It all started with an iPhone.
I’d been a staunch supporter of Androids for the better part of a decade; boasting about their far-reaching capabilities while simultaneously shitting all over iPhones and, more specifically, Apple fanboys. Nothing rattled my monkey cage more than the stereotypical Apple stan, sipping an overly-complicated coffee concoction as he made sure every living soul in the coffee shop was aware he was clacking away on the latest MacBook Pro. I giggled without end when a botched update would render a friend’s iPhone useless. “YOURS DOESN’T WORK OH WOW THAT’S SO WEIRD MY SAMSUNG WORKS JUST FINE.” I’d never owned an iPhone in my life. I’d never even bothered to experiment with a friend’s iPhone in my life. I was so obnoxiously sure of myself that I never bothered to give myself a real-life understanding of how the other half lived.
I was perfectly content in my self-assured, pretentious little tech bubble all the way up until my Droid stopped working as well as I thought it should given its astronomical price tag, and our carrier started reducing their quality of service. When the screen on my fully-insured Note 8 cracked, and I was told I’d still have to drop $400+ for a refurbished replacement (not even a new one!), my wife Jess and I decided it was time to switch carriers. When it came time to pick out our phones, instead of immediately picking out the latest and greatest Androids, I did some research, and realized the new iPhones had some amazing specs, and a seemingly endless list of positive reviews to match. After being offered a BOGO deal on the iPhone 10, Jess and I had a long talk about the pros and cons, and ultimately decided to dive headfirst into the Apple pool.
We were immediately floored by the quality, speed, UI and design of our new phones. Leaning how to navigate iOS (our biggest fear) turned out to be a breeze, and within minutes we were using our phones with the ease of old pros. I was absolutely in love with my iPhone 10 XS Max, and I was feeling really, truly, tremendously stupid about the years I spent demonizing those little miracle machines.
That got me thinking. For whatever reason (but probably due to some brand of personal insecurity), I’d spent the lion’s share of my life making fun of things I’ve never experienced before. What else was I completely wrong about? What else have I been ridiculing my entire life without having ever tried? What else was I missing out on? I started making a list, and within minutes I was flipping to a fresh notebook page for more room.
…High end coffee. Yoga. Hobby conventions. Tabletop role playing games. Hiking. Meditation. Writing seminars. Crossfit. Gardening. Learning a new language. Cycling. Woodworking. Skinny jeans. Doomsday prepping. Skydiving. Therapy. Snowshoeing. Hunting. Fishing. Geocaching. HAM radios. Scuba diving. Metal detecting. Antiquing. WWE fandom. Stand Up Paddleboarding. Model building. Racquetball. Disc golf. Sailing. Falconry. Improv. Food canning. Surfing. Fencing…
I wasn’t naïve enough to think everything I was writing down would turn out to be something I enjoyed (read: if I end up liking sailing I’ll assume aliens are editing my brain in my sleep), but I’d never truly know until I tried them out, and processed my experiences like I do everything else – by writing. Thus, I began the herculean effort to better my willfully ignorant ass, and the “Was I Wrong About It All These Years?” blog series was born.
DIVINE ASSHOLERY; THE GENESIS OF MY HATRED OF HIKING
Hiking, or “expensive walking” as I’ve always called it, has been an area of contention for me since my early teens. Once upon a time, my best friends were members of a church youth group, and I would tag along with them on certain events despite not identifying as Christian because, at that age, hanging out with your teeny-bopper clique is infinitely more important than your negative thoughts about organized religion. You’d sit through a bullshit sermon from some Uncle Joey sweater-wearing “I’m not stuffy like those other pastors” pastor if it meant chilling with the homies for a few extra hours every week.
One of these youth group excursions was a mountain biking trip, where Rev. CoolDude McGoo accidentally took us up an advanced hiking trail, forcing us to carry our heavy bikes up sheer rock faces in a freezing downpour. We were lost and shivering on the mountain for hours without any rain gear or supplies before my friends and finally split from the pack, despite the pastor’s bellowing protests. We found our way down the mountain using an old logging trail as the evening sky darkened to night, knocked on a stranger’s door at the bottom, called the pastor’s cellphone to tell him how to get the rest of the group back to safety, and drank hot tea in a dry garage while we waited for the church van to arrive.
Instead of being hailed as heroes for using our wits to save the group from certain disaster, we were admonished for disobeying the pastor, who called our parents to make sure we were properly punished. It did not go as he planned. My mother lectured the pastor for needlessly putting a group of children in danger. My best friend’s father, a polite, professional British man, called him an asshole and hung up.
