An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 34 - Manchester VT to Mt. Washington
I vowed that I would return the next summer to complete the section that I missed during those 11 days.
It had been almost a complete year since I had finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on Mount Katahdin in Maine with my friend Dave. While on that trip I had become sick in Manchester Vermont. I had to go home for a while to recover while he went on hiking. Eleven days later, recovered from my illness, I rejoined him in the shadow of Mount Washington at Pinkham Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We finish the trip together from there, climbing Mt. Katahdin on August 15, 1982. I vowed that I would return the next summer to complete the section that I missed during those 11 days.
Now the time had come to make good on my vow. I had my first year of college behind me and I had put on weight. I was now about 180 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than the 165 pounds I had been the previous year. I was also sporting a new backpack. My brown Camp Trails pack had given it's all to get me to Katahdin. The hip belt had broken and I had finished the trip with one side of the pack frame secured to my hip belt with a shoestring. The constant rubbing of the hip belt against the pack frame had worn holes into the aluminum tubing. With reluctance borne of my sentimental nature, I decided a new, bigger pack was necessary and I disposed of the old Camp Trails. Now I was using a sky blue Kelty – much bigger than my old Camp Trails pack, and it had a sturdy comfortable hip belt.
I had asked Dave if he wanted to come along, but he was focused on earning money in the summer of 1983. He did farm work at that time and a day off was a day where he didn't get paid. So he declined, and it looked like I was on my own. I nodded and told him and everyone else that I would go by myself, just the way Dave had the year before, but the truth was that I was uneasy about it. Hiking solo was a lot different than hiking with a partner. A solo hiker had to be completely self-sufficient and had to be able to handle days of isolation. I wasn’t sure if I would like it. I simply wasn’t used to doing big things without the company and support of family or friends. Still, I feigned unconcern, determined to go forward and finish up the section I had missed the previous year. It wasn’t long though, until an unexpected companion volunteered to accompany me for the last week of the trip.
"I know," he replied, "I'm going to do things differently this time."
A New Companion
One evening after I announced that Dave was not going to come with me, my dad approached me and asked me if I minded if he joined me for the last half of my trip. I just shrugged and said "Sure, but it's going to be a lot harder than the Northville-Lake Placid Trail,"
"I know," he replied, "I'm going to do things differently this time."
I was a little bit surprised. Three years earlier, when I was 16, my dad and I had attempted to hike the Northville-Lake Placid trail in New York's Adirondack Mountains. My dad, in his mid-40s at the time, had thought he was in good enough shape for the trip, but he had found out the hard way that hiking with a backpack all day long can be painful if you are not accustomed to it. His feet had gotten bruised and sore and after three days and 40 miles, he decided to call it quits when we came to a road near the little town of Long Lake. It was a couple mile hike along the road into the town where we called my mom to come get us. Then it was about a three hour wait for her to arrive.
Apparently, the aborted trip had been bothering him ever since. Now he saw an opportunity to try another father – son expedition, but this time he was determined to be ready. I didn't think much about what he meant when he said he was going to "do things differently this time...", But within a few days I, along with the rest of the family, found out. One evening after dinner my mom, sister, and I started hearing strange noises coming from the basement. It was a rhythmic stomping sound.
"What's that?" one of us asked.
We made our way to the basement door which was off the kitchen of our house. We opened the door and looked down the stairway to see my dad wearing his hiking boots and carrying his fully loaded backpack stomping up and down the steps. For a moment we just stood there taking it all in. Our basement steps were covered in red and white linoleum tiles and the edge of each step was sheathed with a piece of ridged aluminum trim that was screwed into the step. Each one of my dad’s footfalls made a distinctive clacking sound as the hard, heavy vibrum soles of his boots clumped down on the pieces of metal trim.
"Whatcha got in the pack?" I finally asked.
"Old magazines and newspapers," he gasped.
My sister giggled in the background, and my mom said something like, "Oh dear Jim, is this really necessary?"
My dad stopped for a moment and looked up at us from the middle of the basement steps. His flushed face was dripping with sweat.
"It's the best thing!" He announced, "the best way to get in shape for a backpacking trip is to simulate carrying a loaded pack up and down a mountain as closely as possible!"
"Couldn't you just jog?" she suggested.
"I hate running," he replied, "besides you don't carry a pack when you jog."
Then he started stomping up the steps again. The rest of us drifted off to other parts of the house and started getting used to hearing the clack – boom noises for a half hour every night for the next few months.
