A long, long time ago, 185 days to be exact, Rob and I were perched atop Springer Mountain about to embark on the unknown. We were chatting with an ATC Ridgerunner who had thru-hiked last year and I asked him what his number one piece of advice was. He responded, "Just keep walking, it gets better". This piece of advice has stuck with me throughout the whole trip thus far. There isn't much context behind; not a whole lot of meaning. It is simple and straight forward. Each time I have found myself tired, bored, unhappy, or homesick I would tell myself "Just keep walking, it gets better". It always has. But, with the relative ease of the trail compared to the section we just entered, does this statement remain true?
To catch you up, we left Vermont and crossed into Hanover, NH; home of Dartmouth College. Darmouth is one of the many ivy league schools that invest a good amount of money into outdoor education. In fact, one of the options for the freshman orientation is a 3 day hike along the Appalachian Trail. A really grand idea, if you ask me. At least I thought it was until we were woken up by a large group of freshman singing Smashbox. Not an ideal start to the day.
The Dartmouth Outing Club maintains the first section of the trail in NH. While stopping in Hanover, they provide hikers a list of local volunteers who will let thru-hikers stay at their place, shower, do laundry, and eat a good meal all for free. We happened upon one of these volunteers before we even had to make any phone calls and she quickly offered for us to stay. We just as quickly responded "Yes!". In order to wash all of our clothes, she provided some loaner clothes for us to wear around town. I can't explain just how out of place we looked walking around the campus of an ivy league school. I was straight out of the 80's with an oversized teal shirt and purple shorts that may as well have been parachute pants. Rob rocked an overly worn YooHoo t-shirt (apparently everybody else recognized its awesomeness too) with shorts that made a swoosh sound as he walked. Even if we tried to blend in, the noise coming from Rob legs would turn heads.
The next few days we made our way toward the highlight of New Hampshire, the White Mountains. Along the way, we stopped at the "Ice Cream Man's" house. With a title like that, no thru-hiker would pass this place up. The "Ice Cream Man" is an 85-year-old man who moved to the area many years ago. He would see a multitude of hikers walk by his place and decided that these look like interesting people to talk with. This eventually led to him offering an ice cream bar to those who stopped, free water, and the hopes that you will play a game of croquet with him. Since it was raining when we came through, we didn't get to play a game but we did enjoy great conversation. He was a true gentleman. The type of older man who had a firm handshake, will look you straight in the eye, and wants to talk life with you. He was very inspiring and a great reminder of the ethical, moral-mindedness of a generation passed. The greatest generation.
We were greeted to the Whites by Mt. Moosilauke. The gradual climb up was long but not too difficult and we enjoyed above treeline hiking for the first time since North Carolina. These White Mountains are going to be easy right?! Wrong! The hike down was the steepest descent we have had yet. Now THIS was our welcome to the Whites.
We stopped in the mountain town of Lincoln, NH once reaching the valley and made our way to Chet's House, a place we had been hearing about for weeks. Chet is a man who has allowed hikers to stay at his place for donation-only for 20+ years. He is one of the most positive, kind-hearted, and genuine people we have met on the trail. Despite the fact that he has had an extremely hard life, including an MSR Whisperlight stove that exploded on him and caused much harm, he is unshakenly peaceful and tries to better the lives of all that pass through.
Since leaving Chet's, we entered and completed the White Mountains. You remember that saying where by the time you reach this point you have completed 80% of the trail but only 20% of the effort? Well, that's pretty accurate. Until this point, I have never felt so much past the point of complete exhaustion as I did here. My muscles felt like jello and my joints were throbbing by noon. While we considered it easy to do a 15 mile day during the previous 1800 miles, it was a struggle to do anything above 11 here and that would take us ALL day to do.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, or as most hikers affectionately call the "Appalachian Money Club", own much of the land that the AT goes through. They have constructed a series of huts that wealthy, "outdoor enthusiasts" can stay at during their White Mountain experience. For $80-100/hut, one person can get breakfast and dinner, a bunk, annnnd a skit that the workers put on. Now that's a deal. Hah.
The AMC only permits thru-hikers to camp at designated, for-fee sites. If you are lucky, you can work-for-stay at one of the huts. This basically means that you can do the dishes and clean in exchange for leftover food and a spot to sleep on the dining room floor. I'll take it. We lucked out at the first hut we tried to stay at because the workers were all former thru-hikers. Even though we had to wait outside on the porch for the guests to finish dinner, they brought us hot chocolate and PBR! It felt like we were wet dogs not allowed inside but at least we were wet dogs with a semi-buzz. They also cooked extra food to be able to feed all of us and gave us fun tasks to earn our stay like making paper chains and a scavenger hunt.
We were able to get a work-for-stay at the next hut but our previous nights experience was unmatched. This crew had no interest in thru-hiking and were very apparently pompous rich kids fresh out of college. I sound a little harsh but no one should ever be made to feel like a 2nd class citizen. Unfortunately, this crew was very mild compared to those at the next hut.
