The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
After talking it over with Marnie, the cool and knowledgeable owner of White Mountains Lodge & Hostel (which she sold before the 2017 season; the name is changing to the Rattle River Lodge & Hostel), I decided to slackpack the next section of the trail, a 21-mile NOBO journey from Pinkham Notch back to Shelburne. The day would include some 6,000 feet of climbing over the Wildcats, Carter Dome, and Mount Moriah, including—ta-dah!—the No. 1 steepest half-mile and the 4th-steepest mile of the entire AT, from Pinkham Notch up to Wildcat E.
“Most people bring a light pack and do it in two days,” she said. “But you’ll be fine. Just be sure to bring a headlamp.”
Marnie’s son Ben dropped me off at Pinkham Notch on his way to a wilderness first-aid class in Conway the next morning. It was 7:45 when I started walking, later than I would have liked. But the previous day’s storm was long gone and the weather was clear and cool, headed toward the mid-70s in the valleys.
After rambling a short way along the flat, rock-strewn Lost Pond Trail, the AT plunged straight up into dense forest. Even burdened only by a daypack filled with water, food, a rain coat, gloves, and a warm hat, climbing 2,000 feet in over the next 1.7 miles was brutal. The “trail,” such as it was, was marked by too few blazes, and I got off into the weeds—or rather, the trees—about halfway up the mountain.
In good spirits and feeling strong after my zero, I refused to countenance the idea of descending hard-fought elevation to find a blaze. Instead, I checked my Guthook’s Guide to Hiking the AT app to see where I was. Then I started bushwhacking my way back to the trail. The bushes whacked back with glee, as I scrambled up a rocky promontory, waded through tangles of low, grasping fir, and took repeated slaps across the face from whip-like tree branches.
After a half hour of slashing and grunting through this obstacle course on the steepest part of the trail, I eventually came upon a blaze. I looked like I’d tangled with a particularly ferocious wildcat kitten, my face, arms, and legs crisscrossed with scratches. This is what’s known as Type 2 fun. And my day had just begun.
After marching up and over three more Wildcat peaks (D, C and A—the trail graciously bypasses B) I descended to Carter Notch Hut (NOBO mile 1875.6; SOBO 313.5). Feeling pressure because of my late start and time lost to bushwhacking, I decided I could wait to see what the New Hampshire hut system was all about. I was uneasy about the huts, anyway, as Awol’s memoir had made it sound complicated, at best.
The Appalachian Mountain Club has for more than a century operated a series of huts for hikers in the White Mountains. Fully staffed, each hut offers meals, cold running water, environmentally sensitive composting toilets, and cozy bunks for people who want to hike in without hauling a huge pack. The cost to stay overnight at each of the eight huts is more than $110 for non-AMC members—in other words, a big “no” for most on a thru-hiking budget— and reservations tend to be snapped up by wealthy Bostonian types.
For most of the hut region, stealth camping is either prohibited or discouraged (and always banned within a quarter-mile of any official camp site or hut). However, hut staff (who call themselves “croo”) will take pity on a certain number of hiking bums and offer “work for stay,” through which hikers can do assigned chores—anything from washing dishes to reorganizing shelves—in exchange for leftovers (when available) and sleeping overnight on the dining room floor. The huts also sell bars, candy and, famously, soup.
Skipping right past the blue blaze to the hut, I stopped beside a tiny brook to take on water before starting the brutal grind up to 4,832-foot Carter Dome (including the 5th-steepest mile and 7th-steepest half-mile section of the AT). As I squatted there like a caveman, I heard two SOBO hikers approaching.
They didn’t see me and I didn’t call out, but it was Kizmit and Green Blaze, two young hikers who had left the hostel the previous morning during the storm. I would encounter them several times over the next week, and Kizmit would become my final, brief taste of trail family as I pushed toward the end of my hike. After my old-home journey through Maine, where I sometimes counted more than 50 NOBOs a day, things were thinning out, and I saw only a few more hikers all day.
The climb to Carter Dome was grueling, but at least I didn’t get off track. I felt as fleet-footed as Legolas the Elf when he sprinted across snowdrifts on the knees of cruel Caradhras in Tolkien’s great quest story. The tread, I wrote later, was “frequently fucked,” but at least these steep and rocky grinds offered periodic majestic views of the storied Mount Washington massif to the southwest.
I reached my final summit of the day, Mount Moriah (4,042 feet; NOBO mile 1884.9; SOBO 304.2), at 4:30 p.m. The skies remained spectacularly clear and though I faced six miles of long, steady downhill to the Rattle River, I was now confident I’d make it back to the hostel well before dark. But even with my new shoes, all that ground-pounding had added up, and the descent seemed to take forever. I rolled out onto State Route 2 in Shelburne right at 7 p.m., then walked the half mile to the hostel.
If I subtracted my foolish meandering on Wildcat, I could plausibly claim to have done the 21 miles (and 6,000 feet of climbing, including not just that crazy steep first climb, but also the 17th, 18th and 55th steepest half miles and 7th steepest mile segments of the trail) in 11 hours, so I felt pretty good. But then Marnie told me about a couple of young hikers one male, one female, who had made it back in under seven hours in 2015.
