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.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I pass an interesting field of rock formations in the morning: a woodland gnome rock garden, according to my AT guide. By the end of today, I will be less than 500 miles from completing the trail. When I get to the 500 miles left mark, I take out my headphones, set down my pack, and make myself a little sign on a flat rock. There were many such signs down south when throngs of hikers frequented the trail. Few are left on trail to mark these milestones, and none have the same milestones as I, so I must make my own markers now. I gather some nearby twigs, break them into small pieces, and carefully form the numbers 5-0-0. I take two fern leaves and place them nearby. Then, with a sudden inspiration, I gather some yellow leaves and a red leaf, and set those down, too.
I meet two more Long Trail hikers that night at Peru Peak Shelter: Nibbles and Hobbit, from Canada and Germany, respectively. They'd met on the Camino. All three of us plan to stay at the same place in town tomorrow: Jen's place.
I make a mile marker for 1700 miles hiked the next day as I climb Mt. Bromley. The mountain is a popular skiing destination in the winter; in the summer, the gondola remains open for tourists. While heading down Mt. Bromley, I run into a couple hikers I'd met down south: Ironman and Thunder Buns.
It is no great distance to the parking lot from Mt. Bromley. A dayhiker I'd seen earlier gives me a lift to Manchester Center. There, I call Jen, who runs a small hiker hostel from her house. After showering at Jen's place, I head downtown to the bookstore/cafe, where I linger for a couple hours before walking back. Manchester Center seems like an upper-middle-class tourist town sporting local shops intermixed with higher end clothing stores. Shoppers fill the streets.
On my way back, I pass a man lying spread-eagled on the ground. Red shirt, green earphones, eyes closed. Feet dangling off the edge of the curb. A group of six people walks past at the same time I do, and we exchange startled glances. One young man in the group clearly wants to stop: he looks back multiple times, but his friends herd him on. I dally for a few seconds, think of all the times someone helped me on the trail, then turn back.
"Excuse me, sir, are you ok?" I ask, standing an arm's length from the man.
I'd want someone to do the same if it were me.
"I'm fine...Bless you." His words are easy enough to make out. I decide he's probably ok. "I love you, thank you for caring," he says as I walk away.
A hundred feet down the road, the young man who'd wanted to turn back stops me. "Was...that guy ok?" he asks.
"He said he was fine."
Awkward, but necessary, I think.
Nibbles, Hobbit, and I end up staying at the same shelter the next night: Stratton Pond Shelter. We share the shelter with a bunch of college students out for a 3-day hike.
The night is cold. Morning is no better. It will reach 27 degrees by the end of the day. Early in the day, I climb Stratton Mountain, home of a fire tower and caretakers' cabin. A couple lives up here during the summer and begginning of fall. Fog obscures any views from the fire tower. There is no sign of the caretakers. I quickly sign the trail register by the fire tower and leave.
That night, I'm tempted to throw my water bottles in my sleeping bag so I can warm them - drinking freezing water in the morning is not my favorite thing to do - but unsure if my bottles would leak, I refrain from doing so.
I wake before dawn; the sky is black when I set out. A fine layer of frost coats each fallen leaf, so that the leaves shimmer like glitter in the light of my headlamp. The crescent moon hangs low in the pre-dawn sky. I can see the faint outline of the full moon behind it, a patch of midnight blue in the darkness: earthshine.
I hurry over Mt. Glastonbury; I must reach the Bennington post office before 5:00 pm to pick up my mail drop. On the way down, I run into Twin. Both of us decide to stay at Catamount Hotel, splitting a room to lower costs.
After getting a late start the next morning - our shuttle driver needs to walk his dog before he can take us - Twin and I hike out. The foliage in Vermont seems past peak now, but I enjoy seeing the remnants of fall carpeting the trail. I pass Harmon Hill early in the day, then continue to a shelter 11 miles from the road. Nibbles and Hobbit said they planned to stay there tonight. The Vermont-Massachusetts border is an additional 3 miles, and Sherman Brook Campsite, another 2.
