This Open Road

A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail

Walking Through Pennsylvania

(Although I finished the A.T. over a month ago, I’m reliving my trek in these blog updates. The following post is a continuation of this entry, which I published on January 31st.)

I continued walking south into the deepening fall. I sensed a new kind of solitude. The few southbounders that I felt connected to were now far ahead. I would not be able to catch up. I acknowledged the loss, knowing this was a defining aspect of the trail. Hikers literally walk into each other’s lives and share a few, or many, miles together. Some hikers make a unique connection and find they’re compatible in terms of pace, schedule, and trail lifestyle, and may decide to stay together for as long as they both remain on the trail. But many (perhaps most) partnerships that form are short-lived. The variables that make up a successful hiking duo or group can be too disparate, and eventually people separate, decide to hike alone, or connect with others.

As I began my hike, I felt an unexpected liberation. In the midst of this three-month journey, I was beginning again. All I had to do was walk, as fast or as slow as I wanted. My body had recovered from the half marathon and I had renewed focus. From here on, all I needed to do was hike south to Springer Mountain. I was ready to go.

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The only thing I was racing was the weather. It was mid-October and fall was intensifying. As if I needed a reminder, snow flurries and attention-getting temps welcomed me back to the trail on my first night out. Here we go, I thought. As it turned out, it did not get that cold again for several weeks, but I was on alert. I was hiking in the Appalachians in the fall and it was supposed to get cold. Hike faster, winter’s coming.

The hiking was solitary and exhilarating. My days were mostly clear. Occasionally I’d pass another hiker – a section hiker or day hiker – but I did not pass or get passed by another southbounder. The last northbounder I had met was “Scrabble”, in southern Massachusetts. I wouldn’t see another nobo until I got to North Carolina, when early starters were beginning their 2016 thru-hikes.

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Rocksylvania

Pennsylvania is one of the flattest states on the A.T., although very little of the trail is actually “flat”, as most people perceive “flat” to be. It’s also the rockiest state on the trail and is thus called “Rocksylvania.” Hikers will always have something to worry and complain about on the trail. In PA, it’s the rocks.

Certainly, they can be annoying. In some places the rocks are big and it takes long, stairstep-like strides to move over them. Most of the time the rocks are small and pointy, making it easy to turn an ankle or trip. It’s often difficult to find a good hiking rhythm. A hiker must always carefully watch for the next step. Because if the rocks won’t get you, that snake hiding just beneath them might.

Rattlesnakes, copperheads and black snakes are prevalent on the trail and especially in Pennsylvania. I’ve hiked approximately 7,320 A.T. miles since 1994 and have encountered one rattlesnake and about a dozen harmless black snakes. The rattlesnake that warned me off in 2010, was occupying trail real estate near Rice Field Shelter in Pearisburg, VA. I think I’m one of the few hikers who has never even seen a poisonous snake in Pennsylvania.

I talked to other hikers on this trip who saw several snakes among the rocks of PA, and I was always watchful, but never saw one myself.

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Lehigh Gap is one of many iconic places along the A.T. There is a long ridgewalk which eventually begins a steep descent down a rocky precipice into the gap. Some hikers think this is one of the most dangerous areas of the trail due to the exposure along this section. In bad weather this scramble could be uncomfortable. The weather was on my side the day I went down to the gap, and step-by-careful-step I made it to the bottom. The trail crosses the Lehigh River and gradually gains the elevation back on the other side.

The fall colors were becoming quite spectacular. Locals said it wasn’t a good year for the colors due to the lack of rain in previous weeks, but I was in awe every day. I loved hiking in the fall and this was one aspect of a southbound hike that I had been looking forward to before I started.

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Looking down to Lehigh Gap.

 

One evening, I stopped by a spring to get water near Eagles Nest Shelter. As I was finishing, another woman hiker, “Shelob”, walked up to also get water. She was going on to the shelter which was .3 miles west of the trail, too far to go, in my opinion, when there was water and plenty of camping available right where I was. After chatting a bit with Shelob, I went back to the camping area, and began to set up my tent. I invited her to camp with me if she didn’t want to stay at the shelter.

