“I’m Hiking. I Hike!”

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O P I  N I O N



“I don’t lie. I just remember big.”- John Steinbeck.


It was 50 years ago this month that I first set foot in the White Mountains. To be more accurate, it was 50 years ago that my cold wet squishy-sneakered feet and my jeans got absolutely drenched in several streams in the White Mountains.

I’m a Connecticut flatlander by origin, though I’ve now lived in Manchester for 44 years. I moved here in September 1978, two weeks before Bucky Dent broke the hearts of Red Sox fans.

The idea for the New Hampshire trip was birthed during spring finals week in 1972 with collegiate brains already in overdrive. I’d just aced my Anthropology 101 final. Show me the skull: Ramapithecus, Australopithecus, Abby Normal’s brainpan yet-to-be. I knew them all.

One could actually take Liberal Arts classes in 1972. Here’s a slice of Economics 101: My freshman year at the University of Connecticut cost me all of $1,950, dorm room and greasy fish stick dinners included. My student loan payments were $39 a month when I graduated. It now costs $1,950 to go to a Patriots game with a beer $39.

Mike and Armand lived across the hall from me. They weren’t just an unusual pair for roommates. They were an unusual pair for any two people on the planet. Mike was a planet. He had two goals in life for his 6’ 3” 275-pound bod: to become a history teacher and to be the arm-wrestling champion of the world.

I made the mistake of insulting Mike once, but only once. I said something like, “Bet you didn’t know the Peloponnesian War was fought over a woman named Penelope.”

He picked me up around the waist, hoisted me overhead and walked me down the hall. 

“Honest to God, Mike!” I pleaded. “It was a joke, a bad joke! You’re the world’s greatest history teacher. PLEEEZE DON’T!”

The cold shower hit me with all the subtlety of the iceberg that hit the Titanic. Looking back, it was a harbinger of what was to come in the White Mountains.

Mike had devised an ingenious contraption in his room. It was a small bench with a seat, just the right height for what he called “wrist wrestling,” and had a series of pulleys and weights to train with while he read from the history book in his left hand. 

Few dared to test him. Two who did in the dorm were offensive tackles on UConn’s football team. They lasted no longer than it took for Mike to say “Boompf!” his all-purpose exhalation.

Mike’s roommate Armand was a skinny near-sighted art major with flowing black locks and coke-bottle glasses. His true passion was the electric guitar. He practiced unplugged night after night, and in those days before social media, people actually enjoyed each other’s real company. Both Armand’s unplugged riffs and Mike’s “Boompfs!” were music to study by.

Armand played lead guitar in the Blake Street Gut Band, a New Haven rock institution for years.

We headed north for New Hampshire late on a Friday in Mike’s car with finals in the rearview mirror.

Mike Had played high school hockey for the Berlin (NH) Mountaineers. As a defenseman, I doubted that any pipsqueak right-winger ever made it as far as the goalie.

I found a phone booth, a device your ancestors used, and called my parents to tell them I wouldn’t be home for a few days. No answer. No answering machine. 

“You reach them?” Armand asked back at the car.

“No, and I had three live spiders and 112 dead moths trying to use the phone at the same time,” I answered.

I realize now that we were at Indian Head. A state marker is now at the site, supposedly the place where Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by aliens in 1961.

I only had to worry about Mike.

The three of us stood on a bridge in Berlin overlooking rainbow-colored water. The smell was a combination of dead skunks and the pile of fetid laundry my roommate Don always kept in a corner of our room.

“The smell comes from the paper mill,” Mike said with a perverse pride. “It’s the smell of my hometown.”

“And I thought Port Chester, New York was bad,” I said. I immediately regretted the slight and back-pedaled, fearing for my safety.

It was now dark and Mike was driving way too fast on a sick-to-your stomach winding road. Unlike in Flatland, there were no markers reading “Junction of I-95 and Merritt Parkway 1 Mile.” It was my first time on the Kancamagus Highway. It felt like the dark side of the moon.

Mike pulled the car into a clearing with a wooden sign that said, “No Camping.”

“We’ll stay here for the night,” he said.

We’d come well-prepared with a two-man tent and cheap sleeping bags.

We drew straws.

I lost.

My head could stay inside the tent but the rest of me would have to sleep elsewhere.

“Angelo, zip up the tent as close as you can to your neck,” Mike said. “The blackflies and skeeters can be murder.”

I had no idea what blackflies were. They couldn’t be worse than a bear gnawing on my ankle. I lay awake listening for the sounds of bears or of Armand being smothered by Mike rolling over onto him.

Lonesome Lake. Image/Wikipedia

We “oohed and aahed” at the Old Man of the Mountains and the Basin whirlpool the next morning before Armand spotted a sign that read “Lonesome Lake 1.6 Miles” behind the Basin.

That’s 1.6 miles as the crow flies. Armand and I were naïve pigeons in Mike’s hands.

Why Mike didn’t warn us, I don’t know. He was wearing his Air Force reserve boots. We were wearing sneakers. Footwear wasn’t the only thing working against us.

“Spring melt,” Mike mumbled as my foot slipped off a rock into the cold water for the first of many times on the trail.

Those who know the Lonesome Lake Trail know there’s a 200-yard long and 30-foot wide slab of rock about half-a-mile into the hike, perfect in the summer for sunbathing with water gently moving downhill in the center. In May the flow is wider and faster and the water throws off a cold mist. We’d been hiking uphill for about 45 minutes when I made the mistake of saying, “We must be close to the lake by now.”

Lonesome Lake was still an hour-and-a-half ahead by the way we were traveling.

I forgot all about my frozen feet and kneecaps when a gap in the trees revealed Lonesome Lake and the bluest water I’ve ever seen. Back then they had a rowboat you could take out on the lake and the Presidentials in full profile in the background were as majestic to me as the 1969 Miracle Mets. Merrily-merrily…

I’ve made the hike three times since moving to New Hampshire. As a concession to age, I stayed overnight at the hut the last time in.

Lonesome Lake is all the hike I’ve ever needed. 

No contest.

“Boompf!”


 

About this Author

john-angelo

John Angelo

John Angelo’s humor has appeared in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “Writer’s Digest,” and “American Bookseller.” He is a frequent contributor to the “New Hampshire Business Review.” For a Christmas concert at his Catholic grammar school, the nuns told him to mouth the words and that he’d better not make a sound under any circumstances.