Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Old Freak, Much Laughter, and Cold Mist. Day 2

"The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity." - Rollo May
Garfield Trail at low elevation. An easy stroll through deciduous forest
 The clouds were darkening and the light was failing as the afternoon was surrendering to evening. I truly felt the need to push onward on my trek to the Garfield Ridge Campsite high above me.The lower stretches of the Garfield Trail are fairly flat and rock free and allow for easy and fast hiking. Still, I had a 45 pound pack on my back, and this was the second 4,000 footer ascent of the day. So I was not feeling particularly strong and I did not want to run out of daylight before I reached the AMC campsite. As the day wound down many day hikers who had spent a beautiful October day in the White Mountains were now returning to their cars to head home. I stopped and spoke with each group of hikers I met. They all were curious about my destination. There is a sense of community among hikers that makes for easy conversation and a feeling of camaraderie. Most of the people I spoke with remarked that I had a way to go still to reach the Garfield Ridge Campsite, at least those who actually knew of its existence. The deciduous forest on the lower flank of Garfield Ridge was coloring up with the yellows and reds of the advancing autumn but the rich green of the summer still dominated.

Garfield Trail crosses Spruce Brook
 The hip belt of my pack kept slowly slipping lower as I went. I have fairly narrow hips and I have to cinch the belt very tight to try and keep it where it will bear weight properly. I could feel the skin under the belt chafing uncomfortably and I was sweating with the effort of the hike. I came to the crossing of Spruce Brook and gratefully splashed the cool mountain water on my face and neck. The simple comfort of the water rinsing the sweat and grime off my skin felt like high luxury. I repeated these ablutions over and over, not wanting the sensual pleasure and feeling of cleanliness to end. But rain was threatening and I had a ridge to climb, so slipping my hands into the straps of my trekking poles I walked on.

Early on the Garfield Trail. Easy slope and footing.
  When you are hiking the White Mountain trails you adjust your stride and pace to the footing offered up to you. Early on the Garfield Trail the trail bed is an easy slope with few rocks, allowing long strides and a fast pace. I took advantage of this to make good time. My mind often wanders far afield when I don't have to concentrate on my footing. As I strode along my thoughts flew to the people and events of my life, as music wound throughout the landscape of my daydreams. It is as if I was on two journeys, one physical and one spiritual, both winding and both long. Meeting a few more hikers leaving the forest interrupted both journeys. One man, with a tan that was too deep and bronzed to look like the honest burnished skin of an outdoorsman, who was also wearing the paratrooper type boots that only someone who had never been a paratrooper would buy, complained what an awful trail this was to hike. Thinking to myself that I could not agree with such a judgment, I replied "Oh yes?" "Yes!" was his emphatic reply, he assured me he had hiked all over the Whites and this was one of the worst trails he had ever hiked. I laughed to myself but politely bid him a good finish to his hike and I continued on.

Garfield Trail reaches the transition from deciduous to coniferous

Thoughts of the bronzy paratrooper hiker soon faded. The trail was entering the transition where the near total dominance of deciduous trees was giving way to more and more firs. The trail itself was getting more studded with rock and stone and a fine light rain was now falling. If the rain became steady I was in for an uncomfortable finish to my hike. And no hiker wants to establish a camp in the rain if he or she can avoid it. The growing worry that nightfall and rainfall would find me before I found the campsite spurred me on at the fastest pace I could manage. My breathe was hard and deep, the sweat flowed liberally, my hips burned from the pack, and my legs felt heavy. Perversely, I felt as alive as I possibly could.

The Spruce Forest of the higher elevations
The rain sputtered and failed. The light continued to wane however. My steps were no longer precise and fatigue was my constant companion, causing me to stumble a bit and stub my feet on the rocks that protruded from the trail bed like broken teeth. I started to look off the trail for possible spots to camp in case I could not make the campsite before dark. It is surprising how lonely the mountains can feel at the gloaming when you are alone. I pride myself on presenting a confident and reassuring face to others when things are going poorly, to help them feel more optimistic themselves. That doesn't work on yourself however. It's harder to buck up your own spirits. I was thinking that very soon I would need to break out the headlamp when I finally reached the trail junction that would take me to the campsite. The relief was very welcome.

The trail junction that heralded the end of the long day was nigh. A welcomed sight indeed.
Here I turned eastward and downward. Garfield loomed above me in the gloaming, but I would visit that peak on the morn. Now all I wanted was to get this pack off my back and set up camp. The trail dropped very steeply and I had to take it very slowly. Fatigue is a deadly enemy on steep rocky trails, and descending these with a heavy pack is damnably hard on knees. After a painful descent of some fifteen to twenty minutes I reached the spur trail that leads to the campsite. I had smelled woodsmoke for some time, and as I reached the campsite I saw several hikers gathered around a nice fire. These AMC campsites have caretakers during the summer season and I soon found him. He told what tent platforms were still available and after exchanging a few words I set off to find the wooden deck that would be my home for the night.

My one man tent was soon erected and preparations for dinner were underway.
The tents of my neighbors for the night on companion to my tent platform.
As I set up camp I had the opportunity to meet the other hikers who were using the tent platform next to mine. They were four young men in their late twenties. We soon had a conversation underway and in an act of immeasurable generosity one of the fine young gentlemen shared some red wine with me. Clearly they were some of the finest examples of humanity. When my tent was complete and I had eaten a simple fare, I joined the others around the fire. Soon we were sharing hiking war stories and laughing. About a dozen of us spent a pleasant hour dodging campfire smoke and talking in the night. I am of the opinion that standing around a fire in the mountains at night sharing good drink and telling tales could make the fastest of friends of the deepest of enemies. Ah , would that it were, would that it were... After this most enjoyable commune, I crawled into my tent and into my sleeping bag. The night was cold and damp. My bag was dry and warm. To sleep, perchance to dream.

The caretaker's tent at Garfield Ridge Campsite.
During the night I had seen the ghostly glow of moonlight through my tent. But daylight revealed that a cold mist had settled on the mountain, just a few hundred feet above us. There would be no views to be had today alas. After preparing to hike up to the summit of Garfield, I headed out. Many of my fellow travelers were up and about as well. The gathering splintered back into the disparate groups that had arrived separately last night, heading off in different directions with different goals. First I stopped at the natural spring below the campsite and then I followed several hikers up the trail back to the Garfield Ridge Trail.

The spring below the campsite.
Looking eastward toward Galehead Mountain and the Twins. The clouds loom just above Galehead but have encased the Twins.
The steep climb back up to Garfield Ridge Trail.
I had left my camp set up and was now just carrying a light daypack. This was a blessed relief. Still the steep climb up to the ridge trail soon had me huffing and sweating. It wasn't long before I reached the ridge trail however, and I continued onward towards the summit of Mount Garfield. The low hanging clouds soon enveloped me as I climbed. No one else was headed to the summit this morning. Mount Garfield has spectacular views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, or so I have read. There would be no views today. Being in the clouds is like being inside a cold and clammy cotton ball. It was into this cold mist that I scaled upwards to the summit.

Into the mist. The scramble up to the summit of Garfield.
The summit of Mount Garfield used to have a fire observation tower. The concrete foundation still remains. Once on the summit I felt truly alone. Lost in a cold mist on a lonely peak. In all directions a cold white fog robbed me of the spectacular views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Yet in this cold mist, on this lonely peak, I felt the warmth of another goal achieved, another life experience had, another victory over myself. It is all too easy to take the easy way in life, never setting goals, never challenging oneself, never doing, never being. I was very glad to have made the effort. I could not see the view, but I knew it was out there, and I knew if I never passed this way again, I had passed this way once.

The old tower foundation on Garfield summit.
On Garfield Summit, in the clouds.
A cold mist hugs the summit
After spending a half hour on the summit it was time to head back and break camp. The return hike to the campsite was uneventful. There was no lifting of the clouds and the day seemed to grow darker rather than brighter. When I arrived back at the campsite all the campers had left. The caretaker was alone. I spoke with him for a while and learned he was originally from Connecticut as well. He was on his last day as caretaker and would be hiking out later, his tour of duty up for another year.

The night's campers were gone. A through hiker stops briefly at the shelter at Garfield Ridge Campsite.
 He had the latest weather forecast as well and told me heavy rain was headed into the region. So my trip was to end sooner than originally planned. I was disappointed that my long hike was cut short. But in life you have to make choices. If the most difficult choice I had to make this day was to keep hiking in the mountains in the rain or to head back the comfort of my Connecticut home, than I was more fortunate than many. It had been a good trip. I had climbed the Old Freak, met new fiends, laughed in the night, and stood on a mountain peak in a cold mist. Life could be worse, much worse.

The trail out. In the mist.