McAfee’s Knob is said to be the most photographed point on the AT, and with good reason. It’s incredibly beautiful and breathtaking. A jutting point of rock from the cliff-side and a sheer drop into the valley below.
Buckeye, Atreyu and I decided that we wanted a sunset and a sunrise on McAfee’s Knob. This was an ambitious proposal the required a 16.3 mile day up and down 2 significant and 1 medium sized mountains/hills, a stop at Dragon’s Tooth (another amazing sight) and a small resupply and stop at the 4 Pines Hostel. All before sunset.
Somehow we managed it. It’s still one of the most incredible achievements in my mind.
Starting off at the Pickle Branch Shelter, we got an early start which was quite a feat in itself. Buckeye is a habitual late sleeper now that he’d gotten used to his hammock, but he was actually the first one up. We beat feet the 4 miles to Dragon’s Tooth with a few others in town and made it up the craggy torturous path to the summit. A clear, cloudless day greeted us – with views for miles.
We stayed for almost an hour on top of the Tooth. Around 11am we decided it was time to get moving – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some real food for lunch? You’d better believe it! So let’s roll on down to the 4 Pines Hostel and go to the amazing gas station up the road for pizza! So we did.
One of the best things about hiking with Buckeye and Atreyu? They are never short of conversation or song. They are strong, fast hikers but they have fun everyday together. Sometimes they hook the little portable speaker up and play techno, or indie. Sometimes there are long involved conversations about women, philosophy or politics. But even when they disagree they respect each other – it’s a rare thing to find friends like these.
4 Pines is a converted 4 car garage run by Joe. He’s a hell of a guy – he took me in the previous year when I was freezing after Sandy and fed me fresh venison, gave me a pile of blankets and said “go nuts with the wood stove.” So when we made it to his place for lunch he took us down to the gas station. Pizza, slushies, chips, hot dogs, beer. The whole nine yards for lunch. We played a little cornhole (beanbag toss for all you Yankees) and seriously contemplated if we wanted to do another 10 miles. “We could stay here tonight and make it a short day tomorrow…”
The other great thing about Buckeye and Atreyu? They never shirk from a challenge. At 3:30 we finally got going. The terrain between 4 Pines and McAfee’s is ridgeline and rugged. You hug the tops and dip down into the saddles, gaining and losing 100 feet sections of altitude every 1/4 mile. You climb and scramble in places.
We made it to the McAfee’s knob parking lot just before 7pm. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky – sunset was around 8:15 and we still had almost 3.5 miles to cover to the top. So we beat feet up the side of the mountain. The trail is well maintained, and a fairly easy climb until the last mile or so when you start going up steeply. We were on track and on pace.
Until we found a cell phone.
Atreyu: “It’s gotta be the cute girls we passed on our way up, about 10 minutes ago!”
Buckeye: “Maybe. But they’re probably already back at the parking lot by now. We’re going up.”
Spice: “So… what are we doing? Sunset is so close!.”
At that moment, the phone rang. Atreyu answered it. “Yes we’ve got your phone! I’ll bring it down for you!.”
Buckeye + Spice: “You’re going to do what?”
Ateryu: “I’m going to take my pack off and run the phone down. You guys keep going, I’ll meet you at the top.”
Spice: “If you do that, we’ll take your pack with us. I’ll wear it on the front and double pack it.”
So off Atreyu bounded, down the path we’d just come up. Buckeye strapped Atreyu’s pack onto my chest. I’m sure I cut a ridiculous figure in that moment, hiking up the mountain side with two packs on. But if it meant that Atreyu could catch up with us faster, it was worth it. Atreyu managed to catch up with us a mile from the summit, which was good because I was DYING carrying two packs together.
And we made it. All the way to the top for sunset. The three of us almost were running by the time we got there, because we were so sure we were going to miss it. But we didn’t. We’d managed to push a 4 mile and hour pace or more by the time we’d gotten to the top. That’s a feat for any extended period of time. It was all worth it though.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t derive any pleasure from accomplishing miles or getting somewhere. That they don’t measure their achievements by getting to X place by Y time. That may be all well and good for them most of the time, but I’ve never been able to subscribe to that theory. Getting somewhere, achieving something in the face of adversity, pushing yourself to the limit and winning – there is something valuable about that to me. Getting to McAffe’s knob for sunset was such an achievement. We all felt it and we were all filled a beautiful glow that night.
Amusingly, the photos from sunset? Completely outclassed by the photos from the sunrise the next morning.
When I read of new hikers who are coming to grips of the realities of the trail for the first time I think about how we have a tendency to build things up. Put things on a pedestal.
I once heard a story from Baltimore Jack. Of rain that lasted for forever. Grown men would wake up hearing the same sounds that had put them to sleep. The constant drumming of rain on the tin roof. It brought them to tears when they looked outside and saw the grey clouds and constant water cascading from the skies. He said it was one of the wettest springs on the AT – and he saw more people break from the rain than he’d ever seen before. People just gave up and went home.
I can understand that. I sympathize – there are few things worse then getting up for the fourth or fifth day in a row, putting on wet and cold socks with the utmost trepidation. “If I pull them on slowly, they’ll warm up a little more than if I pull them on quick and shock my feet.” Hearing the squelch of water as you shove your feet into your shoes. Packing your things up haphazardly – it doesn’t really matter anymore, everything is at least damp already. The rain jacket has as much moisture in it on the inside as it does the outside, why bother putting it on. You’ve stopped trying to avoid the puddles and small lakes that form on the AT because the whole trail has turned into a river.
