The contest was announced at staff meeting.
Equal Exchange has recently come out with two new chocolate bars, and the chocolate team, Dary and Kelsie, were looking for help spreading the word. They’d supply the chocolate bars and the contest was to see who could think of the most fun, creative, and successful way to promote them. (Not that we needed much help in my opinion; Organic Chocolate Caramel Crunch *with sea salt * was already selling so fast we were just about out-of-stock.)
Still… there was a challenge out there.
I admit that I wasn’t really thinking about the contest; I was thinking about myself and my own selfish craving for some good chocolate. I was hiking in the White Mountains on an AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) trip. We hiked up Mount Eisenhower, over to Mount Pierce, stopping at the Mitzpah Hut on our way back down. After 4 or 5 hours hiking, it occurred to me that I hadn’t brought a single chocolate bar with me. Who hikes without chocolate? And how could it possibly be that I, who share an office with Dary and Kelsie, and sit in a room loaded with boxes of every kind of chocolate you can imagine, could be at the top of Mount Eisenhower craving a chocolate bar? Que dunda!
There in the hut dozens of people were gathered around the tables resting, drinking their hot beverages, eating their lunches, and comparing notes on the trails. A room full of tired hikers… where was the chocolate??? And then it dawned on me… what a lost opportunity! Imagine how happy these folks would have been if I’d walked in and started handing out Organic Dark Chocolate from Ecuador (65%) and Organic Chocolate Caramel Crunch with sea salt! Sadly, I resigned myself; took out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and quietly nibbled while lamenting my loss.
But, of course… it’s never too late for a good idea.
I have a passion for hiking and I’ve been indulging wildly (recklessly, some would say) of late. Ever since I hiked Mount Galehead and Mount Garfield in late August and met two different folks, each of whom was celebrating the completion of their 48th 4000-footers; well, let’s just say, life has suddenly been infused with new meaning. I hadn’t even heard of the 4000-footers, never mind that there are 48 of them in New Hampshire, or that there was actually a “club” of people interested in hiking all of them. But I liked the idea: what better way to get to the mountains frequently; to be in nature, stay fit, explore the back trails through the White Mountains, and have all sorts of adventures? It could be a solitary and meditative experience or a social one, shared with friends. I was all over it.
So, there would be another chance. Hiking and chocolate: the perfect pairing of pleasures and passions.
I had nine 4000-footers under my belt by now and the following weekend I had planned to hike Mount Liberty and Mount Flume, checking off two more. But this time, I had a plan. How fun would it be to hike to the summit, and there high atop the mountain, hand out chocolate bars to those reaching the peak after me? They’d be tired and weary, blood sugar low, and I’d smile sweetly and say something like, “Congratulations, friends; you’ve made it. Have some luscious, organic chocolate. Direct from small farmers. With Love.” Just the idea, and all the different variations I could employ, got me gleefully through the week.
I had a plan, but how was I going to carry the chocolate up the mountain? Being October, I already needed to stuff my pack with layers of clothing, bottles of water, extra food, and the 10 survival items recommended by the AMC… you know, the flashlight, matches, pocket knife, compass, raingear, whistle, etc. As it was, I already had to buy a bigger pack to fit in all this extra gear that I never used to bother about. How many bars would I need to carry to make this a worthwhile endeavor? Dary and Kelsie suggested two boxes of each new bar, but that hardly seemed like much of a promotion. So I signed four boxes out of our warehouse, thinking I’d have to convince my hiking partner to take two boxes with her as well. Walking from my office to my car that evening, loaded down with four heavy boxes of chocolate, I began to question my zealotry.
Saturday came and my friend called to say something had come up and she couldn’t accompany me.
No matter. These fall days are precious and fleeting: crisp air, teal skies, and the foliage already turning golden yellow against the evergreens; alone or with friend, hiking was happening. I awoke at 5:00 am and got to the Flume Visitor Center parking lot by 8:30.The day was stunning: bright sun, blue sky.
Two cars pulled behind me into the lot. I was just removing the bars from their boxes (amusingly enough, four boxes contain 48 bars) and stuffing them into every available pocket in my backpack. They weren’t all going to fit, but I was determined to see this through and give every one of them away.
I ran to the cars, waving the bars. “Hey there, do you all like chocolate?” They looked me over, like I was one of those people who hand out apples to kids at Halloween. Clearly I needed to work on the pitch. “You see, I work for Equal Exchange and we’re promoting our two newest chocolate bars.” Blank stares. “I’m planning to give them out at the summit, but… well, there’s kind of a lot of them and they’re really heavy… you’d be helping me a lot if you’d take a few off my hands.” Okay, admittedly I was not going to win points back at the co-op for my sales finesse. But I also figured that there’d be plenty of time that day (and 43 more bars) to perfect the pitch.
Apparently, temptation won out over skepticism. Not only did they take five bars off my hands, but they also offered me a ride to the trailhead; thereby sparing me the dull, one-mile walk to the trail.
Score on all counts. The day was off to a good start.
