A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1834
September 12, 2016

FLAGS ON THE 48

FRANCONIA NOTCH, NH – On September 11th the San Antonio-class Amphibious Transport Dock USS New York held open house for firefighters and first responders at the Port of New York. She was built using a “symbolic” amount of steel salvaged from the fallen towers. At Ground Zero the names of the almost-3000 victims of the attack were read by survivors, friends, and family members. All across the country runners and walkers participated in events raising money for survivor charities. Firefighters and police officers observed moments of silence and remained vigilant for repeats of the event on its anniversary. The President visited the Pentagon to pay tribute to its victims and the citizens who battled that day to keep the damage and carnage to a minimum. Pundits and commentators wrote and spoke; singers sang. Everyone commemorated in his own way the life-altering calamity that shattered our relative sense of immunity from foreign terrorism.

On the morning of September 15th, 2001, three days after the attacks, six White Mountain hikers assembled at the foot of Mount Liberty near the southern end of Franconia Notch. They carried a very large American flag (about 8 by 12 feet), lengths of PVC tubing, rope, and duct tape. A few hours later they raised the flag over the summit of the mountain in a heartbroken, but defiant gesture of patriotism and sympathy for those most grievously affected.

Mount Liberty, because of its name, was the obvious choice for the hike, and the climb the most relevant response for a group of New England hikers. They were so moved by the awful surprise – literally moved – that they took their grief to the mountaintop.

The White Mountain hiking community, as it calls itself, is so tightly knit that word of the climb spread quickly to the rest of the fraternity. Climbers being the go-getters that they are, somebody was bound to propose that in subsequent years flags should fly from all 48 of the New Hampshire 4000-foot mountains. By the end of the month there was already a steering committee. as well as a sub site hosted by a friendly climbers’ organization.

There was a name too, for the new effort: Flags on the 48. The organizers decided to commemorate the event each year on the Saturday closest to the date of the attacks, or on a Sunday if it was the actual date – as it was this year.

Organization and coordination are clearly key. With at least 500 hikers eager to participate each year, and almost 50 mountains to cover, assigning peaks and leaders is a big job. But a web site, explicit criteria and directions, and firm cutoff quotas control things a lot. Roughly ten climbers per peak is the rule of thumb, though unofficial participants often swell the numbers.

There’s a peak for every ability, too. Hikers who click the web site at “I’m not a hiker” also have an option, one of the three mountaintops that can be reached in other ways: Washington (road, cog railway) or Cannon and Wildcat D (ski lift).

Which is what has brought us to Franconia Notch. The crew and I signed up to accompany the Cannon Mountain contingent. We’d ride to the top of the aerial tram and take a short hike, with a band of “non-hikers” and their poles, flags, and ropes, to the summit of the mountain. But when we got here this morning, a strong cold front was passing through, and the wind was too strong on the mountain for the lift to operate safely. So, after a bit of discussion in the tramway parking lot (some of the hikers were clearly not 4000-foot-mountain-grade), we adjourned to the parking lot at nearby Artists Bluff, a line of ledges at the north end of the notch reached by a fairly short, steep trail. We’d raise the flags there and perform the usual ceremony.

The leader of the group was one of the founders of Flags on the 48, Chris Oberg, who seemed to bridge the gamut of the group from the fairly strong retired military presence, to the grieving folks who’d lost family members in either the attacks or the subsequent war in Iraq, to the hikers who were apparently here mainly to join others in a fairly easy day in the mountains, with a serious cast and a get-together afterward.

The leaders were obvious by the eight-foot-long PVC tubing sticking up from their pack frames, and which caught on every low-hanging overhead branch. But the climb was short, and soon they were standing on the big boulders at the top of the ledge, flagpoles upright, throwing the guylines down to helpers on the ground, who tied them to rocks and bushes.

A charming middle-aged woman with a T-shirt proclaiming “America – Land of the Free because of the Brave” read a memorial devotion to her son, an Army captain who’d been killed in Iraq. A compact man in a “Semper Fi” shirt delivered a brief talk, impressive for its organization and apparent extemporaneousness. The crowd, of about twenty, was quiet, reflective. Far below, motorists on the interstate parkway through the notch spotted our flags and beeped faintly.

Chris gave a short talk about how the idea had started, its current popularity and strength, and its future. “We’ll keep doing it,” he said, “as long as people keep showing up.” I thought then of all the other events that we’ve commemorated over the years – Armistice Day, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, VJ Day – and all the times we’ve sworn, “Never again!” This one, like those, will no doubt fade as those who experienced it pass on. But today’s ceremony, here on this lovely bluff among these New Hampshire mountains, was the right place to be, and the right people to be here with.

Photo by Willem lange