14.05.09

“Bike to Work Day”?

Isn’t Bike to Work Day every day?

In passing I note that since the start of November when I started working after a post-graduation vacation I’ve poured exactly $0 in gasoline into the tank of my car. (Readers who suspect that this statement, in addition to being true, is vacuously true may be on to something!) How much did you spend doing the same over that time? Hmm, hmm? Also worth noting: my bike has a smaller carbon footprint than your hybrid.

One other note: this post was prerecorded because I’m currently attending Trail Days; I’ll be gone through May 19. Consequently, I probably won’t moderate any responding snarks :-) or other comments made by non-repeat commenters until then.

07.05.09

Bennington, VT to Pawling, NY: in which I decide that hiking up a mountain in a thunderstorm is a bad idea

I’ve gone back through previous entries and attempted to link to each thru-hiker or section hiker’s website or trail journal the first time it’s mentioned in each entry (if I knew it or could find it), so if you still feel like reading about hiking on the A.T. after what I’ve written, you might want to return to past entries and skim through their journals as well. NB: I haven’t seen anyone write with nearly the level of detail that I do, so doing so is probably not quite the time sink you might first think it is. Caveat lector: trail journals are like Wikipedia (except less highly linked), and if you start reading those you might get sucked in even more journals, from which you could get sucked into even more, &c.

August 2

(16.8; 594.7 total, 1579.3 to go; +1.8 from pace, -230.3 overall)

The first stop this morning is a little cafe in downtown Bennington for breakfast. I have a small map of the town given to me yesterday by the outfitter, and I select what looks like a reasonable little place just a couple hundred feet from the intersection on which the outfitter sits. It’s something of a mistake, because it’s more a pastry shop than a place to get a full breakfast, but it suffices. After a brief bite it’s time to head back to the trail.

I walk most of the way out of town before I sit down on the side of the road and put out a thumb, figuring I should get out of the busier areas to not interfere with traffic. I wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Eventually it’s been 45 minutes, and I realize this isn’t going to work, so I start walking. The Companion says it’s 5.1 miles from the center of town of which I’ve probably walked a mile, so I might be out awhile, but from the looks of things getting a hitch back out is hopeless. I manage to walk most of the way out before a guy picks me up and drives me the last mile or so to the trail crossing; he says he saw me when I was waiting earlier as he was heading into Bennington and knew I wasn’t going to be successful.

The first obstacle of the day is the dreaded, the fearsome, Harmon Hill! I note this only because Sweet Sweet noticed a register entry from a thru-hiker (!) irrationally fearful of the ascent up it; it’s somewhat steep, and it’s more steps made of stone than a hiking trail, but to have such fear of a hill is absurd, especially for a thru-hiker. Spanky passes me again near the top of the hill as I water up, and after passing through a field of raspberries (my entry in a trail register nearby is, “Nothing is real – except raspberry fields, forever!”) I arrive at Congdon Shelter, where I stop to eat lunch. Over time Spanky, Sunday, Hungarian, and Sweet Sweet all arrive at the shelter. It’s another nice one with a picnic table, a shelter register with crayons (there are some absurd drawings as entries), bunks, and a fire pit. Just as I’m finishing lunch it starts to pour; everyone else stays at the shelter for the moment, but I can’t possibly stop this early in the day, nor am I content to stop before Massachusetts today, so I head out into the rain rather than wait it out.

The rain’s not too bad, but I’m pretty soaked most of the day. Sunday eventually catches up and then surpasses me, and the trail is mostly uneventful until I reach Country Road, the last road crossing in Vermont. There’s a guy with a pickup truck there, and he’s giving out trail magic! I eat a hot dog and have a pop while I stand and talk with him. Another thru-hiker, Old Buzzard, walks up with — I kid you not — an umbrella. As it turns out he’s famous for it; he started hiking with a red umbrella and got ridiculed for it, but by four hundred or so miles into the trail people were often more envious than derisive. That, however, was when he reached Damascus in Virginia for Trail Days, a thru-hiker festival. Somehow, he claims, some other thru-hikers absconded with his umbrella, and he decided to completely and utterly fly off the handle about it. He never did get the umbrella back, but he decided this would make a great excuse to pretend to be schizophrenic in shelter registers. For the past thousand miles he’s pretended to have multiple personalities which he’s working through on the trail at the advice of his therapist and his wife. Subsequent entries from him appear in a variety of styles of handwriting signed by various different aspects of his personality — Jhonny (“Here’s Johnny!”), Onroy (written in an atrocious left-handed mess), Shelia [sic], and Ol’ Buzzard-Tonto (his main moniker). Future entries talk about how his wife and therapist are hoping one of his personalities will emerge dominant over the course of the hike and how he’s on a course of thorozine [sic].

Old Buzzard clearly doesn’t actually have these problems once you listen to him (although some south on the trail get suckered into believing him — well trolled, Old Buzzard!). At the same time, I get the feeling it’s not entirely just an act. Adam Sandler does the exact same shtick in every movie he acts in; he’s not really like that in real life, but if you ever watch an interview with him you realize he has some of the lack of seriousness that his characters always have — to nowhere near the same degree, but you realize it’s not all a sham. I think to convincingly pretend to be a person with multiple personalities or to be an Adam Sandler character it’s not enough to just be a really good actor, you have to have some of it to start. Reading his entries the rest of the way south and imagining the reactions of people reading them was a great treat.

Heading south further I hit Seth Warner Shelter, the last shelter in Vermont. There are a few other people there, including a physical education teacher out until classes start in a few weeks, looking to hike as much of the Long Trail as possible. I try to dry out a little before heading on; Spanky arrives and tries to convince me to stay to be able to walk back to the road for further trail magic, but no way am I stopping before crossing the state line today.

It’s still raining somewhat, and the trail I pass through is definitely putting paid to the nickname “Vermud” that Vermont has (although to be honest I didn’t think it was that bad given how much rain there’d been, and I didn’t even know the nickname until this last day of hiking out of it). I reach the state line with Massachusetts (whee!) by early evening, and I note in the state line register that a hike such as the A.T. easily might not have been possible if federalism hadn’t been a principal component of the American system of government. (Imagine, if you will, the absurdity of a border crossing station on a hiker trail, and consider that in such a case the trail more likely would never have been created.) It’s only another couple miles to Sherman Brook Campsite, the first spot in Massachusetts (where, I point out, camping is only permitted in designated sites), and I walk in as twilight hits, catching up to Sunday in the process (who unfortunately completely missed the trail magic back at the road crossing). It’s stopped raining enough that setting up camp is painless, and the site’s awesome — it has a bear box, a privy, and even a register! I haven’t seen a register at any other tent site so far. I quickly head to sleep in a new state.

August 3

(11.2; 605.9 total, 1568.1 to go; -3.8 from pace, -234.1 overall)

Today’s start is a leisurely one, because I’m stopping in North Adams for breakfast and resupply at a local grocery store. Sunday tells me that he’s arranged a ride from a friendly local named Rob, who runs a place he calls the Birdcage, in Dalton, 24.9 miles down the trail, and says I could probably do likewise if I got down to North Adams in time. My disinclination to slackpack prevents me from accepting. As it turns out, I arrive in North Adams just as Rob and Sunday are about to head out, more or less, and I manage to get Rob’s phone number in case I want to stop when I pass through. That done I head into the adjacent Friendly’s for breakfast and then over to Price Chopper (its actual name; I’d never heard of the chain before) for supplies, noting while shopping that some items in the store (M&Ms for one) are actually more expensive when purchased in the largest container than when purchased in the not-quite-largest container. Maybe this is a way to catch unwary customers who don’t look at price per ounce and just assume bulk equals savings; I’m not sure what else it might be. That done I hike the 0.6 miles back to the trail and head south again toward Mount Greylock.

A white blaze on the trail north of Greylock, with a sign noting a nearby rifle range
A white blaze on the trail north of Greylock, with a sign noting a nearby Second Amendment expression zone (to put it one way)
A view to the north from Mount Greylock
A view to the north from Mount Greylock

Mount Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts, which might sound impressive, but at 3491 feet it’s not particularly tall by anything but eastern seaboard standards. Still, it’s enough height to make the hike up it strangely slow. The first three miles drag on quite awhile, and near the very end of that it starts to pour; I refill a water bottle from water runoff flowing over a tree root on the trail (adding iodine, of course) and head on to Wilbur Clearing Lean-to to eat lunch, hole up, and wait out what looks like a fast-moving storm. While there I discover the solution to the riddle of Dan and Leah and their mysterious White Mountains disappearance — turns out they got tired of hiking in the White Mountains around Kinsman Notch, stopped at a hostel there, found cheap bus tickets to Boston, went there for some period of time, and returned to the trail just north of here around July 18 — so they’re probably two weeks ahead of me at this point. I also read Old Buzzard’s entry wherein he describes being put on a regimen of thorozine [sic] — hilarious! My entry expresses dire outrage at the injustices perpetrated upon me by Dan and Leah and vow vengeance when I catch up to them. (Unfortunately I never succeed; they remained ahead of me for awhile, but at some point their entries stopped altogether, and I never saw them again.) The rain does indeed pass in short order, and I head on again.

The miles up to the summit pass quickly, and I arrive atop the mountain to take in the war memorial at its top as well as the surrounding views.

More view from Mount Greylock
More view from Mount Greylock
Yet more views from Mount Greylock
Yet more views from Mount Greylock
Some video from the base of the war memorial on Greylock

The summit is traditionally open to vehicle traffic up it, just as Pikes Peak in Colorado and Mount Washington in New Hampshire are, but for the past two years at the least the summit has been closed due to road maintenance and, as I gathered from a newspaper I rifled through while eating at Friendly’s, some issues at finding someone willing to run it. Had it been open I understand there are some nice views to be had from the top of the war memorial, but such was not to be, so I move on fairly quickly.

The salt-shaker-shaped war memorial atop Mount Greylock
The salt-shaker-shaped war memorial atop Mount Greylock

The summit may be closed, but the construction equipment is out in full force, and I take advantage of a port-a-potty as I pass. I refill water from a pond just down from the summit and head on, passing northbounders Hot Cheese, Birdbath, and Meltdown. For some reason I’m still moving slowly, and I’m kind of hurting, too, for some reason, so I make it a short day and stop at Mark Noepel Lean-to to end out the day at the end of a measly 11.2 miles. I have the shelter all to myself, but there’s a camp group staying in tents nearby. It’s some sort of UN-type thing as I’m told by one of the two leaders (if I remember correctly one said she went to Michigan for college), because there’s a large variety of nationalities, races, and so on — wonderfully diverse if you think that should matter. They’re incredibly well-behaved for a camp group (not at all like the group just north [and by hearsay the group ten miles south] of Glastenbury Mountain in Vermont), and I don’t notice any noise from them over the night. Strangely, this contrasts with the two people in a tent who are chopping wood for a fire (itself odd) at nearly midnight (no idea why). I cook my food and head to sleep, hoping I’ll have a better day of hiking tomorrow.

August 4

(16.7; 622.6 total, 1551.4 to go; +1.7 from pace, -232.4 overall)

I make a leisurely start today as I head through a section of trail that passes near or through a number of towns. The first stop is in Chesire, and the trail passes directly through part of the town next to the “Cheese Monument”, commemorating a gift of a wheel of cheese from Cheshire to celebrate Jefferson’s presidency. (Viewers of The West Wing might think that story sounds vaguely familiar, with some reason — although it seems another cheese event was the more direct inspiration for that episode.) I stop briefly to remove some anti-blister duct tape from one foot before heading on again. The day continues uneventfully until I reach Dalton.

Dalton, as mentioned earlier, is famous on the trail for both the Birdcage and for Tom “The Ice Cream Man” Levardi. I met the former yesterday morning when Sunday was slackpacking, and I briefly met the latter at the hiker festival in Bennington. My immediate plans are to swing past the library to use the Internet for a bit and maybe type up an entry or two here. The trail passes directly through part of the town, but it doesn’t pass by the library, so I take a slightly different route than the trail itself to go there. Judging by painted-over blazes on telephone poles as I go, I’m actually “retro-blazing”; I may be off trail for a bit, but there are levels of purism (some even go so far as to always leave a shelter by the precise access path used to reach it, even when it’s a loop access or when the shelter site has multiple entrance points, which seems a bit much to me), and as long as I’m walking essentially the same rough path and not cutting out difficult parts unless prompted by weather or adverse trail conditions I’m not bothered. (In any case I would have been rather more bothered by skipping the dozen miles south of Monson in Maine to avoid flooded river crossings if I were that much a purist.) I don’t quite reach the library when, of all people, Tom Levardi stops off the side of the road and offers me a ride to his house, which I accept — after all, it’s Tom Levardi! (Purists gasp again.) I can’t reasonably pass this up even if it cuts down on trail mileage by a small amount (judging by the map in the Companion perhaps by half a mile), and I think the compuhyperglobalmegapurists who would pass this up are insane. :-)

We arrive at his house, he gets me a complimentary ice cream sundae (hence his name), and we talk for a couple hours or so on various topics. He’s been letting thru-hikers camp/stay at his house for years; if I remember correctly one article posted in his house dates it back at least fifteen years. I ask about the longest anyone’s ever stayed (it’s not uncommon for people to stay multiple days and take a day or two of rest — zeroes — because it’s such a great place to stop). Some people, he says, stay somewhat longer because they need money to keep hiking north (consider the northbounder I met just south of Rutland in Vermont). He also tells of one guy who stayed so he could date someone working at a local store and of another who stayed to date someone he met at a nearby gas station, even going so far as to have her over to Tom’s for a dinner date. It’s amazing; I’m sure I could be hospitable to a point if I were doing something like Tom does, but even I couldn’t imagine pushing it that far. I borrow Tom’s phone and use my calling card with it to call home and talk for a bit, and then, before I can be sucked in further, I head south again so I can make reasonable mileage today. It’s kind of difficult — I can understand why people would want to stay — but I don’t feel like I really need a break, and I’d like to hike more than 13.7 miles today, at least to hit the 15-mile-a-day goal I set before I started. When I originally arrived it might have been possible to hike another ten miles, but it’s now late enough that the only feasible option is another three to Kay Wood Lean-to, not as far as was possible but “enough”.

