An Appalachian Trail Series – New Hampshire

160.9 miles
14 days (09.02 – 09.16)

Fun Fact: The New Hampshire section of the Appalachian Trail has the highest average elevation gain of the entire trail at 329 feet/mile. Be prepared. This state can totally kick your ass (in the most beautiful way possible, of course).

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Live free or die.

It’s not my motto though some may argue that it could be (just kidding, I like to think I’m far more hardcore than I actually am).

It’s the motto of the great state of New Hampshire.

And accurately so.

The phrase originates from John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier in the Revolutionary War, not the would-be legitimized name of Lord Eddard Stark’s bastard in Game of Thrones (another joke, we all know he is actually Targaryen). While ill and unable to attend an anniversary reunion with his battle mates, he sent this toast in his place:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

Intense words for an intense state. While we had prepared for this (the intensity, not death) some things you just cannot prepare enough for. A bit like:

  • Colonoscopies
  • Retirement
  • Child birth
  • All things adulting, for that matter

The very first place you come to in New Hampshire is Hanover, home of Dartmouth College. We were eager to get into town because:

1) Food. Duh.
2) As a college town, and the college town of an Ivy League school at that, we were excited to get some culture.
3) The trail angels of Hanover are an extensive network known for their incredible hospitality and care of thru-hikers. They even have a list of people in the area you can call to stay with (you can find a list posted at the library, Robinson Hall, or Dan and Whit’s in Norwich). Fortunately for us, we didn’t need to go that far.

When we made it to the final road walk leading into Hanover, we stopped to grab a treat out of a cooler marked “trail magic”. Turns out the kind folks were home and we got to talking with a woman named “Short & Sweet”. As luck would have it, she was part of the trail angel network and invited us to stay with them for the night. She was the real deal, kind-as-can-be, trail angel. She started our laundry, provided loaner clothes, set us up with sleeping arrangements, and drove us to the grocery store within the first hour of arrival. Her son had thru-hiked and after hearing of the incredible people that helped him along the way, she wanted to pass it along to other people’s children. Technically she is on the Vermont side of the river in Norwich but details, sh-metails.

Hanover is… wealthy. Ivy League kind of wealthy. Class and sophistication oozing out of every crack and crevice kind of place. So, we felt a bit out of place walking around town in the loaner clothes provided. Don’t get me wrong, I was more than grateful to indulge as it meant that I could wash ALL of my clothes. However, to paint a better picture, I was straight out of the 80’s with an oversized teal t-shirt and purple shorts that may as well have been parachute pants. Rob rocked an overly worn YooHoo t-shirt (apparently everybody else recognized its awesomeness, too) with shorts that made a swoosh sound as he walked. Even if we tried to blend in, the noise coming from Rob legs would turn heads. 

It never hurts to be humbled, I suppose.

Class and sophistication aside, Hanover is a gem of a trail town. Along with the trail angel network, multiple business offer freebies for thru-hikers, multiple other locations will store your pack for you, and multiple other places provide showers and laundry. This all on top of the many restaurants, bars, lodging, and resupply options available to you. Anything you could possible need, besides maybe a bustling middle class, could be found in Hanover. The Dartmouth Outing Club and the Chamber of Commerce collaborated in providing more comprehensive information here.

I would be amiss to write about New Hampshire and leave out a lovely trail angel named the “Ice Cream Man”. We had heard bits and pieces about him along the way so when we came upon a sign pointing to the direction of his house, we knew it was a stop we couldn’t miss.

When we showed up, he wasn’t home so we did what any civilized person would do… waited on his porch for him to arrive. I’m sure he was used to it as he walked up to us with a big smile on his face welcoming us to his place. While he was known for handing out ice cream sandwiches to his guests (hence the name), he was also known for his love of croquet and beating countless hikers in a match (hence his reputation). It was raining so that was out of the question. Ice cream was not, however, and that was the best damn ice cream sandwich I had ever experienced. Not because of the taste, it was a simple, pull-out of the cardboard packaging and unwrap kind of ice cream sandwich, but for the environment in which it was enjoyed.

The Ice Cream Man was a rare breed. The rare breed that was of the most genuine, authentic kind. With kind and unwavering eyes, he’d look you in the eyes, grip your hand, give you a firm handshake, and want to talk life with you. He called me out for being too timid (accurate of the time), and told us that “Hiking the Appalachian Trail is the most fitting metaphor for your married life.”

Deep.

The “Ice Cream Man” aka “Bill Ackerly”, passed away in May at the age of 87. Only after reading his obituary did I learn of his life as a reputable psychiatrist. It’s only fitting that his instinctual read of others was so spot on and thus his impact on the A.T. community is eternal. Rest in peace, dearest Ice Cream Man.

Inching ever closer to the White’s, we spent the following night at a little spot called the Fire Warden’s Cabin… named so because, well, nevermind. I won’t insult your intelligence. Even I could figure out why it was so aptly named.

After deciding to take the “scenic” blue-blazed side trail to the cabin, we questioned our decision halfway up the mountain once the blue-blazes were no more. It seemed to us that they ran out of paint and said “Eh. Well. They can catch the drift. Anybody could clearly tell that you should just walk straight up this rock fall.” After retracing our steps, comparing what we believed to be the route to our map, and an eventual attitude of “if we walk that direction long enough, we MUST hit the trail”, we finally made it back to the A.T. and decided to stop playing Lewis and Clark and just stick to the A.T.

The cabin was a welcome respite; not only because of the great company but because it was really, really cold and it had four (yep, FOUR) walls. Also because it felt like home:

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After a night camping on the side of Mt. Mist, we finally headed into the long-awaited White Mountains.

Hold up.

Just HOLD up.

Please do not envision us prancing right into legendary mountain-scape in a scene reminiscent of “The Sound of Music”. Holding hands. Stupid smiles on our faces. Frolicking in the prairie with looming mountains behind us singing whatever the fuck they sing in “The Sound of Music”.

That would be far too idyllic.

Instead, after waking up and tearing down camp excited for what lay ahead, we caught a scent.

A smell.
A smell of shit.
Literally, shit.

Shit on the bottom of our tent. It was dusk the night before and we failed to see a pile of what we later believed to be dog shit directly underneath where we set up camp.

And I thought that was Rob.

CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOGS, PEOPLE!

Or just don’t set up camp when daylight is waning. Dogs have to go two too, I suppose.

Clean tent and olfactory senses intact, we finally frolicked hiked into the Whites. The Whites are legendary for many reasons:

1) Exposed, above tree-line hiking that NOBO’s have not experienced since early Virginia.
2) Intense terrain. You have your work cut out for you in earning every single mile you walk.
3) The AMC hut system – aka timing, timing, timing (detailed below).
4) Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range
5) Everybody has been bringing them up since Georgia so the “legend ” is consistently reinforced.

I won’t say it’s not a worthy opponent. They are tough. A popular saying goes, “By the time you (NOBO’s) reach the White’s, you have completed 80% of the trail but only 20% of the effort”. The terrain was probably the most challenging of the entire trail, or at least right up there with the trail in Maine.

I mean, at this point we were seasoned hikers.

Weathered.
Tough.
Quick.

Or, we thought we were… until the Whites.

You’d feel like you had conquered many miles after strong hiking all morning only to realize you’d only gone three. Pace is a serious adjustment through this section of trail. If anything, plan for low miles and ending your day earlier than you normally would. Why, you ask?

Because of the hut system.

The AMC has a monopoly on the Whites. While monopolies are generally bad, the AMC is generally good. Their hard-work maintains some of the most pristine trail on the entire A.T., the huts are remarkable, and the food is delicious (I’ll still reiterate our low food standards).

That’s the good. The bad are “the rules” that thru-hikers are not generally accustomed to at this point (both SOBO and NOBO). Permitted tent camping ($) is rare in these parts because of risky weather conditions from exposure and for preservation of the land. While that may be, I certainly am not one to say it isn’t, it does make for a new set of challenges for the thru-hiker. To assist in giving thru-hikers a place to lay their head at night without walking ridiculous miles off trail to simply get a tent site, huts provide work-for-stays. Most people coming to the White’s are coming on a pre-planned vacation. They simply go online, plan out their hikes or experiences, and pay for reservations at particular huts. While that is great for most hikers, it’s not so great for thru-hikers. It is next to impossible to plan far enough ahead to know when exactly you will be making it to the area and at what pace you will walk through it. Since reservations are impractical, and tenting is virtually impossible, you have to make it to a hut early enough to plead for a spot.

