I routinely have used the past tense in sharing my Appalachian Trail adventures with you. But, as I am writing this right now, at 3:00 pm on Thursday, August 6, I am switching to the present tense. I am writing on a pad of paper, later to be typed into a computer and send to you by email.
I am sitting on top of Mount Liberty in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I feel truly blessed to be here because it seems that the entire creation is spread before me. The weather is gorgeous with patchy cumulus clouds, blue sky, a wind gusting to 20 miles per hour, with a temperature around 70 degrees. Because I was told that the weather in the Whites is so often severe with snow possible during every month of the year, I feel so lucky to be here under these conditions.
The entire Franconia Range lies before me. I am looking north. On my right is Mount Lincoln, my introduction to peaks named after US presidents. Just beyond is Lafayette and then Mount Garfield. Way in the distance looming above all the mountains, on a different ridge actually named The Presidentials, is Mount Washington.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be heading to Mount Lincoln and moving slowly toward Washington. I am finding that my typical mileage on the Appalachian Trail has been cut in half by these rugged White Mountains. The terrain is very rugged. Often I find myself climbing hand over hand over huge rocks on very steep trails. I’ve been told by fellow hikers for months now, “You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen the Whites.” At first, I resented this comment. I felt that I had seen plenty along my way up the spine of the Appalachians on the East Coast. Now, sitting here atop Mt. Liberty, surveying these high mountains that lay in my path on the way to Maine, I am inclined to agree with these voices from the past.
I am humbled by this experience. I feel small, but I also feel empowered. My own two legs have brought me here. I have come 1807 miles over 149 days to see what is before me. More is yet to come. I have many miles to go before I reach the end of the Trail on Mount Katahdin in Maine. But right now, I feel complete and very, very lucky. I feel privileged to have friends like you with whom I can share these feelings and experiences.
Let me back up a bit and tell you how I came to be here on Mount Liberty and add a little more to tell you what has happened to me since this glorious afternoon.
On August 4th, I started the day by thanking Baltimore Jack and Uncle Walt at the Hikers Welcome Hostel in Glencliff, New Hampshire for their hospitality and hiker’s advice shared with me over the last couple of days. I headed toward the first mountain of the Whites, Moosilauke. This mountain, at an elevation of 4802 feet, gets its name from the area’s Native Americans and is translated “The Bald Place.” It took me four hours of steady uphill climbing to get to the top. As I climbed, I noticed that the fir and spruce trees were getting shorter and shorter, finally reduced in size to just a ground cover. The sky opened up around me revealing a summit comprised of rocks and dirt. I could see for miles! After taking a few photos, I took a very steep trail down the mountain that followed a stream of water that, fed by springs, increased in size to a beautiful series of waterfalls tumbling over boulders and slabs. This Beaver Brook Cascade led me to a road crossing at Kinsman Notch. Remember now, we call these valleys “gaps” in the South, but they are called notches up here.
It was getting late afternoon, but I decided to push on and climb up up toward Mount Wolf. Before I reached the top, I found a spring to replenish my water supply and then made a camp for myself a short distance off the trail As I have confessed in my past emails, I love this kind of “stealth” camping. It gives me a sense of independence on one hand and a feeling of dependence on the natural world on the other. After supper, I got out my maps and, with my headlamp in the tent, determined I had hiked 11.5 miles that day. In my previous life on the Appalachian Trail, this would have been a short day for me. But today, the rugged nature of the White Mountains left me totally exhausted. I was proud of my effort on this first day in these formidable mountains I had heard so much about. I felt very fortunate that the weather had been beautiful. I went to bed both tired and happy.
The next morning, I met old thru hiker friends Blueberry and Wizard on the trail and hiked with them to the Eliza Brook Shelter for a quick lunch. We then climbed very slowly up a steep rock pile that I would scarcely call a trail to the top of South Kinsman Mountain. We had another sunny day, and the views on top were phenomenal. After another ascent up North Kinsman, we scrambled down a rocky trail to a shelter at Kinsman Pond. It was only 5:00 in the afternoon with plenty of daylight left. But, again, I was exhausted. I enjoyed sitting on the rocks at the pond’s edge and marveling at the powerful beauty around me.
On Thursday, August 6, I hiked alone to Lonesome Lake and the first Hut on my northbound trail. The Huts throughout the Whites are operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club and provide tourists with lodging and meals. They are rather expensive at $90 per person, but when you consider that most of the food has to be backpacked in and most of the non-compostable trash has to be packed out, it’s not a bad deal. I wanted to see what the inside of a Hut looked like. I took off my muddy boots, and timidly poked my head inside the main door. I was greeted by Jeff in the kitchen. “I’ve got some things left over from breakfast,” he said. “You are welcome to help yourself if you are hungry.” Well, I am always hungry! I helped myself to pancakes and three different kinds of coffee cake. I thanked Jeff profusely and returned to the Trail. I hiked three miles to Franconia Notch and crossed a busy Interstate 93 with an underpass. I now began my ascent to the Franconia Range, the series of above timberline mountains that I wrote about at the beginning of this email. That night I stayed at the Liberty Springs Campsite near the top of the ridge. I made friends quickly with the caretaker, a former thru hiker by the name of Cup-of-Joe. We discovered to our mutual amazement that both of us had sons stationed at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cup-off-Joe invited me to hear the weather report from Mount Washinton at 7:00 the next morning at his tent. “I’ll have the coffee pot on!” he exclaimed.
The next morning dawned clear. I packed up and was at Cup-of-Joe’s at 6:55. The radio crackled and a female voice came through with the forecast. “The day will begin with the clouds teasing the summits. The day will progress to sunny conditions with a slight chance of rain in the late afternoon.” I was elated. I had heard so much about violent weather here. I could not believe my continuing good fortune.
I shook Cup-of-Joe’s hand and headed up the mountain. I first climbed Haystack Mountain and then broke above timberline to summit Mount Lincoln at a 5089 foot elevation. Clouds had formed in the lower valleys, but I was basking in the sun. I had a field day with my camera snapping up the views.
I followed the ridge to Mount Lafayette at 5249 feet. It was near the top when I heard the thunder. Wait a minute! That sweet voice on the radio didn’t say anything about thunderstorms in the morning! I had been warned about being above timberline in an electrical storm. I looked to the north and saw dark clouds moving in fast. From that moment on, the clouds were not the only things moving fast, I was too! I was jumping over boulders to make it to lower ground. I found refuge in a place surrounded by rocks and small fir trees of uniform height. I put on my raingear just as the rain arrived. I was pelted with hail. I hunkered down, ate a candy bar, and prayed.
I tried the technique of counting the seconds after each flash of lightning and dividing by five to calculate the distance in miles of the storms center from me. First it was two miles to the north, then one, and then one mile to the south. The storm was moving away from me! I was still alive! I said a prayer of thanksgiving but waited a while for safety’s sake. I then continued my hike along Franconia Ridge.
I climbed Mount Garfield under clearing skies, descended a long rocky trail running with water from the storm. I climbed again and arrived at the Galehead Hut at 4:15, the perfect time to ask for “Work for Stay.” If I was accepted, I would be given the leftovers from supper, a place to sleep on the floor in the dining room, and leftovers from breakfast the next morning. I would be asked to do some kind of work for the Hut. I found that Blueberry and Wizard had already been accepted. I talked to a college-aged young woman, Elizabeth, in the kitchen and was taken in as well. Things were looking good until other hikers started arriving. By supper time there was a total of 12 thru hikers all hoping for Work for Stay. To the credit of the “croo” running the Hut, all the hikers were given a place to stay. The leftovers were meager. Cold pasta, three bean salad, stale bread, and water. After eating after the paying guests, we were given jobs ranging from sweeping the floors, to washing dishes, to stocking the shelves with canned goods. I was asked to delay my work until morning which was fine with me. But what was sad was, not only were we hungry, we were treated like dirt, particularly by one member of the croo. Maybe he was just having a bad day. This situation would have been unbearable had it not been for the friendships we thru-hikers made with the guests. The guests generally like us and are interested in our stories. I myself, made fast friends with three men about my age from New Haven, Connecticut. When I explained that my twin brother, Coit, worked for an organization affiliated with Yale University and that I was planning on visiting him after my AT hike, they all invited me to look them up. “We’ll take you kayaking!” they said.
The next morning, after wiping the dining room tables down and sweeping out the bunk rooms of the guests, I hit the Trail after a pitiful breakfast of one pancake, a bowl of cold oatmeal, and half of a canned peach. I climbed a long, steep, and rocky trail up to the top of South Twin Mountain. The weather was clear and the view was spectacular. I could see the towering peak of Mount Washington far in the distance. I could hardly believe I would be walking all the way there in just four or so days.
I hiked to Zealand Hut by 2:00 that afternoon and treated myself to two huge pieces of pumpkin spice bread and a cup of hot cocoa, on sale in the dining room. I visited with several friendly guests who were all interested in my thru hike. I hit the Trail at 2:30. I slipped once on a slick rock and bent my left leg all the way back at the knee in the resulting fall. My knee screamed with pain, but I got up, gave it a good massage, and continued on. This same knee had been protesting loudly over the last couple of days about the treatment I had been giving it on the trail. Routinely, my steps up and down on some of the trails were running 16 inches, each time either pulling up the weight of my body plus my forty pound pack or braking as I stepped down. Luckily the trail leveled out to an old railroad bed and was very easy as it led me to a campsite at Ethan Pond.
Ethan Pond was beautiful at sunset, and the caretaker, Thomas, was very friendly. I met an older section hiker camping there by the name of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic for short. Chronic’s name was really a misnomer because this guy was full of energy. He must have been in his early 70′s. He had sectioned-hiked the Trail from 1976 to 1993 while working full time as an elementary school psychiatrist and counselor. He then thru hiked in 1999. He completed yet another section hike from 2000 to 2007. He admitted he was addicted to the Trail. Chronic and I hit it off. I visited him in his camp and sang him my “I am a Hiker” song. He joined in on the choruses. At the end, he was crying. “That song really touched me,” he said.
Chronic was a fountain of knowledge about the White Mountains and taught me a great deal that night. For instance, Mount Washington was not named for a president after all. It was named for a general! General George Washington became president after the mountain was named for him. Mount Jackson was not named for President Andrew Jackson, it was named for Charles Jackson in 1835. He was the State Geologist for New Hampshire. There was a movement, not too long ago, to re-name one of the high peaks for Ronald Reagan, but it became a political conundrum and didn’t happen.
I soaked my aching knee in the cold water of Ethan Pond that night and again the next morning at 5:30. Chronic came by the shelter and gave me his phone number. “When you get to Pinkham Notch give me a call. I live close by, and I’ll do some trail magic for you.” We shook hands. I knew I had made a real connection with this guy.
I caught the weather forecast at 7:00 at Thomas’ tent. Rain late today. Near hurricane force winds possible on the summits. With this sobering forecast I hit the Trail at 7:30 and made good time to the highway crossing at Crawford Notch. I needed a few groceries like peanut butter and bread, but I was hesitant to hitchhike the three miles to the closest store. I wanted to stay on the Trail and not be hiking in the late afternoon when the chance for thunderstorms were the greatest. I decided to stick out my thumb for ten minutes. If I didn’t get a ride in that amount of time, I would make do with the food provisions I had and keep on hiking. I positioned myself strategically on the side of the road, allowing an easy pull off place behind me for cars. No sooner than I had raised my thumb did a pickup truck pull up behind me from the small parking lot for hikers. The truck had AMC on the door, Appalachian Mountain Club. A guy rolled down the window and asked, “Where you heading?” I said I was going to the Crawford Notch General Store. “Hop in!” he said. I had been befriended my Murt. Murt works in trail maintenance for the AMC. We listened to Utah Phillips music on the CD and talked about hiking on the way to the store. Once there, Murt told me that he would wait for me and give me a ride back. I offered to buy him a sandwich, a soda, a cup of coffee. “No thank you,” he said. “I’m on the clock.”
I got my groceries and returned to the truck. When Murt dropped me off at the trailhead, he said, “Wait a minute, I got something for you.” As I was getting my pack and hiking poles out of the bed of the truck, Murt approached me with a small backpack. “I got some food for you,” he said. I was stunned. Murt wanted to give me much more that I could carry or fit in my pack. I gratefully accepted a bag of trail mix and a block of cheese. Once again, the Trail and the people of the Trail had taken care of me.
