Stories of Transformations on the Appalachian Trail
No one walks the 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail and emerges unchanged. Nearly three of every four who set out to do it fail, but even among those the attempt marks a transformative moment in life.
Photographer’s note: This shot was taken beside the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mount Washington in autumn, where hikers often gather to watch the sunset after dinner is served. These two hikers were likely northbound on the way to Mount Katahdin. The alpine plants had changed for autumn, including the distinctly orange deer hair sedge that stands out brightly above treeline in fall. In the valley below, you can see the Base Station of the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Photo by Jim Salge.
Appalachian Dreaming by Michael Wade
Hiking causes a kind of metamorphosis to occur inside all of us. We develop our muscles and expand our minds. Sometimes the changes come from our victories over limitations. Other times they come from simply realizing what our limitations are. My story falls into this second category.
I had been a hiker for a few months when I became interested in the Appalachian Trail — that famous hiking path marked with white blazes extending 2,180 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Every year, thousands of thru-hikers attempt it, though only about one in four makes it the whole way on their first attempt. Some take as long as eight months to complete the journey while others complete it in as little as three. The unofficial record for the fastest “supported thru-hike” (hiking with crew to support you along the way) was 47 days by Andy Thompson in 2005. That’s more than 45 miles a day. The “unsupported” (solo) record was 60 days by Ward Leonard back in 1990. An equally impressive travel rate of 36 miles per day.
The AT first hits the White Mountain National Forest near a little village called Glencliff and continues nearly 100 miles northeast though some of the most scenic and difficult hiking trails in the country before emerging once again in Gorham. When I first charted this Glencliff to Gorham (or G2G) course in 1999, I figured I could probably do about 16 miles a day and finish the whole section in about six days. “I’m a runner,” I thought, “so 16 miles a day should be easy.” Well, not exactly.
For a time I satisfied my AT cravings with various multi-day hikes, stopping for the night at one of the eight AMC high mountain huts. Then, in 2012, I could put it off no longer.
With five days available to me (and accounting for one day of travel and return), it meant I’d need to do about 24 miles a day (for four days) to cover the 96 miles from Glencliff to Gorham. At an expected hiking speed of about two miles per hour, that meant 12 hours of hiking, eight hours of sleep and four hours of eating/down time. Tough? Yes. But not impossible. Or so I thought.
Day One dawned early as I loaded up my Honda Civic for the drive north. I hit the trailhead just a little after 6 a.m. The sun was up but hidden by rain clouds. I wouldn’t see its shining face until late the following day.
The trails leading up to the first peak, Mount Moosilauke, provided a bit of a wake-up call. I hadn’t gotten my “hiker’s legs” yet and the going was very slow and labored. Two miles in and I was drenched — partially by rain, but mostly by sweat. The summit of “Big Moose” was shrouded in fog and I headed back down the other side without so much as a glance around. The footing on some of the descending trails was steep and slippery. If I was going to make it to the Liberty Springs tent site (my first stop for the night), I was going to have to go quickly, but carefully. One wrong step and that would be the end of my trip. Or worse.
It wasn’t until just after Mount Wolf that I saw my first hiker of the day. I had stopped for a snack at one of the ponds that bordered the trail when a dude in a fedora and Spiderman backpack came scooting on by. I finished my snack and took off in hot pursuit. Eventually, I caught up to him and we chatted for a bit. He looked like a day-hiker, but to my surprise he was a thru-hiker.
He was doing something called “slack packing.” Hiking only with a very small day-pack, then getting rides to town every night to find food and shelter. Or, while in the Whites, doing the “work-for-stay” gambit at the AMC huts. For the uninitiated, work-for-stay is just what it sounds like. You perform odd jobs around the hut and the hut crew feeds you dinner leftovers and lets you sleep on the dining room tables after everyone else has gone to bed. Sounds like fun, right? Well, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
I bade him adieu and scrambled up and over South, then North Kinsman. By this point the light rain that had been falling for most of the day had gotten a lot harder. Thankfully, I reached my first hut (Lonesome Lake) before the skies really opened up. I sat down at one of the long dining room tables and tucked into a piece of homemade bread and a nice, hot bowl of chicken rice soup.
By the time my Lonesome Lake dinner ended, so had the rain. I ambled down the Cascade Brook Trail on my way to the notch. I got mixed up a couple of times because everything along the river looked like a trail.
