At our last contact, I was in Stratton, Maine. By talking to the folks at the general store, tavern, and diner, I was able to learn some neat things about this town before I left. Like many of the towns of rural Maine, Stratton is linked closely to wood products. The Stratton Mill, a sawmill, is a major employer of the local people. As well, another company called BioMass, takes much of the unusable wood byproducts from the mill, converts them to pellets, and burns them to heat water and produce steam, and the steam drives turbines to make electricity. The thing that amazed me the most, though, was that just outside of Stratton, on Mount Kibby, massive windmills are being erected. Fifty are going in now with fifteen more to follow next year. Over 300 workers converge on Stratton every Sunday night. They fill up all the motel rooms and stay until Friday. A lady from the town is contracted to feed them at the community building every weeknight. Everyday, these workers leave at the break of day to work on the windmills. They all drive trucks as big as tanks! I think it is great that Stratton, Maine is playing a part in shifting our country to new forms of energy generation.
In the spring, summer, and fall, Stratton attracts a lot of sportspeople for fishing. The main catch is trout and landlocked salmon. Hunting also brings in business to this area with the main attraction being deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, and moose. The moose hunting is controlled by a lottery with a limited number of tickets drawn each year. I heard that, sometimes, many people will enter the lottery and have no intention of going hunting. If they win, they consider that they saved a moose’s hide!
Skiing is big in this area as well with the slopes at Saddleback and Sugarloaf being the places to go. Both of these mountains are on the Appalachian Trail, but the Trail leads away from the resorts.
Snowmobiling is a popular winter sport up india viagra. I asked one of the locals about how much snow accumulates in a winter. He said anywhere between three and eight feet!
I spent my last day in Stratton, Sunday, August 31 as a day of rest. I wanted to give my knees a chance to recuperate before I headed out to one of my final, big mountain challenges on the Trail, the Bigelows.
On Monday, August 31, I had breakfast at 6:00 in the diner in Stratton. I was their first customer of the day. Those were some of the best blueberry pancakes I have every had. At 7:15 I was on the side of the road with my pack and my thumb out. It was the first day of school, so there were some yellow buses on the road, but other than that, traffic was sparse. When I was passed by a local driver, many signaled to me that they were not going far. Finally at 8:00 a fellow named Ed stopped and picked me up. Ed has a “camp” in the Carrabassett River Valley. In Maine, a “camp” means a cabin. Ed is a native Maine person which, by the way, is very important to people’s egos up here. Ed told me that he really enjoys the winters in Maine. He said that the roads stay plowed and its not a problem getting around. He told me that Carrabassett means “small moose place” in the language of the indigenous people of Maine. He sees lots of moose. I don’t. Ed dropped me at the trailhead and was off to his camp.
I started my climb up to the Bigelow Mountains. I had an elevation gain coming up of 3500 feet! I heard someone coming up behind me. It was Leon and his traildog Halifax. I had met Leon back in Virginia and hiked with him off an on until New York. I had not seen him in two months. I may have mentioned this in a previous email, but Leon gets his trailname from Ponce de Leon County in Florida where he is from. His dog gets his trailname from the fact that Leon and Rufus (the dog’s real name) lived in Halifax County, North Carolina while Leon taught math in the local schools. Leon told me before that his best students were the Indian students, the Haliwa-Saponi kids. I always thought it strange that Leon was connected to some of the same Indian people I know in northeastern North Carolina.
Leon, Rufus, and I climbed to Horn’s Pond and then ascended the very steep peak of the South Horn. The weather was perfect for spectacular views from the top. We separated at this point because Leon and Halifax are actually faster hikers than I am. We shook hands hoping to meet up once again. I made a very difficult climb up West Peak and then Avery Peak. Avery Peak is dedicated to Myron Avery, one of the two founders of the Appalachian Trail. On both of these mountains, the wind was blowing around fifty miles per hour. I had to be very careful not to let the wind knock me off balance because the bare rock tops on these mountains had sheer drops on both sides of the Trail. One thing that was dominant in the view from these high, 4000 foot mountains was the huge Flagstaff Lake down below. I had learned back in Stratton that Flagstaff Lake was formed by damming up the Dead River. When they flooded the valley in 1950, many of the homes, businesses, and churches were just left there. The lake waters just rose up around them, finally submerging the village of Flagstaff on the bottom.
