CON­FES­SIONS OF A RE­LUC­TANT HIGHPOINTER

More peo­ple have climbed Mt. Ever­est than have high­pointed ev­ery state in the U.S. But does that mean it’s re­ally hard or re­ally crazy—or both?

Backpacker - - Contents - BY LOREN MOONEY

It’s easy to dis­miss the pur­suit of state high­points as a silly ob­ses­sion for list­keep­ers—un­til you get hooked. By Loren Mooney

PULL OVER,” I said. We were headed down a two-lane high­way south of Timm’s Hill County Park, through the thick green woods of north-cen­tral Wis­con­sin. This was sup­posed to be a laid-back week, hit­ting four easy state high­points: Ea­gle Moun­tain (Min­nesota, 2,301 feet), Mt. Ar­von (Michi­gan, 1,979 feet), Timms Hill (Wis­con­sin, 1,951 feet), and Hawk­eye Point (Iowa, 1,670 feet). In be­tween, we’d use the ex­tra days to hike the Bound­ary Wa­ters’ forests, ex­plore the cliffs and beaches of the Apos­tle Is­lands, and wan­der the dunes and pan­caked sand­stone cliffs of Pic­tured Rocks Na­tional Lakeshore. It was just af­ter La­bor Day week­end—no crowds, clear skies, sum­mer heat sub­sid­ing. It was a good plan: We’d pace our­selves and see the area’s most renowned wild places.

In­stead, af­ter tag­ging Timms Hill—with nearly a thou­sand miles of driv­ing and two other high­points be­hind us and three days to go—I had a new idea. It did not in­clude the Bound­ary Wa­ters.

Au­dra steered our rented Chevy sub­com­pact into the gravel lot next to an old train de­pot, tires crunch­ing to a stop. I called up Google Maps on my phone and reached into the door pocket for our well-worn copy of Don Holmes’s High­points of the United States, its lam­i­nated cover peel­ing. I thumbed to the U.S. map in the front of the book, then typed “White Butte, ND” on my phone.

“Oh, no. That’s in­sane,” Au­dra said in an ac­cusatory tone that couldn’t quite hide a tinge of ex­cite­ment.

I con­tin­ued to punch in the new route and made my case. “If we drive to Min­neapo­lis now, then leave by six to­mor­row morn­ing,” I said, “we can be at the White Butte sum­mit by early af­ter­noon.” Then, we’d fin­ish a marathon push to Rapid City, South Dakota. The fol­low­ing day we’d snag Black Elk Peak (South Dakota, 7,242 feet), then hit Hawk­eye Point on the way back to the Min­neapo­lis air­port. “We should have an hour or so to spare be­fore our flight,” I said. “Hope­fully.”

Yes, it would mean we’d pack our “laid-back” va­ca­tion with an ex­tra 20 hours and 1,200 miles of driv­ing. It would mean for­go­ing the Bound­ary Wa­ters. It would mean trad­ing the Apos­tle Is­lands for a 1-mile hike to a non­de­script butte on pri­vate land.

But it would also mean check­ing off two more state high­points.

Had it re­ally come to this? Au­dra put the Chevy in gear.

HIGHPOINTING. Talk to most peo­ple who call them­selves high­point­ers, and they’ll tell you about the mo­ment they com­mit­ted to the goal, per­haps the peak that got them hooked. Not me. I don’t have a sin­gle mo­ment. If any­thing, I thought the idea was pretty dumb when I first en­coun­tered it. Nine­teen years ago, I stum­bled upon a copy of High­points of the United States on the “free ta­ble” at the short-lived out­door mag­a­zine where I worked.

I flipped through the pages and learned I had sum­mited ex­actly one— Wash­ing­ton’s 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier—the year be­fore on a guided trip. I also learned that the high­point of Alabama, where I grew up, is 2,407-foot Cheaha

Moun­tain, and that you can drive right up to the restau­rant and ob­ser­va­tion tower at the sum­mit.

Fairly quickly, I re­al­ized that half of the state high­points are, like Alabama’s, not climbs at all, or even hikes: They are bumps and hills that can be ac­cessed by roads all the way to the sum­mit park­ing lot. Delaware’s high­point, I read, was 448foot Ebright Az­imuth, an in­dis­tin­guish­able swell on a sub­ur­ban street cor­ner north of Wilm­ing­ton. I guess that’s why they’re called high­points and not sum­mits.

Of course, some are sum­mits, and re­quire great ef­fort or tech­ni­cal skill or both. As a week­end ad­ven­turer and bud­ding moun­taineer, I had al­ready pen­ciled some of these clas­sics on my bucket list, like Mt. Hood

(Ore­gon, 11,240 feet). But Cheaha Moun­tain? Ebright Az­imuth? Pur­su­ing them seemed the very def­i­ni­tion of inane. The lo­ca­tions on this list are de­ter­mined by ar­bi­trary state lines. In the rules of this game, stand­ing on the cor­ner of some­one’s man­i­cured yard shares equal sta­tus with stand­ing on the sum­mit of De­nali (Alaska, 20,310 feet).

Still, it was fun trivia, so I brought the book home. And I sup­pose it’s telling that in the per­sonal log ap­pendix, in writ­ing so mea­sured that to­day I don’t quite rec­og­nize it as my own, I wrote “6/17/99” next to Wash­ing­ton, Mt. Rainier, be­fore putting the book on my shelf, where it sat un­touched for years.

THE BOOK DREW Au­dra’s at­ten­tion like a mag­net. We’d only been dat­ing a short time when she picked it up. As a nat­u­ral ob­ses­sive who isn’t happy un­less she has a goal—a marathon, an Iron­man, ba­si­cally any­thing that re­quires plan­ning and dili­gent check­ing-off of mile­stones—she was fas­ci­nated by the list.

By then I had hiked a few more peaks that in­ci­den­tally were also high­points: Mt. Marcy (New York, 5,344 feet) and Mt. Mans­field (Ver­mont, 4,393 feet). They were easy week­end trips from my home in New York City—and were ac­tual

Over the next few years, Au­dra found ways to sneak two more high­points into our plans while we were do­ing other things.

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