The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Much of the Hundred Mile Wilderness is flat (though not necessarily easy). But there are a few hills, including the ladder-like ascent from Logan Brook Lean-to to the summit of Whitecap Mountain, which includes the 25th-steepest half-mile section on the AT.
The temperature barely topped out at 70 and the dew point was only 50 degrees, but I was drenched by the time I was on top. I tugged on a ragged pair of Brooks Runderwear at the top in an effort to stave off an even worse case of swamp-ass.
My expectations that the next three small summits would be easy were soon cruelly dashed. Hay Mountain, West Peak and Gulf Hagas Mountain were not only steep, but brutally rooty and rocky. By day’s end, I tallied up some 4,200 feet of uphill marching.
Stopping by Carl A. Newhall Lean-to (NOBO mile 2110.5; SOBO 78.6), I found Lazy Eagle, the hiker I’d met in Shenandoah National Park who had walked with my cousin Margarita down south, as well as one of four Sunshines I met along the trail.
The descent to the West Branch of the Pleasant River was knotted with rocks and roots and included the 39th steepest half-mile of the trail. To my dismay, it took me 2 hours and 40 minutes to hike just 5.6 miles down to the river, a pace of 2 mph. I was beginning to sense a disconcerting trend.
AT hikers often have to ford multiple rivers and streams in Maine, but in this year of drought, the Pleasant was the only one where I had no choice but to get my feet wet. After removing my socks and insoles, I waded across in my Hokas. On the other side I walked four-tenths of a mile the wrong way looking for a campsite, only to have to return and throw up my tent near the banks of the river.
Will reel off 20 mi. tomorrow, then a short day to resupply in Monson. Four-and-a-half days through the Hundred Mile. Not so bad, I wrote.
It rained steadily for most of the night, but I felt warm, comfortable, and pleasantly alone in the middle of nowhere.
A warm dense fog hung in the air when I began walking at 6:30. I immediately hit the first steep incline of the 1,500-foot climb to Chairback and Columbus mountains.
There followed so many annoying PUDs (pointless ups and downs) that each one was given a number rather than a name—Third Mountain, Mount Three-and-a-Half, and Fourth Mountain—but at least the ledges on Barren Mountain offered nice views. For a stretch that was supposed to be “flat,” it felt pretty steep to me.
The air was once again muggy, leaving my skin slick and stinging in places from chafe. But once I got above the suffocating fog, a welcome breeze found me atop Chairback. Not far from the summit I was happy to see a ruffed grouse scurrying with her two chicks along the trail.
I was also extremely heartened to see countless toads and frogs, given scientific concerns about the decline of amphibian populations. I have always found it easy to distinguish their respective genera, Bufo and Rana, but the trail taught me how to tell from a distance: Frogs fling themselves away from you, far and fast, while toads just sort of flop awkwardly from inch to inch.
The day also provided more of the unexpected pleasure of running into so many NOBOs I’d met further south. I ran into BASA, who I was surprised to learn had separated from Achilles after they’d hiked together for nearly 2,000 miles. I was sad to hear that Alan, who had been brooding over the coming challenge of the White Mountains when I’d seen him last the night before I entered Vermont, had left the trail in Hanover, N.H. (We later had lunch in Boulder and I was happy to hear he planned to finish in 2017.)
I also talked with Diesel and Coldsnap, a couple I’d met at the Howard Johnson’s Daleville. And, as further proof of my poor prediction skills, I ran into Trekkeroni—the kid with the 65-pound pack and pepperoni duct-taped to his poles I’d last seen in Pearisburg, Virginia—who I was sure would never make it to Maine.
I stumbled into Wilson Valley Lean-to after more than 10 hours of hiking, which translated to a pace just under 2 mph over some 19.9 miles and 4,500 feet of climbing. Remind me again why the Hundred Mile Wilderness is “easy”….
I shared the shelter that night with 65-year-old Just Charlie, who owns As Time Goes By, a bookstore-coffee shop in tiny Marion, Alabama. He’d begun section-hiking the AT in 1977 and was finally about to finish the trail nearly 40 years later.
