1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
After a leisurely breakfast, I head out from Pinkham Notch. From the distance, the Presidential Range casts its dark reflection over the gray waters of Lost Pond. For 0.2 miles, the trail winds around the pond, a brief reprieve before the steep ascent up Wildcat D Mountain.
I carefully hike up boulders strewn across the mountainside, mentally comparing the terrain in front of me to the Gopro YouTube videos I'd watched about this climb in an attempt to judge how many more rock scrambles I must negotiate before reaching the summit. A handful of northbound hikers pass by. At one point, as I pause to contemplate how to pull myself up a crevice formed by two walls of rock, a black lab bounds ahead of me, runs up the near-vertical ledges with ease, and peers down from the top, wagging her tail. That dog is significantly better at this than I am, I think. Her owner, Blue Deer, follows slowly.
"I've never had to lift her," Blue Deer tells me. Not here, nor on any of the ladders and rock scrambles south of here.
The crevice is easily twice as tall as I am. Two-thirds of the way up are a series of small rocks wedged between the walls, but even the lowest of the rocks is out of my reach. I place a foot flat against the wall to my left, then lay a hand on each wall.
Don't slip don't slip don't slip, I think as I wedge myself between the two walls and grab for a rock hold.
It's over in a flash. I reach the series of rocks and climb up. The rest of the way remains rugged, but not nearly as difficult. A couple times, the trail opens onto wide cliffs with a clear view to Mt. Washington.
Then, after I reenter the woods, I spot a familiar face, albeit one I know only from photos: James Scott, a blogger for The Trek. After my own summit of Katahdin, and my experiences in the 100 Mile Wilderness, I'd read countless blogs written by other hikers in the area, including his.
"Are you James Scott?" I ask him.
"Yeees...are you here to serve me a subpoena?" he asks
We commiserate over the terrain up north.
"I hated every minute of Maine," he tells me. Yet, here he is, trudging on. "The worse your experience, the more stories you'll have to tell."
When I reach the gondola on Wildcat D - which, just a couple days ago, had taken me up the mountain in 15 minutes - I see a small crowd of excited tourists enjoying the view. I continue a short way up the trail to the observation deck, where I eat lunch with a group of day hikers.
Earlier in the week, I'd texted Tenacious and Nighthawk about hiking over the Presidentials.
'We might see you,' Tenacious had replied. They were only a few days south of me. 'You should come hike with us. It'll be fun.'
Tenacious and Nighthawk plan to hike to Imp Campsite tomorrow, where I can meet up with them again. Today, I stop at the AMC Carter Notch Hut, located in a dip between the Wildcat and Carter peaks.
I head inside to inquire about work for stay. It is late afternoon. The huts only accept workers who arrive past a certain time. Having seen a whole bunch of northbounders hike out from the hut, my hopes are not high. I luck out, though! After looking around outside - possibly for lurking thru-hikers - the hut master agrees to let me stay!
I am allowed to hang out in the dining cabin until dinnertime; once the crew starts setting tables, I must move outside until the guests finish eating. One of the hut crew gives a talk on hut life as the rest of the crew sets the tables. I join the guests listening to the talk.
Many of the guests look older - near retirement age - and fit. Some carry daypacks, while others, full packs. A young woman with shoulder length hair and glasses stands nearby. I initially mistake her for a guest until Tenderfoot, a 77 year old section hiker, asks her, "Are you doing work for stay?"
"No," the young woman replies. She keeps her hands stuffed in her silver puffy jacket. "I'm just going to be stubborn and sleep under the tables."
The guests file in for dinner, leaving the two of us outside. "What's your trail name?" I ask after a time.
"Cool. Do you sing?"
"Or play an instrument?"
"I play viola."
Another hiker walks by, looking around confusedly. By now, the sun has started to set.
"Are you looking for the trail?" I ask him.
"This is the AT spur trail - the AT is back that way." I'd made the same mistake earlier. "You might be able to get work for stay here. I think I'm the only one at the moment."
He enters the hut to inquire. When he comes back out, he's smiling. He raises his hand for a high five. And so, I meet Wit, who is also flip-flopping, and who hiked with Tenacious and Nighthawk in the Smokies. We chat about our plans, the terrain, and the Presidentials.
From the bench outside the doorway, I hear the crew begin their nightly pre-dessert routine.
"...Raise your hand if you want decaf coffee!" They count the number of hands, then yell back to the kitchen. "Fooouuuur irregular!"
"Foouuuur irregular!" the kitchen confirms.
My stomach rumbles. After the guests return to the bunk rooms, we get to help ourselves to leftovers. I take two bowls of bean soup, some pulled pork, mashed potatoes and pesto, and half a slice of peach pie.
