Little ole cabin in the woods

Last weekend, we fell in love with the Appalachians again.

Paul and Lara's cabin
Paul and Lara’s cabin

The cabin was built in the 1840s. Our friends, an older couple named Paul and Lara, live there. Lara is a storyteller, folklorist, and knower of the natural: birds, animals, plants, trees, and how to make everything out of them. How to build a hearth out of river rocks, how to milk sheep, how to heal ailments with herbs. Paul is a teacher, woodworker, and alternative energy expert. He rigs up electric cars, teaches middle school kids how to make wood crafts, and builds just about anything. Together, they run the Coweeta Heritage Center on their property.

These people have more projects going than can be imagined. They have interns and volunteers to assist sometimes, but it is often just the two of them, and they are not spring chickens. The land is strewn with partly born ideas: a gutted van, a camper, lumber carefully milled from felled trees and stacked under tin roofing with cement blocks. A fish pond, a small waterfall. A clay oven now riddled with holes from mud-loving insects. The barn where the sheep used to be. (Have you ever tried to milk a sheep? It’s hard.) Lara tends the goats and makes goat’s-milk cheese, buttermilk, butter, and milk. She works in the small permaculture garden she has begun. As she does, she thinks of stories.

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So it was time to visit. Saturday morning, we dragged the poor, low-riding Mazda 3 an hour and a half out of the city and up the alarmingly rutted Coweeta Gap Road, into a narrow valley with a stream running through it, to their 52-acre plot of hilly land.

The rigors of the Trail, the fresh memory of the majesty of the West, and our rough start in Asheville had erected a barrier between us and the Appalachian mountains we’d loved so long. They were my first mountains. I interned for a summer at the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia during college, and the hazy Blue Ridge rose from the western horizon. They were maternal, mysterious, ancient, abundant. They provided orientation, perspective, grounding, and a reminder that the earth is a moving, shifting creature. I loved them immediately.

Thus, it had been unsettling to find myself disenchanted. But here at last was an opening, between two narrow ridges, through which to begin to love them again.

As we had hoped, Paul and Lara had set out projects: J. would help Paul build a sauna behind one of the cabins, and I would paint a small case fridge for them to sell their cabbages and mustard greens at market. After a few hours of work in the chill afternoon, we went down the hill to the cabin for dinner. One skinny-necked guinea screeched ceaselessly at our approach, while the flock of hens calmly clucked out of our way.

As we sat around the table in the tiny, hearth-heated room, Lara put out cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, a bowl of butter beans, roast turkey, and fruit salad. Rusks and rinds were strewn upon the wooden floor, crumbs on the table, and a thick layer of history on each wooden chair. The kitchen table legs stood in teacups. Tapestries, woven wicker baskets, and tools hung on the walls. Every corner was packed with books, jars, and dust. The cabin’s interior is as enveloping as the womb of the Appalachian Mountains themselves. It is a one-room museum of the people who come from these mountains.

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After dinner, Paul poured us mugs of pocahickra: hickory nut milk, flavored with both nuts and shells. It is a brown milk that, served warm with a spoon of maple syrup, smells and tastes wonderful. Perhaps the proof of its countryness is that no spelling of its name elicits results from Google. However, I am reading the excellent book 1491 by Thomas Mann, and it had just mentioned hickory milk, as part of a thesis that the Indians had strategically planted chestnut and hickory all along the East, in natural, life-giving orchards, far from the stereotype of savages in untouched wilderness. Mann’s first cup of the milk was as pleasurable as mine. His was served by St. EOM, an eccentric artist from rural Georgia who claimed Creek ancestry. (J. and I once visited St. EOM’s rambling, strange estate, Pasaquan, as a day trip from Koinonia Farm. The saint died years ago, but his compulsive mosaics remain. You can also find a roomful of it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)

As we talked, Paul showed us the ingenious but simple pattern for making a wooden spoon. J. ran his hands over it, satisfied. He had wondered how those spoons were made ever since our first visit, five years before. We had volunteered for ten days, and afterward, Paul presented us with a cooking spoon made of cherry that we treasured and used for years. This time he gave us an ash.

