Day 139: Off the Mountain
Work for Stay
Just after I checked in at the hut yesterday afternoon, a burly looking thru hiker ran in, sweaty and breathless, no doubt racing to be first in line for the hut’s two work-for-stay spots. The huts often allow thru hikers to sleep on the dining room floor and eat dinner and breakfast leftovers in exchange for some chores, like washing dishes, sweeping the floors, or hosting a thru-hiker Q&A session.
This time, the Croo told the hiker they had a spot for him and his girlfriend but said that they’d need to chop firewood for two hours. Even though the guy’s thick beard and outdoorsy gear gave off a strong Paul Bunyon vibe, he looked crestfallen and frankly, a little scared. Clearly, he’d been visualizing kitchen duty or pushing a broom. He mumbled out an apologetic “I’ve never chopped wood before.” That didn’t seem to bother the Croo, who led him off to a woodshed and handed him a long-handled axe.
I looked at the guy standing next me and said, “Well, I can’t see how that could go wrong. First time chopping wood a day away from the nearest emergency room.” Sure enough, when I went back for dinner a few hours later, I saw Paul Bunyon wrestling with the axe, which he’d gotten stuck in a log. He was gently banging the log on the ground trying to get the blade out, jumping and spinning in case he succeeded. His girlfriend wisely stood a safe distance away in front of a very small pile of newly chopped firewood.
Despite yesterday being the start of the holiday weekend,* the Carter Notch Hut wasn’t full. The trails had plenty of weekenders and day hikers, but we had space in our bunkhouse and at dinner, even though it was the smallest hut I’d stayed in. It was also the friendliest hut I’d visited.
Lucky McShorts and few others I’d met back in New York sat outside the hut entrance, filling up their water supply before moving on, having missed out on the log chopping opportunity.
Purist Peak Bagging
Most of the people at dinner were hiking hut to hut, while trying to bag as many of New England’s 48 4,000-foot peaks as they could. Apparently, there are rules about the “right” way to summit the peaks. You must climb each peak from the valley below. Getting two peaks without descending to the valley invalidates one of the summits. Ideally, you must hike each peak from all four ordinal directions. And there is a specific order in which the 48 peaks should be done.
Sigh. Why do people do this to themselves?
Love it or Go Home
Then the discussion turned to the difficulty of hiking in the White Mountains. I got the sense that New Englanders have a strong Yankee pride in their tortuous trails. One person smirkingly referred to the easy graded mule and automobile trails in the western United States. They implied that hiking trails should be difficult and that if anyone wasn’t hardy enough to handle the climbs, they should stay home.
I can read a room, so I said very little. I didn’t point out that we were all staying in a cushy bunkhouse which served dinner and breakfast and kept us from having to camp out in the weather or carry heavy backpacks. The trails may be tough, but the accommodations are plush.
I did ask where they had hiked in the West, but most of them had never hiked anywhere outside of New England. But they weren’t wrong. Most popular hiking trails in the West tend to be newer and built to more modern design standards for grade and erosion protection.
Thru Hiking vs. Day Hiking
Then again, I’ve hiked plenty of routes in Grand Canyon that are steeper, rockier, climbier, and more exposed than anything I’ve seen on the AT so far. But I tend to use those trails for day hikes, not six-month-long 2,000-mile thru hikes.
Most thru hikers have a different perspective than day hikers or weekenders. Hiking a steep, switchback-less, rocky climb as a day hike to bag a local peak can be a fun challenge. Many thru hikers view such trails as potential trip ending hazards that keep them from logging the miles they want, particularly when the climb has no payoff like a stunning view.
I left the hut during the same breakfast skit I’d almost sat through twice before. I had 15.2 miles ahead of me, and a steep one-mile, 1,500-foot climb to start the day. The climb up to Carter Peak was just as steep as it looked on the map, but it offered nice views back down to the huts, their lakes, and the valleys beyond. Carter’s peak, however, was buried in trees.
Just when I got to the gasping-for-air point of the climb, I walked into a cloud of perfume that hung over the trail for at least a hundred yards. It just hung in the air, making me fondly long for the 90-mph gusts on Mt. Washington two days ago. I never saw the perpetrator, but I’ll remember her forever.
Speaking of lasting memories, the outhouses at the huts reeked. Not quite to Yosemite-National-Park-on-Labor-Day-Weekend levels, but definitely burn-the-hair-out-of-your-nostrils intensity. Nobody lingered in there with the sports page or was brave enough to light a cigarette. Several times during my hike, I thought caught a waft of the foul aroma as I exhaled. Or perhaps my clothes had adsorbed it.
When a thru hiker complains about the smell, you know it’s bad.
Descent from the Hites
Mount Hite delivered what Carter Peak hadn’t. The views were postcard perfect, with dramatic clouds, a little lingering sunrise color, blue skies, and line after line of receding ridges each a slightly softer shade of green. The views continued for much of the hike down to the US2 trailhead, where I planned to meet Northstar.
After the trail re-entered the long green tunnel, it turned onto an old forest road, giving the last two miles a smooth, well-graded profile next to a babbling brook. Best of all, my granddaughter’s family was waiting for me when I walked out of the woods.
We all walked across the highway to the 1,900-mile marker, took some pictures to record the moment when three generations of Incidents hiked the AT together. What a sweet moment.
I finished today’s hike tired, but not as beaten down as when I’d hiked into Pinkham Notch two days ago. My knees and feet were feeling the long descent and needed some time off. Fortunately, that’s exactly what they had in store.
After our upcoming weekend along the AT, we’re heading to the Maine Coast for some rest and in relaxation. When we return, we’ll have less than 300 miles to go to Katahdin and just a handful before I hike into Maine.
(Note: I’m already back from the coast, and will continue blogging as usual tomorrow)
- Start: Carter Notch Hut (Mile 1884.7)
- End: US2 (Mile 1899.9)
- Weather: Bluebird perfect. Call the Chamber of Commerce.
- Earworm: Cradle Book 11 & 12. Almost done.
- Meditation: Is. 40:31… needed it
- Plant of the Day: Spruce
- Best Thing: Weather…and no hiking tomorrow.
- Worst Thing: Perfume
*A hint to the delay in my posting blogs.
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