With daylight fading and a line of thunderstorms forming to the west, my daughter Caroline and I hurriedly established base camp for an assault on Ohio's highest peak - 1,550-foot Campbell Hill.
To include some physical exercise on a recent Boston-to-Juneau road trip, I had set a goal of conquering the highest peak of 10 states in 10 days. Sadly, due to a last-second failure of courage on my part, the Rhode Island high point - which, like Mt. McKinley, was the subject of warnings from the Highpointers Club (www.highpointers.org) - was not on our list of successful climbs, although we stood within a few dozen yards of the summit.
In Ohio, base camp was the parking lot of Hi Point Joint Vocational School - just off state Highway 540 near Bellefontaine, in the heart of Ohio ski country. After a quick reconnoiter, I chose to follow a sidewalk on a circular route past a utility building, while Caroline chose the more treacherous "West Face" lawn. There, under radio towers, between some locust trees and alongside a flagpole, was a concrete "X" marking the top. A plaque at the spot explained that during the first years of the Cold War, Campbell Hill was site of a major radar installation under control of the U.S. Air Force Air Defense Command.
Our first successful climb, two days earlier, was 1,803-foot High Point on Kittatinny Mountain, the highest point in New Jersey. We found a spectacular view after following a short trail among Eastern yellow cedar that connected a parking lot with the base of a 220-foot obelisk built in 1930. The Poconos and Catskills rose on a vast horizon under a bright blue sky.
Next on our list was 3,213-foot Mount Davis, the tallest peak in Pennsylvania. Driving instructions sent us off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Meyersdale on state Highway 219. After asking for directions, we found the access road was well-maintained and signed. We walked to a metal frame fire tower, which gave us an impressive vista of the lake-dotted countryside.
An hour's drive south on U.S. Highway 219 brought us to Silver Lake, W.Va. - the start of the cross-border trail to Backbone Mountain, which at 3,360 feet is Maryland's high point. It would be our first real hike.
The trail - an old jeep road, only marked by a crudely spray-painted "MD-HP" on the back of a highway sign - began in West Virginia. The high point, called Hoye-Crest, required a 2.8-mile round-trip hike through deer meadows and leafy deciduous forest - the kind East Coasters sometimes miss when hiking in Southeast Alaska. Near the summit an 90-year-old stone marker revealed the state line, and once in Maryland I tried not to think of the Blair Witch Project. At Hoye-Crest we found a weatherproof box with a sign-in book and some certificates to take as souvenirs.
After tackling Ohio's Campbell Hill, the next stop was about 100 miles west of Bellefontaine at Hoosier Hill, which at 1,257 feet is the highest point in Indiana.
Approaching from the east on U.S. Highway 36, we made a left turn just across the Ohio border and headed toward Richmond, a few miles south on state Highway 227. Dusk faded into night as we sped past cornfields. To complete our goal we decided to proceed with a nighttime climb.
Following instructions from the Highpointers Club, we found Elliott Road where, as described, Hoosier Hill loomed in the darkness - a grove of trees just off the narrow lane. We parked facing a cattle gate. The air was soft, and the only sound was thunder rumbling in the distance.
I climbed a stile and stood in a small grove twinkling with lightning bugs. A cairn and a bench marked the high point. I signed the book, and we were on our way toward Interstate Highway 70.
Our most enjoyable hike turned out to be the 2-mile ascent of 1,235-foot Charles Mound, the highest point in Illinois. Before leaving Juneau, I had e-mailed property owners Wayne and Jean Wuebbels, and their friendly response included permission to hike on their property. They also sent driving instructions to the trailhead, a short drive from the historic town of Scales Mound, in the state's far northwest corner.
The first mile or so was along a farm road under tall oaks. An upward meander brought us into wide-open, rolling farmland dotted with black-and-white Holstein cows.
We passed the Wuebbels' farmhouse, where we were joined by their exceedingly friendly dog. Jean Wuebbels was mowing the yard, and she paused to greet us and point the way to the final climb to the top. She explained that when the farm was purchased they had no idea it contained the highest point in Illinois. Instead of discouraging trespassing high-point hikers, the Wuebbels embraced the Highpointers Club and this year will help host the club's annual get-together.
The top was another quarter-mile. An area had been cleared and benches were set up. There was a sign-in log, and the view of green, rolling fields to the horizon was truly grand.
Our final climb was 1,951-foot Timms Hill, the highest point in Wisconsin. Timms Hill, topped by an observation tower and located in a county park, is noted more for winter Nordic skiing than for summer hiking; the clouds of black flies might have been one reason for that.
After I had returned to the car and escaped the flies, I reflected on my failure to summit 821-foot Jerimoth Hill, the highest point in Rhode Island. According to the Highpointers' Web site, the actual summit is owned by Brown University, but a curmudgeon who owned a hundred-foot strip of land between U.S. Highway 101 and the apex was known to threaten hikers with a firearm.
The highpointers.org Web site states that club members who had struggled up Mount McKinley found themselves stymied when they tried to ascend Jerimoth Hill.
Today, high-point hikers are allowed access on certain public holidays.
Richard Schmitz is a former Empire sports editor.