After last year’s disastrous 30th birthday experience, which included inedible food at a brewpub, canceled campsite reservations, and my sainted girlfriend being shot in the posterior by an honest-to-goodness pellet gun, I was ready for a redeeming and rejuvenating 31st birthday. I’ve really embraced the notion of marking my birthdays with adventures, not just to mark the passage of time, but to get away from being the center of attention. Not that I am. Just that the idea of it being “my special day” is disturbing enough for me to want to head it off at the pass, and use my birthday license to do something adventurous instead. This year, the plan was simple: I would ride my bike to Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in the northeast, meet my sainted girlfriend at the base, and we’d climb it together.
So, leaving my house around 8, 2 cups too many of coffee onboard, I again marveled at the “adventure begins at the doorstep” concept. With a hike, there is that intermediate period in the car, the search for the trail head, then the adventure begins. With a bike tour, one sees the familiar in a new way- not as the neighborhood, but as the beginning of a journey. I spun up a road I’ve been on many times, took an unusual turn, and headed into a neighborhood I’d seldom visited. Little by little, I left town and headed into the country. After a brief country interlude, I began to enter the Lisbon region.
I can’t sugarcoat it: this area has had hard times. The mills that provided jobs and dumped poison into the rivers and air are, for better or worse, closed. The small Italian, french-Canadian and Slovak neighborhoods are still there, the old folks still linger on the porches, but one gets the feeling that this area is stuck with one foot in the 40’s, and the other foot not entirely sure where to step at all.
Sociocultural musings aside, Lisbon does have something going for it. It is the center of popularity and, dare I say culture, for Maine’s most famous beverage, Moxie. Moxie, to the uninitiated, tastes….odd. Some may even say “foul,” or “medicinal.” I suppose the most apt comparison is to say that it tastes a bit like carbonated Jagermeister, or like a sweet bark tea crossed with a cough drop. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, but what can you expect of a beverage whose ingredients include “gentian root?” Truly, this soda is a throwback to the time when carbonated drinks were medicines, and expected to have a medicinal flavor. Imagine if Coke were to be introduced as an “historical” beverage today. It also has a fairly unusual bitter, herbal flavor that might been seen as pretty weird, if it weren’t already so popular. So, my duty as a Mainer dictated I stop by the “Moxie” store, a flyblown old storefront in downtown Lisbon, stacked with cases of Moxie memorabilia. A quick trip in, a brief chat with the older proprietor, a whiff of mothballs, and I was ready to venture out again.
I spun off the Maine roads, and wove a circuitous path through the pleasant neighborhoods. The sky darkened, the light grew flat, and the houses seemed to stand out in contrast to the black clouds. The houses faded away , and I again entered the country. As I passed an open field, a flock off wild turkeys scuttled away from the road, gobbling in confusion, bobbing their heads and hiding in the grass. Further on, I slowed down by an old barn, only to see a cute, inquisitive alpaca winding its neck around the corner to spy on me. Its little mohawk and wide, wet eyes slowed me further, but it ducked out of the way before I could get a good picture.
Clouds Gather Over THE ROAD
Through the village of Mechanic Falls I rode, as clouds raced overhead. The road narrowed and the traffic accelerated, and I was glad to make a sharp turn to the right onto a narrow, hilly country road. This road, a sign informed me, would take me to the “community” of Greenwood. In Maine, “community” often means a town more sparsely settled and dispersed than usual, so this was a good thing. The road curved up steeply among thickly forested hills, and the traffic ceased entirely, leaving me alone with a changing sky, birdsong, and the irregular play of light across the pavement. After perhaps an hour, I saw a small community spring beside the road, next to which someone had placed a bench. Though I did not drink, I soaked my hat in the cooling water, felt the cold flow of air from the moist hillside, and sat awhile.
I shold have drunk it. Really.
Further down the road, past cottages, between several lovely lakes, I became overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. I felt that I was gliding along effortlessly, the wind conspiring to aid me on my way, and I was nearly moved to tears by the beauty of the breeze rippling the waters on a small lake. Unfortunately, these feelings usually mean the onset of a severe hypoglycemic crisis, so by the time I arrived at a small country store, I was dizzy and dissipated. Four cliff bars and a brownie set me straight, and I was ready to ride again. A scant five miles of easy cruising beyond this refueling stop brought me to the lovely town of Bethel, my destination for the evening.
A lovely campsite. Even with the teenage girls.
Bethel is a cute micro-town perched in the mountains of western Maine. After a quick jaunt to the supermarket for a loaf of bread, some fruit, juice, and supplies, I turned again, heading toward my camp for the night: a lovely family campground, still clean this early in the season, with shaded campsites all covered with thick mats of grass. I set up my TarpTent, ate bread, chicken, fruit, and chocolate, and settled in to read and watch the sunset. As I lay and read, a group of 11-year old girls from a neighboring summer camp wandered by, whispering and giggling. After a while, I could hear them return and, with much giggling, scream “I love you!” and “I looooove your beard!”
Still Life with Coffee and Plastic Flowers
Andrew Wyeth? No. My bike ride.
Hey, it is the Granite State after all.
Crossing that pilgramage again.
