Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Belknaps With Bruschi

Forward
It was January 19, 2002 when my brother, his wife, myself and Sarah bailed out of the truck and out onto Route 1 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Snow had been steadily and unexpectedly falling all day long and we had been stuck in the sea of cars for far too long. We could see the lights of the stadium up ahead on the hill, Foxboro Stadium was a meager place, definitely a relic in present day NFL standards. It was the first time in my life that I was attending a New England Patriots Football game. I had been a fan for a long time, through thick and thin, good seasons and bad. My childhood hero, Drew Bledsoe was down and out and all of our hopes and dreams rested on a young quarterback named Tom Brady.

I'll never forget what I experienced that night in Foxboro, Mass. What many would forever know as "The Tuck Rule Game" and those who were there would always remember as "The Snow Bowl." We watched a miracle that night as snow fell throughout the game, more than 5 inches accumulating on the ground, and Vinatierri kicked two impossible Field Goals. I have yet, in my entire life, to remember a time when I'd seen more grown men crying at once. Our team had won and were on their way to the AFC Championship against Pittsburgh and later their First Super Bowl Win.  Playing Middle Linebacker for our New England Patriots was one Tedy Bruschi. It was his 6th season as a Patriot, the heart and soul of the defensive line. An unselfish player who played a majority of his 13 years without the use of an agent and always choosing the love of the game over money.

This past Monday I had the honor and extreme pleasure of guiding one of the most memorable hikes of my entire life. Randy Pierce, the 2001 Patriots Fan of the Year, asked me to be the trip leader of a once in a lifetime opportunity to hike with Tedy Bruschi himself. And so it was...
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Sarah, Kyle and I met up with Randy Pierce and his wife Tracy at the Tilton Diner parking Lot in Tilton, NH at 7:30 AM. Randy was the 2001 Patriots Fan of the Year and is the proud captain of the 2020 Vision Quest. An organization dedicated to raising funds for Guiding Eyes for the Blind and The New Hampshire Association for the Blind. It was a week ago when Randy called me to ask me to guide this group of hikers which included a very special guest. He trusted my knowledge of the area in picking the perfect hike as a way to have an amazing time, while showcasing Randy and Quinn's many challenges while on the trail and still maintaining a White Mountain feel. I immediately said yes, without hesitation, yet didn't hold my breath that this would actually take place. Not many people are afforded the opportunities to go out on a hike, and guide, their childhood/adolescent heros. So it was at 7:30am that our special guest, Tedy Bruschi himself, showed up at the diner that I finally pissed myself with great joy that yes.. it was going to happen.

