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?
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.