Nonfiction | December 01, 1996
Gentian Pond Shelter, New Hampshire
On the Trail, you hear about Ward Leonard long before you meet him. At the Gentian Pond the Yankee Buckeye told us, “Ward’s jumped into shelters at one in the morning, shelters where he knew there were other thru-hikers, and yelled, ‘You’re not gonna make it! You don’t have what it takes'” The Yankee Buckeye shook his fist in the air, miming Ward’s rage.
“What’s his trail name?” I asked.
“He’s a legend. He doesn’t believe in them.”
This was on a gray evening in mid-July. That day we’d covered seventeen miles, mostly in rain–from Speck Pond in Maine, south through the Mahoosuc Notch (a narrow gorge of utility-shed-sized boulders, reputed to be the hardest mile on the Trail), then up and over three bare peaks and, finally, one marsh-covered bald. At some point in the late afternoon we’d walked out of Maine. Now, at dusk and in New Hampshire, my feet felt swollen and bruised.
I stretched, then forced down two quarts of water. Kerry started the stove for dinner. The Yankee Buckeye sat with us before the shelter, looking at maps. He was a wiry man in his early sixties and had the crisp, neat appearance of an elf. He’d spent his past two summers on the Trail, he told us, hiking north in sections. Clingmans Dome to the Shenandoahs, the Shenandoahs to Harpers Ferry. This was the last leg of his hike–“next stop, Katahdin,” he said–so he began asking us detailed questions about the Trail ahead, noting our answers in the margins of his own copy of the Thru-Hiker’s Handbook. What was the grocery like in Monson, Maine? (A general store, with little choice and high prices.) What exactly was the ferry service for thru-hikers crossing the Kennebec River? (A cheerful hippie with a canoe.) Was there any section where he might be able to do a thirty-mile day? (One, where the Trail skirts a series of lakes in central Maine.)
The evening air was heavy and still. Kerry mixed tuna in with our noodles. The Yankee Buckeye stayed with us as we ate and resumed his stories about Leonard, oblivious to our growing impatience. Ward had hiked more miles on the Trail than anyone else, we learned. He’d once thru-hiked in sixty days and, in 1991, thru-hiked three times in one year.
“And he covers his skin completely, even in the worst summer heat. Ski mask, rain gear, gloves. Doesn’t want himself seen.”
Kerry gave me a suspicious look, which I returned. Both of us firmly believed that a thru-hike required seriousness of purpose, a commitment to what the Handbook calls the “personal journey of exploration and discovery.” These Ward Leonard stories were slightly offensive–tall tales, motivated by envy, the exaggerations of a blowhard attracted to the Trail for its gossip and chummy, frat-boy community.
The Yankee Buckeye smiled, perhaps at our silence. He said reassuringly, “But he’s way ahead of you guys. I saw him a month ago heading south.” Our direction, too.
The following morning I woke at sunrise and watched the Yankee Buckeye packing up. Like me, he used an internal frame backpack. He stuffed his sleeping bag into a nylon sack the size of a coffee can, fit it tightly into the pack’s bottom compartment, then laid the pack out in the space where he had slept. He travelled light.
He bagged his stove, jacket, and extra socks in separate ziplocs and squeezed the air out of each. His Snickers bars and wool hat went into an outer pocket. He balanced his water bottles on opposite sides of the pack and arranged everything not immediately necessary for the next ten hours of walking deep in the main compartment.
He fastened the outside straps of the pack, put it on, shrugged, and took it off again to move one of the water bottles closer to the center. When I woke again, his pack hung from one of the pegs on the shelter’s frame. Nofolds or bulges. It was perfectly packed, a large egg-shaped pod, and tight as a full balloon.
Mount Katahdin, Maine-Gentian Pond, New Hampshire
To thru-hike is to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one continuous journey. The Trail is approximately 2150 miles long, so a thru-hike generally takes five months and can be done in either direction–Georgia to Maine or vice versa. To walk north is to go with weather and tradition. You start in Georgia in March or April, move with spring up the country, finish in Maine in the fall. Put plainly, it’s easier that way, if such a trip can be described as “easy.” You have at least seven months to complete the hike and, perhaps more importantly, you have plenty of company. The Appalachian Trail Conference estimates that 95% of the hikers who have completed the Trail walked from south to north.
To walk south, on the other hand, is to go alone. You face more obstacles: Maine’s early summer black flies and swarming mosquitoes; the mid-Atlantic August heat; the threat of early snow in the Smokies; and, as you cross northbounders one by one along the Trail, always the vague sense of going the wrong direction. But south is the only choice if, like Kerry and me, you begin after the first of May. Winter arrives early in the New England mountains. We left Mount Katahdin, the Trail’s northern terminus, on the first of July, hoping to make Georgia by Thanksgiving.
