The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
As I was falling asleep in my tent near the mouth of Mahoosuc Notch, I heard the most peculiar sound I’d experienced on the trail: A frantic, persistent flapping, as if a giant fruit bat were flapping around inside a Hefty bag. Unzipping my tent, I shone my red headlamp around the area, finally echolocating the sound as coming from Happy Feet’s tent. Then the sound stopped as suddenly as it had started.
The next morning I was up before it was light, packing up when Happy Feet emerged from her tent.
“Did you hear that last night?” she said.
“What the hell was that?”
She said a bird had flown up between her tent and rain fly and couldn’t find its way out in the dark. She was frantic inside the tent but didn’t want to make noise, for fear of waking the Japanese couple or me.
I was ready for an even earlier start, but I waited for Happy Feet and we finally got going at 7 a.m. I had stowed my poles in anticipation of needing my hands, and almost immediately we entered the topsy-turvy funhouse of the boulder-filled gully known as Mahoosuc Notch.
Moving through the Notch was slow, but not difficult, as I stretched, leaned, and scrambled over boulders and across small, shadowed chasms that exhaled air a good 20 or 30 degrees colder than the ambient temperature. In several places I assisted Happy Feet by grabbing her pack or extending a hand when she wasn’t sure of herself. The “trail” through the notch is marked with blazes, but they’re not always easy to see and can be considered suggestions rather than strictly directions; I was thrilled that I got us off track only once.
My Colorado roots prepared me well for this kind of maneuvering, which was sort of like a mile-long, horizontal bouldering problem. The notch was certainly fun, but, to me, not even close to the “hardest” mile of the AT. After about an hour, the obstacle course apparently over, I bid Happy Feet goodbye.
“Thank you for helping me through,” she said. “I would have been a lot more nervous without you. I’m sorry if I held you up; you could probably do it in a half hour! You’re like a mountain goat!”
As it turned out, there was still a bit of tricky terrain to navigate. By the time I realized it, Happy Feet was out of sight, but I was sure she’d be fine.
Having focused on the notch, I was oblivious to what lay beyond, which turned out to be a tough, slow series of ups-and-downs, including, immediately, the 14th steepest half-mile on the trail, up to Fulling Mill Mountain, followed by marches up Goose Eye Mountain, Mount Carlo, and Mount Success, the descent from which is the 11th steepest half-mile.
The Notch was a blast. The rest of the day … fuuuhhhck. A million little climbs, lots of steep, lots of chock-a-block, lots of slippery slabs and just so tiring, I wrote that night.
Still, the remainder of the day was not without its rewards. I’d been thrilled to see so many toads and frogs all along the trail in Maine, but on that afternoon I came across the most magnificent specimen I’d ever seen. Not long after crossing into New Hampshire, movement on the dry, leaf-strewn slope above the trail caught my eye. I stopped to see a fist-sized black frog covered with bright green speckles, as if someone had spilled a vial of green glitter on her back. Although most frogs along the trail tended to leap away from humans at great speed, this one stayed still long enough for me to get a great photo.
And there were more reunions: Castaway, a Boulder native I’d talked to all the way back in Tennessee; Bearwall, formerly Darkness, who earned his new trail name when he faced down a charging mama bear on Watauga Lake Dam; Trailtalker, a woman I’d walked with briefly in New Jersey; and Kaleidoscope, the young Ecuadorian-American woman with dark hair and a brilliant smile, whom I’d first met at Groundhog Creek Shelter at the foot of Max Patch Bald in Tennessee.
I staggered into Gentian Pond Campsite Shelter (NOBO mile 1902.6; SOBO 286.5) at 3 p.m. after a mere 12.3 miles, the first day since I was sick in Pennsylvania that I’d badly undershot my goal for the day. Though I’d averaged only 1.5 mph for the whole day, I was still exhausted. After dumping my pack in the empty shelter, I picked my way down to a gurgling gully below the pond to dunk my head and rinse the sweat from my sodden clothes. Then I kicked back and flipped through the logbook, noting that hikers frequently saw moose on the pond in the early morning. I couldn’t complain, having seen two moose in Maine, but I would be happy to see more.
Just as the sun slipped behind the peak to the west, two young section-hiking guys hauling ginormous packs arrived. After checking out the weird old guy wearing nothing but long underwear in the shelter, they wobbled across the precarious stick-and-stone dam between pond and gully and set up their tents on a rocky promontory. They then set about gathering wood and soon the pleasant smell of wood smoke filled my nostrils.
