I am in the public library in Bennington, VT. It is a pressurized situation with few computers, lots of people wanting to get on, and a librarian with a bad temper. So, I’ll give you a short update first and fill in the blanks if I have the time.
I hiked into Vermont yesterday. Since I last communicated with you a week and a half ago, I have hiked through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The gentle mountains are over! I am back in very challenging terrain, and it is getting more and more challenging the farther north I go!
These last states have been very enjoyable for me because the weather has improved. I have had many days of gorgeous sunshine. Because I am mostly hiking under the cover of deciduous and evergreen forests, the temperature has been cool. I have contended with a few violent thunderstorms, but this spate of weather has really improved my attitude. Another thing that has lifted my spirits is that I have finished the twenty-one day course of medication for Lyme disease. I am feeling great. I am concentrating on eating mass quantities of food to keep my strength up and at least a few fat reserves in my body. My body is mostly down to muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone. I truly have become a lean, mean, hiking machine. OK, maybe not mean. I am still a humble person on the Trail.
When I communicated last, I was staying at the home of an old friend, Sandy Rhoades, in Falls Village, Connecticut. Sandy and his wife, Sis, gave me the royal treatment. Sandy and I share a love for American Indian music and Straight Dancing. Sandy also is a rare individual in the Indian powwow world in that he has served as a clown for many powwows. The tradition of clowns among American Indian cultural celebrations goes back a long ways. Sandy told me that his role as a clown at powwows is to remind the dancers, singers, and spectators to not take ourselves too seriously. Yes, there is always a time to be serious and the time to joke around, but the goal is to find a balance between the two. Sandy believes in the healing powwow of laughter. That is what his role as a clown always sought to bring out.
I left Sandy’s and Sis’s and hiked past the falls on the Housatonic River near their home. On the trail by the falls, I ran into a man with a light spinning rod. He was shaking visibly. I asked him if he was all right. He said, “I just caught the biggest rainbow trout of my life! It was nearly as big as my arm! It was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. I just turned it loose in the river; I couldn’t keep and kill anything so beautiful!” I hiked on by and went to check out the falls. I met another man with a pair of binoculars surveying the people gathered around the falls. At first, honestly, I thought he was a pervert. But then I got to talking to him. He said he was trying to prevent someone from “doing something stupid.” He explained to me that two weeks earlier, with the river in flood stage, three teenagers were playing around the falls. Two of them jumped off a high rock into the pool beneath the falls. They had underestimated the power of the flooded waterfall. The waterfall keep sucking them back away from shore. They were struggling to get to the rocks on the edges. The third boy was an expert swimmer and a regular at the falls. He saw everything that was happening and jumped in. He got each of his friends to grab ahold of his shoulders. He swam with all his might to shore. The two boys were able to reach the rocks. Their rescuer, a high school student by the name of Kaelan Paton, was totally exhausted in the 45 degree water. He sunk beneath the surface. They found Kaelan’s body one week later downstream.
The man with the binoculars told me that the whole community was devastated. Kaelan’s funeral was the next day, July 13. He repeated, “I’m here to prevent anyone from doing something stupid.” I shook his hand and told him I was sorry for his and the community’s loss. I hiked back to the Trail and headed north to Salisbury, CT.
I had read about an elderly lady in Salisbury who takes in thru hikers as boarders in her home. I had sent her one of my supply boxes. When I arrived on Maria McCabe’s back porch, she greeted me enthusiastically and handed me a cold soda. That afternoon, she drove me to a grocery store, and I resupplied for the next leg of my trip. That evening, she took me to a laundromat to wash my pitiful clothes, and I treated her to dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Maria McCabe is eighty years old. Maria joked with everyone we saw that night that the two of us were on a date. Back at her house, I explained to Maria how I shared music with others on the Trail with my harmonica. She asked me to play her a song. I did.
