slide, even though we do have close to 1,800 vertical feet to go before it levels off. Dawn acquiesces to my suggestion, seeing as how I’m the only one of us with any prior experience hiking in these parts. However, it is quite clear that she does not relish either option.
We plunge headlong onto the Flume Slide Trail, and immediately find ourselves sliding down the steep west face of the mountain, clinging to whatever flimsy trees we can get our hands on, in order to arrest what would otherwise be wild, out-of-control tumbling. Before we’ve been descending for even a full minute, my legs are already bleeding from the icy bite of the snow, which here is really something more akin to frozen slush than soft, fluffy powder.
The White Mountain National Forest
Approximately half of the lands comprising the White Mountains have been under federal protection since 1918 as the White Mountain National Forest, which occupies about 1,173 square miles of north-central New Hampshire and western Maine, though the protected area lies almost entirely within the state of New Hampshire. Beginning about 75 miles north of the Massachusetts border, the White Mountain National Forest stretches north for another 75 miles, and east for approximately 50 miles.
The White Mountain National Forest is bordered on its south side by what is known as the Lakes Region, a cluster of large lakes occupying much of the central portion of New Hampshire; and its centerpiece and largest lake is Lake Winnipesaukee, a sprawling, 71-square-mile vacation hot spot peppered with more than 250 islands. The forest stretches westward roughly to Lake Tarleton, seven miles east of the Vermont Border at the Connecticut River. To the north, the forest is bound by U.S. Highway 2, which runs east-west through the town of Gorham, NH. On the east, the forest is bound by Maine State Highways 5 and 35, which run concurrently, in a north-south alignment, through the town of Bethel.
The White Mountain National Forest is renowned for its extensive system of alpine huts, which, managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club, offer shelter to the thousands of backpackers that pass through here each year.
A Four-Pack of Leg-cicles
The snow is of that particular consistency which is least optimal for hiking, without crampons or snowshoes. It’s the kind of consistency wherein the surface, which freezes before the layers of snow underneath, holds up under the initial planting of a foot; but as soon as the full load of one’s bodyweight is brought to bear upon said foot, the surface of the snow suddenly gives way, collapsing through the looser snow underneath. This often directly results in an awkward and painful post-holing, which, in snow of this depth, usually finds the victim planted up to his crotch, one leg buried thigh-deep, the frozen crystals assailing the exposed skin of the legs with relentless fervor. Imagine sliding, bare-legged, down a giant cheese-grater, set at a 60 or 70 degree angle. You get the idea.
In addition to the pain and cold of the snow against our unprotected legs, it has become exceedingly difficult to positively identify exactly where the trail is, due to all the runoff channels and rock slides cross-cutting the trail at virtually all points, thoroughly obscuring its actual course.
However, it’s pretty critical that we make sure not to lose the trail entirely; for if we reach the bottom of the slide and find ourselves off-route, the walk out to the car from there, through four or five miles of thick forest, will be immeasurably more difficult and time-consuming, and will exponentially increase the likelihood of injury, or worse.
Over The Falls
We drop very quickly for the first few hundred vertical feet; and as a result, despite the considerable physical hardship of simply descending through this terrain, a feeling of progress is upon us. A perhaps premature feeling of progress, as we soon discover.
Now, whereas the frequent high winds near the ridge-line kept the snow covering the trail’s upper reaches mostly frozen throughout, the snow a few hundred feet lower on the mountain, being less in the direct path of the wind, has had somewhat more of an opportunity to soften in the glare of the afternoon sun over the past few weeks. Though by this point in the day the surface of this snow has again re-frozen, there is still some residual moisture lurking a few feet beneath the surface, in liquid form. The most immediate upshot of this is that, unbeknownst to us, a tiny stream, hidden from view by the layers of snow resting on top of it, has materialized beneath our feet. And this little stream has begun to systematically flush out the snow sitting directly above it, a fact which is presently revealed to me in a most terrifying and painful manner.
