The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
The trail was relatively flat out of Monson, with just a few hundred feet of climbing in the first six miles, followed by a quarter mile downhill to the Piscataquis River (NOBO mile 2067.9; SOBO 121.2), which I was able to “ford” by simply hopping from stone to stone, courtesy of a dry summer. Alas, I slipped and soaked one foot.
(Note: The following story is from the introduction to The Trail Is the Teacher. I repeat it here in case anyone missed it. Feel free to skip to next note if you have read it before and don’t wish to reread it.)
As I sat on a rock wringing out my sock, a fast-moving woman in purple blew past, grunted hello, and expertly danced across the stream, stone-to-stone. She was soon followed by two more women, the first of which I was both stunned and thrilled to see.
“Two Pack!” I shouted, jumping up, feeling nearly as much elation as when I’d summited Katahdin. “No way!”
Her squinted eyes were steely, almost Eastwood-like, with the same thousand-yard stare I’d seen on the faces of so many NOBOs now racing through the wilderness like hounds on a scent. She didn’t seem to recognize me.
“My name’s Pony. We met somewhere in southern Virginia, way back in May,” I said, reaching out for a fist bump. “I gave you some Leukotape and your companion bailed on you that morning….”
“Oh yeah,” she said slowly, flashing an obligatory, faint smile. “You were with those other guys, right? Younger guys? I remember you now.”
“I hope this doesn’t hurt your feelings,” I said, “but none of us thought you would ever finish. I’m so excited to see you all the way up here! You’re incredible. You get my vote for most inspirational story on the AT this year.”
“Well … thanks,” she said. Her first companion hollered from across the creek and Two Pack seemed eager to cross the river. “I’ve had a lot of people say they’ve really seen me grow on the trail.”
Watching her confidently ford the stream, I could see she didn’t need compliments from me or anyone else. She had gotten up that chilly, damp May morning in Virginia to find that her 67-year-old “chaperone”—her parents wouldn’t allow her to hike alone, even at 23—had bailed on her. And then, just as everyone at the shelter told her to do, she started walking. Now, 1,500 miles later, Katahdin was in her sights. One step at a time, she had proved to anyone who ever doubted her—her parents, her long-gone overseer, me—that she was tough and resourceful and resilient.
Of course, she didn’t do it alone. She had the best teacher in the world: the trail.
(Note: End of repeated story.)
After the river, the trail rose some 700 feet over the next 11 miles to Moxie Bald Mountain Lean-to. Although not thrilled by my realization that this endless tangle of roots and rocks was normal for the trail in Maine, I was making decent time.
While eating a snack at the shelter to fuel the 1,400-foot ascent of Moxie Bald, I talked to an older SOBO named Glacier, who was curious about my ULA Catalyst pack.
“I love it, but I bought it before my first long-distance hike and these days I don’t really need this much volume,” I said. “Also, it presses right up against my back, so no air gets in there and I’m constantly sweating. But really, it’s great.”
Glacier said he had semi-retired, working construction just three months of the year to fund his hiking habit.
Then, just before I left, another older guy arrived at the shelter with his younger female hiking companion.
“Porcupine?” I said.
“Yeah?” he said with a slight scowl. “Do I know you?”
I was not so memorable as he, it seemed. I’d met him at the Raven’s Rest Hostel in Lake City, my final night indoors while hiking the Colorado Trail in 2015. A smart, funny, acerbic New Yorker in his sixties, he’d told the rest of us at the hostel that he was traveling NOBO on the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail.
I zeroed the next day in Lake City, but Porcupine hopped a shuttle in the morning with CT SOBO MoonBeam, whom I’d gotten to know a little. I shuttled out with another trail friend, Bigfoot, 24 hours later. So I was certainly surprised to pass Porcupine that afternoon while descending from the 13,200-foot high point of the CT, considerably south of where I’d last seen him.
“Wait … I thought you were NOBO on the CDT?” I said.
“Naw, I just said that. I just go where the trail takes me, usually to follow women,” he said. “Currently, you could say I’m chasing a moonbeam. But she’s too fast for me.”
He was harmless, I was sure, but there was something a little unseemly about drifting around various trails so you can follow women. Now here he was, possibly doing the same thing.
He didn’t remember our previous meetings, but explained that he was hiking with “Danielle” to help her finish the AT. Evidently I had didn’t have enough X chromosomes to warrant further interest, but at least he was honest about what he was up to.
The afternoon was mostly cloudy, but oppressively hot as I made the steep climb up Moxie Bald (including the 49th steepest half-mile on the trail). The top was gorgeous, a cap of cold granite fringed by spruce trees stunted and gnarled by fierce northern winds. It was the first summit that really said “Maine” to me.
Not only were there gorgeous, 360-degree views—I could see tiny Monson glittering in the distance—but this was the kind of place Stephen King was always writing about, where the spirits of long-dead Indians might still be watching over the land. Moved by a sense of eerie remoteness, I took about 15 minutes on top to accomplish the most frivolous of tasks: Writing out the words “PET SEMATARY” in stones for the viewing pleasure of the next few hikers who decided to wander that part of the summit.
That night at Bald Mountain Brook Lean-to I carefully placed a bottle of Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer in the stream that chuckled down through a mini-canyon not far from the shelter. The only other occupant that night was an older hiker named Don, a former undercover New York state police officer, Marine, long-distance bike tourist, lumberjack, and hotel owner.
