One summer weekend, I set out on a backpacking trip to Mount Isolation; the highest point on the Montalban ridge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. But the trip was not to be. Through a series of unexpected events, I ended up hiking the Langdon Trail to Mt. Resolution instead.
Change of Plans: Finding a Trailhead in Bartlett, NH
With the weather finally warming up after a prolonged, cold spring, I planned a 3-day, 2-night hike up and over Mt. Isolation. The trails would not be too strenuous, but the 4000 footer in the middle would make the trip seem just a little bit grand. I was pumped.
Yet from the very start, the world conspired against me.
First, traffic. Of course, traffic. I sat in traffic for nearly 5 hours as I slowly inched my way north through the Boston metro area towards New Hampshire. It wasn’t until 6:30p.m. that I reached the small town of Bartlett. I had only planned to hike two miles to the nearest shelter anyway, so although I was a bit flummoxed, I knew I was still safe.
As I drove up the hill towards the trailhead, anticipation built in my belly. This would be my first backpacking trip since I moved back to America last September. Soon I would be alone in the forest, surrounded by the rich smells and sounds of the wilderness.
I drove around a bend in the road and came face to face with a locked gate. No parking lot or trail marker to be found. On the gate was a small posted sign: caution, trails in the Dry River Wilderness were severely damaged in late season storms. Expert only. Hike at your peril. Be prepared to die.
Prideful and committed to my plan, I toyed with the idea of hiking up the trail anyway. I believed in my ability to make it through the wilderness. And it could add another level of adventure to an otherwise fairly routine hiking trip.
And yet, I finally came to my senses and aborted my plan to hike Mt. Isolation.
Instead, I scrambled to find a different trailhead. Even if my plans only reduced to a 1 night, 2-day hiking trip.
I settled on the nearby Parker Trailhead in Bartlett. From the trailhead it was only 3 miles to the Langdon Shelter. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it was a night or two in the backcountry. I hopped back in my car and drove the few miles over to the trailhead.
The Parker Trailhead
Parking at the Parker Trailhead was fairly limited, with space for just a few cars in a small clearing in the woods. There were two other cars already parked, locked and empty when I arrived.
By the time I began my hike it was 6:45 p.m. The rich, gold sunlight of an early summer evening filtered sideways through the leaves.
Not having backpacked in almost two years, I had no idea what my pace would be or how much ground I’d be able to cover before I ran out of light. I figured I had about an hour before I needed to find a site. It was 3 miles from the trailhead to the shelter, but I trusted myself to set up a leave-no-trace backcountry stealth campsite if I couldn’t make it that far.
Hiking the Langdon Trail to Langdon Shelter
The first mile or so of the Langdon Trail ascends at a gentle grade. The forest on either side has been cut away for some reason. Perhaps for power lines or some other kind of ugly human development. The lack of vegetation brings an unpleasant and exposed feeling to the trail.
After about a mile, the trail enters the Dry River Wilderness and the change is immediate. The scarred forest gives way to pristine wilderness. A small creek curves between two hills and rolls off into the distance. Pine needles carpet the ground and the occasional birch reaches up towards the sky. The trail begins to ascend more sharply as it finds its way up the mountain.
The water available from the trail vanished as I ascended to higher elevations. The setting sun poured through the leaves around me. Depending on the terrain, the trail alternated between a wash of golden light, and a dim, dusky gloom.
When the sun moved behind a hill and the forest filled with shadows I would feel a sense of urgency, a dread that urged me to stop and set up camp. Then I would reach the next rise, the sunlight would return and I would think to myself, “no, a little further now. You have time.”
And then, at last, I reached a sign informing me that the Langdon shelter was just half a mile away. No sense looking for stealth camping at this point. In the dying light of the day, I hoofed it the final half mile down the path until I saw the shelter crouched amongst the trees.
A Night at the Langdon Shelter
As I emerged from the trees, I saw a woman standing in a clearing, snapping together tent poles. Turning towards me, she asked if I was with a group.
No, I answered. I’m by myself.
Oh! Her voice warmed. I’m Laura, and that’s my husband Brent, putting up our bear throw.
Laura and Brent had already hiked all of the 4000ft peaks in New Hampshire and were in the final stretch of “red-lining,” the challenge of hiking every mile of AMC managed trail in New Hampshire. That’s over a thousand miles.
They had only something over a hundred left to go.
I set up my tent in a small flat clearing close to the shelter and returned with my bear vault to sit with Laura. She began building a small fire. I pulled out my map. What would be possible over the course of the weekend?
I calculated the distance between myself and Mt Isolation. 16 miles. One way. There were no official tent sites between here and there but Laura and Brent clued me into a few spots where one could set up a tent and take in a nice view, if one were so inclined. Stealth sites, if you will.
And yet, that would mean a long hike on Saturday and a long hike out on Sunday. Sunday was Father’s Day and I had a date in Massachusetts with my Dad. If I hiked all the way to Isolation, I wouldn’t be out of the mountains till late afternoon on Sunday.
But my heart had been set on spending two nights in the backcountry. It was a painful expectation to let go of.
After chewing it over and changing my mind at least seven times, I settled on my choice. Tomorrow I would hike to Mount Resolution then turn around and head back out to my car. It wouldn’t be my three day journey, but it would be a 12-mile hike in the White Mountains.