Meanwhile, I didn't bother doing anything to get prepared. I had hiked the entire trail the previous year and I felt confident that the conditioning would all come back to me within a few days. I did wonder how heavy that bunch of magazines and newspapers loaded in my dad's pack could be, so when no one else was around one day I went down to the basement and hefted it. It turned out to be heavier than I thought – somewhere around 50 pounds, I estimated.
I was giving myself two weeks to get the whole trip done. It worked out to be half in Vermont and half in New Hampshire – a total of almost 200 miles. The first week I would be hiking solo. I planned to reach the only trail town of the section at Hanover New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College, after a week of hiking. That was where I would meet my dad for the second half of the trip between Hanover and Mt. Washington.
With a hug and a kiss and an admonishment to "Be careful", I was on my way.
Back to Manchester
When the day finally arrived for me to leave, it was my mom who drove me to Manchester. My dad was at work. He had bid me farewell the night before with a review of our plan.
"I'll meet you in a week at the Occum Inn in Hanover," he said.
If I could find a place to call home before then to verify that I was on schedule, I would do so. Otherwise we would simply go to the Occum Inn and wait for each other.
My mom drove me the hour and a half to the trailhead parking lot which was along route 11, just outside Manchester. We arrived around midday. With a hug and a kiss and an admonishment to "Be careful", I was on my way. I had hiked all the way from Georgia to Maine the year before, but I had never been on a solo backpacking trip. My pack was about 10 pounds heavier than the one I carried the year before. Hiking solo meant that I had to carry all my equipment – no more sharing the load with my partner. My pack was loaded with the family’s orange and blue Eureka backpacking tent for four people. I wished I could have had something a little smaller and therefore a little lighter, but I didn't have the money for a new tent. I also was carrying a brand new backpacking stove. It was a Coleman Peak One. We used Dave's Peak One stove the year before. It had worked so well that I had gone out and bought myself one.
I was carrying my walking stick from the previous year as well. It was on the verge of being too short. It had started out about shoulder height when I started in Georgia the year before, but by the time I reached Mount Katahdin, it had been worn down to about hip height. Last, I was wearing my hiking boots from the year before. When I came home to recover from my illness, I had brought them to a cobbler to be re-soled. They had not been ready in time, so I didn't complete the trip with them. I had worn a pair of work boots instead. Now I was back to the sturdier hiking boots with new thicker vibrum soles. I was glad to have them back, but I could feel that they didn't fit quite as well as they had before the resoling.
The hiking started out fine but before long I was slogging up the steep slopes of Bromley Mountain, a well-known ski resort in Vermont. My pack felt heavy and my legs felt like lead. All the great conditioning I had earned the year before seemed to have deserted me. The extra 15 pounds of weight that I gained and the extra weight of my pack were conspiring to slow me down. I told myself that I was expecting to be out of shape and that within a few days on the trail I would be right back to where I had been last July and August. In reality, a part of me was a little surprised. I didn't remember it being so hard or taking so long to climb up a mountain. I was a little discouraged, however, one thing I had learned from the year before was that the difficulties of the present can be overcome through time and patience. If my body was in shock from the sudden reintroduction to a backpack and a steep mountain, then the best thing for it was to find a place to get a good night’s sleep, get some food, and to regroup the next day.
When I crawled into my sleeping bag that night, I had a slightly better idea of what it was like to be a solo thru-hiker.
A Moment of Isolation
That is exactly what I did. I ended up staying at a shelter close to the top of Bromley. I cooked my first dinner and went to sleep early. One thing I did not do was to write in my journal. I didn't write in my journal because I didn't bring one. I had diligently written in my journal every day during the trip the year before, but I had struggled to keep up at times and came to think of it as a chore. I didn't want to have that chore on this trip, so I didn't bother with the journal. Years later, I still kick myself for neglecting to keep a journal of the ‘83 trip. My memories of the details in Vermont are much dimmer than my memories from the ‘82 trip.
Bromley Shelter seemed new and I remember it being in a picturesque location with a view of nearby mountains. It was strange being at the shelter by myself doing all the familiar shores of fetching water, cooking, and cleaning up, but without anyone to talk to. It was still light when I crawled into my sleeping bag, but I was tired so I drifted off to sleep fairly quickly. The next morning I ate breakfast and started my first full day back on the trail. At the top of Bromley I found myself hiking among chairlifts and gazing down ski run clearings to vistas of the Green Mountains stretching into the distance. As the day progressed the terrain became easier, and I started to get my hiking legs back. The weather was clear and I had a good day of hiking although the fit of my boots was still bothering me.
