Queen of the Mountain

Mount Haystack Top of Monadnock

I’m not concerned with looking good when I’m climbing a mountain. I’m not one of those women who climb showing off their sports bra. You won’t catch me wearing spandex, or short shorts, or even make-up for that matter. When I’m on a mountain, I’m there to work. Dirty, sweaty, work.

Sun on Mount Sunapee

I wear what’s comfortable. I’ve learned to keep my knees covered. There’s no comb, mirror, or beauty product in my pack, except for chapstick and sunscreen. I’ve watched as some other women approach each other on a path. There’s a moment of wariness, a posturing as they size each other up, determine who’s wearing make-up, who’s sweating less, whose hair is under control – I don’t have the time or patience for any of that.

Side of the Mountain

I’m not there to impress anyone. I’m not there for show. I don’t consider what I’m going to look like in the obligatory picture at the top when I get dressed that morning. I’m simply there to do what I’m there to do. And it’s freeing. It’s liberating  to be rid of the constraints, the expectations, the concerns on which general society places so much importance.

View from Shining RockI am who I am. I’m happy with that. It’s enough for me. I’m strong, I’m independent, and I don’t feel the need to always look my best. I notice the strange looks I get when I go, disheveled and grimy,  into a gas station for a drink after a hike. I wear the dirt streaked with sweat on my face proudly. It’s a badge of honor.

I’m Queen of the Mountain.

Backyard Adventures

baby deerA couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to see a deer and what had to be her newborn fawn out back. It was a cool, rainy day, I had just gotten home from work and was walking one of my dogs when I happened upon them. The deer immediately darted, leaving her baby, barely larger than a chicken and tottering unsteadily on shaky legs alone in the path. I took a couple of quick pictures, scooped up my Jack Russell, Tempest, who was convinced that since the mother ran off the baby was fair game to claim as her new property, and headed back to the house. My other dog got a bit ripped off on his walk that day, as I didn’t take him to the trail in hopes that the doe would return quickly to reclaim her fawn. A month later, while walking the pups early one morning before work, I saw them again peacefully grazing in a yard off the trail. Then this morning before work, another sighting. I only got a quick glimpse of the baby. The doe remained in site longer as she bounced away, leaping to be seen over the brambles between us.

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I don’t live out in the wilds, but the abundance of wildlife nearby is fantastic. The rabbit population is ridiculous, and I’ve startled a woodchuck simply by opening my front door. Out behind my house is an old, historic railroad track. The track itself and a small foot/bike path remain pretty clear, but to either side nature grows freely. A seemingly never-ending plethora of wildflowers bloom, changing with the weeks like a department store display. The phlox gave way to violets which were replaced by wild roses followed by day lilies, only for the color to renew again with types for which I have no name. There aren’t many wildflowers in Florida, mostly just weeds, so it’s a real treat to head out every day to see what new surprises have bloomed.

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I thought I recognized a vine last week, but thought it couldn’t be true. Then the vine started to flower; I recognized those too, but remained skeptical, as my own attempts to grow this plant always failed at this point. To my delight, a fruit has appeared, almost doubling in size every day. PUMPKINS!!!!!! Growing wild right out back along the trail. I tried so many times to grow pumpkins in Florida without success, now here I find them thriving on their own in the wild. I’m eagerly anticipating watching them grow, and hoping I’ll be able to carve at least one for my favorite holiday, Halloween.

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Wild Ponies

Tempest & Sullivan  They come racing full speed ahead to greet me, their furry little bodies bouncing off each other as they vie for the lead. Rearing as they nip and paw at each other for the right to welcome me first. Sliding to a halt in front of me, nuzzling my hands, demanding the attention they deserve. My pups are wild ponies.

My little ponies constantly race around the house frolicking, wrestling, teasing each other with toys. I love when I’m down in the basement and I can hear their thundering stampede dashing about overhead like a herd of wild oxen. Or when I take them hiking and they dart about like little wolves, sniffing, searching, stalking down their prey.Tempest Smiling

Tempest and Sullivan are the sweetest Terrier Terrorists you’ll ever meet. A combined 50 pounds of nub wagging, wiggling joy. Sometimes they’re just plain savage with their over exuberant affection and insatiable demands for attention. They’ll lick your skin raw if you let them.

Sully Posing

Puppy love is not always easy. They’re a big responsibility, and, like children, you have to put them and their needs first. There are days when their needs and demands are overwhelming. Times when you’d like to go somewhere or do something, but you can’t because you have to get home and walk the pups, or you can’t leave them home along that long. But they do make life better, happier, and at times even easier.