We were on the Trail for three weeks before meeting the Yankee Buckeye. From Katahdin, we walked 281 miles southwest to the New Hampshire line, tracing through a country of isolated lakes, boreal forest, and slate and granite ridges. We met few others. The first big packs of northbounders would not cross into Maine until late July; the mosquitoes and black flies discouraged most everyone else. The few frontrunning northbounders we did meet–Sassafras Tea, Respirator, Phantom and Energizer–only stopped for a few moments to exchange introductions, so Kerry and I often had the sense, rare in the East, that we were alone in the woods.
We walked with a self-conscious seriousness of intent, breaking camp at dawn, moving quickly down the Trail, rationing our free time as if hiking were an obligation. In fact, it felt like an obligation. We had both wanted to hike the Trail for years. At ten, I took my family’s road atlas and, on the map of each Eastern state, traced over the Trail’s wandering line of dashes with a black magic marker. Some years later, I walked sections of the Trail in Tennessee and Virginia with my parents, in North Carolina with groups from my summer camp, and in Maine and New Hampshire with groups from college (which often included Kerry). With a dreamy alacrity I looked forward to hiking the the entire length of the A.T. Never mind that the Trail was officially marked and that it laced through the most populated part of the country. To hike the entire Appalachian Trail would be, somehow, to explore. I could picture myself walking some high ridge in the late afternoon light–full pack, strong legs, a pioneer and pilgrim at once, with newfound access to . . . something. I am certain that Kerry had a similar vision, yet neither one of us could name his motivation more precisely, not even during those first weeks in Maine. We were both twenty-four and had left good jobs to make this trip, which had to do with going into the wilderness for adventure and returning transformed, with being young and unsure of our futures. We knew only that this thru-hike was important and that it needed to be made with fastidious care.
As we walked south towards New Hampshire, I circled on my map the shelters and campsites where we slept: Logan Brook Lean-to, Chairback Gap, Long Pond Stream. I felt the acedia that comes at the beginning of any extended journey, and looked forward to upcoming landmarks and boundaries. I also looked forward to the time when we would begin regularly crossing northbounders–not the Yankee Buckeyes of the Trail, but the ones who were truly our fellow travellers, farther along in their walk, moving north with the same seriousness with which we had left Katahdin.
Gorham, New Hampshire
The day after meeting the Yankee Buckeye, Kerry and I hitchhiked into Gorham and stayed at The Barn, a hostel right on the town’s main road, and one of the hubs of the Trail. We’d just decided on our own trail names. I was “Zoot,” the name of one of Jim Henson’s muppets. Kerry picked “Barcalounger” because he carried with him a collapsible camp chair made of pad and webbing.
The Barn looked like a cross between a fraternity house and a summer camp cabin. Inside, clothes and gear hung from every available nail. In the kitchen, a Polaroid picture of each thru-hiker who had passed through that year was pinned to the wall. I found a metal locker upstairs with shelves of discarded gear, all free for the taking: a ziploc bag of Tang, a jar of sno-seal, homemade beef jerky, bungee cords, hard candies, paperback novels, duct tape, detergent. In the common room that night, a group of thru-hikers–the largest we had yet seen–settled about the room. Speedball, an officious Harvard student, gave us details about going over the Wildcat Ridge. A quiet northbounder called Wiley Coyote asked me about my pack, which he had eyed in the bunkroom, and then said I had probably spent too much for it. The subtext of every conversation was that a thru-hike can always be made easier, whether by clever planning, a change of gear, or some bit of knowledge only shared by a few.
“Have you tried bee pollen? It’s nature’s perfect energy food.”
“The cheaper the sardines, the better they are for you.”
“Why’d you carry a sleeping bag in June? I just carried a sheet!”
There was also Trail gossip, mostly about Ward Leonard. Mala, who took his trail name from the Sanskrit word for ‘offering of prayer’, told us that Ward had thru-hiked ten times since 1980 and had probably logged more than thirty thousand miles on the Trail. Mala also said that Ward was no longer allowed in Maine’s Baxter State Park because he had pushed a slow, dayhiking woman to the side of the Trail in order to get by. Another time, in Virginia, Ward had apparently spent a night throwing pebbles, one by one, at the roof of a shelter in order to annoy the hikers trying to sleep inside.
“What pisses him off?” I asked.
Mala shrugged, “People who don’t know what they’re doing. Or maybe they pass him on the trail. Weird things . . . guys with beards . . .”
This was ridiculous. I left the common room and went to bed, annoyed by the hiking wonks downstairs. First the Yankee Buckeye, now Speedball, Wiley Coyote, and Mala, who claimed he’d fasted for four days in order to think of his trail name. Who were these guys?
Before falling asleep, I decided I would begin storing away comebacks to use if Ward ever confronted me. My best effort that night was “Get a life, Trail boy!”
No gem, but I would keep it on hand.
Some Facts: On the Trail efficiency is the cardinal virtue. This is why most thru-hikers hike alone. It is impossible for two to walk together without compromise. The tensions Kerry and I occasionally suffered through usually had their source in logistics: where we would sleep, what we would eat, the number of days off we might take in the next town.
Our daily mileage varied, but once in Trail shape, we averaged two and a half miles an hour and sixteen miles a day. We woke between six and seven each morning, tried to cover most of the day’s miles by midafternoon, and went to bed by eight-thirty. Rustic, three-sided shelters are common on the Trail. In two months we used my tent only ten times. At Katahdin, my pack weighed over sixty-five pounds. I mailed home gear as we moved south: a water filter, two extra pairs of socks, a sleeping bag liner, sunblock, and a contraption that would turn my sleeping pad into a chair. By the time I knew what I was doing, my pack never weighed more than forty-five pounds.
Breakfasts were simple: a bowl of raisin bran with rehydrated powdered milk and a multivitamin. In the mid-morning, after two or three hours of hiking, we snacked on peanut butter, oranges, and Snickers bars. For lunch: English muffins, peanut butter, sardines, cream or cheddar cheese, and once, through the generosity of a woman at Lakes of the Clouds Hut in New Hampshire, a container of thick garlicy hummus. At day’s end, using a light backpacking stove, we cooked full pots of pasta, rice, or mashed potatoes and added some combination of cheese, liquid margarine, powdered soup mixes, tomato paste, spices, and tuna. You burn, on average, about 5000 calories a day, so the farther you go, the more fat becomes a vital part of your diet. After crossing into New Hampshire, Kerry and I frequently shared a Jello Instant Cheesecake for an evening dessert.
I wore leather boots, socks made of a polyester and wool blend, and nylon soccer shorts. When I wore a shirt, it was a long-sleeved capiline undershirt which absorbed no water and dried in minutes. My warm jacket was fleece polyester. My waterproof shell was Gore-tex. Kerry’s clothes were nearly identical. I have read that medieval pilgrims on the road to Santiago had a standard, state-sanctioned costume so that sheriffs knew not to hold them to local laws but to a specially written international code. Similarly, our synthetic fabrics were the standard for thru-hikers and looking the part, we earned certain benefits. Weekend hikers deferred to us on the Trail, made room for us in shelters. Hitchhiking was usually easy. In many towns, we were treated as minor celebrities. In the post office in Manchester Center, Vermont, the clerks took our picture with a Polaroid camera, glued the print in a photo album, and asked us to write a short note on the opposing page. Before leaving the counter, we flipped through the scrapbook. I saw at least five dozen Polaroids, each with the same image: a bearded, skinny guy, bathed but undeniably scruffy and worn, smiling in a moment of surprising fame. I counted maybe ten women.
These things were my essentials: food and the tools for cooking and eating it; clothes; two quart-size water bottles; one five-gallon water bag; a small vial of Clorox for water purification; a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad; a Swiss army knife with scissors and Phillips and standard head screwdrivers; ten feet of strong cord; a whistle; maps and Wingfoot’s Handbook; two extra garbage and ziploc bags for general use; duct tape, wrapped around one of the water bottles; a first aid kit; a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, a comb, and biodegradable soap; toilet paper; a sewing kit, three bandannas, and a headnet (for sleeping in buggy places); stove and fabric repair kits; a flashlight, extra batteries, and a spare bulb; a watch. I allowed myself these luxuries: a notebook and pen, several paperbacks, sandals to wear around camp, clean clothes for town days, a candle lantern, a camera and film.
The Handbook is written and annually updated by Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce, who has thru-hiked the Trail seven times. It is a strange book, both travel guide and prescription for that “personal journey of exploration and discovery” that Kerry and I were so impatient to begin. Wingfoot provides thru-hikers with maps, a state-by-state breakdown of what lies beyond the A.T. at each trail junction and road crossing (with particular attention to accessible grocery stores, laundromats, and restaurants with all-you-can-eat buffets), a primer on thru-hiking traditions and etiquette, a wildlife checklist, and a brief concluding essay on what to do once your thru-hike is done (Let your loved ones “treat you like a hero if they are so inclined”). To be fair, it should be said that the Handbook contains an astonishing amount of information, much of it helpful, and has become the standard guide for thru-hikers. Yet consulting the Handbook is often like consulting an annoying know-it-all. It is no coincidence that Wingfoot is often referred to by thru-hikers as “Wingnut,” and that speculation regarding his character is a minor after-dinner sport.
