Mitigated Monadnock:   2020 solo trip, coronavirus edition

  Memorial Day weekend had arrived with the pandemic still a major concern in everyone's minds, but going outdoors for walks in the woods was still one of the safer activities people could keep up with.  I wanted to continue the fourth year of my now "traditional" hike up Monadnock over that weekend, and it required a bit of extra planning this time.  The NH state park officials wanted to have the parks open but limit the number of people present, and so had set a reservation system in place to limit the number of vehicles arriving.  This was all being sent through the popular "ReserveAmerica" service that handles campground and recreation booking country-wide, and as much as I dislike some of how their website works it has improved a bit over the years.  So reserving for Monadnock turned out to be fairly straightforward process, and also allowed me to tie together a couple of loose details about the account I already sort of half-had in the Reserveamerica system.

Before even tackling that, however, a week out I called the park office to get a sense of how *they* felt about any of this.  The rangers actually sounded fairly upbeat and positive about it, seemingly confident that their visitors knew how to distance themselves and stay safe.  They encouraged me to reserve and show up and enjoy the mountain, so I went ahead with it.  But then as the weekend approached, the news had a bunch of rhetoric from NH governor Sununu about how Massachusetts residents should *not* come flooding into NH, since Mass. had been one of the virus hotspots.  Well, that was something to give pause.  Would the park people now be hostile to non-residents after that?  Would I get turned back at the state border or something?  There was nothing negative or restrictive on the NH parks website.  I tried to call again a couple of times but nobody answered, so I decided to just charge the car and go.

As I arrived at the turn into Poole Road, I saw a cluster of cars just coming *out*, and from the "traffic body english" I could see, the drivers were angry.  You can tell a lot about the human inside from how a vehicle moves -- it's one of those things you could never teach in Drivers' Ed, you only get that sixth sense from years of on-road experience *if* you're paying attention.  At a minimum, they were bunching up on each other in a fairly aggressive way at the stop sign, perhaps now in a hurry to go try some other park instead and everybody ahead was in their goddamn way to get there.

This didn't bode well, but I headed up to the gate to find out.

No worries, it turned out.  The first question I got was "do you have a reservation?" and when I waved my printed day-pass with the barcode out the window and related my cheery call from a week ago, the gate people were *delighted* to welcome me in.  I had put my mask on before driving up, too, and they had masks on, so it was the first mutual indication that we all wanted to be safe.  My state of residence didn't concern them at all.  The cars I had seen leaving were those of people who had showed up without a reservation and didn't even know they needed one; I did not envy that part of the park officials' job having to turn them away.  But I was all set; they found me on the tablet they had connected to the reservation system, congratulated me for doing my research and being prepared, and sent me on toward the parking area saying "have a nice hike!"

[Images are linked to larger copies.]

Very non-full main parking lot So here it was a little after 9am, the first parking lot just beyond the gate was astoundingly *empty*.  They hadn't even started filling the "back forty" yet, there was plenty still open right here -- never seen that before, especially on this particular weekend.  Very strange times, for this place.  Whatever; I DEETed up, shouldered my pack, and bopped off along Parker Trail past the reservoir.  I had tentatively planned a largish loop to completely avoid the popular White Dot and White Cross, and would spend minimal time on the summit.

Junction to Lost Farm trail On the 2017 hike only one of our party had seen Lost Farm trail, so I wanted to finally go that way myself.  I soon reached the junction and took a right.

So many visitors seem to be all about an out-n-back to bag the summit, but really, this mountain has a whole lot of different places to explore.

Mini-bridges Starting uphill for real A bit rockier
Lost Farm is quite pretty, it turns out!  It stays flat for a little while, over some funny little short board bridges across a boggy area, turns uphill for real a little later, and has some typical rocky stretches as it heads up the ridge.

It was a bright sunny day, which always makes for the worst photographic lighting and most necessity for "de-harshing" treatment in post -- sort of faking HDR with whatever information we have.  Today was definitely the pick of the weekend, though -- clear and dry, and perfect temperatures.

Stand of white flowers In front of me was a surprise stand of low bushes with lots of flattish white flowers, all clustered into one spot, striking against the constant brown duff on the ground.

Up toward first view View from top end of Lost Farm
Lost Farm sort of hooks around southward to climb the slope at an angle, and near the top end of it I popped out into the open for the first real valley view.  Wachusett was visible to the southeast; I wondered if *it* was open for hiking since I hadn't actually checked.

Meeting the Cliff Walk trail Shortly afterward, I met the intersection with Cliff Walk.  On the route toward the summit this put me past a lot of the really interesting bits of Cliff Walk we'd seen in 2017, but that was okay, I could still remember parts of this general route from then.

