There is a magical place in Gloucester, which is said to house the spirits of witches, the ghosts of its working class and vagrant denizens from the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the memories of a band of dogs who became feral as their owners died off or abandoned them amongst the rocks and boulders; dumped in a place formed by glaciers’ terminus. Dogtown, Massachusetts. Anita Diamant wrote an exceptional historical novel set here, The Last Days of Dogtown.
This is a place I go to get lost and find myself healed by nature, its rocky, windy, rooted trails wending their way through the woods. And, it’s a place I’ve been lost more times than possibly any other. Take one wrong turn (or, like today, let the dog choose the trail) and you’ve arrived squarely in what I call “land of the giant boulders,” a wooded, natural obstacle course whose gauntlet requires keen attention and preferably Vibram soles to survive. It’s a tame version of the Fire Swamp, devoid of ROUSs, lightning sand (tho during the wetter months, its mud pits quite rival) or fire spurts.
During the Great Depression, Roger Babson commissioned the carving of inspirational sayings on 30+ boulders strewn throughout the woods. One end of the trail starts with Truth. The other end is Work. On the trail, we’re reminded to Be On Time. And of the importance of Integrity. Intelligence. Courage. Loyalty. Initiative. Kindness. Ideas. Study. Ideals. Spiritual Power (this is emblazoned on rock that towers 5 or 6 metres high; coincidence?). Scattered elsewhere in the woods (most of which I’ve found; many after being lost over the years): Prosperity Follows Service. If Work Stops Values Decay. Be True. Help Mother. Get A Job. Keep Out Of Debt. Use Your Head. Never Try Never Win.
So today, I started with Truth. Found Courage and Loyalty along the way; Kindness, Ideas… stopped for some bouldering on Spiritual Power. Got lost somewhere after Work; a wrong trail taken and a bridge crossed that I haven’t seen in eons. Got found before I reached Never Try Never Win.
Sometimes I let Gus choose which trail to take, and sometimes he gets us lost. Part of the fun in exploring, even in a place you’ve been countless times before, is finding your way back after taking the wrong trail. So, on a day that began with a yoga class focused on the energies of living as an intentioned, breathing, thinking, doing being, a hike in the woods amongst these reminders (Truth = Satya; Kindness = Ahimsa; Ideas = Iccha; Spiritual Power = Samadhi) was perfect.
I’ve spent the last week as tourist in New England. As the carpet of nearing-peak fall colour unfurls in the White Mountains’ valleys, this week I relinquish thoughts that one must go far and wide to properly travel. It’s like touristing in my backyard: open-eyed, wondrous and ready for whatever nature (and New Hampshire) has in store…
Fall cooperates fully, with seasonably-warm days and threats of hurricane and cool, wet weather all but an afterthought. Nature’s annual fireworks show begins in earnest on the drive along New Hampshire’s scenic Kancamagus Highway, as we stop intermittently (as one does) for photo opps with nature.
My friend has arrived from Europe to tick off an item on his bucket list: fall hiking on the Appalachian Trail. First stop, the Twinway Trail via the Zealand Trail and the AMC’s Zealand Falls hut. Views from the lookout over Whitewall Brook towards Whitewall Mountain are nothing short of show-stopping (Mt. Washington making a cameo appearance in the far background, over my shoulder…actually I don’t think it even snuck into this picture), and we realise this is just the hors d’oeuvres for our big hike tomorrow: the Franconia Ridge. Looking out over these purple (green, red and orange) mountain majesties, it’s no wonder my hiking partner keeps breaking into assorted patriotic tunes as background music to the rhythmic sound of boots on rock (and f-bombs exclaiming the occasional mis-step). The only irony is that he hails from some distance across the pond.
Franconia Ridge: I’ve done this hike before, but not in something on the order of 15 years. It’s a rocky, bouldery, scraggly above treeline hike that’s accessed by the sweet-sounding Falling Waters Trail. I say sweet because for all its scenic splendor, the trail traverses active waterfalls and ascends a steep and treacherous boulder-laden trail that teases you at every corner (“we’re almost at treeline…really…just 1km to go…hehehe”). So just when your quads are screaming, “uncle” and you’ve gotten one foot stuck beneath the other in a bit of rock (and just by telling said hiking partner, will never live that admission down) there’s just a little bit more to climb.
The above-treeline views are more the reward than are the (now-squashed) sandwiches we’ve packed for lunch. But our revelry is short-lived because the fog rolls in and its little cat feet kick our butts into gear to move along the trail, bagging Little Haystack (4760ft), Mt. Lincoln (5089ft) and Mt. Lafayette (5260ft) in the process. There’s something deeply satisfying about both checking 4000-footers off a “did that” list and feeling that you did that with your own steam. Yay, us!
As if the descent might be easier than the ascent… We descend with the hope that the wisps of cloud and fog don’t follow us back into the trees and morph into forest trolls. Quads steeled for the endeavour, we march onward, downward and into the forest via the AMC Greenleaf Hut and the Greenleaf Trail. It’s all downhill from here, though this particular downhill section also includes its gauntlet of slick granite and really gnarly boulderized and rooty outcroppings. Proceeding with caution and a smattering of hummed ballads (and Queen songs), we land back at the car feeling that way you do when you’ve used the human machine as intended.
Our third day of hiking was the much more relaxing, yet only slightly less bouldery, Arethusa Falls trail to Frankenstein Cliff. As if the highest/biggest/best views thing could be outdone with each subsequent day, it delivered as promised: tallest waterfall in New Hampshire, jaw-dropping views from the cliff and an opportunity to walk along the tallest railway trestle in NH. By suggestion, I’m bringing back the term “neat-o!”
Leaf-peeping in New England is somewhat a sport, with prognosticators forecasting the best weeks to catch peak foliage months in advance. Reality dictates that you get what you get, though we’re more than giddy to have caught New Hampshire on a good week, the right side of peak.
Another thing you don’t much do when you’re home: hire a guide. So in the tourist spirit, we hired a climbing instructor for the day from IME (best climbing store in the region), and set off to scale some rock and help me surmount a dread-fear of multi-pitch climbs.
And so, looking from the top of the first climb, seeing Mt. Washington and the butt-crack of Huntington Ravine, I felt small but strong; held firmly by my faithful belayer and the trusty ropes and harness. The 2nd pitch was not nearly as daunting as expected (though the bruises on my legs from gripping razor-sharp rock may tell a different tale), and from something on the order of 100 feet from where my feet left the ground, the views and the feeling of being simultaneously surrounded by and part of nature were something there are not words in the English language to describe.
While my version of travelling has little to do with seeing crowded attractions or doing the mainstream, we surely partook in our share of cider donuts (a seasonal New England delicacy), wandered in and out of gift shops and even contemplated taking the Cog Railway up Mt. Washington before nixing that idea in favor of a day of climbing across the way. Another hike to add to the next NH Adventure itinerary, I reckon…
The ride home had us detour through Ogunquit, ME for lobsters at Barnacle Billy’s (because you have to!) and some outlet shopping in Kittery to dodge the inevitable raindrops. A good time was had by all as they say… And so the week ends with a local afternoon of people-watching in Salem as the witch-crazy flock here from all ends of the earth for their annual pilgrimage.
Next adventure will hopefully take me out of New England, but as adventures in one’s backyard – and adventures in general – go, it was pretty great.