Art Richardson used to time himself on his way to the top of Mount Major, but now that he's 70, he's stopped going for speed.
Now for motivation, he thinks about hiking to the popular Alton peak enough times to equal the elevation gain of the Mount Washington Auto Road. That means hiking up and down Mount Major four times in one morning.
"I've done it five times, but I'm happy with three to four," he said.
I began hearing about Richardson soon after the Forest Society and the Lakes Region Conservation Trust started a fundraising effort to protect Mount Major and the surrounding mountains in the Belknap Range (near Lake Winnipesaukee).
I was immediately intrigued - why would anyone do such a thing? - and it wasn't long before I was calling him up at his West Alton home to ask the man himself.
After a sweaty, 90-degree, blueberry-gorging day of hiking to the summit with him three times, I think I know the answer, and it has to do with so much more than mere fitness.
But his lean frame and muscled legs tell you that fitness definitely is a result.
"I call this my health insurance policy," he told me while we sat watching the sun rise above Alton Bay.
It seems to be working. The last time Richardson saw a doctor was at his Medicare introductory checkup five years ago, and he has no plans to go back until he's 75 - if even then.
"When I'm 75, what do I have to worry about?" he says.
To stay cool in the summer, Richardson starts early, at 4:30 a.m., and hikes with no shirt (it just gets all wet and sweaty, he said) and no bug spray. He gets up at 2 a.m. so he has time to cook himself a big breakfast, usually oatmeal sprinkled with flax seed and washed down with a few cups of coffee. He tries to eat healthily, but he says he could do a lot better. For dinner, he usually makes himself a stew of some sort. He jokes about how long he just keeps adding vegetables, beef or chicken to it without having to wash the pot.
Richardson has hiked Mount Major most of his adult life - since getting out of the Air Force at 27 and buying land in West Alton, where he built himself a house. At first the hikes were occasional because he worked in Littleton as a broadcast television engineer, and most took place on 4,000-footers in the White Mountains. He switched to Mount Major and other mountains in the Belknaps because they were as close as they were beautiful.
"Rather than drive two hours to the Whites, I'd rather come down here and get a good hike in and be home in 10 minutes," he said.
He started hiking multiple times a day about six years ago, just because he was enjoying the best part of his day so much he wanted to keep going.
"If I'm by myself, the second is my most invigorated hike," he said. "If I drink water after the second time, eat a little peanut butter and a small bag of M&Ms, I get a little boost. Then I'm good for three or four."
He often has company on his hikes, because the real draw, he said, has been the friendships he's found on Mount Major.
"All of my friends now are hikers. I've met 90 percent of them on this hill," he said.
Over the years, about a dozen hikers have formed a morning community on Mount Major, with a core group hiking every day. They come whenever they can and use trails that are off the beaten path. One of them, called the Express, is known as the "meet-up trail"; members of the group know they'll eventually run into each other there and continue their hike together.
Fellow daily hiker Allen Collier met Richardson at the top, and the men walked down the mountain together after hitting it off.
"We got down to the bottom, and he said, 'Let's go up again.' I never thought to do it twice - who would?" Collier said with a laugh.
Tom Charnecki, another frequent hiker we met on the trail last week, said his son hiked Mount Major multiple times daily last year, like Richardson, in order to train for endurance races requiring altitude training.
"Art was our inspiration," Charnecki said.
The conversation Richardson initiates on the trail, Charnecki said, is often of the interesting, rather than superficial, variety.
"Religion, politics - all the taboo things you're not supposed to talk about - we talk about them all here, but always in a respectful way," Charnecki said.
"Nothing's off the table," Richardson agreed. "Some people just want to talk about the weather, and that's fine, but that doesn't satisfy my need to be acquiring knowledge."
Indeed, when Richardson is hiking alone, it's often valued time to think, aided by the steady exertion of multiple trips to the summit.
"It's like a runner's high, but kind of a meditative state when I hike alone," he said. "My brain is going 100 miles an hour. I can't wait to meet somebody to start talking about it."All the benefits he gets from hiking, Richardson said, have everything to do with the place that makes them possible, and that place is Mount Major. "I love this mountain. It just seems to have it all," Richardson said. "The hiking experience, the friendships, the beauty, the fresh air, the great views - it's all here."
To find out more about the effort to preserve the hiking experience on Mount Major and in the rest of the Belknap Range, go to www.forestsociety.org.
"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email her at email@example.com.