The International Writers Magazine: White Mountain New Hampshire
Have Gained Such a Victory
Eric D. Lehman
exuberant, too-brisk pushes, Ryan and I tramped up the Bridle
Path in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The trifling three
and a half mile trail seemed unusually difficult with our full
We stopped, too
soon after our last break, and sampled some dried papaya. Ryan also
devoured our supply of homemade bannock, but I found the thick bread
hard to swallow. And then, after the last of our cold water disappeared,
we hit a cliff and at last had views of Franconia Ridge, green and grey
and bare. Rocky peaks sloped into tree-lined dells and valleys. The
forest spattered with warm sunlight. Sounds of birdsong and rushing
brooks down in the valley brought me back to why I was there. Adventure.
My friend and I were making a week-long traverse from hut to hut. Not
the greatest challenge, perhaps, but we had never done anything like
it before. I had hiked on several overnights through the years, but
nothing like the six night trek we were attempting now. I had spent
months preparing, poring over the topo maps and visualizing each day.
Ryan did not know what to expect and was excited, thrilled, and scared
when he first saw the mountains, driving past Mount Moosilauke. "Oh,
wow!" At the National Forest headquarters I showed Ryan the three-dimensional
map of our route. It looked intimidating. I wasnt worried, though.
In my mind, the journey was already complete.
Still, as we reached the alpine zone, dwarf forest, rocks, and meadows,
I began to doubt. The pack felt oppressive and my lungs wheezed for
air. Had I planned poorly? Were we ready for this? Hiking was nothing
new to me, but the weight on my back was. These thoughts stayed with
me until we finally reached Greenleaf Hut. After scarfing down a meal,
we headed to the lookout point west of the hut to watch the sun set
over the Green Mountains of Vermont, fifty miles away. High above Franconia
Notch, Ryan and I sat alone with our thoughts. I did not share my doubts,
but Im sure he had his own.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, my desire for victory returned.
We hiked the rest of the way up Lafayette. The misty clouds blew all
around us and lichen covered stones took over the landscape. The famous
writer of Backwoods Ethics, Guy Waterman, had walked to the top
of this ridge the previous winter and laid down to die. I couldnt
imagine that. I wasnt tired enough yet. There were many worlds
At the top Ryan and I spent too much time writing in our journals, huddled
in a stone foundation of some sort, imagining ourselves in a world of
long ago. I was confident that the seven mile hike would be effortless.
We finally headed down through clouds along the north side of Lafayette.
After a couple hours we rambled along a rolling area of small ridges.
The underhanging of the trees steamed with wet moss. Whole kingdoms
of the verdant green ground cover spread away under the boughs. We stopped
to drink water and eat several times, lounging on the boulders. Id
completely given up on the bannock and vainly tried to eat the gorp.
"Birdseed! I am so sick of this stuff."
By afternoon we reached Mount Garfield, which we plodded up without
too much of an effort. However, the other side dropped crazily in a
cascade of boulders. We clambered down huge overhangs backward as if
rappelling. From this sheer trail we could see the Galehead
Hut, still far in the distance.
nonsense." Ryan looked indignant. "That
is way too far."
I checked the map. "Its probably even farther than we think."
"I rename this hill Mount Doom."
The Old White Mountain Railroad
this point we had become a bit demoralized. The trail after Garfield
seemed to take an eternity. And then a thunderstorm blew in without
warning, instantly drenching us. We trudged through the downpour,
and Im sure if Ryan wasnt right there with me Id
have given up. I didnt have the trail mind yet. I was miserable.
The rain beat heavily on my head and shoulders, soaking through
my jacket and running down my legs into my boots. Lightning flashed
in the trees. We had messed around too much on the path, uselessly
contemplating the distances. I needed too many breaks uphill and
Ryan moved too slowly on the downhill. At quarter past five, Ryan
called out in relief. The unfinished pine hut loomed to our right
and we stumbled to it, gasping and trembling on the porch.
Once inside, we
were assailed by a foul stench. The composting toilets had stunk up
the whole hut. Just what we needed after that demoralizing day. Nevertheless,
we ate dinner and got to know the Wild White Mountain Women, a group
of friends in their forties who hiked together once a year. They easily
beat us to the hut and a few of them had skinny-dipped in the lake near
Garfield. We cursed our slowness. They discussed the wonders of Vitamin
I, which I figured out was ibuprofen. The pizza soup tasted like liquid
heaven, warming and soothing our bellies. I recovered my mental attitude
slightly, and with a little Vitamin I, prepared for sleep. I climbed
up to the top bunk, ten feet off the pine floor. After about ten minutes
of dozing by the ceiling, snoring from hell began. Wearily, I stumbled
out to the hut store and bought earplugs, which numbed the buzzsaws
to a low hum.
