The Home Stretch
July 26, 2013, 4:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

After two days in Gorham, I was well-rested for the Whites. Well, my legs were, anyway – we stayed up pretty late both nights hanging out with everyone and my internal clock wakes me up by seven no matter what time I went to bed. I probably got 5 hours of sleep each night I spent in town, so I was in no hurry to get out in the morning and climb a mountain. Neither was anyone else. I was the second hiker out, at 11:45. My goal was the Carter Notch Hut, 14 miles away.

The Whites are the only stretch of the trail that do not have traditional shelters. There are some, but they have caretakers and charge an $8 fee, as do most of the tent sites maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. About a half day’s walk apart you find Huts, which are hike-in lodges that offer a bunk, dinner, and breakfast for $100 or more. Obviously, that doesn’t fit in a long-distance hiker’s budget, but they do allow two thru-hikers per night to do a “work-for-stay.” The first two in spend an hour doing dishes, or sweeping, or folding blankets, or some other manual labor chore, and in return they can have as much of the leftovers as they can eat and sleep on the floor after the guests go to bed. It’s not a bad deal, when the alternative is camping in a thunderstorm on a ridgeline at 5,000 feet.

Unfortunately, I did not make it to the hut. Lack of sleep drained my energy, and I set up camp about four miles short – and camped in a thunderstorm on a ridgeline at 5,000 feet. Smooth hiked up after my tent was pitched, and asked if I thought it was a good idea to camp up here. “Nope,” I told him.

“But you’re camping here anyway?”

“Yup.”

“Isn’t that a little risky?”

“Probably.  But I don’t really like the idea of walking another mile to camp on the same ridge, either, so here I am.” He debated for a bit, eyed the clouds, and then pitched his tent too. We watched lightning dance across the clouds for about an hour, mostly in the distance:

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Right at dark we hit the tents as it started to rain. Within minutes, the storm was lashing our tents and lightning flashed every few seconds. “HEY LOBSTER!” I heard over the squall, “ARE YOU A RELIGIOUS MAN?!?” Fortunately, it died down within half an hour and when we woke up in the morning it was clear and sunny. As we dried our tents, Smooth said there was no way he’d have camped there if I hadn’t seemed so confident that we would be fine. I chuckled to myself, because I’d been sitting there thinking it was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done on the trail when he walked up. The next day, when Chris (now Boss) caught up to Smooth and I, he told us that Blue had run into the shelter after dark the previous night, yelling and babbling like a wild man. Apparently he’d been on top of the mountain just before that cooking dinner when the storm rolled in, and as he was trying to hike off he smelled a strange odor, felt a tingling sensation, and then ZAP! lightning struck the mountain and he got an aftershock through the ground. He hasn’t caught up yet – apparently he decided to slow down a bit after that.

We traversed the Wildcat Ridge that day, which offered beautiful panoramic views of the Presidential Range – which was like my Katahdin.  I saw them from a distance five years ago on my first hike, and to see them again and know I was almost there was a good feeling:

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From there we descended into Pinkham Notch, where we came to the Joe Dodge Lodge.  A northbounder had assured us that we could resupply there, so I only carried a couple days’ worth of food out of Gorham.  We had also heard there was a cafeteria where we could get a hot meal before hiking on.  Neither was correct – the only resupply option for the three dinners I needed was three bags of freeze-dried lasagna.  I don’t care how good it is, eating the same thing every night gets old quickly.  And the dinner?  It was a sit-down meal served by a chef, and cost me $28.  Worth it, but not everyone out here collects a paycheck, so the three guys behind me were pissed.  One guy, Big Dog, had beaten us there and scored a free meal ticket.  Evidently someone had paid for two meals for the first two thru-hikers to get there, and he and a northbounder each got lucky.  After dinner, they tried to sweet-talk the girls behind the desk into letting us camp there: “Can we stay in the hiker room?  What about the porch?  Can we sleep on the floor of your bathroom?” but they were having none of that.  The options were poor: backtrack a quarter mile to a campsite, or night-hike five miles to another one.  I wanted to night hike and make miles, but stayed quiet until Smooth spoke up and said he’d do it.  Then I jumped on board, and the other guys followed suit.  They cooked dinner, and we packed up and headed out at about 10pm.  I didn’t want to lead, because I’m the fastest in the group and would get too far ahead, but 50 feet in the guy in front took a wrong turn…so I took over.  I absolutely flew on some flat ground and mild uphills, stopping every 10 minutes or so to wait for the other guys.  There was a storm on the way, so I wanted to move, but I knew they couldn’t keep up and the trail was poorly marked.  There were a few completely unmarked turn-offs, so I made sure to wait at each one, and we made it to the site at about 12:30 – only to find every tent platform full.  We searched around in the dark for little crevasses and crannies to fit our tents into.  I found a nice one, but two guys ended up tenting in the fire ring.  For all that, we slept great.

We headed out around 11:00 the next morning after sleeping in to climb Mt. Madison, a 3,000-foot ascent in 2.5 miles.  It was steep, and long, and the last mile or so was over loose rock scrambles in high winds.  According to the forecast, the winds ranged from 40 to 70 miles an hour, with a peak gust atop Mt. Washington that day of 90.  We stopped at Madison Hut for lunch, and from there traversed the Presidential Range.  Words cannot describe the beauty and power of these mountains.  The winds were so strong that they held me up as I leaned into them, even with my pack on.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I loved every minute of it!