A while later, just as it was getting dark, Shelob came back to the campsite. No one else was at the shelter and she seemed more comfortable tenting near another hiker. I made a fire, we ate our dinner and began sharing our stories. She had started at Springer and was walking north as long as the weather would allow. This was not her first time on the trail. Shelob had hiked southbound a couple of years earlier, and I asked about her experience hiking south into winter. I was daunted and impressed by her answers. She told me stories of crawling on all fours when the trail was too icy to walk on. She said there were many mornings when her boots were frozen and she could barely get them on. She and other southbounders would hike four days at a time, then find lodging to wait out another storm. Still, she was able to log 20-25 mile days on a regular basis. I took these markers as my guide and accepted that the conditions she described would be repeated for me.

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“Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright

If one keeps walking, day after day, eventually they’re going to cross big milestones. My first big milestone was getting to the 500-mile mark way back in Vermont. That seemed like ages ago. Then, at another quiet place on the trail, I was suddenly reminded, by these rocks, that I had walked 1,000 miles. That felt like something.

* * * * *

Two days later I walked into Duncannon. I must admit, Duncannon has never been my favorite trail town. It’s a popular one because the trail goes right through town, and past the Doyle Hotel, an easy and almost unavoidable stop for hikers. The Doyle is an old hotel that was one of the premier lodges in the early part of the century. Now it’s run-down and in need of some upkeep. The buzz on the trail is that it’s not a great place to stay overnight, but one of the best places for hiker food.

Early in my trip, Ben, a social media friend and fellow 2010 hiker whom I’d never met in person, contacted me to say he’d like to possibly meet to help in some way, and maybe hike a few miles with me. Our schedules never coordinated, but he sent me a message telling me to check at the Doyle for some trail magic he left there.

When I arrived, there was a card for me with $20 and a note from Ben, saying to enjoy a meal at the Doyle, his treat. We’d never met, but we shared a common bond through the trail and I was happy that he could be a part of my trip in this way. His generosity was so appreciated and I had one of the best burgers I’ve ever enjoyed!

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I was well into this feast before I remembered to take a picture.

 

My stop at the Doyle was important because it was here that I would meet another dear trail friend, Michele, or “Mitch”, as we know her in the A.T. tribe.

Mitch and I have known each other since our ’98 thru-hikes. Along with our friend, Hawkeye, she was one of the first people I met that season. For the last several years, Mitch has been a caretaker at the Scott Farm Trail Work Center, which is an A.T. property. (I stayed with Mitch here on my 2010 section hike as well.)

Mitch met me at the Doyle and took me to the Farm for the usual luxuries that mean so much to hikers – a bed, a shower, laundry facilities and good conversation. We have many common friends and shared experiences and it’s always good to reconnect with her. It just doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Since the Scott Farm is on the trail, staying here allowed me to slackpack in this section. I took most of my gear out of my backpack, kept only the things I’d need for the day, and set off to hike about 24 miles. Mitch would meet me at a road crossing later that evening.

Toward the end of my hike that day, I came upon some people during a photo shoot, who were definitely not dressed like hikers. I quickly realized I had just photobombed a couple getting their wedding pictures taken! There was a sharp turn in the trail and I had suddenly walked upon them from behind. I apologized and tried to move on. But they got so excited and asked me to be in their pictures with them. They said they were hoping a hiker would come by. The best part: the bride and groom were wearing hiking boots! They were just about to leave for their wedding, but took time to take extra pictures and asked what my trail name was. They were so fun and sweet and loved the spontaneity of it all.

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I was afraid to get too close to her beautiful dress!

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The photographers get photographed.

 

A few miles later, Mitch met me at the place we agreed upon and took me back to the Farm for another night of civilization. It was wonderful to spend this time with my friend!

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Halfway(s)

There are a few “halfway” points along the A.T. The psychological halfway point is where the ATC’s (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) main office is located in Harpers Ferry, WV, and where I’d be in a few days. There is the actual halfway point, which can change year-to-year, due to relocations along the trail. And then there is Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where hikers can take part in the Half Gallon Challenge at the general store. To mark reaching the halfway point (generally speaking), hikers buy a half gallon of ice cream and eat it in one sitting. A lot of hikers are successful in this endeavor. I have not done this in the past, and didn’t get a chance this time, because the store was closed the morning I came through.

