Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Journey to the Mountains - Guest Blogger Post

By: Mark Truman

When Karl asked me to write a guest blog for Live Free and Hike New Hampshire, it didn’t take me long to decide on the topic. The name of the blog is the inspiration. It’s what our journey over the last several years has been. The story of coming home to a place we’d never really been.

So Near and Yet So Far

New Englanders are funny people in many ways. We live in small states (mostly) in a generally small region of the country. We have so many wonderful things here from big cities to beautiful small towns, from oceans to mountains. And yet so many of us take advantage of so little of it. My wife Natalie and I both grew up in Connecticut in the 60s and 70s. When I was in grammar school, we spent a week in two different summers in New Hampshire. I remember having a cottage on a lake. I remember going to Story Land and the “usual tourist attractions”. I think we took a tram up one of the mountains but can’t really remember much of anything else. The year after Nat and I got married we went to New Hampshire for a long weekend with our best friends. It was the first time we’d been back since we were kids. On that trip, I remember going to Lost River, riding the Alpine Slide at Attitash and driving across the Kancamagus. We took the tram up Cannon and walked around on the summit and went down and sat on the ledges below the Rim Trail. We watched hikers coming up from below. I remember commenting that it would be cool to hike up a mountain someday. That was in 1980.

It Takes a Child

When our daughter Jamie was born almost 15 years later, we still hadn’t returned to the mountains. When she was little we started taking a summer vacation with Nat’s parents in Maine every summer. We’d find a different house on the ocean each year and spend a week or two of sightseeing, biking, walking, kayaking and generally enjoying the beautiful Maine coast. Jamie grew up loving all things outdoors. Somehow, though, we still hadn’t found hiking as one of those things. We continued our Maine family trips every summer but in 2003 we decided to take a second vacation. We hadn’t been to New Hampshire in a long time and figured that Jamie would really like it. We stayed in a small motel in Lincoln and reintroduced ourselves to the mountains. When we were driving up, I remember thinking about that last time we’d been there and the image of driving into Franconia Notch and being surrounded by the mountains. As we came into that spot again I glanced back into the back seat and saw the look on Jamie’s face – one of pure awe. Not surprising for a child seeing her first mountains, but I felt exactly the same way myself. We had a wonderful time that week. We went to Lost River and the Flume, took the tram up Loon, drove around and just enjoyed the views and spent many hours walking in the woods. There was no Story Land or Santa’s Village – Jamie had no interest in that. We thought that we were introducing our child to the mountains. Turns out, she was introducing them to us.

The next few years we returned to the mountains each summer. We explored more trails, took trams up new mountains and set out on a quest to see every waterfall in the Whites. One year we drove up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, parked at the cow pasture and hiked across the Alpine Garden. I’ll never forget the feeling of that spot. Standing near the top of a mountain looking down over other mountains around us was intoxicating. Later that week we decided we’d actually give it a try. Jamie wanted to hike up a “big” mountain and we wound up choosing Cannon because we could hike up and take the tram down. We didn’t want to push her too hard. Standing in the tram lot and looking up at the summit I recall thinking how big that mountain looked and wondering if we were biting off more than we should. We took the Kinsman Ridge Trail to the top. Every step was fun. We were hiking up a real mountain! Each opening that brought new views was amazing. It wasn’t about where we were but how we got there. When we reached the rim trail, just below the summit, Jamie turned to me breathlessly and said, “This was more fun than Disney World!” That was one of the happiest moments of my life. Walking around the Rim Trail, we went by the ledges we had sat on over 20 years before and wondered why it had taken us so long to do what we had thought about then. We took the tram down from the summit of our first 4000 footer that day. It didn’t count for our list. Of course then we didn’t even know there was a list.

