1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The wind filters through the forest and whooshes overhead. All deciduous trees have long since disappeared from the surrounding landscape, leaving only the austere evergreens - the pine, spruce, and fir - their trunks straight and unyielding over a mat of moss and ferns. When I close my eyes, I can see myself back in the Roan Highlands, hiking through pine forests onto open balds, only to be blown over by unrelenting gusts of wind. Ahead, the trees become stunted, their trunks contorted in the alpine air. Tree line is near.
Breathe, I tell myself.
I am halfway up Mt. Madison, heading south over the Presidential Range. Yesterday, I decided to hike the Presidentials before covering the section from here to Monson. I'd had no time to think, no time to worry, before setting out. After speaking with the staff at Pinkham Notch, I headed next door to the Joe Dodge Lodge to book two bunks: one at Madison Spring Hut, one at Mizpah Hut.
There are no shelters in the Presidential Range. Rather, the trail passes through three huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). I will reach Madison Spring Hut first, then Lakes of the Clouds Hut, just south of Mt. Washington, and finally, Mizpah Hut. Thru-hikers can sometimes work-for-stay (complete chores in exchange for sleeping indoors) at the huts, but hut crews approve and deny such requests at their discretion. I chose to make reservations to ensure a spot at the huts.
The lady in charge of reservations looked up languidly from her phone call. "If you're looking for trail information, you'll want to go next door."
I told her I'd like to make reservations for Madison Spring Hut and Mizpah Hut.
She looked me up and down. "You are aware of the distance?"
"Yes." 11.8 miles between the huts. Hikers often said the Whites could halve your mileage. It would be a long day, but not an impossible one.
"Well, if you don't make it, and we do have room at Lakes, you might be able to exchange," she said.
I will make it, I'd thought fiercely.
Mom dropped me off at Pinkham Notch early in the morning, and I started hiking automatically, relying on my body to remember what to do before my brain registered the fact that I would be heading above tree line. By the time I fully woke up and paused to think about what I was doing, I was standing in the middle of a thicket of twisted krummholz, about to emerge onto 12 miles of exposed ridge.
And now, short of an emergency, the only way off the mountains is to go up and over the Presidential Range.
I take a step. Another. The trail is all rock, uneven and steep, bearing more resemblance to a pile of randomly strewn rubble than the dirt trails of the south.
And suddenly, the vast expanse of the White Mountains opens before me. Directly ahead lie the jagged peaks of the Presidential Range. Behind me, I can see the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Range. Franconia Ridge lies further south, behind the Presidentials.
I freeze. I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful.
Once I start climbing, my full concentration on the ground before me, the heights seem more tolerable. There are at least 9 false summits before I finally reach Mt. Madison. From the summit, I pick my way down towards Madison Spring Hut. The hut is only 0.5 miles away, but the rocks are treacherous. I spend much of my time sliding down on my bum.
How nice it is to enter the safety of the hut! I open the door to find myself in a dining room with two neat rows of tables and benches. One member of the hut crew stirs a huge pot of stew in the kitchen. A tray of baked goods for sale lies on the closest table, and a single rubber duck sits atop the check-in counter. After checking in, I pick a bunk. There are several bunk rooms, each with multiple compartments that contain two sets of three-story bunk beds. Each bed sports its own reading lamp.
More guests file in as the afternoon wears on. That night, we feast on salad, bread, broccoli, mac & cheese, and peppermint chocolate cake. As we wait for dessert, the four crew members introduce themselves.
"We pack out food twice a week," they say. "It takes 500 lbs to feed 300 guests."
Someone asks about the rubber duck.
"We learned about this from the summer crew, but apparently, one of the crew went to Lakes at night and put 420 rubber ducks in it."
Ever since, all the huts have been engaged in a rubber duck war; they send rubber ducks to other huts via hiker traffic, and the hut with the lowest number of rubber ducks wins.
I set out at dawn the next morning to give myself ample time to reach Mizpah Hut. Nearly my entire hike will be above tree line.
The sun rises directly behind Mt. Madison, casting its flaming light onto Mt. Adams. I gaze down into the gap between the peaks. Madison Spring Hut is a small white square against the looming black spectre of Mt. Madison. In the distance, lesser peaks emerge above a sea of fog. A wisp of cloud floats across the gap, like smoke illuminated by candlelight.
I circle around Mt. Adams and find the way ahead veiled in mist. The wind picks up, howling across the barren landscape, not strong enough to knock me off my feet, but enough to disconcert me.
