The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
A few miles after leaving the shelter, I dropped steeply (in fact, the 66th steepest half-mile of the AT; yes, I’m obsessed with this steepness thing) to Jerusalem Road (mile 1540.1), where there was a sign advertising trail magic just a hundred yards down the road. I walked down to find a small cabinet and refrigerator stocked with soda, water, hard-boiled eggs, Pop-Tarts, chips and other treats, all available for a very reasonable price on the honor system.
I paid for and inhaled cookies, chips and a Coke, then bought Pop-Tarts and another Coke for the road before heading back up the hill. Just as I got to the trail, I stopped to talk to two young hikers, Frodo (who looks precisely like actor Elijah Wood, who played that character in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies) and Tank.
“Are you going to Upper Goose Pond Cabin?” Tank asked.
“I’m not sure where I’m headed today,” I said. Especially after going an additional 1.8 miles the night before, stopping at the cabin — operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club — would mean just a 14-mile day.
“You should go,” Frodo said. “I hear it’s the best shelter experience on the whole AT.”
“Sounds cool, but I think I’m probably going a little farther than that today,” I said.
I trundled down through a pasture while they went down the road to the magic cabinet. After the fairly steep, 1,000-foot ascent of Baldy Mountain, followed by a few miles of mild but annoying ups-and-downs, I stopped at the junction for the blue blaze to Upper Goose Pond.
“Half a mile?” I said out loud, looking at the sign. “I’m supposed to walk half a mile to check out this wondrous cabin?”
I hadn’t driven myself especially hard since leaving Maria’s place, but I was still feeling worn out. The hornet stings still ached a little and were beginning to itch. My feet were throbbing and I found myself thinking of how Frodo and Sam managed the last, desperate leg of their journey into the heart of Mordor, going only as far as they could to get the job done.
Lost in an internal debate about my next move, I was startled to hear someone call my name — my real name. It was Alan, the 69-year-old kick-ass hiker from Boulder whom I’d met in New York.
“Are you going to the cabin?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t even decide if I want to risk walking half a mile just to see what I think,” I said.
“Well, I’m going on,” he said.
Alan was, if anything, more driven than I on the trail. But for once, my idiot man-brain didn’t flare instantly with a need to compete. I took it as a signal.
“Well, fuck,” I said. “I hate to go that far off trail, especially if it isn’t that great, but I guess I’ll go have a look and at least go for a swim.”
“See you up the trail, then,” Alan said, and strode off.
About three-tenths of a mile up the trail to Upper Goose Pond Cabin, I ran into Bonnie, who with her husband Rob were the Appalachian Mountain Club Berkshire Chapter’s cabin caretakers for the week. The two-story red cabin, once privately owned, is now managed by the club exclusively for the use of AT thru hikers and section hikers.
If I wanted to stay, Bonnie said, all I had to do was head up to the cabin and claim a bunk. There were jugs of water on the porch — filled daily by caretakers and hiker-volunteers who canoe over to a spring on the far side of the pond. In the morning, she said, there would be pancakes and coffee. She sensed my hesitation.
“You should stay,” she said. “I think you’ll like it.”
“How’s the swimming?”
“Absolutely the best. Cool, clear water,” she said. “You can even fish if you want.”
Five minutes later, I mounted the porch stairs, where Rob greeted me. Flipping through the logbook, I saw that some hikers (including one I knew, Olive Oil) actually swam all the way out to a tiny, tree-covered island several hundred yards offshore, while others ventured onto the water in canoes or inflatable kids’ swim rings. But a long, leisurely swim was right up my alley. I humped my pack upstairs, claimed a bunk, put on my flip-flops and walked down a short, steep hill to the water.
The water was indeed beautifully clear and pleasantly cool. Diving off the smaller of two small docks, I alternated between breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle (aka crawl) in making slow progress toward the island, which was farther out than it appeared. Once ashore, I poked around and chatted with a family that had docked their small, motored skiff so their two girls and dog could explore. They offered me a ride back, but I wanted to spend more time enveloped by those comforting green waters.
