Editor’s note: This is a reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent during his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.
Due to popular demand, I’m going to continue the diary theme; this time in day-by-day, less excruciating detail form than the zero day. The reason for the long delay between emails is buried below. Since this is a very long email, kick back, grab yourself a cappucino or soda in a glass with ice and enjoy!
Pace and I go for one breakfast this day, somewhat suffering from the excesses of the day before. We try to hitch-hike pitifully for a few minutes before Melo Yelo (he keeps dropping letters from his name—to save the weight—this is a very big joke with long-distance hikers) arrives with Timber and Toothpick—the “Blues Brothers”—grandfather, Kodiak and Hepcat. We all squeeze into a minivan, which would be roomy enough but for the backpacks. Pace and I take off from the Trailhead while the others hang out for a bit. Three miles straight uphill, we emerge from treeline to what is certainly the most spectacular view of my hike so far: the Franconia Range. Over the rest of the afternoon, we traverse several miles of this ridgeline, looking at mountains we have climbed to our left, mountains to come to our right. There is high cloud cover but the views are amazing. With all the enjoying we do, we don’t actually hike all that much, and stop at a shelter/campsite about 10 miles away. Melo and crew appear within an hour.
To get to yesterday’s shelter, we began an excruciatingly steep descent of Mount Garfield. The descent becomes steeper this morning, and I find myself using both trekking poles as well as holding on to rocks and trees near the trail, negotiating my pack around corners as I try not to drop too far or slip on the damp rocks; I later describe this motion as “Twister meets Dirty Dancing.” Despite my efforts, I yank my left knee a few times, and by the time I hit my first Hut of the day, the inside of the knee is very sore, but only when I bend it. (It’s also my left ankle that has been sore for 1,300-some miles now; I call my right leg “the good leg”). Other than the pain, the day is a beautiful one; we bag another peak, and I camp just before the descent from this range.
Up early and start up the next ridge, the Presidental Range, an even bigger and higher ridgeline than the Franconia. Melo, Kodiak and Timber, who camped south of where I did, race past me on the climb of Mt. Webster, and I accept that I’m just not very good going up or down the rocks; the dirt path is my thing. This, incidentally, doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the hike. I get to Mizpah Hut, my fourth, but the first that was serving the famous bottomless bowl of soup when I arrived. I have six bowls. Hiking again, above treeline into the heart of the Presidentials, passing or summiting Mts. Jackson, Clinton, Eisenhower, Franklin and Monroe before stopping at the foot of Mt. Washington at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Easily the most popular of the Huts—a civilian (what we call you non-thru-hikers) could take the cog railway up Mt. Washington, hike about 2 miles to the hut with just clothes and water, and get food and shelter there; it sleeps 90, which for us feels like being dropped in a mall during Christmas shopping season. It’s really the only place to stay up there without dropping a mile, off-trail, down to the tree-line, and thru-hikers have these options: (1) pay $68 for stay and meals, if there is vacancy; (2) pay $20 for just stay, if there is vacancy; (3) “work-for-stay,” where you get meals and sleep on the dining room tables in exchange for doing dishes and such; and, only for Lake of the Clouds, (4) “the Dungeon,” an empty storage room in the bottom of the building with six bunks, for $8. My only options when I arrive are (1) and (2); I pick (2) since I have plenty of my own food. There are probably 20 hikers there that night, which is windy, cloudy and cold, especially in the un-heated Hut.
Expecting overcast conditions—Washington gets 330 cloudy days a year and has the second-highest wind speed ever recorded on earth (231mph), we are amazed to see the summit through brisk but calm skies, so all the thru-hikers (who aren’t working-for-stay) rush up to the summit. Views are very very big, but there are buildings and a weather station on the top, so the ambiance is all wrong. The visitors center has a snack bar and a “warming room” for backpackers, so we retire there. At the snack bar, I discover the “Ultimate Cinnamon Roll,” a packaged danish that has 570 calories, so I eat two. By the time Pace and I leave two hours later, the summit is totally fogged in, and the rest of the day threatens rain. Dropping from Mt. Jefferson into the gap named Edmonds Col, we decide this is a “dip” and rename it “Mt. Dubya.” (Note: it’s a pretty strict requirement that, to be on the AT, you must be a democrat; libertarians and the apolitical are excepted). I start flagging somewhat, tumble on the rocks on the way to Madison Hut, tumble again on the summit of Mt. Madison, and then face a mile-long, rocky ridge descent until I even hit treeline. Winds are probably 50mph or so; I haven’t seen any of the Great Gulf Wilderness that exists in the hollow of this huge mountain range; and now I fear somewhat for my safety, since the rocks have consistently given me problems.
