The Hobby We Call Highpointing
Highpointing, my newest and craziest hobby, has led me on adventures that sound like they came from a Dr. Seuss book:
In the US, a highpointer is someone who has the goal of reaching the highest natural point in each state. If you tell someone you’re a highpointer they think you’re a super fit mountaineer type. In reality, though being a super fit mountaineer would help, highpointing is all about tenacity, creativity, embracing adventure, and having enough faith in your navigational skills to leave the beaten path. Your reward for spending a large portion of your free time looking for often elusive USGS markers at the top of each state is gaining an appreciation for parts of our country that few people will ever see.
Even before I officially became a highpointer, I was interested in tall mountains. It started when I was a kid. My Dad would come home from a hard week at work and announce that the mountains were calling him and we needed to go1. My Mom would pack some sandwiches in the cooler, and we’d head for New Hampshire to chill out in the shadows of Mt. Washington.
Later my husband and I would take college road trips, and somehow always end up at the top of Mt. Mitchell. When we got jobs and started to go a little further from home we made a point of driving by Mt. Whitney in California and Mt. Sunflower in Kansas simply because our atlas marked them as being the highest mountains in their respective states. We never tried to climb either one, a fact that kind of kills me now, but like my dad, and John Muir before him, I was hooked by the call of the mountains.
I never knew there was a technical term for highpointing, until one day in 2011 I read an article about the youngest person to summit all 48 highpoints in the continental US2. I sent the article to my partner in crime, an accomplished hiker who was planning a trip to Mt. Rainier later that year. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who you can refer to as a partner in crime, you probably know what happens when you send that person an article about someone doing something that sounds crazy and weird, but also somewhat achievable. We started climbing mountains together and became highpointers.
Though our country’s highpoints can be right in our backyards, visiting them all is not a common goal. Fewer people have summited all 48 highpoints in the continental United States than have climbed Mt. Everest. However, if you’ve got highpointing fever, the achievement of even checking a modest highpoint off your list can feel like you’ve just taken on the Hillary Step without oxygen. Not all highpoints are technically hard to achieve, but many of them are really, really hard to find.
A highpointer quickly becomes used to the feeling that they’re going to get lost on a dirt road and end up in some sort of Blair Witch Project style creep show. Connecticut’s highpoint is so far off the highway that the street signs are hand painted on plywood. To visit Kentucky’s highpoint, Black Mountain, you have to sign a waiver that says you won’t hold Duke Energy responsible if a hole suddenly opens up in the ground and swallows you. You need to be dedicated if you’re going to highpoint, but your dedication will be rewarded.
Highpointing has given direction to my natural tendency towards wanderlust. By seeking out these seldom visited places, I have gained appreciation for my own abilities as well as the varied landscape of our country. Some states, like West Virginia and Georgia, take wonderful pride in their highpoints. You visit, and feel like every day at the summit of their tallest mountain is a party. Other states, like Kentucky and Illinois, make you feel like you’re not exactly wanted. The thing is though, I’ve visited 21 highpoints now, and in each one I have found something absolutely delightful that I could not have found had I stayed home.
In 2014, we took a trip through New England to bag some peaks. We spent the first two days of our trip conquering Frissell (CT), Greylock (MA), and Mansfield (VT) in rapid succession. On our last day we got up early to summit Mt. Washington, and then drove five hours to hit Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island on the way to the airport.
When we got out of the car we noticed a truck slow to look at us, and we all got a little nervous when it turned back around. I half expected to be shot at, not an unknown situation when you visit Rhode Island’s 812 foot highpoint. Instead, the guy rolled down his window and started to heckle us. (Note: I don’t know if highpoint heckler dude had a Cliff Clavin accent, but in my memory he does.)
“What are you going there for?” He leaned out his window and asked. “Johnston’s landfill is the highest point in Rhode Island!”
If you can’t appreciate this kind of situation, you can’t appreciate highpointing.
1At the time I didn’t know that my dad was quoting John Muir.
2In highpointing culture someone who highpoints all of the continental states is called a completer. Someone who bags all 50 is called a finisher.