“You did great,” she said. “But what happened to your face?”
Upstairs in the bathroom, I surveyed the damage: dozens of scrapes and scratches scored my arms, legs,bridge of my nose, cheeks, and forehead. To be honest, I thought it make me look rather cool and rakish.
To my ravenous delight, Marnie made dinner for everyone that night—an incredible enchilada casserole, seven-layer dip, chips, and corn—a treat that wasn’t included in the price of a night’s stay. For that and other reasons, I think the White Mountains Lodge & Hostel was the best accommodation experience I had on the entire trail.
I went to bed early and slept hard that night, knowing that I was in for another 6,000-foot climb the next day, only this time in the space of 15 miles, and bearing a fully-loaded pack.
I started walking SOBO from Pinkham Notch at 8 a.m. after being shuttled by Mellow from the hostel. The weather was once again spectacular—a good thing, as I intended to get up and over Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest peak in the Northeast and famously home to the “worst weather in the world,” including the highest wind speed ever measured on earth (234 mph) until it was dethroned by a 1996 hurricane.
The first five miles were pleasant enough, rolling uphill, sometimes steeply, through open forest alongside a series of crashing white streams and rivers. Then I hit what just might be be the most sustained steep slog on the entire Appalachian Trail, the 2.6-mile, 2,800-foot grind to the summit of bony, 5,367-foot Mount Madison, including the 3rd-steepest mile on the trail.
There is no relief and not much fun until you hit treeline after a couple of miles, I wrote in my journal. Then above treeline the rocks start … and never stop.
From there to the summit it was purely a rock-hop/scramble, but the openness offered breathtaking views to the north and east. As I was picking my way up like a mountain goat, I noticed two two tiny splashes of color moving on the rocks below. The next time I looked, they had gained on me; I had seen a few NOBOs on the way up, but no SOBOs, and I wondered who these speed-demons might be. I found out a half a mile below the summit, when Green Blaze, a young, compact former Marine with a big smile, hustled by me. A quarter mile later Kizmit, a super-fit young woman from Mississippi, did the same.
I loved the scrambly final ascent to the summit of Madison, where the view was even more spectacular. Despite a sturdy breeze, the sun was out and no storms lay on the horizon. A young couple with a baby in a backpack snapped my photo, then I made quick work of the steep, stony descent to Madison Springs Hut.
Kizmit and Green Flash were hanging out on the warm, sunny deck when I arrived. I went inside and waited a couple minutes before a young croo member deigned to stop washing dishes behind the counter and muttered a sullen, “Need something?” I bought some soup, broccoli something or other, which I did not love, and paid a couple dollars each for three leftover cookies. I was not impressed with my first hut experience.
But a friendly section hiker named Icebeard, who thru hiked the trail in 2002, came in and gave me a fair sampling of what turned out to be sound advice about hiking the Whites (damned if I can remember what he said, but I do remember that he was spot on).
I was already approaching 4,000 feet of climbing by the time I headed out at 1 p.m. Hulking Mount Washington, with its tiny ribbon of road, glittering with cars, dominated the view to the southeast. But mounts Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe still lay between me and that august summit; the remaining five and a half miles to the top were intermittently steep, and persistently rocky.
Literally 8 miles of almost exclusively rocks from Madison to Washington, I noted. I now understand why SOBOs dismiss NOBO whining about PA rocks (but PA is still a bitch).
It is a tradition among thru hikers to stop and moon the smoke-belching cog railway that cranks up the western ridge of Mount Washington. But I was hiking alone and the trains this late in the day had no passengers, so I didn’t see much point in dropping my shorts. I did note evidence of return fire to all those bare, skinny hiker asses: chunks of coal hurled lay scattered across the hillside.
I reached the summit of Washington at 4:40 p.m. on an absolutely perfect day. Having heard tales of a recent day when 90 mph winds had forced the closure of the mountain, I was grateful for my good fortune. Even so, the late afternoon breeze quickly cooled my sweaty shirt and shorts and I threw on a rain jacket before dodging inside the snack bar for a PowerAde and two semi-stale donuts. And—surprise—I failed to ask anyone to take my photo at the summit.
Then, despite the cluster of buildings and signs and cars and many people, I could not for the life of me figure out where the trail led from the summit. I could see my destination about a mile below, Lakes of the Clouds Hut (NOBO mile 1854.7; SOBO 334.4), and the shining snake of the trail, but not where it left the mountaintop. After wandering to the eastern side of the summit, I began picking my way back across a field of large boulders, thinking I’d have to intersect with the AT somewhere.
As I navigated the boulders, I suddenly, irretrievably lost my balance. My poles plunged into a yawning black gap and I teetered forward, slamming the middle of both thighs onto the sharp edge of a block of granite. I yelped, more out of shock than pain, and managed to arrest my fall, but not before I had bent both poles.