The remaining miles pass quickly, particularly after I rejuvenate with a can of pop from trail magic placed just south of Dalton, and I pass a weekend backpacker and the first deer I recall seeing on the trail as I do the last three miles. Silver Potato and Cracker passed through recently according to the shelter logs (if I remember correctly they use their entry here to point out the joy of wine with dinner while backpacking), as have various other southbounders I’m trying to catch. I spend the night there with a couple other hikers, including the one I just passed (but none thru-hikers); they remark on my pace, but I say what I always say: when you’re thru-hiking all hiking scales are heavily skewed. Before heading to sleep I make plans for the next couple days: tomorrow it’s Upper Goose Pond Cabin, famed on the trail for its pancake breakfasts, and the day after it’s Tom Leonard Lean-to. The pace is aggressive (~18 miles and ~21 miles) but not overly so as long as I keep moving, and it’ll be good to feel like I’ve made substantial mileage after a few days of feeling like I’ve been poking alone more slowly than I really want.

August 5

(17.6; 640.2 total, 1533.8 to go; +2.6 from pace, -229.8 overall)

Today’s hiking goes slowly for the first half of the day as I enjoy the weather and the copious blueberries I’m passing through. One of the other backpackers at the lean-to heads out before I do, and I don’t see him all morning. It takes me until almost noon to arrive at another institution of the Massachusetts trail: the “Cookie Lady”.

A morning view through a clear-cut section of forest so that power lines could pass through
A morning view through a section of forest clear-cut for power lines; these clear-cuts actually have good views on a consistent basis

The Cookie Lady is about what you might expect: a woman who gives cookies to hikers as they pass by. She lives with her husband on a blueberry farm a scant 0.1 miles off the trail, allows hikers to camp there if permission is asked first (this was the stop ten miles up the trail had I had time to reach it), and offers a water hose for refilling water bottles. I don’t meet her, but I do meet her husband and their dog, and I spend some time talking to him (I refer primarily but not exclusively to the former) and reading the register they have on their front porch. An attempt is made to convince me to pick blueberries to take to the cabin for pancakes the next morning, but from here it’s another 11.5 miles to the cabin, and it’s getting late, close to 13:00 if I recall correctly. I worry that if I stop to pick blueberries and then have to walk with them, I won’t make it to the cabin at a reasonable time (before dark, basically), so I head on sans blueberries.

After detouring for half an hour walking down a road that appears to be the trail and then backtracking to the turnoff a scant hundred feet or so down it, I continue, taking a fairly even pace to October Mountain Lean-to a couple miles south. I arrive to a scene of controlled madness — the roofs of the shelter and the privy are being replaced (and apparently Kay Wood’s roof was replaced just before I arrived there, by the same trail maintenance club). The backpacker I didn’t see this morning is there intending to stay the night; I wait around for a bit to see if the privy will be completed in time for me to use it, but eventually I have to give up and move on. It’s getting really late in the afternoon now, perhaps close to 15:00 — I really need to get moving, and fast.

Strangely enough, I don’t just start moving at top normal speed, I start hiking at hyperspeed. Up until now my usual target pace has been two miles an hour not including breaks, but when I kick it into overdrive here to get to Upper Goose Pond Cabin as early as possible I discover my hiking pace goes to almost three miles an hour, even with a backpack with fifty miles of food on my back. This comes as a complete surprise, and not only do I achieve this pace, I continue it for three hours to arrive at Upper Goose Pond Cabin well before dark, definitely before 19:00 and possibly even before 18:00. I lament my previous lack of knowledge of this ability in one trail register as I pass, semi-lightly condemning myself for thinking I didn’t have time to pick blueberries — but as far as I knew I didn’t, so I can’t bring myself to feel too guilty. Today also marks the first hiker-only overpass bridge I remember seeing on the trail as I pass over the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90, that is) with around a mile and a half to go to the cabin.

Upper Goose Pond Cabin’s a hopping place tonight, full of both short- and long-distance backpackers. There are a bunch of northbounders, one of whom I meet as we walk the 0.5 miles off the A.T. to get to the cabin, but Troutbum, Just Mike (back before he had a trail name when people would ask he’d answer that way, and eventually it just stuck), and Darci are the only names I remember. As a thru-hiker I manage to snag one of the bunks inside the cabin (it’s two stories, with the second floor devoted to bunks), lucky me — we’re grateful to have first call on them if we want, and given the bugs outside recently we’re all too happy to be inside behind screened doors at night. I take a brief swim in the lake, attempt to clean out my clothes in the water, partake of some delicious and juicy cantaloupe being cut up on the front porch, cook my dinner on a gas stove (!) inside the cabin, and relax and talk to people. Sweet Sweet and Hungarian walk in after dark (too late to get bunks, so they stay on the porch) surprised to see me, expecting I’d be further south by now; they started out from Dalton very late this morning, possibly even after noon (don’t quite remember), making great time to get here (great by my two-miles-an-hour standards, that is, since I’m not sure yet that the latter half of today wasn’t a fluke; three is roughly in the ballpark for their pace if they didn’t stop much).

Upper Goose Pond Cabin’s actually a bit unusual in that it’s run by the AMC on an entirely donation basis. Given the AMC’s reputation acquired through their monopoly on camping space in the White Mountains, this is extremely surprising, and I ask the caretaker about it. As it turns out, the reason they charge fees in the Whites is because they can — the White Mountains are a national forest, and it’s permissible. The reason they don’t charge fees here is that the cabin is on national park property, and they’re forbidden from doing so. (If you ever needed a reason to wish that the White Mountains were a national park, here’s a great one!) Consequently, the cabin makes do on donations. I inquire about a suggested donation amount to hear that they can’t even give one under national park regulations! They say they used to suggest one until they found out they couldn’t, so I, er, allow them to follow the letter of the law if not exactly its spirit by asking what the suggested donation amount was back when they were suggesting one. The wry response is roughly what I’m carrying in change (stupid, I know :-) ) and small bills, so I leave that as my donation.

While I’m on the topic of donations, I also ask a followup question I’ve had for awhile about suggested donations: how is such a number chosen? There are a number of different ways one could imagine. First, the amount could be the actual per capita cost. Second, it could be the total cost divided by the actual number of people who donate, so as to take into account freeloaders and not result in budget deficits. Third, it could be the maximum amount they believe people are willing to pay — the profit-maximizing amount, if you will. It’s a philosophical question which of these choices are and are not ethical, but I’m interested mostly from an economic perspective — do charities and not-for-profits act differently from for-profits and companies do in this respect? I’m not sure whether to be surprised or not surprised to find out the answer is that they choose the profit-maximizing amount just as a for-profit would. Of course, this is a sample size of one, and we’re talking about the Appalachian MoneyMountain Club here, so it’s not really possible to generalize, but it’s still an interesting factotum.

August 6

(21.1; 661.3 total, 1512.7 to go; +6.1 from pace, -223.7 overall)

It’s an early wakeup this morning for pancakes. It’s not clear how many there will be, so I eat a few, wait for a call for the next round, lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually at some point there are extras that people aren’t eating, so I sit and eat a pancake or two at a time, leaving plenty of time for other interested souls to partake of the remaining pancakes on the serving platter. Demand trails off somewhat abruptly, and I probably eat a dozen or so pancakes by the time I’m finished, all with that slow, deliberate pace. So tasty…

It’s hard to get moving again when it’s so comfortable here, but move I must to keep to my schedule. (There’s also the little matter that stays at the cabin are limited either to one night or to two; I can’t remember if a zero was permitted.) Eventually I manage to get myself moving again around ten; Sweet Sweet and Hungarian remain yet longer, at least partly because they arrived later last night, I suspect.

The hiking for the first few hours goes slowly, definitely not the three-an-hour pace of yesterday; the pancakes, at that quantity, probably don’t help matters. I reach Shaker Campsite early in the afternoon, refill on water, and use the privy there. A long time ago it was the site of a Shaker settlement, hence its name, as a nearby sign explains. I don’t stay long, as the mosquitoes are incredibly fierce (and neither has anyone else, as the register is full of complaints about the bugs). I later meet a few other hikers heading north and ask where they plan to stay for the night; at least one says he’s headed for this disaster of a campsite, and I suggest he head another three or so miles north to a pavilion off-trail that allows camping.

As it gets later I pick up my pace a bit, and I manage to hit roughly the three-mile-an-hour pace I had last night. I need to move faster to finish sufficiently before dark, and although I’m not in horrible danger of it I can’t really dally — I did enough of that this morning. I pass by two shelters without the usual stop to read registers, even foregoing the one that’s listed as “on” the trail (from looks the trail to it was probably 0.1 miles or so) as opposed to 0.3 miles off it. I pass one road crossing as a cyclist goes by; I have a barely-controllable urge to yell “You’re a smarter man than I am!” as he passes (I do not and did not the rest of the trail when such opportunities presented themselves again). Just past Mass. 23 I pass over a small bridge over water flowing into or out of a nearby lake and refill on water; scuttlebutt back at Upper Goose is that the water south of here is pretty bad (judging by the queries as to whether the water north was good or not), and this looks decent, so I fill up. Tom Leonard has water, but it’s supposedly 0.2 miles from the shelter, which is a bit of a pain when there might not be anyone else there to watch gear and ward off wildlife. I pass by a small ravine that’s reminiscent in some ways of Mahoosuc Notch, in that it’s filled with large boulders and looks like it’d be fun to crawl through. I didn’t notice at the time, but the Companion suggests it’s probably Ice Gulch, and if so the name would perfectly fit my observations of it. Finally I reach Tom Leonard as it turns to dusk; there’s just enough light remaining to hang a bear bag before it gets really dark.

It may be dark, but I still need to eat, so I pull out the usual food and start making dinner. Things might have gone better if my flashlight had fresh batteries, but unfortunately it doesn’t — and the shelter mice take advantage of this, attempting repeatedly to get to the food I have within arm’s reach on the picnic table. I mostly succeed in warding them off, but at least one manages to get through and attack my stuff sack and just barely chew through into a ziploc full of gorp. Stupid mice…

Before heading to sleep (inside my sleeping bag, wrapped within my mesh tent, within the shelter — the mosquitoes are a notable nuisance tonight) I take a look at the reading materials in the shelter; one book in particular, Charlie Company, looks particularly enticing. Vietnam, for the most part, didn’t make it into the US history classes I’ve taken, at least not in any way that communicated the reasons, tactics, effects, and so on of it; I’ve been passively looking for awhile for something to read to remedy that. Charlie Company looks like a reasonable book to do that, so I pick it up and carry it south with me, figuring I’ll drop it off in another shelter for someone else to read.

August 7

(14.4; 675.7 total, 1498.3 to go; -0.6 from pace, -224.3 overall)

As I head out today, it becomes clear to me why northbounders had been asking about water quality: the stream by Tom Leonard from which I fill up (not actually 0.2 miles from the shelter even tho the Companion promised that, thankfully) before heading out this morning contains a heavy dose of tannic acid from the surrounding pine trees. I’m used to water being discolored from iodine, but even without iodine this water is markedly brownish, and it has a distinct pine taste to it. It would take more taste than this to prevent me from filling up, tho, although I won’t hesitate to dump and refill from a cleaner source at the first opportunity.

The first stop for the day is the Corn Crib, a small fruit-and-miscellanea stand just off the trail on U.S. 7. Kay Wood’s register mentioned the pumpkin ice cream here being excellent, and I rarely pass up ice cream, so I stop and have a pint. Berkshire Creamery’s pumpkin ice cream is indeed excellent; I highly recommend it. (One other observation: high-quality ice cream has noticeably more calories than the mass-produced Hershey’s ice cream I’ve usually had so far.) After taking the chance to fill up water bottles again, this time from a clean source, I receive one more tidbit of information from the owner before heading south again: a northbounder passing through earlier saw a rattlesnake roughly the size of a log on the railroad tracks just south of here, so I should watch my step. (Aunt Jan, are you reading this?)

I take my time passing through just to be safe, but wherever the rattlesnake is, it’s not on the railroad tracks any more. Just under two miles south, however, is a landmark that more than makes up for missing the rattlesnake; indeed, it’s one I’ve been waiting for awhile to visit: a monument marking the spot of the last battle of Shays’ Rebellion, perhaps the epitaph for the Articles of Confederation. Recall that after American independence was won, a government for the new nation had to be set up. The Continental Congress might have worked well enough before and during the Revolutionary War, but it wasn’t going to work in the long run, so the Articles of Confederation were drafted to define a new government.

A monument commemorating the final battle of Shays' Rebellion
A monument commemorating the final battle of Shays' Rebellion, near South Egremont, Massachusetts

The Articles of Confederation were mostly a failure (some individual clauses excepted, but the broad strokes were demonstrably unworkable). In their zeal for liberty and independence, the authors had granted almost no power to the national government, leaving the vast majority to reside with the states. So little power was granted to the national government, in fact, that among other problems it had severe problems fulfilling its debt and defense obligations. The Federalist Papers, which I have been reading since just before I started my thru-hike, painstakingly describe many of the worst of the limitations of the Articles of Confederation.