“Early” is the key word.

And “plead”, but we won’t go there.

You certainly aren’t the only thru-hiker wanting that spot. Competition is on par with fighting for survival on the Hunger Games. In exchange for your life, er, work, they return the favor with a place to crash and dinner(ish)/breakfast(ish) after waiting on the porch for the paying guests to finish eating.

(ish) = they couldn’t possibly feed you enough to satisfy your hiker hunger. Not being able to provide meals to satisfy the likes Arnold Schwarzenegger is no fault of their own, of course.

With the right planning, and good attitude, the White’s are bound to be one of the most memorable experiences on the trail. At least, that’s the attitude we had walking into it and, more or less, how we felt walking out.

Our first real encounter of the White’s was Mt. Moosilauke. Here is a journal excerpt from that day:

09.06.2012 – Day 175 (Candice)

We woke up later than we wanted (how typical) but made up some time with the easy terrain in the morning.

And then Mt. Moosilauke happened.

The climb to the top was a steady 4 miles of climbing. When we finally approached the top, the experience was unlike anything we’ve had on the trail thus far. Breaking treeline was unforgettable. Gradually, the trees began to decrease in size to the point where “shrub” would be a more accurate description (either that or we drastically grew to Shaq height). Eventually, rock and grass won the battle and dominated the ground upon which we stood. Above treeline, you could see for miles upon miles over much of The Whites and New Hampshire. It was stunning. Some of the most exhausting climbs end with the very best views. We found the foundation of some old building on the summit and decided to nestle in for lunch. While eating, we saw two rescue helicopters fly right above us.

We started our descent a little later than we should have as it took us THREE HOURS to get down, even though it was only THREE MILES. At first we kept losing the white blaze which had us second guessing that we were on the right path. Later on, it was rocky, wet and steep… a hairy combination. The trail follows alongside a waterfall, which was truly beautiful. It just makes for more cautious footing. Trail maintainers drilled wooden planks into the rock face to make it possible to walk down the steep rock (whoever built them had much longer legs than I as leaping from plank to plank was more of the method I had to go about). I was a little nervous at the time as this was our hardest descent yet.

It was mostly dark by the time we reached the bottom. We called “The Shuttle Connection” who picked us up in the parking lot and brought us to Chet’s House in Lincoln, N.H (fortunately they knew right where to go when we asked to go to “Chet’s House” because that was the only information we had!). He runs pretty much a donation/work-for-stay hostel and lets hikers stay at his house and backyard. We decided to stay in the yard after learning that a few hikers had some really bad colds.

We talked with Chet for awhile and learned quite a bit more about him. About 15 years ago, he had a MSR Whisperlite stove blow up on him leaving him in a wheelchair and legally blind. He flat-lined 9 times in the hospital, had every major organ fail in his body at one point, and was in a bed for 18 months. His positivity and eagerness to help others is an inspiration. He fought to live and has now worked to being on the verge of being able to take some steps on his own. You go, Chet!

We are slackpacking 16 miles tomorrow from Kinsman Notch to Franconia Notch. Hopefully we don’t overwork ourselves since it is supposed to be pretty hard. We shall find out!

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Hm, so it may be a little damp, huh? No big deal.

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Oh, I see. We are taking the waterfall route down. Naturally.

The shuttle made slackpacking possible for the 16 mile stretch from Kinsman Notch to Franconia Ridge. While tough, downright exhausting in fact, it was a nice way to see a section of the Whites without an overbearing backpack weighing against you.

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Franconia in the background, sweaty hikers in the foreground

After taking a zero day in Lincoln, we headed onto Franconia Ridge. Let me be clear, I had been looking forward to Franconia since I started planning this thru-hike. When reading about scenic highlights of the A.T., Franconia is always one of those at the top of the list. You know those times when you keep building something up, putting it on a pedestal, that when you finally get to enjoy it, it becomes a bit of a letdown? It couldn’t possibly meet those unreasonable expectations? Well, Franconia was not that. It did not disappoint. Even more so, it exceeded. Fortunately for us, we had decent weather, too. Getting to the top of the ridge was quite the trek but, once you’re up there, any struggle or hardship is quickly distracted by the intense landscape.

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Rob checking the MSU football score… some priorities never change…

The next day was glum and rainy. Any possible scenery was hidden behind a curtain of clouds. We made it to Zealand Falls Hut that night for our first attempt at a work-for-stay. We walked up discouraged of our chances after seeing a handful of thru-hikers already sitting on the porch. Our dismal prospects were reversed when it happened that two of the three “croo” members were thru-hiking alum. This was best case scenario as they were sympathetic to the whole thru-hiker v. AMC showdown. So sympathetic in fact that we were supplied with PBR’s and hot chocolate while we waited on the porch for “civilized folk” to finish dinner. Once we were released on the kitchen, we feasted on spaghetti, vegetables, bread and cookies.

My description of forcing us to wait outside like wild animals may sound strange, even a tad dehumanizing. The fact is that it feels strange to everyone; to us cast as the wild animals, to the paying guests looking out the window at us unsure of why we weren’t permitted inside, to the “croo” for having to enforce this policy. I get it though. AMC guests have invested time, money, and effort into this vacation. You can’t have thru-hikers walk up and expect to get the same entitlements without a cost.

Our work-for-stay consisted of A) making a paper chain to be used for a co-workers upcoming birthday celebration and B) carrying it to the next hut (Mizpah Spring) where said celebration would take place. Since we mentioned we would do part B, they told us that we would have a guaranteed work-for-stay at the Mizpah Spring Hut. That eased a bit of anxiety for securing another night’s sleep!

We had to wake up extra early since our sleeping area was the dining room floor. After enjoying some oatmeal, pancakes and bacon, followed by a round of dish duty, we hit the trail around 9:30 am. Hiking was surprisingly easy for the first half of the day until we started climbing.

And climbing.
And climbing.
And climbing.

Turns out we were gradually climbing Mt. Washington, the highest point in the Northeastern U.S. at 6,288 feet. It was an ambitious trek from Zealand to Mizpah at 14 miles in length but the ease of the first half of the hike made it manageable. We walked up to the “croo” excited to hand over our golden ticket for a work-for-stay – the paper chain – only for our excitement to be greeted with disgust and dismay. The “croo” leader frowned and mentioned that he had no knowledge of this and while he would permit us to stay, he was doing us a big favor and he wouldn’t do so any other time. It’s reminiscent of a six-year-old walking up to an ice cream shop only to be greeted with a grumpy old lady with no ice cream and yells at you for walking on her lawn.

In other words, the vibe of this “croo” was a complete 180 from the previous one. They appeared to come from a place of prominence and felt the need to display it to all who should dare step into their divine presence. Oh well. We had a place to lay our heads so that was enough for us.

After a tiny portion of oatmeal, and scrubbing down a bunkroom with bleach, we finished our work-for-stay around 9 am. We were especially eager for the next portion of the Whites as it would include Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range. The hike was mostly above treeline all day with the most spectacular views one could imagine. Mt. Washington appeared very Mars-esque with a bare, rocky terrain and red hue.

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The Lake of the Clouds Hut sits at the bottom of the final pitch up Mt. Washington. It is one of the most talked about huts in the AMC because of its prime location so we decided to check it out before the ascent. To make the views that much more enjoyable, we decided to buy some soup and bread for an early lunch. Twenty minutes later, we finally got the croo’s attention. Ten minutes after that, we were enjoying a delicious bowl of the long-awaited soup. It was worth the effort, I suppose.

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The climb was tough and was more like scrambling than hiking. Fortunately for us, we had blue skies and zero wind while climbing the country’s self-declared location of worst weather!

Some interesting facts about Mt. Washington (as of 2012):

1) Its claim to fame, as you’ve already read, is its title of “Home of the Worst Weather in the World”.
2) There has been recorded snowfall on every single day of a calendar year.
3) The strongest wind gust recorded by man was on its summit. It measured a whopping 231 mph.
4) The average annual temperature on the summit is a frigid 26.5 degrees.
5) Hurricane force winds occur 110 days each year.
6) 137 people have died since 1849. Most are due to hypothermia, even in the middle of summer. 3 passed away before our summit day in 2012 alone.

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There was a busy visitor center on the summit so we knew that could only mean one thing… food! The cafeteria had everything from nachos to ice cream to pizza. We ate some hot dogs and drank some coffee before waiting in line for a picture with the summit sign and finally heading on.