I made a two mile descent from Avery Peak to the Safford Notch Campsite. I passed huge, house sized boulders on the trail before I found my lodging for the night. I had the whole campsite to myself. Sometimes I really enjoy being alone.
I was up at 5:15 the next morning to get ready for my last mountain of the Bigelows, Little Bigelow. The only thing was that Little Bigelow wasn’t so little after all. I climbed many “false summits” before I finally reached the top. I used this elevation to my advantage in a high tech kind of way. I could now predict when I would be arriving in the next town, Monson, Maine. I knew I was coming up on Labor Day Weekend, and I wanted to make sure I had a place to stay. Using current day hiker etiquette, I stepped off the Trail where no passerby could hear me (I was on bare rock, so I was not trampling fragile alpine plants.), fished my cell phone out of my pack, and called The Lakeshore House in Monson. A friendly voice answered. The friendly voice belonged to Rebecca and she took my word that I would be there in five days, Saturday. She said she would save me a bed. I had decided to stay at Lakeshore instead of the famous Shaw’s Lodging because of the outstanding things hikers had told me on the Trail about their experiences at “that new place.”
I had a very long descent to the Little Bigelow Lean-to where I had lunch and took a nap. I can actually take a nap for 15 minutes and wake up refreshed. I developed this ability over 28 years of lunchtimes at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. I finally came to the low elevation of Lake Flagstaff and hiked around the south end of the lake. The Trail took on a “kinder and gentler” nature. Sure, there were rocks and tree roots, but compared to my hiking speed over the Whites, the Mahoosucs, and now the Bigelows, I was flying! It felt great to stretch my stride out to its max and make my own breeze! I blew in to the West Carry Pond Lean-to at 4:15. I was proud that I had picked up my hiking mileage for the day with 12.2 miles. I found a group of hikers there that I did not know. There was Red Adam from Florida, a southbounder. Count Spatula was from the Midwest. Spaz was from Quebec. Cruiser, from Greenville, SC. Halfway, I forgot his home. And finally Panza and Don Quixote. It was a full shelter with lots of folks tenting as well. We had a campfire that night after supper and had a great time. I played and sang the Hiker Song. Everybody liked it. Oh, and I almost forgot, some anonymous soul left two containers at the shelter for us to find. One contained homemade brownies, and the other oranges and apples. We had a fine time!
I headed out alone the next morning at 8:00, but before I did, I went to talk to Count Spatula. He had told me the night before that his wife was in 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg in my home state of North Carolina. She had been killed in Iraq while she was driving a bus. An improvised explosive device was detonated under the bus. Count Spatula told me that he had almost lost the will to live, he was on the Trail attempting to heal himself. He actually considered the Trail his home. When I talked to Count Spatula that morning, I shook his hand. I wished him well with his healing process. I told him that he had more to give the world. He seemed to appreciate my words.
I hiked alone for a while, but then Cruiser caught up with me. We hiked together. Once, when crossing a muddy bog, Cruiser slipped, fell in the mud, and semi-sprained his ankle. I say semi-sprained because he had already sprained it weeks before. Cruiser was able to walk, but I could tell he was in pain. Hopefully, this would not set him back too much. Hikers deal with so much hardship on the Trail, it amazes me that we keep on going, and going, and going.
Cruiser and I arrived at the Pierce Pond Lean-to at 1:15. This was a beautiful place! The lean-to was a short distance from the lake’s edge. Cruiser, almost immediately, went swimming to work his sore ankle in the cold water. This was my earliest stop time for a hiking day on my entire Appalachian Trail adventure, but it seemed like the right thing to do. We had another thing on our minds. Only a half a mile away was a fish camp that served breakfast to hikers in the morning. We were in good position to take advantage of this! By the time dusk came, a crowd of 17 people arrived at this lean-to. We filled up the shelter and those who could not fit in tented. I knew most of the crowd. There was Bunyan from New Jersey who I had hiked with back in the Shenandoahs. Most of the others were the type of young hiker that moves fast and puts in big miles. There was Don’t Panic, Wing It, Tarzan, Ahab, Colonel Mustard, Hammock, Cloud, Sawman, Kanati, and some more. Many folks hit the water for a swim before supper.
