As we circumnavigated the national forest, we answered the burning question of Americans anywhere:
Q: How can you tell the difference between a state park and federal land?
A: The state park looks like someone actually spent money on its upkeep at some point in the last 6+ years.
The state parks and lands had 1) facilities that weren't falling apart; 2) forestry staff; 3) support staff; 4) helpful literature for visitors; 5) actual visitors willing to pay fees for little extras such as guided tours, access to premium pieces of state property, campground hook-ups, etc.
The national forest portion had 1) buildings that looked like they had seen better days, and that's if they weren't in the throes of outright neglect; 2) no forest rangers; 3) no support staff; 4) literature that had been stolen from the state and tacked up on bulletin boards; 5) no visitors, which means no one to collect fees from in exchange for special services.
I can pretty much tell you that this wasn't the case 10 years ago. During that time, you couldn't move in the national forest during fall foliage season without running over a forest ranger. And given just how packed the national forest was day or night during fall foliage season, it was a good thing.
Geeee, wonder where all that federal money went. Hmmmmmm. I'll have to think pretty hard about that one for a little while. [/sarcasm]
In either case, the state makes out like a bandito (all of the state properties were crowded leik woah!), while the federal lands pretty much slowly sink into ruin (there was almost no one running around on federal lands and there was almost no traffic on the roads at all).
Naturally, I engaged in my favorite passtime while tooling through the White Mountains: counting foreign languages.
I counted 6: French Canadian, Spanish, Hindi, Japanese, Polish, and something that sounded vaguely Eastern European.
The French Canadian isn't a shocker, since Quebecois tourists are big year-round. Spanish also wasn't terribly surprising, since the chances are kind of high that they were locals from the big cities to the south.
There have always been Japanese tourists hitting up the White Mountains in the fall for as long as I can remember, so while unusual it's also not terribly surprising. The thing that was surprising was the sheer numbers of Japanese tourists. I mean, there were a lot.
The Indian tourists, though, were huuuuuugely puzzling. They're really, really new in the tourist mix as far as I can see. And there's something really weird about seeing Indian women in full sari walking around the summit of Mount Washington without so much as a hair falling out of place. I dunno. Was there a package travel special to New Hampshire being advertised in India somewhere? I'm not complaining, mind you, because I, personally, thought it was cool. It was just weird because it seemed like there were Indian tourists everywhere. To double the weird, it hit both kurukami and I that the Himalayas have to be a hell of a lot closer to them than New Hampshire, and, let's be honest, the Himalayas are a hell of a lot more impressive than the White Mountains on a mountain-y scale. So, the bumper crop of Indian tourists are a bit of a mystery. We figured they were probably visiting family in the area and took a side trip up to the mountains.
The Polish came from a couple on top of Mount Washington and when I heard it I almost gave myself whiplash when my head snapped around to look at the couple who were excitedly babbling away as they climbed up to the geographical summit. And before you ask, no, I don't speak Polish, but I heard it enough as a kid to recognize the real deal when I hear it.
In a ladies room I heard something that sounded vaguely Eastern European (no idea if it's true). That was a bit odd, as well.
So, now that I've accounted for my international tourist haul for this trip, on to the show!
Since this was kurukami's first time in the White Mountains, let alone the White Mountains in the fall, it goes without saying that such a trip requires a high point (or crisis point, if you will).
Behold, Mount Washington, the crown jewel of the White Mountains, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, and 6,288 feet of pure nightmare.
And guess who suggested that it would be a good idea to go?
The me who is terrified of heights.
Have I mentioned this part about Mount Washington? 6,288 feet of pure nightmare.
If I haven't, please re-read the above sentence. And if I have already mentioned it, I think it bears repeating. Several times.
Brains, apparently, is not one thing I seem to have in my head.
To fully illustrate this comic opera of hysterics inspired by the trip up Mount Washington, let me introduce you to two original characters:
- Rational Human Brain (RHB for short)
- Gibbering Monkey Brain (GMB for short)
The roots of my stupidity is simple: If you're going to squire a newcomer to the area around the wondrous White Mountain National Forest, how do you impress the hell of them?
Mount Washington, of course!