After saying goodnight, J. and I climbed the hill to the visitors’ cabin. No computer, no internet, no cell phone reception. While these are useful tools, we were satisfied gazing at the fire and peeping into a few of the hundreds of books on botany, construction, and the like. When it was time to sleep, we unrolled the futon by the hearth, and J. loaded the fire so hot that there was no need to feed it overnight. It rumbled and blazed and, citified as I am, I kept thinking I heard a log roll out onto the floor, or smelt smoke pouring through some vent to asphyxiate us. But we slept.

In the morning it was goats’-buttermilk pancakes with blueberries that had been picked nearby and then frozen. When you stay in a place so long, you know where to find the hickory nuts (the tree behind the library), yellow raspberries (an open field of brambles near town), and everything else (the woods, usually). For tea, Paul set out dried herbs, a strainer, and a pot of boiling water. Choose your elixir: will it be chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, clover flowers, whole cloves, or even catnip?

Then it was back to work. J. was in paradise. Working on an off-grid construction project outdoors in the woods gladdened his soul. They got out the ol’ post-hole diggers to sink four big posts upon which they built a platform for the sauna. They did have power, and power tools, but the power flowed from the creek, not from electric lines. A long wooden track, built by Paul, diverts a bit of the water temporarily, where it runs downhill and spins a little wheel, which fills batteries. So they have such luxuries as hot water and lights and tools, without a power bill. What a gift, a stream on one’s land.

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After I finished painting the fridge and listening to NPR on the scratchy radio, I put on my running clothes and headed up the mountain. It entailed big, confidence-boosting jumps over several not inconsequential streams that ran right across the road. The sunlight through the bare trees evoked the season we started our hike: generous, brilliant in the winter air, soon-to-set. I knew the Appalachian Trail ran along the nearest ridge, which looked so close but was too far to reach on a jaunt. I pined for the magical line, even though I never need to hike the whole thing again.

Lara’s grandparents had made their homeplace not far away, one valley over, but high on the hillside–they could not afford the flatter land below. She told me how to find their homestead next time–I was just one turn away. Next time I’ll find it.

So we will be back. For many reasons. But especially because something somewhat like this is part of our dream, no matter where we find it.

Old things.
Old things.

P.S. Based on the comments left on my last post, I ought to make two quick notes:

1. I did not actually visit the Isle of Man.

2. I am doing fine. My intention was to show the rise from (certain shallow) depths. I’m not staying down there. I’m lucky, and I’m also not built for that. Thanks to everyone for the kind and heartfelt words!

For statistics junkies

Here are some statistics about our trip on the Appalachian Trail…

Miles hiked: 2185.9 (not including spur trails to water, shelter, and views, or distance walked while resupplying in town)

Number of days in the journey: 139, from March 5 – July 22. (Includes two weddings at four days each, six snow days, and about four “zero” days.)

Average miles hiked per day, including days off: 15-16

Number of jars of peanut butter Zippy and Diddo will purchase in the next six months: 0

Base weight of our backpacks with winter gear: 8-9 lbs each. (Base weight doesn’t include food or water, which adds 3-13 pounds depending on how much we’ve eaten already.)

Base weight of our backpacks with summer gear: 7 lbs each.

Number of vertical miles climbed: 91 (according to this guy: http://bucktrack.com/Thru-hiking_the_Appalachian_Trail.html)

Approximate number of footsteps: 5 million… each.

Pairs of shoes: 3 for Zippy, 2 for Diddo. All pairs deceased by trail’s end.

Wildlife sighted: See my list at my flora and fauna page.

Highest point: Clingmans Dome, Smoky Mountains, 6643′

Lowest point: Hudson River, NY, 124′

Largest vertical climb: Mount Katahdin, 4188 feet in 5.2 miles

Books and audiobooks read on the journey: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, The Catcher in the Rye, Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, The Perks of Being a Wildflower by Stephen Chbonsky, the Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and AWOL on the AT by David Miller. Thru-hikers tend to despise and malign Bill Bryson, since he did not finish his hike, and that represents their greatest fear, but his book on the subject, A Walk in the Woods (or, in German, Picnic with Bears, according to our German friend Roadrunner) is inarguably good.

