[Originally ran in the November 2015 issue of The Village.]
I’ve learned three important rules about day-hiking ever since taking it up regularly this summer:
1. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need;
2. Proper footwear is essential to a successful, comfortable outing; and
3. Don’t kill your spouse.
That third one, while seemingly obvious, nevertheless is worth mentioning, especially if you plan on tackling a trail that ends up being far more challenging than some blogger misleadingly posted, much to the chagrin of any and all neophyte hikers who took him at his word and went off thinking, “Man, this is going to be fun,” and ended up conjuring revenge fantasies on the guy who described what came to be known as The Death Hike as being “family-friendly.”
If that sounds really specific, it’s because it is. And it’s because it happened to me. I know, hard to believe. How could someone as intelligent as yours truly be so foolish as to take a blogger at his word? (I’ll just assume that’s what you’re thinking.)
After hiking the Loughrigg Fell from Ambleside to Grasmere this summer, Diane – you know, my wife – and I decided to transfer those long dormant skills (namely, trying to carry on a conversation while walking over uneven terrain) stateside. Our first hike, up Pleasant Mountain in Denmark, which shares the same rise as Shawnee Peak, was mildly taxing and highly rewarding. Had it been highly taxing and mildly rewarding, I’m sure we would have resorted to our SOWP (Standard Operating Weekend Procedure) of Thai and movies. But we enjoyed it, and so began our New Thing.
Our New Thing could have become our Short-Lived Thing, as Hike #5 brought us to Baldface in North Chatham, NH. Baldface is actually two peaks, North and South Baldface, each rising just shy of 4,000 feet, connected by a nearly 10-mile loop trail. Should I have done more research before heading out with my beloved spouse on this hike widely regarded (as I belatedly discovered) as “difficult”? Yes. But then what would I have written about this month?
We had the right hiking shoes and plenty of water and food (caprese sandwiches go down smooth on a summit), but found the exposed alpine rock ledges of South Baldface…well, highly taxing. Until reaching the alpine zone, where the trees mostly disappeared, it had been an enjoyable hike through the gradually ascending woods. But those ledges. Man.
The views were astonishing. The weather was perfect. But soon, as we scrambled up one granite ledge after another, we reached that point where I grasped the potential of tripping and plummeting to our deaths. Putting myself at risk was one thing, but…see Day-Hiking Rule No. 3 above. I had no desire to break unsettling news to Diane’s mother. That’d be the end of oatmeal cookies for me.
But there’s that point of no return, where you figure you could turn around now and retrace your steps to the car, but you’ve already made it through the worst of it, so why not continue? Except, of course, you haven’t come to the worst of it.
The worst of it is when you reach the false summit of South Baldface, a barren, rock-strewn moonscape with killer views of Maine’s and New Hampshire’s mountain ranges, spy the actual summit beyond, hike up to that summit, appreciate how long the ridge trail over to North Baldface is, realize you haven’t quite reached the halfway point of the round trip, acknowledge the likelihood of being in the woods when the sun goes down, swear you’ll be damned if you backtrack down South Baldface’s ledges, ascertain from other hikers that the rest of way past North Baldface and back to the trailhead is longer but easier than turning back, and then learn that different people have different interpretations of the word “easier.” That’s the worst part.
In short, we made it. It took days to recover.
I used to think hiking down would be so much easier than hiking up. That was before I started hiking. In an episode of “Sex and the City,” Carrie’s old high school sweetheart tells her he’s learned that “hiking…is just walking.” It should be noted that he uttered those words while in a mental institution. If any sort of grade is involved, hiking ain’t just walking. Add roots and loose rocks and mossy, wet ledges and you’ve got yourself more than a stroll through the park.
Not that I’m a seasoned veteran or anything. Between mid-August and mid-October, we went on ten hikes (although we count the Lake District hike from July that started this Thing), and plan to keep going, even when the weather turns. We understand that this is upsetting to some people, particularly those who rely on us for movie recommendations. Trust us, we’re adapting, too. This is foreign territory.
But it’s beautiful. On our most recent hike, up Black Snout in Tuftonboro, NH, we were finishing our lunch on a wide ledge with a Panavision view from Dan Hole Pond to Lake Winnipesaukee, the foliage in gorgeous autumnal hues, the pine-scented air warm and breezy, the sky blue, not another soul in sight. All that, just a little over an hour from our home. I brushed aside the nagging regret that perhaps we should have started this pastime decades earlier, and embraced the glorious view as well as the wife I had succeeded in not killing on yet another hike.