Day 134: Franconia Ridge – As Good as it Gets

Plan B

Walking past the Lonesome Lake Hut yesterday, nearly done in by the Kinsman descent, I noticed that all their guests seemed well rested and happy. Since I really like being well rested and happy, I decided I should do what they’re doing. So, I booked a stay at the Galehead Hut, which is conveniently located near the halfway point between the Indian Springs Trailhead and Crawford Notch, the next road crossing where I could meet Northstar.

And then, feeling good about what I’d done, I booked stays at Lake of the Clouds and Carter Gap Huts, at the halfway points of the next two roadless sections of the Whites, thus guaranteeing my well-rested happiness for the rest of the week.

It Always Starts with a Climb

Northstar dropped me off at the end of the I-93 on ramp, saving me half of the blue blaze distance back to the AT. Gus smudged up the passenger side window as I hiked off, broken hearted that AMC doesn’t allow nearly human Doodles in their huts.

As always, I started today’s hike with a big climb – nearly 4,300 feet from the valley to the Mount Lafayette summit. Along the way, I also summit Mt. Liberty, Little Haystack, and Mt. Lincoln. By the end of the day, if I survived, I’d have climbed 6,200 feet and descended 4,000 feet.

Today’s climb wasn’t that bad. It was steep and rocky, of course, but the ascent was steady enough that I could maintain a regular pace. Plus, it wasn’t as muddy, wasn’t flowing like a small stream, and the weather was much better. I can do steep. I like climbing. Especially in delightful weather.

Sometimes There’s a Payoff

But the best thing about today’s climb out of the Franconia Notch was the views. The trail popped out of the trees regularly, with jaw-dropping overlooks from rocky outcrops perched high above the valley. This is what mountain hiking is supposed to be like.

I can barely convey how restorative it was to hike a steep mountain trail that had views. I’d stop, take pictures, and then just stand and stare, completely unconcerned about making miles or anything else. The picturesque views wiped away months of the long green tunnel, weeks of bad weather, and hundreds of frustrating PUDs. The climbs were still hard, but they were worth the effort.

I felt so energized there was no question that I’d hike the extra half mile and 400 feet blue blaze trail up to the summit of Mt. Liberty. It was totally worth the effort. I had the little peak to myself. Just me, the bright sun, and the wind in my face.

And Then it Got Even Better

After Mt. Liberty, I hiked back into a lovely spruce forest for another mile before emerging above tree line on Franconia Ridge, which extends from Little Haystack Mountain to the northern shoulder of Mt. Lafayette. About half of the Ridge is above 5,000 feet in elevation, high enough to catch or form clouds on its highest slopes. But rather than block the view, these clouds merely added to the dramatic vistas.

I walked in awe, stopping and sitting to watch the clouds race across the sky and snag on the peaks, the cloud shadows track across adjacent mountain slopes, and endless blue sky. The wind let me know I was on a mountain, blowing constantly, chilling me and drying off the sweat from the climb, and then re-wetting me with its damp mists and fog.

I Recognize You

The ridges and summits were a little busy with day hikers, but it didn’t matter. Who could blame them for being here in such perfection? Why would anyone hike anywhere else in New England? At Mt. Lafayette’s peak, so many people had gathered that I was there twice.

I swept past a small crowd and did a double take. White hair, crew cut, short goatee, my height and weight, and same “don’t talk to me” vibe. He caught me staring and looked annoyed (me again), so I told him I loved the haircut. He looked a little confused until he focused on me, then laughed. When I pulled out my identical black reading glasses, he agreed to a selfie. They say if you hike far enough, you’ll eventually find yourself. It’s true.

As I walked away, I passed a young woman who stopped and asked, “Is your name Jon?” I had to think for a moment as I’m getting used to being “The Incident.” Then she said, “I follow your blog on The Trek. I’m from Brooklyn.” My first thought was “Cool!” My second was, “Brooklyn? I wasn’t too kind on New York’s AT, was I? Did she hunt me down?”

But Tek was just peak-bagging with a friend and happened to recognize me, and was willing to forgive me my unkind musing about hot, humid, buggy New York. Fortunately, she met me before encountering my doppelganger who was still resting a hundred feet away. Who knows how other-me would have reacted.

And You. And You Too

A few minutes later I saw Black Dog sitting on a rock, taking in the view, and finishing the last embers of a roll-your-own. I last saw him shooting a YouTube video along Blue Ridge Parkway. He said he’s started taking his time, confident that he’ll get to Katahdin before it closes for the winter, and unconcerned that his tramily has moved on ahead.

On the next descent, I walked up behind Fizz at the back of a long line of day hikers struggling with the steep trail, which had now become slippery and treacherous. I hadn’t seen him since the descent into the Delaware Water Gap my last day in Pennsylvania. He asked if I’d seen Fearless and Fire Hydrant.

I had passed them on the first climb up from the Indian Springs Trailhead. They’d taken a zero in North Woodstock, where Fearless had seen Northstar. Fire Hydrant had been so knocked out by the Kinsman traverse that she’d slept nearly the entire day and was struggling with the climb today.

Galehead Hut

I’d seen Galehead Hut in the distance before climbing off Franconia Ridge, but it wasn’t nearly as close as it seemed from there, and I didn’t arrive until 5:30. The last two miles took their toll, as the trail returned to Kinsman conditions – excessively steep, slippery, and muddy. Given the terrain, I was glad I didn’t have to find a flat, dry spot for a tent.

