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Up Mt. Washington

Boston, Massachusetts, USAJuly 29, 2007“Yes, Blake was right: Discretion was nothing but a “rich, ugly old maid wooed by incapacity.” How much more entertaining it was to woo Folly.” -Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to RomanceThis is the ridge that we walked to get to Mt. Washington. Why climb only one peak when you can [...]

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Boston, Massachusetts, USA

July 29, 2007

“Yes, Blake was right: Discretion was nothing but a “rich, ugly old maid wooed by incapacity.” How much more entertaining it was to woo Folly.”

-Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to Romance

This is the ridge that we walked to get to Mt. Washington. Why climb only one peak when you can climb five?

After a long week of working out in the hot sun with a boss complaining about how bad I smell, Steve and I were not looking forward to a weekend of sitting around a crowded summer-time campsite in Eastern Massachusetts. So we jumped into his 1987 beater van and drove the Interstate 93 up to New Hampshire for a weekend of climbing. Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern USA, was our beacon. We left after work on Friday and drove into the village of Twin Mountains just as night was falling. A conspicuous campground was located right in the middle of town, and as we were not in a mood for searching around in the wilderness for another place to camp in praise of frugality, we paid the exurbanite twenty four dollars for a site. After quickly assembling our tents and “making camp” we went out for a little walk about town to stretch our legs.

Sign that warns of impending dangers on the summit.

The only place that was open at the late hour of 9PM was a local dive bar that looked as if it could be a place of unwanted excitement. As I have written previously, I do not really like bars in the United States; they tend make me feel a little caged and, in general, antsy. But on this night there was no place else to go, so we went in for a couple of beers. We gave the doorman our IDs, and after he finished checking our ages he rolled mine up like a tube and held it out in front of me. With a big smile on his face he queried, “Do you know what is good about these?” As I did not, he promptly answered for me, “They make good straws.” He then dove into a pit of laughter and acted as if we were part of the same “club.” I did not want to disappoint him by saying that I do not snort cocaine, so I just gave him a weak smile and walked past towards the bar. The night at the bar was a little uneventful; just locals singing karaoke. A man in a Romones t-shirt sang a Hank Williams song and then came up to the bar and sat next to me. He complimented me on my tattoos and I complimented him on his good taste in music. He then went into an unsaturated tale of woe that proved to be the barman’s usual story from any country- divorce, a little girl, away from home. But he did have an interesting yarn outside of this brief run through of his disappointment. He was from Boston and said that he use to play drums with the bands Gang Green, Slapshot, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones before they went famous. I again initially took this to be more barman’s tales, but there was something convincing in the way he spoke; he did not seem to be looking for empathy or respect. He was just telling what he thought was a funny story. “I was the Bosstones drummer when I was fifteen years old but my parents made me quit because I was doing bad in school. Now look at them! Look where going to school has gotten me!” Was this a barman’s tale? I’ll never know. If a story is told well enough for me to consider its veracity, I usually choose to believe it on principle. I love stories so why would I slay one because I can not verify it. Who cares? The world cannot be verified.

An awesome trail through the pine forests.

After our second beer we felt that our time in the local dive was up, neither Steve nor I are big drinkers, so with a goodbye to the bartender we quickly exited and began walking back to our campsite. We soon noticed the large array of funny looking ply board moose lawn orniments that lined the road. One was even painted up as a football playing moose. So figuring that they would make an adequate cover for me to urinate behind, I ran over to one and let go. Steve laughed a little at my choice of toilet and kept walking on towards camp. Once finished I ran up to re-join him and began making jokes about how there were not any cops in that little no horse town. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I looked up to find a couple of state troopers sitting placidly in their idling police vehicle looking right back at me. How was I to explain this? “Well, officer, I though that the football playing moose was a public urinal.” No, this probably would not work so well. So as we walked past them sitting on the side of the road in a parking lot, I laughed a little nervous giggle and Steve said something to the effect of, “Law enforcement makes me . . . scared.” The troopers let us walk a little ways form them, and just when we thought that we were in the clear they began creeping up behind us. Show time. They pulled up next to us, flipped on their lights, and rolled down the window. We stopped walking and stood at attention. “What were you doing running from that yard down there?” Figuring that the truth was not really any good and that the New Hampshire law would not take to kindly to an outsider peeing on one of their ply board mooses, I explained that I was “just playing around,” and laughed as if I were embarrassed, as an attempt to make a ridiculous explanation slightly more convincing. “What do you mean by ‘playing around,’ the officer inquired further.

“I mean I was just joking with my friend and running around a little,” I replied with seeming innocence.

“So what did you do on the lawn,” scorned the officer.

“Oh nothing,” I began, and then added, “well, I did tie my shoe,” before I could think better of it. Steve could barely restrain his laughter at such a moronic line. At this the police promptly exited their vehicle and walked over to us. They asked us for our IDs and then interrogated us with a few questions to attempt to determine if we were scum bags or simply morons. At this point I began to assume that the officers did not directly observe me urinating on the moose- I suppose it really did serve as adequate cover- and solely utilized my running to catch up with my friend as probably cause to question us (the real reason was probably that they were growing weary of sitting in a dark car with each other all night long doing nothing). They then tried to catch us up in police school question traps, in which a leading question is asked that is know to be false in an attempt to catch a suspect in a lie- which would create enough suspicion to arrest them.

“You guys weren’t drinking tonight, were you,” the officer asked, knowing fully that there was not anything else that we could be doing in that roadside town at that hour.

“Yes, we had a couple beers at the bar down the road,” we both said in unison. The officer just nodded his head at our honest escape from his trickery. We all then just stood on the sidewalk making small talk about how we were planning on climbing up Mt. Washington while our IDs were being checked. When it was confirmed that neither of us had any warrants for our arrest the police bade us goodbye and drove off into the night. We laughed at the silliness of the encounter, and determined that I had better not pee on any more mooses for the rest of our trip.

Lake near the apex of Mt. Washington.

The next morning we woke early to begin our ascent of Mt.Washington, which is reputed to have the worst weather in the world. This is attested to by the fact that its summit was the site of the highest wind ever recorded- 230 miles per hour. We were excited. So we choose a trail that went over the ridge and that lead up to the highest summit in this part of the country. This trail lead to the tops of five peaks, so figuring that five summits are better than one we chose this longer route. It was worth it. The hike was full of beauty and the alpine scree was other worldly. Alpine areas look the same on every continent. Once you get up over a certain elevation latitude and longitude no longer hold much sway- high elevations are the third dimension of the earth. To travel in the mountains is to experience a complete view of the world. There is nothing that I love to do more.

After eight miles and a little over four hours of serious hiking- we were trying to outrun a storm that was brewing on nearly every horizon- we summited Mt.Washington to be blown about in an awesome force of wind. I stood on the edge of the peak with my arms outstretched and greeted the current blowing through me with maniacal laughter. To feel the force of nature so keenly is to become a bit undone. It was awesome.

We then walked back down from the summit completely spent from the hike up (what, you mean we have to climb back down the mountain too?) and debated as to what would be the quickest route of descent. We stopped in at the hiker’s hut at the base of the summit to ask them what they thought. A jolly, bearded man kindly greeted us at the door and told us of our descent options which all sounded unappealing in our state of total weariness. So we asked how much it would cost to sleep in the hut- which was actually a very well maintained and provisioned little hostel. The man told us that it would be $90 a night! We did not have that nearly that much money. Observing our disappointment and perhaps feeling a little bad for us he added that we could sleep in the “dungeon” for eight dollars a piece. We brightened up at this and accepted. We were also told that we could eat the leftovers from dinner for five dollars- things could not seem to be better. So I walked around for a few hours in the beauty of the alpine terrain; napping by the little crystalline lakes, and running my hands over the delicate moss. It was an idyllic place; the perfect antidote to two weeks of working in the hot sun and Boston. I felt refreshed, and the web of needless complications that I wove for myself down below faded away.

But around dinner time Steve and I met up and went back into the hut for dinner. It was full of around fifty loud people who were also staying the night. They seemed to be on a different beat than us and we began to feel a little uncomfortable. Steve’s social anxiety began kicking in and he kept going into the bathroom to get away from everybody. The hostel staff also went through little routine skits to the amusement of the eating hoardes who were “eating it up.” It got to the point that Steve could not wait for his leftovers any longer, and he began hinting that he wanted to get out of there. It was now quarter after seven and dusk was already beginning to set upon the mountain. The night would be cold, the way down treacherous in the dark, and we had no clue how to get back to the van once we descended. It sounded completely ridiculous– we had a cheap bed and a warm meal coming to us. But there was an odd touch of appeal found in running down a mountain upon which “many have died” in the first breaths of night. As I pondered it Discretion quickly gave way to Folly and I wooped a decisive, “Lets go!” We then quickly snatched up our bags out of the “dungeon,” which was seriously a dungeon, and began running down a ravine that went right to the base of the mountain. We made off at great speed, leaping form boulder to boulder, occasionally sliding down the watery corridor- ever knowing that one mis-step meant potential disaster. We were now not only racing the storm that had been brewing all day but also nightfall, and we could not have been more please.

“Adventure only happens when things go wrong,” I once read in a book. There is truth to that; and in an age where it is ordinary for societies to attempt to calculate every minute detail to ward of “things going wrong” adventure has become a little more difficult to find. The world is amazing, vast, and abundant, but I feel that we have come upon a time where our base need for real excitement has been dulled a little by cellphones, good roads, and GPS. In these times I feel that engaging in the occasional stupid act- like quickly descending a rocky mountain ravine at dusk before an impending storm- becomes a necessity. Perhaps humans are not mearly content with living, perhaps we have to go to great lenghts to make ourselves feel alive. This, I feel, is one of the great affairs of travel.

We made it down the ravine without incident, and at the bottom found ourselves alone on an empty road in the middle of the forest. Darkness soon set in and we did not really know where we were going. So we walked, and walked, laughed at our stupidity, and walked some more. The road was empty, dark, and dense forest stretched out from both of its flanks. It then began to rain in torrents. I began to think that it would be nice to be rescued. As if portended, a lone vehicle emerged from the darkness behind us. We stuck out our thumbs in excitement. A spotlight was shown upon us and the lights of a police vehicle suddenly blazed in the night. This was perhaps the first time that I felt relieved to be caught within the span of police lights. A window was rolled down and we told our story. Our IDs were run for the second time in as many days and we were rescued.

This incident has made me re-think hypothermia. Perhaps it would be prudent to tramp on with a good set of rain gear?


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Filed under: Mountain Climbing, Mountains, North America, Travel Inspiration, Travel Problems, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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