Yeah, my hair was a mess, but like anyone would care on a solo jaunt in the woods...

Cliff Walk blazes, old and new The traditional blazes for Cliff are the small white "C"s painted on the rock, but in the interim the park has apparently added white plastic diamonds nailed to trees.  This helps quite a bit, as the little painted letters are hard to spot sometimes.  Even so, I got a little off-trail once or twice as it twisted around and over various wooded-in rock knobs.

Prickly pinecones Some of the pine litter, sporting these tiny little cones, also has little sharp bits that occasionally stuck to my feet.  Not a problem, but notably different from the typical soft carpet of longer needles at lower altitudes.

Ancient scroll? I found a Scroll of Ancient Wisdom!  Perhaps reading its spell could guard against COVID-19?

View of two summits Just coming up toward the hump of Bald Rock, I could see the summit looming behind it.  It's a little hard to see which is which, but the nearer rock is smooth.

I had Lost Farm completely to myself, and at this point along Cliff and Smith had only met one pair of hikers coming the other way.  Think about that, though: anyone heading *down* at this hour must be serious morning people...

Weird name at Bald Rock This is supposed to be Bald Rock, so I'm not sure what this chiseling is trying to tell us.  Nice view of the Pack Monadnocks to the east.

Boulder almost like a sidewalk The flat boulders are almost like a concrete sidewalk through the scrub, but actually feel much nicer than concrete.  Again, something about the granite up here is just so foot-friendly.

The push up White Arrow After going through the little dip after Bald and turning onto Amphitheater, it was time for the steeper push up White Arrow to the summit.  It was nice to have the reference and familiarity from 2017, when I was trying to blitz this and catch back up with my group.  It reliably delivers its share of butt-blaster workout, because gravity sucks!

Trail discoloration Looking back down, the discoloration from the mixture of fine dirt and human effluent is obvious, dropped by a stream of visitors.  You can even see this "from space" in mapping service aerial views.  That's the only place I found any rock that felt slippery, and my track wandered back and forth across this a bit so I could stay mostly on unsullied boulder.

Mask up for being near people The summit would clearly be where I'd encounter the most people, but I was prepared!  I'd even brought my floppy hiking hat for being out in the open -- normally I don't wear hats, but this is the easiest way to keep the strong near-Solstice sun off my face without having to smear goop on myself. 

Sparse population at summit There were several groups hanging out on the summit but keeping their "bubbles" fairly isolated; certainly not nearly as many people as had been up here any other Mem-Day weekend in such perfect weather.  I barreled across with only a brief pause or two to look around.

Tagging the survey marker Tag!  Very un-like last year, when we had a whole circle of feet around one of the survey markers.  I gave it the token brief touch to note the moment, and then got the hell out of Dodge heading toward Pumpelly trail.

Sticking to a steep slab The way toward the trail contains infinite possibilities for getting there across this big rocky playground.  I was having plenty of fun exploring the wonderful granite grip.  I'll note that those white quartz veins are considerably more slippery, so don't rely on those for holds on the steep!

The thing swinging off the front of me is my little bottle of sanitizer on a lanyard, which I'd brought with me along with whatever else qualified as PPE.

Stump handhold This broken-off pine stump is in the middle of a little down-and-up dip in the trail, and its ordinarily jagged end is worn smooth from the grasp of thousands of human hands.  Including mine as I stepped down here.  Ut-oh, a high-touch item!  Should I now *use* said sanitizer against the possibility of contact contagion?  Given that thought and the fact that I'd used hands on some of the rock up White Arrow, I stopped and gave them a quick wipedown.

  Given that I was on my own and up for adventure at my own pace, my primary target for the day wasn't really the summit.  Rather, I wanted to go find the storied "Pumpelly Cave".  There are basically no trails to it, documented or otherwise, it hides somewhere in an area of dense woods on one of the steeper slopes of the mountain.  I was up for a bit of bushwhacking, and had most of the day still ahead.
Getting near cave location I cheated, though, and had found what appeared to be the roof of the cave in the sat-shots and and dropped a marker for it into the GPS.  Now the question was how to get there -- not too far off either trail that goes past it, but flanked by thick forest.  As I got nearer and Pumpelly bent away to the left to go around a higher spot, I kept going straight along the top of the ridgeline to peer down and maybe find somewhere to safely descend.  From what I could glean online, the usual way people get to the cave is a longer slog over from Spellman, but I wanted to try a straight-in approach from either of the trails bordering it.  If going down wouldn't work, maybe coming up would -- I would look for both and see if anything looked notable as an easier "herd path" to it.

It's down there someplace... Okay, so here I was basically right on top of the thing -- it had to be right down there someplace!  Couldn't see any hint of it or a likely way through.