Both Tempest and Sullivan are rescue pups. Tempe is a tall, wild haired Jack Russell with the characteristic terrier personality – complete with the big attitude and intelligence. Sully is a…..special blend. Very sweet, good-natured and agreeable. Knowing a dog’s breed can be important in educating the owner about potential health (and behavioral) issues, so I had his DNA tested. My little man is half Schnauzer, quarter bull-dog, and 1/8 both Dachshund and Pomeranian. But they’re both 100% adorable.

Love Puppies

I’m a huge advocate of adoption. There are shelters all across the country teeming with animals waiting for a good home. Large and small, young and old, pure breeds and mixes…..there’s a perfect match out there for every one if you take the time to look. And I hope you do.

Pups in a Florida Garden

“Hey, look….Hikers!”

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“Hey, look…..Hikers!” That’s what we heard as we exited the woods and approached the summit of Mount Gunstock. It wasn’t a casual comment or remark, but an exclamation of surprise. So we covered the remaining distance to the actual summit, somewhat self-consciously due to the stares, and walked up the steps to the viewing deck that was part of the pub on top of the mountain. That’s right…..pub. On top of the mountain. It was closed at the time, but still a novelty. The whole experienced seemed a bit poetic (albeit ironically, bitingly so) on this day that we were trying so hard to salvage.

The day had started out like any other Saturday. We were running slightly behind schedule leaving the house, but didn’t think much of it. Traffic was horrible….it took us an hour and a half to get out of Massachusetts, versus the usual 40 minutes. We were navigating to Mount Whiteface, which we were really looking forward to. My usual navigating apps had both disappeared off my phone the night before, but, after searching for the same ones without success, I downloaded a couple of others that seemed as if they would do the job. I was wrong. The destination of Mount Whiteface led us to someone’s front yard. And while we were surrounded by mountains, we couldn’t find out the names of any, nor how to get to any of their trailheads.

So after four frustrating hours in the car, we decided to head to Mount Gunstock, which we had already researched and had been saving for a shorter trip because it was closer to home and a much shorter hike. But in an attempt to save the day, we crossed our fingers and hoped the navigator would get us there. Thankfully it did, but I wasn’t too surprised as Gunstock Mountain is rather commercial, being the site of one of those ski resorts that offers an adventure center in the summer season. Zip lining, paddle boarding, a full bar and more.

We obtained a map, after much ado and many confused faces. A map….for hiking the mountain??? But you can take the ski lift right up. Hiking up takes 2 hours!!! But we had our map, we chose our trail, and set out to climb the 2 miles to the top of the mountain.

After sitting so long in the car, my muscles were so sore and tight that every step was a battle in the beginning. I found a nice, cool, flat rock next to the brook that I just knew was made for napping. But some encouragement from my partner in crime and plucking a magic wand while crossing a field spurred me on. (Perhaps the wand needs some explaining. I found one of those weeds that has a fuzzy thing on the end of a long stem, which promised ample opportunity to touch it to the back of someone’s neck and be annoying (magic). Fortunately (for someone), I was so stiff that I was unable to stay within striking distance, so my tortuous will was not inflicted – it merely motivated me to keep moving up the side of the mountain. That, and my hope to escape the constant irritating noise of people sliding overhead on the zip line.)

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Surprisingly, even with me in my slightly weakened state, the 2 mile, purportedly 2 hour hike took only a mere hour to accomplish. At which time we left the shelter of the woods to enter the stares of those who were ‘sensible’ enough to take the lift to the top of the mountain. We quickly chose our route of descent, exceedingly steep but with the best view, and headed on our way.  We had managed to enjoy our day, and I was feeling much better when I got back to the car than I was feeling when I left it. The hike was enough to attain the clear head and peace of mind I usually achieve from hiking a mountain, but this was my least favorite climb, and the first one I wouldn’t recommend.

Back at the Beginning

ridge  This past Saturday found me back at the beginning – at the foot of Little Haystack in the New Hampshire White Mountains, the first mountain I ever tried (and failed) to climb. It was a couple of months after I had moved to Massachusetts last year, and one weekend we had the idea – let’s climb a mountain. Just two kids from Florida foolish enough to think that the 9 mile Franconia Ridge hike would only take them 3-4 hours. Start in the early afternoon and be done in time to make the 2.5 hour drive home to make dinner. Only it’s different when the hike isn’t flat. It takes longer when you’re climbing straight up. Three hours later we had made it to Shining Rock, and were forced to descend in defeat in order to make it back to the car before dark.

But not this time. This time, failure was not an option. This time, we’d make it to the top.

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We started on the Falling Waters Trail, a scenic route where you eventually cross back and forth over the waterfall six times, only once on an actual bridge. It’s an enjoyable way to start a long hike; the air around the falls stays cooler, the view is great, and the slick rocks help prepare you for the rest of the hike. About an hour into the hike you leave the splendor of the falls and enter the woods, where a couple of switchbacks lead you up. And up. And up. There’s very little level ground on this trail. It’s also fairly narrow and busy, so you find yourself squishing to the side quite often to let descending hikers by.

ridge1About two hours in, we reached the branch off for Shining Rock. It had taken us three hours to reach this point last time. We were making good time and ready to confront the part of the trail we had never seen before. When it started to rain. We would not be denied. Rain or not, we continued forward, onward, upward, (lots and lots of upward), until at last, we saw the summit rise above us.

