Going south is weird. In all my hiking I really have only ever gone Northbound, with an exception earlier this year when I attempted a flip-flop of the Pacific Crest Trail that was thwarted by wildfires. It honestly doesn’t feel natural. Looking at the map, it just makes sense to be walking “up”. Maybe at some point it will start to feel more normal. Maybe I will eventually internalize it. But for now it doesn’t feel right.
What I CAN get behind is just having the trail all to myself. Everyday is truly a mission out here. Being alone allows me to be on point. I can remain focused at all times. And I need to be. This hike isn’t just a walk in the woods. The dangers are very real and a constant presence, especially in the higher elevations.
On the morning I set out from Monson, there was a brilliant sunrise. It made the ice covered bows of all the trees look to be on fire. But what started beautiful quickly became hazardous. I crossed the road and began south, took one look back at John in his Ford pickup and gave a wave and was off. It wasn’t long until I realized that I was in for a long day of fighting the forest. Between the inch or so of ice that coated everything and then the couple inches of heavy wet snow that was on too of all that ice, the trees were severely stressed. Large trees had completely snapped and fallen all over the place. Other smaller pines and hard woods were bending over almost upside on and over the trail. It was hard work constantly fighting the forest like this. Especially with a wet snow all over everything. You’d bump one tree or one branch and everything above you would come down on you. Bringing ice with it at times. I fought through the forest for much of the day like this. But make no mistake, it was beautiful.
I had a couple fords that I had to manage on that first day. The first was the West Branch of the Carabassett River. When I got up to that thing, I knew there was no safe way to get across. It was way, way, and I mean WAY to high and fast flowing. But the trail provides as they say, and it did. I looked on the map and saw that there was a bridge about a mile south of the crossing in the small community of Blanchard. I passed by a couple locals who asked me how the trail was treating me. I told them cold and wet, they nodded and agreed with that look in their eyes that told me what I knew they were about to say next. And that was that, “You’re crazy!” Thank you, I know. I confirmed with them that the bridge did indeed exist and they were glad that I wasn’t attempting to ford. It would likely have led to a dangerous situation. I am not out here on a death wish, I assure all of you of that. I made my way back to the trail by way of a logging road on the other side of the river. All you purists who wanna gripe with me about any stretch of trail that I may have missed on this, you can come find me on the trail and take it up with me in person. Otherwise keep your traps shut.
Right before dark I had another ford to deal with. The Bald Mountain Stream ford. This was the outlet of the Bald Mountain Pond. It was wide but not particularly fast moving. I was about to find out how deep it was. When I stop to do any fords, I don’t waste any time thinking about it. I survey my best fording point as I am undressing. Barefoot and bottomless. I don’t like to be motionless too long in this cold and damp environment. In fact I don’t really take too many breaks throughout any of my days. Staying in constant motion keeps me from getting cold because I am constantly soaked in sweat. Cold plus wet equals not so good. But here I am about to go in. I slink in and try and make assertive foot steps on the slick muddy and rocky stream floor. Without trekking poles to balance this would be a much more difficult task. Deeper and deeper the water gets. The levels are high from the recent rain and snow. It’s getting to close for comfort to my nether regions. But there is no time to find a better route and I certainly am not turning back. It goes up to my waistline and I am practically screaming out loud at the top of my lungs trying to fight the shock to the system that this wide crossing was bringing me. This is a tactic I have used before. I’m basically summoning a greater power to help give me the strength to endure the cold until I come out the other side. Then it’s a race to get all my clothes back on and get moving again as fast as humanly possible. I’ll be honest, at this point I hate it. At this point I am fed up with fording. You can call it badass or you can call me crazy. And whether it is one or both of those things, the fact is that it fucking sucks. And moving forward, I will go to great lengths to try and avoid having to get wet on any river crossing from this point forward. I had a few miles to go after this crossing until I made the shelter. I pulled about 18 miles all the way to Bald Mountain Pond Lean-To. It was a long day. I was thankful to be done. Not much elevation on this day. But that was about to change in the morning.
I woke up in a dense fog thanks to the pond out in front of me. Now, keep in mind that I almost always make it to my destination every evening in the pitch black, and wake up every morning in the pitch black as well. So imagine all the views and beautiful places and nature I miss during these periods of dark periods. But such is my life, and there is no getting around it. It doesn’t bother me. I have accepted this. When you truly accept something, it is incredibly easy to deal with. I have accepted this out of pure necessity. As far as I’m concerned I don’t have a choice in the matter. If I want to make any real daily progress I have to put the time in. Because the going is slow. And has the ability to be much slower. And I was about to experience this.
