I remembered while I was writing yesterday about “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by Pixies. When I first started walking the Trail, I couldn’t get this song out of my head. Every day, by about 10 or 11, it would crash into my head, like an unwanted memory and the bass line would continue pounding out in my footsteps for hours after. As soon as I thought it was gone, it would thunder back in. I sang all kinds of songs to myself to get it to go away, but, if I succeeded in getting it to pass for a day, it would always be back the next day, late in the morning, as turbulent and insistent as before.
For a while, I speculated that something about the cadence of my walk reminded me of the song, especially the introduction, but when I ceased to hear it much after Pennsylvania, I assumed this couldn’t be true. By the time I reached New England, the song no longer bothered me. I’d managed to even forget all about it. It came back to me around the time I went into Vermont. It wasn’t stuck in my head as it had been down south, I just remembered it and I found myself wondering how something that had once been so persistent had managed to stop so suddenly. Remembering this yesterday, it seemed odd that I hadn’t yet included the song in my story. True, it’s a very esoteric aspect of the walk, but to me that song was very much a part of my experience, as I imagine different songs are for everyone out there, walking through the woods, lost in their own thoughts, their own songs.
The rest of Massachusetts was easy. The morning after Dalton, I came into a little community with a deluxe gas station just off the Trail. The Dunkin’ Donuts inside provided seats and a group of hikers ate, charged their phones and chatted lazily, like people with excessive leisure time do. No one was in a hurry to get back to the Trail. I spent a good portion of the morning hanging out. It felt like I’d been pushing myself forward for so long, I wanted to just relax and enjoy some company for a while.
I got back on the Trail feeling refreshed and soon was at the top of Mt. Greylock. The mountain was in a state park, so there were roads crisscrossing the Trail and quite a few people, especially at the summit. It was the type of place you come to every so often in which people don’t even know that the AT passes through, that is, the type of place where you could tell people you’d walked all the way from Georgia and thoroughly impress them. At the summit, I saw a few thru-hikers relaxing and taking full advantage of the small audiences who had gathered to hear them tell stories of late-night noises and meals of rice and beans re-hydrated in plastic bags. I continued on, pausing only a moment to consider the beautiful view.
On the way down, I met Alan, an older man who’d hiked several other long-distance trails and had ridden his bike along the west coast. We talked a little about northern California and I was happy to share memories of some of the same places with Alan. Many of the people I met on the Trail were younger and from the East; most of them had never been out West and I’d begun to feel like my memories of California were unreal or, possibly, imagined. It was nice to have everything confirmed. Alan also kept talking about going into towns to have a scone and a coffee, which at the time, was about the most delightful thing I could imagine anyone saying.
I continued on through the town of North Adams, stopping at the supermarket to buy a few perishable items for dinner and then heading back to the Trail to hike right up against the Vermont border. I stopped just shy of the Green Mountain State to camp and prepare a feast with lime, tomatoes and chilies.
Late that night, the rain started. I awoke to hear it pounding my tent, thought, ‘oh great!,’ and then rolled over and went back to sleep. The next morning, it was still pouring. I lie in my sleeping bag for a while, trying to appreciate what were probably the last few minutes of dryness I’d be enjoying for a while. To coax myself out into the weather, I made coffee in the vestibule of the tent which was already a slurry of mud, rock and rain. I took my coffee and got back into my sleeping bag and tried to enjoy the sound of drops hitting the tent fly. It was hard because in a hard rain—like the one falling—my tent always dripped, allowing pools of water to form fairly quickly on the tent floor. So, while I was relaxing with my coffee, I had to continually blot up the water with a towel and then wring the towel out in the vestibule. It was like trying to relax while bailing out a leaky lifeboat. Eventually, I gave up and started packing everything up, even though the rain was still pouring out of the sky.
Within seconds of leaving the relative dryness of the tent, I was soaked through. I had a climb right after where I’d camped on the Trail and soon I was scrambling over large rocks on my hands and feet and stepping into puddles that had formed in every available crevice. I passed the Vermont state line about an hour after starting, but it was raining so hard, I scarcely paid it any attention. I had finally entered the part of the Trail I’d been most excited about, but I only nodded at the sign, like it was another sodden hiker, and moved on quickly.
About an hour later, I came to a shelter and decided to stop and get out of the rain for a moment. At the shelter, I learned that I was now on the stretch of AT that was shared by Vermont’s Long Trail which continues north to the Canadian border after the AT veers east into New Hampshire. All the people I met holed up in the shelter, had just started the walk from North Adams, which had only been about five miles back. One man, who wasn’t saying anything, was reading a massive hardcover biography on some president, or trying to. It was one of those incredibly serious-looking biographies with just the person’s last name in huge block letters, like everything else you would need to know about this person was to be found inside and, on the cover, even the first name would be superfluous, such was the veritable mine of information within. Everyone else in the shelter was talking about the rain and what it meant for them personally. The man with the presidential biography made a good effort, but I’ve been in that situation before, no matter how much you’re into your book, you can’t get that into it when everyone in the shelter is talking. After what I imagine was 45 minutes of reading the same paragraph over and over (I never saw him turn the page) he put the book down and rolled over. Now he was going to pretend to sleep for a while. I wished all the Long Trail hikers luck and must’ve seemed really hardened to them when I walked back out into the continual rain about half an hour later. Still, I was happy to already be wet. I was happier walking in the rain than sitting dry in a shelter reading the same paragraph over and over.
