Local Maxima

the story of rhode island’s summit

“It’s called highpointing,” an internet stranger explains on Reddit. “Pretty simple. You try to get to the highest point of each state in the U.S. There’s usually a geocache up top.”

According to the Highpointers Club of America, 286 people have summited all 50 U.S. states since 1966. Doing so requires climbing some of the most well-known and challenging peaks in North America: Denali (20320 ft, 46 mi hike) in Alaska, Mt. Rainier (14411 ft, 16 mi hike) in Washington, and Mauna Kea (13796 ft, 12 mi hike) in Hawaii. Denali alone is one of the most challenging high-altitude climbs in the world—its weather, remoteness, and relief exacerbating the physical challenges of hiking at high elevations. Even today, only about half of climbers who aim for the summit attain it.

And then there’s Rhode Island. Contrary to urban legend, Rhode Island’s highest point is not on top of a landfill, but instead in Foster, at Jerimoth Hill (812 ft, 0.6 mi hike). It’s no Britton Hill (345 ft, 0 mi hike, highest point of Florida), and it is actually a summit (unlike Connecticut’s highest point, which just lies on the slope to Mt Frissel in Massachusetts), but the trail is almost literally a walk in the park.

Despite this, Jerimoth Hill is notorious among highpointers for once being among the most challenging places to summit in the nation—not due to technical challenges, but because it had to be accessed via the property of hostile neighbors. In an effort to dissuade adventurers, they posted the usual discouraging signs (“Private Property”, “Beware of Dog”, “Trespassing is a Violation we take Seriously”) and even installed motion sensors. People attempting to sneak in anyway were confronted by verbal abuse, and if you believe the stories, slashed tires, stolen cameras, and fistfights. Of particular note is an incident in 2002 when hikers from Alaska were held face-down at gunpoint. Warning shots were allegedly fired, kicks were allegedly aimed, and only the arrival of police defused the situation. The Alaskans, who had successfully summited Denali, had almost been unable to bag Jerimoth Hill.

Completionists interested in summiting Jerimoth Hill without being shot had two options: visit during four designated times per year under escort, or enroll at Brown and take an astronomy course, as the University owned the actual summit, and used it for stargazing.

Today, access to the “peak” is thankfully much more mundane. New neighbors opened up access to the trail on weekends in 2005, and the State of Rhode Island finally acquired the highpoint and its trail in 2014, rendering the issue a moot point.

Which is why I found myself on the shoulder of RI 101 last Wednesday, after a 23-mile bike ride through the beautiful late-fall landscape of western Rhode Island. A signpost next to the roadbed indicated the elevation, and a small placard on a tree marked the trailhead to the actual summit. As I turned onto the quarter-mile trail, my biggest obstacle was a six inch log laid across the path. I passed a man from New Hampshire (Mt Washington, 6288 ft, 8.4 mi of hiking) and we exchanged pleasantries.

The trail ended almost before it began, in a clearing. There was a weathered shed and a concrete patch with mounts for stargazing equipment. I looked around for a bit, laughing as I found the actual highest point: a small rock outcropping next to a lawn chair. Someone had built a cairn and added a small Rhode Island flag on top, extending the “peak” by another foot. Next to the cairn was an olive ammo box, emblazoned with the logo of the Highpointer’s Club, a red map of the U.S. superimposed onto a vivid landscape of mountain peaks and rivers. The summit log inside, containing nearly 200 pages of entries since the beginning of this year, revealed how popular Jerimoth Hill has become since access opened to the general public. Leafing through the log revealed small vignettes, as I read the breathless (and somewhat embellished) tales of derring-do it took to reach the summit from families and hikers from all over the country.

I wrote down my own entry:

11/29/17 1:20 PM; 58°F, SUNNY, WINDS 17 kt W

Baby’s first highpoint!

Chen Ye; PROVIDENCE, RI//CHICAGO, IL

I took a few pictures and tossed an extra granola bar into the box before returning it and getting back on my bike. As I wound my way back onto Route 101 and turned east, the wind picked up, speeding my way back toward Brown. With the sun shining brightly and the sky a deep blue, it was truly a perfect day. Perhaps not the most challenging adventure on a senior-year bucket list, but certainly one of the most pleasant.