I want to reach the Massachusetts border today. So, I hike on. When I reach the border, I find Twin calling his family on his phone. We both hike past sunset, reaching Sherman Brook Campsite around 7:00 pm.
One more state complete.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail follows a series of sidewalks through town, now and then turning sharply at a corner before continuing straight across a bridge over the Connecticut River. Students dressed in suits and pencil skirts walk past the stately brick buildings that surround Dartmouth Green. Long lines of cars drive by, heading toward campus. When I reach the Vermont-New Hampshire border at the far end of the bridge, I draw some curious glances from early morning joggers as I plop down next to the sign, grinning.
From the bridge, the trail continues along the road to Norwich, Vermont. Grassy lawns surround small-town houses that line each side of the road; I spot a Lion's Club sign alongside a speed limit warning and remember the small New England town where I grew up. I stop by Dan & Whit's, a locally owned grocery store. Notices and flyers, some over a year old, plaster the storefront. Inside, row upon row of tightly-spaced shelves are stacked with goods: sodas and sandwiches, snacks, pet food. I smile as I pick out a few post cards and a large can of Arizona tea, which I drink immediately outside the store. The Appalachian Trail in Vermont is beautiful: the nice twin to New Hampshire's rough ways.
I walk through the town of West Hartford later that day. As I walk, I pass a sign hanging from a local truck lettering shop. Appalachian Trail. Camping and water symbols. Following the arrows on the sign, I find a water tap by the side of the shop, where I fill up my water bottles before heading into the woods once more.
As I climb a hill, I pass a rough, hand-carved wood bench engraved with the words 'relax and enjoy.' I'd seen a picture of that exact bench earlier in the day on James' Instagram - I'd followed his posts after meeting him in the Whites. Will I catch up? I wonder.
I run into James just shy of Thistle Hill Shelter. We share the shelter with three retired section hikers that night. A dusting of newly-fallen leaves covers the roof of the shelter. The nearby spring drips over a moss-covered rock. I gather strands of moss together to concentrate the drips into a larger stream, then place my water bottles below.
"What have you learned since you retired?" I ask Dale, one of the section hikers.
"I'm still learning," he replies. "What have you learned?"
"No matter how hard something is, as long as you keep at it, it'll work out," James says.
I'm thinking about Maine. "You have to know your limits. Know yourself and know what you're up against. And sometimes, when things are really tough, you can't do it alone. You have to lean on others. I leaned a lot on my trail family through New Hampshire and Maine. There were three of us, and not one of us was strong all the time."
The trail passes near several farms the next day. I skip the first two in favor of the third: On the Edge Farm, located 0.25 miles from the trail on VT Route 12, home of some reputedly amazing baked goods. A spiral bound trail log sits under a sign at the trailhead near the road. I flip through a few pages. Some entries say the farm is on the right; others, the left.
I head left. 15 minutes later, I find myself at a small farm with a pumpkin and squash stand. I scan my GPS. I'm more than 0.25 miles from Route 12. Sighing, I turn back. Another half hour later, I finally see a sign for On the Edge Farm. It's difficult to describe the feeling of encountering 'real food' after days of eating hikers' rations. By now, all my hiking rations taste the same to me. I've taken to eating as quickly as I can during mealtimes, barely noticing what I'm shoving into my mouth before continuing on. The owner of On the Edge Farm lets me fill my water by the side of the store, relax on the deck, and throw out my trash in her large trash bins. I pick out some apple cider, house-made chocolate chip cookes, and an apple puff pastry.
I've never had a better pastry in my life. The apple puff is crispy on the outside, with layers of flaky, buttery dough surrounding the perfect amount of cinnamon-apple filling.
Rain hits for two hours after lunch the next afternoon. Still, I make good time, reaching Mountain Meadows Lodge by 4:21 pm. The lodge is a wedding venue on the trail; it accepts hikers' packages and occasionally allows hikers to tent on premises. When I arrive, a wedding is in full progress. Clearly, tenting will not be an option tonight. A worker asks me to leave my pack on the trail before sneaking me around an elaborate wedding photoshoot to grab my package. I stuff everything into a large trash bag and haul it back to my pack, garnering some weird looks from wedding guests undoubtedly wondering why I'm absconding with what looks like an armful of trash. Once back to my pack, I shove the entire bag into the bottom and hurry on.
