The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
“It was hell … ominous … brooding … unbearable,” he writes. His descriptions call to mind The Wizard of Oz: “The trees have ugly faces and malign intent … a woods for looming bears, dangling snakes, wolves with laser-red eyes, strange noises, sudden terrors.”
Reading that you think, “Holy shit.” But Bryson gets paid to tell a good story (which, in my opinion, he does quite well), and sometimes he exaggerates. No, let’s be blunt: His description of the wilderness is pure, melodramatic bullshit, possibly conjured up to rationalize his decision to bail out.
The Hundred-Mile Wilderness is the section of the AT that runs between Abol Bridge and the small town of Monson (NOBO mile 2074.6; SOBO 114.5). It is the most remote part of the trail, in that all that connects it to the rest of the world (or as thru-hiker and much beloved YouTuber Dixie calls it, the “synthetic” world) is a couple of logging roads and a hostel that can be accessed only by canoe. But presumably that’s exactly what many thru-hikers are after, and it’s not not like you’re walking into the forest of Fangorn; at any rate, I saw no Ents.
Glancing at AWOL’s elevation maps, many hikers are no doubt encouraged by what appear to be long stretches, up to 30 miles, of level land interrupted by just a few puny-looking climbs. But it didn’t take long for me to grasp that it was anything but a stroll in the park.
I rose early after a rainy night beside the Penobscot River. Having rolled my sopping-wet tent inside a plastic garbage bag, I hit the trail at 6:40 and just a few miles later, ran into someone I’d been chasing in Virginia: Juan Durer, aka Wanderer, a 50-something guy from San Francisco who was sharing his experiences as a correspondent for the Sounds of the Trail podcast. I had always looked forward to the skillful, comical self-portraits—always strumming his ukulele and typically accompanied by a dancing bear, smiling dog, dancing serpent or some other creature—he’d left in shelter logbooks.
I chatted with Wanderer and another hiker of about our same vintage named Junco for a few minutes, but they both displayed what I call the “thousand-yard Katahdin stare,” and we soon parted. The sky was overcast and the air was both cool and humid, an unusual combination. My feet were still feeling the effects of Katahdin+10 the day before and while the grade ranged from flat to gently climbing, the tread was a perpetual hopscotch of tricky roots and rocks.
Theory: roots and rocks are hard on feet not just because they poke and prod, I wrote later. In stepping over and around them, I think your feet also are forced to slam the ground harder than they would on even tread. And that adds up over several thousand steps.
The AT is much steeper in the north than in the south and mid-Atlantic, and the tricky tread considerably magnifies its difficulty. There are breaks here and there, but I’d say 80 or 90 percent of the trail through Maine and New Hampshire is wet, muddy, rooty, rocky, blocky, or slabby, whether it’s steep or even. That’s not only tough on feet, but also drastically reduces your speed.
“I’m so sick of tripping and falling on roots,” triple-crowner Focus told me at Abol Bridge. “Pretty much every day I fantasize about the tread on the PCT and CDT. That’s one reason the AT is so tough.”
But hiking along the rough contours of Rainbow Lake, the trail treated me to long, beautiful views across solemn waters. After 15 miles I came to Rainbow Stream Lean-to (mile 2159, NOBO; 30.1 SOBO). It’s generally considered one of the most uncomfortable shelters on the AT because of its “baseball-bat floor”; why anyone would choose to build a floor with rounded poles instead of flat planks, I can’t imagine.
Although the air didn’t feel especially hot, the humidity had left me drenched in sweat. So there went that justification for flipping up north. But Rainbow Stream obligingly provided an opportunity to desalinate myself.
I plunged fully clothed into a deep bucket of clear green water just upstream from the lean-to. I stripped in the water, then dunked my shorts, shirt and socks and wrung them out until the water dripping back into the stream was no longer cloudy. On a whim, I walked the 50 yards back to the shelter wearing nothing but my shoes.
I pulled on my zipoff Columbia pants and hung my tent and clothes to dry in the pale sunlight that had begun to seep through the clouds. Then I went back to the water to soak my throbbing feet while eating lunch.
Feeling greatly refreshed, I enjoyed the afternoon despite the continuing nasty tread. With just eight miles to go to Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (NOBO 2150.9; SOBO 38.2), where I planned to spend the night, I took it pretty easy. The 900-foot climb up Nesuntabunt Mountain was at times steep, but paid off with a spectacular 16-mile line-of-sight view to Katahdin and the long waters of Nahmakanta Lake below.
