Appalachian Trail: DONE

Hi Everyone,

I’m writing my last email update on the Appalachian Trail (finally) from the comfort of Dirt Stew’s mother’s house in Richmond, VA. Here, from the air conditioned office looking out on a well groomed garden, the rugged mountains of Maine seem like a fading dream…

Last time you heard from us we were in Monson, Maine, the last trail town. Leaving Monson, hikers enter the “hundred mile wilderness” where there are no resupply points within the hundred miles, and upon exiting the wilderness, there is only one camp store: Abol Bridge Campgrounds, a place where they encourage you to make your reservations by mail since they don’t have a phone. Once at the base of Katahdin, you are 15 to 20 miles from the nearest little town mostly on a dirt or gravel road. So at this point in our trip we finally felt like we had come to the middle of nowhere. In the real wilderness at last!

Having said that, the “hundred mile wilderness” has many logging roads, and half way through the wilderness there is a lake where you can summon a boat to pick you up and take you to an old renovated but rustic logging cabin called White House Landing, where they have food and cabins to stay in. We spent the night in one of these cabins, with a friend of ours, “Jay Bird”, a retired librarian who we had been walking with us for the last few weeks. Dirt Stew and I both ordered 1lb burgers for lunch, after which we did our laundry in a bucket outside. The cabins had propane lanterns, but we fell asleep before the sun set, and got up again as it rose: our normal routine. The peacefulness of the area was wonderful. We couldn’t hear cars, and we knew all the people within a few days walking distance of us.

We had off-and-on cloudy and sunny days. The day that the remainders of hurricane Earl hit us, we pitched our tent in a high area with no dead trees or branches that could fall on us. There was no wind to speak of, but I still wonder how many inches of rain we got that night, because when I woke up in the morning and stuck my head out of the tent I could see that the area we had chosen to pitch our tent had now become an island. There was flooding everywhere. The trail was a flowing stream in most parts- sometimes a waterfall, sometimes a lake depending on the incline. We packed up our stuff and walked about 2 miles to where there was a shelter that we hadn’t made it to the night before, and found people waiting out the weather. We decided that since we were already wet, we’d just keep walking in the rain. We got to the bottom of the hill where the spring for the shelter was, and found that it was so far under water that there was virtually no way past the lake that had formed without wadding through it. We decided to head back to the shelter and wait out the weather with the others.

We spent several hours playing word games and telling jokes with our friend Jay Bird, and another fellow, Mixed Sticks. By noon the rain had cleared and we decided it was worth it to move on and see what the trail was like. The water had already receded by a lot. It probably helped that we had such a dry year, so the ground just soaked it all in. We were a bit nervous, however, because there was a river we had to ford, and the level could have gone up to a dangerous level. Thankfully, though, when we got to the river we could tell we would be fine because the river was very wide, so the flooding was well spread out, and the current wasn’t too strong. There was a ridge-runner (someone who keeps an eye on a section of the trail) near the river, and she told us this was as high as it has ever been this year, but that it was nearly at a record low before that. They had just managed to put in a rock jump so you could ford the river without getting your feet wet, but now everything was submerged. So we were lucky. The water was only up to my mid thigh at the highest and we all crossed with no problems.

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Fording the river after heavy rains.

This last piece of Maine was one of the most beautiful. The hundred miles before Katahdin are so full of lakes, waterfalls, and beautiful views, it is hard to appreciate them all. Each time we got to a lake or a waterfall we knew if we had been in any other state this would have been the highlight of our day/week or more, but here we didn’t even stop for an early lunch because we knew we’d find something equally beautiful just a little bit further.

At the base of Katahdin there is a campground for thru-hikers, and another for weekenders. A group of us were planning on climbing Katahdin on September the 10th, and we signed in at the ranger station to do so. We got our “numbers”, 265 and 266. So I was the 265th thru-hiker this year to have reported in at the ranger station, and Dirt Stew was number 266. I sat and wondered how many of those people actually hiked the whole trail: every single white blaze, as we had done.

