The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
The descent from Mount Garfield was shorter, but no less steep or rocky than coming up. Garfield Pond was still in shadow when I decided to head into the woods to dig a cathole. There were a half-dozen tents and hammocks tucked just a few yards off the trail, so I followed a casual track deeper in.
Much to my dismay, I came upon a “latrine” area where Leave No Trace principles had been all but abandoned. The area was scattered with plops of toilet paper and it was disgustingly obvious that many hikers had made no effort to bury their feces.
Skirting land mines, I pushed deeper and eventually found a depression filled with leaf litter, sticks and stones, where I clawed out a cathole and did my thing. I’d alternated burying and packing out used paper on the trail, but in reaction to the inexcusable mess I’d seen, I vowed to pack it out until the end of my hike.
I tiptoed back through the snoozing stealth site and headed down to the pond to refill my water, where I sank ankle deep in black mud. It was as if the trail had to balance each transcendent moment—my night atop Garfield—with a reminder that really, I was just another grungy guy stumbling around in the woods.
The climb up to Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet) was steep (wait for it … including the 20th-steepest mile and the 23rd-steepest half-mile), but I found it exhilarating. The air was cold enough that I hiked wearing hat, coat and gloves; using the rule of thumb that temperature decreases about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of elevation, I later calculated from the overnight low in Lincoln, N.H. that it the mid-morning temperature atop Lafayette was probably hovering around the freezing mark. I was thrilled to hit timberline, knowing that the trail would not dip back into the forest for the next four miles or so.
Once again, I was favored with an absolutely spectacular, sunny, and mostly calm day on a major summit. Taking in the breathtaking 360-degree view, I marveled at how tiny Mount Washington, adorned with a fluffy cap of cloud, appeared after a little more than two days of walking. Far below I could see Greenleaf Hut, not a favorite of thru-hikers because it is a steep one-mile off the trail. Off to the southwest the AT snaked along the exposed length of Franconia Ridge, reminding me somehow of the serpentine, crenelated Great Wall of China.
While taking a brief break for peanut-butter crackers and water, I spoke to a local hiker who pointed to a miniscule glint on the furthest eastern horizon.
“See that shining silver ribbon right there between the earth and sky? That’s the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “The early explorers could just make out these mountains from the sea on a clear day. That’s about 120 miles away.”
Reveling in the long, gorgeous, 4,000-foot descent to Franconia Notch. I soon realized I’d prematurely assumed I’d be seeing “the last NOBO,” passing at least 10 as they made their way up to the summit. I stopped to talk to the last one I saw before I descended below treeline, an exhausted-looking woman carrying a rather large pack.
“The Whites are just kicking my ass,” she said when I asked how it was going.
“Yeah, no doubt. I’ve been keeping my eye out for the last NOBO,” I said, thinking I was making polite conversation. “You must be near the end of the line.”
“Thanks a lot for reminding me how slow I am,” she said, scowling.
“Oh, I didn’t mean anything … I just …,” I stammered. “I’m sorry, I really wasn’t implying you were slow or anything like that. I just like the idea of meeting ‘the last NOBO.’”
“Well, there are plenty of people behind me,” she said. “Does it get easier up ahead?”
I hated having to answer the question, but lying wasn’t going to help her.
“No,” I said. “From here through southern Maine is pretty tough going. But hey, you’ve made it this far….”
She groaned and turned up the trail.
Once back in the trees, the tread grew tricky and rocky and steep, particularly the last couple miles from 4,459-foot Mount Liberty to the notch some 2,500 feet below, which featured the 6th-steepest mile and 21st-steepest half-mile of the AT.
Getting a little tired of these endless steep mofos, I groused in my journal.
I’d planned the night before to hike about 14 miles and camp by a stream at the foot of the steep climb to the Mount Kinsman, but as I walked I found myself toying with another option: Going to town, then skipping the looming steepness of the Kinsmans by shuttling to the north side of Moosilauke, the purported last gasp of the Whites, the next day.
The erstwhile distasteful idea of yellow-blazing—skipping a portion of the trail via vehicle, named after yellow centerlines—began to infect my imagination for two reasons. First, I knew a storm was predicted the day after next. Second, a hiker who shall go unnamed had told me in Andover that he/she and his/her crew had in Vermont begun unashamedly yellow-blazing here and there, including a bypass of the grueling Baldpates (which Sage—not the person to whom I’m referring—had amusingly described as, “You know, just … shitty.”) and the daunting Kinsmans.
