Day One, Grafton Notch to Full Goose Shelter, 10 miles
So much fear and anticipation.
One of the great things about modern hiking technology is access to information. Heck, our maps are an app now right on the phone with GPS! You can’t get (too) lost even if you tried.
But the app is crowd sourced, so full of comments, comments that tend to exaggerate and frankly fear monger.
One description of Mahoosuc Arm had someone carrying out a person with a broken leg, eight hours through the Notch.
Another described the one-mile boulder field within the notch as taking at least three hours to traverse.
Needless-to-say, I’m worried. But a beautiful day is in the forecast and Kevin happily drives me to the trailhead as the sun comes up, so I can get an early start on what might be a very long day.
He laughs at me a little when I tell him I’m scared.
“You’re going to love it! Just take your time and it will be fun. I promise.”
Funny he should be so sanguine as we come around the corner and see the massive hulk of Old Speck looming above.
He tells me it’s a bit steep but then kind of rounded, whatever that means. I try to swallow down my panic but remind myself I bought extra food and have many ‘outs’ including a shelter and two stealth camp spots should things get too complicated.
I don’t really believe we can control our emotions all that much. In fact trying to can often lead to them getting worse and even more unmanageable.
My school of thought is feel the fear and do it anyway. Acknowledge and honor how you feel, ask why you feel as you do and where it’s coming from, then act from it.
That’s why I organized backup plans and brought extra food – and find myself walking up into this mountain with god knows what’s ahead.
Kevin is right, the up is steep, but it’s straightforward, hand-built stairs mostly past cascades on rock slabs and views opening to waves of blue mountains.
The air is perfect, wind in the trees and sunny. It’s true that once I begin, all falls into place. I smile at this glorious day without a cloud in the sky, then laugh.
Lunch yesterday was at a Chinese restaurant. My fortune cookie told me: Don’t take life too seriously. Laugh and smile at it once in a while.
Also don’t take yourself too seriously.
It is a big climb, but I take it all in at once, about two hours to the top where the wind really gets cranking.
A narrow ridge with gnarled pines leads to a spectacular view of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I’ll be finished with Maine soon and there’s something psychologically satisfying in that fact, even though the Whites are bigger and harder.
A break opens in the trees revealing a bowl below and sharp drop off. Mist flies past covering then revealing the pyramid of Mount Washington rising above everything else.
I throw on my hood and tighten my hat so I don’t lose it before descending on very steep rock. Descents are the scariest, especially with the added weight of so much food – and wild, cold, forbidding wind.
I whine a bit carefully working my way down mostly on my butt as a man heads up. He urges me to take my time and it will be fine. This does seem to be a mantra.
Just then, my water bottle ejects and goes flying down the rock. It lands where I can reach it eventually, but it acts as a warning for all items not secured.
“If you plan to do the Notch, you better batten down the hatches!” he tells me just as the second water bottle ejects.
“I will!” I yell in the wind then chase them down as I carefully choose each step towards Speck Pond.
It’s a long mile down to this sweet space tucked amidst pine but furious with chop from the wind. There’s a shelter here, and my first stop if needed, but I pass by to head steeply back up on uneven rock.
That was harrowing back there and it isn’t even the hard part. My real goal for this sunny day was to tackle the leg-breaking Mahoosuc Arm, though I guess all limbs are at risk on this “steepest section of the Appalachian Trail.”
Rain is expected tomorrow and there’s a lot I can do in rain out here, but descending bare rock is not one of them, so I press on, knowing a camp site is just beyond the one mile, 1,500 foot drop.
But first I reach a ridge of rock slabs with stunning views and surprisingly out of the wind. A young man with a long beard stands there surveying the mountains as they melt into the horizon.
We exchange pleasantries and I ask how the arm was. “You mean the descent?” he asks. Wait a minute, this young man is headed south!
Hot Sauce is his name and we immediately begin walking together. Sauce is lovely, chatting all the way down about how he started in March, then hurt his knee, but returned and is finally finishing having flipped to Katahdin to walk south.
We cross a bog on sinking boards and laugh at the sheer depth of bog surrounding the tiny slat of protection, then enter a chute of rock and roots aiming straight for a cleft in the mountains.
It’s funny that we’ve arrived at the infamous Arm. Yes, it’s steep and yes, every step needs to be carefully planned and executed oftentimes by using roots and tree trunks, tossing trekking poles down so as to use both hands to downclimb backwards or simply sit on your butt and slide down.
