“From Sea to Shining Sea”
Hey, how’s everybody doing? I think it’s about time I tell you that chances are good that I won’t have internet connection for the entirety of this summer, from the end of May until the end of August. It isn’t guaranteed yet, but I suspect I will be working out west and I won’t have access to a computer for most of that time. Don’t worry, the blogs will keep rolling, since apparently the key to internet success is having a regular schedule. But what will I be doing out west? Climbing mountains, probably.
I don’t mean that in the figurative imaginary sense, like the mountains of the mind, but actual, literal mountains, the ones made out of stone and human ambition. I’ve got a bit of experience with that sort of thing, and I’m a pretty big fan of the outdoors, and it doesn’t just end at birds. Despite being intravenously connected to my laptop, I am able to sustain an elevated heart rate.
The point I’m trying to reach with this weird opening is that I want to tell you about some of the other mountains that I’ve climbed, mostly because I was unsure of what else to write about this week. My family made the good suggestion of having some blogs about my varied travel experiences, so now that it’s warm and this is more relevant, I’ve got some stories to share about the time that I hiked two mountains on separate sides of the country in one summer.
I considered titling this post as something like “Climbing mountains coast to coast,” but that would make it sound like I walked from one side of the country to the other, which is not at all true. I only walked up the mountains; I took vehicular transportation between them; I want to clarify that in order to avoid being misleading. There are some people who do walk thousands of miles between mountains, but I am not one of those people. Yet.
My brother tells me that I’m out of touch with most people my age, and I tend to agree with him. I don’t know how often the “average” person goes hiking, since the people I hang out with are all hikers. Do a lot of people climb mountains? I don’t know. Considering how many people I see on the trails, I’d assume not many, but I don’t have any statistical way to prove that. Though I do highly recommend mountain hiking for everybody. Just don’t make a mess out of it.
Anyway, it was the summer of 2014, which I’m just realizing is almost five years ago now. That summer was marked by a few noteworthy moments in my development; most importantly I climbed two mountains, but less importantly I was no longer a freshman in high school and the second season of Gravity Falls had just started. But for that most important part, between the months of June and August, I went with my family to New Hampshire and California, from the east coast to the west coast.
This wasn’t my first time climbing a mountain. I’d hiked up a few before, such as the previous summer’s expedition out west (which I will explain in further detail later assuming my job allows me to), or some other “mountains” in New Hampshire, so these two weren’t exactly new experiences. But they were some of the most challenging mountains I’ve hiked, even to this day, and therefore some of the most rewarding.
Let me clarify something; when I say “climbed a mountain,” I don’t mean that I scaled a sheer rock wall for hundreds of feet straight up into the sky, but rather I hiked my way along a trail in a national park. Some parks have better trails than others, but in general it’s a cleared path through the woods with trail markers or maps at any intersections. More often than not there’s trees on either side of you, you’ve got a backpack with food and extra clothes, and you might gain a thousand or more feet of elevation. It’s spread out over miles of trails, so the incline isn’t typically too bad, but there are certainly some places where the trails get a bit precarious.
Let me set the scene for the first mountain of that season. My grandfather lives up in the White Mountains of the northeast, so we try to visit him when we can, and get some hikes in while we’re there. I’ve got a whole host of stories I could tell about those trips there, but this time it’s just the mountain, sorry. Mt. Washington is notorious for having ridiculous weather, and is also maybe the place with one of the fastest recorded winds of all time, maybe? It’s the most topographically prominent mountain this side (east) of the Mississippi, whatever that means, and stand at about 6288 feet.
It isn’t the most photographed mountain in the region. That distinction goes to Mt. Chocorua, which I have also summitted. Oh, that’s a good story, too. But point is that Mt. Washington is still a pretty place. It’s very scenic, with rocky rivers, populous pines, and black bears. You can come up to a ridge and look out across the tree line and, on a good day, see all the way to the Atlantic ocean. You can see the surrounding mountains and lakes from the summit, and if the weather doesn’t kill you, you can even spend time at the top.
So my family and a friend of ours decided to climb up this mountain, which is about four miles one way. Since we were gaining about four thousand feet of elevation over those four miles, it’s a pretty substantial hike, and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t in very good shape back then. Nor was my brother. Our plan was to hike to the summit and sleep in a cabin on the way back down, so we had to bring sleeping bags with us, which meant we had some extra weight.
