Highs and Lows in the Bigelows

Things got better after Rangeley.

The weather didn’t improve, and the terrain was as tough as ever. But either I was too delirious from the miles just past or too excited for the miles soon to come, because for a few days, hiking felt effortless.

The last 200 or so miles of the AT are filled with sections that are well known by even casual followers of the trail.

Mahoosuc Notch, the Kennebec River crossing, Saddleback Mountain and the Bigelows, the 100-Mile Wilderness, and of course, at the end of it all, Katahdin.

I left Rangeley around 11 a.m. and began the long climb up Saddleback Mountain. For about two miles the trail wound through dark dense forests still dripping from the previous night’s showers. Slowly, the trees began to shrink, the grade increased, and the soggy terrain gave way to huge, gritty slabs of rock.

About a mile from the summit I emerged from the woods and a Maine ATC sign announced that I had entered the alpine zone. I was greeted with spectacular views of the pockets of ponds and lakes to the south, smooth and blue and brilliant like sapphires nestled between the green hills. Even at a mere 3,000 feet it was one of the best views I could remember. And there was still more climbing to do.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much more time for sightseeing after that. As I crested the summit of Saddleback I saw a great, dark mass of clouds that had been hiding behind the mountain. And it looked to be heading straight for me. I took off at a jog down the stone trail, rock hopping and chop-stepping and placing much faith in the laws of friction.

The trail dropped below treeline for just a moment, but the rain hadn’t started to fall yet so I pushed on over Saddleback Junior. When the rumbling in the distance began to sound not so distant I put on my headphones and blasted some Avicii to drown it out and quell my anxiety.

Eventually, inevitably, the storm caught up with me and so I set up camp at a stealth site just below treeline. A stern park ranger once warned me that “you’ll never outrun a storm racing along a ridge.” And he’s right. But it’s still one hell of a thrill to try.

The next day my legs felt surprisingly spry given yesterday’s thunderous chase, and I was over Lone Mountain and both the Crocker Peaks before the afternoon storms hit.

Before leaving Rangeley, I’d come up with the brilliant plan of using this stretch of trail as a sort of test run for the 100-Mile Wilderness. It was 101 miles from Rangeley to Monson, and I had left town carrying four days of food.

Well, that test run plan fell apart quicker than a Pop-Tart in a food bag on the descent from Crocker Mountain. At the road into Stratton I struck up a conversation with a few SOBOs who were waiting to be shuttled to a hostel to escape the storm. Now as a trail-hardened and daring and vain NOBO, I told these fresh green SOBOs that while I’d love to join them for a night on the town, I still had miles to crush in the afternoon and couldn’t stay the evening.

But when the shuttle driver arrived and offered to drop me off at the grocery and pick me back up on his next run back to the trail, I couldn’t say no. A chance to show off my grit to SOBOs and grab a hot meal while I’m at it? How could I say no?

A few hours later, loaded up with a hot coffee and a cold cut sandwich, I stepped back onto the trail into the cold, driving rain, feeling more than a bit jealous of the SOBOs and their rationality.

Five miles and 2,000 vertical feet stood between me and the Horns Pond shelter. This was the last major climb of the Bigelows, a rock scramble up to a ridge where four impressive peaks are packed into a stretch of less than four miles—the North and South Horns, and Bigelow West and Avery Peaks.

About halfway up the climb I caught up to a lone NOBO and passed him. He looked familiar, but we were both bundled in rain gear and both had our chins tucked to keep out the bitter cold, and neither of us was interested in pausing mid-gale to chat. I nodded, he nodded, and we hiked on.

A few minutes later the climb eased off for a short while and the clouds followed suit. I swore I even saw a ray of sunshine.

“Didn’t we hike together in the Whites?” The voice came from behind me. I turned, and recognized Glutton as he unzipped his rain jacket hood just a notch or two.

“Yeah,” I said. “Garfield Ridge?”

“Ah yep. Had the same shitty weather that day too.”

Glutton was an Ohioan in his mid 30s. He worked as a jack-of-all-trades handyman, a self-contractor that corporations and manufacturers called in to their fix machinery when their own mechanics were stumped. He’d worked on everything from huge metal-ore processing rigs to vending machines. I’d taken two years of engineering classes in college, but when he tried to explain some of his work to me, all I could do was smile and nod and try to count syllables.

I arrived at the shelter first—or rather, at the shelters: there were two identical wooden lean-tos on site, each large enough to fit eight of even the most shy thru-hikers. I threw my pack down in one and immediately stripped off my wet clothing and put on dry shorts, a dry wool shirt, and my puffy. In the Whites (coincidentally, on that first day of hiking with Glutton), I’d learned the hard way that 50 degrees feels a hell of a lot colder when you’re soaked through.

When Glutton arrived we caught up briefly in the sanctity of my shelter. We agreed that since Garfield Ridge, the trail had been only “buggy, shitty, and beautiful.”

Glutton took the other lean-to and so I spread everything in my pack across the floor of my own and watched it steam dry in the cold, humid air. I slept in my mosquito net, and still woke with a few ripe red bites of my neck and shins.

In the morning, the sun was shining and the sky was cloudlessly blue and the thrushes sang ee-oh-lay, the chickadees called hey-sweetie, over the light patter of old rain falling from leaf to leaf, down, down, pat-pit-pat-pit, to the forest floor.

I packed and walked over to say goodbye to Glutton but we ended up talking for quite some time. Or rather, Glutton talked mostly and I listened and asked questions and added a few half-witty remarks. But I didn’t mind. It had been several days since I’d seen anyone I knew on the trail, several long quiet days with nothing but my own thoughts bouncing around between my ears.

“Ah, I’ll stop talking your ear off,” Glutton said, about halfway through our lopsided conversation. I couldn’t think of a way to say “No please, go on” that didn’t come off as snarky and sarcastic.

I’m quiet by default, which I know can often come off as boredom or irritation to someone like Glutton who likes to say what they think. I never mind listening, though, and I don’t believe one of chattiness or shyness is better than the other. Just different.

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