The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
(*See T.H. Eliot, “The Hollow Men“)
I was no longer in doubt that I had a fever when I woke the next morning in the Smarts Mountain Cabin, though it was lukewarm compared to the burning ignited by Lyme disease in Pennsylvania. With my digestive system still badly askew, I decided not to provoke it with food.
The first pitch of the descent of Smarts was indeed steep, as one hair-on-fire NOBO had informed me back at Chet’s hostel. But it wasn’t terribly rocky and there were some cool ledges with great views. It would have been a bear to ascend, but compared to the rest of New Hampshire and Maine, a pretty brief bear, which confirmed my theory—and trail angel extraordinaire Miss Janet’s experience—that NOBOs entering New Hampshire really aren’t to be trusted when it comes to evaluating the difficulty of the last 500 miles of the AT. But they learn soon enough.
It was another beautiful day for walking, clear and not just warm, but hot, with high temperatures in the 80s and a relative humidity of 85 percent in nearby Hanover. By the time I passed by the Dartmouth Skiway (NOBO mile 1764.5; SOBO 424.6), I had dropped to a mere 1,200 feet, and without consulting my Awol guide, I assumed the rest of my day into town would be a cakewalk.
I was saddened to come upon a sign noting that long-time trail angel Bill Ackerley, aka the Ice Cream Man, had died in May. AT hikers were always welcome to stop by his home just one-tenth of a mile from the intersection of Dorchester Road and the Grafton Parkway, eat some ice cream, use a portable privy, fill up on water, play croquet, or just rest for a bit.
Had I not been ailing, the brief, steep climb to Holts Ledge wouldn’t have fazed me, especially given the spectacular views up top. But I was in no mood for even this 1,100-foot ascent, and I grumbled all the way up.
After I descended to Goose Pond Road, the trail began to climb again, and to my dismay, rather steeply. I pulled out Awol and saw that I was in for an even longer slog on the north peak of 2,300-foot Moose Mountain, followed by a short, steep grind to the south peak, before things leveled out and I was truly home free for the day.
Though too tired to swim, I was grateful to come upon a small pond several miles later, where I soaked two bandanas in the water and swabbed my forehead and face. When I’d left Smarts I’d planned to hike 21.9 miles and call it a day at Velvet Rocks Shelter (SOBO mile 440.7). Although feeling weak and overheated, the possibility of a bed and, if my stomach would allow it, actual food, was enough to inspire me to bash out another two miles and collapse in Hanover.
A million years earlier, my mother and I had visited Dartmouth College on a grand tour of New England schools on my wish list. We’d come in October, and the trees all over town were exploding with autumn color, from deep magenta to fluorescent pinks and oranges. Truly charming and idyllic, Hanover from afar looks like a staged calendar photograph.
In flip-flopping, I thought I’d be drunk on fall beauty by now, but it was not to be. To my disappointment, even the leaves above 3,000 feet had only just begun to turn, and down in town, it still looked, and felt, very much like summer.
Hanover was the first truly bustling burgh I’d seen since flying to Bangor, Maine on Aug. 24. Students walked briskly along the concrete walks that crisscrossed sprawling, five-acre Dartmouth Green, while others lounged in the hot sun, tossed footballs, or flung Frisbees. I plopped down and reclined on my pack to see what Awol had to say about accommodations.
Just across the street was the impressively large building housing the Dartmouth Outdoor Club, which offered a brochure listing hiker services and angels in town. I would have liked to loll around, or even take a nap on the Green. But it was already 4:15, so I groaned back to my feet and walked across the street to the DOC. The woman at the help window handed me the magic brochure and said I could leave my gear downstairs while I went next door to the student union.
Gatorade went down well, as always. As the grumbling and shooting pains in my belly had stopped, I decided to risk eating a small container of pasta salad with olives and pesto and drinking some orange juice. All of it was far too expensive.
To my surprise, there were no “hiker cheap” accommodations in this fancy college town. I’d heard some fraternities offer floors and couches for a nominal fee, but only before classes start, so I was out of luck. I started systematically sending texts to trail angels on the list to inquire about lodging. My first five attempts went either unanswered or drew swift, “not tonight, sorry” responses. Hot and exhausted, I started to think I’d blown it by hiking past the shelter.
But then I tried a boisterously friendly woman named Jennie, who replied immediately that I was welcome to stay at the rectory of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Norwich, Vermont, where she served as priest. The church wasn’t far away, and she said she could pick me up in 15 minutes, but I told her I wanted to walk across the Connecticut River into Vermont.
As it turned out, Rev. Jennie saw me trudging along after the bridge and I clambered into the back seat—her big, boisterous Weimaraner, Freecee, occupied the front passenger seat—for a ride of less than a quarter of a mile, right past the church to Dan and Whit’s Country Store.
“You have to go in here,” Jennie insisted. “It’s a local legend.”
The place was cool, to be sure. Rev. Jennie excitedly gave me the grand tour, even the hardware department. At the end, I bought three more bottles of Gatorade and scored a “hiker’s special”—a free day-old sandwich. As we walked back to the car, she pointed out the “ice cream window” at the side of the building, and I couldn’t resist buying a scoop of strawberry on a sugar cone.