It continued to rain for the next three days and I often found myself wondering if those hikers had ever been able to convince themselves to go out and walk in the rain or if they were all still all crabbed in their together. I wondered if the guy had gotten any farther in his presidential biography.
For three nights, I unfurled a soggy tent after hiking through the soggy woods all day. Everything got wet, despite the fact that I’d packed everything important in plastic bags. At night, while I slept, my sleeping bag got wet. The tent was so wet, it soaked everything else in my pack. My book got wet and quickly started to fall apart ( I didn’t have a door-stopper of a biography but just a cheap, glue-bound paperback). My MP3 played got damp and finally stopped working after years of faithful service and I woke one night to find my camera practically sitting in a puddle. After I got it working again, I became so paranoid about losing all my photos (really my only proof of ever being on the Trail), I took to double-wrapping the thing in Ziplock bags and, thus, hardly ever taking it out to use. So, while Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were probably the most beautiful states on the Trail, paranoia prevented me from taking very many pictures of them.
For three days, I woke up in the rain, went to sleep in the rain, put on wet socks and boots in the rain, ate in the rain, peed in the rain and walked in the rain—mainly the later. Vermont was certainly green, but not exactly the way I’d expected. The sole had also begun to flap off my boot and as a result, I was fairly sure more water was finding its way in—not that it mattered given that my foot was in a constant state of fish belly-like clamminess. I was terrified at the end of every day to take off my wet socks and boots and find my feet ever more amphibian. I dried them the best I could on my few dry remaining articles of clothing (which were actually just damp rather than soaked) and sprinkled Gold Bond on them—not that I knew it to do any good—the next day they would only have to go back into the wet boots. Even if I had dry socks, they would be wet within seconds of being in the boots.
On the third day, the rain had slowed to a trickle. It usually did this in the later afternoon only to start again after nightfall. It was often just long enough to give the mosquitoes a window of opportunity to bite you while you set up camp and had dinner. If I had previously contemplated which was worse mosquitoes or rain, I was about to find out that both at once was infinitely worse than either at once. While I was cooking my dinner, it began to rain harder. Already wet, I remained where I was, thinking at least it would drive the mosquitoes away, but it never did. As the rain drops splashed into my ramen broth, the mosquitoes assailed every exposed inch of flesh. The rain had limited these to mainly to areas around the face and hands so the mosquitoes continually flew into my eyes, nose and mouth while I tried to eat. After I’d swallowed more than a few of them, I began to feel like a perfect toad, sitting by the river, eating bugs in the rain. I may have laughed a little to heartily at this, because my neighbors looked over with some alarm. If I felt I had reached a low-point, I was in for a surprise.
After I finished my insectivorous meal, I jerked my wet clothes off, flung them into the corner of my wet tent and crawled into my damp sleeping bag. The only thing I owned that wasn’t wet was my inflatable sleeping pad. I had come to treasure this sleeping pad not only because it didn’t get wet but because it kept my sleeping bag off the floor of the tent which, in such prolonged rain, was constantly damp. As a result, the sleeping pad also kept me warm; if it hadn’t been for the pad, I knew that nights would’ve been much more miserable, especially the night that was to come.