This opened up a new dimension between us. She said that my harmonica playing reminded her of the accordions back home in Italy. She told me that she was from the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy. She told me how she had been abandoned by her mother as a little girl and how she had been adopted by a farming family. However, it was not a good life. She was treated practically as a slave on the farm, tending the dairy cattle, and taking care of many chores. She longed to escape. World War II came around, and, as a young teenager, she was told that Hitler was coming and was going to take away all her possessions. She packed a suitcase full of her favorite dresses and cherished items. She secretly dug a hole in the floor of the chicken coop, placed the suitcase in the hole, and covered everything with wood and dirt. Hitler was not going to get her favorite possessions! “That box is probably still there!” she said.
As a seventeen-year-old, and just after the war concluded, Maria fell in love with a local man, a Mr. Duntz. They wanted to get married and take a ship to America to have a better life together, but Maria was too young to get married according to local customs. She got a Catholic priest to sign a document agreeing to the marriage, and a year later, in 1947, Maria and Mr. Duntz came to America. They settled in Connecticut in a farmhouse with wood heat and no plumbing. Maria’s first husband died when he was forty-one, and, years later, Maria married Spaulding McCabe. She raised several children both as a single parent and with Spaulding.
One day, Spaulding was up in the mountains outside of Salisbury at a place called Riga Campground. This is a place on the Appalachian Trail. When Spaulding returned he had an unusual story to tell. Up at Riga, he had met a man from Germany. This man, a Mr. Hohner, gave him a new harmonica in a cardboard box. Spaulding brought the harmonica back to their home and learned to play it. Spaulding has since passed away, but Maria has filled the emptiness in her home with her care for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
After telling me all this, Maria excused herself and went into the next room. She came back with a small cardboard box in her hands. “I want you to have this,” she said, and gave me the box. It was an echo harp, a classic harmonica from Germany, with the name M. Hohner on the front. “You play the harmonica so well and have lifted my spirits so much, I want you to have Spaulding’s harmonica.” I was dumbfounded. I played her a song on the echo harp and then packed it away safely.
Since leaving Maria’s, I have reconnected with an old thru hiker friend, Iron Man from New Jersey. I also hiker briefly with a young thru hiked named Huck Finn from Cincinnati. Hanging with these guys has increased my daily mileage and enjoyment. We hiked out of Connecticut and into Massachusetts. We stayed together at the Hemlocks Lean-to and Mt. Wilcox South Lean-to. Next, we hiked to a remote cabin on a glacial lake called Goose Pond. Just a few miles away from the pond, I ran into two women section hikers who were about my age. I stopped to talk with them. In exchanging information, I told them I was from Durham, NC and had just retired from teaching at the NC School of Science and Math. One of the women, Kate Winters “Katydid” exclaimed, “That’s where my son, Robb Winters, went to school! But that was way back in 1985.” I told her that I was teaching there since 1980 when the school was founded. “What’s your name?” she asked. I told her my real name was Joe Liles. Her jaw dropped. “I remember you! You were one of my son’s favorite teachers! I have one of your silk screen prints, the one of the cat and the stove, hanging in my home! You have made my day! I was exhausted, but now I can keep on hiking.” I said goodbye to Katydid and her friend, Nancy. But Katydid didn’t realize, she had made my day. Now I could keep on hiking.
Goose Pond and the surrounding area was obtained by the National Park Service in 1984 as a way to preserve land around the Appalachian Trail. A group of local men had purchased over one thousand acres here back in the late 1800′s. They called their group the Mohegan Rod and Gun Club and built a lodge on the shore of the lake. Their provision was that you could pass your membership on to one male member of your family. But membership dwindled, and the Park Service arrived at the right time to rescue this land.
I arrived around 5:15, too late for a swim by my figuring, but I did go soak my legs in the lake. It was beautiful! Thru hikers started showing up, one by one. Soon, the bunkroom in the cabin was full, and hikers started setting up tents in the woods. Grampy, the caretaker of the cabin, welcomed us all. Grampy appeared to be in his late 60′s. He thru hiked the Trail in 2005. A campfire that night provided the social nucleus for all the hikers. I stayed up late with one other thru hiker around the fire. He was a young guy with the trail name Apache. He explained that he was not Native American. “I got the name because I have a patchy beard.” I came to find out that Apache is from Waynesville, NC. I told him I knew all about Waynesville, that I had worked closely in Design School at NC State with a guy from there, Joe Sam Queen. Apache went ballistic. “Joe Sam Queen! He represented our area in the North Carolina legislature! I was on the wrestling team with his son Charlie!” Apache’s eyes got bigger when I explained that I had taught Charlie photography at the School of Science and Math. Apache and I now share a bond on the Trail. It is indeed a small world when it comes to human connections and relationships.
