Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Autumn Leaves on Mount Avalon

I’d been walking a short time, gazing down at my feet stepping through a golden-yellow layer of recently-dropped birch and aspen leaves, when it occurred to me that my pace was falling in step with the rhythm of a tune moving through my mind: Autumn Leaves. Aside from the obvious reference to my surroundings, the tune set a comfortable, relaxed pace, a good way to start a hike, and I didn’t mind. I seem especially prone to getting these ‘earworm’ tunes stuck in my head, following me for miles while I paddle or hike, and they’re not always so unobtrusive. Sometimes it’s the last tune on the radio en route to my adventure, but it may also be a recurring theme, like the instrumental disco anthem that followed me for much of the Maine coast on our Upwest & Downeast paddle last year. More and more it seems my earworm tunes lack lyrics, which I find agreeable enough, especially when this figment of my imagination drives the constant, multi-pitched ring of tinnitus, another made-up sound in my head, into submission.

I was headed up the Avalon Trail in Crawford Notch, which is a bit of a bargain hike to get to a view of the valley. But I was lured by the proximity of a couple of taller mountains, Mt Tom (4051’) and Mt Field (4340’) upon whose flanks Mt Avalon (3442’) is situated. Though I wasn’t expecting huge views from the taller summits, I was in the mood to walk, and it was a warm sunny day, probably the balmiest we’d see in October.

The tune cycled through my head, mostly drawing from the version I’d heard the most, from Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis. I’d never known the song’s lyrics, but somehow the instrumental versions convey the bittersweet sense of longing and wistfulness at least as well as any words could. I don’t know how that works – that a simple tune seems to embody ideas and feelings without the help of spoken language, but it does. And since a melody is more universal than lyrics, it seems to apply itself to your surroundings more readily. The warm day made me more aware of its passing, wistful for all the summer days now past, and the leaves were probably as bright as they would be before the next storm knocked them down and the season rounded the corner toward winter.

I’d been in New Hampshire for about a week and I’d gone for a couple of other hikes as well. The first was not well-chosen for my first hike after a summer of paddling and little hiking. I headed up North Twin Mountain (4761’) with aims of getting over to South Twin (4902’) but I never quite got into it. It felt like a lot of work. My leg muscles burned with the uphill effort and I ended up with a headache (perhaps a bit dehydrated?) that took away from my enjoyment when I got to the summit of North Twin, which was socked-in by dense clouds. I finally remembered the ibuprofen in my first aid kit, which helped, but I had to admit I wasn’t really enjoying it, and headed down after a snack on North Twin.

For my next hike, I lowered my ambitions considerably, and had a gorgeous warm day. It was the Friday before Columbus Day weekend though, and the Kancamagus Highway was busy enough that I felt annoyed by the time I parked at the trailhead for Hedgehog Mountain (2532’). 

Despite the tailgating traffic that jammed all the scenic turn-offs, there were only six cars in the lot. I’d been to the trailhead before, and had one of those uncertain moments, unsure if I’d taken this hike before, but if I had, I’d forgotten it well enough, and it all seemed new and wonderful. You don’t have to go far before you step atop open ledges for expansive views of the 4000-foot mountains surrounding this little peak. I only ran into a few other people, but the trailhead lot was full when I returned, and I resolved to forego hiking until the weekend was over.

I did, however, drive to southern New Hampshire to buy a used canoe, and since I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d take a hike up Monadnock, a small mountain I’d climbed many times in my youth, when I lived in that area. As I approached the road into the state park though, I saw that it was closed off by the police – no room for more cars. They were doing me a favor, since such crowds would drive me nuts. Besides, I wanted to try the new canoe. In between hikes, I’d been out for a few short paddles, in kayak and canoe. They’ve been nice, but when I’m in New Hampshire I tend to think more about hiking.

The highlight of the Mt Avalon Hike was Mt Avalon, even if it doesn’t feel like much of a summit. There were also some enticing waterfalls, not far in from the trailhead. Mounts Tom and Field were fine, but you know you’re at the summits mostly due to the piles of rocks marking them, with limited views nearby. The top of Mt Avalon feels more like an open ledge on the side of Mt Field, but has by far the best vantage. A few other hikers came and went while I sat there, eating my sandwich, watching the cloud shadows pass over the brilliant patchwork colors in the notch. I could see our red car parked beside Route 302 down below, and not far away, the bright red roof of the Mount Washington Hotel. The summit of Mount Washington was shrouded in clouds, never revealing itself.

I overheard a couple counting the 4000-footer mountains they’d been up, and I suppose that personal challenge (much like the MITA 30-In-30 Challenge I’d embarked upon over the summer) brings a lot of hikers to these and other peaks that, while they offer some nice hiking, have underwhelming views for the effort involved. I joked with the couple that there was nothing wrong with the views; after all Mt Tom had a nice spruce tree with some lovely mosses surrounding its base, as cultivated as a terrarium. And of course there were those piles of rocks. Mt Field had a view of Mt Washington from a small opening in the trees.

When hiking to mountaintops I often remind myself that Thoreau wrote in his journal “… It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it." It’s just a reminder that there’s more to a mountain than the view away from it, but it can also be a bit of a rationalization when you’ve just sweated to a mountaintop and there’s not a lot there that makes you want to linger. But Mt Avalon’s views were good enough to make me linger, and for just a little while forget the tune in my head.

In addition to AMC’s White Mountain Guide, I’ve been using AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains by Robert N. Buchsbaum. The book helps winnow the nearly endless hiking options in the White Mountains down to a few of the more attractive ones. In addition to the nuts and bolts info in the White Mountain Guide, there’s a bit of the author’s take on what it’s like to hike in these spots, why one would want to go up one trail instead of another, as well as historic background and natural history.

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