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The U.S. National Forest and National Park Service are examples of government creating and preserving public goods against private gain.  They are part of a century's old legacy of reform and stewardship that is endangered most by public apathy.

The White Mountains are a magnificent stretch of peaks, great heaving piles from millions of years past, green and lush in the dawn of summer, and of course, huge and cold and white through the long winters of New Hampshire.  Mount Osceola is one of the junior members of the club, a mere 4,300 vertical feet up from the base.

Mount Osceola and the White Mountains generally are a gift from time, from God and also, from the United States Government.  White Mountain National Forest is not, technically, a national park, but part of the huge land holdings of the U.S. government protected for no, or limited, human exploitation.  The White Mountains are, essentially, a kind of national park managed by the Forest Service.  This investment by the U.S. in its own territory, preserving it for various uses – and sometimes, for no uses at all – is an extraordinary success that only government could accomplish.    The fact that my teenager could clamber up the side of a mountain like this in the year 2014 is due entirely – entirely – to the foresight of wise people a century ago, and the ongoing wisdom of public servants ever since.  No doubt there are many valid complaints and criticisms of the U.S. national parks and forests, but there is only one thing really wrong with them: the public doesn’t appreciate them enough.

Which on a busy, hot Saturday in late Spring may be a good thing. Mount Osceola was crowded enough.   We approached the mountain in blissful ignorance – led by an experienced hand, but somehow oblivious to what it would mean to go up, and then come back down, this mountain.  It may be true that you’re better off tackling something really difficult if you don’t know precisely how difficult it’s going to be.  You might not tackle it at all, if you knew.

The way up sparkles with anticipation.  What will the path be like?  Are these the only boulders we will scramble over?  Are these bigger boulders the worst we will cross?  Does the path consist only of boulders?  As you peek through gaps in the tree line, the view changes; the other mountains shrink, the clouds seem larger, their shadows stitch across the green of the valley below.

It’s a grind going up.  The inexperienced or ill-equipped climber gets winded, falls back, takes a break, slugs back the water, wipes his brow and then lurches forward again.  The pure fun wears off within a half-hour and you know you’re in for work, albeit with a magic reward at the end.  Also true is that mountain climbing is one of those “chasing your sunk costs” situations – having scraped half way up or more, it is irritating to contemplate not finishing. So you labour onwards. And you know that if you can keep on going, if that branch holds and you don’t slip off the rocks, you will eventually reach the summit.

At the summit is glory.  The top of Mount Osceola is a rock shelf, a perfect place to stand in the wind, breathe in the fresh air and scan the horizon encircling you.   Before reaching it, you imagine that a sense of accomplishment will suffuse you, that you will revel in what you’ve done.  But that’s not what happens.  Instead, as the path flattens and you walk out from the trees to the hard plain rock at the top of the mount, you and your triumph disappear. You behold a greater glory: the world below you, endless and green and the sky above, endless and blue, and the clouds stretched out across the vista like sleeping white lions.

It may be one of the hardest things you will ever do and yet its reward is to make you small, smaller than you have ever been. But it also makes you part of something much greater.  It’s like swimming far out from shore, only to be swallowed by a whale.

But then the whale spits you back out, and you begin the long, slow, staggering tumble back down the boulders and stones and trees and muck you had ascended.  Your body is hot and fatigued from the climb; the stop at the summit was not nearly long enough to truly recover.  Picking your way carefully, step by step through the debris of a million year old mountain, your mind and joints and bones and muscles can be stretched to breaking.  And the hours stretch too. This is no toboggan ride.

Sometimes you recognize memorable parts of the path you climbed before – the sloping wet stones as big as cars, the jagged pile of rocks that puts you one mis-step from broken bones – but oftentimes, coming at it from the reverse direction the trail is unrecognizable and more than once you wonder: have I left the path? Am I wandering out onto the far side of the mountain and will I be here for hours?  More than once we stopped to breathe, to look around, to feel vaguely miserable or vaguely happy that somewhere down there was the world.  Then we would begin again in haste, stumble, fall into things, get scratched and get going again.

It soon becomes clear that you have to worry about each footfall, mindful of risk.  On the way down, your steps – because they are delicate and dangerous – really matter.  This pulls the mind from the great outdoors to the deep, dark interior of oneself. Just as the climb made you small and part of something transcendently big, so too the descent shrinks the world – you swallow it all up, you become magnified.  Eyes that a short time ago beheld an endless valley and a sky of cloud, are now drilled into the ground between sharp stones and tree roots.