I had camped nearby but didn’t have enough water for breakfast, so I took a break here, got water which was available from a faucet, and ate breakfast before moving on for the day.

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Pine Grove General Store

 

This is also the location of a hostel called the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel. It was built in 1829 and was the residence for the ironmaster at that time. Apparently, there is a room in the mansion that was used as a way-station for the Underground Railroad during the slavery era.

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Ironmasters Mansion Hostel

 

Another interesting building here is the Appalachian Trail Museum. It contains many artifacts related to the A.T., including some gear used by early thru-hikers such as Earl Shaffer, Grandma Gatewood and others. It was also closed this day, so I didn’t get a chance to visit.

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Appalachian Trail Museum

 

Finally, later that day, I reached the actual halfway point for 2015. It was at the unfortunately-named Dead Woman Hollow Road. Fortunately, there were no dead women to give validity to the name.

I gave the sign a high-five, snapped this picture and realized that from now on, there would be fewer miles in front of me than there were behind me. I had walked 1,094.6 miles. Only that much left to go!

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I was almost finished with all 229 miles of Pennsylvania. Most hikers believe this is the hardest state because the rocks can really beat up their feet. I didn’t mind the trail here. There are other sections that I’ll be happy never to go through again (like Mahoosuc Notch in Maine). Pennsylvania, I like.

28 miles later, I said “Goodbye” to PA and “Hello” to Maryland.

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Pennsylvania (But First, a Half Marathon in Yosemite!)

Dear Reader, I finished my southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on January 19, 2016! I hiked 2,189 miles from Katahdin to Springer in just under six months. I did not mean to leave you hanging, but I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the blog, conduct my online lessons and do everything I needed to do in town (laundry, resupply, rest, talk to people at home, etc.) and still hike. At the end of October I suspended my online lessons until January, and decided I would catch up on the blog when I finished the trail.

I knew that I would need to stay as focused as possible in order to finish the trail before it got too cold. As it turned out, it was a fairly mild fall and winter. I had some cold days, but not as intense as I expected and not cold enough to force me off the trail.

The Appalachian Trail is so much a part of my life and who I am. To have been able to hike it three times is a blessing and something I’ll always treasure. I’ve walked northbound (1998), section hiked (2010/2011), and now, hiked southbound. (I also began a thru-hike in 1994, going almost 700 miles before stopping.) Writing about this journey after I completed it will allow me to process what transpired, relive it and share the experience with you. Thank you for your patience.

* * * * * *

At the end of January 2015, shortly after I returned from Japan, and before I made my plans to hike the A.T. again, I committed to run the inaugural Yosemite Half Marathon with my good friend, Jannele. Some people from her job were forming a group and she invited me to join them. It took me about five seconds to make a decision. I was ready to train for another race, I’d never been to Yosemite, and I would get to spend time with Jannele, whom I’d not seen in several years.

Later, I realized a thru-hike was possible and although I’d have to leave the trail for a few days to go to the race, I decided to do it all. It would be an adventure within an adventure and I was ready for it.

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Back on the trail… After crossing into Pennsylvania, I walked to the Church of the Mountain Hiker Hostel in Delaware Water Gap, a hostel that has been serving hikers since the mid-70s. It’s located in the basement of the church, and has a bunkroom, shower and common area for hikers to use. One aspect of a southbound thru-hike, is that there are very few hikers still around at this time of year. The northbounders have long passed through Pennsylvania and most southbounders are well into Virginia. There was only one other hiker staying at the hostel when I was there. This was where I would leave the trail for the next nine days.

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Getting from the Appalachian Mountains to the Sierras was not as complicated as I expected. From the hostel, I walked about a mile to the bus station, took a bus into NYC, then a shuttle to the Newark airport, flew to Kansas City (by way of Atlanta), was met by Jannele and spent the night at her house. The next morning we flew from KC to Fresno, CA (via Phoenix) and drove a rental car to Oakhurst which is the nearest major town closest to Yosemite.