Then, it's time for work. Tonight, we help with washing dishes and scraping gunk from baking pans. The crew sets a timer for one hour: when it goes off, we'll be done. It seems that no matter how hard I scrape, the gunk won't come off.
One member of the crew walks in while we're elbow-deep in rinsing. He addresses Leslie, the hut master. "Did you know that there's someone...standing around outside under the vestibule?"
Leslie tells us to continue while she goes outside. A few minutes later, she returns with Pitch Perfect. She sounds slightly annoyed, but agrees to allow Pitch Perfect to stay. I watch out of the corner of my eye as Pitch Perfect unrolls her sleeping bag on one side of the dining room.
The alarm sounds. Time for bed. Wit and I each find a spot on the floor between dining tables and the wall.
The forecast tomorrow calls for below freezing weather and potential mixed precipitation. 70 mph gusts atop Mt. Washington. Hopefully we're spared from that.
I wake up to the sound of the crew preparing breakfast. Perfect Pitch is awake, too: I spot the glow of her headlamp in the dimness of the dining room. I roll over and fall into a light sleep.
We clear out of the room by 6:30 am so the crew can set the tables. Many guests are already there, waiting to be let in.
"Did you sleep inside?" Tenderfoot asks Pitch Perfect.
"Yes. I was stubborn," Pitch Perfect replies matter-of-factly. "She tried to guilt me by saying 'What if six more people had shown up?' but I was like, 'No, then I'll just sleep on the tables and they can sleep on the floors.'"
After saying a quick thank you, I head out to the trail. The sky stays clear for about an hour before dark clouds gather overhead, probably converging on Mt. Washington.
Shortly after beginning, Wit and I meet Odie, a former thru-hiker who now runs the Hiker Yearbook.
"They're calling for snow on Mt. Washington," he tells us. "You guys probably don't have to worry, but I'll be up on Madison tomorrow...There's no water between here and Imp. There's a ditch that I actually drank out of yesterday." He shakes his head emphatically.
I can hear the wind roar over the trees above me, but my nerves are somewhat allayed by the fact that I am below treeline. After crossing North Carter Mountain, I run into Wit again as he picks his way down the steep slabs of rock. We slowly make our way down to the Imp Shelter, butt sliding down the steeper portions of the trail.
Ah, the time honored butt slide...
Several other hikers from Carter Notch Hut decide to hunker down at Imp Shelter, including Tenderfoot and Judy, a section hiker who owns her own ultralight hiking company, Lightheart Gear.
It takes me 2 hours in all my layers and 20-degree sleeping bag to warm up enough to do my camp chores. I sleep with my filter and electronics at night to prevent the cold from freezing my filter or draining my battery pack.
Tenacious and Nighthawk text me. They're a few miles behind but expect to reach Gorham, NH, tomorrow. We decide to rendezvous there.
I wake to see the treetops whipping back and forth in the wind. Fog cloaks the cliff tops. The trail weaves in and out of exposed rock faces. I manage by squatting low and dashing for the protection of the trees.
I'm glad to be on Mt. Moriah instead of Mt. Washington.
Wit and I hike most of the way together. Occasionally, we run into Whistler, a northbound hiker who also stayed at Carter Notch Hut, who taught composition at Umass for 32 years.
The wind abates considerably as we reach lower elevations. Still, I'm relieved to reach Libby House, a hostel in Gorham.
"It's windy outside," Paul, the owner, warns me.
"Oh, it's way worse up there."
Libby House is completely booked up, but Paul allows us to tent in the backyard. A door in the back of the hostel leads down a flight of stairs to a basement that opens out into the backyard. The house itself is a light shade of purple: Victorian themed, with mismatched wallpaper and peeling paint everywhere. All hikers share the same grimy bathroom, and the upstairs holds a motley collection of beds that give the place an orphanage-like vibe. We are limited to one free shower per stay - $5 extra for another.
I treat myself two showers - one tonight, and another tomorrow morning - before setting up my tent outside.
Libby House is right at the corner of downtown Gorham. For lunch/dinner, Wit and I walk 1.9 miles to the Dynasty Chinese buffet, where I eat two big bowls of rice and broccoli. How I've missed rice!
After Tenacious and Nighthawk get in, we end up joining them for second dinner at Mr. Pizza's. Wit tells us about staying at one NY shelter and running into a problem bear known for climbing trees to steal every hiker's bear bag. The bear didn't react to the sticks and rocks he'd thrown. It even bluff charged him!
"I called the police, and they said, 'Stay away from the bear," Wit says. "I was like, 'No, you don't understand. He's coming into the shelter!'"