I think I’ve done a fairly good job this hiking off season of NOT getting embroiled in guerrilla internet warfare. I haven’t been getting into peoples faces about things like choosing trail names before they start, obsession over pack-weight when they shouldn’t be, upset with people over constant advertising. I’ve certainly discussed these things with a few close friends – but I’ve been…. restrained.
This is not one of those restrained posts. If you have delicate sensibilities… perhaps you should move on.
This all starts with the blog.appalachiantrials.com blog that Badger runs and his 3 lists.
- “I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…”
- “When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail I will…”
- “If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…”
A useful way to diagram out your reasoning, especially because expressing why you’re going out to do a long distance hike can be problematic for many. I know that 2 years after starting my first thruhike I STILL have problems with the “why I started doing this” bit when talking to people.
I have no problem with the first list, “I’m doing this because”. The second… I take a slight issue with. Why you ask? Because let’s face it – like all other plans you have on the trail, this one might not bear any resemblance to the reality you’ll find out there. Plans change – sometimes immensely.
When people go out on a long hike like this, they discover things about themselves, sometimes things they never knew or only suspected. Sometimes they validate what they already knew and reinforce it. As Rob Bird once told me “People are out here every year, looking for themselves or someone else – some people find it in 20 miles, others don’t ever find it on this path but have to go to another one. But they always discover the important things they never knew existed.” So what does that mean about your list of things you’ll discover about yourself when you finish?
Maybe it’s time to toss that list and instead of planning on finding or achieving the growth you “Think” you need – open yourself to actual growth that is spontaneous instead of planned. That’s just a thought and suggestion from someone who HAD a list like that and then lost it along the way – and was much happier and experienced FAR more growth when it was natural.
Again – just my opinion.
But here comes the nity-gritty – the part I worry about and almost take offense to when I read the final list: “If I give up on the AT without finishing”
All of the lists I’ve read have pretty much the same gist. Major topics in those lists include
- Being disapointed in themselves
- Thinking of themselves as a failure for not finishing
- Regret not finishing
- Not be someone worth respect from others
- Never follow through on things
- Become unattractive to others
- Not be someone my friends/family/significant other can be proud of
If most of these were on your list (or are in your head) please I’d ask you to do the following.
Remove your head from your ass and wake up and smell the coffee.Seriously.
There are a few things on this list that are real, and worth noting as being things that can or will happen. When you get off the trail, you will be depressed about it. Not “if” but when. For those who have read my previous posts, they know that I came back from this years hike and was in a spiraling depression – and I FINISHED this year. in 2012 when I made it 1600+ miles and got off I was also depressed. Common link between? Getting off the trail – not whether or not I finished!
What else is true on this list? Regret – you’re going to regret things no matter if you finish or not. You’ll regret skipping 5 miles that one day (I still do) or you’ll regret not finishing. You’ll regret not hiking with certain people more, and hiking with certain people less. REGRET IS CONSTANT – but is NOT a defining characteristic of the trail.
I could regret being with the girl I was for 3 months and giving her EVERYTHING about my trail experience, including changing my hike for her – but I DON’T because it was still Awesome to be with her – despite everything that happened later.
So for the rest – we have to talk.
All this talk of letting other people down, not being worthy of respect or love from others is baloney. You set out to do something that most of them don’t understand at all. They love you for you – not for something you’re doing. If they didn’t love you for you, they wouldn’t be interested in what you’re doing in the first place. So stop that. Stop that right now. If you have to get off the trail for whatever reason, they aren’t going to love you any less – in fact most of them still get to brag about you “my sister/brother/son/wife hiked over 300 miles on the AT! Isn’t that awesome!”. They are NOT going to go out and say “Oh well he/she/it tried but couldn’t do it because they were terrible at it.” So stop it. Now.
Never following through on things is another bit I hate to hear – sometimes there are circumstances FAR beyond your control that come into play on your hike. I told the story about Damselfly recently, and how she stubbornly decided to finish despite seriously injuring herself. That injury is a hike ender for 99% of people. Things like money get in the way – family issues or even just simple time. Things beyond your control happen – and for all you control freaks out there, you’re going to have a hard time dealing with this. Learning to let things go might be your biggest lesson on this hike. So stop worrying about how not finishing a hike like this means that you are never going to follow through on things. That’s crap.
I’ve read two different ones now that say “I’ll become unattractive to others.” This is a female thing it seems (sampling size = 2, so don’t kill me feminists) and it’s positively untrue. Ladies out there – you’re going to get on trail and be the hottest commodity besides Snickers bars. Hiker women are the sexiest things on the planet in my mind. Single Girl Hiker agrees with me I think. She tells me Hiker Men are the sexiest things out there too. Why are you attractive though? Not because there are so few of you – it’s because you’re willing to take chances, be yourself and commit to things. I’m talking about not waffling – knowing what you want and taking it. To me at least, there is nothing more unattractive then the inevitable dance of “where do you want to go for dinner.” You know what you want! Go take it! It happens all the time on the trail. Plus you know, you’re hot! So stop thinking you’re unattractive. Patently untrue.
The biggest thing is that people are disappointed in themselves. I can understand that, and it is something that will happen. But it’s also something that I’ve come to see as not being “real”. What do I mean by that? I mean that you went out and tried – you can be disappointed that you didn’t finish, but it’s not the defining characteristic of your hike.
Your defining characteristic is that you went out there in the first place.
You can run around and around on not finishing, not having gotten what you wanted out of it but that’s all a load of malarkey when you come back to the simple fact: you went out there and did SOMETHING.
And that fact is greater than 99% of people you will ever meet.
You went and followed a dream you had – it may not have succeeded, but you DID do it, even if it was just for a little while.
That is something majority of people will never do – can never do. It sets you apart.
The statistics show that only about 20% will finish a thru-hike. I think that number is lower myself. But of the 3000 or so that will start, they are all following a dream of some kind. That dream is what is important. Not finishing, not doing X or Y or Z on your list. The dream you have to go out and hike a long distance trail is what is important. So stop making lists. Instead be open to your hike and what it can bring to you. Not what you bring to it.
I love you all.
For hikers, our packs our the center of our lives. We carry every single thing we have in our packs, and how much you like your pack can make your hike a wonderful thing or a terrible time.
I was talking with a very good friend of mine who is on her way to the Philippines in two weeks, and she asked my advice on her pack choice. She could either take her older external frame pack, a massive 80 Liter item, or a smaller internal frame 70L. She’s not really doing much backpacking, it’s more for base camp haul in/haul out – but she’s still worrying about it quite a bit.
So we talked about it – hikers can talk for hours about their gear. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to packs is to put all your stuff in it, and see how it carries the load – in other words you do the opposite of what comes naturally, which is buy the bag first and fill it up.
I hiked with a Granite Gear Blaze 60L pack in 2013 for over 2,000 miles. By the end of the trail, the back plate had broken completely once, was shattering a second time, it had a hole in the main compartment and water bottle web was completely gone. But it got me to the end, and I still use it today.
This pack took me all the way to the end. It never let me down completely ever. I didn’t always treat it as well as I should have, and it didn’t always treat me well either, but it was good. It shared my adventures and came with me everywhere.
Something my friend said though made me think.
I use the same logic when picking a mate. I see how they fit in my life and how they carry their load.
True statement. Finding someone to share your life with, and picking a backpack out are similar things if you think about it!
- Packs carry your life when hiking long distances. Your mate carries your heart. Both are capable of damaging you if they fail in their duties.
- Packs can be flawed of have a defect, just like your mate. When your pack breaks, you try and fix it – always carry your needle and thread, duct tape. Make-up sex and long conversations are the equivalent I think in relationships.
- Packs can come with guarantees, showing how much the company is willing to stand behind their product. Your mate can come with a guarantee too – in the form of a life-long commitment to you – either via marriage, another social contract or just a promise.
- You get to pick your pack, the same way you get to pick your mate – out of hundreds of other options. Some feel good, others don’t and you never really know if you’ve made the right choice until a hundred miles in.
In the end though, people out preform packs in one major area – they can grow and change. They may get worn out with you, but they don’t get thrown away – not really. Not the good ones.
But then I don’t throw out any of my packs either – I’ve sent a few off in Viking funerals, but I’ve never tossed one.
I have too much respect for my pack – broken or not
I met City Slicker on my 4th day on trail in 2012.
“I remember meeting you, you had that massive 50 pound pack and you had a 20 degree bag in the middle of July in Maine. You. Were. An. Idiot.”
