Zero like a Hero
The best zero days are those where you can truly zero, meaning there are no errands to run. The laundry is done, resupply completed, and now you can dedicate your time to foam rolling, stretching, and eating. All of this is ideally done in front of a television. We lovingly refer to this kind of zero as “fat-ass-ing it”.
All joking aside, these days are essential to our recovery and health. There are a lot of hikers out there who want to hike big miles every day without resting enough, foam rolling, or stretching. In my opinion, this does not allow the body to adequately repair itself from the huge demands being placed on it in a thru-hike. This leads to an increased risk of injury, worsened muscle soreness, and excessive mental and physical fatigue.
We were able to take a true zero in Norwich, VT, before crossing the border into New Hampshire. This is thanks to the Crow family who went way out of their way to make us comfortable in their home. It is trail angels, like the Crows, who make this enormous challenge less enormous.
We are gathered in front of the Starbucks close to Dartmouth College. Savage Beast is examining Frack’s leg, which looks like it is going to fall off any minute. He had a little doctor’s visit yesterday because he has a large ring of angry blisters on the back of his right leg. The diagnosis is contact dermatitis, but we all have our doubts. We all know the truth: Frack was bitten by a Zombeaver.
Guess what? It is raining again on the A.T. We sigh collectively and accept our fate, as we hike out of Hanover into the woods. Our packs feel heavier than usual after resupply. We hike to the first shelter and stop for a lunch break. The place is covered with SOBOs (southbounders).
We have been seeing more and more hikers at the beginning of their journeys. It is odd to think that we were once in their shoes. It feels like a long time ago. Frack shocks the SOBOs with his leg and informs them that he was recently bitten by a copperhead. We hike on to Trapper John’s shelter. We attempt to have a nice tramily (trail family) dinner, but alas, the sky is dumping buckets. It is time to flee for our tents.
The rain is our constant companion through the night. At dawn, it lets up just enough for us to scramble out of our tent and pack up. Sitting inside the shelter, we breakfast. It starts to pour again. We cheer for the twins as they race to pack up their tent in the deluge. Handstand shows no signs of life, so we tease him. “Come out of your tent, Handstand! It’s really nice out”.
Today we get our first real taste of what is to become the norm for the A.T. through New Hampshire and into Southern Maine: tough, slick, rocky, root-infested terrain. Firstly, we struggle up Smarts Mountain. Water is cascading down the trail, as we climb up steep, smooth rock faces. At times, the trail provides ladders for our use. When we finally clamber to the top, the fog is dense, hiding the views, and offering no reward for our efforts.
Our next challenge, Mt. Cube, is easier. The weather begins to clear, and an intermittent vista appears. Our tents explode from our packs to air dry, as we munch on nearby blueberries. Handstand is hand standing, of course. Savage Beast has her rain fly draped over herself, from the waist down, so that she can have some privacy to “explore her chafe”. Meanwhile, Frick and Frack have passed out on a rock.
An Unexpected Fiesta
I dream that there is a party. I hear guffawing and bottles clanking. Then I am awake and remembering that I am in the woods on the Appalachian Trail near the N.H. 25A. It is pitch black in the tent. The noises from my dream are still here. I am confused. Then I remember why camping by the road is inadvisable: locals and parties. A large group of locals is celebrating next to our camp. This clamorous fiesta continues well into the night, hence, sleep is nil.
Despite lack of sleep, we rush the 10ish miles to Hikers Welcome Hostel the next morning. After claiming bunks, we park ourselves in the movie room and create a lineup. It includes some academy-award winners such as Borat, Super Troopers, and Walk Hard. There is some bad weather on the way tomorrow, and we have a tough climb up Mount Moosilauke. That being said, we decided to zero the following day in hopes of better weather.
When we finally leave Hikers Welcome Hostel, it feels as if we are emerging from some weird pop-culture portal. We cannot stop quoting Borat’s “vary nice”! It turns out that the climb up Moosilauke, while not exactly easy, is steady and reasonable. For all our careful planning and waiting, the mountaintop is still covered in a seemingly impenetrable cloud. The descent, however; is neither steady nor reasonable but quite steep and potentially dangerous with wet rocks, steps, and rungs.
Ten years later we have found the bottom of Moosilauke only to begin climbing again. This time up Mount Wolf. In all, we have tackled about 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. I stumble into the Eliza Brook Campsite exhausted. We call out to our tramily in our bird voice “whip-poor-will“! They answer in their bird voices. We shovel in a quick meal before retiring to our Tarptent for an 8-hour coma.
It is difficult to walk. We have the morning hiker hobble. Our feet feel like over-microwaved hot dogs on the verge of explosion. I talk soothingly to my feet “we only have 9 miles to Franconia Notch, and then you can have a nero (nearly zero)”.
What I do not realize is that I am about to get a real taste of the Whites complete with incredibly steep boulder climbs. The kind where you look up and say “seriously”? We labor for hours to climb the South and North Kinsman. The views are rewarding, and we stop at the south summit to enjoy various backpacker favorites: Nutella, peanut butter and fluff, sour patch kids, and snickers.
The climb down proves to be as challenging as Moosilauke. It seems like ages until the A.T. “flattens” out again into a jumbled conglomerate of smaller rocks barely resembling a path. We coast into Franconia Notch and work the parking lot for a hitch. We bust out our handy tyvek sign “hikers to town”.
A family stops and allows us to ride in the bed as long as we are not seen. We try our best to lie down in the truck, but our packs are forcing us to contort into unbearable positions, cramping ensues. Our gracious hosts at The Notch hostel assign us bunks on the third floor: holy stairs! We cook a huge tramily dinner before gathering in the living room to torture ourselves with various myofascial release devices.
