I’ve been lax in blogging for a while, so I have a lot to catch up on. It would take a ridiculously long time to write about everything I’ve been up to in the last few weeks (which, sadly, hasn’t included much writing), and I’m not sure even my mom is sufficiently interested in my life to read the ridiculously long post that would result. So, a little at a time.
The last weekend in August, Donald and I went backpacking in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Backpacking being distinct from car camping, of course, in that you have to carry everything you need to a campsite in the woods, instead of being able to just drive up to one and pitch your tent. I used to go backpacking quite a lot, but I think this was the first time I’d gone in almost 5 years. Donald hadn’t gone since he was a Boy Scout, so he had to rent a backpack, sleeping bag, and camping mattress. Which made it a more expensive trip than you might think. Especially since, despite his Y chromosome, he wasn’t able to resist the lure of impulse shopping at REI when he picked up the equipment, and ended up with some new hiking clothes as well (in which he looks very cute, I might add).
We decided to use the Nauman tent platforms, next to the Mizpah Spring hut, as our base of operations for the weekend. This is just a little southwest of Mt Washington, the tallest peak in New Hampshire. It’s actually just a little below a ridge of mountains that extends south from Washington: Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson–known as the Southern Presidentials. The western slope of this ridge goes down to Crawford Notch, one of the main north-south routes for cars and trucks through the White Mountains; the eastern slope descends steeply into the Dry River valley. We chose Nauman tentsite because it was less than a 3-hour hike from the parking lot, but also reasonably close to some interesting hiking. We figured we could hike up to the tentsite on Friday, sleep there on Friday night, then leave the bulk of our equipment at the tentsite on Saturday while we did a hike up along the aforementioned Southern Presidentials. Sunday we could hike back out, and drive back to Boston.
We left quite early on Friday morning, and it was a good thing, because when we got to the parking lot around 10:30 or so, it was already pretty full. Nonetheless, we found a spot along the edge, shouldered our packs, and started uphill.
I firmly believe that anyone who plans to write epic fantasy novels that include long treks through the wilderness needs to go backpacking a few times, in order to begin to understand what it’s like to have to carry everything you need on your back. And then imagine doing it without waterproof-breathable clothing, or high-tech lightweight gear. Or ziploc bags. For fantasy writing research, it’s actually best, in fact, to go backpacking in the rain. Fortunately, we didn’t have the chance to carry out that level of research on this trip!
We reached the Nauman tentsite early that afternoon, and again, it was a good thing we left as early as we did from Boston. We had no trouble finding a platform, but I think they just about filled up that night, and on Saturday night they had to put hikers in the overflow area.
Nauman was a pretty good place to camp. Since it’s next to a hut, we didn’t actually need the water purifier we’d brought, and could get free, purified water from inside the hut. They have an outhouse, so you don’t have to dig little holes in the woods. And they have sturdy metal boxes to put your food in, to keep the bears away (we didn’t see any bears at all that weekend, though we did see a mouse hanging around the food storage area). They charge $8 per person per night, and there’s a caretaker to keep an eye on things, and maintain the composting toilet (which he said is the worst job on the planet).
I always shy away from the expensive bags of camping food you can buy at REI or similar stores, and just bring food from the regular grocery store. On Friday night, we had steak, accompanied by couscous and cherry tomatoes. All the other campers were very jealous of our steak, as they smelled it cooking. It might seem like a bad idea to bring raw meat where there’s no refrigeration, but if you freeze the steak overnight before you leave, it will be just thawed after spending the day in your backpack. It’s probably only a good idea to do this for the first night of the trip, though. Also, it is kind of messy, because you want to do a good job of wiping up any raw meat juice (also known as blood) that might spill out and attract bears, and of course you have to make sure the meat is wrapped well in several layers of plastic…. Anyway, it is tasty, and a good way to make everyone else who’s eating those expensive bags of mediocre backpacking food very jealous.
Saturday morning, we set off for our hike. It wasn’t very hot, the skies were clear, and it promised to be a lovely day for hiking. We still took plenty of warm clothing though, just in case. It’s always a good idea, when planning to hike above treeline in New Hampshire, to be prepared for anything from 80 degrees Fahrenheit, to a blizzard. Even in the summer. Hypothermia is one of the leading causes of death among hikers in this region (the other is being struck by lightning).
Nauman is just below the ridge between Mts Pierce and Jackson, so our plan was to hike up to the ridge, then head north over Pierce, Eisenhower and Monroe, enjoying the great views. Then back.
Here’s a picture from the top of Mt Pierce, looking south towards Mt Jackson and beyond. As you can see, it still looks like a great day for hiking. However, looking north, as the elevations of the mountains we were planning to hike over got higher, there was a lot more cloud cover than we’d expected.
By the time we got to Eisenhower, it was so cold and cloudy (and windy!) that we even wondered whether it would be safe to continue. But the weather forecast wasn’t calling for rain, so thunderstorms seemed unlikely. (Donald was able to get cell phone reception on the top of Eisenhower, so we could check the forecast on his iPhone. Ah, wilderness!)
After a snack, and enjoying the panoramic views from the summit of Mt Eisenhower (ie, staring into the interior of a thick gray cloud), we started off for Monroe. And that mountain kicked our butts! The thing about going from Eisenhower to Monroe is that there’s this one really steep section that you think is the last ascent to the summit. Then you get to the top of that, and you see a LONG stretch of path ahead of you and, quite far in the distance, the actual summit of Monroe. (The false summit is called Mt Franklin, but it doesn’t really count as one of NH’s 4000-foot peaks, because it’s not at least “200 ft. above the low point of its connecting ridge with a higher neighbor.”) Not only that, Monroe is a double mountain, so there are two peaks you have to climb over in order to actually have summitted the mountain.
From the top of the second (and higher) peak of Monroe, you can finally see Lakes of the Clouds hut, just below the summit of Mt Washington. When we got there, the clouds had finally lifted from Monroe and most of the ridge, but the top of Washington was still shrouded. However, just after turning around to go back to our tentsite (after a potty break down at the hut), we looked back, and saw that the last of the clouds were finally melting away.
Fortunately, on the return trip, we didn’t need to climb over Monroe and Eisenhower again, though we did need to go back up and over Pierce (and Franklin, for that matter). The entire hike for Saturday was 9 1/2 miles, and it took us 8 1/2 hours (including breaks). 5 1/2 hours there, and 3 hours back.
Here’s a picture, looking back along the ridge from Mt Pierce, all the way to Washington (which we did NOT attempt to climb that day).
The sense of accomplishment I feel in looking at this picture is, unfortunately, somewhat diminished by the fact that the tentsite caretaker can make the trip that took us 5 1/2 hours in 1 1/2. Hmm. Well, neither Donald nor I claims to be in the best shape these days….
We were pretty glad to see this sight.
I actually overexerted myself during the hike. I was having a lot of trouble, earlier in the day, with my hat, because the shorter layers of my hair aren’t long enough to stay in a ponytail or braid, and they kept coming loose and sticking against my face or neck. So eventually I just took my hat off so I could wear my hair in a high ponytail on top of my head, which worked better. Unfortunately, this was on the way back, and it was quite sunny and hot by then. Also, right at the end, I kind of had to pee, but it would have been really inconvenient to get into the woods on either side of the trail, and we were pretty close to the campsite, so I just decided to wait, but I didn’t want to drink any more water, or I wouldn’t have been able to wait … well, I should know this by now, but deciding not to drink water when you’re exercising hard is never a good idea, if you’re thirsty. Also, I’ve been drinking coffee pretty regularly, and hadn’t had any caffeine that day. In any event, by the time we were cooking dinner, I felt quite ill, and had a terrible, splitting headache. Also I was sore, and had twisted something in my left ankle. And my right knee. I managed to cook dinner (I’d brought some boil-in-the-bag Indian food, curried chickpeas and saag paneer, along with a Pringles-like can of poppadums), but I kept feeling worse and worse, so Donald kindly offered to clean up the dishes for me so I could just rest and get ready for bed. (And no, I wasn’t pretending to be sick to get out of cleaning duty!)
Thankfully, I felt much better in the morning. Though my ankle still hurt. But we both managed the (relatively) short hike back down to our car. We were moving more slowly though; it took us as long going down as it had going up on Friday, when we were fresh and energetic.
It was quite an enjoyable trip, despite all the pain and suffering! I thought the spectacular views made it all worthwhile. Though I’m not sure Donald is 100% convinced on this point. On the way down, we ran into a woman who was going camping with her two children. She told us that her husband had no interest in going. Later, I asked Donald if that was going to be me and our children in the future. He laughed, then said, “I’ll go sometimes.”
Another exciting thing about the trip is that I found lots of yummy edible mushrooms! Only one chanterelle, but lots of hedgehogs, and lots of winter chanterelles (I didn’t pick as many of these, though, because I wasn’t 100% sure of them at first; I put them in a separate bag and then confirmed their identity with my mushroom book once we were home). Donald thought the mushrooms were tasty, too; though he wouldn’t eat them until I had shown him pictures in the edible mushroom book that looked exactly like the mushrooms I had picked, and he had read the descriptions himself to be sure that there were no poisonous look-alikes. But he agreed that they were much better than ordinary white mushrooms from the grocery store.
So, that was our New Hampshire trip! Over the next few days, I’ll write about our trip to Texas and Lousiana (which we just got back from).
When reading fantasy novels about people’s long treks, I always told myself that it wasn’t the same for us modern folk. Those people were used to that way of life- the miles and miles of walking with heavy packs was just what they did, so it wasn’t as exhausting as if we decided to try it one day, without growing up in that culture.
That’s why every fantasy world needs a way to move about quickly. Because while I like making some places hard to get to, I don’t want to get bogged down with pages and pages of walking and on-the-road adventures.
Of course, you can’t make it too easy to move about quickly, either. Teleportation and transporters make it too easy, and then you have to invent excuses for them not to work when your plot demands that people actually travel somewhere, and for that travel to be meaningful.
I liked the way all of J.K. Rowling’s travel options involved something unpleasant or difficult. So, even though apparating was quick, you got the feeling you were suffocating. With flue powder, you had to make sure you spoke clearly and got out at the correct fireplace (and it was helpful if you could avoid getting ashes in your mouth). With flying you had to deal with cold wind and rain. She came up with interesting ways to travel but it was never too easy.
Jessica, you’re not suggesting that characters in fantasy novels are in better shape than Donald and I, are you? Fie!
Okay, maybe they are. I still maintain that’s it’s useful to go backpacking though, if you’re planning to write one of those novels. To get a sense of what it’s like to be in the woods. What trails feel like underfoot. How easy or difficult it would be to see a potential ambush. How dark it gets at night. How hard it is to keep things dry if it rains.
Ideally, I guess fantasy writers should be in really good shape, and go backpacking every weekend. Or maybe hike the entire Appalachian trail.
Next summer, right Donald?