There are many ways of cheating on the AT. There is “blue-blazing”, which is taking another trail besides the Appalachian Trail to take a short-cut or go around a particularly tricky area. There also is “yellow-blazing” which is getting a ride down to a different section of the trail and therefore skipping part of the trail. And there is “slack-packing”, which comes in several forms. Simply, it is hiking without your full backpack (i.e. a day pack instead of the backpacker’s backpack), but many people use this as an excuse to walk backwards on the trail to avoid climbing up large mountains. They will keep their backpack in town where they spent the night, then get a ride to the top of the mountain out of town, hike (or run!) down the mountain back into town to spend another night there, and get another ride the next morning back to where they left off at the top of the mountain. This helps you out in several ways: you get to avoid climbing the mountain out of town (towns are almost always in a valley, so uphill is almost a given coming out of town), you get to avoid carrying an extra day’s worth of food since you spend the night in town twice, and you get to hike for a full day without your pack on.

Slack-packing is the most accepted form of cheating, and we had heard that 80% or more of thru-hikers slack-pack at some point in their hike. When we were first introduced to the concept, we agreed that we both considered it cheating and we wouldn’t do it, along with any other method of cheating on our hike. We were determined not to compromise our thru-hike in any way. We became very anal about it mostly to amuse ourselves. For example if there were two entrances to a shelter, we’d go the same way out that we went in so we wouldn’t miss a few feet of the trail. Or if we got a ride and got dropped off on the other side of the road, we’d run across the road to cover those few feet we may have missed. I’m sure we were annoying to everyone else, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay sane.

So on that day that we sat at the base of Katahdin planning our next day up and down the mountain. We knew it would be pretty silly to bring all our gear to the top. For the first time ever were coming back down the same side of a mountain, right back down to the ranger station, and nobody in their right minds would carry up their tent, sleeping bag, etc to the top of a mountain just to carry it back down again to where they came. For once, we left our stuff at the bottom like every other thru-hiker, and hiked north for the last time, the last 5 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Mount Katahdin stands alone 5,268ft tall, the highest mountain in Maine. There are few other mountains around, which makes the mountain all the more grand. From the low elevation we were at (1000ft or so), it would be a steep 4000ft climb in about 5 miles, in fact the single largest climb of our entire trip (although not the highest mountain).

The first few miles are not too bad. Steep, but not too tricky, but once above treeline the rocks turn into huge boulders and it is a tough rock scramble to the “table lands” on top, where the mountain flattens out and there is a mile of almost flat walking before you reach the final small incline to Baxter Peak, the tallest peak on the mountain.

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I was pumped full of adrenaline. I felt like running up the mountain to claim my victory at the top. The climb for the most part did not seem too difficult to me (although I’m sure it was) – only when we mistakenly lost the trail for a few yards and scrambled up some particularly large boulders did I wonder how so many people really could make it to the top of this thing.

The day we climbed, was called a “Class Two” day, “Class One” being the best weather conditions possible, and “Class Four” meant that the trail was closed due to severe weather. From talking to the ranger, it seamed that most people summited on a Class Two day, and we were going to be fine, even though there was a chance of showers. The mountain was in and out of the clouds, and this almost made for a more terrific day to climb than had it been perfectly sunny. The clouds did wonderful things on the top, whisping over the ridge and creating beautiful sculptures in the sky. It didn’t rain, and I was thankful because the rocks were dry.

When we got close to the summit, I could tell because there was a crowd of people standing around, and I could just make out the sign. My heart was pumping so fast it was in my throat and I grabbed Dirt Stew’s hand and raced forward. When we got there there were tons of people in the way, taking pictures in front of the sign. Dirt Stew and I just hugged each other and waited for our turn to touch the sign. I couldn’t help but start to cry, and someone asked “did you hike the whole Appalachian Trail?” I said “Yes, once we touch the sign!” All of a sudden everyone around us was so excited for us, and let us in to touch the sign. As we touched the sign, I thought of all the people before us who had hiked this far, and all the emotions that had been felt here. We had now completed the whole Appalachian Trail! We were thru-hikers at last!