“We were never purists anyway,” the laid-back yellow-blazer explained. “And we’re out here to have fun.”
By the time I crossed the Whitehouse Bridge over Cascade Brook it was early afternoon and my mind was made up. Instead of continuing under I-93 and starting up the Kinsmans, I turned and walked nine-tenths of a mile on a paved bike path to the parking lot for the Franconia Notch State Park visitor center.
Along the way, I passed two pairs of NOBOs. One, Tuna, enthused about “Chet’s,” a hostel that isn’t mentioned in Awol’s guide except, oddly, as a black dot on the map for Lincoln, N.H.
“It’s a great place, man,” he said. “Super chill hangout for hikers.”
He also gave me the phone number for Miss Janet, the legendary trail angel who migrates from Georgia to Maine in her custom van each season seeking to help hikers in any way she can. I’d heard about her all along the trail, and was excited for the chance to finally meet her.
On the other hand, Marnie at White Mountains Hostel had suggested I stay at The Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, saying it was much like her place. So when I got to the parking lot, I called the number listed in Awol to see about getting a ride.
“I’m sorry, but we’re full,” said the woman who answered. “I’m afraid you’re not going to find anything in town this weekend”—I honestly didn’t even know what day of the week it was—“because of the festival.”
That was the annual New Hampshire Highland Games & Festival, the largest Scottish culture event in the northeast.
Great, I thought. I pondered hiking back up the bike path and tackling the first part of the Kinsmans as I’d originally planned, but by then I had my heart set on some real food—and yellow-blazing. So I called Miss Janet.
I’ve come to think of Miss Janet as a kind of AT bodhisattva who has made a vow to return to trail year after year until every hiker is enlightened. Not merely a cornucopia of knowledge about the trail, trail towns, hostels, restaurants—you name it—she also is a warm, loving, compassionate angel with an uncanny ability to discern what every hiker needs, or needs to hear.
“Where are you?” she said in her lovely east Tennessee lilt.
“At the entrance to the parking lot at Franconia Notch.”
She laughed. “Well then, turn around. I’m in the parking lot just behind you.”
Sure enough, her well-used, heavily stickered forest-green van was in the process of being unloaded by a daisy-chain of hikers, who tossed packs down from the roof rack. Beaming happily, seven or eight hikers posed for Miss Janet’s photos and video, many breaking into some currently popular dance that I’d never heard of. The round of hugs went on for several minutes before they loaded up and I climbed into the front seat. I had Miss Janet all to myself for the short ride into town.
“Don’t worry,” she said when I fretted about finding a place to stay. “I’ll take you to Chet’s. It’s the best place for a real hiker experience, anyway.”
I didn’t tell her I was thinking of yellow-blazing the Kinsmans, but it seemed as if she had read my mind and decided to keep me from making a mistake I would regret.
“Hey, why don’t you slack the Kinsmans?” she said. “I can give you a ride up there tomorrow morning and pick you up when you’re done. It’s a tough 17 miles, but you can do it.”
And that’s all it took to dispel my ill-advised, short-lived urge to shortchange my hike, which, as she suggested, I would have regretted later.
Miss Janet first drove me to the grocery store in Lincoln and waited while I did a resupply. Then we drove a few blocks to a plain, low-slung house. When I got out of the van, a guy in a wheelchair rolled out from the garage and Janet introduced me by my trail name, but neglected to tell me who he was.
“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand. “Uh, and you are…?”
This was Chet, and he was not amused. Unbeknownst to me, he likes to grill hikers before granting them permission to stay. He’s not interested in section hikers, yellow-blazers, or anyone other than thru-hikers. He immediately turned his wheelchair to go back into the garage but Miss Janet stopped him.
“No, he’s the real deal. Tell him, Pony.”
I apologized, saying I didn’t realize who he was, then began explaining my oddball itinerary—Winding Stair Gap through the Smokys in March; home for three weeks; Springer to Franklin, April 9-16; shuttled to Pigeon River April 17; got off at Rockfish Gap May 17 for five weeks; started back June 25; got off in mid-Vermont for a couple of weeks; flipped up to Katadhin August 25; and now here I was.
Chet looked a little taken aback and glanced at Miss Janet.
“Well, I don’t think anyone would make up anything as complicated as that,” he said, waving me into the garage to find a spot there or in the yard out back.
Miss Janet was right, of course. Chet’s was a true hiker hangout. Between tenters in the backyard and spots claimed on mattresses, couches and pieces of carpet in the garage, at least 20 hikers were there, and it wasn’t even mid-afternoon.
