After the elderly couple dropped me off in Manchester Center at a coffee shop, I eagerly awaited Dan and my brother’s arrival to take me out for a celebration dinner.
While waiting, a guy came over and sat beside me. He was a fellow hiker who thru hiked the AT several years ago and was out on the Long Trail when the nor’easter struck. Like me, he fled the snow and walked down a forest service road until drunk hunters rescued him (yes, that is slightly frightening … especially since it was only 11 a.m.). We instantly pegged one another as displaced hikers due to our mud-covered clothing and beat-up packs within a crowd of well-dressed cafe patrons.
Sitting amongst a cafe full of strangers, it was a relief to speak with someone who understood how monumental this day was for me.
He asked me a question that left me speechless. It’s the same question many have asked, which has repeatedly caused panic: “How does it feel to be off the trail and back in society?”
A simple question, but without an answer. This is why it took me a month before I could write my final blog posts. I just wasn’t able to process what had happened. My mind wouldn’t allow it. I was in shock. Of course I was excited to be back and for the first time in seven months to have a home. Yet I didn’t feel comfortable in society among “normal folk.” I wished to run and hide.
The best way I can describe what the readjustment period has been like and what I still experience to a certain degree is this: I feel like an actress who forgot my character’s lines on opening night of the play. I apologize if that sounds insane, but it’s the best explanation I can offer.
But now it’s time to get down to business. I need your money. Not for myself, but for Alpine Initiatives. I’m sure you’re already aware that I thru hiked the AT to raise money for the nonprofit Alpine Initiatives in order to help fund their current project: Building community homes in Kenya for children orphaned by AIDS.
If this is news to you and/or if you’d like to refresh your memory, click on the “How to Help” page for details about the organization and their amazing efforts to better the lives of AIDS orphans.
For those who already donated, thank you so much for your support! I cannot begin to tell you how grateful both Alpine Initiatives and I are for your generosity. If you pledged to donate, the time has come to send your donations.
As a current unemployed person (apparently walking obscene distances isn’t a selling work skill), I completely understand how money can be very tight right now. But any amount you can donate will be greatly appreciated, whether $5 or $10. Even small donations can quickly add up to large funds to support these orphans.
There are two ways to donate: Click on the “Paypal” button to use your credit card to donate online. Donations through Paypal go directly to Alpine Initiatives … sparing me from playing middleman in getting funds to the organization. If you’d rather send a check, please make your check out to Alpine Initiatives. On the “for” line, please note that it’s a donation in support of my AT thru hike. Mail checks to:
P.O. Box 4421
Aspen, CO 81611
People have already pledged to donate per how many miles I hiked, how many days I was on the trail, etc. In an effort to spur creative donating, and just for fun, I’m proud to present:
Ace’s AT Stats:
- Total trail miles hiked: 2,161
- Estimated total miles walked (included side trails to shelters, water and into towns): In the ballpark of 2,300 miles.
- Estimated days on the trail: 158 (I subtracted the days I was off sick and my estimated zero days.)
- Estimated average miles per day: 14 (based on total trail mileage divided by estimated days)
- Number of bears sighted: Seven
- Number of moose sighted: Three
- Number of rattle snakes sighted: Two
- Number of times I ran from crazy people: Twice
- Number of times I got lost on the trail (or lost the trail altogether): Five
- Pairs of boots I went through: Three
I would like to thank each and every one of you for supporting me during my journey. Your words of encouragement and the mere knowledge that people were rooting for me were invaluable in helping me through the tough parts. Without you and Alpine Initiatives, I honestly don’t know if I could have made it as far as I did! I plan on hiking the remaining 17 miles that I missed next spring and summer.
A smattering of white clouds swirled against the deep blue of the fall sky. A light breeze pushed me forward, like a friend nudging me along. The forest opened for one brief instant, revealing a sweeping view of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
This was it. Mile 2,178 of the Appalachian Trail. I sat on a boulder that seemed as if it’d been rolled into place for this very moment in time. I stretched out on the rock, basking in the warmth of the sun and contemplating the past seven months in the woods.
