I have enjoyed AT Journeys, the magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, for eight years now, first in print and now electronically. It is old-fashioned in a nice way. Its articles assume the reader is prepared to, well, read; it’s cleanly presented; it showcases fantastic photographs; the ads don’t overrun the content. Anyway, early in the summer, I sent the magazine a short article about how the AT became a part – a small but valued part – of our family life since we came to Connecticut. I am delighted to say they have just published it as A Trail Unbroken (their title). If I have set this up correctly, clicking here should open a PDF of the relevant pages. I hope you enjoy it.
I love the word “wilderness”. It never fails to set me to imagining.
I imagine being out of sight and earshot of civilization, in a place where man’s touch is absent; and you see, hear and smell only nature – and yourself.
Earlier this month, I spent four days backpacking in and around a wilderness, at least a place that is officially designated as one. If you take a purist view of wilderness, you might certainly argue that none is left, that man has altered everywhere now. Our plastic fills the oceans, our soot covers the icecaps, the seas lap ever higher around remote desert islands. My hike around New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness got me thinking about just what wilderness means.
Wild River Wilderness is small – less than twice the size of Manhattan. The forested White Mountains valley it occupies has been anything but untouched by civilized man. It was thoroughly logged in the 1800s, unnaturally burned in 1903, and set aside as wilderness by Act of Congress only in 2006. I was interested to see what that designation meant in practice.
The first 3.7 miles of my hike took me to a ridge called Eagle Crag. Speaking casually, you could call it a wilderness hike. The only obvious works of man were the trail itself, its blazes, and a few signs. A careful eye – not mine – might notice that in places the trail followed an old logging road. But all of this was before the wilderness boundary. (There were, by the way, fantastic views from Eagle Crag, and if you are not interested in my ramblings on wilderness, you can just follow the hike via photos and notes here.)
I crossed into the wilderness just beyond Eagle Crag in the early afternoon, and remained in it – on and off – for the best part of two days, and two full nights. The wilderness was a mixed forest in the drainage of the Wild River. I saw no one and my cell phone did not work. The main differences from the non-wilderness land around it was that its trails showed no sign of maintenance, trail signs were few, and blazes scare and not to be relied on. In places, the Wild River Trail vanished. The river itself had always to be forded.
Then there was Perkins Notch where I spent my first night. I knew the shelter had been removed, but was unsure what other camping facilities would remain. Apart from a few packed-earth tent pads, there were none; no privy, no bear pulley. I would have liked the pulley especially, but this was a wilderness so I strung a rope over a half-fallen pine.
All through day two it poured. Thankfully, I had left the wilderness for Carter Notch Hut for most of the storm. I had planned, on day three, to hike over Carter Dome, and then cross seven miles of the wilderness on the Blue Angel Trail. But a cold front was due to come through in the morning. It promised thunder, and I did not want to be on a mountaintop for it.
But there was another factor in my decision to retrace my steps down the Wild River; I now knew where the trail could be lost, where it would be wettest, where I would have to wade streams. I knew none of that, firsthand, for the Blue Angel Trail. It was now irrelevant to me that the White River valley had been logged and burned a century ago. It didn’t matter either that its very air held man’s invisible interference. It was a wilderness, even if not quite a trackless one, and I had better err on the side of caution.
My family used to like the BBC sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances”. It airs on PBS over here. I was less of a fan than my girls and wife, but I did like the character called Onslow. To call Onslow a couch potato would overstate his dynamism. Even reaching the couch was a stretch. I remember him mostly propped up in bed in an undershirt, reading the horse-racing pages in the paper. Once, forced into some marginally more demanding activity, he memorably said “It’s amazing how quickly the sheer inconvenience of work comes back to me”. I have been thinking about that these past two weeks.
You may recall my grand plans for the Connecticut Appalachian Trail and Quebec. Well, they are sunk, scuppered, scotched. In mid-June, I found myself – right out of the blue – on a consulting assignment. It will probably last a few months. All of a sudden, I am on the 6:04 to Grand Central with hundreds of others instead of on the Paradise Lane Trail to the AT with my middle daughter alone. (The photo to the left is Bear Mountain seen from Paradise Lane in April). The new boots and backpack I bought her are stowed away, and the July 5th departure for Quebec with her younger sister is cancelled. The sheer inconvenience of work! Too right, Onslow.
But all is not lost. The consulting work is with good people and good companies. It’s not a bad time of year to hide in an air-conditioned office either. And the backpacks are stowed only for now. We are already talking about hitting the CT AT just before Thanksgiving. That could be nice if the snow holds off – no bugs, no sticky heat, better views. As for Quebec, my client has generously agreed to a week away from the project later in July. Youngest daughter and I have had to ditch Parc national de la Gaspésie (seen below from Pic du Brulé in fine weather) and the whales of Pointe-aux-Anglais. But we will still get to Parc national des Grands-Jardins, and the all-important blueberries and tourtières.
