I was prepared for The Whites. I had the notion that they would be challenging and slowed down accordingly. As long as one sets one’s expectations lower as far as pace and mileage, the experience can be rewarding and fulfilling.
As far as southern Maine, well, let’s just say I’ve had to reset my expectations.
Once I got back on the trail at Crawford Notch, I spent the next three days hopping from hut to hut. The White Mountains National Forest has a system of huts, which are bunkhouses that also serve meals. To stay at a hut costs $125 per person per night, but starting at about 4pm each night, the staff accepts between 2 and 4 thru hikers to stay in exchange for doing some work.
The first day back on the trail was beautiful.
After a steep but manageable climb from the road, the trail ascended gradually around some of the Presidentials the rest of the day, all the way to the Lakes of the Clouds hut. Since it’s so close to Mt. Washington, Lakes of the Clouds holds more than twice as many guests as most of the other huts and accepts more thru hikers (up to 8, as far as I could tell).
After watching all the guests eat (ie = torture), we thru hikers were called to the kitchen to eat the leftovers at about 8pm. And then when lights out was called at 9:30, we set up our sleeping pads on the floor of the dining room as a group of guests continued to drink red wind by the light of their headlamps. It felt kind of like being a Have Not among a group of Haves, but it was still pretty cool to get to enjoy the hut experience as an outsider without having to pay.
The following morning, after eating breakfast leftovers and sweeping the dining hall area, I hiked to Mt. Washington, which is notorious for having some of the worst weather in the country. Mt. Washington is in the background of the pic above with the radio towers atop it. Don’t be deceived by the pretty blue sky; by the time I got to the summit, my arms were chapped by the 33 mph winds, and a series of clouds were rolling through quickly.
I took this picture before quickly running inside the visitors center to escape the chill. The one major surprise was that there was a bike race going on that morning (there’s a 7-8 mile paved road up the mountain), so there were hoards of people everywhere. A bit overwhelming. A madhouse, you might say.
Once I descended from Mt. Washington, the weather improved dramatically, although the crowds didn’t abate. The Whites are a popular place to hike, it seems. I hadn’t seen such crowds on the trail since Shenandoah National Park over Memorial Day weekend.
I ultimately decided to make it a short day since the six miles to Madison Hut were reminiscent of Pennsylvania with the addition of elevation change, as in my feet were pretty roughed up.
The woman that was running Madison Hut that day wasn’t feeling particularly generous when I showed up at 3:50. She pointed out that it was a clear day and asked if there were a reason I couldn’t hike on. I pointed to my feet and noted that the three miles to the next campsite looked challenging. I ended up cleaning dishes and the industrial stove as my work for stay chore (a little over the top considering the other hiker there had to strip the sheets from the beds), but I was glad for it the next morning when the following three miles took me 2.5 hours.
Oh and also I’d gotten to see this fiery sunset, so it was worth it.
After the initial slow-going three mile stretch that following morning, I made my way into Pinkham Notch and sat outside the visitor center for a while. The night before Lentil, Code Walker, and Violet had hiked on to the campsite, so I’d lost touch. At the Notch, I had no reception to figure out where they’d gone in town, so I decided to hike on.
Directly north of Pinkham was a two mile climb up Wildcat Ridge that might as well be considered rock climbing.
Besides being extremely steep and inset with wooden steps to help during the ascent, there were points that I stared straight up at essentially sheer rock and thought, “OK, I guess I’m supposed to Spider-Man it up this wall.”
When I got to the top, I popped out at an operating ski lift. I can’t describe how incongruous it felt to see clean, well rested people stroll from the ski lift to the view and turn around to go back down again. I’d just spent two hours getting up there!
No matter. After a couple more hours of hiking, I made it to Carter Notch Hut, which ended up being my favorite in the lineup. The staff was friendly, and the guests equally so. Bonnie asked me to do the evening program (like a “Meet a Thru Hiker” kind of scenario), which was a ton of fun. I’m usually not interested in being the center of attention in a large crowd, but at this point in my trek, I’ve accumulated plenty of stories to share. And it was Q&A and informal so less intimidating.
The next morning Zach, another person on staff, made me gluten free pancakes, which was so generous considering we’re supposed to eat the guests’ leftovers. Then I hiked to a shelter right outside of Gorham, NH with Honey B, Vitamin C, and Ledge, who I’d been leapfrogging with for a few days.
The following morning we all made our way into the White Mountain Hostel, followed a few short hours by Lentil, Code Walker, and Violet, among others. In fact, it turned into a veritable reunion, as about a dozen hiker buddies were on their way out as more of us showed up. In fact, I was shocked to see Karma, who I’d bunked with at the Hiker Hostel all the way back in Georgia the night before we started! She ended up flip flopping and flew to Maine to hike south after making it to Harpers Ferry.
I just stayed one night at the White Mountain Hostel. Maybe I should have stayed more. I’m not playing a hand of Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda with myself, but I really might have benefitted from an extra day of rest. See, this is where the trail started beating my keester again.
Remember in Pennsylvania when I started bruising and getting cut up at the slightest provocation and generally feeling worn down? Unfortunately, I’m now watching the sequel.
The first day out of town I just hiked seven miles to a campsite since I’d left at 3pm. I stopped a few miles behind Lentil, Code Walker, and Violet but figured I’d catch them the following day.
But you know what happened the following day?
And it was so dumb too. First I slipped on mud, and the trekking pole cracked. But I wasn’t actually hurt. Just really really muddy. Really.