It is threatening rain as we take the side trail to Mount Liberty. Morale is soaring with the advent of the presidential range. Franconia Ridge is amazing and novel to us so used to the constant cover of trees on the Appalachian Trail. We can see all around us for miles as we climb Lincoln and Lafayette. The mountains are covered with blueberries and day hikers. In fact, everything is so open and populated that finding a place to pee is an event.
We reenter the forest preceding Garfield. I feel my mind fighting this return to the trees. I reflect on my preference for wide open spaces. Dodging moose poop, we make our way through the thick roots and rocks to our final grueling climb for the day. With our legs burning and lungs gasping we reach the top, only to begin an immediate plunge to the Garfield Ridge Campsite. It is here that we can finally rest our weary bones. Too fatigued to pitch a tent, we collapse in the shelter after a hasty dinner.
During the night, I feel the familiar shooting pains that start on the bottom of my feet and shoot up into my calves. I know that if I massage my feet they will go away, but I am too tired for that. It is dawn all too soon, and we soon find ourselves working the unbelievable descent out of the campsite. The trail is a collection of jumbled rocks dropping straight down off the mountain. There is a waterfall cascading through our path. One misstep could cause broken ribs or a cracked skull.
The Galehead Hut Croo has placed a bowl of cold oatmeal and scrambled eggs in front of us. Without hesitation, we gobble up the leftovers with a voracious hunger. The White Mountain Hut system is foreign to us. We have had the trail mostly to ourselves for hundreds of miles now. The Croo (the folks running the huts) will sometimes let thru-hikers have the breakfast leftovers.
The rain is still threatening to fall and the wind is bitingly cold on top of Mount Guyot. We continue to peek in and out of the forested ridges of the presidential range until we arrive at the Zealand Falls Hut for lunch. My hunger is insatiable. The Croo has made soup for lunch at a modest portion and price, which is a nice supplement to the stuff-in-a-tortilla grind.
It is a pleasant surprise when the trail from Zealand Falls to Crawford Notch suddenly becomes easy (flat-ish). It feels like the A.T. is fooling with you. I ask her “what’s the catch”? Then it starts raining, and I say “oh”.
We must have looked pathetic, standing in the rain at Crawford Notch, but not pathetic enough because getting a hitch to the AMC Highland Center took awhile. The Appalachian Money Club, excuse me, I mean the Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center has buffets. Yes. They are expensive, but boy do we know how to get our money’s worth. I mean the hours we spent eating there…
Mount “Socked In”
The weather report looks grim for days. We want to zero until it clears, so we can have fair weather for the stretch up and beyond Mount Washington. Washington’s reputation for unpredictably foul and dangerous weather is infamous. We spend two days at The unimpressive Barn in Gorham to pass the time.
When we finally return to Crawford Notch, it feels like an eternity. Guess what? It is pouring rain. The Webster Cliffs prove to be a slippery challenge, but by the time we get to Mount Webster, the rain has ebbed. The view is spectacular. The bulbous rain clouds add drama to an already stunning panorama. We have reached the big-time vistas.
It is rumored that the Lake of the Clouds Hut, which sits at the base of Mount Washington, is friendly to thru-hikers looking for work for stay. We arrive around 4 p.m. and speak with head Croo. She lets the whole tramily do work for stay. The sunset is beautiful. After the guests eat, we get an awesome Thanksgiving dinner. Then after a few easy kitchen tasks, we are allowed to crash on the floor of the dining room. It was a great evening.
We wake and the mountain is completely socked in. As we climb to the summit, the sun glares through the fog, making us squint. At the top, it is sheer madness. The crowds are suffocating. We wait futilely for the clouds to blow away. Finally admitting defeat, we move onward.
The day clears eventually and beautiful weather is our companion for the remainder of the afternoon. The hiking is phenomenal, albeit crowded, along the ridge and up Mount Madison. It feels like I could walk no farther when we pour into the AMC’s New Hampshire Headquarters to decimate the buffets once again.
When people told me about The Whites, I always assumed the presidents would be the most challenging. I was mistaken. The Wildcats…just wow. Imagine a Jenga tower. Now climb said Jenga tower. Once again, they have never heard of switchbacks on the Appalachian Trail. Regardless of all that being said, The Wildcats are a blast. Because for me, difficult equals fun.
We munch on the prolific raspberry bushes in front of Carter Hut. A quick dip in the pond with the leeches refreshes us for our next punishing ascent: Carter Dome. By the day’s end, it is difficult to find camping in the dense, mountain forest. We squeeze into some unsatisfactory spots, but no one cares much. Everyone is in a state of torpor.
City speed is what we call it. This is when we are within a close range of town and can already taste the cheeseburgers and pizzas. Therefore, to hike at top speed without breaking for the required miles is imperative. Gorham is our goal. The terrain is largely uncooperative except for the last five miles, which amazingly are flat-ish. We pull into Rattle River Hostel ready to fat ass for the rest of the day.
The tram cooked a big ole batch of spaghetti for dinner. Tomorrow we are hiking into Maine. Everyone is dead set on reaching the border. There will be no fooling around we promise ourselves. The next day, we are out the door and on-trail before we can say blueberry pancakes. The humidity is unreal. Rambo pauses at the top Mount Hayes to ring out his drenched shirt.
The first 12-ish miles of our day were fairly easy, tricking us into comfort. Mount Success was there to remind us to always be humble. It kicked our asses just before shooting us over the border into Maine where we were welcomed with a thunderstorm. The final state. It is hard to believe that we have made it all the way to Maine on foot. This thought stays with me as I collapse into exhaustion at yet another unsatisfactory tent site at the Carlo Col Shelter.
In the Spring of 2018, we set out to thru-hike the A.T. To hear our full story, click here.
To continue to our next Appalachian Trail post, click here.