People were trying to ask us questions like “how many shoes did you go through?” and “when did you start hiking”, and I would answer “3 pairs!”, and “March 17th!” while still sobbing. It felt so funny, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Dirt Stew and I jumped on top of the sign and had lots of pictures taken. Soon our friends joined us at the top, and there were more pictures, more cheering, more questions…

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We spent nearly an our at the top before realizing that we were starting to get cold, and it was probably time to head back down. We were going to head south on the trail for the first time. We joked about starting back again to GA, and even though it was a joke, I almost wanted it to be true. Otherwise this was going to be our last day on the trail. My body had been screaming at me to stop hiking, but I knew I was going to be nostalgic for the trip almost immediately, and in fact I hadn’t even gotten back down to the ranger station before I started to miss trail life. It was like saying good-bye to a loved one at the airport.

The way down was not as bad as I had imagined it would be. Mostly you could slide on your butt down the rocks, and it never did rain. We grabbed our gear from the ranger station and stood on the dirt road to start hitch-hiking to the nearest town, Millinocket. It wasn’t looking good for us since only one car passed every half hour or so, and there were at least six of us that needed a ride. Fortunately Dirt Stew and I flagged down a car and just asked the guy how far it would be to walk to the next thing along the road (answer was: far), but convinced the guy to give us a ride in the end.

In town there was a festival going on “Trail’s End Festival”, which turned out to mostly be a local thing, but we hung out at the festival trying to find other thru-hikers with rides down south somewhere. After a day with no luck, we decided it was time to book ourselves a bus ticket, and while I was in the cafe trying to book a ticket, a couple came up to us asking if we needed a ride to Bangor, ME (where the bus leaves). We said we did. Then they said they could actually take us all the way to NYC if that was better, and we jumped on the offer, and found a flight from New York directly to Richmond, VA.

The drive to New York City took forever. I don’t really know how long it took, 9 or 10 hours, but it took all day. I couldn’t stop thinking that we walked all that way, and a whole lot more than that too. How it was this far in a car was beyond me! I always think a car is lightning speed compared to walking, and you never think of the progress you really make when you walk day in and day out. We started to appreciate the magnitude of what we had done by seeing the states go by slowly in a car. We were happy not to have to ride all the way back to VA, though. One day in a car was enough sitting.

Back in civilization, we’re trying to get used to the old life-style again. None of my clothes fit, since I lost 20lbs, and none of my shoes fit either since I gained a shoe size. That’s frustrating enough. Then people expect you to shower every day, and change your clothes too! The first shower or two felt really good, but then we felt pretty clean, and had to be reminded to shower again after a couple days. Feels weird when you’re not completely grubby. My hair is a disaster now since I cut it short several months ago, and now it’s grown back rather badly. Tomorrow I’ll get a hair-dresser to look at it. I’m really not used to having to see myself in the mirror everyday!

What’s our plan for the future? You’re probably asking yourself. We’re off to the UK to visit family in a week, and we’ll be back early November. Then, unfortunately, we’ll have to join the working world again. Not clear exactly what jobs we’re looking for, nor where we’ll wind up finding any, but we’re open to suggestions!

I hope you have enjoyed following our journey… we have had a wonderful time. It is an experience I will have forever.

Signing Out,

Dormouse

Last Trail Town

Hi Everyone,

We’ve made it to Monson, ME, the last trail town for north-bounders on the Appalachian Trail.  It is really starting to hit us that we’re nearing the end of our journey, and we’re starting to try to comprehend how far we have come in nearly six months of hiking.

In the last week or two we finished the “harder” hiking in Maine- which resembled NH hiking- tough climbs, rock scrambles etc, but we thought (unlike many) that this was slightly easier than NH.  Progressively the mountains in Maine got easier, and we started coming across more lakes and ponds as the terrain got flat.

One morning at one of these ponds, we got to witness a mother moose chomping on some water plants while her calf watched her from ashore.  When we walked closer to the calf, the calf looked into the water with the expression “but mommy it’s cold!” and finally got in to join it’s mother.  They both swam across to the other shore, got out and walked into the woods, away from us.

