The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I wasn’t smart enough to take a zero in Salisbury, but I did allow myself a leisurely start and a 13.4-mile nero when I left. After making myself eggs and coffee, per Maria’s instructions (“I don’t like to get up that early”), I walked to a small grocery store to resupply. After packing up and saying goodbye to Hotrod and Slowpoke, the 55-year-old twins from Florida, and their 20-something hiking partner, Rock City (as in, Detroit) I walked back up the road and hit the trail about 10 a.m.
My brief, long-ago experience with Connecticut seemed to suggest it was an extremely flat state, fairly urban, but with lots of cornfields. Ditto for Massachusetts, minus the cornfields, and with more trees. But given that I was on the Appalachian Trail, I don’t know why I was surprised to find neither state particularly flat.
Heading north from Salisbury, the AT climbs 1,500 feet to the summit of Bear Mountain — I have zero memory of the stone observation tower on top — before dropping down the precipitous, rocky north side (60th steepest half mile on the AT).
Somewhere on the ascent, I chatted briefly with a fast-moving SOBO hiker about the— to me — unexpectedly intense PUDs at the western edge of these two mild-mannered, otherwise civilized states.
“I hate to tell you, but it’s kind of tough where you’re headed,” she said.
“You mean like, New Hampshire?”
“No, I mean just ahead,” she said, beginning to move off down the mountain. “But hey, at least you’re coming up on some excellent swimming holes.”
She was right on both counts.
After the steep descent, the trail continued on a gentler downhill course, following Sages Ravine across the Massachusetts line (mile 1505.8), where dappled sun reached down through a thick canopy to an extended series of small cascades and pools full of clear water, tinted faintly green, like an old-fashioned Coke bottle.
I wandered along until I found a deep, rock-walled jug where rays of sun coruscated invitingly down through the water and a rocky platform where I dropped my pack. Stripping down, I teetered on a small ledge before jumping in. I came up spluttering. It was by far the coldest water I’d entered since faraway Watauga Lake in April, even colder. Still, that water was too beautiful to waste (I once dived into a fast-running, icy, stream of glacial-melt waters in Glacier National Park because I could not bear not to swim in water so perfectly, purely blue), so I dived and paddled and jumped in a couple more times before emerging, covered with goosebumps. As hot as it was, I didn’t stop shivering until I’d been walking for about 10 minutes.
After the trail crosses into Massachusetts, it ascends nearly 1,000 feet to Mount Race, which offers spectacular views from ledges along the ridgeline. After a short descent, the march from Race Brook Falls to 2,602-foot Mount Everett incorporates the 38th steepest half-mile on the trail. Beleaguered hikers referred to it as “Everest” in shelter logbooks, but I felt strong and made good time to the summit.
Two songs alternated in my head for much of the day: “Sons of God,” a gospel hymn we used to sing in Catechism (aka CCD) — “Sons of God, hear His Holy word,/Gather around the table of the Lord/Eat His body, drink His blood/And we’ll sing a song of love/Allelu, allelu, allelu, allelu-u-u-u-u-ia” and the English-language South African folk song, “Marching to Pretoria.” I do not understand my brain.
The descent from Everett wasn’t as steep, and when I emerged into the graveled parking area at Guilder Pond Picnic Area, I was thrilled to find no people, but two coolers full of Gatorade and several more filled with cold, potable water.
Ahhhh, thank you, angels! I wrote.
Just four-tenths of a mile down stony, sloping tread brought me to The Hemlocks Lean-to (a shelter by a different name, mile 1512.6), which was well kept and featured an upper level sleeping platform. It was empty. I shucked my pack, tossed out my bedroll, put on my flip-flops, then walked another one-tenth (!?) of a mile to check out Glen Brook Lean-to. There, resting and chatting on the trail was a group of perhaps 15 teenage girls with big packs, waiting for the rest of their group.
“Are you a thru hiker, sir?” one asked.
“Here’s a good rule of thumb, girls: if you can smell someone from this far away, you don’t have to call him sir,” I said. Fifteen girls tittering in the woods is a charming sound, like a fairy convention. Not that I believe in fairies.
Glen Brook turned out to be older, mustier and decidedly creepier than The Hemlocks, surrounded as it was by barren ground and witchy-looking, colorless trees. There were screaming yellow signs posted everywhere warning of bear activity. The Hemlocks it would be, I decided. Maybe upstairs.
Back at the homestead, I enjoyed a relatively fresh dinner of couscous, avocado and yogurt. Then, feeling almost effervescently happy, I grabbed my valuables, left my pack — something most AT hikers will do on occasion, despite the (slight) risk of theft — and flip-flopped back up the hill to see what Guilder Pond had to offer in the way of an EoDS — end-of-the-day-swim.
After rambling down a blue-blazed path through the woods for a half-mile or so, I followed a short side trail to a wide, granite shelf that sloped down to the breeze-feathered surface of the pond. The westering sun was piercingly white in a sapphire sky and the breeze felt like warm velvet. I could hear a hound baying in the woods far across the pond, but seeing no one and feeling in high spirits, I stripped off all my clothes and slipped naked into the cool water. I breaststroked out fifty yards and rolled onto my back to laze in the sun like a contented otter.
Back on shore, I sprawled naked on the rock to dry out while drinking one of the Gatorades I’d scored at the parking area. I dunked my shorts and shirt in the water, then pulled them back on an instant before I heard the jingle of dog tags and a small shiba inu appeared from the woods, followed by a friendly houndish dog, a border collie, and a man. Walking back to the lean-to, I yielded to a noisy fairy convention on its way down to the water.
Back at the shelter, three section-hiking SOBOs, two young women and a Frenchman named Jerome had arrived. Remembering the alarming signs down at the neighboring shelter, I was concerned when Roobar and Rootabaga plopped their food bags on the ground right outside their tent, right in front of the shelter.
“You sure you don’t want to hang those bags?” I finally asked when it became clear that the women intended to leave them there overnight.
“You don’t think it’s OK?”
“Well, there were bear warning signs all over the place at that shelter just down the trail, so….”
They asked Jerome if he would mind babysitting the food bags in the upper storey where he had staked his claim, which seemed like an acceptable solution to me. I had the whole bottom floor to myself and was not worried about bears in the least.
I woke up this morning feeling stupid about deciding to quit, and this was such a great day, I wrote before falling asleep. Remember: Never make a decision at the end of a hard day and your feet feel like they’ve been smacked with police baton for the last eight hours.
I also wrote: Zeroes (and true neros) are important for physical and mental relief. Why do I forget that?
I was on the trail at 6:05 the next morning, which first took me on a long, fairly gradual descent back down to the Housatonic Valley and US 7, which leads to Sheffield and Great Barrington.
I thought I might go for a swim but right before I reached the river I stopped to read a sign: “WARNING: HOUSATONIC FISH AND WATERFOWL CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs. DO NOT EAT.” It didn’t say “NO SWIMMING,” but then, it didn’t have to. I wasn’t actually worried, despite having swum several times downstream, but I was surprised that this was the first time I’d seen the warning.
I passed a small plaque commemorating Shays Rebellion — a 1786-87 uprising led by a Revolutionary War veteran against civil and economic injustices, which influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution — before starting the 1,000-foot climb up East Mountain. I have always prided myself on a well-developed natural sense of direction, but somehow I got turned around on top and actually walked a quarter of a mile back down the way I’d come up before realizing my mistake. After I’d gotten back on track, I heard a pair of hikers grumbling in the trees above me that they’d done the same thing; must be some sort of distorted gravitational vortex on that summit….
In the afternoon I took a dip in the south end of Benedict Pond. That also happened to be the mucky end, so it wasn’t especially satisfying. I arrived at Mount Wilcox South Lean-to (mile 1532.3) at 2:30 and decided to call it a day after 19.7 miles. I was pleased to have the shelter to myself. I got water, made dinner, cleaned up and headed to bed early on an upper bunk, exulting in my solitude.
My preferred hiking schedule is to start early, hike hard with few, or no, short stops. If possible, I like to hit my 20 miles by mid-afternoon, which gives me the option of calling it a day and kicking back for the next 15 or 16 hours before cranking it up again. On longer days, I go longer, but I like to get to camp and aggressively rest as soon as I can. Way back in Virginia, Easy-E had at first found my system odd, but later decided it worked for him, too.
I’d already eaten dinner, cleaned up and gotten everything ready for the next day when I heard the tramp of feet and loud conversation approaching around 5:30 p.m. First to appear around the corner, to my dismay, was Overdose (not her real trail name; protecting the guilty, here), the woman who’d hollered at me about my bear-bag setup all the way back in Hot Springs, N.C. She was followed by a squint-eyed, silent guy with a shaved head and a big red beard, and a few minutes later, an exhausted-looking woman sagging beneath an enormous pack.
From the moment this crew rolled in, they were violating nearly every commonly accepted rule of shelter etiquette. The guy (I neglected to write down his name) immediately cranked up loud music. He and Overdose began smoking cigarettes and weed at the picnic table immediately in front of the shelter, the smoke rising immediately to my nostrils on an upper bunk. Soon, the dude started watching a loud action-movie video in his hammock, which he’d strung up just to the right of the shelter.
Remembering Five Fingers at the noisy shelter back in Virginia, and despite the incipient darkness, I made a snap decision. Quietly packing up my gear, I lowered my pack from the bunk, put on my headlamp and saddled up. I might not have made the move had Mount Wilcox North Lean-to not been a mere 1.8 miles away.
“We’re not disturbing you, are we?” Overdose asked as I turned to leave. I couldn’t tell if she was being a wise ass or was really that obtuse. I was just glad she didn’t recognize me.
“Just decided to head on,” I muttered, and left. It was only the second, and thankfully, last, time on the trail when I didn’t feel comfortable with my shelter mates.
I didn’t sleep well, probably because I got my body all ramped up so late. Awake early, I was back on the trail at 5:45 a.m., ambling through a dim, pleasantly cool forest. I knew I was in for a day of PUDs that would add up to 2,000 or 3,000 feet, depending on how far I decided to go.
Sometime around mid-morning, as I strolled through a flat stretch with widely scattered trees, I was stunned by the instantaneous, unmistakable ache of hornet stings on my wrist and thighs. Adrenaline surged, I cut loose with a yowl and started running, slapping wildly at my head and body in a crazed effort to escape the menace. I tripped over a protruding stone, and though I didn’t fall, I strained my right hamstring in my desperate attempt to stay upright. I literally never saw the nest or any of the hornets, but when I stopped, I counted at least five stings.
“Assholes!” I shouted, shaking my fist back toward the silent forest.
But then, less than a half hour later, I emerged into a brief, narrow clearing and saw five wild turkeys before they slipped into the underbrush.
The trail is fickle, I wrote later. She giveth, and she taketh away. She delights, and she stings.