Shortly after the trip, a letter was mailed to my house saying I was no longer welcome at youth group because my faith in god wasn’t strong enough, and because I was a bad influence on the other kids. Not only was my simple childhood view of church as an inclusive, joyful, meaningful experience for people of all walks of life torn from me, but my love of mountain biking and hiking and experiencing nature on the trail in general was as well. The weekend nights spent in backyard tents trickled to a halt. My subscription to Mountain Bike Action was never renewed. I traded my two-wheeled chromoly steed in for a skateboard, swapped my Nike ACG Moabbs out for a pair of olive green Simples, and that was that. Goodbye, Missy Giove. Hello, Gino Ianucci.
My low-grade personal beef with hiking morphed into more of a public gripe compulsion once humanity entered the age of the social media influencer. Endless pics featuring models in top-end activewear looking out over grand vistas with braindead platitudes captions like “Being yourself is the most beautiful thing you can be” were like a rusty cheese grater on my soul. I was convinced nobody actually liked hiking; that people only did it because those kinds of posts generate loads of likes and shares, and that was because Americans live such sedentary lifestyles that they look up to those beautiful people doing active things in a natural environment entirely unfamiliar to them.
An entire industry has popped up around the fact that you can shame regular people into believing their life sucks with a handful of artfully crafted social media posts, and that buying shit through an affiliate link will make their life better. It’s fucking stupid and I hate it, but influencers wouldn’t be generating billions of dollars if the depressing psychology behind it all wasn’t bedrock solid.
Still, I didn’t have to like it, and I ragged on friends and family and total strangers for sinking mortgage payment sized amounts of cash into hiking and camping gear, and spending their weekends snapping pictures of themselves posing like their favorite nature-faking Instagram hustlers.
When hiking materialized on my list of things I make fun of without giving a fair chance, and I found myself at the end of snowboarding season with no real workout regimen planned outside of the Peloton bike in my basement, I decided I’d eat my words and go for my first hike in a quarter-century. I’d pick a smaller, rinky-dink mountain I could be in and out of in an hour. Best case scenario: I’d end up loving it, and it would give me a reason to spend more time in a part of New Hampshire I’m absolutely in love with. Worst case scenario: It would make for a funny write-up. Win win.
PREPARING FOR THE BIG DAY
Being largely out of the loop when it comes to gear, I still knew I’d need a solid pair of boots, and after spending way too much time researching them, I settled on a pair of Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Mid Gtx hiking boots. They’re waterproof, they protect your ankles, and I already knew they’d be comfortable right out of the box, as I’ve owned many pairs of Merrell sneakers over the years. This wasn’t a terribly difficult purchase to justify, as I live in New England, where it is constantly pissing and shitting rain, snow, hail, locusts, roofing nails, meteorites, etc. Even if hiking didn’t work out, I’d always find a use for them.
Then I contacted my good buddy Micah, the preeminent hiking guru of my social circle. On top of being an arborist and the owner/operator of Heartwood Tree Company, the dude bags peaks like Omar bags stash houses; with frightening regularity and precision. Not only would he know what gear I’d need to be safe and comfortable on the mountain, but he’d probably join me on the hike as well.
“Tucks”, or Tuckerman Ravine, is widely known as the birthplace of extreme skiing in North America, and has claimed many lives over the years. It’s located near the peak of Mount Washington, which is the highest peak in the northeast, and has claimed an absolute metric shit ton of lives over the years (over 150 souls lost since 1849). It holds the world record for highest recorded wind speed not affiliated with a tornado or tropical cyclone, and the weather up there changes drastically and often. Many people die from exposure on Mount Washington, even in the dog days of summer. It offers some of the most difficult hiking and mountain climbing experiences in the entire country, so much so that people who regularly hike 14,000’ mountains out west have left complaints online about the difficulty of our stout ‘lil 6,288 foot leviathan of unending despair.
And apparently city slicker Mike with his 30 lbs. of extra chub and his struggling 3-month cigarette free lungs were about to climb it.
I was clearly going to need more than just hiking boots in order to get through this alive. Thankfully, Micah shot me a link to a list of things I should bring for the journey, and also made recommendations for light, calorie dense foods, and other items that would help make the day hike as stress-free as possible.
I picked up this L.L. Bean day pack, these trekking poles, these hiking pants (the waists run super small, so size up at least once), these hiking socks, this waterproof parka, and a brand new polyester/wool Columbia hiking sweater at Savers for a cool $9. Everything else I brought, like this pair of micro-spikes, these water bottles, this headlamp, this first aid kit, this multitool I gave out as groomsmen gifts at my wedding 9,000 years ago, this LifeStraw, and this mega dope Stanley flask (as if I wasn’t going to rip a snort or six of bourbon at the top) I already owned. When it was all said and done, I was about $250 in, all for an activity I wasn’t even sure I liked doing. I hadn’t even set foot on a trail and alarm bells were already ringing in the treasury.
