I left you last when my thru hiker friend Ironman and I were staying at the Mountain Meadows Lodge in Killington, Vermont. We had a fine time there and even got to paddle a canoe around Kent Pond. I was able to get close up photographs of a loon and a great blue heron. But all of these luxury times had to give way to making our way north.
Ironman and I headed out of Killington on Tuesday, July 28. We hiked sixteen miles that day and ended up at the Winturri Shelter. I was excited to find a couple of my thru hiker friends there that I had not seen in a long time: Mr. Ed and Lightweight from New Zealand. Mr. Ed always seems to have a smile on his face and just picks my day up every time I see him.
My intention the next day was to hike fourteen miles into West Hartford, VT. I was a hot day, one of the few I have had. At one road crossing, I met a 77 year old man who was out hiking the mountains. When I asked him his trail name, he said, “Tailwind, my wife named me that!” Our eyes met, and we both busted out laughing! Tailwind reaching into his daypack and pulled out a banana. “Here,” he said, “I know thru hikers don’t get enough fruit. I bring fruit out here in case I run into you guys.” I enthusiastically took the banana and ate it on the spot. Tailwind asked for the skin back, for his compost pile.
The rest of the day went well with lots of stops for water, but around 4:00 that afternoon, I could tell a thunderstorm was approaching fast. I was four miles away from my destination, and I knew the rain and possible lightning would catch me before I arrived. With the wind whipping up around me, I decided to hike a ways off the Trail and pitch my tent to ride out the storm. I just didn’t want to get soaked again after my last experience on Mount Greylock. I was moving fast. Ground cloth down first, tent up next, fly on last. I finished just in time, the rain was starting to come down. Just before I dove into the tent with provisions for supper, I noticed a big white birch tree next to my tent. Then, I looked up. There was no top to the tree, it was a dead mast of several hundred pounds just waiting to be blown down by the next strong wind. I know this sounds foolish, but I hurriedly tied this tree to several other trees in the opposite direction of my tent. I used a long section of parachute cord that I normally use for hanging my bear bag. The rain was starting to come down hard now, and I got into the tent just in time to avoid getting soaked.
I had a cold supper of bagels, peanut butter and honey, trail mix, and dried fruit. For the first time on my Appalachian Trail journey, I kept my food bag in the tent. By now the sound of the rain on my tent fly was almost deafening. I had two thoughts. One was that the birch tree was going to fall on me, kill me, and no one would find me for a very long time since I had camped a good ways from the trail. The other thought was that the bears were going to smell my food and come get me. I prayed a lot that night.
Dawn came with me still alive. It rained all night, around four inches evidenced by the pot I had left outside for measuring purposes. But the rain had stopped. The first thing I did when I got out of the tent was to affectionately pat the birch tree. I thanked it for being strong during the storm. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for my safety, packed up, and was on the trail by 7:00. I had one thing on my mind. There was a general store in West Hartford. My Trail Guide informed me that it served breakfast. At a good hiking pace, I was two hours away. I was not disappointed. The folks in the store were very nice to me. I had the “Big Breakfast” of scrambled eggs, pancakes, homefries, and bacon. Oh yes, the coffee was excellent.
As I climbed the mountain out of town, I remembered that I forgot to leave a tip. I felt bad that I had represented the thru hiker so poorly. Soon though, I met a southbound hiker from Maine coming down the trail. His name was Cargo Pockets. He was planning on stopping at the store for lunch. He agreed to take a tip to the ladies for me. I felt much better.
With this breakfast under my belt, I was a charged up hiking machine. I made the next eight miles into Norwich, VT in record time. When the Trail reached town, it put me out on a residential street. I followed the white blazes on telephone poles to a busy intersection. Out of the blue, a strikingly beautiful young woman came up to me and said, “You must be Braid. I have heard all about you from the other thru hikers. You play harmonica and sing. My name is Victory.” With a little more conversation, I ascertained that Victory was from Williamstown, Massachusetts. She was section hiking the AT with her adopted father, Papa Trip (named this because he always carried three different versions of maps for the terrain they hiked), in preparation for hiking the Long Trail. The Long Trail is the oldest hiking trail in the United States, conceived in 1910, and runs from Massachusettes, through Vermont, and on up to the Canadian border. Victory and Papa Trip worked together in a surveying business, so they were used to being in the out of doors. I ended up hiking the urban streets of Norwich with Victory and Papa Trip. We approached a bridge over the Connecticut River. Halfway across the bridge, we stopped to take our pictures, passing cameras back and forth. Why? We had just crossed over into New Hampshire!
