Kinsman Notch, an outdoor story

I drove up north to hike the Kinsmans on Saturday. I realized too late that I didn’t research the hike well enough; and this is not the first time I’ve done this with disastrous results. Although, I swear I read a bunch of trail descriptions last week and thought it was a good day hike with my dog. I thought that I would just go do the hike and then come home – no big deal. 

Once I turned west on the Route 112 in Lincoln from the I-93 the road was highlighted with fall colors. I was glad to be off the highway and driving through small towns that had characters. I smelled a campfire burning.

Then the anxiety started. I usually love driving to the mountains, but on this trip, I was tired of driving it by myself. I remembered how last year when I started hiking in the White Mountains again after many years away, as I got closer to the trailhead the more nervous I got; especially when it was a trail I didn’t know or hadn’t been to before. I remember hiking Mount Hale for the first time last year and I almost turned around three times before hitting the USFS road; and twice once I was driving on the road. Now, after hiking that mountain three time it’s a piece of cake and I’m not nervous anymore.

I remembered just last month heading north with Kyle and our dogs and not being anxious at all. I was mad a lot; mad at his shitty driving but not anxious. Scared that we were going to die from his lack of paying attention to other cars but not nervous about hiking. That’s what is most fun (and not fun) about a hiking trip with someone.

Today, I was nervous once I hit the section of 112 that heads into Kinsman Notch. I don’t know what to expect and the anxiety started. 

I turned into a parking lot that I wasn’t sure was right, then circled around not seeing signs for Kinsman Trail and then turned back on the highway. I immediately passed the hidden trail sign but only after seeing the Appalachian Trail sign. I forgot that the AT followed the Kinsman Trail. My anxiety lessened once I saw that sign, I’m not sure why. I turned around at the pond parking lot and parked in the lot. I took the last spot at 10 a.m.

Winnie and I crossed the highway and the trail was an immediate endless set of rock stairs. Some rocks were slippery from rain. I don’t feel awesome. I wanted to give the trail some time and settle in, but never got to that point. I stopped to look at the map and realized it was going to be an 18 mile day. I planned this wrong. I looked at the map before leaving the house but didn’t count the miles. Sometimes I just don’t pay attention to details. Okay, maybe a lot of the time. 

But also too, it wasn’t the first time I headed north to the mountains mad and hoping the mountains would redeem me, turn my anger around. Likewise, I thought if I prayed enough that I would get what I want but it doesn’t work that way. It’s like what Lamott says, “you get what you get”. 

About .28 miles into the Kinsman trail I turned around. The map showed Moosilauke on the other side of the highway. But first, Winnie needed a drink and a cool down in the lake up the highway.

As we walked I yelled at Winnie for pulling. I hate it when I’m mad and frustrated and yell at my dog for doing things that she shouldn’t do like pull on the leash or sniff everything in sight. I normally just let her do these things and just get frustrated but I yelled at her. I’m not a yeller and I don’t like myself when I yell at my dog, so I knew I was in trouble. I needed to turn my attitude around about this hike – and soon.

As soon as we got on Beaver Brook Trail, still part of the AT I was instantly relieved. We crossed a bunch of streams, Winnie drank and played, and my anxiety was gone; I came back to myself, the self I love who is okay with the world because I have my trail shoes on, water and food in my pack, and my dog is running around off-leash. After 10 joyful, joyous minutes on the trail the climb began and it was a rock staircase again with a river cascading next to it. Fifteen minutes later a worn and withered sign read: Warning – this is a steep and dangerous trail. If you are not prepared, turn around. Something about the cascades and water. I thought for a minute. A few seconds of positive thoughts:  I’ll give it a try. How bad could it be? And many more seconds of negative thoughts: I suck. Why didn’t I read about this trail? Why am I so stupid? What a waste of time. 

After hiking for a few more minutes on the slippery rocks I stopped at a large waterfall and decided to eat my roast beef sandwich and think about things. I almost never do this. Until I hiked with Kyle last month, I never stopped, I didn’t hang out at the top of summits – I just hiked, bagged the peak and went back home. When we hiked it was fun and relaxing; we’d spend 30 minutes at the top with wine and cheese, taking in the views and then leisurely hike down. Lately when just hiking with Winnie, when I do stop, Winnie stops too and lays down next to me or sits and stares at me. Then we hike until we get back to the car. 

Today, on this gorgeous, warmish Saturday in late September I sat and watched the cascading waterfall in front of me on the biggest, dampest rock on the AT. I thought of nothing but that damn waterfall for five long minutes. However, my thoughts led to needing a plan. What was I going to do? 

It wouldn’t be the first time I didn’t get to the summit. It wouldn’t be the first time that plans changed minutes into a hike. What I really wanted to do was sit there with my journal and write about the natural world; and find joy in a moment which is what happens when I write. Lamott says that writing and reading can decrease our sense of isolation. And this is what I want to do right at this moment but I don’t have a pen or paper. I quietly decide that I will always carry pen and paper with me which I promised myself a decade ago when I hiked around my house in the mountains of Colorado; back when I was writing and publishing stories more frequently. 

Miraculously, I decided to keep going forward, a primal urge we have when paralyzed with expectations, guilt and foreboding. One foot in front of the other, a mantra I try to use in ultra running and long distance hiking. I continue up the slippery slope of Moosilauke when I realize that this just isn’t fun anymore. I fear slipping or my dog slipping. I’m okay stopping when I’m not having fun anymore. Winnie doesn’t seem to care and we change direction and head back to the car. Defeated; I walk the slowest walk back to the car. It’s only 11:30. 

I wander a bit off trail and look for something to take my mind off my defeat, and not finishing something, yet again. You see, I have a bit of a problem. In January I had so many goals and as of today, I have only finished about 75% of the what I planned for this year.

I hoped for a 100% finish rate.

I finished some important trail races and finally finished my 4,000 footers in New Hampshire but it’s that other 25% that makes me feel like I should just bury my head under a pillow for the rest of the year and not sign up for anything I might not start or finish. 

Hiking can heal that hurt; or it has for me in the past. But alas, today there is no summit and my finish rate plummets. As I write this story sitting on my sofa in Concord, 68 miles from that trailhead I feel blah. Writing does heals the hurt a little. Maybe I’ll head up there again tomorrow and try it again. I love that life always gives you that option. 

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