I could hear my almost supernaturally observant wife’s voice in echoing around in the back of my head. This is what you do. You get obsessive over things, invest a ton of time and money into them, and then abandon them a handful of months later for something else. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but this is your pattern. Christ, is that what all of this is? Is my defining characteristic that I senselessly entertain every fleeting whim my dreaming caveman brain cooks up? After some introspection, I decided a man can only be so emotionally honest before he starts talking himself out of everything he really wants to do, and that any kind of perseverance requires a certain level of self-deception. Willfully ignorant, I pressed forward.
As the days passed and we got closer to the day of the hike, I compulsively researched hiking gear, second guessed the purchases I made, organized and reorganized my day pack, and sent Micah a torrent of obnoxious texts requesting his advice. To his credit, he never one told me to shut the fuck up and chill out. Sure, I was excited to get on the mountain, but there was a nervous, almost frantic energy to how I was preparing, and I attribute that to the fact that I was attempting my first exploratory hike on such a burly mountain. I was also afraid I was inviting a very experienced hiker along, only to make him wait for me as I slowly wheezed my fat ass up the trail. I finally wore myself down, decided I was as prepared as I could possibly be, and left the rest up to the gods.
THE DAY OF THE HIKE
My alarm was set for 5:30 am the morning of the hike, but I got out of bed at 4:47 am because my two unruly cats decided they wanted to use my face as a UFC octagon. I changed into the clothes I’d set aside the night before, made myself a strong cup of coffee, packed up the car, kissed my sleeping wife on the forehead, and waited for Micah to arrive.
We hit the road heading north around 6:30ish, and after a couple pit stops for food, last minute trail provisions and a couple of post-coffee pee breaks, made it to the AMC Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch by roughly 8:00 am. The weather, while sunny and warm at home, was twenty-degrees colder and overcast with an occasional spitting rain shower at the base of Mount Washington. A thick fog rolled over the mountain, spurred on by high winds that seemed to develop out of nowhere. Despite the conditions, the parking lot was jammed full of people strapping skis and snowboards to their packs, and getting situated for the trek up. The chill in the air was enough for me to throw a puffy red vest on over my new hiking sweater, slip on some light gloves, and swap my baseball cap out for a warmer winter hat. I adjusted my trekking poles, cinched tight the straps on my day pack, and we headed up to the trailhead.
I don’t think we even made it a thousand feet up the muddy, craggy trail before my heart was pounding, my breathing became labored, and I stopped to take my puffy vest off and switch back to a cooler baseball cap. I’d already broken into a sweat and I could still see the parking lot through the trees. A quick flash of self-preservation lazily arced across the landscape of my frenzied mind like a comet. Quit now, before you get yourself hurt and stranded on this dumb fucking rock. Apologize to Micah for wasting his time, and take him out day drinking in North Conway to repay him for the trouble. He’ll understand. Before I could argue with my fight-or-flight lizard brain, I realized my body had already started back up the trail without me having any input regarding the matter. OK. I guess we’re really doing this.
Micah, being Micah, decided we’d forego the easier, more heavily traveled trail to Tuckerman for the Lion Head winter route in order to see some off the beaten path views and to avoid the crowds. Mike, being Mike, had no idea what this meant, and blindly trusted his Sherpa to get him to the summit in one piece.
It didn’t take long before I started to see why people loved this hiking shit.
Lush vegetation. Wildlife everywhere. Waterfalls like you see on the covers of crappy grocery store fantasy paperbacks. Oh look, a cool little wooden bridge in the middle of fucking nowhere. This is awesome. Wait, is that snow ahead?
Yes, that was most certainly snow ahead. Crusty, dirty, half-melted snow. We stopped and stretched our silicon micro-spikes over our hiking boots and proceeded up the trail. “You lose a lot of energy without these things on because you slip at the end of every step.” Boy was Micah right. I originally bought micro-spikes to help me snowblow my steep driveway in the winter (some of you are already aware of my track record with icy driveways), but had never taken them out of the box until this trip. I was grateful for all of the gear I took on the hike, but my cheapo micro-spikes ended up being the real MVPs of the day. They worked great in muddy portions of the trail and over slippery boulders, too. I’ll definitely be stashing a pair in my car for dire winter emergencies, like navigating the occasionally icy parking lot of my favorite bar in the entire world.
