The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
The trail was rocky but not egregiously steep for a mile down to the South Branch Carabassett River, which I was able to ford by hopping from one blocky white boulder to the next. Turning back, I could see that it would be quite a dangerous crossing in a wetter year or earlier in the season.
The ascent of Sugarloaf Mountain—home to the Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort, which I’d seen across the valley the day before—began with a crank that was very nearly as steep as the lunatic descent I’d hobbled down the night before, and included, in fact, the 14th steepest mile and 16th steepest half-mile on the entire AT.
Once I’d cleared that rocky ladder, the trail climbed into a bergschrund (German for “mountain cleft”) studded with tough spruce-fir krummholz (“crooked wood”) and offering truly panoramic views to the south. Relieved when the trail leveled out and, praise be, offered actual dirt and duff on which to place my sore feet, I practically skipped along until I reached the utterly unexpected (to me) 500-foot knob that was Spaulding Mountain. But like a mother who buys ice cream because she feels guilty for yelling at her kids, the trail soothed me with another spectacular view up top.
I ate lunch down by Orbeton Stream (SOBO mile 207.0), where a hiker told me that the upcoming Saddleback range wasn’t too bad and it was “smooth sailing” after that until Bemis Mountain. But it all began with the 26th steepest half-mile on the AT, which spilled out onto a relatively level ridge before surging to the top of Saddleback Junior. I was continually awed through southern Maine and New Hampshire by the sweeping, unobstructed views from various tree-less summits, and the Saddlebacks were no exception.
But Maine’s brutally steep, rocky ups and downs were definitely kicking my ass, and I was tired enough after descending Junior that I decided to call it a day after just under 17 miles. I set up my tent at the Redington Campsite (SOBO 212.4), which I was to have all to myself that night … or at least there were no people around.
Somewhere nearby, on July 21, 2013, a 66-year-old NOBO hiker named Inchworm, aka Geraldine Largay, from Tennessee, stayed at Poplar Ridge Shelter (SOBO mile 209.7), less than three miles north of my campsite. Two days later, when she did not arrive at a rendezvous point, her husband reported her missing. Authorities finally called off one of the largest search-and-rescue efforts in Maine history after about a week. But nearly every 2016 AT hiker heard the news in May when Inchworm’s remains were found about two miles off the trail.
“In somm trouble,” she had written in a text message to her husband that never sent, still stored in her phone. “Got off trail to go to br (bathroom). Now lost.”
Inchworm set up her tent and waited for someone to find her, and after 26 days, she died of starvation and exposure. She had dutifully followed the supposed “rule No. 1” when you get lost—stay put—and it had killed her.
Some 1,500 pages of documents released by investigators indicated that Inchworm may have had a poor sense of direction, which would explain how she got lost while taking a bathroom break. But I was disturbed by the thought that she just sat there, waiting for someone else to save her. She wasn’t injured, and could easily have hiked to a mountaintop to find cell reception, or followed a draw or stream to the next inevitable road crossing.
There are many dangers on the trail, but if you are the kind of person who can get turned around that easily, or you don’t know how to use a compass, you simply shouldn’t be out there. The trail in that part of Maine travels through dense forest and over many mountains, but it’s not that dangerous or easy to get lost. Inchworm’s tragedy can be laid at the feet of her lack of skill and refusal to take charge of her own salvation when it should have been clear she had no other choice.
Sort of a downer day, I wrote that night. No reason, unless just cumulative fatigue. Or maybe Inchworm now haunts this section of trail.
Not that I believe in ghosts….
I rolled out at 6:20 the next morning, knowing that a BoDMoFo (beginning-of-the-day-motherfucker) was on the breakfast menu. The march from Redington Campsite up to The Horn (4,032 feet) included the 19th steepest half-mile on the AT, but it didn’t seem too bad so early in the day.
To my delight, the trail remained above treeline from the summit of The Horn all the way to the top of Saddleback Mountain (4,120 feet) and for a mile or so beyond. Both peaks were fantastic (the Saddlebacks kicked ass, I wrote later, but in a good way) and the weather was gorgeous, warm, clear and calm, even on top.
The walk down the other side took me off those exhilarating granite crowns and back into “standard-issue forest.” Given that it was a holiday weekend, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that there was no magic when I got to ME 4, which led to Rangeley nine miles to the west.