Some helpful NOBO had left a note at the shelter suggesting that the feet-mangling roots and rocks would ease up about 10 miles south and urging SOBOs to take advantage of the many swimming opportunities down the trail.
My feet still hurt the next morning, and I now questioned the wisdom of trying to save a few bucks by using this pair of Hokas, which had already become an uncomfortable vice on my right forefoot. But the weather was cool and sunny, perfect for walking. I put my head down, hoping to grind out the remaining miles of jumbly tread as fast as I could.
After three miles, I came to the end of Nahmakanta Lake and found an unexpected camping area near a logging road, complete with privy and picnic shelter where, to my astonishment and early-morning joy, I found the most elaborate spread of magic since Grayson Highlands.
Two 2014 thru-hikers, Owl and Mumblemumble (I forgot to record the name), had driven their pickup into the heart of the wilderness on the logging road to provide full-service hiker dining from Friday night through Sunday morning. When I arrived, it was breakfast—hashbrowns, coffee, and Cap’n Crunch, for me—followed by breakfast dessert: Coke, Ding-Dongs, Snickers, potato chips, and, in hopes of limiting potential intestinal distress from all of that, two apples and some grapes.
“If you see any hikers tell them we’ll be here through about 11 Sunday morning,” Owl instructed, and I was happy to oblige.
Another six-and-a-half miles down the trail (to me, SOBO is always “down” the trail, NOBO always “up”), I stopped to dip my feet and splash around in Pemadumcook Lake (NOBO mile 2141.2; SOBO 47.7), which offered yet another unimpeded view of lordly Katahdin.
As I sunned myself dry on the rocks, the sound of approaching NOBOs drifted down to the water, including a voice that sounded very familiar. Moving fast, a crew of five or six hikers passed through the trees about 25 yards away and I recognized Olive Oil, whom I’d spent time with in Virginia. They didn’t see me, and I didn’t call out, but I picked up on their giddy determination—less than 50 miles to go!
After the briefest of climbs to Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to, I descended to find a small, beautiful sandy beach on the shores of Jo-Mary Lake (NOBO mile 2139; SOBO 50.1), where I stripped down for my second swim-and-sunshine session of the day.
Just as I’d read in the Rainbow Stream logbook, the flat, brutal tread soon turned smooth. I was so thrilled that I began shuffle-jogging, to make up some of time lost dancing with rocks and roots. Just after Jo-Mary Road, I came up behind a young hiker with a rather large pack making her way up the path alongside Cooper Brook. We exchanged pleasantries and I realized she wasn’t American.
“Are you French?” I asked. Usually I’m pretty good at pegging accents.
She laughed, white teeth contrasting with her deep tan. She had a kind of elfin beauty, something like a blond, hiker-trash version of Emma Watson.
“French?” she said. “That is nice you would think that.”
In fact, Simba was Israeli. At 22, she was fresh out of the Israel Defense Force and was hiking the Maine sections of the AT after working at a summer camp in Massachusetts. (All Jewish, Christian and Druze citizens of Israel, male or female, are required to serve after completing high school, with controversial exceptions for religious scholars. Women are eligible for 90 percent of jobs in the IDF, including combat roles, which should dispel silly American notions that they can’t hack it or disrupt unit cohesion; 51 percent of IDF officers are now female.)
Having enjoyed my own backpacking experiences in the deserts of Israel, I slowed down to continue the conversation. Simba had hiked the 1,000-kilometer Israel National Trail, from the Lebanon border to the Red Sea, after her hitch was up. I recalled to her the hidden wonders I’d encountered in the remote corners of the Negev Desert—bottomless pools of emerald-clear water, ringed with tiny frogs— the grassy hills around Kenneret (aka the Sea of Galilee) in the north, the gorgeous beaches of Eilat, where she lives, and elsewhere in her country.
Eventually, Simba decided to take a break but I decided to go on. Shortly thereafter I came across a hiker jogging the other direction. It was Redbeard, whom I’d met down south. He was shirtless, haggard, and said he was going to bash out another 41 miles to Abol Bridge before stopping.
“Wow. That’s a long day,” I said. It was already late afternoon, and even if he could keep a 3 mph pace—which I doubted—he wouldn’t get there until around sunrise.