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Heading away from New England’s high point, and the droves of people that also came to enjoy it, you now hike into the Northern Presidential Range. Spectacular is not a strong enough word to describe the views you’ll witness. Beautiful, stunning, astonishing, astounding are not quite fitting either. Whatever the word is to describe the strongest form of beauty possible (spec-beauti-stunn-astonish-stounding?) may not even touch the beauty of this hike. However you describe it, it was captivating.

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This is the part of the hike where a reminder to keep diligent on timing would have been nice. We covered a lot of ground in one day – Mizpah to Lake of the Clouds to Mount Washington to Madison Spring – really, two days worth of White Mountain hiking. We arrived at Madison Spring Hut shortly before dark knowing that a work-for-stay would be a long-shot. We were right. We walked in and instantly began preperations for tent camping while observing a rude “croo” practically yelling at another group of hikers to leave. We knew it would be pointless to ask any recommendations in the heated environment so we filled up on water and headed back out.Since it was already dark, we decided to stealth camp right around the corner from the hut. A thin line of trees, rather shrubs, lined our spot just barely blocking us from their view. If they shined a light in our direction though, I’m sure they would be able to spot us. We felt like fugitives having to be absolutely quiet and not cook dinner. The workers came out a few times looking for the other group of hikers, yelling things like “We’re going to find you” but were fortunately so pre-occupied with finding them that they never came our direction. I also think we were in such an obvious spot that no one would fathom people would try to stealth camp there.

It worked.
Well, it worked in the “we didn’t get caught” aspect.
It didn’t work in the “we were camping above treeline, in the White’s, in a non-freestanding tent” aspect.

On a night where sleep was already hard to come by, feeling like we could be taken to hiker jail at any moment, we bolted awake at the realization that the world was crashing down on us. It turned out not to be the world but rather our tent. Those strong winds I had referenced earlier blew our tent over in middle of the night. We were able to rebuild but kept one eye open the rest of the night.

Wanting to further evade detection, we tore down camp at 5 AM and headed out on empty stomachs. We decided to eat breakfast on the summit of Mt. Madison. It was dark when we started hiking and, as luck would have it, made it to the summit just before daybreak.

A little pain made for a lot of gain.

A sleepless night and early rise lead up to one of the more memorable moments on trail. Watching the sun crest over the horizon, beautiful colors illuminating all in sight, and drinking coffee on top of a mountain is simply majestic. There is something about waking up with the sunlight, with the world and all of its creatures, that is just so powerful.

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The hike down the remainder of the Presidential’s took most of the day. As we slowly descended below treeline, we reflected on our memorable time in the White’s. They were long-awaited, feared, revered. They didn’t disappoint.

While it felt like the White’s were over, especially after mowing down on some burgers at the AMC headquarters and visitor center at Pinkham Notch, we still had to overcome the Wildcat Range.

Overcome on another day.
We were tired.
And the White Mountains Lodge & Hostel in Gorham offered a much needed reprieve.

They picked us up at the visitor’s center and drove us back to a surprisingly full hostel (which wasn’t a bad thing). The place was beautiful, a home designed in a typical New England fashion. Everyone else much have seen its appeal, too. It was appealing not just in its splendor but in everything it offered – laundry, loaner clothes, a giant TV and movie collection, internet, rides to resupply, comfortable and clean beds, and most important, a GIANT breakfast. It was more than enough to make for a wonderful stay.

Even more splendid was having a room to ourselves. After resupplying, and hanging out with friends, we went to sleep early planning on doing a two-day slackpack through the Wildcats. While you could accomplish this section in a one-day slackpack, we decided to take it easy and do the 21 mile section over a day and a half. We left some of the extras we carried at the hostel and took only enough food to last this short section (a bunch of PB&J’s so we could leave our cooksite behind). A lighter load complimented this magnificent section to being quite enjoyable, albeit more challenging than we had planned. We slept in a shelter, a FREE one, woke up early and made it back to the hostel a little before noon. We relaxed and watched TV most of the day and even got to watch Spartan football at night.
The next day was complete with a wonderful breakfast, a group hike with friends who also stayed at the hostel, crossing the 1900 mile marker and finally stepping foot into Maine.

Low-caps doesn’t quite equate the excitement we felt at this moment so let me re-write this…

…FINALLY STEPPING FOOT INTO MAINE!

Thirteen amazing states now crossed off the list and one more exquisite and dramatic one left.

Up Next: MAINE

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