After many mirages, the bottom looms upon you. There is an end to it, eventually.  You exit the trail, blink in the open sun and feel the wash of relief that the descent is, finally, over.  The huge and magic thing you became part of is gone; you are yourself again.  What you have now is a memory, a sense of surprise and of course, something to brag about.

Was there a particular moment that lives in the memory as the toughest part of climbing up and down Mount Osceola?  My 13 year old hiking companion had her own opinion: “the middle 8,600 feet were the hardest.”

What happens on a climb, it seems, is that you learn something.  How fit you are, or unfit; how patient or impatient; how determined or how fickle.  You learn how to do it and how not to do it. Hours after this first climb, I heard words of wisdom that I would not have understood had I heard them before ascending and then descending Osceola:

“On the way down there are two things to remember: don’t stop, and don’t rush.

Good advice when you’re on the side of a mountain.  In fact, good advice almost anywhere, when you think about it.

Originally posted to samsoneyes on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 11:39 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I ski down when possible (6+ / 0-)

    Like last Saturday.

    Seriously, that's why I started backcountry skiing - because my knees hurt too much when walking down mountains.

    Thank you for highlighting the importance of our government protecting some of the great wild places.

  •  Step 1: Climb a mountain. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, rktect
    •  I live on a mountain (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rduran, greengemini

      My parents used to ski down in winter when the road was closed as impassible. My place is on a shoulder just below the pass between the Peak of Pleasant Mountain and Spruce Mountain from the summits of which you have a nice view of Penobscot and Muscongus bay out as far as Monhegan and Manana, and you can see Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Isle.

      Its about an hours climb to the top so we used to do it about once a week for exercise, I have a neighbor who still climbs Spruce every day and the local runners go up one side and down the other pretty regular.

      East Coast Mountains aren't all that high but your appreciation of how much woods there still are along the Appalachian trail in New England is much improved at the summit.

      "la vida no vale nada un lugar solita" "The Limits of Control Jim Jarmusch

      by rktect on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 06:06:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  If only . . . (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, Piren, unfangus

    . . . we would look upon all of our social institutions as we look upon our great and wonderful National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshors, Forests and Grasslands.  These are all sublime to experience (Oh, and how I've taken advantage of them!), but they, like all our social institutions were created to provide a common touchstone, a common experience that defines us as a society.

    Past generations in their foresight created institutions to serve the public good.  And, as so many in the cruel right wing seek to dismember and privatize our institutions I wonder when their sights will be turned to our National Parks and Forests.

  •  Nice Diary...Glad You Enjoyed The Hike... (3+ / 0-)

    While National Parks and National Forests sometimes appear the same, they're management has vast differences.

    National Parks are managed for recreation and species and ecosystem preservation.  They can and do limit human interaction sometimes to the extreme in order to protect the resource.  Resource exploitation is completely forbidden.  Any activity that significantly effect any resources requires significant public input before implementation.

    National Forests are managed by following "multiple use" laws passed 50 years ago.  Some areas like Wilderness and Roadless Areas forbid resource exploitation.  But the National Forests are truly the "people's forest' and allow us to use nearly every inch of the forest as long as we protect it and use Leave No Trace Principles.  I am not aware of any other country that allows its people to have such free access to such a vast area.

  •  It doesn't count until you get down. (3+ / 0-)

    Great diary! It's a good thing to remember on any hike. If you're on the NH4K quest, which one is next?

  •  Very treacherous indeed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, marsanges

    Thanks for the nice break from politics and the news!
    I know just what you mean about the descent. I climbed a mountain once. Unfortunately, the good memories of the achievement and the breathtaking views are overshadowed by the painful memories of slipping on the way down and landing right on a cactus! I was picking needles out of my derriere for hours after.

  •  lesson learned (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Piren, eightlivesleft

    there is a spot in Yosemite National Park called Glacier Point.  you can drive all the way up to the overlook.  it seemed to be a great idea to drive to Glacier Point and hike down to the valley.  i've done it twice over the years.  no more.  you figure gravity works in your favor hiking DOWN instead of UP but it really does a number on your knees.  they really take a pounding coming down and those last few miles were painful.  so why did i do it the second time?  it had been a few years since the first time and i, apparently, forgot how difficult it became hiking down.  halfway down it all came back to me and i swore never again.  UP is better.

