Reflecting on the Lower 48: an 8 Year Journey
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot
How it All Began
My journey of the lower 48 ended in the very place it began: with Mt. Rainier.
It all started with a trip to Seattle in 2007. I saw Mt. Rainier in the distance, then impromptu rearranged my trip so I could see it up close. After some exploring near the base, I began browsing the information at Paradise and was astonished to learn that people climb to the top. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I talked to anyone who would listen about the mountain and convinced two unsuspecting souls to join me. In 2011, the three of us made a first attempt on Rainier, but none of us had the mental toughness to balance the physical demands and discomfort required to stand on the summit. I simply wasn’t ready yet.
The following year, I had planned to climb Pike’s Peak. One week prior to my trip, I ended up on Old Rag (a local Virginia favorite) with a Colorado resident. While he thought Pike’s was just fine, he strongly recommended I consider Elbert instead, giving a nod to its beauty and prominence as being the highest point in Colorado. Again, I rearranged my trip under the influence of a mountain.
The night prior to Elbert, I walked in solitude along a Colorado road staring at the mountainous landscape. For the first time, I felt a fire in my belly that I hadn’t experienced prior. I was determined to stand on the summit. And, at the cost of flirting with altitude sickness, I did it.
My journey continued in 2013, when a friend and I decided we would climb Hood for fun. Not because it was the highest point in Oregon, but because it was an interesting mountain. A rescue mission was underway when we were there. Add to that a mix of rain, sleet, and snow brought whiteout conditions where we lacked the ability to see more than five yards in front of us. Our entire team had to spin.
Later that year, I again drew from the strength of shaking off the bad mountain vibes. I resolved to climb Mt. Whitney in one day. Still actively in physical therapy from a major ankle injury, I may have shed a tear in the final two miles after tweaking the bad ankle again. But, that long day showed me what it took mentally to dedicate oneself to highpointing.
Summit Chicks Comes to Be
That November, I finally realized what I was doing. For my birthday, friends and family embarked on a long day trip to stand on the top of Maryland and Pennsylvania. These were the first two venues I targeted specifically because they were the highest points in each state.
Once I realized what I was doing, I began actively writing about each adventure here with the intent of sharing perspective with future highpointers.
And, so the highpointing obsession began. Inside of 12 months, I stood on the highest natural point of 21 states. I began mapping out how many highpoints I could reach in one trip (record was six in one trip: FL, AL, MS, MO, AR, LA) and how many were achievable in one day (with a child in tow, the answer for me is three – TN, GA, SC).
Experiencing Corners of Our Country
The next several years unveiled different parts of the country that I would not have experienced if not for highpointing. From seeing the wonder of Mt. Rushmore, touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, riding a bobsled in Lake Placid, and recording my name in the same register as Michael J. Fox, I feel lucky reflecting on this journey.
In addition to the sightseeing, a lot of my fond experiences center around food. I’d be remiss not to mention the giant cinnamon roll in Michigan and eating my body weight in pie after summiting Eagle Mountain. Vermont holds a special place in my heart for the Cabot cheese samples, Ben & Jerry’s tour, and Cold Hollow Cider Mill – all achievable in the same day after summiting Mansfield.
I discovered first hand that potatoes in Idaho are notably fresher than what I can get at home and that cheese in Wisconsin is worth the trip.
Aligning highpointing in the UP at the end of August brought me to my very first state fair, complete with any fried food that will hold on a stick. In Virginia, I hung out with the wild ponies, protecting my lunch from their bold attempts to make it their own. And, Portland, Oregon delivered perhaps the very best breakfast ever – so good that I returned multiple times across my two attempts on Hood.
Highpointing also fed my obsession with the world’s largest anything. On these journeys we saw two of the three world’s largest balls of twine (WI, MN), world’s largest penny, ball of paint, toilet, baseball bat, cow, pistachio, pringle and basket – to name a few. We even got to chat with the maker of one of the twine balls and added a coat of paint to the world’s largest ball of paint.
Playing a spontaneous game of Clue in Tonopah, NV with close friends, embarking on a walking beer tour through Flagstaff, AZ, and seeing my first moose in Utah all remind me of why this journey is amazing.
Kansas remains my favorite drive-up highpoint. The 10-foot tall sunflower made of old railroad ties supports the spirit of the highpoint and the picnic table encourage visitors to stay awhile.
