Last sortie into the White Mountains at the magical Lost River Gorge and Caves easy access reserve. Roots make impossible overground journeys to provide trees with grounding and nutrients, water cascades down tunnels to erupt in beautiful waterfalls, boulders conceal caves, crevasses.
Destinatioh "White Mountains"
Asking for recommendations on where to go next, my dear friend divulged to me that he’s “not so good at Verticals. I only did easy walks in the White Mountains, the rather flat ones”. But he kept mentioning the mysterious mountain range, recommending I go there, vertical or horizontal. “White Mountains” obviously had some deep nostalgia attached to it, almost reverence.
He dug out an old map of the Kancamagus Trail (quite a spelling challenge…), marked a few spots he knew and handed it to me. It all sounded very romantic. We found the info center on the Net, typed it onto the GPS and Goggle Maps, and I was set loose on the road. This time I was willing to give mountains, rather than water, my time of day.
Departure was actually delayed a day, due to car hassles. The trip finally commenced on September 9th.
September 9th, 2016
After an initial searching, I discovered most campgrounds in the Mountains were run on the basis of “First come, first serve”. In a way, that made things easier. You didn’t need to make phone calls or Internet reservations. Being late in the season, it did not seem difficult to find a spot. Still, I preferred to get to the Info Center before looking for the campground, just to make sure.
As I set on my way, hunger overtook me, and I stopped in a small commercial center for a pizza. I decided to be a Roman in Rome and eat fast food if nothing else was available. The pizza, actually, was excellent, no comparison with most Israeli equivalents. On the road, and away from home in general, I try to balance what I’m used to food-wise with what is. Oftentimes, the atmosphere in these local fast food joints can be very friendly and warm, not to mention (here I mention…) that in this particular place, the guy behind the counter, was a real good-looker…
A Whiff of Testosterone...
As I moved on north and into the mountains, I started to sense a change of energy. Maine is generally quaint and relaxed, except for the high traffic zones around Portland and Ellsworth and, of course, the turnpike. Moving north on highway 16, motorcars gave way to motobikes. Groups of black-leathered bikers went buzzing past me, as I got closer to Conway. It’s the United States, I reminded myself, and mountains attract sportsmen and adventurers. Laid-back Canada and its natural extension in Maine are behind you. As Road 16 was getting more mountainous, a whiff of testosterone was felt in the air.
It was also noticeable, in both Maine and New Hampshire, that there were no Hillary Clinton’s signs anywhere. None!!! I could not describe to the readers what a Clinton sign looked like… One wonders, in retrospect, if these little oversights had something to do with her failure in the rural areas. In contrast, the Trump-Pence boards were fairly numerous. It was surprising, as I was made to believe Maine was a “blue” state. I decided my understanding of these things was limited and let it go at that.
It was getting late. I needed to find the Kancamagus info center, then pitch my tent in a new territory. The GPS led me back and forth around a certain spot until I located it a bit off the road. It was already closed. Left to my own devices, I typed in the name of the campground that seemed most central, and the only one that had warm showers. – Jigger Johnson’s. Conveniently , it was located only half an hour drive from the info center.
The Kancamagus was windy, and there was more traffic than I expected in a national park (national forest, actually). Eventually I found the gate, but it wasn’t clear where the office was. The campground was advertised as “First come, first serve”. After asking for advice from folks on site # 2, I simply parked my car on site #1, right by the entrance. Site #1 seemed cozy enough, with a large parking space, the usual fire pit and the ubiquitous picnic table, but I wanted to take a better look. The place was not very crowded. We were past Labor Day, apparently a watershed date for camping.
The price was $24 if you had one car and a tent, but it wasn’t clear who to pay and where. I walked down a wide road, passing several sites, and found nothing. Not willing to risk getting lost before dark, I turned back.
There was a curious trailer on the right with a large-size chess board in front of it. I did not recognize it as an office, but it turned out this was where G., the camp manager, was located.
Addressing the office was not really necessary, though. I found out you were actually expected to put your cash money in a provided envelope, write in your details, and then cast the envelope into a metal container. The box was close to the entrance, but I did not pay attention to it when I drove in. Once you pay, you get a receipt slip to hang in your car. The rangers check if you have paid and show up once in a while.
The Missing King
When I met G., he gave me the necessary change for the camping, as well as a bunch of quarters for the shower. This was the most expensive shower on this trip – 2.5 dollars for 6 minutes, all in quarters. It’s understandable when considering the camp does not normally have electricity.
I relocated to site 10, next to the office camper, pitched the tent, tied the laundry rope around the trees, and prepared myself a mixed grain dish.
