Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

Gorham, New Hampshire
Gorp.com

AT Miles Hiked: 297.9
AT Miles Remaining: 1,869.2
Current Location: "The Barn" at Libby House B & B, Gorham, New Hampshire

It's Sunday afternoon, and I'm sitting on the ground floor of"The Barn," a hiker hostel in Gorham, New Hampshire. The Barn is an extension of Libby House B & B; both are owned and operated by Paul and Maggie Kuliga, with the help of "Scavenger," who hiked the AT in 1995. In the loft of the rustic old barn, which houses 12-15 hikers per night, are beds, hooks to hang gear, and a "hiker box" where hikers can take or leave food and gear items. The Barn has been in operation since 1986; although Paul and Maggie have cut back on their services in recent years, their doors are still open to hikers.

The people who run these"hiker hostels" —such as The Barn, Pine-Ellis in Andover, and Shaw's in Monson —really take an interest in meeting the specific needs of thru-hikers. For example, Shaw's offers AYCE ("All You Can Eat") breakfasts and dinners, and Pine-Ellis offers AYCE breakfasts, to the starving and ravenous (and we're all starving and ravenous after a few hundred miles!). All three places offer shuttles to and from the trail; in fact, some hostel owners will drive out to the trailheads at intervals to pick up any hikers needing a ride into town.

Because I'm such an introvert and a bit of a loner, I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed meeting the people who serve thru-hikers, many of whom are hikers themselves. In fact, I've been surprised at how my interactions with other people —hostel owners, locals, day hikers, section hikers, and thru-hikers —have had such a positive impact on my hike.

On the AT, we have a term for people who go out of their way to help hikers: trail angels. Trail angels don't need to be devoted to meeting thru-hiker needs; a trail angel could be the person offering a ride to the trail, or the weekender who offers a few leftover packages of hot chocolate mix.

When a trail angel appears and helps out a hiker —no matter how large or small the deed —it's called"trail magic." On July 4, a scout leader gave each of us a baked potato and soup because he had cooked too much food for his troop. Another night, two section hikers, Nathan and Cheese from Kentucky, shared their Oreo cookies with us. These sound like minor acts of kindness, but they really mean a lot to hikers —partly because they happen at the most unexpected times, and partly because we thru-hikers are constantly hungry and appreciate any extra food we can get!

I received a special kind of trail magic several days ago. It was special because of the impact it had on me. And its impact was so great because I was in such desperate need for it.

My four days since leaving Andover had been a real struggle. It had rained every day, making the trail a precarious obstacle course of slippery rocks and roots and knee-deep mud. In addition, it was cold, and I felt little incentive each morning to crawl out of my comfy sleeping bag and hit the trail. Finally, I was hiking what is considered one of the toughest stretches on the AT: the Mahoosucs, which include the Baldpate peaks (3,810' and 3,662', respectively), and Old Speck (3,985'). They also include the notorious Mahoosuc Arm (the near-vertical mile down Old Speck) and Mahoosuc Notch (a boulder-filled notch between Old Speck and Fulling Mill Mountain, where hikers must wind over, under, and around house-sized boulders, through tight crevices, and up smooth, slippery rock that offers few footholds for bulky hiking boots).

I didn't know what was wrong with me those few days. I had no energy when I hiked, and my pack felt like it was full of lead. I trudged up the mountains and inched down the other sides, terrified that I would slip. I had already sprained my ankle coming down Moody Mountain, and was having several good falls each day. With each fall, my spirits sank a little lower.

Coming down Old Speck, I approached a sheer rock face, about 20 feet long. The AT led straight down it. Two northbounders were at the foot of the incline, waiting for me to descend.

"This may take awhile," I warned them, smiling."I'm pretty slow on these downhills!"

"That's OK," they said. "Just take it one step at a time."

One step was all it took. With that step, I fell flat on my butt and slid the rest of the way, landing at their leather-clad feet.