On the trail
My plan had been to hike up Mt Flume, traverse the Franconia Notch ridge, hit the summit of Mount Liberty and come down the Liberty Springs Trail. But the night before, as I lay in bed studying the trail maps and the guide book, I got nervous. The AMC guide, and trusted source, warned against hiking up the Flume Slide Trail (ever) and pointed out that when wet, the trail could be extremely slippery and just as dangerous to descend. Hmmm. I’d had my share of adventures and mishaps this past month while hiking alone and we’d just gotten over an “unusual” tropical storm that dumped five inches of rainfall in Franconia Notch.
Prioritizing my Equal Exchange mission, I decided to play this one conservatively. Still, it was hard to give up the chance to bag two summits on one climb (yep, the rules allow this kind of maneuver); so I decided to hike up Mount Liberty, hand out the chocolate bars, walk the ridge to Mt. Flume’s summit, then retrace my steps and come back down. Not the most exciting day hike, but a small sacrifice for the bigger cause.
We got dropped off further up the highway and set out together until the first fork in the trails. (They were bravely doing the ill-advised Flume Slide Trail.) These were no casual outdoors folks. Amy was outdoor columnist for the Weir Times, New Hampshire’s weekly on-line newspaper; she’d “hiked the 48” five or six times. Rachel, at age 16, had already hiked them all and was on her second round. A lively group, they got completely behind the day’s mission. Amy coached me on my pitch. The first guy who passed us on his way down was greeted by all six of us. “Hey,” Amy exclaimed, startling the tired hiker, “she works for Equal Exchange and she’s promoting their new chocolate bars. They’re really good. Would you like one?” We all chuckled. I mean really, who’s going to say no? The guy had just hiked the Flume-Liberty loop (and it was only 9:00 in the morning). His dazed look brightened immediately. “Sure!” He reached into his pocket. “How much do they cost?”
I could see this was going to be a fun day.
We hiked a short distance and parted ways at the juncture, assuming we’d meet again at the summit.
I continued on my own. The backpack was heavy and the trail was… well kind of a drag; steep and rocky, muddy and slippery the whole way up. The kind of trail where it doesn’t really matter that there are no views until the top, because you’re so busy watching your footing that there’s no time to look around anyway.
But the fun part was the chocolate. Every time some hikers passed, I’d stop them to chat. Sometimes I talked about the delicious, organic chocolate; sometimes about Equal Exchange, a unique worker-owned co-operative; other times about our mission and the cool farmer co-ops we buy from.
Hikers are generally some pretty great people. These folks were interested. They listened and asked questions. They were appreciative. They were enthusiastic. Some had already heard of Equal Exchange. “Oh my god”, one young woman said to me, “I just graduated from Brown and your coffee and chocolate are all over the campus. We love Equal Exchange. I can’t wait to try these bars. Thank you SO much.” How fun was that?
It was a love fest.
One of my favorite encounters was with this big guy, fully bearded, carrying a large pack on his bare back, heading down from the tent site at the top of Mt. Liberty. I stopped him, offered him his choice of chocolate bars, and we chatted for a bit. I learned that he worked for the AMC and was out doing trail maintenance work.
I have to say I love the AMC. This whole 4000-footer thing is their idea. They were trying to figure out how to get folks into the wilderness, help people appreciate (and therefore care more about) our natural resources, and more pragmatically, how to get the crowds off of Mount Monadnock and Mount Washington and spread them out across the other 40-odd less-travelled mountains. They do the hard work of maintaining the trails, setting up the huts and lodges, leading trips, and a multitude of other work from which the rest of us all benefit.
After a really fun conversation about his work and mine, he let me know that many other of his colleagues were out and about today fixing the trails and that they would be very excited to meet me, learn about Equal Exchange, and of course, try some of this chocolate. We were both inspired.
The hike up was full of other serendipitous moments, but the best was yet to come.
At the summit
As I finally approached the summit I had one goal: shed my backpack of the remaining chocolate bars, catch the view and head back down. Forget Flume; forget trying to cross off two summits; forget the fact that the trail down would be just as boring as the climb up, only harder on my knees. It had been an exhilarating hike, but I was getting tired: it was time to finish up and move on. Nevertheless, I was still excited to reach the summit: the spectacular view (it was peak foliage weekend in New Hampshire); a peaceful lunch; and a few more good conversations about Equal Exchange and our mission to support small farmer co-operatives.
Just as I arrived on this quiet mountain top, from which you can see the entire Franconia Notch region, including Mount Washington, the rest of the Presidentials, and dozens of other mountain peaks, a large group of boisterous hikers appeared and spread out all around me. Next thing I know, there were all sorts of celebratory beverages going around, as well as home-made cookies and brownies; even cheesecake with strawberries and whipped cream. “What’s going on,” I asked one of them. “We’re celebrating our friend Al. He just finished the GRID.” Someone hung a gold medal around Al’s neck and his friends were snapping photos.
