|©1997 George Steffanos|
MONDAY, 9/12/83, MILE 1849.2 --- I had one final meal of solid food before resuming the backpacking phase of my trip today. A very tender steak sandwich. Ah, it is going to be fun to return to gourmet fare like rice and instant oatmeal.
I started on the trail at 1:45 this afternoon. That was okay. I was in no hurry to rush away from this last morning of luxury. There will be plenty of time to revel in the freedom of backpacking once again. About three weeks remain in this adventure.
I was somewhat apprehensive of the sensation of having that heavy pack on my back after several weeks of carrying less than ten pounds on my hikes. Actually, it was not as bad as I expected. It was worse. I seemed to weigh a ton. Luckily, almost a mile of roadwalk at the beginning of today's hike enabled me to become a bit more accustomed to the weight before the serious climbing began. The Appalachian Trail followed a paved road for a half-mile, crossing the Androscoggin River on a bridge adjacent to a small dam and hydroelectric plant along the way. Then, it followed a gravel road for a while before turning off on a path into the woods. For a change, the sun was shining and the air was crystal clear.
The Mahoosuc Range is purported to be one of the toughest sections of the entire Appalachian Trail. With that in mind, the climb up Mount Hayes was not nearly as bad as I expected. It was a much better trail than those I had been hiking the past couple of days. As a matter of fact, it was the nicest piece of trail I have seen on a major climb since Vermont. A few portions were extremely steep, but most of the ascent was fairly moderate. I expect the trail will become much rougher up ahead, but I will just be grateful for every bit of nice trail while it lasts.
The trail was in good condition, but I wasn't. Some scamp must have lined my backpack with lead. Day hiking withdrawal. Somehow, I made it up to the main summit of Mount Hayes. The elevation was only 2555 feet, but there were sweeping vistas of the loftier ranges to the south and southwest. The Carter-Moriah Range was enjoying a mostly sunny day; the massive, brooding hulk of Mount Adams in the Presidential Range was in and out of the clouds. The weather forecasters had predicted a chance of rain for tonight, but the billowing white clouds which drifted across a deep blue sky were gradually breaking apart and dissolving as the day went on.
Atop Mount Hayes, the Centennial Trail, on which the AT had climbed out of the Androscoggin Valley, ended. The AT turned onto the Mahoosuc Range Trail, which it will be following all of the way to Grafton Notch in Maine. This older trail was not quite as nice as the Centennial, but it still was not bad. It, too, was a lot better than the Carter-Moriah Trail. If the trail in the Mahoosucs is rougher than the trail through that range, there must be some lovely surprises up ahead.
There was some steep, rocky scrambling down into the col between Mount Hayes and Cascade Mountain. Cascade Mountain was a visual feast. I ascended granite cliffs offering more fine views of the Presidentials and the Carter-Moriah Range. The vistas expanded as I strode along the rocky, scrub-grown crest to the 2631-foot summit, unfolding into a 360-degree panorama. Behind me were the Androscoggin valley and the White Mountains. Before me, the Mahoosuc Range stretched out northeastward into Maine, the peaks waxing loftier as my eye followed the trail route forward. Tomorrow should be an interesting day.
After Cascade, a long, steep descent dropped into Trident Col, a deep cleft in the mountain range. At the bottom, I took the short side trail to Trident Col campsite. Secluded in a hushed grove of thick evergreens, my latest home features carefully manicured beds of soft, rock-free soil at every tent site. I snagged the one closest to the water source and the latrine. It was easy -- I am the lone soul here tonight. I arrived at 6:00, pitched my tent, fixed my dinner, and sat back to observe the deepening twilight as nightfall descended upon the mountains.
Although I hiked a mere seven miles this afternoon, the climb up to the ridgecrest is under my belt, and I was almost growing reaccustomed to my burden of supplies by the end of the day. So far, so good. Tomorrow, I am going to attempt to cover about fifteen miles to Full Goose Shelter. If I make it, that would put me less than two miles from the famous scramble through Mahoosuc Notch and the subsequent plunge straight up Mahoosuc Arm. I could then tackle that killer stretch early in the day Wednesday while still relatively fresh. Whatever happens, tomorrow I will be in Maine, the final frontier, where desperate daydreams of blistering summer days become reality. 289.3 miles to go.
TUESDAY, 9/13/83, MILE 1863.9 --- MAINE --- My final night in New Hampshire was frigid -- colder than any since the Smokies. Gathering up the ambition to leave my sleeping bag was a major undertaking this morning. I finally managed the feat at around 7:40. By the time I hit the Appalachian Trail, it was almost 9:00. Needless to say, I can no longer mess around like that in the mornings now that the days have grown so short.
This morning's trail continued to be a pleasant surprise -- a lot of ups and downs, but, for the most part, they could be covered while walking upright rather than scratching and clawing on all fours. From the campsite, the trail slabbed the east slope of the Trident, a three-headed mountain whose summits rose above the north end of Trident Col. I am going to climb those peaks someday. There is no trail, but climbing over the open ledges looked like a relatively-easy bushwhack. Today, I needed to concentrate on mileage and continuing to get reacquainted with the weight of my backpack.
The first highlight on the Appalachian Trail today was Page Pond, a lovely little beaver pond atop a high plateau surrounded by low peaks. The day was turning out at least as fine as Friday, the day on which I hiked the northern Presidentials. The water sparkled an incredible deep blue just a couple of shades darker than the brilliant blue sky. A distinct chill enlivened the air, contrasting with the warm sunshine.
After the pond, the AT scaled steeply up to Wocket Ledge, where open rock faces just off the trail provided the best views southward I had yet seen in the Mahoosucs. Clouds wreathed the peaks of Madison and Adams, dumping God-knows-what all over those backpackers brave enough and foolish enough to be taking on the northern Presidentials today. It was all clear everywhere else in my field of vision -- a broad sweep of ridges and valleys and a long, lazy loop of the Androscoggin River valley. Above, fleecy little clouds freckled the sky like ivory flies on a huge azure turd (Whoa! Lovely simile, huh? Thank you). It was a great day to be young and hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Highlights were piling up on top of each other so fast it was almost an overload to the senses. Dream Lake seemed like just another in a long series of lovely, wild beaver ponds high atop the ridgecrest. On a whim, I detoured a short distance on the Peabody Brook Trail along the pond's north shore. Thanks to my hunch, I was treated to a memorable scene -- a beautiful mountain tarn cradled by a semicircle of low ridges. A small, triangular gap directly behind the pond framed a perfect picture of a cloud-shrouded Mount Madison apparently hovering above the lake, mirrored in the still, clear waters.
The Appalachian Trail passed yet another scenic little beaver pond, Moss Pond, high up on the ridge, and descended alongside its outlet brook to Gentian Pond, where a trail shelter perched atop a small ridge which was flanked by the pond on one side and another great view to the south on the other. I caught up to a couple of guys there -- the first people I had encountered since leaving Gorham. They had camped beside Dream Lake last night.
Past the shelter, the Appalachian Trail assumed the level of difficulty which I had expected to find in the Mahoosucs. A near-vertical ascent of smooth rock ledges was followed by an abrupt plunge into a col. I struggled over a couple of rugged knobs and commenced a long, grueling climb up Mount Success. The air remained chilly, but I was sweating up a storm. The footway was a twisted mass of loose rocks and tree roots, topsoil eroded away down to the bedrock. Many stretches almost required a human fly. I rubbed my two front legs together, folded back my wings, and crawled to the top.
Insect Boy was rewarded with about a quarter-mile of open ridgewalk and constant 360-degree views, following which the Appalachian Trail dropped steeply into a deep col, climbed over the tip of a knob and descended into a more shallow col.