The next day was supposedly easy, but the steep trail quickly disabused
us of that notion. The wet rocks, trees, and our clothes steamed in
the sunlight as we ascended South Twin. Ryans feet and knees were
aching. I was leading, still in good spirits. The view from the top
of South Twin was incredible, a three hundred sixty degree panorama
of mountains. To the south lay the vast Pemigewasset Wilderness. North
rose North Twin and Mount Hale. And far to the east, the Presidentials,
where our trail led. I pointed out Mount Washington, which humped far
above the rest into the white puffy clouds. Ryan seemed impressed but
complained of foot pain and probably didnt appreciate the moment
as much as I did.
That contrast was about to disappear. I trundled down the rocky trail
and periodically waited for Ryan. However, as the hike dragged on, I
realized I wasnt eating anything. My feet started to hurt, as
well. Ryan began to lead and continued for the rest of the day, as my
lack of appetite turned to nausea. Near the last drop into Zealand Notch,
a nice Canadian couple who was hiking the AT in segments gave me some
Gatorade powder. By this point Ryan had lost all joy in the journey
and groaned as his foot stuck in the mud. I said nothing as my stomach
rolled and heaved. We were both thinking about tomorrow. Two trail girls
passed us, galloping down the mountain with ease. We trudged towards
the hut on autopilot. Ryan could barely summon the energy to jump the
last stream. My desire was still strong, but my body was shutting down.
We couldnt appreciate the amazing falls by Zealand Hut, which
cascaded over rock for long, sloping drops, weaving through boulders.
I lay down while dinner was served and finally struggled outside and
puked. While I vomited tea and gatorade, a large brown jackrabbit zipped
by, glancing at me in horror.
Ryan took care of me and then talked with the Wild White Mountain Women
and with the Canadian couple, who were over sixty and still hiking much
farther than we could. I lay in my bed and felt ashamed at not participating.
Ashamed that my desire to finish was waning. My muscles felt sore beyond
next-day healing. My feet were burning griddles. These would not have
been enough to stop me, but my strange illness was. I couldnt
know how bad Ryans knees were, but he seemed convinced he was
risking permanent injury. Things were not turning out as I had pre-visualized.
If I had known how difficult these mountains were, I would have scheduled
an easier trip, something within our limits. Of course, I hadnt
known those limits.
So, after some discussion, weary and humiliated, we approached the trail
girl who was tending the hut store. "Can we switch huts? Have an
extra night here and skip Mizpah?"
"Well have to call it in tomorrow morning and see."
The trail girl nodded and went to make a note of it.
I turned to Ryan. "I hope so. Im dyin over here."
"We failed." He moaned.
A line from The Lord of the Rings came to me. "No, we have
conquered. Few have gained such a victory."
Ryan laughed and I joined him. But I didnt believe it. Despite
the calm beauty of our recovery day by the falls, despite our later
success in the Presidential Range, I still saw the journey as a failure.
It wasnt until years later, when I ended a hike across Connecticut
with twenty miles to go, that I really understood why resting at Zealand
was the right thing to do. That it was a good thing, the smart thing.
I had always seen the White Mountains trek as a lesson about accepting
limits, but had never understood completely. Our subsequent conquest
in the Presidential Range was a great accomplishment, but it was not
the goal I had set myself. That always rankled me.
When I stopped fifty miles into a self-imposed trek across Connecticut,
I did it to prevent permanent injury, and because the joy had gone out
of my hike. Because although I could have probably pressed on and succeeded,
the price may have been too high. The same held true at Zealand Falls.
I had always seen this decision as a failure an important lesson
about limits, yes but a failure nonetheless. Now I realize that
the entire journey was a success. Not a failure of body or will, but
a triumph over ego and desire.
© Eric D Lehman March 2005
Eric is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport
and has traveled extensively throughout the world. He has been
previously published by various web journals, such as August Cutter,
Niederngasse, Simply Haiku, and of course Hackwriters.
Eric D Lehman in the USA
Moment of Weakness
Erid D Lehman climbs Old Smokey
Perils of Comfort
Eric D Lehman on the joy in inconvenience
Much for Comfort
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