And finally, this infographic. Many people tell us how much closer the AT must make us as a couple. Jerri from White Mountains Hostel said, “Now when you go through hard times, you can always think back on this and say, We hiked that trail together, we can get through this.” I think she’s right. But for your enlightenment, now you can know what really goes on out there:

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Katahdin!!

It is done!

Yesterday, we climbed to the summit of Baxter Peak, the highest point in Maine, on top of Mount Katahdin, the Greatest Mountain according to the Penobscot, and finished the Appalachian Trail.

The dawn was clear and chilly; one of our going-away gifts from the trail was a final night spent tossing and turning, too cold to sleep deeply. So at earliest light, we arose and started up. The sun was behind the Greatest Mountain as we climbed… first past a stream with cascades, then two miles of uphill rock and root hopping, then we rose above treeline, and began to climb in earnest. Boulders with abrasive grit, hefting our bodies over and around and through, avoiding drops and crevices. It was not a climb in which one could contemplate falling.

At last we crested the mountain’s shoulder and found ourselves upon the Tableland, a mile of plateau that is home to Thoreau Spring. (He hiked and loved Katahdin too, apparently.) We dipped our bottles in and drank straight from the spring, the only time we drank untreated water on this journey. We figured: if not on a mountaintop, when? Plus, if we got sick, it’d be too late to derail our hike. So, a communion with the pure, slightly metallic water just a mile short of our peak, which sat above one final rock scramble.

We reached it alone. There was the weathered wooden sign, the one we’d seen photos of for months. We hugged, and touched it at the same time. It was surreal, like watching ourselves do it. We sat in the sun and summit breeze, gifted with a bluebird day at the end, and laughed. I told Zippy I could not have done it without him, and though he certainly could have done it without me, he said that I made it better. We will always have this to look back upon, to have survived and thrived by the grace of companionship, trail magic, and the little benevolent part of the universe. We wished someone could take pictures of us together, and in another gift, two men came up from another trail and obliged. When there was nothing left to see or do, we turned our backs to the Northern Terminus and headed down again.

Baxter State Park is easily more wild and rugged of trail than the Hundred Mile Wilderness. When Governor Percival Baxter couldn’t legislate the area’s protection back in the twenties, he purchased it with his own wealth, piece by piece over decades, and donated it to the state and citizens of Maine, under the condition that no new roads or development be built in it. The “forever wild” clause, as it is beautifully described. It was a perfect, memorable endpoint. And I was impressed by how many American families, of all shapes, sizes, and ages, had decided to spend their July 22nd clambering over its highest point. We must’ve passed eighty of them on the way down.

The day before, we’d taken it easy. There were only 13.5 miles of flat, calm terrain between the last shelter in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and the special northbounder base camp at Katahdin Stream Campground. Between the endpoints was Abol Bridge, from which we could see this amazing view of tomorrow:

From the little, overpriced store nearby, we bought one last day’s supply of junk food, lunch, and some quintessentially Maineiac treats: Gifford’s ice cream cones, the dubious Moxie soda (flavored with gentian root), and a Whoopie Pie to split on the summit. We sat around until we were finished sitting around, then got it done: forded one last river, stumbled across the last decaying, tippy bog bridge planks, washed out our shirts and wore them dry, and finally, registered for our hike with the Baxter State Park Ranger, a friendly young man named Yves. (We are very close to French Canada here… sometimes both flags are flown over stores, and the airy murmur of French can be heard.) He handed us yellow receipts indicating that we are northbound thru-hikers number 41 and 42 this year.

We encamped, and it felt like a holding pen, a walk-in site separate from the tourists’ reserved spots, there with Hurricane and NBC (No Big Climbs), who would also summit the next day, just an hour before us. Racehorses at the gate. We dined on the last packet of instant mashed potatoes, crawled into the tent under a full-ish yellow moon, and from there you know the story.

So, we were thru-hiking… and now, for a little while anyway, we are through hiking. We caught a ride to the tiny town of Millinocket with a couple of friendly day hikers, who stopped at a pond on the way so we could all soak our toes on the sandy beach. We got fed, a bed, and conked out promptly. We hopped on a bus headed to Bangor, mostly because J wanted to go to the town mentioned in “King of the Road:”

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine…

We are holed up in an inexpensive hotel for two nights of transition, decompression, and the scheming of our next moves. We have no reservations and are traveling, of course, sans car. In a way, it is like backpacking: you never know what to expect when you arrive at the next shelter. Only there are no white blazes to guide us. We are now hiking through seas of people and cities. We are curious what emotions will show up as we make our way from here, no longer bearing the identity of Hiker, just two more dots in the crowd.