Hell, I'd never been up to the summit of Mount Washington. Given the way my family tended to hit the natural highlights of the region when I was a kid, this gap in my local education was a bit of a mystery.
Well, it was a bit of a mystery before yesterday.
Given that I seem to have inherited my crippling fear of heights from Daddy!Marcs, it's pretty damn obvious that Mount Washington was one bridge too far for his nerves. Wachusett Mountain, okay. Mount Greylock, nerve-wracking, but do-able.
Mount Washington? Clearly Daddy!Marcs was thinking, "Oh, hell no," and that's if the subject was even broached.
Anyway, pleased with my brainwave about what constituted a proper adventuresome goal for our trip, I pulled together a vague plan. I checked the Mount Washington Observatory web site, and investigated the various ways to get up the mountain.
And that's when Rational Human Brain (RHB) and Gibbering Monkey Brain (GMB) started arguing.
There are pretty much four ways to do it:
RHB: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! No.
GMB: Ummm, is that guy in the picture standing on a cliff?
RHB: Don't worry about it. We're not hiking.
GMB: Oh. Good.
- Mount Washington Cog Railway
RHB: $59! Per person? What? Is the steam engine nuclear-fired?
GMB: From the pictures it looks like our safest bet.
RHB: Fifty. Nine. Dollars. Per person. No.
GMB: You didn't let me fini—
RHB: I said, NO!
- Mount Washington Stage a.k.a., the Guided Tour
RHB: $26 per person? Weeeeellll, that price is a little better.
GMB: Ummmm, that van is awfully big for that little road.
RHB: Experienced driver behind the wheel.
GMB: Overconfident driver, you mean. Have I mentioned, little road? Big van?
RHB: Fine. We'll table the discussion for now. Let's look at our final option.
GMB: I'm afraid to look...
- Drive yourself on the Mount Washington Auto Road
GMB: Oh, fuck no.
RHB: The price is right.
GMB: If we go, I'm going on strike.
GMB: Wrong, dipshit. I go on strike, you freeze up in terror half-way up the mountain, and then you and kurukami will have to call the nice state people to helicopter you back down mountain. Or you can die. Your choice.
RHB: On what planet do you think I'm going to be driving up to the Mount Washington summit?
GMB: Thought you'd see it my way.
RHB: kurukami is gonna drive.
RHB: That's right. Dude's driven over the Rockies. Dude's driven up the side of a volcano. Do you honestly think I'm gonna get behind the wheel with you hanging out in this brain?
GMB: Look at the picture! Small road!
RHB: You said that already with the van.
GMB: REALLY SMALL ROAD! PICTURE!
RHB: It's the angle the picture it was taken at. No way it's that narrow.
GMB: THERE ARE NO GUARDRAILS!
RHB: What do you mean, "no guardrails?"
GMB: Says so on the web site. No guardrails on the auto road up the mountain. All 8 miles of it. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada on the guardrails.
RHB: Don't be stupid. Of course there are guardrails on the really dangerous curves.
GMB: But it says...
RHB: C'mon. Thousands of people go up and down Mount Washington just in October. They can't all be good drivers. There has to be some guardrails.
RHB: Look, you wanna go up this mountain or not?
RHB: We're going.
GMB: I hate you.
And that, I thought, was that.
It was settled. Mount Washington was put on the itinerary. kurukami was pleased with the prospect. GMB aside, I was relatively pleased with the prospect.
Fast-forward to the base of Mount Washington itself.
kurukami is behind the wheel. We are waiting in line to pay our $27 for the privilege of tooling up the mountain (all state land, in case you're wondering).
"Which one is Mount Washington?" I ask.
"That one over there," kurukami says. "Has to be. It's only eight miles up. So if you take into account the switchbacks to get you up the mountain, it has to be the closest one right here."
GMB: Ummmm, did he just say "switchbacks?" As in curves made deliberately dangerous?
RHB: You are waaaaaaay overreacting.
So, we pays our money and in exchange we are awarded a congratulatory bumper sticker stating that "This car climbed Mount Washington" so random motorists can see how cool the car (in this case, a 2000 Saturn with manual transmission) is. kurukami gets a little diploma that he can proudly display so all and sundry can see that he's a kickass driver.