Shays’ Rebellion was a painful demonstration of exactly the inadequacies of the current national government. Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, led a brief farmers’ rebellion against the government of Massachusetts over taxes and debt concerns. The Articles instructed each state to maintain a militia but forbid them to maintain an army, except as directed by Congress, in Article 6:

nor shall any body of forces be kept up by any State in time of peace, except such number only, as in the judgement of the United States in Congress assembled, shall be deemed requisite to garrison the forts necessary for the defense of such State; but every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered

I’m not intimately familiar with the details beyond vague familiarity and the small amount of research I’ve done to write this, but I presume there were three problems faced in dealing with Shays’ Rebellion. First, the national government was sufficiently enfeebled by the Articles that it had no army itself which could be asked to restore order, both because it lacked the means to summon the requisite manpower from the states and because it could not raise the necessary revenue without relying on the states to do it (and it lacked the power to deter half-hearted payment efforts). Second (I speculate on this, but it naturally follows from the words of Article 6 given what actually happened), it had not granted Massachusetts leave to maintain bodies of forces adequate to quell the rebellion. Third, Massachusetts’s usual option for dealing with civil unrest, the militia, consisted to an extent of precisely those who were agitating. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) In short the Massachusetts government had little means to restore order either alone or through the national government; the rebellion had to be addressed by a privately-funded, privately-organized army which actually had to illegally commandeer a federal armory after Secretary of War Henry Knox said he couldn’t permit them to use it without getting Congressional approval (a clear demonstration of why war powers now reside in the executive rather than legislative branch, a fact which we would do well to remember).

A closer view of the Shays' Rebellion monument
A closer view of the Shays' Rebellion monument

The Federalists arguing for a much stronger national government to replace the Articles couldn’t have asked for much better a demonstration of the need for a stronger government, or for much stronger an argument against the Articles. The patriot Daniel Shays may not have come through his rebellion any better off, but his brief insurrection was a powerful inoculation of the United States against the spreading disease of powerlessness.

Anyway. Back to hiking…

A panoramic view possibly near Jug End in Massachusetts

I continue south again past Jug End, a feature I never recognized nor whose name I could ever interpret, and up into the mountains. I pass two shelters, Glen Brook Lean-to and The Hemlocks Lean-to, even tho it’s getting dark; I have no intention of stopping before I get out of the state, thinking in my head that I’m going to end the day in Connecticut today even if it kills me. I pass one northbounder as I head up Mount Everett; it’s starting to look ominous, but Connecticut lures me on. Maybe half a mile past The Hemlocks, however, it begins to pour. Then the thunder and lightning starts. It’s crashing close. Reeeallly close. Remember the old count-seconds-until-sound trick to determine how far away lightning is? There’s no “second” here — lightning’s crashing within a few hundred feet of me at best. And I’m walking up a mountain in the middle of it.

On second thought, “even if it kills me” really doesn’t sound like a good plan.

I turn around and head back at a fairly quick pace through the rain so I can get out of it and into an area at least marginally safer with respect to the lightning, but it’s definitely way too late to avoid getting wet. I return to the shelter soaking wet and meet three northbounders: Blazing Star (the northbounder I pass after passing The Hemlocks for the first time), Powder River, and Mas (a name which I know only because Powder River mentioned it in his writeup of today; even given that hint the name just doesn’t ring a bell in my memory). I receive an appropriate amount of needling over not stopping before it rained and thus being forced to backtrack. Powder River mentions the upcoming Nuclear Lake in New York as a thing not to be missed (particularly for swimming) and shows some pictures he took of it, and he mentions the location of his trail journal as well (although as I recall it was in shelters south as well, nothing like repetition to aid memory). If I remember right he’s also the one of the three with a small spice set and with a collection of embroidered patches on his pack — his favorite one is a nondescript patch that simply says Don’t give up the ship.

I also finally hear my first direct news of that most dreaded of trail menaces, even moreso than bears or rattlesnakes, the tick. Er, sorry, wrong link — the tick. One of the other hikers finds one and notes it being one of several discovered each day for several days now during self-examination. Ticks themselves aren’t super-dangerous if they’re removed promptly, but they do sometimes (a third of the time, as I recall, at least for rates of infection for thru-hikers constantly in the tick’s milieu) carry Lyme disease. In its most advanced stages the disease results in a permanent, locally-impaired nervous system, such that for example facial muscles don’t respond correctly. Long before that, however, the telltale red “bullseye” rash that often develops around the bite is practically a dead giveaway, and if the rash doesn’t happen the disease will be a very strong sap on energy. If suddenly you find you can’t hike at even your slowest thru-hiker pace, traveling only a few or a handful of miles in a day more than once, it’s time to get off the trail and see a doctor to get treated for it, typically with doxycycline and some rest (particularly as the drug increases sensitivity to the sun, making all-day hiking more painful).

The good news about Lyme disease is that it’s easily treated, but it can still lay you up for awhile doing so, and the constant vigilance needed to search for and remove ticks isn’t always in ready supply in every thru-hiker. Theoretically the search-and-remove operation is a nightly task, but I know not everyone is that attentive, and given the relative weakness of the disease it’s pretty much exactly as effective to be on guard for the symptoms and to seek immediate treatment if they appear. (I remember reading in one shelter log an entry giving a third-person description of this black-helicopter conspiracy theory: Lyme disease was an unintentional escapee from a government bioweapons experiment off the shore of New England somewhere. As the author of the entry noted, it’s almost conspiracy-theorist plausible except that Lyme disease is so utterly trivial to treat and defeat.)

Almost strangely given the hype, I never had a problem with ticks. I only rarely checked myself for them, and I think I might have pulled two or three off at most over the entire trip. My wearing long pants most of the time probably helped, but even that shouldn’t explain it since I wasn’t doing the full Steve Urkel-esque pull-your-socks-up-over-your-pants trick that’s most recommended for avoiding problems (along with long-sleeved shirts and otherwise attempting to cover all exposed skin). True, northbounders travel through their territory during the worst season for them while southbounders mostly miss it (a plus to going southbound), but even those times where I heard of very-recently-encountered ticks, as now, I never had problems. I don’t even remember seeing ticks in Massachusetts or Connecticut, the worst states by reputation for ticks, even passing through days after a northbounder who removed several a day. I wasn’t the only southbounder to completely avoid ticks even with relative carelessness (I don’t remember hearing of a single southbounder who had tick problems), so I’m not sure how to explain this.

But enough of such delightful topics. After I eat dinner, I curl up (still wet, but warm) in my sleeping bag, read about Vietnam for a bit, and head to sleep.

August 8

(17.5; 693.2 total, 1480.8 to go; +2.5 from pace, -221.8 overall)

The weather turns nicer as I head out today, thinking of making it into Salisbury, CT today in time to visit the library.

A view from roughly Mount Everett out to the east
A view from roughly Mount Everett out to the east

It gets warmer and sunnier for a time through the morning and into the afternoon; I walk by two northbounders, Y and Vigil Auntie, and reportedly blow off the recent bad weather. I might have — it was nicer for much of the start of the day, nothing like yesterday. I talk to one of them about my experience with Tom Levardi and we briefly commiserate over the willingness of hikers to not actually hike parts of the trail (yellow-blaze, slackpack, skip ahead just to hike a difficult section of trail in the easier direction, &c.); she (still not sure which one) says she hasn’t met many people actually making the effort to do so. I’m also told of another enterprising northbounder named K1YPP (a radio callsign), whose winding trip on the trail reaches back into 2007 — so technically he’s not a thru-hiker but rather a section hiker. However, I’m willing to make an exception for him given the circumstances plus his framing. He attempted a northbound thru-hike last year, but eventually he had to leave the trail for heart problems that necessitated surgery with six bypasses — not exactly something that one can just push through. Just as important, however, is that he has the sheer audacity to describe his time off-trail as “three hundred zeroes” (or so I was told, that is). That’s brilliant — I’ll give it to him and call him a thru-hiker. I never actually knowingly meet him, but presumably I pass him in my hiking today.

The same view (but better, I think) panning to the right; it faces a rising sun and overlooks a metaphorical field of clouds
The same view (but better, I think) panning to the right...

Hiking goes slowly today. I’m getting appropriately low on gorp at this point as I’m resupplying in Salisbury, so I take advantage of copious blueberries on the ridge I’m walking as added sustenance. Of course the picking slows me down, but it’s hard to pass up so many blueberries. There are a fair number of other people out today, and I pass various groups of people heading the other direction pretty regularly.

A final view of clouds from near Mount Everett
A final view of clouds from near Mount Everett, panned all the way to the right

Eventually I reach my intended end destination for yesterday, the Massachusetts state line. State line markers vary widely along the trail. Some have little in the way of trail markers at the crossings due to being in populated areas (New Hampshire to Vermont, New Jersey to Pennsylvania, Maryland to West Virginia); others have minimal, almost-missable trail signage (Connecticut to New York, West Virginia to Virginia); others reuse existing signs but don’t really call out the state line (Virginia to Tennessee); and some state lines and the trail intersect so frequently that it’s nearly impossible to say when one state begins and another state ends (the North Carolina-Tennessee border). Clearly marked state lines, however, are goals, welcomes, and memories. The Companion says the following about this particular border:

The state line is south of Sages Ravine, near the junction with Paradise Lane Trail. The painted state abbreviations on a tree are so faded they’re almost invisible.

Consequently I’m particularly careful with my hiking today as I pass Sages Ravine, a beautiful little river crossing through a valley that evokes The Lord of the Rings; I don’t want to miss a major milestone such as a state line. Eventually I find what I think is the crossing, marked by this tree:

The motley tree with painted abbreviations that marks the MA-CT border; most of the abbreviations are gone because the bark on which they were painted has been removed
The motley tree with painted abbreviations that marks the MA-CT border
A slightly different angle on the aforementioned tree
A slightly different angle on the aforementioned tree

I am underwhelmed. The A.T. is well-known for its length and for its numerous state line crossings. State lines are arbitrary constructions, but hikers treat them as meaningful markers, both for day hikes to a border and back and for long-distance hikes that might span one or more states at a time. A mostly-unmarked state line might almost as well not have been there; it momentarily serves as a disappointment rather than a celebration of whatever progress was made. In my view once the trail is sufficiently well-marked to follow it (and barring one or two momentary hiccups along the way I believe that it is), the next step is to mark the major attractions along the way, and for this trail in particular, I think state lines rank at the top. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy (I’d find a prominent board with state abbreviations written on it in permanent marker sufficient, if not outstanding), but it has to be easily recognized. This border most certainly is not.

I’m walking too far to suffer a nearly-unmarked state line; if the state line is not well marked, I will mark the state line:

If they don't make 'em...make one
If they don't make 'em...make one

I have no idea how long this not-especially-permanent state line marker lasted, but it lasted long enough for me to derive enjoyment from it; as I noted in the two shelter registers just south of the border (accompanying a gripe to the maintainers about how they need to mark it more clearly — “Even a poor thru-hiker deserves some happiness in life!”), I hope subsequent hikers make it better.

It’s getting later in the afternoon now, and I’m still miles out of Salisbury and at this point foodless. My stop at Brassie Brook Lean-to just across the border is brief, mostly to read the register (Spanky passed through the previous night) and scribble my plaintive cries for a better-recognized state line, but I stay longer at Riga Lean-to as it begins to rain again — not pour as it did last night, but still rain. I contemplate staying at one of the two houses in Salisbury whose owners allow hikers to stay for $35 a night (what a coincidence that they both charge the exact same higher-than-usual rate!) and decide to do so for the night. As I sit there two northbounders (separately) walk in and out of the rain: Warren and Medium Rare (of Texas, as I later discover from his register entries). We briefly talk as it continues to rain, enjoying the only shelter with a view in Connecticut (but not for long, as there are signs suggesting they’re trying to encourage tree growth in the area near the view that would eventually eliminate it). Warren gives me a Pop-Tart to eat before I head out; it’s much appreciated as I’m still running on empty.

I make better time heading into Salisbury, perhaps partly because I’m not walking over varied terrain along a ridge any more, and reach Salisbury by midafternoon. I first try getting space one of the homes in Salisbury, but there’s no response to my knocks, and since it’s still early I don’t technically need to stay here, and I’m not quite disenchanted enough with my smell or wetness (mostly gone as the rain has disappeared) to need a shower that desperately, I decide it’ll be on to the next shelter for the night for 17.5 miles and a decent day’s hiking.

First stop before heading back out again, however, is for supplies. I load up at the local grocery store and pick up a deli sandwich, a banana, and a half gallon of orange juice for a late lunch/early dinner. I also pick up some new batteries for my flashlight, which has been a bit dim lately — turns out it’s not just that the flashlight’s underpowered, it seems! I see a couple other hikers in town but don’t make an effort to find out names. Finally I decide I’ve dallied long enough and head back out to the trail, heading out along a different road than I took walking in. I’ll miss 0.8 miles of trail, but since the road in was 0.8 miles and this road out’s 0.4 miles, by my standards it easily balances out. Along the way I pass this thoroughly unexplainable sight outside a bed-and-breakfast priced way outside my willingness to pay:

A Red Sox-branded New York vanity license plate with the letters REDSX on it; riddle me that, Batman
Um...

And with that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, I leave Salisbury. It’s getting late, perhaps 19:00 or later by the time I return to the trail proper, and I have to hurry traveling the last 3.3 miles to Limestone Spring Lean-to to avoid hiking too long in the dark (albeit much less dark than in the past due to my new batteries). It’s pretty uneventful hiking up a few hundred feet and past a meadow or two to reach the turnoff to the shelter, followed by one of the longest access paths I used on the trail, at a par with Upper Goose Pond Cabin, at 0.5 miles. By this time it’s thoroughly dark, and the path isn’t the best-marked path for following in mostly-dark, but I succeed in doing so to arrive at a shelter whose occupants include (possibly exclusively, not certain) Spanky and Homeward Bound. I briefly explain the lateness of my arrival before promising quiet as I head to sleep, which I do fairly quickly after finishing Revelation (I seem to have settled into doing a wraparound “thru-read”, as one might call it) in my nightly Bible reading.

August 9

(19.1; 712.3 total, 1461.7 to go; +4.1 from pace, -217.7 overall)

It’s a leisurely start today for me. Spanky is actually leaving the trail today, possibly for good, due to a business opportunity which presented itself that would have had him move to within easy driving distance of one of his sons in the military in Kentucky or thereabouts. His plan is to see whether that works (he doesn’t have an overriding desire to complete his thru-hike as he already did a southbound thru-hike in 2002), and if it fails he’ll return to where he left off and finish out the trail. I never saw him again after today, which isn’t surprising given that had he returned, I’d have a substantial lead on him. I can’t imagine he’d ever rush himself enough to catch me in the remaining 76 days of hiking I have starting from tomorrow, assuming arguendo that he returned to the trail, and I heard no rumors of his resumed presence on the trail as I headed south, so I suspect the opportunity worked out. He’s hiking to Kent today for a total distance of 29.3 miles to meet his family and drop off the trail; I haven’t even broken 20 on consecutive days yet, so I don’t even bother to try hiking that far today — either 19.1 miles to Silver Hill Campsite or 22.3 miles to Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-to for me.