I gathered some firewood and laid a fire, and after folks were finished eating, we started it up. I was proud of how cleanly this fire burned because I took care to only bring in dry, dead wood. Many campers attempt to make fires with green wood, and these fires sizzle with moisture, burn slowly if at all, and make a lot of smoke. I was excited about the possibility of making music with another person on this night. I had made music with Hammock back in the Smokies and in Hot Springs. Hammock plays a mean ukulele! Hammock got out his ukulele and I got out my harmonica. We played and sang “Blowing in the Wind,” “Aragon Mills,” “Glendale Train,” “Hickory Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” my “I am a Hiker,” and a new song Hammock composed about eating lunch by a brook on the Appalachian Trail. It was an idyllic time. Everyone was just soaking up the good vibes. When we called it a night around 9:00, loons down on the lake took over the singing. Their calls echoed strangely over the water. They laughed at us most of the night. Their calls were haunting, but at the same time, soothing.
Many of us got up early the next morning, Thursday, September 3, so we could arrive at the fish camp for breakfast by 7:30. Tim Harrison has been running this camp for 24 years. His place is only one of two that is on Pierce Pond. I still can’t get used to calling these huge lakes ponds! Pierce Pond is likely several thousand acres in size! Tim told us that many of his clients are fly fishermen who come in May for the hexagonia fly hatch. This is when a nymph that lives in the water reaches maturity and rises out of the water as a flying insect. The trout have a field day and so do the fishermen. They tie on flies made from tiny feathers that simulate the pattern of the hexagonia.
We just hung out until breakfast was ready. Eleven hikers had come for the breakfast. One of the hikers played the piano. Bunyan, Cruiser, and I sat out on the screen porch and watched dozens of hummingbirds buzz around some feeders there.
After awhile, Tim called us in and served each of us twelve blueberry/apple/raspberry pancakes, several pieces of bacon, our choice of eggs, juice, and coffee.
We were back on the Trail at 8:45. We had a big thing on our minds, the Kennebec River. The Kennebec is the largest unbridged river crossing on the Appalachian Trail. It is normally 70 yards wide, but its width and depth can change dramatically in short periods of time. Not only is the river flow affected by rainfall and snowmelt, it is changed by releases from several hydroelectric dams on various tributaries, including the dam on Flagstaff Lake. Each year, several hikers attempt to cross the Kennebec by fording it or swimming across. One hiker has died in this attempt. To deal with this crossing challenge, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, WV, has hired a ferryman to assist hikers. The ferryman uses a canoe with the distinguished white blaze of the AT painted on its floor. He takes two hikers and their packs across at a time.
When Cruiser, Bunyan, and I reached the Kennebec after a three mile hike, I noticed a white signal flag lying on a stand by the river. I got the flag and waved it. From the other side of the river came another wave. It was the ferryman. He paddled over to our side, got out, and greeted us. He was Hillbilly Dave, and he looked the part dressed in a floppy hat. He told us he had been doing this job for three years and hadn’t lost a hiker yet. This made us feel good until he had us sign release forms so, that if we died in the crossing, we would not sue him or his employer. Bunyan and I loaded our packs in the canoe. Hillbilly Dave sat in the stern or tail end of the canoe, Bunyan in the middle, and I in the bow. I helped paddle, but Hillbilly Dave did all the steering in the fast flowing river. We were on the other side in no time!
After a short hike, Bunyan, Cruiser, and I arrived at Pleasant Pond Lean-to separately and had lunch there. Then they let me lead them up Pleasant Pond Mountain. I was honored. I tried to set a reasonably fast pace, but I was careful not to sacrifice safety as we had some tricky rocks to negotiate. We were rewarded with a beautiful summit with great views. We continued hiking together all afternoon until dusk. We stealth camped by the Trail that night, Bunyan in his hammock, Cruiser “cowboy camped” without a tent, and I set up my tent without its rainfly due to the stable, fair weather we were having. We had hiked 15.9 miles that day, my longest day in many weeks. I was proud but tired. I was treated that night to a full moon shining through the mosquito netting of my tent. I slept soundly.
The next morning, Friday, September 4, Bunyan, Cruiser, and I set our separate paces and climbed the 2629 foot rocky peak of Moxie Bald Mountain. It was another gorgeous day! We three assembled on top for photos. In the distance we could see a faint, hazy mountain that rose higher than all the rest. This was our first view of our final destination on the Appalachian Trail: Mount Katahdin over one hundred miles away!
We hiked down to the Moxie Bald Shelter for lunch. Cruiser and I passed a small flock of ruffed grouse on the way down. These birds seemed as tame as chickens and let me get right up on them to take pictures. I took another one of those power naps after lunch, but felt fuzzy afterwards. It took me a while to get my hiking legs back to full speed that afternoon. I hiked by myself and made my first unassisted big river ford of the Pisquataquis River. I wanted to keep my hiking shoes and socks dry so I took the time to take them off, tie them to my pack, and put on my croc shoes. I found the wade across the river to be quite refreshing. It was 5:00, and I still had three miles to go to reach the Horseshoe Canyon Shelter. I put it in gear! I arrived at 6:15 after a 15.5 mile day to find Bunyan and Cruiser having their supper. I soon joined them. We were now in position to have an easy nine mile hike the next day into Monson. Monson would be our last re-supply point before hitting the 100 Mile Wilderness on our way to Katahdin. We talked that night of how, for the first time, the reality was sinking in that our odyssey on the Appalachian Trail was nearing a close. We talked about how lucky we were to have such good weather in Maine. The early southbounders, heading south from Mount Katahdin in June and July had a month of solid rain, swollen rivers, and ankle deep mud to deal with. We were enjoying absolutely beautiful weather with cool temperatures. The mud was drying up! We had few mosquitoes and no infamous black flies. You’ve heard of horse flies? Well, up here, they have moose flies. They are huge and take out chunks of flesh when they bite. We haven’t seen a one! I promised in front off these two men to never complain about anything ever again in my life. I intend to keep this promise for the rest of my days.
The next morning, Saturday, September 5, Bunyan, Cruiser, and I all hiked independently into Monson. I had lunch and tried to eat all my food supplies on Buck Hill just before the Trail intersected with Highway 15, 3.5 miles out of town. When I got to the trail crossing, I positioned my pack beside the two lane road and stuck out my thumb. Thirty minutes went by and so did a lot of cars and trucks, but nobody stopped. I was beginning to lose hope when a big SUV pulled up behind me from an adjacent parking area. The lady at the wheel asked me if I was going into town and told me to put my pack in the back. I had just been picked up by Sue, the owner of Shaw’s Lodging in Monson, a famous Appalachian Trail institution. Sue and her husband started the hostel many years ago. Her husband has died, but now Sue, Dawn, and a bunch of volunteers run the place. Now I felt very guilty. I had to tell Sue I was staying at Lakeshore House, her competitor’s place. Not only that, I had to confess that I had a supply box at Shaw’s. I made both confessions and told Sue I would gladly pay a fee for her holding the box for me. Sue wasn’t bothered at all by this. She said she would take me by her place and get my box for me. There would be no charge. She also insisted on giving me a ride the additional two blocks to the Lakeshore House. That is what I call good community relations!
Sue deposited me at Lakeshore, and I told her to put me down for breakfast at her place the next morning. I thanked her profusely. Rebecca welcomed me to Lakeshore. First order of business was to take a shower and get out of my dirty hiking clothes. I have noticed lately that my sense of smell is finely tuned to some smells but dead to others. For instance, I can smell the shampooed hair of a passing section hiker, but I cannot smell the body odor of myself or other thru hikers. Let me assure you, everyone else can! Second order of business was to wash my smelly clothes in the laundromat downstairs. Third order, grocery store. The Monson General Store had most everything I needed for my final push to Katahdin: pop tarts, peanut butter, English muffins, oatmeal, and honey. All my dehydrated food was in the box from Shaw’s.
I had supper that night at the tavern in the back of Lakeshore. Burger, fries, and a super big hot brownie sundae. I slept well in a bunk room shared with Skeeter, Limbo, Bird, and one of the best trail dogs I have met, Mama Bear. Mama Bear slept below my bed and brought back memories of my own dog, Millie. I nearly cried myself to sleep.