A plethora of wedding guests and tourists roam the woods. The paths are flat, and many people head toward the nearby Thundering Falls. There is a state-run campsite - Gifford Woods - a bit over a mile ahead. I reach it about an hour before sunset. The rangers at the check in station offer me a bottle of coconut water! They even let me plug in my battery pack overnight! Good thing, since my battery is running dangerously low.
After organizing the contents of my package, I locate the coin operated showers. With only one quarter on me, I end up taking a brief, freezing shower. Better than nothing.
That night, I hear the drums of the wedding band and whoops of the guests from the my tent.
Dawn brings a smattering of rain, which continues as I climb up Mt. Killington, the last 4000+ ft peak I must climb on the trail. The trees sway alarmingly, seemingly too tall to bear the wind. I move slowly, exhausted from a lack of sleep, my blaze orange poncho draped over me so that I am unmistakable from at least a hundred feet away. I pass a couple of hikers with a dog. The dog starts barking furiously. Its owner grabs its vest.
"It's ok. It's only a poncho," she says as the dog's legs work furiously in the air.
Presently, I come to the Long Trail Junction, where the Appalachian Trail meets the 273 mile Long Trail that runs through Vermont. The Appalachian Trail and Long Trail will share the next 100 miles of trail. I cross paths with both southbound and northbound Long Trail hikers; I'm grateful for the company. Though I know of a few Appalachian Trail hikers in my area, I've yet to meet most of them.
Around lunchtime, I reach Cooper Lodge, a four-walled shelter just downhill from the peak of Mt. Killington. Graffiti lines the roof and interior, and along the walls are gaping holes in place of windows. As I eat lunch at a picnic table in the middle of the shelter, fat drops of rain begin falling on my head. On the far end of the cabin, a huge puddle has developed on the floor under the furiously dripping roof. Each gust of wind sends a blast of rain into the shelter.
Still, any roof is better than no roof. I stay for half an hour to wait out the worst of the storm. A peak bagger, a hiker attempting to summit all 4000+ ft mountains in the area, pops in and informs me that there are 50 mph winds on the summit. Since the trail bypasses the summit, I decide to skip the 0.2 mile detour up to Mt. Killington.
A few miles later, I reach Governor Clement Shelter under cautiously cloudy skies. Unlike Cooper Lodge, this shelter is sturdy and built of stone, with a roof overhang larger than any shelter I've seen. A fireplace lies inside. It is perfect for rain. I set my socks, poncho, and boots outside to dry. When I grab a flat rock to cook dinner, I accidentally squish a slug on its side, resulting in a repulsive explosion of slime.
Long trail hikers KC and Loren soon join me. KC offers me a generous chunk of dark chocolate as they start a fire in the fireplace.
I bring in my boots before nightfall, holding them an arm's length away by the tips of my fingers. KC laughs. "Don't pretend those aren't yours! They carried you a long way."
It pours the next day, so the three of us zero in the shelter.
The following morning, I meet Mom at VT Route 103. We end up staying in the town of Rutland, home of the Yellow Deli. The Deli is a hiker hostel and sandwich shop owned by the Christian Twelve Tribes community; it is infamous among hikers. Before returning to Route 103, I visit the Deli. Calm guitar music floats through the building. Colorful, hand painted murals and carefully carved wood decorate the walls. A man and woman wearing traditional, conservative clothing greet me. Their eyes immediately fall upon my AT pendant.
"You're hiking the trail."
"Will you be staying with us?"
After I tell them I'm just stopping by to pack out a sandwich, they show me the hiker hostel - in case I change my mind - and hand me a cup of peach maté.
The hiker hostel is next door to the sandwich shop. There, I meet Mello and Flapjack, whom I've seen in countless trail logs. They're a couple days ahead, having reached Manchester Center already. I also find James. A Yellow Deli worker kindly brings my sandwich to me as I chat with them.
