The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
My first two monster days in the White Mountains caught up to me on day three.
The skies were gray, but not particularly threatening, and the air was chilly when I woke early at Lakes of the Clouds Hut (NOBO mile 1854.7; SOBO 334.4). I declined to hang around for breakfast, which meant my brief indenture was at an end. I was walking by 6:30.
Climbing Mount Washington as a SOBO involved 6,000 feet of steep, rocky, ups and downs. But for NOBOs, reaching the summit means slogging up an endless 12.5-mile climb with an overall elevation gain of 5,000 feet. I was glad to be descending that long, long ridge.
With wind and rain in the forecast, I eyed the sky warily all morning as I trundled down the rocky road past the summits of Monroe, Franklin (wait—he wasn’t president!), Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. Bundled up against the morning chill, I soon shed my gloves, coat, and long pants, stripping in the middle of the trail to change into my long-sleeve Merino wool shirt and shorts.
I planned to hike to about 19 miles to Zealand Falls Hut, which would entail less than 2,000 feet of climbing. But the tread remained gritty, rocky, and often slippery as the cloud-wreathed hulk of mighty Washington slowly receded behind me.
When two modest climbs up the flanks of Pierce and Jackson completely thrashed my legs, I knew the bill had come due for my 12,000-foot, 37-mile traverse of the Wildcats-Carter-Moriah and Madison-Washington. Despite the distinctly downward trend of the trail, my pace continued to flag throughout the day.
Descending the precipitous (33rd steepest half-mile; 11th steepest mile), stony Webster Cliffs (NOBO mile 1846.1; SOBO 343.0) required constant concentration and occasional scrambling. Increasingly exhausted, I painfully cranked an ankle three separate times, cursing myself out loud for not paying attention. But the views were good, despite the Mordor-like gloom that continued to gather in the west.
By the time I staggered out of the woods at the bottom of the cliffs, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Zealand Falls. Stopping by the highway at Crawford Notch, I flipped through my Awol guide to see what my options were. I could have a bunk at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center, three-and-a-half miles to the west on US 302, for an exorbitant $54, while the Crawford Notch Campground, an equal distance to the east, offered cabins for a whopping $75-$95 and tenting spots for $30.
Thirty bucks to pitch a tent? I thought crankily. No thanks.
Not only were the prices outrageous, but I’d also have to hitch, and not a single vehicle had passed during the several minutes I’d been standing there. So I decided to walk another seven miles to the AMC’s Ethan Pond Campsite. I stood there for another minute or two before the rain began, forcing me into action. I donned my jacket and tugged on my pack cover, knowing both would soon be soaked through, and stumped across the highway.
Obsessed as I no doubt seem about pointing out how very incredibly fantastically phenomenally absurdly steep the Appalachian Trail is in southern Maine and New Hampshire, somehow I’d failed to note the wee 1,800-foot hill before me included a steep grind up the 45th steepest half-mile on the trail. But at least the tread was decent, featuring actual dirt and even occasional runs of log steps placed by members of the benevolent local hiking club or the ATC.
Despite the brutal hill, gushing spigot of cold rain, and quivering bags of mush that were once my quadriceps, I suddenly experienced one of those occasional, inexplicable surges of energy (or is it insanity?) that give me strength I doubted I had (like the time I ran a mile three times while portaging a canoe and heavy gear at the end of an exhausting day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, to the genuine astonishment of my wiped-out friend). I even started singing, blowing rain and sweat from my lips as I wheezed out my favorite songs from the late, great Dan Fogelberg pre-wimp catalog, “Part of the Plan,” “Old Tennessee,” “The Raven,” “The Last Nail,” “The River,” and others.
But by the time I reached the plateau, drenched and shivering, my second wind was utterly blown out and there was no more singing. I stiffly splashed through mud and over many a tippy puncheon over an agonizingly long three-quarters of a mile to the turnoff for the campsite, which also offered a shelter. The two-tenths of a mile stumble down a stony path past the pond to the shelter seemed to take even longer, as the cruel relativity of the trail—the worse you feel, the longer the miles—nearly sapped me of any remaining will to go on.
I had enough presence of mind to fill up on water at the inlet to the pond, as I had every intention of burying myself in my sleeping bag for the next 16 hours. Finally, after a brief, but maddening, climb, I came upon the shelter. I remembered once more the tormented astronauts in Ray Bradbury’s haunting story, “The Long Rain,” grumbling to myself that at least the rains on that fanciful version of Venus had the good taste to be warm…..
Although it was just 1:30 p.m., I interrupted what seemed to be foreplay between two giggling hikers. At any rate, there was a good deal of rustling and hurried rearranging from within the heap of their combined sleeping bags when I plonked my pack on the wood-plank floor. Once decent, the two SOBOs introduced themselves as Maggie and I Don’t Know.
“We’re not making a lot of progress,” I Don’t Know said, his voice pleasant, though perhaps ever-so-slightly miffed (hey, I’d be mad, too). But I was so cold and exhausted and miserable that I wouldn’t have cared if they’d gone at it like lusty orangutans while swinging from the rafters.
Without further ado, I threw down my pad and pulled out my blessedly dry sleeping bag. Staggering back into the rain for modesty’s sake, I stripped out of my wet stuff and hurriedly wriggled into dry, warm gear, including hat and gloves. After hanging everything to “dry,” I burrowed into my bag and, to the great astonishment of this inveterate non-napper, promptly fell asleep. I didn’t wake until 4:30, when two friendly section hikers from Boston arrived, as drenched and bedraggled as I had been. I hoped my shelter-mates had been bold enough to get it on during my slumber; I wouldn’t have begrudged them the opportunity commit coitus continuus.
It had stopped raining by the time I finished eating the first 600 calories I could rummage out of the food bag—candy, peanut-butter crackers, Pop-Tarts. Feeling now merely 80 percent deceased, I staggered back to the pond for more water, hoping I might see a moose. No moose, but hey, at least I was ready for bed (again) at 6:30.
Smart move to pull up short. Hope the legs feel better tomorrow, I wrote before nodding off. Gonna be a cold night indeed.
The next morning the ground was glazed with with a thin layer of ice.
To my astonishment and delight, after a brief reprise of mud puddles and puncheon-hopping the next morning, the next four miles to Zealand Falls were smooth and flat, by far the easiest going since the miles leading up to Whitecap Mountain in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. As I walked beside burbling Whitewall Brook in a valley between steep, jumbled hillsides, I was reminded very much of the Colorado Trail.
The short climb to the hut had given me a taste of the steep, brutal next mile. (Inquiring minds want to know: how steep? Why, I’ll tell you—the 30th-steepest half-mile and the 24th-steepest mile of the whole AT.) Zealand Falls Hut was beautiful, standing adjacent to its rushing namesake cascades. But I stopped only briefly to use the privy and change into shorts before heading on.
The day warmed up quickly and I found the next few miles to the summit of Mount Guyot pleasant going. That trend continued until the final pitch to South Twin Mountain, which was startlingly steep, but mercifully short. Stopping for a break on top, I ran into Icebeard, the ’02 thru hiker who had given me good advice at Madison Springs Hut, who was doing day hikes in the area. When I told him I might try to get up and over Mount Lafayette before making camp, he warned that it would make for a long, hard day.
“Why don’t you camp on top of Mount Garfield?” he suggested.
That would mean only a 15-mile day, but it sounded like a good idea.
And lo! When I left the summit of South Twin, instead of climbing, I actually got to descend the 3rd-steepest half-mile and 9th-steepest mile on the way to Galehead Hut (NOBO mile 1829.0; SOBO 360.1). Making my way down those slippery slabs actually was more complicated and precarious than it would have been coming up, but my quads, glutes, and calves were grateful for the break.
The trail meandered just three miles from the hut to the summit of Garfield. I could see my breath as I walked in the shadow of the forest, despite clear skies above, and once again, rocks and roots made for slow going. Then there was my EoDMoFo (end of the day motherfucker), a 970-foot ascent over six-tenths of a mile (the 4th-steepest half-mile on the AT) of broken, jumbled, blocky, wet trail to the summit. In no particular hurry, I enjoyed the scramble as much as anything I’d climbed since Katadhin.
Coming out on top at 3:30, I silently thanked Icebeard for his continued good advice. The sharp pinnacle of 4,458-foot Mount Garfield is capped with rugged granite, wind-twisted krummholz, and the concrete foundation of an old observation tower. Dropping my pack, I scouted around for the best place to pitch my tent, eventually settling on a narrow patch of damp dirt between the rocky crown and a small, twisted stand of fir.
Scrambling up the last few feet to the summit, I was dazzled by the panoramic view to distant Washington and the Lafayette massif that still lay ahead. I soon returned to my tent, eager to eat and clean up so I could kick back and watch the sun go down in the limpid skies to the west.
It turned out to be the coolest sunset I experienced on the AT, as the descending red orb cast the shadow of Garfield onto the sprawling slopes of South Twin as a full moon rose into a golden-red sky. Staring across a gulf of forest where night had already fallen, I imagined my shadow self gazing back from that ephemeral summit. Perfectly alone, perfectly happy—both of us.
Talk about magic.