One of the Handbook’s appendices is a glossary of the terms commonly used by thru-hikers. A purist intends to hike every inch of the Trail, which is officially marked from Georgia to Maine with white painted rectangles called blazes. To slackpack is to cover a section of the Trail without a full pack. To blue-blaze is to use any access trail, all marked with blue blazes, to cut off miles from the official A.T. To yellow-blaze is to skip miles of the Trail by car or bus. Purists, then, will never blue-blaze or yellow-blaze. However, they are divided on the issue of slackpacking. Some see no problem with it–they’re the ones walking the Trail, not their packs, they argue. Others refuse the temptation. Their motto: “slackin’, ain’t packin’.”
Other terms: To yogi is to cajole tourists and dayhikers into offering you food. A thru-hiker who flip-flops interrupts a journey, yellow-blazes to the end of the Trail, and then hikes back to the point from which he or she left (northbounders will do this late in the summer if they have not made it to Vermont by mid-August). To yo-yo is to finish a thru-hike, turn around, and immediately begin a thru-hike in the opposite direction. A section hiker hikes the entire A.T. in pieces, often over a period of years. Trail magic, often provided by Trail angels, describes the unexpected good things that happen to thru-hikers along the trail, such as sharing a shelter with four generous men from Boston who have packed more hamburger makings than they could possibly eat in a weekend.
Your body changes. Your feet develop thick, hard callouses. Toenails turn black. You lose about twenty pounds in the first four weeks, then hold steady. Your hair, only periodically washed, produces less oil and changes texture. Your knees feel strong but disturbingly creaky–in Vermont, I wrote to a friend that I felt like a lean and fit eighty-year-old man. Over time and distance, you learn how many hours it takes to go ten miles over flat land. What you need to eat on a day off. At what time of day you should do your big climbs. Exactly how much weight you can carry before your knees ache. How needful you are of walking on your own terms.
The empty hours of hiking are relaxing and monotonous at once. You figure distance in terms of time: six miles is two hours, forty miles is three days. As you move, your thinking is diffuse. You consider some things closely but more often, it seems, you observe your own thoughts while keeping tabs on your body. Smells, breezes, sudden changes in the weather call forward old memories. The first bars of the Counting Crows’ “Round Here” play over and over in your mind’s ear as you consider a new soreness in your right heel–until, without warning, the here and now, in the form of a surprised grouse, flies at your head.
Some tips: Carry a cup of dog food as an emergency ration. Unlike extra pasta or rice, Alpo is tempting only when you’re in trouble. What can you eat with a fork that you can’t eat with a spoon? Cut your toothbrush handle down to the length necessary to hold it steady as you brush. Things fall apart; do you know how to fix your stove? It is cheapest and easiest to purify water with Clorox: one drop per quart, wait thirty minutes. Rip books apart as you read them — no use carrying chapters you have already read, or information about miles already covered.
Dental floss doubles as thread. A band-aid covered with duct tape protects blisters better than moleskin. A garbage bag-vest worn against the skin is as warm as a heavy sweater. Ask yourself: what will I not need before I reach the next post office? Whatever you answer, mail it ahead. Mountain Jam and Blue Sky mailed ahead of themselves a “town box” that had shampoo, clean clothes, and detergent. Wolf, one of Ward Leonard’s prot‚g‚s, carried only a fifteen-pound daypack. No tent, no sleeping bag, no rain gear, very little food. He often hiked into the night and slept in the middle of the trail.
Mount Moriah, New Hampshire
Kerry and I stayed at The Barn in Gorham for two days. We resupplied, washed our clothes, had our fill of ice cream and pizza, then left early on the third morning, after having our pictures taken and posted on The Barn’s thru-hiker board.
Climbing Mount Moriah a few hours later, we talked about what we had seen in town. In the common room, I had felt more competition than camaraderie. Kerry said he had spent most of a Sunday walking around Gorham, moodily reconsidering his own reasons for making the hike. Each of us confessed to having made a number of long-distance phone calls from town–to girlfriends, mothers, college roommates–hoping to reclaim the excitement we’d felt for the Trail before starting out, and to sort through all that we’d seen in the past few days.
Now back on the Trail, we admitted to a vague disappointment with the other thru-hikers and with ourselves. Our own high-minded and vague expectations for the Trail, now that we were among others, seemed slightly silly. And how different were the Yankee Buckeye or the wonks in the Barn’s common room from the two of us in Maine, pushing for fifteen miles on our third day out? We were suddenly suspicious. Why were we doing this? The result of our discussion was a decision to slow down, to stop pushing for miles, as if the Trail were a test of stamina and self-discipline. We would savor the White Mountains (the last big mountains we would cross before Virginia), not speed through them for the sake of making Georgia before the heavy snows.
