Peak Season

It’s my fifth day out hiking this spring and I’ve arrived here in Crawford Notch a day early before our ascent up Washington tomorrow. Its my final vacation day and today, the gift of time and a question of what to do with it? What to do with these 6, 7 hours before Ross arrives for dinner.  

I head to the woods. Head out without any particular need to do, prove, show, check off, accomplish anything but to immerse myself in something, in this case, the trail. I look at the map Dad lent me yesterday to get a rough sense of a loop I might do and cross the tracks at the bright yellow Crawford Train Depot. This time, instead of heading up the familiar trail to Willard, I head down the trail to a mountain called Avalon. 

A few years ago, I made the short hour-long hike up Willard with my nephew Peter when we were out with my folks on a day-trip wander in the mountains to see where the road would lead. On the climb up, we were told by a hiker coming down the trail not to bother with the climb as there was no view at the top. We smiled and said thanks and kept on going. It wasn’t the view we were out here for. It was something of the same immersion in time on the trail that I feel today. Something about following the memories of other times we had climbed Willard before other longer ascents. 

As Peter and I turned the bend at the top of the peak, the heavy clouds parted. For just a moment, a mere breath of breeze, we could see all the way down the Notch until a moment later, the clouds folded back over the view. A couple making lunch told us that they thought we might have been the hiker who’d passed us going down. 

“We told him if he waited for a few minutes the clouds might part.” 

He had other things to be about or no time to waste. How many gifts I miss seeing when I’m running about distracted by other things. I pass by that memory and head up by a rushing stream on the trail to Avalon.

On the way a big toad jumps to the side of the trail. We pause and consider each other for a while.  Around the next bend, a smaller toad. Last month, I kept meeting frogs, today toads. What is the gift of the toad that I am to receive?  

At the small crop of rocks at the top of Avalon, two young women eating their lunch who thought they were climbing Willard. “We thought this couldn’t have been that nice short trail our parents had taken us up when we were little!” 

They are surprised, proud they made it here, passing that memory and making a new one.

They are not the first hikers I’ve passed who missed the sign to Willard right after the trail crosses the train tracks. One group I passed turned back to find the trailhead. These two women kept climbing thinking they were on the right trail and questioning their memory. 

What is the “right”trail? Is it the trail we are looking for or the trail that finds us?  

I’m feeling good. It’s a beautiful day and the last such sunny day we are expected to have. I look at my map, see Mount Field it not too far away, and take off down the trail. 

It’s not far off.  At a trail crossing in the woods, a pile of rocks marks the peak. A little side trail leads to the view down another section of the Notch I’ve never seen. A good place for lunch. 

I walk back to the pile of stones to consider my map. A young man steps down the trail.

“Is that the way to Wiley?”, I ask. 

“Yup, its only 1.3 miles.”

I pause, look at my map, consider my time, my options. What is the time about? When do I have to turn back to meet Ross for dinner? What trail am I to follow? 

“If you want to see how many peaks you can do, you should definitely do it,” the young man says. “Its mainly flat.”

Perhaps the turning words are “only 1.3 miles” or “mainly flat.”  Perhaps the thought he planted that I might see how many 4000 foot peaks I can do on this little circuit. Perhaps, if not today, when? I check my watch. Ross won’t be here for a few hours. I have time. I take off toward Wiley.  

The trail descends, continues to descend. I wonder if this is the right trail. Mainly flat? Then the trail heads up and then down and continues down until I finally hit a stretch of what might possibly be called “flat”.  As I pause for some water and a snack, a couple of hikers who have followed me from Field, have caught up. “Mainly flat?!” they laugh, loud, exuberant laughs. “I wonder where he’s from! This is definitely not flat!”

But “Mainly Flat” is spot on about the view on Wiley. Like he said, there’s no view from the top, only another pile of brown rocks, but a bit further on, a little sign for “overlook” and a view across to the Webster Cliffs. Definitely worth it.  

Mount Tom is the next of the 4000 footers in an afternoon that is now becoming full of them. The hikers who’ve followed me here have come that way. “It’s not like this trail, just .6 miles.”

I head back up and down the trail to Field and then will head over to Tom for one more 4000 footer on my way back for dinner. 

When did I become the man I never imagined being? When did I become a hiker? When a hiker who never desired to climb all 48 4000-footers in the White Mountains and is now heading off to climb yet another? I get why people like this chasing of peaks, this joy of discovery, this marking of time.

Yes, it’s Peak Season here. In the months to come the mountains will be full of hikers seeking to climb the 48 this summer or year, or in whatever time they imagine they have left to do so. That might be me out there joining them, or perhaps I’ll be sticking to hiking the Willards of the Whites.  On the way over to Tom, bunchberries at their peak and so many other flowers whose names I once knew and now no longer remember. Perhaps, I will learn them again.  

I’ll end out here on the trail as I’m standing at the trail crossing up to Tom. I glance at my watch wondering if I have time enough to get back for dinner and deciding I do. They said its only a short way up Tom and no view to be found. But perhaps, that’s not what I’ve come for.  

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