I was. I knew it – what I thought I had known about the AT wasn’t anything like what it really was. I had thought that the camping experience I had would prepare me for what I was doing, where I was going. So very wrong.
City Slicker was hiking north to Katahdin with a young man named Figs. They were meeting Fig’s grandfather at the end so they could climb together, in three days. They were going to push 3 back to back 25 mile days – which is a challenge in Maine. We had all gotten to the shelter at the same time, right as night was falling. I was amazed as the unpacked their food – fig newtons, jerky, Oreos and two lipton sides apiece. A an easy 1200 calorie meal, and they both were still hungry afterwards.
I stood in awe of them, and listened to their casual and practiced chatter as they ate and did their camp chores. I learned that City Slicker was going to ping-pong and head south from Hanover in a few weeks, just so he could keep hiking. They told me about where to stop in NH – Chet’s place was penciled into my guide book, and Rob Bird’s number for Dalton Mass was added. Important thing – like you have to be at the door of On The Edge Farm in VT if you want a fresh pie. The important things. And the next morning, they hiked out with a nod and twinkle in their eyes- they were almost done.
Skip forward a bit, some weeks passed and my pack got lighter, my days got longer and I thought I knew more about the trail. I did a fast 14 miles into the RPH shelter in NY for an early day, because a huge front was moving in and I had heard you could order pizza at the shelter.
I wander in and there is a thin man there, long beard and sporting a fresh mohawk not unlike my own, which I had gotten at Rob Bird’s hostel, the Birdcage. I said a hello and snagged the shelter log.
“Oh City Slicker has been here. Man I was hoping to catch up to him.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Oh I met him back in Maine when he was going north, and I was just starting. He had said he was going to yo-yo back down to Springer, and he seemed pretty cool.”
“Well you’re in luck – because that’s who I am!”
I hadn’t even recognized him. He remembered me though – and he had never expected to see me again. “Tough bastard to make it all the way down here.”
We hiked together for awhile – he told me all kinds of stories from the trail and his home of Boston. He’d been hiking for almost 10 years on the AT, and been constantly on trail for the last 4 or so. In the winter he used to go out to Colorado and ski, but he had decided this year to just hike through the winter. Just because.
I saw City Slicker again in 2013 at Trail Days, and then again at Harpers Ferry. He hiked together for a bit again we talked. He called me through the winter when I was off trail, and again when I finished this year. His advice helped me pull through the end of the relationship I was in, and helped keep things in perspective.
But the real treat was when he called me last night.
“I did the math for 2013 – I ended up with 4,153.4 miles this year.”
So if you hike in 2014 – you’ll see City Slicker out there. He’ll head north and then south – because he can. And when you do see him, tell him that Dr. Spice says hello, and loves him dearly. And then ask him where the next good bar is – because he knows every single inch of the trail. And he’s a wonderful human being for it.
When I reached Monson Maine in 2012, it was my first extended encountered with northbound hikers. It was the first I was able to sit and talk with them, learn from them and generally listen to their stories. They had so many, and were equally sad and thrilled to be finishing.
It is much the same way I would feel months later when I returned on my own Northbound hike.
The Lakeshore House was where I met Moldy Toe and Diva, the first Southbound hikers I would meet and hike with. They were mid 20s, had been married for less than a year and had started their hike together. Moldy Toe had been recovering at the Lakeshore House for about a week, as his toe had become infected in the last 2 days in the 100 mile wilderness, and turned into a serious issue.
Originally, Moldy Toe and Diva had started together, sumitted Katahdin and then set out south. 7 miles into the 100 mile wilderness, Diva decided she just couldn’t do it. But this was Moldy Toe’s dream, and she didn’t, couldn’t deny him that dream. So she said she’d go home and he should continue on the hike and finish, because this was something he had to do.
That’s some love right there. So Diva gave him the gear out of her pack that he needed, took the gear he didn’t need anymore and turned around to the Golden road and hitched back to Millinocket and went home to Ohio.
A week goes by, Moldy Toe gets his infected toe (which spawns his name) and he calls Diva to let her know what’s going on. Diva decides she can’t let him recover alone, so she drives from Ohio to Maine to be with him. A hell of a drive indeed. She stays with him for a week while he recovers: they go sightseeing on the Maine coast, drive through the country side and generally have a good time. I meet them both at the hostel on their last day together, as Moldy’s toe has healed, he’s setting off in the morning.
Diva and Moldy say goodbye and I meet Moldy at the shelter out of town where we end up staying the night as Diva drives 15 hours home. He tells me the story and I stand in a little awe of it – a dedicated team that knows they have to let the other do what they want.
We set off the next morning and head south, hoping to cover about 17 miles so we can cross the Kennebec river by ferry early the next day. Around 4pm we stop at a shelter to refill water and snack, and figure out how much farther we’re going. “Another 2 miles should do it, there’s a water source and a ford – we can ford and then set up camp and eat.”
We depart the shelter. And run smack into Diva who is walking North.
Moldy’s mouth was agape, his jaw somewhere down around his ankles.
Diva had decided upon returning to Ohio that shouldn’t couldn’t stand to be without him. She had gone home the first time because he pack was too heavy for her and she wasn’t truly invested in the hike. Now she was. She had put only the bare essentials in her pack, driven back to Monson and then gotten a hitch to Caratunk, where she had told the whole town to watch for Moldy and not let him leave without. Then she’d gone to the ferry, told the ferryman the story and asked him if Moldy had crossed already. “No? Well I’ll just hike north to meet him.”
She’d started hiking north at 10am. She only had a liter of water and snack since them, mostly Mike & Ikes. She’d stopped to read every register, checked every crossing to find her husband so she could be with him.
Moldy and Diva were back together and hiking.
We camped by the river ford that night, and pooled our food together to have cheddar and broccoli tuna melt. Diva and Moldy stayed up and discussed what they were going to do the next day.
I didn’t see them much the next day, they got into an argument over the car and what to do with it. They got off the trail. But I think they were okay with that decision. Diva because she’d finally told Moldy what she wanted from him, and Moldy because he’d taken the opportunity to at least try at his dream.
I’d like to think they are happy back in Ohio somewhere. Though really – who is happy in Ohio? (I kid I kid… except for Cleavland.)
“Oh look at this one! It’s a (long sounding latin name I still never remember.)”
I heard about Damselfly long before I ever met her.
“Did you hear about the new chick that got on the Trail in Harper’s Ferry? She’s pretty hot! Smart too! She’s hiking with Uncle Buck!”
“I thought you said she was smart. Why is she hiking with Uncle Buck….”
When I met Damselfly it was really in passing into Duncannon PA. I had made it to town for the Billville hiker feed and a weekend of fun and zero days. She was stopping in town for 1 day to meet up with her step-dad, who wanted to hike with her for a week or two. He was leaving his car at the Doyle.
I don’t even remember what really sparked the conversation, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with her gear, and how it looked heavy from where I was, drunk and leaning out of the second floor fire escape door.
“No worries! Shakedown in 3 minutes or less guaranteed to lighten you by 5 pounds or an ice cream novelty!”
Her step-dad had all manner of interesting heavy things. His pack was… heavy. More than a little heavy. Possibly very. He had a solid core air mattress that weighed more than my shelter and all my sleeping gear.
Damselfly was a little better off, and she lost a few things there that helped. I tried to convince them to stay another day and enjoy the hikers and the festivities. But she wanted to hike. She wanted to hike a lot.
It was the first person in awhile I had found who was still eager everyday to get up and hike. Maybe it was because she still had fresh legs, she didn’t know what the score was, or how monotonous it had gotten. Or how PA sucked.
She was happy to be there. It was like being in Georgia all over again. For her it was.
I told her I’d catch up to her in a few days. When I did it was 100 degrees, awful bugs and terrible terrain. He step-dad had gotten off the trail already and was headed home.
But you couldn’t keep Damselfly down. Even through all the awfulness of PA when I hiked with her, she was smiling and happy. She never expressed a moment of true despair or negativity. Sure she bitched a bit about the rocks, heat and bugs – but the whole time she did it she was smiling. Happy to be out in the world, in the woods and not at her old job or in school anymore. She was alive and unstressed.
It was like watching a bird fly for the first time. Beautiful.
Damselfly got her name because she’s an entomologist. She’s a bug person. A really really smart bug person. She knew the names of everything that was around – and even gave me the official latin name for the “no-see-ums” and biting gnats that plagued us in PA. Of course I don’t remember what they were, but she knew them. I remember camping with her one night and she knew all sorts of things about the fireflies that came out to play.