Homeward Bound, meanwhile, asks me to be on the lookout for a northbounder named TEG, short for The English Gentleman (or maybe The English Guy), saying to pass on the message that she misses her drinking buddy from south on the trail. I later note his entries in registers, but as with most northbounders I attempt to meet, I never meet him either.

The view from Prospect Mountain (I think)
The view from Prospect Mountain (I think) early in today's hiking

The path back to the A.T. is much easier to follow in daylight, and I’m quickly back and heading south again. It’s not far until I reach a bit of civilization again at the Housatonic River and dam; several northbounders partake of swimming opportunities, but I decide it’s better to keep moving. One northbounder mentions that I’m the tenth southbounder he’s met; I hadn’t quite realized I was so early in the pack, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Most people leave in July to avoid Maine’s bugs, and there was only a week and a half from the opening of Katahdin to when I summited it (less, in fact, if you account for reputed inclement weather delaying the opening of the trail to the top). It’s on and across the Iron Bridge over the river, past a hydroelectric plant where I briefly stop for gorp, and back on more trail again. This trailhead features ominous signs warning of both poison ivy and ticks if one strays too far from the trail (or even not, in the case of the ticks), but I see none of either.

A few more road crossings and some more hiking bring me to some elevation gains, and I stop for lunch on the way up. I continue along, lost in thought as I approach a small site known as Belter’s Campsite, when I hear a loud cricket.

Wow, that’s a loud cricket, I think.

Really loud.

Is that really a cricket?

Best to be safe and take a step or two back. Just to be safe.

Rattlesnake!  (near center, brown and squiggly)
Rattlesnake! (near center, brown and squiggly)

Oh hey, rattlesnake! Nope, not a cricket. (The sound isn’t so much of a rattle, actually, as of a higher-pitched and sped-up version of the sound made by the spinning wheel in The Game of Life. Describing it as a rattle is probably accurate enough, and in any case this is a sample of one, so it’s hard to say the name’s a misnomer.) Let’s take another couple steps back, actually…

The rattlesnake crawling over the rock near center
The rattlesnake crawling over the rock near center

My first thought once I’m back a few more steps is, naturally, to take a few pictures — can’t miss this opportunity. Unfortunately this is before I discover that my camera actually does have zoom functionality, so the pictures are blurry and the rattlesnake may be difficult to pick out. The first picture is taken without flash and is too dark to be usable (the snake looks more directly at me after the picture, so I take a few more steps back), but subsequent ones turn out as best as can be expected given that I don’t know to use my camera’s full capabilities. I first notice the snake off the right side of the trail; as I watch it slowly slithers over a rock, roughly parallels the trail for several feet, and then heads off perpendicular to the trail.

The rattlesnake slithering sideways across the middle
The rattlesnake slithering sideways across the middle

Not surprisingly, it takes awhile for the brief adrenaline rush from the encounter to fade. I pass one northbounder shortly after and note the encounter, and it takes me probably the next four or five miles of walking to return to my usual pace without feeling frazzled and jumpy, by which time I reach Pine Swamp Brook Lean-to. I spend some time reading the register as usual, and I write a full two pages as my own entry.

My first order of business in my entry is to relate in excruciating detail (one of the two pages) my encounter with the rattlesnake, beginning with the exact sentence “I SAW A RATTLESNAKE!” (capitalization in original), as I recall. I’m sure some people won’t care; they can skip it easily enough if they wish. Others will doubtless find it amusing the length at which I describe the encounter; when I meet Sweet Sweet again further south in New Jersey, he bemusedly asks if the encounter I described in the entry actually happened or not. Still others might simply find it nothing more than interesting and perhaps worth reading.

There are no rules for what you can write in shelter registers. Entries might be traditional accounts of the day’s hiking, messages to stragglers behind heckling them to catch up, introspective omphaloskepsis, cryptic musings of no obvious relevance to anything on the trail, or even entirely different things. I remember one register which contained the lyrics of the masterpiece Mercedes Benz, except for being incomplete and filled with blanks, with the accompanying note that hikers who knew the lyrics should fill them in. Another even more awesome entry contained the full words to the F.R.E.E. that spells free jingle in the freecreditreport.com ads, with the accompanying (paraphrased) note, “I’ve had this song playing in my head for the last few hours, and I wanted to share it with everyone else. You’re welcome!”. There would be occasional complaints about entries and on rare occasions a call to forbid someone from writing an entry as they did, but in practice the most part entries are a free-for-all of whatever you want to say.

For my part I only found two classes of shelter entries to be out of line. The first class was for a long-running series of printed and taped ads for the Harpers Ferry Hostel, the first of which I saw in mid-Maine — 900 miles from the hostel. I have no problem with advertisements for hostels, quite the opposite in fact, as they’re amazingly useful if your information isn’t quite up-to-date. However, they shouldn’t be in registers until at least somewhat close to the actual service being advertised — say, 100-200 miles away, which would accommodate a thru-hiker’s elevated pace and allow for adequate pre-planning. The second class was for a few particularly obscene cartoons drawn as entries by a northbounder named Butters. Butters’s cartoons were usually edgy, and I usually didn’t think that highly of them, but they were no more than merely offensive 95% of the time. However, a handful were so graphic (literally), crude, obscene, and generally lacking in any merit beyond shock value that I’d have drawn a line against those few. Of course, this was all just me, and it seems highly unlikely that any sort of register etiquette would ever become commonplace, but if I had that power this is roughly how I’d write the rules.

…and with that, on to page two of the entry. The ziploc containing the register (mostly to prevent mice from chewing them up) also includes an article on a proposed national parks regulation change. I’m not 100% sure, but based on my memory and (particularly) the accompanying picture I think the article in question was Hikers packing concealed heat. As it currently stood at the time I read the article, national parks forbid bringing guns into them — even for visitors with valid CCW licenses. The proposed change would have aligned national park regulations with those of the state in which the park was located. (I don’t know how parks like Yellowstone or the Smokies that straddle state lines would have been treated.) If a state allowed it, the park would allow it; if the state forbid it, the park would forbid it. Readers will not be surprised to find that I am strongly in favor of this decidedly federalist approach that would leave this discretion to the states. As a further step, I’m somewhat less certain that I’d be actively in favor of eliminating restrictions even in states which wished otherwise. First, better to change gradually rather than abruptly as a general rule, so this extra step I’d leave for later if I were to implement it. Second, any concern I have would be more of a constitutional nature than otherwise, as I feel states should have great leeway in writing laws (which is not to say they should exercise that right fully at every opportunity) and as D.C. v. Heller explicitly declined to address the issue of Second Amendment incorporation against the states, and as it primarily addressed restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms in dicta in section III of the opinion, it’s not clear whether such state laws actually are unconstitutional.

(A followup note on the regulation: since the original proposal was made the regulations were indeed changed as originally proposed. The inevitable lawsuit on procedure in enacting the regulation resulted in an initial bar on implementation, and the regulation was eventually overturned for the same reasons [not unfairly, I might add, although it seems to me the true need for the required assessment of the environmental impact of this particular change is minimal]. The response by the new administration [the regulation was promulgated by Bush but overturned under Obama] is that it might “not completely discard[] the Bush rule”, but the response sounds as though it’s kicking the can down the road to avoid confrontation, to either eventually be forgotten or to replace the regulation with a different one more favored by the gun control lobby.)

(And a further followup: the regulation was reintroduced by Congress as part of the recent bill modifying regulation of the credit card industry. [I refrain from using the term "reform" because I believe that word has come to be seen as connoting "good change", regardless how good or bad the change is in reality. For example, an immigration bill including a general amnesty without meaningful punishment and an immigration bill strengthening border security while greatly increasing the number of immigrants accepted per year might both be called "reform" by the word's denotation, but only the latter, I believe, further deserves the word's connotation of being a "good change".] The amendment passed both houses of Congress, and President Obama signed the bill with the amendment into law late last month. The Bush regulations were effective from the beginning of this year until being overturned; as best as I can interpret the bill’s text in H.R. 627, the amendment will take effect nine months after enactment, therefore late next February. If you happen not to be in favor of this regulation, I suggest you read this commentary to learn how to avoid areas like national parks in which you may be subjected to the dangers of people lawfully exercising their right to keep and bear arms.)

All that said, the legal and policy arguments aren’t especially worth writing in a shelter entry due to the audience and context and the impossibility of discussion, response, and rebuttal. Rather, in my remaining page I address the issue as presented by the ATC. Unsurprisingly the ATC avoids coming down either way on the issue of whether guns should be allowed on the trail. Arguing against guns on the trail would be a surefire way to lose the donations, memberships, and support of hunters and similarly-minded outdoor enthusiasts; arguing in favor of guns on the trail would be a good way to lose the same from their numerous gun control-favoring members. Instead, the ATC’s position is one with which most (I’d be surprised if it’s not at least 95%) serious hikers will agree: they strongly discourage hikers from carrying guns on the premise that guns are unnecessary and that the weight more than offsets any marginal gain in safety. This premise is nearly unassailable; as the article notes (although I believe its statistics are slightly out of date now), only a couple dozen or so murders and rapes have occurred near the trail since 1973, and other violent crime is similarly uncommon. The prominence of unrealistic estimations of the dangers on the trail that a gun can combat seems more to me a matter of people forgetting that just because it’s wilderness doesn’t mean people won’t visit it, and that fewer people will visit it does not mean that people with criminal intentions will not visit it. However, as I argue in my remaining page, the ATC’s argument is a poor one because it so utterly belies most advice about the trail, which is summed up in this phrase: Hike Your Own Hike. Make your own choices about where to hike, how far to hike, what pace to take, what food to carry, the gear you use, the purity of the hike (with respect to taking shortcuts, in whatever form, and not hiking the trail as it lies), &c. Discouraging without offering the HYOH caveat is simply inconsistent with the spirit of the trail and of hiking. If someone wishes to bring a gun on their hike, that’s their decision to make, regardless how nonsensical anyone else might think it is to carry a gun while backpacking. I heard and saw numerous people knowingly carrying things which were just as ridiculous simply because they could: a snorkel and mask, a huge sombrero not primarily intended for actual use, a bicycle (this one I only heard of as a man who carried it the first 800 miles or so), and more. (Arguably, my habit of carrying half a dozen apples out of town, my carrying what amounted to a two-person stove, my ridiculously oversized backpack, and my carrying of a full-sized book the full length of the trail rather than doing without or carrying only sections were just as idiotic.) Were those things condemned? No, and so too do I think carrying a gun should not be condemned nor unequivocally discouraged.

By this time I’ve dallied nearly an hour, long enough for several other hikers to arrive. I’m told of trail magic at a bar in a nearby town, but it’s too late in the day to consider unless I spend the night there, and in any case there’s no hostel or anything similarly inexpensive — on to Silver Hill Campsite I go before it gets too dark.

A narrow walk between boulders
A narrow walk between boulders; note the white blazes at top right and at the end of the narrow stretch

I make much better progress most of the rest of the way to Silver Hill Campsite, and it’s dusk as I stop at Guinea Brook a mile from the site to refill on water, as the Companion claims there’s no water at the site. By the time I start moving again it’s fully dark, and I reach a last road crossing before the campsite.

Road crossings are entirely uncomplicated most of the time; look both ways, quickly move across to the obvious trail on the other side, and continue. In darkness it may be a different matter, as it is here for me. I spend a good forty minutes walking up and down the relevant section of road attempting to follow white blazes to the actual crossing, mostly failing to find the exact location on the other side where the trail continues. I probably hike another mile or two trying to find it, going several tenths of a mile in either direction, as cars occasionally pass by; I’m sure I look ridiculous to their drivers, stumbling around mostly in the dark as I am. :-) I consider asking at a nearby house where the crossing is, but it’s late enough I’d rather not disturb people even if it slows me down, and I don’t especially mind night hiking unless it’s for a protracted period of time (which, admittedly, I’m rapidly approaching). Eventually, after much painstaking searching, I find where the trail continues, and I head up Silver Hill through a moonlit night to the campsite. By the time I arrive it’s too late for me to want to cook anything, and I’d like to avoid disturbing the other people at the site, so I quickly set up my tent and head to sleep.

August 10

(22.9; 735.2 total, 1438.8 to go; +7.9 from pace, -209.8 overall)

Today’s start is one of the latest of the entire trail. I cook and eat two meals as I have extra food from not eating dinner last night; it turns out the site does include a newly-working water pump, so I didn’t need to fill up at Guinea Brook after all. Silver Hill used to have a shelter, but now it’s just a pavilion, the foundation of the shelter, and a wide expanse of grass that’s definitely been mowed. I’m not sure how the grass gets mowed; getting a lawn mower up there wouldn’t be easy. I help with a picture for a northbounder who apparently has people form numbers with their hands to show the current number of days she’s hiked; I think the number for today is 110. My register entry at the site consists of commentary on my spectacular ability to cross roads in a timely manner after dark. I leave the campsite after 9:30, an almost absurdly lackadaisical starting time.

