Live Free or Die

The mountains are calling and I must go.
— John Muir

I've recently returned from an excursion to the White Mountains of New Hampshire with 13 of my closest friends, some of whom I'd not met prior to my arrival in Crawford Notch.

The White Mountain National Forest is one of the most rugged wildernesses in the eastern half of the United States. It's home to the Presidential Range, a series of mountains named after 18th and 19th century American presidents and which range in height from 4,310 feet (Mt. Pierce) to 6,288 feet (Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern US). The Presidential summits are notorious for having some of the worst weather in the world; since 1849 over 150 people have died on Mt. Washington.

The goal of our excursion was the iconic Presidential Traverse, a 19 mile trek, much of it above the tree line, which scales eight Presidential peaks and gains over 8,500 feet of elevation. Although it can be done in a day or two, our group had a much more leisurely (but by no means lazy) itinerary of three days, which included two overnight stays at wonderful huts (Madison Spring Hut and Lakes of the Clouds Hut) operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Leading up to the outing, all throughout my training and preparations, I assumed I knew what I was looking for from this trip: an extended immersion in nature (Nature Connection), three days of vigorous exercise (Movement) and a physical and mental challenge ("that which does not kill me makes me stronger"). I had done the Presidential Traverse before and I was eager to test myself again against some of the most challenging terrain I've ever hiked.

However, when I got to the trailhead another opportunity, this one an unexpected gift, presented itself when I realized that I had left my phone in the car.

I panicked, briefly, even though I had been considering leaving my phone behind. The need to feel connected -- to loved ones, to work, to the news of the world -- had become omnipresent, a compulsion, and being disconnected from all those things is increasingly seen as a "bug," a side-effect of poor network coverage, power outages or device malfunction.

But I soon settled into this opportunity, especially as I saw my companions stumbling around, their phones held aloft, in a vain attempt at locating a cellular signal. As we started our hike up Valley Way from the Appalachia trailhead, through the forest on our way to the first of eight peaks (Mt. Madison, 5,367 feet), I missed my phone less and less, and once we emerged from the forest into the Alpine Zone and began the boulder hop up Mt. Madison I felt myself become more and more connected to the trail in front of me and less tethered to world I knew would be waiting for me when I emerged from the woods in a few days' time.


This hyper-awareness of my surroundings soon became a necessity as the forest trail transformed into the field of boulders which would become our path for much of the next three days. On this terrain every step requires focus and attention. The mountain demands that you adapt to its rhythm, to take what it gives you; if you try to make the mountain bend to your will -- or even if you're not paying attention -- you are courting injury and potential disaster. The mountain is unforgiving of mistakes and will tame even the most intemperate human hubris (see note about Mt. Washington fatalities above).

Being untethered -- to disconnect, for a few days, from all the distractions that are incessantly rattling around my skull -- allowed me to focus my attention on the path in front of me and, when I paused to look around, the epic beauty of my surroundings. And the quiet solitude of the mountains brought a reminder that I have choices about how I move through the world.

"Live Free or Die" is the New Hampshire state motto. In the past, whenever I recalled that saying (which was on every NH license plate I saw growing up) I thought of libertarian causes like helmet-less motorcycle riders, a 75 mph speed limit and of flinty New Englanders with "Don't Tread on Me" flags flying in their front yards.

But up in the mountains it took on a different meaning. Up in the mountains I had plenty of time and space to meditate on what freedom means to me.

It means that I need not be rushed. That I can move at a pace that feels right. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes not at all.

It means that at different times I can walk alone or in tandem or as part of a group. The one constant: I will remain connected to myself.

It means that every step I take, every move I make, can be animated by purpose and intention.

It means that I have the means to eliminate, if even temporarily, all external distractions to focus on what's most important. I am free to choose where to focus my attention, and for how long.

It means that I can pause, at any moment, and find gratitude: for the awesome beauty of the world I'm lucky to live in; for the love and companionship of my fellow human beings; for a strong and healthy body to take me to remote places where I can disconnect, reset and reconnect to what's important.

Live Free or Die.