"Wow, that took less time than I thought it would!" I joked. Once they realized I wasn't hurt, we all laughed about how truly graceful my slide had been.

After they left, though, I found myself on the brink of tears. My leg was bleeding from mid-calf to the top of my thigh, and the cold wind was biting. With each fall, I had become less and less sure of my steps; with each step, I saw myself skidding down the trail with no control over where I would finally land.

The day we did Mahoosuc Arm and Mahoosuc Notch, my self-confidence was at an all-time low. I had no trust in my ability to step without slipping; as a result, my hiking became painstakingly slow and fearful. I crept down the Mahoosuc Arm, slippery and cold from the night's rain and the morning chill, and I made my way through the one-mile Mahoosuc Notch in a state of mild terror. That mile took me over well over two hours. It didn't help that other thru-hikers had said that the Notch was"difficult but fun." My state of mind was so low that I couldn't force myself to be positive about the fun challenge of the Notch. The Notch hike just felt a nightmare that wouldn't end.

I finally made my way out of the Notch and up to Full Goose Shelter, where O.D., Bugbiter, Matt, and Bryan were waiting for me, as our original plan had been to hike five more miles to Carlo Shelter.

"Y'all go ahead," I told them. "I'm beat. I'm staying here tonight." Then I sat in the shelter, buried my head in my arms, and cried. I didn't want to cry in front of the guys, but I couldn't help it. I was so depressed already, and the Mahoosucs had driven me to a low I hadn't experienced in years.

That night, I wrote in my journal that I didn't know what was wrong with me. Why had I felt so sluggish and depressed the last few days? How had my self-esteem managed to plummet to a state I hadn't felt since I was an insecure 8th grader? Was it malnutrition affecting my brain? "Maybe I'm not eating enough," I mused, "or maybe I'm not eating enough of the right foods."

The next morning of hiking was even worse. The trail was not as hard, but I was even more sluggish and felt disoriented; in fact, I hiked a quarter-mile north before realizing my mistake and turning back south.

I trudged up Goose Eye Mountain, devoid of energy —my pack feeling like it weighed 80 pounds. The views were nice, but I barely stopped to take them in. Later, as I shuffled through the"sag" between Goose Eye and Mt. Carlo, I saw two ladies sitting in the middle of the trail.

"You can't get through!" one of them called out good-naturedly. "We're taking our break! Please join us!"

I was in a foul mood, but smiled back anyway. I took off my pack and joined them.

As it turned out, these two women were "The Blister Sisters," who are section-hiking the AT. I knew of them through AT-L, an Internet mailing list of AT and hiking enthusiasts. We talked and laughed for 30 minutes; they caught me up on the AT-L gossip and shared some dried veggies, and I told them of my experiences so far on the trail.

Eventually, The Blister Sisters headed north and I headed south. But I was a different hiker than I had been that morning. For the first time in days, I had energy. My pack suddenly felt so light that I kept wondering if I had left some major piece of gear behind. As I sailed over Mount Carlo, I began noticing the beauty of the lichens on the rocks, the intricacy of the furrows of tree bark, and the wonder of the mica in the rocks, which shone like jewels in the sunlight.

Meeting the Blister Sisters, talking about mutual friends, and learning about their section hike was such a wonderful experience. It helped that they seemed excited about my hike, too. The"magic" of this meeting was the impact it had on me; no longer was I sluggish and depressed. No longer was I uninspired and unimpressed by the beauty of nature that met me with every step. No longer did I feel insecure about where I placed my feet. On the surface, the Blister Sisters didn't give me much more than pleasant conversation and a few handfuls of dried veggies. On a deeper level, they gave me much more: a renewed positive attitude and the renewed mental strength to hike onward to New Hampshire. In a matter of a half-hour, their friendship and kind words made me happy to be on the AT again.

That's what I call real trail magic —and I think that's just about the best kind of trail magic a hiker can receive.

What is she carrying? Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.


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