MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Thanks for agreeing to interview. Ken, you have a new hiking guidebook coming out (at least the publisher keeps promising it is going to come out. . .) which you co-edited and contributed quite a bit of new content to. Can you say a little about the book and why you are excited about it?
KEN: My next book project is the 5th Edition of Appalachian Mountain Club's Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide. It was originally due to come out in spring of 2020 but circumstances around the pandemic delayed it for about a year. As of right now, it is scheduled to be released in spring of 2021. After starting the project in mid-2018, I will be happy to finally see it come to fruition. I'm excited about the book for several reasons. The main one is that I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work on such a prominent project for [the] AMC. I'm taking over from the legendary Steve Smith [ co-author of The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains and editor of the AMC’s White Mountain Guide ] who authored the book for many years. He recommended me personally for the job and I couldn't be more honored. I am eager to expand upon Steve's work (and the authors before him) as well as include brand new material which will showcase what Southern New Hampshire has to offer. The White Mountains get a lot of the glory for good reasons, but the southern part of New Hampshire provides plenty of opportunities for folks to get outside, whether you're looking for a simple forest walk or a rugged hike to an open summit. One more thing . . . having the book delayed by the pandemic has also had an up-side. Since the publication date was pushed back so far, some of the initial field work was already out of date. Having this extra time allowed myself and the books staff at AMC to include updates and even some last-minute new information to ensure that the guide would be as up to date as possible.
MPPL: I’m really looking forward to the book. Your other project (which I understand you got started after the Southern NH Trail Guide, but which came to fruition sooner because of the publication delays) was New Hampshire’s 52 With A View: A Hiker’s Guide--a guide book to the peaks of the longstanding hiking list by the same name. That was an original--you weren't picking up as an editor of the next edition of an ongoing guidebook series, you were creating a new one. And the book has been very successful. Were you surprised by that?
KEN: The 52WAV book has been incredibly successful, and yes, it's been a bit surprising. I mean, I knew there was a demand for such a book but didn't realize it was this big. I initially wrote it because of my fondness for the hikes on the list, but also because folks were clamoring for such a resource. I kept reading comments like, "Hey, you know that 4,000-footer book (Steve Smith's book) that describes all the peaks and routes in one place? Why isn't there something like that for the 52WAV?" So I decided to create it. It was an idea that had been rolling around in my head for years, but the confidence gained by working on the Southern NH Trail Guide gave me the push to try and do this on my own. The very first print run in the summer of 2019 was a meager 125 copies. I was hesitant to invest a lot of money in it at the time, as I wasn't sure how it would go, and the fact that this a completely self-financed and self-published project. It just so happened that those 125 copies sold out in four hours! The success of the book is also due in large part to Mike Dickerman at Bondcliff Books in Littleton, NH. He has been essential for guidance and for distributing the book to local independent bookstores around the state to get it to a wider audience. The success of the first edition paved the way for the second edition in the summer of 2020, and the book has been rolling along ever since. As of the start of 2021, there have been about 5,100 copies sold, which is amazing to me. My main goal was to create something that hikers would find useful, and I am humbled and appreciative as to how well it's been received.
MPPL: The book is a great resource. Steve's book on the 4,000 Footers, and your book on the 52 With A View are what might be described as "hiker geek" books-- although they're incredibly useful for planning hikes, they also are packed with lots of trivia about the peaks they cover. Would you say that is a fair assessment, and do you consider yourself a "hiker-geek"?
KEN: I do think that's fair to say. I wanted the usual guidebook information in there about routes and such, but also wanted to include historical lore and other interesting information. It interests me to read about that sort of stuff in other guidebooks, so it felt natural to include it. I also hope it makes it more interesting for the reader than having just pages of stats. As to whether I am a “hiker geek?” Hard to say, I guess it would depend what the context of "geek" is. I would tend to think of that as someone really in tune with the latest gadgets and technology, etc. While I do love delving into the research end of things and I do enjoy my maps and books, I tend to stay pretty simple around hiking.
MPPL: I guess there are different stripes of “hiker geek,” some being gear heads, others being hiking-lore wonks, etc. Obviously, you've been an active hiker for a while now. When did you start and what was your motivation? Has that remained steady or has it changed over the years?
KEN: I guess you could say I started "hiking" when I was a little kid, perhaps around 6 or 7 years old. We lived adjacent to a town forest (Needham, MA) and my dad would bring me and my sister out there all the time to walk the woods roads and explore. That was my first exposure to the woods, so I have him to thank for that. That forest is actually pretty small, but as a kid, it seemed like a vast wilderness to me. My first "summit" was High Rock (255ft) within that forest, which had a pretty decent view nearly 50 years ago. Fast forward to my late 20s and I had moved away from the Boston area to central MA, which opened up more opportunities to get outside. . . but I didn't get serious about it until 2012, when I started hiking the NH 4,000 Footers. I guess you could say from that point on I was obsessed. The [initial] motivation was peak-bagging fever, but as time went on I learned to slow down and appreciate the journey as well as the destination. My main motivation through everything has always been a passion for exploring. I'm always curious what's down that side path or around that corner. That's what was fostered in me by my dad and it stays with me today. The physical and mental health benefits are also huge factors; hiking has been the best thing I've ever done for myself.
MPPL: I'd be negligent in this interview if I didn't also mention that you are also an excellent photographer--you've won some awards for hiking and mountain photos. Does the photography inform your writing (and visa-versa), and how you approach hiking in general?
KEN: The interest in photography is just a hobby and creative outlet. I come from a creative family -- my grandparents were both painters and my dad was a woodworker -- so I guess the creative gene was passed down to me. I don't see too much of a connection between photography and writing or hiking, other than the images being an important document to remember each hike. But they are two things that go very well together.
MPPL: Well, it may be a hobby, but I was excited to see some of your photographs gracing the latest copy of 52 With A View.
KEN: I was thrilled to be able to get some of my photos into the 52WAV book. It's something I wanted to do for the first edition, but didn't have the budget. Fortunately, the initial success of the book made it possible to make some upgrades for the second edition, including the addition of photos, which I believe make it a much better product.
MPPL: Covid-19 made the last year a rough one for everyone, so I hope you'll forgive me if my closing question strays into the territory of "existential thinking”: If you had a short time to live (and assuming you still had relatively good health toward the end and could hike), which mountain would be your last?
KEN: I guess the first peak that comes to mind would be Mount Moosilauke. I can't really explain why fully, but that's a peak that really resonates with me, where I feel at home, and from which I derive energy. I've always found the mountain to be a fascinating place, from its rich history to its rugged terrain to its ever-changing character throughout each season that passes. I feel very comfortable there and it's a place that makes me happy.
MPPL: In what season?
KEN: Definitely winter. Moosilauke in winter is like being on another planet. It's amazingly beautiful and foreboding at the same time.
You can purchase Ken’s books in local New Hampshire bookstores, or online.
See also Ken's 52 WAV Facebook site.
Photo credits: Ken MacGray
Elephant, on the other hand, just lurks, wooly with fir trees, hunching over its smaller neighbors. On that account alone it could very well be called Wooly Mammoth or just Mammoth. The mountain’s only claim to notoriety is its height—just enough to qualify for inclusion in New England's 100 highest peaks portfolio (at #98). If not for the list, the only people who might visit it would be foresters, loggers, hunters (none likely going as far as the summit), and an occasional wildlife biologist conducting research on Canada lynx or pine marten.
Skid trails continue further up the mountain, and from there several herd paths choices continue the rest of the way (the herd paths are tricky to parse in deep snow). In summer, the round-trip hike is 6-ish miles; in winter between 7 and 9 miles depending on approach. The primary logging road is located off South Arm Road, (a good gravel public way) about 8 miles north of Andover.
I chose to do Elephant in winter when the evidence of logging was buried in deep snow and the thinned, frost-capped saplings made for idyllic, postcard scenery. It took me two trips: the first, a late-start solo, breaking trail through knee-deep and deeper snow to 3,400 feet, and the second (with a few friends) going the rest of the way. For the second trip, I brought my skis and made good time both up and down the logging roads.
While perusing Amazon.com a few months ago, I noticed a bargain offer for a 6-pack of Darn Tough men’s wool running socks. Most of you are probably familiar with Darn Tough—a Vermont industry that revolutionized the durability of the outdoor-play sock by tightening the weave and thread count and simultaneously offering an unconditional lifetime guarantee—if you are unhappy with them, for any reason, at any point in the life of the sock, they replace it. The socks are produced by parent company Cabot Hosiery of Northfield, Vermont and are made exclusively in the USA.
Before Cabot Hosiery invented the Darn Tough line, they were losing business to overseas sock makers and were in decline. Instead of fading away (as so many clothing mills in New England have) they adapted and innovated, coming up with a “darn tough” sock that “wouldn’t wear out” and successfully marketed it to those who would appreciate it most—the outdoor gear consumer (and later the U.S. military). The socks are made of fine Merino wool and are manufactured to the highest of standards. They will wear out eventually of course (nothing lasts forever, not even the mountains) but they do hold up a lot longer than any other brand on the market without any sacrifice in comfort.
I was able to return the fakes to Amazon at no cost but my trouble (Darn Tough, being the stand-up company they are, even offered to replace the counterfeits at no charge if I did not get satisfaction from Amazon) and I followed up by buying several pairs directly from Darn Tough (which made me feel better about my purchase for a number of other reasons, too).
Although I spend a lot of time in the woods I’m not so reclusive that I don’t follow the news—I was aware, albeit peripherally, that there exists a lucrative global counterfeit industry (a multi -billion or trillion dollar criminal industry according to the U.S. Department of Commerce). But I had mistakenly assumed that most of those rip-offs target big, universally recognizable brands: Nike, Adidas and the like. Apparently that isn’t the case—and clothing, when you come to think about it, isn’t hard to rip off—sweatshops in foreign countries already routinely churn out genuine product blessed and outsourced by our well-loved major brands; there is no reason they can’t churn out fakes just as easily.
So, how does one avoid getting ripped off? Here are some take-homes distilled from my experience: