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40,000 headmen on Mt. Davis May 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, White Mountains.
Tags: , , , , ,
The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

It was my birthday hike in 2007.  Bob and I had a tradition that I would get to pick the destination for an outing sometime around August 25 each year (since his birthday is December 23, he always got shortchanged in that department).  I had decreed that we would climb Mt. Davis, a 3840-ft. elevation point on the Davis Path that is considered a shoulder of Mt. Isolation because it doesn’t have the required 200-foot prominence.  No one climbs Mt. Davis as a destination, though it is sometimes passed along the Davis Path by backpackers.  Yet the AMC guide says it has “perhaps the finest view of Montalban Ridge and one of the best in the mountains.”

The route: Rocky Branch trail from Rt. 16 to where it makes a right-angle turn and the Isolation trail comes in.  There we would leave the trail and bushwhack on a course close to due west toward the summit.

As we drove to the trailhead, we were listening to a “Best of Traffic” CD.  The song “40,000 Headmen” was playing as we pulled into the parking lot.  It tells a peculiar dreamlike story:

Forty thousand headmen couldn’t make me change my mind
If I had to take the choice between the deafman and the blind
I know just where my feet should go and that’s enough for me
I turned around and knocked them down and walked across the sea

Hadn’t traveled very far when suddenly I saw
Three small ships a-sailing out towards a distant shore
So lighting up a cigarette I followed in pursuit
And found a secret cave where they obviously stashed their loot….

The song was still going through my head as we started our climb up the Rocky Branch trail.  The air felt a bit soupy, but the sky gleamed like a polished piece of metal and the temperature was not too warm.  As we crossed over the height-of-land on Engine Hill, we passed by large numbers of white turtleheads in bloom, a wildflower I’ve seen often in the Smokies but rarely in the Whites.  Asters were interwoven with the turtleheads in shades of pale blue and pale purple.

We rockhopped the crossing at Rocky Branch with no difficulty, and soon we left the trail and plunged into our off-trail assault on the majestic peak of Mt. Davis.  We moved easily through open moss-covered forest, working around small boggy areas that fit together like pieces of a puzzle.  Above 3300 feet the climb grew steeper and we got into some spindly spruce and fir, but the going wasn’t too bad.  We aimed to hit the ridge a little to the south of the summit so that by turning to the right when we reached the Davis Path we would be sure to hit the spur trail to the top.

When we crested the ridge, the altimeter showed us by our exact elevation that we were indeed south of the top.  So now all we had to do was drop down less than 200 vertical feet to the Davis Path.  But as soon as we broke through to  the windward side of the ridge, the going got predictably much worse through wind-carved scrub evergreens.  I had a slight alarm when a stubby branch knocked my glasses off and sent them sailing into the brush.  Luckily, I found them in a minute.

We felt as though we could have been miles from any trail, but we kept telling ourselves the Davis Path had to be very close, and we finally touched the ground on the trail.  We had been bouncing from branch to branch for about 15 minutes.  Then it was only a short stroll up the path to the spur trail and the summit.  We gazed into the vastness of the Dry River valley and up past the bump of Mt. Isolation to Mt. Washington, which looks like a monarch from this subsidiary ridge to the south.  The sky had a glimmering, pearly look.  The song was still going through my head, following the adventure of the mysterious loot-seeker:

… Filling up my pockets, even stuffed it up my nose
I must have weighed a hundred tons between my head and toes
I ventured forth before the dawn had time to change its mind
And soaring high above the clouds I found a golden shrine…..

After taking a leisurely break at our tiny rock outcrop surrounded by oceans of wilderness, we continued on to the north for a return via Mt. Isolation and the Isolation trail.  As usual, we found the headwater area along the upper Isolation trail to be meandery and slightly confusing, but we got down into the stream valley, made the multiple stream crossings, and took a last look at the glittering waters of Rocky Branch before steeling ourselves for the climb back up and over the height-of-land.

It was as we approached the broad saddle that the 40,000 headmen started coming after us.  We could hear thunder rumbling off to the west, but it sounded distant.  Then it started to sound closer.  And closer.  The headmen were right on our heels.

We had just begun the descent when the heavens opened with a mighty crash of thunder and a sizzle of lightning.  It seemed as though the air itself had turned into water.  A quick stop to put on raingear, but that was a pathetic gesture.  We were going to get nailed.

The lightning was so close that I could smell the electricity.  With a lot of melodramatic banging and rumbling, the dense  raincloud lingered overhead, emptying its full contents directly on our heads. It poured, and poured, and poured.  And finally the worst of the storm passed.  By that time the sun was starting to go down, for it had been a very long day.   The trees grew larger, and darker, and eerier, and the forest grew slimy and slippery.  We got out our headlamps.  Following the tiny white lightbeams through the drizzly air, we stumbled along.  Without the headlamps, I have no doubt we would have been forced to spend the night in the very black woods.

We made it out to tell the tale—and truly, it was a great adventure.  Time to get back on the road and find something to eat.

Laying down my treasure before the iron gate
Quickly rang the bell hoping I hadn’t come too late
But someone came along and told me not to waste my time
And when I asked him who he was he said, ‘Just look behind’

So I turned around and forty thousand headmen bit the dirt
Firing twenty shotguns each and man, it really hurt
But luckily for me they had to stop and then reload
And by the time they’d done that I was heading down the road