A chipmunk shyly scurried over to me — no doubt expecting food. Timidly, it tiptoed up to my leg and actually sat on my knee, peering at me intently. Was this nature’s peace-offering? Mother Nature was finally going to give me a break in the last mile of my journey? The chipmunk’s departure was my cue to continue hiking. Time to finally finish this thru hike.
I didn’t steadily hike the last quarter-mile. I skipped, twirled and danced my way to roads Vt. 11 & 30 … my Katahdin. I could see him. My boyfriend Dan stood in the parking lot with a giant red velvet cake in his arms. He grinned and exclaimed …
“Miss, miss are you there? Where are you? I don’t know that place … can you just walk down that road to the barn store? I know how to get there …”
“Are you serious? That’s nearly five miles away,” I yelled into my cell phone and hung up out of frustration. None of my daydreams of my final day on the trail included an incompetent taxi driver. Come to think of it, every aspect of this day was wrong.
Rather than triumphantly hiking into Manchester Center, I was stranded somewhere between there and the very tiny town of Danby. It seemed as if Mother Nature had not been satisfied with almost killing me atop Mt. Lafayette in 80 mph winds. Oh no, the gloves were off and she was out for blood.
As fate would have it, the night before I was to hike my final 18 miles of the AT, a Nor’easter ravaged the area. High winds and buckets of rain assaulted the lower lands, while the higher elevations experienced the first real snow of the season.
It was cold. Dark clouds loomed threateningly. I hiked to the top of Baker Peak before deciding I needed to bail. If I had continued, I would have seriously jeopardized my safety. Over a foot of snow had fallen during the night, and many trees and branches were down, making the trail appear almost nonexistent.
During my last week on the AT, on average I would go more than a day before bumping into a person in the woods. There were no footprints marking the trail for me. The white blazes were of no help. They were scattered too far apart to be able to go from blaze to blaze. And so I wandered off the trail … again and again.
I waded through snow rising mid-calf and climbed over frozen tree trunks and fallen limbs. The fifth time I lost the trail, I dropped my pack and knelt in the snow — resting my head on the top of my pack. What the hell was I supposed to do?
I was about 12 miles short of the finish line. Every atom in my body ached to hike to that road crossing. How could I hike over 2,100 miles just to stop 12 miles short? But at the same time, I felt like a cat that had used up my nine lives. I was alone out here and didn’t want to get lost in the woods in the aftermath of a mini-snowstorm.
The minutes ticked on. My knees felt like blocks of ice in the snow. I was cold and hungry. I had to act. I took a few deep breaths, blinked back the tears and stood.
I untied my white bandana and waved it in the air, shouting, “You win! Are you happy? I give up … I’m finished!” On October 16 around 12:15 p.m., I ended my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I turned and followed my footprints back five miles to USFS 10 dirt road.
I could see the dirt road. I took a deep breath. Only 30 more yards to hike. Seven months and more than 2,000 miles had come to this … 30 yards.
Wham! Before I knew what had happened, I was laying face-first in the slushy mess of the trail. Pain radiated up and down my right leg. I rolled onto my side only to discover a new hole in my rain paints and a small amount of blood flowing from my knee.
“Serves you right. Don’t look shocked and upset, you pansy! Did you honestly think you could escape me without incident?”
I should have been mad at Betty White for tripping me, but I couldn’t get past the fact that she was wearing sandals in the snow … damn her! She followed me to the dirt road, mocking me because I was about to call a taxi. There was no traffic on this forest service road and it was nearly a four mile hike along the muddy road to get to the main road leading to town. And I was in no mood to walk that in the cold and rain, which had just begun.
But the taxi was worthless. He kept getting confused on where I was located, and then I lost cell service. Well that’s just perfect, I thought and then began walking the four miles. No other choice. Twenty minutes passed before I heard the motor.
I turned in time to see a black station wagon coming toward me. Rather than meekly stick out one thumb, I stepped into the middle of the road and raised both arms. Needless to say, they stopped. An elderly couple out for the day to admire all of the colors of the changing leaves.
The husband, who was driving, rolled down the window. “Need a ride? Where are you trying to get to?”