Mount Moriah, New Hampshire – Glencliff, New Hampshire
Kerry and I moved considerably slower with our new attitude. The seventy-mile section between Gorham and North Woodstock, New Hampshire took us eight days of hiking. Halfway there, after waking up in heavy rain at the northern base of Mount Madison, we took a day off and helped a volunteer work crew paint a bathroom at one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s work camps. They offered us bunks, showers, and homemade burritos in exchange.
That week, we crossed three of the highest New England ranges–the Wildcats, the Franconias, and the Presidentials. The Trail was steep, wet and rocky and it ran at least twenty miles above treeline, over moonscapes of granite and talus that are notoriously dangerous in bad weather. Even so, this section was heavily travelled. We crossed hundreds of soap-scented hikers. Dayhiking families, summer campers, cheerful singles groups from Boston, trail maintenance crews, foreign tourists, guided week-long expeditions. They stepped aside as we passed and asked polite questions. “How much you carrying there?” “How far have you come?” “What’s your trail name?” I was pleased that we’d come to look like thru-hikers. At Lakes of the Clouds Hut, I played slapjack with an eighth grader who took the trail name Gopher, after I explained to him why Kerry called me “Zoot” and I referred to Kerry as “The Barcalounger” and once, more simply, as “Chair.”
We began to cross northbounders frequently and caught up with several southbounders. Headin’ Home, a gentle-voiced teacher from Georgia, had started in Maine a few weeks before we had. A northbound woman named Squirrel had a small face and round, full cheeks. Wrongway earned his name in Georgia, when he left a shelter one morning, turned south rather than north, and backtracked two miles before realizing what he had done.
Earplug earned his name in the Smokies, when he came down with a stomach virus and had to be airlifted to a hospital. As he lay on the litter waiting for the helicopter to take off, the pilot handed him two round, yellow pellets that he mistook for Nuprin and quickly swallowed. I began to keep a list of trail names in my journal. Six-Foot Hobbit, Straight Talk, Badditude, Evenstar, Strider, Snickers, Pogo, Thunder Chicken.
We also heard of elaborate slackpacking schemes. Bootscooter planned to slackpack Mount Washington by leaving his pack at the Pinkham Notch base camp (which the Trail passes through), taking Pinkham’s tourist bus up to the top of the mountain, then hiking the A.T. down to his pack. The next day he would take the tourist bus up Washington again, hike the A.T. down the other side, and continue on. In that way he’d avoid carrying his pack up Washington, the tallest mountain in New England. Biker Hiker, a former prison guard and an occasional bouncer at motorcycle bars, had his wife slackpack him through the western part of New Hampshire. He carried only essentials, and she met him every day or two at road crossings, brought him food and beer, sometimes stayed the night. Once, to make up for a day when she could not meet him, she duct-taped a bottle of Jack Daniels to a pre-chosen tree near the Ethan Pond campsite.
Moving southwest across New Hampshire, Kerry and I crossed most of that year’s northbounders, and the disappointment I had felt at The Barn with the silliness of everyone’s wonkish, obsessive drive was slowly displaced by awe. The Young Ones, three fifteen-year-old boys and their counselor, had section-hiked over two years as part of a youth-at-risk program. Some thru-hikers smoked cigars; several carried guns. Energizer hiked with a Walkman. Bootscooter was seventeen years old and outside of North Carolina for the first time. His mother determined how many miles he would cover each day, what he would eat, and in which towns he should stay. (Did she devise that brilliant slackpack of Mount Washington?) Albatross ate only trail mix. He carried two different mixtures and carefully measured his doses of both. Johnnie O. was eighty years old. He walked eight miles a day and ate two dinners each evening to maintain a safe level of body fat. Jester called himself the Appalachian Troubadour and carried a small, narrow guitar in his pack. The Nice Boys, a group of four young men from Michigan, claimed to have gone for several days in New Hampshire on only Little Debbie snack cakes.
Wingfoot writes in the Handbook, “There is no ‘ordained way’ to hike the A.T., so develop a philosophy and style of thru-hiking that is satisfying to you, and allow others the freedom to do the same.” In Maine I had scoffed at this. Wasn’t it an apology for those like the Yankee Buckeye, who lacked the proper seriousness? A few weeks into New Hampshire, I knew better. Now, like Chaucer’s narrator in “The House of Fame,” who visits the austere “castel” of the title but then finds things much more agreeable in the ramshackle and clamorous House of Rumor, I was more interested in gossip and the details of others’ hikes than in stories of profound accomplishment or discovery. Show me, Doughboy, the beige polyester slacks you wear on cold nights (a witty play on the purists’ motto: “if you’re not slackin’, you’re not packin’!”). Pappy, tell me about the kelp-and-seaweed diet you kept through Virginia, or about the evening you were hiking nude and came upon a group of Boy Scouts, hiking all in a row, “in a big-ass cloud of Backwoods Off.” Yankee Buckeye, if we meet again, I will have my own stories for you.