Most of the hike to Tuckerman Ravine looked exactly like this. Overcast, foggy, chilly. We traveled slowly over slushy snowpack that was riddled with icy runoff streams underneath, so we had to use our trekking poles like probes, and skirt around problem areas so we didn’t punch through and dunk our legs. Of course, that didn’t stop Ol’ Tenderfoot Boulerice here from punching through and dunking his legs multiple times over the course of the trip.
Now here is where things got a little more interesting, and by “a little more interesting” I mean “legitimately terrifying”. As we made a turn to continue on the Lion Head winter trail, Micah said “OK, you’re going to want to stay on the monorail here. Otherwise you’ll sink right through the snow up to your dick.” I had no idea what he meant by this, but I learned very quickly. A monorail is a trail condition in which the compacted, icy snow from people walking on the trail all winter melts far slower than the loose snow around it, creating a long ribbon of raised tightrope that ends up being the only safe part of the trail you can walk on. Wandering a little to the left or right of the monorail immediately resulted in me post-holing right through the snow all the way to my crotch. You could see how this could get dangerous very quickly, as a rock or downed tree in the right place under that snow could easily snap a leg, leaving you stranded and waiting many hours for help…if it came at all.
Some portions of the Lion Head trail monorail were totally mellow and easy to traverse. Others portions were entirely crumbled by the feet that came before us, forcing me to stumble sideways and take my chances in the deep, loose snow which bookended our course. Even more portions hugged the trail as the angle of it violently increased upward toward the peak, demanding I scramble up the narrow strip of ice using my hands and feet for purchase. My gloves became soaked almost instantly (note to self: pick up waterproof glove liners).
We eventually came to a semi-sheer, moss peppered rock face, glistening with fresh runoff near the top of a particularly steep part of the trail. Micah effortlessly scrambled up it like some kind of pony-tailed orangutan, and gave me instructions regarding how to do the same.
“Plenty of good hand and footholds here. Just use those and you’ll be fine.”
“No way, dude”, I said as I felt the weight of my overstuffed pack on my shoulders, and eyed what would have undoubtedly been a bone-shattering tumble down to the switchback below. “This is some straight-up Cliffhanger shit.”
Without a stitch of shame, I bitched out. I didn’t feel bad about it then, and I still don’t now. I’m aware of my limits in life, especially the physical ones. They are many in number, and this was definitely one of them.
“Is it smooth going after this slippery death rock, or is it just more slippery death rocks? Isn’t there an easier way up?!”
Unable to determine if there was indeed a smoother trail ahead after the rocks, we both decided to backtrack to the Lion Head trail sign several hundred yards down, and then take the easier, more Mike friendly route up to Tuckerman Ravine. Micah explained to me that the trail was so difficult because the snowpack, with all of its convenient traction, had all but melted away there, leaving nothing but bald rock and slick, exposed tree roots in its wake.
On the way down, we encountered a large group of Canadian hikers heading up on the same trail. We stepped to the side to allow them passage (UNSPOKEN TRAIL RULE: People coming up have the right of way), and noticed that, aside from one woman near the very back in micro-spikes and a sensible rain shell, every single member of their group was woefully unprepared for the mountain. Bald-treaded sneakers. Shorty socks. Sweatpants. Cotton t-shirts. Jeans. These guys were the poster-children of what not to bring or do on a hike. After having sweated and stressed about the things I needed for the day trek, it was unbelievable to see so many people winging it up the trail in nothing but casual street wear.
“Allo, allo”, a blonde woman in her mid-30s at the head of the pack hailed Micah and I in a thick Quebecois accent. We answered in kind.
“Is safe to head up, yes?”
We explained to her how the two of us with our trekking poles and micro-spikes and trail-ready footwear and wool clothing and medical supplies decided it was smarter for us to take a different route, so it would probably be smart for them to do the same.
“OK, thank you!” She smiled as she hauled right by us. We watched as the ill-prepared caravan of Canucks marched up the trail, offering the occasional nod of recognition or weird French snort of disapproval as they passed.
“Is that common?” I asked Micah as he picked up some litter left by the group several hundred feet down the trail and stuffed it into his pack.
“Oh yeah. You wouldn’t believe how common that is. They’re everywhere, especially in the warmer months, and they’re almost never properly prepared. You know how you always hear stories about people getting hurt and killed up here? It’s nearly always people like that who think the conditions at the base are the same all the way up to the top.”
After ten minutes or so, we reached the Lion Head trail sign and made our way up the heavily-switchbacked route to the top. A sustained and high-pitched scream echoed through the dense forest that surrounded us.
