Fat Man in a Little Notch

It’s an odd experience to have spent years dreading something, then to suddenly wake up and know that today is the day.

It was a little over two years ago when I first started giving serious consideration to the possibility of a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, and in the course of that planning I had the totally natural thought, “Can I really do this?” I had already taken the completely reasonable step of performing a Google Image search and looking at pictures of the AT. Most of what I saw didn’t seem that much worse than the trails in my local parks, and after all I hiked those pretty frequently without issue, so why not six months straight of that?

I now know most of those photos were lies

Then I considered that maybe I was just looking at the more picturesque sections of the trail, and maybe something worse was hiding, so I tried “how hard Appalachian Trail” and that’s when I eventually stumbled across pictures of Mahoosuc Notch, considered by most to be the “hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail.”

Oh. Oh no. What was I thinking? That looks terrible.

Mother Nature can be a bit of a dominatrix

A solid mile of jagged rocks. Boulders the size of my first car. Tunnels to crawl through and gaps to jump over. I’m sitting at the my desk, looking at these photos instead of working, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of just how overweight and unqualified I was for this endeavor.

I think it says a great deal about just how miserable I found daily life in the regular grind that I still went on to head out for this hike.

Better than spreadsheets

Now, I’m here. Eight months and over a thousand miles under my belt, all too little weight has been lost, and it’s time for me to take on the Notch. I camped at the northern border, just to make sure I could hit it fresh in the morning. After setting up my tent and getting dinner ready, I watched northbound hikers pass by after they’d finished the juggernaut and I asked them how it went. So many were elated, declaring how much fun it was. The phrase I kept hearing was “it’s like a jungle gym” and “just have fun with it.” In retrospect, I wonder how many of those hikers were experiencing some strange version of Stockholm Syndrome, falling in love with the abusive natural feature they’d just escaped. Or maybe they were just sado-masochists.

Sometimes, it’s just healthier to leave

I woke up in the morning with butterflies in my stomach like I’m going on a blind date. I struggled to eat my breakfast and break camp. I made sure to get plenty of water, and shoved an energy bar in my pocket so I could stop and snack midway if needed. I had made a habit over the last few days to ask NOBOs how long it had taken them, just to keep some frame of reference in mind. I generally work with the off the cuff calculation that whatever the average time for another hiker to cross a set of distance, I double that time to estimate my own speed. Most hikers advised me they took around an hour and a half to cross this mile, so I was guessing it would take me about three hours. I forgot to check my official starting time, but I definitely took longer than that.

Alright, game time. I hit the rocks and started on the boulders. I cannot recommend highly enough that you camp right before the Notch, because I was able to hit it fresh in the morning, the first hour or so went pretty well. It was certainly difficult, but I felt full of vim and vigor. The main thing that slowed me down was at several points I had to stop for a while and think through how to get past a certain obstacle. I took my pack off a few times to free myself up to climb a ledge or anything else to get a better vantage point.

Don’t worry. I will come back for you, after all you have all my food.

There are blazes in the Notch, but they predominantly benefit northbound hikers. More than once, I’d spend time puzzling over a certain turn, only to pass it and see clearly painted White arrows telling the NOBOs how to most easily pass through. I stopped for a break after an hour or so, mixed up some caffeine sports drink and nibbled on my energy bar. I was curious how far I’d come. I guessed I was maybe halfway through. I imagined getting done by noon, and the celebratory feeling I’d have after completing this grueling pass. I realized I could check my Guthook app to find out how far I’d come, and opened it up waiting for the GPS to sync, excited to see how much I’d accomplished this morning.

0.2 miles.

Okay, so I’m not making the pace I’d hoped for. I fought down my disappointment and resolved to get back to work. I found the going got harder, several more passes that required me to take my pack off and crawl. Tunnels and caves that feel like another world. I worked in several restaurants when I was younger, and I couldn’t help but think how much these spots felt like a walk in refrigerator.

While I was inside this particular cave, some guy kept asking me about his “precious” and coughing “gollum.” I saw some golden ring on the ground, but left it in case a NOBO was looking for it

I heard the water flowing or dripping underneath the rocks, the soundtrack to my pain. My legs were scraped and scratched from the tight squeezes. At one point, I slid down a rock face and got a handful of leaves, sticks, and pine needles shoved down the back of my pants. One of those leaves must have been from a poison ivy plant or some relative, because by the end of the day I broke out in a rash that began on my inner thighs and spread to my arms and feet. Finally, I hit my low point when my arms began to cramp up, folded against my chest, I couldn’t move them. I sat down and barely held back tears. I knew if I let them loose now, I’d never get going again. I wondered if anyone had ever been buried here.

My face as I was stuck halfway in a hole and regretting every decision that led me to this point

But time moved on. After a rest and some frustrated prayer, I got moving again. I passed a few groups of school kids, and took the opportunity to sit and talk, telling stories about hiking, pointing out the cliffs above us that had provided these boulders, and generally took my mind off of things. Slowly but surely, it passed. So much so, I lost track. As I’ve said, there are few blazes for Southbound hikers here, so I hadn’t noticed when the Trail turned away from the rocks. As I was crawling over a large boulder, some northbound hikers started laughing and asking me why I was on the rocks and pointed out the flat trail I’d missed. I came back over and heard them laughing at me as they turned away. That is, until they saw what was ahead. Apparently, they hadn’t done the Google searches I had. I heard them cursing loudly as I turned away and smiled to myself.

I’d beaten the Notch.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar
    Erica Chiseck : Sep 3rd

    We are so proud of your endurance and grit. Give that trail Hell baby!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Mom&Ed : Sep 4th

    We so look forward to your posts! We feel your frustrations and celebrate your many victories. Thank you for letting us share just a little bit in your wild journey!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ruth Anne Collins : Sep 4th

    Loved this! You rock!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Nadine : Sep 4th

    You are kicking ass! I love reading your posts! Thank you for the awesome inspiration!! Happy trails!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Carol Haley : Sep 4th

    THANK YOU FOR THOSE PHOTOS!!! No one talks about the boulders and like youI watched that 4 minute movie of the whole trail thinking I was ready. BS!! I’m now a section hiker and the trail will not beat me! I am 62 years old and trying to get below 200 pounds before my next section in November. THANK YOU FOR VALIDATING MY EXPERIENCE. Hang tough. The Notch is the worst. There is more ahead of you!! Haha

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Rhinestone : Sep 5th

    THANKS, I needed a good laugh.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Mello & FlapJack : Sep 6th

    We had the exact same experience in the Notch! Took us over 4 hours, but mostly because Mello has an old foot injury that didn’t appreciate much of what it was being asked to do. That, combined with the fact that she’s 5’2″ with shoes on and could barely make many of the leaps and stretches required. Felt like the longest .8 mile of our lives.

    Meanwhile, a NOBO we dubbed “Spider-Man” went bouncing through accomplishing in 15 seconds what it took us more than 30 minutes to traverse. We still wonder if he was able to keep up that gravity-defying pace the whole way through. He didn’t pause long enough to tell us his real trail name 🙁

    Also: we heard once on the other side that yes, someone has been buried there. A moose apparently died in the Notch a few years ago and hikers just had to hold their breath as they passed by because there was NO way to get the carcass out. Yikes!! If a moose could get stuck, no question any of us could get lost forever!!

    We’re sitting in Gorham waiting on the weather to get safer in the Whites, if you’re here, find us! We’ve been dying to meet you!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Violet B 2013 : Sep 6th

    That was a great read. You rock! Just keep walking…you are going to make it!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Teej : Sep 8th

    This is great writing! Shared with the Sobo ’17 page – where someone wants to connect with you.
    Keep having fun!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeffrey A Vanmeter : Oct 3rd

    Hey I like the way you are hiking the At by taking your time and enjoying the sites is well respected.The runners that run the At should be on a track. You will have all the memory’s of the trail and never forget the views.

    Reply

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