Maybe 15 years ago, having completed the 46 High Peaks and just becoming aware that there were indeed other trails in the Park, I was searching for new options when I stumbled across a brief description of the seldom-climbed Jay Mountain, the capstone of the Jay Range, smack in the center of the Jay Wilderness off of Jay Mountain Road between the communities of Jay and Upper Jay. Everything in Jay is named Jay. People even name their goldfish Jay. Less to remember that way, I suppose.
It was a mountain that, it was said, only “the locals” climbed, but if that were the case, those rascally locals weren’t talking. People whom I was certain had hiked Jay clammed up, guarding the secret with the same passion as one trying to keep the nuclear codes away from President Trump.
Of course this only meant that I made up my mind that I would find the trailhead or die. Find it I eventually did, but it wasn’t within a hundred yards of where it was supposed to be, and was marked only by three sorry old stones masquerading as a cairn. I do believe it took longer to find the trail than it did to hike it.
It was technically “trailless,” although you know how that goes; there were no signs, but enough trampled vegetation to find your way without any particular problem. It was, however, an awful footpath, penetrating a thicket of unsightly brush near the top and marked by what I took to be a shrine to a dear departed. It was large and quite colorful, with flags and plastic flowers and a heap of stones that had obviously taken some time to assemble. You felt for the loss of a loved one, but there was nothing forever-wild about it, and the fact that it had not been respectfully removed told me that not even the DEC rangers hiked this mountain with any frequency.
But it was the peak itself that stole the show. It was a mile and a half of spectacular open ridgeline, with fun, challenging scrambles and views to forever that included the High Peaks, Lake Champlain and the distant Greens of Vermont. Were it just over a football field higher, it would have qualified as a High Peak itself and, I was convinced, have been among the most crowded and popular mountains in the Park. Instead — nothing. The number of hikers I met on that glorious summer weekend day could have been categorized as less than one. Same with a couple of subsequent climbs in the early 2000’s.
Today it’s different. Five years ago, an official, civilized trail was cut up Jay to encourage more hikers, and it worked; on a July weekend I counted 34 cars at the trailhead.
Maybe Jay has simply been “discovered” or maybe it is emblematic of the overcrowding issues in the mountains that is on everyone’s mind.
Like a stock picker who has had that one big hit and is deluded into thinking he can find more, I set out to discover other lonely gems that the masses have not yet found, just as I had done 15 years ago with Jay.
It hasn’t gone terribly well. Any number of times this summer I’ve resolved to write about all the “undiscovered trails” I’ve found, where those seeking solitude — even in these days of overpopulated peaks — can still hike all day without seeing another soul. At times I’ve been encouraged, spending entire mornings on a trail traveled only by me. So I’ve crafted these essays in my head, filled with art and poetry, about the road not taken as I have hiked in seclusion on mountains like Hopkins or Marble. But just as I’m smugly putting the final punctuation to these odes to my own nose for wilderness, around the bend comes a troop of about eight million singing girl scouts and a half dozen Dartmouth boys shouldering 24-packs of Labatt’s Blue.
So maybe there’s something to the concerns about overuse. There is talk of a permitting system for hiking the mountains, and I hope it doesn’t come to that, largely because I’m not that organized. I do know that popularity comes in waves, and that perhaps in three our four years we’ll all be fretting over an unanticipated decline in tourism. I also fear I’m becoming one of those grumpy old men who pounds his cane on the floor and demands that kidsthesedays (spoken as a singular noun) get out from behind the computer screen in their parents’ basements and into the fresh air. And then when they do get into the fresh air, pounds his cane and demands they go away.
Today, with mobile technology, they can do both; they can stay connected while they are in the wild. So they are on Jay — and everywhere — and I try to see the good in that, even if it’s cost me a measure of solitude. I also know that with determination there are still places I can hike and be alone. I have not, for example, noticed a lot of selfies originating from Panther Gorge.