“Manchester Center,” I said in my most pleasant voice as I squeezed my pack into their backseat, trying not to get mud on the interior of their car.
“Oh my, are you out here alone in this weather? Must have been an eventful hike,” the wife exclaimed in surprise, mistaking me for just an overnight backpacker.
I flashed her a huge grin and chuckled. “Yes ma’am … it’s been quite the experience!”
The morning had begun magnificently. I awoke in a real bed inside an actual house with a hot shower and a non-Pop Tart breakfast — complete with a fancy espresso drink. Life was beautiful.
My good fortune was due to two very kind individuals, Bill and Joanna, whom I’d met the previous day on the trail atop a mountain as they enjoyed a relaxing day hike. After chatting briefly, we parted ways. As I followed the trail across a road, I heard a man shout at me. I turned to see Bill and Joanna walking toward me. Actually, they were just walking toward their car — I stood between them and it (ideal location). It was on our second chance meeting that they so generously invited me into their home for the evening.
They wined and dined me (i.e. I tagged along to a dinner party), allowed me to shower and do laundry while also giving me a hearty breakfast. Bill dropped me back at the trail, but not without first offering me an invitation to attend Canadian Thanksgiving with them that evening. Bill is Canadian (which no one seems to hold against him) and so are some friends also living in Hanover. Each year they celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving on Columbus Day. Although tempted by turkey, stuffing and pies, I declined for the sake of needing to make bigger miles for the day.
But my day quickly took a turn for the worse upon hearing two jarring sentences: “Remember me? We chatted yesterday and I’ve been out here searching for you ever since,” said a slightly disheveled looking man. I stood perfectly still while sizing him up. Glasses, blond hair, mid-twenties, but not overly muscular. I could take him … well, maybe. I took a few steps away from him and felt the side pocket of my pack to make sure it still contained my small canister of pepper spray.
“Right, I kinda remember,” I mumbled as I resumed hiking at a fast pace. He had been walking in the opposite direction, but turned around to fall into step behind me. He explained that I’d inspired him in our two-minute conversation and so he’d returned to find and ask me questions about the trail. I didn’t buy this and so sped up.
He revealed that he planned to hike the trail once he finished his book on how to save the world. I paused to turn and stare at him. He didn’t laugh or even crack a smile. He was serious.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Well, I don’t know when I’ll finish the book, to be honest. You know, it’s a lot harder to save the world than I first thought. Might be another year or two before I really figure it out,” he mused.
This man was off his rocker! That much was obvious. The question that remained was whether or not he was harmless crazy or run-for-your-life kind of crazy. But being alone in the woods with this guy, I didn’t want to stick around to find out.
And so I hiked even faster. I was almost at a light jog as we climbed the last mountain before the last three miles of trail that led into the center of Hanover. I heard him moan in pain. I turned just in time to see him collapse in the middle of the trail and throw up multiple times. I backed away, staring at him with morbid curiosity. I wanted to make sure he didn’t black out and then I’d continue on my way.
He wiped his mouth and panted “How … can … you … go … so fast?” I laughed and grinned mischievously. I didn’t need to spray him. My weapon appeared to be my speed. I left him on the ground, and once rounding the corner, I broke into a run. In my boots with my 36 lbs. pack, I ran the last three miles into town — propelled by adrenaline and fear.
I made it into town without incident. But would he come searching for me again? I was nervous and unsure of what to do. And then I fell into the Connecticut River. This day was spiraling out of control. I would be an idiot to walk back into the woods today. I needed help. I slipped my hands into the pockets of my black jacket and felt the business card Bill had given me that morning.
That’s it. That’s what I’ll do. What could possibly go wrong at a Canadian Thanksgiving?
For the second time in 24 hours, I hopped in the car with Bill and Joanna to be whisked away to an evening of turkey, pies, stuffing and dressing. And for the second time in 24 hours, this couple turned a desperate and lonely situation into a reminder of how life is a beautiful string of unpredictable events. For that, I am grateful.
With each step, water gurgled and hissed from every hole in my busted leather boots. Blood flowed from a deep gash in my right knee. The outline of my shin bone glistened a crimson red.