Arriving at the bottom of that short, steep descent, I was greeted by a trail sign marking the last state line to be crossed on this journey. I was beginning the final 279.5 miles -- the Maine miles -- to Katahdin. My mind drifted backward and the states through which I had trod stretched behind me like the past incarnations of an eternal tired wanderer.
Rugged, bloody Georgia, where a handful of mice had nearly ended this quest almost before it had begun. North Carolina: rainy and spectacular, where I had learned about backpackers' caloric requirements the hard way. The Smokies just about brought me to my knees. Muddy Tennessee: almost as spectacular and just as rough. Endless, steamy Virginia. The psychological battles had escalated into war. Had one lightning bolt zigged rather than zagged, I would now be another solitary white cross beside the Appalachian Trail on a lonely mountain top. West Virginia: home of the phantom Good Humor truck. Maryland, with its Civil War ghosts and seductive soda machines. Pennsylvania: the crucible, in which heat, steam, rocks and thorns either destroy a backpacker or temper him into something almost indestructibly hard and tough. Hot, waterless New Jersey, which put the "almost" into the phrase, "almost indestructible." New York, where the dream died and was reborn. Connecticut, and the first tantalizing glimpses of the coming New England autumn. Massachusetts, where I learned not to run across bog bridges in the rain -- lingering flavors of cool, northern woods. Vermont: a fair, green country of forests and farms. The alpine highlands of New Hampshire, where weather changes are sudden and spectacular, and a savage wind screams fury through an eerie, fog-shrouded twilight in my memory forever. These were all part of the legend now, and Maine was the reality -- the final reality.
My mind drifted back to a mid-June evening at Helveys Mill Shelter in southern Virginia, when I picked up the register and discovered the wonderful drawing some thru-hiker had made on the back cover -- the vast evergreen forest reaching back towards that distant, solitary peak. "Maine awaits you". It had sounded like a fairy tale back then to someone I can barely remember -- a fading, battered dreamer with a tradition of failure and hundreds of miles stretching out like a hopeless gauntlet before him. He may never have been much, but he saved his best for last. Nice going.
The Appalachian Trail climbed over a knob, descended steeply into a high pass called Carlo Col, and ascended just as steeply to the summit of Mount Carlo. There were great views from up there, but what else is new? I did not encounter a wooded major summit all day: Even some of the knobs had open crowns. The trail down into the col between Mount Carlo and Goose Eye Mountain was tricky and steep -- very hard on a played-out body. I was beginning to question my ability to make it over Goose Eye Mountain to the shelter which was tonight's destination. My legs felt like warm Jell-O.
I climbed steeply (of course) back out of the col to the ridgecrest of Goose Eye, coming out near the westernmost of the mountain's three summits. West Peak was off of the AT on a side trail; I did not go over it. My body had deteriorated to the point where any extra climbing was unthinkable. The sun was sinking and taking its warmth with it. The invigorating bite which had enlivened the air all day was degenerating into a numbing chill. The entire span of ridgecrest between the west and east peaks was rocky and open, with continual panoramic views. I descended into a low sag and climbed over smooth, vertical rock ledges to the east peak.
Goose Eye was the scenic highlight of a memorably scenic day of hiking. The ensuing mile-and-a-quarter to the north peak of the mountain were mostly above treeline along an open, boggy ridge so characteristic of the crest of the Mahoosucs. After another precipitous descent from East Peak, the Appalachian Trail traversed open rocks, scrubby peat moss bogs, and a couple of shallow, wooded canyons before making an easy, gradual ascent along the ridge to North Peak. Thanks, I needed that.
I did not need the final steep descent of the day, climbing down off of that open, rocky summit into a wooded col, but on the floor of that col was Full Goose Shelter, my home for tonight. It was 6:45. I had pushed my exhausted, out-of-shape body over a lot of major obstacles and had accomplished the mileage goal I set for myself last night -- but at what cost? I hope I have something left for tomorrow's ordeals. If not, I may once again find myself in the position in which I had put myself while traversing the Smokies. I need a fifteen-mile day tomorrow to keep myself on schedule to reach Stratton, Maine before my food supply runs out. Here I go again.
WEDNESDAY, 9/14/83, MILE 1873.9 --- I had some company and conversation last night as I finished my dinner and prepared to turn in. The two guys I met at Gentian Pond Shelter yesterday showed up at Full Goose about a half-hour after my own arrival. A loud, fearless mouse dropped in shortly thereafter. His constant chattering and scurrying around woke me up many times last night, on a night where I dearly needed sleep. It is not surprising, then, that I did not hit the trail this morning until almost 9:00. Not surprising, but unfortunate. I needed that fifteen-mile day today, and I had Mahoosuc Notch and Mahoosuc Arm with which to contend this morning. As I was leaving the shelter, I was already in a big hole.
Last night was wintry, topping even Monday night for cold. Today was a perfect backpacking day: about fifty degrees and sunny, with another invigorating breeze. I was hiking alone; my two shelter companions had gotten an early start. The hike began with a steep but short climb up out of the col to the south peak of Fulling Mill Mountain. The Appalachian Trail descended gradually along the scrubby crest, turned left, and dived precipitously off of the ridge down into Mahoosuc Notch, which is famed as the most difficult mile of the entire trail. The descent into the notch was no picnic, either. I slipped several times on the smooth rocks as I made my way along, and my watch died. That was extremely unfortunate, because Stratton is yet a few days ahead of me. A man like myself, whose tendency is towards late starts and down-to-the-wire finishes should not be without a watch hiking through the short days of mid-September in Maine.
I survived that rough descent only to face the toughest mile on the Appalachian Trail. The passage through Mahoosuc Notch truly lived up to that reputation. The notch was a deep, extremely narrow defile sandwiched between the towering cliffs of Fulling Mill Mountain and Mahoosuc Arm. Over the millennia, the floor of the notch had become the final resting place for every huge boulder which had broken away from those precipices. The trail wound over, around, and occasionally under that chaotic jumble of rocks. To make matters more interesting, those rocks were covered with a tenacious growth of gnarled conifers and dripping moss. It is probably the most deranged section of backpacking trail in the world, but its weird alien landscape was so striking I would not have missed it for anything.
I took my time and eventually made it through that long mile. On one occasion, I attempted to climb over some gigantic boulders rather than remove my backpack and drag it behind me through one of the narrow, twisting slab caves. I found myself at the top of a sheer fifteen-foot drop and was forced to backtrack and traverse the cave, anyway. From that point onward, I stuck to the trail. My legs were a little rubbery when I emerged from the notch, and the sick, twisted climb up Mahoosuc Arm finished them off.
The Marquis de Sade could not have designed a stretch of trail more imaginatively than that incredible climb immediately following the scramble through the notch. This was the stuff of which backpacking legends are made. The one-and-a-half-mile ascent bolted straight up old rock slides and smooth ledges. The footway was composed basically of loose rocks and exposed tree roots. I was literally staggering by the time I scaled the final vertical rock face to the summit. There were marvelous panoramic views from up there, but what a price! If I had it all to do over, I would have taken a half-hour meal break at the bottom of the notch, just before the climb. My pigheadedness about overcoming my late start and not stopping left me a quivering mass of exhausted muscles.
After all of this drama came a reasonably sane descent to Speck Pond, a very high (approximately 3400 feet) beaver pond nestled along the ridgecrest between Mahoosuc Arm and a spur of Old Speck Mountain. An attractive shelter sat beside its shore, but the surrounding area had suffered somewhat from overcamping in the not-too-distant past. The Appalachian Mountain Club, which maintains this section of the AT, now posts a caretaker at the shelter to oversee the use of the area by campers. I met several campers. One of them told me the time: 1:35. It had taken me more than four-and-a-half hours to hike five miles. Good-bye fifteen-mile day.
A note at Speck Pond informed me that Frye Notch Shelter, which I had been hoping to reach tonight, was still under construction and presently lacked a roof. I was not going to make it there, anyway. I need to learn to set myself more reasonable goals -- maybe in the next lifetime. I took my watch out of my pocket, played with it, and got it to start working once again. It has been keeping time ever since, but I need to replace it as soon as possible. Having had this same cheap model of pocket watch in two other incarnations on this journey, I know that it is now running on borrowed time.
I began another steep climb up the ridge to Old Speck, dragging myself over some exceptionally excruciating, sheer ledges near the top. They completed the hatchet job on my legs. I passed up the quarter-mile side trail to the actual summit and began the interminable descent into Grafton Notch. The trail down was a recent AT relocation. It wasn't very good, but the trail which it had replaced was reputed to be awful, so I was happy with it. For the most part, it was walkable, though steep. I descended through a blur of pain and fatigue, finally coming out of the woods at the crossing of Maine 26 -- the two-lane paved highway which passes through Grafton Notch, the end of the Mahoosuc Range.
Grafton Notch Lean-to was a half-mile past the road crossing, near a cascading stream about five minutes' walk off of the Appalachian Trail. That is where I am tonight. I only covered about ten miles today, but what are you going to do? Tomorrow is another day. I am seventy-six miles from Stratton, with, at maximum, five days' supply of food remaining -- a tough trek over the terrain which I must cover. I have developed an alternate plan: Rangeley is a nine-mile hitchhike on Maine 4, which the Appalachian Trail crosses in forty-six miles. Now that I have a viable alternative, I feel much better. I can still try to make it to Stratton in five days, but it will not be life or death if I fail.
Although the terrain ahead does sound rough, it also sounds beautiful. Maine is even nicer than I had imagined it when I was battling through the Furnace and found it hard to believe that I would ever see this day. It is turning into another frosty night, so I guess that the long heat wave has come to an end. It's about time. Now, if only the snows will hold off until after I climb Katahdin.
I passed the 7/8-point of the entire Appalachian Trail today. Katahdin awaits at the end of the unimaginably long road. 264.6 miles to go.
THURSDAY, 9/15/83, MILE 1889.6 --- Last night was a memorably cold one, easily topping two very frosty nights I remember from Georgia. Some mornings are so icy you hate to leave your sleeping bag. This morning, I had no choice but to get up get up and get moving. Having shivered through two final miserable hours, dozing off for brief periods of time, I dragged myself out of its feeble warmth at 5:30. It was still dark, so I went through my morning routine by the light of a candle and a flashlight. My stove functioned poorly in the intense cold; I had a great deal of difficulty coaxing it to remain lit. Hot instant oatmeal and hot chocolate did little to warm me this morning, although they usually do the trick.
It was tough to psyche myself into removing my wool sweater, hat, and long pants when I set out in the cold, brittle sunlight of 7:00 A.M., but, being a mean and macho guy, I did it. After a couple of minutes, I even stopped whimpering. I find that hiking in shorts adds about two extra miles to my day compared to hiking in long pants, and I need every mile I can manage in order to reach Stratton before the food runs out. I would like to avoid that long, emergency detour into Rangeley if I can help it. So, I set out in my shorts, tee shirt, and chamois shirt, with a gleam in my eye, a song in my heart, and crystals of frozen mucous in my mustache. If it gets much colder, I am going to awake some morning to the sight of stockings hung by the fire pit with care, and the sound of the hooves of eight tiny reindeer clattering against the corrugated tin roof.
My first taste of the Appalachian Trail this morning was a steep climb straight uphill for more than a mile. If I ever needed a sadistic ascent like that one, it was today. After a couple of minutes, I stopped shivering. Ten minutes later, I regained the feeling in my feet. Another five minutes passed, and I removed the shirt, resuming the climb in shorts and tee shirt. It is amazing how a typical New England climb will warm you up on an icy morning.
I have a lot of respect for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the trail from Grafton Notch to Katahdin. They are in the process of nailing down a permanent AT route through Maine, relocating 133 miles to better, more scenic trails. On top of that, they are building seven new shelters. They are doing all of this with a handful of hard-working members. I cannot say anything bad about a group of unpaid volunteers who toil that hard, but I am describing what the trail was like, so I must write this:
The trail up to Baldpate Ridge was the pits -- an insanely steep mess which predictably had become a gully through years of erosion. In some spots, three to five feet of soil had been washed from the footway -- a fact I could determine by the height of the exposed tree roots from the ground. Clouds of vapor streamed from my overheated body. By the time I reached the summit of the first knob I was sweating profusely, although the morning remained bitterly cold. The trail leveled off somewhat for a short distance along the ridgecrest before the initial climb was duplicated on the nutcracking ascent of Baldpate's west peak.
When I finally attained that summit, I checked my watch and discovered that it was almost 9:00. I had consumed two hours in hiking two-and-a-half miles. At the rate I had been covering ground for the past couple of days, Katahdin was beginning to once more achieve the status of fairy tale. On the upside, nice views northward across the crest towards the main summit encouraged me. Still, a stiff wind was blowing up there to augment the cold. I did not linger long.
Another steep trail dropped from the west peak down into a sag. The crest was partially open to the views and covered with stunted conifers and some alpine vegetation. After a brief leveling-off, the Appalachian Trail scaled the steep stone wall of the south face of Baldpate's main summit. It was a grueling climb coming so soon after that initial ascent to the ridge, but worthwhile in every respect. All the way up, I had outstanding views of the west peak, with Grafton Notch and Old Speck in the background. From the rocky, alpine summit, there was a panorama which included a large portion of the Mahoosuc Range. In many respects, Baldpate's long ridgecrest was like an instant replay of the Mahoosucs.
The ridge remained open for more than an additional half-mile, as I descended sharply over rocks into a steep little gap and ascended the small, rocky crag of Little Baldpate, which had excellent views north across a deep valley towards Wyman Mountain, Hall Mountain, and their surrounding foothills. Shortly after crossing that summit, the Appalachian Trail finally dropped below treeline at the beginning of another long, steep descent.
I reached the site of the new Frye Notch Lean-to at 10:40. I was still not setting any speed records. I had come slightly more than five miles in three-and-a-half hours. That would have been deeply depressing, except that I was enjoying the cool, breezy, sunny day and the beautiful views too thoroughly to give it much thought. I sat down for an early lunch of m & m's, peanuts, and a granola bar on the edge of the incomplete shelter. What I had read about it lacking a roof had been true. There was also no floor as of yet. Only the four walls had been erected.
It remained very chilly when I headed out again at 11:00, so I left my shirt on until the hiking warmed me up again. That took all of five minutes on the extremely steep climb back out of Frye Notch. After the climb, the character of the trail suddenly changed. The remaining miles today were the easiest hiking I had seen since the section between South Twin Mountain and Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. The ensuing three-and-a-half miles were, for the most part, a gradual descent along a wooded ridge. I pushed myself a bit on this stretch in order to make up for time I had lost earlier. I covered the almost four miles between Frye Notch and Dunn Notch in one-and-a-half hours -- my best time since Crawford Notch. This put me back on the right track for the rest of the day.
Dunn Notch compelled me to stop for fifteen minutes, treat myself to a glass of Tang, and drink in the scenery. The Appalachian Trail crossed the West Branch of the Ellis River at the top of a sixty-foot-high cascade. After my break, the AT climbed steeply out of Dunn Notch to the paved Andover-East B Hill Road crossing and began a gradual five-mile ascent.
