Dear Herm’s Hikers,
Greetings from Rangeley, Maine! Finally crossed New Hampshire/Maine border (There was a sign on the trail to let you know.) to enter the last state on the trail. If New Hampshire chewed us up, then Maine is quickly spitting us out, and we are only in the southern part of the state.
Entered Maine with some anxiety (Nah, entered Maine with a lot of anxiety) about the toughest mile on the trail. Well, I’m hear to tell you that all of the stories about the toughest mile on the trail are absolutely true. No false advertising here! After hiking five miles across three mountain ranges above 3,500 feet, I finally arrived at the Mahoosuc Notch, the infamous toughest miles on the AT. Tough, not really! Impossible at times is more like it, especially for a Greyhound hiker (over 50) like myself. What the literature doesn’t tell you is that to get to the notch trail you have to hike down the side of a mountain, a 1,000 ft. drop in exactly a mile. It’s a thousand feet of rocks, roots, and loose stones, a deadly combination. It took me just over an hour to navigate this section of the trail. I only stumbled once when I slipped on some loose gravel which resulted in a slight ankle sprain. Once at the bottom, the real work began. The Mahoosuc Notch is a gap, maybe 10 to 20 yards wide, in a walled-canyon. The only way out is to crawl over, under and around the boulders that range in such from a sedan to a tractor-trailer. There are no side exit trails unless you climb straight up a 300 ft. canyon wall. So for just over a mile, I worked my way inch by inch through the notch with a bum ankle. Hey, gang talk about true grit and guts and glory. This was it. Every few yards, I had to stop and plan the best way to attack the next series of boulders. It was all climbing, leaping, and then sliding down on the seat of my pants. I believe that I have just about worn out the backside of my hiking pants. Had to place my sleeping pad inside the backpack to save it from being shredded. Two hikers before me forgot to do it, and it cost them a sleeping pad or mattress. The leaping from rock to rock was something that took a lot of very, very, very, careful consideration because I had to consider the weight of my backpack and the shifting of the weight. Pretty dicey stuff at times! Once thing I found is that people over 50, especially me, do not have the agility and balance of people under 30. I mean the hand and eye coordination is still there, but the balancing ability faded years ago. Yep, I should have retired 30 years ago. I keep telling the Youngbloods (hikers in their 20’s) that they should have seen me 35 years ago. Geez, I’d giv’em a run for their money and show’em how to hike the damn mountains. Okay, I’m digressing and daydreaming here. Son-Dance, you aren’t getting any younger so hurry up and get this trail journal entry finished.
There were three spots in the notch where I had to take off the backpack and crawl through the openings in the bottom rocks which were small caves. After crawling to daylight, I had to reach back and drag out the pack. In June, there was still some snow in these mini-caves, but when I passed through the snow was thankfully long gone. I could look down between the rocks and still see some ice formations, but there were no slippery surfaces. At least, it was cool going through the notch. Nature’s air-conditioner! So after about two hours of climbing and crawling (I’m serious when I say that there were times when I looked at the boulders, looked at boots, and thought “how in the hell am I going to climb over or under those rocks? There ain’t no way I can make it.”), I climbed through the last rock wedge and scrambled straight up for about 100 feet, thinking the torture was over.
Over and out? Just the beginning! Am I insane? Nope, the mountains are insane. After the notch, I climbed the Mashoosuc Arm, rock scramble that rose 1,200 feet in just under a mile. Now that’s crazy! Someone appropriately described it as climbing up a rope for a mile. No, my fellow hikers, the notch wasn’t the toughest mile, the “Arm” was toughest mile. Psychological warfare from the mountains! Just when you think that you completed the toughest part of the journey, you’re faced with an even greater challenge. Parts of the climb were over smooth rock ledges and tables that angled around 70+ degrees. It’s a good thing the weather was dry because in the rain it would be impossible to navigate the trail. In the rain, it would have been a waterfalls. To avoid rock scrambling, I had to grab trees next to the trail and hoist myself along, a few feet at a time. You could tell the most popular hiker routes by simply looking to see which trees had the least bark and branches.
There was a reward at the end of the day when I stopped at Speck Pond Shelter. The shelter was just your normal three-sided lean-to, but it was right next to a mountain pond where you could wade and soak your feet. Ah, the sheer joy of a mountain pond, nestled in an evergreen forest. After a dinner of Spam sandwiches (too tired to boil water for the freeze-dried dinner) and a healthy dose of Vitamin I (Ibupropen), I was in the sleeping bag by 7:30, totally exhausted. Ah, a glorious sleep in the mountains. The next day it was long hike down the mountain to Grafton Notch where I received some trail magic, a 16 oz. Rolling Rock and ride down the road to swimming hole in the state park. Thank you Bill and Josh!
The next day I reached Andover, Maine, and the Pine Ellis Hostel, another home away from home run by Ilene and Dave, two of the friendliest people on the trail. Finally, I had a chance to slack-pack and get that 33 pound monkey off my back. Also had some great meals at the Andover general store and dinner. Ate there so many times, I even had my own booth. Of course, so did just about everybody else, but it was nice to be recognized by the staff.
Since the trail did not cross or pass directly through Andover, I had to hitch a ten mile ride to town. No sooner had I crossed the road and stuck out my thumb, then I was picked up by Phil the Bear Man and his youngest daughter who just got her driver’s learning permit and was driving the family pick-up (yeah, what else would you be driving in Maine). Before going to town, Phil said he had to stop in the woods and place his bear bait. Seems Phil runs a hunting service and bow season for black bear is around the corner so he had to place some bait to attract the bears to his acreage. Well, Phil stopped and opened one of those big road gates with the No Trespassing signs that led to his wilderness. About a mile up the dirt road, we stopped and I thought this was the end of the road for old Son-dance. Yep, the thought crossed my mind the bear bait was me (cue to the music from Deliverance). Ha! Ha! Just kidding Phil and fellow readers. In all honesty, Phil was a stand-up, first-rate good guy with some great hunting stories. A day later, he saw me walking to town and gave me a ride to the general store/restaurant. My fellow hikers were amazed. They wondered how I could know so many townspeople in such little time. Guys, you got to take the time to simply talk with people.
Okay readers, time for me to explore the town of Rangeley. It’s a trendy little resort town that’s popular in winter (skiing and snowmobiling) and summer (hiking, swimming, boating and fishing in the ponds). And believe me, there are an abundance of scenic ponds in the area with private cabins and resorts. And today, there’s a street fair and art festival. Finally, I hit a town that’s having an event. This week it’s Andover Days in Andover with a parade and a street festival, but I won’t be able to make that one.
The hiking in Maine is only a little easier than New Hampshire and not by much. The mountains are not as big, but the rocks and tree roots are the same, making it a rather slow affair at times. There are no easy miles on the AT! Another truth in advertising. Time to hit the streets. As always keep me in your prayers. The journey draws closer to the finish with each passing day! Hike with angels and hike in peace!