We also got to get into a lake or two and have a refreshing swim, since lately the weather has turned very warm on us again.  As we arrived in Monson, I asked a local how hot it had been in the last couple days and they told us they had broken the record at 97 degrees.  No wonder I was feeling like we were back in CT.  That has to be at least the second time on our trip we’ve been in an area where the all time hottest temperature was reached while we were there.

Since my last email we reached the “2000 mile marker”, which is significant because when the trail was first built it was barely more than 2000 miles, and thru-hikers were, and still are called “2000-milers.”  Once we finish the trail, we can fill out a form to receive a “2000 miler” badge.  Now the trail is 20179.8 miles long, and we’ve done just about 2070ish miles.  Next up is the 100-mile Wilderness, after which we end up at the foot of Katahdin.  We will try to do the 100-mile Wilderness in 6 or 7 days, although we may have to find shelter on Saturday when the hurricane is supposed to hit, and wait it out.

I think this will be the last email you get from us before we finish the trail.  It is really amazing to me that my feet have taken me this far.  I think what most people don’t understand about hiking the trail is that it is a real job.  Just like a job, you are disciplined to get up early every morning even when you want to sleep in, and hike around 10 hours a day.  The only difference is we don’t take days off.

For some reason my body never really got used to the stress- we’ve built a lot of leg muscle, but my feet have constantly been in pain, and many a time my leg muscles are very sore.  I’m looking forward to resting, having fresh clothes, being clean, and eating fruits and vegetables.

I’d love to have time to write more stories, but we’re sharing the computer here… so I’d better wrap up.

The end is near, and the next time you hear from us, we’ll either be on our way home, or already home!  I’m sure I’ll have a few more stories to tell then.

We hope to summit on the 9th, so keep us in mind on that day.  I’m sure when we reach the sign at the top of Mount Katahdin, along with all our emotions, we will remember all the people who have helped us along the way…

Dormouse and Dirt Stew

Near Mount Washington

Hi all,

I told Dirt Stew and Dormouse I would try to let everyone know, via email, that they had made it to Crawford Notch New Hampshire.  They have problems getting to computers where than can normally deal with their email.

Details:

We had decided on a 3 pm on Sunday rendezvous, and succeeded in meeting without a problem.  They were looking very well, showing absolutely no strain and appeared refreshed as if they had taken a day hike, not a very long trek.  It is agreeing with them.  We had a good time chatting with them ,

Their next thing for them this (past) Monday 8/9/10 was to head to a Lake near Mount Washington and then reach the summit the next day.  It might be a week before their next communication.

We brought them back to their point they had stopped hiking and we can say we were with them for almost a half a mile on the Appalachian Trail itself.  I thought we might hike with them 2.8 miles to the first peak milestone but they looked at us a little funny, and they were right.  I realized it would be unachievable after .2 of a mile assent.  Wow really beautiful scenery: Distant vistas and immediate surroundings..

Thanks Dormouse and Dirt Stew!

-Ed & Ernest Haffner

Making a right turn into NH

Hi Everyone!

We’re currently at Mountain Meadows, mostly a ski lodge with a hiker rate for hikers in the summer-time because the trail runs within 200ft of their establishment.  Dirt Stew used to stay here all the time with his family on vacation, and he says it hasn’t changed much.

Since we entered VT, we’ve gotten rained on quite a bit, which we are happy about given the drought we went through before, but Vermont is quite a muddy state to walk through, and we’ve wound up looking like we’ve rolled around in it like happy pigs, without trying.  For the first part of Vermont, the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail of Vermont run as the same trail, and we were happy to see fresh blood: Long Trail thru-hikers.  The Long Trail is the oldest long distance trail in the US, and runs 272 miles through VT.

