Stones in My Pockets – Summits Sustained

Glacial beds on Stok Kangri Trek

I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Everest Base Camp

Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.

But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.

One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Balancing – Green Belt, Austin

Whatever its source,

Between the Summits in the U.S.A.

Point Lobos, California, 2019

People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 2013

We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.

Our home at Mt. Elbrus, Russia, 2014

So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.

But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.

That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.

So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!

A and N looking toward the future from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

The Real Mysteries of Puzzle Mountain, Maine

Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain
Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain

Mysteries surround Puzzle Mountain, which was the site of last weekend’s Maine adventure.

After a successful rampage through the L.L. Bean clearance facility, we started the journey northeast to the weekend home of N’s parents. It’s a lovely old farmhouse near the Appalachian Trail. And on the way – the mysteries begin.

9. How does Google maps pick its prescribed route from point A to point B?  Somehow we found ourselves taking a one lane road dotted with potholes through multiple small towns. Extremely scenic, but I’m sure there was a more direct route.

8. What’s a bean supper? Every small town in Maine seems to have one on Saturday night.

7. What are confederate flags doing in Maine? That was a really weird one to me. Here in the south, we spend a lot of time working to take them down, but they seem to be going strong up north.

6. How many ways can you cook apples? Daughter A is an expert pie maker (a skill she did not inherit from her beloved mother) and brought a delicious apple pie up to Maine, which she somehow carried on an Uber ride to a train station, on a train to Portland, and on our trip in N’s Previa up to Northwest Maine. She returned to Boston with another two bags of apples, picked fresh off the tree. Unclear what can be done with a hundred or more apples.


5. What mountain ranges can you see from Puzzle Mountain? We set off fairly early on Sunday for our trek up the mountain. It was a short drive to the trailhead, and the leaves were at their peak color. The trail climbs fairly steeply in sections, but is interspersed with enough flat sections to keep it interesting. The first part was all birch forest, pale yellow leaves set off against the peeling white bark of the somewhat spindly trunks. Finally, we came to an opening in the woods and could see across the patchwork valley to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and other unnamed ridges.

Birch forest
Birch forest

4. Where were all the people? It was Columbus Day weekend (or more correctly, Indigenous People’s weekend), and I would have expected at least some other hikers, if not the raging crowds we’d faced on Mt. Washington last year. But except for one other group who only made it to the first peak of the mountain, we saw absolutely no one.

Mount Washington in the distance
Mount Washington in the distance

3. Where did the blue blazes go? Most of the trail is nicely maintained. But after we reached the second and highest peak (a whopping 3100 feet), we took a loop trail down that was considerably overgrown. At one point, coming out onto a rock outcropping, it simply petered out into a tree. Although there were some remnants of blue paint on the rock, and a very misleading cairn, it turned out the real trail was in a completely different direction. And it turns out that daughter A’s belief that always going left was the right answer did not work.

2. Which way is down? Now, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. But not so. The descending trail seemed to have as many uphill parts as down, and at one point I was convinced we were corkscrewing ourselves around the mountain.


1. Where is Puzzle Mountain? Some mysteries are best left unsolved. And I promised our hosts that I’d help keep it hidden!

Starting the Puzzle – Portland, Maine

Starting the puzzle.
Starting the puzzle.

From the top of Puzzle Mountain in Maine we could see the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the peak of Mt. Washington, which we had summited exactly 364 days before. But all good mysteries need plot development before they are solved. And Puzzle Mountain is no different.  Our story starts on Friday, when we left Orlando at the ungodly hour of 7 am to travel to Portland, Maine, via JFK.

This mini vacation was what has become our annual fall trip to New England to see daughter #1, also known as A, and boyfriend N. Despite her tropical upbringing, this visit A explained that two winters in Boston had inured her to the hardships of snow and she no longer needed the down jackets her father and I donned as soon as we experienced under 50 degree temperatures. (To look at us, you would hardly think we were climbing glaciers three months ago or planned another ice related climb in January.)

Mysteries always start with a blast from the past. This one began with a passing suggestion on Facebook from an old friend from high school, whom I had not seen in 36 years, to let her know if our Maine trip would take us into Portland. So what could be more natural than to message her from the plane (hey, free wifi on JetBlue – although free bags are a thing of the past) that we would be landing in two hours.

Once we arrived at Portland’s small, moose themed airport, we received the best travel advice we’ve ever obtained from an airline representative. We had no assigned seats for our return flight on our Travelocity booked tickets, and thought we should try to get them in advance at the airport. Turns out, all that was available for no fee were center seats scattered throughout the plane. But, the customer service representative assured us, if we simply bided our time, all those empty $50 extra leg room seats would have to be given to those of us seatless passengers at no extra charge – and so they were.

In Portland, we didn’t follow the millennial pattern of taking Uber to the AirBnB. Yes, it was an Air BnB booked by the daughter (we were rejected from the one that had chickens but this one had enough unusual art to make it interesting), and instead took a taxi because we felt sorry for the driver. But after he couldn’t find the address we had second thoughts.

In any event, after enjoying the artisanal pastries left by the proprietress of our two bedroom flat, we walked a few rainy blocks to the mead tasting room. How else could one possibly start off a Maine weekend? There we met up with L, last seen in the summer of 1979, and managed easily to catch up on 36 years of kids, careers, and marriage, not necessarily in that order.


After tasting six varieties of mead (who knew?) – ranging from dry to apple to lavender to chai – we ventured into Portland proper. It’s not a big city, but has maintained a charming downtown, with retail shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and an amazing number of not very expensive jewelry shops selling lots of hand crafted jewelry. Apparently there’s a long jewelry making tradition in New England. Again – who knew?

L then took us to MJ’s Wine Bar, where we met up with her husband. Daughter’s boyfriend also arrived, following a long drive up from south of Boston.

Another mystery. Thursday, at a restaurant in Orlando, I’d been offered the last glass of Malbec in house. Friday, at MJ’s, the same thing happened. There has to be a message.

Next day, following a very seafood oriented dinner – at the presumably now-Malbecless Dave’s Restaurant – we sampled more of Portland’s wares. Breakfast was Hilltop Coffee, a small coffee shop with excellent egg and cheese sandwiches a couple of blocks from our Air BnB in the arts area of Portland.

Portland, Maine, reminded me much of Portland, Oregon, with well kept gardens, two story clapboard dwellings, and lots of coffee.


We then walked down to the waterfront park, which houses the USS Portland monument. It was a chilly morning, but beautiful, and the view from the big old Victorians facing the waterfront must have been marvelous. The yard sale at one was particularly interesting and I’m sure A will treasure her one egg skillet for life.

Next stop was the Portland Art Museum. Although small, there is an excellent permanent collection, but we especially enjoyed the “You can’t get there from here” exhibit, featuring Maine artists. The installation of the bathtub and TV video of aging hippies rowing their way through ocean waves particularly spoke to me. It was also fun to lie on our backs on mats on the floor and look at the video screens of the sky moving overhead at one of the more interactive pieces.

After a trip to the sock shop (who doesn’t need a pair of fall socks decorated with marshmallows, hot chocolate mugs, and fireplaces), lunch was at the original Otto’s, a Portland pizza tradition. The Allagash saison draft beer didn’t hurt either.

But by then it was almost 2, and if we wanted to make it to the Mecca of outlet shopping, it was more than time to leave for LL Bean, in Freeport. Gear and work clothes are important. Freeport was packed. It’s a bit incongruous to find quaint B&Bs mixed with new outlets – I suppose one can enjoy organic muffins and spend the rest of the day bargain hunting for clothes made in China. But after inadvertently entering through the gun and ammo building (who knew how many varieties of camouflage there really are) we managed to help prop up the economy in the outlet store – and at least the Bean Boots I bought A were actually made in Maine.

It speaks for itself.
It speaks for itself.

And that purchase brings intrepid shoppers and tourists alike to what will be the next blog post – rural Maine, confederate flags, and where in the world is Puzzle Mountain.