We had a long, fascinating conversation about everything, though nothing I recall except his tales about working construction during the summer in Alaska, where it rained so much and so frequently that he simply became inured to getting wet. I was grateful for the company.
As we talked, a frazzled-looking guy with a dog named Charlie rolled around the corner. He didn’t stay long, saying he was going to walk down the hill to a stealth-camping site he’d heard about. He had recently mustered out of the military, he said, due to mental-health issues, and he was hiking the trail to smooth out the jagged edges of his mind. Right after he left, the skies unleashed a ferocious downpour. Don and I both worried about him, as he didn’t seem to know much about hiking or the trail.
The next morning, I passed through the stealth site and asked the one hiker who was awake if she’d seen the man and his dog. She hadn’t. I never saw them again.
My first day out of Monson I walked 22 miles, which included 2,200 feet of climbing. The next day, I hiked only 18.3 miles (and about 2,300 feet of climbing), but felt surprisingly beat.
“You should plan on scaling back your miles, not just in the Whites, but also in southern Maine,” said BASA, an iron man about my age who had, with Achilles, reeled off 300 miles in 12 days in the mid-Atlantic.
Every AT hiker hears about—and often frets about—the looming challenge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Now a little more than halfway through Maine, I wondered why this state didn’t have a more fearsome reputation, if for no other reason than its persistently tricky tread. Unbeknownst to me, the 155 miles I’d walked since Katahdin were a playground compared to what Maine had to offer in the last 125.
I was making good time on relatively decent tread—I could actually see soil!—when I stopped at Pleasant Pond Lean-to to fill up with water. Slick with sweat after humping over Pleasant Pond Mountain (where I ran into Pending, whom I’d met all the way back in Franklin, N.C.) on a muggy, post-rain morning, I gave myself a bandana bath in the small stream before moseying on, feeling much refreshed.
Less than a mile after the shelter, I was happily rolling along when I saw what appeared to be a round gray stone about the size of a volleyball smack in the middle of the trail. As I got closer, my brain didn’t immediately register what I was looking at, but it appeared that the “stone” had been pierced by the trunk of a thin, fallen birch tree.
Did you know that insects live in a “faster” version of reality than we do, thanks to the fact that their eyes send updates to their tiny brains more frequently than human eyes? They exist in a kind of Matrix-like world where time subjectively goes “faster.” That’s why it’s so hard to smack a housefly.
So I barely saw the cloud of furious hornets that boiled up out of their fallen nest—duh—and by the time the first shriek ripped out of my throat, nearly tearing my face off, they were stinging their little hearts out. Riding on a rocket-burst of adrenaline, my body flung itself—my conscious brain had nothing to do with it—over the teeming hazard and I fled down the trail yelping like a man aflame.
At least 4 zeroed in on me, BAM, and stung me, 2x upper left thigh, 2x right ass cheek, 1x on each wrist, I wrote later. I literally yelled “shit” and ran as fast as I could, slapping at the stings. Lucky for me the tread was relatively smooth.
Cursing and sucking on one of the wrist stings, I slowed down and allowed myself to imagine what I’d do if the same thing had happened while I was, say, on a steep, rocky mountainside—such as my recent descent of Pleasant Pond Mountain, the 36th steepest half-mile on the trail. Would my brain instinctively know not to run in that situation, or would it be perfectly happy to break its own neck in an effort to flee the danger? I did not care to find out, and for the rest of my hike, I was a confirmed “hornet-noid.”
The official, Appalachian Trail Conservancy-approved, AT route across the Kennebec River is on a canoe ferry paddled by a contracted employee from May 1 to Oct. 31. The trail as initially envisioned by Myron Avery would have traversed the river just below Wyman Lake about 10 miles south of the current crossing. When Ralph Sterling, owner of a hotel in the tiny village of Caratunk built his Pierce Pond Camps, he began a ferry service, which convinced AT routefinders to route the trail across the river at its current location. Alas, Pierce’s service ceased after just a couple of years and the new “ferry” was a couple of rowboats tied up on the bank.
The river, though wide, doesn’t seem particularly daunting. But that’s not what Gene Espy, who in 1951 became the second person to thru hike the trail (after Earl Shaffer, aka The Crazy One, pioneered thru hiking in 1948 ), found when he tried to swim it: “Before I could make a second stroke with my pole, the boat was about twenty yards downstream.”
For decades, fording the Kennebec was a tricky affair. Sometimes hikers found inner tubes on which they could slosh across the water, while others built their own clumsy log rafts, and many simply waded through the torrent, precariously balancing on slippery stones. But unannounced releases of water from a dam upstream can cause a sudden increase in flow, and in 1986, a hiker named Alice Ferrence drowned while making the crossing.
Concerned about liability, the following season the ATC hired local paddler, registered Maine Trail Guide and Wilderness First Responder Steve Longley, aka The Ferryman, to safely propel hikers across the river for the next 20 years. Several others have served as the Charon of the Kennebec since his retirement in 2008; in 2016 it was Greg Caruso, another registered Maine Trail Guide.
I knew the ferry operated from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. during September. Not wanting to find myself stranded on the northern shore, nor caring to make like AT renegade Warren Doyle and wade across (though as dry as it was, 2016 was probably the year to do it), I forlornly decided not to go into Caratunk or nearby Northern Outdoors, where I could have eaten a hearty lunch.
Greg soon appeared out of the woods. I tossed my pack in his canoe and the two of us paddled across in just a few minutes. It was just after noon on Sept. 1.