When in Gorham
Descending from Wildcat Ridge and leaving White Mountain National Forest I felt at once accomplished and weary and relieved and sad. For nearly 1,000 miles the Whites had loomed ahead as both the literal and metaphorical apex of my hike. I’d heard time and again that New Hampshire was the toughest state on the trail. And now that I was through with it, Maine looked to be nothing but a victory lap. A 280-mile victory lap.
I blue blazed down to NH 16 where trail met road just 1.5 flat miles from Gorham. But under a cloudless, midday sky the tarmac sizzled and swarms of black flies were relentless in their pursuit of flesh, and so up went my thumb. Cars streamed past, their drivers immune to the weak sun-beaten half-smile I wore, a smile that had served me so well in the past.
After 20 minutes a small sedan screeched to a stop a few meters past where I sulked. Two guys stepped out. They were about my age and wore shaggy beards and mismatched clothes in true hiker-trash fashion.
“We were hitching all last week, and nobody ever picked us up,” the driver explained. “So we said that if we see someone, anyone, trying to hitch, we’d stop.” I thanked him profusely as he pushed piles of hiking gear and fast food wrappers to one side of the back seat.
They dropped me off at a gas station in Gorham where a group of high school students had set up a fundraising car wash. I seriously considered asking them to hose me down, but decided my funds were better spent on honey buns and Red Bull.
Blood sugar surging, I booked a room at a tired motel next to the gas station. The outside of the motel was shabby—cracking paint, red doors sticky on both sides with Who-Knows-What, and small dusty windows—but the room was nice and clean and air conditioned, the shower hot and cleanish, and there was a Chinese buffet next door.
I washed off an entire state’s worth of grime and walked over to the buffet. A sign above the steam trays warned that “Any uneaten food is charged at an additional $6.99 / lb.” but the waitress dropped off my final check with a knowing nod just moments after I sat down. I nodded a thanks in return and smiled through a mouthful of spicy beef. We both knew that there would be no additional charge. If anything, the restaurant should have compensated me. By the end of my meal those plates were cleaner than I’d found them.
After lunch I went back to the hotel and collapsed in the cool darkness.
Then, around 8 p.m., a roar of diesel engines and a chorus of low hoots woke me from my MSG coma. I rolled over and pulled the corner of the heavy curtain back and peeked out the window, eyes squinted against the last of the day’s light.
Ten or so muddy ATVs idled in a rough circle in the parking lot. Meanwhile, their riders slapped backs and cackled and smoked in a smaller circle (which was also rough but in a different way) just outside my room. The ATV riders were all men, all middle-aged or older, and despite the fierce heat they wore dark heavy coats and black cargo pants. On their sunburned necks and wrists I made out the edges of colorful exotic tattoos that undoubtedly continued for quite some distance beneath their clothes. At the center of the circle were enough cases of beer to get a large fraternity through a weekend tailgate.
I rolled back over, letting the curtain shut out most of the light but none of the raucousness, and sighed, defeated. I thought about hitching a ride back to the trail and forfeiting the cost of the room in favor of a good night’s sleep, but the streets of Gorham were empty of cars and quiet but for this little clusterfuck right outside my door.
And so that night I dozed off to the dull crunch of aluminum under heavy boots, ’80s rock ballads booming from a blown-out speaker, and nonstop drunken guffaws. Unfortunately appropriate for the party scene, my window AC unit became a fog machine that smelled of stale Marlboro 20s and cheap weed.
Around 3 a.m. the speaker coughed its last Aerosmith riff and the lot grew quiet.
In the morning, just after sunrise, I made sure to bang my trekking poles against as much metal as I could while packing up.
It was another clear warm day and the streets of Gorham bustled with cars carrying the first vacationers of summer. Wildcat Ridge stood high in the west over the town, pretty and green and soft in the early light, belying its brutal terrain.
As I walked toward the NH 2 junction in search of a ride I ran into Baskets and Garden State. I told them of my motel neighbors, and they groaned with sympathy. They, too, had been kept up by a similar group. Apparently, there had been some sort of biker/ATVer festival in town that weekend.
Baskets gave me the number of a local trail angel who could drop me back at the AT junction, as well the name and number of a woman who could do the same in the next resupply town. This will be Baskets’ third thru-hike of a 2,000+ mile trail, and in the short time I’ve known him he’s been as reliable a source of trail knowledge as Guthook itself. And he doesn’t require any in-app purchases, either.
We stopped in at a crowded Dunkin’ Donuts while I waited for my angel to arrive and when he did, I said a slightly mournful goodbye to Baskets and Garden State. They were taking a zero in town to rest and heal. Though I’d only really gotten to know them over the past five or so days—and though I often felt like the wobbly, unpredictable third wheel to their couples hike—without their company and good cheer it would have been a much longer and wearier week in the Whites.
Before the trail I was, without exception, an introvert. I’d always taken months, years even, to feel comfortable and close with new friends, no matter how similar our personalities and interests might be.
But on the trail, Baskets and Garden State weren’t the first strangers who I’d met and bonded with in a matter of days. They felt like old friends, people I could trust with my life. People that were hard to leave behind. But now, they and all my other new and old friends on the trail were just that—behind.
Getting back on the trail alone is always hard. It was even harder now that my legs had been sapped by New Hampshire’s highest and wildest.
And yet as I creaked along, swatting at mosquitoes that sucked at what little life substance seemed left in my legs, a reassuring thought came to mind: the slower I walk, the more breaks I take, and the earlier I stop for the night, the sooner I’ll be caught by all those reassuring, familiar faces.
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