While cooking on the porch that night, I was surprised to see that my food bag was getting a little light, as I’d just resupplied in Salisbury (this is something I still can’t seem to get right; either I have way too much, or not enough…). While eating dinner, I struck up a conversation with a friendly woman and her 11-year-old son from Springfield, Massachusetts, who were nearing the end of a 100-mile section hike. Ellen and Merlin (the boy’s trail name — taken from a popular young-adult book series by T.A. Barron, a friend of mine) lived most of the year in Senegal, where his father taught school.
“It’s mostly desert there,” Merlin said. “It’s hard hiking the trail, but I love being in the trees and being so near water all the time.”
I was a little embarrassed to be eating a Knorr Pasta Side and tortillas with Jif while watching Ellen and Merlin make a healthy dinner from things that actually grew in the dirt — dried fruit, nuts, some kind of hummus.
I also talked to a young hiker from Florida named Bearbait, who happened to be in the photo I took of the lake and island, and whom I would soon meet again.
By dark, the upstairs bunkroom was full. There are few things as comforting to me as a hiker than the sound of rain falling on a rooftop. I fell asleep relishing the fresh scent of wet leaves that drifted in through open screens, very happy I’d decided to stop.
The next morning I resisted the urge to bail out before breakfast, and it was well worth waiting for. The pancakes were vast and spongy, and in my case, sloppy with butter and syrup. But the coffee, whether due to the appealing context or some other ineffable magic, tasted as good as any I’d ever had in my four-decade caffeine career. To cap off my magical stay, Ellen and Merlin gave me some organic dried mangoes, crackers and other clean food before I headed out at 7:15.
“Think of us when you climb Katahdin!” Merlin said as I waved goodbye and headed back to the trail.
Two roads diverged in a green wood at mile 1548.1 of the Appalachian Trail, and I — I took the one I sorely needed at that moment. It was one of my favorite stops on the trail.
I didn’t have to do a huge amount of climbing that day, but it was something of a letdown after the dreamy interlude at Upper Goose Pond. The trail was mostly green tunnel, alternating between pace-killing roots and rocks, and smoother, duff-covered tread.
Stopping for a snack at October Mountain Lean-to, I found an exhausted-looking Achilles. He didn’t recognize me without my beard until I asked about BASA, with whom he had hiked since meeting the first week on the trail in Georgia. Turns out that they had recently split up when Achilles decided to go to town (I’m not sure which one) with Good Talk, whom I met at the Silver Hill campsite, and BASA continued on. Achilles was hurting after bashing out a 29-mile day the day before in an effort to catch up to his old partner.
Achilles caught up to me a bit later and we walked together into Dalton, Mass., where we ate lunch at Jacob’s Pub. We walked over to the Cumberland Farms convenience store where I did a small, but expensive, resupply, and we ran into Alan. Alan and I decided to split a motel room at the Shamrock Village Inn. We invited Achilles to join us, but he decided to head on.
Eating at the pub had given me an unfortunate case of “town belly” — gas, semi-constipation, diarrhea, you name it — and I didn’t sleep well.
Feeling thoroughly unrefreshed, I rose early and headed out into a cool, cloudy morning.
I can taste that Dandelion Wine-type melancholy in the air, I wrote, referring to Ray Bradbury’s classic novel of a boy’s summer in 1928. It’s that inevitable day when you know summer must end, after all.
I got somehow off track at the beginning of the 1,000-foot climb up Crystal Mountain, but bushwhacked my way back to the trail through surprisingly dry, open woods. At MA 8, I hiked down to a Dunkin’ Donuts, where I gobbled four donuts — two glazed, two chocolate-frosted — like a crazed addict and slurped down a cup of uninspiring coffee to shake off my lack of sleep. Thus fueled, I began the 2,500-climb up Mount Greylock, at 3,491 feet the highest summit since northern Virginia.