Jamie's first big mountain - Cannon

Our little mountain goat in her favorite kind of place

There Are Other Seasons

Our summer trips to New Hampshire continued as Jamie grew up. Each year we did more hiking. It was getting into our blood. The big mountains were still daunting though. We visited many more waterfalls (I think we almost completed that list) and had many wonderful mountain hikes. We also decided that it would be fun to go to the mountains in the fall. We planned our first fall weekend in October of 2006. We were hoping for beautiful foliage. We hadn’t counted on snow. On the way up the fall colors were beautiful. As we got to Lincoln and started into Franconia Notch we started seeing it. Everything above about 3000 feet was snow covered. We had no idea that winter could come so early. We were staying at the AMC Highland Center that weekend and our plan was to hike Mt. Avalon that day. Surely this would be OK – it’s a small mountain. It was a beautiful fall day and the temperatures in the valley in Crawford Notch were warm. We started up the trail which was covered with the brightly colored autumn leaves and a short way up met a lone hiker coming down. He told us that the trails were really icy not much further up and that we should probably turn around. We considered his advice since we didn’t have any kind of real winter gear but we decided to go on and see how bad it really was. He was right, the trail was very icy and soon the ice gave way to snow. We couldn’t turn back now. When we finally arrived at the summit, we were greeted by an autumn winter wonderland. The summit was coated in about six inches of new snow. The temperature was warm enough that we could have been wearing shorts. Across the notch, the southern Presidentials were frosted and Mt. Washington was in its full winter garb. We hadn’t planned on it, but we’d gotten our first taste of winter in the mountains.

Mt. Avalon

When I was a kid I loved winter like every other kid. Snowball fights and sledding, endless days playing in the snow. Somehow, as I got older I decided that I hated winter. Shoveling the driveway, driving on slippery roads and bone chilling winter days were not fun. I knew that someday we’d retire and move south like my parents had. Enough of this winter stuff! But winter in the mountains is different. After our first little taste that fall we started coming to New Hampshire each winter. February vacations at the AMC Highland Center were wonderful. The first year we borrowed snowshoes there and on the first hike we were hooked. There was nothing like floating across the top of fresh snow on unbroken trails. Suddenly, winter wasn’t such a bad thing anymore! That first year we also took the AMC “alpine tour” which was a lift ride up and down Bretton Woods with a snowshoe hike across the ridge at the top. Winter in the valley was fun – winter at the top of a mountain was amazing! The next few years we spent more and more time up north in the winter. We took lots of winter hikes to amazing views on small mountains and last winter, we took the plunge and did our first winter 4000 footer – Mt. Liberty in January. It was one of the best hikes we’ve ever done and my opinion of winter is changed forever. It now makes me feel like it did when I was a kid. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself…

Nat, making it to the top of Mt. Liberty - Our first winter 4k

Really? They Have Lists For That?

As we got more and more into hiking in the Whites, I began to study the mountains. I bought many hiking books and planned the hikes that we’d maybe do someday. I also learned about the 4000 footer club. We still hadn’t managed to actually hike one yet, but I love goals and challenges. This seemed like one to add to my list. In 2007, I was turning 50 and had been thinking for a while about what I wanted to do to celebrate that milestone birthday. In my reading I had come across an article about a fantastic sounding hike – a hut-to-hut Presidential traverse. It promised several days above tree line and the experience of a lifetime. It also had the potential to be very hard and make for long days in the kind of weather that I was well aware we could find in the mountains in summer. We made our plans and reservations many months in advance and I spent those months in a struggle between happy anticipation and worry. What if it was too hard? What if the weather was bad? What if, what if…? OK, I tend to over analyze everything and worry a lot – it’s my nature. July came and the rains started up north. I looked at the weather forecast every day for weeks before our trip. Rain, rain and more rain. Within days of our departure the long term forecast was for rain almost every day. Should we back out now? I just couldn’t – this was my big test, my big adventure. We got to New Hampshire the day before our hike was to begin and the forecast had improved - just occasional rain now, not so bad. We woke up the next morning to clearing skies. Taking the AMC hiker shuttle to Appalachia, we couldn’t wait to get started. The hike up Valley Way went quickly and we were soon at the hut. We checked in, dropped our packs and headed up to the summit of Mt. Madison – our first “official” 4000 footer. The skies were now blue and nearly cloudless and sitting on that summit was one of the best moments of my life. I knew that these were the places I wanted to be.

