This Open Road

A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail


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.”



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.







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.




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.


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!)



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.


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.


Uma, trail angel cat.


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




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.


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.


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!

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.

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.



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.


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.¬†These 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.

The White Mountains, Part 1: Gorham, NH – Crawford Notch, NH

(I’m currently in Manchester Center, VT, having hiked over 500 miles. The following post was written from N. Woodstock, NH, two weeks ago. I’m getting caught up on my blog posts. Thanks for reading!)

The miles continue to come slowly, or so it seems. As a southbound hiker, familiar with the terrain in Maine and New Hampshire from my previous hikes, I expected this. But it wears on the body and mind. I know I’m doing the hardest and best states first. This was something I looked forward to when I considered my hike. These states are rocky and relentless. I pass northbounders every day and it’s all I can do not to say, “Oh, have you got a lot of work to do.” They will discover that on their own and I don’t want to diminish their elation as they get closer to the end of their journey, one step at a time. But wow, have they got a lot of work to do.

And so do I. I’ve walked 345 hard miles. I’m midway through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This section of the AT through the Whites covers nearly 100 miles of intense peaks and valleys, the reward being beautiful and expansive views from the tops of those peaks. Many of the mountains in this range are named after U.S. presidents and are thus called the Presidential Range.

The hike out of Gorham was a six-mile ascent that culminated at Imp Campsite. I felt strong and ready to return to the trail after my two-day rest at the White Mountains Hostel. Imp is part of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s series of campsites and employs an onsite caretaker. There is an $8 fee to stay there. Soynuts had also been in Gorham (but stayed at another place), and was headed to the same site. We shared a tent platform and talked about our time off in Gorham and what was in store for us in the Whites. I left before Soynuts the next morning and proceeded to make Pinkham Notch my goal for the day.

There is another series of huts in the Whites sponsored by the AMC where hikers can take a break and buy snacks and drinks for a small price. It’s very expensive to stay overnight in the bunks at these huts, but they offer a “work-for-stay” option to thru-hikers. If a hiker arrives at a hut at the right time in the afternoon, they may be accepted by the staff to do some easy chores for a couple of hours in exchange for a place to sleep in the dining hall (not a bunk) and leftover food. I’ve done this in the past, and have found it to be an inefficient way to get through the mountains. Most hikers really enjoy the WFS experience and try to time their arrival at the huts in order to get to stay there.

After leaving Imp, I mentally prepared myself for one of the most difficult days in this section. It’s really hard to rank difficult days. There are several sections that are as intense as another, but I remembered the ascent up to Wildcat Ridge on my northbound hike, and knew this would be just as challenging to go down. And it was. I reached Carter Hut midday and stopped for some chili made by a “croo” member (the AMC hut staff) and lemonade. Feeling energized and fueled up, I began the steep ascent out of Carter and up to the Wildcat peaks. This led to the top of the ski area where the gondola was running for tourists. I was on a mission to get down to Pinkham Notch and still had the steep descent off the ridge ahead of me.

It was tedious and slow-going. As most of the descents of the last month, every step required careful attention. At one point my feet lost traction and I slid down the rock slab on my backside several feet. I was surprised that my shorts survived the slide.

Step-by-careful-step, I finally made it down to level ground. A mile later I crossed a road and entered the AMC’s touristy Pinkham Notch center. I still needed to hike a bit more past the center in order to find a campsite, but I needed to take a break so I bought an ice cream sandwich and watched the hordes of weekend campers milling about for a few minutes. I couldn’t decide if I felt sorry for their temporary outdoors existence or envious that they were headed to showers and real beds. I finished my ice cream, hefted my pack and walked on to a small site just down the trail.

