Yesterday, on the side of a mountain on a rare patch of bare ground above a rushing stream, Atticus and I could feel the change of the seasons. We sat under an old, twisted tree in the warm sun for more than an hour listening to the song of the water now freed from winter’s icy grip. Occasionally a breeze so slight I didn’t even notice it made the faded gold leaves of small nearby beech trees quiver as if the tiniest wood sprites danced on top of them. We sat, we stretched, we yawned, and I’m happy to say we even napped. It was the stuff that daydreams are made of.
These are the moments I find myself living for these days. Used to be I had my lists and could hardly wait to check off one of the higher peaks from this list or that one. But that was a few years ago. I’ve been cured of that curious mania and now instead of the highest peaks or most notable ones, I seek out the most beautiful places. There are times Atticus I still hike the four thousand footers quite often, but now it’s because I want to hike a mountain and not because I need it.
My wakeup call came after several peak-bagging seasons when my friend Steve Smith, the noted White Mountain author and columnist and owner of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Book Store in Lincoln, New Hampshire, said, “You know, Tom, there are other places to hike below 4,000-feet.”
Begrudgingly I took his suggestion and Atticus and I climbed Hedgehog. Something strange happened that day. I was introduced to hiking for the joy of it and from that moment on I’ve been hooked. Hedgehog is not a very high peak but it offers stunning views from Chocorua over to Passaconaway, then to the Sleepers, Tripyramids, and an assortment of other peaks to the south, east, and west. Then there are the views to the north as well. That little hike changed things for Atticus and me. We have become experts at finding such places and wringing every last bit of pleasure out of them.
That’s why we were on little Middle Mountain yesterday. The Green Hill Preserve, where Middle Mountain sits, is home to some wonderful peaks and it’s right in North Conway. Head into Hannaford’s or one of the numerous outlets and you can’t miss seeing them peering over the top of the stores. The mountains are shaped like breaking waves coming from the north. Over the past two years we’ve explored every bit of the area.
Not only do these little peaks offer up some splendid views and a good workout, the woods are no different than the woods that lead to any of the other mountains here in the Whites. They are filled with the same enchantment Robert Louis Stevenson noted about all forests: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
That “subtle something” is alive and well in the Green Hill Preserve even though it’s amazingly close to the strip in North Conway. Turn down Artist Falls Road right across from the Muddy Moose Restaurant, turn right again on Thompson Road, and park in the small lot on the side of the road. Step out of your car, walk into the woods, and you are wrapped in nature’s embrace just as many of the famed White Mountain artists who stayed in that neighborhood back in the 1800s had been.
The network of trails is well-mapped and well-marked and you can cobble together longer, more challenging hikes, or simply take it easy as we did yesterday. We were in no hurry and took our time hiking along Middle Mountain Trail. About a mile and a half in where a trail to the left leads to Peaked Mountain and the other to Middle, we stayed to the right, walked along the stream until it disappeared, and then entered into a nice glade of trees. If you’ve ever climbed up the Pine Bend Brook Trail to the Tripyramids you come to a place just below the summit of North Tripyramid where you’re walking through flat ground and on either side you can look out through the trees and see the sky – not above you – but right beside you. That’s what the trail is like towards the top of Middle. Then you curve to the right, walk up over some large flat rocks, turn left again, and the trail passes through a nave of trees as if you are heading for an altar. Instead of an altar, you hit the summit.
When we reached the top it was overcast but comfortable and we sat on the large rocks, took in the views, ate lunch, played some Mozart, then eventually made our way back down again. We were halfway down the mountain when the sun came out and we found our spot by the stream.
Upon finally making it home there was no need to place a check mark next to anything, no need to consider what we had to hike next. We simply returned home and realized we were a bit better off for having loitered in the forest.
Five years ago, during our first summer of hiking, my friend, Atticus M. Finch and I, hiked the 48 4,000-footers of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in eleven weeks. That summer in the mountains changed our lives. Eventually I sold my Newburyport newspaper, we moved north, and things have never been the same. This September you can read our story in FOLLOWING ATTICUS: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship. It’s being published by William Morrow. To follow our continuing story, please visit The Adventures of Tom and Atticus.
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