I woke up a little later than I had planned this morning, just in time though to jump on a morning affirmation call with some motivated and supportive fellows. Looking over the map, which I should have done the night before, I plotted 2 possible routes. The first, an 8 mile trek up Mt. Lafayette on the Old Bridal Path, over to Mt. Lincoln along the Franconia Ridge Trail, and down to the parking lot along the Falling Waters Trail. The second, which I really had my eye on continued along the Franconia Ridge Trail to Mt. Liberty and down the Liberty Springs Trail. to another parking lot where I would follow the Franconia Notch Recreational Trail back to the car at the bottom of the Old Bridal Path. This second option was 13 miles. I wouldn't have to choose which to take until I made it to the intersection of the Falling Waters Trail and the Franconia Ridge Trail. Finishing my coffee and slices of toast loaded with peanut butter I pocketed the map and packed my bag. Snow shoes in case of the deeper stuff, first aid kit, lighter and dryer lint for a fire to either raise the spirits or as a last resort for survival, wind breaker, gloves, cliff bar, and down jacket. No compass and luckily I did not need one on this trip. I set out a bit after 8 on my drive to the Notch and arrived in 20 minutes. Threw on my micro spikes and set off. There was one other car in the lot when I arrived and it was still there when I returned, but I didn't see anyone out on the trail. I did see some fresh tracks up on the ridge that looked like they were from today, but I can't be sure how far I was behind them or where they had gone. I lost their tracks shortly after Mt. Lincoln.
Starting out up the Old Bridal Path I was thinking about my goals for the day. Firstly I intended to remain conscious of my pace, exertion, and attention in order to take my time and enjoy the hike. It has been typical of me in past years to rush along a trail with a destination in mind or that destination being a strong effort. That mode tends to focus me on the exertion and does not allow me to take in the full beauty and peace of the trail. There is always more to see on the trail, the extent of what you see only depends on how much you want to see. I'm not denouncing trail running or fast-packing. This is a personal effort to understand the experience of taking it slow and exploring what the trails have to offer in all aspects. Secondly, I set out to contemplate relationship goals, the results of which I'll be keeping to myself for now.
At the split between the OBP and the FWT I stopped to admire the ice formations and water song underneath the narrow bridge. Small cascades no more than a foot high were spraying water into beautiful mounded ice sculptures more beautiful than anything I've seen made by Man's hand. The plops and trickling sound of icy water set my mind at ease, though I was too busy trying to capture this on my camera to really allow my heart to settle into the song. reluctantly leaving here I continued on the OBP. A short level walk through birch, maple, and oak forest took me into the belt of pines that reached up to the treeline. The trails steepens here and this forced me to slow and draw in. The exertion and my pumping breath took over my senses and I found myself catching moments where I would snap back into the presence of the scent of spruce, bristly sound of the wind whipping the trees, and the crisp air against the back of my throat. I was still caught up in capturing the moment on camera, but I'm convinced there's no way to fully capture the heart warming essence of these moments. Since these moments I've found myself realizing more easily how futile that attempted capture is. I will selfishly enjoy these beautiful moments all on my own. There's some additional excitement found in the rebelliousness of not sharing these beautiful moments when that seems to be an expectation these days. I continued, finding moments where a light jingle of icicles and snow laden branches brought me into the present. Stopping to admire this music and it's source I'd find even more beautiful sounds and scenes catching my attention. In one of these moments I ended up staring at a strand of birch bark dancing in the wind to it's own music. It is perfectly content and without judgment and I jealously admire it's aliveness. Boulders are scattered along the trail, some split, some stacked and all coming from somewhere long ago to rest in this spot at this moment, just a nanosecond in their extensive understanding of time. Faster growing things have colonized these boulders ranging from flaky lichen to grown trees seeming to drip over these rock faces. Everything is fluid on it's own timeline. I continue hiking up this trail and catch myself in rolling trains of thought in need of reminding myself that I am right here, right now. I'm thinking about relationships, organizing races, recent frustrations with work, new ideas, old ideas, snow balls and monkey wrenches. These ideas slow to a trickle and again I'm treated to a present full enjoyment of the trail in front of me and the world around me. Green Leaf Hut, which is closed for the winter, provides a very photogenic snow dusted and deserted subject. Dwarf pine forest stretches from here up to treeline where the fun begins. I pick out a sequence of cairns easily until the clouds blow in close enough that it takes some time to be certain I can see the next cairn. Nearing the top I lose the path and break straight to the summit easily finding it and the directional signs. The views on the way up were breathtaking and humbling. These gave me plenty of time to slow and appreciate moments of beauty. I could easily pick out Cannon Cliffs, the ridge I had hiked up to Green Leaf, Cannon ski hills, Lonesome Lake, and the Kinsman ridge. In the distance I think I see Moosilauke.
I rather quickly pick out the path from Lafayette to Lincoln and head down this giving little thought to enjoying the moment. It was certainly enjoyable, but the primary focus was on finding the trail and not face planting into rocks below the shallow snow. I hit a number of humps along the saddle, at each announcing to myself and whoever else would like to hear me that I have reached Lincoln! It is a while before I make it to Lincoln's summit. There I find a nice perch to watch clouds role into the saddle and over Lafayette. I sit for maybe 10 minutes and drink it in. At one point along the saddle I passed a beautiful rock face, about 20 feet high, checkered with weather worn crevices. As I sat down to look at it i was hit by a sustained gust of wind, closed my eyes and sat in peace as it washed over me for a few minutes. It felt like ages, sitting there being tossed by the wind. If I could have I would have let go and drifted in eternity in that wind, it was that peaceful. It must have been the stark contrast of the internal peace and the external chaos that made the moment so beautiful. As I opened my eyes and looked into the wind I got a face full of ice crystals. I moved on and came to the split in the trails. Down the FWT would take me back to the car within 3 miles while straight ahead would take me to Mt. Liberty within 2 miles and then down to the Recreational trail along Franconia Notch for at least another 2 hours. Having plenty of day light left and conditions looking like they would clear as the day went on, I continued along the ridge towards Mt. Liberty.
The trail was abruptly crowded in by spruces and windblown snow. With only a few feet between the mess of branches and the top of the snow pack, I began slowly weaving my way through the puzzle. After a few hundred feet of postholing I finally strapped on my snowshoes and continued with slightly more ease. This section slowed me down to a pace that allowed me to drink in the forest of wind shattered pines, acrobatic birch trees frozen in time and stripped of their bark to smooth finish, and Spanish moss covered grizzlies, all beautiful and welcoming me into their home. I wove through this forest picking my way along the deep fresh powder. The clouds began to break over head and I was treated to some of the most striking blue sky I have ever seen. The sunlight lit up the snow into a sea of diamonds and painted it with the shadows of the arboreal residents. A steady enjoyed pace brought me to the intersection with the Liberty Springs trail where I continued up to Mt. Liberty. Counting my steps, I found that there were approximately 450 steps in 0.3mi, a handy way of measuring distance. I found a spot to sit and watch the scene and bundle up against the chill. Looking south east to Mt. Flume I see near at hand, dark grey clouds twisting in back bending somersaults over the ridge and down into the Pemi Valley. Across the way a blanket of clouds is slowly rising on the warm valley air to crest over Liberty and Lincoln, shrouding their peaks. Wisps of clouds appear from nothing, creeping up the slopes towards the peaks and they join the mass as the top. I can see Bond Cliff and it's neighbors clearly across the Pemi Valley. I begin to daydream about hiking the Pemi Loop, a 32 mile loop along the peaks that surround this portion of the Pemi Wilderness. What a wonderful trip that would be, plodding along for as long as it takes, stopping to absorb the magic along with hot coffee brewed over a camping stove. I can smell the instant coffee and it warms my heart. I nibble on a cliff bar as I sit. This may be meager compared to other lunches, but it seems to me a feast when I consider what I've read of Johnny Muir's travels with nothing more the breadcrumbs in his pocket. I'll find that strength some day.
Back down the way I came to the Liberty Springs trail. I stop briefly at the Liberty Springs Tent site to see if the spring is running and try to fill my water bottle. My bottle refilled with fresh mountain dew I mosey down to the rec trail, passing a few dear tracks along the way and stopping to investigate a few dead and downed trees. One of these looked to have been burned down with a dark charcoal crust around its base, a beautiful layer of moss covered part of this stump. The rec trail was not the most enjoyable part of this walk. Covered in mushy snow churned up by snow mobiles and left soft by warm valley temps, my heel would sink into the snow and the ball of my foot hold on top of the slush till it sunk and slipped back as I pushed off. I did everything I could to enjoy the walk despite this and my soaking boots. It was still beautiful with it's lattice work of trees and their branches lining the trail. I stopped by the "Basin" feature along this trail and watched and listen to the water dance along its path. The patterns drawn by the currents were mesmerizing. I must have sat for only 20 minutes, but it may just as well have been an eternity of enjoyment. I passed 2 snow mobilers, 2 XC skiers, and a well under-dressed man from south of Boston playing PokemonGo. I made it back to the car feeling at the same time not ready to end the beautiful day and a relief to be off the wet slush.
Altogether a beautiful day that allowed me the space I needed to explore my thoughts and feelings. I imagine I'll come back to this hike again for more introspection and enjoyment. Though I am enjoying this pace under these current circumstances, I do think I will have the urge to return for a all out run.