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The weekend was wonderful. It was fantastic to spend that time with one of my dearest friends, whom I’ve known since college. Ours is a friendship built on ease and gentle camaraderie. We can be talkative and we can be quiet. Our shared history, respect for each other and mutual sense of humor create the foundation of our relationship. And we both like to run.

Yosemite National Park was absolutely more astounding than I imagined. Even after seeing many pictures of iconic features such as Half Dome and El Capitan, I was still amazed by the magnitude and grandeur of it all.

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We both ran better than we expected. The morning was cool, the course wound down a curvy, tree-lined road and we glided easily toward the finish line. I had not run since mid-July, and was a little concerned about how I’d do. To my advantage, I had strong hiker legs and that helped me maintain my sub-two hour goal for half marathons (I finished in 1:53:02).

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Jannele also did really well, but we both paid for our efforts after the race. By the end of race day we could hardly walk. I had made plans to visit my family in Colorado after the race and I was glad for the rest days. It took several days before I felt normal again.

After the race weekend, I did all of the flying activity in reverse. By the time I was back on the trail nine days later, I’d been on 10 flights due to the stopovers each flight entailed. Not complicated, it just required organization, timeliness and a little luck (only one flight was late in this whole itinerary).

Finally, I was back in Delaware Water Gap ready to resume my walk south. I stayed another night at the church hostel, got a shuttle to Wind Gap and started hiking. It was a chilly morning and it was the first time I really knew the rest of the hike would be a race against winter.

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Back on the trail at Wind Gap.

 

Connecticut, New York and New Jersey – The Journey Continues!

Hello, Dear Readers! Are you still with me? It’s been over a month since my last post and I’m here to bring you up to date. I’m still hiking and loving every step of it. As of today, I’m more than halfway down the trail, having just crossed into my ninth state (Maryland, 1125 miles). The weather has been pristine and the changing colors have been beautiful. I want to keep things in order so I’m going to start where I left off, way back at the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, and include New York and New Jersey, as well.

CT, NY and NJ make up 213 total miles of the AT’s 2189. I love these states. The trail here is gentle and rolling, interrupted occasionally with some rock scrambles. The forests are young, with trees whose broad leaves are now turning and falling every day. Although the weather is still mild, the constant raining of gold is a reminder that colder days are imminent. I hike assertively because that’s my style and I enjoy it, but it also serves to keep me ahead of winter as long as possible.

Connecticut

The AT makes quick work of Connecticut. There are only 51 trail miles in this state. It’s well maintained and leads the hiker into, or near, a few quintessential New England towns, such as Falls Village, Kent and Salisbury.

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One day while hiking in the vicinity of Kent, I met a trail maintainer. He was knowledgeable and clearly dedicated to, and enthusiastic about, his work. Throughout the day, I passed him a few more times as he was working on different sections of the trail. During our final conversation, he asked me if he could do anything for me, get me anything. At first I declined, not wanting to put him out and also because I really didn’t need anything. But he insisted and I decided a Diet Coke sounded pretty good. No, wait, orange juice would be better. He seemed satisfied with this choice and his mission and told me where he would leave my request. The next morning, hanging on a tree branch, was the soda, the juice and a banana, along with a note. Things like this happen often for hikers, and it is always such a cherished and appreciated act.

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“Good luck with your hike.”

 

New York

For southbounders there is no clear sign to welcome us into New York. (There is a sign for northbounders stating they are now entering Connecticut.) We just walk right in and continue on. Whadja expect? A parade? Fuhgeddaboudit.

I love New York. I love the city, the small towns and the sections where the AT passes through it in 90 awesome miles. The trail crosses this stop where hikers can board a train and go into the city. I’ve crossed this section three times but only have pictures from 2015 and 1998.

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2015

 

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1998 with Gretel.

 

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One of the highlights of the AT in New York is walking across the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge. I find the Hudson majestic and fascinating. I would love to explore the Hudson River Valley more in the future. These pictures show the trail as it is going northbound. A few days earlier, I had to take a taxi from a place on the trail about 15 miles north of here to a hotel in Ft. Montgomery so I could do my online lessons. I don’t skip miles, so after my lessons were completed, I hiked north to where I got the taxi, then hitchhiked back (south) to this spot.

