I woke up around 5am this morning after suffering through a nightmare I’ve had before. I can’t remember the content anymore, but the feeling is one of anguish and lack of control. No real surprise there. The shelter was quiet save the light snore of Action Jackson next to me. I don’t think twice anymore about sleeping next to people I’ve know for an hour. I’m not sure it was ever much of a concern, but from an outsider’s perspective, it could be strange to say I slept about 5 inches from two dudes I don’t know and may never see again. I considered going back to sleep, but today is mahoosuc notch day, and it seemed wise to give myself as much time as possible to make it through the gauntlet. I crept as quietly as I could out of my sleeping bag and grabbed my toilet paper out of my pack. When the shelters are full, we exist in 2.5′ x 12′ foot orbits, so I had just enough room to step to the side of my sleeping pad without tromping on my neighbors’ limbs. I grabbed my wet shorts hanging from a nail under the eaves of the shelter and put on my soggy shoes, cursing myself for not taking the insoles out during my long afternoon of not wearing them. Had some quality time in the privy and then squeezed into my shorts. They smell embarrassingly bad because of the rain yesterday. I might have to switch to the shorter backup shorts until I can do laundry. The different length will involve showing off my sweet shorts tan. As I headed back to the shelter, I could see the sunrise over the surrounding mountains through the trees. The colors were a deep pink that eventually turned more orange as the sun actually rose. Sadly the pictures look like nothing, but seeing it pulled me out of my anxiety long enough to remember how amazing it is to be out here.
I grabbed my food bag and sat at the foot of my space with my feet hanging over the low slung shelter. The sleeping platform sits about 2 feet off the ground whereas some of them are as much as 4 feet. Olive was the only person awake. I felt bad for making noise, but I didn’t feel like waiting for the world to stir, so I unwrapped a probar and ate it covered in peanut butter and honey. I’m trying to stretch my breakfasts and the probars weigh less than the granola/muesli mix I packed before I left home. An older gentleman whose name I didn’t catch and who definitely snores, was the first one to rise. The rest of the hikers followed in fits and starts. I was packed and ready to leave by 620. I gave a halfhearted goodbye because I don’t feel all that comfortable with these people and I hate having everyone look at me.
The hike started immediately with a climb to the top of fulling mill mountain. My legs felt strong and my Achilles’ tendons were in surprisingly good shape. I didn’t even really have hiker hobble this morning. I imagine it will only take a few more days for that to set in. Here’s the view from the top of the mountain:
The ridge walk consisted mostly of bog boards and alpine flowers. Then came a steep, mile long descent into mahoosuc notch.
I felt dismayed by all the moisture still on the rocks. The idea of going through the notch was hard enough without trying to navigate slick surfaces. The trip down took the better part of an hour because of the rock faces and slipperiness. I got to the intersection with the sign for the notch and thought about turning left to run away from the whole thing. Maine has really tested my will thus far. I considered quitting at least 5 times yesterday. But I took a deep breath, turned right, and said okay fine, let’s do it.
The unassuming entrance to the notch blasted me with cool air and a light fog filtered through the trees. The bouldering started almost immediately and only let up for a few yards over the next mile. The notch is considered the longest mile on the AT because it’s painstaking to traverse. Some also say it’s the hardest. I would say it’s the most death defying based on the number of times I had my limbs spread across multiple boulders over top of a crevice with serious injury only a slip away. About 20 minutes into the escapade, I had one leg stretched out to land on a rock 3 feet below me, but my planted foot, which was resting at a precarious angle on the side of a rock, slipped. I went tumbling down into the rock I had intended to step on. I scraped my hand and hit my left ankle bone pretty hard, but no other damage to speak of, which is good because I was worried about my tailbone. Not long after my fall, I heard voices behind me. Action Jackson, Olive, and a clumsy fellow named Tasty had caught up with me. I let them pass and then managed to keep up with them for a little while. I noticed that in their presence, I started second guessing my choices and found myself looking to see what the others were doing. I also felt somewhat alarmed when they pulled ahead, leaving me alone again. Before they arrived, I hadn’t noticed much self-doubt. I simply moved through the maze and tried to make smart choices. After realizing the impact of other people, I worked on letting go of the judgment and returning to myself.
About halfway through the notch, I ran into the group as they filtered water at a little stream. I stood and ate a snack with them, but didn’t stick around for long because I needed the insanity to be over sooner than later. I couldn’t believe we’d only traveled half a mile and still had .4 of a mile to go. I was done having “fun” as everyone kept calling it. My shoes were slippery and my arms were tired from supporting me as I inched from one boulder to the next. was it fun? In some ways, yes. When the traverses weren’t on slippery rocks over 10 foot drops, I enjoyed the jungle gym aspect. Do I want to do it again? No. Maybe if it was the driest day ever, and I didn’t have 26 pounds of gear on my back. Maybe.