That evening I stayed at another nice new shelter by myself. The weather had been perfect with blue sky and low humidity. I soon discovered that the chores of setting up camp and cooking dinner seem to be over quickly when there wasn't anyone to talk with. There was still a lot of light left by the time I was all fed and cleaned up for the evening. I wasn't particularly tired and it was too quiet even to read. The silence was palpable that evening. It seemed to demand my attention and participation. Even the birds and squirrels were staying away and there was no breeze. For a long time I sat still on the edge of the lean-to platform staring up into the forest canopy surrounding the shelter. The layers of green leaves were coated with an amber light by the long rays of the evening sun. The amber seemed to have captured them all and frozen them in place, with the bright blue sky as a backdrop. I felt like I was a figure on an oriental porcelain plate – a bright blue plate painted with a small open face shelter at the bottom and a man sitting at the opening looking into a grove of trees surrounding him. Every delicate branch and every intricate leaf was distinctly rendered – no hint of movement could be detected. The scene held that way for long minutes and I scarcely wanted to breath, but finally some small breeze shook a few leaves or a bird flew by and the unique moment was over.
When I crawled into my sleeping bag that night, I had a slightly better idea of what it was like to be a solo thru-hiker. I could see that there were magical moments of isolation, but I also wondered how much isolation I could take. I knew it would be important to meet other hikers to spend time with.
Someone to Talk With
My memories of the AT in Vermont are mostly of a long green corridor. Vermont is called the Green Mountain state, and it is aptly named. A moist climate results in thick vegetation and most of the mountains are not high enough to be above timberline. There are not many 360° views such as what is found on the bald's of the southern Appalachians or the rugged Whites further north. Those views a hiker does encounter are usually rows of mountains stretching into the distance all clothed from bottom to top with a green blanket of leafy forest rather than rocky peaks or areas bald of vegetation. Furthermore, the trail in Vermont begins to be more remote than in the southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states. It is less populated and there are fewer roads. The trail does not include as many road walks or even sections through farmland or pasture. Instead, after days of hiking in Vermont, I began to have an impression of being inside an unending tunnel with the tree trunk pillars on either side and a rustling green roof overhead.
Another evening at another shelter after another clear warm day followed, and I found myself sharing the space with another backpacker. It quickly became clear that he did not desire any conversation. After initial greetings he went about his business, completely ignoring me. I didn't try too hard to engage him in any further talk so we spent an eerie evening in silence, each at opposite sides of the shelter, doing our chores and getting ready for bed. Luckily, I had a paperback to rescue me from the awkwardness and boredom. On that night I was definitely in the mood to read.
Finally on the fourth evening I met another hiker who was friendly and talkative. It was a young lady named Beth who was section hiking the trail. I told her about my trip the year before and she told me about portions of the trail she had hiked so far. We fell into easy conversation and before long were sharing some laughs. She told me she was a nursing student so I then told her I was starting to have a problem with the back of one of my heels where the Achilles tendon attached. It had become very tender and it was starting to hurt with every step I was taking. I had experienced the problem on other backpacking trips in the past, but luckily it had never bothered me during my trip the previous year. I knew that it wasn't debilitating – it was just painful and it slowed me down. She nodded and listened very sympathetically. The best advice she could give me was to elevate my feet at night to relieve the swelling and inflammation. In spite of that, over the next few days my Achilles tendon problem got worse. I had to experiment with different ways of hiking – using shorter steps, leaning more heavily on my walking stick, planting my foot sideways at every step. I spent a lot of my hiking time cursing my bad luck, and wondering why I had gotten the tendon problem this trip when I hadn't the previous year. I came to the conclusion that it was due to a few things. First and foremost resoling my boots had changed the fit of them on my feet. It was a subtle change, but I felt like my toes were slightly more scrunched up against the front of the boots. Also, I had gained weight over the year without doing anything to stay in shape, and I was carrying a heavier pack. It was then that I started regretting that I hadn't done what my father had done and spent at least a few evenings clumping up and down the basement steps in my boots with a loaded pack. Maybe I would have gotten a heads-up about how the change in the fit of the boots would affect me, and I might have gotten into a little bit better shape to start off.
.... I was deeply gratified. It had been one of the best hiking days of my life.