Then, it's time to head back to the trailhead. Within a mile of the road, I come to a cliff overlooking a nearby airport. Twin - whom I'd last seen walking around in his underwear at Liberty Springs Campsite - sits there, smoking a cigarette as he takes in the view.
"Have any noodles?" he asks, referencing my trail name. He gestures to the overlook. "Terrible view!"
I laugh. He tells me he hiked until 4:30 am last night, making 21 miles total. Then, he says, "I was hiking up Mt. Cube, and there was this woman at the summit, looking for her dog. She gave me her number and told me to call, you know, just in case I saw it...I was on the summit of Mt. Smarts, and when I went to the privy, there were two beady eyes looking back at me. That was when I put two and two together."
Something clicks into place. The two dogs I'd seen on Mt. Cube - he was the AT hiker who rescued Pippa! He fills me in on the rest of the story: he'd cuddled with Pippa in the privy until her owners arrived. Beau ran down a side trail and was found a couple days later, 25 miles down that path.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I take a zero before continuing south through New Hampshire. The trail winds gradually up and down hills, a far cry from the ruggedness of the White Mountains. After getting a late start, I find myself hastily camping atop a dirt patch on Mt. Cube as the sun disappears behind a line of trees.
The creaking of the trees wakes me in the dead of night. 4:00 am. I drift back to sleep. The temperature has only just warmed to an acceptable level of comfort after hovering near freezing all night, and I am eager to get some sleep. Wind whooshes overhead. The creaking grows louder, more insistent.
I suddenly wish I'd inspected my tentsite properly the night before, as Tenacious would do. Stumbling out of my tent, I shine my headlamp into the branches above. My campsite is surrounded by widowmakers. Fallen branches litter the ground. At 4:19 am, I hurriedly throw everything into my pack and move my pile of stuff to a safe clearing about 20 ft away. I lean back against a tree trunk and wait for dawn to bring enough light to start hiking.
I get a rather stiff start that morning, though I do manage to catch sunrise on Mt. Cube.
On my way down, while blasting music from my trail playlist, I see two dogs running north up the path. I turn down the volume, expecting someone to follow them at any minute. No one shows up.
Odd, I think.
Near the bottom of the mountain, I see the dogs again, both in front of me and heading south. One is shaggy, with a black, white, and tan coat; the other is gold. I manage to get hold of the golden dog's collar. There is a Lyme, NH tag, but no phone number. I can't get close enough to the shaggy one to check his tag. I don't have phone service, anyways. The shaggy dog leads, circling back regularly to encourage his companion, who whines as she follows him.
They get to a dirt road. The shaggy dog turns right, but the golden dog sits down, whimpering.
"Well, bye now," I tell the dogs as I cross the road to continue up Smarts Mountain. I've barely gone 50 ft before I notice both running after me.
I've heard of a dog that regularly climbs Dragon's Tooth, part of the trail in Virginia, off leash. Are these dogs intentionally off leash or are they lost?
A little ways up Smarts Mountain, I check for a phone signal to call animal control. Success! I can't find a phone number for the Lyme animal control, but locate one for the neighboring town of Dorchester. There is no answer when I call. I leave a message as the dogs run past me.
I don't see either dog again. Feeling slightly concerned by the time I reach the summit of Smarts Mountain, I do some more digging and find the NH Humane Society on Facebook. I send them a message.
When I get to Trapper John Shelter that evening, I see the Humane Society's response: the area is out of their range, so they cannot come to find the dogs. They suggest contacting the Granite State Dog Rescue. On that page, I find a missing poster that exactly matches both dogs. The shaggy dog is named Beau; the golden one, Pippa. I call yet again to report the sighting, giving as much information as I can recall.
The owners contact me soon after my call. They're going to check the area around Smarts Mountain. I put up a couple posts about the dogs in the Appalachian Trail Facebook groups I belong to, hoping someone will find the dogs soon.