Today’s terrain starts out with a descent and then a long, flat stretch along a river. I briefly stop at Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-to to read the shelter register before heading further south. I soon meet a section hiker heading north; as it turns out he recently purchased both a water filter and excess canister fuel for boiling water to purify it, and he’s since decided to just use the filter (wise move, boiling water is incredibly tedious), so he offers me a partial canister of fuel — awesome! How much fuel will I actually have to buy on this hike, discounting what I had when I started and what I pick up for free along the way? I did a quick double-check while writing this, and as far as I can remember (I might remember more when writing actual entries in complete detail) I started with two 15.7-ounce canisters which I used indiscriminately until I figured out how to be efficient; I received two full canisters from Silver Potato and Cracker at two different spots on the trail; I receive a partial canister now; I purchased one eight-ounce canister in Bennington, VT; and I purchased one eight-ounce canister in Damascus, VA — and that was it. All told, then, my total fuel costs were about $11 for the entire trip if I remember right, and I’m certain I’m not off by more than one more canister at most, so say ~$18 as an absolute upper limit. Denatured alcohol stoves may be the fad among thru-hikers, but I guarantee you the freebies I got meant I spent less on fuel than they did. (The advantages of alcohol stoves are weight and cost of the stove; the disadvantages are a cooler, more temperamental flame and less sturdy containers. As I already had my stove at the start of the hike [so relative stove costs are mostly unimportant], I’m not weight-conscious enough to really mind a heavier stove [although I did contemplate buying a smaller, ligher stove at numerous points in my hike], and I don’t mind carrying a little excess free fuel, I consider the canister stove better for me.)

I continue on to St. John’s Ledges, a series of small cliffs reputedly well-suited to rock climbing. It’s a pretty good climb, approaching the incline rate at which I start to become leery, 1000 feet up or down in a mile. For whatever reason I’m still not making very good time, and I elect to pass up Kent, CT to adjust — not a big deal as I didn’t have much reason to enter the town anyway. The target for the day, as usual these days, is to get out of the state, another 12.7 miles to the first shelter in New York. (The shelter also marks one other meaningless milestone: it’s more than a third of the way to Springer by distance!) I move along several miles to what the Companion describes as a state line, but it’s not marked and probably is just a momentary zag across and zag back. Somewhere around there I pull out my stove and cook dinner as an energy boost so I can finish out the night, walk into the shelter, and immediately head to sleep. After finishing that the miles really start flowing, and it’s roughly twilight as I pass Ten Mile River Lean-to 2.8 miles from the state line and 4.0 miles from Wiley Shelter, my final destination. I get into an almost loping gait as I head down from Ten Mile Hill, reached after a small incline and topped with a nice sign and drawing of the view from the top. It’s only another 0.7 miles to the state line, and it’s very nearly dark as I hit it. I look for a state line marker, but the closest thing I see is a double-sided trailhead sign, the side which I see as I pass describing New York trails and the side opposite it describing Connecticut trails. The Companion describes the boundary as a road, so I may have missed the sign there, or it was simply impractical for the trail maintainers to mark it for that reason. In any case it’s too late to dally — on to Wiley in the dark.

Wiley Shelter has me slightly uneasy, because it’s only 0.2 miles from a road. Generally, the closer a shelter is to a road the more likely there are to be problems due to people abusing it because it’s easy to reach. The shelter is empty when I arrive, and thankfully no one bother me while I’m here. (For comparison Governor Clement Shelter in Vermont was 1.4 miles from a road; I conclude that Vermont natives are hardier folk than New York natives. :-P ) While people aren’t a problem, tho, the shelter itself is pretty dingy all around. (I’m not the only one who thinks this, for what it’s worth, although the picture there doesn’t really show the extent of the dirtiness inside it.) The floor is plywood, which one might naively think would be cheap and easy flat flooring, but as it turns out plywood warps easily, or at least some flavors of it warp easily, making it an uneven sleeping and reading surface. It’s not great, but at least there aren’t random locals harassing me, and I head to sleep.

…but that’s not the end of the day, as around 22:00-23:00 a northbounder of all things walks up to the shelter, says “Don’t mind me”, and heads to sleep. Well, at least I know I’m not the only person who night hikes on occasion. Right, then. Back to sleep I go, this time through til morning.

August 11

(8.0; 743.2 total, 1430.8 to go; -7.0 from pace, -216.8 overall)

What with my late arrival and the late arrival of the northbounder it’s a late start out today. Before heading out I snag a few packages of Knorr sides from the northbounder. He’s having food shipped to him by his mother, but he’s having some amount of difficulty convincing her to buy meal choices that he still likes rather than ones that happen to be on sale. (Score one for buying food as you go!) I also note in the register that Smoothie and the Honeymooners are hiking south together; I think they’d been doing so for awhile now, but this is the first entry I can remember that explicitly notes it. The pen at the shelter doesn’t have any ink, but the point is still sharp, so I spend a dozen minutes pressuring it into the register so that, with effort, an entry can be read.

Today’s initial hiking is through five miles of nondescript forest and some farmlands for a last half mile or so. The weather’s a little damp and muggy, and the sun’s hidden behind clouds. I make good time to N.Y. 22, at which point I head 0.6 miles trail-east toward the first deli near the trail in New York.

The New York section of trail is famous for the preponderance of nearby delis. At some point out of this grew the concept of a “deli challenge”: resupply at delis, and only carry enough to get from deli to deli. A full deli sandwich (or more than one) isn’t exactly lightweight, but it’s infinitely more satisfying than eating more prepackaged pasta. There’s a price to be paid for this culinary profligacy, but unless you’re on a particularly tight budget you can probably absorb it for the ninety-odd miles of trail in New York. Besides, a thru-hike is an exercise in maintaining high morale more than it is in physically exerting yourself once you’ve passed the first several hundred miles, and eating something tasty (usually off-trail in a town, but New York’s just awesome like that) or planning to do so at the end of a stretch of hiking is an easy way to remain in good spirits. I’ll take the opportunity to stop and get a deli sandwich when I can, but I don’t intend to actually follow it through to the fullest and not carry anything else.

I grab a sandwich and a half gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which I then promptly devour as I sit outside watching cars come and go. It starts to sprinkle a little bit as I finish up and head back to the trail, where I immediately pass an entirely unique feature on the trail: a train stop. If I wanted, and if I were a few days earlier, I could have hopped on a train that would take me all the way to downtown New York City; it’s a pretty common side trip for thru-hikers to take. As the stop is only active on weekends and holidays, however, I don’t have a choice about hopping on it and visiting the city for a bit, so I head on.

Around this time the heavens open and it starts raining. This isn’t just a sprinkle, either; the rain isn’t torrential, but it’s a good downpour, and I quickly become soaked. It’s been awhile since I stopped off the trail, and I really am a mess now, so I decide to hop off at the next road crossing and head into Pawling, NY for the night. The Companion lists a bed-and-breakfast with a special hiker rate of $55 a night; it’s more than I’d usually be willing to pay, but I’m a pretty good mess now, and it’s been awhile since I stopped off anyway. When I reach the road into Pawling I head trail-east; New York is one of a couple thoroughly unenlightened states on the trail that prohibit hitchhiking (I don’t know exactly how the term is defined and whether it encompasses mere solicitation or an unprompted offering of a ride by a driver), so my only choice is to walk through the pouring rain all three miles into town. I don’t understand this hitchhiking prohibition at all. Is it misguided governmental paternalism? If so, I have a simple common-sense answer: if you’re a cautious driver don’t pick up hitchhikers, and if you’re a cautious foot traveler don’t attempt to hitchhike. Is it some sense of community aesthetics? Surely not; it’s extremely unlikely the whole state would have been so blighted by hitchhikers, and narrowly tailored bans for individual stretches of road would have been just as effective if so where it mattered. Hitchhiking is a voluntary agreement of a hitchhiker and a driver to share a means of transportation, and absent significant externalities the government has no business restricting or prohibiting such agreements.

The rain only gets worse as I head to town; for awhile it actually become torrential, and I have some difficulty seeing as I continue walking. At this point I could have just emerged from a swimming pool and been no more wet than I am now. I hike for about two miles before a pickup truck heading the opposite direction turns around, offers me a ride, which I gratefully accept. I consider getting a bite to eat, but it’s still early afternoon, so I stop inside the visitor’s center in the middle of the town to dry out and inquire about the B&B. Unfortunately it closed up a year or two ago (another strike against an out-of-date Companion), so it looks like I’m not going to be getting cleaned up while I’m here. I have a backup plan in mind, though, as the city allows hikers to camp in a park a mile outside of town. The park has a pond, restrooms, and showers, but the now-gone pouring rain closed it for the day, unfortunately. I borrow the visitor’s center phone and make a few phone calls to family before heading back outside to attempt to dry out in the newly-arrived sunlight, mostly biding time until dinner by reading about Vietnam. I’d usually head into a library at this time of day in a town, but the Pawling library is closed on Mondays. I head over to the nearby CVS and resupply, then it’s off to the Pawling Tavern for a meal and a Guinness. They have a high school Jeopardy rerun playing; the final answer is roughly, “This is the only state whose official name includes an accented character.” I don’t know the question for certain, but I have a pretty good guess which turns out to be correct, at least for the purposes of getting the question right; Wikipedia claims there’s some controversy. As I head out one guy at the bar says he recognizes me from the deli this morning and inquires if I really ate the entire half gallon. I give my usual answer — yes, but when you’re hiking the sort of distances I’m hiking on a daily basis it doesn’t matter — and walk the mile down a darkened road to the park, where I pull out my sleeping bag and pad and head to sleep.

Maine is so incredibly long and rugged that it makes the subsequent several state lines up to Pennsylvania come like a whirlwind, particularly the states after Vermont. Not much over a week ago I was in Vermont, and now I’m in New York; miles fly when you have goals like that to achieve. I’m still a ways behind my target pace of 15 miles a day, but I don’t have any particular worry that I won’t be able to achieve it if I try. Twenty-mile and nearly-twenty mile days are entirely conceivable, and while I still haven’t managed to string two of the former together in consecutive days, it’s really only a matter of time and geography of off-trail attractions until I do. New York and New Jersey round out the short states, then it’s two hundred miles of Pennsylvania, a brief tour through Maryland and West Virginia, and on into the largest of the states, Virginia.

Northbounders are starting to peter out now, and I’m increasingly focused on catching up to the southbounders who are ahead of me, as best as I can do so without moving faster than is enjoyable. I’m also into the stretch of trail where everyone gets spread out; we’re all in good shape, but the fastest hikers do the extra few miles at the end of the day more often (or stop less during the day) to reach the next campsite or shelter and accumulate a greater and greater lead over time. There’s plenty of time and distance remaining, though, for me to meet or catch up to any of the fifteen southbounders I know to be ahead of me. There’s nothing to it now but to let the miles flow.

11.04.09

Rutland, VT to Bennington, VT: hiker feed!

Someday I’ll finish all these posts. Someday. ;-) It’s like a thru-hike, no step is individually hard, and all you have to do is just keep on doing it.

July 26

(6.3; 494.3 total, 1679.7 to go; -8.7 from pace, -225.7 overall)

I take the opportunity to sleep in a bit; by the time I wake up, Ranan is offering several of us breakfast. It’s hands-down the best breakfast I’ve had on the trail so far — stuffed French toast with eggs Hidden Egg, homemade yogurt, and orange juice, among other things. We eat downstairs in the cafe itself — because it’s a Saturday, we have the place all to ourselves. Conversation meanders everywhere; Mr. F. Gentle Spirit probably plays the greatest hand in determining where conversation goes. He’s an ex-marine, and I get his views on army training (you have to break down the barriers to reality introduced by American mollycoddling, because the kid you’re fighting might have seen his father killed on the streets and be that much tougher, and you have to have no hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s either you pull or a fellow soldier dies) and a bunch of other things. I also learn that yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as non-alcoholic beer, and at least some bars actually do have it, although you might have to specifically ask for it.

Next stops are the library for Internet and Wal-Mart for food. The library has time limits on use, so I have to move quickly; in the end I don’t get a whole lot typed. On the way back I notice a poster from a jewelry store that I think is kind of amusing (if still absolutely wrong):

A long message to entice men to enter a jewelry store
Amusing but incorrect

Wal-Mart is, as always, a breath of fresh air and selection. Aside from the usual foodstuffs, gorp ingredients, and some loaves of raisin bread to carry on the trail and to snack on immediately, I also pick up a travel-sized tube of toothpaste to replace the full-sized one I’ve been carrying since the start of the trail. (No, I’m not kidding, I actually had a full-sized tube. However, at no time was it actually full! I may be less sensitive to pack weight than many, but I’m not stupid. It was just the tube I had as I was leaving MIT, and it seemed like it’d work just fine even if it weighed a little more in the short term.) Next it’s back to the hostel; I pack up my stuff and otherwise move at a leisurely pace, attempt to call home and any number of other places but fail to reach anyone, and then head out to the bus back to the trail to head south further.

After all this slow moving it’s nearly 16:45, and I have to move if I want to make it to the shelter, Cooper Lodge, where I intend to stop for the night, before it gets dark. The trail immediately gets interesting as I head up the side of Killington, the local mountain best known as a skiing spot. The shelter itself is actually a tenth of a mile or so from the summit, a nice day hike for tomorrow perhaps. It sprinkles a touch at times, but otherwise it’s clear sailing up to the shelter, and I arrive just before dark. This shelter is an old stone cabin with bunks and a picnic table inside it, and there are half a dozen other people there when I arrive. There’s one northbounder who’s planning on hopping off the trail soon as he’s running out of money (an experience common enough to not generally be noteworthy, although I’m fairly sure it’s not particularly common) and several Long Trail thru-hikers heading north, including one guy hiking with a dog. The dog is friendly and makes excellent company, although he has a habit of wanting to get up on the picnic table. He’s also great for scaring away mice. :-) The thru-hiker mentions an upcoming hostel south of where I am that opened very recently, and best of all it’s free! (This has since changed, not entirely surprisingly; it takes a fair amount of effort to keep the hostel, particularly including sheets, clean, and Jeff was reeallly accommodating.) Some people just like being nice that way, I guess (or they do the work-for-stay or donation route, as Back Home Again did). I grab a phone number as apparently the guy’s particular about the exact number of people he can host so I can call it sometime soon (somehow; I abhor phones and cell phones in particular and am not carrying one).