The mountain is famous — at least to me — because of its association with Herman Melville. The great writer wrote part of his greatest novel, Moby Dick, from his home at Arrowhead, where his view of the mountain reminded him of the humped back of a sperm whale. He dedicated his next (and now all but forgotten) novel, Pierre, to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty … my own… sovereign lord and king.”
The first 1,000 feet up was fairly steep, then the trail leveled out to a false summit near Mark Noepel Lean-to, and steepened again near the top. As I walked, the surrounding forest transformed from one of sleepy deciduous monarchs to a pitch-scented thicket of conifers, reminding me of Colorado and Tennessee’s Clingman’s Dome, the high-point of the AT. I was thrilled to find a vast treasure trove of magic about a mile below the summit, and I plopped onto the grass to devour homemade brownies and cookies, chips and a banana and slurp down a Coke.
By the time I reached the top it was 1:30 p.m.. The skies were gray and the air hovered between warm and cool. The curious looking Veterans War Memorial Tower, built in 1932, was surrounded by scaffolding for a renovation to improve safety, and had been closed to the public since 2013. I meandered briefly through the lodge, bought some Gatorade, then went outside to eat. I asked an impeccably dressed Boston woman — I think she was an example of the species they call “Brahmin” — and her two grown sons if I could share their picnic table. She said yes, then gave me a chicken sandwich and peppered me with questions about hiking the trail.
One of her sons turned out to be an attorney in Los Angeles who had worked previously in New York publishing. We talked for a long time about the business, my latest book and the rising respectability — and pitfalls — of self-publishing. He gave me his email, in case I had further questions.
It had begun to rain lightly by the time I started down the mountain, and I tried to hustle, knowing that a big storm was on the way. The three mile descent to to Wilbur Clearing Lean-to (mile 1589.2) included the 59th steepest half-mile on the AT, but I was more annoyed that the shelter was three-tenths of a mile — the horror — off the trail.
I thought I recognized the lone woman huddled in her sleeping bag at the shelter, and finally placed her when she introduced herself: She had been with Overdose and the squint-eyed dude who drove me out of Mount Wilcox South Shelter with smoke and loud music. The rain was beginning to come down harder now, and it would only get worse, but if those two were on their way, I would be hiking on to find a tenting spot.
“No, I got ditched,” Jill said sadly when I asked about her partners.
She had traveled all the way from Illinois to join the guy, whom she’d been dating, for a section hike, but he had found her inconvenient and simply abandoned her. Overdose was kinder, she said, but had also left her. She had gotten ahead of me through a combination of yellow-blazing and hiking.
“I was so excited to be doing this,” she said. “Now I just feel stupid.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Not everybody is going to hike at the same pace, especially if someone is just starting out. But if you invite someone along, then ditch them, sorry, but you’re just an asshole.”
Eventually, I tentatively mentioned shelter etiquette and how rude her erstwhile companions had been.
“Oh, God, I wondered what happened,” said Jill, who had been buried in her sleeping bag when I left. “They just said you were too uptight.”
She, at least, was nice. She had spent her career working with large mammals at American zoos and African nature parks. She planned to hike the trail for a few more days before heading home.
Alan showed up later, as did Bearbait, the chatty blond Florida woman I met at Upper Goose Pond. Like a number of hikers I would meet up north, she had dispensed with shoes and was now walking in thick wool socks and sandals. I was fascinated.
“I just got sick of blisters and super sweaty feet,” she said, peeling off her grungy socks to reveal toes completely blackened with trail filth.
“Don’t you stub your toes?”
“Not too much, but I’ve definitely jammed my heel against a few rocks. You just have to be careful about where you step.”
I could see the benefits, but I wasn’t sure sandals were for me.
As predicted, the rain really cut loose that night, and it was still pouring when I first woke at 5 a.m. Groggily hoping it would stop, I forced myself to lie back down. I woke again at 6:30 when Alan began stirring. It was still coming down.
I’ve never seriously considered taking a zero in a shelter—even during my Lyme disease nightmare in Pennsylvania I always made at least a few miles—so I steeled myself for a soggy day. I set out at 7:30 wearing rain gear, the first time I’d done that since southern Virginia. I was soaked almost immediately, which meant I had to keep up a good pace to stay warm.
