Monday, December 26, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts to Lincoln, New Hampshire

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 Coรถp 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.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Bear Mountain, New York to Dalton, Massachusetts

Walking out of the campsite, I didn’t see any more of the dying moths which had so characterized the previous day’s hike. Nor did I ever see so many of them again. It was as if they had all chosen a certain day and a certain part of the forest to die in. But things like this occasionally happened in the woods. In Maine, there were two or three days, certainly no more than four, in which I was coming across baby toads with a frequency of about 1 per half hour. Before and after those few days, I never saw any more. We look at peoples who live closer to nature, unable to understand how they can predict certain events, without realizing that the clues to these events are all around us and that we’ve chosen to disregard them or, worse, to vilify or, alternately, deify them, neither of which seem appropriate for something which would otherwise be seen as no more than natural.
Bear Mountain, New York was 23 miles away from NYC. The city’s skyline is apparently visible from the top, but I couldn’t see anything but the Hudson and the hills which crown it.
I hadn’t gotten too far in the morning, when I felt the tendon that stretches across the arch of my foot, begin to tighten, like a calf with a tight cramp. The best thing seemed to be to step on large rocks so that they should hit the middle of my foot and force the toes and heel down. Walking more on the ball of my foot only seemed to exacerbate the condition. I’d had brushes with planters fasciitis before, but I’d never felt it so consistently as I did now and I worried that if it got worse it might be enough to take me off the Trail. Walking every day forces one to recognize the importance of the feet and how little we concern ourselves with them, despite all they do for us. After the Trail, I had every intention of doing something nice for my feet. Almost two months since I finished and this still has yet to happen. Poor bastards.
From the lookout on Bear Mountain, I met two Czech girls who had come to the US on vacation. They must’ve felt bad for me because they seemed interested in talking to me, despite the fact that I was the dirtiest person for miles. When I told them what I was doing, they didn’t seem to understand. They thought I was just out camping in the nearby woods for the last two months. Even when I parted with them, I don’t think I’d entirely convinced them that I’d walked about 1,500 miles.
On the way down from Bear Mountain, I passed ‘Cheeks’ another thru-hiker, who I’d last seen in Wyanesboro, VA. We said hello, talked for a few minutes and then I went on, as I had a faster pace down hill.
At the foot of Bear Mountain, the AT goes through the most antithetical area of the entire Trail which is part walking path, part amusement park and part zoo. When I hit this area with all of its signs, smells and sounds. I had to sit down for a second. While I was sitting, I heard a distant ‘boom’ which I immediately recognized for the sound of a falling tree, a sound that is perhaps more terrifying than a bear’s roar or the crash of nearby thunder. When you visit the forest for an afternoon or, even a weekend, the trees seem timeless. It would never occur to you that one might fall while you were around, but when you live in the woods, the trees seem much less steady. You begin to notice the way they are scattered all over the forest floor in various horizontal positions, the way they lean on each other, the way they seem to break off half-way after they die. You notice how they stir in the wind and how they shake in a storm and, more than anything else, you notice how they are always right above you, threatening your life with their precarious limbs. Stories of trees falling on tents on the Trail were more common than stories of any other means of death, leading one to the conclusion that it must happen more often. For my part, when I set up my tent at night, I always took a good look at what was above me.
A few minutes after I heard the tree fall, ‘Cheeks’ came out into the clearing, visibly shaken.
“What happened,” I asked.
“A huge tree almost fell on me back there,” she responded. “I saw it start to break, but I couldn’t decide if it would be better to run back up the Trail or stay where I was. It was so big, it seemed to cover the whole forest as it fell. I didn’t think I’d be able to get away in time.”
I told her that I’d heard it fall and I could imagine it must’ve been a huge tree. When she told me that she was OK, I continued back on my way to the zoo that’s actually on the stretch of Trail that goes through the park surrounding Bear Mountain.
Passing the enclosures, I saw all the animals I’d been seeing on a regular basis in the woods, caged up. Foxes paced in their cages, snakes lay coiled in their terrariums, there was even a bear in a large enclosure. I couldn’t help myself. I stopped next to a group of teenagers who were marveling at the bored-looking bear.
“You know,” I said leaning into their group, “if you go straight down this path,” I gestured south, “you’ll see plenty of those in the wild. I just saw one with her cubs two days ago.”
The teenagers regarded me with the incredulity I deserved. “Oh yeah?” They asked. But they said it like they didn’t want an answer. What they implied was that they hadn’t come to Bear Mountain to see a bear in the wild; they’d come to see one in a cage.
