My Worst Hike Ever

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Climbing Mount Sunapee in early June was not my best plan ever. I was in the area this week doing research for a travel story. Yankee Publishing was recently awarded the contract to produce the New Hampshire Tourism department’s annual travel guide for 2012, so this week it was my job to familiarize myself with the Dartmouth/Sunapee region. Cruising around Lake Sunapee in early summer is pretty good for government work, but it wasn’t as posh as it sounds. When people hear that you’re a travel writer, they tend to assume your work is all fun and games. In reality, however, you spend most of your day in the car speeding from one destination to another and trying to cover as much of the area as you can before the sun goes down. They’re long days and there isn’t much time to rest and breathe in the atmosphere.

All day I held Mount Sunapee in front of me as a reward. If I made it to all the destinations I wanted to cover early enough, I’d hike up the mountain in the last few hours before sunset. I’d still be scouting, but it would give me a chance to slow down and take in some scenic vistas.

I pulled into the Mount Sunapee parking lot around 4pm. I didn’t have a trail map, but I figured I could just wing it. This was my first mistake. You see, Sunapee is primarily a skiing mountain and all of the big signs for Mount Sunapee on the roads in the region lead you to the ski area, not a trailhead. When I got there all I found were a bunch of silent ski lifts and a few darkened lodges. After 20 minutes of looking, I managed to find an employee who gestured vaguely at the biggest lodge and told me I’d find the summit trail somewhere behind it. What I found was a dirt road running along the side of one of the trails. “I guess this is it,” I thought. Mistake number two.

What I was actually hiking was a service road that zigzagged up the slope, occasionally intersecting with the various ski runs. I kept telling myself that there must be a turn off at some point for an actual trail, but after half-an-hour I realized it was never going to come.

Ski trails are not meant to be hiked. By their very nature, they are unfriendly to travelers on foot. They’re steep, of course, and the wide, clear alleys rob you of any sense of being in the wilderness. The tree lines on either side are set wide enough that they provide almost no shade while at the same time being thick enough to stifle any kind of breeze.

And then there are the bugs.

The black flies of the Dartmouth/Sunapee region were enjoying the last two weeks of their infernal season. Perhaps they knew the end was coming and were desperate, or perhaps the flies of this region are particularly hearty, but whatever the reason they scoffed at tangy fumes of my bug repellent. The “Off” on the label was merely a suggestion to them, and one they were not inclined to follow. By the 45 minute mark of my hike, the excursion had become one giant buzzing, stinging mess.

The road I was following dead-ended at one of the lower ski lifts. I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I was clearly on the wrong trail and it hadn’t even taken me to the summit. The flies were making me miserable and the 90-degree heat had started to take its toll. I had every reason in the world to turn back, but unfortunately I remain ever my father’s son. My family’s stubbornness chooses to present itself at the most inopportune times and when it does it is irresistible. I couldn’t let this mountain beat me.

I struck off cross-country, picking my way across unmaintained ski trails. The going was steep, but every time I stopped to rest the black flies seemed to grow worse, so I pushed on as fast as I could. Crushed bug carcasses were clinging to my shirt and pants and every time I’d wipe the sweat out of my hair I could feel the flies clinging to my scalp. I had naively believed that the swarm would thin as I reached higher elevations, but the strong mountain breezes I was hoping for never managed to squeeze through the surrounding tree line. I gradually dawned on me that the swarm around me was growing thicker not because there were more flies at the top than at the bottom, but because the flies from the beginning of the hike were still with me. I was dragging pests from every part of the mountain along with me as I stubbornly scrambled for the summit.

When I crested the final ski run, I was filled with a sense of disappointment. The top of Mount Sunapee is ringed by trees. It was just as hot and stagnant as every other place I’d seen that day, and worst of all, there wasn’t even a nice view. The summit lodge was locked and dark, but I made my way up the back steps to the third floor balcony. Around the corner of the building, the wind whipped just hard enough to confuse my buggy companions. I could make out a corner of Lake Sunapee and the mountains beyond. It wasn’t breathtaking, but it was the best I was going to get. I snapped a few pictures and then started back down.

I picked the steepest, most direct run from the map of ski trails at the lodge and plunged down it, tacking against the grade to keep my footing. It didn’t take long for the black flies to find me, and the swarm was just as thick on the way down as the way up. The cruelest thing about bug swarms is that you can always see the edge of them. You are forever four feet away from a place where there are no bugs. It’s like a carrot on a stick, not so much motivating you as mocking your inability to stop.

Halfway down the mountain, I began to realize the toll the hike had taken on me. Wiping the bugs from my hair for the hundredth time, my fingers came back smeared with blood. Both of my elbows were bleeding freely from a dozen or more bites as well. All of my spraying and swatting hadn’t accomplished anything. I must have killed scores of flies, but the swarm never seemed to thin. To them I wasn’t a hiker; I was a host, and I led my flock pied-piper style down the steep slopes, cheered only by the fool’s consolation of knowing I hadn’t quit.

The bugs departed when I reached the foot of the mountain. I dumped the last of my water in my hair, hoping to wash out some of the dead flies and dried blood. I drove as fast as I could to the Burkehaven Lodge in Sunapee and the cold shower waiting for me there.

My shirt was soaked from water and sweat. My skin was read and my eyes were sunken. I can only guess at my smell. Yet when I checked in, the innkeeper took it all in stride. He smiled at me as I tried to pretend like I didn’t look like some kind of squalid hobo. In an attempt to normalize the situation, I sheepishly asked for dinner recommendations, which he gladly supplied.

I was impressed by the service even more when I finally saw my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Apparently the black flies had gone after my ears as well and both lobes were caked in dried blood. A small scab had flaked off my right ear and has dangling there by a thread. I thought again of my poor innkeeper and laughed before climbing into the shower. Later that night, I jotted down an entry for the Burkehaven Lodge in my notes: “Unflappable courtesy in the face of absurdity. Bravo.”


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