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The West May Have Bigger Mountains, But the East Has My Heart

I grew up hiking in the White Mountains. But I never fully appreciated them until I moved away.

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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.

I spent my childhood in New Hampshire, two hours south of the White Mountains, and that was where I learned to hike. I climbed a handful of the iconic New Hampshire 4,000-footers in high school, then more avidly in college. My dad was my main hiking partner, and as we checked off more peaks, the mountains began to occupy a place in my mind even when I wasn’t there. It was my first experience falling in love with the outdoors. 

For me, the draw of the White Mountains was in the ancient granite, the stunted krumholtz, the faded yellow signs near the alpine zone. The trails were often little more than glorified boulder piles, and they were brutally challenging. I didn’t know why I loved it, but it made me feel so complete, I didn’t dwell on the question.

I looked forward to the entire process: the pre-dawn wake up, our stop at the Ossipee McDonalds for Egg McMuffins, the chilly morning air at the trailhead. Soon after leaving the parking lot, we’d be scrambling over rocks and roots, climbing steeply towards the palpable environmental change as the air became clearer and sharper. I loved the final ascent across open rocks before seeing the expanse of the White Mountain National Forest rippling out below us. Four thousand feet above sea level felt like the top of the world. 

The mountains became a fixation, and I wanted more of them. I was captivated by images of the west’s immense summits, so a week after graduating, I packed my car and drove across the country to find them, working for minimum wage in Yellowstone National Park and spending my free time hiking.

The pictures hyped the place, and the real thing more than delivered. The peaks were so tall and the mountain ranges so expansive, they didn’t make sense to my brain. Snow clung to the couloirs deep into summer, and the summits stabbed at the sky . I’d stare up at some peak, more than twice the elevation of the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and swear I’d never return to my home state’s stubby hills.

I had been living out west for two years when my dad sent me a message before a trip home, asking if I wanted to hike a few more 4,000-footers during my stay in New Hampshire. Sure, I thought. Why not? 

I’d spent the last two years traversing 20-mile ridgelines, cresting high-elevation passes, and bagging 12,000-foot peaks. While the mountains were higher out west, I’d been surprised to discover the trails were often easier. After adapting to the elevation, I found I could cruise along miles of ergonomic, inviting switchbacks at 9,000 feet with more ease than navigating the jumbled rockfalls of New Hampshire trails. In the White Mountains, the trails almost dared you to hike them. If you wanted to reach the summit, you understood there would be no switchbacks and only rare instances of dirt tread. 

I still thought fondly of the New Hampshire peaks and the ruggedness of the trail, but when I packed my hiking clothes, I didn’t consider anything beyond the idea that hiking was a good way to spend time with my dad. 

During that trip back to New Hampshire, the Whites drew me right back in from the moment we started up the Falling Waters Trail towards Mts. Lincoln and Lafayette. . The dark soil and deciduous stands gave way to thinly-spaced pine trees. There were no switchbacks; some sections of trail were so steep I could reach out and touch the ground in front of my face. It felt as familiar as the knots in my calves.

I felt tears well up as we reached the famous, sweeping curve of Franconia Ridge. I was thousands of feet lower than I would be on a summit in Montana, but the familiarity of the trail—etched on a mountain chain formed more than  100 million years ago—created a type of peace and belonging I’d felt nowhere else. I had returned to my home range.

“Where are you from?” is a common question in the transplant-heavy town I live in. It’s easy to define our relationships to the outdoors based on where we started, but when I first moved out west, I wasn’t proud of being from the northeast’s stubbier peaks. Now, I’m proud to say my love of the outdoors was born on the White Mountains’ relentlessly challenging trails. 

When we got home, I wrote the date next to Lincoln and Lafayette on the 4,000-footer record sheet I’d started in high school. The date was more than two years after my last 4,000-footer, but I knew I’d be back. 

For the past seven years, I’ve been working on the New Hampshire 4,000-footer list from nearly 3,000 miles away. I have just 11 remaining peaks, and I’m determined to finish them within the next few years. 

I still live out west, and I do most of my backpacking and peak-bagging in the Northern Rockies. But there’s part of me that remains in the tree-covered notches and ruthlessly steep trails of the northeast. When I daydream about hiking, the first thing I think about is that initial splash of sunlight when you emerge from tree cover for the first time, 4,000 feet above sea level.