The Hike to Hanover
Needless to say, I moved slow. I was thankful that I had given myself a full week to make the trip from Manchester to Hanover. I saw Beth at a few more campsites in Vermont. It was good to have someone who knew something about the trail to talk with and crack jokes with for a few hours before turning in. It was Beth that told me about the Inn at Long Trail located at Sherburne Pass a little way past Killington Peak. There hikers could stay for a nominal fee. There was a side trail that led there, she told me, marked by a sign. The Inn sounded tempting. I knew that it wasn't far past that point that I would be coming to Hanover, New Hampshire where I would be stopping at the Occom Inn and meeting my dad. I figured I would just see what things were like when I arrived at the side trail, then make my decision. On the morning of my fifth day in Vermont, I climbed Killington Peak, the site of a large and very well known ski resort. To stay at Cooper Lodge on Killington Peak was expensive so I kept going, descending from the rocky peak back into the woods. I came out to route four, still fairly early in the day. Across the road, just as Beth had described, there was a side trail that led from the AT to the Inn at Long Trail. I thought about how much more mileage I could make if I kept hiking the rest of the day, but I also thought it would be good to stop get a shower and to rest my aching tendon. I needed to meet my dad in Hanover in two days, but I decided the rest might do me some good and figured that if I didn't get to Hanover by the evening of the second day, I would arrive the morning after. It turned out that the stop did do me some good. I spent a lot of the day in a bunk at the Inn reading with my feet up. The tendons on both heels were now aching, but I took it as a good sign that the pain in the one that began hurting first was starting to get duller. I hoped it was starting to heal up.
I got up the next day knowing I still had over 40 miles to go to get to Hanover. I started hobbling along like I had gotten used to doing and soon found that I was feeling a little better. The terrain was relatively easy as well, allowing me to make good mileage for the day. The next day also went well and I found myself tired but pleased at the end of that afternoon when I arrived at route 14 where there was a bridge that crossed the White River. It was about five o'clock when I spotted an ice cream and hamburger stand along the road. My spirits soared. I limped over and ordered a burger and a strawberry milkshake, then parked myself at a picnic table for about a half hour where I spread out my maps and started studying the way before me. I estimated I had already hiked about 16 miles on the day, and I could see that it was still about 10 miles to Hanover.
Despite the lingering pain in my Achilles tendons, I could feel that my legs were starting to feel the way they had the year before. I had been tired, but the burger and milkshake had revitalized me, and the long summer evening was inviting me to continue hiking.
"Well," I told myself, "I feel good now. I’ll just keep going until I get tired. Then I'll find a place to roll out my sleeping bag."
Once I got started and my thoughts turned to meeting up with my dad at the Occom Inn, I just kept pushing forward. By the time the last of the light left the sky, I had hit the final road walk into Hanover. I hiked the last mile or so along the road that led over the bridge crossing the Connecticut River. I walk the roads through darkness that was punctuated at regular intervals by the bright white light of streetlamps. By that point I was quite tired and my tendons were stinging at every step. When I finally caught sight of the sign for the Occom Inn lit by a couple floodlights, and painted with the head of a colonial-style gentleman, I was deeply gratified. It had been one of the best hiking days of my life. Once again, I experienced a lesson I had learned from my trip the year before – the power of a goal – especially when it meant the promise of a cozy inn and a family member to greet you, can make you accomplish things that you wouldn't think possible ordinarily.
The Occom Inn
It was after nine o'clock when I clumped across the threshold and into the Inn. As soon as I walked in I heard Beth's laugh. She happened to be walking through the foyer as I came in.
"I thought you might be coming in tonight," she exclaimed, "I told your dad you would probably get here tomorrow, but that you might get in tonight."
"Huh?” I couldn’t believe my ears, “You've met my dad?"
“Sure,” she said, “earlier today.”
At just about that moment a door opened and my dad emerged.
“Oh, you were right Beth, here he is! So you made it in, huh? Good to see ya, good to see ya,” he said as he shook my hand and gave me a quick hug, “How are your Achilles tendons?”
“Uh, kind of sore,” I admitted ruefully. My tired brain was whirring to keep up. The hiker’s network had struck. My dad hadn’t even started his portion of the trip yet and he was already tuned in.
Beth bid us a good night and went off to her room while I followed dad to a bunk room in the basement where I slid out of my pack. I spent a little bit of time recounting my trip to that point but it wasn't very long before I just wanted to take care of booking my bunk for the night and going to sleep.
The next morning dad and I went a laundromat so I could wash some clothes, then we bought food and supplies for the next week of hiking. We noticed another backpacker walking through town and dad asked me if I had seen him on the trail and whether or not I thought we might see him further down the trail. I answered that I hadn't seen him, and that it was possible we would see him later. After stocking up our packs with food, we were ready to start hiking. Beth stayed in Hanover for at least another day, and even though my dad and I took things slow, she didn't catch up with us and we never saw her again.
We were acclimated to mid-80s and humidity so we bundled up into our windbreakers and wool caps while we ate a hurried lunch.
Pancakes and a Familiar Mountain
Once we started hiking, it didn't take me long to find out that I was going to pay a price for my long hike of the previous day. My tendons had been getting better, but now I found they had regressed. I was back to hobbling along. Over the next few days it was slow going for me. My dad often got out in front of me. I took a lot of breaks to take my boots off and even to roll down my socks over my heels. For some reason that seemed to give me some relief I also tried to keep my feet elevated when I could.
