Mountain's Unusual Ascent Day draws cast of characters
GREEN'S GRANT - A group of colorful characters - some straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon - made a decidedly unusual ascent early Saturday morning of the Mount Washington Auto Road.
Their trek was inspired by and in homage to the late Alton Weagle, who made the trip in a variety of ways, including blindfolded, walking backward and pushing a wheelbarrow full of sugar.
The oldest manmade tourist attraction in North America, the 7.6-mile auto road - originally known as the Carriage Road - to the summit of the 6,288-foot Mount Washington first opened to visitors in 1861.
Over its history, the road has seen its share of unique events and individuals, Weagle among them, and when general manager Howie Wemyss and his staff sat down in 2010 to lay the plans for the auto road's 150th anniversary celebration in 2011, they decided to go big.
The celebration included the return of horses and horse-drawn carriages to the auto road, a Roaring '20s event, a re-creation of what it was like to clear snow from the road by shovel, an Old Home Day with old-fashioned games and, finally, the first of what is now the annual Alton Weagle Unusual Ascent Day.
"We thought Alton Weagle was an interesting piece of history," said Wemyss, and "we decided to do first ascents.
"Since the inception of Unusual Ascent Day, the ascenders have included a "Star Wars" scout trooper, the Cookie Monster from "Sesame Street," car-top kayakers, stilt walkers and a firefighter in full turnout gear.
This year, gathering at 6 a.m., the participants were Bugs Bunny, who was accompanied by two carrots; a runner who brought along his two dogs; a pogo-sticker; a hand-pedal bike rider; a unicycling jester; and Otok Ben-Hvar, who, sitting astride a red rocket that shot out sparks, flames and green and purple smoke, was dressed in a green fatigue jump suit, wore roller skates and a leather aviator's helmet and carried an American flag.
Known for riding a lawnmower from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, to Los Angeles and for driving around the country in a van - one that he bought from the auto road - onto which he spliced a phone booth, Ben-Hvar is a true son of Alton Weagle, said Wemyss.
A former U.S. Army paratrooper who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars, but did not see combat in either, Ben-Hvar now calls Berlin and Port Richey, Fla., home.
In 2013, Ben-Hvar, who was born Ben Garcia but changed his name to honor the Croatian island of Hvar, came to Unusual Ascent Day tucked inside a group of inner tubes and attempted to roll his way to the summit.
The year before, to celebrate earning a degree from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., Ben-Hvar crawled up the auto road and had Wemyss present him with his diploma along the roadside. Ben-Hvar also was gathering sticks that he then used to make a primitive American flag that greets visitors to the Mount Washington Auto Road Lodge.
Saturday, Ben-Hvar again lived up to his billing, delighting fellow unusual ascenders and a small group of supporters with a pyrotechnic display.
With help from Wemyss, who used a small torch to ignite a rocket, Ben-Hvar made like the Statue of Liberty, complete with a multi-colored fireworks torch, telling onlookers "I'm smiling, you're laughing."
A woman who was videotaping the display answered back, "I got up at 3:20, and this was worth it."
Bugs Bunny, who the rest of the year goes by the name of Jesse Lyman and is a teacher at Lafayette Regional Elementary in Franconia, came to the auto road with students Andrew Donohoe and Madeline Ellms, who were dressed as the aforementioned carrots.
This was the second group of students Lyman brought to the auto road, the first was in 2013 when he was the Cookie Monster and the students were decked out as giant chocolate-chip cookies.
The first person to go up the auto road on in-line skates, Lyman said Unusual Ascent Day is something he hopes to make a tradition for himself and his students.
Wemyss echoed the sentiment, saying he would like Unusual Ascent Day to continue to grow and become an unofficial kick off to the Memorial Day weekend and summer.
Asked whether Alton Weagle would be proud of his successors, Wemyss smiled and replied without hesitation, "I think he would."