This Open Road

A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail

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.

Williams College, Williamstown, MA

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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The White Mountains, Part 2: Crawford Notch, NH – Mt. Moosilauke, NH

After my three-day stay at The Notch Hostel, my feet were healed and I felt strong and ready to return to Crawford Notch and continue the final stretch through the Whites. The AMC shuttle stopped at a visitors center just a few miles short of the trail, so I had to hitchhike that section up to the trail. A lady who had been hiking in the area and had seen me in the visitors center stopped to pick me up. Within minutes I was back on the trail walking south. I had been tempted to stay at the hostel for one more night because of the threat of rain, but decided it was pointless to try to avoid it. I’d been rained on before and I’d be rained on again, so I took my chances and hiked on. It seemed I was rewarded for this perseverance because I was not affected by the rain at all, even though it was raining in areas all around me.

I hiked for the rest of the afternoon and found a small camping area just north of Zealand Falls Hut. The next morning I stopped for a quick break, but the guests were having breakfast so I didn’t go inside.

Zealand Falls Hut.

Zealand Falls Hut.

 

The trail continued up the usual rocky ledges that are characteristic of the Whites. There were a couple sections where ladders and rebar had been installed to assist hikers over the rock slabs.

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The steep ascents continued throughout the day and the peaks and other huts started to slip by: Mt. Guyot, South Twin Mountain, Galehead Hut, Mt. Garfield. Now I was getting excited because one of my favorite sections of the trail, Franconia Ridge, was coming up. Even better, I was going to cross it in the evening.

Franconia Ridge is a two-mile stretch of the AT that is above treeline, with Mt. Lafayette at the north end. All the elements came together for a perfect trek across the ridge. The wind swept across the rock outcroppings, and the clouds, which looked threatening when I approached the top, shifted, allowing incredible sunset views which changed dramatically within a few minutes. I kept stopping, making 360-degree turns, trying to take it all in. I could not have asked for a better experience on one of the most beautiful parts of the AT.

Sunset view from Franconia.

Sunset view from Franconia.

 

View from Franconia Ridge.

View from Franconia Ridge.

 

Franconia Ridge.

Franconia Ridge looking south.

 

It was not lost on me that, for the second time in a week, I found myself above treeline as dusk was approaching and I didn’t know exactly where I was going to camp. And for the second time, I felt a little excited about the adventure of it. I was not worried, I just had to keep moving, be willing to settle for a small stealth site that might not be as comfortable as I’d like. The uncertainty was worth the time I spent on Franconia.

I ate a quick snack, tightened the straps on my pack, and focused on the task of getting down from the ridge. The wind started to pick up and darkness quickly settled around me as I entered the trees. The path was narrow, steep and rocky. Eventually it leveled off and I passed two other campers tucked away in a small site. I kept going hoping for a similar site. I intended to hike all the way to the next campsite, Liberty Springs, but realized that would require hiking in the dark for possibly another hour. I trip enough as it is and didn’t want to add another layer of opportunity for an unnecessary fall.

Again, it seemed my decision was confirmed, because just then I noticed a beautiful opening in the trees with fairly level ground. I made a beeline to the site, put on my headlamp and set up my tent.

The next morning, I boiled water (all that I had left) for coffee (because I’m civilized and have my priorities), packed up and hiked the rest of the way to Liberty Springs. There I filled up my water bottle, made breakfast and prepared for the long descent down to Franconia Ridge.

It wasn’t long before another happy reunion occurred. (The first being when my 2010 hiking buddy, Sly Jangles, met me in the Bigelows.) In 2010, I hiked for a time with a gentle, hiking machine named Eric the Red (now called Moonlover), who’s from New Jersey. In the years since we hiked together, Eric began dating a woman named Candra, who is now working on her own thru-hike. Eric was hiking a long section with her, but not doing the whole trail. I knew they would be on the northern part of the trail when I was, but didn’t know if we would actually cross paths. I left it up to the Trail.