This morning, September 6, I started on this email to you and then left at 7:15 to walk up to Shaw’s for breakfast. I was welcomed by Dawn, a retired 35-year school teacher. With our similar professional careers, we hit it off real well. Dawn ushered me past a busy kitchen and seated me at a table with other thru hikers. She explained the system. They were serving French toast that morning. I could order a #1, #2, #3, or #4. A #1 would mean one piece of French toast, one piece of bacon, one sausage, and one egg fixed to my specifications. A #2 would mean two of all these things, and so forth. I ordered a #3. I could get more if I wanted. All this came with juice, water, and coffee. The conversation over breakfast centered around the two states of mind of northbound thru hikers. One state of mind was “I’m tired of the Trail, I want to get to Katahdin, finish as quickly as possible, and go home!” The other state was: “I love this Trail, I want to drag this thing out as long as I can!” The population at the table seemed to be split, half and half, between these two views. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I have enjoyed this Trail experience. It has been the longest six months of my life! I am not going to rush to the end, but I am not going to drag my feet either. I am going to take the pace that seems most natural to get through these last miles.
After breakfast, I had a magical moment. One of the thru hikers I ate with, Strings from West Virginia, got out is Martin backpacker’s guitar. I got my harmonica and we sat outside the back door of Shaw’s and made music. We played several Dan Fogelberg songs, a Rolling Stone song, and my “I am a Hiker” song. Several of the guests hung around to hear the music. I have signed Strings up for my bluegrass band I am going to assemble for next year’s Trail Days in Damascus, VA. We will pull out the Hiker Song for all to hear in its first official debut.
As I was about to leave Shaw’s, Dawn came running up to me. “I have two more boxes for you!” she said. I wasn’t expecting anything. I opened the boxes to find chocolate brownies from Old Goat and Check Six and pecan bars from Eli Hornstein, one of my former students.
But back to the present. I am at mile 2061.7. The top of Katahdin is at mile 2176.2. I have 114.5 miles to go, most of it through the 100 Mile Wilderness. This section of the Trail is regarded by many as the most beautiful of the entire journey. It is not without challenges. It is full of lakes, bogs, moose, and a couple of tall mountains. I know I can make no assumptions about life because I am not in complete control, but I hope the next time I communicate with you will be shortly after I summit Mount Katahdin, “Greatest Mountain” in the original language of this continent. Katahdin is 5267 feet tall, much of it above timberline, very steep, and very rocky. I have seen it from a distance. Soon, it will loom on the horizon.
I look forward to that horizon in my life. Thank you for being with me.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles
PS. Life Lessons from the Trail #2
Often the Appalachian Trail is composed of large rocks and boulders. there are two ways to go about forward progress down this perilous path. One is to seek the way close to the earth, finding the secure footing on the ground between the rocks. I’ll call this the “grounded path.”
The other way to approach this rocky trail is to seek passage over the top of the rocks. This rock to rock stepping can be quite rapid, even exhilarating. One feels, how should I say it, above it all. But this method is not without its dangers. A slip or miscalculated foot placement can result in a disastrous fall. Injury with this method can be profound. I’ll call this the “above the earth path.”
In our lives off the Trail, we can live our lives similar to these two approaches. There are times when we need to take the “grounded path” as we encounter problems, challenges, and unfamiliar situations. At these times, we need to play it safe and not take chances. This might be appropriate when we are not sure of ourselves or the consequences of a mistake are too dire. This approach might be the best one when we are accepting responsibility for the safety or well being of others. As well, this approach might likely be the best when we are inexperienced in a particular area or feeling out of balance with life.
But there are times we need to take risks and opt for the “above the earth path.” These times might be when we are feeling creative and need to let out the force of the ideas inside us. As well, there may be times when we feel particularly in tune with ourselves and the environment around us, even our work environment. At these times we can afford to act on our intuitions and take a more let-it-flow approach.
The real challenge is to know when to take which route, grounded or above the earth. It may well be that a combination of the two is the best in many situations. This certainly works for me on the Trail, picking and choosing between the two as I pay attention to my mood, my physical coordination, and the condition of the rocks and the earth.
My best wishes for you on your path through life.