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Mt. Washington is the second-tallest peak on the trail, and possibly the most impressive because of its legendary weather (the highest wind speed ever recorded on earth was there, at 231 miles an hour, and they get snow every month of the year).  It also, to me, was the final major milestone of my hike.  I was as giddy as a little kid as I almost ran up the mountain.  There is a visitor center, weather station, and railroad stop at the summit, along with lots and lots of tourists who pay $64 to ride the train up or $27 plus $8 a head to drive up.  Walking’s free, and a lot more rewarding.

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That night we caught up to John (Skirka) at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  Because it’s so exposed and remote and the weather is so dangerous, they take four thru-hikers a night normally; for us they allowed all six to work-for-stay.  We had plenty to eat and weathered a wicked thunderstorm under a roof.  The hut is located just over a mile from the summit of Washington next to two glacial tarns, and it is definitely a place I will visit again.  The sunset from there was amazing.

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The next day, the forecast called for thunderstorms with hail and winds up to 100 mph.  We asked a few questions of the Hut “croo” about when it would hit and what they thought it would be like, but they just shrugged and said “Look out the window.  Other than that, there’s no way to tell.”  We were a little nervous about getting caught above treeline, but headed out to Ethan Pond Campsite 14 miles away.  The terrain was fairly smooth and I made great time, quickly leaving everyone else behind.  I really enjoyed the hike along the ridgeline.  I descended Webster Cliffs, a steep, rocky drop-off, and crossed a road to find some of the best, smoothest trail I’d seen this year.  I got into Ethan Pond campsite just after five to find 5 weekend hikers in the shelter and space for two, maybe three more.  I grabbed a spot, settled in, and went for a swim in the pond while I waited for the rest of the group.  It was almost 7 before anyone else caught up, and Big Dog and Skirka crammed into the remaining space in the shelter.  The rest of the crew rolled in a little later, but by then three of the weekenders had moved out and decided to tent.  Then the other two girls took off too.  They were setting up their tent next to Echo and Boss, who asked why they weren’t in the shelter.  “Um…it really smells in there…” they said, so those guys quickly packed up their tent and joined us!  It was a first for me – I’ve never cleared out a shelter due to the “hiker funk” before!  I watched a gorgeous sunset over the pond that night and we all joked around until we fell asleep.  It was a great night.

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We left Ethan Pond and found the best stretch of trail in the northeast: five miles of flat, smooth, packed gravel.  I covered the first five miles in about 75 minutes to Zealand Falls Hut, where I grabbed a couple bowls of soup for lunch.  Smooth and Skirka left early while the rest of us listened to the Ethan Pond caretaker, who followed us on a day hike, and another Croo member play the banjo.  After that I moved a lot slower, but was enjoying the hike in my own little world.  Boss, Echo, and Big Dog caught up when I stopped for a break, and so did another hiker – Up – who I didn’t really know but had been just ahead of us for weeks.  Apparently he got up at 3pm that day and we’d passed him near the last hut.  We climbed one more peak, with an awesome 360-degree view, and then descended to the Galehead Hut.  The Huts (other than Lakes of the Clouds) are only supposed to take two thru-hikers a night for work, and since Smooth and Skirka were ahead the rest of us were taking it easy and planned to find a stealth camping spot just beyond that.  I got to the hut first, and since they hadn’t turned anyone away yet I went on in and asked if they might have work for a third hiker.  They said no problem, so I got to stay there too.  The other four caught up, and they asked if they could stick around for dinner…and they said that was fine too.   Eventually, the croo just said they didn’t care if they tented out back, so in the end seven of us ended up staying at a Hut that only allowed two.  It was pretty perfect, since it was my last night on trail.  We stayed up watching the sunset and stars and talking on top of a boulder out back.

On my last day, we climbed Mt. Lafayette and traversed the Franconia Ridge.  I was pretty pumped, and flew up the mountain.  I passed or caught everyone on the way up, then stopped for a break.  I caught Smooth, Skirka, and Chris on the way down and we hiked the rest of the way into town.  There was no impressive finish like Mt. Katahdin, and the normally-amazing Franconia Ridge was shrouded in fog, but I didn’t care.  Five years and about 2,500 miles later (since I overlapped some sections) I completed the Appalachian Trail.  It was a bittersweet moment, because after getting to know the group over the past few weeks I really just wanted to keep on hiking with them, but it was also an amazing feeling to know I had finished.

We caught a ride to “Chet’s Place,” a hostel in Lincoln, NH, and I celebrated with almost everyone I’d hiked with for two nights.  In addition to the six guys I’d finished the Whites with, the Nebraska crew rolled in the second day, and Devon–the older Canadian sister–was there because she’d sprained her ankle badly a few days ago and left Erica to finish the Whites while she waited at Chet’s.  It was a great way to end, and the perfect place, because to me the greatest thing about the Trail isn’t the mountains, or the views, or the hiking…it’s the people.  Chet, a former hiker who was injured in a stove accident, opens his home to hikers and asks only whatever donation or service they can give in return.  He embodies the kindness and generosity I’ve come to know while hiking, and I couldn’t ask for a better way to conclude my hike.

The trail has been amazing, but now I’m off on a new adventure: an 800-mile cycle tour of Canada.  As with starting the AT, I’ve never really done anything like this before, but I’m sure I’ll learn everything I need to know along the way!

Thank you to everyone who has made my hikes possible with your love and support and encouragement!

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Bill, you are my hero. ‘Nuf said.

Comment by Mom

CONGRATS BILL!!! It’s been wonderful to follow your AT adventures – can’t wait for the next one!

Comment by Karen

This has been the best five years of reading the story of your life, I am so proud of you. Until the next chapter, may God Bless you and keep you safe.

Comment by Aunt Joyce




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