2019-Day 88: the Bigelows breakdown edition

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July 20, 2019 

I slept okay until daylight, which was about 5am. I was sad to have woken up before the alarm after staying up too late writing notes. Oakland was also awake and rolled over towards me. We discussed strategy for donning our wet clothes. It was a toss up between changing in the tent or in the palatial privies. We left that decision for later in the routine and made our respective privy visits. Someone from Clammy and food truck’s direction ripped several giant farts. We decided to eat breakfast in the tent because the mosquitoes were already out in force. It was uncomfortable for both of our backs, but it was totally worth the sanity boost. As we shifted around and ate our bars, Oakland told me that she hadn’t slept well at all. She seemed sad, which of course made me feel guilty for having dragged her into the lion’s den of hiking terrain. Her sadness also gave me a nagging fear that she didn’t really want to be here. I was having enough trouble managing my own feelings and it was hard to imagine adding a portion of her emotional burden to my plate. I did my best to use my words and told her that I was hearing a subtext of “I don’t want to be here” in her statements about how hard this was. She thoughtfully debunked my interpretation and tried to articulate her fear of burdening me because she couldn’t hide how hard this was (nor should she have to), and she knew I would try to help hold her head above water. 

After our *light* breakfast conversation, we packed up the inside of the tent and changed into wet clothes in the mansion-like privies. My spandex hiking shorts felt cold and clingy as I pulled them up over my knees and my wool shirt smelled vaguely of wet dog. On my way back from the privy, a mosquito chomped on the back of my neck. I didn’t bother putting body glide on my feet because my soaking wet socks would rub it off immediately. We left camp at 7:10 feeling emotionally heavy and already tired. We started with a relaxed piece of trail that curved around towards the pond, but never took us close enough to see the water. Then the trail took a right turn and went straight up for 0.5 miles to south horn. The woods were misty and quiet as we picked our way over damp roots and rocks.

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The mosquitoes made themselves known, but we didn’t bother putting on bug spray yet. The last stretch of the south horn involved climbing a rock slab into the fog, which echoed much of my experience in the Whites. 

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The descent started out with a tricky, wet rock face that sent me into an afraid and overwhelmed spiral. I was so worried about hurting myself in a fall or twisting my ankle beyond repair, especially on wet rocks.

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Thankfully the trip down from south horn was relatively short and dropped us onto a pleasant, though brief, flat stretch where we finally put on deet. 

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The trail took us back up to the west peak of the Bigelow range. We didn’t talk much because we were both fried and intensely concentrating on careful foot placement.

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I continued to feel terrible for plopping Oakland down in this beastly terrain after the moderation of VA. I’d known this would be a physically rough couple of days because I’ve experienced the craziness of Maine, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth of anxiety we would both feel. I berated myself for making the selfish choice of wanting her company and for having the more generous desire to share this wild and beautiful corner of the world with her. 

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We eventually climbed above treeline and saw the horn behind us as fog rapidly rolled through. I paused to take a few videos and torture Oakland by asking her to stand still so I could capture the wildness behind her.

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It was hard to tell where to go in the rocky topography, but the answer was of course up and over the collection of boulders in front of us. The skyline to our right was foggy. Along the way we found a tiny new alpine flower and a day hiker in a bright yellow slicker clomped towards us heading southbound.

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We eventually made it to Bigelow’s west peak and dropped our packs feeling dejected and exhausted by our slow progress. We ate snacks in the wind and I cursed the fog as it cleared just enough for me to see how amazing our view would have been on a blue bird day. Thankfully, the wind started to create bigger patches of open sky, which meant I then had to restrain myself from staying in that spot taking too many pictures. Here are a few variations of the fog as it waxed and waned.

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Song sparrows called out as we put on our packs and forged ahead. The trail immediately started descending such that we could see the sharp dip in elevation between where we stood and the neighboring Bigelow Avery peak that we had to traverse next.

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We carefully picked our way down to the turn-off for Bigelow Col campsite. There were a few calm stretches with soft pine needles and scattered roots. At the intersection for the campsite, the trail went straight back up with harder scrambles over large, sometimes jagged rocks. We passed a box spring, and Oakland lifted the wooden lid to find a shallow, buggy pool of water.

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A french speaking couple approached us southbound. One of them stopped short of her partner to see a view and her partner very nearly went tumbling across the rocks when he tried to stop on a dime. As we approached Avery peak, we were graced with consistently clearer skies, which obviously means I took more pictures while Oakland sat down for another short break.

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When we got ready to leave, half of Oakland’s chest strap fell off. It seemed like her pack was having one problem after another, but this was thankfully an easy fix. I stopped one more time to take a few pictures of Little Bigelow (today’s top picture) before we made the rocky trip down from Avery peak.

