So there we are, standing in the Appalachia parking lot at 2 a.m.
Sometimes, that trail-head moment, the minutes between getting out of your car and placing that first foot on the trail, is the most nerve wracking. Hikers gearing up all around. Final prep. Car doors slamming. Kids running around. So much is ahead of you. So many decisions, so much potential for accomplishment, beauty, horrible failure.
But at 2 a.m., there’s nothing. Black. Stars. Not even birds yet. You can’t see the range. You can’t see the weather. Your task is a 10-foot arc of light. The next step, then the one after, then another. Bare essentials.
We have a long day ahead of us with uncertain weather, but that first step into the Valley Way trail is finer and more satisfying than any other trail head start in a long time.
We walk. We hear our breathing. We watch our steps, our poles clack satisfyingly. A creek to our left seems to rush up out of the darkness, our beams of light illuminate the splash of water on rocks. We discover diamonds of dew attached to mushrooms on trees. Greens seem bolder in headlamp light.
Our plan is ambitious, and ultimately not to be, but it doesn’t matter.
In the dark, fully aware and stepping lightly, we take a left at the Watson Path and shoot straight up the northern flank of Mt. Madison. In the dark, navigating roots, and boulders, watching for signs of sunrise, and signs of bad weather, the morning flies by. Soon, breathing heavy, feeling alive, rising with the sun, we reach treeline. We reach treeline before the rain, above the clouds with only the barest hint of sun breaking down on the Presidential ridge. We’re alone, in a stunning place, waking up with the mountains.
The wind greets us fiercely atop Mt. Madison, a bracing wake up call. We answer back, hooting and hollering into the wind. It’s number 40 for Meenakshi, her third try at this summit, and it’s magnificent.
All around us the mist and morning fog pours over the ridge like whipped cream. Mt. Adams is in and out of a white cotton blanket.
We see the weather coming, we have maybe a couple hours before this place is taken from our sight, but again it doesn’t matter.
We move on, we’re going to Mt. Washington. There our friends would be waiting. Even that early in the day, the thought of a steaming bowl of chili is powerful incentive.
Down to Madison Hut, where even a 1/4 mile away, we can smell the morning pancakes. Time enough only for a cup of coffee – so bad, so bitterly undrinkable that we both just start laughing at the absurdity.
We’re off. The mountains give us fine weather, rolling mist, high clouds, blue skies, then purple, then pink, then gray. We roll along the Gulfside Trail, still alone with the rocks, past Mt. Adams to Thunderstorm Junction – one of our favorite places in the world. The sun burns under the clouds lighting up the mist, turning the granite into fire.
We’re thankful. We move on.
Then it’s gone. The mountains decline. The mist and clouds move in. Another kind of beauty arrives, quiet and small. Our worlds becomes a 30 foot circle, and again we are internal. The mountain covers us, breathes furious wind into our faces, twists the sky. We raise our hoods, cover our hands. We move on.
After Mt. Jefferson, we circle around Mt. Clay, the occasional trail signs our only indication of forward movement.
Then a rumble low and mechanical from the mist. The cog! 50 yards away before we see the eerie rectangle moving up out of the mist.
The weather is now angry, the ledge slippery. We lower our heads, hit the flank of Mt. Washington and power through. The rain is sideways, it slips under our hoods and kisses our faces. Visibility is zero. We go up and up. We can hear the power generating on the summit, but can see nothing. Then literally 10 feet from the Tip Top House, the building forms, dark and hulking from the mist. The rain is relentless now, sideways, pushing.
The summit sign is a shadow and we move toward it nearly on hands and knees, like we’re praying. Success. We hold each other, we hold the sign. We get the hell out of there.
Later, with the storm still raging we would walk down the summit road to Pinkham Notch, our feet burning from the 18-mile adventure but our bellies full of chili and our hearts soaring from the climb. And as we wait along the road for our rides, we lean back on a flat rock and close our eyes and remember the darkness of the morning. Full circle.