Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The White Mountains of New Hampshire

So it turns out that the same reasons Gonzo and I began to hike together are also what makes us unable to hike apart. When you leave a town at the same time, from the same place as a person you hike at the same pace as, it's hard to loose each other.

We left town on a grey morning and seemed to not be able to shake each other on the trail because we move at the same speed. By the time we were just about to reach the first hut, we decided to tackle the new beast together. The thing about the White Mountains is that it breaks up all you know as a thru hiker. You move slower over the rough terrain and almost all other hikers seem to disappear. For this reason, we naturally stuck together out of lack of other hikers to be with. To hike alone, particularly at such a rough part of the trail, is reserved for sociopaths, in my mind at least.

Besides the shorter distance days due to hard terrain, the Whites also introduced us to their own Hut System. There are seven huts throughout the 90 or so mile stretch from Lincoln to Gorham. They are essentially made for day hikers to be able to hike and stay over night in the Whites. They have bunk rooms and provide you with breakfast and dinner made by a crew of college aged kids who pack in all the food and pack out all the trash. The huts are located relatively close together so that even families with young kids can hop from one hut to another to make up a rather expensive outdoor vacation. There is also the option of paying $8 per person to stay in the same three walled wooden shelters we have been saying in for free since Georgia. All of this is ran by the AMC, the Appalachian Mountain Club, or the Appalachian Money Club, as thru hikers refer to it.

The one good that comes out of this overly touristy section of the trail is that every night each hut will take a few lucky hikers in for a 'work for stay'. In exchange for a few chores they allow you to eat the left overs of dinner and breakfast and let you sleep on the dining hall floor. It sounds very much like a type of caste system, and it really is, but when you're on the bottom of the chain it is well worth the pitiful and/or disgusted looks from day hikers and their inquisitive children to receive a few hot meals.

This also lessens the food load you have to carry over rough terrain. And by rough terrain I mean you are always either high stepping up make shift rock stairs and scrambling up nearly vertical rock faces or treacherously lowering yourself and your huge pack down these sort of "trails". The less you have to carry the better, so I ended up dumping a lot of tiny things in Hanover with my brother to make the trek easier. I hate to think what it would have been like if I had not done this.

The reason the Whites are so treasured (besides being the sole economic value of all of Northern New Hampshire) is because they are rather neat and different. The "presidential range" is all above tree line and Mt. Washington, a 6000+ft high peak with a road up to it and a rail line, is the biggest tourist trap I've seen since the last time I was at Six Flags. It is a virtual ant hill of little lines of people snaking here and there at half the speed of a thru hiker, who at this point is fully capable of stair stepping up an 1000 foot climb without taking a breather. When you get to the top you have to make the tough decision between running down the other side away from the madness as quickly as you can or paying an exorbitant amount of money for a regular portion of food from the snack bar that is even more infested with tourist than the actual mountain is. Naturally a thru hiker chooses the food. At least it comes with good people watching.

In all we stayed at 3 of the 7 huts, which got us through 6 days of hiking with only carrying 3 days of food. It worked out pretty perfectly for us. The nights we didn't stay in a hut we chose to stealth camp instead of pay to stay in a shelter. Stealth camping is supposed to be just what it sounds like, but more often than not we were simply on a flat barren area right next to the trail instead of 200 ft away from any trail or water source.

Though the views were beautiful and we had overall great weather (only got caught in one thunderstorm but we were on a peak and had to pitch tent after running to the safety of trees) I would still never wish a continuous hike through the entirety of the White Mountains upon my worst enemy. After only a week I have things wrong with my body that are either new or haven't been an issue for many states worth of hiking. I believe they were intended for brutal day hikes to give those with a sedentary lifestyle a major sense of accomplishment and I hope to never tackle them again in the way I just did.

That being said, a zero day in Gorham, NH is wildly deserved and appreciated. The week we spent traversing the Whites was the longest and most rugged span of time we have had out in the woods. But now we are less than 20 miles from the state line of Maine and though I can't say I am super excited to get back out and start the last state, I am happy to only be about 3 weeks out from Katahdin.

At this point there is little holding us back besides an unplanned injury. I have allowed myself to start dreaming of home, or civilization rather, and have a growing list of foods I want to eat. I am excited for a hair cut and maybe even a pedicure (so unlike me and I really feel for the poor soul who has to do it). I am dreaming of what real clothes I will buy and of visiting friends while up north. I am possibly dreaming the most about my brother and sister in laws extremely comfortable house that I will be staying in for the first few weeks after the trail. I know their comfy, suede coach in front of their obscenely large tv will be waiting for me. I know their cutely decorated bathroom is very clean and has large, plush towels.

