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