“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” The often debated difference between being a traveler or a tourist has been so well and subtly put together by the British author G.K. Chesterton. I write this series of travelogues to cherish the unique experiences I had at various places. While there are a plethora of websites that provide information for tourists, these posts attempt to reach above mere information to inspire and share the adventure with other fellow or future travelers. There is nothing wrong is being a tourist and enjoying what a new destination has to offer, and likewise, there is so much to experience going beyond the brochures actively in search of people, culture and incidental adventure. One experience need not be exclusive of the other and in the end the journey is the reward. I hope you enjoy these editions and share your own as well.
This is a special edition as it was the first time I traveled with a group of strangers – and it so happened that none of the strangers have traveled through this route before (of course except the awesome guides), so it was a first for all of us!
- Why the White Mountains?
You could say it was almost by chance. The decision was based on backpacking trips that I could do in the Labor day long weekend holiday. For a long time I wanted to do a solo trip (I mean at least not with the people that I know) to a new and naturally scenic place and didn’t want to be too concerned with planning and safety. I came across REI adventure trips and it sounded fun and just what I was looking for. One fine day after debating between the Smokies and the Whites trips they offered for that weekend, I zeroed in upon Whites and the decision was set. Why the solo trip? – I don’t know… maybe I wanted to take a break, explore the unknown, experience a first, clear out my mind and reorient myself? (At least that’s what happened during the trip).
- Were you a tourist or a traveller?
Most of the itinerary and path were set in place by the guides and the organization, so I guess a tourist. But this trip was one of the firsts that I went in with as much ignorance as I could leave unscathed, and yes, ignorance is bliss. Lots of surprises have you will! 🙂
- When did you go there?
I was there for a total of 4 days around the Labor day long weekend (Sep 1st week). 3 days were dedicated to hiking and half a day initially for meet, greet, prep and gear check.
- How did you plan?
This was the best part (unlike my Grand Canyon adventures).
Lately I have come to realize that I am made up of paradoxes – what seems valid and obvious at one time seems ridiculous at the other times. Cooking organic and healthy – eating whatever junk is around, careful of preserving small details of impractical nature – yeah yeah whatever for some other practically important things in life, thrifty in spending on material luxuries – generous in spending on others and experiences, logically sound and strong – emotionally sensitive and vulnerable, thoroughly enjoying the process of planning a trip and knowing most of intricate details of what is expected beforehand – jumping into a trip half-blind with the trust that it will all turn out exciting and amazing!
- What you wish you had known/not known before you reached there?
If any, perhaps only that this place is like a piece of heaven on earth and you need more than 4 pre-planned days to soak in the beauty of nature all around.
- A brief description of itinerary?
This photo gives a good picture of the hikes and routes involved. The REI website page offered a detailed itinerary description which we stuck to for most part as the whole group was very complying and enthusiastic.
- How did you reach there?
I flew to Boston and then drove up the crazy traffic about 3.5 hours North-west to reach the White Mountain national forest in New Hampshire. I must say though that as a first timer in the North East US, the drive was amazingly spectacular. I struggled to keep my eyes on road with so much beauty around. I looked into public transport system to avoid a rental car, but the only option I could find was the Concord Coach system which was limiting in terms of flexibility and reliability given the strict trip timings.
- Where did you stay?
The first night was at AMC Highland Center which is so happily situated amongst the mountains, lakes and forests. It was a pleasant stay in bunk-style dorm rooms with shared baths, with country style a la carte dining, equipped with library, game room and naturalistic information all around. The next night after the first day of hike was at Galehead Hut, the most remotely located of the 8 hut systems on the Appalachian Trail maintained by the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). The huts were operated by a fully staffed “croo” (usually college students in their summer breaks or transitional phases) who not only prepared delicious 4-course dinners and wholesome breakfast for the entire resident population right at the stroke of 6pm and 7 am, but also entertained us throughout with their animated energy and spectacular performances. The huts were off grid in midst of wilderness with no electricity or showers, but were clean and equipped with shared chemical toilets and ice-cold running water from deep wells. They housed bunk beds with wool blankets and pillows (which really helps in dropping off sleeping bag from the gear list). They also offered a naturalist program each evening to answer all the questions about flora/fauna you encountered during your hikes, a variety of board games, small library with interesting reads such as “Mushrooms demystified” 😛 and even a fully functional telescope that one could borrow to look at the clear and spectacular night skies. These huts also welcomed unplanned visitors like thru-hikers and offered them food and shelter in exchange for an hour’s labor. After the second day’s long and exhausting hike, we stayed at another hut in this system, the Zealand hut which was right next to a beautiful cascading waterfall.
- What did you do?
Hike, hike and hike – up, down, rest and repeat. The terrain was quite rocky and with a backpack weighing a little over 25 pounds the steep climbs almost felt like bouldering. The first and third day hikes were good to warm up and calm down the soreness. The second day hike (nearly 10 miles with about 4500ft elevation changes) was the longest, toughest and most exhausting of all.