We saw Endorphine several times in the Whites. A frail college professor in his late fifties, he had started section hiking the Trail a decade earlier. This summer, he planned to finish, and his schedule was complicated. He hiked in two- and three-day sections, his direction always determined by total elevation gain. That is, he went north if, in the section he planned to hike, going north required less climbing than going south. After completing a section, he retreated to a summer cottage near Lake Winnepesauke, rested, then geared up and got back to the Trail. We had first seen him in Maine, near Sugarloaf. He carried a small notepad in his breast pocket in which he kept track of his own total A.T. mileage.
As we went south, we crossed him at Imp Shelter, just outside of Gorham (“2116 down, 39.1 to go!”); crossed him again at Pinkham Notch, where he had met his boy scout troop from Maryland; then saw him in the snack bar on top of Mount Washington, still with his troop, many of whose members looked tired and vulnerable after a night of bad weather on the Presidential Ridge. A week earlier I had raved to Endorphine about the virtues of midday protein. Now, as his twelve year olds stuffed down hamburgers and M&M’s, Endorphine ate from a can of corned beef with a plastic spoon. “Zoot, this stuff is great,” he told me. “My thighs! The strength! Better than chocolate,” he said with a flourish of the spoon. “Right guys?” The troop was suspicious. Endorphine said, “I think we’re going to take the bus down the mountain.”
I saw Endorphine once more. In North Woodstock, New Hampshire, Kerry caught a cold and decided to yellow-blaze to Hanover, where he would stay with family friends and recuperate while I covered the sixty-five miles to Hanover alone. It was during that time that I crossed Endorphine, hiking his final section of the Trail with a well-scrubbed young couple who were visibly uncomfortable in the rain. (All of the couple’s equipment is clean, I remember thinking.) When the couple, red-cheeked and winded, made it to where we were standing, Endorphine introduced us. I smiled, feeling an awkward reverence. They were the son and daughter of the man with whom he had started section-hiking the Trail fifteen years earlier, a great friend of his, who had since died. Endorphine had invited his children to join him on this last section of Trail.
The Weatherman is one of the famous Trail angels. He puts up thru-hikers in the barn of his home on the Haverhill, New Hampshire town common, free of charge. Before rejoining Kerry in Hanover, I stayed with the Weatherman with Blaze and Pilgrim, two northbounders. Shortly after four, the Weatherman picked us up from the post office in a white BMW. He was a retired high school history teacher and extravagant in his gestures, steering and pointing to landmarks along the road. When we arrived at the house, he led us into his barn, now a specially converted hiker’s pub, stepped behind the bar and took orders. It was a wonderful moment. Still muddy and grizzled from the Trail, Blaze, Pilgrim, and I settled down on the bar stools, accepted our beers, and each toasted the Weatherman’s kindness. For dinner, he served us pasta and salad on fine china. The next morning, he made us pancakes and fruit salad before returning us to the Trail.
There are moments on the A.T. when you feel the absence of tradition. The pilgrims on the road to Rome promised to pray for those who helped them on their journeys. No traditional offer of gratitude yet exists on the Trail. I had no satisfactory way to thank the Weatherman for his kindness except to jot his address inside the back cover of my Handbook and send him a postcard from a point further south.
Lyme Center, New Hampshire – Hanover, New Hampshire
Two days later, with twenty miles left before Hanover, I crossed the Lyme-Dorchester Road in bright noon light. Instead of following the Trail towards Holts Ledge, I hitchhiked into Lyme Center, bought the Sunday New York Times, and read it on the town common. Taking the afternoon off with coffee, donuts, and a paper felt like playing hooky.
I decided to hitchhike into Hanover from Lyme, a distance of about fifteen miles, my first big yellow-blaze. The woman who picked me up was the wife of a Dartmouth professor, but she might have been my conscience. As I sat in her passenger seat holding my pack between my knees, she established that I was a southbound thru-hiker and asked why I wasn’t walking. She dropped me off a few blocks away from the Dartmouth Green. If I’d had an excuse for skipping miles–a note from my doctor, a shredded boot–perhaps she would have carried me further.
That summer, of the two thousand hikers who started the Trail intending to thru-hike, only about two hundred made it the entire way. When Kerry and I reconvened in Hanover, we decided that we would leave the Trail at Kerry’s grandfather’s house in South Egremont, Massachusetts, near the Connecticut line. From that point, we said, we might yellow-blaze down to Tennessee and hike the section of the Trail that crossed the Smokies. But I suspect we both knew that in South Egremont the trip would be over.