I do eventually make it fine, slowly, without falling again and before the rain started, but for a moment, I was weak. If a convenient “blue-blazed” trail (short-cut) appeared, I might have taken it. And if I camped that night with someone so supplied, I might have considered “green-blazing.” Maybe I used that term in a prior email to denote the act of getting all fired up when you don’t really want to hike on a given day because of rain or what have you—the alternate term being “Hulking-out,” thus the color green. Well, that usage of “green-blaze” never stuck; what “green-blaze” usually refers to is smoking marijuana (or “pot,” as I’ve heard it called). The AT is considered the “party trail” of the long-distance trails, and indeed I came across people in the early days who seemed to be out here just to smoke where- and when-ever they wanted. Even today, I’d say easily a quarter to a third of the hikers still on the Trail carry or smoke. My theory is that pot apparently has medicinal, pain-relieving qualities, and doing what we do, we sure could use the pain relief. Someone else points out that if the day is really rainy, and you don’t want to leave a shelter, you have something to do all day.
Either way, I camp alone and my pot-free days continue.
I wake early from my campsite, which is half a mile away from a White Mountain National Forest recreation center, and I indulge on the buffet breakfast. So good, I decide to stick around for lunch. The rest of this loose pack comes in for lunch too, and we hang out. There is a pack scale, and we all weigh in. I come in, with a few days of food, at 41 lbs, heavier than I’d like; Timber and Toothpick’s pack together weigh 45 lbs. Ranger, Uncle Mark, Rambler, and Monster Button show up at the road crossing. They have slowed their pace down to about 10 miles a day, and have enjoyed a good town visit with Rambler’s sister. Stripe also shows up, and we discuss camping in a high pass. I climb straight up Wildcat Mountain, winding up at the pass fairly late, and camp. It hits 40 that night.
On the hike that day, I get fantastic views of the Presidential Range from Carter Mountain. By late afternoon, I’m at the next road crossing, where I hitch with Snowberry and Easy Rider into Gorham, the last town in New Hampshire. A B&B offers hikers bunkspace in a barn. It’s not plush, but for $10, it’s what you get. Eat, shop, come back and watch a few movies. There are a couple of hikers here who appear to be living there. This is pretty common with some hostels.
Pace, who arrived a few hours after I did, decides to zero. I decide the same, based simply on my sore left knee. We eat and watch movies.
I hope to send an email out before leaving town, but the library opens late, so I leave for my hike. My goal is to go 17 miles, get into Maine, and position myself in a relatively easy stretch for rain being forecast for Wednesday. Hit Maine half a mile before the shelter I plan to stay at; I have the shelter to myself, except for a very bold mouse.
I find Pace at the AT when I leave the shelter; he got as far as the Maine border and camped there, and now needs water. I start off without him, since I’m feeling kind of slow. Within six miles, I arrive at the Mahoosuc Notch, the “hardest mile on the AT.” It’s a gradual downhill according to the map, but in reality, it’s a boulder field that we have to negotiate, going over, under and around these huge rocks. Remarkable. It takes me 2 hours 27 minutes to walk this 0.9 miles. I meet Pace at the next shelter; he thinks it took him a little over an hour. He approached it as a “horizontal climbing challenge”; I obviously approached it as a risk mirigation exercise. It pours rain that night, which is fine.
The day gets off to a late start as the rain ends, and Pace and I spend the day doing 10 miles, mostly dreaming of the things we are looking forward to with our return to the real world. At that night’s shelter, we stay with some section hikers—doing New Hampshire this year—and another group of 10 or so young kids with terrible equipment. We’ve seen several of them over the past few days, and Pace finds out that they are members of Harvard’s freshman class, in the woods for a few days as part of orientation. At state school, I had to read a book or something.
Uneventful hiking day, mostly with Pace. Camp by a river with 10-12 other hikers including Ranger et al. We build a big fire. Much pot is smoked.
