I was tired and a little crispy from a long day in the sun and water, standing in lines, and managing a social outing. It was 3am and I was just getting settled into bed when I realized I had the day off. Much too late to start calling up folks and seeing who wanted to do some crazy adventure thing in 5 or 6 hours so I made the only rational decision. I had a car, a dog, and myself. I logged onto http://www.hikenewengland.com and started checking out local hikes. I wanted something new. I plugged in criteria, between 3-8 miles, easy/moderate difficulty, in NH. By 3:30 I found one I thought looked good. It fell just short of 5 miles. I’d never heard of it, didn’t even know how long it would take to drive there, just that it was in the Whites. Set the alarm 5 hours out and called it a night.
Mornings are rarely a quick endeavor for me, even in the best circumstances. I’ve managed to take half an hour just to put on clothes, brush my teeth and walk out the door. With no one waiting on me this morning and no deadline other than the sun I slowly pulled together a couple travel bags. Yes, multiple. When I head out for a day hike or simple car camping I do indulge myself. I packed a bag with comfy clothes for after the hike, PJ bottoms, flip flops, a clean top, and sweatshirt. I also put together a day pack. My pack always has two emergency bags, one with a mini first aid kit and one for if I get stuck or lost in the woods (whistle, headlamp, water purifying caps, extra batteries, lighter). The weather report said 70’s with possible showers throughout the afternoon. Lightweight warm layer and a rain jacket, my camera with a couple dry bags just in case the rain came down and a small bag of snacks. Filled my camel pack and my dogs two platypus’s, tossed her treats into her pack and we were ready! Took me less than an hour to prep our gear.
We were on the road and headed north by 11:30am. My GPS said we’d be at trail head by 1:30pm and the hike was estimated at about 4 hours. I’d be home by 8pm! It’s never how you plan. The drive north felt like it took forever. I spent the first hour trying to tell Star about our big adventure, all she wanted to do was put her head out the window and listen to the wind. Next I blasted the radio and sang along with it at the top of my lungs. I got some odd looks, I think many of the people understood why Star had her head out the window. And then it happened! I whipped into a scenic overlook and realized the truth behind what I was doing. I was about to spend a beautiful day in the woods, hiking a trail I’d never seen, with no one but my dog, and I couldn’t have been happier! I launched myself out of my car, looking the part of total tourist, ran over to the guardrail, pulled out my iPhone (didn’t bother with my very nice camera) and snapped just one picture. This was the image that concreted what a great decision I’d made at 3am!
Not 5 minutes down the road I drove past a hitchhiker. I hauled over and did a frantic clean of the front seat so he’d have a place to sit. My day was going from “small adventure” to “holy shit it’s taking off”. I don’t often pick up hitchhikers. As I’m sure you can imagine: woman alone in car + unknown person = uncertainty
Sometimes you just have to trust your gut. This poor guy was trying to get back to his car, he’d just left his buddy at the hospital after a kayak trip gone wrong. The least I could do was get him up the road and drop him at the next intersection. We enjoyed a quick discussion about my upcoming hike. He spoke highly of the trail with beautiful views and winter ice climbing. My destination was only twenty minutes away!
The Arethusa Falls trail and parking area are so clearly marked that if you manage to miss the sign don’t even bother with the hike, blazes are small. The parking lot was packed. I’d been told to expect this and wasn’t bothered by it. This would be my first solo hike, EVER. I wanted this hike specifically for the fact it was well traveled and if anything went wrong there was a good possibility I would meet other hikers.
Geared up and ready to go, I spoke with another hiker who suggested enjoying the falls at the end of the hike as a way to cool off, if so desired. Off to the cliffs I was headed. I don’t like to admit to my lack of map skills but it is a fact that I don’t do well reading maps. And because the guy suggested it, I stood in front of the map at the trail head and tried to get an understanding of where I was, where I was going, and what to expect. Eventually I moved on. About all I knew was I wanted to walk up the trail in front of me. I figured the map images I’d uploaded on my phone would serve me well when I needed them.
I don’t have much nice to say… the first half mile of trail was boring. Just as I started my way towards the slope of the mountain I met my first hikers coming down the trail. They didn’t have much to say either, said there was some steep section, but the view was beautiful. Yes I’m about to rant.
I don’t know who decided to rate the trail as “Moderate!” When you’re scrambling up the side of a mountain, leaning far enough forward that you are wondering when you’ll kiss the hillside, then maybe, just maybe this should have been under “moderate/difficult”. The footing was scree, loose rock, sand, and leaves, crushed and mixed together to create a great base for sliding down a mountainside. I know I speak unkindly of this footing but this is my third hike since having my ACL replaced and for some reason the idea of tearing it out again just doesn’t appeal to me. And maybe I exaggerate a little so as to not seem weak. See, Star had no trouble on this section, and as you know she’s recently recovered from Lyme. She plowed through all 0.7 miles of scree scrambling, climbing over rocks and roots, and along a cliff edge. I wasted more air than I should have cursing myself over this foolish notion of going on a hike, not just a hike but a solo hike. As I pushed myself up the last section of rock, my fingers finding holds on a boulder I paused, I looked ahead, I took a deep breath, and I listened, there was no sound of my dog, her bell had fallen silent. I let my breath out in a shaky whistle. I power up over the last little ridge and scramble up some wet rock and Star bounces over to me, all wiggles. She doesn’t understand what I am so worried about she just settles down to watch me. We hiked the last 50 feet, Star bounding ahead, impatient to see through the trees where the sky was visible.
