I had the whole day to myself so I decided to keep it that way with a romp into the wilderness – peaking Mt. Isolation. It was a twelve-mile round-trip, six in, six out, and I figured I could bang it out in five hours or so and be home by dinner time.
The moment I stepped onto the Glen Boulder Trail, it went up. Incredibly rocky, too. Huge slabs of rock carved out the trail, switchbacking its way up, boulder steps, four-hand rock climbing, big leaps up and sore knees by mile one. But I love the punishment. It was hot and humid for late September and I was slick and soaked and stinky pretty quick. Lots of oddly-shaped boulders lurking in the dark woods, partially exposed by peeping sunlight through holes in the canopy. Fallen leaves from softwoods crunched below me. I felt like I was in the hall of the Boulder King.
I knew Glen Boulder was up there, teetering on its throne high above Rte. 16. I had to brave its red carpet in order to grovel before it.
I felt as if I were in the attic of the forest, the sun felt so close. The sky seemed just beyond the reach of my hand, yet I kept climbing and not reaching the rocks above. I crossed two beautiful falls and good, fresh water. This was the only water I found all day, though the trail guide suggested a look down Isolation Trail (West) to a possible source. I slipped down a different side path promising a spring and found an old burnt out campfire and a brown mud puddle. Refreshing.
I kept grabbing corners of boulder and tangled roots. I smelled sap on my hands. Mmm. I must have got some in my hair, too, because I spent the whole ride home picking pine needles off of my head.
Then suddenly, out of the blue – well, I was into the blue. The trees were below me and one huge slab of boulder with a yellow trail blaze separated me from treeline to skyline. I climbed it and found myself on a ledge overlooking Wildcat, and Rte. 16 slithering around it. The spaceship parked on summit D reflected the sun, the ski trails dull in the morning shade. I spun around on my tiptoes and took some pictures, then got a whiff of vertigo. I was on a ledge, after all. The Gulf of Slides was right below me and it didn't look like the most fun place to fall into.
Fortunately, I like scrambles, so I got scramblin'. I could see the Glen Boulder far above me. It was still far enough away that it looked like a pebble in my hand. As I got closer, I couldn't believe it. How is this thing standing here? The rock must be over twenty feet high and ten feet wide, but its footprint is tiny. The open space beneath it would make a mighty fine camping spot, but I'd be terrified of being crushed in my sleep. Yet it's stood here like this for who knows how long!
I said goodbye to the curiosity and climbed, climbed some more. Right along the wall of the Gulf of Slides, looking right down into it. To get to Davis Path, which led to Mt. Isolation, I had to hike up the 4806-foot Slide Peak. Some people call it Gulf Peak, with three huge piles of rocks on its summit, looking like some sort of cocky rooster mountain monster. It's not even an official 4000-footer. It's not even a mountain, just another bump on Mt. Washington, from what I can tell. But I got up there, crushing that 3.2-mile grind in good time.
Mt. Isolation is one obnoxious little mountain. It's only three feet higher than the minimum required to make the official list of 4000-footers, but there is no easy way to get to it without a lot of hiking. Looking down into the Dry River Wilderness from up here in the alpine zone, I could see a little baby hill and figured that must be it, huh. Shucks. Boop! I poked Mt. Isolation and went on my way. The Dry River Wilderness looked like a desert up here, rocky, scrubby, mostly flat and barren, a slight downhill stroll all the way to Isolation.
To my right, I could see the Presidential Range. There was Monroe, Pleasant (Eisenhower), Pierce and Jackson. The huge summit cairn on Pleasant was as visible as the summit city of Mt. Washington behind me. And down, down, down, 800 feet below and two miles away, was that little bump called Isolation. I decided to run some of this stretch, good practice for technical, rocky trailrunning. It was slow-going, but fun to challenge myself. I went back down into the trees and hurdled over an insignificant, unnamed 4293-foot bump. The trees here were windblown, gnarly, and mossy. Beyond the treeline was wartorn ledge. I'm always humbled as I slip through the wastelands of violent mountain weather. The Boulder King knows best.
Before I knew it, I reached the final trail intersection, a tenth-of-a-mile climb to the summit of Isolation. This was the only actual climbing of the official 4000-footer I'd do all day. I hopped up the rocks in about five minutes and was immediately amazed with the unblemished, panoramic view of everything all around me. Looking up at Mt. Washington, shining in the sun, was like being outside of a baseball stadium and hearing the crack of the bats and the cheers of the fans. I sat down on a rock near a cairn to have some lunch in the sun, then realized the real summit was a few steps away. I hit the pin and enjoyed some jerky, almond butter, and 99% dark chocolate I got at the Lindt store in North Conway. I relaxed and reflected for about half an hour and enjoyed being present in the moment.
One ironic thing about being on Mt. Isolation: the mountain might be in the middle of nowhere, but there are always people on it. They were coming and going – myself, included. It was like sitting at a corner table in a coffee shop, no big deal, we were all there for the same reason. It was a splendid experience. I really did feel alone up there. I'm sure my fellow Isolationists felt the same way, even if just for a minute while we dazed out. It's magical and humbling that folks can share small spaces like mountain summits with each other peacefully, even if we're out here to “get away from it all” for a while.
But right back into the woods and you're all alone. The hike back was pretty easy. The return trip to Slide Peak was nothing, but I took lots of breaks to rest my knees and feet while retracing my steps straight down the rocks, patting Glen Boulder goodbye. If you want to impress your friends, find it from Rte. 16 and show off with a flick of the wrist. "No big deal, just some rock. I walked right under it once."
I stopped briefly again at the falls and drank deeply, both with my mouth and my ears, the sound of rushing water bringing joy and a primal sort of excitement to me, after hearing nothing but wind and sunny silence for hours. Soon I heard the rumble of automobiles and I reentered society. All good hikes must come to an end.