We get our big climb out of the day early, and Pace and I crush the rest of the way into that night’s shelter. We’re 9.4 miles from town and perfectly positioned to catch the next day’s NFL games. Getting water from the pond, we see the moon rising and watch a loon fly overhead; makes us very appreciative of the opportunity we’ve been afforded here. Another thru-hiker named Bev shows up. She’s on her third thru-hike, although she looks so poorly prepared; her pack, it is rumored, weighs 71 lbs, and she has all sorts of cans and such. She also sleeps with a blinking red light, kind of tough in the shelter.
Guess what? We wake up early as Bev empties her foodbag on the shelter floor at 6am. The 9.4 miles go quick, and we’re in town, showered and at the sports pub by kickoff. Do laundry, shop, meet Midway, a guy I first met in Massachussets, eat, eat, eat. I actually ate to the point of being uncomfortable.
Pace is about to start his run to the finish—he sets 9/21 as his prospective finish date—and I have decided that I want to take it a little easier, so we say adieu. I try again for the public library—open Tuesday through Friday. I celebrate 5 months on the Trail today, and celebrate with (surprise) a big breakfast. That night I camp up high, just below the treeline on Saddleback Mountain, where it is amazingly windy. I pass Seabee, slack-packing south, on the way there.
I have a short day to a nice warming hut at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, a ski resort, from which I see Mt. Katahdin, our destination. It’s a beautiful spot to stay in, and nice to stay out of the elements, but I am amazingly all alone.
I walk another 10 miles to the road crossing for Stratton, ME. There are effectively no other hikers in town, and I realize that I’m in a gap; the folks behind me are slowing down, focusing on the “journey,” and I’m sort of ready to accomplish my goal. This is a definitive moment for me; my miles will go up soon. However, I stay in town, eat, shop, stay at a lovely boarding house.
No luck on the library again – closed Wednesday, opened afternoons only otherwise. These limited library hours are obviously a result of reduced funding of social programs by the current republican administration. (See 8/29.) Have another good hike, getting over the Bigelow Range, the last “significant” mountain until Katahdin, and walk into the shelter that night having gone a total of 2,000.1 miles.
21 miles today. At one shelter, I am surprised to see Jack on a Mountain, who I knew back in the mid-Atlantic, arrive. He’s flip-flopped: at Hanover, NH, he decided to head up to Katahdin and hike the remainder of the Trail in reverse. It’s a happy reunion. Just before town, Siesta and I have to cross the Kennebec River, a moderate river with no bridge (in Maine, generally you have to ford rivers). Since a section-hiker drowned here in 1985, the ATC returned to the original crossing mechanism of a ferry (actually just a canoe). Although plenty of thru-hikers want to ford out of some sort of nostalgia feeling, I do not: (1) the ferry is the official white-blazed route, which I have been faithful to; and (2) if the ATC tells me I don’t have to walk 70 yards of this darn Trail, then by golly, I’m going to not walk it! Stay at a beautiful hostel that night; the proprietor collects antiques and the bunkroom is decorated with old signs and such.
I pass Bev again on the Trail. It dawns on me: despite her seeming helplessness here, she’s probably much better suited for this world than the real world that you and I know. This makes me both happy and sad. I plan to do 19 miles but stop at 15 when I run into Seabee, Oopala and others camped at a water source. Over the day, I summited a small mountain and again admired the views.
Another summit first thing in the morning. The land is so beautiful around here. I only hope that the administration’s deregulation of factory polution output does not impact this view for future hikers too much. (BOY is it easy to be a democrat out here!) 22 miles to the road, where I find CMo at the trailhead with her cousin Crazy Jim, my first slack-packer; he’s planning to do the rest of the trail with her. I get a ride into Shaw’s Boarding Home, possibly the first hostel on the Trail, and within 45 minutes I’ve showered and am eating dinner. Reunited with Woods, Tipperary, Lost In Woods. And—get this—I shared a room with Seabee, who NO LONGER SNORES because of the weight he has lost out here.
Start the day with the “4×4”—4 pancakes, 4 eggs, 4 sausage, 4 bacon, plus potatoes. I spent the rest of the day waiting for the library to open, eating, packing, and preparing for the remainder of the Trail. This afternoon I’ll enter the 100-Mile Wilderness; then 15 miles of Baxter State Park, the last 5 of which are straight up Katahdin, where, if all goes well, I will complete my adventure sometime next week. I’ve spent much of the last few days looking over the guidebook at old campsites and towns, reminiscing and getting a bit emotional about it. However, I’m very excited to complete this.
Best to all. I’ll write back next week, hopefully with good news.