As I was hiking down from Liberty Springs, I passed several northbounders coming up. We exchanged hellos and information. As I looked down the trail, I noticed a familiar form, topped with wild curls and a commanding hiker beard, working his hiking poles, focused on the path in front of him and moving assertively in my direction. Here was my dear friend Eric the Red! I stopped, watched and waited for him to look up. When he did, the recognition was immediate. He smiled his fantastic smile, called out “Deja-thru!” (the name I went by in 2010) and hustled up even faster, closing the gap in a big reunion hug. Another hiker walking by said, “Oh, I love trail reunions!” It was only fitting that Eric and I met again on a rocky slope in the middle of New Hampshire on the trail that forged our friendship five years earlier.

Eric the Red!

Eric the Red!

A few minutes later another smiling face came up the trail, and I met Eric’s effervescent and charming fiance, Candra (trail name, Moonlight). She is having the time of her life on the trail and her enthusiasm for meeting others is another reason why I’m out here: to connect with people like Eric and Candra, who have found a purpose in sharing their love of the trail. As a southbounder, these kinds of relationships seem to be more rare than for northbounders. Nobo trail families are common, but for sobos, especially those at the end of the line, trail families are not as common and those that do form, might lack a strong sense of connectivity. Maybe sobos are more independent in general and adapt to a more solitary hike.┬áThese relationships (and likely many trail groups, regardless of direction) are more like taffy or a slinky, they separate and come back together. Visiting with Eric and Candra (sitting right on the trail for almost an hour) reminded me of the unique and special relationships nobos form. I had that in my past northbound hikes and many of those relationships are still very strong. They, like Eric and Candra, are my People of the Trail.

Eric the Red and Moonlight.

Eric the Red and Moonlight.

 

Life on the trail is about getting up and moving on. No thru-hiker can stay in one place very long. Eventually we said our goodbyes and headed in our respective directions, for them north and me south.

I continued down to Franconia Notch. I took an unintended detour at the visitors center which resulted in a three-hour delay before I righted my wrongs and got back on the trail. I hiked up out of the notch, past Lonesome Lake Hut and stopped for the night at a small site.

The next day I began the climb up North and South Kinsman. The wooden steps embedded in the wet rock made the ascent a little less dangerous and more interesting. (I’m fascinated by how the trail builders situated these steps into the rock. Can anyone offer ideas or answers?)

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Wooden steps embedded into the rock, going up.

 

Wooden steps embedded into the rock.

Going down.

As I approached the summit of North Kinsman, I ran into Forger who had been off the trail for a few days to attend a family event. It was great to have a friend to hike with on the last official day in the White Mountains. As all the days before, there was nothing easy about our exit. The descent into Kinsman Notch seemed to go on forever. Finally, amazingly, it ended abruptly at a road crossing. Officially, the Whites were behind us, but as an exclamation point to all of our hard work, we still had to get up and over Mt. Moosilauke. This is the last big mountain in the northeast for southbounders. Once hikers are past this point, it’s safe to breathe a little easier. There will still be some big climbs, but they will not be the relentless, hand-over-hand climbing that has been so common since Mt. Katahdin. For northbounders, Mt. Moosilauke is the beginning of the party. It will be hard work, but good work, almost every day until they summit Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

As tired as Forger and I were, we wanted to get to the next shelter half-way up the mountain. The trail paralleled Beaver Brook and it was a slippery, wet rock scramble all the way to the shelter. We were happy to see that Saint was there too. We could only guess where Soynuts was, but we guessed he wasn’t too far away. (He was actually ahead of us, but we didn’t know it at the time.)

Beaver Brook Falls, going up Mt. Moosilauke.

Beaver Brook Falls, going up Mt. Moosilauke.

The next day we all left the shelter at different times to begin the final push to the top of Mt. Moosilauke. It was foggy, windy and chilly, but I didn’t care. Reaching the summit meant that the hard work of the last five weeks was over. I knew the downhill route would be a tedious slog, but that didn’t bother me. I’d be going down to a road, then walking to a local hostel for an afternoon break and to prepare for the next section. The weather competed with the mountain in making the final miles as difficult as possible. On the way down it began to rain. Then it rained harder, and then it began to actually pour. Even with all my rain gear on, I was completely soaked by the time I arrived at the Hikers Welcome Hostel. I still didn’t care. I was done with Maine, with the White Mountains and the hardest part of New Hampshire.

No views from the top, but I was happy to know this was the end of the hardest section of the trail.

No views from the top, but I was happy to know this was the end of the hardest section of the trail.

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