He wasn’t thrilled with many of the changes he’s seen over the years. His most interesting observation (quoted at length in a previous chapter) was that over time, trail designers had continually rerouted the Appalachian Trail from “boring” road walks or pastures to ridgetops.
“That makes sense for weekend hikers, who want to get up into the trees,” Just Charlie said. “But it makes the trail more monotonous, and considerably harder, if you are hiking the whole thing or doing long sections.”
We talked until late about his store, William Faulkner, the wreck of the Sultana on the Mississippi River following the Civil War, and life as a longhair in the deepest corner of the South. At twilight a young couple showed up in a pouring rain and pitched their tent behind the shelter.
I felt refreshed when I headed out early the next morning for a 10.4-mile walk that would take me out of the wilderness and into the storied trail town of Monson for a much-needed nero. Despite an endless series of PUDs I would only have to climb 1,400 feet that day.
The southern end of the wilderness was beautiful, as the trail traipsed across brooks and streams, past ponds and much-photographed Little Wilson Falls. Eager to get to town, I didn’t swim, though I did slip on a slippery stone, resulting in an impromptu dip in Big Wilson Stream.
As I approached the highway, the peeling hiss of rubber on pavement and the grinding whine of engines grew ever louder. After four days in the remote Maine woods, the pervasive soundtrack to modern life was profoundly disheartening. I hit the road just after 10 a.m., which gave me plenty of time to rest and recuperate before I headed out the next day.
I hitched a ride to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, a historic wayside for AT hikers now owned and operated by Poet and Hippie Chick, who thru-hiked the trail in 2008. They now spend the hiking season at the hostel with their daughter, Baby Chick, and laid-back springer spaniel named Ringo. (Hippie Chick is the daughter of Ole Man and NaviGator, owners of the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket.)
Poet runs an extensive, and (not surprisingly) somewhat pricey, resupply of both food and equipment out of a barn on the property, where he annually battles clever squirrels who manage to find their way in somehow.
“I’m thinking of getting a cat,” he said. “Or a gun.”
After dumping my heap of filthy clothes next to five other reeking piles awaiting redemption in the washing machine, I wandered into town and bought some greasy pizza slices and Gatorade at the mini-mart. While walking back, I was happy to run into Achilles, who was staying at the Lakeshore House hostel. He explained that he and BASA had parted company because Achilles’ wanted to slow down a bit and take more time to chill out. Even so, he was just a day behind his old partner.
Back at Shaw’s, I found Applejack, whom I’d met in the Smokys during my first week on the trail, and again in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Toward evening I was psyched when Sourpatch and Simba tumbled out of the hostel shuttle.
That night I walked back to the Lakeshore and shared a table with a German woman named Spacious and Alpaca, whose shelter logbook entries had been bugging me since at least Pennsylvania. A nice guy, Alpaca frequently espoused the common trail myth that anyone going “too fast” (i.e. faster than you) is robbing themselves of enjoyment and experience. It was the same stop-and-smell-the roses line as the one preached by Slow Man, who gave me my trail name on the Colorado Trail.
Halfway through dinner I said, “So, Alpaca, I have a bone to pick with you….”
A friendly debate ensued, and we both gave some ground. Alpaca made the point that if you go fast, you have to pay more attention to your feet, and therefore you might miss seeing something cool, a bear, an eagle, a side trail to a waterfall.
“Fair enough, but can we admit that everyone has to keep their head down if you don’t want to break a leg, especially once you get to Pennsylvania?” I countered. “Anyway, I can’t tell you the number of times I didn’t stomp on toads, frogs, salamanders, and snakes because I was watching my feet!”
I’ve had fantastic experiences while hiking 20- or 30-mile days. But I confess that the Appalachian Trail forced me to accept a hard truth the 500-mile CT couldn’t teach me: I was able to rack up miles day after day well into New England, but over 2,000 miles, but the cumulative strain on my body and mind did indeed imperil my ability to finish. Moving fast doesn’t necessarily diminish a long-distance experience, but now I know I need to pace myself on a really long trail.
Despite all my fuming at a faceless nemesis along the trail, I liked Alpaca. He was even in the newspaper business, my old career. Once more, the trail laughed at my ill-informed judgments.
I didn’t sign up for breakfast at Shaw’s, but when I went into the kitchen for coffee at 6 a.m., Poet talked me into staying. It was a greasy affair, not what I’m used to, but I ate my fill of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and pancakes, while passing on bacon. Simba didn’t show up, but Sourpatch ate in the next room.
Among those sitting across the table from me were Boss and Samsquatch, the young British couple I’d met a million miles away in the South. They had been part of the boisterous bunch my crew had dubbed Chuck-E-Cheese, who had noisily, and good-naturedly, invaded a couple shelters in Virginia.
Boss, a garrulous, dark-haired young woman, was still quite chatty. But Samsquatch, a bookish-looking blond chap with a voice even louder than mine, spoke hardly a word. He looked haunted, like a man freshly arrived from combat.
I’ve heard it said that by the time most NOBO women reach Maine, they are glowing with strength—both inner and outer—health, and beauty, but most men have the appearance of someone who has just barely survived a death march. Gary “Green Giant” Sizer, former Marine, 2014 AT thru-hiker, and author of the memoir, “Where’s the Next Shelter?”, infamously posted a before-and-after shot that horrified many who saw it (which I reproduce here for your viewing pleasure). Based strictly on anecdotal evidence from my miles on the AT, I’m inclined to think women are more natural long-distance hikers than their testosterone-soaked brethren.
Coming back downstairs after packing up, I noticed Simba sitting at the picnic table outside, arms wrapped around pajama-clad knees, a curl of steam rising from her coffee cup. Dumping my pack on the porch, I sat down next to her.
“No breakfast for you?”
“No, I don’t like American breakfast,” she said, yawning. “It’s too much, too greasy, too heavy. I’m not used to it.”
“I loved eating Israeli-style breakfast when I was there—plain yogurt or cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers….”
“Yes, it’s much better,” she said. “You know, after I met you, I told Sourpatch I was sure you had an interesting story.”
Encouraging me to tell stories can be a mistake of grave proportions, as it’s one of my favorite pastimes; Lava Monster even came up with a hashtag for my tendencies, #ponytales.
“I’m warning you, once you pull the string in my back, you might have to kick me to get me to stop,” I said. She shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you! But first I need more coffee.”
Simba laughed when I returned and took off my shoes.
“Your stories really must be long,” she said, laughing.
“Ah, I knew you were something interesting,” Simba said when I told her I was a writer. Sourpatch had now joined us at the table.
Now uncorked, I talked about my six years working as a cowboy, my newspaper career, and the obsession that had led to my latest book project: finding and recovering my grandfather’s remains from the Pacific battlefield where he fell in 1943.
“You were a real cowboy? I think I love you,” Sourpatch said, winking.
Simba said she’d hiked the 1,000-kilometer Israel National Trail as soon as her army hitch was up.
“In the desert you need to prepare water and to put it somewhere hidden in the places you where you’ll stop to sleep,” she said. “Or to you have to carry enough water for three days.”
After the hike she worked on an organic farm, then took the job at a Massachusetts summer camp that led her to sample the AT.
“I love being in nature and I want to work in nature,” Simba said.
I know many people won’t believe me, but there was nothing tawdry about the mutual connection we felt. Sometimes you meet a person you just click with, almost as if you’d known them in some other life (not that I believe in other lives), and you want to spend time with them, no matter your difference in age, gender, or any other trivial detail. That’s how I felt about Patches and Lava, whose combined ages were still less than mine. That such connections are so welcome and accepted on the trail, where the synthetic world might look askance, remains one of the trail’s greatest gifts.
But when I’d risen at 5:30 that morning my plan was to get going no later than 6:30. Now it was 8:15. I said goodbye to Simba and Sourpatch, then Poet drove me back to the trailhead.
Maybe I should have zeroed, I wrote in my journal that night. Now maybe I’ll never see them again.
(Update: I connected with both Simba and Sourpatch on Facebook. Simba finished her hike in Stratton and took a job on a farm in Eilat, Israel; she hopes to come back to the United States in 2018 to work at a summer camp and hike a Western trail. And I hope to see Sourpatch during her 2017 hike of the Colorado Trail.)