The next morning Grampy fixed all 17 thru hikers a breakfast of wild blueberry pancakes and sent us on our way.
Since Goose Pond Cabin, I have hiked through Dalton, MA. I inquired of a couple of truckers about the best place in town for breakfast. They enthusiastically recommended Duff and Dales Variety Store across the street. I can honestly say that I walked away from Duff and Dales after having the best breakfast of my life: pancakes, eggs, bacon, homefries, and coffee. I live to hike. I live to eat.
I have survived a couple of late afternoon thunderstorms lately. With one, I beat it to the shelter, the Kay Wood Lean-to. With the other, it beat me and Iron Man, too. We were climbing one of the highest mountains in Massachusetts, Mount Greylock. With an hour left in our hike, the heavens opened and drenched us with pouring rain. Lightning was striking all around us. I knew we were taking our chances, but we were still in heavy forest a good ways away from the summit. When we made it to the Mark Noepel Lean-to, Iron Man told me: “You know on that big lightning strike, all the hair on my arms was standing straight up!”
The next morning after a night in a very crowded shelter (I slept on the floor beneath the bottom bunk with only six inches clearance above my nose. It poured the whole night.), Iron Man and I hiked up to the summit of Greylock and had breakfast in the lodge up there. A caretaker took us to see a historic structure. Just below the summit was a “warming hut” built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930′s. It was a warming hut for skiers on the first downhill skiing slope in the United States, the Thunderbolt Ski Run. It was a beautiful piece of architecture with four bunks and four woodstoves feeding into a central chimney. Iron Man and I hiked down part of the Thunderbolt Ski Run until the AT veered off in a different direction.
Hiking into North Adams, MA brought on yet another miraculous experience. We were shocked on Saturday, July 18, to find that there were no vacancies at all in the motels in town. A local woman and AT enthusiast named Bagel saw us as she passed by in her car. She stopped and offered us a ride to the grocery for a cold drink. Along the way, we put together a plan to stay in a hostel in a neighboring town, Cheshire. Jim at the Wayside Hostel treated Iron Man and me like we were royalty. A section hiker, John with the trail name Carribou, a retired judge from Maine, gave us a ride back to North Adams the next morning. We treated Carribou to breakfast at Friendly’s, a chain restaurant that is new to my experience.
Iron Man and I planned an easy 14 mile day to the Congdon Shelter. Along the way, we crossed the border into Vermont. Only Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine left on the Trail! But when we arrived at Congdon at 4:00 that afternoon, found it a zoo with hikers everywhere. We teamed up with a young woman thru hiker from Ohio named Bon Bon and hatched a plan to hike another four miles to a road crossing near Bennington, Vermont. Now, don’t jump to conclusions. Bon Bon doesn’t eat bon bons. She is a birding enthusiast and gets her trail name from John James Audubon. We did this remaining hike in good time, arriving at the road crossing around 6:00, but found that hitching a ride into town was not easy. We had counted on cell phone service to call a local thru hiker shuttle, but there was no reception. Just when we were starting to get worried, a large SUV pulled into the parking area. Hikers piled out to get on the trail north. The driver, Pounce, a thru hiker from 2008, gave us a ride into Bennington and escorted us around town until we found an economical motel with eating establishments close by.
So, as you can tell, I am living the good life. I am hiking around 14 to 20 miles a day. I am eating well both on the Trail and in towns that intersect the Trail. And I am making a lot of friends. The amazing things that keep happening to me affirm in my mind that I am supposed to be doing this. I am convinced that I am being guided by something much larger and more powerful than myself.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles