Day 154: The Glade
A Late Start
JW said he be back from Monson by 8:00. I thought I’d try to hike with the group for today’s 18.3-miler, so I sat in the van and wrote for a few hours while I waited. Around 8:15, Northstar rolled over, looked at the clock, and asked, “Do you think they decided to hike southbound from Monson instead?”
Dang. That sounded exactly what they might do. I put on my shoes and headed out the door.
River Crossings and Yellow Blazes
And took them right back off again. Today was river crossing day, and the first one lay right on the other side of Moxie Pond Road. I’d also grabbed my crocs, thinking I’d toss them back to Northstar after fording the river so I wouldn’t have to carry them. But when I got to the other side of the thigh-deep, swift flowing stream, I wasn’t sure I could throw them 70 feet without losing them in a tree or to the stream. So, I stuffed them in my pack. They might come in handy for another crossing.
As it turned out, JW arrived ten minutes after I’d forded Baker Stream. PBJ and Just Try decided to start a double zero in Monson. Technically, I guess that’s a yellow blaze (driving instead of hiking), since they skipped today’s hike and had driven to Monson last night.
Yellow blazing is far more common on the AT than most people think, especially as winter approaches in Maine. But hikers also yellow blaze when they’re tired, to avoid a tough day, to catch up with their tramily, to escape a predator, to get to trail magic, or to make a mail drop before a Post Office closes for the weekend. Most hikers keep their yellow blazing on the down-low, but when someone you passed weeks or months ago suddenly appears ahead of you, you have to wonder how they got there.
Tired and Alone
Regardless, their yellow-blaze and JW’s late return left me hiking alone with Gus again. I’d hoped for some human company today, as I started out fatigued from a week of long days with some tough climbs. Or maybe it’s just cumulative fatigue from five months on the AT.
Whatever the cause, I’m tired. My knees ache all day, and throb if I sit in one position for too long. My feet are so pounded that they cramp up if I curl my toes. The balls of my feet are numb, which makes my toes tingle. Is that nerve damage? I’ve been afraid to ask my son, lest he tell me to stop hiking. My clothes and pack smell like a high school locker room.
I’ve lost so much weight, I can’t properly tighten my pack’s hip belt anymore, so it hangs painfully off my shoulders. For the last few months, I’d been using the hip belt to hold up my now-too-loose pants. Without the hip belt support, my pants slip down to half-mast, making me look like an LL Bean gangsta.
Done and Bitter
I hiked along in a slight funk, still loving the trail and my hike, but tired and worn. Around mid-day, I caught Sauce at one of several unbridged river crossings. Sauce stood staring in frustration at the thigh-deep, 50-foot-wide stream. He hikes in traditional leather boots which don’t dry quickly, so he has to take them off for every crossing or walk in wet shoes for three to four days.
Sauce looked at me grimly and said he’s had it with the AT. He was angry. He’s sick of the PUDs, the mud, the roots, the wet crossings, the rain, the long green tunnel, the bugs, the ticks, the poison ivy, broken gear, injuries, chronic pain, boredom…it was a long list. I could relate. The AT can be a grind and he’s not the only one singing that song. He told me he has a flight from Boston’s Logan Airport to the UK in eight days. Come hell or highwater (ironically), he’s on that plane.
I know it’s AT heresy to repeat Sauce’s sentiments out loud, but the AT is not as scenic as other national trails, and the trail itself is in much worse condition. It can be cruel. When compared to Britain’s national trails, especially their coastal paths, the AT fails on both scenery and trail conditions. But something keeps drawing thousands of wannabe thru hikers to Springer Mountain every Spring. I’m one of them.
A Different View
I climbed Moxie Bald Mountain, my one significant ascent today, passing “the Cave” (an overhanging rock slab) and reaching the fire-cleared bald in time for an early lunch. I’d used my crocs on another crossing earlier but had missed my footing and slipped into a shin-deep puddle moments later, so my feet squished and sloshed all the way up the climb. I left them on for the rest of the day’s river fords, preferring wet socks to the lost time taking them on and off.
As I sweated and sloshed along a mile of particularly rocky, rooty, and muddy trail, I pondered Sauce’s complaints and anger. Why is the AT so popular, both with hikers and with the huge community of trail supporters? It has a mystique unlike other long trails. People quit their jobs, sell their houses, and leave their spouses to hike this trail. They love it with a religious fervor, taking any criticism as apostacy and shunning anyone who dares to complain.
I wonder if that near-blind love and fervor is responsible for the high attrition rate (75%) among hikers who start but don’t finish the AT? Does it hide the reality of thru hiking this trail? AT thru hiking is so well publicized, evoking images of Thoreau living simply in the woods, or quiet adventures with mild dangers easily overcome. A thru hike is just A Walk in the Woods, we’re told.
Or is its reputation built on only the stories of those who survived? The 75% tell no tales, or if they do, are they dismissed as the opinions of quitters who didn’t have what it takes? I think not. I suspect even the “quitters” still love this trail. Sauce probably will too after his boots finally dry out and his bruised feet heal.
I looked up and realized the trail had turned.
I walked into a pleasant glade of birch, maple, and pine arching over the now-wide, park-smooth, level trail littered with multi-colored leaves. A carpet of bright green fuzzy moss covered the forest floor, interspersed with the last of summer’s ferns, which were brown-tinged and dry at their tips, but still green and delicate at their cores.
Tiny evergreens, only recently sprouted, lined the trail’s edge. Timber cut and stacked by volunteers to keep the trail clear lay near where tall trees had once blocked the path. White birch, their bark unfurling like scrolls begging to be read, stood scattered like kiosks in a forest plaza. Shafts of dusty sunlight glinted between the leaves like spotlights pointing out the stars on the forest’s stage.
A swift river, gurgling with shallow whitewater and small cascades, ran to my left, almost out of sight but close enough to be heard. A slight breeze tickled the colored leaves and branches above me. I breathed in the cleanest air in North America, now freshened with Fall’s gentle aroma. A man and his dog walking in silence under a blue sky in a quiet forest.
What I’ll Remember
I’ll remember this peaceful glade forever, just like my lunchtime view from the glacially sculpted bald overlooking pristine forests and lakes. I’ll forget the pain, the heat and cold, being soaked to the skin with rain, walking ridges in wind so hard I could barely stand, the weeks of bad weather, the brutal climbs to viewless summits, painful blisters, the snobbery of purists, and the agism of younger hikers who wonder what I’m even doing out here.
I’ll remember how this glade turned suddenly into a pine forest that dropped a soft cover of brown pine needles to soften the path and scented the air with wafts of Christmas. Was this trail ever hard? Where there roots, rocks, mud? I don’t recall. I only remember bright flowers, strange colorful mushrooms of weird shapes and sizes. And a road crossing, with a store, a cold drink, and ice cream. My friends were there and we laughed and swapped stories of the best things and made light of the hardships.
It’s not the whole story, but it’s what I’ll remember.
- Start: Moxie Pond Road (Mile 2059)
- End: Shirley Blanchard Rd (Mile 2077.3)
- Weather: Cool. High thin clouds. Great views of lakes.
- Earworm: Ps 128 (Covenanter Psalter Version)
- Meditation: Ps 128
- Plant of the Day: Moss
- Best Thing: The glade
- Worst Thing: Wet, sore feet
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