The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Remembering my chilly, skunky stay under the gazebo in Chet’s back yard the night before, I laid claim to a strip of carpet beneath a teetering bookshelf in his garage as soon as I got back from slackpacking the Kinsmans.
Kizmit, the Mississippi SOBO I’d met on Mount Washington, had shown up, this time without Green Blaze, with whom she’d hiked since Katahdin. Now picking up her daily mileage, she planned to climb the crazy-steep backside of Mount Moosilauke the next morning.
That was my plan, too. I wasn’t thrilled with the forecast for rain and fog, but at least it wasn’t supposed to be savagely cold or windy. But man, I got an earful from both Chet and other hikers when I mentioned climbing Moosilauke in the rain, most of which consisted of You’re gonna die!
“You have to understand, on the backside you’re basically climbing a waterfall. If it weren’t dark, I could take you outside right now and you’d see the white of the water coming down,” Chet said. “You are climbing almost straight up, and the rocks are slippery because of the water. One misstep and you’re gone.”
NOBOs who had just survived the steep descent alongside Beaver Brook concurred, at times in nearly apocalyptic terms.
“I would never do that in the rain,” said one guy. “You could easily get hurt or killed. Trust me, man, you do not want any part of that crazy.”
But Kizmit, who thru hiked the trail as a NOBo in 2012, waved off such dire warnings.
“Yeah, it’s steep, and if you aren’t paying attention, you could slip,” she said in her Southern lilt. “But these guys are just overreacting because it’s their first real taste of the Whites. You already know what it’s like; they’re the ones who don’t understand.”
Miss Janet, trail angel extraordinaire and friendly storehouse of always-reliable information about the AT, concurred with Kizmit: You can’t listen to NOBOs who are still in shock from the reality of New Hampshire.
“You two’ll be fine,” said Miss Janet said, who agreed to drive Kizmit and me up to Kinsman Notch the following morning to hike the purportedly “last” big SOBO climb in the Whites.
Awed by my daily overdose of beauty and challenge in New Hampshire—I’d started into the Whites just five days earlier, but it seemed like it had been weeks since I left Maine—I was actually surprised to realize how close I was to finishing the hike I’d started nearly six months earlier. Looking at Awol’s guide that night, I tallied up just 99 more miles; I smiled at the memory of how far that would have seemed back in March.
I’d heard New Hampshire got much easier after 4,802-foot Moosilauke. And while what I’d hiked of Vermont had been rugged, I would climb no higher than 2,500 feet in that state before reaching Killington. So even if I took a zero, I would surely be finished in a week or less.
Dribbling into Vermont won’t be like finishing on Katahdin, I wrote in my journal, but just … wow. How can I be almost done? How will I go back to the World?
It was warm and misty when Kizmit and I stepped out of Miss Janet’s van at Kinsman Notch the next morning at 7:30. Miss Janet took our photos and gave us warm, enveloping hugs before we turned and walked back into the woods. Within a tenth of a mile, we were headed straight up the 3,000-foot climb to the summit of Mount Moosilauke, which includes—the moment you’ve all been waiting for, ladies and gentlemen—the single steepest mile segment of the entire AT (and, as it happens, the 2nd-steepest half-mile). It’s a gain of a 2,170 feet in just 1.7 miles, a grade of more than 24 percent.
But, with Kizmit pushing me up the hill, it just wasn’t that bad. We were soaked from sweat and heavy mist, and breathing hard, but somehow we managed to carry on a conversation for a good portion of the climb. She was by far the strongest hiker I’d been around since I’d last seen BASA and Achilles in Massachusetts.
In contrast to my earlier experiences with Kizmit, she proved engagingly chatty. She’d lit her afterburners after deciding to hike away from Green Blaze, the young Marine veteran with whom she’d hiked the previous 400 miles or so. She liked him well enough, she said, but he lacked the ability to “guard his tongue,” and could be thoughtlessly cruel. Kizmit, 31, attributed his sometimes-ungentle words to youth and the military, where such behavior is more commonplace.