I pass by a wooden post with a faded sign nailed to its top. Two other signs, dislodged by wind, lie stacked against its base. Stone cairns stick up like gravestones in the fog, marking the trail ahead. Time becomes measured in handholds, butt slides, unsteady footing, and seconds to the next step. Every mile stretches into eternity.
Hiking above tree line in the Presidential Range makes me acutely aware that nature is not to be trifled with. Not here, in this inhospitable - yet beautiful - landscape that man has not quite succeeded in taming. Here, where not even trees can thrive, I am a guest subject to the whims of Nature.
These mountains cannot be conquered, I realize. I can hike through them and enjoy them, but I am merely a guest, allowed to stay for a brief time. To be up here is to be face to face with my limitations: to conquer myself.
I make my way around Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Clay before beginning my ascent up Mt. Washington. The trail parallels the Cog Railway for a mile before the summit. I hear the train whistle, the steady chugging along the tracks, long before I see it. The train passes by, heading back down the mountain with a full load of passengers in back. A conductor stands out front. He waves as I stare at him. Numbly, I wave back. One by one, the passengers begin waving, too.
As I approach the summit of Mt. Washington, the wall of fog obscures everything but the rocks at my feet. I stop by the summit sign for a photo, then hurry into the snack bar to grab a bowl of clam chowder for lunch. Even in this weather, the place bustles with people. All the tables are full. I squeeze in next to Jim and Jim, a father and son duo.
"Are you a hiker?" the older Jim asks me.
"Yes," I say.
They'd ridden up the railway earlier that day - and gotten mooned by an AT hiker. "He just turned around and..." Jim mimes dropping his pants.
I struggle to keep from laughing. "Yes, that's an - unfortunate - thru-hiker tradition. The Cog Railway parallels the AT for about a mile, so I guess the temptation's there."
After all, thru-hikers have precious little in the way of everyday entertainment.
The wind blows at a steady 25-30 mph as I head down, with gusts up to 45 mph. After stopping at Lakes of the Clouds for a piece of cake, I move on towards Mt. Monroe, Mt. Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce. The trail circles around the first two peaks before summiting Mt. Pierce.
For the first time since sunrise, I find myself below the cloud layer, and the views are so breathtaking that I almost forget about the wind. Almost.
I stop often to take pictures. The wind is now so strong that my hands have trouble holding my phone steady. Each peak ahead looms over me. I find myself sighing with relief each time the trail bypasses a mountain. Just before reaching Mt. Pierce, the trail dips below tree line. Safe at last!
Atop Mt. Pierce, I look back towards the way I came. The trail is clearly visible: a line of rocks stretching all the way back to Mt. Washington. From here, I can see nearly half of the Presidential Range, though Mt. Washington remains hidden in the clouds.
One more steep descent, and I am at Mizpah Hut. Bruce, an AMC volunteer, checks me in. It is 5:00 pm, an hour before they serve dinner.
"Where did you come from?" he asks.
"Oh, so that's why you're late," he replies.
At dinner, I meet one other hiker who hiked from Madison Spring Hut. Several others didn't make it to Mizpah today.
"It's a shame, because they have to pay," Bruce notes.
The crew sets the tables. I sit near a couple of older section hikers named Debbie and Eddie.
"I'm a walker. I've always been a walker," Debbie tells me. "I like reaching goals. That's why I'd never do a thru-hike. There'd just be disappointment. I have other goals in life."
That's the challenge in life, isn't it? Setting huge goals and working towards them single-mindedly in the face of uncertain success: How difficult it is to embrace the possibility of failure! To take pride in one's accomplishments even if the goal is not reached! To toe the line between unbridled recklessness and overcautious fear!
I spend most of the next day sliding down cliffs on my bottom. With all the practice I've had lately, the not-so-subtle art of butt-sliding seems easier than before. The trail passes over two smaller peaks, Mt. Jackson and Mt. Webster, both below tree line, before heading straight down Webster Cliffs.
Northbound hikers stream by me. I gauge the difficulty of the upcoming terrain by looking at their faces. Towards the top of Mt. Webster, many of the hikers walk by wide-eyed and traumatized; as I reach the bottom of the rocky terrain, the hikers seem much more relaxed. Happy, even.
I run into Iron Man, whom I'd seen while hiking in Virginia and while doing trail magic in Connecticut, a couple miles from Crawford Notch. I'd told him about my intentions to flip-flop.
"You're doing the thing!" he says.
He tells me the terrain up ahead is much easier. Good, I think.
My cousin, aunt, and uncle pick me up from the trailhead on Route 302. After hoisting my pack into the trunk, I hop into their SUV and lean back into the seat, grateful and content.