I thought some people were fanatical about the 48. Now there was the Grid. It took me awhile, and several different people explaining this to me, but I finally got it. The point of the Grid is to hike all 48 mountains during the course of every month, each month of the year. In other words, you don’t have to do all 48 in ONE month or in ONE year, but every time you hike a mountain, you plot it on an excel sheet. By the time you are done, you have hiked EACH 4000-footer 12 times, winter, summer, spring, fall. So that’s 48 X 12 4000-footers Al had just completed. I reckoned he deserved the gold medal. I also thought it was pretty incredible that 22 of Al’s friends, from different walks of his life, were accompanying him on this last, momentous GRID hike.
These were some high-spirited and very friendly people. “Well, I’m contributing chocolate to the festivities,” I announced, as if I belonged to the group. I gave Al a congratulatory hug and handed out the remaining chocolate bars to those around. “How does she know Al,” I heard a few people ask at different moments. “Not sure,” one guy responded, “but these are damn good chocolate bars.”
I sat down on a rock and took out my lunch. The leader of the group came over to me. “Are you on my email list?” “No,” I responded. He pulled out some paper and a pen and handed it to me. “Give me your email and I’ll let you know when we’re hiking. It’s a great way to help you complete the Grid.” Another fellow next to me said, “Go ahead and sign-up. Ed knows everyone and he hikes about four days a week. He’ll send you an email and it will just say something like: Mount Jefferson on Saturday. 8:30 am in the parking lot. You’ll never have to hike alone and you’ll be part of this awesome group of hikers.” He went on, “Ed’s done the Grid five or six times.” I gave Ed my email.
One of the hikers heard me saying my name. “Are you Phyllis Robinson,” he asked. “Didn’t you just make a donation to the NH Outdoor Council.” I nodded, surprised. “I’m Peter,” he introduced himself, “President of the Council. Thanks for your donation.” Peter was an avid year-round hiker who had completed the 48 many times. He works for the Mount Washington Observatory and has spent much of his life involved with resource management and environmental education.
Eventually, folks finished up their lunches, the photos, and the celebration. Another sweet guy, Jeff, asked me what my plans were. I told him that I’d planned to hike over to Flume and then come back the way I’d climbed, but the chocolate had been heavy and since I was hiking alone, I thought perhaps I’d just head back down. “That’s a shame,” he said, “to miss this chance to bag Mt. Flume as well. You’re already all the way up here. I’ll tell you what,” he went on. “How about you hike with us? That way, you get Mt. Flume and then we’re taking the Osseo trail on the way down. It ends up at Lincoln Woods. From there, I’ll drive you back to your car.” “That’s really nice,” I said. “Hey, it’s the least I can do. After all, you’ve just given us all this wonderful chocolate.”
I took out my map. This was definitely going to turn into a much longer day than I’d planned; adding at least four or five more miles to my hike. But the Osseo Trail was supposed to be quite beautiful and it would be much more fun not to have to retrace my steps on the Liberty Springs Trail. Plus, these folks were a lot of fun. I didn’t need to be asked twice.
The Chocolate Lady
We set off for Mount Flume. Someone did a group count. “Hey, we’re now 24”, she said, “we seemed to have picked up someone along the way.” “It’s the chocolate lady,” I heard someone respond. For the next bit of time, I’d hear someone ask, “Hey who is she?” or “Tell me again how she knows Al?” And the response would be something equally amusing.
Not too long after we left the summit, we bumped into Amy and her friends. “Hey”, one of them exclaimed. “It’s the chocolate lady!” They’d had a chance to eat the chocolate so now I could get the reviews. “That caramel crunch, man that was unbelievable!” Peter was hiking behind me. “You know Phyllis too?” “Sure. Most people up and down this trail do also. Everyone we passed was eating the chocolate and talking about the chocolate lady.” Al came up behind with his big gold medal and Amy asked what we were celebrating. “Our friend Al’s just finished the Grid,” Peter told her. “That’s awesome”, she responded. “Hey, let me get a photo of Al and the chocolate lady, I’m going to write a column for the Weir Times about this.”
The way down was beautiful; with stunning views, brook crossings, evergreen groves and golden yellow maple and birches. It was also very fun. We kept bumping into folks I’d already given the chocolate to and now everyone in my newly adopted group was interested in how these random hikers felt about the chocolate! Some folks passed us asking if we knew where the chocolate lady was and had we tried the chocolate and was there any more available? The Gridiots (as they good-humoredly called themselves) played along well.
Al’s friends were great people. They gave me tips on the trails, strategies for completing the 48, encouraged me to try winter hiking, and were incredibly kind and generous all around. They were also genuinely interested to learn more about the chocolate and the farmers who produced it. In particular, they asked many questions about the sustainable practices of the cacao farmers and how they are protecting their local resources through their farming methods.
It makes a lot of sense if you think about it: AMC, Equal Exchange, small farmer co-ops. Pairing two passions: Hiking and Chocolate.
We finally arrived at the Lincoln Woods parking lot. Jeff agreed to take me back to my car. “I forgot to tell you”, he said. “We’re having a tail gate party in the parking lot and everyone’s brought something to eat and drink. Would you mind terribly if we stayed just awhile and drank some beer?