Dusting myself off, I saw thin lines of blood where the rock had given a little warning nip to my thighs. Though I wasn’t really hurt, I would bruise up later, and I experienced an involuntary shiver as I peered down into the gap, imagining how much worse it could have been. There I was, less than 200 miles from finishing, and my hike came close to ending with the most idiotic of missteps, after I’d gotten “lost” on top of a famous mountain, crowded with people.
Duly chastened, I climbed back to the top and eventually encountered a rather obvious sign pointing the way to the hut. The 1.3 mile descent included a 1,000-foot drop in elevation, including the 47th steepest half-mile of the trail, but it didn’t feel at all steep. Certainly Green Blaze didn’t find it challenging when he literally jogged past me with a smile and a wave.
When I got to the hut it was after 6; counting stops, it had taken me 10 hours to hike just 15 miles. I dumped my pack on a stone wall outside and went in, feeling more nervous about approaching the “croo” than climbing Mount Washington. I preferred to be self-sufficient but now I was dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and if they’d already taken two work-for-stay hikers—the limit, according to the sullen dude at Madison Springs—then I would have to keep walking to … I had no idea where. The descent from Washington was mostly tree-free for many miles and camping was banned.
As it turned out, the two-hiker limit was flexible, and the young woman I talked to at the front desk was very kind, cool, and even enthusiastic. She’d already granted work-for-stay privileges to a hiker of my vintage named Roll Tide (guess where he was from?) and Green Blaze, who had also petitioned favorably on behalf of Kizmit.
“Yeah, you’re cool,” the croo member said. Having thru hiked a few years earlier, she understood my anxiety and confusion.
What’s more, other croo members soon appeared with plastic buckets and bowls and giant kettles full of leftovers for us to eat—beef tips, some kind of pumpkin soup, cheese, bread, juice, and more.
“You’re lucky,” said one of the croo. “We’re closing this hut up in less than a week and we don’t want to have to pack any food out.”
Helicopters drop heavy supplies for each hut at the beginning of the season, but after that, croo must strap on hideous-looking traditional wood-and-canvas packs (why not upgrade?) a couple of times a week to pack out trash and return with perishables and other supplies. Talk about mountain goats; I’d seen one croo guy blasting up toward Washington faster than I was coming down.
Kizmit arrived not long after I did, but she declined to take part in our leftover smorgasbord as some 90 paying guests began filtering into the dining room, looking and smelling considerably more fresh than we did. Kizmit bundled up and went out front to cook her own dinner.
“She’s just like that sometimes,” said Green Blaze, who had met Kizmit in Millinocket and been hiking with her ever since. “She can be sort of shy.”
After we’d eaten our fill, we brought the empties back to the kitchen, where I stuffed my face with at least half-a-dozen biscuit-like lemon cookies offered by the croo. They instructed us to stay in the riff-raff—excuse me, entry—area or go outside while the paying customers enjoyed dinner. I went outside to shoot a (not very good) photo of a spectacular sunset, then hung out with Roll Tide and Green Blaze. Kizmit came in after a bit but didn’t seem interested in conversation, except for a few whispered remarks to her hiking partner.
After dinner the croo set about entertaining the guests with goofy skits and small-group discussions about White Mountain-y stuff; they asked Roll Tide if he would answer questions from guests about thru hiking. I poked through books and eventually chatted a bit with Kizmit. A gym rat from Jackson, Mississippi, she had graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in wildlife management. She’d completed a NOBO thru hike in 2012 and this year had hiked NOBO to Damascus, Virginia before flipping up to Maine, where she met Green Blaze. She hoped to get back to Damascus by Thanksgiving.
“Dang,” I said. “It’s going to get cold.”
“I know, and I don’t even like cold weather,” Kizmit said. “But I do like the solitude.”
She said she had enjoyed Green Blaze’s company, but he was, by his own admission, completely self-absorbed, and she said his words were sometimes too harsh. He was super social, she said, where she was happy to go days without seeing people. She was 30, he was 24. Both were super strong hikers, as I’d already seen.
“I just need to hike alone again,” she said.
The longer the croo entertained the guests, the more agitated I got. I’d just hiked two of my toughest days, in succession, and I was tired. Hiker midnight (generally agreed to be 9 p.m., though some say it’s as early as sunset) came and went, and still the four of us waited like dutiful servants for our work assignments. As soon as the paying guests headed off to beddy-bye, we were put to work doing dishes, including detailed scrubbing of pots and pans, right down to scraping away tiny specks of black carbon that had accumulated through the summer, in preparation for the end of the season. The work was not hard, and the company was great, but I was exhausted when I finally flopped down for the night.
I’d been fortunate to have two absolutely flawless days for the Wildcats and Washington, but a minor cold front was coming in. It was already chilly by the time the blazing orange ball of sun sank out of sight, and later that night I was grateful to be sleeping under a table at the hut when 50 mph gusts began to rattle the windows.
I don’t love hut-indenture, I wrote. But I’m so glad to be inside as the wind howls on Mount Washington….
That night would turn out to be my last in a White Mountains hut.