I began the climb up to Moxie Bald Mountain immediately first thing in the morning. And within the first 15 minutes of non headlamp hiking, the snow began. The higher in elevation I got, the more substantial and consistent the snow got. And the wind came along with it. The forest changed from being dominated by hard woods to being dominated by evergreens the higher I got. The peaks I was about to go over weren’t the highest I’ve seen so far and I don’t know what I expected from them in these wintry conditions but I got a full taste of it. The conditions rapidly deteriorated as I approached the alpine. They were approaching near white out conditions and once I got above the treeline, the trail ceased to exist. It is much easier finding it in the woods but when you get out in the open and there is close to a foot of snow on the ground and the winds and the snow are making visibility quite low, it becomes a whole different ball game. A lot of trial and error took place when trying to stay on trail as I approached the summit of Moxie Bald. You try not to panic in these situations, and I didn’t, but you definitely do feel a very present sense of urgency to not fuck it up, haha. Usually I’d say pardon my french with someone I don’t know (that being most of you who are reading this) but the reality is that word verbally escapes my lips all too often when I am on the trail. Whether its because of the weather, or if I just took a nasty spill, or I am fording a river, or if I have lost the trail, or a mouse crawls on me in the middle of the night, that word seems to have so many applications that just fit so nicely. And I’d like to apologize to my mother for every time I use it. Sorry mom!! Fuck it, where was I? Oh yeah, losing the trail in the weather. There was one time I slide down an icy patch into a grouping of dense pines trying to find the trail and I found myself fighting tooth and nail through the pines because it was too steep and slippery to go back the way I just slid down and there was no other way but through. I was never so happy to be out of that and back on the trail. Especially since it was all so exposed still. Going up and over Moxie Bald and the next mountain Pleasant Pond Mountain were some of the worst conditions I had encountered up to this point. But going down the steep descent from the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain was were things really got shitty.
I hadn’t worn my microspikes all day because it was more of a powdery snow up top than ice. But during the descent all that snow gave way to melting snow, water, and a little bit of ice here and there. I was loosely thinking all day that I would only pull 13ish miles on the day to the Pleasant Pond Lean-To and I was rapidly approaching that as I descended. The daylight was also rapidly fading. But in my haste of trying to get down to the shelter, I had a bit of a tumble. I probably should have been wearing my microspikes and since I wasn’t, I lost my footing on a steep and rugged stretch of the trail. I planted my left palm on the deck to catch myself and immediately felt pain. I was wearing my cuben fiber rain mitts and merino wool gloves under them and I looked down and saw a large tear in both of them. I used my other hand to kind of peer into the holes and noticed a large gash that was gushing a bright red substance. “Welp,” I thought, “I fucked up!” Haha I laughed to myself knowing that this could have been avoided by wearing my micro spikes. Serves me right. Lesson learned. Where I planted my hand was a sharp piece of wood that protruded from an old downed log. It punctured my palm and then the weight of my body sliding down the steep side of the mountain made the piece of wood act like a knife through butter and began to tear up the palm from the wrist. But as I got back to my feet, I began to feel the blood fill the glove and mitt.
A few things were on my mind at this point: 1) don’t be a pussy 2) it was getting dark and cold and I was soaking wet from sweat 3) stopping to take care of this wound would have meant getting colder 4) I wasn’t far from the shelter. But right about then is when the rain started. And not just a little bit of rain. A lot of it. And it was damn cold. I could have stopped at the shelter…….ORRRRRR I could have hiked another 6 miles (in the cold, dark, rainy night) to the town of Caratunk where the Sterling Inn is located. Warm? Dry? Bed? Food? DING DING DING DING we have a winner Johnny. So I hoofed it. I already hadn’t taken a single break all day and had only eaten one snickers bar and a couple handfuls of Doritos to sustain me all day. I think only 2 liters of water as well. But when the promise of warmth, food, dryness, a bed, and attending a wound in more ideal conditions are all within reach, you can become superhuman. I only got colder and wetter, and the sensation of the sticky blood filling the glove (the same glove that “saved my life” before) was pretty interesting but eventually my hands lost all feeling for the 2.5 hours it took me to get down to the road. I still had to make my way into town and use the curtesy phone behind the Post Office to call the people at the inn to come pick me up. I could barely operate the phone since my fingers had been locked in a fist clenching formation to try and stay warm for so long.
After the phone call, Eric, the owner, promptly came to pick me up. I was wetter than the wettest wet dog. But I knew I’d be warm and dry soon. Upon arriving there he made me a frozen pizza that I ate in exactly three bites while I attempted to answer questions on Jeopardy (or ask them, really). Gosh, you’re never really so grateful for all the little things that you take for granted until you are in miserable situations without them. I knocked out laundry and a shower and dressed my wound (probably could have used stitches but whatever) and slept that night like a dry, warm, drunken baby. All was well and all was good. Hell of a two day stretch, believe it or not, I enjoyed it. I was happy and smiling as I fell asleep that night.
Side note: I don’t proof read any of my posts. I type them up once and then I publish them. Ain’t nobody got time for proof readin’…