Although it had been raining nearly non-stop the past three days, I had never heard any thunder. I had contented myself knowing that at least I wasn’t having to worry about lightening as well, but late on the third night, I awoke to the customary sound of pouring rain only this time, it was accompanied by peal after peal of concussive thunder. It was very unnerving to find one’s self in such a precarious thing as a nylon tent when a serious storm is raging all around in the night. A tent, barely manages to keep the rain off and that’s about all it does, for anything harder than rain, you might as well be sleeping outside. The sound of the rain had increased greatly and I wondered how long it had been raining so hard. I was camped very close to a stream and I worried about flash flooding. I listened and could hear the stream, which sounded much closer and splashed like white water rapids. As reluctant as I was to go out, I reasoned that I had to make sure that I was safe. I ducked out in the rain and though I could barely see, I was startled to find just how much the stream had risen since I’d gone to bed. It still seemed a safe distance away, but I wondered if it continued to rise, how long it would be alright to be camped where I was. Back in the tent, I noticed the nylon floor was beginning to feel like the cover over a waterbed. I pushed my pack into the driest corner of the tent, the only one that didn’t seem to be sitting on top of a puddle and tucked every corner of my sleeping bag onto the raft of my inflatable sleeping pad. I tried to go back to sleep, but the water was rising too fast. I was too worried about the stream-cum-river suddenly jumping the bank and sweeping my tent away. I also worried that the lightening which by now was blazing overhead, was going to hit a tree and drop a barrel-thick branch or trunk onto my tent. The wind pushed and pulled at the walls of the tent, mocking me and my fear with its billowing laughter. I reached over and felt the floor of the tent, it was totally flooded and the water was still rising. I had to pack up my sleeping bag, it was getting all wet, water had seeped over the top of the sleeping pad and was soaking through the underside of the sleeping bag. I stuffed my sleeping bag into its sack and put it in a garbage bag, put my rain coat on and lay on the wet sleeping pad. “Any minute,” I thought, “I’m going to have to get up. When the water comes entirely over the top of this sleeping pad, I’ll be soaked. I can’t stay in this spot.” But I didn’t have anywhere else to go. When I had gotten out to check the water level earlier, I had noticed all the other places to pitch a tent in the vicinity were holding more water than mine (I’d picked the highest spot since nearly everything else was flooded after days of rain). From where I was, heading north the Trail went straight up Stratton Mountain—almost ironically the mountain from which Benton MacKaye had the vision to create the Appalachian Trail. The last thing I wanted in such an intense storm was to start climbing up a mountain. The way I had come, south, had no place to pitch a tent for nearly two miles. If the rain did force me out, I knew that to avoid hypothemia, I’d have to move, already I was beginning to shiver a little. The question was: where would I go? The sleeping pad was insulated, so it kept me from freezing, but I was still damp and I didn’t have many layers on as nearly everything I had was wet.
I lie there in agony for a few minutes, thinking that, as bad as things, were, in a few minutes, they were going to get even worse. It was still raining steadily, so I was surprised to press the floor of the tent and find that the water had begun to recede, presumably it had finally been absorbed by the ground. I waited a few minutes and checked again, the tent seemed to be resting on land, muddy land for sure, but land. Even the storm seemed to be moving on and the sound of the rain had slackened. I pulled my sleeping bag out, did my best to dry off the sleeping pad with a wet rag, took off my rain jacket and climbed back in. I fell back to sleep almost immediately.
It wasn’t raining in the morning, but the sky was overcast and the piles of dark clouds in the sky threatened more rain. I knocked my soaking tent down, put my wet boots back on and shoved all my wet clothes into my pack and started up Stratton Mountain. On the way, I ran into Tater, another thru-hiker who’d been enduring the rains. He had camped a little higher up on the Trail than I had the previous night and, as a result, had his own scare with the lightening. I hadn’t talked much with anyone in days and talking with Tater, I began to feel better. I didn’t even notice the climb up Stratton Mountain and soon we were standing at the top, it was too foggy to see anything and I didn’t linger long. Tater had to try to make a phone call and I bid him adieu.
Down from the mountain, I came to a beautiful lake and despite the leaden skies overhead, the scene was amazing. I stood and regarded the lakes for a while, got some water from a nearby stream and continued on.
It wasn’t long after that I began to see streaks of blue in the clouds for the first time in days. I tried not to feel too hopeful, but it was impossible to resist the temptation to celebrate as the rents in the clouds stretched further, like a knife stabbed into a sheet pulled taught, the blue split out and filled the sky, by that afternoon, I reached an overlook and basked in the sun for what felt like the first time in years. After a while, even my boots began to dry. The sun felt like a miracle. I pulled my double-wrapped phone from my pack and was relieved to find it still worked. I even had a signal. I called Gina from the overlook standing there in the sun. She had lately been looking for a place for us to move to in Olympia, Washington. She hadn’t been able to find anything and, after the misery of the constant dampness, I openly questioned whether I would be happy living in a place like western Washington that got so much rain. I wondered if it was better that she hadn’t found anything. But I told myself that it would be a different experience getting rained on in a place where you could go into buildings, take showers and put on dry clothes easily enough.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t proved entirely true. Here in northern California, I was caught in a heavy rain yesterday and I cursed my luck and felt every bit as annoyed as I had on the Trail. I tried desperately to remind myself that I could easily make it home, take a hot shower and change my clothes, but the few moments that I had to walk uncomfortably through the cold rain seemed to me as bad as all the days I had lived out in the rain on the Trail. It’s a shame that the mind, at least mine, really seems to lack any sense of proportion and judges every nuisance equally upsetting.
That night, I walked into a shelter area that was nearly dry and in which the sun streamed through the trees and formed a pond of light over by the tent flats. I hurriedly set up camp in the sunniest spot I could find, hoping my tent would dry a little. Then, I washed all my clothes in a stream, hung a clothesline up and draped all the socks and shirts from it. The sun had begun to set before anything really began to dry much, but I was too happy to care. At least in my spare shorts and sandals, I was dry.