“Hello … hi … how’s it goin’ … hey there … beautiful day, isn’t it,” I repeated to stunned individuals.
Remain calm and collected, I reasoned. Try to blend in, and then I burst out laughing at that ridiculously hopeless thought.
My faded tank-top clung to my torso as drops of water from my hair ran down my face and neck. Like a leaky faucet, water continuously dripped from my black running shorts onto my legs and the concrete sidewalk. Yet my small red sleeping pad that I held in my right hand was mysteriously dry already.
As I walked down the crowded sidewalks of downtown Hanover, NH, people stopped in their tracks to stare at me, mouth agape. Ivy league Dartmouth college kids gawked at me from swanky sidewalk cafes. People exiting boutique shops paused in doorways to do a double-take. I held my head high, making a point to say hello to everyone I could. But who could blame them — a soaking wet, bloodied girl wandering through this upscale New England town with only an inflated sleeping pad. How bizarre!
I walked back into the local outfitter and tapped the salesman on the shoulder. Sheer horror passed over his face as he stared at me. “Oh no, tell me you didn’t,” he pleaded.
“Oh, but I did,” I responded with a smile. “Do you know how difficult it is to fully submerge an inflated sleeping pad? Takes a lot of balance …”
I fell into the Connecticut River. Not while rock hopping across it. Not while fording it.
No, I fell into the Connecticut River under the bridge that links New Hampshire to Vermont. I went for an icy swim just 50 feet shy of the Vermont state line. Why?
Because I had a leak in my sleeping pad causing it to deflate at night. Because the salesman told me the best way to discover the source of the leak was to fully submerge it while inflated to see where the air escaped (look for bubbles). And because he claimed the only place large enough to push a sleeping pad completely under water was at the Connecticut River. But he failed to consider my complete lack of balance and grace.
After stumbling down the rock embankment under the highway bridge, I teetered on the edge of rounded, slick rocks while failing miserably to push the pad under water. The damn thing was more buoyant than a life jacket. With one final thrust of my arms to submerge it, I lost my footing and fell into the frigid waters of the Connecticut River — but not without first bashing my knee on a rock as I belly-flopped into the water.
I shot out of that water like a woman possessed — gasping and spitting while laughing hysterically. This day was quickly going to hell in a hand basket. That morning I had to run from a crazy man in the woods. And now my sleeping pad had attempted to drown me.
There was only one thing that could turn my day around — that could be my saving grace. Canadian Thanksgiving …
To Be Continued …
There were multitudes of them, who all stared expectantly at me. I discreetly pinched myself to see if this were a nightmare from which I would wake. No such luck.
What had I become? Had I really sunk to this level of desperation for food and shelter from the nasty weather? First it was scrubbing a few pots. And then sweeping the floor. But now I stood in front of more than 40 squirming sixth graders to talk about thru hiking in exchange for some left over pancakes and cold scrambled eggs.
To appreciate the sheer horror I was experiencing, you must realize a few things. Before tumbling into the Mizpah Spring Hut, I had not spoken with more than five or six people simultaneously in months. And typically, I wouldn’t encounter more than a few people in an entire day.
To be surrounded by nearly 50 people was overwhelming. And I’ve never been one for public speaking. I actually physically shook as I spoke to the kids. But to their credit, all of them were very respectful and attentive, for which I was incredibly grateful.
I rounded the corner into the kitchen area. The Hut Master smiled sympathetically, “You did a great job, and deserve to eat as much as you want. All this is left over from the guests.” Lukewarm pancakes, scrambled eggs and oatmeal were piled on a few platters. I eagerly devoured a large portion, grinning between mouthfuls.
The Mizpah Hut was my introduction to the wonderful world of work-for-stays in the eight AMC huts scattered throughout the White Mountains of New Hampshire. All of the huts are located along the AT and situated so that hikers can hit one each day.
The AMC huts are perfect for people wishing to explore the Whites without lugging a large pack around, and for those who prefer a bed over a tent. The huts vary in size, but all are equipped with bunk beds, indoor composting toilets, limited electricity and a (poorly) paid staff who cook hearty dinners and breakfasts for guests and provide educational programs as well. But there are no showers.