But honestly, this is no harder than hundreds of descents I’ve walked in Maine. It’s just longer. No ladders or metal bars help, but with Sauce chatting away, we come down in no time, passing numerous day hikers who comment on the gorgeous day.
At the bottom it’s the usual rocky, rooty repeat before arriving at a lovely stream in shade. I put 3:00 as my stop time to camp here had I moved too slowly and it’s only noon.
We fill up water and eat in this lovely grotto, lucky for the weather, fresh water, finding a companion.
The real work awaits in the Notch itself.
Described as “one of the hardest and most entertaining sections of the entire Appalachian Trail,” Mahoosuc Notch is a deep and narrow valley between mountains filled with Volkswagen-sized boulders. For some reason I cannot decipher, trail builders thought this would be an exciting spot to send hikers – and it is considered the longest mile on the AT.
As an older gal with failing knees, I gave myself three hours to get through. A campsite sits at the opposite end, plus a shelter up and over a mountain.
But with Sauce, it became an entirely new calculus.
I ‘batten down the hatches’ as instructed by packing everything inside my pack. This is because the pack often has to be pushed above a climb or sent through a small opening in a cave so you can move more freely. There are deep holes below the boulders ready to eat anything dropped.
In fact, the deep holes lead to a stream that gurgles and heaves like a monster as we mere mortals balance, lift, hop, sidle and slide through.
Not only does a duo make it more fun, we also figure out which way to go, which is never completely obvious. Sauce lends a hand with my pack making the going more efficient and kindly checks on me if I whimper (which is often)
The rock is wet, mossy, slippery. Some moves are big ones and I grunt. The other day, I fell on my pole and bent it enough that it won’t close, so I strap it on my pack standing full height like an antennae. It often catches on things and I need to take care not to let it throw me off balance.
I have never done anything quite like this. The closest might be talus skipping in the Winds, but in here are trees and plants, moss and water. It’s verdant.
And I am having fun. Each move requires thought and often it appears there is no possible way through. But we figure it out and make slow progress, eventually coming to the end in 90 minutes.
At that point, Probability catches up and we’re surprised to see each other again. He’s found another SOBO named Rob moving at his speed; Acuna and JP are just behind.
We power up to Fulling Mill Mountain, another straight up rock climb that beings us out on a flat top of bog, mystical in the changing sky with clouds building.
The short bit down is steep and scary again, more careful stepping to a huge shelter nestled on the edge of the mountain.
A SOBO named Rock Hound is settled in and I find my corner to lazily set up, eat and talk to my friends.
What a gift to meet geeky and friendly Hot Sauce. I guess I could have done it without him, but I didn’t have to and I am so grateful.
Two very polite NOBO’s show up and it’s pitch dark by 7:15. We’re all tucked into a huge shelter and planning to be up early so we can hike before the rain settles in.
The wind rustles the pines and it is so quiet. Again, I express gratitude for a great day, one I hardly expected I’d complete.
And you know what I see for the first time here in Maine? Stars.
Day Two, Full Goose to Gentian Shelter, 10 miles
The night is dry and we cuddle into the giant shelter, two SOBO’s and two NOBO’s. When I wake to go to the privy, a thin layer of deep magenta glows on the horizon.
I eat up and pack to go just as Acuna and JP pass. That’s the last I’ll see of them I’m sure.
When I pull my bag towards me, I snap the strap that holds the top in place. Crap! It’s not a trip ender, but the top will move around especially as I go down hill, knocking me in the head.
Right away I find a ladder over a steep boulder. This is going to be a hard day. Lots of ups and downs and four peaks.
It’s not that I mind ups and downs, but here it’s usually a all-hands rock climb or a leg-break-avoidance descent. The AT is brutal that way.
The air is still dry as I rise up to towards Goose Eye North Peak. And the views are astounding looking out to mountains in every direction, mist nestled in between them. The sky is bleak and rain is moments away.
And sure enough, here it is.
The wind is high and rain blows in my face as I dive for my rain gear, carefully placing the pack on it so it won’t sail off the mountain.
Even here, exposed to the elements at the top of a mountain, there’s a deep bog plus sinking, rotting and nearly useless bog boards.
The going is slow with barely a moment to simply walk as I carefully place each step. My view is totally gone.
