“Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”
— Daniel Webster, American statesman and New Hampshire native, on Cannon’s Old Man of the Mountain
“Yes, I would like fries with that.”
— Fat Man of the Mountains, on Cannon’s summit Saturday
Last week’s climb of Mt. Garfield was all about remoteness. You have to drive a ways down a dirt road to get to the trailhead before walking five miles to the summit in the middle of the Pemegewasset Wilderness. Even if there are other people on the summit, the overwhelming feeling is one of quiet and solitude.
Then there’s Cannon.
To call this 4,100-footer schizophrenic would be an understatement. The Kinsman Ridge Trail to the summit is steep; it’s also as rough as anything I’ve experienced so far this summer. It’s a maddening mix of loose dirt, wet slabs, exposed roots and maliciously placed rocks. (It’s also the most fun I’ve had climbing all year, despite the frequent falls and lingering, Frisbee-sized bruise on my back.)
But Cannon’s signature feature isn’t the rough trail. It’s the Cannon Aerial Tramway, which starts at a parking lot at the base of the mountain and whisks tourists — as many as 80 at a time — to the top in under 10 minutes. Where Garfield is majestic and quiet, Cannon is loud and brassy. The whir of the tram is a constant companion on the hike up the mountain — every few minutes you know someone is taking the easy way to the top while you are sweating your way skyward. You never out-climb the roar of Harleys on the Franconia Parkway, and at several points you can look back to a view of parking lots. The upper levels of the trail just under the summit are littered with cigarette butts.
And when you get to the top, you find yourself in an elbow fight with tourists for a view from the summit tower.
Then why was Cannon one of my favorite hikes of the year, you ask?
The snack bar, of course.
After climbing through the heat and humidity Saturday, the boy and I were able to relax in air-conditioned comfort at the top. We usually cram down a power bar or PB&J on our summits. Saturday we chowed down on grilled hot dogs, french fries, chips, pickles and soda before finishing up with a few chocolate chip cookies. That’s my kind of hiking meal. (I’ve often wished the hot dog vendors from Fenway Park had door-to-door service, so you can imagine how happy I was.) I took a pass on the Starbucks coffee — it’s true, those guys are everywhere. Unfortunately the bar — yes, there was one — wasn’t open. That would have make the hike down even more interesting.
I also learned, in between annoyed looks from Tram passengers, that the hot-air hand dryers in the bathroom are good for drying out sweaty hiking hats.
Even with all that food and comfort, there’s something sad and faded about the top of Cannon. The peak used to be the home of the Old Man of the Mountains; those days ended with the crumbling of the Great Stone Face in 2003. The mountain itself doesn’t compare to neighboring peaks like Lafayette and Lincoln. And then there are all those cigarette butts, candy wrappers and casually discarded Kleenex; it feels like a city park, not the top of a 4,000-footer.
But that’s OK by me. I had a blast with the boy, who was making his return to the hills after a month away. We laughed more in an afternoon than we have in weeks. We took in some great views from the cliffs two-thirds of the way up the mountain. And we ate junk food.
One of the great things about these mountains is that each one has its own character and offers its own experience. No two hikes are the same. And that’s the way it should be.
Although if every summit had a hot dog vendor that would be cool, too.