In this interview with Boston Voyager I tell my story about discovering hiking as a form of healing and eventually becoming a Forest Therapy Guide: http://bostonvoyager.com/interview/meet-tam-willey-toadstool-walks-jamaica-plain/
Our shuttle driver Bill of “Mountain Courier Shuttle” picks us up in Crawford Notch where we leave our car. During the long drive up to the Appalachia Trail head, he tells us we are a breath of fresh air because we have a map and know how to read it. He then tells us many tales of the many misadventures of hikers he has scene up here who set out in flip flops and how nobody carries maps anymore and how so many hikers use GPS and their phones die up there and sometimes so do they. Bill reminds me of my dad and he is also from Somerville and it is clear that he loves shuttling hikers and genuinely cares about folks being safe out there. He tells us how he will make pit stops at the Highland Center and Joe Dodge Lodge and send hikers in to buy maps before he will drop them off at the trailhead. He tells us about those who set out completely unprepared and than get a multi-thousand dollar bill from New Hampshire Fish and Game after they get rescued. Bill is funny and a great story teller. He makes us laugh and he seems truly excited for us.
We hike up to the Madison hut in just under 3 hours and claim some bunks next to a window with a view of Mount Adams which we plan to do first thing in the morning. Its about 3pm and we rest for a bit and then head up to the summit of Mount Madison, the first of five of the peaks we intend to visit on this trip. We are given our first dose of craggy sharp rocky scramble and its early afternoon and this is all the hiking we are doing today so we spend a long time on top just enjoying the views of the ridge that we’ll be walking across tomorrow. We watch the cars swerve up and down the Mount Washington auto road through my tiny binoculars and try to decipher where we are and what the other mountains off in the distance are.
We head back down to the hut and change into cotton and relax in our bunks and I read aloud to Stud all the possible escape routes off the ridge and how terrible they all are but how the guidebook says they are better then dying from exposure. Hikers begin to pour into the hut who have just come across the traverse today doing what we will do tomorrow. Everyone is really sun-burnt…like even the backs of their knees look fried and I vow to wear TONS of sunblock tomorrow and reapply ALL DAY LONG (which I do).
One guy is limping and he lays down on a bunk diagonal across from us and his knee looks fucked. Its like his patella is popped off and his friend is being super sweet and compassionate bringing him ice and checking on him. I later offer them some of my tiny tube of arnica and they are very appreciative. People look really wrecked from the day and everyone is stinky which lets me know that I must still smell like soap from my morning shower. I remember the smell of soap on people when I was thru-hiking the Long Trail.
Stud and I keep to ourselves at first feeling shy and weird but then we socialize with some nice folks at dinner. One couple from Montreal carried a bag of wine across the entire ridge and is offering it to everyone at the table. Another couple from New York is talking about how hard Mount Adams was. I notice a woman who I would guess to be about 45-50 looking very pale at another table. A young man rubs her back in a concerned way and I worry she is about to pass out. She is sweating profusely and just doens’t look okay. I then notice her dinner is now a pile a vomit on her plate and I feel for her. The hut croo, meaning the staff of 18-25 year olds who run these huts, handle this very well and clean up the puke very quickly and tend to this suffering woman. I am sobered by all of this and committed to staying hydrated.
The folks we sit with ask us about our plans for the next day and ask us if we are hiking to the next hut tomorrow and we shyly admit we are hiking past the hut and continuing up and over Mount Eisenhower and then down. They’re eyes bug out and they look at us like we are masochists and maybe we are but we tell them we are leaving at 5:30AM and bypassing Washington but they still seem concerned but I don’t let it get to met because we know what we are getting into and we feel confident that we can manage this and we are well aware of how to get off the ridge if we can’t. We are not above calling Bill tomorrow to come pick us up if we can’t make it all the way to the car.
We go to bed at like 7:30 and read fun books from the little hut library. Stud finds one about some idiots climbing Everest on a lesser known route without sherpas and it seems like they’re all gonna die yet they wrote a book about it. Stud shares some amusing sound bites with me and I want her to read the whole thing so she can give me a blow by blow account of the story while we are hiking tomorrow. I read chunk from a cute little book about history of the White Mountains that include the relationships of all people with this area and each other and I question everything and am completely fascinated. From the Abenaki to the early fur trappers to the settlers and early farmers to the loggers, the trampers and the tourists like us. I read about the Atherians who claim Mount Adams to be 1 of 10 of the most holy mountains in the world due to its alien energy. I read about how the mountains were named, claimed, abused and all the weird things and all the colonial settler stories. I read about how the Abenaki avoided the summit of Mount Washington out of respect for the “Great Spirit” that lives up there.
The sunset from the hut is spectacular and so are the stars. I am woken up by some lost hikers as they tromp by the window with headlamps. It freaks me out and I hope they are okay. I then try to turn my headlamp on and it doesn’t work. I change the batteries and find they are all corroded inside and I laugh. So I’m down to nine out of ten essentials…ah well, not bad. Good thing the days are long and that we’ll have 15 hours of day light tomorrow. And this is hardly the back country. I bet I could buy a light at the hut if I wanted to. Thanks to Ayla I always carry a glow stick.
I wake up to the first titch of light at 4:30 and I look down at Stud who is still sleeping. I’m excited and I want her to wake up but her alarm isn’t going off till 5. I peak again but she’s still asleep. Every time she moves I look down to see if she is awake and by the 5th time I look down she smiles at me and we look out the window as two big bunnies hop right over to us. One is really big and dark brown and the other is skinny and blond and I believe these bunnies are here to great us and they come very close to the window and we are delighted. I take it as a very good sign.