We had on our big hiking backpacks, and we’re hiking up to the top of the mountain. We reach our little shelter that we’ll stay at that evening, and drop off our heavier equipment that we don’t need at the top, like sleeping bags. It’s already been slow going, but it’s at least nice to lighten the load. But as my brother astutely remarked on that trip, the problem wasn’t the backpack, it was the mountain. This was also the trip where I ripped not only my hiking pants but also my hiking underwear, accidentally exposing my bare ass to the world, so apparently the clothing was a problem, too.
Anyway, we’re hiking up after we’ve dropped off our stuff, and we reach the tree line, which is the point of elevation where the wind and weather becomes too strong for trees to properly grow. And it isn’t like a gradient or anything; it’s a very clearly-defined line on the mountain where the trail goes from packed dirt to rocks, and the trees go from grandiose pines to stunted misfits. We crested the ridge that marks the tree line, and it’s already been a long hike, but the tree line is where the real challenge begins.
From there on out, the last part of the hike to the summit was scrambling over exposed rock and moving from one trail-marking cairn to the next, all while being careful not to twist your ankle or fall backwards. We scuttled over that cold, windy rock face like so many spiders fleeing from the rain, but it was tiring business. Other hikers passed us several times, or occasionally gave us encouraging words of advice about how not to fall off the mountain. But eventually we made it to the summit and bought a chili dog.
See, here’s the thing that’s weird about Mt. Washington, and what makes it different from most other mountains in the region. There’s a road that winds up the side, and there are regular bus tours to the summit. There’s a fucking train that goes all the way up, if you want to pay the money for it. The top of the mountain has a gift shop, a weather station, some weird lodge, and a cafeteria-type place with food. It isn’t barren and remote. It’s well-stocked and easily accessible. The hiking trail pops out right next to the bus stop.
Why, then, did we hike to the top? For the challenge of it, to say that we hiked the tallest eastern US mountain, because it was there, because my parents have a grudge against the mountain, all of those things are true. I can’t really explain the logic behind it. Why hike four thousand feet up when there’s a perfectly good cog railway right there? Because we can, I guess. It’s part of the hiker mentality. You grow into it after a while.
So, anyway, we refilled our water bottles and bought candy and took pictures at the top of the mountain, and after a while we had to make our way back down, otherwise we’d get caught in the dark. So we crawled back down the rock slide, which is actually far more difficult and intimidating than climbing up it, made it back through the tree line, got back to our shelter, ate our prepackaged rations, and tucked in for the night. We’d made it. Our trip was a success, and we didn’t even have to use our rain jackets.
The next morning we got up at the break of dawn and hiked the last two miles back to the visitor center and drove back to my grandfather’s house, where we showered and had the traditional dinner of champions: smoked barbecue. It was a worthy feast for a worthy feat, since Mt. Washington still is one of the most difficult hikes I’ve been on. That last brutal mile or so of rocks was not only demoralizing, because you could never quite see the summit, but also exhausting. It was even more difficult, in fact, than the seventeen mile hike we went on later that summer.
Later on, in August, my family and several other families packed up our stuff and flew out to San Francisco to see the city by the bay. As my mom always tells me, we are pack animals and must travel in a herd, so there were like twelve of us or something. We spent a few days in San Francisco, which is its whole other story, before going to Yosemite National Park, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. And it was there, in Yosemite, that we climbed our second peak. Well, sort of.
Unlike Mt. Washington, Half Dome is one of the most photographed places in Yosemite, so you might recognize it even if you’ve only ever seen it in postcards. The trail up to it that we took was about seventeen miles round-trip but only an elevation gain of forty eight hundred feet. We were only going a little bit higher than Mt. Washington over a distance of almost twice as far, so the hike ended up being much more manageable. Which is good, because I still wasn’t in shape.
Half Dome, being out west, was quite a different set of scenery than Mt. Washington. While Mt. Washington was lush, humid forests juxtaposed by desolate rockscape, Half Dome is a changing kaleidoscope of sandy grasslands, dry pine forests, massive waterfalls, and a blank rock cap that’s both mesmerizing and terrifying to look at. And the wildlife is a little different, too.
