Autumn. It’s that time of year again when New England achieves its highest level of “New Englandness.” The days begin to shorten, the air has a slight, but noticeable chill in the early mornings, the leaves start turning to a palette of all of my favorite shades of red, orange and yellow, and the smell of cider donuts and “pumpkin spice everything” assails the nostrils. I’ve always loved fall, and in my humble, native New Englander opinion, there is no better place to be in late September and early October.
The week before the busy Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day weekend, I headed from Massachusetts up to northern New England and upstate New York to soak in all the autumnal wonder. As anyone who knows me would expect, I ate my way across four states: a lobster roll and clam chowder on the coast of Maine, warm cider donuts in New Hampshire, crunchy MacIntosh apples and sharp cheddar cheese in Vermont, and some unspeakably delicious pumpkin pancakes outside of Saratoga Springs, New York.
But aside from eating, I do like to hike, and lord knows I needed to burn off some calories after all the wonderful things on my menu. I decided I’d like to explore a corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains that I haven’t spent much time in, and so after a little google-searching, I came up with what sounded like a great hiking spot: the Middle Sugarloaf Trail near Bretton Woods and Bethlehem, New Hampshire. On various websites it was described as a moderately challenging, 1.3 mile climb culminating in an amazing 360 degree view from the top of Middle Sugarloaf Peak, which, by the way, should not be confused with the nearby North Sugarloaf Peak or the just-plain-old-Sugarloaf Mountain farther north in the state! A three mile round trip sounded perfect for me, and with the fall foliage approaching its peak and a gloriously sunny, 68 degree afternoon before me, off I went, armed with an apple, a bottle of water, and my trusty camera.
The parking area at the trail head was full and I actually had to park almost a quarter mile down the road, but after the three cider donuts I had for breakfast, I figured the added distance could only be a good thing. The start of the trail was deceptively flat and followed the course of the Zealand River before turning sharply to the southwest and beginning to climb.
The first mile or so of the hike was just beautiful and peaceful. Red leaves had fallen and gotten caught in pine branches, making them look like Christmas trees decked with red ribbons. Boulders the size of small houses created a maze-like feeling in a few places, dry leaves crunched beneath my feet, and a canopy of golden branches protected me from an even more golden sun. It was quiet and the few people who were coming back down from the summit assured me that the view at the top was amazing.
Inevitably, the trail grew steeper, and it was not an easy path, as often I had to ascend what seemed like staircases of rock and tree roots, and I was just grateful that the trail was dry, as things would be treacherous here in the mud or if the rocks were wet. I found myself getting very winded and had to rest for a couple minutes after every hundred or so steps. I ate my apple for some energy and gently consoled myself that though I am overweight and not in the best of shape, I would be OK if I just took things slowly. I continued the climb and sought reassurance from people making their descent, but was met with a few mixed messages:
“It’s another half hour to the top.” “It’s another 20 minutes or so.” “You’ve got another hour to go.” As disconcerting as this was, all of them joined in a unanimous chorus of, “But the view up there is so worth it!” And so I continued.
According to the pedometer on my phone, I had already walked 1.5 miles and yet there was no sign that I was anywhere close to the summit. Finally, I reached a fork in the trail and the signs indicated that North Sugarloaf Peak was to the right, but to the left, Middle Sugarloaf was another 6/10 of a mile away. This was a blow, as I had read that it was 1.3 miles total, so I was frustrated by this “false advertising.” But OK, what’s another half a mile? I’d come this far, so I was certainly not about to give up now. The trail, mercifully, leveled off a bit and I wasn’t struggling to catch my breath for a few minutes, but then, cruelly, the trail started to climb again at what felt like a 45 degree angle and required a lot more clambering up rocky outcroppings that sapped my energy. And I’d already walked 7/10 of a mile from the last signpost and was not close to the top yet! It was then that I began to second guess myself and wonder why I’d decided to do this in the first place.
Random thoughts crossed my mind. Why is a diabetic 63 year old climbing a mountain named Sugarloaf to begin with? I wish I’d had a fourth cider donut this morning, because if I die up here, it wouldn’t have mattered. Why didn’t I bring another apple?
The song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music came to mind and the thought of Julie Andrews in the film’s opening scene twirling around and singing in her flowery mountain meadow made me want to slap her! And if Mother Superior sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to me right now, my answer would be a resounding, “No way, sister!”