The trail climbed through some attractive forests along the ridgeline with no distant views. I crossed two gravel lumber roads and skirted the shore of a pretty little pond. Eventually, I reached the top of Wyman Mountain. The summit was wooded, but a very short side trail led to an excellent viewpoint looking northeast. I could see the trail route ahead over Hall Mountain, Moody Mountain, and beyond. The hiking remained very easy for New England, which contributed to an all-around enjoyable day. I arrived at the Hall Mountain Lean-to at 4:45, having completed a respectable sixteen-mile day. I may just be getting back into good backpacking condition once again.
This shelter is located in a shallow sag between two knobs of Hall Mountain. The spring was not running strongly when I got here, but I scraped the scum off the surface and collected my water for dinner and breakfast. More than a pint of good drinking water remained in my canteen, so any water I use from the spring will go into something boiled. Tomorrow, I have a one-mile descent to the next good, running water in Sawyer Notch.
A side trail from this shelter is a five minutes walk to the top of some cliffs with another great viewpoint of the Appalachian Trail route northbound, extending all of the way to the Saddleback Range in the distance. I sat there for about a half-hour after dinner, sipping hot chocolate and savoring my dessert Pop-Tart. It was an extremely civilized conclusion to a day which had everything: an alpine ridgewalk, a long cascade in a scenic notch, another nice mountain pond, and an extended stretch of decent hiking at the end.
I have food for four more days and Stratton is sixty AT miles away, so I may not need to detour into Rangeley. It all depends on how I handle tomorrow's grind. In the first three-and-a-half miles, I face a 1500-foot descent, an 1100-foot climb, and another descent of more than 1100 feet. Follow that immediately with a three-mile, 2200-foot ascent of Old Blue Mountain, and you have a fairly challenging day. And that only covers the first six-and-a-quarter miles. The next two shelters are, respectively, nine miles and twenty-one miles away, so I will most likely be pitching a tent tomorrow night.
Tomorrow's hike will determine the timetable for the remainder of this trip. If I am sidetracked into Rangeley, that will push back my arrival in Stratton one day. That will compel me to take an extra day between Stratton and Monson in order to avoid hitting the latter on the weekend, when the Post Office is closed. After Monson, there are no more supply mail drops, so I will have no further time schedules to worry about, other than hoping that Katahdin does not become snowed-in early this year. There will be plenty of time to worry about that later, I guess.
FRIDAY, 9/16/83, MILE 1898.9 --- I need an extremely big day tomorrow, or I will have no choice but to stop in Rangeley. I settled for nine big miles today, calling it quits at 2:30. A series of small and large problems put a premature end to my hike. Not to mention a beautiful shelter location, at which I could not resist spending the night.
Last night was chilly, but not bitterly cold like the preceding few nights. I awoke at 6:15 and was on the trail by 7:45. I felt reasonably well, but a couple of minor ailments which have been plaguing me lately were acting up. One problem was my right big toe. Those constant steep descents in the Mahoosucs had begun tearing the nail from that toe for the second time since Pennsylvania, and the subsequent even more rugged descents are finishing the job. The nail is in that troublesome phase right now where it is continually flopping around, catching on my sock, and hurting like hell, but not far enough advanced in falling off that I can rip it the rest of the way and have done with it. I can hardly wait for that moment. The second problem was a sore tendon behind my right knee. Both injuries are annoying, but nothing I cannot handle.
What did slow me down today was the absolute ruggedness of the Appalachian Trail over the initial six miles. The descent into Sawyer Notch from Hall Mountain was long and steep, threading along a crumbling footway. The trail crossed a gravel lumber road and Sawyer Brook in that narrow, wooded valley, and the real mess began.
Moody Mountain goes down beside Pond Mountain in Tennessee at the top of my list of the mountains from Hell on the Appalachian Trail. The climb up from Sawyer Brook was unrelenting torture. Towards the top, the AT scaled up the face of some steep cliffs. At one point, because it looked identical to the rest of the trail, I strayed off the trail and followed a shallow, rocky gully straight up the cliffs to a dead end at a sheer rock face. It is just possible that I whimpered slightly when I discovered I would have to climb all of the way back down that gully to find the actual trail route, but I probably imagined it. Mean and macho guys like me do not whimper.
There were nice views back down into Sawyer Notch and across to Hall Mountain from the top of the cliffs, but no sweeping vistas. Nevertheless, some erosion control and perhaps a few switchbacks were all that was required to make Moody Mountain a worthwhile trip. Perhaps, once all of their trail and shelter construction is completed, the M.A.T.C. can get around to improving their existing trail.
The trail down the other side of Moody was a slight improvement over the ascent, until a dizzying half-mile, 800-foot drop at the end into Black Brook Notch. The two-and-a-half miles that shot straight up and then straight down Moody Mountain destroyed me for the remainder of the day.
The Appalachian Trail forded the knee-deep waters of Black Brook just before crossing Maine 5. I am growing fond of the Maine attitude towards water crossings: no effete wooden footbridges or crap like that here; real backpackers take their shoes and socks off and get their feet wet. I am looking forward to the Kennebec River crossing on the trail up ahead.
The bottom half of the trail up Old Blue Mountain was an instant replay of the ascent of Moody, mirroring it even to the point where I again missed a turning of the path and followed a steep, shallow gully a couple hundred feet up the face of the cliffs. Near the top of Old Blue, the AT leveled off to a steep, but sane, climb over some knobs to the open 3600-foot summit, where there were partially-obstructed 360-degree views. The best vista was looking southward, where Moody Mountain sneered at me across the notch as Baldpate glowered in the distance.
By this point, I was just plain used-up. The six miles from Hall Mountain Lean-to to Old Blue's summit had chewed up almost five hours. The soles of my boots had begun peeling again, flopping around beneath my feet as I tried to walk. Clouds were moving in as the day progressed. It had turned into another hazy, overcast day on the Appalachian Trail, but the air remained quite cold. Tonight was shaping up to be an unpleasant night to pitch a tent, and I had no shot at reaching any shelters past Elephant Mountain Lean-to.
I made much better time over the final three miles to the shelter, but I set no world records. It took me one hour and forty-five minutes. The trail was relatively level, but my legs were spent and that was about as fast as I could move. I guess I could have plodded onward for another five or six miles without dropping, but there did not seem to be any point to the exercise. Rain was coming, and the next shelter was almost twelve miles away.
The lean-to at which I am spending the night is located in an airy forest of red spruce along the lower slopes of Elephant Mountain. Not a square foot of flat ground can be seen. The forest floor is a jumble of humps and hummocks, strewn with moss-covered rocks and blowdowns. The only undergrowth is the ubiquitous moss and a profusion of brilliantly-green ferns. It is a forest which possesses an aura of antiquity. The spruce are old -- big, shaggy giants whose scarred, scaly trunks droop threads of stringy moss clumped into thick, gray beards. A deep coating of dead needles preserves the sacred silence of this ancient sylvan temple as I wander about. A perfect miniature boreal bog sits before the shelter. I would have been tempted to stay here even had I a reasonable chance of reaching the next shelter.
As soon as I arrived, I changed out of my hiking boots and reglued their soles, using a tube of glue which the cobbler who repaired them in Vermont had donated. It should really have twenty-four hours to set, but I can only hope that the soles will hold tomorrow morning.