It is difficult to trace the reasons behind our decision to quit the Trail, and tempting to look for more reasons than there were. Certainly the trip had demystified our ideas about thru-hiking. By Hanover, simply put, we had had enough. We had grown tired of the nomadic Trail life and both felt some unrest about the future plans we had been so happy to put aside several months earlier. Graduate school applications? Girlfriends? These reasons were primary in making our decision. I suspect our one unspoken reason for stopping short was that as we moved south and into the fall, we would no longer see others. By Hanover I felt that a thru-hike on an empty Trail was not worth making.
Hanover, New Hampshire – Dalton, Massachusetts
After leaving Hanover, we crossed the Connecticut River and entered Vermont. The landscape was gentle and rolling, the hills covered in green to their summits. Frightwig, a northbounder named in the Smokies for the state of his hair after pulling off his watchcap, referred to the section of Trail in Vermont and Massachusetts as “the green tunnel.” This was not, we learned, an affectionate term. After Hanover, the Trail rarely came out from under the leaves, except to skirt cow pastures. We had our best views from roadsides and towns.
Having decided to cut our thru-hike short, Kerry and I approached our days with different priorities. Several times we woke, decided the day was not for hiking, and hitchhiked in to the nearest town for breakfast. We stayed in several motels, looked for distractions, and once caught a bus from Bennington, Vermont to Williamstown, Massachusetts to yellow-blaze past an uninteresting section of Trail and catch a matinee performance of “Love Letters” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. If we were purists in Maine, we became decadent in Vermont.
It is somehow fitting that in our last week on the Trail–the day after seeing “Love Letters,” to be precise–we met Ward Leonard. We first saw him in the snack bar at Bascom Lodge, the rustic hotel at the top of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. His body was completely covered, just as the Yankee Buckeye had said it would be. Though the sky was clearing outside, he wore a full, forest green rainsuit, blue glove liners, and a blue balaclava. Kerry had just returned his dishes to the counter when Ward approached and peppered him with questions. Was Kerry a thru-hiker? Northbound or southbound? Had he seen any bears at Katahdin? How many days had he been out?
Kerry said he’d been out since July 1, then asked, “Are you Ward Leonard?”
Ward laughed goofily, pleased to be recognized. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. His eyebrows and moustache stubble were red, his skin–what we could see of it–pale but with a windburned blush. As he ordered food, we left the snack bar to pack up, intent on getting to Cheshire and wary of confronting Ward. Neither of us wanted to admit to him that we were no longer actual thru-hikers, that we had lost that sense of mission we’d had in Maine.
A few minutes later, though, as I was walking out of the Lodge, he stopped me and began the same line of questioning. I cut him off.
“I’m with the other guy.”
“I’m heading south, too. I’ll probably see you guys down at the Cheshire Hostel. But I’m going to hike the old A.T. down, ’cause it’s nostalgic for me. The people in the houses I’m passing look out and it makes them feel nostalgic to see a thru-hiker.”
The “old A.T.” was a country road the A.T. once followed down the south slope of Greylock. Kerry and I took the official Trail, which switchbacked down through the forested side of the mountain. Sure enough, we saw Ward again that night in Cheshire, and then periodically over the next three days. He confirmed that he had indeed thru-hiked ten times since 1980, and told us that he was no longer strictly a thru-hiker. In the few days before we met him, his goal had been to hike north from Connecticut to the Massachusetts-Vermont line, tag the “Welcome to Vermont” sign, then turn south again. Even so, he still covered huge distances in a short amount of time and took great joy and pride in his mastery of walking the Trail. “I’m the best!” he told us on the last morning he spent with us, pointing his finger at my chest. “I can camp on a dime!”
Sitting outside the Cheshire hostel, Ward explained to me how his thru-hiking had changed the world. “I sometimes say that I’m an agent of the CIA, not because they’ve hired me or anything but because of the changes I’ve made. On my speed hike in 1991 the caretaker at the Bear Mountain shelter let me unlock the gate to the shelter. That weekend, the Soviet Empire fell. So, at the time I unlock the Great Bear the Red Bear, the Soviet bear falls.
“I like hiking around the D.C. area,” he told me, “because of all the things there. I was hiking around the Pentagon once. It was the day I first kissed my girlfriend–in front of the Pentagon, which was probably a sign of how dysfunctional our relationship would be. That day we made a big change in our policy with the Middle East.”
I asked why he didn’t move on to other trails, the Pacific Crest Trail, for instance, which stretches from Washington state to southern California and is now the longest continuous wilderness trail in the country. One of Ward’s prot‚g‚s, Wolf, had hiked the P.C.T. in four months. Ward shrugged the question off, though, and I understood that he did not move on to others precisely because he had mastered this one.