The huts are staffed by college-aged workers called “the Croo” who cook, clean, and pack in all the food and supplies on their backs in exchange for some cash and the privilege of living in the White Mountains all summer. One of them took a break from setting tables to check me in and point me at my assigned bunkroom.

The hut was completely booked, and I got the last spot, a third level wooden bunk with a thin plastic-coated mattress, two wool army blankets, and a pillow. It was glorious, aside from the thought of climbing down the eight foot ladder in the middle of the night with stiff joints and sore feet. But still better than sleeping on the rooty mountainside in the rain. And better than the fourth level bunk someone else had already taken on the other side of the room.

I had barely unpacked and hung up my sweaty clothes, changing into my rain gear, my only other option besides doing the naked hiker thing, before the dinner bell rang. Food was served family style at long picnic tables. It was tasty and plentiful, more than I could ask for after only nibbling at my cheese and protein bars all day.

Hut Life

Most of my fellow hut residents were friendly and happy to chat about hikes and weather over dinner, the kind of conversations we have with people we sit with but know we’ll never see again. My lower-level bunk buddies were a little less cordial, a married couple who huffed every time I climbed the ladder, apparently thinking their hut reservation included more private accommodations.

I looked around the room, assessing the snoring and farting potential, thankful for being next to an open window and for being partially deaf in one ear, but ruing what would rise to my near-ceiling berth with the warm air. I turned in right after dinner, hoping that sleep quantity would make up for any loss in sleep quality.

Barney’s Bedtime Stories

As the other residents filtered in, I heard one thru hiker getting grilled with the usual questions by his weekend-hiking bunk mates. They started talking about rules and laws, and the thru-hiker replied, “You know, I’m just so tired and beat, that I’ll almost be glad if I get arrested, because I’ll have a valid excuse for not finishing the AT. I feel the same way about getting injured.”

I laughed out loud and peered over the railing of my bunk to see a hiker my age who looked as tired as I felt. I could relate to the sentiment and have heard similar thoughts from both young and old thru hikers lately. Everyone is weary. Some of us are barely holding on just to finish. Not me, of course, I’m as strong as an ox and am a fountain of cheery optimism.

Soon, nearly everyone had climbed into their bunks, the headlamps stopped dancing on the walls and ceilings, and the room quieted to the soft rustling of 14 people in one room trying to fall asleep.

Bunkroom Blasts

Our room was as quiet as you’d expect. We had our share of snoring and people getting up to use the bathroom and struggling to climb the ladders or find their shoes. A little girl cried off and on in her sleep. The wind howled outside. And then, in the middle of the night, someone started talking and shouting furiously in their sleep. A typical night in a crowded bunkhouse.

The next morning, I stood on the hut’s deck looking out at the thick fog. A bleary-eyed father and son came out and watched with me. The son said, “I had the most vivid dreams last night. I may have been talking in my sleep.” I smiled and asked whether he was in the Pine Marten Room. When he said he had been, I asked if he wanted to know what he’d said.

He did. So I warned him that he’d asked and told him he’d moaned something incomprehensible at first, but then had shouted, “G..d… it! Keep your hands off my fancy a**!” Then he was out cold. His dad and I had a good laugh, and the son replied with a chuckle, “Yeah, that sounds about right,” but didn’t provide any further details about his dream. And he didn’t sit near me at breakfast.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Liberty Springs Trailhead (Mile 1825.2)
  • End: Galehead Hut (Mile 1838.1)
  • Weather: Blue sky, puffy clouds, cool and breezy.
  • Earworm: Twist and Shout (trying not to do either)
  • Meditation: Free will and sovereignty
  • Plant of the Day: Alpine lichens
  • Best Thing: Ridge walking with views
  • Worst Thing: The last descent and climb. Stick a fork in me.

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Comments 13

  • thetentman : Sep 6th

    Sounds like fun. I’m glad you had good weather.


    • Jon : Sep 7th

      Thx, T

  • DCAlaneKnits : Sep 7th

    Lots of good chuckles and happy thoughts in this one.

    Very wild about your doppelganger.

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      Read below !

  • Marty : Sep 7th

    Wow! Great views and a lookalike all in one day!
    I’m your favorite older sis’s friend in Indiana and have been following and loving your posts for the last couple months. Your writing is superb, and I almost feel I am there (without the achey knees, etc., and realizing I have no real clue to either the grandness or awfulness of some parts of it). Thank you for sharing. Hi, Northstar!

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      Hi, Marty! Thanks and welcome to the e-tramily.

  • tek : Sep 7th

    Thanks for the mention and flattering description! (‘middle-aged broads’ would be accurate too:) I was already fatigued by midday, but meeting you gave us such a boost! Though my earworm became how dumb the greeting sounded. (but it’s on the top of every blog!) “The Incident!” down the mountain to fix it. You are a rockstar!

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      Hey, Tek. That’s tough terrain. I was beat by day’s end. Enjoy!

  • Charles : Sep 7th

    Your blog pops up in my news feed, as I am an avid hiker. I was reading this, thinking hey I just hiked the Franconia ridge to Lafayette. All the pictures are looking familiar until that one special one. I’m the other you in the red shirt. Thanks for making me famous. You made my day!

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      And you made mine! Great day of walking.

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      And I have that shirt too!

  • Mike Nixon : Sep 9th

    One of the bests posts…just because it was varied & detailed.

    So, you traveled from Arizona to meet your twin in New Hampshire, huh!? It’s not listed where he’s from. Since you grew up in NY, maybe, just maybe, y’all are somehow truly related.

    Great stuff…as usual. Stay safe & strong.

    • Jon : Sep 9th

      Thanks Mike.


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