The Highs and Lows of the Northern AT
I’ve been trying to think how best to summarize the second half of my hike. I think the end of the trail is still too recent in my mind for me to objectively pick my overall favorite parts. I also think that just giving a highlights reel would inaccurately portray what thru-hiking is really like. However, just focusing on things that I struggled with would not be accurate either. So, I’ve decided to pick a highlight and a lowlight from each state in the second half. These were not the definitive “best bits” and “worst bits” of each state but are just something that I either liked or struggled with during that state.
Low: Mud, rocks, heat, and rain
Pennsylvania is often dubbed Rocksylvania. You could argue that this is an inaccurate title after seeing much larger rocks on the New England section of the trail. However, while the Pennsylvania rocks were not large, they were everywhere and dug into your feet with every step. My group agreed that the worst section of trail was between Duncannon and Port Clinton. We hit this section during a particularly wet heat wave so the trail surrounding the rocks became a muddy mess. With every step your choice was either to step on a slippery, pointy rock or to step on the slippery, squelchy mud between the rocks. I remember feeling permanently damp for that entire week. I was either damp from sweat or damp from the rain. Or, most likely, both.
High: Visiting Slouch’s friends and family
Although I definitely didn’t actively hate every bit of trail in Pennsylvania, it probably says something about the trail there that my favorite part of that state was nothing to do with the hiking. Having hiked with Slouch from day one, I knew that he had plans to visit friends and family when he passed through his home state. Over time these plans turned from “him” visiting to “us” visiting. It was lovely to see where Slouch was from, to meet the people I’d been hearing about for 1,200 miles and, of course, to spend a whole day lying on the sofa.
New Jersey / New York
Low: Heat wave
It had been hot for a while by now. I was used to hiking with sweat dripping down my face and feeling permanently dehydrated. But then it got really hot. The drips of sweat turned into rivers and I remember exclaiming at one point that “even my kneecaps are sweating!” We had a frustratingly slow weekend of progress when we believed it to be unsafe to hike during the hottest part of the day. Thankfully we were near enough to civilization that we could sometimes find air-conditioned places to sit during these hours.
These were the first states where we found tiny little blueberry plants lining the sides of the trail. I’ve never seen such small blueberries but that did not stop me wanting to eat them all. My pace would probably drop by half in these areas as I was stooping down to pick so many!
Connecticut / Massachusetts
Low: Slouch getting sick
Near the end of Connecticut Slouch woke up feeling pretty sick. He seemed to be demonstrating almost textbook symptoms for Lyme disease. Fortunately we were staying at a friend’s house that night and the following day she was able to drop him at a hostel. As I was hiking to a deadline I had no choice but to keep hiking. I was dropped off at the trailhead alone for the first time since Amicalola. I only made it about 200 feet until I was sitting on a rock, crying. If it was Lyme that would probably end Slouch’s hike. We’d hiked together all the way from Springer and by this point it was the thought of us standing together on Katahdin that was pulling me onward. Later in the day I got a text from Slouch saying that if he wasn’t better in two days then he had a friend ready to drive him home. This felt very final. At this point I convinced myself that I’d be doing the rest of the trail alone. I’d only seen one other northbound hiker that day and knew that all my other close friends were at least 50 miles ahead or behind.
Thankfully, the next day Slouch was feeling much better. I was able to meet him at the next town and we continued hiking north together. Those two days really made me realize that although I was capable of hiking alone, I no longer wanted to do that.
High: Returning to pine forests
Although the middle section of the trail had still been beautiful there is definitely something unique about hiking through a pine forest that cannot be matched elsewhere. Entering New England felt like we were finally back in the “real mountains” and the occasional burst of sub-alpine like forest would feel like we were being shown a little sample of what was to come.