Not long after, a couple of teenage girls appeared around the corner, followed shortly thereafter by a young teenage boy and an even younger girl. They immediately claimed spots in the shelter and the older girls divvied up chores—getting water, hauling out dinner makings and stove, hanging up wet clothes.
They older girls were The Diva and Zabumafu, 17-year-old twins, their 15-year-old brother was Flying Hubbinator, and Flying Piglet was just 12. They were hiking the trail alone, supported by their mother, Big Mama, who would meet them at road crossings, handle their resupplies, and all that.
They were home-schooled members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from Florida, where their father is an English professor at the University of North Florida. But they took pains to explain that they weren’t that kind of Mormon. Their parents, they said, were intellectual, liberal, and adventurous.
The kids planned to hike to Katahdin before flipping back to Vermont and hiking SOBO to Pennsylvania. The older girls were in charge, but everyone did their share of the work and they seemed to get along.
“Sometimes we fight,” Flying Piglet said. “But usually we’re too tired.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, my throbbing feet pressed against the sloping ceiling of the shelter. “Most days I don’t have the energy to fight off an insistent housefly by the time I stop walking.”
Flying Hubbinator and I talked Lord of the Rings for a good long while, and I waxed loquacious about my beloved William Faulkner when one of the older girls mentioned that America’s greatest novelist was her father’s specialty.
“Oh, my dad would love you,” Zabumafu said, in a tone suggesting that perhaps she’d heard enough about the denizens of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in her young life. She preferred Jane Austen.
They turned out to be some of my favorite shelter company along the trail.
The kids were still nestled deep in their sleeping bags when I rolled out early the next morning. Alas, no moose greeted me on either Gentian Pond or Dream Lake up the next hill.
I headed into the day still feeling tired, but happy that I only had about 12 miles and just three “bumps”—Wocket Ledge, Cascade Mountain, and Mount Hayes—to go before I would stroll right up to White Mountains Lodge and Hostel in Shelburne, where I’d called ahead for a reservation.
Though hardly easy, compared to the rest of southern Maine it was a gentle day. To the relief of my battered feet, there were even long stretches of soft, smooth tread here and there. After a final road walk across the Androscoggin River I reached the hostel at 11:30.
A dark-haired woman waved through a kitchen window, gesturing me toward the open garage. There I found racks stacked with filthy, battered hiking boots and shoes and a dozen packs hanging in orderly rows from wall pegs. The wall itself was nearly covered with colorful graffiti left by countless hikers, and I smiled to see many names I recognized.
A young guy emerged from the house and explained the routine: take off shoes, hang up pack, change into “town clothing” provided by the hostel, and toss laundry in a basket for washing.
Although it was a little more expensive than The Barn, a famous hostel just up the road in Gorham, I knew I’d made the right choice. It was thanks, in part, to hostel owner Marnie’s welcoming, well-organized approach that I made a snap decision to do something I should have done long before: take a zero. It didn’t hurt that cold, rain, and wind dominated the forecast for the following day, particularly since I was now headed into the White Mountains, widely considered the most difficult part of the AT.
I must have enjoyed myself on my day off, because the only entry in my journal was a single sentence pondering whether I should slackpack the next section and come back to the hostel for a second night. There were lots of fun people in the house, though I neglected to write down most of their names; I was pleased when Happy Feet arrived late in the day, having made her own way through the last bit of the obstacle course known as Mahoosuc Notch.
I spent a good deal of time talking to Marnie. She had worked in the fashion industry and apparently made a fortune by inventing some kind of two-sided tape, which allowed her to stop working and buy the hostel a couple of seasons before. I asked her what winter was like in New Hampshire.
“Actually, I don’t stay for the winter,” she said. Ah, I thought. A snowbird. “I go back home to Minnesota.”
OK, so not quite a snowbird.
Marnie’s son Ben was helping at the hostel while taking classes in wilderness medicine in Conway, 35 miles away, and she had hired a couple of other hikers to help out. The bunks were made up with real sheets and blankets and 20 people could squeeze in around the enormous table in the dining area.