While we were amongst the Long Trail hikers, we met someone who gave us a tip on a “secret shelter”, which someone had built on their private property.  He showed us on the map where to find it, and we decided we had to check it out.  Two days later, we still had heard nothing from anyone else, nor read anything about this “secret shelter”, but decided to head to it nonetheless.  We found the gravel road on which it was off of, and the cairn marking where the trail leads up to the shelter- and there it was, completely empty and very clean, walls on three sides like all the other shelters, with two ginger ales perched nicely on one side of it.  We were nervous that someone else may show up (we usually don’t stay in shelters, we pitch our tent so as not to be woken up by snorers, late comers and early risers).  We decided if there was one time we could be sure nobody would show up, it would be today.  So we put up our tent inside the shelter to protect from bugs, and lit a few candles, which were left in the shelter.  It was quite a romantic little set-up.  We dug through our food bags and found that all we had were candy bars.  We sighed, and went to bed hungry.

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The Secret Shelter

That night it poured, and we were so happy to be in a shelter since our tent was dry for the first time in days (makes a huge difference in weight among other things).  We woke up early the next morning to climb Killington Mountain and descend onto the road that leads to Rutland.  We were absolutely famished having not really had dinner the night before, and felt like we could barely make it up and over the mountain.  We fantasized about the food we would eat in town, and made it to the road.  We hitched a ride to the Inn at the Long Trail, which is a quaint place with a Irish pub, game room and lounge on the first floor and bedrooms on the second.  We checked in and felt we had to take a shower before entering the pub area (we were covered in mud).  We took speed showers and raced downstairs.  Dirt Stew ate a Sheppard’s pie, and I had a burger, which I devoured in about three bites.  We ordered some appetizers, and Dirt Stew had a Guinness , which they had on tap, and I tried the famous Long Trail Ale, which was pretty good.

Later we decided that that meal had been expensive enough, and we had to go out in search of a cheaper all-you-can-eat.  We found a Chinese buffet in Rutland, which turned out to be a let-down after our wonderful lunch.

The next day we had planned on doing some miles, and stopping at the Mountain Meadows to pick up some packages, have lunch, and move on.  When we got here we joked around about how lazy and fun it would be to stay here- they have row boats, a hot tub, a movie room, and even a computer for hikers to use.  The more we looked around, the more tempted we became, and by the last bite of our excellent lunch, we had given in to temptation.  We had a lovely day, rowed out to an island on the lake, watched several movies, jumped in and out of an all too hot whirlpool (106 degrees!).  We had a lovely dinner, and now we’re gearing up for breakfast.  We feel so good now, having eaten so many “real” meals.  Today we really will put some miles in…

In three days we leave VT and enter into NH, where the really hard mountains start.  We’re a little nervous, but excited too.  The trail here just diverged from the Long Trail (about a mile or two before Mountain Meadows), and now we’re taking a right turn into NH.

We’re really having a good time now- the heat has died down, the bugs we mostly left behind in MA, and the mountains are exciting and challenging.  Every morning we look for moose (we’ve only seen the one, but heard another in the thick of the forest beyond view).  Only draw-back here in muddy VT is that the slugs seem to descend upon everything in the night- so any gear left out of the tent is covered in a slimy goo, and several slugs- Dirt Stew was unhappy to find three in his shoe the other day.  Our tent has probably suffered the most, but slug-slime doesn’t seem to really harm it- it just doesn’t do much for the appearance….

Breakfast is about to be served, so time to wrap things up.  One more thought– if you have any questions for us, we’d love to take them… We may take a while to respond, but we’ll make an effort to include the good ones in the next email!

Hope everyone is enjoying their summer!
Dormouse and Dirt Stew

In Vermont

Well folks,

There have been so many things going on in the past month or so to talk about.  I’m not even sure where to start.  To sum things up in one sentence I guess I would say:  We still are walking north covering every single step of  the Appalachian Trail since we last updated in VA or PA depending on if you read Dormouse’s last email.
For those of you hoping to see us while passing through the NJ, NY and CT we lost a week of hiking in Delaware Water Gap, PA when we both acquired Giardia and were recovering.  So we’ve been trying to make up time and breezed through 4 states in quick succession.  Dormouse was having problems with the medicine prescribed for Giardia and lost all of her appetite.  We were hiking in the highest temperature we will probably ever experience on the trail (102 degrees) while taking this medicine and walking through NY which has very little water.  We actually walked through the lowest elevation on the trail during the hottest heat wave of the year.  We resorted to significantly lowering our mileage standards.  We tried to hike only during the extremely early morning and late evening.  We would do this by waking up at 4:30 in the morning and to start hiking at 5 when it was barely light enough to see.  We tried to hike until we couldn’t bare it anymore which happened around 1 in the  afternoon.  At that point we tried to set up our tent in the shade for a nap.  We quickly found out that we couldn’t sleep because we were just baking in our own juices.  Luckily we were close to a place with water and spent the rest of the unbearable hours of the day pouring water over our heads and drinking water constantly.  In the evening we decided to hike 4 more hours in order to make it to a road crossing where there MIGHT be a hotel.  The next day we went into town and found out that there was indeed a hotel for us to stay at and we spent 26 hours in an air conditioned hotel room!  We continued on our way and try different strategies to keep us moving.  The forest was looking very thirsty during this time of drought, and we took pictures of shriveled up leaves, and piles of perfectly green leaves that had fallen off trees.  We’re glad it has started raining again from time to time.
Green leaves were drying up and falling off trees from the drought

Green leaves were drying up and falling off trees from the drought

By the time we got to Kent, CT Dormouse was completely fatigued having barely eaten anything due to the medicine.  We were planning on hiking through town to a shelter 13 miles from where we started that day.  By the time we got to town Dormouse was completely exhausted from doing less than 8 miles of hiking.  We went to a doctor in town thinking she had Lyme’s Disease.  After talking to the extremely nice doctor for 45 minutes bouncing questions back and forth about what could be wrong.  The doctor wrote a prescription for an antibiotic for Lyme’s Disease, but told us she thought Dormouse was very dehydrated.  She told us to make it our job to drink as much water as possible because Dormouse had lost 8 lbs of weight in one week.  A couple days later Dormouse was back to her old self and finally gained her appetite back- so no Lyme’s Disease!
Dormouse walks at 3mph (when not sick).

Dormouse walks at 3mph (when she is not sick).

Also in CT, we saw our first rattle snake!  Most thru-hikers we’ve talked to have seen them in PA or NJ, but we were starting to think we wouldn’t get to see one at all when we found some day hikers huddled over something in the woods.  We asked them what they had found, and this guy brought the 5ft long rattle snake right up to us.  He had a pole he was using to hold its head away from us, and he had the rattle in the other hand.  We got a few good pictures, and went on our way.  Note to self: rattle snakes are BIG.
Since then, we’ve gone through MA, which had more bugs than the mind can comfortably comprehend, and we would slap each other in the head trying to kill dear flies in particular- which love to dive bomb you in the head while you’re hiking.  We took to almost running down the trail to run away from the bugs.  We felt like we were slowly going crazy… nothing but BZZZZZ in the ear all day long.  We started naming them: Max is the name of the small gnats that love to hover around your ear, and go for dips in your eyes; and Bob are the dear flies that have given us headaches from slapping our heads so much trying to kill them.  Mosquitos are just mosquitos, and they’re actually the least annoying, although we wind up covered in their bites too.
Just two days ago were walking on our first misty morning in VT and saw a moose!  It was slowly stomping along in the woods just off the trail right in front of us.  This was an experience we weren’t expecting until Maine.  We are excited to get real mountains for the rest of the trail with  nice big climbs and breezes at the top.  We haven’t had any mountains above 3000 ft since VA.
Right now, we are staying at my mother’s cousin’s house (I think that makes her my second cousin), Carol.  Here we are feeling more than welcome.  Carol and Mark have even given us the nicest bed in the house to sleep in.  Up here its like a little family reunion my Aunt Alice and other cousin Alan/Buzz/Ted (a man of many names) are here visiting as well!  Aunt Alice just turned 91 so I’m very happy to see that she is doing well.  Around here we are catching up with the relatives and enjoying the cooler VT weather.  Its the first time since VA where we have had nice home cooked food to eat (pancakes and brownies, mmm) and for that we are grateful.  There also has been an abundance of blueberries around the house, yum.  Thanks to all of them.
Now we’re about to hit the trail again, so we’ll be in touch again soon!
Cheers,
Dirt Stew and Dormouse