Jennie provided an equally detailed tour of the rectory, which was roomy, bright and clean. She suggested I take a single room with a queen bed upstairs, as three young NOBOS taking a zero (silly me; I thought I’d see the “last one”) had occupied three of four bunks in the adjacent room.
I peeled off my sweat-encrusted clothes and took a long, hot shower. I tossed my filthy hump of clothes into the washer downstairs, pleased that there was no line, then slumped into a comfy couch on the porch and watched a fat, white feral cat poking around the garden.
Consulting Awol, I saw that I had just over 40 miles to go. I was not inspired. Two days across Vermont landscapes with plenty of PUD (pointless ups and downs) and a couple of 1,000-plus climbs, and then … what? There would be nobody there to meet me at VT road 100 when I drifted out of the woods, nobody to high-five with, no breathtaking views, nothing at all….
A wave of melancholy washed over me and I blinked back tears. I knew from previous experience that I would likely experience weeks, if not months, of post-trail blues, and that my body would take time to recover. Psychologically, I was going to miss the pure and simple purpose of trail life. On a typical day, all you have to do is walk, find water, eat, make camp, break camp, and obey nature’s calls, nothing more. There is plenty of suffering, but there are also so many transcendent moments, so much awe-inspiring communion with nature, and the easy, unparalleled camaraderie between you and all those people from every imaginable background, sharing your odyssey for a minute, a night, or a month at a time.
I loved flipping and finishing southbound, but grieved the loss of that glorious peak moment—physically, emotionally, perhaps spiritually—atop Katahdin. I missed the friends I’d met and wondered if I’d ever see them again.
That night, Yahtzee, a 2015 thru hiker who was dealing with his own persistent post-trail letdown by helping Rev. Jennie, cooked up a large vat of soup, using vegetables from the community-supported agriculture collective where he worked during the day. There was also fresh French bread, a sumptuous selection of cheese, and beer.
The young NOBOs arrived at the rectory after a day of bumming around Hanover, we all ate together with our hosts. Afterward, I hauled a bucket of slop out to the compost and washed dishes.
“I’ve got 40 miles left,” I told Yahtzee as I listlessly scrubbed a soup bowl, “but I’m thinking of wrapping it up right here.”
“Oh, man, why would you want to do that?” he said, sounding like a man trying to
talk a friend out of putting a gun in his mouth.
I tried to describe what I was feeling. My stomach had settled down for the most part, so that wasn’t it. But I was tired and sad and I hated the thought of 40 miles of melancholy followed by a lonely anticlimax, then hitchhiking into grungy, uninspiring Rutland, one of the less pleasant towns in Vermont.
“Tonight I had good company, good food, a beer, and I get to sleep in a bed,” I said. “I just feel like I’m done.”
“Listen, man, I think you’ll regret it if you skip the last two days of your hike, or shit, take three if you have to. But that’s just my opinion,” he said. “Why don’t you sleep on it, maybe take a zero? If you’re still feeling the same way tomorrow, then OK, call it a day.”
He was right, of course. My fragile emotional state had no doubt been amplified by fever and exhaustion.
Never make a decision at the end of a hard day, I reminded myself before falling asleep.
But when I woke the next morning, I felt the same way. Four weeks after climbing Katahdin, I knew in my heart that my journey was over. Subtracting the 41 miles I was skipping in Vermont and the 24 miles I “sick blazed” in Pennsylvania, I had walked 2,124 miles since starting my hike on March 13 at Winding Stair Gap in North Carolina, then “started” again at Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 9. Start to finish, my “patchwork” journey had taken just over six months; minus my three extended breaks, I’d spent 115 days on the trail; had I hiked those skipped miles, I would have finished the trail in just a hair under four months.
Somewhere in the night, my subconscious had provided me a literary, if somewhat frivolous, reason to put a pin in my hike in Norwich, Vermont: September 22 is the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, each of whom took a very long, extremely challenging walk in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, respectively.
Of course, I hadn’t had to deal with orcs or dragons or Balrogs.… Not that I actually believe in such things.
I spent almost the entire, hour-long flight in a Cape Air six-seater from Lebanon, N.H. to Boston craning my neck to stare back at the receding blue ridge of the White Mountains. The summits of Washington and Lafayette remained clearly visible almost until the plane soared out over the Atlantic and banked back to the west to land at Logan International Airport.
I’d heard more than one AT finisher say she couldn’t bear to fly back home, to unravel all those months of struggle and joy and suffering and sacrifice in the span of a few hours. Had I gone back to Rutland I might have taken Amtrak, but now I just felt drained and I couldn’t bear a long goodbye. I felt a twinge of guilt about bailing on those last miles of Vermont, promising myself that some day I’d come back to walk those miles (and that stretch of Pennsylvania), but now I needed to go into mourning.
My 2016 thru hike of the Appalachian Trail was a patchwork quilt: 140 miles through the Smokys in March; 720 more to the bottom of the Shenandoahs in April and May; 800 more from Virginia to Vermont in June and July; and the last 500 through Maine and New Hampshire in August and September.
It was a clumsy, fractured itinerary, compared to the steady, elegant progress of so many friends I’d met between Georgia and Maine. But it was my hike, and I love it as ferociously as a mama bear protecting her cubs. I am haunted by it, every day, and I expect I will be, until the day I die.
(Note: Look for one more chapter of The Trail Is the Teacher on “lessons learned.”)