I shared the area with the first sobo I’d really talked to. He was incredibly enthusiastic having just gotten back onto the Trail after taking about a week off. I told him he was lucky to have missed all the rain and we talked a little more around a meager fire I’d managed to build to cook on. After I said good night and walked to my tent, which had miraculously begun to dry out a little, I noticed the stars gleaming in the sky. It seemed like I hadn’t seen them in a very long time and I stood outside my tent flap for a while, looking into the clear sky and breathing the clear air. Even the mosquitoes had the decency to take the night off.
Despite all the wonderful people I’d met and all the great things I’d seen, this was about the point when I started to get tired of the Trail.
It’s easy now, working in a factory, putting things in boxes and stapling them shut all day, to idealize my time on the Trail. Fortunately, it’s still recent enough that I’m not yet subject to the incredible hyperbole that’s sure to embellish my stories of the AT say, a year or two from now. I can still remember what it felt like being alone and yet never alone all the time. Nearly every morning, I woke up surrounded by people, but it wasn’t long before I hiked ahead of them; many of the people I camped with at night, I actually never saw again. Walking as far as I did, I tended to outpace a lot of people. So, every night, I’d hit a shelter area and there’d be a bunch of new faces. As I got further north, there were a lot more people going south. Most of them talked almost incessantly about how hard New Hampshire and Maine were. It was all very daunting.
While I talked in the evenings, the days I spent alone. Even people who walk in groups down the Trail tend to be alone most of the day. Everyone walks at their own pace, so if you want to talk to someone while you walk, you usually end up walking slower, or faster than you’d prefer. Rather than alter my pace, I walked alone and by the time I’d gotten half-way through Vermont, I’d done a lot of walking alone. I felt like I’d run out of things to ponder. Even my great escape fantasy of returning to a home in Olympia, Washington was falling apart. Gina had spent a week up there looking for an apartment and had come up with nothing. No one wanted to rent; there were enough collage students, I guess. I was nearing the end of the hike and it was becoming difficult not to think about the day I would finish and the home, or lack thereof, I would be going to. On long days, I often imagined myself catching a bus from rural Maine to an airport and then flying into Washington by early the next morning. I’d walk into a fully furnished apartment with wood floors and a balcony. I’d bring a puppy and a wedding ring as signs that I would be staying there a long time—no more gallivanting around for me. But the apartment with the wooden floors and the Armenian carpets wasn’t working out and now I was faced with a great uncertainty after I got off the Trail. When Gina told me that she’d just returned from Olympia and that she didn’t expect to hear back from anyone, my reoccurring daydream ended and it seemed to be replaced with an odometer, counting off the miles, counting down until I’d be done and then...a mental cliff, from which my thoughts plunged into a void. I had no idea what I would do.
I was wracked with tension despite being on one of the most beautiful parts of the Trail. In the morning, I hitched a ride into Manchester Center, VT, a charming little town with an incredible bookstore that I could’ve moved into. In the afternoon, I was incredibly fortunate to catch a hitch out of town with a former AT thru-hiker who gave me a tip to continue two miles past the shelter up to the summit of the mountain, where, he said, there was a beautiful place to camp. In the winter the place was a popular ski slope, but in the summer it was cleared mountain top with beautiful views of the surrounding country.
Without this tip, I certainly would’ve stopped at the shelter area just shy of the mountain top and would’ve gotten to the summit the next morning and kicked myself for not continuing on. The top of Bromley Mountain was one of the greatest places I camped while on the AT. After a summer of living among the scaly trunks of trees, under the protection and occasional gloom of webs of branches, it was incredibly refreshing to pitch my tent under the wide-open sky. There were about four other tents on top of the mountain but the summit was large enough—like a field—so everyone had sort of wandered over to their own corner. When the sun started going down, we were all standing, facing the west. Everyone was awed. Someone said something like ‘wow,’ under their breath. It was so quiet, but I heard it like the voice had come from right next to me. Maybe it was just my own thought finding a voice independent of my vocal cords.
It got dark soon after the sun set. I climbed into my tent and read a book I’d picked up in town. As good as it was, I couldn’t concentrate. The stars were too bright and the wind too clean. I scooted over to the edge of my tent and looked up through the flap at the stars; it took a while, but I gradually fell asleep.
The memory of that night on Bromley looms so large it’s cast this shadow of forgetfulness around it. I remember little details from the rest of Vermont: a bend in the Trail, sun on the leaves and packed dirt, banks of morning fog, a long side trail to a shelter area, a vista point that I started to walk out to, but when I saw how steeply it went down hill, changed my mind, the climb to another ski hill—this one only had a chairlift; there was no place to camp or, even, to ski. For days, everyone I met on the Trail was incredibly nice. There are those details and others, but anything consequential was eclipsed by the sight of the sun setting over Bromley.
My journal reflects how much I’d come to disassociate myself from the Trail. From Manchester Center to Norwich, VT, I wrote about y dreams in great detail and often no more than a sentence about the entire day in the woods. It was like I was starting to live more in my unconsciousness. Every day had become the same, or nearly the same, at least sleep still harbored some spontaneity. The most interesting things that happened to me occurred when I was dreaming. For a few days, I was more aware of my surroundings when I was asleep than when I was awake.
This ended when I came down from Killington Peak. I had slept in the shelter on top of the mountain, expecting a storm that never came. As I seldom slept in the shelters (probably no more than three times by this point), I woke up earlier than usual. I didn’t feel tired and enjoyed reading a National Geographic while I drank my coffee. For once, everyone else was still asleep and I was happy to have the place to myself.
The forest near the top of the peak was dripping with fog. I could only see a few feet and the lichen and moss were covered in water droplets. As I walked, my beard, too, collected the fog. I continually had to reach up and wipe it off.
I walked 12 hours that day and began to feel better, more awake and concentrated on the present and the waking world.
I hit the last stretch of Vermont the next day. As great as the state had been, the last day was my favorite. It was also the last time the mountains would be truly kind. All along the Trail, there were heaps of blackberries, raspberries (the only time I ever saw them) and a few crab apples which I was hungry enough to eat (they weren’t too bad). The Trail was also mellow as hell and there were sugar maples everywhere, some of which already had a few yellow leaves.
All day, I walked up and down hills, past smiling, fellow hikers (for those coming south, this first stretch of Vermont must feel like Eden after the rocky wilds of New Hampshire and southern Maine). The weather was beautiful; there was a slight breeze which made the gentle exercise of walking enjoyable. There was also the knowledge that the next section of the Trail was going to be much more difficult. There seemed to be nothing to do other than to appreciate the immediate environment, rather than to focus on what was still on the horizon—you could literally see the hulking outlines of the White Mountains occasionally in the clear skies ahead.
It was an idyllic late-summer afternoon and I felt more like I was rambling through the countryside rather than seriously hiking anything. I was continually walking over dirt roads, past collapsed barns and through over-grown fields, each probably secreting a few lost frisbees and Nerf balls.
I meant to stop before I came into Norwich, but I’d heard that there was a list of people willing to put hikers up in town and since it looked like it might rain and it was still early in the evening, I couldn’t resist just seeing what might be available.
Coming out from the Trail head in Norwich was shocking, the AT here goes through the town and down something of a highway before coming into Hanover, NH. It’s without a doubt, the largest urban area the Trail runs directly through before hitting the woods again at the end of Hanover about four miles away. Coming out from the Trail in Norwich, it feels like the Trail has just unceremoniously ended and dumped you into this nice little town.
There was a list of phone numbers by the information board at the trailhead. I got an answer on the first number I tried. I told the woman my situation. She apologized for being out of town but told me that her place was right down the road. “You could pitch your tent in my yard if you want.” She told me. It was exactly the sort of situation I’d been hoping for, after three months, I was much happier sleeping in my tent than just about anywhere else, especially in a stranger’s house, knowing how damn dirty I must’ve been. Even more conveniently, the house was just down the road, it didn’t take me more than five minutes to walk there. After I got my tent set up, I decided it’d be worthwhile to stroll into town.
I picked up an expensive beer and a bag of cookies in town and walked back to my tent. I couldn’t bring myself to drink the whole beer, but I ate all the cookies.
It’s interesting that I should’ve spent my summer walking through the woods and now I’m spending a portion of my autumn contributing to taking the forest down. I’m working a 9-5 job at something like a lumber mill. Technically, the place specializes in flowers, but since I’m in the ‘greens’ department and we’re nearing Christmas, all I’m doing is shoving juniper, cedar and something called ‘princess’ pine boughs into boxes. As I lift the boughs, I am reminded of all the similar branches I passed through—in their natural state –while on the Trail. Under the buzzing white lights and the interminable factory floor, I shovel my memories of living in the American wilderness into a box, staple it closed and ship it off. When I come home at night, I’m covered in sap, probably dirtier than I ever got from a day of hiking.
I knew the Trail was going to get difficult after Vermont ended. The Whites started almost as soon as one entered New Hampshire and everyone on the Trail had been talking about these mountains like they were the Himalayas, especially all the sobos (south-bounders) I was now meeting. The fact that us north-bounders had already walked around 1,700 miles out of the total 2,189 was of very little importance. The 500 miles that lie ahead was like nothing we’d seen yet, we were told. In a way, the sobos were right. Until New Hampshire, the Trail never goes above the treeline and while I had seen snow in the Smokies, the mountains in the south just didn’t have the mercurial kind of weather that the north was known for. Even after New Hampshire and the Whites there was Maine, rumored to be the hardest state on the Trail by far.