You think you’ll never be dry again. I know how it feels. I’ve been there.
It’s odd because looking back now I recognize the same feelings of despair in that scenario of rain that I had with depression. Trapped. Drowning. Overwhelmed. Too tired to care anymore. How do you keep going when it’s like that.
I think some people are just built a little differently. No matter how depressed they get, how awful the situation gets they keep going. I’ve heard some call it “dogged determination.” People have called me stubborn. It’s been described as a coping mechanism, or protective trait. Some call it strength or mettle. But whatever you want to call it – these people just keep going.
They don’t lie down and die, and they don’t seem to ever quit. And when they do quit it’s because they are literally so run down, so ragged that they just don’t have the energy anymore.
I once read a psychology theory that postulated we can all endure only so much. Our capacity for suffering, for the negatives in our life are like a glass for water. It’s only so large. The more things we have going against us, the more water fills that glass. We can only handle so much before it all spills over. You can make your glass bigger by doing positive things, having good friends to share the load or have coping strategies. But there is always a finite amount you can take. Eventually you reach that.
The people who broke down and cried on the 5th day of rain had just reached their limit. Their glass was full. That was all.
What’s the take away from all of this? I’m not really sure honestly- lord knows I rambled on in this post, but I wonder if there really is an answer. On one hand, we’ve gout our dreams, and we want to pursue and accomplish them. But we should always be realistic of the moment, of the adversity facing us. So what should we do? I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to make up your mind about yourself. I follow this simple advice.
Don’t ever quit until you’ve been completely and fully miserable for 48 hours. Then give it another 24 hours of staying someplace with a TV and Ac/Heat. If you’re still miserable – then you can quit. Because it’s not something you can fix with pizza, Chinese food and beer. And if you can’t fix it with those things, you may be well and truly screwed.
It’s been 5 months since I’ve come back, 6 months since I first had the serious knees pains in the Whites. 4 1/2 since I was told I had a stress fracture in my knee and that I’d walked 450 miles on it.
It hasn’t really gone away. The pain. It still aches – maybe it’s been the cold weather, or the rehab or any number of things. But it doesn’t feel healed.
I did 2.4 miles today – half walking and half jogging. It was supposed to be all jogging but I just couldn’t do it. It was really too painful at times – especially going downhills or inclines.
So now out comes the ice
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever truly heal. Physically, mentally and emotionally.
Better question – do I want to heal from all of this?
I’m not talking about the physical bits – I very much want them to heal up completely. But do I want to go back to the way I was before? Do I want to go back to offices, schools and a world of concrete? Do I want to return to the trail? I know I’m not the only one with these issues – Lots of other hikers I know are having the same issues with transition and their futures.
Spring Fever has officially hit and a lot of people are talking about new hikes. Hell Acorn has gone from the AT, to the Florida Trail and is now heading to the PCT. Some are talking of CDT, JMT or even the AT again.
But I’m struck by something my friend Chevy, a 2011 thru hiker had said about his girlfriend at the time.
“We got off the trail together, but she never left the Trail. She couldn’t leave it. I understood that, but you have to come back to society at some point. You can’t keep walking away from yourself and your problems forever. So we ended. And she kept walking.”
I feel that pull everyday, to go back out there and be free. It changed me, hiking for that long. But I also was on the trail running away from things, trying to figure myself out and to achieve something. I did those things. Now I’m back in society figuring out my next move.
Maybe it is hiking about long distance trail. Maybe it’s getting a good job that pays well and paying off my student debt. Maybe it’s going back to school for something I want to do. Maybe it’s meeting someone I can spend the rest of my life with.
Maybe it’s all of those things. But for the moment, I think I’ve got to Leave the Trail for a little bit. Concentrate on something that isn’t 20 miles a day.
Because we all have to change, and leave our trails at some point. They all end – there is a finite amount. I’d rather leave more adventures for tomorrow then put off everything for today.
I just think about what Chevy said sometimes and wonder – what happens to those people who never leave The Trail?
Life never was the same. And everyday I’ve been thankful for that fact.
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.
One thing I have a lot of from this trip is video. Moments that I was able to save. They tell only snippets of what happened, but sometimes when you string them together, they tell more of a story then you ever thought.
So this is an attempt at a story. Just like these writings are trying to tell a story. I hope you enjoy it
Today is a day of giving thanks. Of remembrance and reflection.
I am incredibly lucky that I got a second chance to do this. Most people never take the first step on such a journey, one that would divorce them from the comforts of home, the connectivity of the modern world and the pain of 2,000 miles.
But I got a second chance. For that I am eternally grateful.
This year also held new beginnings for me.
I fell in love. I gave my heart to another person fully. I lost that person in the end and found out what heartbreak really is about. How awful it feels to be betrayed by someone you cared for more than anything. I learned that “love sick” is a real thing and it hurts.
I learned about what I want from life, what I want for myself in the coming years and more importantly, how hard it might be to achieve that.
I discovered people who cared for me without ever asking anything in return. Who understood every word, thought and feeling. People who could read my mind, because they too were thinking of the same things.
I found people who gave without ever asking for anything in return. Who supported dreams that were also theirs, even if they weren’t physically present.
I found all kinds of amazing human kindness. It was beautiful. And I am so thankful for it.
On Thanksgiving we look back and are supposed to remember the things we are thankful for. The important things from the year. But we should do that all the time. Say thank you more often. And mean it.
So thank you. As Mr. Rogers would say – thank you for being you. Thank you for taking the time to read these stories, the thoughts I have. For letting me share a little part of myself with you. For sharing back. Thank you for your support.