I have one final shot at making Stratton before my food runs out. Maine Route 4, the shortest hitch to Rangeley, is twenty-one miles away. A shelter is located a mile-and-a-half past that road crossing. If I can make it to that shelter tomorrow, I will go on straight ahead towards Stratton. If not, I will hitchhike into Rangeley, get a room, and purchase some more food before I continue.
I think I can reach that shelter if my boots hold up. There is a short climb to the crest of the Bemis Range, followed by a series of knobs and a great deal of descent to Maine Highway 17. After that crossing, only thirteen miles of flat lake country stand between me and Maine 4. I hope to carry off the big day tomorrow -- my ego is in serious need of a boost. In these rugged mountains of western Maine, I have covered about fifty-seven miles in the five days since I resumed backpacking.
SATURDAY, 9/17/83, MILE 1906.8 --- Anybody who has read the rest of this book will know I have no reason to love mice. They have eaten my food, ruined my sleep, and made some of my nights miserable. A combination of the mice in Low Gap Shelter in Georgia and my own carelessness almost put an end to this quest when it was barely getting under way. Another rotten little rodent kept waking me up last night. On one occasion, the brazen little b_____d ran directly across my head while I was sleeping. Another time, he fell from my food sack, which was hanging from the shelter's roof, and landed on the floor with a resounding thud. He had crawled down the string of my stuff sack and gnawed his way through the nylon fabric.
When I awoke for the tenth time to the sound of him rustling through my food, I was in no mood to be merciful. I took the bag down, untied it, and opened it up, determined to commit a rodent homicide. My nemesis emerged from inside the bag and began to dash around in circles on top of it, too scared to think straight and try to run away. I began to feel sorry for him right in the middle of a right cross which would have caved in his miserable skull. He looked so tiny and helpless (and cute, damn it). Somehow that punch turned into a gentle backhanded nudge which brushed him onto the floor and sent him safely on his way. Oh, man, I am a real killer -- a mean and macho guy.
I made the right decision in staying here last night. Not only did it give me hours to relax and absorb the atmosphere of this unique forest, but it also relieved me of packing out a wet tent in the morning. Several bursts of rain dampened the hours just before dawn. When morning broke, it arrived foggy, windy, and clammy. The forest appeared even more ancient and eerie cloaked in the swirling mists. Sometimes the wimpy decisions do turn out to be the best.
I started hiking at 7:45. The rough, uneven, rain-soaked ground undid the glue job and tore the front several inches of sole completely off my left boot within fifteen minutes. I had to hike for the remainder of the day without it, which soon wore a hole all of the way through the bottom of the shoe, keeping my toes wet and numb all day. I think that this spells the end of my second pair of hiking boots on this journey.
The trail over the long series of knobs which constituted the Bemis Range was slippery and hazardous from the rain, though not as bad as most of the trail I have walked in Maine. I actually managed to average two miles per hour over the course of the hike, in spite of the many steep, short ascents and descents, and the rain, which had returned early this morning. There were four main summits, but so many lesser knobs in between that I never knew exactly where I was until I emerged onto the open ledges of Second Peak, the second-to-the-last main summit. By this time, the wind was absolutely howling, blasting a soaking drizzle around and chilling me to the bone. I could never get warm, even while hiking flat out. From the ledges, the shifting mists revealed glimpses of wooded hills and distant large lakes looking like fallen fragments of the cold, gray sky.
I crossed Bemis Stream on the floor of its narrow valley on a wooden footbridge (an unusually effete touch for Maine), and commenced the final mile of ascent to Maine Highway 17. I came out of the woods and onto the road at 11:30. I decided to hitchhike into Rangeley from that spot, although it was a much longer hitch than from Maine Highway 4, thirteen miles ahead on the Appalachian Trail. My boots were finished and so was I. I had met two southbound backpackers this morning, the only other idiots who ventured out on the trail in this lovely weather. They had heard a forecast calling for the rain to end by tonight. That made tomorrow sound like a much better day to begin hiking in my running shoes, which is my only real option until I can get those cheap work boots I bought near Roanoke, Virginia mailed back to me. The money is running low, and I cannot afford a new pair of boots, even if I can find some place that sells them.
Maine 17 was no major thoroughfare to begin with, and the Appalachian Trail crossing, like so many Maine road crossings, was in the middle of nowhere. Today, it had to be one of the loneliest spots on earth. It sat part of the way up the steep side of a mountain, and a cold, biting wind was screaming fiercely past. The world was all whites and grays. A solid overcast hung low above me, and smaller clouds streamed past my desolate perch, completely enveloping me on occasion. The rest of the time, I looked out through racing clouds over a vast, bleak, gray expanse of trees and an enormous, lonesome lake in the valley below. The only sign of man was the short stretch of empty two-lane blacktop before me.
In the ensuing hour-and-a-half, only five or six cars passed, and none seemed even tempted to stop for a cold, wet stranger in that remote spot. By this time, I had lost all feeling in my hands and feet. I was ready to give up and hike to the next shelter before I succumbed to exposure and hypothermia, when a pickup truck came along and pulled to a stop.
It was twelve miles north on Route 17 to Route 4, and another seven miles southeast on that road to Rangeley. The man who gave me a lift was heading north on Route 4, so he dropped me off at the junction of the two roads in a tiny village called Oquosett. I was in a much better position than before the ride. Maine 4 was a much busier road, and I was off of that mountainside, sheltered from the wind. After less than a half-hour, I got another ride. This gentleman was only traveling halfway to Rangeley, but I offered him gas money and he took me the rest of the way. He turned down the money.
Rangeley was a neat, prosperous-looking tourist town wrapped around the northeast corner of a massive lake at the junction of state highways 4 and 16. It was a village of picturesque inns and guest cottages, quaint bed and breakfasts, and little gift shops. I stopped at the nearest motel: The Rangeley Inn, where the rooms turned out to be thirty-two and twenty-eight dollars per night. Good thing this is the off-season. I explained my money situation and asked about a cheaper place to stay in town. The lady behind the desk told me that one other motel was nearby, slightly cheaper, and a boarding house frequented by hikers. After my cold, miserable morning, I wanted a bathroom of my own where I could partake in a hot shower of epic duration, so I chose to stay at the other motel for twenty-four dollars.
Cold rain had sucked the life out of brain and muscle, leaving a numb exhaustion. Immediately upon removing my wet, muddy clothes, I cranked the heat in my room all the way up and crawled into bed. Three hours of oblivion passed before I woke up, took that shower, and headed over to the grocery store. I replenished my food supply for the trail and picked up some bread, salami, and assorted goodies for dinner tonight. I need rest and a warm bed more than a restaurant dinner.
Tomorrow, I will see if I can purchase a new watch in town. The one I had stopped for good in the windblown dampness of that lonely mountainside. I may grab a restaurant breakfast hitching back to the Appalachian Trail. I am forty-three trail miles from Stratton, so I will be there in three days. That will push my arrival in Monson back to next Sunday night. Arriving a day earlier would be pointless. I would still need to wait until Monday morning to pick up my supply package at the Post Office. After Monson, there are no further worries about schedules or mail drops.
I passed the 1900-mile mark today. I'm tired. Why does the trail have to be so consistently hazardous here near the end? I spent most of my hike today trying not to lose my footing on wet, mossy ledges. I would hate to have this quest end in disaster, just when I am so close to the ultimate goal.
At Grafton Notch Shelter on Wednesday night, I read a register entry by one of last year's thru-hikers. He had begun hiking from Grafton Notch on an August morning this year, exactly one year to the day on which he had severely sprained an ankle and been forced to abandon his hike. I know it could not have felt the same for him when he reached Katahdin. I am determined not to end my quest in the same manner, but it is so difficult to hike carefully and still make decent mileage through the beautiful but deadly mountains of western Maine. At the present time, I have been unable to do either. I am crawling along, but I have taken several major spills. The only thing preventing a serious injury is the uncanny aptitude I have developed in landing gently despite my heavy backpack. I almost always manage to spin my falling body and get my hand beneath me to catch myself. I guess if you practice anything often enough you get good at it. Nevertheless, a slight, but troubling aura of doubt still hangs over the outcome of this adventure, with 231.7 miles to go.
SUNDAY, 9/18/83, MILE 1921.2 --- I mentioned that Rangeley was built around the shore of a large lake. My motel room had a front door facing the town's main street and a back door opening out onto a short, manicured grass slope leading down to a lake shore of little piers and small beached motor boats. I awoke early on a cold morning and walked out back to be greeted by the sight of clear gray-blue skies dotted with tiny, thin clouds already tinted pink by the imminent sunrise. Steam hung low over the water, masking the low ridge rising above the far shore. It was one of the nicest places in which I stayed on this trip, despite being the cheapest motel in Rangeley. The other places were even nicer, but I was quite satisfied with my "budget" motel. Much of the prosperity of this small western Maine town is due to the famed freshwater fishing on the three Rangeley lakes. It must be pleasant for a fisherman to be able to walk out of his room and cast his line whenever the urge takes him.
After calling home to confirm that my family would be able to get my work boots in the mail for Monson, I stopped by the motel office to ask about the possibility of picking up a new watch in town. The owner told me that the drug store carried a small stock of watches. I walked down there, and guess what? The only model they carried was the same cheap pocket watch of which I have already gone through three on this trip. Each time one dies, the only replacement watch I can find is identical to the old one. Too bad "The Twilight Zone" went off the air. I have an idea for a new episode: "The Watch That Wouldn't Go Away."
I left the Town Lake Motel in Rangeley this morning at 11:00 -- check-out time. I waited until 12:15 for a ride. A lady who drove like Mario Andretti over that winding road out of town gave me a lift as far as Oquosett. Maine 17 did not turn out to be a well-traveled road on a nice day, either. Eventually I got another ride from a man driving a pickup truck and towing a good-sized motorboat. As we chatted, he informed me that the temperature on those cold trail nights last week had dipped down near thirty. I guess it was not just my imagination.
He dropped me off at the Appalachian Trail crossing at 1:45. It was located at a scenic turn-out from the highway. Today, the view of that lake and the distant mountains was breathtaking. The air was still hazy and the sky had again become overcast, but it was a warm afternoon for western Maine this time of year, especially when compared to the cold, blustery days of the past week. All things considered, I thought it was a fairly nice day.
In spite of my late start, I decided not to settle for anything less than the fourteen miles to Piazza Rock Lean-to, even though this meant finishing my hike in darkness. After yesterday's epic seven-mile day, I was averaging less than eleven miles per day since resuming backpacking in Gorham. Touches of the pigheadedness which had replaced my quitter instinct down south returned, and I was determined not to lose another day on my journey to Stratton. Once again, sheer mulishness brought out one of my finest hiking efforts.
The thirteen miles of Appalachian Trail between Routes 17 and 4 wound through a landscape of bogs, lakes, and low ridges. It was the easiest terrain the trail had traversed since Vermont, despite a few short climbs as steep and treacherous as any of the longer climbs in Maine. There were none of those long climbs or descents in this section -- the first portion of the Appalachian Trail in Maine that could reasonably be called connector trail. There were no outstanding peaks or dazzling scenic highlights to draw my attention away from the miles I wanted to hike. It was simply a pleasant stroll through the woods.
The AT crossed a couple of low, wooded ridges and descended through a low-lying boggy area riddled with tiny beaver ponds to follow along the shore of a large mountain pond called Long Pond. I passed a small sand beach that would have made a very tempting spot for a swim had the temperature been fifteen degrees warmer. The trail followed the inlet stream of Long Pond to the north shore of Sabbath Day Pond, another good-sized tarn where a shelter known as Sabbath Day Pond Lean-to was located. I took my first break of the day there -- five minutes, after hiking four miles. I skimmed through the register, left an entry of my own, and resumed my hike.
The Appalachian Trail continued northeastward, crossing a bunch of small knobs along a low ridge and skirting a few sphagnum bogs resembling moors. After another four-and-a-half miles, I sat down for five minutes at the campsite on Little Swift River Pond, my second and final break of the day. From then on, I kept moving.
I flew along, crossing the summits of a few more knobs and skirting another bog. I passed South Pond, the fourth and final mountain pond of the section in the deepening twilight of a Maine September evening. A mile later, the Appalachian Trail began a gradual descent to Maine 4. I milked the twilight for as long as I could before taking out my flashlight about a mile before the highway crossing. The batteries were a little low, a fact which gave me a few headaches once I had re-entered the woods on the other side of the road.
After the highway, the descent continued for another tenth-of-a-mile to a fording of the Sandy River. A web of herd paths crossed and recrossed the Appalachian Trail on both banks; it was tremendously difficult to locate the actual trail in the dark, especially with a dieing flashlight with an effective range of about two feet. I was tempted to retrace my steps and try to hitchhike back to Rangeley, only nine miles up the highway from the trail crossing, but I put that thought right out of my head. I need an early start tomorrow morning, and I have always been a real ace at getting early departures out of trail towns. I circled through the forest surrounding the stream until I found the AT.
The televised weather report I had heard in Rangeley forecasted clearing skies today. After a promising dawn, it had remained cloudy and hazy all day, although the sun had almost burned through on a couple of occasions in the early afternoon. As I wandered the river bank, trying to find the trail, it sprinkled a bit. It did not amount to much other than increasing my sense of frustration at the delay in completing the day's hike. The Appalachian Trail crossed more herd paths and old road traces after it had left the river banks, and it was continued slow going. From the river, I had a mile-and-a-half remaining, very steep in the bottom half before the trail leveled off and climbed very gradually for the remainder. It was almost 8:30 by the time I reached the shelter. I made dinner and climbed right into my sleeping bag. I have a rough day coming up tomorrow.
I am twenty-nine trail miles from Maine 27, the road on which will hitch to Stratton. That stretch of trail crosses three lofty mountain ranges: Saddleback, Spaulding-Sugarloaf, and the Crockers. Tomorrow, I am shooting for sixteen of those miles, covering the entire Saddleback Range and most of the climb up to the Spaulding-Sugarloaf Range. It seems like a tall order after today's grueling fourteen-mile half-day, but I am not going to give up any more days this close to Katahdin.
I am beginning to feel a strange magnetic pull upon my soul. Katahdin was always the beacon in the dark, drawing me towards the promise of one shining moment of victory when things looked bleak down south. Now I am this close, its invisible presence is pulling me forward like an irresistible longing. I sit down to rest and find myself up and walking two minutes later, having made no conscious decision to start.
MONDAY, 9/19/83, MILE 1937.1 --- I awoke, still tired, at 6:30 this morning. If any mice were scampering around the shelter last night, I slept through it. I had been thoroughly exhausted when I went to bed last night. Leaving the shelter this morning at 8:00, I was not up for that which I had to do today, but, again, a thru-hiker has powers far beyond those of mortal men.
There was a lot of mud along the trail. Rain had fallen briefly and sporadically several times as I was preparing to leave, but had stopped by the time I set out. It was again very warm for mid-September in western Maine, on the muggy side, foggy, and quite breezy: a so-so day.