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After my hitch back to the bridge, I continued through the Bear Mountain Zoo and over Bear Mountain. It’s a long uphill walk, made easier by the stone steps that have been installed in the last few years.

The trail goes right through the zoo, which is rather small. (There is an alternate route for hikers when the zoo is closed.) A highlight within the zoo, at least for me, is the statue of the poet Walt Whitman. He is the author of “Song of the Open Road” for which my blog is named. Leaves of Grass is his collection of poems, on which he spent years working.

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The Man, Walt Whitman.

 

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I met Soynuts again on Bear Mountain and we spent the next few days hiking together. Another popular feature of the trail in New York is the Lemon Squeezer. This is a cut in a jumble of rocks where the hiker has to oochie their way through.

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This is how you oochie your way through the Lemon Squeezer.

 

And so it went. Over and under, hill and dale. And me falling in love again and again with this trail. It led me to the tops of craggy precipices where I could see the New York City skyline, and down into cozy nooks protected by overhanging rocks which have provided shelter for people and animals for ages. I walked and walked, always beckoned forward, until the day I stepped, just like that, into New Jersey.

New Jersey

When you think of New Jersey, you probably don’t think of towering, swaying trees. Lush beauty surrounded by quiet solitude. I didn’t until I hiked this section of trail for the first time, and then I understood. People don’t get Jersey. Maybe they’ve never been on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. The AT claims 72 miles of trail in NJ and I love every beautiful bit of it, even if it was rather rainy when I walked through this time.

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And then the trail descends easily and gracefully for several miles toward Pennsylvania. No heroics or grand entrances. Just a smooth transition into another amazing state.

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Actually, there is a bit of an entrance because the trail crosses the Delaware River on this loud and chaotic bridge. But that’s not Jersey’s fault.

This is the Delaware Water Gap.

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Hello, Pennsylvania!

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Massachusetts

The Big Question is Why?

Why do long-distance hikers do this? We simply walk all day. My alarm goes off, I wait until it’s not completely dark anymore, I get up and make coffee (I boil water and pour it over my instant coffee in my cup), and start stuffing things in their various stuff sacks. An hour later I’ve eaten, packed and am ready to walk, usually around 7:00 a.m. At least it feels that way now. In the early days, it felt like preparing for battle.

It takes me a while to really wake up and find my rhythm. The sun begins to shine in earnest, coming in low, then higher, between the trees, always to my left, from the east. In the evening, I often wish I hadn’t sent my visor home, as the sun begins to set on my right. As a southbounder entering fall, I’m following the rising and setting of the sun as the earth moves in favor of the Southern Hemisphere. The darkness comes a little bit earlier at the end of each day.

And I walk. Occasionally (sometimes more often), I wonder why I’m driven to do this. There are many in my tribe who heed this mysterious call to walk the Big Three: the AT, CDT and PCT. The Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail, and John Muir Trail also make a hiker’s heart beat a little faster. I really don’t have an answer. It’s meditation or natural medicine. It’s peace and beauty and silence and mystery. It’s also simply this, “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”

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The Appalachian Trail could wrap a person up in those trees, and the path, strewn with rocks, will trip you and spit you out without a second thought. It doesn’t care. It beckons, then knocks you down, then beckons you on again.

* * * * *

I continued walking out of Vermont and stepped into Massachusetts, the fourth state down the trail. The first major road gives you a choice: left to North Adams, hard scrabble and grit, abandoned red brick factories with a museum-of-modern-art appeal, or right to upscale Williamstown, home of Williams College and the Clark Art Institute, sushi restaurants and prep school students. Williamstown had a North Face store with canister fuel and I was out, so to Williamstown I went.

I love both towns for their unique characteristics. The Clark Art Institute has one of the best art collections I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have time to go there on this trip, but I’ve been two other times and highly recommend it.

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Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

 

The AT heads up toward Mount Greylock through a neighborhood street between the two towns. Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts and is marked with the Veterans War Memorial Tower.

Mount Greylock.

Mount Greylock.

