The best day I ever spent with my father was a hike up Mount Washington in New Hampshire when I was 11 or 12. For several years during my youth my parents were High School Camp counsellors at Camp Brookwoods on Lake Winnipesaukee during the last week of August. And so it was during one of these camp weeks that a hike up Mount Washington was planned and Dad decided to be one of the adults to go along. I’m not sure how it was I was allowed to go on this hike at such a young age however I do recall a fascination with mountains as a young boy and perhaps that factored in.
We started very early, a bus full of high school kids who seemed so old to me, tired counsellors and one young kid wearing his hiking clod hoppers, a term my Mother used the origins of which are hard to trace. Part of the adventure was the 5 AM breakfast before we boarded the bus. The usually busy campers’ dining hall was quiet. Not many of us were used to being up at that hour. The weather was heavy overcast skies and I remember some talk of abandoning the trip. Mount Washington is not a place to fool around with and storms blow in quickly. But the bus moved forward. I guess the ride was at least two hours long.
Low clouds persisted when we pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead which is also the Base Station for the Cog Railway which goes to the summit of Mount Washington. Back then the motors were coal fired steam engines. The smell of burning coal is distinctive and I will never forget the mixture of the fresh pine scented mountain air with it. Dad pointed out the angle of the engine boilers to account for the steep grade of the railway’s route up the mountain. All in all it looked like an accident waiting to happen. I was happy to be hiking up rather than being a passenger on the train. The railway is now mostly powered by cleaner burning diesel, the smell must be different today.
My hiking gear was crude. In addition to my footwear I had dungarees, a sweater and a rubber rain slicker with a hood. This hood proved to be the best part of the outfit because it kept my head warm as we moved up into the colder upper air, still wet with mist. At first the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail wound through the woods and was just a gentle climb. Not long into the hike the trail started to ascend steeply and my legs started to burn. It is a pretty trail with many streams and a great resting spot called Gem Pool. As I continued up the trees got smaller. I really can’t remember if Dad and I hiked together but I kept going, my legs still burning but I knew I had to press on and not make it a mistake to have brought me along.
The higher we went the colder it became. The cloudy air was very moist, the hood of my rain coat doing its job. Three miles into the hike we broke through the tree line. I had never been above tree line in my life. It was a thrill. There were scraggly bushes here and there but mostly rocks. AND, there was the Lake of the Clouds trail hut. We came up to it and it appeared before us in the mist. It had not occurred to me there would be a hut up here but what really did not occur to me is that it might have inside the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life. Now I am sure that by sea level standards this hot chocolate was a C- or a D+ offering however at just over 5000 feet and on a cold wet day it was THE BEST CUP OF HOT CHOCOLATE I’VE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE. Dad paid the few cents for it and that gave me the strength needed to get back on the trail.
Hiking to the summit from the Lake of the Clouds hut means taking the Crawford Trail. This is mostly a scramble over rocks for a mile and a half. Through the fog and mist I saw numerous hikers carrying 100 pound packs of supplies from the summit to the hut below. The Lake of the Clouds hut also serves as a place for hikers to sleep as they travel from hut to hut along the Presidential mountain trail. So food and other supplies are needed and garbage needs to be hauled out.
Dad and I scrambled up the rocks, following the cairns that marked the trail. Cairn is a word of Scottish origin and is basically a pile of rocks. The visibility allowed us only to see the next one. On we went up to the summit. This rocky trial made me feel like I was a true mountaineer. It was pretty cool.
Reaching the summit I found it to be a little disappointing. Compared to the charm of the Lake of the Clouds hut the summit buildings were massive and inundated with people who had come by the Cog Railway and car. To this day when I see a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker I think to myself “what’s the point?”
We left the summit and gladly so. I wanted to be away from the noise and the cars. We returned by a different route, the longer but gentler Jewell Trail. Once off of the rocks and as the trial led us back into the forrest I remember being aware of how sore my legs were going downhill, another new sensation for me. The trail stayed pretty close to the route of the Cog Railway and the lonely sound of the engine working the grade made the descent a bit surreal although that was probably not a word in my vocabulary at that age.
Eventually we made ti back to the parking lot, everyone accounted for. Most of us slept on the ride back and a late supper was provided when we got back to Camp Brookwoods.
I can’t remember what Dad and I talked about. I can’t remember what we ate for lunch or how we carried it. Two more times I’ve climbed that same route and on nicer days but neither of those times could top the best time I ever had with my Dad. I am very thankful he took me over forty years ago up that foggy trail to have the best cup of hot chocolate ever.
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