It’s been almost a quarter of a year since I published the first issue of the newsletter: a story about a western-style switchback trail and a monster of a waterfall nestled deep in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. Three months isn’t a very long time as far as media projects go. But when I remember where things stood with this hiking newsletter back in August, I’m kind of overwhelmed by what’s happened since then.
A lot of people have subscribed to the newsletter. A couple hundred! And more than a few of you have chosen to upgrade to paying subscriptions. This is both electrifying and affirming. I decided to start writing a newsletter about unusual hiking in New England because—without planning on it—I was starting to become “that guy” whom friends and family turn to for ideas for weird hikes: trails that bypass cult strongholds or cedar swamps that look like a slice of Florida transplanted to the north country.
While I’ve been fortunate to write articles and multiple books on places like this, the current media climate isn’t receptive to more eccentric journalism about the outdoors. A lot of what’s commissioned by media companies these days seems to designed to be as inoffensive and widely palatable as possible. (“Top 10 Fall Foliage Hikes in New England,” etc.) Not that there’s anything wrong with an article like that. Hell, I’ve written plenty of them myself. But I wanted to create a space for hiking stories that are harder to sell in the current media climate and creating this newsletter was a leap of faith.
So let me say THANK YOU to all of you who’ve been reading, sharing, and paying for the newsletter thus far. I really can’t begin to emphasize how much I love reporting and writing these stories, knowing that there’s a growing audience for them. I still get tingly, in the best way, when I hit the PUBLISH button each week (actually, the button says SEND, since Substack is an email-based platform, but PUBLISH sounds cooler.)
However, in the spirit of transparency, there’s one thing about the newsletter that’s been bugging me from the very beginning. As any editor I’ve worked with can attest, I’m not very good at coming up with headlines that are catchy, SEO-friendly, and to the point. And I’ve never been quite satisfied with the name of this newsletter. BEYOND MOUNTAINS is a fragment of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains and/or the Arcade Fire song “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains.)” I chose this for my initial newsletter name because it rolled off the tongue smoothly, and given that the whole point of this newsletter is challenging standard notions of where a fulfilling hike can happen, beyond the usual “venues”…BEYOND MOUNTAINS seemed pretty on point.
But I was shortsighted and thinking too literally. The concept of “mountains beyond mountains” stretches back to a Haitian proverb which tells us “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” You can look at the “mountain” here as a tribulation or as an opportunity. Either way, what’s suggested by the proverb is that life is a relentless sequence of “mountains.” The more I’ve thought about this concept, the more certain I’ve felt that BEYOND MOUNTAINS just isn’t working as the title of this newsletter. It cheapens a rather profound and eloquent observation about the human experience.
But the cool thing about a newsletter—especially one that’s fairly young—is that you can change the name without a stench of desperation in the vein of Facebook circa 2021. (Oh wait. Shit. Sorry, I meant, Meta.) After three weeks of contemplating what to re-title the newsletter and focus grouping several title ideas with friends and family, over text threads and beer, the newsletter will henceforth be called MIND THE MOSS.
Rather than walloping you over the head with my take on what the new name signifies (you can probably sniff out the rural and urban nature of the name just fine on your own) I’m going to offer a hiking story and recommendation that’s something of a tinted window into my thought process behind re-naming the newsletter MIND THE MOSS. And yes, it involves a hefty dose of moss.
I was heading for the western terminus of New Hampshire near Hanover, a few weeks ago. The plan was to rendezvous with a friend and brave the bitter November air on the rooty haunches of Mount Cardigan—a 3,121 heap of granite whose immense bare rock summit is a testament to the era when farmers would set a mountain on fire to drive away the wolves that were picking off their livestock. Scaling the fire-scorched dome is a thrilling experience that often requires both feet and hands, and the most popular routes to the summit of Cardigan—the relatively gradual West Ridge Trail and the steeper, rockier South Ridge Trail—can be combined as a 3 mile loop hike. Most of the hike takes place in breezy boreal forest with partial views of the valley below (both of the trails depart from a parking lot that’s a considerable ways up the mountain.)
We started up the South Ridge Trail at 3pm, headlamps in our packs in case the sun decided to peace before we did. But upon reaching Cardigan Rimrock—a smaller, exposed sibiling summit to Cardigan dome—things took a stranger turn. Instead of schlepping onward to the summit proper, we took a hard right at a junction for the Skyland Trail and descended a wincingly steep, slabby, slippery trail into the wooded col between Cardigan and nearby Mount Gilman. The Skyland Trail runs just over 9 miles southeast of Cardigan, along a spine of lesser known peaks such as Grafton Knob and Church Mountain (how humiliating, to earn the designation of “knob” amid your fellow mountains.) None of these peaks surpass 3,000 feet, but appraising the power of mountains based on metric alone is to miss the forest for not just the trees, but the understory too—as my friend and I experienced climbing up Mount Gilman.
Every inch of the forest floor around us was replete with some of the most electric green moss I’ve ever laid eyes on (in New Hampshire, at least.) Climbing the Skyland Trail on Mount Gilman was like being dropped right in the middle of a fluffy verdant comforter, from which wispy evergreen trees have somehow begun to emerge. There was something especially enchanting about this moss colony having taken root right next door to a mountain that was virtually stripped of its vegetation by fire. The moss was both physically and psychologically comforting. We were now pushing closer to 4pm and the sunset was less than an hour away. Even when you’re well prepared with headlamps and extra layers, being caught outdoors close to dusk and realizing you’re not going to beat sundown can be an unnerving experience. But the moss on Mount Gilman put my mind at ease. Worst case scenario, if my headlamp batteries ran out, I could just bundle up and plunk down right on the moss. It would probably be more comfortable than a Casper, or any of the e-commerce mattresses I’ve tested. (This should only be done in desperation: moss is fragile and it can take years to regrow.)