I do look forward to washing vigorously every single item in my pack, my shoes and insoles, and the pack itself. A shower is going to occur every day. Lotions will be applied. Vegetables will be consumed.

Also, I intend to post a few more AT-related journal entries: one of mostly photos, and one with a bunch of trip statistics, because I’m a Virgo and dig that kind of thing. After that, the website will go back to being general musings, and I won’t be offended if you unsubscribe.

Of course, it’ll pick back up again next May or so, when we start our next hiking adventure: the Pacific Crest Trail! Part of me (my toes, perhaps) can’t believe I am already able to fathom doing something like this again. But it’s true.

The 99 Mile Wilderness

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(4 days ago…) We are so close to Katahdin we can see it, rising off the hazy valley floor like a giant, sleeping mammal. We saw it from the peak of Whitecap Mountain, where we dried our tent in the breeze and spread some of the last jar of peanut butter we will buy for the foreseeable future onto day-old cinnamon raisin bagels. There are fewer than 70 miles left in this journey. Tentatively, Monday is Summit Day. The forecast, fingers crossed, looks good.

We had our first string of six consecutive days without rain (or other precipitation). It was the heat wave that consumed the country, and it ended in a thunderstorm that rocked the sky just as we dove into the tent, our evening chores finished hastily as the first drops fell. The dry spell was a gift, and so was the rain after, which cooled the earth and renewed the springs.

We are over halfway through what is called the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It’s not really wilderness: it may be 99 miles long, but it’s only two or three miles wide, and crisscrossed with dirt roads containing parking lots. Still, the sign at the borders makes a swift hiker feel tough: it warns travelers not to enter without ten days of food. We headed in with a scant five. We’ll be through it in just over four days… and that’s with a slowdown the last two, to set us up for a morning summit, and to properly enjoy the last few days out here, the views and air and lakes, the mornings and evenings, one last full moon. To savor.

Which is funny, since I write this at 2 am, not exactly when I want to do said savoring. I am awake itching. Mosquitoes. The first few days of Maine, I kept hearing a mechanical drone in the atmosphere. Maybe a ski lift or dam equipment? Finally I realized it was the constant whine of bloodthirsty insects. There are usually two flies circling my head as I walk, burrowing into my sweaty scalp until I smother them in my hair. And I am going to have to start putting DEET on my butt, because the mosquitoes have figured out that there’s fresh meat available every time I stop to pee. Thankfully, it’s been a bad year for black flies… the record spring rainfall kept them in check, a welcome silver lining to wet shoe syndrome. When we are done, I fantasize about soaking in a vat of chilled meat tenderizer.

Speaking of which, we have been discussing what creature comforts we crave most afterwards. The White Flash wants a watermelon. I want a salad bar. The Georgia Brothers want to go back to the South, “down in the dirty-dirty, where the beer is cheap and the girls are purty.” And Zippy keeps mentioning a La-Z-Boy in an air conditioned room. At the same time, we will miss sleeping in our little fort in the cool woods. (Isn’t it amazing that even here and now, a person can bring a piece of cloth and netting into the forest and sleep for free in comfort and privacy?) We will miss walking all day, nearly every day. It is true, though hard to believe: we do not get bored of it. We will miss the simplicity. There are still chores, but none of them involve the DMV or scrubbing a shower stall. I am already thinking about where I can take long walks when we are done.

I clench and grind my jaw overnight, my body’s unsubtle protest against uncertainty and impending change. It is coming soon!

Maximum Bliss

My friend April has an expression she uses when a bunch of us are out doing something, enjoying each other’s company. “Have we reached maximum fun?” she’ll ask. This means: have we reached the point at which it’s not going to get any better? If so, we should make like 30 Rock and quit while we’re ahead.

Officially: we have reached maximum fun.