I made it up a treacherous climb up Webster Cliffs and ascended Mount Jackson. I came down to Mizpah Spring Hut at 4:00. Amelia in the kitchen enthusiastically accepted me for Work for Stay. I volunteered to do a program about thru hiking the Appalachian Trail for the guests if needed. Amelia sounded interested. By late afternoon, the MD3 girls (Maryland Three) showed up. They were old friends of mine I hadn’t seen since Harpers Ferry, WVA. We were thrilled at our reunion. That night, after the guests ate, Amelia served up a wonderful pasta dish with pesto, almonds, sausage, and spices. We had chocolate cake for dessert. She clearly took an interest in our well being.
As soon as I finished eating, the guests gathered in the dining room for an announced thru hiker program. Snooze and Pokey of the MD3 joined me. We had close to thirty people hanging on our every word about the Trail and why we were motivated to hike it. There were a lot of questions. What did we eat? How did we cook? Where did we get our water? What kept up going? And why, why on earth would anyone attempt to hike 2,200 miles over rugged terrain? We did the best we could in giving honest, detailed answers. For a finale, I got one of the croo members to join me with his guitar, and I sang the hikers’ song. The guests along with Snooze and Pokey joined me for all the choruses. We had that place rocking! I went to bed that night on the floor in my sleeping bag on my sleeping pad. I felt very satisfied that I had made a contribution to the experience of the Hut for all these people.
The next morning, Monday, August 10, I made the steep climb up Mount Clinton. No, it is not named for Bill Clinton; it is named for Dewitt Clinton, former governor of New York and botanist. The wildflower Clintonia is named after him. This mountain is also called Mount Pierce for Franklin Pierce, a former New Hampshire resident. As I continued up the bare summits of a separate Mount Franklin and Mount Monroe, I was met with whiteout conditions and winds from 40 to 50 mph. I had to remove my glasses to keep them from blowing off my head! Besides, they were so fogged up, I could see better without them. All of a sudden through the mist, a building loomed in front of me. It was Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
It was only 11:00 in the morning, but conditions on Mount Washington only 1 1/2 miles away would likely be horrendous. I asked a young lady in the kitchen if they had any vacancies for guests. She said they had one bunk available for a full house of 91 guests (This Hut is not called “Lakes of the Crowds” for nothing!). I got out the credit card. I wanted to experience the life on the other side of Work for Stay.
I had a wonderful time. I ate at a regular supper table with regular guests, family style. This time, no pasta. There was soup, alpine salad, chicken breasts cooked in white wine, steamed vegetables, and homemade chocolate chip bars for dessert. After supper, one of the croo approached me and asked me if I would do a thru hiker program. “We heard good things about you from the Mizpah croo,” she said. I agreed. This time, I had fifty people! A fellow named Drew from the croo joined me on guitar for the hiker song. After the program I was swamped with people. Several people offered me food: cashews, power bars, etc. A teenage girl bashfully asked, “Can I have my picture taken with you?” Of course I enthusiastically obliged.
The next morning as I made the climb up Mount Washington, I was met by hikers who were guests at Lakes of the Clouds and Mizpah. They greeted me by name and wished me well on my hike. It felt great to be recognized. I was energized like never before.
I was at the summit of Washington at 9:30. Everything was white with fog and the wind was blowing lightly. I went into the Summit House and had a tuna salad sandwich, cup of coffee, and a banana. I briefly visited the Mount Washington Museum downstairs. I met a ranger named Bob. Between Ranger Bob and the museum, I learned a great deal about Mount Washington. A carriage road was built to the summit in 1861. It took 7 to 8 hours by horse drawn carriage to bring tourists to the top. A cog railway was built in 1869 called “The Pepper Pass” to provide more comfortable and faster transportation. A weather station was opened at the summit from 1871 to 1892 to record the unusual weather. From 1871 to 1907 a grand hotel accommodating 150 guests, a newspaper, a weather station, and a telegraph office all rested on the top of this mighty mountain. In 1908 a fire on the summit destroyed everything except one building, the Tip Top House, a place for dining and entertainment. Mount Washington is in fog 60% of the time. The highest wind velocity ever recorded on the surface of the earth, 231 mph, was recorded here in April of 1934. The record cold is minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Maximum temperature, 72 degrees. Maximum annual snowfall of 246 inches. Below 0 degrees 20% of the year. Hurricane force winds 100 days per year. Mount Washington is the Northeastern United States highest peak at 6288 feet. Whew!