We get up and tip toe into the dining room where some Appalachian Trail Thru hikers are sleeping on the floor. I mix some instant coffee with some luke warm water leftover from a tea pitcher from last night. I see a half a loaf of anadama bread baked by the hut croo that was left out from last nights dinner after some late night lost hikers had a night dinner. I slice myself a piece and just as a take a bite I see a mouse run across the kitchen counter. I put the slice down and debate spitting out the bite but I don’t because this is a pack-in/pack-out situation and there isn’t an easy place to spit it out in this red hot moment. I slice another slice from the middle of the loaf instead but I still feel kinda grossed out eating it. I eat a few handfuls of my trail mix and drink down my coffee. Stud does the same and then its 5:30am when we start hiking towards Star Lake and the sun is rising and no one else is out here and its so quiet up here and I wave goodbye to the sleepy hut and the weary hikers who won’t be stirring for pancakes till 7am. Hot breakfast would be nice but we have a long ways to go. Pancakes will happen another time.
Mount Adams is no joke. I tell Stud about the aliens and the Atherians and the wind whips us around as we scramble up the impossibly jagged boulders. We don’t last long on the summit and the wind is beating against us. My eyes and nose run and drip everywhere and I wish I had a plexiglass face shelf in this moment. We descend into Thunderstorm Junction, a small col with lots of trails merging, and the wind lets up and we have no more big wind gusts for the rest of the day. Even at Edmands Col which is notorious for high winds, there is nothing but a light breeze. It must be the aliens!
We cruise along the ridge and we feel awesome. I have so much zinc sunblock caked on me that my trail name becomes “Casper”. Stud keeps thinking she sees a puppy but its maybe a chipmunk or maybe its the coarse high mountain grasses blowing a certain way. I think maybe its a marmot but thats not a thing here. Either way, her trail name becomes “Peak Puppy” or “PP” for short. We make many jokes all day about the adventures of Casper and PP and talk about ourselves in the third person and we think we are hilarious.
We see a pair of women hiking ahead of us. We actually saw them take a pit stop at the hut at 5AM when we were drinking coffee and I was eating mouse contaminated bread. They hiked up from the Appalachia Trail head at 4am this morning and are doing the whole traverse in a day. This is a thing…doing the entire traverse in a day. Its kind of like running a marathon but on a mountain ridge of jagged rocks…yeah. There is another pair of women behind us doing this as well. We are excited to be leap frogging with them all morning. We climb up Jefferson and reach the spur just as the first pair of women are coming down and they exclaim to us how hard this past stretch has been and how one of them is nauseous and they look wicked sun burnt and its not even 9am. I want to offer them my electrolyte tablets and sunblock but I refrain and just listen to this woman as she shares her experience with us and I try to trust that if she needs something she’ll ask and right now she just needs to be witnessed and share the acknowledgment of the ruggedness of this ridge. We nod like “yeah…this shit is hard” and they go on ahead. We summit Jefferson and we feel amazing. Its so big and there are no cars, no trains, no cafeterias, just rocks. Its one of the most overwhelming summits I’ve ever experienced. This mountain got to me.
As we hike down the other side of Jefferson another pair of women doing the traverse today catches up with us. We chat with them a couple times and eventually they pass us too. We reach the spur for Mount Clay and decide to skip it. We had considered it but things are heating up and we have a long day ahead of us so we go around the side which is still a big climb. Mt Clay is another one of those massive 4,000 footers that doesn’t count on the list of NH48 cuz its too close to another mountain or something…I don’t fully understand the criteria for the list…I just like goals. I had kind of wanted to summit it anyway but now that we are here, its clear that this is not the right time so we bypass it. We reach the intersection with the Jewell Trail and I have fond memories of hiking up it with 5e last summer. The rocks start to even out a bit and we pick up some speed as we find the Weston Path.
We see the cog cruising up and down the Ammonoosuc Ravine and it look like a toy. Our trail passes under it and we run under the tracks across the coal splattered everywhere and then wave to the passengers as a couple trains go by. The summit of Washington is packed and we are glad to not be going up there today. We’ve been there/done that and are over it. We are on a gorgeous stretch of trail and we can see the Lake of The Clouds less than 2 miles down the ridge. We meet back up with the Crawford Path and its now mid day and the hiker highway begins.
We reach the Lakes of The Clouds hut and we are greeted by a hut croo member who acknowledges my hat and shares with us that their sibling just recently attended some programming with The Venture Out Project and they met Perry and it was a nice connection and I’m feeling so happy. I then ask if there are any leftovers for sale hoping for a bowl of that minestrone soup from last night but there is only cake and brownies which is awesome but I can’t eat any of that right now. I wash my face in the bathroom and wet my bandana. We spread out at a table and eat and refill our waters and look at the maps. We lie down on the benches and rest for bit before heading back out.
Mount Monroe kicks our ass. I just climbed Monroe last year with 5e and I can hardly remember it being anything more than a bump but right now, at this afternoon hour, after all the miles and summits and sun exposure, it takes us a while to find our rhythm and as we slog up, this mountain feels huge right now. From the summit we can see Mt Isolation where we were last week and Mount Jefferson looms behind us. Mount Eisenhower is ahead and it looks impossibly far but we trek on. The trail starts to transition from jagged rock to a mix of sand and gravel and boulders and there are stretches of what one might even call a “footpath”. As we get closer to Eisenhower I start to fade and say things to Stud like “I dunno Stud”. Stud responds with “we got this bigT!” and this is exactly what I need to to hear and I believe her and find a little extra oomf.