Over 3 1/2 days we hiked 44 miles in hot humid conditions and ended up at Jefferies Brook lean-to. The skies were clear and we enjoyed a nice view from the top of Mount Cube. Upon descending Mount Cube we saw a sign for pancakes at the Mt. Cube Sugar Farm. It was still morning so dad and I took advantage. We hiked over to the sugarhouse associated with a maple sugar farm that was famous in the area. The pancakes topped off with their maple syrup were delicious and gave us an extra boost of energy. Finally, my Achilles tendons were starting to feel better again and we were starting to cover more ground.
Ahead of us was a familiar New Hampshire landmark. Our family had spent a few vacations camping with friends at a campground on Upper Baker Pond in New Hampshire. It was very close to Mt. Cube. One of the activities we enjoyed while we were there was to take a day hike up Mount Moosilauke. When hiking northbound, Mount Moosilauke is the first mountain along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire that rises above tree line. It is a massive mountain and very steep. We had enjoyed clear skies the entire time since leaving Hanover, but as we climbed Moosilauke clouds closed in around us. It was a familiar experience for us, since our earlier trips up Moosilauke had been in similar weather. On our way up the mountain we leapfrogged with another backpacker. It wasn't long before we found out that he was a thru-hiker. His name was Floyd and he was a retired financial adviser. Dad and Floyd clicked pretty quickly since they both enjoyed conversation. Floyd told us he was hiking with another thru-hiker and before long we met him too. It turned out to be the backpacker that we had seen walking with his pack in Hanover. His name was Steve – he was a young guy – somewhere in his 20s. He was tall with long legs and it looked like he could cover a lot of miles in a day when he wanted to.
At the top there was a damp chill and the wind was blowing. We were acclimated to mid-80s and humidity so we bundled up into our windbreakers and wool caps while we ate a hurried lunch. The descent of Moosilauke was even more steep than the climb up. A northbound hiker descending Moosilauke on the Appalachian Trail travels next to Beaver Brook, a beautiful cascading stream flowing through the forest and over dozens of bare rock channels and boulders. The trail construction is some of the most impressive of the entire AT with hundreds of stone and wooden wedge steps built into the mountainside supplemented with roughhewn log railings in many places.
Mount Moosilauke is owned by the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) – an old and famous Dartmouth College club that promotes and organizes outdoor recreational activities. At the base of Moosilauke the DOC owns a rustic lodge and they maintain several trails all over the mountain that were built by the original members of the club.
I was very impressed to learn that he was in the midst of his third consecutive thru-hike.
That night we ended up staying at Beaverbrook shelter along with Floyd and Steve. There we found out that Steve was no ordinary thru-hiker. I was very impressed to learn that he was in the midst of his third consecutive thru-hike. The first, it turned out, had been the year before. He had hiked the entire way behind Dave and I. After reaching Katahdin, while I had gone through my first year of college, he had turned around and headed south along the trail all the way back to Georgia. Then he hadn't stopped, but he had made another about-face and had hiked back north. We were now meeting him on the last leg of his odyssey. Along the way he had made quite a name for himself through the AT hikers grapevine. Somebody had dubbed him with the trail name of Yo-Yo for his back and forth hike.
On the following day we climbed the Kinsman's – two tall steep mountains that Dave had mentioned to me the previous year when he described his time hiking alone while I was sick. He mentioned that the trail going up the Kinsman's was long and steep. My dad and I found out that he was right. The section of the climb I remember the most was a long, straight, steep, and wide length of trail worn down to a depression of sandy bare earth and rocks by thousands of vibrum soled hiking boots. It looked like a narrow dirt road or a dry stream bed making a beeline to the top of the mountain. It was the result of the typical New England style mountain trail – a straight shot up the mountain, as opposed to the often maddening switchbacks found in the southern portions of the trail. The downside to the New England style trail, of course was significant erosion because during rainy periods the trail actually did become a stream bed.
We slowly labored up the steep slope, but I felt much better than when I had started on Bromley. My Achilles tendons were feeling much better also so that when I reached the top of South Kinsman Mountain, I was pretty happy. Not only was there a beautiful view and clear skies to go with it, but I was feeling the satisfaction of having overcome some obstacles that had been pestering me on the trip up to that point. The end of the day found this camped at a site close to Lonesome Lake Hut, the first of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Huts that we would encounter heading north on the AT.