When my family began the hike up Half Dome, we were greeted by a black bear not half a mile from the parking lot, so we knew it was going to be a good time. So we waited for the bear to amble off into the woods and then kept trekking. Going from the forests of the Yosemite valley, climbing the walls of that valley, and reaching the seat of the mountain was incredibly rewarding, since the entire park is one big photo opportunity. And, surprisingly, it was also pretty crowded.
Being one of the most popular national parks in the United States, Yosemite’s trails are well-maintained and pretty well built. There’s also a permit system and a mountain trekking lottery that you have to enter into months before you even get to the park, and if you don’t get a permit, you can’t make the last ascent to the top of the mountain. Luckily, my group had enough permits, though we passed several people that did not.
Anyway, especially with all the people, I hadn’t really been expecting to see much wildlife. The bear had pleasantly surprised us, but I still wasn’t prepared for our other animal friends. While hiking through the drier portion of the hike, in the saddle between the mountains, I was leading our group when I heard something that sounded like leaves blowing over concrete.
“Huh, that’s a weird sound,” I thought, and looked down next to me to where the sound was coming from. And I just about shit my pants when I realized that it was a rattlesnake, not four feet from my ankles.
I yelled something about a snake and stumbled backwards, running into the people behind me. Once I’d collected myself and was a safe distance from the reptile, my terror turned to excitement as I realized we were seeing a real rattlesnake. We eyed it with equal parts amusement and gut-churning anxiety as it slithered away, as eager to get away from us as we were from it. It wasn’t particularly big for a rattlesnake, but it was still big enough to kill a child. Pro hiking tip: if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t grab it. Just back up slowly and let it go on its way. Don’t be that guy. There’s always that guy.
Anyway, after our second wildlife encounter of the day, I was now fully prepared to see anything that Yosemite could throw at us. So, when we later heard what sounded like the huffing and puffing of a large mammal, I pointed it out to my dad.
“Hey, dad, is that a black bear?” I said, listening intently to the ragged breathing coming from somewhere behind us. My dad and I, along with the family friends with us, were expecting to find another one of those hairy beasts that we had seen earlier. Instead, we turned around only to find the out-of-shape middle-aged man in Converse shoes who was hiking with us, as his labored breathing dragged in and out.
“No, that’s just Mr. Paul,” my dad responded. The man in question looked up at us with tired eyes.
“I hate this mountain,” he said.
We didn’t see another bear that trek, though we did see at least one other rattlesnake and some weird sort of pheasant-looking bird. But we did make it to the last ascent up the mountain, and we checked our permits with the ranger. He let us go forward, and we scaled up above the tree line, in the presence of several other parkgoers who had taken the trek. And, finally, we made it to the ultimate challenge; railings.
The last quarter mile or so of the hike up to the summit of Half Dome is a slippery slope in the most literal sense. It’s just a rock face, actually, and the National Parks department installed cables into it so that hikers don’t fall to their death. There were people in climbing shoes, with ropes and carabiners clipping into these cables in order to make the five-hundred-foot ascent without fear. I took one look at that and peed a little.
I didn’t complete that last segment, which is why I said I only “sort of” climbed a second peak at Yosemite. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was terrified of heights, apparently, and used the excuse that my shoes were too slippery, which they were, and that I couldn’t make it up to the top. So I sat at the base with my dad and some other people who were waiting for their group to come back down. And back then, I felt like I had made the right decision. I was convinced that if I took that hike, I would die.
Almost five years later, I regret that. I regret not making it up to the top of Half Dome, of being able to look out over the valley of Yosemite and say that I accomplished it. It’s something that still haunts me to this day, much like a bad nightmare or the fact that I still haven’t beaten Artorias of the Abyss.
But it gives me a reason to go back. It gives me a goal to strive for, something that I know I have to try again someday. It’s a granite endpoint that I will return to and conquer. I still finished that seventeen mile hike, though with some extra emotional weight on my shoulders. We got back to the valley ground and went back to our cabin in the park, where we ate dinner and relaxed, and eventually we flew back home. I assured myself that I had hiked two mountains that summer, and I had. But not really.
The only person I’d failed was myself, but that was enough. I had still proven to myself that I could do the long part of it, but not that I could do the hard part. Washington was more strenuous, but Half Dome was incomplete. These days I’m far past any fear of falling, thanks to my previous brushes with death. So I should try again, and finally prove it to myself. Half Dome lit a fire in me, I suppose. I have to go back, now. I don’t have a choice. The mountains are calling.