We reach the beginning of the climb up Mount Eisenhower and find a shady spot next to a big rock slab. We’ve both had to pee for a while but have been completely exposed for miles waiting to find a spot that is slightly out of view as there have been many hikers coming and going. We are both so wrecked we don’t have the energy to explore around the rock much so we basically take about 5 or 6 steps off the trail and pop squats right next to each other while hikers head our way and we are too weary to care. The shade feels amazing. We chug water and eat a snack and then power up Mount Eisenhower which feels like a soft tender friendly mountain after what we’ve been climbing all day.
From the summit of Eisenhower, our last summit goal of the day, we decide to continue south on the Crawford Path instead of backtracking and then heading down Edmands Path. We reach the intersection with the spur towards Mount Pierce and Mizpah Spring Hut. The last time we were here was in winter and it looks completely different. And just like that we are descending off the ridge following the good ole Crawford Path right down into Crawford Notch where Studs car awaits us. These last 4.5 miles are a killer and we are moving slow when we hear that first pair of women coming up behind us. We must have passed them when they headed up Mount Washington and bypassed it. They also summited Mount Pierce and Mount Jackson as they were doing a full traverse. They looked wild-eyed and sun burnt. One of them talked a lot and was very excited and than referenced her friend behind her saying how she was totally wrecked. We look at her friend and she did look wrecked and tried to speak but couldn’t even talk at this point so we just congratulate them as they stumble by.
We reach the Clinton Road cut-off and make it to our car. Yay! Its 7:30PM. We’ve been hiking for 13 hours and have covered about 17 miles and four huge mountains with a fifth the day before. We note that we don’t feel as wrecked as we did after Mount Isolation and we assume this is due to the lack of humidity? We head towards Franconia Notch and stop at Echo Lake for swim but its too cold to get in so we just put our feet in and wash up a little before changing into dry clothes. I’m proud of my overall lack of sunburn…just a spot on the back of left arm and some spots on my neck. My Casper look really saved me and I can’t really get the zinc off so I remain Casper-like.
As of this traverse, Stud and I have hiked 39 out of 48 of the NH48 and its feels dang good. I love that ridge so much and I actually can’t wait to go back up there again. I want to explore the Great Gulf Wilderness and I’ve always wanted to hike across the Alpine Garden Trail that runs just above Tuckermans and Huntington Ravine. There is just so much to explore up there and so much to learn.
We drop 5e’s car at the Rocky Branch trail head and all pile into Studs car and head to the Glen Boulder trail head with the plans to do a loop. We see the infamous “Glen Boulder” from the road, which is this giant house sized boulder perched up on the side of the mountain that looks as if its about to teeter over and roll down the cliff. The sky is clear and while there is and has been a forecast of a “chance” of thunderstorms, there is no “expected” percentage…its just a summer heat wave and there’s always a chance in super humid weather like this. We did discuss whether or not to go up the very exposed Glen Boulder Trail given the possibility and in the end we decide to go for it, figuring we will be up and over in the earlier part of the day and back in the trees if the weather changes in the afternoon.
It’s 6:30AM when we start hiking up from Pinkham Notch unlike the last 2 days this trail wastes no time. We are immediately climbing and rapidly gaining elevation. Despite a very poor night of sleep at the
cheap motel air conditioned palace I’m feeling pretty good. There is plenty of water on the trail and I’m already down a half liter within the first hour so I go ahead and refill a bottle just and decide I will refill every chance I get. We pop electrolyte tabs in our water and every time I drink, I’m brought back to life as if I’ve been given an injection of super powers.
Before we know it we are already popping out above the trees with views of the Wildcats and the Carters across the notch. The heat wave continues but its early and we are fresh when we reach the Glen Boulder. We take refuge in the shade of the giant boulder and have a quick snack followed by a goofy photo shoot with the big balancing rock.
As we continue climbing higher up, the reality of being in the alpine zone begins to dawn on me. Despite having scoured over the maps and having read thorough various trail descriptions from multiple sources, somehow I hadn’t fully planned for this and I suddenly feel ill-prepared. Generally, when I know I’ll be on an exposed ridge line I pack a few extra things but given the heat wave and the kinds of mileage we were doing I was traveling pretty minimally and I began to feel a little nervous about this. I had maybe six and a half of the ten essentials depending on one’s definition. I had the basics including some emergency kit and first aid stuff but I was missing some things for sure.
Stud then comments about the clouds which seem to be forming across the valley over the Carters. But its hard to tell and we are climbing higher and more exposed. Stud makes a few more comments about the clouds and at this point we are half way across this exposed ridge. The clouds are gathering and there is that pinkish haze that happens sometime and just as they appear to start forming in a unsettling way, they then kind of blow apart but we are watching them. The trail then dips into a short corridors of trees and we plop down in this tiny shadow of shade for a break and I say that I am nervous about the clouds. We all agree there is nothing to do but go forward because there is no imminent threat of Tstorms. If things get weird we will find trees and get below them and get through whatever happens but that there is a good chance nothing will happen.
I feel better after a snack and a chug as I always do and we proceed to summit Slide Peak which is a pretty amazing view and also about 1000 feet of elevation higher than our goal peak of Mount Isolation yet isn’t on the NH48 list even though its huge and amazing. The clouds continue to be ambiguous and we soon reach the intersection for Davis Path which means we will soon be out of the alpine zone and back below tree line which is relieving. We reach the intersection and are officially headed into the Dry River Wilderness.
