The Notch: What to Expect in the “Most Difficult” Mile
Several minutes into the notch, I slip.
My foot slides a few inches down the moss-slick rock before the tread of my shoe catches again, just enough to press the flesh of my leg against the sharp edge of an opposing boulder. My mind flashes back to a week earlier, when I watched a fellow hiker slip off a similarly mossy rock, gashing his shin open on an equally sharp boulder. Nineteen stitches later he’s back on the trail, but the image has remained vivid in my memory, and each step since then has held the juicy potential of filleting my own limbs. I ease my leg back for examination: No gash, not even a scratch. I let out a breath and continue.
AWOL’s guide labels Mahoosuc Notch the “most difficult or fun mile of the AT.” It is indeed, as AWOL goes on to claim, “a jumbled pit of boulders,” unique from all the other jumbled pits of boulders in Maine for the sheer grandeur of its size and jumbleness. The pit itself is really only an eighth of a mile, but it’s apt to be the longest eighth of a mile you’ll encounter outside of the Whites.
I scramble/crab-walk/boulder myself over, under, and around the granite obstacles, adding to the chorus of “hoops!” “hups!” and “oophs!” that reverberate through the bellows of the notch. My poles are collapsed. No use for them here. It’s 10 a.m. on a beautiful July day, sun pouring in, but deep down in the recesses between the rocks pockets of ice linger into the summer. I hunker down into a cave to enjoy the odd sensation of being warm above the waist and cool below it, like standing in an icy pool without the water.
Hikers about to hit the notch want to know how it is, and those fresh out of it often give the same response:
“It’s fun. Take your time. Enjoy it.”
The hikers I say this to look dubious. Most of us have come to associate rocks (and their best buddies, roots) with tedium. Another stubbed toe, another rolled ankle. The notch is different. It requires your full attention, necessitating the kind of thoughtful maneuvers that puts one in mind of Alex Honnold free-soloing his way up El Cap. Or maybe I’m just one for fantasy.
The lack of a clear route gives the AT hiker the rare opportunity to choose whether to go over this way or around that way, a welcome respite from the dictatorial green tunnel that defines much of the trail. Roots that sprawl into the notch are tested for their dependability before being used as grips and footholds. Mossy sections of rock are best avoided. At one point, I drop to my hands and knees in order to squeeze between boulders, the sound of fabric scraping against granite a not-so-subtle reminder that my pack needs to go on a diet.
As if all of this isn’t interesting enough, my digestive system’s yellow indicator flicks on. Suddenly I’m on a bit of a time crunch if I want to avoid having to poop in the notch.
I lose track of exactly how long I spend down in the jumble, but the common refrain seems to be to allot an hour and a half to pass through. You can certainly work your way through faster than that, but why rush? Campsites at either end of the notch provide tent space should you reach it near dark.
I come out of the southern end and round the corner to find a NOBO looking around, confounded.
“Have you seen a bunch a boulders around here somewhere?” he asks.
“Right this way,” I say.
“It’s fun. Take your time. Enjoy it.”
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