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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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