The next morning, the owners message me to say they found Pippa, but Beau is still missing. Much later, I find out the rest of the story while hiking through Vermont. Eventually, both dogs are found.
I enjoy a blisfully uneventful day of hiking, and soon arrive at Hanover, NH. The college town, right on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, is the home of Dartmouth College. A football field and food co-op lies on one end of town, and after tenting in the woods, I take full advantage of my ability to shop at a real grocery store. Fancy Free, whom I'd met in Maine and in the Franconia Range, will arrive the next day, so I decide to zero in Hanover.
The Appalachian Trail runs right through town. A recreation center allows hikers to shower and do laundry for $5. I head there first thing in the morning.
"You're a hiker," the front desk woman says. "We were starting to wonder whether we'd see any more of you."
She pulls out a hiker's visitor log, where I sign my name. An hour later, I am in a small shower-and-laundry room on the bottom floor. Copious post-it notes from previous hikers line the walls, expressing thanks to the recreation center. The center even lets me leave my pack and charge my battery pack while I explore town!
I follow the trail into the heart of Dartmouth campus, then veer off to explore the college. A series of carved pumpkins on a wooden fence spell out 'DARTMOUTH.' Students lounge about on the campus green. Snatches of conversation reach me.
"I looked really good on paper. That's how I got into Dartmouth," one boy declares.
I locate bubble tea and broccoli for lunch, pick up my pack from the recreation center, then wait for Fancy Free at a local bus stop. Though she offers to let me stay with her - she lives nearby in Vermont - our schedules don't align. Still, I appreciate her offer.
I hike out of Hanover early the next morning, glad for the chance to explore the town.
Days 145-147: The last of the Whites - The Kinsmen, Mt. Wolf, and Mt. Moosilauke (Eliza Brook Shelter to NH Route 25)
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Three sets of mountains remain in my trek through the White Mountains of New Hampshire: the Kinsmen, Mt. Wolf, and Mt. Moosilauke. Tenacious and Nighthawk warned me about the difficulty of South Kinsman when we were in Maine. "The sketchiest thing I've climbed, ever, " Tenacious christened it. So, it is not without some apprehension that I begin the long climb up the Kinsmen Mountains.
Lonesome Lake Hut, the southernmost of the AMC White Mountain huts, lies halfway up North Kinsman Mountain near the shores of Lonesome Lake itself. A wooden walkway borders the lake, and Cannon Mountain stands clearly reflected in the clear, still waters. I arrive at the hut just before lunchtime. To my delight, the crew has laid out the most impressive spread of baked goods that I've seen in the Whites. I savor a slice tres leches cake, still dripping with milk, and top it off with a slice of freshly baked bread. Thus fortified, I continue up the Kinsmen Mountains.
I crest North Kinsman first. The trail consists of boulders and rock slabs, many of which bear the unmistakable dents of trail maintainers' tools. Wooden steps are bolted to the steeper rock slabs, and some areas sport carefully constructed rock steps. The Franconia Ridge looms in the distance, majestic and unyielding, seeming so far away, yet only a day's hike from where I am.
The trail dips slightly before continuing to the summit of South Kinsman. Descending South Kinsman is quite unpleasant: not as steep as the Abol slide of Katahdin, but certainly 'sketchy' in some areas. I carefully slide down the rocks and make my way to Eliza Brook Shelter for the night.
For hours, I am alone at the shelter. The height of the southbound hiking season has passed, and fewer hikers frequent the southern tip of the White Mountains compared to those who hike Franconia Ridge or the Presidential range. Anticipating that no other hikers will arrive, I set up my tent in the shelter for extra warmth during the night.
As I finish my camp chores near sundown, I see another hiker walking up the hill to the shelter. His lean form looks vaguely familiar.
"Are you...Tree?" I ask as he sets his pack down on the shelter.
We'd started our hikes in Georgia on the same day. He is one of the few Asian hikers I've seen on the trail. He tells me he took a break from the trail for jury duty, and is continuing northbound for as long as he can before he must return for work. He carries what looks like one of the ultralight backpacks: while most Appalachian Trail hikers have traditional packs that weigh around 4 lbs, ultralight hikers favor lighter packs that weigh less than 2 lbs.