I don’t like this. I am scared of the Dry River Wilderness. A lot of people die in there. Like people go in there to die. Not hikers necessarily but random folks who come up here and go in there to return themselves to the land in mysterious ways. Its less traveled, the trails are hard to navigate, its easy to get lost, there were once a bunch of lean-to’s that are now mostly gone, search and rescue claims its one of the hardest places to find people and it just feels haunted and spooky in there to me. But here we go and at least we are on a more well-traveled trail….so we think.
We hike down the ridge and being back in the trees feels great. Again the heat is slowing us way down and by the time we finally reach the Isolation Spur to the summit I feel pretty exhausted. We climb up passing by a few hikers who are heading down and we have the summit to ourselves and its just so unbelievably beautiful. We can see Mt Washington and Mount Monroe and the Boot Spur. We take our time up there just resting and taking it all in. It feels huge to be standing on top of Mount Isolation after looking at this elusive peak on maps for so long trying to imagine it. And here we are!
But we still have a long 8.5 mile descent ahead of us. Longer than we could possibly know in this celebratory moment. So we begin our descent back the way we came but then turning down the Isolation Trail towards Rocky Branch. The mileage on the map feels way off. Or maybe its the heat. Either we’re moving very slow and I can’t help but wonder if we are being sucked into a Dry River Wilderness Vortex.
It feels like a very long time before we reach the Rocky Branch Trail and we have to do one of the scariest water crossings yet. Its huge and its flowing and I basically crawl and shimmy under some brush along some boulders to find a place where I think I can hop from rock to rock. We all make it across and continue finding the trail a bit hard to follow.
The Rocky Branch Trail is basically a swamp with miles of rock hops and waste high grasses and everything is slippery and we are in the trees but also being baked by the sun and there is evidence of moose everywhere. Like big moose poop and baby moose poop and I keep seeing HUGE fresh tracks. We are a bit on edge as we keep expecting to turn a corner and find a giant mamma moose on the trail. But we don’t. Of course I always kind of want to see a moose or a bear out here but if a big animal did come down the trail I don’t know how I would gracefully get out of their way because we are in a swamp and I might sink up to by knees if I step off these rocks.
We stop often to drink and we are getting kinda fucked up. The heat and these endless rock hops are killing us. Our kingdom for a footpath! We finally reach the end of the Dry River Wilderness but we still have miles to go and the trail is descending steeper. This trail never lets up and we go about a mile an hour all day long. We tell stories and try to distract each other from the physical pain and exhaustion. At this point no amount of water or snacks will revive us. The only cure for the state we are in is to stop hiking but we have to keep hiking and we do. Our stamina surprises all of us and we are machines.
We can hear the road and we switch back our way down and down and down until finally we pop out onto the asphalt parking lot exactly 12 hours and 13 miles later. We are fuuucked up! We jump in 5e’s car not sure if any of us should be driving but we safely make it back to where Studs car is and we all just lie down on the ground until the pulsing throbbing of everything slows down enough to take our shoes off and eat and drink to be okay for driving. We hug 5e goodbye and make sure she is okay and we agree to all text one another once we are safely home. 5e heads to Joe Dodge to check the place out and clean up. Stud and I find a sub shop and get subs to go and head to Lake Chocorua for a dip before driving home. Its 7pm and we have a long drive but we drink ice tea and swim and we are revived enough for now.
In conclusion, I don’t recommend the Rocky Branch Trail. In fact I would totally go up and down the Glen Boulder Trail again because it was awesome. But not in a heat wave and not when the clouds look questionable and not without 10 out of 10 essentials plus an extra 2.
Stud and wake up in our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace in North Conway and go out for breakfast while 5e drives up from Boston. We all meet up at the Ferncroft Road trailhead in Wonalancet at the base of the Sandwich Range Wilderness on some land that is privately owned but welcomes hikers. Its very exciting to see 5e and we are pumped.
We fumble with our packs and tighten things and make our last little decisions before heading out into the heat wave. The Blueberry Ledge Trail is another nice gentle approach giving us time to catch up with 5e. We share adventure stories from the day before and other stories and just talk and talk our way up the trail until its too hot and too steep to talk and we focus on climbing.
We break often to drink and snack and I start to worry that my 2 liters of water is not enough. We are climbing higher and I am now down to 1 liter as we pass by a pile of water bottles that some other hikers have clearly stashed for later. I find myself fantasizing about stealing small undetectable sips from each of these stashed water bottles and I am shocked by my mind even entertaining this thought so I shake my head to snap out of it and pray we find water soon. Not 10 minutes later, we come across a trickle. We all fill up a liter, treating our liters with Aqaumira and letting the cold water run over our bandanas cooling ourselves off.
We continue climbing and soon we are at some incredibly steep ledges greeted by a well-intentioned guy who wants to give us the complete blow by blow of how to get up the ledges (even though we asked him nothing). I am grateful for the lack of views due to the hazy humidity and I watch Stud and then 5e climb up the impossible-looking rocks and wonder how the heck I will do it. I haven’t been this scared since Mount Mansfield. I feel too short to reach and I can’t see Stud and 5e around the giant house shaped boulder that is on front of me so I shout up to them just to make sure they are right there and of course they are and they try to explain where they put what foot where and I can’t really take it in so I just finally hurl myself up and clutch onto anything I can grab and make my way up. We then climb 2 more very steep and very large and ledges encouraging and supporting each other with each scary step until we reach the top of the ledges and lay down on the flat open rock to recover and chug water.
We haven’t even reached the summit of Mt. Whiteface yet and its getting late. I’m concerned about the time but we can’t move any faster in this heat and we absolutely have to take lots of breaks to stay hydrated. We finally reach the summit of a small cairn in the trees. We make our way across the Rollins Trail over the Mt. Passaconaway and its a lovely trail. We find the spur and head up eventually reaching the elusive summit, another tiny cairn in the trees and we plop down for an extended break. 5e offers us some electrolyte tablets that change everything. I had some that I left at the hotel room that I bought ages ago but never used and now I’m so happy to have a stash. Its 4:30 and we still have a 5 mile decent down Dicey’s Mill Trail. We are exhausted and so grateful to not be camping! haha!
The decent is long and we pause often and we drink about 4 liters when all is said and done. I enjoy watching the landscape change as we descend and eventually we pop out of the backyard of the hiker-friendly homeowners. It feels surreal to be in a wide open space and the light is amazing. We trek down the long driveway not 100% sure of where our cars are and we reach a gate with a sign that reads:
I find this sign really funny and we continue down a dirt road eventually finding our cars. It took us 10 hours to hike these rugged 12 miles in this heat and we are feeling it! We head up route 16 pulling over at Lake Chocorua for dip and the sun is setting over the lake and the water feels magnificent. I scrub the layers of dirt off my calves with my bandana and float and splash around until I feel myself cool down. We change into dry cotton and head north to our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace for a quick pit stop before grabbing dinner. Its late by the time we get back and we again laugh about the thought of camping right now. We go over our route for tomorrow and crash.
Stud and I leave Boston at 5:30AM enjoying a very scenic morning drive over the Kancamagus Highway to the trail head for the Tripyramids. The car is packed with camping gear, coolers, camp chairs and everything we need for three days of hiking and base camping which includes camp cots, pillows, extra foam mats and all the luxuries of car camping with the hopes to sleep as comfortably as possible between some hard hiking. On the drive up I asked Stud if she happened to bring a deck of cards and we decide we’ll pick up a deck later when we get firewood to roast the marshmallows Stud has. In hindsight, this is simply hilarious. Let me tell you why.
We park at the Pine Bend Brook trailhead on the side of the Kanc and head up towards North Tripyramid. We feel great! This trail is a nice leisurely approach before it starts climbing and this gives us time to chat. We reach the steep part and slow way down as we begin to scramble up the slippery rocks made even more slick with the thick layer of humidity.
We summit North Tripyramid whose summit is very anticlimactic and unclear…another tiny cairn in the trees. So we just blow past it and head over to Middle Tripyramid where we intend to have a real lunch break but the black flies drive us off the summit so we head back down the ridge to rest. Its getting late and we are moving slowwww and I keep forgetting that its 90+ degrees and I can tell that I am not eating or drinking enough. We decide to descend a different trail called Sabbaday Brook Trail which is a longer way down with a road walk back to the car but it looks fun and we love a loop. We are also getting low on water and according to the map, there is lots of water on this trail.
The initial descent is steep and slick and we are sliding all over the place. I am moving slow and being so careful with every step and as I teeter down this one rock slap, my foot slips out from under me and I am suddenly falling and in an instant I am face down on this rock. Stud whips around in a panic and I quickly inventory myself to discover I am totally fine and not hurt. I get up and notice my trekking pole is bent and the inside of my arm has some scrapes goin up into my armpit and my shoulder feels little tweaky but really I’m fine. My adrenaline is pumping so I don’t even really stop moving and Stud asks if I’m okay and I assure her that I am but I need water and we can hear it running.
We finally reach the source of the babble discovering this beautiful fairy land of mini water falls splashing unto tuffs of moss and we rest and refill and Stud combines parts A and B of Aquamira to treat our water and we sit on rocks and rest.
Re-hydrated and thinking we are much further along than we are. we eventually reach a big water crossing and realize we have much farther to go then we thought. We make it across but the rock hops are slick and we are tired. The trail then crosses back over again and we are confused. By the 10th water crossing, our shoes are soaked as the rocks are too slippery and we slide off them. Stud straight up falls in the brook which I don’t fully comprehend until much later and we are so over the Sabbaday Brook Trail and its endless water crossings.
At some point Stud notes that it is 5:30PM and we are shocked at how late it is. We finally pop out at a very popular tourist attraction called Sabbaday Falls and we plop down on a lovely bench very aware of our stench and filth next to the clean families who have made the .3 mile trek up to the falls, which are stunning. We hike out to the Kanc on the very well graded .3 last stretch of the trail and then begin our road walk back to the car and its really hard.
We reach the car and drive down to the Swift River where we soak our achy over heated selves and I scrub the mud off my legs with my bandana. The Swift River is not too cold but cold enough to refresh us. We cool down quickly and change into cotton by the side of the road. As we drive into North Conway I feel myself start to tank. Its almost 7PM and I feel nauseous and a headache coming on. I pop some ib profen and chug water.
Its still 90+ degrees, we need dinner and the thought of setting up camp now feels impossible. We are both thinking it and I can’t remember who said it first but it comes out; “We could consider a motel room if there is a vacancy somewhere in North Conway…” We are now 100% attached to finding a room but its also a holiday weekend (we think) so we are nervous and we are prepared to camp if we have to but the htought feels really hard right now. By 7:30 we are sitting down for dinner and I am crashing so hard. Stud gets online and finds us a room. YES!