I spent the rest of the night swapping stories with Laura and Brent over the fire. I told them about that time I bought a donkey in Peru, and what it feels like to trek across the Himalayas in Nepal. They spoke about a trip along the John Muir Trail and their favorite hiking spots in New England.
The next morning, I tortured myself with thoughts of bagging Mt Isolation. I knew the right thing to do was to limit myself to Mt Resolution and make it home in time for fathers day. But I wanted to do the longer hike. I wanted a second night in the woods.
Disappointment crept into my mind like a fog. As I packed up my tent, munched on my breakfast of cold pop tarts and headed out up the trail, it weighed me down, making me question my integrity as a hiker. Why even bother if I was only spending one night in the woods?
But despite the disappointment and my flair for the dramatic, the solitude of the woods embraced me, picked me up, and did its very best to remind me why I came into the mountains.
My mind settled into the introspective state that I only find when I’m pushing myself physically. My thoughts roamed, jumping from tree to tree alongside the chipmunks I startled from the underbrush.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, this sense of disappointment comes less from the hike and more from my expectations. I was hiking in New Hampshire, one of my favorite places. I was surrounded by the smell of pine, the soft feeling of my feet against the trail. Why would I possibly feel anything other than contentment?
Perhaps that import I placed on other people’s imagined expectations was what I most needed to let go of.
These thoughts filled my mind all the way up to the summit of my first peak of the day, Mt. Parker.
Mt. Parker to Mt. Resolution
Mt Parker stands just above 3,000ft. It is pointed, bald, and commands a beautiful view of the surrounding Presidential range.
I set down my pack and stood still. The peaks and valleys of the Whites rolled away from me into eternity, looking like sleeping elephants. Massive beasts about to rise up out of the earth at the slightest provocation. Washington loomed in the distance, still wearing patches of snow in mid-June.
After a moment, I pushed on further down the trail. In the near distance, I could see a flat-topped mountain rising up between me and Mount Washington. That, I believed, was Mt. Resolution, and the extent of my hike for that day.
The trail from Mount Parker to Mt. Resolution was delightful. From the summit of Parker, the trail is a narrow strip of dirt between granite boulders and alpine brush, winding down into the spruce trees. In amongst the pines, the meandering trail bops back and forth along the ridgeline.
The undulating movement continued until I reached the base of Resolution. The pitch shifted skyward and I climbed up the final ascent to the large flat granite surface: the summit of Resolution.
Setting down my pack, I wandered across the mountaintop. It is less of a summit and more of a plateau. I’m not certain I ever found the highest point. But the views of Mt. Washington were superb, and I enjoyed a moment basking in the mountain’s nearness, dreaming of the Presi traverse I hoped to complete later in the season.
As I stared up the Montalban ridgeline, contemplating a trek from here up to the summit of Mount Washington, the uncertainty returned.
What if I did keep walking? Am I being a quitter because I’m only hiking to Resolution and going back to my car? I had intended to spend two nights in the backcountry on this trip. Did spending only one night make me a failure?
I paced back and forth on the mountaintop as I debated my answer. I could see Stair Mountain further down the ridge. What if I simply hiked to there, found a nearby campsite, and walked back in the morning? I could still make it for dinner on Father’s Day.
But no, I’d be exhausted on Monday. And besides, I’d like to spend the whole day with my family. If I camp tonight, I wont be able to do that. There are plenty more weekends in the summer. I’ll have many more opportunities to spend two nights in the wilderness, but fathers day only comes once a year.
Turning back was the right choice. It was what I wanted. So why was it so hard to do?
Reluctantly, I picked up my pack and headed back the way I had come.
But indecision had not yet released it’s grip on my mind. The fact that I had told my boyfriend I’d be in the woods for two nights, told the couple I met last night, told a few friends… I felt that I would be letting them down if I hiked out of the woods today.
My indecision was so intense I hiked about a tenth of a mile back towards my car, stopped, turned around, hiked back up the hill, stopped, turned back and forth a few times, then set off resolutely in the direction of my car.
The indecision and self-flagellation hung about me like a dull mist for the next mile or so, almost all the way back to Mt. Parker. I had to work to shake the feeling that I was letting other people down. It took far too long for me to fall back into that beautiful meditative state.
After the summit of Mt. Parker my mind began to relax and I was able to relish the hike back out of the woods. Though I expected the trail to be tired, old, and boring the second time around, it was anything but. Coming at it from this new direction it was like a fresh trail populated with old friends. Here was the rock I had to scramble over on the way up, and here is the felled tree that forces me down into a crawl. The spruce and deciduous forests felt warm and inviting. Last year’s leaves crunched underneath my feet.
For 6 miles I walked along in bliss. Pain was growing in my knees and my legs heavier and heavier, yet I was finally soaked in that woodland euphoria. At the edge of the wilderness area, by the sign I had enjoyed so much the night before, I stopped briefly to refill my water and dunk my head into the stream.
Even if I could only make it out for one night, I still got to spend a night in the woods.
By the time I made it back to my car I was tired, sore, and rejuvenated. Popped into Moat Brewing for a well earned IPA and a sub-par sandwich and was on the road back to Boston, ready to plan my next hiking adventure.
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