Aaaaaaand we also get an envelope to hold all this stuff. On the outside there are printed instructions on how to safely drive up and down the auto road.
RHB: Hunh. These instructions state there are no guardrails.
GMB: We're gonna die.
RHB: And that the car may overheat on the way up the mountain and that we should pull off to let it cool down if the engine gets too hot.
GMB: We're really gonna die.
RHB: You're overreacting.
GMB: The reason they give you that stuff before hand is to fool you into thinking that you can actually drive up there. In reality, there are these little trolls hidden in the rocks. And their mission is to fuck up your car in every way imaginable. They'll cause your engine to explode on the way up, or they'll make your brakes fail on the way down. The end result is always the same: you lose control of the car, then you and all your passengers go sailing over a cliff, and then everyone dies in a firey crash as you and your car bounce your way down the side of the mountain.
RHB: You're insane. You know that, right?
GMB: It says right there that your brakes may overheat on the way down the mountain and that you have to pull over and let them cool off or lose them completely.
RHB: It just says to pull over to let them cool off. Nothing about brake failure.
GMB: I hope you threw out all your porn before you left this morning.
RHB: That's....completely random.
GMB: I say that because when your parents go through your stuff after your funeral, you're going to die of embarrassment when they find it.
RHB: Wait. Won't I be already....hold on! You're are not going to convince me that we're going to die by tricking me into saying that we're going to die. Besides, we already paid to get on the auto road, so it's too late anyway.
So, after briefly reviewing the safety instructions, and deciding that we're not going to bother listening to the audio tour on CD on our way up the mountain (the iPod was shut down for the duration as well), we start climbing...
Up this reeeeaaaalllly, reaaaalllllly narrow road. With no guardrails.
And the safety pull-offs for overheating cars and overheating brakes?
Unh, I've seen bigger pull-offs on one-way dirt roads on landscape that was decidedly flat. Still, we were surrounded by trees upon trees, so the biggest fear-inducing part, the part where I see how high we've crawled up the mountain, is invisible for all intents and purposes.
RHB: Okay, this is not great, but it's not bad.
GMB: See that mile marker? It says we've crawled up 1 mile. One. Talk to me when we hit the half-way point.
RHB: You're not helping.
It's at this point kurukami begins checking on my state of mind. Don't know what tipped him off that maybe this was a bit more than I could handle, really. Could be that I was gripping the "oh shit" handle on the passenger side for all it was worth. Maybe it was the whimpering.
It was probably the whimpering.
"You okay over there?" kurukami asks.
"Don't pay any attention to me. Just concentrate on the road and on driving," I say through gritted teeth.
Somewhere around the 3-mile marker we pull over to let the engine cool off. I gratefully hop out of the car while kurukami shows off his inherent insanity by climbing on top of a huge pile of sand and gravel to get a better view of the panorama.
"Hey, wanna come on up?" kurukami asks.
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" I answer. "No, I don't want to climb up there.
It's at this point that I come across my first randomly not-so-helpful tourist.
Picture it: A soccer mom, with a soccer-mom mini-van, and soccer-mom kids.
"It's not so bad," says soccer mom. "I made it up there with this big thing."
"Oh. I guess the road's wider than the pictures show," I say back.
"Well, you can see for yourself." Then the soccer mom points up the mountain.
I look up to where she's pointing and...
Oh my God! There's two way traffic barely clinging to the side of the mountain clearly visible against the rock above the tree line!
RHB: We're dead.
GMB: We're so very dead.
"No. Fucking. Way," I say.
"It won't be that bad," kurukami says.
I'm pretty sure at this point that I started glaring daggers into his head. Which is funny, because this was my idea. kurukami knew shit-all about the White Mountains, and he sure as hell didn't know about Mount Washington. I could've kept my mouth shut and here I would not be.
But, I had decided, this was all his fault.
RHB: We can't kill him. He's the only one who can get us down.
GMB: Wounding is definitely in order, though.
RHB: After we get down the mountain, dipshit.
So, we leave the gravel pile and begin hauling up the mountain again.
The lush vegetation drops away to alpine scrub.
I can now see just how high up we are.
And how much more narrow the road is compared to the road at the base of the mountain.
