Strolling up to Delaware's loftiest ground

'Highpointers' seek the tops, easy and tough, of all 50 states

Short Hop

May 16, 2004|By Joe Glickman | Joe Glickman,Special to the Sun

The highest point in Delaware, called Ebright Azimuth, stands a non-resounding 448 feet above sea level by the side of a two-lane road in front of a modest suburban Wilmington neighborhood named Dartmouth Woods.

It's enough to make you want to drive right on by -- as a matter of fact, most people do.

Not "highpointers," though, that small but growing group united by the desire to stand on top of all 50 states' highest points.

In the annals of mountaineering, highpointing ranks right up there with, say, crossing America on a unicycle. It's ambitious, physically and logistically difficult, and a bit off the wall.

When my friend Nels Akerlund and I began five years ago, 58 people had climbed all 50 states' highest points. By the time we climbed our final high point in July (an 18-day climb up the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley), that number had nearly doubled.

While many of the high points are accessible to anyone with a car and the ability to put one foot in front of the other, standing on top of all 50 is surprisingly difficult: You need time, money, mountaineering skills and motivation, not to mention a good car stereo.

To accomplish our goal, Nels, a photographer from Rockford, Ill., and I drove about 12,000 miles and flew about as far again to Alaska and Hawaii. Tallying gas, motels, airfare and food, we spent roughly $30,000 -- and 150 days -- over the course of five years.

We started in Texas and embarked on an 11-state, month-long tour. We'd both done plenty of hiking and camping, and Nels had spent two seasons on ski patrol in Breckenridge, Colo. Nels had paddled the Mississippi River solo, and I'd done the same on the Missouri. However, that initial blister-filled, snowy sojourn out West highlighted the fact that as mountaineers we had as much finesse as a couple of high school kids sneaking into a singles bar.

While some of the state high points are great mountains, many are places you would never go otherwise. That's really the idea of highpointing. It takes you far off the beaten track and offers one of the great joys of travel: surprise.

Although in the case of Ebright Azimuth -- the lone tongue twister among the 50 high points -- the surprise was akin to being handed a dinner plate with a hot dog on it.

Underwhelming spot

Thirty-five high points into our cross-country trip, we parked at the intersection of Ebright Road and Ramblewood Drive and walked a few feet to the sturdy sign on the corner stating that we stood atop Delaware -- 103 feet higher than Britton Hill in Florida, the nation's lowest, and 2,912 feet lower than Backbone Mountain, the high point in neighboring Maryland.

To our right was a blue garbage can; 100 yards south was a radio tower; across the street, a trailer park and a large, empty field.

We stood staring at the sign, wondering what to do next.

After nearly a week of driving on back roads in the South, sitting in morning rush-hour traffic on I-95 near Baltimore that morning felt claustrophobic. When we exited the interstate onto U.S. 202, we entered a sprawling world of malls, fast food restaurants and hotels featuring the names Brandywine and DuPont.

If our goal was simply to reach Delaware's high point, we likely would have lingered for five minutes -- or less -- in the biting March wind. But we were here to document the place, and the possibilities seemed as limited as a one-way street.

Nels photographed the sign from a variety of angles. He complained. He pondered. He despaired.

I stood on the sidewalk feeling like a hungry guy waiting for a table in a crowded restaurant. Some of the residents pulling out of Dartmouth Woods eyed us suspiciously, but most of the vehicles speeding down Ebright Road were going too fast to notice.

After an hour of photographic angst, Nels announced that he wanted to shoot at night to capture "the feel of cars racing by."

It was now 10 a.m.

We could have made it to New Jersey's high point that afternoon and been done with our whirlwind weeklong tour. Instead, we had eight hours to kill at an intersection.

"Let's get coffee," I said. "You're buying."

We found a Barnes & Noble at a mall on Route 202, ordered six bucks worth of lattes, and began browsing. I picked up Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Subtitled The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, the book documents how the proliferation of fast-food restaurants contributed to the social phenomenon Schlosser calls "the malling of our landscape."

Given our location -- farmland turned into strip malls -- the book seemed especially relevant.

Throughout our state-by-state tour, it was obvious that no matter how off the beaten track we got, fast food -- and the drive-through culture it supports -- was never far behind.

Still, until I began reading I hadn't realized how pervasive it was. As Schlosser points out, fast food is served at airports, zoos, elementary schools, high schools, on cruise ships, trains and airplanes, at K-marts, Wal-Marts, even at hospital cafeterias.

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