This past Friday, Kyle and I pre-scouted New Hampshire's Belknap Range. A mountain range settled along the shores of New Hampshire's Lakes Region that truly is the hidden gem of New Hampshire hiking. A talented and dedicated group of volunteers maintain the trails in this range with very little fan fare and by far a lack in use compared to the over-used and abused White Mountains. I knew this would be the perfect place for us to venture out and on Friday Kyle and I proved it so. With no snow on the trails and minimal mud; a wide range of moderate challenge that would surely work us all and showcase Randy and Quinn's abilities, Kyle and I were confident that the right choice had been made despite Randy's preference for an above tree-line adventure in the still ice coated whites.
With Tedy in tow, we all drove to the trailhead at the Carriage Rd. just off of Belknap Mountain Rd. We pulled into the tiny dirt parking lot while one hiker was all ready taking off for his day in the woods. We all poured out of our vehicles and took the time to lace up our boots and get ourselves comfortable. I was all ready teasing Tedy who had drove up in the perfectly clean, bright, white pair of Nike sneakers. He replaced them with a brand new pair of Vasque hiking boots and dished some guff right back my way with a classic Tedy Bruschi smile. While everyone talked about, I had the pleasure of helping Tedy adjust his pack straps to his comfort preferences and showed him how to stow his hiking poles until he needed them. Once we were done with this, our group began our hike into the woods after a quick pre-hike photo in the parking lot.
We started up the Piper Mountain Trail where those of his hiking along side Tedy himself, (all of us) remained awe-struck by his presence. Never in a million years did I think I'd have the honor and privilege of meeting Tedy, let alone have the opportunity to help organize a hike with him and then serve as his guide. While Sarah smiled from here to ear and Kyle engaged in some great conversation with the man, I remained humbled while joyfully present. When we reached the top of Piper Mountain, the entire group was wowed by views none-of the truly expected. From the backside of the mountains where we parked, the Belknap range looks like nothing more than feeble humps. On the top of Piper, we sat amongst the stone benches, took pictures, ate snacks and enjoyed the unexpected views of the rest of the Belknap Range. Tedy was the musher in the group, getting us all up and ready to roll for some more. Of course, Randy wouldn't budge without the ceremonial Tug-O-Quinn performed on every summit.
Our walk over to Whiteface was full of more regular conversation. It was important to all of us that we treat Tedy like the average Joe. Of course, we talked to him about football. His job at ESPN, his more memorable moments, what inspires him, what he thinks about certain other players and football analysts. Tedy was super candid and engaging and left nothing out for fear of the wrong interpretation. He was honest and sincere with every answer and forced you to engage his eyes when speaking to him. But beyond what we discussed, the guy was as big a kid as I. Horsing around on the slab sections on the downhill, enjoying his new found toy in Black Diamond hiking poles, and of course taking pictures of each other.
On Whiteface we all sat around in the grass and enjoyed an early lunch. Another Quinn tug of war and the usual suspects were quite impressed by Randy and Quinn's ability to really cruise across the terrain. Randy and his pal have come an exceptionally long way over the last year and those who saw him perform then as compare to now can't help but be thoroughly impressed. It was here that Randy announced to us that he was donating two gifts of $54 in myself and Kyle's name in honor of our help with today's hike. I was both humbled and gracious of Randy's gesture. Tedy thought 54 was a pretty special number. ::wink wink::
We headed back up to Piper from Whiteface. Along the way we pointed out the various types of animal scat out to Tedy. I spent some time with him teaching him a few of the various hiking terminology that exists. Col, cairn and waterbar; I taught Tedy about the incredible work Trail Maintainers take on and all that is involved. From painting blazes to clearing blowdowns... and what a blowdown is. Next week, Tedy will be hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. A far cry from this tiny range in New Hampshire however we knew that of the  4 NFL players who will be present, he'd know more then they will. Today however, he was the rookie and we offered to shave his head.
Along the way to Belknap Mountain, Tedy scared a few grouse out of the trees. The loud noise these birds make upon take-off tends to scare any hiker on the trail. Tedy was no exception, quickly stopping and jumping back followed by the raising of his hiking poles in ready defense. We got a great chuckle about this. As Tedy continued to lead the group through this section, we started to hike the wrong way. I corrected him and told him the trail went to the right (where the grouse went) and he simply smiled and said, "I just learned what a camelback was! Why am I leading?!" He continued to do a great job leading the group down to the next trail junction where a mish-mash of the group would take turns leading. The basic idea between all that we've hiked today is that everyone in our group had time for one on one discussion with everyone in the group. I got to hang with Tracy and talk to her, I had private time with Randy and Quinn, again with Sarah and of course more with Tedy. Everyone had time just as this which really helped bring our group together and of course enjoy the trek that much more.
Along the way to Belknap we stopped on a small cliff where Tedy was excited to see that we were high above two turkey vultures whom were circling around below. He snapped many pictures before Randy asked him to describe the view. Tedy took his best shot at telling Randy about what we were looking at. Once we made it to the top of Belknap, we took our packs off and headed up into the fire tower. Quinn, quietly rested below. Up on the mid-platform we enjoyed the 360 degree views of the region. To the south/southeast we could see the Atlantic Ocean and to the north, The White Mountains where I was able to locate and name almost half of the 48 four-thousand footers. In the meantime, I recognized Hal Graham who was working in the tower. Hal was the first to summit the Trailwrights 72 peak-bagging list and the oldest. This is significant because I am the youngest and two falls ago I was honored to help his group with some trail-work. We followed him up into the tower where we all looked around and signed into the visitors book. As Tedy began to walk down, Hal grabbed his arm and said "Hey, If I didn't know any better I'd say you were Tedy Bruschi." Tedy replied with, "I get that all the time." I sat back and waited for Tedy to leave and it was just Hal, myself and another ranger in the tower. "Hal.. go look at the book, he signed his name.. that was Tedy." "NO SHIT!"
Down below we rested more and ate more snacks. We did an activity where we interviewed each other. I figured that there are so many times in life where Tedy and Randy are bombarded with interview questions. When this happens they might feel over worked while others are ignored. I left the floor open to everyone to ask anyone in the group ONE question. We went in a circle and it was here that Kyle asked Randy what one piece of advice he would give a 23 year old. Kyle, a graduating senior of the UNH Masters in Education Program listened intently as his childhood hero later chimed in as well and gave him some of the best life advice he'll likely ever receive. The rest of us sat back and enjoyed the very real moment. Then Hal came out of the tower and snapped a group photo for us all then convinced us to make the trek over to Gunstock. We weren't planning on heading over there but Tedy was jazzed up and wanting more. So off we went.
We had a blast on the way to Gunstock. Tedy was looking for more furry coyote poop for pictures to share with his kids. He took pictures of birch bark, more droppings and whatever else. We had a great time, laughing and whopping it up as I would with any other person I hike with. That was the real feel of this entire hike; everyone just enjoying each others company and feelings free to be real, be themselves. Near the summit of Gunstock, we used what little snow was left fromt he snow-guns and had an impromptu baseball game. We then sat in the ski-lift chairs and enjoyed the magnificent views of Lake Winnepesauke and the Whites.
From here, we backtracked to the blue trail and headed back down to the Carriage Rd. With rain in the forecast, we could finally see the high dark clouds moving in from the west. On the way down the final trail, Tedy had the opportunity to give Quinn and break and act as Randy's guide. Watching the two work was nothing short of magical and Tedy quickly learned how tough it is. Randy and Tedy have been friends for a long time now and the magic of their relationship truly shined through this tough section of slick rock and rock steps. We snapped one more group photo down at the top of the carriage road before finally strolling down to the cars on the paved road.
What an intensely magical day. Back at the cars, Randy asked Tedy to break it down one time for us all. We raised our hands as a group and then Tedy broke it down. "WE HAVE TWO PEOPLE TO THANK FOR TODAY'S HIKE SO HOW DO WE FEEL ABOUT SHERPA JOHN AND QUINN?! AWWWWW YEAHHHH!!" One of the true highlights of my life. And then as we turned to thank our special guest and say our goodbyes, I noticed that he had been so moved by the entire experience and enjoyed himself so much that this gentle giant was wiping away tears. Words cannot truly describe how I felt at this moment. Having spent 9+ hours with one of my heros, guiding him through the woods and then of course the presence of another one of my childhood heros, Tedy Bruschi, across New Hampshire's hidden gem. I was both humbled and star-struck. One of the true highlights of my life and the perfect way to celebrate graduating from UNH and moving on into the world of real professional guiding. Thanks to the entire group and thanks to our guest Tedy. Kyle said it best over dinner, "It's nice to know that your childhood hero's, really are worthy of being called hero's."


Cheers!
SJ