We eat half our dinners and pack the rest for tomorrows hike and then move into our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace that has views of mountains and indoor plumbing. We sprawl out the maps and text with 5e who is meeting us tomorrow morning and hiking the next couple days with us. We make our plans, wedge our trail runners up against the AC so they will dry over night, we unpack the coolers into the mini fridge and text our beloveds at home to tell them we are safe and they laugh with us about it. 5e says shes totally into the motel room and is down to split the room for the next night too so we go ahead and book it for tomorrow too. We justify this decision by stating aloud to each other that we are adults, we work, we get to do this, we are boosting the local economy, etc…I admit that I was excited to camp, I love camping, and it seemed like a great idea at the time!
This week I’ve been reflecting on my long-term relationship with the NH48. When I started hiking these mountains in 2009 I didn’t know anything about this list. When I first heard about the list, I wasn’t interested. I was apprehensive and cautious about getting caught up in the mentality of “peak-bagging”. I didn’t want the magic of simply being out there to get thwarted by an arbitrary list. I also worried about the way a list like this could affect my decision making in a risky way while hiking. But I also couldn’t even fathom the idea because it seemed too lofty a goal. 48 mountains is a lot of mountains. From Boston, the closest trail head is a 2 hour drive and the farthest is a 3.5 hour drive. The hikes themselves range from 4 hours to 10 hours as an “out and back” with a long drive on either end, unless you turn some of them into multi-day backpacking trips or base camp nearby. There is also the option of staying in high huts which are expensive and have a very strict cancellation policy and also involve dining and bunking in close quarters with a slew of strangers where you can almost guarantee there will be either some gear or trail or food or mile comparison happening at the table…or maybe some kind of mansplaining or competitive bro blabbering…or at least some posturing.
Hiking the NH48 is an investment of money and time. Its also hard and dangerous. The trails are old and steep and rocky and rooty and there is tons of exposure where weather can change on a dime. There are signs in the alpine zone warning of death and advising you to turn back if the weather changes. Many people are rescued every year and many people have died on these mountains from falls, avalanches, exposure, and other things. And if this list of 48 mountains isn’t enough of a risky adventure for ya, you can also do all 48 mountains in the winter thus earning yourself a an even more elite badge. Then you have the record setters, the ones who trail run them all setting the fastest times, the ones who do them all in a season, or all in 1 month, or the woman who did each and every mountain on the list every month for an entire calendar year. That means she made 576 summits that year on some of the toughest terrain in the northeast in all weather and in all conditions.
Hiking the NH48 is a pure privilege on so many levels. When I decided I wanted to set this list as a personal goal, I decided on a 5 year timeline which I knew would be more than enough time so not to rush through it or get too caught up in my head about it. The White Mountains are a sacred place and my intention as I set out on each and every hike is to hike these trails with respect for the land, the beings, the ancestors and my able body. This goal has encouraged me to not only hike more often but also to branch out and explore other areas of the Whites that I had never considered before. Its a way to connect with other hikers who will often ask at a trail head what number is this for me in which I reply “I don’t know” because while, I do keep track on this blog, I honestly don’t keep track in my head that way. I’ve hiked some of these mountains more than once and I’ve passed by some of these peaks without sumitting before I set the goal and then of course returned later once I had a reason to summit.
My relationship with these mountains is more than a check box on a list. I’m in a long term relationship with with the White Mountains and I’m very aware of how much more there is to explore beyond this list. I do enjoy meeting hikers who have been chipping away at this list for over 20 years. This past fall I was honored to be able to witness and clap for a hiker as he completed his 48th and final summit on Owls Head with his friend, both of whom were in their fifties and had been hiking these mountains together for years.
For me, having a solid hiking adventure companion is everything and that’s why I asked Stud to do this list with me. Half the fun for us is the car ride. It gives us time to catch up and process our lives. I also trust Stud 100% to make sound decisions. I don’t have to worry about trying convince Stud to turn around less than a quarter mile from a summit if something weird happens. We are compatible in this way. Our partners, family, and friends sometimes think we are these wild risk takers. Maybe we are comparatively, but in the world of outdoor adventure, we play it pretty safe.
This past week we had big plans to traverse the presidential range which is a stretch of 20ish miles of exposed high peaks. Its a long hard rocky scramble with long stretches of exposure and its also a breathtakingly beautiful ridge with wild flowers and views for days. Its a place you definitely do not want to be in a fog or a storm or very high winds. We were planning on hiking up to the Madison hut on a Monday, crossing the ridge on Tuesday, staying at Lake of The Clouds Hut on Tuesday night, and hiking down on Wednesday. We were waiting to book the huts until the last possible moment. We kept checking the hut website online to see if the green circle that symbolizes “availability” would turn to the yellow circles symbolizing “limited availability” and since it remained green, we figured we’d book the day before just in case the weather changed because once you book, you don’t get your money back if you don’t go no matter what the weather is doing. And its a good thing we waited because the next thing we knew, the temperatures on the high peaks plummeted and a foot of snow was being predicted to dump.
We were in denial. We had been planning this trip for months. We were really treating ourselves to two hut stays on the high peaks in early June before school would get out thus avoiding the summer crowds. We had cleared our schedules and set 3 days aside for this. We were really excited and also we hadn’t scene each other in a while and had a lot of catching up to do! We went over and over the plans trying to decipher if we could still do it and move things around and choose the “better” day. We knew the trip was a bust. I mean, maybe we could do it. But why? Why spend all the money and time trying to survive an icy freezing crossing with poor visibility on slick rocks with cliffs everywhere. Just to check off a few more peaks on the NH48 list? Nope. Not worth it.
The same weather that brought this snow to the White Mountains in June also brought waves to the beaches of Massachusetts so we make a plan B to go surfing one day. That morning my alarm goes off at 6 and I am about to put on my wet-suit when I discover I am sick…like sore throat and a head cold. What?! I text Stud and I’m in denial but I’m pretty sure I don’t even have the energy to lift my surfboard right now. Part of me thinks the ocean is the perfect neti pot but a smarter part of me says submerging my body in very cold water when my immune system isn’t up to par is not a good idea.
A few days later and I think I’m mostly recovered from this passing spring head cold when bam it hits me harder and instead of heading down to Ptown for my annual work-cation at my friends house I find myself exhausted and unable to do anything and I’m suddenly sicker than I was before. So I just lay low and drink gallons of home brewed ginger lemon tea while suffering over the shift in plans, the lost income, the missed adventure. Three days later I am welcoming this invitation to rest my body and mind. I’ve been going hard lately. Some might say I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. But this concept is a slippery slope because I can go straight to blaming myself and thinking I made myself sick and that I deserve to be sick and that it is like a punishment for living too fast. But I like my fast full life. I do a lot of things. I admit it. While I am grateful for the unexpected time for restoration, I will not slow down just because some pollen got caught up in my nose and infected my sinuses. I will keep laying the best plans ever but I do want to learn to work on my disappointment when things don’t go as planned and I do want to keep learning how to surrender to the uncontrollable and I do want to keep learning how to neutrally accept what is…AND I’m super excited for plans C, D, and E! Coming soon:)
I am now a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. I have successfully completed a six month practicum beginning with an 8-day training and followed by a list of assignments that included a bunch of practice Forest Therapy Walks, plants studies, mapping, drawing, journaling and writing. I had monthly phone meetings with my fellow cohorts, my mentor, my co-mentor and other mentor. I created a new website, business cards and joined social media (instagram and facebook) after being off-line for about 5 years. Thus I have reconnected with various folks I have known over the years and have been vigilantly networking, making new connections and trying to get the word out about Toadstool Walks and trying to find community and support around this new offering. The response has been amazing so far.
All the while, I’m still envisioning the who’s, what’s, why’s, how’s and where’s. I’m throwing myself off the cliff constantly catapulting myself forward without perfect clarity. I’m rewriting content after I’ve sent it. I’m approaching land managers and proposing imperfect pitches. I’m fighting my analysis paralysis and trying to trust the process. Meanwhile, I continue to support myself as Handy Tam and try to understand what that is all about and who I am and what is my purpose and how did I get here and what is possible. Its not been a super clean streamline process despite how it may look. It has ripped me open at times. I have been held up by my inner circle (my girlfriend, closest pals, and a few folks I’ve met thru my training.) I have poured my heart and soul into this…sometimes a little too much.
In conclusion, it has been a fun, challenging, and vulnerable process. I had a Threshold Ceremony a couple weeks ago to formalize things. I have a graduation call coming up and an actual Certificate being made and mailed which I will proudly frame and hang on my wall next to my End-To-End Long Trail Certificate. I am so so so grateful.
If you want to subscribe to my monthly eNewsletter please do: SUBSCRIBE
Hiking in this kind of cold does things to a body that are counterproductive. Unlike say… hot yoga (for example) where heat is used to softens things, in below zero tempts everything seizes up and within 10 minutes my hip flexers feel like frozen elastics and my legs are like lead. I am confused by what is happening to my body and taken back by how incredibly hard this hike is feeling so far. 20 minutes in, I am relieved to find myself finally warming up and I begin the delayering process. After a handful of costume changes and stops and starts we finally find our groove and fall into rhythm stopping to eat and drink every 20-30 minutes. Our water bottles keep freezing shut even though we keep them upside down in our packs but the ice keeps forming around the top so every time I manage to just barely get mine open I drink a little extra just in case I won’t get it open the next time.
We reach the final cut-off and cross through a very cold steep section. There are some snow drifts but nothing too deep that requires more than our spikes. It was here that I have my first thoughts of turning around. I can’t remember the last time I considered turning around but I am just so cold we are headed towards an exposed ridge line where things will only get colder and more windy. I am concerned so I let go of the expectation that we will summit anything today and I shift my focus to simply taking in the frozen forest atmosphere. It is truly magnificent and I relax into it all.
We start to see some blue through the trees. The frosty moss glistens and we begin to bliss out. There is this magic that happens when the trail starts to shift from a constant steep grade into a mellow foot path. We have reached the ridge and we are now comfortably walking thru an eerily quiet alpine forest just before we will soon reach the tree line and cross this threshold onto a new planet. Our endorphins are pumping and we know we are close but not sure how close. We pause a few times to look at each other and smile and we suddenly know why we are here and what this is all about. Its not about the summit anymore, its ALL about this last bit of alpine forest before the alpine zone.
As we come around a last corner of scraggly snow caked trees, I pull on my shell, tighten up my straps and we head up and out onto the exposed ridge. This is my first time above tree line in winter in the White Mountains and my mind is blown. With each step forward I remind myself where I am. I am following Studs footsteps when she suddenly stops and turns around to ask if we are still on the trail. I glance around and say yes. We go a little further and realize we are not on the trail, have not been on the trail and are not sure where the even trail is.
