1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The town of North Adams, MA, lies in the shadow of Mt. Greylock. The mountain looms over homes and roads, forming the backdrop of Greylock School. A crossing guard in a bright orange vest stands near the road, waving students on. Children line up on the front steps.
“Fourth grade!” a teacher calls. “Fifth grade! Sixth grade!”
It is strange to hike through a town and watch the townspeople go about their daily lives, to be so close to civilization and yet so far away. I cross a bridge lined with colorful handprints. Then, it’s time to climb Mt. Greylock, my last 3000+ ft mountain on this trail.
The climb is long. Not hard; just a steady uphill. An austere stone tower, a Veterans war memorial, caps the mountain. Nearby stands Bascom Lodge, a hotel and restaurant with great views of the surrounding valleys. A paved road leads directly to the lodge, and countless tourists dot the summit.
I spend an hour enjoying the war memorial and eating lunch at the lodge. I buy a Diet Coke, too, which fizzes and spills everywhere as soon as I open it. I rush it to the bathroom, where I discover, to my dismay, that the soda has frozen into a solid block of ice. Ah well. Lunch was good.
A few dayhikers wish me luck on the trail. A couple tell me that a couple guys are just ahead, but I never find out who they are.
By the time I walk into Cheshire, the sun is setting. I stop by the Dollar General for drinks, then hurry to the local church; my AT guide notes that the church allows tenting. I'm supposed to rouse the reverend and ask permission, but the windows are dark. I circle around the church, trying each door. No luck. I see a group of teenagers across the parking lot, parkouring across the rooftop of a nearby building. As I leave, I see them climb up the side of the church.
And so, I walk out of town, past rows of lighted houses with manicured lawns. The smell of dinner from a dozen households lingers in the air. A pang of longing shoots through me as I think about my meager dehydrated meals. Reluctantly, I re-enter the woods and throw down my tent in the dark. The spot is lopsided, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I lie awake listening to the sound of the wind, chipmunks, and barking dogs for most of the night. Exhaustion dogs my steps the next day. All morning, I trip over acorns in the woods. Clusters of them line the trail, like handfuls of marbles underfoot. Leaves conceal any roots or rocks beneath me; in some places, the blanket of leaves is so thick that I can sink ankle deep into them.
I grab lunch while passing through the town of Dalton; by the time I reach the shelter, I am spent.
Luckily, I get a good night’s rest. I leave at first light, with a reach goal of Upper Goose Pond Cabin. The cabin lies 0.5 miles off trail, 18.3 miles away. I should have just enough time to arrive before sunset, even in the shorter fall days.
The fall foliage is stunning. When I get to October Mountain Shelter - over halfway to Upper Goose Pond Cabin - just shy of 12:00 pm, I know I will make it in time. The only question: Is the cabin still open? A northbound section hiker told me they’d close as soon as a bunch of firemen arrived for their yearly celebration, which could be 'any day now.'
A lean older man sits at the picnic table of October Mountain Shelter, his belongings spread across one of the bunks. He introduces himself as Nomad, a 2012 thru-hiker.
We start chatting. I tell him I grew up in a university town.
“Oh. Education. It must be so different growing up these days," he notes.
I arrive at Upper Goose Pond Cabin in the middle of a full-scale party. Men fill the porch, drinking and playing cards. There is a flurry of introductions. Wayne. Frank. Brian. Wayne and Frank are caretakers - Frank’s the cook - and Brian will close up tomorrow morning. Wayne is an older gentleman, so old that he remembers Kay Wood, the namesake of one of the shelters nearby. Almost all the men are Wayne's friends or family. The shelter is the best I’ve seen on the trail, fully enclosed with a fireplace and bunk beds on the second story.
“How do you like prime rib?” one man asks.
"That sounds amazing," I say. “Are you guys the firefighters?”
“Are we the firefighters?” They all look at each other.
“Firemen. Firebugs, maybe.” They are not firefighters, but 'firemen' who come up every year to restock the cabin with firewood.
“Prime rib’ll be done in 30 minutes,” someone says.
I head upstairs to choose a bunk. Every lower level bunk is occupied, so I throw my stuff on an upper bunk.
"There'll be lots of snoring," the men warn me.
"And farting," one adds.
Well...I'm used to that by now.
Then, the prime rib is ready. One of the men taps me on the shoulder. “We’ll take care of you first.”
He leads me to the kitchen, where Frank doles out a large helping of potatoes, corn, and fatty meat.
They give me generous seconds, too. Some of the cuts of meat are pure fat, white and glistening. As the sun sets, they light the lamps and start playing cards. I retire to the bunk room. Now and then, men come up for something or other.
“And how’s your own self?” one man with a considerable beer belly asks as he digs through his pack.
“Good, how are you?”
“I just lost $200,” he says.
I can hear them shouting and laughing downstairs into the wee morning hours, but I’m glad I pushed on to this shelter.
The next day, I meet Mom and return home to Connecticut for a few days: it's her birthday. Then, I return to the trail.
Within my first mile out of the parking lot, I slip on a slick wooden ramp in a farm field, straight into a watery puddle of mud. Muttering under my breath, I stand up and sniff my hands, which are covered in brown slime. No poop scent. Good.
Still, I thoroughly wipe my hands once I reach the woods. Many of the hillsides are barren by now; Sunday shows potential thunderstorms, which makes me nervous. I plan to hike over Bear Mountain that day.
I spend the night alone at Tom Leonard Shelter. Every plank of wood in the shelter bears signs of porcupine damage. Flipping through the shelter, I find numerous warnings about a porcupine who enjoys coming into the shelter to eat the wood at night. There are even stashes of small rocks in the loft for scaring the porcupine away.
I awake in the early hours of morning to a persistent gnawing in the shelter. Porcupine! I rap my knuckles against the floor. The porcupine pauses for a second, then resumes its work. It sounds like a saw. I look over the edge of the loft. No porcupine. Taking my phone out, I record the sound and press play, so its gnawing and my recording occur in tandem.
The gnawing stops. I hear scuttling. Rapid steps on the leaves. And then it’s gone.
I kind of wish I had seen it.
The weather forecast for the weekend looks more alarming in the morning. High wind and flash flood warnings are in effect for western Massachusetts and Connecticut. For now, the weather is beautiful. Not much happens in the day: An acorn bonks me on the head, causing much more pain than I’d expected from such a small object. I spend about half an hour atop a slab of rock, taking in the view.
To be safe, I decide to sit out the storm for the next few days, but for now, I will enjoy the beauty of today.