Then two minutes later I was testing out the pole’s stability since it was only cracked when the whole piece gave way, and I fell on a rock. That’s where I got the gash in my leg. Stupid stupid stupid.
It took about five seconds for me to process the broken pole and the blood dripping down my leg before I started crying (in frustration, not pain) and cursing and beating the broken pole repeatedly into the ground. And, just my luck, Dip and Sip and Newton (who I’d just met ten minutes before) walked up on what was meant to be a private moment.
I sheepishly apologized for my outburst, which they both brushed off as warrantable and then helped me clean up my leg. Then, when they were sure I was OK, they hiked on. I spent the rest of the day hobbling with one trekking pole, five+ days of food, and a gash in my leg in 85+ degree heat up and down steep terrain.
It definitely wasn’t my best day ever, but it did have its highlights.
1. I made it to Maine! Can I get a high five? Maine!
2. I decided to stop early at 4pm since I was so exhausted. At first I was upset at the thought of not catching up with my friends, but once I decided to stop at a shelter four miles shy, I was so relieved. I spent three hours resting and airing out my gash. And later Lentil told me there’d been literally sixty people at the following shelter that night – 15 thru hikers, two groups out with a college freshman orientation program, and an Outward Bound group. Egads! Right?
3. I made it to Maine!
So now I think is a good time to get a little reflective. This week I’ve felt very alone. Not lonely, mind you, but alone. In particular since I’ve found Maine challenging so far, my aloneness has hit me acutely.
Three days ago I hiked Mahoosuc Notch, which is known as the most challenging mile on the trail. The stretch consists of a series of awkwardly placed, large boulders that one has to climb over, under, around. I’m not mourning my height, but every inch counts when climbing. Have I mentioned I’m 5’3″? …and I have no upper body strength.
At times I found myself dangling by my chicken arms, wondering if I’d find firm ground below or if I’d lose my grip first. Just once I had to take my pack off and lower it so I could get through a tight squeeze.
It took me two hours, and I ended up with a series of bruises on my arms and legs (surprise). But I did it. Completely alone. On the one hand, I felt really proud of myself. And being alone let me go at my own pace without feel pressured to speed up. On the other hand, I felt vulnerable in that there was nobody to help me if/when I got stuck or hurt.
That’s a poignant example, but these feelings have been underlying my trek for a while, increasingly so as the trail has become more challenging.
For at least the past month, Lentil and I have been pacing differently. We run into each other every few days, but our hiking mojo isn’t in line. And the same goes with the litany of other hikers I’ve met on the trail: Code Walker, Violet, Honey B, Vitamin C, Ledge, Baltimore, Mother Theresa, Wilson. And the list goes on by many dozens.
There is something wonderful about meeting other thru hikers on the trail and having an instant connection. It doesn’t matter what someone’s background is or where they come from. In my experience, meeting another thru hiker creates enough common ground to make me feel comfortable.
The other side of that coin is that people come and go at the drop of a hat. Meet someone one day, feel that instant connection, and the next day they’ve hiked on (or I’ve hiked on). More often than not, I’ll end up seeing that person again, often when I least expect it. But the constant loss – or maybe it’s fear of loss – of these new connections can become exhausting.
That’s the one thing I won’t miss when I’m done with this trek.
I could be wrong (I’ve been known to be fickle. Who, me?), but I think I’ve finally come to terms with this part of the experience. I still really want to finish with my friends, but I also want to make it in one piece and want to enjoy the ride. For example, Lentil’s currently 10 miles ahead of me and feeling pumped by this terrain, whereas I’m feeling run down and beat up. I could’ve hiked ten today to catch up but decided I needed to zero to rest my body and restore some mental energy. This concept has been a tough pill to swallow since I’m a social creature (maybe not a social butterfly but at least a social…Sasquatch?), but I know that was the right decision for me.
It’s only been a few days since I embraced this new perspective, specifically since I crossed the border into Maine, it seems. And it’s already served me well.
A couple of days ago, I hiked into Grafton Notch and was feeling worn out from the miles of steep downhill with one trekking pole. At the parking lot in the notch, I got into a conversation about thru hiking with this day hiker Dave. After talking for an hour, he offered me dinner and a place to stay for the night. I had planned to hike a few miles, the thought of catching up with my friends in the back of my mind. Then I thought, “What the heck. My knee’s killing me. I could be done right this second.”
I ended up catching a ride into Bethel with this friendly middle aged couple, and then Dave picked me up. Don’t worry; I called my mom beforehand to make sure someone knew where I was.
This was the ride. I was a little nervous since I hadn’t been on a motorcycle since I was 15, but I figured I’d already gone down the rabbit hole on this one. It would just be another part of the adventure.
I had an awesome evening. Shower, laundry, homemade turkey burgers (with sweet potato fries. Enough said), good company, good music, soft bed. (Thanks again for the many kindnesses, Dave!)
If I’d hiked a couple miles in an attempt to catch up with friends, I’d likely have ended up at the next shelter – still behind and alone. Instead I had an awesome evening and got to experience a part of Maine that I would otherwise completely have missed from the trail.
Anyway, I know that this blog post is long-winded and all over the place, but it’s probably because I’ve had lots of time (alone!) to think recently. And I figured I might as well not just let the thoughts fester.
Then again, I’m sure they’ll keep looping in my head over and over for the next three or four weeks. It may not seem like it, but I’m still a ways from Katahdin, especially at my current pace.