As much of a sense of adventure it takes to set out and hike the Appalachian Trail and as much insanity it takes to stick with it, I feel as if in some ways I have been normalized by the experience, maybe even if it is only temporary. I find myself strongly desiring a slothful evening watching a Jennifer Aniston romcom, the name of one I can't even recall because it is so opposing to my usual interests. I surmise that after I have made myself sick one too many times on take out and sitcom re-runs, that I will come around again into feeling dissatisfied with a stationary life without much forward motion. After all, things have been rolling so fast for a long time with graduation, then the trail, that I am sure it won't be too long until I feel like a "knot on a log" as my mom used to say.

And as slothful as I want to be right now, tomorrow we set out again and finish up New Hampshire. Next post will be from Maine!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Things Fall Apart and the Whites

The rest of the hike through Vermont was pretty brutal. A massive heat wave had descended upon all of New England and times were rough. The days were long and hot but at least there were a few things to help out.

It seemed for a few days in a row that we kept coming across small markets and delis that had cold drinks and many times ice cream. We would walk up to one of these establishments here and there only to find nearly ten hikers lounging in the grass under some tree already taking a siesta.

By the time we crossed the state line and walked into Hanover, New Hampshire I was dangerously dehydrated. I could feel the resistance behind my eyeballs when I looked anywhere but straight forward and little did I know that it would only get worse. Evan and Katelyn were coming in to meet us and take a zero day with us at the family vacation home of one of their friends. It was incredibly nice to have a nice big space to relax and hang out and feel like a proper member of society for a little while.

The day after we walked into town and they picked us up, I was still feeling absolutely terrible, even when just lying around the house and despite having drank a ton of water. I have a strong aversion to going to the doctor, particularly when the only option is the Emergency Room at the Dartmouth Medical Center, and honestly had a gut feeling that nothing serious was wrong with me. Still, after being ruthlessly hassled by Gonzo and after Evan and Katelyn both agreed that they thought it was best, I went to the ER. Thankfully, Hanover is a very upscale area where most people can afford personal doctors, so it wasn't nearly the ordeal I remember the ER being every other time I've been to one. I was in and out very quickly and for the huge expense of a $150 copay, I officially knew that I was hot and thirsty... Not news to me, but at least it satisfied the peanut gallery.

That night we cooked dinner and watched TV and I slept in a bed and was very happy to be normal for a night. In the morning we found Java Man in town and the three of us hiked to Bill Ackerly's house. He is "The Ice Cream Man", an 86 year old who loves to have hikers stop off at his house for ice cream, lemonade or a game of croquet.

A few days later we found ourselves at the base of Mount Moosilauke, the first of the White Mountains, which is a huge range of very rugged mountains that span through most of New Hampshire. We had lunch at the base and then started the four mile assent with looming clouds over us. The little line in our guide book looked wickedly intimidating. Straight up forever it seemed. When we finally made it up the rocky trail to the top it was just like it was down south, a huge white/grey cloud holding us in. A sight we know well.

We stayed at a shelter just down below tree line and talked with two south bounders. We have been getting lots good information form our SOBO counterparts and they are finally coming through in droves. In the morning it was pouring rain and had been for many hours so we set out on our separate ways, us down the very steep yet short side of the mountain and them up over the top and down the less steep, longer side.

We got to the bottom of the mountain and called for a shuttle, as it was still pouring rain and we were on a very desolate road. We stood under a wooden sign with a small over hang and didn't say much. Gonzo and I hadn't said much to each other over the past few days and what we had said was mostly hostile. We stood in silence until I asked him of he wanted to stop hiking together. He said yes and I was glad because I was tired of feeling like I was reprimanding a four year old all the time and I am sure he was tired of me being his mother. It was a mutual split, though not very amicable, because of the four year old tendencies, but I think it is for the better, for both of us.

I feel good about it and have gotten several indications of it being a good direction for me. One is an email I got from a good friend. We haven't spoken since I left for the trail and naturally go long periods with out communication but fall right into the important things as soon as we are together. So I was surprised to hear from her but when I read what she had to say, I knew that there was some force behind her that drove her to give these words to me. This is what she said:
"The future will find you as it always does - took me forever to believe and trust that. Now, instead of worrying or manipulating, I simply wait for things to unfold in their own beautiful way. Life comes to us on its own terms - we have to keep stepping out of the way and open our hands and hearts to receive the gifts being offered."

So now I walk into the toughest section of the trail thus far, by my self. It is possible that I will find the rest of our group we were with. Nonetheless, I am invigorated for the rest of the trail and hoping for good weather through these high mountains!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Vermont

On the 5th of July, after going to the mall and seeing a movie, Gonzo and I only hiked through the one mile span of Dalton, MA and stopped at the trail head to camp with Maineiac and Yardsale and Mudmouth. Mudmouth's mom and dad were coming in to celebrate her birthday over the weekend.

