One Joyful Mile
My eyes fly open with excitement. Today we are hiking through the Notch!
Mahoosuc Notch: a mile-long section of the Appalachian Trail notoriously referred to as the “hardest mile”. I had been looking forward to this particular challenge since we began this journey back on Springer Mountain more than four and one-half months ago.
Hastily we pack up our tent and scarf down breakfast. There is a level of anxiety on our trek today. During the night, the rain was a steady drizzle. Our environment is dangerously wet. Everywhere I see hazards. In fact, it is not long before nearly every member of the tramily has taken a spill.
We play a little game when we hike. It is called “ice cream lives”. Between resupply points, you have three lives. If you fall, you lose one of these. Three lives lost means you must buy ice cream for the tramily. It looks like we may all lose before we get to Andover, ME. On the bright side, this means loads of ice cream.
Six miles later, we are all still relatively uninjured and find ourselves face to face with the Notch. We have a little pep talk “alright, everyone goes slowly and looks after one another”. How to describe the Notch. Well, imagine a narrow ravine with steep sides. Now, imagine that that ravine is filled with huge boulders set at all angles. In this case, wet boulders. Viola Mahoosuc Notch
Handstand has adopted the secondary trail alias: Wildcat. He named himself this because of his hiking style, which is a parkour-inspired trot interlaced with naps. He rushes forward in a series of risky but impressive leaps and then lies down to nap while waiting for the tortoises.
Meanwhile, the tortoises are making their way through “caves” and over precariously-angled rocks. We are all having a blast. Frick has created a new challenge for the Notch. He is trying to make it through without removing his backpack, and he is doing very well at it.
Remarkably, we make through Mahoosuc without falling once. Our spirits are soaring, and then we remember the second part of the challenge: the dreaded Mahoosuc Arm. This part of the trail is infamously short and steep. We lunch for as long as possible before confronting our inevitable climb. Maybe it was because the arm was so built up for us, but we made short work of it.
Hyperlite to the Rescue
Passing Sobos (southbound hikers) have informed us that there is trail magic up ahead at Grafton Notch. We put on city speed (the fastest pace possible with no fooling around). As usual, I am the last one to roll into the parking lot at South-Arm Road.
RamboJuice rushes forward with a bag of potato chips for me. “Guess what”?, he says with a tiny smile, which I know means good news is coming. Hyperlite Mountain Gear was just here. They have a site for us at the Grafton Notch Campground. They are going to cook for us, and there are showers. Well, well, well. This is good news indeed.
That evening the good people of Hyperlite cooked us hot dogs. The picnic table was covered with snacks for the taking. We do not want any of this left in the morning, they told us. No problem, we replied. The campsites were gloriously flat and unencumbered by roots and rocks.
The next morning, we were returned to the trail with full bellies and clean-ish bodies. We trudge up to the west peak of Baldpate Mountain where we have a spectacular view of everything, including our next climb up to Baldpate Mountain east peak. The hiking in between the two is a unique rock monolith devoid of excessive vegetation. At the top, it is windy, and we stop to take photos of Rambo’s majestic hiker beard blowing in the breeze.
Clothed and Unafraid
The evening is upon us. It is that time of day where the sun is getting low on the horizon and you begin to feel the forest stirring. The animals are beginning to hunt and forage. We just spotted two bear cubs climbing the pines on the slopes above us. Now we have noticed fresh moose tracks in the mud.
Although we hike along quietly in hopes of catching a glimpse of these strange-looking deer, we all too soon find ourselves at the Hall Mountain Lean-to. Another day is gone in a flash…another day full of beauty and toil.
Shortly after dawn, we are packed and ready. A few hours from now a shuttle from Human-Nature Hostel is collecting us from the South-Arm Road. Four miles of arduous terrain separates us from our goal. By the time, I have made it over Moody Mountain to the road my whole body hurts. In the back of a pick-up truck, I pound vitamin I (ibuprofen). The Whites have caught up with me, and I need a zero.
Human-Nature Hostel has a beautiful geodesic dome for its central room. Light comes in from the numerous windows, welcoming hikers to a sanctuary of rest. Ryan “Yukon” Holt, the visionary behind Human-Nature, has appeared on Discovery’s “Naked and Afraid“. We promptly place ourselves in front of the television downstairs fully clothed and unafraid to watch our host in the Florida Everglades.
Well, it is official. Frack’s leg is going to fall off. He has Lyme disease. He has been to the E.R. this morning for a diagnosis and antibiotics. Remarkably he is up for hiking, so we sardine into the back of a Honda Element and are soon back on the wooded slopes of Southern Maine.
I feel much better after our nero, then zero. Sometimes your body tells you enough is enough and shuts down on you. It is best to rest so that you can continue hiking on another day. We beeline to the Bemis Mountain Lean-to but not before pausing to eat handfuls of Maine blueberries.
The next day we catch a little break from the A.T.’s relentless ups and downs. Of course, it starts to rain. The day is spent slogging through flat-ish, muddy terrain in the fog. This allows for quick mileage though, and soon we find ourselves 17 miles down the path ready to hitch into Rangeley.
In true hikertrash fashion, the side of the local grocery has become a place to spread out our gear, charge electronics, and binge eat. We do this for several hours before returning to the trail for camp.
2 Triple 0
There are some days where you just feel worn down. The miles come slowly. Everything fights you. Today is one of those days. After 13 miles, we do a rare thing, set up camp early. The conditions are right. There is an abandoned logging road with flat tenting spots. There is a waterfall spilling into a cold pool nearby.
Hiker laundry and bathing ensue. The Tyvek comes out and serves as our picnic blanket. The twins grill chocolate pancakes for us. We are caught in a contradiction, knowing that the trail is nearing its end and wanting to savor moments like this but also craving that end.