The front had moved through, bringing with it noticeably cooler temps. I was grateful for this on my last, brutal, 2.5-mile climb out of Franconia Notch to the Liberty Springs tent site. There I spent a cold night in the hammock that offered little sleep.
Later that morning, when the dawning sun spared just enough light for me to see, I decided if I wasn’t going to sleep, then I might as well hike. It was 5:30 a.m.
One of the fun things about being first on the trail is that you get to clean up all the spider webs that had been spun the night before — with your face! And, since I’m typically an early riser, it happened so many times over the course of the trip that it was like I had a permanent hair net.
The trail from Galehead to the summit of South Twin is one of the toughest 8/10th of a mile of trail I’ve ever done. In that short distance the elevation gain is approximately 1,500 feet. That’s a 35 percent gradient — straight up. I summoned the strength to hammer this section and found myself at the top in less than a half hour. With the smooth and flowy Twinway Trail ahead, I had a newfound spring in my step as I cruised on towards Zealand Falls.
At this point, as if on cue, the clouds started to give way and I was granted my first real views of the trip. The entire Pemigewasset Wilderness opened before me and I could see across Owl’s Head to the Franconia Ridge where I’d been just a few hours before. Bidding a fond farewell to Franconia Notch, I set my sights on Crawford Notch and the Ethan Pond campsite, my next stopping point.
By the time I reached the Zealand Falls Hut, I was getting pretty tired. I had logged 19 miles for the day and 46 miles since I last slept. It was 3 p.m. and I was ready for bed so I made the decision that I’d “suck it up” and stay at Zealand for the night. It turned out to be the best decision I made all trip.
I was very relieved when the hut master told me he had one bed remaining and it was mine if I wanted it. I gladly paid the man, shucked off my wet gear and settled in for some much needed shut-eye. The dinner bell woke me some two hours later and I hobbled over to my place at the family-style table for some food and face-time with my fellow hut mates.
The gentleman directly across from me at the table was yet another thru-hiker who (like me) had decided to splurge on the comfort of the hut. He had also recently come to an even bigger decision. He was going to leave the trail before completing his journey. Like many others, he had started in Georgia in early March and was just too beat up to continue — having just taken a nasty fall at North Kinsman. His plan was to recover his car and drive up to Maine, summit Katahdin to cap off the trip, then drive back home to Pennsylvania. He seemed at peace with his decision, but I couldn’t help but think, “Man up, dude. You’re just one state away!”
In the morning I was up early (as usual) and, although it pained me to miss my hut-style breakfast (oatmeal, eggs, bacon, coffee and cornbread), I knew I couldn’t wait to start my “marathon” day. I hit the trail promptly at 5 a.m. (headlamp on) and made my way over the route I had originally planned to cover the previous afternoon. Thankfully, the Ethan Pond Trail was an easy go, and the first six miles went quickly. I hit Rte. 302 at 7:30. I was back on track.
Mounts Eisenhower, Monroe and Washington beyond laid themselves out before me like a promise. One that I intended to keep. And, the 360-degree, 100 plus-mile visibility of the surrounding valleys allowed me to see just how far I’d come.
I’ve been to the top of Washington probably a dozen times, but this proved to be the best day yet for a summit attempt. Unfortunately, about a thousand other people had the exact same thoughts.
Anyway, I did my obligatory touch of the highest summit sign in New Hampshire and quickly retreated to comfort of the trail — away from the throng of wide-eyed tourists. I bid farewell to Crawford’s Path and made my own across the earthly moonscape of the Presidential Ridge.
Photographer’s Note: A hiker pauses to view the sunset at the summit of Mount Washington, home of the Mount Washington Observatory. Photo by Jim Salge.
As I made my way along the Gulfside Trail, I felt something I had never felt before at this high elevation. Hot. And it was during this stretch that I took a nasty tumble. Fortunately, I was able to catch myself before I smashed my head against a rock. But my knee and hands were scraped up pretty good, I was bleeding and a little shaken. It was the first real “digger” I had taken all trip and brought me back down to earth in a hurry. I tended to my wounds and tentatively continued along the trail.
I made it to Madison Hut around 4:30 p.m., reached the front steps, dropped to the ground and slumped over my pack. I was at a crossroads — literally and figuratively. Do I head south to the Osgood tent site and the Wildcat Ridge beyond as originally planned? Or do I continue north down to Appalachia and an “early” exit from the AT? I had hiked 69 miles in three days and I wasn’t sure I could go another step.
My decision was made a little bit easier by the weather report I read inside the hut. A storm front was forecast for the following day.
As the sun started to settle into the horizon, I slunk down below the protective canopy of the trees one last time. I found a good spot to hang my hammock between two trees that sat on a small outcropping just above Tama Falls. Then I peeled off my hiking boots and soaked my battered feet in the cold but refreshing waters that spun in the pool at the base of the falls.
Later, I called my wife for the first time since I’d begun my journey. But, when I started to tell her about all that had transpired, I could sense she was worlds away. It wasn’t her fault, really. How could she possibly have understood what I’d just experienced, no matter which words I used to describe it? I asked her to give the kids a kiss for me and crawled off to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I contemplated the sheer magnitude of a 2,180-mile AT thru-hike. The 72 miles I’d just done had taken a huge toll on me and I couldn’t fathom doing it 30 more times.
The next morning I slowly packed up camp and strolled down to the Appalachia parking area below. The sounds of the cars, SUVs and logging trucks screaming up and down Rte. 2 was a sharp contrast to the quiet few days I had just spent in the woods. The arrival of the bus finally saved me from this cacophony and the nearly three-hour ride back into Lincoln gave me plenty of time to read, relax and otherwise reflect on my trip.
I was disappointed not to have completed the full 96-mile G2G, as planned. But I knew that another day on the trail would most likely have ended badly.
I arrived home a few hours later to find the house completely empty. At first I was disappointed there was no one around to share my experience with, but it was probably for the best. Too pooped to unpack and too lazy to fix dinner, I collapsed in a heap on my bed. I slept all night, but it was a restless, uneasy sleep of a semi-defeated man. Tossing and turning. Half awake and half asleep — drifting in and out of Appalachian Dreams.
Hiking for Dottie by Mike Morin
“I was hiking along this trail in great shape, happy. I was everything I wanted to be,” recalls Ethan Jenkins. But he wasn’t hiking. He was dreaming. He had just fallen asleep in an institutional bed, pretty much at the end of his rope after considering taking his life earlier that night.
It was four years ago that a life filled with disappointment and fueled by alcohol addiction brought Jenkins to a Manchester treatment center, bottomed out at 31.
He knew rehab could be his last chance at putting his life back in order, but that first night all he wanted was to get out, and not just out of the treatment center. “I was on the top floor and I looked out. I was right across from a funeral home and I thought, well, this will be great because it’s a one-stop shop. That’s how delusional my mind was at the time.”
He considered jumping but feared hitting someone on the ground down below and becoming “even more of a loser.” So he fell asleep and had the dream that changed his life.
“The dream was that I was hiking along this trail called the Appalachian, which I must’ve seen in a movie,” he recalls. In his dream he had a long beard and was carrying a piece of a familiar dress. “My grandmother at the time was battling Alzheimer’s and for some reason she always wore this dress. It was ‘high quality,’ she said.” It must have been. She’d had it for decades.
Like many dreams, the mix of reality and random fantasy is something everyone experiences. But this dream was strangely specific.
“I remember the end of the trail, in Maine, and I buried the dress.” He says he woke up changed. “It was this moment of clarity where I had purpose again,” says Jenkins,.
“From that moment on, I said I’m going to do two things. I’m going to hike this trail and I’m never going to drink again.”
Jenkins grandmother, Dottie, had lived with Ethan’s family his entire life. In addition to Alzheimer’s disease, Jenkins watched her struggle with cancer and two strokes, but he recalls that she never complained and often sang around the house. The dream was a sign of how to affirm their bond. He would walk the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia and end with the burial of a small piece of her dress at the trail’s terminus in Maine. And he would never drink again.
“I remember whispering into her ear, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ I don’t know if she heard me or not. She squeezed my hand, I squeezed hers. It was kind of our way of communication,” he says. Dottie passed away before he could start his hike, but his promises lived on. He repeated his vows in a letter he placed in her casket. He knew it was his one shot. If he failed, he’d be remembered for his failings. If he completed the trail, he knew, “I’m going to be remembered for this.”
Along with fulfilling his promise, Jenkins also shed 50 unwanted pounds on the trail and he surprised many naysayers back home.
He realizes now how naive he was at the start, and how ignorant of what was involved. “Not knowing sometimes is better,” he says. “Had I known how difficult it was, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
And he didn’t get a lot of encouragement. “My whole family laughed at me. Nobody thought I could do this. The first mile I remember throwing up and being laughed at, and people making bets saying, ‘No way you’re going last a day out there.’ It took me two weeks to learn to put up my tent.”
It was the hikers he met along the way that kept him going. “They’d say, ‘Dude, you’re going to make it one step at a time,’ which I could relate to, with my past — one step at a time. You end up meeting people who have the best stories ever. You find out that the hike is a backdrop for friendships and people are the forefront. It has nothing to do with the hike after a while.”
At some point he realized, “I was hiking along this trail in great shape, happy. I was everything I wanted to be.”
And this time, Ethan wasn’t dreaming.
Betsy Maislan The AT’s Archangel by Cam Tranchemontagne
Betsy Maislan’s son, Karl, was hiking in the Smoky Mountain ranges in Tennessee when he could go on no longer because of the pain in his heel. Holed up in a shelter, he and his hiking partner discovered Karl had a massive, infected blister on his heel. A fellow hiker noticed this and took pity. He contacted his family, who lived in the area, and offered to drive him into town to see a doctor. Her son got the care he needed and the good Samaritans allowed him and his hiking partner to stay at their house for six days to rest and heal.
This act of trail magic — unexpected and random acts of kindness on the Appalachian Trail — was shocking to Maislan, and she soon followed through on the one condition, to pay it forward. In 2007 she started weaving some trail magic of her own in Hanover; soon her husband, other family members and friends joined in. Now the Trail Angels of Hanover are a network of 20-25 volunteers dedicated to providing meals, showers, transportation, laundry services and shelter to hikers on the Appalachian Trail at no cost.
In the last year, the network took in more than 640 hikers (with 205 of them staying in Maislan’s house). Guests come from all over the world. She once entertained an astronaut who shared tales of looking down on Earth from zero-gravity. She once entertained a man who had been a worker in the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown — trail name Tsunami. His English wasn’t very good, so while she entertained all the dinner guests with her son’s story from Tennessee, he only understood bits and pieces. Then, out of nowhere, an older gentleman-hiker from Buffalo began translating in fluent Japanese. Seems you run into real trail magic when you stay with the angels.
Hikers can find a booklet with information on the trail angels at spots including the Richard W. Black Community Center, which provides showers, laundry and pack storage. The booklets provide contact information for angels in the Norwich/Hanover area with one condition: that everyone who takes advantage of their generosity must pay it forward to the next person in need.
“Small change by many people adds up,” says Maislan. “This is how we can change the world.”
Unbounded and Engaged by Maggie Wallace
“I think it has made me a lot more confident. I feel much better in my body when I am hiking. On the Appalachian Trail, for instance, I stopped worrying about my posture or how others perceived me, and I started to think about my body as a machine, where every part had a purpose. I felt like I was a more complete person while hiking. I felt in control even though, between weather and other circumstances, I had less control than any other time in my life.
We hiked from April 10 to October 9, and got engaged on Old Blue mountain in Maine, just a couple weeks before we finished. Mark told me afterwards that he wanted the proposal to be about us and the journey we were on as a couple, not the AT as a whole, so he waited to ask me when we knew we were going to finish but before we did, during a quiet time in our hike.
The other lasting changes of the hike appear to me when I realize that my feet (which have grown a whole size wider since thru-hiking) are solidly planted on the ground. I do feel unbounded, at least physically, by the knowledge that I am capable of challenging my body to extremes — and persevering. I feel strong, practical and capable — and those are feelings that cannot be taken away from me as long as these tangible accomplishments stay in my rearview mirror.”
City Schlub No More by Cam Tranchemontagne
Brendan Burns was 26 years old living in the Boston area in a committed relationship and working on the business end of a biotech company when he felt he needed a change. He left his job, ended the relationship, got his old college roommate to take over his lease and set out on the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, he met many fellow hikers with trail names such as Maple, Tinman, Belch, Seeker, Skippy and Michigan. “Landfill” became Burn’s trail name early on. “It was more like a descriptive term,” he says, “At the time when I was hiking, I weighed 200 lbs, I was six-foot-four and I was eating everything in sight … I think a lot of times people were trying to hide from their regular identity, They wanted to leave their old and boring lives behind and create a new identity.” He says the trek, “transformed me back from a bitter city schlub into more of an enthusiastic, happy, outdoorsy type once again. It brought me back to my NH roots.” Though still working in biotechnology, Burns says he has “a better job, more patience and a better outlook.” He still returns to the Whites now and then to hike and reconnect with nature.