In the forest I’m treated a tweet and chatter of a white winged crossbill. But otherwise, the sound is rain, wind and my heavy breathing.
How do I describe a day like today? Nearly ten miles in which I am just trying to survive.
I eat a few bars but dare not pause to filter water in case I begin to shiver. Moving, I’m ok, but the threshold is minuscule to being in danger.
The ‘trail’ is seriously steep ups and downs that sap every ounce of energy from me. At one point, I have to take off my sodden pack and place it above me on a ledge before climbing up careful not to slip on wet rock.
I do fall once when I turn around to climb down like a ladder and miss the last step. My backpack breaks my fall and a lovely NOBO without a shirt and seriously erect nipples in this cold offers a hand.
I’m mighty grateful and laugh that I no longer have nipples to indicate how cold it is.
I meet several hikers coming up, commiserate about the awful rain and tell them they look good and strong. One laughs at my comment examining all the mud and bloody scrapes on her legs.
Another warns me of the ever-sinking bog boards. This just below Mount Success where I immediately get lost in the blowing mist. Many trails lead all over this mountain, which must be lovely in clear weather. Cairns seems to point the wrong way entirely.
I call out for help, just in case another crazy hiker is passing. No one answers and I eventually suss out the right path.
Ah, I forgot to mention that I reach the state line and enter New Hampshire. I take a selfie in rain looking – and feeling – sodden and beat up. It may all be psychological, but I’m happy to have Maine in my past now.
That doesn’t mean things improve. If anything, the trail gets harder and blazes few and far between. I have never been on such terrible trail.
Sometimes trail crews have drilled metal bars into the rock, but it always feels random. More often it’s a sheer drop on rock and my only defense is to sit down and slide.
By mid-day, I’m soaked through and speak regularly with the goddess to ask for strength of body, mind and spirit. Also to pay careful attention to each step I take.
Can you imagine the tension here? It’s wet, cold, and a white out on trail that goes on relentlessly through dark forest on dangerous rock falls and faces.
Until it punches out to ‘views’ which right now are exposed to wet and wind. I’m dying a little inside.
So my mantra goes on and on to remind myself that I am not cold and I am still strong body, mind and spirit. All I have to do is keep moving forward bit by bit and I will eventually arrive at the lean-to.
Distance means nothing. Time means nothing. I have one job: to keep myself from getting hurt and keep moving towards the safety of the lean-to.
By now you must be wondering why I am doing this, why am I here and walking on this horrible trail in rain.
I dare not ask myself that question, at least not now, as all my energy and focus goes towards protecting my body, mind and spirit.
I am not cold. I am moving forward. All will be well and I will get there.
But it’s a long day. One chickadee swishes at me but I imagine all creatures are deep in their nests now staying warm. What sort of fool would be out in this kind of weather?
Up, then down and down and down after four peaks. A bit more steep up, then more direct down. As I near the end I force myself to stay focused and not let fatigue intrude – or panic, fear, frustration, anger. Just go.
Of course I do arrive at a two story shelter which is completely empty. I claim a space then collect water before getting out of rain gear from what must be a stunning pond in good weather.
My clothes are wet from sweat and I hang them from pegs then put on dry clothes just as Rock Hound arrives. I’m so glad to see him and feel less alone and afraid.
He nabs his corner and offers me hot water which I accept with so much gratitude. A NOBO arrives just before dark and cooks as us two cuddle in before 6.
Without a shelter, I might not survive out here. A roof and three walls is surprising protection from the continuing rain. We discuss alternatives for tomorrow since it’s twelve miles of this awfulness to Gorham with more rain expected.
I spy a shortcut to a road and will contemplate an alternate route out of here. I have nothing to prove, and even if I did, I’ve long since proved it.
The day was tremendously difficult and provided few rewards besides the end of the day’s safe arrival. Our NOBO friend is so cynical and burned out, he says he could care less about views.
But this morning’s beauty and my crossbill remain in my heart as does my single-minded focus to stay safe and keep moving rather than burst into tears which would have been so easy to do at any number of moments.
Right now, every dry piece of clothing covers my body and I’m wrapped in a relatively dry quilt as the rain continues to dump down and the sky goes dark.
Day Three, Gorham via North Road Trail
One of the skills to develop as a backpacker – or anyone trying to get through life with their body, mind and spirit somewhat intact – is flexibility.
