I am typing this message to you from Pine Ellis Lodging in Andover, Maine. Yes, I have made it into Maine, 24.9 miles worth! Just as soon as I made it out of the formidable White Mountains of New Hampshire, I found myself in the rugged Mahoosuc Mountains of Maine. The terrain remains very rugged, cutting my mileage in half. But, in spite of incredibly demanding days and gallons of water lost to perspiration, I am of sound body and mind. That is putting it mildly. More appropriately, I am having the time of my life!
When I left you last, I was in Gorham, New Hampshire, letting my knees recover from the pounding they received in the Whites. On my last morning in Gorham, Tuesday, August 18, I was up at 5:15. In my typical fashion of not wanting to disturb hikers still sleeping in hostels or shelters, I quietly moved all my possessions downstairs from the Barn’s loft and packed up my pack. I went to the Cumberland Farms convenience store across the street and purchased a cup of coffee and several pastries to have for breakfast. In the growing light of this new day, I enjoyed my breakfast at a picnic table in the city park just across the street. As I was eating, I noticed a peculiar thing. All of the heavy 55 gallon metal trashcans in the park had been overturned, lids removed, and contents rummaged through. Was this the doings of vagrants and hobos? No, it was clear to me that the town of Gorham had been visited by black bears from the White Mountains! Sure enough, on hitting the Dunkin Doughnuts for one last calorie installment, the proprietor told me that they had seen the bears of the night before raiding the dumpster outside their establishment. This is a sad tale of how creatures of the wild can become changed by human civilization. I humbly suggest that Gorham invest in bearproof trash containers.
I had only stuck out my thumb for eight minutes out in front of The Barn hostel when a van stopped for me on Highway 2 in Gorham. Nick, an unemployed carpenter, was my savior. Nick and I listened to Neal Young’s latest boxed set of CD’s on the way to the trailhead, four miles out of town.
I thanked Nick profusely. After a brief “road walk,” I crossed the Androscoggin River (in the local Native American language, “a place where fish are cured.”) and followed the white blazes down a dirt road leading me into the surrounding mountains. My climb that morning was not too bad. I met up with an old thru hiker friend, Ducky, who was down in the dumps. Ducky had hiked from Georgia with her nine-year-old Labrador Retriever named Madison. Madison was miserable through the Whites. The recent heat wave in New England had made Ducky realize that Madison’s days on the Trail needed to cease. That morning, Ducky’s mother had driven up from Massachusetts and picked up Madison. Ducky was crying. “All I can do, is to keep hiking,” she said. Ducky and I hiked together, in silence at first, and made it twelve miles to the Gentian Pond Shelter. At first, we thought we would have the shelter to ourselves, but we were soon joined by section hikers Skeeter and Cantaloupe and southbound thru hiker Squatch. It was a good time with lots of swapped stories that night.
The next morning, Ducky and I were on the Trail at 7:30. The trail got rougher and rougher as we climbed Mount Success. The views on the bald, rocky top were spectacular. We were in the Mahoosuc (“Rocky Place” in the Native language) Range, and the Trail lived up to this translation. After a few more miles, the success we felt on Mount Success was physically embodied in a sign we found posted on a tree by the Trail. It read: “Welcome to Maine, Life As It Should Be Lived.” We celebrated our passage into the final state of our journey by having lunch at this spot. By 5:00 that afternoon, Ducky and I had made it 9.6 rough miles to the Full Goose Shelter. Cantaloupe and Skeeter were already there. Staying with these three women was actually very enjoyable for me. Our conversations and observations about the Trail took on the nature of a give and take between estrogen and testosterone! We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. And better still, Ducky was laughing more. The memory of her missing Trail Dog, Madison, was taking on the nature of a tribute. She could now talk about her adventures with Madison without crying.
On Tuesday, August 20, Ducky, Skeeter, Cantaloupe, and I set out separately for one of the toughest miles on the Appalachian Trail, The famed Mahoosuc Notch. In just thirty minutes of hiking, we would individually encounter a maze of tumbled boulders, rock walls, and caves that would test everything we had learned in the last 2000 miles. I had learned my lesson earlier on the Trail about wasting energy on fearing obstacles. I stepped into the Notch with an attitude of humbleness, respect, and attentiveness. I climbed up and over, down and under. I wiggled through caves where ice of the last winter still remained. My glasses fogged up each time I emerged into the daylight! I had to take my pack off twice in order to slip through tight places. Once, I found a beautiful spring way back in the rocks. I couldn’t resist. I reached in with my water bottle for a dose of pure, ice cold, and clear Mahoosuc Notch bottled water. This and a Snickers bar pushed me on. In two hours, I climbed out the other end of the Notch. I was thrilled to have this challenge behind me.
Little did I realize that the challenge of the day was just beginning. I climbed three miles straight up to the top of the Mahoosuc Arm. My reward was a brief descent to a beautiful lake called Speck Pond. I had only gone 5.1 miles, but I was totally exhausted both from physical exertion and hours of adrenalin rushes. I stayed that night at the Speck Pond Shelter. I was welcomed by the caretaker Bo, trail name Footloose from his 2008 thru hike. I soaked my knees in the cold water of the pond. I was joined that night by a whole crew of young northbound thru hikers I had never met: Sota (abbreviated for Minnesota), Cyborg, Ewok, Joker, Sneak, and Gittyup. I was feeling a little like the oddball since I didn’t know anyone, when Sota spoke up. “We have heard about Braid and the ‘I am a Hiker’ song for the last 100 miles. We even heard Leon from Florida sing the chorus while he played the banjo. But we want to hear the whole thing. Would you sing it?” I felt instantly accepted by this request. In the twilight of shelter light, I fished out my harmonica, played the melody of the verse and chorus, and sang the song from beginning to end. When I finished, the shelter erupted with applause. I felt proud to be recognized on the Trail click. I slept very well that night.
The next morning, I was the first one on the Trail at 7:15. I climbed a very steep Old Speck Mountain and descended just as steeply to Grafton Notch at my first road crossing in Maine, Route 26. Much to my surprise, I found a park ranger waiting for me there. Kevin was not there to give me a ticket for some violation. He was there to give me an ice cold Dr. Pepper! Kevin had been a ranger for three years. He talked with one of the thickest Maine accents I had ever heard. He had lots of advice about the challenges that awaited me. “Try to get off the high stone balds that are coming up by late afternoon,” he said. “We’ve got severe thunderstorms moving in.”
Kevin’s words put a certain zip in my step as I climbed up the west peak of Baldpate Mountain. When I got to the top, I was greeted by high winds and whiteout conditions. The Trail was marked by sporadic piles of stones, the cairns. As I climbed up the even higher peak of East Baldpate, I was crawling hand over hand over bare rock faces. Thunder rumbled in the distance. By the time I hit the third bald in this series of rock peaks, I was practically running. I wanted to get below timberline before the upcoming thunderstorm arrived. The Whites had taught me well! I breathed a sigh of relief when I entered a stand of stunted fir trees. The trees gradually increased in size as I lost altitude. A muddy, rocky trail led me to the Frye Notch Shelter. I was elated. I felt better about my mileage that day, 10.4 miles. And I had beat the thunderstorm, this time.
A southbound thru hiker, Still Steve, shared the shelter with me that late afternoon as the sky got darker. Soon torrential rain hit. The sound of the rain on the tin roof of the shelter was deafening. Still Steve and I shouted to each other to be heard over the din. To our mutual amazement, we found that we shared the same home state, North Carolina. He was from Southern Pines and, of course, I was from Durham. We shared information about the Trail while we cooked supper and prepared for bed. He gave me valuable advice about what awaited me to the north. I had a lot to say about what lay to the south. We gave each other information about places to stay and sections of trail to be careful on. We pledged to get together back in North Carolina when we both finished this great adventure. Still Steve introduced me to Yogi Tea. I slept like a rock, due either to the tea or the physical exertion of the day, or maybe both!
This morning, Saturday, August 22, I said goodbye to Still Steve, and we headed in opposite directions. I climbed up and then down 4.5 miles to Andover, Maine. Before I lost too much altitude, I fished my cell phone out of my pack and called Pine Ellis Lodging. A sweet voice answered the phone. I was hoping for a ride into town, eight miles down East B Hill Road. Reluctantly, the sweet voice told me that her shuttle driver had left for Rangely, Maine, and that she only had one bed left in her hostel. I asked her to save the bed for me and that I would hitch into town. Thirty minutes later, I carefully crossed a creek raging from last night’s rain storm just before the road crossing. I noticed a man standing there. “Braid?” he asked. I said, yes. “I’m here to give you a ride. And there is someone who wants to see you.” I climbed steps to the road to find a thru hiker friend, Wendy, waiting at the top. Wendy and I had hiked together a good while back in Tennessee and Virginia. We had been exchanging emails, trying to get together. Finally, the moment had arrived. We hugged. Wendy then hoisted her pack and hit the Trail north. Maybe I’ll catch her again.
The guy that met me was David. He works for Pine Ellis Lodging. Somehow, miraculously, he had heard about me coming into town and decided to meet me at the crossing. As we sped down the rough road to Andover, we did not see one car. It would have been one long hitch!
I’ll learn what I can about this new Trail Town and share it with you next time. Right now, I am just happy to have a soft bed for the night. I’ll hit the two restaurants in town to boost my calorie reserves. After this replenishment, I hope to resume my journey north tomorrow.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles
PS. Life Lessons Learned from the Trail #1
There have been times for me on the Appalachian Trail when the entire trail has been submerged in water, mud, or a combination of both. Often there are no alternatives other than plunging right in and trudging through the muck. But there are also times when rocks, tree roots, logs, or the banks on one side or the other offer something akin to stepping stones to provide dry footing across the expanse. In this scenario, I have found the best way to approach a hopeful dry passage is to simply go one step at a time. There is no need to figure out all the needed steps in advance because, often, one step will reveal the next. It is matter of faith that a course of passage will make itself known. This method has never failed me.
I suggest that a similar attitude be applied to the complex situations we face in our lives. We should not be discouraged when a clear course of action evades us as we approach a difficult problem or circumstance. All we need to do is take that first step. The next one will make itself apparent once we have begun the passage with a mind that is open with a spirit of adventure.