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  • Writer's pictureNicole E. Anderson

Why I Hike with My Harp

After getting my feet wet with a few local nature walks and easy hikes, my next plan was to head north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to try my hand at what I call "legit hikes," or ones that involve a reasonable amount of elevation gain. I've had a special attachment to the White Mountains ever since they played an integral role in my coming of age, having attended 3 years of piano camp up there during my high school summers and it being my first time away from home without my family. Without my harp, I normally head toward the waterfall trails and occasionally tackle ascending a 4000-footer, but the harp adds some complications. It's not the weight, necessarily. After all, my Flatsicle Baby Blue only weighs 6lb. It's more the awkward shape and size, and a carrying case that doesn't allow for a low enough center of gravity. Feeling unbalanced on top of a mountain is not a fun sensation. Add in a budding fear of heights and vertigo that my mother too started having around age 30, and I knew I'd have my work cut out for me when I embarked on these treks with my harps. But the passion is stronger than my fears.

As our weekend in NH approached, I settled on traversing North and Middle Sugarloaf in the Jefferson area. The two mountains are about half the height of their well-known counterparts in the Presidential Range and closer to the trailhead so I don't have to spend several miles hiking to the ridge, and rather can begin ascending right away. With All Trails clocking a 3.1 mile distance and a little over 1300 feet elevation gain, I was ready to reach new heights - literally and figuratively - with Baby Blue.

My husband/photographer Anthony and I left home and drove straight up to Jefferson. After 30 minutes of sun screening, bug spraying, boot tying, and harp tuning, we hit the trail. Whether hiking with or without my harp, I seek trails with unique features, and right from the start, Sugarloaf did not disappoint. Our first steps onto the trail, we followed alongside the picturesque Zealand River, a conundrum of sorts, with a mixture of power and stillness as cascades rushed water into pools of calm between rocks. I told Anthony, we shouldn't stop anywhere for photos on the way up. Being an out-and-back trail, we might as well scope out the whole thing before spending time on photos. That plan went out the window within the first 1/2-mile, when we came to a group of boulders with the mid-morning sunlight shining down on them through the leaves. It was the most magnificent light I have seen in a long time, and I knew it wouldn't last. We set up our equipment for photos.

This was also the first moment of attracting attention, as hikers passed by on the trail and stopped to make the frequent comment, "Wow, a harp on the trail! You don't see that every day!" I love having the harp as a conversation-starter. As a proud introvert, I'm only comfortable being center of attention in two scenarios: 1, with close friends and family, and 2, when I'm doing something music-related. Fortunately, hikers in general are really kind. I think it's because nature brings out the best in us. Shame on the person who is experiencing the world in its purest, most spectacular form and ruins it with disrespect of his fellow man! That being said, when I came up with the idea for Hiking Harpist, I didn't know how passersby would respond. Some people go hiking for the silence. Would the harp be peaceful enough to suffice? I got my answer at Sugarloaf, meeting some of the most enthusiastic trekkers with a love for not just nature, but all things beautiful. People were intrigued, some even enthralled. However, these encounters made me realize that I hadn't yet perfected my elevator pitch. What exactly was I doing out here?

As Anthony and I continued our hike, we contemplated what to tell people. "Well," I said, "I am a therapeutic musician and am seeking inspiration for songs in nature." But my reasoning goes far beyond that. I tried again. "I am spreading the word of therapeutic music and showing people that it can reach all different populations, in places you wouldn't normally expect." Better, but it was missing the main point, which I initially said tongue-in-cheek, as it's a bit hokey for my taste: "I'm bringing peace to the Universe." After a giggle, I paused and realized, maybe that isn't so far-fetched. I'm bringing peaceful music to peaceful places with the intent of shifting energy. That's what we aim to do as therapeutic musicians; we shift energy with our music.

We reached our first summit, North Sugarloaf, and were taken by the view east, straight to Mount Washington. After a few photos and videos and a brief concert for our summit companions, we headed over to Middle Sugarloaf, known as the "better" view of the two peaks (though North was certainly nothing to scoff at). We made our final ascent up, yes, a flight of stairs, and arrived at this little utopia of flat rocks and near-360 degree views, joining several other hikers who were in on the secret of the beauty of this ridge.

We scouted a few areas for pictures and then took out the harp and equipment by a climbing rock. I caught the attention and bewilderment of a group of three across the way. Jaws dropped as they turned away from their mountain view to watch our photo shoot. I laughed at the power of my little blue harp. 6 pounds, 3 feet high, but with the allure to shift people's gaze away from vistas so extraordinary that they don't even look real. But then again, a harp on top of a mountain is quite unreal as well!

By the end of our photo shoot, I had struck up enlightening conversations with a number of folks, and I was ready to sit and play a few songs. Anthony assumed the role of manager and went around handing out my networking cards, thus needing to perfect his version of my elevator speech. Stereotypes die hard; we had some people questioning if my intent was to promote myself for destination weddings. My husband answered, "Nope. She does play weddings, but her goal is to bring peaceful music to nature." When a lady then noted that just being in nature is enough for her, he responded, "But not everyone can come out here." Ahh yes, a new reason. I try to let my audience capture the feeling of places through my visuals and music.

We spent several hours on the Middle Sugarloaf summit. Every time I packed my harp away, it seemed a new group arrived, looking to speak to me and hear music. Word on the trail traveled really fast! My summit audience had been spreading the word that there is a "lady with a harp" hiking the trails. On the descent, people would notice my harp case and stop me in my tracks, exclaiming, "Oh, you're the harp girl!" I've never handed out so many cards in my life. When Baby Blue is packed away and my legs are like jelly, I hand people a card and tell them to "follow me on my journey." Believe it or not, I never intended Hiking Harpist to be business promotion. It really is a passion project, and I hope for it to grow independently from NEA Music. I do see the benefit in hiking with my harp as a publicity stunt, but as we know, my reasons for hiking are much deeper.

I think the difficulty in coming up with my reason stems from one simple fact: it can't be put into words. When I was sitting on top of the mountain and started to play, everyone went silent. The only sounds were the breeze and the strings. I started feeling emotional, playing off my runny eyes and nose as allergies, but it was in that moment that I thought, "THIS is why I hike with my harp."

As I continue these journeys, I expect many more moments in time, more realizations, and more contemplative experiences, but with every step on every trail, I find myself a little bit closer to understanding the deeper meanings behind my passion project. I just have to let nature be my guide.

hiking harpist no words with surreal eff
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