Day 150: Norwich, VT to Piazza Rock Lean-to
It’s Maine o’clock! I’m back on track, back in a great mood, and ready to go. Today involved 1.8 miles of actual trail, but a whole day of hitchhiking to get from VT to ME. Thanks to Steve, Bill, Bob, Steven, Charlie, and …oh damn I forgot the last guy’s name. But with the help of kind strangers I’m up near Rangeley, after most of the doctor-disapproved terrain, and excited to get hiking again. I’ll be taking it nice and slow. No point in doing anything stupid, and my mom will be picking me up on the 22nd so I have lots of time to get where I’m going. Here’s hoping some of the hikers I know are in the area: it would be nice to finish with friends, but I’ll finish either way.
The two miles I did today were lovely: it was a bit like walking through Christmas, because the pine trees all smelled so fantastic. And the fall colors are pretty unbelievable right now. I couldn’t find a view today, but there are some bigger mountains tomorrow so I bet I’ll be able to get some good photos then.
Just before the shelter there is a side trail up to Piazza Rock, which is a steep 0.1 off the AT. It’s fun, and the rock itself is worth seeing, but I recommend dropping your pack off at the shelter before going up to see it (I didn’t). There is a little rock tunnel that is a tight squeeze with a pack, and since it’s not required hiking there’s no point in making it harder on yourself. But you end up on top of a massive boulder that has fallen like a bridge across the mountainside. Could be a nice place to see the stars from, but it’s a bad hike down in the dark.
Day 151: Piazza Rock Lean-to to Redington Stream Campsite
Today went much more slowly than I thought it would. I got a late start out of camp and was faced immediately with Saddleback Mountain. It’s a good climb, up into an alpine zone, and because I’ve never seen one before I spent way too long looking around at everything. Life is low to the ground there. Most of what you see is dense mosses and lichens in many colors, white and green and purple and black. Even the pines are tiny, wind-scrubbed things. I imagine that the view from the top must be breathtaking, but the whole mountain was cloaked in clouds when I went up so I couldn’t say, personally.
But then I ran into trouble. The descents today were agonizingly slow. It rained last night, so all the rocks and roots were slick, and about 90% of the trail was roots and rocks. And I just don’t really trust my ankle, still, because it could buckle at any time if I had to throw my weight on it. So I just inched along on the downhill, trying not to slip, and I lost a ton of time before I got to the bottom. Trying to make up for it, I zipped up The Horn, which is named, as we all know, for its gently graded, relaxing ascent…the clouds cleared up just a bit to give a view to the west, but the descent on the north face of the mountain was even longer and steeper than coming off Saddleback, and by the time I made it down to the bottom it was after four.
Knowing that I had about three miles to go, with another mountain in between me and the next shelter, and in all probability another stupidly slow downhill, I made the decision to end my day early. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so climbing around the mountains when the rocks are dry should be a bit easier. Oof, though. Today was a bit of a wake up call. Maine really isn’t for the faint of heart.
Day 152: Redington Stream Campsite to Spaulding Mountain Lean-to
Today started with Saddleback Jr. In spite of its name, it is no slouch, and the uphill was one long, steep boulder jumble.
But the top was worth it! All yesterday’s clouds are gone, and I got treated to 360 degree views of the Maine mountains. I met a nobo named Marconi enjoying his breakfast, chatted with him for a bit, and headed down the other side.
The descent was a lot like yesterday’s, with steeply sloping boulders slowing me down, but I definitely made a little better time now that they weren’t wet as well. I met a ridge runner coming up as I was nearing the bottom. “It’s steep going down here,” he said. “Well, I guess it’s steep going up the other side too.” “It’s steep everywhere,” I responded with a big sigh. He nodded and smiled and we parted ways. It’s true though. Flat miles are uncommon around here, it seems. And my thigh muscles would like to know what the hell I am doing, because they were under the impression that I was done clambering around mountains.
Going up other side of the stream at the bottom really was steep. You know what, though? It feels good to be working hard again. And these are some of the last big mountain days I’ll have until Katahdin at the end, so I’m going to appreciate them while I’ve got them.
There were some beautiful miles today, through poplar and birch forests, and I ate lunch by a waterfall, which was really nice. I also really enjoyed this bridge over a stream, which was clearly the last project on a really tiring day of trail maintenance.
All in all, I have to say, I enjoyed the heck out of today, even if I’m still going a bit slower than expected. I should be able to pick up any missing miles after the Bigelows. And I saw Eagle Eye at tonight’s shelter, briefly. He’s night hiking into Stratton tonight, but it was still good to see a familiar face. And I met Little Grizz for the first time. He was going to hike another five miles but decided to stay here and hit Stratton tomorrow. It was a blast chatting with him about everything from caffeinated Mio to the origins of life on earth. I’m glad I jumped ahead enough to meet some new people. I know they’re all going faster than I am but at least I can make some new friends while old ones are catching up. I bet Sota is in the area, and I think The Don is making good time as well, so I may get to see them both again before the end of the journey. Although, if Sota is ahead rather than behind, forget it, he’s quite a bit faster than I am.
There were moose tracks all over everything today. Still no actual sightings though. I’m holding out hope.
Day 153: Spaulding Mountain Lean-to to Cranberry Stream Campsite
…Everything hurts! Today was the longest yet, I went back up to fifteen miles, and the terrain was not easier. The first part of the morning wasn’t too bad, just one quick but steep ascent up to (almost) the top of Spaulding Mountain. Why do the trail blazers do that, I wonder? They built the AT up the dang mountain in the first place, and then, a tenth of a mile from the top, they just say, “Aw, never mind, let’s just build a side trail from here to the summit so anyone who climbed up this thing has to do just a little extra hiking to see the top”? And if you’re trying to fit as many miles into the day as you can, like me, but you’re slow as molasses, again, like me, are you going to detour? No, probably not. I didn’t either, and I was grumpy about climbing that mountain for nothing. Eh. I’m over it now…quite literally.
The descent was also short, and also steep, but the next few miles were relatively level, so I got to look around me a bit as I went. I just can’t get over how beautiful Maine really is, especially in October. It’s unreal. This has always been my favorite month of the year, and I’m so amazed that I get to spend it out here.
The trail from Spaulding runs over the shoulder of Sugarloaf Mountain (possibly my favorite mountain name ever) and then pitches down for two miles to the South Branch Carrabassett River. That two miles was absolutely a bit challenging for me right now, with huge, ankle-jarring steps down from boulders and roots, and some sections with lots of loose dirt where you can slide quite easily. By the time I got to the bottom my thighs felt like jelly from all the work staying balanced. I’ll be honest, I liked it a lot, it was beautiful climbing, surrounded by birches and maples dropping bright yellow leaves in the sunshine around me as I went, but I would have loved it unconditionally if I had done it going uphill, instead. It’s all about the pack, really. Big rocks are fun uphill because leaning forward, the pack actually helps my balance stay centered. Dowhill, though, when more often than not I’m leaning back a bit, my pack is more of a hindrance than a help, and I have to work that much harder not to wipe out.
Anyway, I took a tea and candy bar break after crossing the river, and got to relax and watch the sun shining through all the fall foliage around me, while a light breeze rustled the leaves and a few chickadees sang their hearts out. Perfect. Sidebar, hot drinks mid-day are new to me on this trip and it is a total game-changer in the cooler weather. The little caffeine hit gets me up and running and tea is about the most relaxing thing in the world (yea, I’m a big tea drinker at home), so I feel totally content and ready to go afterwards.
And that’s good, because South and North Crocker Mountains were up next, and by the time I summited the second peak, I felt like I had been taken apart and put back together wrong. The view from South Crocker Mountain was very, very nice, though. From the top of North Crocker Mountain it is a five mile sloping descent to Maine 27, and I needed to hustle a bit to get there before dark. By halfway down, though, my body had had enough. All my leg muscles just wanted to lie down and die, and my left knee was making an ominous clicking noise. My ankle was sore and my pack was chafing at my hips and shoulders. This is going to sound a little weird, maybe, but I felt pretty great by the time I reached the road. Why? Because on the way down, I passed this on the ground:
I had to do the last mile with a headlamp, but I got to Cranberry Stream Campsite feeling pretty pleased with myself, and also excited because Tuck was there! She made incredible time through the Whites: she left Hanover a few days after some of my other friends and she’s a few days ahead of them, now. What a boss! Okay. I’m exhausted. I need to sleep. The Bigelows are tomorrow, and I need to be ready for them.
Day 154: Cranberry Stream Campsite to Safford Notch Campsite
Well today was great and horrifyingly rough all rolled together! Great came out on top, definitely, but yeah, I am sore from the last downhill. More on that in a bit.
My day started with a 3.5 mile ascent, first up Spaulding Mountain and then to South Horn (again, the name is a clue). It was really only the last half mile up South Horn that was rough, and after that, I told myself, it’s only some little ups and downs over Bigelow and Avery and then a quick two mile down, a gentle incline to Little Bigelow, and I’ll be done! Easy peasy, I said. First of all, yes, the uphills, not bad, and the terrain is gorgeous, with pretty much every inch of terrain on both sides of the trail carpeted in vibrant green moss so thick it looks like you could sink down into it. Also, those views from the triple peaks of South Horn, Bigelow, and Avery? Those are amaaaaazing.
But the downhills. The downhills…they were a killer. The downhill from Avery is 1.8 miles down, says AWOL. I started down at 3:00, thinking it would take me maybe an hour. I hit the bottom at 5:00. It should not have taken that long! No way! I gave serious consideration to the theory that maybe I had slipped and died and was in hell, and I was going to keep going down that hill forever.
By the time I saw the side trail to Safford Notch Campsite, I had had enough. I pulled off the AT and decided I was definitely not doing another five miles to Little Bigelow Lean-to. If I had gotten down Avery by 4:00, totally. But the lean-to is halfway down one last steep descent, and I’m not doing that at night with a headlamp. I turned around, shook my fist up at the mountain, and went to the campsite.
Tuck was there, setting up her tent as well, I guess she felt the same way! It was great to get a chance to talk with her again tonight. She’ll be pulling ahead of me eventually to finish by the 18th, but for now, I’m so glad she’s here. I know today sounds a little grumpy, but honestly, except for that idiotic last downhill, it was a pretty great day. When I got to the top of South Horn in particular, I sat in the sun on the rock outcropping, enjoyed the breeze, and just had the biggest, goofiest grin on my face because I was the king of the damn world up there and nothing and no one could stop me.
Still no moose sightings, only tracks. Where are my moose? Don’t you hold out on me, Maine.
Day 155: Safford Notch Campsite to West Carry Pond Lean-to
Only twelve miles today, but I still feel old and creaky here in camp. Maine is hard on feet. And knees. And everything. Still, it was a good day. The weather was clear, and warm(ish) for the morning climb up Little Bigelow. It’s not a bad climb, actually. I got to the summit fairly quickly, and spent a little time there talking with my parents (it was my mom’s birthday! She’s pretty much the best mom in the whole world. That’s my PSA for the day). It was good to talk with both of them and use FaceTime to show my parents some live action, 360 degree views.
The downhill was pretty steep in parts. Are you getting tired of me saying that yet? Well this is the last time for a while. I kept meeting family groups coming up the hill, panting and sweaty and happy to be outdoors on such a gorgeous day. By the way, day hiker volume is how I keep track of the days: lots of hikers? It’s the weekend! Anyway, downhill had my knees all achey again, and the muscles along the top of my thighs, because with my ankle I spend a lot of time lowering myself gently from big steps, rather than simply hopping down and letting my joints take the shock. So yeah, there’s a lot of “feel the burn” in my downhill hiking these days. But then I got to the bottom, and you guys, the path…was flat. It was BEAUTIFUL!
It didn’t last, of course. Maine is all about its roots and rocks. Although this might have been taking things too far:
Regardless, I made pretty good time in that flat stretch. Not quite as fast as I wanted to go, but it was kind of absolutely awesome not to spend the whole day going up and down mountains. I was reveling in it. But the roots took their toll, and by the time I reached the lean-to at 3:30, I was ready to admit that, flat or not, I really didn’t have another ten miles in me. So I’ll be eating tortillas tomorrow instead of hot food, and I’ll get in to Caratunk a day late, on the tenth. Now I need to decide if I want to stop there, or push on to Monson for my shower and laundry. I have some friends driving through southern Maine on Monday and they have dangled the lure of beer and food at me, so if they decide they want to detour up to Caratunk and feed me I am DEFINITELY staying there. Otherwise I will probably push on.
The lean-to tonight is in a really nice spot. Tuck (who also decided she couldn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel for another ten miles) and I went down to the pond to get water, and it’s so peaceful and beautiful. You can see all the fall colors along the shore, and mountains rising up in the background.
…Still no moose though. Maybe we will hear some loons in the morning? At least give me loons.
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