Sharing the experience with my now 9 year old daughter carries meaning as well. We bonded in a way that we would not have through normal daily activities. At the age of 5, she learned trail etiquette hiking South Dakota. Following that hike, we put our feet in Sylvan Lake and relished pure summer bliss together. To date, she has stood on the top of 20 states, but South Dakota holds a particularly special place for both of us.
Contributing to the Highpointing Community
Along the way, I tried to contribute to the community by placing fresh registers on western highpoints in need, collecting the filled notebooks for the Highpointers Foundation’s records.
In addition to registers, my close proximity to Washington DC coupled with the difficulty in locating the USGS marker inspired me to adopt the pet project of placing a sign at DC’s highpoint. After several visits to locate the USGS marker initially, I searched until I found a park ranger who embraced this mission. Together with the Highpointers Foundation, we partnered with a team of NPS rangers to design, fabricate, and install the sign. From idea conception in 2014 to installation in 2019, this sign means a lot of to me. I hope you enjoy it when you come to town and can now more easily find the marker.
Still, this process wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Like those before me and surely those who will follow, I had some frustrations along the way.
I shutter when I think of Katahdin. Our waterproof jackets, pants, and footwear all surrendered to the drenching downpour before we reached the summit. Add to that, 35 degree weather for 11 hours sent us all into hypothermic shock. Finally in dry clothes, relishing the car’s seat warmer, I blinked uncomprehendingly through the windshield at the still soaking rain. I knew I couldn’t camp another night. We broke camp, throwing the sopping wet tent and gear into the car in one giant, gross mess. After finding a hotel, we devoured a pizza then took hot showers and fell blissfully asleep.
The scar on my knee from falling down the damned scree on Boundary is a war wound which reminds me of the determination required for this passion.
Gannett pushed me to what I thought was my physical max until I somehow exceeded the effort of Gannett on Rainier.
And, Granite threw me so far outside of my comfort zone that I returned from the wilderness feeling like a different person than the one who embarked on that trip.
In terms of physical safety, the most overt jeopardy I experienced probably was on the summit of Borah during an electrical storm. I unwisely threw caution to the wind so I could sign my name to the register and snap a few photos, recognizing I had no plans to return. I don’t recommend that.
Return trips to Hood and Boundary were tough pills to swallow, but the second trips offered a unique experience and comprised an important part of my story. I stayed in different places, explored new restaurants, and met new people.
For the second attempt on Hood, I relied on the connectivity of the outside world to keep me focused. The mantra of our climb: you’ve got this. I would spell out this important phrase one cramponed step at a time. And, at breaks, I found email and social media reminders of this mantra which rallied me to the top.
More than the food and experiences, highpointing has connected me with wonderful people from around the country who I otherwise might not have met. Those who have reached or attempted a highpoint with me whether we were already friends or became connected by chance; those who have offered a word of encouragement; and those who have driven countless miles in support of this goal – I am humbled and grateful to have shared such an amazing experience with you.
Returning to Rainier carried great meaning for me. On this climb, I wanted to repeat history with similar hotels, restaurants, guide company, and even the same baseball cap from eight years prior. Partly from superstition, but more so because it felt symbolic and poetic, retaining core pieces of the Rainier experience became important. I showed up to finish what I’d started all those years ago. And, this time I was ready.
I am a different person than I was in 2011 when I first set foot on Rainier. Pushing through adversity, withstanding hypothermia and altitude sickness, continuing physically when I was certain I had reached my max, learning how to fuel my body appropriately, and staying mentally strong all combine to offer skills that extend beyond standing at the top of a mountain. I feel stronger, better prepared to handle large challenges. I feel more closely connected with important people in my life. And, I know that the body is capable of handling more than the mind thinks.
For those of you still with highpoints to climb, stay strong, enjoy the food and exciting side experiences. But, most importantly, notice the people along the way. Whether it’s family, a long-time friend, a park ranger, a climbing guide, or a stranger soon-to-become a friend stepping with you along the mountain – spend quality time with them all.
Take a moment to look up at those stars during your alpine start. Turn around when you’re climbing steep rockfaces or glaciers (assuming it’s safe, of course) and create space for yourself to take in the view. Enjoy the sunrise and sunset from the mountains. Appreciate the journey.
In all of the physical, mental, and emotional demands of mountain climbing, it’s easy to lose site of all of these things. But, the growth and achievement is not about reaching the highest natural point of each state; it’s about who you discover inside yourself and the adventure you experience along the way that matters most.
I wish you all good weather, safety, and successful, rewarding summits. You’ve got this.