The next day I steeled myself for the next big challenge: the three-mile steep incline up to Madison Peak. Again, the relentless upward haul. Again, the acceptance that the miles will come slowly. This was not the time to expect anything more than one mile per hour. My mindset in these situation is to just keep moving forward. It’s a pretty good mindset for life, also. Don’t stop and risk getting bogged down. Keep moving forward, one step at a time and do not think about speed. It has no meaning. Face forward and move. After an hour and a half, I emerged above treeline. Then I began the rock-hop, following large cairns over false summits to the top of Madison. I was fortunate to have had good weather. In bad weather, this section could be especially risky.

The top provided a brief reprieve. I still needed to get down the other side, take a break at Madison hut (a half-mile below the peak), and begin the next bigger challenge: Mount Washington.

Madison Hut and Peak

Madison Peak and Hut.


Mount Washington is the premier peak in this range and the second highest on the AT (Clingman’s Dome in Smoky Mountain National Park is the highest). The ascent from Madison Hut continued to be a sharp, rock-filled path and my feet began to feel inflamed and raw. I still had to hike several miles up and over Washington and down to a campsite below treeline. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Presidentials from Mt. W

The peaks surrounding Madison and Washington.


Mount Washington is famous for having the worst weather in the world. Wind velocity can reach well over 200 miles per hour, and reached a record of 231 mph in 1934. However, on the day I summited the winds were calm and the sky was clear. But daylight was fading fast.

After an arduous six-mile hike from Madison Hut, I finally reached the cutoff sign for the top of the peak. It was quite the touristy scene, as there is a road and a cog railway that leads to the summit. There is an observatory, a cafe, and other buildings. I was exhausted and out of water. I stashed my pack behind some boulders, grabbed my empty water bottles and quickly walked the .2 miles to the top. I got to the cafe just as they were closing but the staff let me buy something to drink. I filled my water bottles, ran to the sign for a quick photo and ran back down the trail to retrieve my pack. I still had to get below treeline and find a place to camp.

View of Mt. W from below

Mount Washington.


As I began the descent off the peak, I realized I would never make it to an adequate campsite before dark. The next hut (Lake of the Clouds) was only 1.5 miles away, but I knew that other hikers would have already arrived and been selected for the work-for-stay spots. I would have to hike a few miles beyond the hut to find a suitable site. My feet continued to burn and every step was painful. I began to evaluate my options, and there was only one. I would have to find a stealth spot on the mountain and continue my descent the next day.

There are many other side trails on the mountain and I hiked down one of these paths, then down another side spur. Finally, I found a somewhat flat, but lumpy spot and set up my tent. If a ranger came by, I was prepared to plead my case, show the raw condition of my feet and ask for suggestions. As it was, I was alone on the mountain and experienced the most amazing evening of my trip so far.

Stealth spot below Mt. W

For a mountain that is famous for extremely bad weather in all seasons, I was very lucky to have such a pristine night. There was a light wind and the sunset was one of the most brilliant I’ve ever seen.

Sunset from stealth camp

The next morning, I packed up and continued down to Lake of the Clouds Hut. I had a snack and enjoyed the amazing views from the huge windows. I also called the AMC and made arrangements to take the shuttle the next morning from Crawford Notch (the next road crossing, 11 miles down the trail) into Lincoln, NH. I needed to take an extra day off so my feet could recover and I wanted to check out a new hostel, the Notch Hostel.

Lake of the Clouds Hut

Lake of the Clouds Hut.


11 miles downhill seemed like an easy day when I looked at the profile on my map. But I knew better. This is the AT in New Hampshire. Nothing is easy here. But still, I wanted to believe. So with the memories of my stealth night on Mount Washington, I began my hike down to Crawford Notch.

Mizpah Hut.

Mizpah Hut.


A few miles into the hike, I came to Mizpah Hut. I stopped here for lunch and more snacks and lemonade. There were other hikers there, most of them staying for the night. Revived and excited to get to the road, I resumed my descent. I had six miles to go. A chart on the wall at Mizpah stated that the six miles to Crawford Notch would take five hours. I knew that I would be going down Webster Cliffs, a series of ledges that require attentive rock scrambling. I expected it to take four hours. It actually took me four hours and forty-five minutes. It was a hot afternoon and I ran out of water again.