By this point in the trail it was clear that I was physically capable of reaching the end. My only limiting factor, barring a freak accident, was time. I had a deadline that was suddenly uncomfortably close. Through the second half of the trail I’d kept a loose eye on the numbers and knew I needed to average 15 miles a day to finish. I knew the Whites and Maine were going to be tough so I set myself the goal of doing 17 miles a day in order to buy back some time before then. Although that may not be a long day by some people’s standards, when you’re doing that every day without a break on terrain that has suddenly got a lot more hills in, it takes its toll. I’d decided to do neros instead of zeros to try to keep this average up, and as a result I hadn’t taken a full day off since Pennsylvania (about 500 miles ago). I was exhausted and was not enjoying hiking. This made reuniting with the rest of the lads even better as they persuaded me to join them on their zero in Hanover and it wasn’t until I took that day off that I realized how tired I really was.
High: Reuniting with the lads
We knew we were catching up to a group of friends whom we’d known since the start but hadn’t seen since the Mason-Dixon Line. We’d been trying to guess where we’d finally catch them by looking at their Instagram posts and shelter log entries. Then one evening I came out of the trees after a particularly steep climb and there they all were, with their tents pitched ready to watch the sunset. We stayed with them that night and two days later we made ourselves an official tramily by buying Hawaiian shirts to match theirs. The shirts obviously worked as we stuck loosely together all the way to the summit of Katahdin.
Low: The Whites – Moosilauke to Kinsman
“The descent from Moosilauke was the hardest descent I’ve ever done. 1.3 miles of the trail took well over an hour and parts of it were not only difficult but dangerous. The steep, slippery, wooden steps on the rocks were some of the easier parts. After this was Wolf Mountain. I’ve not met a single hiker with a good thing to say about Wolf Mountain. It looked small on the map but the trail over it was in poor shape, with mud, rocks, fallen trees and a steep climb. The next morning was equally rough, with the descent of Wolf Mountain and a steep climb up South Kinsman. For me this was the hardest climb on trail so far. Every corner I went round showed me more rocks stretching up and away as far as I could see. A lot of the time you had to use all four limbs and several trees to get over them. This type of terrain is fun but gets tiring very quickly, and being in the low spirits that I was it made me feel like the top of the hill, and Katahdin, might never come.” I think this extract from my Instagram post says it all.
High: The Whites – Franconia Ridge
Franconia Ridge was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire AT. It is a ridge that is completely above treeline for several miles, offering 360-degree views the whole way along. We were so lucky to be up there on a day with completely clear skies, giving a perfect blue backdrop to the stunning views. This was also the only section of the trail where our newly formed tramily actually hiked together so we were able to enjoy each others company as well as the scenery.
Low: The rain in Maine falls mainly on the ROCKS
We finished our first day in Maine just after Mahoosuc Notch, the so-called “hardest mile” of the AT. Although I’d probably agree more with the people who say it’s the most fun mile of the trail, it still felt like a big accomplishment to get through it. That night Maine rewarded us with a torrential downpour for the whole night. By the time I went to sleep my tent was completely flooded and I had to lie very still and hold my quilt tightly around me so that it didn’t dip into the water. It then rained off and on for the rest of the week. Southern Maine is known for its steep, technical climbs. The rain made all these rocks super slippery and I still don’t know how I survived it without breaking a bone.
“Above treeline things got more serious. I wondered beforehand why I’d never seen any pictures of the ascent of Katahdin, I soon realized that it’s because the climb is so steep and technical that everyone has their phones stowed away. Overall the climb wasn’t as scary as I expected but there were several sketchy moments. After tackling a few scary rocks with big drops on either side a few doubts came into my mind. What if I found a rock I couldn’t get over? What if I’d come all this way only to be defeated at the final hurdle?” – From my Instagram.
It wasn’t until I was up on the Tablelands of Katahdin that I finally said out loud, “Y’know, I think I might actually make it.” Slouch and FUJ, both of whom I’d known since day one, found this very funny. But I was, for the most part, being sincere.
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