“Yeah, but at least it’s flat,” Redbeard said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the tread.
I, on the other hand, thought I was home free, and I continued to jog all the way to Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to. Overall, I was pleased with my progress, having averaged about 2.7 miles an hour, despite 10 miles of cluttered trail.
When I arrived, a smart, vivacious Texas hiker named Sourpatch was gearing up to hike another three miles to Crawford Pond with a section hiker she’d started with at Katahdin (I neglected to record his name, as usual, but he was recently out of the Marine Corps). Sourpatch asked if I’d passed a young blond hiker with an accent and I said Simba was probably no more than a half hour behind me.
“If she stops here, will you tell her we went up to camp at Crawford Pond?” she said.
To my disappointment, Simba didn’t stop by the shelter.
After tossing my sleeping pad and bag out, I went for my third, and least enjoyable, swim of the day. The cascading waters of the brook were chilly and the sandy bottom was alive with hungry leeches.
While I was drying off, Goldrush appeared around the corner; I’d last seen him at the Howard Johnson’s Express in Daleville, Va. He said he had injured his foot at 501 Shelter in Pennsylvania, not far from where I’d been knocked to my knees by Lyme disease, and was now flipping.
I slept well that night, despite the persistent scrabblings of shelter mice, who did me no more damage than drag a forgotten gummi-bear bag from a side pocket of my pack.
I woke before 4 a.m., then forced myself to go back to sleep until 5, when nature called. A thermometer in the shelter read 59 degrees F, and for the first time I slipped on my long-sleeve Merino wool shirt. For breakfast I ate Pop-Tarts and drank a Coke I’d carried away from Owl’s magic pavilion. High on sugar, I hit the trail just before 6.
Not even five minutes into my day, I was elated when I came upon a huge female moose grazing just a few feet off the trail. She bashed away through the trees before I could even get my phone out, but I still got a great view. Now I could check that Maine experience off my list.
Crawford Pond was covered in a thin mist when I rolled by and it was too chilly for an early-morning dip. I soon came up behind Simba at the beginning of the 750-foot climb up Little Boardman Mountain.
“You are very fast,” she said in that charming accent.
“Not so fast,” I said. “I just like to keep rolling along.”
“But you were running away from me last time I saw you!”
“Not really running, just sort of shuffling while I had decent tread. And I promise I wasn’t running away from you….”
We walked together for the next half mile or so. She said she she felt guilty that she was so slow, and worried that she was holding up Sourpatch.
“She doesn’t seem to mind,” I said. “You really aren’t that slow, though you are carrying a pretty big pack.”
Simba agreed with a laugh.
“Next time I will not bring so much.”
A happy, lunk-headed pit bull came barging out to greet me when I reached East Branch Lean-to (NOBO 2121.3; SOBO 67.8). Her name was Medusa and she belonged to a woman named Grub, who looked like she had settled in for a long stay.
I wondered if she might be homeless, but Grub explained that she was hiking to raise awareness of distressed counties along the AT. She had hiked parts of Pennsylvania before flipping up to Maine. But now she had hurt her foot and had slowed to a crawl. She told me she expected to take another eight days to reach Monson, an average of less than four miles a day.
“My church group is expecting me a lot sooner than that,” she said. “I’m worried that they’ll call search-and-rescue. If you see anyone looking for me or signs that I’m missing, will you tell them I’m OK?”
I said I would, though I was a little worried for her myself.
“Do you have enough food for the two of you?” I asked. “I’ll be in town day after tomorrow, and I’m happy to share.”
“We’re fine, thank you,” she answered. “And if I run out, the Lord will provide.”
I couldn’t help thinking of the old joke about the man stuck on his roof as flood waters rise, praying for God to save him. Confident in the power of prayer, he declines help from a man in a canoe, another in a motor boat, and finally, one shouting down from a helicopter.
“No thanks,” he tells them all. “I have faith God will save me.”
He soon drowns, and when he gets to heaven, asks God why he didn’t reward his faith by saving him.
“I sent you a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter,” the exasperated Almighty replies. “What more did you expect?”
I later looked up Grub’s website, 2000milesforchrist.com. Her last blog post, dated September 6, was blank.
The Lord may or may not provide, I thought as I hiked away, but in my book, the Hundred Mile Wilderness may not be the best place to put Him to the test.
(Sourpatch told me several months later that Grub and Medusa made it out of the Hundred Mile Wilderness safely).