A friend – and ex-boss, in fact – recently wrote how he “felt sorry for the bleary-eyed commuters, standing in the precise places on the station where the train doors would open, then rushing for a vacant seat and quickly resuming their night’s slumber”. He was boarding the train to get to a 19-day, 275-mile hike through the Australian bush, not to an office job in the big city. Well, Dave described very well my recent early mornings on Metro-North. I’m looking forward to being a hiker again soon. In the meantime, I can always vicariously adventure on Australia’s Hume & Hovell Walking Track.
Remembering hikes past is fun, and so is planning – or imagining – new ones. In fact, these activities are almost as much fun as actually walking, sometimes more so. After all, there is no panic in the memory of being lost, or fear in recalling a lightning storm on a ridge. Imagined hikes involve no blisters or bugs.
I have been planning and imagining new hikes recently.
Let’s start with the imagining – the hike furthest from actually happening. I brought up the possibility last week (on a hike, of course) of going on a longish backpack with my eldest daughter. You know the kind of thing, bonding through adversity. To my great pleasure, she liked the idea. We even pored over a map of the Great Smoky Mountains for a while. The picture to the left is Gregory Bald in the Smokies, which I climbed to in 2003. I didn’t own a digital camera then, to the scene is thanks to Brian Stansberry / Creative Commons.
The planning is for a trip to Quebec in July with my youngest (she will be 13). We are going away for two weeks, but so far have plans only for the first few days. They are to drive to the Parc national de la Gaspésie and stay for four nights. It’s a long drive – over 800 miles – so we will stop in northernmost Maine on the way. We have been to the Gaspésie before. Daughter was just six then, but had her big sisters for company. We have booked the exact same camping spot, on the shore of Lac Cascapédia.
And that is as far as we’ve got. Over the coming weeks I will have a lot of fun planning Gaspésie hikes we might – or might not – take. Perhaps back to the top of Mont Xalibu for the view to the right (my picture this time). Or maybe up Mont Jacques Cartier, the highest peak in the park (4,160 feet) and home to the only woodland caribou south of the Saint Lawrence River. The park has 310 square miles – about the size of Shenandoah NP – so there are plenty of other hikes to consider, including a 70-mile section of the International Appalachian Trail. So much to choose from, and we haven’t even crossed the Saint Lawrence yet for the next stage of the trip.
I have used the word “escape” several times already in this young blog. It begs the question, escape from what? We are often said to “escape” from something terrible – the jaws of death, prison, bad relationships, a hated job, Citi Field. I suppose some people take to the trails to get away from such bad things. But not me, not so far anyway. I flee less dramatic afflictions, and they vary from hike to hike.
I escaped last week for a few hours to the Devil’s Den. The torments I fled were very minor:
- A fidgety body and mind.
- The tyranny of my ‘to do’ list.
- Insistent media – Read this, it’s important! Listen up, you don’t want to miss this!
- The drone of a wood chipper in a neighbor’s yard.
- Dense, hurtling, aggressive traffic.
I didn’t discover that last torment until I was already escaping.
– Lunch among gnarly pines on a rocky ledge.
– Listening carefully on another ledge to the varied sounds of the strengthening wind – one noise in the pine needles just above me, another from slopes farther away, yet another …
– Some ideas for my next article for The Hour.
Above all, I returned home with a better focus and all-round frame of mind, better able to deal with droning chippers and frantic traffic.
And that is the thing about my escapes. They are temporary. There is always the return, and it is nearly always looked forward to. For the comforts of home, of course, but also paradoxically for some of the very things that drove the escape in the first place.
There are – to me at least – few sights more beautiful than a trail leading off into the woods or meandering around a hillside. A small road – tarmac or dirt – through unpopulated country is pretty good too. This blog, very broadly, will be about escaping to those lines on the map. Or to places where there are no lines. But, like a good journey, the blog will stray, never all the way back to civilization, but into areas adjacent to taking a hike, getting out of here, fleeing to the hills ...
A great thing about hiking is you don’t need a national park for it. Most of us can reach a place with trails in an hour or two if we plan right (and I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Sao Paulo so I can back up that statement). The picture to the left happens to be Jasper National Park – years ago and three thousand miles away – but I’ve notched up many, many more hours of escape close to my home in southwest Connecticut. (OK, the scenery here is not quite as spectacular.)
And thinking of Jasper makes me think of another place to hike — in the memory. Pulling the picture from my hard drive to illustrate a beautiful trail made me think of the summit it led to, and the squirrel that panhandled up there from my daughter and I. There, I’ve escaped from a gray February afternoon already.
So what is the purpose of the blog? I think this. I have hiked a lot with my family, but mostly I hike alone. Except that I never really hike alone. I always think about what I am going to tell when I get home. Whether it’s the black bear spotted in the Catskills, the sunset from a ledge in our local nature reserve, or moose by the road in Newfoundland, there is always something I want to gush about. Up to now, I’ve done it around the dinner table. McWilliams Takes a Hike is to share my thoughts and stories and, very importantly, get in touch with people who want to share theirs too. Happy trails!