While gingerly probing my way across a point in the trail that is too wide for me to reach all the way across, I am forced to let go of the tree I’ve been clutching onto for the little bit of stability that I have, and venture out onto the open slope for a few feet, before I might reach anything reasonably secure on the other side to grab onto. The breadth of the gap I must traverse is only a few feet greater than my arm span, however; and so, keeping my weight as widely distributed as possible, and leaning into the slope of the mountain for proper balance, I make my play.
No sooner have I released my grasp of that trusty tree branch than I am suddenly sliding on my ass down a ludicrously steep granite incline, lethally slick from the rivulets of water running down its middle—rivulets which have so weakened the snow above that it has collapsed at once under my full weight. With nothing whatsoever to grab onto, I accelerate with terrifying rapidity, bouncing down the wet rock, completely out of control. Not a moment later, the stream whisks me wildly over a sharp ledge, and I am launched outward, momentarily airborne.
Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?
An instant later, my flight has come to an abrupt end, some ten feet below the brink where it had so swiftly begun. Looking back, this will likely prove to be the sole occasion in my life where, looking back, I’ll view having been violently raunched in the groin by a tree as a lucky break. But in this case, that’s exactly what it is. A relative best-case-scenario, even. The sweetest kick in the balls I’ll ever receive.
I sit at the foot of an impassable waterfall, straddling the trunk of a narrow tree. My boots socks, shorts, and t-shirt are all soaking wet; yet in spite of this, I am unhurt—but for the throbbing pain between my legs. But I guess I’ll take that over whatever was in store for me, had I kept on hurtling out of control down that insanely steep rock waterslide.
Dawn cannot see me from her current position: above the waterfall, clutching the very same tree that I was holding just a few seconds earlier. She hollers my name, her voice quivering with an apprehension I’ve never before perceived in her. In answer, I call out to her, stressing that she should most definitely not proceed the way I have just come. As if that really needed to be said. Painfully, I extract myself from the tree, make my way back to the side of the trail, and instruct Dawn to descend through the woods beside the trail. She manages this with little difficulty; and in another moment we are both “safely” below the waterfall.
“Okay, so maybe traveling down the middle of the trail isn’t such a good idea after all,” I concede sheepishly.
The Towering Iceferno
Have you ever seen The Towering Inferno? It’s a big-deal blockbuster movie from 1974 about a fictitious San Francisco skyscraper (which, at 138-stories, would still today be the second tallest building on earth, if it actually existed) that catches fire on the night of its official opening. One of the primary plotlines involves Paul Newman, who, as the building’s architect, feels partly responsible for the fire, and is trying to lead a woman and her two children down from the 87th floor, though the route down, to the extent that it could be said to exist at all, amounts to little more than a haphazard maze of broken and discontinuous fire-damaged stairwells. In one scene, the Newman-led foursome, while descending a stairwell, come suddenly to a gaping vertical void where some ten or twenty consecutive floors of stairs have collapsed and fallen down the shaft containing them. With no other feasible way down, and the fire closing in on all sides, they are forced to slide, shimmy, and climb their way down a flimsy, bent, and exceedingly precarious railing—the only remnant of the fallen stairwell still attached to the stairs above. Of course, a star of Paul Newman’s caliber, even in 1974, wasn’t about to be cast in a role where his character fails to safely deliver his charges from disaster; and so the characters in this scene eventually do all, thanks to Paul Newman’s bravery and leadership, manage to successfully negotiate the gravely perilous climb through the discontinuous stairwell (for the mother, however, only to die badly an hour later when she falls from an external glass elevator which has been violently jerked off its track by an explosion on the 110th floor. Why was she on the 110th floor if she had earlier been descending from below the 87th floor? There’s a lot goin’ on here. Go see the movie).
Anyhow, switch out the gnarled railing for meager, tenuously-affixed shrubbery; the raging fire for iced-over waterfalls, frozen snow, and the impending darkness and chill of a fast-closing night; and of course, Paul Newman for…me, and you’ve got yourself a good, strong metaphor. Use as you see fit.