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I was trying to navigate a tricky slab when a stinging sensation erupted in my finger. I stood still on the side of the slab and looked down to find a fly biting me. I tried to slap it away without falling over and yelled “Seriously!? Right now?? While I’m trying to get down this thing. FUCK YOU, Maine.” I apologized to Oakland for yelling. She kindly supported my sentiment even though I know she hates yelling.

The trail was a relentless descent over rocks and roots with brief stretches of relief. My knees held up well, but the focus required for every step was exhausting. We dropped our packs at an intersection with a side trail that purported to lead us to a good viewing point. I always have trouble passing up those opportunities, so we took the detour. The view was partially obscured by trees and consisted of the same basic sky scape that we’d just seen for the last couple of hours. In sum: a precious waste of energy, but I took pictures anyway.

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We went back to our packs and continued north, passing yet another tall white male thru hiker climbing towards us. All I could think about in between footfalls was quitting. I detest this kind of persistent technical hiking because I can’t get a rhythm going and I feel like my world narrows to the next step in a way that is suffocating, not enlightening. The bugs were already out of control and we hadn’t even reached the infamous 100 mile wilderness. I was also thinking about quitting to avoid subjecting Oakland to more of this insanity. (the 2nd picture is looking backwards up a different stretch of trail than the 1st picture)

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We ran into another tall, white, male SOBO on a rocky stair climb. He was super chatty and joked that he’d have to kill me because when he asked how much farther he had to go, I’d told him he wasn’t quite halfway up Avery. He gave us unsolicited reassurance us that after Bigelow, the hiking would get easier. I know better than to take other people’s word about hiking conditions, but it was comforting nonetheless and Oakland agreed. I felt slightly buoyed by his comment, but I was still teetering on the edge of completely miserable.  

We reached a mildly graded section that took us past giant boulders with crevices that emanated shocking waves of cool air.

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We stopped for lunch a little ways past a giant overhanging boulder about 0.1 mile from the bottom of the descent. We took our shoes off and settled on opposing sides of the trail to allow for hikers to pass. As Oakland prepared her wrap, she got sausage water in her eye, which was both amusing and another emotional paper cut. We talked about Oakland potentially going home to allay her fears of burdening me. I didn’t want her to leave, but I did acknowledge that it was hard knowing how difficult this is for her (understandably so). I also knew that I was taking too much responsibility for her experience. As we talked, I ate pop tarts, sausage with cheese and Fritos. Before we got moving, I peed for the first time all morning, which meant that we had clearly not been drinking enough water. There hadn’t been mental space for it, and there weren’t many sources to choose from. We also talked about the possibility of stopping short for the day, which I really wanted to do, but we didn’t have quite enough food and that fact made Oakland uneasy. I was fully prepared to eat random combinations of things to scrape by, but we ultimately decided that it wasn’t a good idea.

Right as we started hiking, I tripped all over myself with clumsy, post-lunch feet. Thankfully nothing came of the stumble except frustration. About 5 minutes later, we reached the turn for the safford notch campsite. We decided to skip the water source because it was 0.3 miles off trail and neither of us could fathom adding that mileage to our day. As we continued down, the footing finally eased into an actual path with the occasional sharp uptick over stone steps. We made good time, which was a nice change. We had joked earlier in the day that Oakland should make her 400 mile marker out of moose poop, and we finally passed an optimal pile of poop with which to carry out that silly fantasy. I made a plan to do my 900 mile marker out of it too.

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Flies buzzed at us constantly as we hiked through dappled sunlight. My heels kicked up pine needles that cascaded down the backs of my ankles. My sensory input dial felt like it was on overdrive. We counted the minutes until we were supposed to reach a water source and both rejoiced when we found that it had just enough water to be functional. You can sort of see the pooling water in the picture (by the bright sunpatch).

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We drank extra water in an attempt to catch up on hydration and refilled our bottles for the next hurdle: Little Bigelow. Frankly, that is a misleading name. I think it should be called Long Bigelow because it felt interminable to reach the other side. The trail went from reasonable to sharp in a matter of seconds as we started the climb up Little Bigelow.

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We joked about the name, getting silly and calling it Leggo my Bigelow. A couple of young SOBOs raved about the shade “up top” as we passed them on a steep scramble. I was fumbling around in the brush, having chosen a side route that didn’t have an easy passage from the steep rock face back onto the trail. Oakland stopped to take pictures of fungus after the SOBOs were well past us. Priorities! 

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We finally arrived at an overlook where Oakland stopped to put body glide on her feet and I took a few pictures.

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We never did find this magical shade the kids had mentioned as we made our way up a series of rock slabs and dipped in and out of short evergreens. In fact, it felt like we were just getting hotter and hotter as we rose in elevation.

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We finally reached the highest point of the mountain that was a long plateau with a wide range of terrain. There were gentle rolling hills, sharp upturns, dense evergreen tunnels and the occasional open rock slabs. At one point, I got really aggravated with guthook for illustrating a section as flat in the elevation profile that was definitely NOT flat. No surprise there, guthook. 

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When we finally reached the ledges on the far side of the summit, we had a two mile descent ahead of of us. It was somewhat less absurd than the other descents of the day, but that’s not saying much. My feet were sore, and I had no clue how we would get all the way to Flagstaff campsite that we had picked as our stopping point. We took a snack break around 4pm with 4.5 more miles to go. At an hour a mile, we could arrive as late as 8:30pm. The descent turned into many iterations of rock slab with some interim ups and downs through evergreens. We saw the tiny laurel blooms again, which momentarily cheered me up. We ended up making decent time over the slabs, and I was very grateful for the lack of rain. 

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We made it to the intersection with Little Bigelow shelter turn off at 5:30, which was a half hour sooner than Oakland had mentally budgeted for. We were tired and hungry, but there were too many bugs to enjoy the prospect of taking a break. Clouds of mosquitoes swirled around us, and they seemed to realize that our deet was wearing off all at once. I flailed bugs away from my ears every few steps. My earbuds kept them from going INTO my ears, but they were still buzzing and bouncing off my head at a maddening rate. We had passed several people wearing bug nets, and now I understood why. 

The trail went down a bit more and then completely backed off to a calm dirt path that ran within earshot and sometimes within sight of a long, rocky creek. I wanted a snack, but I didn’t want to get eaten alive, so we kept moving. We crossed two different dirt roads. One went near a bog and the other one was called bog road according to our map.

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We crossed foot bridge and bog boards that were actually in decent shape. Along the way, I saw a new yellow flower and a handful of orange lilies. I hoped we would see a moose in the evening hours, especially since we were so close to water, but no dice. 

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We finally caught sight of the lake and took a short side trail to get a quick view, which was silly given our intentions of camping beside that same lake, but I couldn’t help myself.

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The footing was forgiving for a while longer, but then we had to contend with tangled roots and rocky sections, which I had been dreading given our proximity to a lake (in my experience, new england lake = bugs and ROOTS). Thankfully the messy sections were never that long.

We were both exhausted and my knees had finally started to ache. The trail turned away from the lake for awhile until it intersected with a local trail. The AT went left back towards the lake. We had 0.4 miles to go and my feet were hamburger. The minutes crawled by with 3 minutes feeling like 15 as I repeatedly checked my watch. I finally looked up and noticed a privy rise up out of nowhere to the right of the trail. We’d reached the southern and unofficial camp site that’s closest to the privy meant to serve the official campsite 0.1 miles north. We dropped our packs at a slanted, but soft tent site and deemed it good enough to call home. We walked down a side path to find a wide, beautiful rocky beach and lakeside access. Very unfortunately, a dog from a distant lakeside residence howled and yipped almost constantly for the rest of our waking hours. The sound knotted my insides, but there was no way we were leaving that campsite, so I did my best to detach from it (mostly unsuccessful). We went back to the site and pitched our tent while we still had daylight. Then we threw a bear line onto a tree down at the water’s edge. I made the first attempt, but gave up immediately. Oakland took over and managed to get the exact branch we wanted. We decided to use one line for both of our bags. Then we got lake water for our resupply and made dinner on the beach, which was breezy and not horribly buggy. The evening light was beautiful as the sun dipped below the trees on the distant shore. We could see the Bigelows looming in the distance.

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We both had bare burrito for dinner (a crowd favorite). The sun went down earlier than we’d expected, so we didn’t linger over our food because we were losing daylight quickly. It’s a good thing we hadn’t arrived any later. After dishes, dessert, and teeth brushing, we rinsed our faces at the water’s edge and watched the tail end of sunset. 

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We hung our food bags in the waning light and went back to the tent in the already dark woods. We setup our beds by headlamp and both made one more foray into the trees to pee. Oakland helped me with day’s record because I had large patches where I hadn’t stopped to take notes. We heard loons and another mournful animal noise that reminded me of coyotes but was likely a different kind of bird (or maybe a different loon call?). The loons made me miss Halfway – he loves a loon. I’m finishing this to the sound of Oakland breathing heavily after having fallen asleep while helping me remember the day’s events, a distance mechanical sound across the lake, and bugs popping against the tent. I hope the loons make another appearance!  

Mile 2008.9 to mile 2021.6 (12.7) – Flagstaff lake campsite 

Checklist total miles: 890.2

Oakland total miles: 410.8

Creature feature: so many tiny frogs! a new black and white butterfly, the sound of loons and the sad dog at the lake, song sparrows, another new bird that was possibly a different kind of sparrow, juncos, and a few chickadees 

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