A short side trail from the shelter led to Piazza Rock, an immense fallen slab of the cliffs above. Wedge-shaped on the end near the cliff face, the rock had jammed solidly between two huge boulders which had preceded it down onto the plateau. The rest of the rock was a long, broad, shallow platform projecting outward far above the forest floor. Totally unsupported for most of its great length, it appeared extremely fragile, but a few trees growing from small pockets of decomposed needles along its top indicated the formation's age, and it will probably be there long after this tired wanderer is dust.
A thin, sullen drizzle began to fall. The first couple of miles of trail consisted of short, steep climbs connecting long, broad plateaus. The Appalachian Trail passed several slab caves formed by fallen rocks from the cliffs above, a bog, and two very nice mountain ponds. On Ethel Pond, a lone duck was swimming slow circles, trailing a long, perfect wake over the dead calm surface of that small body of water. The forest along the far shore was dimly visible through the mist and drizzle. The world seemed very old.
The flat ground around the ponds was nevertheless evil walking: a mess of tangled tree roots and piles of jagged boulders thrusting up through the soggy, dark earth at all angles. Everything was slick with damp and treacherous; I never could break into an actual stride. The trail up Saddleback from Eddy Pond was steep, but with few hazardous sections, for a change. I made the ascent in good shape. A surprise awaited me at treeline: a wind was blowing up there stronger than any I had yet encountered on the Appalachian Trail, with the exception of one night on Mount Washington.
The trail became very steep at that point. I had to fight my way up against a gale lashing at me from my left. It was grueling work to make that ascent while struggling to avoid being blown off the mountain. It was cloudy, clammy, and generally miserable -- just the type of weather for which I had been hoping on the greatest expanse of above-treeline walking on the Appalachian Trail in Maine (three miles). My tee shirt was sweat-soaked from the climb, and the force of that wind against the damp was bone-chilling, despite the relative warmth of the actual temperature. I was compelled to put on my chamois shirt and even a ski cap to protect my left ear, which was continually blasted by the full brunt of that biting wind. It was a day of strange contrasts.
The grades moderated along the crest, and most of the final mile to the summit was a series of gradually-ascending terraces. Dark, soggy tundra was interspersed with ledges of naked rock dabbed with lichen. Masses of ground-hugging plants spread out like thick carpets while scrub spruce shivered in the gale above them. I was submerged in wind-blasted cloud which roared past me like a raging ghost river. Although the views were wiped out, it was still rather spectacular.
When I reached the summit of Saddleback, I was just past the 9/10-point of the entire Appalachian Trail (I know that nobody but me gives a flying f___ about all of these fractions which I keep trotting out, but figuring out this stuff helps to fill some long, lonely nights, so live with it). I was completely in the clouds up there. It was a cold, gray realm of wind, fog, granite, and alpine plants looking out into a formless universe of streaming white mists. The world was a clean slate, where anything could happen. On the Appalachian Trail, anything usually does.
I began a steep descent into a saddle between the main summit and a peak known as The Horn. The floor of the saddle, a series of rocky terraces similar to the southwest ridge of Saddleback, was much more sheltered from the wind, although it remained open, alpine ridgecrest: spongy tundra and lichen-covered ledges, tiny pocket bogs in the low spots, groves of Christmas-tree-sized spruce, miniature knee-high forests of mangled stunted spruce -- all surrounded by an immense gray void.
I caught a brief glimpse of sun while down there. The clouds began to slowly break apart, although the two peaks on either side were still cloaked. The slopes on each side of The Horn were steep, but not backbreaking. The summit remained shrouded in white and the primal wind was howling just as strongly as on Saddleback. I felt I had reached the end of the world. I finally passed below treeline once more for the first time in three miles as I descended into the sag between The Horn and Saddleback Junior (sounds more like a candy bar than a mountain peak, doesn't it?).
The sun again broke through the clouds during my descent from The Horn. It stuck around for the remainder of the day. The long sag between The Horn and Junior huddled beneath a dawn forest of spruce and fir thickly underlaid with moss everywhere, huge swathes of clover, and occasional patches of gently-swaying ferns. I passed a small group of hikers in the sag, the first people I had seen since leaving Rangeley, and began the climb up Saddleback Junior (delicious milk chocolate, chewy nougat, crunchy granite rock . . .)
The ascent over inclined ledges was steep and hazardous, as was the descent on the other side, but I enjoyed my first views of the day from the open, rocky summit. Even the clouds over Saddleback and The Horn had lifted, although the sky remained hazy and visibility was limited. To the north, I could see all of the rugged peaks ahead on the Appalachian Trail tomorrow: Spaulding, Sugarloaf, and the infamous Crockers.
The Appalachian Trail in Maine has been, for me, an exercise in survival. A hiker must continually be on the alert as he encounters the many slick, tilted rock slabs and tree roots, especially on the precipitous descents. Since I can never walk through awesome scenery such as this without trying to take it all in, I have been on my back more times than the Happy Hooker since reaching Maine. I do try to concentrate on hiking, but my mind begins to set up a photograph or work on a piece of description for my journal, and things suddenly become interesting.
Those falls generally do not amount to much. My biggest problem is the amount of time I spend taking pictures (finding the perfect f-stop, perfect angle etc.) and just checking out nice views or scenes of beauty. In order to spend all of this time not hiking during the day and still make enough miles to stay on track in my quest for Katahdin, I really have to fly along at often reckless speeds when I am hiking. When I begin to tire, s___ happens.
I took three more spills today -- none serious. Worse than falling were all of the occasions when my foot skidded on slippery rock slabs, smashing my ankle against the edge of a boulder before I could catch myself. Now that I am forced to hike in running shoes, nothing comes between my ankle and those rocks save for a flimsy sock. I rediscover the pain of bone-meets-rock five or six times on an average day.
After about a quarter-mile of tricky descent from Saddleback Junior, the trail remained fairly level for the ensuing mile to Poplar Ridge Lean-to. I was hiking well this morning, so I was able to take a half-hour lunch break at that spot. The shelter register said that the remaining seven miles to Spaulding Mountain Lean-to were comparatively easy, so I felt able to afford the time.
The next quarter-mile past the shelter was a gradual climb to some open ledges at the crest of Poplar Ridge, and a nice view. Then, it was two miles of sharp descents mixed with level stretches -- nothing terribly difficult. I made it all of the way down with only one fall, and managed to spin around as I fell and catch myself on my hands before hitting the ground, but it tore a chunk out of my left palm (I know -- good thing it wasn't the right-one). That made things tough when I was compelled to crab-walk down over steep, smooth, tilted rocks, limping along on one hand and two feet.
The descent ended at the ford of Oberton Stream. The stream was wide, flat, and shallow at the crossing -- nothing to it. After a short, sharp climb out of its deep, narrow canyon alongside a small brook making a long cascade down a sheer rock face, the climb up to the Sugarloaf Range was long and fairly gradual for a Maine trail. There was actually more than a mile of level walking along the crest. The footway along that last portion of trail was wet and muddy, especially on those stretches which had become run-off streams from last night's rain. Nevertheless, it was easy hiking through beautiful spruce forest to the shelter.
I arrived at Spaulding Mountain Lean-to at 6:00 -- much earlier than I had expected when reading about all of the big ascents and descents I would be covering today. There was a great deal of climbing, but the trail was much better than I hoped to find in Maine. As for tomorrow, entries in the register by southbound hikers inform me that the descent from Sugarloaf is a bear, and the entire traverse of the Crockers is terrible. It does not sound easy, but I think I can make it to the Post Office in Stratton tomorrow evening, provided I start hiking early in the morning and do not have to wait too long for a ride. I am thirteen miles from Maine 27, the road on which I will be hitchhiking.