When asking G. about the chess game, he invited me to play. At about 10 pm I passed by his place to find out if he was still interested. It was an exciting game for me. I am a very mediocre chess player, but the game did last for a while. At least he did not checkmate me after three minutes. G.’s strategy was to get a two-pawn advantage right at the beginning, and then, once all the major pieces were off the board, use this gain to carry him through to the inevitable victory. I was beaten, but still felt good about myself, and enjoyed the opportunity to play.
Where is that white King???
The next day G. called me over to see something. He seemed uncharacteristically upset: “Do you notice anything?” It took me a second. “Yes, there’s a piece missing”. The blacks were placed on the opponent’s side. The whites were located on G.’s side. The white king was missing.
I said: “I’m sure a man did that”. He said: “Not necessarily. A woman who had a grudge against me was rumored to have been in the area in the last few days”… Live and learn!
9.9.16 Jigger Johnson Campground, White Mountains, NH, White Mountains, 8:30 p.m.
A moon split in half almost vertical to the ground line. Some of the trees are conifers and some deciduous.
I turn off the lantern for a second, and darkness takes over (except for some campers’ lights a bit away). The trees spike up to a huge height and only few stars succeed to infiltrate their light among the tops.
A magical entity of another kind. Not that of water, but that of mountain, the peace and quiet of a forested mountain. There’s a buzz, perhaps cicadas, that accentuates the silence. I hear children’s screams from faraway.
Signs warn that I am in bear country. That meant not leaving food outside anywhere, disposing of it only in doubly locked metal trash cans, and being aware.
Here, in Jigger Johnson Campground, White Mountains, like in many other parks I visited, there was no site for dishwashing. You were warned not to wash your dishes in the bathrooms, so the only solution was to wash them on-site. Food remnants end up being washed to the ground, and with all the bear warnings, it wasn’t clear why that would be a good idea. Blackwoods Campground, Acadia was the only park where I saw a logical solution to the dishwashing dilemma. They had a special sink with a porous basket to dump your dishwashing water. That, of course requires mindfulness and consciousness. The basket contents would then be emptied into a garbage bin. Here is some info about bear country dishwashing etiquette.
Going to the bathroom was an interesting experience. There was no electricity there. You have to walk with the head flashlight, then use it to light the toilet booth and the sink.
The shower was an ordeal of its own. Signs required not to park on the roadsides, but there was no other way if you drove, and even then you still had to walk quite a distance. In camping showers, it is always a fumble where to hang your clothes and where to put the soap. For some odd reason, they all save money on cheapie implements, like hangers and racks, that really make a difference in the shower experience. Bottom line, taking a shower at JJ was so expensive and inconvenient, I skipped one day of shower, the only time this trip…
Living with the Mountains
G. was very helpful and friendly, and a cool guy to have a conversation with. I got tips for hikes with different degrees of difficulty. He told me stories about himself and why he liked living there year round… Being a mountain person, hiking in the cold and snow were apparently not a hindrance for him. I already understood that for many people native to these latitudes/altitudes, the cold weather is an attraction, an invitation for adventure and a time to meditate and be spiritual. What seems incredible for us, “normal earthlings”, is natural to them. Enviable. He explained that some campgrounds in the White Mountains are kept open year round, and even this one requires some maintenance, so his job is not disrupted by the seasonal changes. I was invited to come back in the winter. I’ll keep this as a “snow check”.
11.9.2016, 9:30 pm
The Howls, the Dark and the Silence
Still here. Sunday passed and the camp was so dark I had a hard time finding the driveway to my tent site. Even when found, I had difficulty navigating into it. Quiet and darkness were almost absolute. One lost soul entered my driveway by mistake, then turned around. Except for that and some faraway light, it seemed the entire campground was empty. Me and G. by our lonesome, but he refused to have my company while eating his dinner. He said he needed time alone and was going to watch a movie in his trailer.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. I heard what sounded like a coyote choir singing in the distance. My senses were awakened. I did not feel like bothering G. about that but, admittedly, was a bit scared. I read my Kindle in the tent. That, eventually, eased me into sleep.
I arrived in the campground late afternoon, Friday, 9.9. 16, and stayed through the 12th, leaving Tuesday morning – four nights in total. By the 12th, the campground was empty. G. was gone and I was seemingly alone in total darkness.
Almost alone in the campground. G., the manager, was visiting with his wife on the other side of the park. It was a busy day. Mt. Washington, then Cathedral Ledge and the Bear Notch ordeal. I am staying in my clothes tonight because of the cold. When the sky is blue, it is cold at night. Darkness almost total. Here and there some car sound from the road. Between scary and relaxing…
Somehow that night I slept better than the previous. A part of me decided to give up on being scared, even though in an emergency there would be nobody to call. I kept my Swiss army knife in one of the tent’s pockets, and all my clothes on.
The following four sections describe “the day parts” of my White Mountains experience. The first, and absolutely wonderful, was the short and easy Sabbaday Falls track.