"I made my own pack," he says. He points to the sides of his pack. "This is a rice bag."
During his time on jury duty, he'd watched DIY videos and made himself a new pack from one-and-a-quarter 40-lb rice bags.
"The first bag only came up to here." He gestures at a seam near the top of his bag. "So I cut up another bag and sewed it on top."
That's resourceful, I think. Rice bags are light and built to withstand the weight of the rice within.
"I was in IT for three years, and photography for a lot...nine? I'm not going back...I'm going back to school. But it's not like any school you've heard of. I'm going to get my CDL. I'm going to be a truck driver."
The next morning, Tree grabs both our bear bags before we part ways. I will continue south over Mt. Wolf and Mt. Moosilauke, while he will head north over the Kinsmen and Franconias.
Mt. Wolf is not particularly difficult or memorable aside from a partially-obscured view of Franconia Ridge. The windy conditions today are slightly unnerving, but the abundant trees at this low elevation shield me from the brunt of the wind. I find the ascent of Mt. Moosilauke unpleasant. The ascent parallels an impossibly long series of cascades, and though I know the cascades are several feet from the trail, I feel the constant threat of falling down them.
Moosilauke, the last mountain in the Whites. Temperatures are freezing. Wind speeds should slow slightly tomorrow, but I may still face gusts up to 40 mph when I summit and descend Mt. Moosilauke. That night, I stop at Beaver Brook Shelter, which, at 3750 ft, stands just shy of the summit of Mt. Moosilauke. A couple section hikers kindle a fire that sputters and smokes in the wind. I huddle around the fire with them until nightfall.
"My specialty is the Cold War...there were so many engineering problems they had to solve. Like flying over the North Pole. No one knew how to do that before the Cold War."
That night, I wear every layer I own - two pairs of pants with a couple shirts and three jackets - and still feel cold inside my sleeping bag. The wind howls all night, snapping branches that fall onto the roof with muffled cracks. I count the hours until 5:00 am - the time I can reasonably rise - as I struggle to get warm.
I move quickly to generate body heat when I get up. Forcing some breakfast into my mouth, I shove my filter down my chest to keep it from freezing, and take off in the dark.
Fog shrouds the trail in the dim morning light, casting a sickly yellow glow on all my surroundings. I walk through a graveyard of broken pines and listen as the wind blows through their barren limbs.
I switch on my music when I reach treeline. The theme from Pirates of the Caribbean blares in my ears, competing with the sound of the wind. The wind blows sharply against the rocks; everywhere it touches, I see delicate, feathery formations of ice. My jaw drops. I saw pictures of these frost formations in the museum on Mt. Washington: rime ice, created by crystallizing fog. The summit sign is so peppered with frost that I can barely read it. As I look down, I find the beginnings of ice crystals growing on my clothes and hair. I feel like I'm slowly turning into an icicle. Quickly, I take off my gloves, snap a picture, and leave.
There is a palpable difference in temperature below treeline. Below 1500 feet, I even see day-hikers walk past in t-shirts and shorts.
"I bet it was beautiful up there," one man remarks.
"Um...it was foggy and icy when I was there," I tell him.
His eyes widen.
"It's probably melted by now," I say. Blue skies had emerged about 10 minutes after I got off the summit.
I hike quickly, bolstered by the thought of finishing the Whites and getting real food in town. As the trail flattens out, I pass a man eating an apple. He points out several apple trees by the side of the trail.
"This was an old orchard," he says. "I'd come here in the winter and take cuttings from the trees and graft them to root stock -- keeps the varieties going."
Curious, I approach one of the apple trees. The good apples are too tall for my reach. I try gently shaking the tree with little success, but content myself with a few bites from a small, misshapen apple down below. The apple is crisp and different from the varieties I'd tried in supermarkets - less sweet, perhaps.
Then, at 11:00 am, I reach the parking lot, where Mom awaits me. A sense of victory surges through me. I made it through the Whites!