The AMC Huts are rustic lodges accessible only by trail. They're very popular and fill up quickly. Those who want to stay at the AMC Huts must make reservations months in advance. Sometimes openings will become available and hikers will be able to get a bed on the spur of the moment, but that is rare, and pretty expensive. At that time there were opportunities at times for a hiker to work for room and board at a hut, but that was hit or miss at best.
Hearing that bit of news gave me something to mull over for the next few hours as I hiked.
It was early morning when dad and I actually passed Lonesome Lake Hut and the first thing we saw there were a couple hikers eating breakfast on the front steps. Dad quickly engaged them in conversation and they turned out to be a couple more thru-hikers. One was bearded and the other clean shaven. The bearded one was older and he hiked with two walking sticks. His name was also David. The other was pretty young and his name was Eric. We mentioned that we had met Floyd and Steve a couple days earlier and they both said they knew them. I also mentioned I had hiked most of the trail the year before. After a short while we left them to finish their breakfast and we moved on down the trail.
During the morning we hiked to Liberty Springs campsite where we ate lunch. On the way the two thru-hikers we had met eating their breakfast passed by us. Suddenly David, the tall bearded hiker with the two walking sticks stopped and turned to me. He asked me if I had met a guy the year before named Mark who went by the trail name of “Slackpacker”.
"Yes," I answered in surprise, "I hiked with him for a couple months. How did you know that?"
"I met him on the trail earlier this year," he replied, "we both started from Springer Mountain on the same day."
Hearing that bit of news gave me something to mull over for the next few hours as I hiked. I hadn't heard from Mark since Dave and I had said goodbye at Delaware Water Gap over a year earlier. I didn't know how far he'd gotten beyond there, and I still didn't, but now I knew that like in ‘81 and ‘82 he had heard the siren call of the trail in the spring and that the Slackpacker was once again living the nomadic life of a thru-hiker in 1983.
With lingering daylight and the warm clear evening, the conversations lasted for a couple hours before people started to go to bed.
Franconia Ridge and Camping at Garfield Campsite
At Liberty Springs Campground we caught back up with David and Eric and we ended up eating lunch with Eric while David moved on. In the afternoon my dad and I got to enjoy one of the great sections of the Appalachian Trail, the hike along the Franconia Ridge, all above timberline. The weather was fabulous, much like it had been when Dave and I had hiked the Presidential Range with our friends the year before. It seemed like the entire world was stretched out below us as we hiked among the gray rocks interspersed with tufts of grass and alpine wildflowers. With so much to look at, the time raced by and we were hardly aware of the miles that we hiked. At the end of the day we arrived at Garfield Ridge campsite to find it occupied by all four of the thru-hikers we had met over the past couple days. Dad and I set up our tent and we made dinner while talking with the four end-to-enders. I once again experienced the unique sensation of camping with a group of AT hikers all engaged in a similar endeavor, sharing stories about the trail and other hikers they knew who were doing the same thing.
Before long my father, was in his glory. I hadn't expected him to click with other thru-hikers the way that he did, but I soon found myself observing him out of the corner of my eye as he got caught up in animated conversations with our companions for the evening. He especially found a lot to talk about with Floyd who was the oldest hiker among the group at the campsite. While I spoke with the others about the trail in Maine, my dad was busy discussing the trail, careers, and life in general with Floyd. With lingering daylight and the warm clear evening, the conversations lasted for a couple hours before people started to go to bed. We learned that Eric had just finished college and was from Boston, Steve had worked in real estate in Florida before leaving on his epic hike, and that David was from Virginia Beach and was a civil engineer. We already knew Floyd had been a financial advisor and he lived in St. Louis. Steve and Eric had both been experienced campers and hikers before starting their trips. Meanwhile David hadn't had any backpacking experience at all before starting his hike.
Finally darkness closed in and we all retired for the night. I felt pretty good when I slipped into my sleeping bag that night. It had been a spectacular day followed by a fun evening full of the type of fellowship that comes from shared experiences of hard physical labor in the fresh air and sunshine, rewarded by some of the best scenery nature can provide.
Tapping Into the Hiker Network
For the rest of the trip we hiked at a leisurely pace. The next day we were able to make some reservations at Pinkham Notch Lodge for the last night of our trip. We made our reservations from Galehead Hut. We looked at our maps and figured that we could camp that night at Ethan Pond campsite and the next night at Nauman campsite next to Mitzpah Springs Hut. The day after that it would be a climb up Mount Washington and then down to Pinkham Notch. All in all, we had three easy hiking days ahead of us. We were able to take our time and really enjoyed the alpine hiking over those last few days. We never were able to spend any more time with all the thru-hikers we had met together at once again like we had at Garfield Ridge campsite, but we did run into most of them individually at various times over the next three days. Eric, as it turned out, had an equipment problem and had to temporarily get off the trail to take care of it. Steve found some opportunities to work at both Zealand and Mitzpah Springs Huts for room and board.