July 27

(13.8; 508.1 total, 1665.9 to go; -1.2 from pace, -226.9 overall)

As usual it’s a slow start out today. I make a quick trip up to the top of Killington, which is only a tenth of a mile away or so, before heading out for the day. It’s windy and cloudy, so there’s not a whole lot to see. Today’s hiking is initially slow progress; I only make about four miles before lunch, which I take at the infamous Governor Clement Shelter. I really do mean infamous; quoting from the 2007 Companion, emphasis in original:

Due to its close proximity to a public road, this shelter has a long history of visits by local partiers creating serious problems with vandalism and hiker harassment. For the safety of all hikers, ATC strongly discourages any overnight use of the Gov. Clement Shelter site. ATC and the Green Mountain Club are working toward a long-term solution for the site. GMC is working with the USFS and the town of Shrewsbury to limit inappropriate use. Move on if you encounter problems.

Yikes. I’m only in for lunch, but my observations couldn’t agree more with the above; it’s made of stone, and the inside has hundreds of pieces of graffiti from people looking to mark it up, and they seem to be black permanent marker rather than something that at least demonstrates some effort needed to be made to create it (like carving the name). I don’t see anyone else there, but it is only lunchtime, of course.

Heading further south (but strangely only very slightly further south) I run across a note which directs me to another shelter that isn’t plagued with the problems of Governor Clement. I hear rave reviews of it in shelter logs, but it just doesn’t meet my schedule, so I pass by the side trail to it.

I’m making much better time by midafternoon when I stop at Clarendon Shelter, about ten miles into the day, to use the privy there. As with pretty much all the shelters in Vermont, it’s a pretty awesome one. There are two sets of bunk and a picnic table inside the shelter, and it looks awesome all around, if only I were stopping for the night. The maintainers have even installed some flower plantings in feeding troughs to liven up the place! I also grab more water from the nearby stream before continuing on. Next up is Vt. 103 and the Clarendon Gorge Suspension Bridge, which travels a good fifty feet at least over some impressive water. Supposedly the swimming is good as long as the water’s not too high (which it might be, given recent weather), but I don’t have the time to try it out if I’m to reach my destination for the day, three miles down the trail. It’s strange; I’m taking relatively “short” days now because I’m slowing down to make Bennington for the hiker feed, but my short days are only slightly under fifteen miles a day — off my intended pace, but still for the most part longer than any days of backpacking I’ve done before. Thru-hiking really skews one’s sense of distance and backpackability.

Before reaching Minerva Hinchey Shelter I pass by this nice vista of the surrounding lands:

The view from an overlook just south of Clarendon Gorge
The view from an overlook just south of Clarendon Gorge

This picture actually has an interesting back story to it, because there was a very real chance I never would have gotten it. After taking the picture I put the camera in the top compartment of my backpack; when turning around, however, the camera fell out of that pocket and down the hill a ways. There’s nothing to do but to scramble down and search for it. I find the camera without too much effort inside the ziploc bags in which it had been stored, but now an even worse problem manifests: the bags had opened, the battery compartment on the camera had sprung open, and the camera is battery-less! Good luck finding two batteries on the side of a hill like that. One turns out not to have fallen too far, but the other eludes me, and eventually I give up and climb back up the hill to my backpack — only to find that that last battery is a mere foot or so below the top of the cliff! I pack everything up, sample the blueberries noted during the climb back up, and head on to Minerva Hinchey Shelter, passing by a large number of small orange salamanders (newts? something?) along the trail in the process.

Minerva Hinchey Shelter doesn’t have the bunks of Clarendon, but it does have a picnic table, which I use while eating my meal. There’s also a bit of atypical reading material, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, of which I read half a dozen pages or so before continuing on to the shelter register. (The book seems like it might be an interesting read, but I haven’t picked up a copy since then.) The register’s entries are mostly unmemorable excepting two. The first is an entry from The Four Sisters, a set of four girls (not sisters) just out of high school doing a thru-hike together. I was first told of them back at Guyot in the White Mountains, and I think I passed by them the next day. Their entry draws the obvious comparison between the name of the shelter and the name of a certain schoolteacher in a certain series of seven books which recently enjoyed some notoriety and of which the last book was published in summer 2007; I leave the precise determination of the latter end of the connection as an exercise for the reader. The second is a colorful (judging by his entries here and all the rest of the way south on the trail) character named Thought Criminal, a 9-11 troofer, atheist, Chimpy McBushitler hater, and all-around earnestly (or so I presume) wrongheaded individual. Sadly, he’s heading north, so I probably unknowingly hiked past him today — as I lament in tomorrow’s shelter register, it would have been awesome to talk to him and watch the sparks fly. I think I do a reasonable job of not allowing people whose views I don’t share to unhinge me, but from the sounds of his entries I suspect the same could not have been said of him, and it would have made for great entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment, this is the first night in which I stay alone in a shelter — what’s up with this? I’m in Vermont right in the middle of northbound thru-hiker season (and early in southbounder season), and I’m staying in an otherwise-empty shelter? It feels a little odd, but there’s more to come, particularly once I get past all the northbound hikers.

July 28

(13.2; 521.3 total, 1652.7 to go; -1.8 from pace, -228.7 overall)

I sleep in today since I don’t have that far (comparatively) to hike and wake to see a few other hikers heading north passing through. Morning hiking is even more sluggish than usual, and I stop at Greenwall Shelter for water and lunch. Another southbounder also shows up shortly after me; his name is Turbo (of future Moose-Duckie-Turbo fame, to be noted in future entries), gained for his initial rapid pace, although because he’s sped up less than most southbounders he’s no longer quite so comparatively turbo as he once was. Also, he’s questioned why he makes himself take such an elevated pace, so he’s taking it easier for a bit. I ask if I can borrow his phone to arrange a reservation at the hostel mentioned by the northbounder at Cooper Lodge; he’s willing, so I call and arrange a stay for the following night. Turbo arranges for the night after, taking it really slow (actually not my observation but rather that of the hostel owner). That done, I head on, since I have eight more miles in the day. It starts to drizzle a little as I head on (note the light-ish spot on the picture), but it’s really not bad at all, hardly worse than the sweat I already have.

Rock cairns galore near the trail to White Rocks Cliff
Rock cairns galore near the trail to White Rocks Cliff

Today’s trail enters the second series of for-pay shelters along the trail, these ones managed by the Green MoneyMountain Club. The story here is that the trails in the past saw enough use and neglect by clueless campers that they had to start charging money to keep things in good shape. That might well be; in any case, I actually don’t mind it much for a few reasons. There are four pay sites scattered along the next thirty miles, and with some care it’s possible to hike through, camp off-trail, and avoid all of them if one wishes — so the choice to pay is avoidable if one chooses to expend the effort, which really wasn’t possible in the White Mountains. Also, instead of $8 a night it’s $5 a night, so it’s cheaper, but even that doesn’t capture the real difference: when you pay, you get a receipt which can be used to stay at one of the other fee sites within the next week. With a little care, then, it’s really $5 for two nights, you don’t have to carry around extra bills to pay, and the fee’s actually less than it had been in the past ($6). Coming after people night after night as in the White Mountains isn’t that effective; the people who make messes of the trails and shelters are less likely to be out for multi-day excursions, so paying every night mostly hurts the people who actually do behave well. The receipt reuse idea is a good one, because it subjects offenders to as much cost as non-offenders while not imposing higher fees on both.

I continue on down the trail, passing by the first two pay sites as well as by northbounders Peanut and Wrong Way (why I remember these names I really couldn’t say; after a certain point northbounder names all blend together, yet strangely I still remember these two). Little Rock Pond makes for nice scenery along the way (the sites are roughly on its shore). The end of the day lies at Big Branch Shelter inside a so-called “wilderness area”, which according to signs means that trail maintainers (of whom I pass a few) use only hand tools and will occasionally leave smaller treefalls that cross the trail in place, so long as they can be easily passed. Big Branch is notable for being next to a river in which good swimming is to be had, although I only use it as a water source (purified, of course). The shelter is further memorable for having the smallest register of the trail — a mere notebook about three inches by four inches, because the maintainers forgot a full-size one and only had that available when they passed through. I note the previous passing through of Spanky, Silver Potato and Cracker, and The Honeymooners and resolve to catch up to them when possible — not by rushing, note, but by moving continuously without over-dallying. Even stranger than the register, however, is that I again spend the night alone, which makes even less sense because this shelter is free and lies nestled in among several pay sites; I’d have expected it to be more crowded with thru-hikers given that. I go to sleep to the ever-present noise of the rapids in Big Branch itself.

July 29

(16.5; 537.8 total, 1636.2 to go; +1.5 from pace, -227.2 overall)

The first stop in today’s hiking is the infamous Lost Pond Shelter, although not quite for the same reasons as Governor Clement Shelter, quoting again from the 2007 Companion:

Rebuilt in 2002 by GMC volunteers after the old shelter burned down in 2001; was burned down again in Nov 2006. Tentsites provided.

All that remains of the shelter now are the concrete posts which supported it; the tent sites and privy yet remain. Continuing on I get some nice views from Baker Peak, along with some wild blueberries that I notice when I stop to get a bite to eat:

The view from atop Baker Peak

I’ve been told that I should make my way into Manchester Center, get the usual errands done, and then call the hostel owner for a ride, so I don’t spend much time today stopping along the trail, save at Peru Peak Shelter for register reading, and not much sticks out in memory. The day is close to complete when I reach the last major landmark in today’s hiking, Bromley Mountain, roughly just as Turbo catches up to me. If it wasn’t obvious from the video, the mountain is known for wintertime downhill skiing opportunities:

The view north on the A.T. from the observation tower on Bromley Mountain; a large rectangular concrete block with white blazes painted on it is in view
The view north on the A.T. from the observation tower on Bromley Mountain
The observation tower and me in shadows, as seen from the top of the tower, with my backpack lying at its base
The observation tower and me in shadows, as seen from the top of the tower
The view from the Bromley Mountain observation tower

There’s a ski patrol building at the top of the mountain in which thru-hikers may stay, and it looks excellent all around, but I have a reservation at the hostel, so I can’t stay. Turbo, incredibly, still has another day left to reach Manchester Center, which is three miles from the top of the mountain, but I only have hours, so I head south past Bromley Mountain Shelter (his destination for the day) to the road into Manchester Center. It’s 5.5 miles to the city, which means it’s again hitchhiking time. I stick out a thumb and bare seconds later a car stops to pick me up — incredible! (I later learn this spot is renowned as perhaps the easiest hitch on the trail; I would have to agree.) The guy who drives it says he used to pick up hitchhikers in the past but got ripped off by one and hadn’t picked one up for ten or twenty years until he saw me and thought I didn’t look too dangerous. As I have observed before (perhaps not in these pages but certainly while on the trail), the backpack I carry makes for an excellent signaling mechanism; bums looking to steal aren’t going to go to the trouble of carrying one, so if you see someone with a hiking backpack looking for a ride it’s a very good indication that he’s only there to get a lift.

He drops me off in downtown Manchester Center by an EMS and a grocery store. I first go to EMS to pick up the long-awaited pack cover, then I drop my things (the store’s cool and will watch your stuff) and head next door to get groceries, including some delectable yogurt, which I eat before moving on. It’s approaching dinnertime, and I haven’t had Mexican in awhile, so I feel compelled to sate myself at what the mini-map in my Companion says is a “Mexican Rest.”. The food (and margarita) is indeed excellent, but in retrospect it wasn’t actually a good choice for precisely that reason. It’s a restaurant that serves excellent food, and it serves it in small portions — not exactly what the doctor ordered for thru-hikers. Nevertheless I enjoy the food (at outside seating, as I take pains to make happen for the sake of other diners), read a little of the Federalist Papers, and head across the street to a pay phone to call for my ride to the Green Mountain House.

The owner, Jeff Taussig, set up the hostel because, as I recall, he retired and was trying to decide what to do with the extra building he and his wife Regina owned (now empty of kids) when she suggested opening a hostel. It only opened very very recently, and it’s in tip-top shape. I arrive to find Spanky and Sweet Sweet there along with a few new faces, which may be seen at the above link. I call home and talk to family for a bit, use the computer, wash laundry and take a shower, and get some sleep.

In the interests of full disclosure I note the following paragraph from the above link:

Another hiker told me Mercury’s claim to fame was that he carried a bear cannister through Maine. I have never seen another hiker carry one on the eastern trails. He got the hint as there was nothing bulging from his pack here at Green Mountain House.

I wasn’t previously aware this was a claim to fame, but you learn something new every day. :-) If you’re ever thinking of backpacking the A.T., you have no reason whatsoever to worry about bears beyond (in some areas) making sure you have rope sufficient to hang a bear bag if necessary. The bears are uniformly more afraid of you than you are of them, and the worst areas will have bear boxes, bear cables, or bear poles (in Shenandoah only) to make it easy to safely store smellables. In fact it’s generally the case that mice are a bigger concern than bears, as they can nibble through stuff sacks with ease, and they’re rather easier to miss at close range.

July 30

(10.6; 548.4 total, 1625.6 to go; -4.4 from pace, -231.6 overall)

Today starts out very leisurely as Jeff shuttles us to the trailhead. I have roughly three days and forty miles left to reach Bennington, so I’m in no rush at all. Sweet Sweet and I hike together for the first couple hours or so, then I head on a little further to eat lunch. My options for destination are roughly ten and twenty miles out, and I’m feeling sleepy still after not getting enough sleep the previous night, so I decide to aim for ten miles, which allows me to take a brief nap along the trail and mosey in to Stratton Pond Shelter around mid-afternoon. The shelter’s going to be crowded, but it’s huge and fits 16 people (easily more in a pinch). I cook a meal and marvel at a Long Trail hiker carrying a huge frying pan, sausages, and generally quite insane (insanely good, insanely heavy) food. I also meet a Long Trail thru-hiker who is on either his fifth or his tenth thru-hike heading north, which accompanies an equal number heading in the opposite direction (twice five being ten to explain why I can’t remember which it was).

My cooking setup, with a not-yet-upgraded off-brand Nalgene and a stove with a wind shield
My cooking setup, with a not-yet-upgraded off-brand Nalgene

Spanky walks in later expressing surprise that I stopped. The caretaker comes around to collect fees, and I head to sleep quite early, intending to wake up very early and start hiking as soon as it’s light with the half-insane idea that I’ll head to Melville Nauheim Shelter for the day, 27.9 miles south.

July 31

(19.4; 567.8 total, 1606.2 to go; +4.4 from pace, -227.2 overall)

A long night’s sleep leaves me refreshed for a long day of hiking, and I wake up on time, cook, and am hiking south by 5:50 as day breaks. First stop for the day is Stratton Mountain, which may or may not have been the place where Benton MacKaye first imagined what would become the Appalachian Trail (he was self-contradictory and perhaps deliberately vague on the point). There’s a nice observation tower, but the summit is covered in trees and, more importantly, fog, so there’s little to see. The Honeymooners yet remain ahead of me, as do others, and I quickly continue on.

I stop for lunch at Story Spring Shelter and meet, among others, Medicine Man again, who says (when I express disbelief that he’s not way further down the trail) he took a bunch of time off the trail. I also meet a father and son also heading south to Bennington, and they offer Medicine Man a ride, so they head south fairly quickly. Spanky catches up just as I leave to head south again to Kid Gore Shelter, which I discover is completely overtaken by a camp group — and a misbehaving one at that, in that at the barest noise by one person another yells at him to “shut up” repeatedly as I sit and read the register. I’m feeling great today, and I dash off a few lines of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as my entry, then continuing south to Glastenbury Mountain.

The view from Glastenbury Mountain's fire tower

Just south of there is Goddard Shelter, yet 8.5 miles from Melville Nauheim should I choose to hike it. It’s 17:30, tho, and I don’t really feel like hiking further, so I stop to read the shelter and be “convinced” by section hiker Amoeba (whom I met north on the trail at some point) to stay and not hike further. Melville is reachable, but I’d be walking in near dark, and I’ve already put in a good day anyway, so I stop. Spanky later catches up, and a hiker named Glenn Mangold walks in a little later. It turns out the latter also went to MIT, graduating in 1984, and we discuss courses a little (he was 8, I was 6 — which to the uninitiated means he was a physics major and I was an electrical engineering-computer science major) before we all head to sleep.

August 1

(10.1; 577.9 total, 1596.1 to go; -4.9 from pace, -232.1 overall)

Onward to Bennington! It’s a longer walk than I’d intended two days ago, but the 10.1 miles fly, especially when Turbo catches up to me and I hike at his pace for awhile until I’m no longer capable of keeping him in sight. Even the miles after that go pretty fast, and I descend down into the valley through which the road to Bennington travels. I hitch in and scout out the downtown area, where the hiker festival is going to be, where the outfitter (host of the festival, also which supplies me with a phone to use with calling card to talk to family, plus a canister of fuel since I’m moderately close to needing one; many others purchase kilts to wear while hiking, but I do not) is, where the library is (I type some of these entries, but I don’t get far — their wacky filtering system seems to be messing up my posts as I edit them, changing “Cracker” [referring to the southbounder further down the trail!] to ” racker”, so I give up), and so on. It’s still early afternoon, so I hang around until the hiker feed starts, eat, and sit back to watch the summer music festival that’s happening that night. It’s a pretty eclectic mix of music, and it’s an enjoyable difference from the usual hiking on the trail. I also meet a number of other thru-hikers: Moose again (met while hiking the last day out of Maine), Spanky again, Medicine Man again, Not Mother (suffering knee problems for the past week, unfortunately), Slowpoke and Asgask again, and sundry northbounders. Once that finishes I set up my tent in the park with other thru-hikers and head to sleep.

Tomorrow I head out of Vermont, the last of the large states for awhile, and head into Massachusetts. The hiking through the state’s been great save for the rain, and I’m sad to see it go — but glad to be into another state. It’s amazing just how much of a morale booster crossing a meaningless line can be. :-)

25.03.09

Considering hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail? A thru-hiker’s thoughts

Tags: , , , — Jeff @ 09:30

I was recently asked by a friend considering hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail for suggestions regarding which section to hike. Judging by search queries which hit this site it seems reasonable to think that a response might be generally useful to a general web audience, so I’m posting mine here for the benefit of all. Everyone who backpacks does so differently, with an eye to different things, so keep in mind this is a very biased view toward what I remember and what I liked, colored by my experiences meeting people on the trail and in nearby hiker hostels. I’m sure there are some masochists who would love to backpack for a week in Maine if they were looking to backpack a section of the A.T., but I doubt the average reader is one of them. Also keep in mind it’s a thru-hiker’s reminiscences; don’t expect to cover the ground I did with the ease with which I covered it. That said, I do think Massachusetts through the start of Virginia really is pretty flat and don’t think that’s bias except in the sense of having the experience of seeing the rest of the trail.

Maine

Maine is pretty rugged and remote, which makes it more of a pain to travel through. Maine also doesn’t know about switchbacks. No, I’m not kidding; the first one I remember seeing was about 350 miles into the trail out of Maine and in the White Mountains. Mainiacs and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club just don’t care (or, more likely, they just don’t know that the idea of a switchback even exists :-P ) — they like their trails to go straight up the sides of mountains. That said, if you’re willing to put up with constant elevation changes in short distances, there are some nice views and summits through it. You can’t get especially far through it in a short hike, tho, so I’d probably avoid it.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire has the White Mountains; they’re cool, but the trail goes through an area in which the Appalachian Mountain Club has a monopoly on camping space, and they charge you for it. The spots aren’t well spaced, either, so it takes a bit of effort to get from site to site if you’re backpacking. They cater to, er, “rich weekenders” who then stay at their “huts” with minimal amenities and food provided at $100+ a night, hiking between huts during the day; backpackers are second-class citizens at best (especially if you’re not a thru-hiker). South of Glencliff and the end of the Whites is kind of nice, but it’s nothing special; my best memories of it were for the Dartmouth Outing Club that maintains that section. They were awesome, but the trail through there isn’t very noteworthy otherwise.

Vermont

Vermont was my favorite state of the trail. It was a bit muddy and rainy when I went through, but otherwise you have nice forests to walk through, good views, and reasonable trail without the ridiculous inclines of Maine. Depending how far or much you want to hike, another alternative to hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail is to hike the Long Trail (or a section of it), which goes ~280 miles from the MA-VT border up to Canada. The first hundred miles of that heading north are shared with the A.T. (so you could hike a section of both!), and I suspect someday I’ll head up to VT and hike it in a long vacation.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts has good blueberries around mid- to late-summer, but it’s not a very remote section of trail. Upper Goose Pond Cabin is not to be missed, particularly if you’re a thru-hiker, the Shays Rebellion monument is cool, and the last ten miles or so along a ridge has a great view, but it’s not that much of a state for the A.T. overall. It’s also hyper-paranoid about campfires and camping, so you’re stuck to camping only in designated sites rather than having the flexibility to bivouac — and no campfires in the state along the trail.

Starting with Massachusetts and going through into Virginia is the flattest section of the trail with especially easy hiking. It’s also not a very remote section of the trail, so if you want to get away from civilization it’s not the best way to do it. That said, you’re away from most people and most civilization, so it’s not at all bad; I never felt I was around too many people.

Connecticut

CT doesn’t have much trail, and it has the same camping/campfire paranoia. The only real noteworthy thing I saw there was a rattlesnake, but those are easy enough to find in other sections of trail at the right times of the year. Again, as mentioned previously, it’s also pretty flat.

New York

New York is pretty short; most of it felt like walking over rolling hills with large, sparsely placed rocks. It restricts camping to sites and campfires to established spots at designated campsites (only the latter of which I find reasonable). I didn’t think NY was that great for its A.T. section, personally. If you arrive during business hours (my guidebook said I did, the employees said I didn’t, guess which suit was trump) you literally walk the trail through a zoo, but that’s a novelty, not a selling point for choosing to hike there.

New Jersey

New Jersey is also short and very flat. The highest point in the state is just off the trail, around 1500 feet or so. This is where the trail starts to get really rocky, and it’s not much fun walking over it — makes footing difficult and impedes usual walking progress. The best part was a stop off the trail at a local mayor’s house (he opens it to thru-hikers), a stop which I had been anticipating since hearing of it nearly 700 miles previously from the first group of northbounders I met (so incredibly noteworthy), but I mention this only to say that NJ wasn’t entirely uneventful.

Pennsylvania

You don’t want anything in Pennsylvania because the trail is so rocky. As I recall the explanation was the trail area was clear-cut way back, topsoil got washed away, and all that was left were rocks — rocks with little elevation of any sort and not many views. I enjoyed various non-trail parts of the state (perhaps most notably the Doyle hotel in Duncannon and 501 Shelter where you can order delivery pizza — I kid you not), but that’s probably because I have a hard time really disliking things; I’m usually quite apathetic.

Maryland

I don’t know much about Maryland; I walked through it in a day with barely a stop. There’s nothing special to it in terms of trail that I recall, although I wish I’d been able to stop at the George Washington monument (not that one) and the backpacker campsite replete with a bathroom with showers and flush toilets just a few tenths of a mile from a restaurant (no, it wasn’t a mirage).

West Virginia

West Virginia’s section of trail is short and not too featureful as far as the hiking goes. You walk past Harpers Ferry and that’s about it, excepting a stretch where you basically follow the state line with Virginia for ten or so miles, and that’s not too memorable except for being termed “the roller coaster” for having a series of ten hills to climb and descend without any views, due to the narrowness of the trail corridor in that section.

Virginia

Virginia’s a huge state trail-wise; you can get pretty much anything you want in the way of trail through there save above-treeline hiking.

The first fifty or so miles are uneventful save for the Blackburn Trail Center (summer home for a caretaker who makes thru-hikers feel welcome) and its accompanying camping/shelter and the Bear’s Den Hostel, both awesome places (only wish my schedule had allowed for staying overnight at both places as they’re about five miles apart; I heard of others who did). Next is Shenandoah, which I passed through fairly quickly; its claim to fame is a preponderance of black bears (they’re vastly more afraid of you than vice versa) and hordes of near-tame deer due to stupid tourists feeding them. (I had an encounter with a deer on the trail where it wouldn’t move off the trail when I was ten feet away from it shouting at it.) You need a permit to hike through, but I don’t think it costs anything as long as you walk in (but I don’t recall exactly the details or how that applies to section hikers). I’d not hike through Shenandoah as it’s too full of people.

South of Shenandoah you hit real elevation (this side of the Mississippi) again (4000+ feet) for the first time since either Massachusetts or Vermont; there are some great views and climbs around The Priest in that area. You’re hiking in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and unfortunately hitchhiking is prohibited along that road, so travel to resupply is slightly more difficult if you’re going far enough to need to do that. Fall apple season is pretty good as you walk by a lot of wild apple trees.

South more past Daleville and beyond the BRP is a nice section with the Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, and Dragon’s Tooth — a very nice section of trail with some good scenery, but there’s elevation change to deal with. It’s not Maine, so there are switchbacks, and it seemed pretty nice overall to me, if slightly tiresome. South of that thirty or forty miles is mostly unremarkable down to Pearisburg, VA.

South of there is nice but not particularly memorable until you hit Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. There’s about sixty miles from there south to Damascus, VA and the border with Tennessee that’s pretty nice — good views, feral ponies to keep you company (I kid you not), and still a bit of openness. Damascus is super-friendly, and a church in the area runs a hostel for hikers (they ask $10/night donation as I recall).

Tennessee

Damascus south into TN has a very nice stretch of trail where, for about 100 miles, there’s a hostel every 25 miles. Whether this appeals or not probably depends to a good extent on whether one is a thru-hiker or not; a group a bit ahead of me stayed at all four on consecutive nights, but I delayed for a long time at the first one (Kincora, vaguely near Hampton, TN) for too long talking to Bob Peoples, the guy who owns it (extremely well-known trail maintainer, awesome guy), so I only stayed at three of them, with one skipped and those “two” days covered in three. There’s some nice trail in this area passing through the Roan Highlands, a series of treeless balds at reasonable elevation (not above treeline, just covered in grass for unknown reasons). Down from there to Hot Springs is decent — you get nice sidewise views of mountains and such — but not great. Hot Springs to the Smoky Mountains was unmemorable, but that’s probably partly because I did it in roughly a day to get to a hostel just outside it.

The Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains aren’t all that fun. Maybe if you visit during the week it’s okay — if you’re a thru-hiker, and only in the fall — but the system they have is very rigid and structured because they can’t handle people showing up whenever. You have to get a permit and make reservations to stay at specific sites, and it’s not at all conducive to just hiking what you choose to hike. It’s also crowded; I’d avoid it.

North Carolina

The pure North Carolina section (the Smokies and a bit previous follow the border more or less) is pretty nice, but it has elevation. I’d say Sassafras Gap Shelter south to Siler Bald Shelter is a nice thirty or so miles; that’s probably influenced by my having hiked them during spring break previously, so it was fun to look at what I’d hiked previously (and laugh at how much time it took to do it).

Georgia

Georgia’s decent — you pass over several mountains and have good views — but at least when I was there it was pretty windy, excepting my very last day, thankfully. It’s only 70 miles, so there’s not a whole lot of it, and I was eager to finish (for more than just finishing, too, as I’d scheduled a plane flight earlier than I should have and ended up hiking 32.1, 29.9, 17.8 [through constant rain], and 30.5 miles my last four days to make a plane flight out of Atlanta — not exactly a leisurely end to it all). Also, Springer Mountain at the end is in the middle of nowhere, and it takes a considerable amount of effort to get back to civilization from it.

Conclusion

I think Vermont was the best state of the trail. It had good hiking, mountains, views, not too many people, and friendly towns and hostels off the trail. I’d recommend hiking there, personally, but if something else here strikes a fancy, go for it. As they say on the trail, Hike Your Own Hike.