Rangeley is considered a great trail town, but I had just done a resupply in Stratton (just an OK trail town, in my opinion) and I was strangely loathe to hitch too far from the trail, so I skipped it. In general, I wasn’t too interested in towns. But in hindsight, I wish I would have more carefully studied Awol’s descriptions, which might have led me to stop in the best trail towns.
On top of the mountain, I changed clothes and managed to pull my frequent stunt of setting my pack on the pinch-valve of my water bladder—a foolish snafu I never could quite shake—which left me waterless for much of the morning. I stocked up at a stream, but never quite caught up on my hydration. Somehow I still made decent time, and I was thrilled to reach my expected destination, Sabbath Day Pond Lean-to (NOBO mile 1959.4; 229.8 from Katahdin) at 2:30.
There was already a hiker sprawled out on the shelter floor, snoring loudly, but I tossed out my sleeping pad anyway and hung up my clothes and tent to dry while eating some lunch. As I sat there flipping through the logbook, a young guy with dark hair and glasses ambled in.
“Oh, you’re Pony? I’ve heard a lot about you,” said Jeff, who was still awaiting his trail christening. “You’ve been moving pretty fast.”
That seemed odd, since I’d been traveling solo and over the past week had been averaging between 18 and 19 miles a day. But, according to Jeff, people had been talking about me and he’d been “chasing” me. Go figure. An ultra-runner, he had given himself the ambitious goal of finishing the trail in under 75 days, an average of 30 miles a day. He certainly looked fit, and his pack was enviably light. I never did find out if he made his goal.
After Jeff left, I turned back to the logbook. I truly loved going through the logbooks along the entire trail, reading every entry whenever possible, though somewhere in the mid-Atlantic I’d stopped signing every one. I came across an entry from a NOBO named Ninja Hoops who wrote that she’d camped on a tiny sliver of beach on Long Pond, about three-tenths of a mile south of the shelter. With the comatose snorer showing no signs of letting up, I made a snap decision, sloppily tossed my gear together, then headed down the trail wearing Crocs.
Sure enough, I soon came to a 15-foot path that led down to a short, narrow beach that looked just big enough for a couple of one-person tents. After poking around in the woods nearby I found a less exposed spot to pitch my tent that still offered a spectacular view of the pond.
I hadn’t been swimming in awhile, but now I waded far out across the clean, sandy bottom and dunked myself repeatedly. Stripping off my clothes, I swirled and wrung them until the drippings were as clear as the cool, clear water of the pond. The skies were clear, the air was warm, and there was not the faintest breath of wind, making for an almost perfect swimming experience. Back on shore, I draped my clothes on a rickety little table someone had constructed and lay on the sand to soak up the beneficent rays.
I rinsed out la ropa—Spanish for “clothes”—and it actually DRIED in the sun! I wrote later, marveling at the prospect of putting on dry gear the next morning.
The place was a mini-paradise. I watched a huge blue heron patiently stalking fish for more than an hour, after which I not only heard, but saw two red-eyed loons ducking under the water and resurfacing no more than 20 yards away; I had no idea they were so big. And if a couple of very eager leeches did their best to attach themselves to my ankles, well, I was too happy to care; I plucked them off and tossed them back in the water with all good wishes.
Sitting there in my skivvies, I felt like the proprietor of my own personal paradise as many hikers stopped by and heeded my advice to take a dip, including SOBO flippers Spud and Rude, Sunshine (who had last seen me suffering from Lyme disease in Pennsylvania), Sphagnum PI, a sharp, funny biologist from Iowa who I met in Virginia, Goodtalk, and two enthusiastic young women who went by The Yogis.
With the exception of the reeking shit-log and plops of toilet paper my nose detected near my tent (I gave them a proper burial, cursing the inconsiderate dolt who left the mess), it was a perfectly magical afternoon and evening. The sky was a screaming asylum of sharp stars that night, and I fell asleep with the haunting laughter of loons and the velvet-soft lapping of water in my ears.
The next morning dawned cloudy and muggy. As I strolled through the woods past Moxie Pond (NOBO mile 1957.2; SOBO 231.9), I heard the splashing of what could only be a hiker or other large critter. Scurrying back to a place where I could see through the trees, I spied the massive black shadow and sprawling antlers of a bull moose about 50 yards away. It was a great start to another challenging day in Maine.
After dropping steeply to Bemis Stream, I had the dubious pleasure of grinding back up to Bemis Mountain (including the 40th steepest half-mile of the AT). Unlike the previous days’ spectacular mountains, the trail to Bemis was mostly enclosed by trees and unexceptional, though at least it leveled out after the first brutal slog.
I’d begun to worry about the condition of my pole tips, which I’d replaced all the way back in Harpers Ferry. They’d been showing signs of pending collapse and sure enough, one snapped off just before I reached the summit of Bemis. On top, I shrugged off my pack, put on my rain coat against the chilly mist, and went to work, wrapping the tip in a blob of duct tape, which I hoped would remain intact until I got to Andover, where I planned to resupply and spend the night. Somewhere along in here, I ran into Sequoia, whom I’d last seen in Hot Springs, N.C., and Alasdair, the English bloke I’d met at Pine Grove Furnace in Pennsylvania.
The summit of Old Blue, crowned with tight, low spruce and fir, was enshrouded in mist when I arrived. Having read that there was no cell phone reception at the bottom of the steep descent to South Arm Road, I called up the Pine Ellis hostel in Andover to see if they might be able to pick me up.
“You’re on top of Old Blue now,” said the woman. “So it’ll take you three hours to get to the road.”
“Three hours? It’s only 2.8 miles.”
“Trust me,” she said.
But I had a hard time believing that I would slow to a pace of less than a mile an hour, no matter how steep and rocky the descent. I suggested she pick me up in two hours.
The woman sighed. “Well, you sound young, so maybe you can make it. We’ll pick you up at 3, but if you ain’t there and we have to come back, I’ll have to charge you double for the ride.”
“Fair enough,” I said, smiling. Me, young?
The descent was tough, to be sure, as I wrote later, steep, then ridiculously steep. ‘Sweating’ rocks were slippery and I fell several times. (What’s that you say? You demand to know how it compared to other parts of the trail? Well, I’ll tell you: it included the 8th steepest half-mile and the 22nd steepest mile on the AT. You’re welcome.)
After clambering down the seemingly vertical final half mile to the road, I checked and saw that I’d made it in an hour and 25 minutes, plenty of time. But for unknown reasons (Inchworm, is that you?), I had an unshakeable premonition that there would be a problem with the shuttle.
A cluster of exuberant hikers who had just finished slackpacking the even steeper segment to the south, including Moody and Wyman mountains, lay sprawled on their sleeping pads across the little-used strip of asphalt, waiting for a shuttle from The Cabin hostel. Among them was a shirtless C# (C-sharp), whom I’d spend time with back in Shenandoah, who was strumming happily on his ukulele. After a short time, a shiny black pickup drove slowly around the bend. The crew gave a whoop, loaded up, and headed out.
While I was sitting there by myself another hiker tumbled out of the woods across the road. It was Sage, whom I’d run into several times along the trail. He, too, was slacking.
“How was it?” I asked, having noticed the rather nasty profile of the next 10 miles.
“You know,” Sage said, managing a weary smile, “shitty.”
Shitty, translated: Steep, rocky, slippery, up and down, exhausting. In short, southern Maine.
We chatted while I waited for my shuttle. The truck from The Cabin came back and picked up another load of slackers and soon it was after 3 p.m.
“What the hell?” I grumbled. “I had a weird feeling this wouldn’t go right.”
It was eight miles into town, which neither Sage nor I had any intention of hiking. But we had no phone service and during the time I’d been sitting by the road I’d seen two vehicles, the other shuttle and a logging truck.
“Aw, man, I really don’t want to park it here for the night,” I grumbled.
“Don’t worry,” Sage said. “Someone will come along.”
Soon, someone did. A large pickup driven by an older man cruised blithely past at about seven miles per hour. His wife waved cheerily as they rolled up the road and around the bend, ignoring our outstretched thumbs. I was getting more and more annoyed. I’d actually had the foresight to call the stupid hostel from the mountaintop, and still I was stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. Just then, we heard a faint rumble from around the corner. Soon the big red pickup that had just drifted by was coming back down the road, in reverse.
“Don’t get much traffic out here,” the driver said. “We got up around the bend and decided maybe we ought to offer you a ride, if you’re willing to ride in back.”
And that’s what they mean by magic….