Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker
AT miles hiked: 256.5
AT miles remaining: 1,910.6
Current location: Andover, Maine, at the Pine Ellis B & B, where Paul and Ilene Trainor have offered their services to hikers since 1990. Between 200 and 300 hikers enjoy the company, food, and hospitality offered by Paul and Ilene each year.
Yesterday morning, I forded six miles of the rain-soaked Appalachian Trail Waterway from Hall Mountain Lean-to to East B Hill Road. There, Matt and I hitched a thrill-packed ride with two friendly locals, their veins coursing with beer and marijuana, into the quiet village of Andover, Maine, seven miles south of the AT. Since my last GORP update, I have climbed or skirted a number of peaks along the trail: the Bigelow Range (consisting of Little Bigelow, Avery Peak, West Peak, and South Horn), the Crockers (North Crocker and South Crocker), Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Mt. Abraham, Saddleback Junior, The Horn, Saddleback, Bemis, Old Blue, Moody, and Wyman. The highest mountain I climbed was Sugarloaf, the side trail for which led me to the 4,237-foot summit. For me, however, the toughest challenges of the past week and a half have been traversing the Bigelow Range from Avery Peak to Horns Pond Lean-tos, and the near-vertical climbs down Moody Mountain and Old Blue.
July 8, my day for the Bigelows, started out sunny and warm, a promising day for climbing tall mountains and taking in excellent views. The trail up little Bigelow was tough but rewarding. It was cold at the top of the mountain, but not too cold to stop, drop my pack, and enjoy the views. As I began my ascent up Avery Peak, however, the weather began to change. A few raindrops fell, and the wind blew in dark clouds. I stopped at various overlooks along the trail and could literally see the"scattered showers" dotting what must have been an exciting weatherman's map. Great clouds in the distance seemed to stretch thinly down to the earth; that "stretching" of cloud, pale and gray, was falling rain. I was fascinated to see nature in action this way what a perspective!
I reached Avery Peak, a rocky climb above tree line, and watched in awe as one of the storms worked its way toward me. I gazed at the lake below, saw its far waters become agitated and choppy from the storm, and watched as the choppiness rolled across the lake in my direction. Soon, within five minutes of my reaching the summit, the storm was upon mea hailstorm! I dropped my pack, quickly put my pack cover on it, and pulled on my rain jacket. A chilly wind swept across the summit, and icy hail pelted my legs. As soon as I could get my pack back on, I started down the peak, its pointed rocks slick with ice and rain.
My pack was heavy with several days' worth of food, and a few day hikers were behind me, wearing fanny packs, hurrying me along. My balance is not particularly good, and it's even worse when I have 30-plus pounds on my back. I slipped an slid across the rocks, shivering in my rain jacket, not knowing if I should be more afraid of breaking a leg, getting hypothermic, or both. I was shaking as stopped to let the day-hikers ahead of me, partly from cold, and partly from fear. Going downhill on rocky terrain in the rain terrifies me, and here I had to face that fear as quickly as possible in order to descend from the exposed face of the mountain. And I still had two more peaks to climb that day.
I stopped at the Myron Avery Memorial Campsite and took cover underneath some spuce trees. I was soon joined by a couple from Quebec and two weekenders I'd met earlier in the day. When a patch of blue temporarily appeared in the grey, cold sky, we all began to sing"Here Comes the Sun."
The sun never did come out, but the hail stopped and was replaced by light, cold rain. I didn't want to hike alone over the next two peaks in hypothermic conditions, but I had nowhere else to go, so I began mentally preparing to hit the trail again. Soon, I saw two hikers heading south on the trail. I recognized Bugbiter's face, half-hidden by the hood of his green rainjacket. Bugbiter and O.D.! FRIENDS! I was so happy to see them, I could have hugged them right there. They had waited out the storm under the eaves of a caretaker's cabin, not far from me. We hiked over West Peak, where I found myself in the early stages of hypothermia, unable to unfasten my pack or unwrap my Snickers bar. With O.D.'s help, I was able to do these things, and we hurried on through the icy rain toward South Horn.
As we began the ascent of South Horn, the lightning started. Bugbiter was far ahead, and O.D. looked at me.
"Take cover or go on?" he yelled above the wind.
"Let's go for it!" I yelled back. I just wanted to get over that hump standing between me and a hot cup of tea at Horns Pond Lean-to.
We continued hiking. The trail went up, up, up, over slippery, wet rocks. I wanted to stop and rest, but we needed to get over the mountain. I shut out all thoughts of fatigue and frustration, and my legs just kept pumping up the mountain. It was as if my mind was on autopilot, my legs set on cruise control.
About a quarter-mile before the peak, we found Bugbiter laid low, looking forlorn with his upper body huddled in his rain jacket, his lower body covered by his pack. He'd seen the lightning and stopped. By the time we reached him, there was no lightning, so we rushed to the top of South Horn and back down the other side. Soon, we reached Horn's Pond Lean-tos, bitterly cold, shivering and wet. Within an hour, though, I was sipping hot tea, chatting easily with O.D., Bugbiter, Tenbrooks, Blue Skies, and Matt. Isis and Jackrabbit joined us a couple of hours later. It had been a tough day, but our "group" was reunited, and I was happy to have faced so many fears and survived the numerous challenges of the day.
Sometimes I think I must be the biggest scaredy-cat on the AT. When I saw O.D. and Bugbiter at the Myron Avery Memorial Campsite, I told O.D. that the climb down Avery Peak in the hailstorm had been my scariest experience on the AT so far. He sort of looked at me funny and said, "Really?"
Yes, really. I am not a rugged person, even though I am out here doing rugged things. I'm becoming more rugged, I suppose, but every day is a struggle. Every slick, wet, downhill, every slippery bog bridge, every stream crossing is a physical and a mental challenge for me. Old Blue and Moody Mountain were dangerously slick with the day's rain when Matt and I descended them on July 14. Once I reached the shelter at the end of the day, I was physcially, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. But again, I had faced numerous fears and worked through them, once careful step at a time.
And that's part of why I'm out here. I didn't realize that I had so many fears, but I'm happy to know that I've faced each of those fears with some degree of courage and calm. And here I am, over 250 miles from Katahdin, feeling stronger than ever. Thru-hiking the AT has been such a challenge, and at the same time it has been so rewarding. Each day has those elements of challenge and reward, and I end each day tired but with an awesome sense of accomplishment and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this wonderful life I lead. All of that results in a quiet peace and confidence within. One careful step at a time, I know I can do it. One step at a time, I can hike the Appalachian Trail.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication