Massachusetts was the beginning of the trail I had been dreaming of: ponds, subalpine forests, cool evenings, and sunsets with my friends. The terrain was similar as we entered Vermont, where the trail meandered through soft pine-needle paths and crested over wooded mountains like Glastenbury and Stratton. We also climbed Bromley, where the trail crosses through the ski resort, and Killington, the first of the New England 4,000-footers. We had numerous neros and zeros in cool towns such as Manchester Center (top-notch bookstore there) and Rutland, home of the infamous Yellow Deli.
I walked most of the state with Patches, KG, and Platypus, until KG went ahead at Rutland to chase bigger miles and an earlier end date. It was hard to see him go, but I enjoyed the time we had with the whole tramily together until that point. Towards the end of the state, Patches and I enjoyed some quiet time together, and we made a visit to our friend Daphne, who kindly put us up for a night to avoid the rain, before crossing into New Hampshire at Hanover. Thanks again, Daphne!
New Hampshire was a wild ride, and probably the most physically challenging state on the trail. It’s the home of the White Mountains, which start at Mt. Moosilauke and end with the Wildcats. It was all very beautiful, and we got lucky with weather, particularly on the day we summited Mt. Washington. But I was glad for the nero Patches and I took in Gorham with Nemo, Jingles, Platypus, and Queen, and I was glad to be done with that notoriously tricky part of the trail. I also hit a bit of a rough patch emotionally during this time. It was cold, and my days were starting to feel numbered. Despite everyone telling us we were “so close” to the end, it felt like we had a million light-years to go. But we did what we always do: we kept walking, and we got there.
I didn’t write as much in Vermont as I did in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. I’m not sure why. I think I was enjoying the forests too much. Or maybe I was just tired. I’m convinced that I wrote more in New Hampshire because I needed the therapy and processing time. Regardless, here are a few thoughts from these two beautiful northern states on the Appalachian Trail.
10 August, 06:18, Seth Warner Shelter
Oh, this morning.
I wake up and wrap it around me. It is breezy and a thick layer of clouds hangs in the sky. I know that weather like this is a portent of autumn. The leaves will turn red and orange, this wind promises. It is returning to a more comfortable state.
I get out of my tent and walk around before my friends awake. I walk to the privy. I come back to my tent and crawl into my warm blue quilt. I will the day to just hold on. Just wait. Just give me some minutes with this cool stillness. I want to press this morning to my face like a handmade blanket, and inhale.
Oh, this morning. It will turn into afternoon and nighttime again. But right now, it is morning, and I am holding it.
12 August, descending Stratton Mountain, 13:52
Vermont smells like Christmas. It smells like the wind slithering through the Ponderosas in the Inner Basin. It is a whisper of chill now, the snappy mornings and the unwillingness to move from my cold cocoon. I breathe it in and think of everything that is pine and fir, and the way Acadia smelled two summers ago. Summer yielding to yellow, uniform golden aspen leaves in the Peaks. I try to drink in every second like fine wine, savoring it, slowly tasting every tone and swallow.
It reminds me of things, this forest. Other places, other times. But it is all its own.
13 August, in a tent behind the VFW in Manchester Center, VT, 23:05
There’s a strange and specific magic about an abandoned street in the middle of the night. I walk back towards the VFW, talking on the phone with Monica and imagining my life beyond the trail, and I cross an empty strip of pavement and head back to my tent. There are lights illuminating the sidewalks and asphalt, the stores and restaurants lining the road half-lit, the electric signs extinguished for the night. My mind travels back to Clairmont, walking in Decatur at 3 AM, stars dancing behind my eyes. The nights of strolling home from the library in the crisp springtime air. I had so many ideas at night, then. Poems tumbled out of my brain, holding the world and all its potential not-yet glory in verse. I thought of universes and stars and things that never would be, but could. I thought of crossing the road and dancing on it in the frosty darkness saying, yes, hello, I’m here, I am I am I am.
I know, right? How characteristically me to think of poetry as I cross the asphalt. How quaint. Pretentious really. And yet, what’s the point, what is poetry if not an attempt to sift light through the frame of the most mundane?
I want all of my friends to be happy and alive. I want them to fold up and lift and scream. There is so much world. I want us to skip across this empty road at midnight, arms thrown out, laughter-filled heavy summer air running with the glory of all the good. Make. Be.
22 August, Hanover, NH, 22:31
Time and distance are becoming harder to grasp. I’ve been out here for almost five months now. Do you know how bizarre it is to do the same thing every day for five months? I wake up in the morning and stretch, roll over, eventually sit up, pack up my tent, have breakfast, greet the morning, and walk. I put one foot in front of the other across roots across rocks across streams, uphill downhill repeat. I get to camp. I collapse. I write. I watch shows. I read. I sleep. Things have changed since the beginning, but they pull and blend in one continuously recongealing string yanking me northwards. Trees are different, seasons are shifting, but still there is this: walk on, walk on, walk on.
I am so close now, and I don’t know how to hold this feeling.
New Hampshire. State of Moosilauke and the Whites and Mt. Washington. The penultimate state of the Appalachian Trail. What is this magic that has propelled me here? This morning I sifted through photos from Georgia on my phone. I marked my favorites. Here, the first night I set up my tent instead of sleeping in the shelter. There, the first day it was warm enough to hike in shorts. And there, when the flowers and the green insides of plants were just beginning to sniff the end of their winter slumber. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same trail on which I am still walking. How many thousands of white blazes have I passed, I wonder, how many trees? So many lifetimes have been born and reincarnated on this same ribbon of space-time between Georgia and Maine. So many stories have held me here.
Approaching the Whites, it almost feels like I am preparing to enter another plane. People talk of the winds and the views like one moment the trail is in the quiet deciduous east and the next it enters a wormhole towards Middle Earth. I’m ready for it. Give me the cold winter gusts that scrape across my skin cells. Send me sunrises that melt and rocks that reach skyward. Tear me apart so I can be new.
24 August, Moose Mountain Shelter, 09:10
Yesterday morning: sunshine and clearing mists. Nemo, Patches and I walked down Elm Street towards Hanover. We wondered aloud: what makes the difference between a morning that is simply cool, and a morning that tells you that fall is on its way? In the summer there was the rare morning where the heat did not sink in immediately, when a breeze barely disturbed the start-up hum of locusts. These mornings were a reprieve from the stickiness, but they are not mornings like this one. Leaves—still green, but leaves nonetheless—scuttle across the pavement as we descend the hill. Big mountains are up ahead, and cold weather waits patiently.
This morning is the same. Moose Mountain shelter, ten miles after Hanover. I went to sleep chilly last night, wearing my puffy and my fleece, and I wake up and feel the snap of the morning before I even poke out my nose. The light playing on the walls of my tent is familiar. It’s a light that falls in sideways, ever so off-kilter, through the window of the world. A breeze stirs outside in the conifers, and my waking fingers strum the crackling air.
Autumn, I think, is the thin silver bridge of the year. I’ve been reading Sandman, and re-listening to my library of Gaiman audiobooks, and that space between dream and reality becomes less watery and more solid the more I live here. Autumn is this place, where the line between spirit and living becomes less tenuous and easier to walk. The trail is a ribbon on the edge of the explainable, this morning a veil that flaps in the wind. I am home, it feels. I think, I am home.
We are now just under 40 miles south of Mt. Moosilauke, thought of as the first of the White Mountains, the part when the trail takes a sudden turn for very serious. A northbound hiker hears about the Whites from the very beginning. Former thru-hikers warn of the unpredictability of weather, the sudden extreme difficulty of the ascents and the treacherous angle of the descents. Ridgerunners and ATC officials urge us to make a plan, have enough warm clothes, and expect a drastic decrease in mileage. From the beginning we are conditioned to fear these mountains and to dread them. Even now I imagine cold, windy fingers beckoning us to the danger of the White Mountains, to surely inevitable injury or death. It is easy to be afraid.
I don’t know what it is that urges past hikers to scare the ever-living shit out of current hikers about the Whites. I know they will be difficult compared to what we have done, but I also know that we are more than capable of completing this hike. This morning, in the gently frigid air and wind that sings autumn, I want to run towards the mountains, arms thrown wide. Something about knowing that we are done with heat and only fall and winter lie ahead of us makes me want to sing. I want to climb and struggle; I want sky and rain. This is the part you run with your heart, I tell myself. I’m counting on this beating warm muscle to get me there.
25 August, Hikers Welcome Hostel, Glencliff, NH, 22:30
Patches is better at going to sleep than I am. That’s probably why she’s better at waking up.
I don’t know why I stay up so late on trail. Actually, I do. Something inside me strains against giving into unconsciousness, though my body begs for it. I don’t want the day to end, because as soon as I hit the pillow it will be morning again, and I will have to start moving. It’s not the hiking I dread so much as the loss of the few free hours I have to rest and think. It’s an odd paradox of the trail, this free time. On the one hand, you cannot possibly ask for more time to think. And on the other, your brain is so tied up with keeping your body moving and your spirits high that logical cognition flies away with the nearest breeze. At night I feel like it’s my only chance to nail down the sticky notes of ideas that rush past during the day. I never want to stop to write them down while I’m walking because I know I have to make miles, but by the time I set up my tent and begin to write I’ve forgotten the significance of whatever passing feeling stirred up meaning in the daylight.
So here I am, sitting in my quilt on a squeaky bed in a hostel in the dark. There is one lamp on beside me, and I feel comfortable and stubborn, resisting the urge to get horizontal. Hikers Welcome is one of the best hostels I’ve seen so far on trail. The space is small and yet it is set up efficiently: fridge stocked with drinks, shelves of DVDs, CDs, and books, and a massive set of hiker bins under the stairs. There are seven beds in the upstairs bunk room, but it’s $30 to sleep in a bed compared to $18 to camp, and Patches and I have the room to ourselves. I’ve rearranged the contents of my bear bag, examined volume 4 of The Sandman, which my mom sent to me in my resupply box, and retrieved our clean laundry from the dryer. All that’s left to do is lie down and drift off, yet here I am, writing.
I want to say so many things. I want to tell you so many things, like how good the ice cream was tonight, and how annoying the lady in the van was, and how excited and terrified I am for Moosilauke, and how it’s possible to feel so simultaneously tired and never ready to be done. I want to say things like, how cool is this, to just be out here, and I still cannot believe that I am doing this thing, but I’ve gone past my self-imposed time limit now. We climb Moosilauke tomorrow, and I should get some sleep.
29 August, Campsite below the summit of Lafayette, 07:24
The mornings are getting a little easier. Today is cold and condensation drips from the inside of my tent onto my sleeping bag, and a thin light filters through the silnylon walls. It’s wet from the rain and we are barely below treeline, having claimed the first stealth site we could below the increasingly windy summit of Mt. Lafayette, but I wake up easily before six for once and feel decently rested. The Whites are hard, but no harder than I imagined. Plenty of hikers ahead of me warned me that my mileage would decrease, so I am satisfied with the days we have done so far: 9 miles over Moosilauke, 12 over Wolf and Kinsman, 12.5 over Franconia Ridge and Lafayette.
It is frustrating to have to spend all day covering distances that we might normally be able to achieve in a few hours, but I don’t mind taking my time. I enjoy watching the trees change as we ascend a hill, from deciduous and neon summer-green to strong conifers to moss and ferns and finally to rocks and grasses, and only the toughest stunted firs at the summit. It’s like climbing the Kachina Peaks every day, over and over. So many varieties of life are held in these wind-whipped mountains, and I thank them with every sweaty, half-cursed breath.
Franconia Ridge was something I was not prepared for. It was longer and far more beautiful than I expected, and when we finally got to the top in a half-dazed end-of-the-day state, I could only breathe and stare. I tried to make words happen when we ran into Nemo, but sounds kept falling out of me in mostly unintelligible clusters and eventually I gave up. In a way that trail is beyond the effort to converse. It was the closest thing I’ve experienced on this trail to the dramatic Western mountains I miss so much from the JMT and from hiking in Arizona. There is beauty to be found in the trees, but above treeline it shouts and sings. To the left I could see the mountains we had gone over the day before, and down to Greenleaf Hut, and over to the right the pinnacle of what I think was Mount Washington poked its head up from the ridge. The trail over Franconia was a rocky wave, a beige ribbon tracing the spine of the mountains and into the darkening sky.
I kept trying to find something to compare it to. The Lakes District, the night I went on a solo hike and watched the almost-storm and setting sun throw beams down onto tarns and creeks rushing towards the valleys. No, this isn’t quite like that; this is more wild, more trees, more ridgeline, no sheep. So it’s like the Sierras then, with dramatic alpine traverses and sudden storms. No, it isn’t that either; there are no snowy chutes or crystalline lakes. Arizona? Canada? No; the Whites are themselves. What is this impulse that makes me compare experiences to others I have had? I suppose it’s only natural for humans to categorize and fit moments into schemas to attempt to come to some sort of conclusion about the nature of life. It’s all wrong, though. This is a place unlike any other on this trail and unlike any other I have seen. These mountains reward hard work and give of themselves, if only one puts in the effort to make it.
My hands are cold and my tent is wet. I’m not looking forward to packing up my sopping gear. I would gladly sit and sip awhile on a second coffee. But more summits loom today, more huts and wonder. Let’s go and see.