Flexibility and keeping your eyes wide open for possibilities.
When I arrived at this shelter yesterday afternoon, wet to the skin and exhausted on every level having held back all my emotions surrounding such a difficult day, I noticed a sign pointing down a hill which read “North Road 3.5 miles.”
It took me some time to collect water, change in dry clothes, hang up the wet gear, organize my sleeping space and eat food, but I needed to understand what this road meant in the scheme of things.
Rain kept falling and the mist cleared only momentarily and only enough to see one small hump of pine-covered mountain right in front of us. Too bad since this location is considered a destination spot for its scenic pond, waterfall and spectacular view.
The three of us holed up as the sky darkened all quietly scheming our next moves. The AT continues south for 12 miles up and down, on slippery rock and roots with only the sweet balsam aroma pushing one forward – that, and the safety of Gorham, New Hampshire.
Rock Hound is a ‘purist’ thru-hiker and will stay on trail, a campsite – without any shelter – is just six miles ahead.
Our German hiker somehow believes he can pull of 15 miles headed north in this awfulness. I warn him that not only is this trail rough, but the notch will slow him to a crawl. Though he has two more shelters to choose from before then.
Our shared map app ‘Far Out’ is quite helpful with the main trail, towns and amenities plus hiker opinions. Where it falls short is with side trails and escape routes.
There’s no mention of this ‘North Road,’ it isn’t even on the map. And that’s why I load my own maps through a different app called Gaia.
The terrain topography is far more detailed and every trail in the area is marked. That’s when I see I’ll walk straight out to a road while the AT fumbles through these mountains in a giant C.
I also have GPS so can see where I am should the trail become indistinct or confusing as it crosses logging roads and slag heaps.
What I can’t know is if the trail is maintained or even used at all, but the sign right at the shelter is my clue.
It is a no-brainer to pull myself out of this mess as quickly and safely as possible, so at first light I put on wet clothes, pack my bag and head down the trail.
It’s steep on rock slab with water racing down as I parallel the falls emptying Gentian Pond. I’m still very careful and my body is so ready for this to stop.
It’s not long before I reach a swamp with rotting boards taking me across. This is clearly used, but it’s quiet and so alone in here, the only sound are cascades swelling with yesterday’s rain.
In the woods, it’s dark and moody, but I’m on flat ground only sloping down a little. I hit a forest road rutted and full of limbs. At this point mud means nothing; wet means nothing.
It’s been raining all morning, steady and soaking. It’s not cold though. Funny how once in my sleeping bag last night, I was so warm I took off all my clothes to sleep.
Still, you wouldn’t want to stop in this as the wet would begin to chill. I leave road for a trail in deep woods. White blazes have given way to blue but I’m not always clear on where I’m headed so happy to have a GPS to show my position.
The wet is so saturating, I keep my ‘waterproof’ phone in a plastic bag, but it still gets damp and hard to use. Taking pictures comes to an end in this weather.
There was so much torrential rain in New Zealand but it was also windy and not as humid. Here feels damp all the time, even my quilt inside plastic gets damp.
At least in the shelter I dry up quickly.
I cross more streamlets on busted boards, willing myself to balance when several feet about rushing water.
Gaia never indicates water along the way, but I hit a big stream, boiling in a fury as water splashes out of its banks.
I hope to god I don’t cross that!
Fortunately I don’t, yet I ford an angry stream feeding it and am nervous enough, walking well upstream to find the quietest and lowest place to step in.
Part of my walk is on another, clearer forest road where someone has dug trenches for water leaving huge dirt berms.
But this is a short and direct walk. I st first see a house, then reach blacktop.
Lucky me, a man stops right away and takes me to town where I find a place willing to leg me check in early and visit an all-you-can-eat buffet before crashing completely.
All day yesterday I coached myself through some of the roughest hiking I’ve ever done, allowing myself to feel fear, panic, and frustration but using those feelings to keep moving slowly forward to the safety of the shelter.
Now all of that emotion is welling up and my body is crashing. But there’s nowhere safer than inside with temperature control and a view of mist-covered mountains that I am no longer a part of.
The rain is still coming down hard and I shudder thinking of my vulnerability out there. Sure I have an SOS, but rescue could take a very long time and this terrain is unforgiving.
As Rock Hound told me as we tucked in before 7 pm last night, “Put all that behind you now.”
What’s ahead of me are four full days of sunshine.