“You hear that?” Micah asked.
I nodded yes.
“One of those Canadians just broke a leg up there. I’d bet money on it.”
Mortified, I asked if we should head back up to see if they needed help, but we decided there would be little we could do that their group of 20+ hikers couldn’t do themselves.
We marched onward, taking periodic water breaks, a quick stop to nosh on some beef jerky from our packs (side note: I always buy a bag of beef jerky for road trips, and this somehow tastes way better on a trail than it does in a car), and encountering small groups of red-faced hikers lugging their heavy skis and snowboards toward their ultimate destination of risky springtime glory and the very last tracks of the season. It was here that Micah introduced the concept of “active recovery” to me. Instead of coming to a full stop, you just walk really slowly, regaining your wind while still gaining ground. This ended up saving my delirious ass during the last leg of our journey, as I was huffing and puffing and sweating through all of my layers by that point. Even Micah was breathing a little heavier toward the end, which helped me feel like less of a fat failure.
And then, suddenly and without fanfare, we’d arrived at the base of Tuckerman Ravine. I did it. Holy shit, I actually did it.
Folks of all ages stood around Hermit Lake Shelter #6, where caretakers of Tuckerman Ravine live, educate hikers and campers, and occasionally act as first responders for injured skiers and snowboarders. Seeing as it was a rather overcast, cruddy day with poor snow conditions, I wasn’t expecting to see a party at the top of the trail, but I’d clearly underestimated the perseverance of the average New Englander looking to take in the last bumpy spring runs before their ski boots come off for the year.
When I say “party”, I literally mean party. Look at these animals.
Micah and I swapped out some of our sweaty layers, ate some more food, and I broke out my trusty bourbon flask while I took 900 terrible selfies to commemorate my having completed a hike that, judging by the size and diversity of the crowd at the base of the headwall, just about any average human being can do. Still, I wasn’t about to let that rob me of my baseless self-congratulating.
For a moment, Micah and I debated hiking the measly mile up to the peak of Mount Washington (he’d gotten his wife and her friend to do the same thing a while back), but ultimately decided against it because we hadn’t brought enough auxiliary gear with us to account for every conceivable variable along the way. Instead, we packed up our crap and meandered our way down the main Tuckerman trail, which turns out to be WAY EASIER GOING THAN THE BACKWARDS ASSED ROUTE WE TOOK UP. That fucker Micah clearly wanted me to earn my bourbon.
We eventually made it to the bottom of the trail, got back in my car, and I took us to Fiesta Jalisco for a late lunch and oversized margaritas before heading home.
WAS I WRONG ABOUT IT ALL THESE YEARS? YES.
If you have any semblance of ego, it’s never perfectly easy to admit you’re wrong about something, especially if you’ve spent decades being woefully, aggressively wrong about it. I clearly had a bad experience with it that ended up hard-coding a distaste for hiking into my personality, but after trying it again as an adult, the responsibility for owning up to my own bullshit ultimately falls on me. I was way wrong about hiking. It’s super fun, it allows me to stay connected to the Mount Washington Valley outside of snowboarding season, and I’m already organizing my next hike with Micah. Jess even says she wants to give it a shot now, so the potential for having a little built-in hiking crew to organize trips with is already there. I’m always bitching about losing weight, and I don’t think it will be remotely possible for me to carry a spare tire if I make hiking a regular activity. Hell, I’ve even subscribed to Backpacker Magazine. I’m all in. Hiking is great.
One extra bonus thing I wasn’t expecting to enjoy about hiking was the conversation. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy conversation, but I honestly didn’t think I’d be capable of it as I slogged my way up and down a mountain. It annoys me to no end when people try to talk to me when I’m running, as I typically need every shred of my focus concentrated on not collapsing from a stroke in the middle of the street. I figured hiking would be the same way. We remained fairly quiet on the way up, but ended up having a genuinely great talk on the meandering trek down to the base lodge. For decades I’ve considered Micah to be a really good friend of mine, but as many of you can surely attest to, adulthood tends to create gulfs of space and time in which communication with the people you care about just doesn’t happen as much as it should. On top of the hike being a goofy premise for me to write about (and clearly great for exercise as evidenced by the gallons of sweat I left on the trail), it gave us a chance to catch up with each other without the modern distractions of phones and laptops and televisions, and I’m looking forward to more of that on the hikes to come.
As an official act of contrition, I will strike an acrobatic yoga pose on my next mountain peak with some cloying basic bitch HomeGoods wall art slogan like “Live, laugh, love.”
EDIT: Mt. Major, 6/1/19. A promise is a promise.