And still, no guardrails. Not a one. So, in case you're wondering, yes it's true. There are no guardrails on the Mount Washington auto road.
And then...this is the best part, really...the pavement ends.
That's right. There's no Goddamn pavement!
It's a dirt road! The mystery of the random gravel pile is solved. It's because at least one mile of the auto road is made of dirt!
Cue me starting to whimper in earnest.
So there's poor kurukami trying to decipher from the sound of my whimpering just how close I was to jumping out of the car while it's moving, thereby falling down a cliff (the passenger side is on the outer edge of the road going up) and to my death.
It was a really, really, really close thing. Much closer than I care to admit.
"Ummm, it's going to be okay. Just stay calm. Stay calm," kurukami says.
And then he reaches over to give my hand a reassuring pat.
"Shut up. Concentrate on driving. And do not touch me. Hand. On. Wheel. Pay attention to road. Ignore. Me," I mange to get out between ever-louder whimpers.
Alpine scrub gives way to above the treeline. Now there's nothing blocking the view.
RHB: *passes out*
Finally, we reach the mountain meadows — aka, the really flat space before the final push to the top — just 1 mile shy of the summit.
"Pull over now!" I'm pretty sure I screamed that.
So, kurukami dutifully pulls over. He doesn't even have the car in park before I'm out the passenger side door. I start pacing around the mountain meadows. I start waving my arms. I start yelling. There were many, many tears.
And here's poor kurukami faced with the same question that men throughout history have faced: What do you do when you've got an irrationally hysterical woman on your hands in the grip of a full-blown panic attack?
He did the best he could. There was hugging. There was petting (on the head, you pervs). There was an attempt at being soothing.
I was having none of it because, again, I had somehow decided that this was all his fault.
Poor bastard. Little did he know that plans for his wounding had progressed to plans for his murder.
Finally, deciding that all hope was lost kurukami offered to turn the car right back around and go back to the base of the mountain.
RHB: I did not just go through 7 miles of pure hell just so I could turn around before reaching the summit.
GMB: I...actually agree with that.
RHB: He turns around now, there really will be blood on the walls.
GMB: So we're back to merely wounding, then? Shucks.
"No way," I tell him. "We're a mile for the summit. We're going. Just don't talk to me. Don't try to comfort me. And focus on getting us up there in one piece."
"You sure?" kurukami asks. He sounded nervous. I don't blame him there because clearly I was not being the most rational human being on the planet at this point.
"I'm sure," I tell him.
So, back in the car we go for that last nerve-wracking mile to the summit parking lot.
Thankfully, kurukami nosed around to get a spot that faced into the mountain instead of one that had a panoramic view of what was fast becoming a cloudy landscape. Just after parking, we decided to check our cell phones, just to see if we could get cell phone service at the top of Mount Washington (weirdly enough, you can). Then I stuck my cell phone in my pocket thinking that if the worst happened, I would have easy access to it in the .05 seconds between careening out-of-control off the auto road and crashing to my death.
While I'm unhappily making plans for the downward trip, kurukami goes bouncing off to the part of the parking lot where he can get an unobstructed view of the scenery while I, who is clearly the saner one, stay by the car.
"It's beautiful," kurukami announces at the top of his lungs.
"Yes, it looks very pretty from here," I shout back.
Now that we're at the summit, time for some exploring. I at least need to make it worth my while, right?
The first thing you notice about the summit at Mount Washington is that the words "handicapped" and "accessible" are never going to appear in tandem anywhere around the joint. Everything, and I mean everything is at a 45-degree angle. To get from point A to Point B, you have to climb stairs, or rocks, or dangerously pitched road.
Even from our lofty perch, we had to climb just a little bit higher.
And that meant stairs.
I tell kurukami to go ahead so I can take this new challenge one step at a time, so to speak.
While kurukami raced up the stairs like a lunatic, I kept my eyes down while I slowly worked my way up. On the first landing, however, I made a very bad mistake.
I turned around.
And got an eyefull full of panoramic view with nothing in front of me to keep me from falling. I began to sweat. I began to hyperventilate. Then I turned around and, in that thin atmosphere, I ran up the stairs.
RHB: That was dumb.
RHB: Really, really dumb.
I make it to the top, and the first thing I do is race by kurukami like my hair's on fire so I can go hug the corner of a building.
