Fire and Perspective

“Fire was the first Facebook,” a ponderously large British man once informed me at a library coffee shop. His name was Bob. He owned a tracking company I worked for out in Arizona. “Before there was Facebook, there was fire. Before we all shared ideas and idiocies, hopes and heartbreaks over tiny glowing screens we said what we thought around fires.” He would provide these witticisms in great ranting spurts shot forth with a thick Yorkshire accent. I learned some of my my favorite skills and stories from Bob. He stood six feet, eight inches, was likely just shy of three hundred pounds, and was able to carry a one hundred pound pack through Arizona’s canyon country while pointing out tracks and spore from Mountain Lions, tiny deer called muntjacs, and vicious desert raccoons who would twist the heads off of chickens in their coops like tiny, fuzzy psychopaths.

These days, when trading trail info, social media is generally the first source I hear cited during an information exchange. The problem is that while Facebook and Tumblr posts will be there forever describing water levels and twists in the trail like ancient petroglyphs scrawled on the wall of a slot canyon. What JohhnnyHiker420 wrote about York Pond Trail being, “super chill with a really mellow ascent up to 3300’ but no views ‘til you’re out of the notch, still though, totally worth it,” during Spring Break 2011 just wont help me in planning my August 2017 expedition.

Beyond the time issues contributed by ancient internet posts, I learned after moving here that there is an inherent ruggedness to real White Mountain Hikers, but there may be some braggadocio too. By contrast, a Northern Arizona hiker might describe a scurry up Mt. Madison from Madison Spring Hut to be, “Not too bad, a little steep, gotta watch your footing, more exposed at the top, biting winds year round but well worth the views,” and a seasoned White Mountain hiker will call it, “no problem at all, ditch your pack at the hut, tag the peak at 5,367 feet and check off one more 4,000 footer from your list!”

There is no objective way to describe one perspective as superior or one experience as more legitimate. There are more differences than similarities between the oddities of the desert South West and the extremes of the New Hampshire North Country. If I were to get turned around on Mt. Madison, confused by the grandeur of the view and the wildness of the Great Gulf Wilderness I could feasibly choose a single direction (hopefully away from the wilderness area) and walk until I came to a road where rescue would be statistically likely to occur by passing motorist or the like. If I were to stumble off the trail on 12,633 foot Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, I could keep to a single compass bearing for a couple days before expiring miles from a regularly traveled road. Yet the San Fransisco Peaks which include Humphreys, Agassiz (12,356 Ft), Fremont (11,969 Ft), and others are regularly climbed by tourists, college field courses, and locals without incident save for annual avalanches and some eerie murders and mysterious suicides (fairly common throughout the Colorado Plateau it seems; it is the Wild West after all…)

The White Mountains deceive us. Mt. Washington is “only” 6,288 feet above sea level at its summit. A mountain so rugged and deadly that our local bookstore has shelves of books titled: Not Without Peril, Desperate Steps, and Peak Experiences: Danger, Death and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast. My home in Prescott, Arizona was at 5,500 feet and two miles Main Street and a block from the local high school. So it comes down to perspective, it comes down to local culture, and we must always carry with us a grain of salt and a dash of humility when entering into the wilds, be them our local hills or distant peaks. Having experienced both the mountains of the east and of the west I can safely conclude this post with the empirical statement that the West offers grandeur like few can describe, but the East, specifically the Whites, offers extremes and challenges that defy their geographical location, their modest summit heights, and their accessibility.

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