Falling Down a Mountain
The new plan is to keep alongside the trail, but to avoid traveling directly in the middle of it. This way we can hopefully avoid any more accidents like the one that nearly ruined me just a minute or two ago. This strategy proves effective; and presently we are once again making good time down the slide, picking our way from tree to tree as we go. Soon the aching in my balls fades far enough into the background that I am able to sort of willfully ignore it for the time being, while I focus on the more immediate challenges before us.
We are both severely cut and bruised from the waist down; but we don’t waste much time dwelling on our injuries, opting rather to just keep to the task at hand. My wet clothes hang heavy upon my battered frame; and I keep moving in order to stave off the chills. It’s not quite cold enough yet for hypothermia to be an immediate concern; but I am nevertheless mindful of the fact that this situation may very well change before we are out of the woods, both figuratively and literally.
We continue to probe our way down the perilous terrain of the slide, the relentless descent seemingly never-ending. But then suddenly, after an interminable interval, all at once our vertical route levels off sharply. We have finally reached the foot of the Flume Slide; and from here the Flume Slide Trail continues on as a gently rolling woodland trail through the woods. There’s just one problem.
I Need A Miracle, Every Day Before beginning our brutal descent of the Flume Slide, while we stood at the top of the trail weighing our options on how to proceed, I assured Dawn that, if we took the Flume Slide Trail, by the time we got to the bottom of the slide the snow would have tapered off to almost nothing. And I sincerely believed that to be true when I said it; but the reality on the ground proves to be much different than what I had predicted. For even here, in the forest at the base of the cirque, almost 2,000 feet below Franconia Ridge, the ground is still covered by 3 feet of snow.
It is now around 6:30 PM; and the light is fading fast. What the fuck.
There’s no telling at what point along the trail the snow will finally subside; but I at least know that it won’t persist as far as the junction with the Liberty Spring Trail, because we passed that junction earlier this afternoon; and there the Flume Slide Trail was entirely free of snow. But for all I know the snow-line had been just around the next bend in the trail, in some sheltered section of the forest, miles still from here.
Suddenly it hits me—the explanation for all this crazy snow-cover: it’s Hardwood Ridge, looming overhead, immediately south of here. It makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Whereas Mt. Liberty is far enough north that its western slopes sit mostly beyond the reach of the vast sun-shadow cast by Hardwood Ridge, the cirque beneath Mt. Flume’s west face abuts the northern flank of the ridge, dooming it to shadow for much of the day, while its neighbor to the north is largely free and clear of this hindrance. I’m glad to have finally found a plausible explanation for these strange conditions; but I can’t forgive myself for my failure to properly think the matter through long before now. At any rate, in light of this new clarity, it seems pretty likely to me that this trail will remain under the sun-shadow of Hardwood Ridge for at least a few more miles; and so I have to face facts. I consider this matter for another moment, and then make my proclamation:
“There is just no way we can set forth into an unknown number of miles of waist-deep snow, at night, and with no lights. Let me think about this for a minute. There is a solution to this problem, I just have to find it.”
Another cheerful thought enters my mind. Because we had not been planning to overnight in the wilderness, and since backcountry permits are not required for day-use here, we never registered our hiking plan with anybody.
Apart from Dawn’s white Saturn sitting at the Whitehouse Trailhead, which serves a number of trails, no record has been left with anybody back in civilization to indicate that we are even up here; and so the chance that a successful rescue op might or even could be effected on our behalf, before we perish from exposure, is nil.
Dawn doesn’t speak. She doesn’t have to. It’s all being said without words.
Standing here in the rapidly-darkening wood, in three feet of snow, exhausted, soaking wet, and way overdue for a bath, I stare contemplatively at the meandering creek that, here at the bottom of the Flume Slide Trail, has formed of the disparate trickling waters which made the descent such a perilous, painful, and thankless task, a thought occurs to me.
“You know what we could do?,” I say to Dawn, my sudden burst of zealous enthusiasm breaking the tense silence that has pervaded our little corner of the forest for the past minute or two. “We could just follow this stream out to the highway.”
Dawn perks up a bit at the initial sign of an idea being put on the table—a potential lifeline; but as soon as I’ve completed my sentence her shoulders drop, and she deflates right back into the state of resigned exasperation that she had been in right up until I opened my mouth. She turns away, and goes back to counting the snowflakes on the ground or whatever the hell she was just doing. Undaunted, I press on with my case.
