The pandemic has shattered routines, shrunken social circles, and shut most of us off from the world outside our immediate radius. But I learned last week that a little training (and a lot of safety precautions) can still open the door to new adventures and experiences.
I learned something else, too: that there’s something cleaner about the air at 4,500 feet. It’s crisp, it’s cool, it feels rewarding to breathe in. Most of all, on a perfect fall day, the air up there is quiet.
My friend Jon lives in Western Massachusetts and vacations in Eastham throughout the summer. When he invited me to go hiking with him in New Hampshire, I was eager to accept. It seemed the perfect activity during a pandemic (after golf). We had our own tents, could keep our distance on the trails, and, of course, traveled with masks.
After I adopted a puppy in early February, I’d begun taking him on daily walks. Those turned into regular short hikes on the trails behind my house, as pup Jack grew exponentially. I’m not an experienced hiker, but my legs felt ready for the mountains — and, at a time when so much feels stagnant, I felt prepared to tackle a new challenge.
I packed my bags and, with some friends, set out to meet Jon at a campsite in the middle of the mountains.
I hadn’t been off the Cape even once since March. And I had never been to these parts before. Just driving through the mountains was impressive. The behemoth hills towered over us as we got closer to our campsite.
We reached it on Saturday afternoon, after a drive that lasted just over three hours but seemed like it took us a world away. Early Sunday morning, we headed out to the Hancock Loop Trail, which is about a 10-mile trek.
The first few miles were an easy walk through the woods. We crossed a few ravines and climbed some small rocky hills. Then we reached a fork in the trail. Signs indicated it was a half mile to the north peak or about three quarters of a mile to the south peak of Hancock Mountain.
We chose the north peak. But, up to now, we hadn’t gone up much in elevation. Now, as I looked at the mountain that was stories above me, I tried to fathom the fact that it was only a half mile away. This was going to be a tough climb.
As we began the upward hike, we met some very large rocks right away. As much as I had prepared my legs for a long hike, they were not ready for this incline. The large rocks turned into boulders that had to be traversed at a 60- to 70-degree angle.
I had to stop three times to catch my breath within that half a mile. A few people — who I imagined, like us, had been desperate to get away from isolation on their home turf — passed us walking down the mountain with dogs. One man had a baby strapped to his chest. I was surprised dogs could actually make it up the hill. They were in good spirits.
As I approached the top of the north peak my legs were burning. For the last stretch, I was on all fours. I grabbed the nearby trees to help pull myself up. I could see I was nearing the top, but as I looked up, rocks continued to block my view.
My friends made it to the top before I did, but I finally got there. I forgot about the burning in my legs as I took in the view — one I had never seen before.
The mountains looked like a painting in the clear, sunny sky. It sunk in just how far I felt from civilization. I knew there was still a pandemic raging. But on top of the mountain in the middle of the New Hampshire woods, it did not loom in the same way.
We traveled from the north peak to the south peak, which was just as beautiful, and then began our hike back to the trailhead. Going down wasn’t as taxing on the legs but required focus; the loose rocks made me pay close attention to each footstep.
Hiking is not an easy sport. It’s strenuous, and I have newfound respect for hikers. But the rewards seem worth the effort. Reaching the top totally transported me, making sea-level struggles seem a world away.
I think I’ve found a new sport in my life. I might even have found some new perspective.