Sunday, July 28…..For the first time since I began this thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, four months and five days ago, last night I was just too tired to write. After quite possibly the most demanding physical and mental day of any athletic pursuit, I lay my head upon a soft pillow, completely exhausted. I’m still feeling the after effects as I sit under a gazebo at a motel with a view of these majestic Whites. With tired bodies and thunderstorms in the forecast, my buddies and I easily concluded that a zero day was a wise choice. So with 373.1 miles remaining, I’m resting. It feels good to prop my feet up and know that I won’t have to think about every step as I walk today. I’ll try to live normally, at least for a day.
Quite honestly, I don’t think Banzai, Pilgrim, Susquehanna Slim and I realized just how challenging the day was going to be when we entered the woods at Kinsman Notch. We knew it would be hard. I just didn’t expect to take 14 hours to walk 16.3 miles. The first surprise came with the ascent of Mt. Wolf. Since Wolf is not one of the 4000 footers, we failed to recognize its difficulty. Like so many of the mountains in the Whites, it was more of rock scrambling than hiking. In fact, there was little “hiking” today. When we did rarely come across a seemingly level section, it almost always consisted of large areas of oozing, squishy, black mud. When I put my pole down to check its depth, the mud sucked up one-third of it. Figuring out a path around or finding small rocks or sticks to step on also posed a challenge. Every step of the day necessitated total focus. My brain ached. Not like a headache. It can best be described as mental fatigue.
The terrain down Wolf demanded just as much concentration. I kept telling myself to be deliberate. Twice I had near falls but managed to stay vertical throughout the morning. When we reached Eliza Brook Shelter we took a lunch break. Still in good spirits, I didn’t realize at the time that it was going to take me over eight hours to cover the last 8.8 miles. The trail from the shelter parallels Eliza Brook for almost a mile. It also, however, begins ascending again. And so we climbed and climbed and climbed up South Kinsman Mountain. My trekking poles proved worthless often since I needed both hands to hoist myself up the rocks. It was hard. At one point I jabbed my neck and scratched my hand on a jagged tree limb as I tried to balance myself near the edge of the trail. Every step required precision. A serious fall constantly awaited. Focus and deliberation were essential.
When we finally arrived above tree-line at the summit of South Kinsman Mountain, like yesterday on Moosilauke, the views were unbelievable. It’s like being in an airplane with no fuselage. While we were taking a break, our friend Steady walked up. Banzai decided to hike on with him, so after reaching the peak of North Kinsman a mile later, I wouldn’t see either Banzai or Steady again for the remainder of the day. From the peak of North Kinsman at 4293 feet, Slim, Pilgrim, and I started the slow, tedious, time consuming treacherous descent. It was brutal. At least five times I found myself purposefully on the seat of my shorts trying to inch my way down the perilous, slanted rock slabs. The climb down from Kinsman required as much or more mental effort than physical. At some point Slim also got ahead. By the time Pilgrim and I finally reached the Lonesome Lake Hut, I was spent.
Throughout the White Mountains the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of huts that sleep between 30 and 90 hikers. They allow a few thru hikers to work for stay. Otherwise, they cost $98 which is a discounted fee for thru hikers. Amazingly most are full many nights with short section hikers and tourists. When Pilgrim and I reached Lonesome Lake I went in to see if Banzai and Slim were there. They were not. So Pilgrim and I ate a snack and then set out for the final three miles to Franconia Notch. It was already after 6:00.
The trail was flatter for those final three; however, we encountered two more obstacles. The bridge over Cascade Brook is out, so we had to figure out how to get across the rushing waters. I first tried the rock hop method but changed my mind when I slipped on a wet one and went down for the first time today. For the third time today I bled. The cut on my knee was minor, but still I set a record for blood during one day. After the fall I just walked through the knee deep water to the other side. I did the same when we got to Whitehouse Brook, a half mile from the notch. My feet were freezing from the icy cold water. They felt better by the time I arrived at the road. Slim was waiting. He, Pilgrim, and I still had to walk about a mile up a bike path to the Liberty Springs parking lot.
So finally my day on the AT had come to an end. It was 14 hours after I had begun at 5:50 in the morning. I had scratches on my neck, right hand, and right knee. Each of my buddies had also fallen at least once. Bruised and battered, we drove through a light drizzle as nightfall arrived. We found a restaurant and then finally settled in at the motel at 10:30. It was a long day, a tiring day, a day that I will remember. A day of rest should help. We are OK. On Tuesday we’ll continue our journey through the Whites, a little more cognizant of the perils that may await. Perils of the trail sometimes, however, are no different than the perils of life.
A year ago my brother had one month to live. He struggled daily to just exist. He couldn’t move. He had difficulty breathing. He could do nothing for himself except think. Only he knew his thoughts. I believe one of my reasons for this hike was to try to find a way to suffer just a fraction of the way Don suffered during that final month of his life. Today was hard, really hard. But what I encountered today pales in comparison to what Don had to undergo that painful last month. There are tough days ahead. There are mountains to be climbed and descended. There are rivers to be forded and nights to be slept in the woods. There is also beauty and tranquility to be appreciated and enjoyed. One more month on the Appalachian Trail.