The next morning they cooked us an awesome breakfast out of their converted VW camper van. Then we all hiked the 8 miles to Cheshire, MA. I picked up a package of goodies from my mom and Gonzo and I had a restful afternoon at a church hostel in town. That evening Mudmouth's parents went all out with dinner. We had salad, steak and shrimp kabobs, ice cream cake and beer and wine.

In the morning we left our packs in the VW van and hiked up to Mount Greylock to meet Mudmouth's parents there. Mount Greylock is the highest point is Massachusetts. When we all reached the top they were there with cheese and watermelon waiting for us. Even though it was not our birthdays, it sure felt like it after a whole weekend of great food!

Gonzo and I hiked on a bit to a shelter and met some young Puerto Rican kids that we had a great time hanging out with that night. Just the day before, my family had returned from a vacation to Puerto Rico, so it was particularly interesting to meet them at this time. One of them had hiked a bit over his summer break last year and had brought a friend this time around.

The next day we passed into Vermont and did a long day in to the town of Bennington. At the state line, we came across our friend Crush and walked the rest of the way into town with him and got a room. On the steep decent into town we met a small group of people who were headed up from the road much too late to get very far. When we reached the road we got a ride from a few guys who were dropping off a hiker named Crazy Frog and they told us to eat at a bar that was having a wing night special. So after checking into a room, we walked to the bar and got some food. And who should walk in but the group of folks walking up the mountain as we were coming down. We invited them to come sit with us and learned that they were all taking a class on how to wood carve birds. They were all women besides an older male, who was the professor. He had written many books on birds of prey and was renown for his realistic sculptures of birds. He has even painted guitars for Santana! We got the back stories of all the interesting women who were taking the class and as the bar was closing up the professor offered to give us a ride back to our motel.

We were slow getting out of town the next day but it was the first day of sunshine we had had in a very, very long time. There was a moment where we were watching a torrential downpour just across the valley from us but the breeze blew it just behind us. Going into town we had lost both Maineiac and Mudmouth and Yardsale but some how wound up meeting up with everyone at the base of a fire tower.

Even though we all agreed we had had a wonderful day, we paid for it the next. We had to hike over a mountain that required a gain and then a loss of 2,000 ft of elevation, typical for the AT, but of course a thunderstorm had to crash down over us just as we began to climb. We had to duck off the trail for a bit for fear of being too immersed in the lightening. It finally let off and we finished climbing to the peak in the rain. I was so frustrated with the trail at this point for being such a bummer all the time that I was being a major Negative Nancy, even to the point that I was so annoyed with Gonzo for rebutting my negativity with encouraging statements. I am so glad that he is here to listen to me whine and cry and release negative energy until I get it all out and feel better. It only lasts about ten minutes but it means the world that he is there to let me dump bad feelings and still only has all the good times to remind me of. If I didn't have him with me on the trail, I know I wouldn't be here anymore.

We ended the rough day at a shelter that required you to pay for the nights stay. This was the first of several we would hit and we decided to take a chance on the fact that hopefully they would take mercy on a bunch of thru hikers who pass by on a rainy weekday. We guessed correctly and there was no caretaker to collect the fee.

The next day we hiked into Manchester Center, VT. We only stayed for part of the day after eating and resupplying, but we got to meet both of Mudmouth and Yardsale's older sisters and their kids. We hung out in a park with them and were even able to take showers in the community center.

Maineiac, Gonzo and I went back to the trail that evening and hiked a short two miles out to a very nice shelter just to get a small start on the next three day stretch to Rutland, VT.

Things were in no way bad through this section. No particularly bad bugs. No rain. There even seemed to be a breeze most of the time. Nothing seemed wrong besides the fact that I am just desperately over hiking and am in a majorly bad funk. I seem to be in a bad mood most any time I am hiking. I wonder why I am still out here besides the simple fact that it is just "too close" to the end to quit. We even hit the 500 Miles to Katahdin sign and while most people celebrated, I loathed that we still had that far to go. I am simply tired of living in the woods.

Maybe the real trouble kicks in when I realize that at least when I am out here torturing myself in an effort to make it to northern Maine, I have a purpose in life. If I were comfortably back in society with a clean shower, a flushing toilet and a cushy bed, I would be aimless in what to do with my life. The higher up the trail I get, the more uncertain I become of my ever quickly approaching "future". I realize that I will probably want some time to rest and readjust and even after I choose a new direction, I know it is not the only choice I can ever make. But still there seems to be the "what next?" question to face on top of the effort of simply getting to the point where what next becomes actually pertinent.

