As I just mentioned, the southern part of Maine is known as the most rugged part of the A.T. From the day I left Gorham, it took me three days to do the first 26 miles in the Mahoosucs to Grafton Notch, where I arranged, while at the White Mountains Lodge, for my parents to pick me up. Since it was the beginning of October (this post begins with the 29th of September), I had no other chance to make the Kennebec River crossing or be guaranteed a chance to climb Katahdin if I didn’t skip ahead and do it before most of Maine. Also, I could do the rest of Maine a lot faster without a dog and a pack, and given that there was almost no one left on the trail this far back, I had no reason to draw out my trip any longer. It was time to get a move on. So, this was the plan: get to Grafton Notch, ride to Caratunk, do the Kennebec crossing, ride to Monson, do the 100 mile wilderness and Katahdin, and then slackpack the rest of the state southbound in nine days, before driving back south to do North Carolina and Georgia. It was to be a whirlwind tour of Maine, to be completed (I hoped) before it started snowing. This post should bring the story as far as Monson, after which I expect the story can be finished in just four more posts. So close!
…And we’re back!
After about 2 weeks, I’d managed to complete about 70 miles of the “real” Whites. That averages to about five miles per day. Even two months before, when I’d spent half of every day swimming in lakes, I was averaging better than that. And I still had 45 left to go before the Maine border. And I can tell you now: my average didn’t improve much at all for the remainder of it. When it comes to arduous hiking, there’s nothing like the Whites anywhere on the eastern seaboard.
I had set myself up on the edge of the road and the parking lot so I could try to bum rides from hikers leaving or entering the woods. It didn’t take super long to find a couple in a van headed towards Gorham on the way out of state and home. They took me to Gorham, and I explained that actually I was trying to get to the Lodge just on the eastern end of town near the A.T. They were perfectly happy to carry me that far, even though it was well out of their way.
Eventually (eons later), an older couple in a van picked me up, indicating that they were hikers themselves and very amenable to giving them a lift when they get the chance. They drove me right to the doorstep of the Lodge, even though it was much farther than I expected, way past the far end of town.
A nasty bout of weather cut short my one-week-to-Pinkham-Notch plan after a mere 5 days. Six days after being shuttled from Chet’s out to Kinsman Notch, I was back again. And I wasn’t the only one. Icarus was back again, having spent the past few days hiking the Pemi with Damselfly and Splash. He showed me pictures they took cavorting on the edge of Bondcliff and enjoined me to go see it myself, extolling it as the most beautiful spot in the Whites, and judging from the pictures, it seemed likely he wasn’t exaggerating.
I was one of the first out of bed that morning at Hikers Welcome Hostel. I was in the lounge before the pancakes were. I ate as much of what looked good as I could get my hands on, and made sure my slackpack was packed and the rest of my gear squared away to catch the first shuttle to the other side of Moosilauke.
The weather was actually pretty good for climbing a four-thousand footer that morning. There was fog and cloud early on, but it was clear by the time Copper and I hit the trail and started climbing. It stayed cloudy all day, but it didn’t rain until the afternoon, and was just gorgeous through the hiking part of the day.
The AT runs right past a parking lot at Kinsman Notch, so Copper was already on the trail before I had gotten out of the car and put my fanny pack (which detaches from my pack) on. He was trying to go north though. I called him back, and soon we were walking alongside the Beaver Brook.
Moosilauke doesn’t play around. Going southbound, you start climbing almost immediately, and the trail literally climbs the edge of the waterfalls, perhaps somewhat like the Panther Creek Falls Trail in North Georgia, only steeper and more popular.
It took me the better part if a month to get through New Hampshire, because there is no doubt that it was the most grueling section of trail I hiked, not necessarily because the trail was the hardest trail I hiked(it was the second hardest), but because it was the hardest trail Copper hiked. I will not deny that the Whites are a major challenges when stacked up against any section of trail further South: as high as the Smokeys, as rapid in elevation change as southern New York, as rocky (at times) as Pennsylvania, the worst weather in the world (in some places), and as little chance to truly prepare for this challenge as for hiking the trail in the first place. On the other hand, I can’t deny that when they are good, they are absolutely flabbergastingly amazingly mind-bogglingly thought-stoppingly astounding—the highest highs and the lowest lows. I have no idea how anyone ever decides to do the trail Southbound, to attempt Maine and the Whites on fresh legs, and worse, to “eat dessert first” and end with the rather uninteresting-in-comparison Georgia terrain. Rollercoasters have to start with the best and end with the least, but if we had our druthers, would we not choose to do it in reverse?
But I can’t say that all of this assessment is retrospect. The few Southbounders and previous hikers freely talked about how amazing—and how difficult—the Whites would be, and by the time I rolled into Hanover, I was practically gushing over with excitement at how close I was. Less than a week from that moment, I knew I’d already be on Moosilauke, and bagging my first 4000-footer in the Whites. And I knew my pace would be slowing dramatically.
But I also knew it’d been days since my last shower, and that I would be in this town for two more days at least. Might as well take the time to mentally prepare myself for the challenges ahead. Eat some good hot food. Do some slackpacking. Drink a beer. Or two. Or three. Maybe hang out with Six and Dangerpants, whom I knew had gotten there ahead of me. In some sense, I guessed that I had never truly hiked before, even after some 1400 miles, based on what people were saying. That one can’t really say “I’m a long-distance hiker” and be taken seriously until the Whites are behind them, but I hadn’t really internalized it. The excitement was forefront. Now that I’ve done it, I can say: I know that I know that I know that it’s true.
I wasn’t the only one crossing that bridge into New Hampshire at that particular time and place, but I can’t pin down for certain who it was. It might have been High Tide and Blockade Runner again. Or it may have been random non-hiker strangers. Either way, they were nice enough to take our picture.