Every step up the mountain. Every curse out of my mouth. Every drop of sweat shed. Was worth standing on the top of those cliffs. The view was beautiful and serene. I plopped down and enjoyed some much deserved jerky, and a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. I was relaxing physically but mentally I was on high alert, Star couldn’t understand the idea of a break. I’ve always believed she was part mountain goat and as I watched her creep closer and closer to the cliff edge I prayed she was. I kept calling her back but all she wanted was to know what was just over the edge. During my 30 minute break there wasn’t a single point in time where she stopped moving.
I met some truly wonderful people on those cliffs. An older woman who has been section hiking the AT. We sat and talked about the fun and the challenges of the trail. We discussed having a dog as a companion and what it meant, that I would be sleeping in a tent. I talked photography with a couple who lives 20 minutes from me, on the seacoast. And last, the high spirits and antics of a group of friends, who had traveled from all over to meet up and enjoy the outdoors. Then it was time and we all parted ways. I’m a better person for the thirty minutes spent talking to these folks.
As I moved forward up the trail I again questioned this idea of a solo hike. But this time it was with excitement and a sense of understanding. I was out here to be with myself. To take time to let my mind quiet down, to put fears, concerns, and doubts on the back burner and to trust in my ability. I had just hiked one of the steepest sections of trail I’d seen in a long time, I’d done it with my own two legs and at my own pace. I had met people, learned from them and provided knowledge in return. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I was moving through the woods, just me and Star, and I was completely at peace.
We continued our climb up. My legs were screaming for the ascent to end, my calves were burning, my knee was giving little creaks and groans, and we still hadn’t found the summit. We came to an intersection where I stood staring at the signs trying to make sense of what I knew in my head and what the signs said. I finally pulled out my phone and looked at the map. Remember earlier when I mentioned maps don’t always help me, this was a prime example. The trail “merged” with another. Everything in my mind said stay left but the arrow to the right spoke of the falls and the road I’d come in on. Next I pulled up written word, the directions for each trail intersection etc. Thankfully it clearly stated the two trails met and to stay left. I must argue my point just a little here. When looking at the map the trail to the left and right were clearly labeled “Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail”, the sign pointed to the right to follow “Arethusa-Ripley FT” and to the left to follow “Arethusa Falls Trail”. I knew I wanted “Arethusa Falls Trail” it just wasn’t where it said it was and it didn’t make sense… not when I was standing there all alone getting slightly panicky as I had to make a decision on my own. I made the right decision and onward and upward we went. I don’t even know when we summited, there was no bald peak, or stellar views, I just know we did. Then suddenly the trail sloped downward just enough ease the burning in my legs.
I had made a decision. It wasn’t about if I wanted raisins or craisins in my GORP. It wasn’t about whether or not I should pack my rain pants. It was all about where I was going. I had used the resources I had, trusted my instincts, and moved ahead. This was what the day was about. It was this combination of things which really got me thinking. In about 9 months, I would be on a trail making these decisions constantly. In the beginning I’d been excited about planning for the AT and then the excitement petered out, my research declined, my experimental dehydrating of foods decreased, even discussing it was overrated. But here walking through the woods it all started coming back. The desire to be on my own, to not be limited by others or distracted by technology, where time means nothing (although this isn’t always true). Where every chipmunk rustling through the leaves held the possibility of being a bear. Yes my wild and crazy imagination was running on full tilt. This was where I was and this is where I wanted to be.
As the trail became smoother and I had to focus less on my footing the hike became more and more enjoyable. I spent time working on new, hiking specific, commands with Star. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the woods, minus all the chipmunks taunting Star. I saw very few hikers along this trail, apparently the well traveled part of the trail is the Arethusa Falls section, not the cliffs. Star and I enjoyed the hike down to the falls. We had the view all to ourselves, 140′ of falling water! I sat back and immediately became a buffet for all the starving black flies. With little blood to give I wrapped up my sight seeing of the falls and headed back to the main trail.
Star and I had a mission for the final leg of the hike. It was to find the next steepest part of the mountain. We were successful. The map I was following showed this great little loop option which would have us hiking an additional 0.2 miles and place us next to Bemis Brook. I couldn’t see any reason not to do it, in fact a family I met on their hike up also suggested it with much enthusiasm but did warn it was a “little steep.”
It was like walking down, really steep, natural stairs and if your foot caught than you would be plastered to the bottom of the brook when you landed. My fear of heights actually made the hike down more difficult than it needed to be. But we made it and the family was right. Bemis Brook was beautiful. Waterfalls littered the length of it. Star and I hiked along stopping briefly at each one, feeding the fly hordes.
The final 50 feet of trail was covered in the company of a couple from Finland. Star was at the top of her game, having been allowed to roam with little direction from me, and was on a serious chipmunk hunt. The gentleman joked about how happy Star would be if she had “a belly full of little chipmunks.” A very astute and accurate observation. While Star continued her frenzied hunting I spoke with the couple and we shared stories of hikes and life. It was the perfect way to end my hike. To meet people from so far away and yet create a bond over the shared experience of this trail.
Thank you to all the wonderful people I met this day!!!