When I reach that highway, I will have passed over a major hurdle on the Appalachian Trail. The trail mellows a bit after Stratton, with only three major mountain ranges to be traversed in the remaining 185 miles to Katahdin. That is where I should be able to make up for some of the time I have lost in western Maine. I am running out of mountains, now. Early tomorrow, I will pass the point at which less than 200 miles of trail remain. It has been a long walk.
TUESDAY, 9/20/83, MILE 1950.0 --- STRATTON --- Mornings on the trail, I generally like to spend some time waking up: lingering over breakfast, taking my time loading my backpack, and allowing myself to become reasonably awake before heading out. As I have said, my rhythms are not the rhythms of a morning person; I need some time after awakening before beginning to grind out mileage. The average lapse between my eyes opening and hitting the trail is about ninety minutes. This morning, I awoke at 6:15 and was on the trail at 7:15. That may not sound like much, but I was impressed. I really wanted to hike those thirteen tough miles and make it to the Post Office in Stratton before it closed this evening. I made a special effort to reach Maine 27 early, in case I needed to wait long for a ride.
The initial mile from the shelter was a fairly steep climb covering the remainder of the ridgeline to Spaulding Mountain's summit. I made some good time over it in spite of a tangled footway of rocks and roots. I sat down for a moment at the junction with the short side trail up to the summit for a snack before going up. Feeling a gentle rustling in my lap (which I have not experienced much recently in my lonely thru-hiker existence), I looked down to find a fat brown mouse snuggling up to me. Gosh, this is a friendly state! I named her Judy.
The trail between Spaulding and the Sugarloaf side trail junction was extremely easy for Maine. I followed a ridgecrest beneath gnarled spruce and fir for two miles, passing over a few low knobs on a generally decent footway. The forest floor was a spongy dark brown carpet of decaying needles -- very wet and hummocky.
The last official day of summer in western Maine was the warmest day I had encountered in the state. A slowly burning-off haze was in the air, and the thermometer must have climbed well up into the seventies. I know I sweated out a few gallons as the afternoon progressed.
I had intended to take the half-mile, 700-foot rock climb side trail to the summit of Sugarloaf. At a lookout just before the trail junction, I peered out over a world of vague forms barely visible through the steam. The second-highest summit in Maine was supposed to have fantastic views, but I did not feel it would be worth the climb today, particularly when time was of the essence. My guidebook informed me that the summit's attractiveness was somewhat marred by extensive ski development on the north side and a dense array of communications facilities up on top. I would not even be able to experience the feeling of standing on a remote New England summit. With all of these factors arguing against taking the side trail, it still required ten minutes of reasoning with myself to overcome my mulish insistence upon seeing everything and continue past the side trail on the AT.
I had made the right choice. Passing through the southern Appalachians without encountering a bear had been a major disappointment. Thus far in Maine, I had yet to see a moose. I was beginning to lose all hope. Not far beyond the side trail junction, I was in the right place at the right time, high up on the west flank of Sugarloaf. Coming around a bend, I found myself virtually face-to-face with a large bull moose standing astride the Appalachian Trail, drinking from a small stream which ran across it. We stared at each other, both stunned, for a few moments before he crashed off through the woods.
The descent from Sugarloaf was not as bad as those southbound hikers had made it sound in the registers. Except for about a quarter-mile which was wickedly steep, it was all fairly mild. Two miles later, I crossed the South Branch of the Carrabassett River at another wide, shallow ford amidst a lush forest filled with dense undergrowth and began the ascent of the Crockers. I took my first break of the day a mile later, after a moderate climb to the Appalachian Trail junction with the Crocker Cirque Campsite side trail. A small stream crossed the Appalachian Trail at that junction, and it struck me as a good spot to sit down for fifteen minutes to rest and drink some water after hiking six miles.
The ensuing climb was extremely steep, though not as slippery as the average Maine trail. As a matter of fact, I made it through the entire day without landing on my back or cracking my ankle against a rock once. I could learn to live with that. A stretch of about a half-mile on that climb was so steep I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath, a rare occurrence for me after all of these miles, but the Appalachian Trail soon moderated to a reasonable climb. I did not run into any further difficult stretches for the remainder of the day. I will never again pay any attention to southbounders. They are all wimps, and besides, they are hiking the wrong way. What do they know? HAH! The trail today was rugged, but not nearly as rough as the Mahoosucs, Baldpate, or Moody Mountain.
The 4000-foot summits of both South and North Crocker were generally covered by scrappy-looking northern forests, but each provided partial views and there were great viewpoints along the ascents and descents. It was a nice conclusion to a pleasant day. The final five miles of the Appalachian Trail were a long descent along a ridge from North Crocker to Maine 27. There were steep portions near the beginning and the end of that descent, but again, most of it was fairly mild. I made it to the road at 3:00. I had hiked the entire rugged thirteen miles with only two short breaks, and I had two hours before the Post Office closed to procure a ride to Stratton. My job was done. I had hiked my butt off, and now it was time for the local motorists to come through for me.
During my first ten minutes on that road, I was passed by about a dozen logging trucks, but only two passenger vehicles. Fortunately for me, the second one stopped. As far as I can recall, ten minutes is my shortest hitch. I was dropped off at the Post Office. I picked up my package, took the short walk to the nearest motel, and was in my room about a half-hour after I had walked off of the trail. That was great. Stratton is my last hitch on the Appalachian Trail. My only remaining supply town is Monson, through which the AT actually passes. After getting a ride back to the trail tomorrow, I will need only rely on myself for the remainder of this adventure.
A nice looking restaurant with a salad bar is in this motel. I know where I am eating tonight. Then, I am going to call the folks at home for the second-to-the-last time on the Appalachian Trail. I want to make sure they got my boots and a money order off to me in my final supply package for Monson.
I passed the 10/11-point of the Appalachian Trail around the middle of my hike today (I care -- that's who). I also moved under two hundred miles left to go early this morning. In the seventy miles between here and Monson, all I will have to contend with are the Bigelow Range right at the beginning, three scattered small mountains, and the fording of the mighty Kennebec River at around the halfway point. Come to think of it, that sounds like a rather busy seventy miles.
Stratton is my second-to-the-last trail town on the Appalachian Trail. Unlike Rangeley and Gorham, which were prosperous tourist destinations and looked the part, Stratton is a throwback to those towns through which I passed during those long-ago days down south. Surrounded by noted resorts whose prosperity generally missed this place, Stratton is a quiet, peacefully-aging village of old, weathered, smallish houses -- sort of a Tom Sawyer town. Just like those similar towns down south, it has a certain charm. It looks like a nice place in which to grow up.
Since leaving Gorham, my pace has slowed considerably. I needed nine days to cover the 108 miles between Gorham and Stratton. Nevertheless, I cannot seem to get too worked up about it. I made it to Maine. I will make it to Katahdin.
Like so many losers, I was always a dreamer of big dreams. it was part of my downfall. I lost myself in a world of my own imagination and paid little attention to the reality of what I had become. Rather than turning my back on dreams a form of spiritual death, I put them to work for me on this quest. Like everybody else, I still sometimes get down on myself, but I no longer feel like a loser, and have not felt like one for some time.
I am nearing the fulfillment of three improbable dreams. One is the moment when I first catch sight of the mountain which has been the Holy Grail of this quest. The second is when I stand in that campground in Baxter State Park on the eve of my final climb. The third dream pictures a tired wanderer standing atop Baxter Peak. I chased those dreams northward through the endless blistering hell of a long, scorching summer. My dreams were often the one thing that kept me going. Now, I am in Maine: the autumn lands where northbound dreams come true.
188.5 miles to go.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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