Correct! Now will that teenager identify themselves for a prize: A Dictionary!
I woke the next morning to find that the racing clouds of the previous day had evaporated, and a lovely bluebird day was at hand. Atop my bike again, I winced at the soreness left over from the previous day’s 70 miles, and was glad to get off again for a breakfast of bagels and 24 fluid ounces of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Turning off the main road again, I spun off toward New Hampshire along a lovely wooded back road. Startled deer dove deeper into the brush as I passed, and the day had begun at a small swimming hole where children splashed and parents drank coffee and gossiped. The road wound upward and became more beautiful as woodland gave way to open fields, lovely farmhouses, horses, and farmstands. A cool breeze moderated the hot sun, and I saw one car in two hours of blissful riding. Stopping for water and food, I pulled over and admired some local graffiti. New Hampshire, it appears, is honest and simple in all things, including vandalism. The road, lovely as it was, ended too soon. I was shunted onto a highway and, entering New Hampshire officially, crossed the Appalachian Trail, a place that I had remembered crossing years before. Passing the AT crossing and feeling the memories of this long-ago journey, I spun into Gorham, New Hampshire. Coffee and pancakes down the hatch, I looked at the paper and noticed an unusual headline: “Mt. Washington Road Closed Due to Snow.”
This would have made sense in December.
Mt. Washington is the mountain I planned to climb. Although it is widely reputed to have the worst weather in the world, having my hike snowed out in July would be uncharacteristically bad. I even checked to see if the paper was current, as a headline like that wouldn’t be out of place in January. Unfortunately, the paper is dated July 2nd.
I bought more supplies and headed up into the White Mountain Nation Forest to settle in at my campground for the night, a large campground right next to Mt. Washington. Setting up the tent, drinking liters of water and eating Clif bars took a few hours, and I had barely put up my tent when Dave and Alicia, the brains behind Trailspace.com, returned from their just-completed Presidential Traverse. Twenty-three miles, more than 9000 feet of elevation gain, 2 kids, a successful website (Full Disclosure: I am a contractor for this site. More Full Disclosure: I considered Trailspace.com awesome before I was more formally affiliated.) and all they would admit to was being “a bit tired.” What an inspiring pair! I didn’t let this inspiration get in the way of a good night’s sleep though, and crashed hard, awakening to diffuse sun and birds chirping around five. A ten-minute drive brought my lady-friend(who had arrived the night before) and I to Pinkham Notch, a visitor center operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club and the starting point of our hike.
This trip wasn’t just a birthday celebration, but a return to the site of my previous defeat. The last time I had attempted to ascend Mt. Washington (which features the worst weather in the world), I was turned around 2 miles shy of the summit by gale-force winds and sleet in August. I remember my father and I had started up, and the weather at the base was warm and rainy. By the time we turned the corner into Tuckermans Ravine, the wind started to gust, and deposited a thick layer of ice on us. We were woefully unprepared, and I remember my fathering wrapping his head in a garbage bag in some futile, hypothermic effort to warm up.
Americans just cannot rock scarlet soft shell pants like this.
This time was different. As we started up, the skies cleared, and the sun began to penetrate the thick forest. We weren’t alone – there were perhaps 100 other hikers spread over the length of the trail. Ordinarily this would have made me claustrophobic, but these hikers seemed well-prepared, fit, and polite, not blaring ringtones and noisily consulting GPS devices. I began to notice other peculiarities about this large troupe, the men worse suspiciously expensive glasses, and tight pants in odd colors, with perfect self assurance. Then, their haughty laughter and musical speech clued me it. Of course, these well-behaved hikers in scarlet pants were french-Canadienne! Sharing the trail with this joyful troupe of Quebecois, we bounded up and reached the caretakers cabin and AMC cache. Here, the real climbing began as we scrabbled our way up the ravine. Halfway up the ravine, I stopped to admire a patch of snow that will likely hang here all summer.
Hey, there was a line to the summit!
A lone skier perched on top to the thin stripe of snow. He said that the ride was “good, but short.” An hour’s more scrabble and we could see the smokestacks of the summit observatory, the throngs of tourists, and the general consumer circus that is the summit of Mt. Washington. I was emotionally prepared this time, but it still leads to an odd sense of cognitive dissonance. After all, this is a dangerous mountain, having claimed more than a hundred lives in the last century, with profoundly horrible weather. Yet, there are coffee, soft-drinks, commemorative shot-glasses and stickers, women with high-heels, all the trappings of a modern shopping mall, perched atop the summit cone of an extinct volcano, more than 6,500 feet into the sky.
Aside from the feeling that my quadriceps were going to implode, the descent was not particularly memorable. We paused near the base to soak our feet in a mountain stream whose water was shockingly cold, likely snowmelt. As the base, I savored coffee and water, changed shirts, and hopped in the car for the long ride home. We paused briefly in North Conway, and 5 sips in to my celebratory beer, the effects of more than 100 miles of riding and our 10 mile hike caught up with me. I felt shaky and weak, with double vision. Three glasses of cold water helped, but I left happy, secure in the knowledge that I have found the secret to maximizing the effect of good stout.