With these bewildering promulgations, I decided to take a whole’s day’s rest in Hanover, NH. The town was like no other on the Trail. Hanover is a tiny town with a large resident university. It’s not so much a collage town as it is a large campus with a tiny Main Street. The greatest part of the place was the Coöp grocery. All along the Trail, I’d been confined to the vegetarian doldrums of ramen and peanut butter and finally here was a place that had all kinds of amazing products. Surprisingly, I didn’t really pig out. I think it was around this time that I finally got accustomed to hiking all day and resulting incessant hunger. When I came into town, I no longer felt like a starving dark-ages wolf descending on the hamlets of Europe. I ate, more or less, like a normal American. Which, keep in mind, by international standards is still apparently a lot.
I walked around town, drinking coffee and eating a bag of cheap oatmeal cookies I’d picked up. In the evening, I even went to a movie. For the week that followed, I was happy to have the carefree memory of eating cookies in a movie theater. From the middle of a soaking forest, it was good to know that another life was at least possible, even if I wasn’t living it.
The first day back out from Hanover was nice. The weather was warm without being hot and there were a lot of friendly people out hiking the Trail.
The next morning, I woke up right before the rain. I was in the middle of taking my tent down, when I heard the rumbling in the sky. Up until that point, I’d thought that perhaps the dim grey sky had only been an early morning atmospheric condition. I managed to make it into the nearby shelter just before it started raining. Luckily, I’d already made my coffee and gotten everything packed up, so I was free to watch the rain and drink my coffee for a while before resigning myself to being wet and stepping out into the silver-grey blur of the stormy forest.
The mountains just south of Mount Moosilauke seem to be almost cut from quartz. When I went up in elevation, I increasingly found myself walking on what looked improbably like dirty ice massifs. The grey weather and the rain conspired to turn the glittering, pellucid rock into something lunar and cold. Each time I put a boot down on the gleaming wet surface, I expected it to be like wet ice, but the rock was porous enough and I never slipped despite walking over what looked like a range of sublimating ice peaks.
When the rain had ended, no sun emerged and the dampness rose up into the mountains in greasy-looking clots of fog. From the tops of mountains, there was nothing to see but unbroken cloud fields the color of dirty snow. I stopped off at a cabin which had previously been used in conjunction with the nearby fire tower. It was now totally given over to hikers, but no one was there. I went in and found it odd to be in a structure on which I was able to close the door and, thus, shut out the outside world. It was terrible. I closed the door and felt like I had erected this artificial barrier between myself and the greasy dampness outside. Everything was totally still and shut off from the world, it was easier to be outside feeling the cold and damp than to be inside, dry and afraid. I hurried back to the door, flung it open and ate my lunch on the porch, my feet hanging into the nothingness of the fog.
By the late afternoon, the fog had lifted, or maybe I had just come down in elevation. My guidebook told me that the shelter to which I was headed had been burned down, but, it added optimistically, the privy was still there and there were a few places to camp.
There seemed to be only one place to camp and it was taken. I squashed my way into the dripping forest and eventually found a muddy and lumpy place to throw my tent down from the evening. It turned out to be a great spot despite the minor inconvenience of tent location. I met a really nice linguistic scholar there. We talked about Proto Indo-European languages, while trying together to get a fire going with damp birch bark. I was so greatly enjoying our conversation, I didn’t notice the sun setting and had to hang my bear bag in the dark, luckily, bears weren’t much of a problem in New England, because I did a lousy job. What was a problem were the squirrels which had been chewing through my bag almost on a nightly basis, but I figured there really wasn’t much I could do to stop this, squirrels are crafty.
Just before he went to bed, my companion told me that it was supposed to rain for the next few days. I decided this meant that it was time for me to go to bed myself. I doused the fire which had been drying my boots; they were just going to get wet again.
The next day brought me to the first mountain in the Whites Range, Moosilauke, which stands alone from the rest of the mountains. It was to be the first significant climb I’d had since the middle of Virginia. But the strain of climbing is much more about the angle than altitude. In New York and Pennsylvania, there were some climbs that were very tough, despite their easy-looking elevation profiles and the highest point on the Trail, Clingman’s Dome, hadn’t even felt like a climb, increasing in elevation very gradually.
Mount Moosilauke proved this point exactly. The way up, though steeper than anything I’d seen in a while, wasn’t too bad. There were lots of kids coming down, so it was hard to feel like it was anything too challenging when every few steps you ran into another field trip group coming down the mountain as casually as if they were coming in from recess on the playground. The path was rocky and it looked like it would be an easy place to break an ankle if you weren’t careful, especially as the trail was damp in many areas.
I was about half-way up the mountain, when I met another thru-hiker. He was wild with joy to finally be leaving the mountains that I was only just entering. He said that he’d started on Springer Mountain in Georgia and then walked until the end of the Smokies before going north to start at Katahdin and hike south. As a result, he’d been walking in nothing but mountains over 5,000 feet almost since he’d started the Trail. I could see why he was so happy, but his excitement only made me realize how long it’d been since I’d been in North Carolina and done any significant climbs.