The first night past Garfield Ridge we stayed at Ethan Pond campsite with Floyd where he and my dad once again immersed themselves in conversation. The night after that we stayed on a tent platform at Nauman campsite, just a few steps away from Mitzpah Springs Hut. There, my resourceful father met another pair of thru-hikers – a couple guys who went by the trail name of the M&Ms. They were a couple young guys both named Mike, which of course drew comparisons by my dad to Dave and myself, the Double Dave's from the previous year. After talking to those guys for a long time, my dad went over to the hut and ran into Steve again.
Once again his natural networking instincts kicked in and he told Steve, "Hey, you know there's a couple other thru-hikers at the campsite – they call themselves the M&Ms. Do you know them?"
Of course Steve did know them and he made a quick jaunt over to the tent platforms to say hi.
Again I got to see how one of my father's talents, which I had never fully appreciated before, unexpectedly contributed to our trip by building goodwill between ourselves and the other long-distance hikers that we were sharing the path with for a few days. There are many factors and skills that cause a thru-hiker or any long-distance hiker to be successful in their endeavors. Physical and mental toughness are high in the list, but another piece of the puzzle can be the ability to form connections with others that share your goal – to easily meet and take an interest in those people – to trade information and provide moral support and in turn to receive moral support from them. One lesson that can be taken from hiking the trail is that by hiking along with others with the same goal, occasionally meeting them along the way, sharing campsites, lunch breaks, motel or hotel rooms, rides to general stores, or just a few fantastic views, a person can come to feel a part of something bigger than themselves or their own individual journey. Hikers inspire each other to do things they might not have been able to do alone or without the knowledge that companions had accomplished them hours or even days before. The hiker network is certainly more important to some than to others – some AT thru-hikers are truly loners who love the solitude - but many thru-hikers are buoyed by the casual community of fellow hikers and they derive some of their motivation during the day to day plodding forward from the anticipation of keeping up with or catching up to their thru-hiking friends.
"Well Dave," he said holding out his hand, "Congratulations, you're done!"
The "Congratulations Moment"
Finally the last day of the hike was upon us. Every day, except for the day we climbed Moosilauke, had been gorgeous. Now the clouds moved in and we found ourselves hiking under overcast skies and into thick mist as we ascended Mount Washington. It was not a long hike. By late morning I reached Lake of the Clouds Hut, the closest AMC hut to the summit of Mt. Washington. I stopped there to wait for my dad before we made the final push to the top of the mountain.
I had to chuckle to myself because I heard his voice before I saw him. He was in conversation with someone as he hiked on the approach to the hut. It was only a few moments later that three forms materialized from the mist and I saw the dad was walking along and talking to the two M&Ms whom we had met the evening before. When he saw me he marched right over to me with a purposeful step.
"Well Dave," he said holding out his hand, "Congratulations, you're done!"
"What do you mean," I replied, "we've got about a mile to go to get to the top."
"Well you've hike that mile before," he said.
"No," I replied, "last year I hiked to the top from the other direction."
"That's not what I'm talking about," he said with a grin. "Don't you remember when we camped with the Hodgsens at Sunset Campground on Upper Baker Pond? One day we all hiked up Mount Washington together. It was foggy like this when we reached this hut. The ladies and the younger kids decided to stay here and drink hot chocolate, but Howie, you, and I went on up to the top to finish the climb."
In a flash I realized he was correct. I had forgotten all about that hike, but it suddenly came back to me in a rush. It had been the same summer as when we climbed Mount Moosilauke, or maybe the summer after. I had been a lot younger then, maybe 12 or 13 years old.
The two M&Ms were there and they shook my hand as well. I stood there a little bemused. I hadn't expected Lake of the Clouds Hut to be the "congratulations moment", but it served just fine. The two Mikes went on ahead of us and my dad and I started up the rocky path together at a slow pace.
It was the way to attain the ebullience and wonder of a little kid doing something huge and exciting ...
As I hiked I thought about the Mt. Washington hike and others I had taken with my dad as a kid. I thought about my first hike up a mountain when I was eight years old. I found out that my dad was going on an Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) trail clearing trip. I didn't really know what it was all about except that my dad was going and that he was going to climb a mountain with some people. I begged and begged to go. I'm sure that he had planned it as a getaway for himself - an activity to address one of his own personal interests. At first he tried to tell me that it wasn’t a trip for kids, but I was persistent and kept asking until he finally relented.
He must've been concerned that at eight years old, I might poop out and he would have to cut the trip short, and leave the trail clearing group to take me back down the mountain and home. There was a risk that bringing me along would ruin his trip and short-circuit his relationship with a group he was trying to get involved with, but he took a chance on me because that's what parents do.
As it turned out I was fine and kept up the whole way with a little boost from a Snickers bar or two. The trip leader invited me to "come back anytime" and I had a blast. Because of that, my dad had a great time too. After that my dad took me on several other ADK trips. My memories of those trips with the ADK and others like the family trips in the White Mountains were about the wonder of climbing to the tops of the mountains that we had looked up at from the valleys below. The thrill of slipping along the narrow path, past moss encrusted trees, drifts of leaves, and over webs of roots, logs, and rocks that covered the surface of the trails. Finally, the thrill of clambering over the final steep sections of the mountains – over boulders, grasping stunted, weatherbeaten trees near the summit and finally seeing the view from the top. To listen while the adults on the trips pointed out all of the nearby peaks and name them, and to be able to look down and see where we had started from. As a kid my imagination had soared on those mountaintops and in those deep woodlands. As I thought about those times, I realized what it was that had fueled my desire to hike the AT. I had always known it was a thirst for freedom and rugged adventure, but as I climbed that last mile between Lake of the Clouds Hut and the summit of Mt. Washington with my dad, I understood it at a deeper level. It was the way to attain the ebullience and wonder of a little kid doing something huge and exciting - it was the way to attain that feeling while simultaneously attaining the independence of an adult.
... the call of the trail was still there with its possibilities, lands to be explored, people to meet, and sites to see.
A New Light
At the top of Mt. Washington we ate in the snack bar then, on a whim, I decided it would be fun to take one of the scenic tour buses from the top of the mountain down to the Pinkham Notch along the road that goes up Mount Washington. I could tell my dad didn't really want to do it that way but I convinced him that it would be fun. A little ways down the mountain we emerged from the clouds and were treated to some views. That evening at Pinkham Notch Lodge we were joined by the tall thru-hiker we had met a few days earlier – David, the bearded guy who hiked with two walking sticks and had started out on Springer Mountain with Mark, my companion from the year before. He had completed a much more rigorous day than dad and I had, hiking from Lake of the Clouds Hut, where he had stayed the night before, around the entire Presidential Range and down to Pinkham Notch. We had a nice dinner with him that evening before turning in for the night.
The next morning dad and I ate breakfast in the at Pinkham Notch Lodge while we waited for my mom to come pick us up. I remember staring out the large picture windows of the dining room. I could see past the parking lot and across route 16. Rising on the other side of the road was the bulk of Wildcat Mountain. I remembered almost exactly a year ago when Dave and I had put Pinkham Notch and Mt. Washington in our rearview mirror as we plunged into the woods to start climbing that steep mountain and begin the final phase of our five-month journey.
Now staring out the windows in the Pinkham Notch dining hall, I realized that I could envision myself doing that again, this time on my own. The trail was still beckoning, just like it had been the year before when Dave and I finished on top of Katahdin. It was the same bittersweet feeling inside me as it was then, happiness at reaching my goal, realization that other parts of my life had to be tended to, and understanding that more hiking would have to wait. And yet the call of the trail was still there with its possibilities, lands to be explored, people to meet, and sites to see.
The year before I had hiked nearly 2000 miles with my friend Dave. Then as now, I had felt great satisfaction, but now I felt just a little bit more. I knew in my heart that I never would've started the Appalachian Trail hike by myself and I don't think I could have completed it without my friend. Now, one year older, I had completed the one section of the trail that Dave had done without me the year before, and I had done it on my own terms. I had hiked 200 of the most rugged and beautiful miles of the Appalachian Trail half solo and half with my dad. I had struggled with physical obstacles that I had not faced the year before and I had come out on top. I felt infused with a level of independence and confidence that I had never felt before. It was the belief that when I wanted to accomplish something big I could go out and do it on my own.
After a few hours of hanging out around the lodge my mom arrived. We both gave her big hugs, grateful for her willingness to drive us back and forth in support of our far-flung backpacking trips. My dad and I loaded our packs into the back of our car while mom commented on the scruffy beard that dad had grown during the trip. The doors slammed shut and we drove away. I couldn't help craning my neck to look out the window toward the top of Wildcat Mountain, picturing myself cruising northward on the trail, this time on my own. While I knew that couldn't happen just then, I also knew that I had grown. I was seeing myself in a new light – as someone bigger and more complex than I had been before I started, and that was what gave me the greatest satisfaction of all.