After I showered, one of the staff shuttled me and a couple of other hikers into town, dropping us at Gorham Hardware & Sports. Their website URL, “nhhockeyshop.com,” says much about their priorities, but they also cater to hikers and I was able to buy two new tips for my poles, for less than half of what I’d paid for my last pair back in Harpers Ferry.
I sat cross-legged on the floor and replaced the tips. Then, becoming almost misty-eyed with gratitude to the jury-rigged tip that had served well enough to get me out of Maine, and remembering how even the “filthy orc rags” worn by Frodo and Sam in Mordor were revered in Tolkien’s great quest story (“No silks or linens, nor any armour or heraldry could be more honourable.”), I lovingly stowed the now-useless wad of red-and-silver duct tape and bottle cap in my jacket pocket, unwilling to toss it just yet. Did I mention how worn out I was?
Then I walked down the street to a sports bar, where I ate a giant plate of spaghetti, drank a beer, and failed in my efforts to ignore the college football game on TV (Penn State vs. Pittsburgh). After a strawberry ice-cream cone, I milled around the White Mountain Cafe & Bookstore before walking back to the shuttle rendezvous point.
That night, I transcribed a poem that I had spent a good deal of time writing in my head over my final days in Maine. Titled, “An Ode to NOBOs at Shelburne, N.H.,” it was a response to the many hikers I’d spoken to, or whose shelter logbook entries I’d read, who were astonished and dismayed to discover that “Maine is kicking my ass!”
You’ve come through the Whites
—a feat, by all rights—
Now Maine, and the end is in sight.
But the terrain in Maine
Is truly a pain.
It’s rooty, it’s rocky
And all chocky-blocky.
It’s slippery, it’s slabby—
Not New Hampshire grabby.
So yeah, it’s a pain
And an energy drain.
But the views?
So fret not,
For your pain’s not in vain.
I also was thrilled that my new, feet-saving Altra Olympus 2.0 trail shoes had arrived. I retired my Hokas, which would have lasted me until the end of my hike if not for my newly widened feet. Wearing the Altras around the house, I felt like I was walking on clouds … ahhhhh.
As predicted, the next day was nasty and rainy, with a high in the mid-50s, a low near 30, and wind gusts of up to 30 miles an hour. I luxuriated in a breakfast of some sweet heavy casserole, eggs, orange juice, and coffee, then flopped around the house doing nothing, then napping, then doing nothing again. I was just grateful not to be starting the Whites in a tempest.
Sometime that afternoon a remarkable hiking duo arrived: 74-year-old Sojo and his 10-year-old golden retriever, Theo. Sojo had been dreaming of hiking the trail since he was 12 years old, and by the time I met him he had less than 300 miles to go.
I worried about Theo, who wasn’t allowed in the house. I went out to the garage to see him several times and he looked plumb worn out, even depressed. There was harsh talk around the dining table when Sojo wasn’t around, as some hikers criticized him for pushing his dog too hard. I shared their concerns; our dogs will follow us to death, and it’s our responsibility to watch out for them. Thinking about Mahoosuc Notch and the coming difficulties of southern Maine, I was one of several hikers who talked to Sojo about Theo’s wellbeing.
“I’m only doing 10 miles a day,” he said, “and it’s been less in New Hampshire.”
I explained that southern Maine was just as hard, and expressed my concerns for Theo.
“I promise you I’m always looking out for him,” Sojo said. “At this point, he’s in better shape than I am.”
I adore dogs. I happily greeted every dog I saw on the trail (so long as he or she wants to be greeted; it’s always their prerogative to say “no”), which helped calm the ache of missing my own three dogs and one cat. That said, I think it’s a rare canine who truly enjoys a long-distance hike. Lean, lithe, younger athletic animals who are neither too big nor too small—think border collie or cattle dog or a Vizsla like Huckleberry, whom I’d met down south—may be OK, but believe it or not, humans are better built for long-distance travel than dogs (indeed, research has found that so long as they can follow tracks, humans can hunt down any animal on earth). And personally, it would break my heart to see my dog suffering in the cold or rain, or collapsing in exhaustion at the end of each day.
Sojo and I had a good conversation, and I had no doubts about the deep love this former attorney and Yale graduate had for his partner, but I hoped that our conversation helped him see Theo through other eyes. As it turned out, it was Sojo, not Theo, who had to be hospitalized in Maine. But they did finally make it to Katahdin on Oct. 27, averaging just over six miles a day for the next many weeks, a pace friendly to old Theo.