I said goodbye to the bear-watchers and went into the town of Fort Montgomery, NY to pick up my water filter from the post office. It was a hot day and the post office was farther from the Trail than it looked to be on the map, but despite the heat and the braying of the traffic around me, I was glad to be out of the woods, out from under those murderous trees for a while. The sun felt good on my back and seemed to dry some of the sweat from the morning’s climb.

Fort Montgomery didn’t have much in it. After I got my water filter, I got back on the Trail where it crossed over the Hudson River on a beautiful bridge. Watching the people in their cars, stuck in traffic, I felt the incredible freedom of movement which comes when one becomes comfortable walking everywhere. After walking through nine states, I had begun to feel like my feet could carry me just as far as a car or a plane. All I needed was time to get there. As I walked across the bridge, I felt confident walking on feet that had carried me from Georgia. At that moment, nothing seemed as terrible to me than to be forced to sit in a car on such a beautiful day when you could easily walk there and get much more out of the trip.
I climbed out of the gap from the Hudson River Valley up toward the Graymoor Center, a monastery that offers shelter to AT hikers on a soccer field. The monks (or probably someone working for them) had even built a small pavilion and an outdoor shower stall which, later in the afternoon after days of intense heat and climbing was very welcome. I washed my clothes in the icy water and hung them up on clothes line which had also been provided, even with only about an hour of daylight left, the heat and direct sun dried everything out before I’d even gotten into my tent for the evening.
The walk the next day was nice and rambling, there were no strenuous climbs and the sunlight looked like paint that had been flung all around, dappling every available surface.
Around mid-afternoon, I came to a lake with a built up concessions area around it. I took a shower and bought a jar of peanut butter at the little camp store inside. According to my guide, there was a deli just off the Trail about six miles up that allowed hikers to camp nearby. The deli closed at 7 and I wanted to get a snack before settling into a camping spot. If anything, I wanted to camp there so that I could wake up in the morning and get a decent cup of coffee. I’d run out of coffee a few days earlier and had been drinking—gasp!—instant for nearly two mornings. Like nothing else, I wanted a decent cup of coffee again.
After the lake, I hurried through another beautiful section of forest that brought me up onto a hill by alternating level and ascending portions of trail. It wasn’t a switchback and it wasn’t a constant climb. I’d never seen the trail move up like that. It was like it had been spaced into giant stair segments and I found it very interesting.
Different portions of the Trail are maintained by different groups and individuals. Through New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Dartmouth Outing Club maintain the Trail. Further south the Potomac Appalachian Club handles a section and there are many other venerable outfits. In New York, it seems that a lot of trail maintenance has been allotted to individuals. The last two-mile section I walked that day, mostly going up-hill toward the road was maintained by a guy who had used white paint to mark nearly everything that looked like it could trip an unwary or tired hiker. He’d also put up a few informational placards about his section of the Trail. As I finished my hike that day, I felt distinctly that I was walking through something that a human cared for, and it wasn’t a bad feeling. If anything, I liked the personality that had rubbed off in the years of this man’s care for the Trail. The wilderness remained the same, but the Trail had a little more personality.
I got to the deli about 20 minutes before they closed. A young girl was working the counter and she happily pointed out the empty lot down the street where the township, the deli or whoever allowed hikers to pitch their tents. I bought a half-gallon of orange juice and a soda and gulped both of them down in a few minutes. Before leaving, I checked to make sure the place would be open early and that there was a coffee maker on premises. After two days on instant, I couldn’t wait for a decent cup of coffee.
That night, the small, recently mown little lot was like sleeping in someone’s yard. I had gotten in the habit of leaving the flap on my tent open and positioning myself so I could look up at the stars while I waited for sleep. That night in the lot, without the usual dense trees of the forest obscuring the view, I saw them clearer than I had in a while.
I was so excited to get a good cup of coffee, I nearly ran to the deli in the morning. I was disappointed to find that the coffee was about as watery, if not more, than it would’ve been at a gas station. I had expected more of a New York deli, even if I wasn’t in the city. However, what I had underestimated turned out to be the bagels, which had been delivered fresh that morning from some place in Manhattan. Other than bread from the tiny Republic of Georgia, I have never had such a great flour and yeast product. I ate three of the bagels while standing in the parking lot drinking my watery coffee before going back to buy more. I was excited. At last, I was in the north. The bread, including bagels, was sure to be better now. But I was only partially right. The rest of the Trail, indeed all the way to Maine, the bread was much better than it had been down south, but I never had anything like those New York bagels again. It was worth the watery coffee to have such a great bagel.
That day, I finished the last section of New York and crossed into Connecticut, which marked the boundary of the states I’d previously visited (all except West Virginia) and the New England states I’d never seen.
I stopped a little early down by the Ten-Mile River just after crossing the State line and had dinner on the rounded rocks of the shore, listening to the smooth sounds of the shallow water running over the riverbed. From this modest introduction, I never would’ve guessed that Connecticut would be so wild.

While the days that followed may have blurred together a little, my first day in New England remains an incredibly memorable day. One of my reasons for walking the Trail was to find a suitable way to see the states north of New York, the only states in the lower 48 that I hadn’t visited. Since I’d begun the walk, I’d been curious about reaching this point and despite the fact that I’d never really seen Virginia either, it didn’t have the same appeal—what I came to call the Big Three (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine)--had for me. Hitting Connecticut, I felt like I had come into a new part of the country. Though it was only late July, the early mornings felt slightly autumnal and I noticed there were more yellow leaves in the canopy which, up until that point, was exclusively a bright jungle-green. After the mid-Atlantic states, flatter and nearer to large populations, I expected to walk onto a page of Robert Frost poetry in New England. I knew this wouldn’t happen over night, I expected it to be a more gradual change, like after a few days in Massachusetts, I would come to a low stone wall and realize I was walking through an old apple orchard, a few maple leaves would fall and as I savored the tang in the air, I would know that I’d entered New England. Of course, it didn’t happen like this. Nothing on the Trail is gradual and if I hadn’t expected Connecticut to be New English and thorny enough, I was about to be surprised. Even outside the town of Kent, Connecticut was wilderness. Never again did I see a section of trail, not even in Maine that the inhabitants of the forest so confidently owned.
I woke up by the Ten-Mile River in the clearing where I’d pitched my tent. There were two other tents near mine and, as the other campers looked to already be stirring, I thought it best to take myself into the woods, which began about 100 yards away, to pee.
Stepping into the forest from a clearing is always an experience. Even when you’ve been living out in the woods for months, something changes in you when you take your first step among the trees. First, your eyes need a second to adjust to the dimmer light. Everything looks grey for a moment. The temperature also goes down slightly, which your body usually registers with a slight chill. The bright birdsong of the meadows and fields is replaced with an expectant silence. The sounds that do abound, such as the rustle of chipmunks, are greatly dampened by the trees and leaves. The light pulls back as if a curtain had been suddenly dropped between you and the sun.
Every time I stepped into the forest, I found myself glancing around, perhaps as an unconscious reaction to these changes. I didn’t feel afraid, the change was more subtle, it was more like the reverence that causes you to talk in lower tones in some places without knowing quite why.
This morning, I had to pee too badly to pay much attention to the difference between the forest and the clearing. I was already about half-way done when I noticed the prickly sensation of being watched. I looked up and found myself about 20 feet away from a doe with her young fawn. The doe was almost blatantly unconcerned with me, but her fawn was still young enough to regard me with an incredibly wide-eyed curiosity. The way he looked at me indicated that I must have been the first human this deer had ever seen, the look of total incomprehension was too complete. He wasn’t afraid. He was still too young for fear and rather than run, he took a few steps toward me, as if to see what I’d do. I was somewhat embarrassed to be watched in such in eager manner, even by a deer, while peeing. I turned my back to the curious fawn, which only increased his wonder and he practically trotted up to me like a dog. I zipped up and turned back to him. He was almost close enough to touch. Now, I didn’t regard this as the fascinating phenomenon you would expect. Since the Shenandoah, I had seen many deer, and many of them had been very bold. Countless times, they’d come right up to my tent while grazing on the shorter, more tender grasses around the shelters. I regarded this fawn for a moment and then turned back toward my tent, appreciating his curiosity, but without much mutual feeling.
The surprise came when I heard the young animal take a few lively steps behind me. I turned to see that he’d followed me. I stopped and looked at him again. He looked back with a sort of ‘well, what-are-you-stopping-for look.’ Cautiously, I took a few more steps. The fawn bounded right along side me. You’d think he was a dog. I stopped and looked at him again. He was so close, I could’ve reached out and touched him, but I knew he’d run if I tried this. I watched him for a while, knowing he probably wouldn’t follow me all the way out into the clearing and then I turned to get on with my day.