“No, seriously. Remember that place we passed on 93 about a mile before the trailhead?” I don’t bother to wait for a response. “It’s called The Flume Gorge. I went there as a kid a bunch of times. There’s a sick stretch of river cutting right through this super-narrow gorge; and they’ve installed a system of wooden walkways and staircases right up through the middle of it—drilled them right into the walls of the chasm. And you can walk right up through the thing, with the raging torrent racing just a few feet beneath your feet. Then you come out at the top of the gorge, where a mellow trail through the woods leads you back down to the Visitors Center Parking Area, which sits just off the highway. In the winter the waterfalls in the gorge freeze solid. It’s trippy as fuck.” Not that she’s ever tripped, I note to myself silently. “I went there a couple years ago in the middle of winter; and there were all these crazy bastards picking their way up the frozen waterfalls with ice axes and shit.”
“What’s your point?”
“Well, we’re standing here at the bottom of Mt. Flume. I dare say that’s no mere coincidence, seeing as how the Flume Gorge is more or less immediately west of us. And the distance to the gorge, going west from here, is way less—probably a mere third of the distance we’d have to walk on the trail to get all the way back to our trailhead, which is still several miles north of here.”
“I’m listening…” says the expression on Dawn’s face: chin up, glancing at me askance, through the corners of her eyes. Her interest has been piqued, but she’ll need more before she will outwardly embrace the idea of actual hope—or let me out of the dog house. She’s tough like that. It’s one of the things that distinguishes Dawn from most of the other women I’ve known; and it’s one of my favorite things about her, even if it does stand in my way at this particular moment. After all, I’d rather share my ideas with a thoughtful critic than a mindless blind-follower any day.
“Anyway, we’re standing at the bottom of a giant glacial cirque here. All of the water flowing down the west side of this mountain is being channeled into the stream that eventually feeds the gorge. If this thing isn’t the Flume Brook proper, it has to lead into it eventually. So if we just follow this creek, we’ll definitely end up at the Flume Gorge. Plus, the river, being that its water is vigorously on the move, is not buried beneath three feet of snow, like the rest of this god-awful realm. If we stick to the north bank, and just follow it downstream, we’ll eventually end up at the top of the gorge, on its north side—the same side that that mellow trail back to the Visitors Center is on.”
Dawn ponders this for a moment. “How far is it to the top of the gorge?”
“That I can’t say with accuracy; but it’s definitely nowhere near as far away as the trailhead is. Sure, it’ll be a pain-in-the-ass of a bushwhack; but we know the trail is gonna be a fuckin’ quagmire of deep snow, at least for awhile, anyway. Plus, we’re both already so wet that it won’t even matter if we get a little more wet walking in the stream. Regardless, I can tell you this:
I don’t know how much more thigh-deep-in-frozen-ice-daggers bullshit we can endure before we start devolving into savages, bent on simple survival at any cost.
Let’s see if we can’t both walk out to that parking lot at some point this evening—and not just one of us, chin dripping with blood, fingernails undercut with skin and bone, the flesh of our former companion stuck between our teeth.”
Dawn ignores the more colorful parts of what I have just said, and focuses hard on the logic I’ve presented.
“How do you know we’re not gonna end up cliffed-out by some waterfall or other impassable hazard before we even get to the gorge?”
“I don’t,” I say, though a strong feeling of conviction that this new plan is indeed a sound one is rapidly growing within me, drowning out all lingering apprehension. My confidence makes me feel as if I’ve already prevailed upon Dawn’s good sense, and that the rest of the process of selling my idea is a mere, if nonetheless necessary, formality. “But look—if we could make it safely down that 1,800-foot whore of a descent that we just completed, we can certainly negotiate whatever this creek might throw at us between here and the gorge. We’re only, at most, four or five hundred feet higher than the Visitors Center; and I know from experience that the river drops quite a bit while it’s in the gorge itself; so whatever remaining elevation change there is between here and the top of the gorge must be relatively mellow. And whatever—if we come to some unforeseen obstacle, we’ll find a way around it, as we’ve done with all previous such hindrances. Think of the shit we just got through. What remains can’t possibly be as bad as that.” Unless it can.
I’m pretty satisfied with my on-my-feet thinking. I turn to Dawn, awaiting her rebuttal.
She glares right into my eyes, saying nothing, her mouth clamped shut in an impatient-yet-contemplative non-grin, as if weighing whether or not to simply abandon the conversation and just punch me in the face for putting her in the position to even have to make this decision in the first place. But as I stare back at her, I can see her skepticism slowly eroding under the clear light of reason shining through my carefully-chosen, well-thought-out words. Or maybe it’s the lack of any other decent-sounding option.
After a moment of deliberation, Dawn is sold on my plan; though, the jury is still out on whether or not my sentence in the dog-house can expect a pardon or early release anytime soon. Sure, she’s agreed to go along; but she’s not exactly tearing her clothes off just yet.
We cross to the north side of Flume Brook, which can here be traversed with a bit of simple rock-hopping, and begin to follow the bank downstream. The snow is still piled high along the banks of the creek; and we are soon forced to drop into the stream itself in order to make tracks. The water is between six and eighteen inches deep, flowing briskly, and underlain with slippery rocks. Dawn takes a blind step into the middle of the creek and immediately goes down. I’ve never seen her so pissed. I reach out a hand to help her up; but she rejects the hand, and gets up herself. Oooh. Cold. Trying not to sound patronizing, or overly gentle, I suggest that we stick to the edge of the stream from here on out, holding onto the two-to-three-foot-high bank for support. Dawn says nothing, but indicates her assent by following my lead.
We pause after awhile for a short rest; but as soon as we stop moving, we both start shivering. Our bones and muscles are screaming for mercy. I suggest we abort the rest stop, and keep on hacking our way through the pitch-black wilderness. The tree cover is so thick that I can’t even see any stars through its canopy, though the night sky is perfectly clear above our heads.
Flume Brook grows in strength and speed as it descends through the forest, collecting ever more tributaries as it goes. We pick our way downstream for an age and a half, having no idea what kind of progress we’re making in the darkness, whose onset is now complete. I estimate the time at about 7:30 PM. Dawn hasn’t said a word since she took that digger in the river awhile back. Reading her cues, I decide to forego the whole forced-conversation-as-attempted-motivational-tool mumbo-jumbo, and keep my mouth shut, concentrating on just keeping us moving.
A River Runs Through Us
After more than two hours of sloshing miserably through the current of Flume Brook, the high banks of the creek taper down almost to the level of the water, and the snowbanks peter out in the soggy ground alongside the creek. We step out of the flowing water and into the marshy terrain, still following along on the north side of the creek. I notice for the first time just how much harder the stream is raging here than it was where we first abandoned the trail and started following it, several miles, and hundreds of vertical feet, ago.
“We must be getting near the top of the gorge,” I say. These are the first words that either of us has spoken for close to an hour.
“What makes you say that?” Dawn replies, exasperated, apparently having lost her sense of just how bad it would have sucked to have had to traipse through yard-deep snow for five miles.
“Well the amount of water flowing through here looks pretty much like what you see in the gorge.” Of course, I’ve never seen the thing in late April, I admit to myself. “I bet we’ll be at the top of the gorge in ten minutes or less.”
Dawn shrugs and keeps walking, not even the least bit inclined to invest so much as a shred of enthusiasm in what might very well prove to have been a completely unfounded wild guess on my part.
The water roars loudly, violently, just a few feet away to our left.
The marshy ground eventually hardens into terra firma—a recognizable and sturdy forest floor at last—something we haven’t seen since first getting on the Liberty Spring Trail, eight or nine year-hours ago. The river cuts abruptly away to the left by twenty yards or more; but we keep to our course on the solid ground. Dawn has started to lag a bit; so I quicken my pace by a calculated margin, charging ahead by twenty or thirty feet, in an attempt to kind of drag her along, inspire her to push on and keep up. After all, the clock is tickin’.
Suddenly, through the darkness off to the left, my eyes espy something peculiar a short distance away: something whose shape is a little too angular to be naturally-occurring, as I deem. It’s too faint for me to be able to positively identify it from here; but it seems to be some kind of rectangle; and from what I’ve seen in my years, Mother Nature doesn’t do rectangles. I walk over to get a better look.
Boo-yah!! It’s a trail sign! “The top of the Florge!,” I exclaim with immeasurable, unconcealed relief, and a big dollop of profound, self-satisfied vindication.
It’s much too dark to read the damn thing; but I can faintly discern a trail coming up from behind it, from the direction of the river. Another trail heads off to the right of the sign, appearing to roughly parallel the course of the river, which is now out of sight through the trees, though louder than ever.
“Are you sure?,” Dawn says, huffing and puffing her way up to my side, staggering and out of breath.
“Positive,” I respond, with absolute conviction. As I look around the area to attempt, as confirmation, a visual survey of our immediate surroundings, my eyes, which have finally begun to adjust to the darkness, start picking up little clues as indistinct shapes gradually begin to emerge out of the dull-grey nothingness all about, assuming increasingly familiar forms as the blunt haze of darkness falls away from them. “This is definitely it. The Flume Gorge. That trail there leads down through the gorge and back to the Visitors Center, along those wooden catwalks I told you about earlier; and this one over here leads back through the woods directly to the Visitors Center.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll rejoice when we’re out of this shit for good.” No flies on Dawn.
As if I’ve just now somehow magically dropped onto the scene from beyond the beyond, wholly oblivious to all that has transpired since this afternoon, I then inexplicably suggest that we take the catwalk route back through the gorge—citing its scenic credentials, idiotically forgetting for a moment that it’s terribly dark outside, and that a chasm filled with rushing water might not be the smartest place to be venturing in the dead of night, tired, exhausted, and lightless.
But even if I can suddenly forget all about my recent travails faster than my dog can forget, as I’m coming through the front door, that I only left the damn house eight seconds ago to go get the mail, here in this dark forest I am not alone. There is a voice of reason present, though at the moment it speaks in the voice of another—actually, the eyes of another. An icy stare of utter incredulity and firm, line-in-the-sand defiance from Dawn instantly snuffs out any thought I might have had about actually pursuing my spectacularly ill-conceived idea to take the longer, more treacherous of the two readily-available trails out to the highway. And it’s probably for the best anyway. The means of people who tend to defy me at times like this are typically justified by the ends. The Florge hasn’t even opened for the season yet. It might not even be safe down in there. And…it’d be the most chumptitious move ever to get ourselves into any kind of new trouble down in that gorge, after everything we’ve just endured.
The Hero/The Asshole
We walk the forest trail back along the north rim of the gorge. A few minutes later we are at the Flume Gorge Visitors Center—for reals.
Most women I know would probably start crying at a moment like this: hours and hours of nervous trepidation at an end; the leeway to emote honestly finally granted; all of those warring feelings, held long at bay by utter necessity, at long last safe to spill forth in a rush of emotions: relief, sadness, anger, trauma, hunger, delirium. Not Dawn, though. For her this situation apparently seems to have been immediately reclassified as just another problem solved—end of story. Very pragmatic. Uncle Sam must have really trained her to be tough, I think to myself, admiring her ability to maintain level-headedness in a crisis. But inside I know that that’s just how she is. I refuse to give Sam the credit for that.
Our trial is over; though we still have to walk another mile and a half to get back to our car, at the Whitehouse Trailhead. That won’t be hard, though. That trail’s a cake-walk.
As fate would have it, the last mile and a half, though its entire run is over more or less level terrain, and on a wide, well-graded trail, proves pure agony. Back at the Florge Visitors Center, our minds had made the classic mistake of signaling our bodies prematurely that our march of misery was nearly at an end; and our bodies had responded in kind by immediately beginning the transition into post-hike mode, shedding that protective layer of pain-and-exhaustion-denial that makes it possible for people to see themselves through extremely dire circumstances, when hope, energy, and enthusiasm have long expired, and all that’s left is the driving need to be somewhere else, anywhere else. It’s like when you go racing into a bathroom in the final seconds of a critical countdown only to find that it is currently in use, and your body cannot stem the tide that your mind unconsciously green-lighted a few seconds earlier. Not that that’s ever happened to me.
The cuts all over my legs are now stinging like crazy, an excruciating ache in my right knee has made itself felt for the first time, and I have begun to notice an acute soreness in my inner thighs—no doubt the fruit of that tree that was so violently thrust into my crotch when I flew off that waterfall near the top of the Flume Slide Trail, all those hours ago. And the soles of my boots, which have been in need of replacing since last fall, have dissolved to the point of near non-existence, leaving the pads of my feet to be shot through with acute pain at every step. And my appetite is no longer obscured by the much larger concern of getting out of the wilderness alive.
We limp and plod along the Whitehouse Trail, battered, broken, and just plain over it—all of it. And in our desperation to be finished walking for the day, we succumb all too readily to that other insidiously unsportsmanlike trick that the mind will play on you at times like this, wherein you are duped into excitedly and deliriously misconstruing every little faintly-visible clearing or break in the trees up ahead as the end of your road—in our case the trailhead parking lot—and are then left to suffer the consequential demoralization that immediately follows the realization that you’ve been fooled yet again. Yeah, that one’s a classic,alright. Good one, fate. Well-played.
But even the mind, and Ma Nature, sometimes discover that there are limits to how much torture they are willing to inflict upon weary souls; and thus at the utter end of exhaustion and delirium, the moment we’ve been so long living for finally arrives; and we at last step out onto the pavement of the deserted Whitehouse Trailhead parking lot.
All the cars that were here this morning are gone—only Dawn’s remains. She hands me her keys without a word, the message clear enough: “You might be the hero that got us out of this; but you’re also the asshole that got us into it. You can drive. I’ll sleep.” I have no worthy counter-argument at the ready.
Our bones ache and creak as we slide our bodies into the seats. I turn the key and the Saturn’s clock lights up: 10:30 PM. Jesus. All I want to do is pass out with the last bite of a fat-ass meatball sub in my hand; but there’s no place even open in the entire state of New Hampshire at this late hour. Plus, I wouldn’t even dare suggest any kind of pit-stop right now. Dawn would kick the living shit out of me.
I pull out onto I-93 and point the car south, towards Boston. As we pass out of the White Mountains a short while later, I address them telepathically: This shit ain’t over. You know that, right?
With Dawn curled up in the passenger seat beside me, I cruise down the empty late-night highway in total silence. The only noises in my ear are the low buzz of the Saturn’s engine, and the hum of asphalt unfurling beneath rubber at 80 miles per hour, the latter of which is broken only intermittently, whenever the car passes over an uneven seam in the roadway. The collective rhythmic cadence of these two noises vibrates up through the body of the vehicle and engulfs me, its seeming aim to lull me into a deep sleep. I strive mightily to stay awake; but, afraid to disturb Dawn by putting on any music, I suck it up and pry my eyes open by sheer force of will.
I stop only once on the drive home, near Laconia, to get gas and a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A critical call, that coffee. Dawn opens her eyes for a half a second to see me dump a handful of change into the outstretched hand of some donut chick hanging out of a drive-thru window, and promptly flops back into senselessness.
No Sugar Tonight
It’s about 1 AM when the twinkling lights of the Boston skyline finally come into view. I rouse Dawn gently to ask which one of our places we should head to for the night.
“Your place,” she mumbles, eyes still closed.
I pull into my driveway a few minutes later, and climb out of the car, overjoyed to finally be home, and very much looking forward to a hot shower, and a hot Dawn; but instead of getting out of the car with me, she slides over into the driver’s seat, closes the door, and reaches her hand out the window for her keys, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. I look at her for a moment, mildly stumped.
Oh, I get it. I guess I should have known that I wouldn’t be getting laid tonight. I drop the keys into her hand, and watch as she backs out of the driveway and drives away.