Mt. Madison - Our First 4000 Footer

The next three days were like being in a dream. The weather changed completely from the original forecast. Four straight bluebird days with warm sunny skies and wonderful mountain breezes. Four days of wandering ridges and summits above tree line in one of the most amazing places I can imagine on earth. A once in a lifetime experience. The nights were spent watching the amazing sunsets from the huts, eating fantastic meals and trading stories with the people who were taking the same journey as us and then falling asleep listening to the breezes blowing across the mountain tops outside the hut window.

Before we had started this trip, I had been thinking about THE LIST. We could actually bag our first 8 4000 footers in four days! Once we were up there something changed though. The list disappeared from my head and bagging summits didn’t seem very important. The second day we skipped Adams and Jefferson – it was going to be a long day, we were already in paradise and there was just no need. We had planned to go to the hut and drop our packs and head up Mt. Washington. As we hiked under the cog tracks and looked up to see the crowds on the summit we changed our mind. Being on a mountain summit with buildings, a road and people who had arrived on a train didn’t seem like a good way to end a perfect day. Looking back I’ve never been unhappy that we skipped those summits. They couldn’t possibly have made the experience that we had any better. But now that we’d had a taste of being up there, we had to go back. The next summer we repeated our experience with a four day hut-to-hut from Franconia to Crawford Notch and again a forecast of mostly rain (with the accompanying worrying on my part) turned into another four bluebird days in paradise. We were truly blessed.

Mt. Monroe on Presidential Day!

Since 2007 I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the lists. Nat has no interest whatsoever in those kinds of goals, but she loves being up there as much as I do. Today we’re working on the list (and of course we now know that there are many lists), but not as a self-motivating goal or a way to get a patch. I see it as a way to bring us to places we might not try otherwise. We’ve now reached #21 and we’ve done every one together. We’re both anxiously awaiting the next 27 – and many, many others. It’s going to be a fun journey. I wish we hadn’t waited so long to start it…

Coming Home

As we were beginning our hiking experiences and I was looking for new sources of information, I stumbled on the Mt. Washington Observatory forum. I joined and started participating and soon was a regular part of a new virtual community. Many of the people there shared our love for hiking and the White Mountains and it was wonderful having a place to go to talk about my passion with others that shared it. I joined the forum the year after our Presidentials hike and learned about Seek the Peak – the annual hiking fundraiser for the MWOBS. That summer, we did our first Seek the Peak and stood on the summit of Mt. Washington for the first time. There were cars and tourists and all the things that I had wanted to avoid the year before – but there was also something magical. This mountain has something about it that can’t be explained. There was something more though. I finally was able to meet the virtual community that I’d been hanging out with online every day and share the mountain and trails with them. In the years since then, we’ve made many more friendships in the New Hampshire hiking community – friendships that will last for life. There is something very special about these people who share our love for the mountains. We know that it is this community that we will someday call home for real.

The last couple of years we’ve managed to make the mountains the place that is “so far, and yet so near” instead of the other way around. It no longer seems like a chore to drive 3-1/2 hours each way in a day to do a hike up a new mountain. Weekends or longer are just bonuses now. We’re getting north ten times a year and wanting it to be more. The mountains and hiking are now a part of our souls. It’s where we love to be. Nat’s celebration choice for her 50th is camping in Baxter and hiking Katahdin. I can’t wait. In 2009 we celebrated our 30th anniversary standing on a mountain top (Camel’s Hump in Vermont). I hope we’re doing the same for our 40th and 50th.

Camel's Hump on our 30th Anniversary

Since those first vacations in New Hampshire with Jamie, the mountains have been calling us home. At the moment she’s busy being a teenager and has temporarily lost interest, but I know she’ll be back. As for Nat and I, we’ll keep doing our day trips and weekends and vacations when we can. Every day in the mountains is a good day and each time I drive into Franconia Notch and feel the mountains reaching out and wrapping themselves around me, it’s just like that first time. We’re also planning for our retirement (which is still too many years away) and know that there’s only one place we want to be. The mountains have called us. This journey will be complete and we will be home. And then the next journey will begin…

I want to extend a very special thanks to Mark for writing this post for LFAHNH. He's my first guest blogger and I couldn't be happier with his post. Please note that the contents of this post (text and pictures) are property of Mark and are protected under my copyright. - Karl



  1. Fantastic post! Parallels my own experience in several ways, but you got it down in writing and put it together beautifully.