This is how things can start to go downhill. This is how the infamous stories start. There are no blazes because its winter and they are covered. All you have are footsteps which can quickly disappear if the wind were to blow a snow drift over them. A compass can help if you have taken the time to set that up before being exposed.
We pause, we look around, we take note of where we came from. We both realize we need to climb to higher ground to see where we are but we aren’t sure. We both have the same thought that one of us should stay put while the other goes up a little ways to take a look around when Stud says it aloud and asks if I will stay where I am while she climbs ahead. I say yes. Stud hesitates and we process this for a second and debate if this is the right thing to do. I announce that I feel good and that I have all my faculties and it makes sense and I am clear on where we came in from and that she should go up and look while I stay here so we don’t both get lost. I watch her climb up ahead and then she keeps going a little further until just like that, she’s out of my sight. We hadn’t processed this possibility. And now I am alone. My stomach drops and I can feel the invitation to panic but I don’t. I look around and I say a little prayer and I think about my girlfriend and I decide that I will stay safe, be smart and not do anything too stupid. I want to run after Stud but I don’t. I decide that if I don’t see Stud’s head pop back into view in about 30 seconds that I will run after her. Meanwhile Stud realizes that she has gone farther then she intended and turns around only to realize she can’t see me. She races back into view and waves for me to come up. I run towards her up the rime ice digging my micro spikes in as my adrenaline is shooting through the roof. We find the trail and charge towards the summit. Stud says she too freaked out when she realized she had gone just beyond being able to see me. We acknowledge this two minute moment of terror and we hug. We are relieved to be okay and we’ve made it to the top. We’ve summitted Pierce and its so dang beautiful! We look across the ridge at Mount Eisenhower. Originally we had planned on trying to summit this today as well. But this ridge is way too intense to hang out on for any longer so we snap some pics and then run back down towards the shelter of the trees.
Once we are below tree line we are high on adrenaline and we can not stop screaming. We half jog down the mountain for maybe two miles before finally collapsing on the trail for a break. Stud’s water bottle is now completely frozen at the top and I can just barely get mine open but I have plenty to share and we take turns chugging the icy water. I take my gloves off for about two seconds to open a bar and just like that I can feel the threat of frostbite grazing my finger tips and quickly put my gloves back on. I lay down in the middle of the trail letting my legs recharge before we continue down. We pass a total of 4 hikers by the time we reach the windswept parking lot of the Highland Center where we are so grateful head inside to a heated shelter to change. Cotton has never felt so good.
Mountain Bathing in the Alpine Zone and pushing my growing edges. Feeling what -15 feels like while leaning into 40+ mile an hour winds on the presidential range. So much gratitude for my hiking pal Stud and for the White Mountains for keeping me humble and reminding me what being alive can feel like! Thanks to Stud for all the pics! #mtpierce #nh48 #liminality #whitemountains #mountainbathing
What is Reciprocity?
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
I’ll refer to this tree by the name ‘Ash,’ and I will use ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ pronouns for Ash since we don’t have an animate word for “it” in the English language. Using inclusive language helps me pay closer attention. My path towards creating an ongoing practice of land reciprocity started in a human-centric world exploring race, class, gender, privilege, and the various -isms and phobias that perpetuate views of superiority and inferiority. As I continue to unpack my Western conditioning as a white American of Eastern and Western European descent, I find myself peeling back the layers of human dominance. By referring to Ash as ‘it,’ I fail to acknowledge that Ash is a living, breathing, animate being.
-David Abram, The Spell of The Sensuous
Respectfully, I began to introduce myself to Ash in my own quiet way without spoken language. I acknowledged Ash’s place in the forest and looked around, taking in the mushrooms and leaves and dry stream bed nearby. I reached my hand out and explored the woven textures of Ash’s bark, following the pattern with my gaze up into the impossibly high canopy, ablaze in sunlight. I then looked down and wondered how deep Ash’s roots went below the surface. Were they as deep as Ash was tall? Was Ash photosynthesizing right in front of my very eyes?
I stopped critiquing my conversation with Ash and began asking for support in bringing my best self to this training by being an active participant and not hiding in the shadows of self-doubt. I had been anxious about the training and meeting a group of strangers, an issue that only arises in the human world. In the forest, no one questions my gender or identity and I am reminded that I am natural and connected to the earth. Part of what drew me to wanting to become a Forest Therapy Guide is to be able to hold space for others who have internalized feelings of being unnatural, separate from, or even wrong.
I stepped back from Ash looking up and down and around, wondering what I could possibly offer and if it would be good enough. I leaned in and exhaled purposefully into the weave of Ash’s bark, offering a few dozen concentrated blasts of my carbon dioxide. I felt my heart rate slow and thanked Ash in my own way until the sound of a crow call told me it was time to say goodbye.
Guiding a Forest Therapy Walk is a practice of reciprocity in and of itself. From start to finish, there are many opportunities to listen, notice, acknowledge, ask, and give. I always ask the land for support before I guide a walk. I might ask for qualities like self-assurance, clarity, openness and patience. I recently asked an elder Cedar of Lebanon evergreen for support in remembering all the informational details I intended to share with my walk participants. As I asked for this clarity of mind, a small sprig dropped down from high up in the canopy, bouncing off on my head and onto the ground. I picked them up and tucked the little one into the fold of my hat, offering back a personal gesture of gratitude in the form of a bow. During that walk, whenever I found myself nervous or lost, I touched my hat, feeling for the cedar sprig. Later that day, I had a strong urge to pass on this little cedar sprig to another human. I listened to the message and gave the offering.
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com