- How was the experience?
In a simple sentence I would say it was fun to be in midst of scenic beauty with awesome strangers and it was an unexpectedly much needed break to reorient myself. Being in the lap of nature brings out some strange joy and realization. As I hiked on and on with this group, I listened to the amazing stories that my fellow travelers were sharing through their rugged breaths about the adventures they have done before, or wish to do. I asked about them, shared about me, my past hikes, experiences, etc. Slowly and eventually I became conscious of the pain and soreness in my body. I tried not to stop and keep going with short pauses to catch my breath. My mind which is always constantly occupied with thoughts slowly ran clear of the past situations, comparisons, experiences and it was perhaps so with my fellow travelers too. We became more silent as we progressed longer into the hike. The only thing running through my mind was where could I place my next step strategically without falling or injuring myself. One step at a time and one step in front of the other. In the pain, I experienced a peaceful calm. The greenery was as green as green could possibly get. The cool mountain air was filled with the aroma of fir and spruce. The calm and quiet around was only broken by the clinks of hiking poles against the boulders. The stream gushing in the distance was calming. I tasted wild blueberries, cranberries, looked at the changes in the woods at different elevations, different mushrooms and lichens, sun streaming through the woods, cairns, listened to my own breath, etc. Peaceful!
- Most memorable moments?
My unexpected surprise birthday celebrations at the huts amongst strangers, watching the Milky way and shooting stars, having an hour long candid conversation about all sorts of things with a stranger from Boston and not even knowing each other’s names, listening to my Guide’s inspiring story of how she ended up here, funny experiences of my group members, the strangest “Soylent” conversations and expressions, when I tasted the awesome homemade pure maple syrup over the pancakes, when I learned how to differentiate between fir and spruce trees, the way I slipped into mud twice on the same log, reading others messages and experiences in the hut logs from years back, looking through the candid photos captured, etc. So many that it’s hard to remember all, can only remember the warm feeling.
- Not so good experience?
Nothing that I strongly felt. Maybe should have worked out a bit more to avoid the soreness in calves and thighs on the third day.
- Scariest moment?
Going down on some huge boulders, I felt scared that my shoes might give away the grip and I might fall down. Especially towards the end of the second day’s hike when my muscles were very sore and my foot was losing grip and coordination.
- Most unexpected moment?
My birthday surprises! Thanks to my fellow travelers and guides for their kindness, planning and efforts that I had an amazing birthday even though I could not get in touch with any of my family and friends that day.
- Tips for hiking/ backpacking equipment?
Most of the personal required items were brought on their own by most of the group members. However, the AMC Highland center offers a range of selection of LL Bean equipment to borrow free of charge for people staying there – including hiking boots, snow shoes, fleece layers, sheet covers, synthetic layers of clothing in various sizes, rain jackets and pants, hiking poles, day packs, trash bag liners, etc. My tip for future would be that you should try to pack as efficiently as possible by cutting down any unnecessary weight and like my guides stressed cultivate good hiking habits by not eliminating emergency protection gear such as rain jacket and pants, fleece cap, gloves and jacket, paracord, extra pair of socks, sunscreen, etc. I would rather next time carry fewer change of clothes and leave out the cellphone and power bank. Every ounce adds up quickly. If you are staying in the huts, you wouldn’t really need a sleeping bag, a liner would suffice in early Fall season. The huts offer 3 wool blankets and a pillow to each person. This was the first time I used a hydration bladder and I am totally glad I made the switch. It was extremely convenient to sip water frequently while climbing the steep terrain without having to remove the pack or ask others to reach for the water bottles.
- How expensive was the trip?
The total trip cost me approximately $1500. The trip as offered by REI was $ 650 which included all the food and accommodation for the duration of the trip. Apart from this, my to and fro airfare during the peak travel time of Labor day long weekend cost about $400. The trip insurance cost about $70. The rental car with overly covered insurance (thanks to paranoid me, yes I am paradoxical) cost about $400.
- Any special places to checkout?
The lake in front of the AMC highland center is really pretty. I wish I had more time to check out the cable car ride to the Franconia Notch, hike the Flume, the old fashioned scenic Cog railway route that runs across the whole ranges, the nearby villages, local businesses, etc. I decided to definitely come back again with my loved ones and checkout all these places at a leisurely pace and also hike the 32 mile Pemi loop hike. Definitely give yourself a day or 2 extra with nothing planned to laze around and go wherever you wish to explore in these amazing surroundings. As I was leaving this place, I was so jealous to see my one of my guides sit solemnly by the rock in the warm sun and cool breeze, reading a book. What a bliss would that be! 🙂
- Take away / how it stands in your memory?
It is magical. I went in without any expectations, without any preconceived notions and dispositions and I came out taking in the wonder of everything that happened the way it happened. It is beautiful. Can’t wait to go back again with my loved ones.