Sometimes you hike with someone who has good stories to tell. Someone who provides humor or life lessons through their tales. Other times your find people who have such a vast knowledge and intelligence on a subject(s) that you are awed by them. Others have the positive, always sunny attitudes that just lift your day.
Damselfly was all of that. Every single day I ever spent near her was a good one. She made the day better – instilled knowledge and positive feelings and love with every step and word, despite the pain she had and was dealing with. It left me in awe of her mental and physical fortitude. It made me a little jealous.
I knew she’d get to the end.
She’s a good person to be around. She’s one I miss quite a bit.
Every year when I was in college I made sure to put away a little money so I could buy myself something nice that I wanted. Usually it was something I was going to get myself anyway, or something that would have been too complicated to ask for. My first real suit was a gift to myself at Christmas. (Seriously guys, do yourself a favor and go get a good suit, shirt and shoes to match.)
This year I didn’t do anything for myself. Chalk it up to the plan that fell apart, the failed relationship that blew up in my face, post-trail depression. Lack of money is a big part of it. Whatever the reasons, I didn’t do something that had become a tradition for myself.
I got this in the mail yesterday.
It’s just a piece of paper – but it carries so much meaning to me, and anyone else who has hiked the AT. You are official and in the books as being a thru-hiker.
There is always a lot of discussion among people, especially those who are getting ready to hike and those who have been done for a long time, about what exactly “thru-hiker” means. What the definition is. The generally accepted one is all 2185.7 miles (this number changes every year) of the Appalachian Trail within 365 days.
For me this was reached on June 3rd, when I reached the point where I had gotten off the previous year in November. I had completed all the miles within 365 days – my hike would have been counted as a flip-flop.
I kept hiking north. I went back to Katahdin.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I’ve had a lot of ups and down this past year. I look back to where I was a year ago and remember how I felt. It’s a lot of the same feelings – longing for the trail, despair at being in my parent’s basement again, feelings of depression. But there is something bigger there this year – something important beyond my broken heart for a girl and lovesick soul for the people on the trail.
The realization of accomplishment of something so profound that it has changed my life in so many innumerable ways already.
My hike wasn’t defined by my pursuit of this piece of paper. It was defined by the people I met and the miles I walked. But along with everyone else who finished this year, I am now officially recognized as having done this.
It feels good to have that.
So merry Christmas everyone. I ended up with a gift for myself this year that I couldn’t be happier with. It didn’t cost me much – just 2185.7 miles and 6 months of my life.
And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
When it comes to what I’ve experienced in life, I don’t always have the right words to express myself.
I’ve always know that I have to use the right words in order to make myself understood. When I write, it becomes a little easier – I have time to think about what I want to say, I’m able to double check and think through each sentence. Writing a real letter is so much easier for me in this way than say, having a conversation online through instant messages.
But when I start to talk to people in person, I don’t always get my point across. It’s hard to convey all the feelings and the depth that I want to.
How you do tell someone how beautiful a sunset was from a mountain top? The special pine scent that wafts up from the valley into the high mountains in the Whites? How when the last flash of light disappeared from the sky, the reds and oranges turned into midnight blues and blacks. How the air tasted sweet and fresh.
Pictures help – but they are just a frozen moment – only telling part of it.
How do you describe that feelings of joy when you wake up next to someone you love if they never have felt that feeling? Is there a way to make someone understand just how close you are to someone, how you know everything about them and can read their every twitch and feeling – read their mind so well that they don’t even have to talk?
For many years I took the shotgun approach to language. If I get enough words and sentences out there that are close to what I want, eventually the person I’m talking to will understand. They’ll be able to pull together enough of what I’m saying to make their own picture.
When I hiked in 2012, I came home and used a more concise method. Trying to get as close to the real feeling and moment as possible, making sure every word and phrase I used was as close to the truth as I could get it. I carried that with me into my 2013 hike.
I still wasn’t able to convey the things I wanted to say with enough certainty. I wasn’t able to communicate what I was feeling – or how I was feeling it with certainty. It was one thing that perhaps doomed my relationship – not being able to communicate what I was feeling clearly.
Last night I went to a open house thrown by my father’s girlfriend. There were two ladies about my age there. We talked for a little and they asked about my hike. I tried to tell them about it – the people, the places I saw. Things I felt. I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. I wasn’t conveying the magic and wonder that the trail gave me.
Until one of them said something that gave me hope.