This just sounded too good to resist! But there’s a catch … and it’s a big one. You must pay for these luxuries. On average, it costs around $100 a night per person to live it up at a hut. Most thru hikers don’t have 600 – 800 extra dollars to splurge on huts, so the AMC has taken pity on us by creating a work-for-stay deal for thru hikers.
There’s a strategy to securing one of the coveted work-for-stays because generally each hut only allows two or three thru hikers per night to exchange labor for food. Rule of thumb is to not arrive before 4:30 p.m. at a hut because they might tell you to keep moving if you arrive too early. But on the flip side, if you show up too late, the spots could be taken. I fortunately didn’t have to battle for a spot because there were basically no other thru hikers as I passed through the Whites.
But don’t expect to zonk out in a bunk for the night. Here’s the skinny on huts: You’re going to be sleeping on a hard-wood floor, or possibly on top of the wooden dining room tables. Expect to work at night and in the morning. However, the amount of time and chores you’re given varies depending on the mercy of each hut crew (i.e. be very nice to the crew members). You don’t eat with the guests, but rather eat whatever food is leftover from them.
Although at times I felt as if I should flash a cardboard sign reading “Will Work for Food,” the huts were my sanctuaries from the harsh weather and solitude of the Whites. Click here to read more about the unique AMC huts.
The first two times I tried to stand, I was knocked back onto my knees. On my third attempt, the wind-swept my legs out from underneath me, rolling me across the rocks.
I crawled across the summit of Mt. Lafayette toward my trekking poles. My backpack was the anchor weighing me down. I didn’t dare take it off. Those blessed 40 pounds were what kept me from blowing away.
There was no one on the summit to hear my scream. The hail assaulted my body and felt like rubber bullets in the hurricane-force wind. Terrified, I curled into a small ball and clung to a boulder to prevent the wind from dragging me across the jagged rocks once again.
I hadn’t intended to scramble over the rocky, exposed summit of a 5,300 foot mountain in 80 mph winds. As I first climbed above treeline, only a slight wind had mingled with misting rain. Had I known this was the day the White Mountains would encounter the wrath of a tropical storm, I never would have hiked up the mountain named after a Frenchman.
The White Mountains in New Hampshire are famous not only for the dramatic landscape and stunning views, but also for the extreme weather of the region. Numerous warnings abound about the rapidly changing weather conditions and treacherous terrain. Each year, several people die in these unforgiving mountains.
Mt. Washington has the distinction of having some of the worst weather in the world. In 1934, wind atop the 6,288 foot mountain reached 231 mph, which still holds the record for the highest wind speed ever observed on the earth’s surface. Since 1932, the Mount Washington Observatory has kept daily records of the ever-changing weather. Click here to learn more about the mountain.
If braving the elements on the climb up Washington isn’t appealing, you have options. A road leads to the top or you can take a leisure train ride up the mountain. An interesting museum and cafe with all the basics rest on the summit, offering a retreat from the weather. I lucked out on the day I climbed Washington. The temperature was in the low 40s, about 10 to 20 yards visibility, and wind was only 40 mph with light rain. This was a good day for the mountain.
But I was not as fortunate on my summit of Mt. Lafayette. I knew I couldn’t remain curled around boulders because the temperature was dropping, which could cause me to become hypothermic. However, I couldn’t keep going across the mountain. I had to evacuate.
There was a 1.1 mile long side trail leading to Greenleaf Hut. There are a handful of huts scattered throughout the White Mountains, which were built and are maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). This was my best option for getting out of the dangerous situation in which I found myself.
“Where the hell did you come from,” Ron shouted over the wind. Two others were also evacuating off the summit. I could see them from a distance in front of me — two figures desperately clinging to each other as the wind knocked them from side to side. My fear and desperation lifted when I saw them. I picked up my pace — running between rock outcroppings between the stronger gusts of wind — to catch up with them.