31.01.09

Norwich, VT to Rutland, VT: the best scenery from the inside of a shelter is rain

Tags: , , , — Jeff @ 20:50

In case it wasn’t quite clear by now from the non-trail posts I’ve made recently, I’ve long since finished hiking the A.T. now. My last day was October 25, leaving Neel’s Gap around 6:40 or so that morning and summitting Springer Mountain by 17:20. Since then I’ve briefly returned to Michigan to relax a little and then headed out to Mountain View, CA, where I’m now doing full-time work on TraceMonkey, the JavaScript engine that will be in future versions of Firefox. (TraceMonkey does some truly insane things in how it converts a slower representation of JavaScript into a faster one, akin to how modern virtual machine software can execute a guest operating system’s code sometimes faster than could be achieved if the guest OS were running directly on the hardware itself. It’s a wonder we can make it work, but I very much expect it’ll be a fundamental component in dynamic language compilation going forward.)

Anyway, I still have some interest in finishing out these posts as a way of remembering what I did and what happened on the trail (and I’ve invested enough time in the already-written entries that I’d hate to abandon the full series unfinished), so expect to see them dribbling out every so often for awhile, assuming I can keep up the motivation to commit months-old memories to words and posts.

One last note: I’ve updated all the previous A.T. posts I’ve made with all the pictures I took, so if you wanted pictures, feel free to look over them again.

July 23

(20.4; 468.1 total, 1705.9 to go; +5.4 from pace, -206.9 overall)

It’s a fairly late start out of the shelter today around 9:30 or so. This really isn’t such a great idea, actually, because I was sort of thinking of pushing it to make Hanover (well, really this shelter) to Rutland in two days, but whatever — if you’re going to hike the A.T., you have to have fun doing it, and I like sleep.

Before heading out I stop at the privy here. This picture from inside the privy shows exactly why the Dartmouth Outing Club have been my favorite maintainers so far:

A white toilet seat with a smiley face and a speech bubble saying "Feed me!", with the words "Welcome to Happy Hill" beneath it
High art on the Appalachian Trail

Today’s hiking starts out okay but turns dreary fairly quickly. By late morning it starts to rain, and I hurry on to Thistle Hill Shelter 8.8 miles into the day to eat lunch. The rain has me in no hurry to move on, and I stop for over an hour to eat lunch. (Realistically if I’m going to pull twenty miles today I should make a briefer stop, but I don’t really feel like pushing just to make more distance; if I want to take it easy, I’ll take it easy.) I pick up the register to skim it a little bit and see that I seem to have skipped by another acquaintance, Frog, from my spring break jaunt on the A.T. in North Carolina. (It’s actually harder to meet people heading the other direction than you might think, given how easy it is to stop off for a meal or resupply, and it’s perhaps even more difficult for me given that I tend to carry food for longer distances than many.)

The shelter’s reading material, beyond the shelter register, also includes a slightly-old Sunday New York Times first section. The front page has a story interviewing Senator McCain, and for the most part it’s fairly mundane. What particularly strikes me, however, is that the story includes a very subtle smear. The story’s headline concerns which Republican president McCain most admires; his choice is Teddy Roosevelt, all well and good. One naturally would expect the presented question, then, to be along the lines of, “Which Republican president do you most admire?” It is, but rather than leaving the question open-ended, three choices are presented: Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. There are good reasons to present the first two choices, but the third makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, for one simple reason: no candidate in his right mind would ever name George W. Bush as a role model given his current approval ratings. (At the time of the article this was probably 30% or thereabouts.) To do so would be political suicide; it’s practically a gift-wrapped campaign ad for Obama. Why, then, would the reporter present Bush as a choice when any idiot could tell he isn’t going to be selected? Indeed, why even present choices at all? The only plausible answer is that the reporter phrased the question in this way to subtly associate (smear) McCain with Bush. There’s no proof of any of this, of course, but it’s obvious what the effect of presenting the choice might be, and it’s just as obvious that that effect would not have happened if the question had been open-ended.

By the time I leave it’s at least 14:00 or so, and I’ve got a lot more traveling to do in order to make it to Wintturi Shelter for the night. The intermittent rain during the day further complicates matters, and I don’t make especially good time throughout the afternoon. I pass over my first electric fences by late afternoon (designed to keep livestock in fields owned by nearby farmers; the A.T. passes through a large number of stretches of private land via easements arranged with the federal government), a not-quite-trivial task when wearing a full backpack. I also pass through a large number of fields filled with wild raspberries which considerably delay my southbound progress. By 20:00 or so I’m at the last major road (VT-12) before entering the last four miles to the shelter. This road also marks the end of territory maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club. Alas! the most awesome maintaining club on the trail yet far is behind me. Now it’s the Green Mountain Club maintaining the trail I walk.

Now you, dear reader, will likely be reading this sometime late December, and you’re surely thinking, “But what about darkness? Surely it’s getting dark by 20:00 at night?” And surely you’re right! It’s a bit dusky as I head further south through more farmland, and eventually I have to pull out the headlamp again. Eventually it’s fully dark, but thankfully the white blazes on the trees are fairly clear, and the Green Mountain Club in this section seems to have an unusual insistence upon marking even the slightest change in direction of the trail be double-blazed if the trail before and the trail after formed a “point” rather than an arc. Worse than the darkness, tho, is the drizzling rain, which eventually grows into a full downpour by 21:20 or so. This is hardly the sort of weather in which I want to stop early (and a sign at the road claimed that the trail from the road to the shelter passed through land where no camping was allowed), so I continue pressing on for the next hour until I finally reach the junction to the shelter. (In fact by the time I reach it I’ve been staring off the right of the trail for the last hour waiting to see a sign; it would be, er, bad to miss it in this weather.)

It’s a small jaunt down to the shelter from the trail, maybe 0.2 miles or so. I reach it hoping against hope that there’ll be space in the shelter for me, and there actually is space — but the people in the shelter are all asleep and taking up too much room for me to actually fit inside. Having no other option at this time, I set up my tent, move foodstuffs out of my backpack and hang them from one of the mouse hangers in the shelter (just underneath its roof but not inside it, so I don’t wake anyone up doing it), crawl into the tent and attempt to dry a little before crawling in the sleeping bag and going to sleep.

July 24

(0.0; 468.1 total, 1705.9 to go; -15.0 from pace, -221.9 overall)

Spontaneous zero!

I wake up today a bit after seven to more of the rain from last night. It’s more sprinkly than rainy, but I still pack up my tent and backpack quickly to move into the shelter for breakfast. I recognize a few people I’d seen earlier on the trail, including Hungarian, and naturally they remark upon my late arrival in the middle of a rainstorm the previous night. I have no worries; I hike when I have to hike, and that’s that. Breakfast is a very leisurely process; understandably, I have little interest in walking out into rain again. Gradually everyone else leaves, and I’m still working on breakfast when I spontaneously decide that I’m not going to hike today. The rain doesn’t appear to be stopping (and who knows, it might go away if I wait a day), I got in late the previous night, it’d be my first full day not hiking since Gorham, and if I’m going to show up to the hiker festival in Bennington on August 1, I have more than enough time to get there, at a below-average pace, even if I stop for the day.

I spend most of the day lazing around in the shelter, reading the Federalist Papers, eating gorp and a tortilla/peanut butter lunch, and talking to other hikers who stop in. The first arrival is Beershake, who walks in before noon and decides, as I have, that he’s not going any further — but unlike me, he’s stopping because it’s his birthday! The rain becomes torrential later in the day, and I am thoroughly glad I decided to go nowhere. Li’l Cubit and Kat arrive later on in the day; Li’l Cubit vociferously (and amusingly) attempts to persuade Beershake to move on another four miles to a farm that sells ice cream that I passed by late yesterday, but he’s decided what he’ll do and isn’t budging, and she’s unsuccessful; in contrast, Kat almost immediately capitulates and starts settling down for the day. :-) Later on Grasshopper arrives to round out the group for the night (as far as I remember now; there’s a chance I missed one person, but I don’t think I did). I’m the only southbounder in the group, and the rest are all, as far as I know, northbounders. It’s a pretty lackadaisical day, a bunch of reading, a bunch of resting, and a bunch of sleeping to round it out.

July 25

(19.9; 488.0 total, 1686.0 to go; +4.9 from pace, -217.0 overall)

I wake up fairly early since I have a long day of hiking and don’t really want to be hiking as late as I did two days ago; nevertheless, when I awake Kat and Li’l Cubit are on their way north again. I finish up a breakfast and get on the trail pretty early, I believe before 7 and certainly before 8.

The rain of the last two days is entirely gone. It’s sunny outside, and I walk across hills and by nice views without a worry for the weather. Sometimes trying to wait out bad weather doesn’t work, but today, it’s worked spectacularly.

Sunny day, great weather, a nice view into the distance
Sunny day, great weather, a nice view into the distance
A ladder to get up and over a particularly steep section of trail
A ladder to get up and over a particularly steep section of trail

The first real stop for the day is at a shelter about halfway between Wintturi Shelter and the road into Rutland, where I plan to spend the night and resupply on food. While the weather may be great, the ground near this shelter’s completely soaked, and I step gingerly around puddles of mud to reach the shelter to sit down for a lunch of tortillas, peanut butter, and honey. (This is fast becoming a staple of my lunch stops due to its simplicity.) The shelter’s reading material includes what looks like an ATC newsletter which I briefly skim; it mentions an underpass along the trail that’s currently under construction, to avoid a busy road crossing. A few other people walk in, although the only one whose trail name I remember is Daddy-O; turns out they’re northbounders who are walking south for the day without backpacks, back to my final destination for the day — a hostel in Rutland run by members of a religious organization called the Twelve Tribes. (I’m still not entirely sure how you’d describe them — maybe cult without the negative connotations.) This practice of walking the trail without a backpack and then being shuttled back to where you left your backpack is known as slackpacking; opinions on its legitimacy as a form of hiking vary rather widely. I didn’t know of its existence prior to starting the trail, and I have no intention of doing any while doing my thru-hike because it wasn’t what I set out to do. That said, even had I known, I don’t think I would have done any. Backpacking isn’t backpacking without the backpack.

A small, harmless snake off the side of the trail
A small, harmless snake off the side of the trail

I continue hiking south, but I don’t make especially fast progress. I finish the next five or so miles by around 16:00 and take a brief stop by a small river in response to an offer from a guy in a truck of a Mountain Dew. One of the northbounders shows up just before me, and the three of us talk for a bit. Turns out the guy who gave me the Mountain Dew had some sort of crisis-of-action things several years back where he realized he didn’t like what he was doing, so he went off and hiked the Appalachian Trail, altering his life and way of thinking. Now he’s out along the trail doing water quality tests (pH and other such things, not for drinkability), and he happened to stop by this river today to do that here. While we’re talking I also discover that the last bus into Rutland leaves around 18:15, and I’ve still got five miles to go — not good. I pick up the pace significantly, hiking very nearly with the northbounder, even tho he doesn’t have a pack but I do; I’m pleasantly surprised I can do this, but I’m really pushing the pace. Eventually I can no longer keep up, but thanks to the motivation of following someone I make much better time than I have previously, and it gets me close enough to the end that I can finish it out and make the bus into Rutland on time. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have done that without someone to follow; it’s a good thing the other guy was hiking through when I was.

The road into Rutland is definitely the most perilous road to cross on the trail so far; it’s four or so lanes of traffic moving in either direction at probably 50-60 miles an hour. Signs before and after it specifically warn hikers to look both ways and then to move quickly without stopping across the road. The bus is a nice convenience over hitchhiking in; it’s $2 one-way, but I’ll take that over an uncertain wait to get into town any day. Once in town I follow the northbounder, who also is on the bus, to the Back Home Again Cafe. It’s a combination cafe and hiker hostel; apparently over the past week it’s been pretty crowded due to the incessant rain. (There were almost thirty hikers staying there a few days ago; it’s down to maybe ten or fifteen now.) I’ve been attempting to catch up to the Honeymooners for awhile now, and I find out they were in only a few days ago, waiting out the rain. There’s plenty of trail to do it, and it’ll happen eventually.

The hostel itself is an interesting place. The main guy in charge is Ranan, and he shows me where the bunk room is and gives a brief tour of the hostel itself. Paying to spend the night there is a bit unusual; generally it’s a work-for-stay system, but because it’s past sunset and tomorrow’s Saturday, they’re observing the Sabbath and won’t allow hikers to do work-for-stay on that day. There are scattered copies of their newsletters and such, and it’s clear this is also sort of an outreach for them. The cafe itself is this weird indoor outdoorscape — check out the picture gallery on their site if you care to find out more. The decor is entirely unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever visited; if you’re ever in the area you should visit and take a look around (but not if it’s a Saturday as they’re closed then).

It happens to be the night of a street festival in Rutland just outside the hostel, which makes things a bit more crowded than usual. I stop at an Italian restaurant and have French onion soup, pasta, and a Guinness for dinner; there’s a Yankees-Sox game on TV which I watch, but it’s not nearly as good as the last one I watched, first because Boston lost, and second because I started watching after the sole run of the game was scored, so there wasn’t a whole lot of action. It’s getting somewhat late to resupply (although I could if I wanted at the Wal-Mart just down the street), so I head back to the hostel and go to sleep.

I’m now out of the worst of the rain on the trail for awhile, which will make hiking more pleasant. I’m in the middle of the pack of northbounders, too, so there’s lots of traffic on the trail. Furthermore, I’ve just gotten on a portion of the A.T. which also follows the Long Trail, the original long-distance trail which was itself an inspiration for the A.T. The Long Trail starts at the Massachusetts-Vermont border and heads north to the Canadian border, covering around 270 miles total; its shorter length means it’s much easier to thru-hike it. Vermont has its hills and mountains, so it’s not the easiest hiking around, but 270 miles is short enough that a motivated hiker could complete the trail in three weeks (and someone fresh off an A.T. thru-hike or some similar endeavor could do it in under two weeks). Perhaps I’ll go back and hike it sometime if I need to do a short hike and can’t spare the time for a thru-hike somewhere.

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