The table in the dining room at the Woman’s Club of Concord didn’t feature the usual fare for a public event Tuesday night. There was no evidence of baked goods or traditional finger foods; instead triangle-shaped wedges of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, plates full of granola bars and a silver bowl with an eclectic trail mix made up the menu for the evening.
The whole thing had a gather-’round-the-campfire feel to it.
Fittingly, the evening featured a tale to match.
No offense to 10-year-olds everywhere, but Janelle Mylott isn’t the type to get excited about report cards reaching refrigerator doors. Not anymore, at least. She and Dan Szczesny were at the Woman’s Club to make a presentation, the two of them having completed a year-long journey of friendship and self-discovery just days earlier. Szczesny and Mylott conquered New Hampshire’s “52 with a view” list – a compilation of hikes under 4,000 feet, all of which feature striking views – hiking all 52 mountains in one year and six days, and Szczesny is working on a book chronicling the adventure.
The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie is due in May.
Mylott – who goes by the trail name Tough Cookie, as her brother sarcastically dubbed her following an argument – had never even walked a wooded trail as recently as 18 months ago. Now she’s seen some of the most breathtaking vistas the state has to offer.
“At first I was kind of iffy on the idea of hiking, but when I got to a summit I realized there were so many amazing views and I just loved it,” Mylott said.
She and Szczesny (trail name Buffalo, because of an embarassing scenario in which he fled a “stampede” that turned out to be two buffalo) are neighbors in Manchester and bonded during the summer of 2011, shortly after Mylott’s grandfather passed away. Szczesny, an experienced hiker who was married atop Mount Lafayette, took her on a few short hikes through parks in the city, and as her enthusiasm grew she quickly decided to try something more challenging.
So they tackled Mount Kearsarge on Nov. 5, 2011. Their third hike was up Mount Monadnock not long thereafter, and that “sealed the deal,” Szczesny said. He realized all three mountains they’d climbed were on the “52 with a view list,” so they put their heads together and decided to try to climb all of them within a year.
There was no definitive guide on the “52 with a view” list, either, so Szczesny pitched the book idea, which was promptly green-lighted by Bondcliff Books.
The journey, though, quickly became less about longitude and latitude and more about laughing and learning. Through the rocky climbs, Szczesny and Mylott developed a deep bond, and a 10-year-old girl learned to test her mental and physical limits.
“There was no guide book on the ‘52 with a view,’ but what was interesting to me and what I wanted to write about was her, and our narrative,” Szcesny said. “Like her seeing her first moose, or the first time this 10-year-old did 10 miles. We have a story to tell, and we want to share it. The book is frosting on the cake for us because we’d be (speaking about it) anyway.”
Szczesny started with some less-challenging hikes as Mylott got her legs underneath her, but things escalated quickly. The distances ranged from barely more than two miles round-trip to almost 14.
Also, as their self-imposed deadline of one year approached, they began ripping off several difficult hikes in short order, marching more than 40 miles – sometimes through snow and temperatures below zero – on election weekend and spending the days after Superstorm Sandy trudging through the choppy forest in the White Mountains.
Through it all, though, they took the time to explore each other’s interests. They stopped to look at slugs and spiders, soaked in every panoramic view and pledged never to rush through a hike.
“We made a promise to each other that if we found something interesting, no matter how many times we’d seen it before, we were going to explore it,” Szczesny said. “We didn’t want to put a stop to anything, no matter how small it seemed.”
Szczesny quickly developed an appreciation for Mylott’s spirit and determination, as only once during the entire journey did she decide to turn back. They returned to that mountain later and triumphantly reached the summit.
“There are very few kids her age who could do what she was doing,” Szczesny said.
Mylott certainly came away with a complete experience, including a lone overnight hike when the temperatures tumbled and they boiled water to store in bottles in their sleeping bags as “radiators,” Szczesny said.
“I think Monadnock was my favorite, because I love rock scrambling,” Mylott said. “Another good one was the Bald Faces, because there were just great views, and I was really excited to finish my first really long hike like that. That was probably the most important mountain (for me).”
That was a 13.7-mile journey that Szczesny certainly remembers. Not that he’ll forget any of the other 51 any time soon. Because though he and his wife have enjoyed growing close to Mylott and her twin brother, Aaron, the siblings have had a similar impact on them.
“It’s about her, in the end,” Szczesny said. “People always suspect that we’ve done a lot for Janelle and a lot for Aaron, but in the end it’s the other way around.”
For now, Mylott gets to return to the life of an average 10-year-old, and while that comes with certain perks, she’s going to miss wiping snow flakes from her frosty eyebrows.
Even though she knows she’s not done for good.
“Me and Dan have been saying it’s kind of bittersweet; we’re happy we did it and we’re really excited, but at the same time, we’re kind of sad it’s over,” she said. “Not forever, but for now.”