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The pendulum has swung fully from the blizzards of March in Tennessee to the blazing heat of Maine in July. The sun is out every day, and the views are vast and nearly Montana-worthy. There are ponds here, clear blue eyes scattered in the forests. We came upon a beautiful little one just in the heat of the day, stripped to our underwear, and waded in. The water was perfect, comfortable and refreshing and clean, with warm rocks to dry our feet upon afterwards. To a girl born and bred in the Land o’ Lakes, it was bliss, evoking Lake Superior and the chain of lakes in the Twin Cities in and around which delirious Minnesotans bask during their brief annual affairs with warm weather. We walked on with cool skins and wet skivvies.

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Also, the plants. They are fully summered too. I had made peace with the blueberries being green, even pink-tinged, but never ripe, during our hike. I sent to them sweet energy for the lucky hikers who would follow. But yesterday, under a power line, there they were: blue! Berries! Not the sweetest, but tangy like these northern ones are. And the flowers that I have watched poke through the cold soils of spring, bloom, and fade–they are now growing berries that I have never before seen. Bunchberries, Solomon’s seal, and the bluebead lily with blue beads on its stems. And the fungi: a gaggle of white Indian pipes poking up through the thick leaves and duff, eerie and translucent, unstoppable. Mushrooms of every conceivable color, size, and shape. Candy-colored. Bright yellow slime molds that look furry but aren’t.

And, icing on the cake: we reached the only bit of trail where it is kosher, required even, to progress without moving one’s legs. We got up at the insanely early hour of 4:30, before the mosquitoes even, to make sure we arrived at the broad, swift Kennebec River before 11 am. For it is dangerous to ford; a hydro plant upriver will without warning open the floodgates. So a man with a canoe paddles hikers one and two at a time across the river, for several hours each day. There is a white blaze painted on the floor of the canoe, just to make sure we know it’s okay.

Despite our saturation in summer, we’re not going to quit yet, but the end is near. The full moon approaches, the sun beats down. The moose tracks in the mud are deep and fresh, though the moose hide far back in the bogs. We have given our two weeks’ notice here. We are on the home stretch. The Hundred Mile Wilderness… and then Katahdin!

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The Maine Event

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How is it that we are in Maine? What is going on? The loon laughs and cries on Sabbath Day Pond, the mosquitoes hum hungrily outside the tent, and I lay here pondering, somewhere near mile number 1956.

We have begun to sense the journey’s approaching end. We have plans for afterward, but still, it will be a leap. I’m getting pre-nostalgia: an odd phenomenon that happens when I know something’s going to end. Once it does, I am usually accepting, and present in the next moment. But while it lasts, I get sentimental and savor the beauty. I may be better able to appreciate the joys of the trail now that it has an impending end date. And there’s a lot of Maine to savor… for example, the scramble across Mahoosuc Notch, known in our guidebook as “the AT’s most difficult/fun mile.”

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It was far from the most difficult–the miles descending into its narrow gap, and rising out to climb Mahoosuc Arm, the mountain after, were far harder–but it was among the most fun. We swung, crawled, and hopped across boulders jumbled into a narrow notch, kept cool by chunks of ice below, even in July. We realized later that the day we monkeyed our way through the Notch was the sixth anniversary of our commitment ceremony. A great, though unintentional, way to celebrate.

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At the same time, I am so ready to live  inside and not hike every day. I am ready for the trail’s suffering to take a long walk off a short dock. Every time the path becomes a long, slick slab of wet rock tipped at a 45 degree angle, which I inch down nervously, I yearn for Katahdin.

Also, we are finally crossing paths with the southbound crowd, most of whom started June 1 or later. We exchange tips and compare attitudes: they are fresh, enthusiastic, and still breaking themselves in. We northbounders are a bit jaded perhaps, accomplished, and excited to be near the grand finale. But each time a NOBO and a SOBO meet, they comprise one thru-hike. Each has what the other needs. May we all reach our destinations.

PS. My brother is back in civilization, and has posted some great photos of our time together on Facebook, which you can see if you are his friend.