That day, Tuesday, August 11, I continued over Washington to Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Adams. I got caught in another thunderstorm near a place right at timberline called, ironically, Thunderstorm Junction. This time, the rain came down so hard it hurt! Yes, there was lightning. And yes, I was scared. I made it to Madison Spring Hut by 4:00 and asked Keith in the kitchen to tell me about the Osgood Trail leading down the mountain. “Oh, it’s not too bad, a few rocks, but nothing you can’t handle,” Keith said. Based on this advice I decided to move on to the Osgood Tent Campsite a mere three mile away. Once I scaled an almost straight up Mount Madison looming above the Hut, I looked unbelievably in the distance to see huge boulders as far as the eye could see. Rock cairns marked the path of this so called “not too bad” trail. I hiked over the two miles of boulders and then descended a steep, slippery trail of mud, tree roots, and rocks. I stumbled into the tent site three hours later with just enough time to pitch my tent, make supper, and hang my bear bag before dark.
The next morning I hiked to the Visitors’ Center at Pinkham Notch by 11:00. I had called my new friend Chronic on my cell phone and told him I would be there by 12:00 noon. At 11:30 Chronic walked through the door, happy to see me. He treated me to trail magic like I had not seen before. We started out with lunch at a local barbeque place. He took me to his home in Intervale, NH where he and his wife run the Brookhill Bed and Breakfast. Chronic and Susan gave me their outlying cottage to sleep in. I took a luxurious hot shower. They washed my clothes. They treated me to a steak dinner that night. I serenaded Susan with my harmonica. Chronic and I sang the hiker song to her, only Chronic didn’t cry this time. He was too busy smiling.
The next morning on Thursday, August 13, Chronic took me back to the trailhead at Pinkham Notch and “threw me to the wildcats.” The next five mountains that awaited me were the Wildcats with serious ups and downs, rock faces, and lots of tricky spots to negotiate. I did the seven miles of the Wildcats in seven hours and ended up at the Carter Notch Hut. Lindsay, Matt, and Jeff (the same Jeff that had given me baked goods at Lonesome Lake) welcomed me enthusiastically for Work for Stay. They fed me great. I inventoried canned goods for them in their woodshed.
The next day I made it 7.2 miles to the Imp Shelter and Campsite. A young section hiker named Dwight and I shared the shelter. I witnessed a beautiful sunset that night with Ryan the caretaker and several campers. The next morning, I joined Ryan at his tent for coffee and the weather report at 7:00. Another good day was in the forecast! That morning I climbed Moriah Mountain and descended into the Rattle River Valley. Once I had made the descent, the trail was easy all the way to Highway 2, the road leading into Gorham, NH. Sitting in the parking lot was a thru hiker named Yak that I had met when I was coming down with Lyme disease back at Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. Yak had come down with Hepatitis A, had been treated, had recovered off the trail, had skipped a few hundred miles north, and was now doing low mileage making his way to Katahdin. He would go back and fill in the missing section later this year. He would still be considered a thru hiker. “My wife is coming to pick me up,” he said. “She comes and gets me every week or so and fattens me up for the next part of the trail. We’ll give you a ride into Gorham.”
So this latest little bit of trail magic is how I have come to where I am now. I am staying at The Barn hostel in Gorham, named so because it really is a barn. I am sleeping upstairs in what would have been the hayloft. New England is having its first real summer temperatures right now, and it is hot during the day in the loft. It cools down at night. I am pulling two “zero’s” here to fatten my own self up and let my knees rest. I have only 16.5 miles to go before I reach the Maine border. Reaching Maine will surely energize me, but I will still have 297.9 miles to go before I reach the end of the Trail on top of Mount Katahdin. Even though I am out of the White Mountains, I still have some challenging mountains ahead. The famed Mahoosuc Mountain Range looms in front of me. My last challenge will be the 100 Mile Wilderness, a place where civilization does not cross the Trail for that many miles.
But you know, I can do this! I have come so far. I have so many people behind me. I will set out tomorrow, bright and early, on what will be the last part of my journey. Lucky is an understatement. I am walking a dream.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles