Good, Bad, or Ugly…the Trail Provides
It has been a while since my last update, and I have covered some monumental terrain in the last 190 miles. I finished up southern Maine, completing the most fun mile of the AT at Mahoosuc Notch, moving into continuing extreme terrain in New Hampshire. The trials and perils of southern Maine conditioned my body and mind for tackling the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which I found some of the most enjoyable walking so far. It helped that the weather cooperated.
I am nearing the end of a much-needed break that took me off the Trail for almost two weeks. The need was two-fold. First, my sons’ birthdays are two years and one week apart, so I got to celebrate both of their annual trips around the sun during my vacation from hiking. After 20 years in the Army, I don’t need to miss any more milestones or holidays. Second, my body needed some downtime after some serious challenges and a loss of 12 lbs. in five weeks.
The Rain and the Pain Continue
AT guidebooks report amazing views from the Saddlebacks, Wildcat Mountain, and Carter Dome. Maybe one day I will return to enjoy them, but that’s unlikely. I experienced rained-out views after brutal climbs. Since there were no views from these peaks, the rewards were equally brutal descents on slippery rocks. At times, the trail was a running stream with water well over ankle deep.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom, though. The views over Baldplate Peaks, Goose Eye Mountain, and Old Speck were truly amazing. The climb up Old Speck was certainly strenuous, but Goose Eye and Baldplate do not get enough credit for their difficulty. You can find great videos on the “steepest mile of the AT” on Wildcat Peak E. Goose Eye had multiple shorter climbs with more dangerous consequences. Descending Baldplate East Peak was basically Half Dome without the cables and tackier rock. No one really talks about these ranges, probably because it’s typical in southern Maine. The reward was worth the effort as I got a few days of consistently great views.
Of all the ranges, I found the Nicklebacks the most despised. Even though they can be easily overlooked, their difficulty really reminded me of who I really am. The summit would be a great place to build a hilltop house to park 15 cars. Plus, all the boulders will turn you into a rock star. Very generic and unassuming peaks.
The Weather Breaks for the Presidentials!
I needed a good day. After encountering treacherous conditions hiking the Wildcat Range through a rainstorm, I was greeted with flooded creeks south of Pinkham Notch. These are not even listed as “fords” on any guides, but the couple I was able to get across were thigh-deep. I finally ran into one that I was unable to cross in my attempt to get to Osgood Campsite. Conditions forced me to an unnamed stealth site about one mile north, and I decided to take a zero the next day. I had pushed a few extra miles a couple days previous, so I had an extra day of food to get me to Franconia Notch 50 miles away. This pause would allow me to rest before tackling Mount Madison and let the high creek levels subside.
It was a great decision to take that zero! My gear was dry, and I was well rested. Getting up Mount Madison was a breeze, and the reward was stunning views. The trail had turned from a jumbled mess of car-sized boulders and slick rock faces to a level rocky path. These conditions improved my morale more than my speed. After 300 miles of thinking the Trail was actively trying to slow me down or kill me, I was actually enjoying walking.
Unfortunately, my view from Mount Washington was cloudy. The other eight hours of hiking that day were spectacular.
Past the Presidentials
After my most enjoyable day on the Trail to this point, the “croo” at Mizpah Spring Hut rewarded me with a “work for stay.” This is a program run by the Appalachian Mountain Club that allows thru-hikers the opportunity to perform some work around the hut in exchange for feasting on dinner leftovers and sleeping on the dining room floor. I inventoried a deep freezer and ate all the pulled pork and fresh bread I wanted. It was an incredible end to an incredible day.
The next day was some great hiking in great weather, traversing the Webster Cliffs and climbing Mount Guyot. The trail conditions south of Ethan Pond were spectacular with a flat surface that most hikers would recognize as a trail. After securing a tent pad at Guyot shelter, I buttoned up for the thunderstorm that night. It provided a marvelous light show and thankfully only lasted about one hour.
Another great day awaited as I left Guyot. My first climb was over South Twin Mountain, and then over Mount Garfield. Garfield is another mountain that I think does not get enough credit for its difficulty. It is a strenuous rock scramble that presents a fine view of Franconia Ridge. I ate lunch here before tackling Mount Lafayette and enjoying 2 1/2 miles of views above the tree line on Franconia Ridge.
The NOBO Orientation for the SOBO Hiker
Cliches like “No rain, no pain, no Maine,” “Rocksylvania,” and “Vermud” are clearly oriented to the NOBO. “No rain, no pain, no Maine” is meant to remind the NOBO thru-hiker that you cannot get to Maine with going through pain and rain. The ’23 AT SOBO is a master in resilience through pain and rain in the 282 miles that Maine so graciously offers. I have asked NOBOs about the rocks in Pennsylvania, and many wish to return to such gentle trail conditions. Vermont is an anomaly this year receiving records amounts of rain, but many NOBOs describe the mud in Maine being much worse.
Signage a blazing is more prevalent and oriented to the NOBO hiker. Several times when I have not seen a blaze recently and the trail is looking indistinguishable from the woods, I can turn around and see a line of blazes heading north. There was no signage marking the beginning of the Mahoosuc Notch for the SOBO, but a massive sign at the end (really the beginning for the NOBO). I laughed at some of the iron and wooded ladders/stairs meant to assist hikers get over steeply-pitched rock faces. SOBOs had already encountered worse terrain with no such help by the time these amenities made an appearance on the south side of Saddleback Mountain. It’s almost like SOBOs are the Gen X of thru-hikers. We are left to fend for ourselves, almost forgotten about. And we like it. Don’t worry about us because we will figure it out, with or without the FarOut app.
Hiking Your Own Hike and “Advisors”
Another challenge SOBOs face is sorting through advice. The NOBOs we encounter have walked over 1,700 miles, taking months to do so. Their achievements are great. It would seem natural that we take their advice, but I find filtering useful. If the NOBO doesn’t understand the difficulty of the terrain the SOBO has already encountered, advice on trail conditions probably doesn’t mean much. If they understand that we have weeks of experience scrambling to gain 6,000 feet of elevation in a day, then we can compare notes and gain useful insights. This is a specific way to say “know your audience.” NOBOs who attempt to fearmonger the SOBO who cannot be scared at this point are quickly discounted.
Even so, SOBOs “only” have 300 miles on their boots. But most of us took months to prepare, knowing the extreme conditions we would face on day one. Most are not interested in being told how cutting weight by cold soaking your food and taking more breaks will equal more miles. I am happy eating a hot meal every night and taking many short breaks through the day. If you want to lighten your load by removing your cookset, awesome. Your pack will be lighter and you can make more miles. Making the most of every minute of daylight is something to be admired. I just choose to do it a different way to hike 19-mile days through the Whites. We all have different goals on the Trail, and we all need to hike different ways. We all have a lot of experience to share with each other. Maybe we can be more excellent to each other.
The Trail Provides
You are having a bad day? Get up and hike tomorrow, and you will be rewarded with amazing views. If not tomorrow, probably the next day. Hungry? Somehow you will run into some trail magic. Need some encouraging words? You’ll have an encounter with an unassuming Triple Crowner or a motivating day hiker. Getting too cocky? The Trail will humble you.
How can a rocky dirt path give you what you need? I think the Trail is the venue that brings out the best in people and in nature. If you open your eyes and your heart, you will see it. I believe there is a higher power that intervenes when we need it most. Some may say it’s karma, or maybe mother nature, but I believe the Holy Spirit is active in providing us what we need on the Trail. Walking with this divine providence, I know that whatever is thrown at me, it will continue to be well with my soul.
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