View from Webster Cliffs

The view from Webster Cliffs looking down to Crawford Notch.


Finally, I was down. I came across a stream, filled my water bottles and walked to a campsite close to the road. The next day, I would board the AMC shuttle which would take me to the twin towns of North Woodstock and Lincoln and the much-anticipated, Notch Hostel.

Notch Hostel

After arriving in Lincoln, I made a beeline to a local pizzeria that I’d been to on my last hike through the area. I devoured a whole pizza, retrieved my bump box at the post office (I mail my computer ahead to my next town stop so I can conduct my lessons online), picked up a few supplies and headed to the local McDonald’s to wait for my prearranged ride to the hostel. On my way to the McDonald’s, a woman who happened to be staying at the hostel offered to take me there. Within minutes we drove onto the beautiful property.

Common area at the Notch Hostel.

The common area on the second floor.


The hostel as three floors with rooms filled with bunk beds and two private rooms. There is also an extensive yard for tenting. I sleep better in my own tent or in a private room, so I tented two nights and stayed in one of the private rooms for one night. After my difficult day going over Madison and Washington, I needed an extra day to recover. I also needed to conduct my online lessons so the Notch Hostel was the perfect place to stay.

And now I’m about to begin the second half of the Whites. There are still big mountains in this section, but the constant intensity of multiple climbs every day is about to end. I’ve pushed hard for four weeks and I’m looking forward to the terrain easing up.

I expect to cross into Vermont in the next week or so and hopefully increase my mileage a bit each day. It excites me to move deeper into the heart of the Appalachians and to be in places that bring up feelings of connection to past hikes. This is why I’m out here and why I was called back to the trail. Despite the difficulty of the trail, there is a pull that is hard to resist. I’m where I belong and thrive, and I cannot wait for what lies further south.

Twighlight from stealth camp

The First 300 Miles

Now I’m into it, deeply and thoroughly. The milestones are beginning to click by already. The first 100, 200 and 300 miles. The first state line crossing. My first, second and third resupply stops. My trail name (Deja) sounds more natural to me and is used more often than my real name. I’ve hitched to towns. I’ve been part of a bubble (a group of hikers that stays together) and already lost my bubble. The routines have been established and the weekly shower is just one part of it. The trail is hard. I’ve fallen countless times, been on the verge of hypothermia, and had an afternoon of serious doubt about being out here. All of this is just par for the course on the AT. Nothing new under the sun.

 * * * * *

Mileage, Trail names, and Lingo

Every so often the length of the Appalachian Trail increases due to relocations. When the trail was completed in 1937, the trail was 2,058 miles. When I first hiked it in 1998, it was 2,168 miles. This year it is 2,189 miles.

After 24 days on the trail, I’ve taken three full days off (for rest and for teaching online). My highest mileage day was 21.5 miles on day 4. My lowest was seven miles on day 8. Everything else has been in the ‘teens.


Taking on a trail name has been a longstanding tradition on the AT, as well as on other trails. They’re simply nicknames hikers adopt, or are given, during their hike. In 1998, my trail name was Critter (short for Coffee Critter and a play on my last name, Crispe, as in Crispy Critter). When I returned to the trail in 2010, some hiker friends from ’98, suggested a new name, Deja-thru. Since I didn’t complete a thru-hike in 2010, but finished the trail in two sections (2010/2011), I just went with Deja. Most friends from my ’98 hike still refer to me as Critter.

Other hikers I’ve met so far include Float, Little Bird, Tank, Loon, Hands, Forger, Soynuts, Seaweed Sally, Metric, Bad Dinner, Brandon and Davis. (The last two are foregoing trail names, but get honorable mention because they’re great guys and part of the group I’ve hiked with recently.)


There’s a lot of lingo on the trail:

Sobo – Southbound

Nobo – Northbound

Flip Flop – To hike from one point to another (e.g. Georgia to New Jersey), then get a ride north and hike back to the last point (e.g. Katahdin to New Jersey).

Zero – No miles hiked.

Nero (a “near zero”) – To hike just a few miles into town or out of town.

Thru-hiker – Someone who completes the whole trail in one season.

Section hiker – Someone who hikes a section of the trail.

Trail angel – Someone who helps a hiker in some way.

Trail magic – Spontaneous acts of kindness and helpfulness directed toward hikers.

The 100-Mile Wilderness

After leaving Katahdin, I was in Baxter State Park for about nine more miles, then entered the 100-Mile Wilderness. Although not entirely isolated, the Wilderness includes some of the most remote part of the trail. There are a few logging roads, but access to the trail takes more time and effort than access to other sections. It took me a week to hike through the Wilderness. The trail in the southern part was particularly difficult and although I’ve experienced mostly good days, day 6 was frustrating and slow. That was my lowest point so far. It had been raining most of the day. The trail was muddy, the ascents were steep and rocky and the descents were slick and dangerous. As soon as I could find a suitable camping spot, I set up my tent and went to sleep. I don’t remember if I ate dinner. I couldn’t think about the option of quitting so soon, but I was tempted.

The beautiful trail.

The trail on a better day.


A Sobo Bubble Comes Together

The next day, the sun filtered through the trees and everything seemed fresh and new, but still muddy and boggy. After packing up my wet tent and everything else, I began walking, eventually reaching the top of the next peak, Barren Mountain, which rose above the clouds. I took out most of my wet gear and laid it out to dry in the morning sun. After a while, another hiker walked up and I had the happy occasion of meeting my first fellow southbound thru-hiker, Forger. We chatted for a bit and admired the view around us. Forger continued on and soon another southbound thru-hiker, Soynuts, came through. Suddenly I was in a sobo bubble! Later that evening we all met at a campsite near a river, and camped together. It was great to make connections with these guys and share the excitement of our journey.

The next day we hiked a rough, muddy and relentless seven miles to the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness, reaching the road that led to our first resupply town, Monson. It only took a few minutes of hitchhiking before a young man in a truck stopped for us. He was on his lunch break and said he often picked up hikers on his way to town. Forger, Soynuts and I were more than ready to get to Shaw’s Hostel, get cleaned up and eat some restaurant food. Here, we met another hiker, Saint, who is a “flip-flopper”. He started in Georgia, hiked to Waynesboro, VA, then, after working a few weeks, returned to the trail, summited Katahdin and is hiking south back to Waynesboro.

So our little sobo bubble grew to four! We celebrated our arrival in Monson by going to dinner at the Lakeshore House and indulging in “pachos” – a huge plate of French fries covered in cheese and bacon. It was the perfect hiker feast.

Our temporary sobo bubble: Deja, Soynuts, Saint and Forger.

Our temporary sobo bubble: Deja, Soynuts, Saint and Forger.


A Visit From Sly Jangles

During my hike, I had been in touch with my hiking buddy, Sly Jangles, from my 2010 section hike (Georgia to New York). Sly lives in Montreal and wanted to come hike with me for a while. I kept him updated on my progress and left the details of how he would meet me up to him. And then, one day, he magically appeared in the Bigelow Mountains. He met me on the trail, hiked up Little Bigelow with me, then, after a few hours of great conversation and lunch at the top, he simply walked back down the mountain and to his car. I was so touched that he would drive so far (three hours), just to spend a few good hiking hours with me.

Sly and me on Little Bigelow.

Sly and me on Little Bigelow.


Rangeley, Maine

My second town stop, after hiking 220 miles, was Rangeley. It was such a beautiful, neat little town. It’s a shame I had a trail to hike or I might still be there. I stayed at the 1950s-era Town and Lake Motel. My backdoor faced Rangeley Lake, where kayaks and boats were docked, loons called and occasionally a float plane landed. It was there that I met the intrepid, two-time (nobo and sobo) AT thru-hiker, Seaweed Sally, who was my next-door neighbor at the motel. Oh, and she also hiked the PCT back when everybody wasn’t hiking it. And she’s hiked a bunch of other stuff too, but you wouldn’t know it unless you turned the conversation in just that certain way so as to glean this critical information out of her. We sat in our chairs, watched the sky turn beautiful shades of night-blue and talked.

Rangeley Lake from my motel backdoor.

Rangeley Lake from my motel backdoor.


The next day, Sally left town before I did and made tracks down the trail. I thought I’d never see her again. But the next day, I took a break at a shelter where I was immediately befriended by two other hikers who had camped with Sally the night she left town. Apparently my name came up in conversation and Bad Dinner and Metric knew who I was when I introduced myself. Sally had just left the shelter before I arrived and the three of us booked it out of there to try and catch up to her. Soon, I was lagging behind and thought I’d lost all of my new friends for good. As evening came on and I was looking for a spot to set up my tent, I passed a small opening in the woods and there they were! All hunkered down in a cute little stealth site, eating and chatting. The new band was already back together again.

Seaweed Sally and me.

Seaweed Sally and me.

Metric, Bad Dinner and Seaweed Sally. Getting ready to hike down to Andover.

Metric, Bad Dinner and Seaweed Sally. Getting ready to hike down to Andover.


Breakfast in Andover

An evening, a hike and a mission. Sometimes it seems that’s all it takes for a group to bond on the trail. Seaweed Sally, Bad Dinner, Metric and I spent the evening around a small fire, telling stories about our hiking escapades and laughing until fatigue overruled. Morning came, a quick chat about second breakfast in Andover ensued, and we were off, hiking hard down the trail to a gravel road hoping for an easy hitch to town.

Bad Dinner forged ahead and as we got close to the road, we heard a vehicle, a holler from BD and down we ran to the road, to a waiting vehicle. Second breakfast was on at the Red Hen in Andover! We ate until we couldn’t move. Then Metric surprised us and paid the bill for our breakfast. Trail magic and a trail angel all in one go! Thank you, again, Metric!

Our reunion was short-lived as Bad Dinner and Metric were ending their section hike in Andover. Sally was skipping ahead to another section and I had to return to the road where we got picked up. The local hostel in town, Pine Ellis, offered shuttles back to the trail for a small fee, and soon I was back to my task alone.

Mahoosuc Notch and Crossing into New Hampshire

Two days later I began the only section of the trail I had been dreading: Mahoosuc Notch. This is a one-mile section that is traditionally considered either the most difficult or most fun mile on the AT. I find it mostly difficult and annoying, a little fun, and fairly dangerous, especially if it’s been raining. Fortunately, on this day the weather was great. The notch is a ravine that is filled with huge boulders that have fallen from the high cliffs above. A hiker is forced to climb over, around, under and through awkwardly-angled boulders jammed together. Most of it is okay if one goes slowly and carefully. But it takes a long time of careful maneuvering to not fall. Brandon is very comfortable with rock climbing and bouldering and he zipped through the notch in one hour. That is fast. It takes most people 1 1/2 hours, which is what it took me the last two times I went through. This time it took me two hours. There were a lot of people going both directions, and we all had to wait for each other at certain points. Most people I talked with really enjoyed it. I was just glad to get out in one piece and know I don’t have to do it again.

The reward for making it through Mahoosuc Notch was getting to cross into New Hampshire seven miles later! State line crossings are exciting. After hiking 281.4 miles through Maine, a simple sign welcomes southbound hikers to New Hampshire.

Crossing into New Hampshire.

Crossing into New Hampshire.


Gorham, New Hampshire

17 miles later, the trail leads the hiker straight to the doorstep of the White Mountain Lodge and Hostel. Marnie and her staff run a relaxed and cozy hostel which includes a wonderful breakfast and lots of room outside to organize and hang out. I’ve been here for two days and after a few errands will depart this comfortable place and enter the next big challenge – the White Mountains.

White Mountains Lodge and Hostel.

White Mountains Lodge and Hostel.


More photos on my Instagram link.


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