The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I wanted to clean up and do laundry, so after slamming two quarts of Gatorade, gobbling a bunch of Oreos, and buying some Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer at the Andover General Store, I walked about a half mile to Pine Ellis hostel. It was another of those kinda-sorta hostels that non-hiking people have established in their homes along the trail.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any room, unless you want to pitch a tent. That’s $10,” said the old woman who greeted me when I stepped inside the dowdy kitchen.
“Oh, I already called to reserve a bunk. From the top of Old Blue,” I said. “You were supposed to pick me up at 3 on South Arm Road but I never saw you.”
“What’s your name?”
“It says here we already picked you up.”
I stood there blinking for a moment. “Well, no, unless there’s another Pony.”
After a further moment of confusion the woman said in that case, she’d be happy to take my money. And if that other Pony showed up, she said grumpily, he’d just be out of luck. Needless to say, this was not my favorite hostel (it didn’t help when, two days later, they tried to charge me for the shuttle-ride-that-wasn’t). But I loved being in Andover, where I was reunited with at least a dozen people whose company I had enjoyed somewhere along the trail, including:
The Dude, the Houston accountant who sponsored two “Dudefests” along the trail, who I dubbed “The Most Popular Man on the AT”; Sequoia, the California hiker I’d last seen at Laughing Heart Hostel Hot Springs, North Carolina; Honey Badger, my occasional companion in Shenandoah; Greyhound, who recognized me from our meeting on the observation tower at Clingman’s Dome all the way back in March (and who had also traveled with Patches); Terrible Lizard, the smart and snappy redhead who’d watched the hailstorm with me and my crew at Abingdon Shelter in Virginia; The Dutchess from the Netherlands; Owl, who with Southwind (who had left the trail in Massachusetts) had seen me half-dead in PA; Tapeworm from Pennsylvania; and others.
Once I’d claimed a bunk, I bagged up my laundry and tossed it in front of the ancient, wobbling washing machine, where three other heaps lay waiting for ablution. I showered in the main house, feeling a tad creeped out by the dank humidity and residual odors of a residential bathroom routinely being used by 20 or 25 people.
Rummaging through the hiker box, I found a roll of red duct tape that appeared to have perhaps 20 feet left. Back in the bunkroom, I pulled out my own supply of thicker silver duct tape. Then I began scouring my kit for something small, rigid, and appropriately shaped, which I could place on the end of my tip-less pole and wrap with mounds of tape. I soon settled on the hard plastic cap from a nearly empty Aqua Mira bottle, grabbed the tape, my pole, and a bottle of Sam Adams, then headed to the front yard for a little McGyver session.
Setting the cap on the end of the pole, I wrapped the blood-red tape around and around until it felt stable. Then I wrapped it in several more layers of the thick silver tape and tightly collared it with another wrap of red. I knew the trail would immediately start eating away at the tape, and this way, once I saw the base layer of red tape exposed, I would know it was time for a rewrap.
I hung out for awhile in the front yard with Squarepeg, a guy about my age who was hiking the trail for the third time, and Terrible Lizard, who continually cracked me up with her wry observations.
“I’ll tell you one thing I didn’t expect when I started,” she said. “All the men hiking in ladies’ short-shorts.”
I walked back into town with a couple of hikers and ate a fat corned-beef sandwich, a salad, a cup of vanilla ice cream, and more Gatorade at the general store. When I was finished, I wandered down the block where I found more than a dozen hikers hanging out at picnic tables outside Mills Market. The Dude was there, as were Sage and Tapeworm. I regaled the whole table with the story of Tapeworm’s elderly admirer in Stratton (“He was so handsome!”). When a clerk from the market came out to say they were selling off the day’s last pizza for cheap, I bought two pieces and gobbled them down.
Back at the hostel, I pored over Awol and noticed that I only had about 240 miles left to go and, barring any nasty surprises, my hike would be over in less than three weeks.
The idea of finishing is surreal, I wrote in my journal. I’ve been like the lost troop all this time and the idea of coming to the end just seems so strange.
I felt sad, too, knowing that my finish in Vermont would be such a pallid affair compared to the glorious triumph of those steady-on NOBOs who earn their final reward at the summit of the noblest, most challenging mountain on the entire Appalachian Trail. I’d experienced post-trail blues after hiking the Colorado Trail, and now I began to wonder what life would be like after my AT epic.
That evening, feeling strong, I made an executive decision: I told the ladies I would stay another night, and slackpack the 10 miles between the two roads into Andover, which Sage had described as “shitty.” That would give me a nero and another day to stuff my face before moving on.
I got dropped off at East B Hill Road at 7:30 a.m. The first miles to the top of Wyman Mountain were standard-issue Maine—tricky footing and lots of green tunnel, but thankfully, the 1,700-foot climb was gradual. But the descent to Sawyer Notch was crazy steep (including the 8th steepest mile and 15th steepest half-mile).
In normal circumstances I would have agreed with Sage about the climb from there to Moody Mountain—which entailed the 9th steepest half-mile and 15th steepest mile—but as I was unburdened by my full pack and had a mere 10 miles to hike, I practically pirouetted through my day. Purists may sniff at slackpacking, but my first experience with it (besides Katahdin) was brilliant. It would not be the last time I would avail myself of such services on the last leg of my hike.
