Nothing new under the sun, except everything

“If ability and enthusiasm always went together with ability and parallel course (which they do not), these notes would not be altogether unworthy of the objects they commemorate, since for years the writer has been an ardent lover of the mountains, and has explored their highest and remotest peaks, and their deepest and most terrible ravines.” — Moses F. Sweetser.

There is an obsession with being first in the outdoor world. The first to summit Everest, to reach the South Pole, to penetrate the dark center of the Amazonian rain forest, to finish a newly minted hiking list. There’s a healthy amount of competitiveness involved in these endeavors, to be sure.

But ego isn’t everything. There’s a great joy in discovery, in seeing something — a breathtaking vista, a majestic moose, the tiniest of newts — you haven’t seen before. And that discovery is a first, because it’s yours.

That’s the great thing about the mountains — when you break through the treeline and stand atop an open summit, you feel as if you’re looking at something no one has seen before. It doesn’t matter if it’s a peak like Chocorua or Monadnock, where the trails can be as clogged as the Tobin Bridge at rush hour,  every experience is fresh and new.

These mountains aren’t discovered once; they’re discovered untold thousands of times by those of us lucky enough to have the chance to experience them.

One of those lucky few was Moses Sweetser, and he’s been on my mind of late. Every discovery I’ve made, every story I’ve tried to tell, it seems Sweetser made it or told it more than 100 years ago.

Sweetser, as hiker, author and bookseller Steven Smith explained to me, was a prolific guidebook author. His best-known work was the impressive “The White Mountains: A Handbook for Travellers,” which went through several editions from 1876 to 1918. Smith calls it “the most comprehensive guide ever written about the Whites.” (This from a man who co-wrote my favorite, “The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains.”)

Sweetser also wrote several smaller, pamphlet-sized guidebooks, one of which I came across several weeks ago as we were helping my mother and aunt sort through almost nine decades of my grandfather’s belongings.

At roughly 30 pages, with half of those pages being pictures, “Views of the White Mountains,” published in 1879, doesn’t attempt to tell the complete story of the region. Rather, it seems aimed at sparking its readers’ sense of adventure and exploration.

Sweetser would have been an outstanding outdoor blogger. He had access to great photographs and wrote often, and well. There’s a lyricism in his work that echoes through the decades and still connects today. How can you not love this description of the Old Man on the Mountain, tinged with elegy more than a century before the stone face gave way:

Where the road passes Profile Lake, near the Profile House, a guide-board directs the attention upward, and one of the most impressive sights of all this region of wonders bursts upon the vision. There, on the side of the opposing mountain, more than a thousand feet above the road, and vividly outlined against the sky, is the semblance of a colossal human profile, with an expression of intense weariness and melancholy, as if some heaven-defying Prometheus of the West had been chained to the red rocks of Mount Cannon until the hardness of his heart was reflected by the petrifaction of his head. This is the great Profile, which for over seventy years has been gazed upon, with varying emotions, by many myriads of travelers. For the slaves of the guide-book, who feel it their solemn duty to “do” every thing therein spoken of, any hour will suffice; but the reverent pilgrim of Nature approaches this view only at late afternoon, when its face is vividly outlined against the crimson glories of the western sky, and its pathetic and expectant expression aptly combines with the sadness of declining day.

(Slaves of the guide-book? Pilgrim of Nature? Sweetser surely had something to say about the personal sense of discovery in well-traveled places).

As a Valley native, I was struck by Sweetser’s take on the age of rail:

When the rail-road builders, the Goths and Vandals of our age, reached North Conway, and stretched their rigid trestles and gravel banks across her exquisite meadows, the charm was broken forever.

I felt the same way when the old bowling alley was torn down to make way for a Burger King, Wylie Apte’s airport gave way to a shopping plaza and the Route 16 strip turned into one long outlet store.

I also love his description of the discordant nature of Mount Washington, as a tourist trap for travelers and, often, a death trap for hikers:

The summer tourist, hoisted to the main-top of New England by a steam-elevator, and descending on the other side over a broad white road, borne breezily down in a comfortable carriage, can scarcely realize, that, to many a doomed soul, this peak has been as terrible as Sinai and as accursed as Ebal. Some of these have been saved as by miracle; and others, wandering upward over vague paths, lost, chilled, and panic-stricken, have breathed their lives out into the frost-clouds, and left their bones on the cold black rocks.

I had much the same feeling last summer, after the boy and I climbed the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and Crawford Path only to stand in line for a summit photo behind an expertly made-up woman in high heels. On the way down the Jewell Trail, we met an obviously lost hiker who left his car at the top of the mountain and was trying to get back to it by heading downhill. Some things haven’t changed much in 133 years.

Another view, this one downhill, taken in August 2011 by Lucas Olson.

That’s the point, really. These mountains and their truths can be discovered again and again. You can feel Sweetser’s joy through the ages, just as you can today in hiking blogs like Live Free and Hike, The Adventures of Tom and Atticus, or the awesomely named Fuck Yeah, Hiking!

Sweetser wasn’t the first to discover these mountains, or to fall in love with them. But he didn’t care, and neither do I.


A special thank you to Steven Smith for providing what little background there is on Moses Sweetser. I keep a copy of Smith and Dickerman’s “The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains” close at hand; I’ve read it in parts and cover to cover countless times. There’s no better guide to the high peaks of New Hampshire. You can also thank them for the AMC’s White Mountain Guide. Steve owns the Mountain Wanderer map and bookstore in Lincoln. I always find something unexpected and interesting when I visit. You can find his blog here.

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9 Responses to Nothing new under the sun, except everything

  1. Karl Searl says:

    Hi Dave,

    I love this post! It’s great, and not just because you gave me a plug. You are very right about your, Sweetser and my feelings of the Whites! Each time I go up there, whether it’s a trail I’ve been on before or not, I find small and large things that amaze me! I’m definitely going to look up Sweetser and see what I can find to read from him. He certainly does have a way with words based on what you quoted. Also, I have to get up to the Mountain Wanderer. I’ve never been there and would like to meet Steve Smith. I’ve heard it’s a great place.

    Curious, when you hiked the Ammonoosuc, did you see Lizzy Bourne’s monument?

    Thanks again for the plug…Great post!


    • Dave Olson says:

      Thanks, Karl. And you’ll love Mountain Wanderer. It’s a great place to stop after a Route 93-based hike. They don’t care if you smell like a hiker…

  2. Enjoyed your post, Dave. Nice take on the subject. I have been discovering some of these earlier writings – like Walden and some more local stuff (Australia) – and marvelling at the way things change..and don’t change.

    • Dave Olson says:

      Thanks Andrew. We’re doubly lucky out here, as we’re a mere 45 minutes from Walden Pond. One of the things I love about the local history books is the chance to see first-hand what inspired those earlier works.

  3. Keith "Popeye" Rayeski says:

    I really enjoyed this Dave! Great blog! As a New Hampshire native of more than 50 years, I too have some of those, yester years gone, feelings. We love the Whites and all that is in it, which is different each time and, gives me an excuse to take 50-60 pictures during each hike. Not to mention that I have the most beautiful girl friend ever created for whom the very invention of the camera, was intended to capture images of! Karl, the Lizzie marker is between the cog tracks and the auto road. It is not passed when hiking the Ammounsuc or Jewell trail…but is clearly visible from the summit and in particular on the observation deck. Our great North woods have changed a whole lot over the years…….but it is still as majestic today as the day it was created!!

    • Dave Olson says:

      Thanks, Keith. One of the striking things about that Lizzie marker is how close it is to the summit. Reading Nicholas Howe’s great book “Not Without Peril,” I’m often struck by how close people were to safety when they perished on the mountains. Another great thing about taking 50-60 pictures each hike is that it gives us plenty of excuses to rest!

  4. summersetbanks says:

    Excellent post! I’m not a NH native, although my husband is, and I have come to love our mountains – any other mountains are not the same. I have hiked some of the same mountains many times, and people sometimes ask my why I continue to hike the same places and don’t I get bored? For me, every hike is adventure, a time to notice something new or different about the trail I didn’t see last time, or a time to share the trail with different companions.

    Love the “4000 Foot Book” as we call it in our house. Haven’t bought the new red one yet, still have the old blue one.

    • Dave Olson says:

      Thank you. I’ve actually a big fan of your blog (and have been winter hiking vicariously through you this year). It looks like you’ve had a great season on the trails…

  5. Steve Smith says:

    Hi Dave,

    What a beautifully written post! You really capture the essence of why we return to the mountains, again and again. Sweester certainly had that sense of discovery. His White Mountain guidebook has an amazing wealth of information in it, though some of the print is tiny! Thank you for your kind words about our books and the store.

    Good hiking,

    Steve Smith

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