Family vacation

My brother John has joined us to hike for five days in New Hampshire. He’s the only person from the “outside” to hike with us… and it just so happens he joined us for the hardest part. Right now he’s sleeping. Sore muscles, maybe a baby blister, scratches and bug bites… all healing, I hope, under the mighty, restorative powers of deep sleep. I am impressed that he chose to use a week of his precious vacation time to sweat and haul himself and a bunch of gear around in the clouds. He is uncomplaining (unlike me… how did all the whining end up in my genes?), willing to speak up when he needs a sit-down break, and probably a little shell shocked.

It has been insightful to observe a non thru-hiker out here. One forgets what an odd lifestyle we have evolved into on the trail. For instance: we sit down for a lunch break, and John pulls out his bag of trail mix… and eats it one or two nuts at a time. My usual caloric handfulling method (to say nothing of Zippy’s direct inhalation) seems suddenly barbaric. And for instance: we are reminded that normal trails are made of dirt or pine needles, and are a foot or two wide, and gradually and methodically ascend and descend to their destinations. Here, in the twisty, steep, narrow, devious Whites, John says that his tango lessons have been as influential as his rock climbing lessons.

He’s done very well. He’s no speed demon, but he keeps on…. and I watch the Trail throw him obstacle after obstacle every day, always something new, just like it does with us and with everyone. The trail’s rude introduction to him was a 2200 foot climb up Wildcat Mountain, with the reward of views back to Mount Washington and the Presidential Range from the ski hill up top. Then came the knee-pounding downhills… the (thankfully unfulfilled) threat of rainy and stormy days… scrambling over wet boulders, walking through a path that doubled as a river and sometimes waterfall… easing down slick rock slabs without handhold… and just when the trail finally flattened out for a few miles, a series of rushing, deafening, rocky, deep streams to ford. I hope the feelings of accomplishment, and our slightly dirty company, more than make up for the tribulations he’s borne!

Meanwhile, he keeps walking with us, seven or eight miles a day. He notices veins in rocks, the red color of the tree roots, the small wild plants. He listens to all the birdsongs, and later seeks them out on his phone’s bird identification app, which tweets and chirps as we sit in the shelter and watch the rain fall. He waits for a trail name to attach itself (Bad Swig?). He pitches his new tent, dressed like a skinny ninja in his black Cap 4s. He has the joy of using privies from deluxe to shudder-inducing. He watches four thru-hikers devour a turkey carcass with their fingers. He asks questions. He is quiet. I wonder how he likes it all. I tell him that someday I will ask him to take me camping on his home turf. Then I will do things his way, and live in his terrain. I hope I will be as open to it all.

Thank you, John, and may your toe blister be but a painless memento of your time here with us!

Adventures in the Whites

There is so much to say. The White Mountains are supposed to be the hardest miles of the trail. They have been challenging and rewarding. They have been both wild and full of people. And they have been surprisingly kind, weatherwise and otherwise.

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We did 24 miles on our first day, which is an insane distance considering we probably gained (and lost again) at least 8000 vertical feet over that span. It was hot and muggy with a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms, so we rose early and took on a 3.9 mile, 3500 foot climb up Mount Moosilauke. The top was above tree line, windblown and misty and gorgeous. It felt like Ireland (I imagine). Two fighter jets dove and rumbled above.

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(Regarding hot ascents:
Here’s a little hint you surely ought to know:
Horses sweat and men perspire, but ladies only glow.

In which case, I am a horse, Zippy is a lady, and the slick, steep rocks that constitute the trail next to the cascades down the other side of the mountain are, uh, men.)

We went 16 miles before eating lunch: down Moosilauke, and up and over the tedious Mount Wolf. Looking at the sky from the shelter after, it seemed quite fair, so we headed up a third mountain around 4 pm. The ascent was steep, with lots of boulder scrambling that makes a hiker feel tough.

But it’s strange how quickly the sky can change. Just as we were about to summit the first of Mount Kinsman’s twin peaks, a giant gray cloud flew toward our slope, flashing with lightning and rumbling, fast and dark. It was huge and we were specks; its power writhed and wrapped around the mountain, obliterating visibility, frightening me. I shouted to Zippy that I felt bad about summiting now. But it was too steep to retreat. We found a tiny rock outcrop, threw on our rain gear, and hunkered down, not really out of the torrential rain, and waited for the storm to smash into the mountain and, hopefully, pass quickly.