I don’t have the memory to give a play by play through the whole notch, so here are some pictures to depict a small measure of the outrageous bouldering we did (top picture included in the madness).
The temperatures fluctuated wildly, as if I had stepped into a steaming greenhouse one minute followed by blasts of cooler air around the next boulder. Small sheets of ice lingered in crevices here and there. At one point, I had my pack off and was crawling through a cavern between two boulders. It was in this section that I got someone else’s blood on my pack as I shoved it over splattered rocks and through the small exit from the crawl space. Towards the end, the boulders were even slipperier because the area clearly doesn’t get much sunlight and a lot of them were covered in moss.
I felt so relieved when the boulders gave way to actual trail. I didn’t want to get excited in case I was wrong about the end, but then it became clear that we’d made it. I sat and ate a snack with the small group while two of them smoked cigarettes (why??). Then the rest of their NOBO crew showed up full of excitement and triumph. I offered to take their picture since I was very much an outsider in the group. I juggled 5 phones while my version of a nightmare occurred as they all stared at me, and I had to give the 1..2..3 picture prompt. Then I left them standing around shooting the shit because I wanted to get through the next big hurdle: mahoosuc arm. Why it’s called that, I don’t know, but it’s a 2000 foot climb in about a mile. In other words, steep AF. It started out mildly enough, although sweat poured down my face in a matter of minutes. The NOBOs caught up with me as the grade intensified. I let a few of them pass me, but I stubbornly tried to stay in front of the other half. That lasted until the top third of a mile, which was nearly all sheer boulder faces. Here’s a picture with a few of the NOBOs to give some perspective on the verticality of the climb.
I finally reached the top and was again faced with being the last one. Hawaii gave a small cheer upon my arrival, which no one else followed, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I dropped my pack and sat on the rocks feeling satisfied and exhausted. Steep climbs I can do any day. The notch I can do without. We covered 4.1 miles in 4 hours. Unreal.
The NOBOs sat around chattering about the intensity of Maine thus far. I felt glad to not be the only one getting pummeled by this wilderness. The older gentleman from last night’s shelter arrived after we had been sitting for a few minutes. He apparently fell pretty hard in the notch, possibly more than once (his blood must be what ended up on my pack). His legs were scraped and bloody in over a dozen places, and he had plans to get off the trail as soon as possible. It sounded like he might be leaving for good because Maine feels too dangerous. I can relate. We all decided to eat lunch at the shelter .9 miles down the trail. Hawaii said “lets kill this pig,” which I find horrifying, but it’s what they say to jumpstart their hike. I started out in the front of the pack, but after about two minutes, I pulled off to the side, and said I wasn’t even going to pretend to be able to keep up. They all trooped past me, and I didn’t see the again until the shelter. Not long after they pulled ahead, I hit a wet spot on a rock and went flying forward onto my right arm and hip. I somehow didn’t get hurt even though I’d fallen with no control. I felt ridiculous, having slipped on a seemingly benign spot, but also relieved at the knowledge that I could fall, and it could be okay.
The trail followed a ridge for a little while. Then I crested a small rise in the trail and began to see lily pads off to my left. Speck pond appeared as if out of nowhere, shrouded in thick fog. There had also been no view to speak of on top of mahoosuc arm because of fog. The trail followed the edge of the pond until the campsite where it took a hard right. I continued forward towards the shelter where I found the NOBO crew already eating. I sat on a rock and prepared my wrap. My hunger felt bottomless, but I don’t have enough snacks to eat extra food, so I did my best to stay within the realm of a normal sized lunch. I half-engaged in conversation, laughing when appropriate but not feeling all that enthused or included. I forced myself to announce a goodbye of sorts as I went to get water because they’re all likely going farther than I am today, and it seemed rude to just disappear. Sunny made a comment about how you never know when we’ll see each other and I got a halfhearted bye in return. As predicted, they were all gone when I got back from fetching my water.
The “little up” we had all been talking about during lunch turned out to be another neverending exposed rock face scramble up the side of Old Speck. I felt somewhat grateful for the fog because it hid just how high I was, but I was also sad to miss what I’m guessing were some really amazing views. There was a slight break in the fog at one point, and I caught a glimpse of the mountainside below.
