Sunday, October 28, 2018

West Rattlesnake, Chocorua, The Sugarloaves

At the check-out line, the cashier, a woman probably a few years older than me scrutinized my face and asked me a question, and as usual, I needed to repeat it back to her to make sure I understood: “Am I… over fifty?”  

She smiled. She probably saw my hesitation, as if I still didn’t quite accept that I’d begun to slide into old age, that I might prefer to not admit it, and I didn’t exactly want to be reminded. Was I getting carded? I looked at our groceries and there wasn’t any alcohol, besides, she’d said fifty, and not whatever the drinking age was. Hutch and Shari were ahead of me in line; we were all together, our faces all still red and flushed from an afternoon hiking up a mountain after the first snow. She hadn’t asked them. They looked on curiously. She’d singled me-out; it was that obvious.  I shrugged. “Yes,” I said.

“You’re in luck.” She turned to the register. “You get a discount on Thursdays.”

We took our first walk on Wednesday afternoon, the day after Hutch and Shari had arrived. It was a pretty typical walk to take first-time guests on: West Rattlesnake, a small mountain that overlooks the lake. It’s a bargain hike: a relatively short and easy walk with the reward of a massive view at the top. Aside from being a good warm-up hike, we get a good look at the neighborhood from up above. The lake spreads below us, islands recognizable as if from a vividly colored map, with an autumnal red and yellow arboreal border. Rebecca and I like to take our friends up here and just stand for a bit and not say anything, not point anything out, just watch our visitors take it in and try to remember what that was like. But then we’ll point things out, just to get oriented: that lake over there to the left is Winnipesaukee. That mountain off in the distance to the west? That’s Moosilauke. We sat for awhile as others came and went, just taking it in until finally it occurred to us that maybe we should head back down.

On Thursday Hutch and Shari and I headed up Mount Chocorua, which quickly became ‘Chocula’ instead – it’s only a few letters off, and the name of the vampire-themed cereal is much easier to pronounce. The hike began in autumn, beneath a canopy of vivid green and yellow foliage, but progressed into freshly-fallen snow that became ankle-deep by the time we stopped at the Jim Liberty Cabin for lunch.

The cabin is there for overnight stays, first-come, first-served, with nine wooden bunks and decades of graffiti scored into its woodwork. Heavy chains secure it to the ledge, and there’s a hint of a view between the spruce trees encircling the small meadow around it. It all lay beneath a heavy, wet layer of snow, which still clung to the spruce boughs like sugar frosting on a gingerbread house. I remembered a visit from many years ago in which my friends and I spent a night there. Tents were pitched in the ‘yard’ and the cabin was crowded, dominated by the loudest occupants, drunk and boisterous, and it reminded me why I tend to avoid such places. But we had it to ourselves and we ate our sandwiches on the porch steps, admiring the fresh snow.

We progressed up the trail, and within minutes paused to turn around. We all gasped involuntarily when we saw the view. Whatever our expectations, they were surpassed. The nearby trees lay beneath heavy snow, while down below the white frosting tapered, blending with bright reds and yellows and greens, a study in contrasts. It had been snowing intermittently still, but sunbeams bore through the grey layer of clouds, lighting startling patches of color. 

This alone was worth whatever effort the hike had taken, which was good, since not much farther up the trail we decided to head down without reaching the summit. Had the snow been deeper, we might have been able to find traction along the path, but the unstable single layer of snow tended to simply slide away below us on the steeper parts – with consequential drops beneath them. Microspikes wouldn’t have been effective, but it hardly mattered; that revelatory glimpse buoyed us as we walked down, and later it carried us through the grocery aisles so that even the cashier’s reminder of my advanced age only further elevated the mood.

The next day, after a late morning, we were in the mood for another bargain hike in a different neighborhood, so we drove up to the north side of the White Mountains to a pair of smaller mountains called the Sugarloaves. Again, we began in autumn and gradually ascended to snow-covered ground, although not nearly as deep as the previous day’s. It was still chilly, below freezing, but the wind had died and the sun shone with hardly a cloud in the sky. 

This is another true bargain hike, and the snow made it even more so, since the surrounding peaks, including the Mount Washington massif, were sparkly white, frosted like a heavily-sugared breakfast cereal. And you get not one, but two stunning mountaintop views, from both North and Middle Sugarloaves. We looked up at considerably higher peaks I’d been too fairly recently, like North Twin and Mount Hale, where the views are not nearly as overwhelming.

We returned to the trailhead not long before sunset and grabbed coffee at a gas station for the drive home, which took us through Franconia Notch at dusk, listening to nostalgic oldies on the radio – songs from the eighties and nineties that had been popular, it seemed, not so long ago, soundtracks to fleeting episodes from our pasts.

We got to know Hutch and Shari over the summer when they worked with us at Old Quarry. They’ve spent most of the last six years living in a tiny ‘canned ham’ travel trailer, traveling all over and documenting their adventures on their blog, Freedom in a Can.

Info on these hikes can be found both in the AMC White Mountain Guide and in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains by Robert N. Buchsbaum.

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