 

Two days and some now-forgotten miles later, I entered Cheshire, MA. The trail goes right through town and passes by some beautiful old historic buildings. A few humble structures had been the previous sites of the post office, now with just simple signs stating, “Post Office 1888 – 1900” or some similar date. A modern brick building now houses the current post office.

I needed to buy some supplies in town and wandered into an old-fashioned general store, which dated back to 1844. Although contemporary in many ways, there were features of its original state. The floor was weathered hardwood. The shelves behind the counter were arranged like scenes of the store in Little House on the Prairie. The fluorescent lights, refrigerators and electrical gadgets represented a more recent era, but it was easy to look past these things and imagine a time when a horse and buggy would have been tied out front where the tractors were now situated. The elderly lady working behind the counter told me that her father-in-law bought the store in the 1930s and he had been the third owner.

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The Cheshire Town Hall.

 

Nine miles later, I walked through Dalton, had lunch at a cafe and charged my phone. The residents of Dalton and Cheshire have seen thousands of hikers walk through their streets, and there is a welcoming feeling in these towns.

The next day, I stopped by another AT landmark, The Cookie Lady’s House. The Cookie Lady has been giving away homemade cookies for many years to any hiker that stops by. She and her husband live in this house, just 100 yards down a country road which crosses the trail. They also sell eggs, sodas and ice cream, and hikers can also tent in their yard with permission. I chatted with her for quite a while, signed the guest book and returned to the trail.

 

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Upper Goose Pond Cabin is a place I had been looking forward to visiting while planning this trip. The cabin sits just up the hill from the pond and is looked after by a caretaker during the summer and early fall. There is no electricity or running water. There are bunks on the second floor, a fireplace and tables and chairs in the main room. Visitors can swim in the pond or take a canoe out.

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During this visit, The Digger, Soynuts and Bud performed an original song they wrote. Soynuts is a one-man band, as he carries a backpacker guitar and a harmonica and plays both really well. (And naturally, The Digger carries that shovel as he hikes. We don’t know why… but if you’re ever in need of a shovel and The Digger is nearby, you’re in luck!)

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Soynuts, Bud, Grits and Deja.

 

One of the many great aspects of hiking the trail again is getting to reconnect with friends I made on previous hikes. I met Flutterby during my 1998 thru-hike and although we never actually hiked together, by happy chance, we summited Katahdin on the same day. During this trip, as I got closer to Flutterby’s neck of the woods, she enthusiastically and generously became my own personal Trail Angel. I needed a place to land for a couple of days, to do my online work and she graciously invited me into her home to do this. It was perfect. I took a series of local shuttles from the trail to Great Barrington, where she met me, and then took me to dinner. We talked about backpacking and trail life and the friendships we’ve both made during our trips. At her house I took over her guest bedroom and a corner of her living room where I set up my portable office. Flutterby had to work the next day, but that night we enjoyed a home-cooked curry dinner she and her friend, Ryan, prepared. It was a great evening of talking, music and rest.

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I was still in Flutterby’s area the next week, so we did a repeat of the previous week. This time she had to be away on a business trip, so Uma kept me company while I was at the house. I couldn’t thank Flutterby enough for her generous gift of friendship, her home and help during these two weeks.

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Uma, trail angel cat.

 

Then, as this trail life dictates, the AT called me out again.

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This happened here.

 

Late one afternoon, lost in thought, I looked up to see that I was about to leave Massachusetts behind and enter Connecticut. I’d walked 684 miles from Katahdin. These state lines were starting to come a little quicker. Next, Connecticut and New York.

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New Hampshire to Vermont

Coming down off of Mt. Moosilauke was the end of the most difficult section of the AT. Despite the rain, I felt a tremendous relief being out of southern Maine and the White Mountains. These mountains were beautiful, and the views from the peaks extended for miles in all directions. For almost 400 miles I had persevered through the most daunting part of the AT, and I was ready for a kinder, gentler path.

After resting for the afternoon at the Hikers Welcome Hostel and meeting Saint and Soynuts (whom I had not seen in a few days), we continued on for a few more hours to a campsite. We crossed the road, found the trail and began a mild uphill walk over the next ridge. It was surprising to me how drastically the terrain changed from one side of the road to the other. The rain had stopped, the woods were welcoming and the trail was easy to walk on. There were no huge boulders to crawl over, or slick roots to avoid. It was just a simple path. I alternated between the usual tense anticipation of another arduous climb and wanting to trust that I could relax, simply walk and just take in the beauty of this new environment.