    I'm a blue drop in a red bucket.

    by blue drop on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 06:35:45 PM PDT

  •  Climbing down (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Piren, eightlivesleft

    is the only scariest part of being in our Ozark Mountains (eroded hills, really, compared to younger, higher peaks). At an early age, I learned to sit down before I fell down and slide down on my be-hind.

    That can be tough, too, though, if you've no "brakes," i.e., something hold on to to slow the slide and prevent a crash landing. OTOH, in this last part of my life, it's wouldn't be so bad to die doing something I love ;)


    "Let each unique song be sung and the spell of differentiation be broken" - Winter Rabbit

    by cotterperson on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 06:42:07 PM PDT

  •  The USFS and NPS have issues... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The US Forest Service is a land management agency, though it does operate some recreation areas, like the National Park Service.

    USFS/NPS are big users of pesticides, even in the most remote quarters. The USFS funds some of these operations by timber sales. Sell timber in your district, get more money to spray in your district. Here in North Georgia and the Chattahoochee-Oconee [million acres of] National Forest, recently proposed timber cuts are explicitly to fund toxic treatments. Some of these treatments are to wage the "invasives species war", a dubious mission with lots of collateral damage.

    THe NPS (Dept of Interior) is using toxics--in the parks and wildlife refuges they manage. GM plants have even been introduced in wildlife refuges, and this has led to court action. REgfuges of wildlife shouldn't be altered just because promoting GM plants is a goal of the USDA.

    The USFS is also leasing our land for fracking, with one attempt recently postposed here in the Talledega NF in Alabama. Our aquifer is worth more than this fuel gas, and toxic chemicals shouldn't be pumped underground, ever.

    A petition to stop the use of toxics in national parks is at:

    More reading of the fallacy of toxics sand the "invasive species war" is a the excellent web site million, Death of a Million Trees.

    See what the USFS did to the Joyce Kilmer National Wilderness Area--named for the author of "Trees" who died in WWI. The USFS chemically treats the wilderness with imidacloprid (the bee killer banned in the EU) and dynamites the trees, and it looks like a battlefield.

    See the dynamited trees of Joyce Kilmer here:

    The public's forests are not a golf courses, and shouldn't be treated like one. Let's get more involved in protecting the national forests, for experiences like this diarist shares, not for file wood for the EU, as they are being chipped up and carried away her ei the South.

  •  I keep hoping that Republicans will climb down off (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dumpster, greengemini

    of Bullshit Mountain.

    Slow thinkers - keep right

    by Dave the Wave on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 07:40:16 AM PDT

  •  I have hiked the Whites (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    1864 House, greengemini, ER Doc

    I did a loop and reached the summits of Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln.  I previously had hiked a couple of fourteeners in Colorado and thought New Hampshire would be easy.  It was not.  Not at all!  I since have hiked in Vermont and Maine, and have come to the conclusion that trails in New England consist largely of boulders.  After Katahdin, one of my knees wasn't right for months.

    You are dead-on in describing the changes in mindset that happen during a hike like this.  Most accidents happen on the way down.  I try to really concentrate on my footing, and on locating the next few blazes ahead of me.  The world does shrink.  All the same, that day on Lafayette I twisted my ankle descending.

    A terrible beauty is born. --W.B. Yeats

    by eightlivesleft on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 07:59:57 AM PDT

  •  Great diary, but two things: (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, 1864 House, greengemini, ER Doc
    The inexperienced or ill-equipped climber gets winded, falls back, takes a break, slugs back the water, wipes his brow and then lurches forward again.
    That actually happens to experienced, reasonably well-equipped hikers, too. Some of us call it "pacing ourselves."

    Also, "don't stop" on the way down? Another recipe for burnout. After starting down well-rested, stop at least once to sit and take a load off those bones for a few minutes.

    "Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous." -- Molly Ivins

    by dumpster on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 02:28:46 PM PDT

  •  This is extroardinary and so very wise. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    1864 House, Ebby, ER Doc

    Can't thank you enough. Will be savoring your post for a long time.

    There is something in us that refuses to be regarded as less than human. We are created for freedom - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

    by Onomastic on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 07:48:25 PM PDT

    •  thank you (0+ / 0-)

      yours and other comments above are very meaningful to me

      writing is like making a wooden box - you can craft it well, perhaps even beautifully, but it doesn't really mean much until someone else puts something in it

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