Two Months on the Appalachian Trail
One hiker's experience on the northernmost section of the East's famous footpath.
By Day 13 I climb up out of Massachusetts and into Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, where the terrain is slightly steeper and wilder. There are higher mountains in Vermont than in Connecticut or Massachusetts. It also seems much more remote because the trail is now in a national forest. My heels are sore and blistered and ready for a reprieve. I spend the next three days in a hotel with my wife. I leave her with a heavy heart and my extra tent stakes, which I don't need. A lighter load helps me to walk a little faster, covering 21.3 miles one day. The trail in Vermont continues north and then veers east toward New Hampshire. On my last full day in the state I see a tree fall in the forest, slosh through mud up to my ankles, gorge on wild raspberries, and pass through woods filled with birch trees and stone walls. I jump from a bridge into a river and camp in the backyard of a man who entertains me and two other hikers with tales of his small-time mob ties, his 1915 Model-T, and his near-death experience in a snowstorm on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Two days later, nearly halfway through my adventure, I stop to watch a bright-blue indigo bunting feed its chicks in the middle of a field filled with black-eyed Susans and daisies, signs that July is here. Ahead of me is a climb up western New Hampshire's 2,290-foot Moose Mountain. By now, on Day 27, my legs are much stronger and I power my way up all but the tallest peaks without a break. After a strenuous 75 minutes, I reach the top and sit down for lunch. As usual, I attract a swarm of black flies looking for a meal. Suddenly some dragonflies come to the rescue, emerging from the bushes to engage in aerial warfare with the biting bloodsuckers. I cackle with delight as the dragonflies bring down one black fly after another. I quietly beg them to follow me the rest of the way. It would have been a beautiful symbiotic relationship, but instead they zoom out of sight.
I enter New Hampshire's White Mountains National Forest on July 16 and am greeted just below treeline by spruce grouse, boreal chickadees, and other bird species not found farther south or at lower elevations. It takes me a few more days to reach 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the tallest peak in New England. When I arrive, the top is completely fogged in. Tourists who had driven up the auto road surround me, snapping pictures of everything in sight despite the nonexistent field of vision. Giving in to temptation, I eat at the overpriced snack bar. I have fewer problems resisting a "This Car Climbed Mount Washington" bumper sticker at the gift shop. Instead, I get back on the trail, where I feel more at home.
On the descent, the fog clears, revealing beautiful vistas in every direction. Practically the only living things at this elevation are lichen, grasses, and a few alpine flowers, giving it the feeling of another planet. Meanwhile, the wind blows strongly--another hiker later told me that it was gusting up to 70 mph on nearby Mount Madison. In the steady wind, I veer to the right like an unaligned car. Snot flys out of my nose before I can stop it. Every now and then I see a raven calmly and gracefully riding the air currents.
Hiking in the White Mountains is strenuous, but southern Maine will prove even more rugged.
Maine's Lone Mountain, at 3,280 feet above sea level, is high enough that balsam fir and spruce trees have almost completely replaced the maples, beeches, birches, white pines, and hemlocks found at lower elevations. The summit is sparsely wooded, but the forest becomes denser as I make my way northeast toward nearby Spaulding Mountain. Without warning, I hear a crack in the undergrowth, and I look up to see a black bear a few dozen yards off the trail. We make eye contact for an instant before it turns and sprints away. It's funny to see a bear running so fast in the other direction when the squirrels and mice generally hold their ground. But avoiding humans--even skinny ones like me--is definitely the best thing for its well-being in an area popular with hunters.
Soon after I leave Lone Mountain, the terrain mercifully flattens out a bit. The last nine days of the trek loom before me. Evan, my brother, meets me for the trip's final leg on August 7. He is joining me for the so-called 100-Mile Wilderness, which, while not a wilderness in the legislative sense, is the longest section of the trail without any paved roads. "I didn't want to say anything, but your appearance scared me," Evan tells me while laughing at my odor and ratty beard. After struggling the first two days his legs steady and his pace improves. The weather, however, deteriorates. We walk through mist, drizzle, showers, off-and-on-again rain, steady rain, downpours, and thunderstorms. Both of us fall numerous times, and I can hear Evan murmuring prayers to the sun god Ra.
One especially wet night, we camp on a patch of grass next to a fast-moving stream. Many hikers prefer sleeping in the three-sided log shelters that line the trail, but they're often littered with trash and infested with aggressive mice and mosquitoes. I usually set up my tent instead, but I have also spent one night in the recreation room of a church, another in the laundry room of a Dartmouth College co-ed fraternity, and a third "cowboy camping" under the stars. The freedom of not knowing where I am going to sleep is one of my favorite parts of trail living, but I also enjoy the sense of community among hikers, avoiding modern technology, getting out of my normal routine, and birdwatching on a daily basis.