  I picked a spot where I could see a few more open boulders through the trees and gingerly started winding my down.  It was steep but doable; the only dicey parts were soft areas of leaf-litter or pine carpet that were either solid or had a hole underneath and you can't tell until you step down.  Being barefoot gives much better surety of knowing what's under there, and certainly destroying far less stuff underfoot as I go.

I continued getting closer on the GPS, but had to keep skirting a few sheer drop-offs to find a safe way down.  It was half-climb, half-scramble, half-slide.  Note to self: do not grab dead rotten pines to slow a descent...  Then I started hearing *voices* drifting up through the woods, and they weren't coming from the other trail farther below.  It quickly became clear that I wasn't the only visitor with this idea today, and I soon popped into a clear area just north of the cave entrance and saw a couple of people hanging around.

Found it! And other visitors We chatted a bit and I waited at a distance until they'd finished their lookaround, and then approached.  If I'd shot this two seconds earlier there would have been three or four departing people in the picture, but what of that.  They were heading back toward Spellman, and said that even that flatter route was pretty hard to push through.  Whatever; my "GPS cheat" was dead-on, and here I was.

Inside Pumpelly Cave The inside hadn't changed much from the various online references.  Someone had hung a larger flag, and in fact hung it wrong with the blue field pointing south instead of north.  I wonder how long this roof will hold up as built; someone must keep it maintained because most of that wood is *not* a hundred years old.

A note in the logbook Tucked in by the door is an ammo box with notebooks inside, for people to log their visits.  Sort of like a geocache, but bigger and on the gnarly side to find.  I found the recent entries and penned my own:
     Bushwhacked *down* from Pumpelly, that was ... interesting!
     Gonna try heading straight down to leave, too.
Yes, I spelled the activity wrong at the time.  I was tired...

Trail lunch To help fix that, it was lunchtime, in a lovely shaded spot next to the cave roof.  I was almost expecting more people to arrive during my rest, but none did.  Perhaps on a different weekend they would have...

A forbidding next bushwhack As stated, I would leave straight downhill, and tried to find a likely place to start amid a forbidding wall of tangled growth.  The next trail down was theoretically a shorter distance away than I'd already come, so it couldn't be that hard, could it?

Distinctive slab and rock, landmark? I found a fairly distinctive open slab and rock formation a little way down; perhaps this could be a landmark?  It didn't help much, though -- if anything the hill was steeper and the growth more dense through most of this lower part.  The problem with bushwhacking, of course, is that the bushes whack back.  In addition, my "granite grip" was thrown off quite a bit by the various growth and detritus on the rock.

Cave visit track down the hill But I eventually emerged onto the real trail.  Whew.  The second half was definitely more difficult than the upper one.  A review of my track later clearly shows a greatly diminished speed through that whole section from ridgeline to Cascade [orange], and 400+ feet of elevation drop in about a quarter mile straight-line [blue].  The pink dotted lines show the track correspondence.  I wonder if going up from below would have been easier -- the main problem is finding anything like a viable path through all the growth that doesn't lead to a steep cliff.

[This is all using OSMAnd, the Android Open Streetmap implementation]

Cooling feet in the stream Ahhhhh.  Cascade parallels and crosses a small and lovely stream, a welcome relief for a moment.  I was a little scratched up here and there, but my feet were fine.  It's hard to see, but they're actually in the water.  Even with all that slow going I wasn't overly hot; the day had warmed up nicely to maybe high-sixties but was still arguably perfect.

To make it even more perfect, the black flies and mosquitoes that had been swarming around at the entrance gate stayed notably absent for almost the entirety of my trip.  I only noticed a few in maybe the last mile of returning, and those weren't bad at all -- a sharp contrast to last year down Red Cross.

Connector from Harling to the campground Still avoiding the "dot" major thoroughfare, I dove off to Harling trail to get back.  The map showed a connector from it to the little campground, and once on that it was clear that it doesn't get used a lot.  Especially with the campground still closed.  I emerged across from the entrance gate, had another nice [mutually masked] convo with the rangers there, and hit the road for home.

  Yearly mission accomplished, and a nice little adventure had in the process -- 6.5 miles in all according to the GPS.  The trip wasn't anything like the nightmare that various doubters had anticipated, and sure beat the heck out of sitting inside the house glued to the news.  Still, it was clear that "shelter in place" had not been good for my hiking chops, despite a few short local jaunts in the interim.  I felt more drained after today than any prior Monadnock run, but maybe that also had to do with keeping my own blasting-along pace instead of being with a group.  Frankly, what probably burned my quads the most was all that careful slow-stepping down on the downhill bushwhacks.  Somehow my knees came through it without complaint, which I attribute to the IT-band and other stretches done before really getting into it.

_H*   200526