Diane turned and stared at me with a mixture of horror and amazement. “How are you not dead?” I laughed nervously in response, and she shook her head. “No, really how could you survive this? The two of us, who are much bigger than you, are barely making it.” I shrugged and looked down at my boots, trying to hide how scared I really was.
Ron stared at me for several seconds, mouth slightly open and wide-eyed. “Well, how bout we discuss this once we get into the hut,” he shouted. Diane and I nodded in unison. “Stay with us and together we’ll get ourselves off this mountain.”
Waves of relief washed over me. Together, the three of us hunkered down against the brute force of the wind, rain and hail, and worked our way over the rocks and down to the safety of the hut.
Two nights would pass before the weather calmed down and I steadied my nerves enough to continue hiking.
Holding my head in my hands, I sighed heavily and glanced between my fingers at the row of casualties.
They died noble deaths. Maine was a butcher. The state was out for blood, or at the very least to destroy my trek one piece of gear at a time. When I began my hike, I understood it was unrealistic to assume all my gear would emerge unscathed after nearly 2,200 miles of abuse.
Before entering the butcher state, I’d only lost one piece of gear in the line of duty — my Lowa boots. They had endured the elements and 1,200 miles of trail before meeting their demise in the unforgiving rockscape of Pennsylvania. But now my replacement pair was falling apart — the leather separated from the rubber soles, exposing the Goretex lining. And holes riddled the leather, appearing as if I’d drop-kicked a porcupine. But hundreds of miles had passed since Lowa had sent me a free replacement pair, so I couldn’t complain too much.
However, how I managed to snap in half the metal frame of my Osprey Ariel 65 backpack was beyond me. I awoke on a flattened Thermarest sleeping pad (it had busted) to discover the sharp, jagged edge of the snapped frame gleaming in the morning light, like the sneering fangs of a rabid dog.
I would be doomed to walk almost 100 miles with a busted pack before it could be replaced. The broken frame shifted the pack so that much of the 38 pounds rested on my shoulders. And a portion of the hip belt dug into my left hip, creating a large bruise that made it too painful to sleep on my left side. When gear breaks on the tops of mountains and in the depths of the woods, solutions do not always come easy. Several days passed before I even had cell service in the woods to give Osprey a call.
The friendly Osprey representative explained that if I could get to the town of North Conway, NH, I could exchange my pack, free of charge, for a new one at a local outdoor store. This was wonderful news, except for two small problems: The road crossing to the town was nearly 50 trail miles away. And the town was 20 miles from the trail, and therefore would be difficult to reach.
However, one benefit to being a thru hiker is that many gear companies will bend over backwards to help you, sometimes providing free replacements. Why? Because they’re smart. The companies realize thru hikers are free walking advertisements for their gear. Over the course of the 2,000-plus miles that we hike, hikers meet and chat with many people. A fair number of people have stopped me to inquire about the gear I’m using and whether or not I recommend it. And gear companies know this.
I’ve heard numerous stories from hikers of companies rush delivering free replacement gear to post offices across the eastern seaboard. And I’ve met some hikers who are actually testing new products for gear companies, getting free gear in exchange for providing feedback to the companies. If you do decide to come out and thru hike, it could be worth your time to contact various gear companies to see about testing new products for them (i.e. free gear). But the main concerns are when gear breaks in the woods far from outfitters and road crossings. This is when Krazy Glue and Duct Tape become your best friends. Also, another problem is how much time you’ll lose searching and/or waiting for replacements.
Along with my boots, sleeping pad and backpack, a few other items lay in the casualty pile. My tent stuff sack was shredded due to falling and sliding down sharp rocks (my tent ground cloth was lost in the ordeal), the left sleeve of my rain jacket was ripped, my food bag was covered in holes from mischievous chipmunks, and my Huba tent floor had begun to leak. I used my dirty socks to soak up the water puddling in the corners of the tent.
At this rate, I’d walk into Manchester Center, VT cradling the remains of my gear in my arms — my bare toes jutting out from the muddied scraps of leather posing as my boots.
Yet the more that goes wrong, the more determined I am to finish. As I passed from Maine into New Hampshire, having just acquired a nasty cold, I held my head high as one thought flashed through my mind: Bring It On.