From Slump to “Stump”
Tricia Baker-Schmitt, a former manager here at McLean Communications (which publishes New Hampshire Magazine) has long regaled us with tales of her own trail to transformation. Editor's note: Immediately below is the version of her story that appeared in the September issue. Read on for the entire trail journal that she recreated from memory.
She and her boyfriend, Brian, were in a slump and decided to hike south to north on the AT as a way to test things out. “If we make it through the trail, we’ll get married,” they decided. They took off with little preparation beyond buying some new equipment and boots and dehydrating 60 meals for the road. They made it to Katahdin and to wedded bliss, but not before accumulating enough adventures and making enough new friends to last a lifetime. Her story is too long to publish here, but it’s a great read so we’re running it full length with this story online. Check it out and find out how she got the trail name Bloody Stump. One spoiler: While Trish and Brian were going through the kinds of personal changes that only the AT can create, the world was going through a transformation of its own. They had made it back to NH and reached the summit of Mt. Washington when they decided to step back into the world with a visit to the Observatory. Everyone there was glued to the TV. Trish remembers the date because everyone does: September 11, 2001.
The couple has two kids now and still hike when they can, so we asked for some suggestions based upon lessons they learned the hard way. Trish happily replied with the following list.
Bloody Stump’s Top 10 things to consider when hiking the AT
1. Make three piles (I wish, I want, I need). Only take the “I need” pile.
2. Buy your boots 1 1/2 sizes too big or you will end up with my trail name, Bloody Stump. It’s OK to eschew vanity and wear a “manly” size if you are a woman — your feet are sexier without scabs and broken toenails.
3. Speaking of toenails, don’t forget your clippers — saw those down to the nub or you will lose them downhill.
4. Hang your food. It’s not just about bears; it’s mice, raccoons, ants and other critters that you tempt to enjoy your cache.
5. Food goes bad fast, so if you’re sending care packages to yourself, make sure things are sealed in original packaging.
6. Be respectful of camp space. No one wants to wake up next to someone’s yard sale.
7. Don’t share laundry. One pair of funky socks in your machine can ruin all your clothes. Even hikers have smell standards.
8. Ask before you borrow. One guy thought he “borrowed” water from another hiker only to find out it was heating fuel. Those Ramen noodles lit up the campfire that night.
9. Stay positive and hang around with other people who are like-minded and want to finish. Quitting can become infectious during bad weather days. Be each others’ support and focus on the good times over the bad.
10. Write daily. It’s an experience of a lifetime, use it to reflect. Document photos so you will remember. It’s amazing what you will forget over time.
Photographer's note: This shot was taken on the first day of fall along the AT from below the summit of Mount Pierce in the Presidential Range. The alpine zone above treeline is always the first to show its autumn colors every year, and the blueberry scrub that lines the trail here simply glowed in the morning light. I had spent the night at the AMC's Mizpah Hut, a bit down the trail to ensure I made it for sunrise. Photo by Jim Salge.
Take it “Easy”
Not ready to hit the whole trail? How about just the NH portion?
Whatever your reasons for hitting the trail to transformation might be, it’s probably unwise to head out on the longest continuous footpath in the world without a lot of preparation. One way to test your readiness is to just hike the trail through New Hampshire.
It’s a famous stretch for thru-hikers. For those hiking south, it’s a rugged baptism, offering harsh examples of all the challenges ahead. For those hiking north, it’s the AT equivalent of Heartbreak Hill — a concentrated set of some of the toughest terrain and deepest forests, all in the final stretch before plunging into Maine with the finish line (almost) in sight.
Here are some facts and resources to help anyone thinking about engaging in what author Bill Bryson referred to as “A Walk in the Woods,” in his 1998 book by that name.
1. The White Mountains National Forest attracts more tourists annually than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.
2. Much of the AT in NH follows trails that had already existed and been named decades before, which causes some confusion among hikers.
3. The NH section of the AT is about 160 miles long with 17 4,000' peaks mostly located in the White Mountains.
4. Ascents can be very steep — up to 1,000' per mile for miles at a time without switchbacks.
5. AMC maintains eight huts and 13 shelters along the trail.
6. The trails in NH are much more rocky than southern portions of the AT due to past glaciation.
7. Mt. Washington is the highest peak along the NH section at 6,288'.
8. The Presidential Range section of the hike is completely above treeline. This makes for some fantastic views but also some extreme weather that can change in an instant.
9. Hikers can explore the wreckage of a DC-3 plane a little ways off the AT on Mount Success.
10. Once northbound thru-hikers hit the Maine border, they’ve traveled more than 1,900 miles, with about 200 to go.
Tricia's Unabridged Story
Editor's note from Rick Broussard: While working on this story about “Transformations on the Appalachian Trail,” one particular story was always in mind, since I had heard details of it for years. The former events manager here at McLean Communications, Tricia Baker-Schmitt, had hiked the trail shortly before starting to work for us so I’d been properly regaled with anecdotes. But although I knew she had a tale of transformation, I also knew I’d never really heard it summarized. I asked her to try to put down a condensed version that I could reduce to the 200-word spaces we had available for the New Hampshire Magazine article. When she filed her report, I just couldn’t bring myself to cut it. So here, in all its glory, is the tale of Trish (trail name Bloody Stump) and Brian (Madman) and the summer they spent taking a little hike on the world’s longest continuous footpath.
Blood Stump’s Trail Journal (written from memory, 14 years later)
I brought Brian to my high school reunion and it seemed like everyone was getting married or having kids. Here I was divorced, 34, living with my boyfriend and my mother’s guilt trip. (Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?) Brian was not sure I was the one and I was not sure I was willing to stick out another year of indecision. Where was this going? One day, after another heated discussion, Brian surprised me with a proposal I will never forget. He suggested we take that really long walk on the A/T and “If we make it through the trail, then we’ll get married.”
We were avid day-hikers, young-ish, in fairly good health and childless. As fortune would have it, I was recently laid off with a severance package and Brian was able to take a leave of absence. We surfed the Internet, located some ex-thru-hikers, read a few books and probably annoyed several people at EMS testing equipment.
In case I forgot to mention this, we had NEVER backpacked.
Watching the movie “Wild” recently brought back all the embarrassing memories such as tearing off tags from shiny, new equipment only minutes before using it. So we acquired our equipment, dehydrated close to 60 homemade meals and tried to assure our families that we were of sane mind.
You might think we at least worked out to prepare for this event? Nope. We just figured our “figures” would figure differently after six months of hiking. So yes, we were out of shape novices who had no clue about what we were doing except that we had to walk home to NH.
We managed to convince our neighbor to drive us down to Atlanta where my best friend lived with her family. When Karen drove us to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the A/T, she asked one last time, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Her husband, Allen, helped to load an 80-pound pack on my back – I could barely stand upright and the contents of the pack towered over my head.
It was a cold, chilly morning on March 20, 2001 and we didn’t expect to see trees iced over like something out of an Ansel Adams print.
Within two to three days, I came to the realization that my boots were not broken in – rather, they were breaking my heels. When you purchase boots for this type of trek, it’s advised you go 1 ½ sizes up to allow for swelling. The vain part of me got the best of me – I couldn’t fathom wearing a size 10, so I bought a 9 ½. BIG mistake. All leather, no give, no breathing room – my heels were rubbed raw and bleeding within days.
We were miles away from the first hiker hostel, so I attempted to walk in Teva sandals with socks. The night before we got to Goose Creek, I couldn’t take another step. The pain was blinding. I needed to stop for a day and rest. That night, we camped during a thunderstorm featuring torrential rain in a valley where our free-standing tent was being air-lifted around us during the storm. It sounded like a freight train – it was scary and I thought we were experiencing a tornado. Between the weather and the fact that we were out of food, I had no choice but to keep moving. I fought through the pain and we ultimately lodged for a week until my heels stopped oozing.
We were only about 30 miles into Georgia.
Back on the trail, we ran into a guy around Blood Mountain who was a southbound flip-flopper – this is someone who does the trail both south-to-north and north-to-south all in one year. When we packed up to go on our way I said, “Time to haul these bloody stumps up the mountain.” He asked if I had a trail name. I said, “What’s that?” Right there he dubbed me “Bloody Stump” with his hiking poles. My better half (Brian, in case you weren’t paying attention) dubbed himself “Madman.”