Then the strangest thing. We were deep inside the cloud, but the storm never arrived. It was suddenly silent except for the rain. The action must’ve been below us (and we heard later that it stormed hard in town), but we couldn’t hear or see it. We looked at each other. It was just rain. Better we get up and over this mountain and down to the next shelter now, rather than stay here and get cold. So we ran.

And it was fine. I felt protected, as if by a celestial hand. As if by the prayers of J’s mom, who is very good at that sort of thing. Though I don’t know what to think about the phenomenon, since bad things still happen to people with plenty of prayers behind them. But she was in our thoughts as we scrambled over and down the rocky twin summits.

Afterwards, we did an extra 4 miles to the road, which was a mistake. There is only so much limit-pushing I can handle in one day. It kept sprinkling, the daylight waned, the bridge was washed out, we forded a scary river over slippery rocks. By the end, we were the walking dead, stumbling down an unfamiliar bike trail to meet a shuttle to town, in the pitch black, fog diffusing our headlamp beams, each step powered by nothing but inertia and exhaustion.

I realized at that point that I needed to prioritize self care a bit more. By the time we got down to the valley from the third mountain, my brain was fried. I yearned for an airlift to a beachside resort.

Second best option: we ended up staying in town for a whole day, healing, eating pancakes, sleeping. I swore off the Weather Channel after a ten day forecast consisting only of thunderstorms and torrential downpours melted my spirit, and for no reason, as it turned out to be wrong. (Zippy is now my filter. He tells me only on a need to know basis.)

The rest of the Whites have been wonderful. We have been lucky with fairer weather than often happens here, near Mount Washington, “Home of America’s Worst Weather.” We have avoided hailstones, scuttled across exposed ridges towards rainbows and away from rising gray thunderheads. We have sat on a cloth in the shade of hemlocks and split pitas smeared with strawberry cream cheese. We have stealth camped on secret ridges. We have crawled into our tent, cozy and dry, just as the rain begins to fall.

We have also enjoyed the luxurious but simple backcountry huts between mountains… too pricey to stay in, but often with delicious leftovers the crew is only too willing to give to thru-hikers. These folks carry all the huts’ trash and recycling down from the mountain, and hike back up with up to 100 pounds each of munitions to feed and serve dozens of guests each day. They use old fashioned pack boards, lash their loads to the back, and climb, whatever the weather. One night, Zippy and I showed up at the right hour and were offered a deal: muck out the haunted basement, and we could eat hot soup and fresh bread, and sleep on the floor in the warm dining room, and lounge in the library full of wildlife guidebooks. Deal!

Oh, one last thing… Thanks for the wildflower guesses, everyone. I think that with the help of one of those wildflower guidebooks, it’s been identified: clintonia, aka bluebead lily.

Next time: my brother John joins us for a week. Maybe some great photos from his talented eye…

Superpowers

There are a few minor superpowers that one gains by walking long enough through the woods.

Your sense of smell will sharpen. You will be able to tell which approaching hikers are only out for the day: they will smell like Bath & Body Works, Irish Spring, cologne, and/or dryer sheets. You will be able to smell a campfire (or even what’s cooking on it) a mile away–just remember, it might be someone’s backyard barbeque, far off the trail, that you will never reach. There is one exception to your new supernose, however, which is both a blessing and a curse: you won’t usually be able to smell yourself. You might forget this until you go into a fine dining establishment in a nice little town and catch people with vinegary expressions backing away from you.

You will rarely fall. But you will stumble every day. You will make inadvisable foot placements, neglect to notice a sharp rock or root, flail your arms and grasp for balance. I’ve fallen fewer than five times out here, and most involved mud, ice, or snow (the last of which is best: cushioned and non-staining). Your most embarrassing slips, however, will be in town. You will stride mile after mile through difficult terrain all day, then arrive in town and trip up the front steps of some well-populated establishment. Passerby will wonder how the hell you made it to New Hampshire from Georgia if you can’t even climb stairs.

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(This is one of J’s photos, and bears no relation to anything in this post. It’s just cool.)