But nothing down south had prepared me for going above the treeline. Gradually, the trees get shorter and stringier until they have all shrunk to a pygmy forest which barely reaches above your head. In clumps, the pygmy forest too disappears, like a dog losing hair to mange until you’re standing on a promontory of rock, looking down the Trail, watching it rise to scrape the bottom of the clouds ahead; all the trees are beneath you. For the first time, you are on a real mountain.
I sat on the top of Moosilauke for a while with a few other hikers eating snacks and taking pictures of each other near the elevation marker. An ‘alpine steward,’ a student of the nearby Dartmouth University, was on top of the mountain to answer any questions, but his knowledge seemed limited to the mountain itself, rather than the Trail he was standing on. When I asked him what I had in store further north he shrugged. No idea. In speaking with him, I also noticed the first instance of blatant lack of concern for the weather in the Whites. I asked if the steward had heard anything about the coming storms. He hadn’t, in fact he didn’t even know what I was talking about. I thought it was odd that one of the first people I’d met on the Trail with such an obvious lack of concern for the weather was working in a place where it was such an important factor. In the White Mountains, especially on Mount Washington, the weather has a habit of turning very nasty very quickly. Most sources say that if the weather isn’t ideal, you probably don’t want to try to summit any of the mountains in the Presidential Range. It’s too risky. Even on calm sunny, summer afternoons, the weather can quickly drop to hypothermia-inducing temperatures. In the area, there are several signs posted with grave warnings of fatal accidents occurring. Considering this, I thought it was very odd that so many people I met in the Whites, seemed to have no idea about the forecast. Perhaps it was because the weather at that elevation was so unpredictable. Still, it seemed like it’d be better to know if a storm was expected than to be taken unawares.
On the way down from Moosilauke, I was part of an unnerving exchange. Two men were walking ahead of me, both spaced apart from each other. As I hit a fork in the Trail, I came to one of the men standing there looking confused. “Did you know that guy ahead of me?” The man asked me.
“No,” I replied and then asked the ever-unhelpful “Why?”
“Well, the Trail forks here.” he explained pointing. “The AT continues to the right; you can see the next white blaze down there, but the guy ahead of me walked left. I’m wondering if he knows where he’s going. There aren’t many blazes around here and it might be a while before he figures out what happened.”
This was my first encounter with the lack of blazes in the Whites. Until that point on the Trail, there had usually been a white blaze nearly every 5 minutes of hiking. Sometimes, they were a little farther apart, but just before you started to panic, one would always swim up out of the chaos of the forest, reminding you that you were still safely walking within the confines of something mapped-out and known. New Hampshire and, in particular, the Whites, were supposed to have been a little stingy with the white paint and the blazes were supposedly so far apart in places, you could walk half a day before you saw something to indicate you were going the wrong way. While it was terrible to think about potentially going the wrong way for hours, it was much worse to think about doing it going to a mountain. If the man ahead of us had made a mistake, he would probably be a ways down the mountain when he realized it. He’d have to climb back up again to find where he missed his turn. I shuddered to think about having to climb a mountain twice. I was lucky, if the guy hadn’t been there to tell me what happened, I could have just as easily walked the wrong way myself.
The path down from Moosilauke was one of the most difficult sections of the Trail. The climb down was incredibly steep and often, steps were just beyond reach, forcing one to hop down to an area just barely large enough for a single foot, with a 40-pound pack on. There was also a waterfall crashing down right next to the descending trail, spraying the already slick rocks with water. No footing could be trusted and it was impossible to test anything that you had to jump onto. Even with trekking poles, it was hard not to fall a few times and each time I did, it hurt. A rock or stick would always come from nowhere to jab or pummel me. I kept thinking of the guy who’d lost his way. If I got to the bottom of this only to discover I’d gone the wrong way and had to go back up to the top to find where I’d lost the Trail, I think I would’ve had a hard time not just giving up.
By the time I reached the bottom, I was exhausted, but, I thought, the rest of the walk looked pretty level. I had about eight miles before the shelter, but it wasn’t too late and it looked like it would be a cruise. I started up hill after coming out of a gap where the foot of Moosilauke had crossed a road. I thought I’d have to deal with the climb out of the gap for a while, but soon after things would level out and I’d have a nice walk that last six or so miles of the day, but the Trail never leveled out. Over and over until I was thoroughly exhausted, I climbed up a little hill and walked swiftly back down it. As soon as I reached the bottom, the Trail would raise right back up again and often in these low points, stagnant swamps had formed. So far from the daylight and blocked in by the dense undergrowth, these morasses had putrefied into black sludge pools covered in dark green mold. It was the first time I’d seen mold rather than moss in such profusion in the forest. In many such places, there was no clear way to navigate the mold and slime and some poor exhausted bastards boot prints sunk far down into the sylvan effluvia. The smell was terrible too, like entire refrigerators of spoiled food, unopened for years, seething in their own decay.