I didn’t even consider taking the side trail to the actual summit of old speck. Today was not the day for extra mileage and there wouldn’t have been any views because of the fog. At the intersection for the summit, I hung a left to head down the mountain. Or so I thought. The down took a while to materialize and it was intermingled with a lot of small bouldering ascents. The trail eventually did take a consistent downward turn that was far more reasonably graded than I had expected given the verticality of the ascent. The rocks were wet and there were frequent open slabs, but they were of the gnarled texture that’s better for traction.
After about 90 minutes of walking, the trail opened up to these boulders with a nice view of the adjacent mountains. I thanked the skies for not raining in the midst of the endless rock slabs today. Then it took a right and became a bit steeper and significantly wetter. I passed a waterfall that was more of a trickle and several other streams. The trail got rockier still as it approached Grafton notch, although there was about a half mile of simple walking right before the road crossing. I reached the parking lot and wandered over to where I saw two hikers. I didn’t see the trail and the parking lot sits between two maps in my app so it’s not easy to tell where to go. I asked the hikers where I could find the trail. When I got a flummoxed response, I realized they were likely SOBO, and I had asked it in a very NOBO-centric way. They pointed me in the right direction, and I crossed the road to find this giant wooden AT sign.
The hike up from the notch to bald pate shelter was mercifully uneventful. The humidity and the slight incline made for even more sweating, and I realized that that’s part of what I love about hiking. Maybe it sounds strange, but I love it when sweat streams down my face, and I look down and see it trickling down my shins. Anyway, I made it to the shelter to find a school group, but none of the NOBOs. I wandered around with my mouth agape feeling exhausted after 11 hours of difficult hiking. One of the leaders of the group approached me holding his brimming food bowl of beans and rice that smelled of tacos. He said they’d be happy to scoot over in the shelter if I needed them to, but I told him I’d rather tent. I had been thinking about the privacy of my tent on the climb up from the notch, and I had already decided to use it even though it’s likely to rain. The mosquitoes buzzing around my head on the climb had also driven my decision.
The group leader told me where he thought the tent sites were, and I wandered in that direction. I picked a beautifully flat spot and began setting up my tent, which I have yet to do since returning from music camp. I had gotten a stake or two in the ground when the leader came over with his co-lead and said that they had a lot of leftover taco fixings that they’d be happy to share if I wanted to bring my bowl over. I enthusiastically agreed to come over after I set up my tent. As I continued setting the stakes, I pondered the etiquette of having to stay by their group while I ate or doing what I wanted, which was to grab food and run to the solitude of my tent site.
I grabbed my bowl and threw my entire pack in my tent. 10 pairs of teenage eyes stared at me while the leaders asked my name and offered me food. I awkwardly asked the kids where they were from and how long they’d been in the woods. In my head, I thanked the chatty ones for not leaving my question hanging in the air too long. Then I managed to hold some semblance of a conversation with the leaders and interjected in the teens’ conversations every so often while I ate beans, rice and Fritos (their Fritos!) covered in sriracha.
I watched the leaders as they doled out tasks and tried to recruit the kids to buy into their responsibilities. One of the nerdier, possibly queer, of the bunch asked me about my tattoo and seemed intrigued by thru hiking. When it felt reasonable, I extracted and returned to my silent patch of woods. I cleaned my bowl, brushed my teeth and pushed through the task of throwing a mediocre bear line because there’s sadly no food box here. Then I went to get water, toting my phone in the very slight chance that I could catch a signal somewhere alone the way. I’d lost what tiny signal I had about a mile before descending into the notch and hadn’t climbed high enough for it to return. A few of the kids were at the water making a mess of the pools with their giant cook pot, but they were friendly, and I forgave them in my head because they’re learning. I went a few feet upstream from them and filled my water bag. I felt a few drops of rain as I filtered the water. Just as I suspected based on the increase in wind over the last hour. I hit the privy on my way back to the tent and then crawled inside to finish setting up my bed. I decided it was time to change shirts, so now I smell like clean laundry while also getting wafts of hobo camp coming from my spandex. I’m finishing this to the sound of constant rain pattering against my tent and the wind occasionally gusting through the trees. My wrists are sore from the gymnastics in the notch and my left ankle feels stiff from the beating it took in the fall. I’m going to attempt a 14 mile day tomorrow so I can try to get this infernal state over with. I’m much farther behind schedule than I would like, and I fear that I won’t start the southern section until Labor Day. However, I’m hoping the easier terrain combined with my increased hiking strength will help trim a little of that lag time. Another thing of note: going through the notch has made me more confident on the insane descents that these mountains keep throwing at me.
Mile 1912.9 to mile 1924.9 (12)
Total miles: 921.7
Creature feature: saw a new bird by speck pond. its beak reminded me of a sand piper with a more compact body and a grayish coloring and it repetitively dipped its tail region on a strange way. that’s about all I can recall for today.