After the steep, slippery descent from Mount Prospect to the northern foot of Greylock — the 12th steepest mile on the AT — the trail almost immediately jumped into a 1,500-foot ascent to a lush, unnamed ridge, where much of the tread had turned to mud soup. Somewhere in there I crossed into Vermont — 11 states down, three to go, though I didn’t get much pleasure out of the milestone at that moment. Beginning to fret about hypothermia, I made a snap decision to take a break at Seth Warner Shelter (mile 1599.1).
The shelter was loaded with bedraggled hikers. Some were temporarily huddled out of the rain, hoping for a break, while others had given up entirely on this nasty day and lay sleeping or reading in their bags. Nemo, the loquacious hiker I met in Georgia who loved to pack luxury items like bottles of wine and expensive chocolate, was there. Shivering, I gobbled my last two Clif bars, essentially the end of my food. Feeling little better than when I had arrived, I headed on.
The trail on the way up to Consultation Peak was either muddy or a sloshing with cold rain water, take your pick. It was also vexingly rocky and rooty, and my feet were really feeling it. Just before hitting mile 1600, I took a wrong turn downhill. I caught my mistake soon enough, and as I hiked back up in search of the trail, I ran into Nemo and another guy, who had taken the same wrong turn. The three of us quickly found our way back, then they blazed off at a vigorous pace, leaving me once again alone and cold in the woods of Vermont.
As I had more than once back in Virginia, I found myself thinking of the haunting Ray Bradbury story, “The Long Rain,” about three Earthmen trying to find their way back to safety after their airship crashes in the endless, rainy jungles of Venus (now known, of course, to be fantasy; the planet is a brutal desert). The tale begins, “The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.” The men go mad.
It was the kind of day when I didn’t hesitate to mediate my immediate experience by listening to a podcast or mp3 book, to take my mind off the misery. I was deeply grateful for the digital ministrations of Scott Brick and Isaac Asimov, narrator and author, respectively, of the 1973 novel The Gods Themselves, which held up much better than I’d expected after all those years.
Awol describes the final descent to VT 9 as especially rocky and steep, and it is — the 31st steepest half-mile of the trail, in fact. But trail maintainers had turned much of it into a stony staircase in the 13 years since his hike; it’s still tough on the knees and quads, but not, perhaps, as treacherous as it once was. The rain was falling less aggressively by the time I sloshed out of the trees, imagining that I looked like a white, wrinkled cadaver just drawn from a river.
To my amazement, the very first car that passed my upturned thumb skidded onto the shoulder and gave me a ride down into Bennington, Vermont. The driver insisted on showing me around town for about 30 minutes before dropping me off at the Catamount Motel, which, though not exactly cheap, was the best deal available in this college town.
I missed the camaraderie of a true hiker hostel, of which there were few between Virginia and Vermont, but I was indescribably grateful to be out of that cruel rain. After taking a long, hot shower — mostly to warm up; the rain had scrubbed away all the dirt and sweat already — I walked back to Main Street in a light sprinkle. I wandered along until I came to the Bennington Pizza House, where I ate salad and a large plate of spaghetti and overdosed on Dr. Pepper. After eating a strawberry ice cream cone across the street, I walked back to the motel.
I was fed and warm, wrapped up like a burrito in the starchy bedding so characteristic of cheap motels. I had not, so far as I could tell, been driven mad by the rain, but my still-wrinkled feet throbbed in complaint and at that moment I couldn’t bear the thought of taking another step on the Appalachian Trail. Back in Connecticut I had promised to “commit to Vermont,” and now here I was, 10 miles over the line.
For more than 1,600 miles, I’d been mad Captain Ahab, reckessly pursuing my own white whale, no matter the cost. And now I felt like I was swirling down into the maelstrom, exhausted, battered, lonely and lost….
The rest of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine would still be there next season.
So I quit.