Another mile found the three of us on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. In observing the people on the street, I deduced that you either had to be smart or rich to live in Hanover. We followed white blazes on telephone poles and were attracted to a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream shop. After downing generous helpings of ice cream, we stopped by a pizza parlor nearby that offered a free slice of pizza to all hikers.
The three of us hiked out of town and climbed the steep .8 mile ascent to the Velvet Rocks Shelter. Since the shelter was already full, we tented nearby. Victory and I stayed up after all the others had gone to bed. We cooked yet another meal and talked quietly while we ate. Victory asked if it was still possible to hear me play the harmonica and maybe sing a song. I said, OK, but we would have to hike down the trail a good ways so as not to disturb the others. With our headlamps illuminating the trail, we made our way almost all the way back to the AT. Victory took a seat on a rock. I remained standing and fished out my harmonica from its ziplock bag. A full moon shone through the trees overhead. I played the melody and chorus of the “I am a Hiker” song and came in with the words that trace a hiker’s journey up the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. On the second chorus, I was surprised to hear Victory’s voice come in. High and almost haunting, her voice harmonized with mine. It was a fine rendition of this song! With the song over, we talked a while more before heading back up the trail to the shelter.
For those of you who might be hoping for a romantic conclusion to this story, let me tell you that Victory is young enough to be my daughter. Sometimes, one just needs to set boundaries. Besides, there are times a woman just needs to be treated like a lady. And, on this moonlit evening, it was enough for me to enjoy the company and attention of a beautiful woman.
The next morning I was the first up in the camp, fixing my breakfast. I packed up, and Victory came over to help me hoist my pack to my back. We had made a nice connection between ourselves. As I headed down the side trail back to the Appalachian, it started to rain. Sigh.
It rained the whole day. I was proud that I trudged on. The mud got deep, and the trail was often running with water. REI had been generous enough to send me, free of charge, a brand new pair of hiking boots that I received back at the Mountain Meadows Lodge. My new boots! It almost made me cry. They were constantly being submerged in two to four inches of rich, black mud. I made it 15.2 miles to the Trapper John Shelter. I joined Ironman, Blueberry, Wizard, and a new acquaintance, Pusher, in the shelter. I was soaked but changed into dry clothes. It rained all night, likely another four inches. I dreaded the condition of the Trail.
The next day, Saturday, August 1, was sunny which helped my spirit endure a trail even more muddy than before. One thing I was beginning to notice. The mountains were getting higher. Instead of the 500 and 1000 foot climbs I was used to, the elevation changes now were 2000 and 2500 feet. I was approaching the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I made it up the steep ascents and descents of Smarts Mountain and Eastman Ledges and I crossed a raging stream, fearing for my wellbeing, before arriving at the Hexacuba Shelter, the only hexagonal shelter that I know of on the Trail.
A peaceful night at Hexacuba set the stage for Ironman and me to climb the formidable Cube Mountain. On its peak at 8:00 AM on August 2, we could see mountains stretching away in all directions bathed in a peach colored light. We planned this day to hike fifteen miles to Glencliff, NH, the last town before entering the Whites. It started raining around 12 noon. Ironman was ahead of me. As I started to make the descent into Glencliff around 3:00, I passed a beautiful spring. I was almost out of water, so I stopped to fill my bottle. As I did, I noticed a shadowy shape moving in the sky over my head. I looked up. It was an eagle! With the stark lighting difference from the dark forest to the lighter sky, I couldn’t make out if I was a bald or golden. But I was certain it was an eagle. I shouted out, “Booshoo Migizi! Miigwetch!” This is the language I learned while working at Red School House in Minnesota in my first teaching job just out of grad school. It is the language of the Ojibwe and means “Hello Eagle, Thank you!” I was truly thankful for this sign, this blessing.
I made it to Glencliff by 4:30 and found my way to the Hikers Welcome Hostel. This is a funky place with outdoor shower and laundry facilities. Because the place is at capacity with hikers, Ironman and I are staying in a large tent outside the main hostel. The rain has stopped. I don’t know what we will do tomorrow. We might make our way up the first mountain of the Whites, Mt. Moosilauke. We might stay put for a day, let our feet recover a bit from hiking in wet boots for three days, and rest.
My spirit is still good. I am ready for the high mountains that lie ahead.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles