AT Day 177: Difficult Trail and Difficult Decisions

The transition to living on the trail was gradual, from all the expectations of a new adventure, starting like a long backpacking trip, growing to a way of life, then so routine it’s hard to imagine what it was like before. Coming so close to completing the trail is surreal. The time feels short, especially compared to the experience. Many of us are conflicted between a weary eagerness and an anxious fear. But for all of us the end will be a jolt, and an inevitability.

I left Lincoln late the next morning with Giggles, and we made our way back up and into the white mountains. The hikes were strenuous, and steep, following sometimes-wooded ridges briefly between peaks but otherwise going up and down, or up again. We spent the first night up high after running into some friends we hadn’t seen in a bit: Mouse King, a young fellow who’s left his borderline-abusive joke-flinging traimily for kinder folk. We “stealth” camped in an undesignated but clear flat spot just before a short stretch of exposed ridge, providing a beautiful sunset view and an opportunity for an early morning to see the sun rise, and hurry along – I was late to meet my friend visiting from Houston! He got to experience the difficulty of predicting trail timing firsthand, as we didn’t cross paths until the next afternoon, on our way up one mountain while he came down. It was great to see him; an old friend and long-time backpacking companion, as well as one of my best encouragers for making this trek.

That evening, during the height of Labor Dabor, we came face-to-face with the most day hikers and weekenders I’ve ever seen in one place, some hundred people cramped into one luxurious primitive campsite and shelter. There was a line to collect water, and no where to sit to cook. The site’s caretaker (due to the whites’ popularity, maintained campgrounds have a paid host) told us overflow tenting was full, but we might camp in the cooking area after dark, for full price. We declined, already overwhelmed by the traumatic volume of people we didn’t expect to encounter till the airport for our flights home. Instead, a short night hike took us to another tiny stealth spot where the three of us cram-cuddled tight beneath my friend’s tarp. The next days were better, as the crowd thinned and the trail took us down to a road where we stopped for a beer, then back up to start the presidential traverse; including a long stretch of above-treeline hiking that by default skirts around most peaks but summits the big boy Mt. Washington. The exposed trail gave us pause when we learned a storm was set to hit that afternoon. We opted to play it safe and stopped shy of the first climb at a maintained campsite. My friend’s trip came to an anticlimactic close, but that night the rest of us were audience to a thunderstorm that seemed to feature lightning more than rain. The next day was reported to be cloudy at most.

The weather predictions held true and we had dry skies and low winds for all of our climbs that day, an unlikely occurrence at one of the world’s most volatile weather sites. The peak of Mt. Washington is typically more cloudy than not, but we lucked out and during our lunch break the overcast clouds parted into partly, revealing the great expanses of mountains around us. The views have never been the big appeal of hiking the AT for me, but I can’t deny that the journey through the whites was breathtaking. That night, after our farthest day in this section, we landed the work-for-stay slots in the lodge-like “hut” beneath Mt. Madison, saving us a half-mile hike down to exit the alpine zone. We cleaned shelves and scrubbed old lasagna pans in exchange for sleeping on the lodge’s dining room floor, in the company of the regular staff and another thru hiker from Austin called Chugga Chugga. We spent quite a bit of time on either side of the presidentials with Chugga, too; it will be good to have another new friend back home.

While the presidentials were challenging for their spans of stepping rocks, steep hills, and stretches between camping options, the next range “Wildcat,” was more technical, requiring hands instead of trekking poles and clever footwork. It’s true hungry tigers don’t go out on rainy nights (they don’t want to wet their appetites), but we had no choice but to wait out an hour-long squall before the first of several Wildcat peaks. The views were fogged, but I enjoyed this section as much as the rest of the whites, for the fun hiking, despite the onset of being unwell.

Lately, I’ve often thought about “bookends:” the parallels between the beginnings and ends of our hikes; hoping for the romantic ones like summiting with Uncle Ya, or a MOTHRA SQUAD reunion. The magic of the trail, more often good, must also have a sense of humor. As we passed over the Maine border, I instead reunited with a less friendly old companion: the common cold. The weather had taken a chill turn, the cold snap triggered changes in the leaves, but it also left me sniffling. I’ve been told the “Boogerbear” snore didn’t come back, but the stuffy discomfort in the lower temperatures was familiar all the same.

The cold wasn’t so debilitating, and I managed to keep up with The Caboose Crew after running back into them at the border. Southern Maine is as or more difficult than New Hampshire, they say, including the Mahoosuc Notch, a single mile of caves, crannies, and face-climbs that took 2 ½ hours to complete. Other parts have been so steep the trail clubs have installed rebar ladder steps and handholds to help us up. Unsurprisingly, our pace didn’t dramatically increase, and before long I was checking my watch and calendar anxiously. The crew stopped in Andover, ME, and I took a double zero out of the elements to recover. By the time we hit the trail again, the weather had warmed back up, too. Maine has been beautiful, with ponds large enough to be considered lakes in other states, thick woods, and rich-smelling trail, squishy with fallen needles.

Time was marching on, even when we weren’t. My fears for making the miles on time went from a nagging stressor to a human impossibility. I had floated that I might skip some miles ahead to avoid rushing at an unenjoyable pace, but it quickly turned into the only option. To my surprise, my friends wanted to come along. Scissors found a job that put her on a similar timeline, and Giggles and Sparrow were on board to avoid breaking up the band. We took a shuttle from Stratton to Monson, skipping some 70 trail miles to the start of the “100 Mile Wilderness.” The timing was incredible, as Wizard, Spinelli, and even Beagle are all here (by trail, not road) giving each leg of my trip a representative for the final section. I wish Uncle Ya were here, but he’s got an extra couple weeks and is hiking every mile, like the true pro he is. I’ve left him a Peacemaker here, so our spirits can make a toast after our summits.

Not treating the decision to skip as a failure or defeat may be my greatest challenge on trail. It helps me to consider what I’m “losing” to, though: a respect for the commitments I’ve made and a desire to truly enjoy these last few moments in the woods.

See you very soon, Boogerbear

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