Anyway, we only walked 2 miles into Rutland today and have been here since 10am. That's the only reason I have been able to write an update. Not because of the extra time, but because I finally feel positive enough to not come out only spewing a load of negative, emotionally one sided viewpoints of the AT at you. We are staying at a very nice hostel that just so happens to be run by a very nice group of people belonging to a cult. I do not believe it is actually a cult but people along the AT have given them a bad wrap. Essentially they seem to be Christians who live communally, have Hebrew names, are very modest, extremely kind and caring, all have the same beards and long hair and really, really care about hikers. It's a great place and I know I am fully appreciative of it and will benefit greatly from taking a rest here.

The next stop is Hanover, New Hampshire, where Evan and Katelyn are coming in for a few days to hang out and do trail magic!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Moving on to Massachusetts

Connecticut continued to be unbearable. Wickedly unbearable. The mosquitos alone were making grown men cry. Of all the hardships we had been through, the bugs proved to be the worst for everyone across the board. Thankfully, now we are in Massachusetts and the past day and a half of hiking has brought us just your typical amount of mosquitos. I used to believe that "baseline comfort" was a mattress, four walls and a flushing toilet. Now I realize that "baseline comfort" is not having blood sucking insects leeching on to you by the hundreds and leaving tiny, itchy, red welts all over you.

There was one day in particular on which both Gonzo and I had small melt downs. Or rather, mine was small. Gonzo broke his trekking poles in a raging outburst brought on by pure frustration. At these moments, when one of us is feeling very down, it is nice to have the other one around to be the rational voice up against threats of quitting the trail or committing suicide. But this day, we had both had enough. A few miles after we had taken turns freaking out over the bugs, we ran across a south bounder who told us about a hostel. Tidy bunkhouse, breakfast and dinner included, shower and laundry and pick up at the trail. The specs were too good to be true. We got picked up and were a the hostel by lunch time. The hostel, called Bearded Woods, was immaculate. It looked like a vacation cabin instead of a hiker hostel. And the is owner's wife was a wonderful cook. We find such solace in the place from the misery of our current life that we decided to stay another night and spent an entire day watching movies and playing games in the climate controlled, bug free environment.

The next day we were reunited with some good friends Mudmouth and Yardsale on what was their first wedding anniversary and spent half of the day sitting in a shelter with them waiting out thunder storms. We knew there was a few hefty mountains ahead of us so we decided to take them on the next day. Unfortunately, it was still raining, all day, but we didn't have to go over them in a thunderstorm. That day we hiked over several mountains that had been turned to rivers, water was rushing down the steep, rocky trail or collected ankle deep at the level areas.

We ended the day at the road to Great Barrington, MA. It was high end town and the biggest we had been to while on the trail since Gatlinburg, TN. But we had the best experience with hitching that Gonzo and I have had all throughout the trail. Collectively we spent less that ten minutes on the three rides we got with in town. One ride was from a young couple who worked on an organic farm in NY. Another was from a middle aged hippie with hoola hoops and bangles in her car. The last was from an old man who needed to run by the co-op market before taking us back to the trail and bought us fresh strawberries!

Over the next few days of hiking the bugs finally died down a bit and we also came upon Upper Goose Pond Cabin, a very special shelter on a beautiful New England pond. It has a bunk room up stairs and an small kitchen where pancakes are made every morning by a caretaker. Swimming and canoeing are common past times of the hikers who stop there. It was a hard place to leave but we know that by the end of the day we would be in the town of Dalton, so we pressed on.

It was the 4th of July and we got into town just as Nomad was finishing up the burgers at the house of a guy who lives right off the trail. Nomad had his van there and was doing trail magic just as he was when we last saw him on the day we hiked a 26 mile day down into Damascus, Va! He is still on the trail helping out hikers high and low! The owner of the house has allowed hikers to camp in his yard and stay in his house for 35 years but it seems as if he does not enjoy it very much. He is constantly worried about the neighbors and shushing hikers. He is militant about the use of the bathroom and the hose and any trash that is made. It made for an awkward stay.

But today Nomad packed a ton of hikers in the Vanimal, as it is called, and took us all to the local mall to go to an Eastern Mountain Sports store and go to the movie theater. Watching World War Z made me glad that at we didn't have to fight zombies on the trail!

So things are still hot and humid but a least we are not being eaten alive! It is a great improvement. Soon enough we will be hitting higher elevations as Vermont is only a few days away and that's where the bigger mountains kick in again. We have a tentative finish date of August 20th, but have no need to truly meet it. I am enjoying New England in some ways and annoyed by it in others. I suppose and am just used to southern hospitality, which is extended even to hikers, but up here people are quick to treat you like a hiker at times. I suppose just grinning and baring it is mostly taught to southern kids.