We left Stratton Mountain after breakfast aiming 13.7 miles north to a highway where we would hitch into Manchester Center to resupply. Like our visits to DC and NYC, Stratton had been a planned stop from the beginning. With the last planned stop now behind us, Katahdin was really on our minds. However, The Whites and Maine aside, I still had something especially exciting to look forward to – a visit from a very special friend.
Throughout the past couple weeks, my bravest friend and I had been planning to meet up so she could join us on the hike. A series of texts and calls discussing schedule and location predictions eventually led to us deciding to meet in Hanover, NH, home of Dartmouth College. From Manchester Center, we needed enough supplies to hike 100 miles to get there.
The 13.7 miles took less than six hours on this pretty day. When we arrived at the busy highway, we were happy to see a day hiker returning to his car, and he was quick to offer us a ride 6 miles into town. We did our best to make the stop quick and efficient, and, after eating and shopping, found another easy ride back to the trail. With our freshly resupplied packs, we hiked a mile and a half arriving at the shelter just as the sun was setting.
We were blessed with another pretty day and set out fairly early. We were hoping to hike 22.6 miles, but when we arrived at Little Rock Pond & Shelter 17.8 miles later, we couldn’t pull ourselves away. The water was just too inviting, the shelter welcomed us too warmly, and 5 additional miles became much too far away.
We were lucky to snag the last two spots in the shelter after a quick swim. Over dinner it seemed like everyone was discussing the same thing – tomorrow’s forecast which called for a whole day of rain. Joy.
Overnight, we were awoken more than once by rain pinging against the metal roof overhead. Morning came, but the rain didn’t cease. We slowly packed our bags, mentally preparing ourselves for the soggy day ahead. Suddenly 7 turned to 8 which turned to 9. We weren’t the only ones that were hesitant. In fact, the phrase “zero day” was being tossed around. Oh yeah, we don’t have to walk. We don’t have to go anywhere. So… let’s not?
Neither of us needed convinced. This shelter could be our all day haven from the downpour which would leave us soaked head to toe. Sure, we could trudge through the cold rain arriving at the next shelter that would likely be full. We could then sit around like soggy rats in our tent, debating if cooking in the rain was even worth the hassle. We could get our shoes and socks wet producing not only painful sores on our haggard feet but also a smell somewhere between wet dog and a moldy basement.
BigFoot and I, accompanied by Hoff and Honey Britches, unrolled the Thermarests we had just packed up and made ourselves cozy for our dry day. In the South, I loved the trail so much I faced these “Appalachian Trials” with much more courage and tolerance. 1670 miles and nearly 5 months since we first stepped foot on the AT, I was over the rain. Way over it.
Choosing a zero day felt liberating and, although we had little entertainment, we enjoyed swapping stories as the hours passed. By about 2, the rain stopped. We “considered” moving on, but we weren’t going anywhere. We saw a few hikers come and go, looking as miserable as can be imagined, yet still trying to find a smile.
The next day was dry and sunny, and we left Little Rock Pond with no regrets. Feeling as though we had something to prove, we set out for a 22.3 mile day ending at a shelter on top of Mt Killington. We arrived just in time to see a beautiful sunset, a rarity in the green tunnel that comprises the AT.
A brisk morning awoke us, and we set out. By 11, we had walked 6.3 miles, and my weakness for a hot meal won over. We enjoyed lunch at the Inn at Long Trail a half mile down the highway and contemplated the remaining 500 miles to Katahdin. Though 500 miles seems small compared to the 1700 miles we had already completed, we still had over a month of difficult hiking ahead of us. I did my best not to dwindle on 500 for toolong. Quite frankly, it overwhelmed me.
Instead, a new thought. A reunion awaited 2 days and 44 miles north. On we hiked, completing 19.3 miles for the day. The following day, we completed a difficult 23.3 miles before arriving in the town of West Hartford.
We were making our way through the small town when a bell rang, and a man motioned us over to his house. Cold sodas were immediately offered as well as a bunk in his garage or yard space for a tent. Happy to be done hiking, we gratefully accepted and stayed at Randy’s house with a dozen other hikers for the evening indulging in pizza and more cold soda from town.
In the morning, we woke early as Randy was making coffee and pancakes for the hungry hikers. We politely declined, hoping to make good time into Hanover nine miles away.
The hike was over in three hours, and we walked into town. Well, more like strutted as we drank sodas and munched homemade cookies left in coolers in the driveways of the houses that lined the street. Awesome.
We arrived before noon and snagged our package that was waiting for us at the post office. Our winter gear had arrived for its potential use in the Whites which now were only 43 miles away!
Our timing couldn’t have been better as one phone call indicated that my friend was turning down the street we were on. Let’s give Claudia a warm welcome back to the story, shall we!?
Oh, what a gift!! After we exchanged hugs and words so fast it probably made BigFoot’s head spin, we attempted to do our town chores. We found the hiker friendly laundry and shower facilities on Dartmouth’s campus unfortunately closed. Well… what’s another week’s worth of sweat and dirt??
Next, we successfully resupplied, ate some hot food, shook down Claudia’s pack, and safely stashed her car. We were ready to hit the trail. Just as we were on the outskirts of town, we noticed big, black clouds rolling in. Sigh. Welcome to the AT, Claudia!
We set out anyway knowing we would come to a shelter in less than 2 miles. Thankfully, the rain held out until we arrived. Though we intended to hike further that day, we played it safe and joined a few other hikers in the dry shelter for the evening.
We were quite grateful the rain was mild and short lived. We awoke early the next morning to clouds that dissipated steadily and had all but disappeared by noon. I was happy to see them go – I wanted nothing but a sunshiney experience for Claudia who I was already putting through a physical challenge.
By noon, Claudia had successfully completed her first summit on the AT, and we were blessed with beautiful views. After lunch at a nearby shelter, we continued down the mountain mentally prepping for the next climb. Between these two mountains, we crossed a road and noticed a group of hikers near a truck. Trail Magic. We bee lined for the truck and so happily devoured hotdogs, chips, and sodas.
Feeling powered up, we set out for our final 3 miles for the day. At the summit, it was clear we were really pushing Claudia. She came to the trail in shape and with the best possible attitude, but, put plainly, the AT is hard! I was nothing but proud of her for successfully completing 16.1 miles her first full day on the trail.
The day ended when we saw a sign for Bill Ackerly’s house. Bill, like a few others, graciously allows hikers to camp in his lawn and provides ice cream for every hiker that passes through. We arrived at his house and were warmly greeted by this trail legend. We devoured our ice cream bars, and BigFoot was thrilled to dominate a round of croquet. After we did our typical evening chores, we were all happy to crawl into our tents.
Morning came, and we gladly accepted the offered hot coffee. After we felt properly caffeinated, we set out for another 15 mile day which included a 2500 ft climb up Smarts Mtn followed by a 1400 ft climb up Mt Cube – a tough day even for those of us with our “trail legs.”
We began our first climb which sprawled over 6 miles from Bill’s house. BigFoot and I took off ahead of Claudia, knowing the climb would take her a bit longer. We stopped about halfway up at a good resting point and awaited her arrival.
Reunited, we enjoyed the view together and readied ourselves for the remainder of the climb. Again, BigFoot and I took the lead agreeing to reunite with Claudia at Smarts’ summit.
It took us just shy of an hour to arrive at the firetower that topped Smarts Mtn. We enjoyed the views and broke into our lunch while we anticipated Claudia’s arrival. Soon fellow hiker, Easy Go, joined us. Next, Birdie arrived. Then, Last Chance. Almost an hour had passed, and there was still no sign of my friend. None of other hikers saw her. I had a bad feeling, but decided we would give her a little more time before we retraced our steps.
When we were just about to head back down the mountain, we suddenly saw her emerge at the summit, our faces happier than hers.
“I went the wrong fucking way. For a half hour. Down the mountain.”
Although I was quite relieved that she showed up all appendages in tact, feelings of guilt immediately began to sink in. I should’ve been stopping to check her progress. This was totally my fault.
She dumped her bag and, although clearly frustrated with herself, didn’t point blame and barely even seemed mad. She definitely wasn’t the first to take the wrong trail, and she wouldn’t be the last. And now, she had a trail name: Detour.
We told her to rest and take as much time as she needed. After lunch, we started down the mountain. I vowed to keep a better eye on her and, although BigFoot and I inevitably ended up ahead, we stopped at every trail junction to ensure that she stayed on the AT.
It was about 6 pm when we all made it to the summit of Mt Cube. We took a long break at the summit, in awe of the mountains that surrounded us. We were all pretty pooped and decided we would stealth camp at the next water source.
We found plenty of room at Brackett Brooke and set up camp for the night. The next day we planned to hike 11.5 miles to Hikers Welcome Hostel. Here, we would take necessary showers and do laundry as well as say goodbye to my dearest friend.
Morning came, and we took our time breaking down camp. Claudia, though beyond thrilled with her experience, was tired and happy to be returning to town comforts.
“For the record, you two are fucking crazy.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
By late afternoon, we arrived at Hikers Welcome and began our chores. The rumor mill hinted at the possibility of trail angels making dinner that evening. Needless to say, we stuck around and were so happy when the rumors came true. Hamburgers, hotdogs, chips, and watermelon sure beat Pasta Sides.
Right before dusk, BigFoot and I finished packing our bags. We wanted to hike one additional mile to the next shelter, not only to save a little money, but to be as close to the base of Mt. Moosilauke as possible.
I gave Claudia a big squeeze so proud of her accomplishment. We pushed her hard, and she impressed me with her strength, perseverance, and consistent positive attitude. Seriously, Claud, good work.
BigFoot and I raced against the setting sun arriving at the shelter moments before it was too dark to see. After 1790 miles, we could hardly believe we had made it to the Whites known for being both the most beautiful and the most challenging section of the AT.
Tomorrow was truly the beginning of the end.