The fawn immediately began stepping after me for a third time. This time I didn’t stop. This seemed to encourage him and he trotted right up alongside me. In this absurd tandem, we walked toward my tent. I hoped that one of the other campers would be moving around to see this bizarre scene. Everyone was still in their tents and, as I approached mine, the fawn seemed to suddenly realize that this was a world with which he was entirely unacquainted. He didn’t run, but calmly turned and trotted back into the forest. I stopped and watched him go, before he disappeared into the woods, he stopped and looked back at me. It was like a Disney movie and gave me great impetus to start my walk that morning.
I was still thinking about the deer six miles or so down the Trail when I heard a movement just ahead of me, a quiet movement, like two sheets of paper rubbing together, followed by a buzzing sound that started up clear and out of nowhere. It was the first time I’d heard a rattlesnake use its rattle. Ahead, I could see the bulk of the snake, about the width of my forearm, sliding off the Trail, clearly a patriarch and in no particular hurry. Someone had told me that Eastern Diamondbacks had stopped using their rattles as wild boars would hear the sound and hunt them down. This snake was clearly unconcerned with boars or anything else bothering it. If his size was any indication, this snake had lived a long time already. I watched the stately animal go, his tail continuing to buzz as he moved through the underbrush. I was glad to see him off the Trail. Some hikers, and you could never tell who they were, killed these animals on sight. They seemed to think they were doing everybody a favor, despite the fact that in the entire history of the Appalachian Trail, only two people have been reported bitten and, of these neither bite was fatal. Diamondbacks may look aggressive, but they are actually retiring snakes. If I wasn’t entirely convinced of this, I was about to have it proven.
I watched the old patrician slide into the woods and continued down the Trail. I hadn’t gone more than 100 feet when I shot up in the air. Coming down a rocky decline, I had nearly stepped on another large rattler. He hadn’t even bothered with rattling, perhaps because he’d been so surprised, but, his instinct hadn’t been to strike at my leg, rather he shrunk back from my boot and coiled tighter. If you ever need proof that your survival skills are intact, try almost accidentally stepping on a rattlesnake. I didn’t know it was possible to turn around in mid-air, but that’s exactly what I did. The snake himself, reveling his retiring nature, didn’t act remotely aggressive; he seemed to be aware that I meant him no harm and slowly unwound himself to better absorb the early morning sun. It wasn’t even ten o’clock and I’d already seen, and nearly touched a fawn and a rattlesnake.
About an hour later, I came into the town of Kent, which was widely regarded as the least-friendly town on the Trail. After seeing the town, I understood why. Kent is a vacation place, a quaint little town with antique and boutique stores aplenty. Unlike the other small towns along the Trail, its not very concerned with drawing hiker business, besides, the grubby hiker is certainly at odds with the well-groomed and well-heeled vacationer who’s lately come up from New York or Hartford, looking for a quiet weekend in the country.
Despite all I’d heard about the town, everyone I met was friendly. A man stopped me on the street to ask if I was hiking the Trail. When I confirmed his supposition he asked me a few questions about hiking. I was just about to tell him about the morning’s encounters when one of his party informed me that the man I was talking to also hiked the Trail, back in ‘98 or something. “Yes,” he said beaming and rocking back on his heels a little, “a lot has changed since then.” It was then that I realized that this guy didn’t really want to talk about the Trail, he just wanted an opportunity to reveal that he’d thru-hiked it, too. I congratulated him, but he hardly seemed to hear me, he was too busy congratulating himself. “Yes,” he continued wistfully, looking more at his friends than me, “I suppose a lot has changed since then.” He said this like he expected we were out there taking elevators up the mountains now. I told him I had to get going and quickly continued down the street.
Just as I was leaving town, I noticed a dark cloud rolling in. I disregarded it, as I continued through town, thinking maybe it would blow over, but when I heard the low, threatening tones of thunder, I decided to turn back and have another long, protracted look at the library.
Probably the most luxurious thing I did on the Trail was to sit in an overstuffed chair, roof over my head, read a National Geographic and listen to that storm pound the roof of that library. Knowing exactly what it would feel like to be walking through such a storm, it was blissful to sit in such a serene and cozy place. I listened to each drop of water on the roof, each pellet of hail on the sidewalk thinking how none of them would get me this time. It was with a certain regret that I listened to the storm fade away, but it was for the best, the library was only a temporary shelter. It was to close in less than an hour and I was glad the storm had retreated before the librarian came around to boot me out.