After a long day, I spent the late afternoon and evening stumbling up and down this section of Trail, swearing every time the elevation started to increase again. The Trail was dim and wild and several times I found myself frantically looking for a blaze, thinking I’d lost the path for sure. In many places, the undergrowth grew right over the Trail and some of the climbs were so steep, I had to run and use my momentum to hurl myself over steep areas with no handholds.
I reached the shelter area just as the last twilight glow was fading from the sky. I was too tired to bother with setting up my tent. I found a spot in the shelter, stripped off most of my clothes and walked down to the river to cool my feet and clean the fetid mud off my body.
I woke up the next morning to a brooding sky and an immediate climb going up Mount Kinsman. As I climbed up, a storm coagulated in the skies above; the clouds clotted and soured; a cold and stagnant rain began to fall.
Kinsman was one of those climbs that turns the Trail into a slow moving single-file line. There’s only one way up a rock face, so you have to wait for whoever is ahead of you to finish before you can start. I hadn’t gotten too early of a start, so the whole camping area was ahead of me on the Trail. Gradually, I found a way to pass people, but quite a few times, I found myself waiting and enjoying to opportunity to walk with someone besides my own increasingly antagonistic thoughts. Unfortunately, most of what I was hearing was bad. The storm above us was only going to get worse. Rain was expected for the next few days and it was expected to be heavy at times. As we were only about a day out from the presidential range, no one was too thrilled by this.
I did however, receive some good news while waiting my turn to go up a wall, in the next town there was a guy who put up hikers in his garage for a donation. I didn’t want to stop again so soon. I had told myself in Hanover that I wouldn’t be seeing another town until I’d come down from the White Mountains, but with the storm and all the warnings of dangerous weather, it just didn’t seem to be worth the risk. Now that I knew there was a cheap place to stay, I began to consider a side trip into town to wait for the storm to blow over.
The climb wasn’t too terrible and many people I met later in the morning seemed blissfully unaware that foul weather had been predicted. Some of them even looked at me in an odd way when I told them, as if it had nothing to do with them. Before I came down into the gap, I was conflicted about going into town. I didn’t really want to stop again; I had plenty of supplies and I felt like I needed to get through this hard part; I’d been anticipating it too long and I was tired of thinking about it. On the other hand, it would be foolish to try to go over Washington in a storm not only because it would be unsafe, but also because other hikers had told me the view was worth the wait for a clear day, even if it meant hanging out in town a few days.
I came down from the mountain to a beautiful pond and the first ‘hut’ I’d seen in the park.
The White Mountains National Park is maintained, in part, by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) which has constructed these ‘hut’s through the area and a huge welcome center at Pinkham Notch. Because these ‘hut’s cost over $100.00 to stay in, many hikers abhor them and say they’re out of the spirit of the AT and the Mountains, but, the AMC permits thru-hikers to do a work-stay to sleep in the huts and eat the left-over food prepared for guests. I took them up on this offer three times and it was incredible each time. The huts were clean and warm in the cold mountain nights, even from the floor (where thru-hikers sleep) and the food was incredible, most of it being vegetarian. Despite what I’d heard, I found everyone working for the AMC to be very nice and to offer many (often free) things to thru-hikers. The only other buildings on the along the entire 2,189 mile-length of the AT are the ‘way-sides’ of the Shenandoah. In the Shenandoah, there are many roads and parking lots and though the Trail goes through the woods, you aren’t very surprised to find camp grounds, RVs and convenience stores right off the Trail. The way-sides—what they call these convenience stores—are nice, but there’s nothing improbable about them; the huts in the Whites are totally improbable, built on mountain tops, nowhere near a road with beautiful kitchens, dining rooms and rest rooms. Usually, they are perched right next to a beautiful view of some kind. I wouldn’t want to see such places all the way along the Trail, but for the small mountainous section through New Hampshire, I was happy to have them.
Amazed as I was by the first hut I saw, I had to go in and have a look around. Inside, Pace, a thru-hiker I’d met before was reading his Autobiography of a Yogi and eating a bottomless two-dollar bowl of soup. I talked to Pace a little and then went over to check out the weather reports posted on the wall. Thunderstorms for the next two days. I decided to go into town.
Of course, as soon as I’d made this decision, the sun came out in full force. The gloaming clouds blew away and the afternoon shone resplendent. I reminded myself that it would probably soon pass, but as I walked the mile off the Trail to get to a parking lot to try to hitch out of, the shining sun seemed to mock my decision. After I got into town, found the fabled garage and its kind owner and went out to buy some food, I almost felt gratified when the rain started falling. It rained on and off that night and for most of the next day. When I woke up my third morning, I no longer cared about the rain, I just wanted to be on my way. While the town still slept, I got one last watery cup of gas station coffee and headed out to the highway that would take me back to the Whites and up into the Presidential Range.