Our names made us sound fierce in the hiking journals. Hiking journals, FYI, are left strategically at many of the shelters and campsites for hikers to document their travels. As cell phones were not practical back then, it was one way that we could communicate with friends who we met along the trail. We would leave messages to meet up with people or tell cautionary stories like, “We saw a bear yesterday – cache your food!”
The journals were also, on occasion, a place to find those special people known as “trail angels.” These are the folks who help hikers get rides into town, leave a cooler filled with water, extend stays in their camps/homes and generally offer support and assistance to the hiking community.
One angel stands out in our memories more than any other – a guy named Spider who helped us through a dry, hot section of Virginia in June. He opened up his home to us and slack-packed us 65 miles in three days to Rusty’s Hard Time Holler. Slack-pack is a term meaning that we left our full packs for daypacks to hike a section of the trail.
On the way home from the trail one night, we came upon a freshly killed deer on the side of the road. Spider was a seasoned hunter, so he threw the deer in the back of the car off we went. One of our hiker friends was a retired Dallas fireman who made us a mean venison chili the next night – it was my first roadkill dining experience.
There are many good people out there who help hikers, but there are a few proprietors who take advantage of them – one such place actually charged us for toilet paper.
As much as weather could be your friend, it could also be your enemy – causing many a strong hiker to lose faith and bail to the nearest bus station. There was a 14-day stretch of rain and humidity in early June where nothing would stay dry – it was hard to keep up the spirits during the deluge. It was the first of two times I contemplated quitting — until I saw Shep.
We were up on a ridgeline, completely exposed during a thunderstorm, trying to hide down within the treeline. During a sunny break in the storm we noticed Sheppard coming up the trail. He looked kind of dazed and seemed to be disoriented — we also noticed his hiking stick was about a foot shorter and seemed to be charred and smoking. He had been struck by lightning. Here I was complaining about rain and our friend could have been seriously injured or worse — it put things back into perspective. But if it wasn’t rain, it was the blistering 100-degree heat of the summer radiating off the exposed landscapes of New York and New Jersey. The terrain was beautiful but it was a constant battle to stay hydrated.
When we embarked on our journey in 2001, we had no idea what was happening in the world around us. Brian and I crossed the Connecticut River into NH on September 1 after a 17-mile day. It was emotional, as I remember breaking down in tears as we crossed into our home state. We had been gone close to 5 ½ months. We hiked to the Glen Cliff hiker hostel and immediately called our families to announce we had arrived in time for Labor Day. We invited a couple of our fellow hikers from Florida and Virginia to join us and piled into my father-in-law’s van.
Brian’s dad, Bob, was a man of few words. It was either seeing his son after so long – or the smell – that brought tears to his eyes. We certainly looked different, as Madman had a bushy beard that could rival Rasputin’s. He was thinner, having lost close to 50 pounds, and leaner than the stocky man who left for Georgia months earlier. Me, well, it takes a while for women to start dropping weight, but my body was becoming solid with muscle. My real transformation occurred somewhere in Vermont. Perhaps it was the hard miles of New Hampshire that really pushed my body to accept the expedition-worthy climbs. One funny thing I remember was my sister commenting on how strong my feet looked. She said she never realized how many muscles were in the foot until she watched me walk barefoot.
After a great visit with family at the camp in Pawtuckaway, we were dropped off to finish our trek. It was hard to get going, as we were pretty stuffed from indulging on the comfort of home cooked meals – even the beer tasted better because we were home.
On September 4 we were back on the trail and headed over Kinsman Mountain towards the iconic Franconia Ridge. We stopped at the Woodstock Station where Brian actually ate an entire “Death by Sandwich” before we continued up Franconia Ridge. Our friends from the south marveled at the majesty of the view – it is damn spectacular. We stopped for the Galehead Hut and ran into an old friend we met months ago, Six-string Hillbilly from North Carolina. He had hiked this section before and showed us what it meant to really live on the edge. We unfurled our beds on a rocky spot on Zeacliff and saw the most spectacular sunset ever. The next day, we bathed in the cold, clear water of Arethusa falls and continued to Crawford Notch where we stealth camped after the rangers left.