We talked about our mutual love for animals, wildlife rehabilitation, Mississippi, the Colorado Trail, movies, and more. I learned that she’d adopted her trail name in memory of a baby squirrel she’d found blown down from a nest, eyes still closed. She raised little Kizmit for several weeks, but he died of pneumonia, leaving her heart-broken.
Kizmit’s company made the hours and miles of our steep march fly by, and we reached the blustery, fog-shrouded summit at 10:30. Our ascent felt fast, but the fact that we averaged less than six-tenths of a mile per hour tells you how steep it really was. We took photos of each other grinning in the mist before throwing on rain gear to cut the wind and hurrying off the other side. The descent was steep, rocky (including, since you asked, the 23rd– and 16th-steepest mile segments of the trail), and consequently slow going.
I busted out my “backup,” $20 Frogg Toggs rain jacket for the first time and soon realized I should have been using it all along. I know it would have soaked through during the kind of torrential downpour I’d endured elsewhere on the trail, but it kept me impressively dry for 85 percent of the price of my fancier lightweight jacket.
Once we were back in the trees, the fog thinned out and we stowed our rain gear. Remarkably, this was the most inclement weather I experienced on any iconic summit along the AT; I had been extraordinarily fortunate.
We spilled out onto remote NH 25 (NOBO mile 1790.4; SOBO 398.7) before 1 p.m. As far as I understood, I was done with the Whites.
“Well, you do still have Cube and Smarts…,” Miss Janet had said offhandedly that morning.
Smarts Mountain, at 3,238 feet, and Mount Cube, at 2,909, didn’t sound like very daunting obstacles, though one guy at Chet’s had raved that the north side of Smarts was as bad or worse than Moosilauke.
Never believe anyone’s horrific tales about anything, ever. All the oogie-boogie about Moosilauke was, big surprise, wildly over-the-top. Chet and the others made it sound like the apocalypse, I wrote later. Yes, it’s a steep, rocky, 3,000-foot slog, but everyone with their hair on fire didn’t even have to climb up it! The Whites may be a buzzsaw, but they are an expected buzzsaw. Maine is the stump grinder they don’t see coming.
Kizmit had a box to pick up at the Hikers Welcome Hostel a third of a mile up NH 25. I’d planned to keep rolling, but decided to walk with her and, with luck, find a Coke or Gatorade and maybe an ice-cream bar for sale. The fog had burned away and the clouds were beginning to break up overhead when we reached the hostel, and we’d hiked less than 10 miles.
My feet and legs were feeling good, but the grinding and grumbling that had plagued my stomach since I woke up seemed to be getting worse, and I began to worry that it was something more than “town belly.” I was also now keenly aware that the the end of my hike approached, and as so many thru hikers learn, “Nobody comes home wishing they’d spent less time on the trail.”
In a snap decision, I decided to wrap it up for the day.
The owners, Packrat and his wife Alyson, weren’t there, nor was Legion, the usual caretaker. But a nice young woman (whose name escapes me) gave us the lowdown: there was a shower, privy, and a rattle-trap old washer and dryer out back, and a brand-new, beautiful barn-style bunkhouse, minus electricity. I took a bed in the bunkroom upstairs so I could charge my phone.
I expected speedy Kizmit to hit the road, as she had planned to hike another 10 or 15 miles. But after dealing with her box, she sat outside soaking up the sun. Eventually, she decided to stay.
“But if I’m going to make it to Damascus”—whence she’d flip-flopped up to Katahdin—”by Thanksgiving, I have to step it up,” she said.
We got a ride from the caretaker down to Glencliff, where we bought dinner and I did a mini-resupply for the next couple of days into Hanover, N.H. Back at the hostel, Kizmit was thrilled to find a DVD of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, which she’d talked about that morning, and we watched it with three section hikers. After they went to bed, I watched a low-budget, yet charming and authentic, movie about the AT, Southbounders.
I’ll do 20 miles to shelter tomorrow, I wrote in my journal before falling asleep. Just two short climbs.
I woke a couple times in the night to continued sharp, grinding pain in my stomach. I got up just after 6 a.m. and decided I was better off skipping breakfast.
Kizmit was up but not yet ready to leave by the time I headed out. She’d made the passage of Moosilauke a pleasure, but I had picked up on her desire for solitude. I doubted I could keep up with her, anyway.
“I imagine you’ll pass me sometime today,” I said by way of farewell. “But in case I don’t see you, thanks for the company.”
Whether it was due to the warm, humid day—highs in the 70s and average humidity of 94 percent—or my sketchy stomach, that day was not much fun.
In contrast to the day before, and despite my previous light day, my legs were trashed by the time I’d scaled two 700-foot climbs, Ore Hill and Mount Mist. Despite a gentle morning rain I was sweating like a plough horse. It dawned on me that I was running a fever, and I began to worry that I’d re-contracted Lyme disease. But after being forced to visit to the woods a half dozen times before noon, I suspected it might instead be giardia or something similar.
Despite Miss Janet’s gentle warning, and the fact that it included54th-steepest half-mile on the AT, I somehow did not expect the three-mile ascent of Mount Cube to be such a grind. Between the intermittent mist and not-so-intermittent green tunnel, the mountain provided little in the way of compensating views, except for Eastman Ledges on the descent. On the other hand, the tread was fantastic, compared to the rest of New Hampshire and most of Maine, providing actual dirt beneath my shoes for most of the day.
My legs continued to burn with exhaustion all the way up Smarts Mountain, slowing my pace. I was surprised that Kizmit had not yet sailed past, though it was possible she’d skated by while I was off digging a cathole.
When I finally reached the top, I was so wasted that I didn’t even bother to climb the fire tower on the summit. Instead, I staggered down a short blue blaze to Smarts Mountain Cabin (NOBO mile 1770.3; SOBO 418.8), a grungy old firewarden’s cabin that now serves as a shelter.
There were three NOBO guys goofing around when I arrived. But having read in the logbook that cabin mice were especially persistent, they decided to sleep in the tower. Confident of my highly effective, mouse-resistant Ursack/OPsak food bag setup, I tossed my pad out beneath a window, then popped an Immodium.
I couldn’t recall drinking any untreated water in recent days. Whatever the nature of my ailment, it had amplified the difficulty of my 20-mile, 6,000-foot day.
I decided to scope out the privy, in case I needed to find it quickly during the night. I found it in desperate need of maintenance, the “peak” piled up to just a couple of inches below the seat. Despite my iffy condition, I decided to rearrange things a bit and make room for the next few users, at least.
It appeared to be a composting toilet, but weirdly, there was no hatch to access the dung-heap from below so it could be stirred. Now inexplicably adamant about improving the situation, I found a sturdy stick and went topside again. Breathing through my nose and involuntarily wincing so hard my face hurt, I proceeded to shove the summit of shit, paper, and mulch down until I’d lowered the Leaning Tower of Feces by a couple of feet. Slapping the seat back down, I stumbled out and chucked my befouled implement as far down the hill as I could. My good deed for the day.
A German couple soon showed up at the cabin, followed by an older NOBO section hiker who was beat from the climb up Smarts, which includes (very last one, I promise) the 28th-steepest half-mile on the trail. Chuck from Nebraska (I think that was his name; I was so exhausted and sick that I took minimal notes that night) had been on a years-long quest to section hike the entire trail. He had the shell-shocked look of a NOBO on his first day in New Hampshire.
“I hope it’s not this hard from here north,” he said.
I hated to break the bad news. But I knew I would have wanted the truth.
“Well,” I said, “I cannot tell a lie. It actually gets harder. A lot harder, I’m afraid….”
I asked him if he’d seen anyone matching Kizmit’s description. He said he’d seen her pitching her tent at the bottom of Smarts just as he started his grueling climb an hour and a half earlier; she must have hiked past after I’d reached the cabin. I was sorry not to see her again, but pleased to learn later that she reached Damascus on Dec. 7, wrapping up a cold and often solo flip-flop to become a two-time AT finisher.
The following May, she bought an old Subaru and headed north with her little dachshund—who had hiked the whole thing with her in 2012— to take a job as a ridgerunner for the Green Mountain Hiking Club.
“I’m SSSSSSSSSSOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO excited to be living on the trail all summer and fall (with my own hippy-mobile for my two days off per week) and actually making money for being out there,” she wrote.