In the three days we were with him, I realized that any of the stories we had heard about him might have been true, even the rumor that he was a diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic whose parents funded his habit to keep him out of institutions. Certainly, Ward believed that his thru-hiking directly affected the world beyond the Appalachians. He was obsessed with prestige, its manifestations on and off the Trail. He believed himself to be the preeminent hiker on the Trail. More than once, he prefaced stories with, “Because I’m the best thru-hiker . . .” Yet I suspect Ward’s delusions are no more than exaggerations of ones I had observed in other thru-hikers, and in myself. He had thru-hiked, as a purist and with a full pack, in sixty and two-thirds days. He saw the Trail culture as a secret society, with more secret alliances within. And how much difference is there between believing, as Ward did, that a thru-hike can change the world, and believing, as Kerry and I did at Katahdin, that with a thru-hike you can change yourself?
South Egremont, Massachusetts
While hiking, I never heard a thru-hiker say that another had “quit.” Most often, the hikers who stopped short were said to have “got off the Trail,” which nicely suggests the separation between thru-hiking and all that lies beyond it. Three days after Ward turned north again (to follow a thru-hiking woman he’d found attractive), Kerry and I got off the Trail at his grandfather’s house. We had covered 650 miles in all, from Katahdin to southern Massachusetts. After a five-minute walk along a country road, we sat at Kerry’s grandfather’s kitchen table, our packs leaning against the lawn chairs on the patio, now a world away from the Trail though we were still within shouting distance of the junction where we had turned off.
One of the remarkable things about the Trail is this separateness it keeps as it winds down through the crowded Eastern mountains. Though it passes through towns and pastures, along roads and sidewalks, the Trail is something set apart from the settled areas from which it is only rarely out of reach. Even weekend hikers feel this, but for thru-hikers, the Trail stands apart from all of the towns, counties, and states it passes through in a more profound way. It becomes a separate world, an unfurling narrative of mountains, people, and weather. What Wingfoot refers to as “modern recreational thru-hiking” seems ultimately an American form of pilgrimage. The idea is not to break new ground, but to follow the official Trail, which has been cleared and flattened by thousands of others. The frontiers you explore are at the edge of your own personal landscape, and the way you go about that is particularly your own.
Kerry and I, on our first day on the Trail, saw this entry in the register at Hurd Brook Lean-to: “Came out for two days, got my ass eaten by bugs. Miserable. Found exactly what I was looking for: myself. I’ll hike out tomorrow.” It was not clear whether this was the entry of a thru-hiker. Even so, my immediate reaction was disapproving: this guy is a lightweight, and he’s expressing himself in hackneyed terms. Yet it is the very essence of pilgrimage to discover the truth behind received wisdom, not to change it. He “found himself.” I’m not sure that I, riding the bus back to Kerry’s house in D.C., could say much more than what that bug-eaten hiker had written in the register, except to note the wonderful comedy of finding others doing the same thing. We are, most of us, pilgrims, not pioneers. And we learn that the lessons of any journey are difficult to describe because they are precisely those truths from which clich‚s are drawn.
Between North Woodstock, New Hampshire and Glencliff, New Hampshire
I have no plans to return to Massachusetts and continue our hike further south, and neither does Kerry. Our two months on the Trail satisfied the desire, even the sense of obligation, that led us there. Kerry recently wrote in a letter that together we began a “great adventure, ached hard, sputtered, reconsidered, and came to grips with what was to be just enough.”
I confess, though, that I have posted above my desk a picture I took in at the Hexacuba shelter in New Hampshire. It’s a strange sort of still life: my pack leaning against a post, my unrolled sleeping bag, the general scattering of gear that comes of any evening, all of it touched by one band of late afternoon light. I look at now it with a sort of pride, just as I still revel in memories of the hike and find, in retrospect, certain definitive moments.
The day after meeting Endorphine for the last time, I climbed out of Kinsman Notch in heavy rain. This was during the week that Kerry was off the Trail recuperating from the flu, so I was hiking alone and carrying the group gear that he and I usually shared. Just after noon, I crossed NH Route 112, ate an orange and a Snickers bar slathered with peanut butter, then began the ascent of Mount Moosilauke, expecting to find snow flurries on the exposed summit. The ascent was steep. The Trail rose past waterfalls and in places became a narrow staircase of small planks fastened to sheer granite. I held my thighs as I climbed, feeling them loosen and contract.
From a small clearing I saw that low clouds were moving quickly over the summit. I stopped, got a wool hat out of my pack, pulled it down over my ears. I felt wonderfully myself. I had walked to that point from Katahdin, more than three hundred miles north. My pack was pared to essentials. I was alone and trail-strong and felt as if I had everything I would ever need.
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