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This peak was an entirely different experience than any of the other mountains we’ve climbed. At almost 5,000 feet, the wind is rough and cold. You’re literally up among the clouds. After taking a few pictures I found myself sheltering on the leeward side of a rock ledge, trying to stay warm during a quick snack before descent.

Once you reach the top of Little Haystack, you’ve officially entered the Franconia Ridge, which will lead you across Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette, where you can descend using the Bridle Trail which will bring you full circle back to the parking area. Completing the entire ridge is our next goal. It’s an entire day’s hike, which will involve some extra planning on behalf of the dogs. Not that they wouldn’t love to hike with us, but they’re too short for such a long hike.

ridge4I also need time for my muscles to recover. Do a few more 5,000 footers. I believe in setting yourself up for success. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 14 years ago, and while I don’t let it stop me from doing anything I want to do, I have learned that sometimes you have to be more careful, take more time, and ease your way up to the level you want to be at. This is a challenge that normal muscles complain from; I want climbing mountains to continue to be something I enjoy, not a painful punishment I inflict upon myself. But I feel successful. I met my goal, and I have confidence that when I set out to conquer the entire ridge, I’ll meet that goal as well.

Endings and Beginnings

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What can I say about Crotched Mountain? My initial research a few weeks in advance had told me it wasn’t too far of a drive, and that the Shannon trail was the most difficult path. That was all I needed to know. A trail with the same name as me that was known as being difficult? I was sold.

(All of the directions to the trailhead were horrible. To make it simple – navigate to the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, but don’t pull down that road. Stay on 31, also known as Crotched Mountain Road. The rehab center sign in on the right. The parking for the trailhead is on the left, not far past the sign to the rehab center. You will see a sandy lot to park in.)

Renovations have been performed on this trail since most of the trail descriptions were posted. The Greg Trail now leads from the little fenced in area behind the mail box (you can pick up the Shannon trail later). The first 8th mile has been made wheelchair accessible. A series of graded switchbacks leads up to a platform with a nice panorama view of Monadnock and Gap Mountains, among others. On the way to the platform, a tiny trail snakes off to the right. Welcome to the Shannon trail. This very narrow path leads across a couple of wide open plains through wild blueberry and blackberry brambles. You have to place close attention, as the trail isn’t marked until you enter the tree line.

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Most of the hike is flat, which means you get to make up for the lack of incline in one long stretch leading to the top of the first peak. Once you make it, though, you’re rewarded with a picnic bench to rest on while you catch your breath and enjoy your well deserved view.

The map shows that you can take an upper link trail along the top to reach other peaks, eventually leading to the summit trail which you can take back down, using the lower link to cross back over to the Shannon trail in one big loop. We couldn’t, however, find this upper link trail, unless it was the trail which bore the warning that it would not lead back to the parking area.

Our courageous attempt to discover the hidden pass resulted in circle after circle across the top of the mountain, with us lost and just relying on sense of direction to get us back to the picnic bench, which, being the last place where we knew where we were, was the spot we sought time and time again. When the phrase “Blair Witch” popped up in the discussion, we decided that we better settle with the one peak we did conquer in order to get back to the car before dark.

Which led to us once again circling across the top of the mountain, again (luckily) finding our way back to the picnic bench, where we discovered that we had mistakenly chosen a side path that conveniently began next to the picnic bench; however, we had reached the picnic bench from below. A memory of the picnic bench appearing from above, a harbinger of a journey’s end like a light tower through the fog of a misty sea made us realize our error and set us on the right path back home.

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On the way back, trying to stretch the journey out a little longer in hopes of glimpsing the sunset, I tried my first wild blueberry, and decided to pick some to make blueberry pancakes the next morning in honor of my dad, who was sick. Blueberry pancakes were one of his favorites, and I couldn’t remember ever trying any myself. The idea struck me out of the blue, so I went with it.

I received the call that he had passed at 10 that night. To be honest, I knew he was dying. I knew the last time I told him good bye that it would be the last chance I got. That’s why I made the climb that day. I woke up feeling horrible. By the time I made my way back to the car, I had a full on head cold. I did it for him. Because he couldn’t. His passing was not a sad thing, but a blessing that his suffering, so sudden, had ended.

I take comfort in knowing that he’ll be with me every mountain I climb and adventure I have. Although Crotched Mountain wasn’t the most challenging climb, the most fun or the most boast worthy, it will always be a special memory. And the pancakes were delicious.

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