I was back at the hostel by early afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to relax, recover, and eat. Pummeled by Maine, I had trouble believing New Hampshire could be much harder, but I was doing my best to store up energy for the final push through the legendarily difficult White Mountains.
That night, I pulled everything out of my pack and gave careful consideration to whether I needed it. With regret, I chucked the lonely Mountain Hardwear gaiter whose mate I’d lost in Millinocket and thinned my medical kit to the bare bones. But I also I decided to pack a pair of tall wool socks that Tapeworm was leaving behind, so it was probably a wash, weight-wise.
And I took the opportunity to order a new pair of Altra Olympus 2.0 shoes online, to be delivered to White Mountains Hostel near Gorham, N.H. I had erred badly in going back to the Hokas.
I know this trail is tough on feet, and pain is part of the deal. But the Hoka squeeze is killing me. I feel like there are fiery little BBs in the ball of my R foot all day long, and if anything touches the side of the joint the pain is brutal, I wrote.
The worst was when I ran into the occasional, but inevitable, “stick-jam”—when my left foot pinned the end of a stick at just such an angle that it drove directly into the sore spot as my right foot swung past.
Maine wasn’t about to let up, and not long after I was dropped off at East B Hill Road the following morning, I was grinding breathlessly toward the summit of Baldpate, a climb that included the 13th steepest half-mile on the trail and 17th steepest mile. The first part of the climb was unexceptional, but as I climbed higher, the mountain grew less stingy.
Wow, I love Baldpate. Gorgeous granite spines with views much of the way up, though I couldn’t see much through the wind and fog, I wrote. The descent was the same, wide open above treeline and I loved it.
Besides that, I’d had another great reunion on top when I ran into quiet, sandal-hiking Five Star, whom I’d met first in Virginia, then seen again in New York. He was in good spirits, but he looked haggard.
“In New Hampshire and Maine,” he said, “it’s like you have to make five times the effort for half the miles.”
I don’t know if I’d say the AT’s northernmost two states are 10 times more difficult than the rest of the trail, but I’d certainly go as high as four, maybe five, times as hard.
Just before noon I reached Grafton Notch, where the air was muggy and hot. With few views to interrupt the green tunnel, the long, 2,500-foot climb up Old Speck was arduous, and I was glad to have the distraction of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment cued up on my iPhone to distract me.
I took a break at Speck Pond Shelter (NOBO mile 1917.3; SOBO 271.8) at mid-afternoon, where I talked to some NOBOs and the site caretaker about the famously challenging obstacles that lay just ahead on my path, Mahoosuc Arm and Mahoosuc Notch.
The Arm not only presented the 10th-steepest mile and 6th-steepest half-mile of the trail, but most of its mile-and-a-half length consisted of long, sloping, slippery slabs of granite. The Notch isn’t steep, but is referred to by some as “the hardest mile of the AT,” “the most fun,” or both. It’s essentially an obstacle course of enormous boulders, some the size of houses, that have tumbled down from the steep cliffs on either side for eons.
“It might rain tonight,” said the caretaker, a vigorous young woman who was busily shoveling mulch from the composting privy. “The Arm is always slippery, but it’s way worse if it gets wet.”
That, and the fact that I’d hiked less than 15 miles and was still feeling good, was enough to make up my mind.
The climb to the top of the arm went quickly, but the descent was slow and painstaking as I navigated my way down the endless series of slick, humid rocks. Relying heavily on my poles, I busted the other tip. My duct tape-bottle-cap jury-rig worked out OK, but it slipped much more easily than a graphite tip or rubber cap (which I learned not to use on the CT because they pop off too easily and become litter).
So I spent more time than I would have liked on my butt, whether I was scooting down some tricky spot or sitting down, hard, after a slip. Although cognizant that it violated Leave No Trace principles, I did what many hikers do and orangutaned my way from tree to tree to aid my descent. All told, it took me two hours to travel less than 2.5 miles up and over the Arm.
I pitched my tent in a well-used stealth spot just below the trail just north of the Notch, where I was happy to see the Japanese couple whom I’d met in New York. A couple of hours later Happy Feet, a woman I’d chatted with at Speck Pond, arrived, giddy and amazed at having survived the descent of the Arm.
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve seen on the trail so far,” she said.
“I’m just glad I didn’t have to do it the other way,” I replied.
Happy Feet chatted amiably as she set up her tent and I squatted nearby cooking ramen noodles on a rock. Eventually, she made a proposition—no, not that kind of proposition; to my knowledge, she wasn’t plagued by mosquitoes (see chapter 20, “Hot and Bothered”).
“So, everyone says it’s more fun to go through Mahoosuc Notch with a buddy or two,” she said, standing arms akimbo above me as I wiped my cooking pot clean. “Would you like to go through together tomorrow?”
I sensed that Happy Feet had more than fun on her mind. Certainly from the descriptions I’d read the Notch was full of opportunities to get hurt, and it would be a nightmare to be stuck down there by yourself (though hikers were going through all the time). Hiking with her would probably slow me down, but I also wanted to be helpful.
“Sure,” I said. “I usually get a pretty early start, if that’s OK.”
“I’ll be ready.”