Because we arrived fairly late, we weren't able to get a work-for-stay. As we were filling our water bottles and planning our next moves with a group of five hikers also denied, we received multiple not-so-subtle hints saying that we can't stay here and they would like for us to leave. One such hints was from a young man who asked "you all have headlamps, right?". Um, we have walked 1800 miles. Yes, we have headlamps. We ended up having to search for a campsite in the dark and feeling like fugitives for camping in an undesignated area. Never before on the trail did I need to whisper while in middle of the woods and have to wake up before dawn to evade detection. I suppose the only advantage of this was being able to watch the most amazing sunrise on top of Mt. Madison.
I don't want to paint an inaccurate picture here. The White Mountains hold some of the most remarkable and stunning scenery I have ever seen. While the hiking (er, climbing) was difficult, we were somewhat distracted by the stunning vistas we enjoyed while being above treeline for much of the day. As we walked along the Franconia Ridge, my favorite part of the entire AT so far, we could see the next few miles of what we had ahead of us. The valley's seemed endless and were dotted with a few trees that have already turned color.
WE ALSO SAW A MOOSE! It was the granddaddy of them all too... a gigantic bull moose with a huge rack.
We summited Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast near the middle of our White Mountain experience. Here are a some facts about Mt. Washington:
1) It's claim to fame is it's title of "Home of the Worst Weather in the World".
2) There has been recorded snowfall on every single day of a calendar year.
3) The strongest wind gust recorded by man was on its summit. It measured a whopping 231 mph.
4) The average annual temperature on the summit is a frigid 26.5 degrees.
5) Hurricane force winds occur 110 days each year.
6) 137 people have died since 1849. Most are due to hypothermia, even in the middle of summer. 3 have
passed away in 2012 alone.
As you can imagine, we were a little uneasy about the weather we would encounter on the day we summited. However, we had blue skies, not a cloud in sight, and barely any wind. How fortunate are we?
Other than hiking, you can reach the top by either car or the cog
railway. Thru-hiker tradition is to moon the cog as it crosses the
Appalachian Trail. Apparently this became such a problem that they will
now arrest those who take part in this tradition (naturally I had to remind Rob of this when it came time). I wonder, do they ask suspects to pull down their pants in order to identify the culprit. Oh yes, it's DEFINITELY the one with the birthmark on the right butt cheek.
Everything about New Hampshire is intense. As you've already read,
the terrain and weather are unreal. But along with this are the intense
people. The slogans on the license plates read "Live Free Or Die". They
really take this to heart. The liquor stores are closed after 7pm on
Friday and Saturday but will open at 9am on Sunday. Intense? Or
I've written a few times about my
slight fear of heights (more accurately, my fear of falling to my death)
and Rob's opposite, mountain goat-like abilities. Multiple times
through the Whites, I started to tense up from terrifying climbs or
jumps. Rob's new strategy of calming my nerves is telling me the exact
opposite of what anybody would want to hear. For example, one spot required us to
hop across a spot where there was a 20 foot or so drop between two
boulders. Anticipating my nervousness, Rob was already on the other side
looking back at me as I came to a standstill. I was about to attempt
the feat when he tells me "Don't worry, if you misstep you will only
fall to a tragic death from cracking your head open on the rocks below."
I have the best husband. Ironically, it works. I laughed and went on my
way. I guess I'm the backwards one.
Not long after leaving the White Mountains, we passed 1,900 miles and crossed into Maine. This requires caps locks. WE CROSSED INTO MAINE. The long-awaited 14th and final state on the trail and we had finally arrived on our 6th month trail-versary.
Yesterday we went through the Mahoosuc Notch which is dubbed the most fun and difficult mile on the trail. Five of us went through and it took us two whole hours to make it past the one mile. The notch is basically a boulder jumble where hikers climb over, leap across, slide down, and crawl under boulders. A Southbounder informed us of a recent incident in which a girl fell head first between two boulders. Another hiker had to pull her back up by her flailing legs. Of course, Rob reminded me of this when necessary. The notch was incredibly fun. Exhausting, but fun.
So, does the advice remain true? "Just keep walking, it gets better".
No matter how tough it can be, how completely diminished I feel, when my pride is attacked, how annoying my husband can be, it gets better. There is an extraordinary sunrise to remind us of nature's beauty. We evade detection from the "hut police" and Rob makes us laugh by saying "F@*% the man!" We get a warm shower, hot meal, and clean our clothes and feel rejuvenated and ready to take on another day. We talk with other hikers about the rollercoaster we have ridden on this journey and are reminded of the wonderful community that surrounds us. We talk with loved ones at home and are reminded of the family that we are so fortunate to have. It gets better. This has applied on the trail. It will apply for the rest of our lives.
With high spirits and excitement to complete this journey and begin the next, we continue through Maine to Katahdin. The greatest mountain.
Swoosh, Swoosh, Swoosh.
Hello. We are Robert and Candice Fox. We created this blog for people who want to follow us as we thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. If you don't know what the Appalachian Trail is, we will let our favorite online resources tell you most anything you need to know. Just click on the blue stuff.