“You speak about these things with such passion, it makes me want to go out and do this.”
I hadn’t said anything special – I was talking about hikers named Buckeye and Atreyu. Hikers like any other. But she heard the love in my voice. She heard how much I cared for them. What they meant to me.
She didn’t understand the story so much, or the reasoning behind it. It didn’t matter. She felt the magic through my voice, and it touched her.
I think this is one of the first times that I saw someone’s eyes light up with understanding. Not amazement or wonder at what I did – but understanding of why I went back.
The passion that I feel for these people, this trail that they walk on and 2000 miles we spent together came across in my voice and touched someone else.
It’s a wonderful and special thing to be understood, and no longer feel like you’re talking to nothing.
Life never was the same. And everyday I’ve been thankful for that fact.
This was on Reddit today. It really moved me.
Love is such a powerful and beautiful thing. You’ll do all kinds of things for the person you love – and when they love you back they do the same.
I don’t know if I believe in the idea of “one true love” – it’s a hard thing to really accept, given just how many people there are in the world… but I do believe in True Love.
I’ve felt love. It was wonderful. It was beautiful. It was painful. It was heartbreaking when it was over.
But what I learned from all of that, from loving someone so much that I gave things up I wanted dearly, changed my hike for them and then tried my hardest to better for them, was that it’s worth it. Love is worth all the pain and suffering that can come from it. Because even if you only have it for a moment, it’s a special thing.
You don’t have that love just through yourself. You have it together with another person. So if you have someone out there you love – run to them! Get on a plane, a bus, a train. Jump in your car and drive all night. Make that effort to be with them. They’re worth it.
Sometimes, a grand romantic gesture is just what the world needs.
Sometimes you just need to be with that person you love – no matter what the cost.
A friend once told me that she learned to love again thanks to the AT. I did as well. It’s something I’ll always cherish that, and the person who taught me to love again.
What are you doing still reading this? Go! Run to your love. Or at least call them!
There have been a moments so far where I have actively feared for my life. I was run off the road on a major highway when I was 20 by a man who wasn’t paying attention. In the 15 seconds that took, everything was instinctual because it happened so fast. I had no moments during the act to think about what was going on – only afterwards did I look back and reflect on almost dying.
The Madison Gulf Trail descent I did however, gave ample time to consider my death.
In the White Mountains, you spend the majority of your time far above tree line, exposed the whole time to the elements and the storms that routinely roll through.
Luckily there are Huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (here after referred to as AMC – or Appalachian Money Club) that allow thru-hikers to stop and rest at, dry out a little and sometimes, if you’re lucky, spend the night. By spend the night, I mean they take 2 hikers, let them sleep on the floor, do some sort of work for stay and require them to be out before any other guests are up. Or you can pay $124 to spend the night (prices vary by day of the week and whether your an AMC member, but it’s always over $100)
When we arrived at Maddison Spring Hut, Roadkill and I had been walking in the freezing rain, high wind and visibility out to 25 feet. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and we were already exhausted, Roadkill was near incoherent, hypothermic and we were both wet. We were able to get inside the hut, take our packs off and at least change out of our sopping wet clothes for a bit, but the inside of the hut was as cold as outside. At least we were out of the wind.
Two bowls of mushroom soup apiece and some coffee helped the situation, but we were still left with the weather issue. According to the forecast, hurricane force winds were predicted through the evening above treeline, with bad visibility, rain and lightning. Not weather you want to be above treeline for – and the descent from Madison was completely exposed for 2 miles, down the Osgood Path.
I looked at the maps that were available at the hut, and decided to ask the AMC employee there if there were any alternatives.
“Hey – I know it’s still kind of early, but what are the chances we can get a work for stay tonight at the hut here?”
“None- it’s too early and I can’t take you.”
“Not even if it’s a life threatening issue? I mean, we’re wet, frozen and she’s a bit hypothermic. You can’t make any exceptions?”
“Nope – best I can say is there is a campsite a mile away off the AT that you can stay at, it’s got trees.”
Now that would have been 45 minutes walk just for a campsite exposed to the cold and rain. The night before had been cold, the night before that had been frozen (as in frost on everything frozen) and if we were wet, that could be a death sentence.
“Ok then, if you won’t let us stay what’s the easiest way off the mountain? I know Osgood is exposed the whole way down… and if there is lightning and hurricane winds, I don’t know how I feel about doing that all the way down. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Well you could go down the Madison Gulf Trail. It goes down to tree line really fast.”
“Have you hiked it before? Is it doable?”
“Sure I hike it all the time! Piece of cake.”
And right here was my first mistake. I took advice from someone who wasn’t a thru-hiker. I trusted someone who wasn’t actually hiking all day, and who I knew was probably spending most of his time smoking up. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s the same way I don’t trust day hikers measurements of miles or time.
“So all we have to do is take the Madison Gulf Trail and it’ll get us below treeline really quickly? And it’s not too bad difficulty wise?”
So we left Madison, putting on our wet clothes again, saving our dry stuff for the end of the day. According to the map, it was about 3 miles down the Madison Gulf Trail to reconnect with the AT. “No Problem!” I thought. “We can be in Gorham tonight if we want, it’s only 2:30!”
How wrong I was. My second mistake was not turning us around when we hit this
We couldn’t see more then 2 or 3 dozen feet. We slid and scrambled down wet boulders, the descent at more than 45 degrees, the rocks offering no purchase. There was no sign to warn us of this, the blue blazes were few and far between. It was hell.
But we did get to treeline quickly. I saw the tree come closer out of the fog and rain and thought “oh thank you God. Trees, all this stupidity is over now, no problem.”
It was the beginning of the real hell .
Once we were in the trees the trail got different. Not better – sometimes worse. The rocks and roots and trees were at an angle, everything was wet and there were more than a few times we weren’t sure whether we were still on the trail. We’d be teased by a blue blaze every so often, just as we were teased by flat trail every so often. Every 20 minutes or so, the trail would level out, we’d walk on normal dirt and I’d give a sigh of relief. The end was here, finally! No. Not at all. Just a tease.
The worst was yet to come. The part that almost killed the two of us was yet to come.
We saw a nice flat spot – perfect to camp in even below us. We finally climbed down to it – YES! The end! Where does the trail go? Oh, here is a blue blaze down to our left. We followed it.
Right to a a 50 foot drop down a waterfall.
There is no way this is the trail, but there is a blaze here! How do we get down? We were standing on top of a cliff with a 50 foot drop, a waterfall and no visible way down.
There looked to be handholds in the middle, where a large house sized boulder jutted out of the face. There were trees on the right side, maybe the path was there. I took my pack off and decided to investigate. I was able to spider climb the 10 feet to a small depression just short of the edge, and it did indeed look as if this was the way to go.
“Ok Roadkill, I think you can butt slide down here slowly, get to this depression and then slide over to the right and get down. I’ll stay here, spread eagled to help you.”
She started to slide down, slowly, hands splayed on the rock trying for any bit of purchase. Then she started to slide faster and I saw her face – she had no control.
10 feet isn’t that far. Not really. She started sliding and I saw it in an instant – she’d go over the edge and fall 50 feet. Die.
My hand let go of it’s tiny hold in the rock. My arm shot out and somehow got between her back and her pack, and I grabbed her straps. She stopped inches from the edge. I saved her.
My heart started beating again.
She slid over and was able to get down to the trees on the right. I breathed again. Now it was my turn. I had to climb up and get my pack, and try and slide down the way she had. Without loosing control. Without someone to catch me.
I started butt sliding. I slid faster and lost control as well. I was going to go over. That would be the end of me. I somehow jammed my right foot into a crack and stopped my slide.
My left foot was over the edge.
Roadkill finally got to breathe again when I got down. This is what the drop looked like from the bottom.
We finally got to the AT as darkness fell. I was exhausted. I was angry, tired, hungry. I was spent.
I sat down just past the Osgood bridge and cried.
I should be dead. Roadkill should be dead. We wouldn’t have been found for weeks probably. No one used this trail. We found out later at the AMC visitor center that this trail wasn’t meant for descents – it clearly said to ascend it only. Not to take heavy packs on it. Not to do it when wet, or in bad weather conditions, with wind or rain. Pretty much not to do it ever.
And we were sent down it by an AMC employee.
I’m lucky to be alive, and I was lucky to have saved the girl I was in love with life. We both should have been dead.
We made it to Gorham the next day. I spent most of the day either in the hotel room trying to stop shaking, or eating at the Chinese buffet.
It was as close to death as I’ve ever come. I have no desire to repeat it.