Reba McEntire sings, “I’m gonna climb that mountain high. I’m gonna see what’s on the other side.” In my mind I sarcastically replied, “Yeah, well count me out!” Marvin Gaye triumphantly declared there “Ain’t no mountain high enough…” and my answer to him was, “Yeah, well, you haven’t been on THIS mountain, buddy!”
And then I saw what looked like a break in the forest canopy above me and knew that this must be the summit. But as I looked at the trail ahead of me, there was an enormous wooden staircase looming between me and that summit. I swear to you, I almost just turned around and went back down the mountain at that point. What sadist puts a huge staircase in front of someone who has just climbed two miles? Granted, it was not a long staircase, perhaps 15 steps, but each step was between 9 inches and a foot high, and it took every bit of energy left from my apple and my cider donut breakfast to allow me to slowly ascend those stairs and almost crawl to a clearing in the trees. But then, at last I had miraculously made it to the top.
As promised by the websites, guide books, and fellow hikers, the view was unbelievable. The top of the mountain, at 2,539 feet, is a smooth, wide open platform of granite, broken up by small stands of trees and shrubs and bizarrely-shaped boulders the size of a car that the glaciers left behind as they receded after the last ice age. If one didn’t know about the geological history of the area, they would be hard-pressed to explain how these enormous slabs of rock could just be lying around up here.
The sun was shining brightly, it was warm and there was virtually no wind. As my breathing and heart rate returned to normal, I sipped from my bottle of water and stood spellbound by the sight of the surrounding mountains, bathed in fall colors, silent and majestic for as far as the eye could see. I know the White Mountains well, but I have never seen them from this perspective. I felt so grateful that I still had it in me to make it up here; moreover, I was grateful that I hadn’t died trying! I only wished I could have shared the moment with loved ones, but I am probably the only person I know crazy enough to make the climb.
I really didn’t want to leave. It was so lovely up here, the ground was level, I was surrounded by beauty. And I knew that although the descent would be a lot easier on my lungs, the steep incline was going to be far from pleasant, especially as it would be getting close to sunset by the time I got back to my car and I didn’t like the thought of trying to navigate over rocks and tree roots in the dark. I fantasized and prayed that perhaps there’d be a helicopter airlift to take me effortlessly back down the mountain, but with no copter in sight on the horizon, I snapped a couple of last photos and headed back toward the cruel wooden staircase with a heavy sigh.
As I anticipated, going downhill was different, but no easier than going up had been. Getting down the natural rock steps and drop offs required hanging on to tree trunks for balance and putting a lot of pressure on my 63 year old knees and calves. Just stepping down from a 6 or 7 inch high ledge hurt my legs, and they soon felt like Jello that hadn’t fully set. It was just so tiring.
As an 11 season fan of TV’s The Walking Dead I often daydream when I’m on a hike through the woods, imagining how I would react if I was suddenly confronted by a herd of zombies, as so often happens to our heroes in some of the show’s iconic scenes. On a normal day, I think about how I could outrun them, navigate into terrain that would slow them down, or climb a tree to save myself. But today’s daydream didn’t end as well. As I whimpered in pain with each step, I decided that if the zombies were chasing me down this trail, I’d just stop and let them eat me. It would be, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. Once the walkers caught me and started chowing down, I’d probably just hope they’d start with my aching calves and knees. Take my legs, please! You know you’re tired when you decide that you’d rather be devoured by hungry zombies than to even think about trying to move any faster!
As darkness fell, I reached the level ground along the river, and dragged myself to the finish line of the parking lot, which was now completely empty. I almost wept when I looked down the road and saw the comfort of my car another quarter of a mile away. I swear to God if anyone had driven by, I’d have begged them to drive me the rest of the way to my car. But I made it. I cranked up my heated seats to soothe my back, grabbed my backpack and gobbled down a big dose of Ibuprofen, and headed off in search of a hearty dinner. It is amazing how a good turkey dinner and all the fixin’s can restore a tired soul, though the muscles in my thighs and calves complained loudly about my antics for the next two days.
At my B & B that evening I eagerly uploaded the photos I’d taken and was thrilled with how well I’d captured the experience. It really was a wonderful adventure and I was glad I did it – and that I’d survived. Chuckling to myself I thought, “It’s a good thing that the pictures came out so well, because there’s no way I’m ever doing THAT again!”
Ain’t no mountain high enough? Middle Sugarloaf might change your mind!