This was the Appalachian Trail that I knew and loved. There was great satisfaction in working hard and successfully navigating the mountains of the northern region, but now I sensed that I had truly returned to the trail that had been calling me the last few years. I felt pure joy and excitement to be walking, practically gliding, up the trail. Adding to this elation was the awareness of how strong I had become in the last month. I felt like I was flying up the mountain. My pack was not a burden, my feet were not in pain, I was not breathing hard. I was moving with a light step, easily and smoothly.

This is a physical benefit of going southbound. You get your trail legs quickly. Every day, beginning with the climb up Mt. Katahdin, is an intense workout, and if done carefully, it allows the hiker to become trail hardened early in the journey. Any subsequent hill or mountain after Moosilauke feels tame. Although there will still be plenty of mountains to hike, there will be nothing like the Bigelows, Wildcats, or Kinsmans to climb.

I love this beautiful trail.

I love this beautiful trail.

 

Later in the evening, Soynuts and I found Saint at the campsite and set up our tents. A couple hours later, Forger showed up (we thought he had gone ahead since he did not stop at the hostel that afternoon) and our original sobo bubble was reunited for the first time in 300 miles (since Monson). Our reunion would be short-lived, but we enjoyed hiking together for the next couple of days.

View from Mt. Cube.

View from Mt. Cube.

 

The next day we summited Smarts Mountain which has an abandoned fire tower at the top. There are many fire towers throughout this region and on clear days they afford wonderful views.

Fire tower on Smarts Mtn.

Fire tower on Smarts Mtn.

 

Our original sobo group in the fire tower on Smarts Mtn.. Soynuts, Deja, Saint and Forger.

Our original sobo group in the fire tower on Smarts Mtn. Soynuts, Deja, Saint and Forger.

 

Views from Smarts Mtn. fire tower.

View from Smarts Mtn. fire tower, looking north.

We looked back on the distance we had covered over the last month. Katahdin was long out of sight. Our legs and determination had brought us this far. Then we looked south. It seemed there was nothing in our way. The land was calm and inviting. Again, I felt a peace come over me, knowing that what remained of this trek, while still challenging, would be more about the commitment to get up every day and walk, rather than to face a rock wall that intended to block my way.

 

Looking south to where we will go.

Looking south to where the trail leads.

 

The next day, we made a stop at the home of Bill Ackerly, the Ice Cream Man. Bill is a retired Harvard professor who lives just off the trail and has been providing ice cream and sodas to hikers for several years. He has a croquet set and invites hikers to play during their visit. We spent two hours with Bill, talking and playing croquet.

Bill Ackerly, the Ice Cream Man.

 

Bill showing hikers how to play Croquet.

Bill showing hikers how to play croquet.

None of us knew how to play croquet, so Bill had to tell us every move to make. We had a blast! Eventually, we pulled ourselves away and hiked on.

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Home of Bill Ackerly, trail angel, ice cream man.

 

Hanover, New Hampshire was just a few miles away. This would be the first town in which the trail went right through. No hitchhiking necessary. Hanover is the home of Dartmouth College and is very welcoming to hikers. It’s an odd mix. Ivy League meets Hiker Trash. The community center provides showers and laundry facilities to hikers for $5. Several businesses offer freebies to hikers, such as a free doughnut at a bakery, a free pizza slice at a pizzeria, and a hiker discount on a brown bag lunch at a general store. People were kind and a few stopped to ask about the hike.

Getting close to Vermont.

 

Just beyond the outskirts of Hanover, on a bridge extending over the Connecticut River was the border of NH and VT. I crossed the river, and entered state #3. I love Vermont. It’s often referred to as “Vermud” because of the normally wet and muddy conditions on the trail. But there was no rain at all and virtually no mud during my time there.

Crossing into Vermont on the bridge over the Connecticut River.