That's right. I hugged a building.
Clearly, I was not ready for primetime. And making it worth my while? I'd be lucky if I could make it worth the first mile on the auto road.
"Ummm, are you going to be okay?" kurukami asks.
"Talk to me in a normal tone of voice instead of trying to be soothing or I'll rip your tongue out," I told him. "Because this? This is not soothing."
This threat of bodily harm was probably the last thing the poor guy expected and given that (again) he had a hysterical woman on his hands, he probably felt the need to double-check that I was serious about ripping out his tongue.
"So you want happy tone of voice?" he asks.
"Damn straight," I inform him.
Once I managed to calm down the hyperventilating (but not the sweaty palms or pounding heart), it was time to explore.
First up, a visit to the original carriage house (a tiny wooden structure) so we could review Mount Washington's days as a vacation spot of the rich. We also discovered how people originally got up the mountain back in the early 19th century: an open horse-drawn carriage that was pulled by a team of at least 8 horses.
People in the 19th century were clearly nuts.
Then it was up to the geographical summit of Mount Washington at 6,288 glorious feet.
Yes I climbed up those rocks to stand at the summit right next to the sign.
No I did not look at the pretty scenery while I was up there.
I looked at my feet while I was up there.
What do you take me for? Completely insane?
From there, it was time to hit the snack bar and rest before we made our way down the mountain.
Meanwhile, the skies are getting darker and darker.
The R&R station is well-stocked and pretty well run. There are several gift shops. A museum about the mountain and its weather. A post office (believe it or not). And, of course, a snack bar.
To me, the truly mystifying thing was the fact that it was fully staffed.
RHB: How does this work, exactly? Do they commute every day up and down the mountain? On that road?
RHB: They must come up here and stay up here at least a few days at a time. Maybe even a week. I can't see making that drive every day.
GMB: Insane people would do it. I bet it's even written right into the job description. "Must be insane to work here."
Still, the tourist industry is huge in the White Mountains area, and by huge, I mean monstrously huge. And working on top of Mount Washington probably pays well. Given a choice between starving and working the summit of Mount Washington, I suppose...
Oh, who am I kidding. I'd choose starvation in a heartbeat.
So, kurukami and I grab some drinks and snag a table. Sitting at our table is a sweet-looking old couple. I sit with my back firmly to the window, while kurukami gazes out the window in rapturous delight. We're surrounded by tourists and hikers (and trust me when I tell you, you can smell a hiker before you even see them).
Through our conversation, the late 60-ish something lady figures out that I'm hella nervous about going back down the mountain.
Enter my second randomly not-so-helpful tourist.
"You gotta take chances, push yourself to experience life," 60-ish lady says.
RHB: Excuse me, but do you see me sitting here? I'm pretty sure I'm sitting right here. So don't you think that I've already taken that advice?
GMB: You should have listened to me.
RHB: Shut up.
"Look at my husband here," the 60-ish lady says.
It's then that I realize that her husband is wearing an oxygen tank.
RHB: Pleeeeeeease tell me that he didn't drive you two up this mountain.
GMB: Pleeeeeeease tell he won't be leaving the same time we will.
RHB: You had to bring that up, didn't you?
GMB: And if they're leaving at the same time, please tell me they won't be in the car behind us.
RHB: Oh my God, you suck so very hard.
"My husband has one lung," 60-ish woman informed us.
RHB: One lung?
GMB: This gets better and better.
"And when he got his lung transplant..." 60-ish woman says.
GMB: And better and better and better...
RHB: Shut. Up.
"We decided that we were going to do all those things we never did. We're retired. Our kids are grown up. So we're taking five years to travel. We've been doing it for three years now," 60-ish woman says.
RHB: Awwww, that's kind of sweet, actually.
GMB: You know there's a punchline coming.
"Besides, if it's your time to go, it's your time to go," the 60-ish woman says. "If God calls you home, there's nothing you can do about it."
RHB: And there's the punchline.
GMB: Oh my God, we're going to die!
RHB: Great. Just great.
GMB: It's like that time when we were in grammar school and the nuns used to get mad at us because of our bad handwriting and would tell us that we had to learn how to write neater because if we died in our sleep and went to heaven we'd be ashamed to show Jesus our homework assignments because of our messy writing!