You will develop knowledge that is completely inapplicable in the “real” world, but that is indispensable in the woods. Such as: if the temperature is going to be near freezing overnight, loosen your shoelaces and tuck your shoes inside your tent, where they will stay a few degrees warmer thanks to your body heat. Otherwise, you will be unable to put them in the morning. The laces will stick straight out like Pippi Longstocking’s braids, and you will have to boil water to thaw your shoes… which means you have to get your stove out in your stocking feet on frozen ground.

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You will be able to tell when you are the first person to use a trail on any given day, and where another person ahead of you began their trek that morning. How? Through dozens of invisible spiderwebs you will break each mile until another person has taken up the honor. It’s like winning several hundred tiny marathons daily, except the ribbons don’t gracefully fly free as you stretch your arms in the air triumphantly–they cling around you, tickling, and occasionally deliver a small, frightened spider somewhere on your person.

You will develop amazing, giant, slightly revolting leg muscles. However, your arm muscles will wither away, and if you ever did ab work, the benefits of it will disappear. It is the superpower of the T. Rex training plan.

Finally, you will become friends with the plants and animals. Over the months, my wildlife sighting list has grown dramatically. There are still many creatures in the woods that you will not know, but every time you recognize a maidenhair fern, a wild rose, or a chattering chipmunk, you will greet it, and feel more at home.

(Speaking of which, anybody know what this plant is? I’ve been watching the leaves grow for months, awaiting the blooms… and now the green flower bunches are mystifying me.)
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PS. Here’s what you might look like once you gain these special powers:

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Yeah, yeah, but I can explain: it was cold out, hence the rain chaps, the hoodie, and the gloves… but it was sunny, so I had to wear the ballcap backwards so I could get maximum Vitamin D. See?

Sunshine in Vermont

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Funny thing: when the trail brings suffering, I feel as if it has been one continuous stream of the stuff. But when it’s beautiful and pleasant (though it is never just plain easy), I cannot imagine the trail any other way. Is it possible to live too much in the moment? Ah well–let’s enjoy this one:

Vermont reminds me of northwoods Wisconsin: the piney smell of the woods, the blue eyed lakes. We heard a loon’s eerie song and saw it leading its two young over the glassy water. We found the first wild strawberries (not yet sweet, but still exciting). The trillium are still blooming up here, except they are smaller and more intricately beautiful.

A couple nights ago, we stayed in a shelter on the top of Killington Mountain, our first major climb since Virginia, and watched the sun go down in the chilly evening. It felt good to push up the hill for 2,000 feet. Big climbs with big views are a great motivation for us.

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My feet are healing from the monsoon, and the earth is slowly draining its puddles. My shoes officially reached dryness, after perhaps 200 miles of walking somewhere in the damp-to-wet spectrum. We have been blessed with the longest stretch yet of good weather on the trail: four days! May it last until Katahdin!

We had an excellent stay in Manchester Center… Thai curry, convenient resupply, and a friendly local outfitter who not only volunteered (!) to visually make sure my unwashed feet didn’t have jungle rot, but had a hiker box loaded with just-expired energy bars, someone’s leftover gourmet freeze dried food, a cute ballcap that will be my mosquito netting support, and a spare hiking pole for J, whose poles are in the shop being repaired. (A hiker box is a give-a-penny, take-a-penny affair that can be found at various hiker-friendly stops in trail towns.) We stayed a night at the excellent Green Mountain Hostel. For $50, we got a quiet, private room, a pint (each) of Ben & Jerry’s, sodas, neat trail maps and AT magazines, a shuttle to and from the trail, laundry (including loaner clothes so you can wash every stitch), toiletries, a full kitchen, and pancake mix to make up breakfast the next morning. Thank you, Jeff! Some people figure that because we are “dirty” out in the woods, hikers won’t mind if their town digs are filthy or vermin-infested. Some hikers don’t–but Zippy and I really appreciate cleanliness and a bit of luxury.

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We are near the New Hampshire border now, with fewer than 500 miles left, and it’s getting exciting! Soon we will be in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We are looking forward to them, despite the last 20% of the trail being, according to conventional wisdom, 80% of the work. A crazy southbounder we met way back in Tennessee in March or April (who had started his hike in Maine in August 2012… that’s eight months out, yeesh) told us to live it up here. To dip into the swimming holes, and enjoy the vistas. “The last couple states are the fireworks of the trail,” he said. “Enjoy the show.”