 

Soon after leaving Hanover, beyond the river, I went through the small town of Norwich, which had a wonderful old general store where I bought snacks for the hike out of town. I had a hard time getting away because several people, other hikers and locals, wanted to chat. I really love talking to anyone about the trail. People are curious and I love to answer their questions. It’s a nutty thing, this long distance backpacking. And yet, it’s mysteriously fulfilling. Explaining why it’s fulfilling will always be a struggle for me. Hopefully, I can address that aspect as I write this blog.

Beginning a few miles before Route 4/Sherburne Pass, the AT shares the path with The Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont from Canada to Massachusetts. (I hiked The Long Trail in 2013 and those posts can be read here and here.)

About four miles before Route 4, I saw this sign, which always makes a hiker’s heart sing.

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Two couples had tables set up with barbecued pork sandwiches, fruit, salad, sodas and cake. I stayed for quite some time, eating their food and talking with them. They asked about my experiences and shared their own. They had all hiked Longs Peak in Colorado, which is about two hours from where I live. But the trail doesn’t hike itself, so soon I had to get going. That is the unpleasant part of trail magic like this. Eventually, one has to walk away from it.

Trail angels and their awesome trail magic!

Trail angels and their awesome trail magic!

 

A couple of days later, I needed to be in a place to do my online lessons, and I had made reservations at the Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel in Manchester Center, VT. I made my way there via Wallingford on “The Bus,” a local shuttle bus that connects several small communities in the area. The Green Mountain House is run by Jeff Taussig, and is a popular place to stay for AT and LT hikers. It’s impeccably clean and quiet. I stayed here during my 2011 hike and knew it would be the perfect place to rest and work.

Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel.

 

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Jeff Taussig, owner of the Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel.

Two days later, Jeff took me to town where I caught The Bus again and retraced my route through Wallingford and back to the trail.

The AT travels through some interestingly iconic places along its 2,189 mile path. This rock garden, also known as the “hoodoos”, is one of them. Rocks are piled in various forms, on the ground and on nearby tree branches. It’s tradition to add a rock to one of the piles. Or maybe I made that up, but I’ve added a rock to a stack on each of my hikes through here.

Hoodoo rocks.

Hoodoo rocks.

 

Adding a rock to the collection.

Adding a rock to the collection.

 

The trail also crosses a few ski areas. It crested Sugarloaf, way back in Maine, and here it goes over the summit of Bromley Mountain. This is a popular destination for day hikers and there were lots of people at the top. Soon the hikers will be replaced with skiers.

Bromley Mtn. Ski Resort.

Bromley Mtn. Ski Resort.

 

Stratton Pond is one of my favorite places in this area. It’s set in a beautiful location and is incredibly peaceful. The shelter is well-constructed and roomy and is a good place to spend the night or take a break before hiking up to the summit of Stratton Mountain. I arrived mid-morning, so after a short rest, I continued up to the summit.

Stratton Pond.

Stratton Pond.

And since this is Vermont, where there is a mountain, there is another fire tower. Hikers love fire towers!

View out of the Stratton Mtn. fire tower.

View out of the Stratton Mtn. fire tower.

 

In many places in this region, there are old, low rock walls. These fascinate me. I believe they divided property long ago. I love to think about what this area was like when these walls were built. Who lived here? Where did they come from? What were their lives like? I rarely see remnants of homes, although sometimes rusted machinery is lying around. I love to think about what life was like for the people who constructed these walls and what was happening during that time period.

Old rock walls.

Old rock walls.

 

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I spent nine days in Vermont, including my days off in Manchester Center. Every day was beautiful and hiking was exhilarating. I passed a few northbounders in southern Vermont, but those numbers were starting to diminish. Nobos have to summit Katahdin by October 15, when Baxter State Park closes.

On my last day in Vermont, I passed the sign for the southern terminus of the Long Trail. I remembered my excitement when I finished the LT two years ago, and also the tinge of sadness I felt that my hike was over and that I could not continue on the AT.

Now, I touched the sign, noted the blue-blazed side trail that led me off the mountain two years ago, and with renewed energy and happiness that this trip was far from over, I followed the white blazes down the AT. And then, after walking 592.5 miles from Katahdin, I entered Massachusetts, the fourth state on my southbound journey.

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