Read Time: 5 minutes
It was early in the day when I got to the summit of Washington. I had heard stories of the hoards of tourists one encounters up there so I was preparing myself for an alpine-zone Disney. Instead, I found a ghost town. The clouds had returned during my walk up, shielding my view of the world around me—as if someone had covered my eyes to not ruin the surprise—so my first few minutes up there were simply an appreciation of the summit itself. It was cold, and the only train from the cog railway that had made it up yet was the steam engine. All the tourists were hiding inside the visitor center and I was alone with the train conductors and the wind. I went out to the overlook platform and the clouds broke again; the mountain was ready for me to see the surprise, and this time the clouds were gone for good and I had sunshine all day.
Once the sun was out, the tourists slowly crept outside, unsure if it was safe, and I asked one of them to take a quick picture of me before I headed inside to mail a postcard to my mom. I’m incredibly lucky that this was my experience; I heard from a lot of hikers who arrive later than me that they disliked their summit experience because of the crowds, but to me it was magical. On the walk over to Madison, I did quite a bit of extracurricular exploring. I peered over the edges of cliffs into the ravines and gulfs famous among backcountry skiers that I had grown up hearing about on chairlifts and inside lodges, and went up every peak off the trail that most AT hikers just fly past. The Presidentials were my playground that day; I was like a kid in a candy shop, seeing the world through those rosy colored glasses you get when you fall in love. My life on this whole hike really was a fairytale.
I spent the night at a stealth spot down below Madison and the Hut workers fed me because I just looked so gosh-darn happy to be alive. This prompted Slipknot and 8:30 to start calling me “Free Lunch” (there were several other episodes of me spontaneously receiving free food that I didn’t mention as a part of this trip story).
The next morning the first thing I did was go up Madison, where I decided to turn on my phone just in case I might have service. I had a feeling my mom missed me, and what do you know—I had several missed calls and a few texts saying I had to get off trail early—Yikes. My stomach dropped, there was no explanation and no one in my family answered their phones as it was 6 am. I automatically assumed the worst and my conclusion was that someone I loved very dearly had died. I knew that my life couldn’t be perfect, I didn’t deserve everything I had, no one lives in a fairytale forever. I raced down to Pinkham Notch and lost a few years off my knees in the process, and when I reached the visitor center, I borrowed the phone and called my mom. No answer. I called my Dad, no answer. Typical O’Briens. I called my sister who groggily informed me that to the best of her knowledge, not she or anyone else in our family or circle of friends had died. This was a relief, but I decided to go into town instead of tackling the Wildcats that day; it’s a good thing I did since there were 75 mph winds up there that day anyway. When my mom finally answered her phone that day, she gave me the lamest excuse ever for scaring the absolute shit out of me. She wanted to go to some pickleball tournament and had to pick me up two days early.
Damn, my hike was over. The next section between the two roads was too far to do in a day, and it was too late for me to reach the next shelter before the storm. This was a very depressing end to a hike, and now I had a whole day and a half to kill before being picked up. What’s a hiker to do? Well, many hikers were in Gorham that night due to the weather, and there was a carnival in town for the Fourth of July. As liquor is extremely cheap in New Hampshire, we all decided to get hammered on Gin and Tonics and considered going for a hungover day hike the next day.
As I was walking down the main drag in Gorham that night, a sketchy white van being driven by a long-haired, bearded hippy dirtbag pulled up next to me. The driver yelled “YO.” I looked up to see the face of my dear friend Otto (another Karuna writer, SUOCer, badass, and then-ex-now-current-boyfriend of mine). We hugged and asked each other what the hell the other was doing in Gorham New Hampshire of all places and were overcome with serendipity and joy from seeing a familiar face. I told him I would hang out with him the next day, but I completely blew him off and went on an all-you-can-eat brunch date with a professional ultimate frisbee player named Funktrain instead, followed by a half-hearted, bloated hike up one of the Wildcats. It didn’t feel the same anymore knowing my hike was over, so I just enjoyed good company in a small town.
I can’t decide if the Whites were what I expected. In some ways, my reaction is exactly what I pictured, but the mountains and the terrain itself were not what I imagined. The trails, the scenery, the feeling of the air, were all not quite what I thought. I loved it and it was indeed challenging, but not anymore challenging than the LT. It was hard in different ways, but not necessarily harder. You have to watch your step, especially in the Prezies, because the whole trail is just small cobble-sized ankle breakers, but the ruggedness is pretty similar and the trail is maintained much better by the good people of the AMC.
It’s now April, almost a year later and I’m now preparing for a SOBO through hike of the whole AT. When I was back in North Conway in January for SUOC’s winter break trip, I summited Washington again and this time I learned what real wind is. I have two months until my start date of June 15th; the section of the trail I’m most excited about is the Whites; it’ll be rad to experience new places as well, but I’m definitely gonna take my time in the peaks of New Hampshire. Maybe this time I’ll go check out the Bonds or some of the other peaks not on the trail, or just end up as a Rondeau-esk hermit somewhere deep in the woods. No matter what though, it’s gonna be wild.