I tossed my pad onto a creaky wooden gazebo in the yard, where clusters of hikers were smoking various combustibles, drinking beer, listening to music and playing games. Among them were Turtle, whom I’d met while recovering from Lyme disease in Pennsylvania, Firefly, a woman I’d met all the way back in Carolina, and many others.
After showering in the dungeon-like concrete basement of Chet’s home, I meandered back into town in search of Mexican food, which I’d been dreaming about for days. On the way, I ran into Sourpatch and a lanky young hiker named Strider, who were on their way back to Chet’s. We hugged and chatted for a few minutes. Simba, the young Israeli woman Sourpatch had been hiking with in Maine, had ended her hike in Stratton.
I ate a huge plate of enchiladas and ravaged a basket of chips down to the last grain of salt, licking the last drops of salsa from my fingertips at Nacho’s Mexican Grille. I had a Coke for dessert before taking a slow constitutional stroll back to the hostel, where I busted out a 12-pack of Sam Adams Oktoberfest for sharing.
Chet’s place was festive that night, and he forgave me my initial faux pas when I took an interest in his excellent crew of two dogs and a cat. Sleeping did not go as well as I’d hoped. My stomach grumbled with a case of town-belly, the night was surprisingly cold, and a skunk expressed itself somewhere nearby in the wee hours.
I was up around 5 o’clock. Miss Janet had told me to knock on the van when I got up and she’d shuttle me and anyone else up to Kinsman Notch, but I couldn’t bear to disturb her until 7. At her request, I had corralled four other NOBOs who planned to slack and we got underway, only to stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts, where I inhaled two donuts and bought coffee. Miss Janet, I learned, is all about top-notch service, not rushing things, but I tamped down my natural impatience and just enjoyed the ride. We finally tumbled out of the van at 8:20.
The day before, Miss Janet explained why she doesn’t always recommend the Kinsman slackpack (a practice in which hikers leave most of their gear at a hostel and hike a section with a small day pack) to NOBOs.
“All these poor NOBOs think they’re 10 feet tall when they get to Hanover,” she said. “Now they’ve done Moosilauke, but they just don’t get it about the Whites; they can’t get it. So they think 17 miles is going to be no big deal, but even slackpacking, the Kinsmans are tough.”
Oddly, according to my journal, the first eight miles were “a joy, just normal-ass rocks and sweet tread,” despite the fact that the first seven-tenths of a mile include the 37th-steepest half-mile on the trail. After that, the tread remains fairly sane as the AT trundles along through the forest, up and over Mount Wolf, then down to Eliza Brook.
But from there, it’s a steep, 2,000-foot grind to the flat, slabby summit of South Kinsman, including the 24th-steepest half-mile and 18th-steepest mile on the trail. After a short drop, the trail climbs steeply up to North Kinsman.
Typical NH slog—steep, pure rox, 2,000 feet up to a decent flat top above treeline, I wrote later. My stomach was sour and I burped coffee and donuts all the way up, but I cruised.
One of the four NOBOs who started with me had blazed past on the first climb. When I passed him below the summit of the south peak, he looked beat.
“My caffeine buzz ran out,” he said.
Both summits offered good views, though nothing as spectacular as Washington, Garfield, or Lafayette. Once again, I had excellent weather for a big summit, but a haze of thin cloud was cutting into the sunlight by afternoon and I sensed the coming storm.
The first mile down from the summit was extremely steep (the 53rd steepest half-mile of the trail, in fact; yes, I know I’m obsessed), stony and slow going. But after that, the trail leveled and smoothed out nicely, making for a long, but fairly gentle runout to the highway underpass, after which I walked a mile down the bike path to the parking lot for a second time. All in all, what would have been a brutal day with a heavy pack was instead just a really gorgeous hike.
Fuck off, purists! Slack-packing is the best, I wrote later in my journal.
Per Miss Janet’s instructions, I had texted her from Kinsman Pond Shelter (NOBO mile 1811.2; SOBO 377.9). But she’d also said she might be heading north that day, and there was no reply by the time I reached the bottom. So I stood at the parking lot exit and put out my thumb.
Fifteen minutes later, not one of the 20-plus cars that had driven past had even glanced in my direction. To my great relief, Miss Janet texted me just then and said she’d pick me up in 45 minutes; she asked about the NOBOs she’d dropped off, and I said I hadn’t seen any of them since morning. They eventually got back to Chet’s around 7:30 p.m.