On September 10 we started up Presidential Range. The ridge was socked in clouds and we experienced some gusty winds, so we decided to hike faster to stay warm. There were few bunks left, but we managed to snag a work-for-stay at the Lake of the Clouds Hut. I was happy to do dishes just to get out of the blustery weather. The next day, the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the weather was still sketchy, so we hung out and played a few more board games. There was a disruption that morning. Some supply sherpas came up the mountain explaining that there was something terribly wrong. We had no cell phones and no television – there was only a transistor radio at the hut. There were people crying and scared, but we didn’t quite get it at first since we were so sequestered from the world and what was happening. None of our hiker friends with us had any real connection to New York because they were mostly southerners.
Little by little, pieces of the story started to fill in and the horror started to build. The next day we headed out to the top of Mt. Washington. When we got to the observatory, there was a large group of hikers just mesmerized by the TV, staring in shock with a look of disbelief on their faces. How could this happen? We had no point of reference, because we had been away from the world for too long. There were people crying, shaking and confused. We got down and went home so we could collect our thoughts. Brian purchased two American flags for our packs, which we sewed on with pride.
On September 15, we went back to start Wildcat, which is big boulder climb and ended up stealthing it again on top. We went over the Carters to the Imp Campsite and ran into a few friends we hadn’t seen in months. Our last stop in civilization was The Barn hiker hostel in Gorham on September 19. We stayed for a few days just to say goodbye to our families before heading out towards Maine for the last leg of our journey on September 21. It was in Maine where we experienced the beauty of New England’s fall, as we walked beneath canopies of yellow, gold and red. It was here we experienced a moose – a bit too closely – as we were almost crushed to death as it hovered over our tent in the middle of the night.
The end was too near, so I think we tried to meander more at this point, though we were strong enough to do 17-25 mile days without blinking an eye.
Maine also has some of the most unusual outhouses. There was one designed by LL Bean and my favorite, “Your Move,” a dual outhouse with a cribbage board nailed between seats so you could do your business with a friend.
On October 3 we hit the landmark that says we had walked 2,000 miles – we laid in the sun and took this information in slowly. It meant our journey was ending too soon. The biggest challenge would be the 100-mile wilderness, where you literally had to get through 100 miles without any civilization to speak of. That meant we had to carry enough food to sustain ourselves. When we got to Shaw’s boarding house in Monson, Maine, we had to gear up for the long haul that began on October 6.
We saw our first snow on the top of White Cap and realized that the temperatures were changing. Many of our friends were slowing down, as we ran into herds of people we hadn’t seen in a while. In fact, we had a reunion on October 12, the night before we hiked into Baxter State Park. We had to say goodbye to Marvin, our friend Snake Charmer’s canine companion, as he went into boarding so we could summit. We were sad, because that friendly little dog was part of our hiking experience. I will say, I have never seen a dog look so lean and beautiful. He was part boxer, so the muscles on him were very pronounced and he had the shiniest coat I have ever seen.
We struck out for Katahdin at around 9 a.m. Snake Charmer packed a few beers and we started up the rocky spine of the mountain. At the top, we did beer shots and hugged each other, cried and stared in disbelief that it was over.
We really didn’t talk on the way down – it was too solemn, too real that our journey was over. Now, we had to figure out how to get home.
We hitched a ride with friends who had family meeting them at Baxter. We all headed for a reunion celebration in Millinocket, Maine. It was the last time we would see many of these fellow travelers who were not from these parts. Snake Charmer’s mom gave us a ride to the Augusta airport and we were shocked by the scene as we rolled up.
There were National Guardsman with rifles, other military personnel and police everywhere. The news was on and 9/11 was at the forefront of everything in that airport. I have to admit, I was scared and kind of shaking in my boots. Somehow, we managed to find the rental car counter. As the only person with a valid credit card and license, it was up to me to remember how to drive back to NH, along with two friends who needed to fly home and one who lived in Boston.
So five smelly hikers drove home in a sub-compact rental with nothing but printed out directions from Mapquest – no GPS or phones back then. We dropped off our Boston friend and then I got up at 4 a.m. to drive the friends from Virginia and Florida to Logan. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so what’s another long car ride?
Brian and I had a hard time with sleeping in a bed for the first few nights. Some of our friends had a hard time just sleeping indoors. Living outside changes you. It’s almost primal.
Brian went back to work within a week and I worked a few odd jobs until I approached Sharron McCarthy for a job at McLean Communications. She said she could use someone to help on the NH Internet Awards… and that was the beginning. Thank you, Rick, for letting me share this with you and your readers – you have been part of the fabric of my life for well over a decade, for which I am grateful! HUGS!