Out on the sidewalk, the sun was improbably shining and, even with a fresh 20 pounds of food added to my pack, I walked back down the road to the trail with something approaching excitement, or at least ease.
I didn’t get far before the rain began to fall again. It started as a drizzle, but there was a rumbling of thunder in the distance and I assumed the storm was coming back around again. Fortunately, I was at the apex of my walk for the afternoon when I noticed this. I was happy, if nothing else, to be on my way down with the storm coming on. The climb down was difficult with the wet rock and I had to balance myself with my arms at every step, grasping the sides of the steep rock fall I was moving down.

Usually on the AT, one encountered false summits, this climb down seemed to have false bottoms. Every time I hit something that looked like the end of it, the Trail would drop down further. I came to the bottom on a forest service road that went along a wide, rocky river, surrounded by pines. The rain hadn’t picked up and continued to drizzle benignly through the trees. Near the river, in the light rain, walking an even trail, I felt like I was on an idealized part of the Trail. It was like what I had imagined the Appalachian Trail would be like. I walked along, hoping the rain would stay where it was, just barely tapping on the leaves and the dirt around me and that the Trail would stay level until I reached the shelter.
The Trail drifted from the bank of the river, to the woods and back again. There was a thin median of tall trees between the two, but occasionally, a deer path opened a vantage on the river that looked like it should’ve been in Montana or Wyoming; it looked like something that should pour from a mountain not cruise along a dirt road. I was listening to the water combing over the various sizes of stones when the stillness was broken by the weirdest sound I’d heard the entire Trail. It was coming from the opposite bank.
It sounded like a bird squawking, but in a really harassed way, like it was being eaten. There was pain in the wail I was hearing and it sounded like it was being made by a large animal. At the first opportunity, I stepped out onto the river to see if I could spot what was happening on the opposite bank. What I saw was the most bizarre and amazing thing I saw on the entire AT.
On the large rocks across the river, a couple of Great Blue Herons were standing on either side of what must’ve been a Bald Eagle. All three birds seemed to be looking out over the water. I followed their collective gaze and saw the heron couple’s chicks swimming in a line in the water, completely oblivious to the imminent danger. The eagle was looking for an opportunity to grab one of those chicks, that was the source of the squawk I’d heard; the heron parents were trying to get the eagle to go away. They had him boxed in on the shore, but didn’t seem to know what else to do. Every so often one of them would peck at his feet with their stiletto beaks, but he’d hop up and flap his massive wings a few times before settling down again just a few feet away. The herons would then fly over to him and reposition themselves on either side. After a while, they’d peck at him again; he’d fly away and, again, they’d follow. I watched this for about five minutes, which might not seem too long, but watching these beautiful animals, over the sounds of the river flowing over the rocks, it seemed much longer. After about the third attack on the eagle, he bounded up and made a last ditch effort for the chicks, he flew just too high, missed and flew off like he’d never intended to eat one of the chicks anyway. After he left, I stood just watching the scene, the chicks in their line, the heron couple on the rocks, the river, the stones, the pines, the soft rain: it was incredible. Standing there wet with water myself, I felt like I was part of the tableau, rather than an intruder. After all, I lived in the woods. I felt more awkward in town than I did out here. This was were I belonged.
Not too far down river, I found the shelter. A few tents were already set up, but in the rain, everyone was inside. I heard nothing to indicate anyone was even awake. It was still a little early, but I decided to pitch my tent. It was beautiful by the river and I didn’t want to camp too far away from it that night.
After I got set up, I went out into the river. In no place was it over my knees, although it was probably the width of a five-lane highway. I waded out to the middle, just to appreciate the view. The rain had slackened and if I wasn’t standing in water, watching the ripples the drops made, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. On either bank, the pine trees towered 40, 50 feet into the air. Up river, there was a large island, bifurcating the stone-roiled waters. Even though I knew they wouldn’t dry. I couldn’t resist washing my dirty clothes in the river. I took off everything but my shorts and stood in the calf-high water, beating my shirt against a rock and wringing it out. The noise seemed to make the following silence so much more impressive. Even after I was finished, I just stood in the river, letting the water cool my feet and legs.
Autumn began to deepen after that. At the end of Connecticut the next day, I came to the Riga shelter which was just past the Lion’s Head up on a ridge connected with the peak of (another) Bear Mountain. The shelter had one of the best views of any shelter I’d seen on the Trail. A rock face in front of the shelter, provided a clearing through the trees, from the shelter, you could see out the opening and down into the valley below. It was a beautiful place to sit and watch the sunset. I woke up before dawn to watch the sunrise, which was even more spectacular, given that it came up right in front of the shelter. Later that morning, I walked into Massachusetts crossing and recrossing a beautiful stream cut deep into the rock filled in places with clear rocky pools of blue-green water. It was like walking over a large fountain complex.