But the moss proved comforting and restorative in more ways than I expected. We reached the summit of Mount Gilman shortly after 4pm—just in time to catch the last flares of pink twilight in nearby Vermont. I wasn’t looking forward to the downhill journey back to the parking lot. Not only because some of the last legs of the hike would be happening in the dark, but because it had been raining a few days earlier and the Skyland Trail was sodden and slick. To make matters even more awkward, the trail was covered with a thick slop of sodden leaves. This is really the only net negative of hiking in fall. The leaves can conceal slippery rocks and tree roots. Unless you're very diligently brushing the leaves aside with your hiking stick before putting a foot forward (which, to be honest, sounds like something that would induce delirium) you’re taking a gamble with the forest floor. And inevitably, at some point, you’re just going to eat it.
It happened to me a quarter mile beneath the summit of Mount Gilman. I never even got a glimpse of the root that took me down. One second, I was carefully picking my way down a shelf-like section of trail that was snaked with tree tendrils and partially covered with leaves. The conversation my friend and I were having was about social housing. I was starting to say something about city-assisted housing cooperatives in Vienna when quite suddenly, my left foot went flying and before I could make sense of what just happened, I was tumbling down a steep slope. I had fallen at least 10 feet before I came to a stop. I expected blood and blotchy bruises, but somehow, I felt fine. A thick coating of mud on my jacket was the only sign that I’d taken a spill. It was a far better outcome than I had expected, mid-fall. New Hampshire is famously rocky and stumpy, which could make tumbling down a hillside very painful. So what spared me?
For the rest of the hike, I felt like I was sitting on an ethereal cloud of wonder. Of all the places in New Hampshire to eat shit, I had taken a surprise plunge into some some of the most abundant and heavenly moss imaginable. The two of us backtracked to the Cardigan Rimrock peak and instead of returning to the parking lot via the steep South Ridge Trail, we took the Skyland Trail over the mountainside to the more gradual West Ridge Trail. But even as we fished out our headlamps and carefully picked our way over waterlogged stones at a slower, more cautious space, I felt like I was wrapped in a soft sphagnum blanket. In the Oslo airport, there’s an entire wall made of Norwegian moss and the first time I saw it, my instinct was to bury my face in the stuff and huff deeply. I didn’t do this because I was heading into the Schengen Area for an overdue trip to Prague to see old friends and old haunts. I didn’t want to get banned. But little did I know that a close encounter with a colony of moss awaited, half a decade later.
So when you’re out in the New England woods, mind the moss. Treat it with respect, don’t step on it, but revel in the fact that it’s there. And it might just save your ass.
THE RUNDOWN (TRAIL INFO)
South Ridge Trail and Skyland Trail to Mount Gilman (and West Ridge Trail back)
Distance: 4 miles loop
Elevation Gain: 1,437 feet
Click here for a trail map
West and South Ridge Trails loop to Mount Cardigan
Distance: 3 miles loop
Elevation gain: 1,181 feet
Click here for a trail map
NOTE: The final half mile of the access road to the parking area on Mount Cardigan is closed off during the winter. Be sure to factor that into any upcoming hiking plans and check the NH State Parks website for any updates about temporary road closures.
Last weekend, there was a triple search-and-rescue effort on Mount Monadnock that sounds much more painful than my moss cushioned wipeout. The injured hikers each took rough falls on different sections of the mountain—the third hiker was actually a search-and-rescue volunteer who had tried pitch in with a prior rescue that had been conducted earlier in the day. So how did three hikers suffer bad falls on one mountain in the same day? One word: ice. The summits of northern New England are getting pummeled by subzero winds and they’re icing up fast. If you’re going for a late fall or early winter hike on a mountain in New England, you’re going to want to bring some sort of traction device for your boots—ideally, a pair of strap-on micro spikes. Get in the habit of tossing these in your pack if you plan on winter hiking. Even a brief and modest slope can become treacherous when encased in a layer of snow and/or ice.
The rising popularity of hiking mid-pandemic can now be measured in private equity money. AllTrails, the wildly popular app that hikers have turned to for trail maps and conditions, has raised $150 million of growth funding from a private equity firm called Permira. Curiously, AllTrails has been profitable since 2017, which invites the question of why so much new funding was sought. (An important question to ask, given private equity’s track record of ruining things we love.) For now, it looks like the new capital will be funneled toward product development. Some of the R&D items will be social features that help AllTrails users share hike suggestions with each other, as opposed to turning to their networks on Facebook or Instagram. Since I’ve used AllTrails as a source for trail maps in the newsletter, I’ll be watching this closely. If the money from Permira leads to effective updates for the app, I’ll continue linking to AllTrails. If the firm somehow chips away at the reliability or user experience the app….then I’ll start turning to other sources. Even if they’re scans of old paper maps from town offices.
Finally, if you’re thinking of winter travel, I recommend this Thrillist article by Miacel Spotted Elk, which is about Indigenous-led outdoor excursions across the U.S. “With Indigenous tourism, you’re guided across the wilderness by tribes who know the lands best, with centuries of passed-down knowledge,” Spotted Elk writes. “Going with Indigenous guides also provides a chance to direct your dollars towards a community long-exploited for their homelands.” This part reminds me of David Treuer’s terrifically argued case for returning the National Parks System to the tribes whose land was stolen to create the parks. Even if you saw it in The Atlantic, it’s worth re-reading.