RHB: Which kick-started our life-long struggle with insomnia. But I'm not bitter. Not. At. All.
Between RHB and GMB having it out in my head about earlier trauma, I figure now is the time to nip this particular attempt at cheering me up in the bud.
"Excuse me," I interrupt, "but if it's all the same to you, I'd much rather not die right now."
However, 60-something woman is just not having it. She was hell-bent and determined to cheer me up, and that pretty much meant a long dissertation about putting it all in God's hands and that if He decides it's time to call you home, it's time you just get going.
RHB: We really need to leave before GMB goes ape shit. I mean, even more ape shit.
Eventually, kurukami and I excuse ourselves for one last look around the summit. As we exited the snack bar, I turn to him and say, "Wow. That was not at all helpful."
"You should've seen the look on your face," kurukami says.
On the way out the door, we finally see one of the cog trains sitting on the tracks, the really expensive option that GMB liked the best. It's this teeny, tiny thing with teeny, tiny wheels that have teeny, tiny teeth to bite into the railroad tracks and one car for passengers.
Needless to say, I thought the auto road was the better option after taking a look at it.
kurukami agreed. We pretty much immediately said in unison, "Not a chance in hell."
By this time, it's about 3 p.m. It's getting really dark and there's this fine mist falling. kurukami then lays out the options: We could leave now, or wait until the staff on the mountain summit starts kicking us out at at 4 p.m.
"Ummm, waiting until there's no uphill traffic sounds nice," I say.
"Yeah, but we may be dealing with wet roads," kurukami logically points out.
"Right. Leaving now it is," I say.
I won't get into the long, painful process of crawling down the stairs and across dangerously pitched (and damp) parking lot entrance ways to get into the car. No point. It's pretty much more of the same.
Anyway, I get in the car and put on my seatbelt, which is ridiculous in a way because if we get into a car accident on the way down Mount Washington, ain't no way we're going to survive anyway.
RHB: *looks at hand*
GMB: What are you doing?
RHB Checking my lifeline to make sure we're not going to die on the way down.
GMB: And you're the rational one?
"What are you doing?" kurukami asks.
I quickly put my hand down. "Nothing." Because God knows I don't want kurukami to think I'm nuts, right?
So, kurukami puts the car in gear and...
I pretty much blank out. I swear to God, I blank out completely until we get beyond the tree line.
I was reliably informed by kurukami that I was pretty quiet. So, quiet in fact that he'd occasionally glance over to see if I was still alive. There was some soft muttering and an occasional whimper, from what I understand.
Also, not surprising, I was clutching the "oh shit" handle so hard my knuckles were white.
But here's the weird part: Apparently, my left hand was up and kept making this fist right about at the same level as his head. I'd make this fist, and release, then make it again.
He wisely chose not to ask because he was afraid that this threatening fist would, indeed, lash out and hit him.
Clearly my flight-or-fight response is in excellent working order.
Anyway, we finally reach the treeline and I'm at last aware of my surroundings. There's glorious color all around in golds, purples, pinks, reds, orange, and every other color known to man. Best of all, the leaves are so thick that all I can see is the road.
kurukami, finally sensing that it was safe to actually talk to me makes a remark about all the trees.
"Yes! It's so wonderful!" I say in this insanely chipper voice. "If we slide off the road we won't die!"
"Well, that was completely random," kurukami says.
"No it isn't," I tell him. "If we fall off the road, the trees will stop us from rolling all the way down the bottom of the mountain."
"Ummmm, if it makes sense to you," he tells me.
RHB: I think it makes perfect sense.
GMB: You would.
Anyway, we finally make it safely to the bottom of Mount Washington with ourselves and car intact.
The only thing hurt in the trip up or down was pretty much my pride, but I can definitely live with that.
Anyway, when we pulled over so we could catch our breath, I made sure to get on my hands and knees so I could kiss the ground.
I got a mouthful of dirt for my trouble.
Best. Tasting. Dirt. Ever.
As for Mount Washington. I came. I saw. I went up the auto road. The mountain kicked my ass.
But I got to live to tell the tale.
That counts for something right there.