Despite its belying beauty, Massachusetts was swarming with mosquitoes. All day they followed me, an obnoxious, buzzing cloud. Moving further north, I seemed to be encountering more and more bugs. Since Tennessee, I’d been dealing with small suicidal gnats that seemed to want to drown themselves in my eyes. As poetic as it might sound, it was incredibly annoying. These gnats would suddenly pop up, hovering just off the tip of your nose where they’d stay for a while before flying, without warning, straight into your eye. I got in the habit of waving them away, maniacally cutting the air in front my face with open-palmed karate chops. But compared to the mosquitoes, the gnats were fine. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad during the day, but when I stopped for the night, they quickly became intolerable.
That first night in Massachusetts, I had a rough five miles to the shelter. I was feeling tired and the Trail continually rose and fell, forcing me to climb and then scurry over every bump in the landscape. I hadn’t been seeing many people lately, but, for some reason, the shelter area was crammed with tents. I had to settle on an awkward square of land on a slope and a with a huge rock protruding from it that I had to get my tent around. At least, I figured, I could eat on the rock, since the picnic table by the shelter was covered with people, their dinners and all kinds of other crap. The sudden crowd had left me feeling very antisocial and I stuck close to my tent, wincing every time I heard someone’s braying laughter from the direction of the shelter. You can always tell a group on the AT because they don’t pay you the same attention an individual hiker will, that it to say, they pay you no attention at all. If you walk into a shelter area and everyone resting there is hiking solo, the atmosphere is very friendly. You are immediately welcomed. The hikers know each other no more than they know you; there is no obvious preference. If you walk into a shelter inhabited by a group hiking together, they pay you no attention and continue to talk among themselves, like a high school clique. I always knew when I was in the presence of a group because when I would walk into the shelter area and say hello, no one would return my greeting. It was like they didn’t even notice you. This may sound uncharitable, but it was what I experienced with every group over four people.
Whatever was happening at the shelter was definitely group-dominated, so I stayed down by my tent and tried to eat sitting on the boulder that my tent was all but pegged to, but the mosquitoes were so bad, I couldn’t enjoy a single bite. They flew into my nose, my eyes, my mouth and, maddeningly, into my ears. I’d put on socks and pulled them up, but every time I looked down, mosquitoes were all over my legs and arms. When I slapped at them, I was in danger of spilling my meager meal precariously placed as it was on the rock. I finally gave up and took my dinner into the tent. I hadn’t seen any bears for a while, so I figured I was safe. Still, with nothing to lean against, it was uncomfortable as hell trying to eat in the tent and also very difficult to not spill my food eating in this cramped position. After dinner, I went to sleep listening to the guffawing of the people at the shelter. It felt like they were laughing at me. After the last few days, enjoying the bounty of nature and seeing so few people, I kept thinking of what Sarte was trying to say when he wrote “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
The next day, I walked thirty miles, hoping to get away from the crowd. About 20 miles north from where I’d camped there was a famous shelter maintained by a group of volunteers which provided free pancake breakfasts. Thinking the mob was probably headed there, I decided to continue ten more miles to the next shelter. I was feeling almost singularly grouchy and the long walk did me good. I saw very few people, but, toward evening, when I had about five miles left and was starting to feel really tired out, I crossed a road which, according to the sign, was actually called ‘Country’ as in the song. I stepped out into the open space and had taken a few steps before I noticed the fox, standing just a little further down the road, watching me curiously before calmly trotting back into the woods.
When I got to the shelter, there were only two other people there. One was south-bound. For the first time since I’d started, the shelters were usually mixed with sobos (south-bounders) and nobos; before the sobos had been a minority, until Massachusetts, I’d only seen about five and, suddenly, I started seeing them every day.
The sky was darkening. Night was coming on and a storm was expected. I went off and found a spot to put up my tent just before the clouds parted and the rain started to fall in sheets. At least it kept the mosquitoes down.

The next day, I walked into the town of Dalton, did my laundry, showered at the community center and ate some Taco Bell; when I got back out onto the Trail in the late afternoon. I felt immeasurably better. I camped with a few other people about four miles out of town and actually enjoyed their company. My grouchy streak had ended at last.