The 4k peaks line up before us like a stair master from hell. You love them and you hate them. Our legs look sinewy and lithe like some wild animal’s. We climb Spaulding and then Crocker in turn, finding ourselves suddenly before a marker in the dirt: 2,000.
Hitching into Stratton is fairly easy when you travel with an acrobat. We have various methods for hitching. The ambush, for example, is when the women hold the sign and stand on the road. The men stand close to the woods so as not to be conspicuous. When the driver stops, we converge and all pile in.
In this case, we use the acrobat method. Handstand, well, he handstands, of course. We binge eat at The Looney Moose, a great, affordable breakfast joint, named after the half-loon half-moose that roams these parts. With great snake bellies, we scale the Bigalow Mountains. The views are worth the struggle showcasing the Rangeley Lakes and Maine’s verdant beauty in a panorama.
The dark clouds soon gather, and it is a push to make it to Safford Notch Camp before the rain starts to pour. It rains without pause all through the night, turning the Appalachian Trail into a soupy mess.
We pass through every kind of mud: slick, clumpy, gravely, mossy, and shitty. The bog bridges serve as slippery, decaying planks teetering at odd angles. Intermittently, we are graced with a view of this lake and that lake. They are all still and unmoving -a perfect mirror of the sky. We spot loons, mergansers, and beavers sometimes, but our moose remain hidden.
Sitting at the edge of Pierce Pond after a 22-mile day, I am exhausted and satisfied. The sun disappears behind the trees for the day’s brilliant finale. The loons make their haunting calls across the placid water as I wash the mud from my legs and feet.
We run to a wonderful pancake breakfast at Harrison Pierce Pond Camp before booking it to the Kennebec River. This infamous river crossing has killed two hikers and caused trouble for many more. A ferryman awaits us, and we seamlessly glide across the river to Caratunk.
The Caratunk House is a rewarding stop for showers, laundry, pulled-pork sandwiches, and strawberry milkshakes. When we finally manage to peel ourselves off the house lawn, we hike onward to Moxie Pond. Here we gorge on blackberries, get eaten alive by mosquitoes, and, to our dismay, remain moose-less.
The Home Stretch
The alarm buzzes at 4:30 a.m., we are camped 3.5 miles from our final resupply in Monson. We race to the road to make our shuttle to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel. It is our quest to eat as much as possible today, starting with AYCE pancakes.
We are hiking into the 100-mile Wilderness this afternoon. As the name implies, there will be no fast-food restaurants there. Staying true to our purpose, we eat and sleep like beached seals until late afternoon. Then we shuttle back to the A.T. and take our first steps onto the home stretch.
The 100-mile Wilderness is supposedly flat. Of course, when people say this kind of thing, I rarely take them seriously. The fact of the matter is this: there are no easy days on the trail. Even if the terrain is flatter than other parts of the trail, there is always something else to fill the challenge void.
In the 100-mile Wilderness, this challenge is unabating rocks and roots. It is true that going nobo the trail is flatter after White Cap Mountain. The 100-mile Wilderness is unmistakably lovely; however, it is hard to notice because you must be hyperaware of your footing. You must constantly look down at the death trap, I mean trail.
It rained on us all day our first day in the wilderness. It is getting cold again, and we must walk without breaks to stay warm. We have walked through the summer and fall is on its way. We climb up the Barren Mountain to Cloud Pond, and I have never been so happy to crawl into my tent. To put dry clothes on after a day in cold rain is heavenly.
Our second day was a slow and steady ascent to Sidney-Tappan. On the third day, we summited White Cap and made a slow and steady descent to Jo-Mary Road where we received trail magic from a former thru-hiker named Poppins. He carried an umbrella on his hike.
That evening I was awestruck by the moon over Antler Campground. We did 25 miles today to get here so I could look at a moon that is unbelievably big and bright. Its reflection is captured in the rippling surface of Mary-Jo Lake. It is hypnotizing.
The fourth day, we walked 23 miles to Rainbow Dam to watch a beaver den come to life. The family busied themselves all around our camp, eating and slapping their tails on the water. Katahdin watched over us from afar. Wreathed in clouds, she looked like the mighty volcano she once was.
On the fifth day, we passed out of the 100-mile and crossed the Abol bridge where the mountain looked down at us once more. This time she is much closer. After cheeseburgers, we pass into Baxter State Park and fly down the trail to the Katahdin Stream Campground. This places us just 5.5 miles from our goal. I barely sleep.
It is 4:30 a.m. I can bear it no longer. We must finish this. Packing up our gear one last time, we disappear into the forest and begin our 4,000-foot ascent. A thick veil of mist covers Katahdin’s slopes. We leave our last source of water, a roaring rapid, behind us. The trail becomes steeper as it diverges from the water.
We work using hand-over-hand grabs to hoist ourselves up sheer rocks and slick roots. The trail becomes a giant pile of broken, enormous rubble. White blazes lead to rocks that appear impossible to scramble, but somehow we make it over. The stone is wet with dew, and wind buffets our cheeks and knocks us off balance as we emerge from the tree line.
The trail levels out, and we are able to find a stride amidst the rock-riddled landscape. And so begins a steady ascension in a constant cloud, I allow myself to feel the cumulative exhaustion of hiking nearly 2,200 miles. I laugh aloud at the thought of stopping now. You would have to cut off all my limbs to stop me now.
Quite suddenly, I see a sign emerge from the mist up ahead. It is a small, unassuming thing, yet I have been seeking it for months. It is a worn, wooden symbol of a task once so daunting. I feel surges of joy and relief as we plant firm kisses on its dew-laden surface. Our trek is complete.
In the Spring of 2018, we set out to thru-hike the A.T. To hear our full story, click here.