I stopped keeping a journal on my last segments of the Appalachian Trail. What follows was written from memory in 2018, sixteen years later.
August 23, 2002
Hanover, NH to Ledyard Spring
Today’s Miles: 2
Trip Miles: 97.1
Leaving Hanover marked the beginning of a turning point in my Appalachian Trail experience. The first hundred miles of 2002 served as a sort of warmup, and things simply began to fall into place in New Hampshire.
Primarily, I knew that I would make it to Mount Katahdin. I knew that I would finish. All the pressure I’d felt in 2001 to complete the trail was lifted from my shoulders. I was free to enjoy the days, enjoy the mountains, and enjoy the good company. The thru-hikers that had walked from Georgia fell into a similar mindset, and they accepted me as one of their own.
At Panarchy House I met a thru-hiker named Hollywood. He was about 30 years old at the time, my senior by about ten years. Tall and lanky, the combination of his outgoing personality and Southern accent (He was from North Carolina) couldn’t help but remind me of Matt McConaughey. Over the ensuing weeks I’d come to be forever entertained by Hollywood’s numerous catchphrases, like “Jesus Tits!!!” or “That’s a straight-up rocket to God!!!” (Referring to a steep climb).
I only hiked a short distance out of Hanover before setting up camp for the night. Late in the afternoon I found perfection in a golden meadow that was only a couple miles out of town. Along the trail in the center of the field was a picturesque tree. Something about the place called to me, and I set up camp under the tree. I loved having the freedom to sleep wherever I wanted on the Trail, and never was it more evident to me than this evening.
I fixed myself a blissfully hot meal and sat out in the open air, admiring the clouds and feeling thankful for such a gorgeous campsite. It was during this reverie that I was interrupted by three northbound hikers that I hadn’t seen before.
One of them was a young man in his mid-twenties (About five years older than me). His trail name was SoFar, and he’d started the trail that year in northern Virginia. He had two temporary companions whose names I forget – I think one was his sister and her trail name was Salamander? I was high on life at the moment and invited them share the camp with me, but they declined and chose to press on a bit farther, back into the woods.
This was one of the more memorable scenes of the entire trip, camping all alone in a perfect field in New England.
August 24, 2002
Ledyard Spring to Moose Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 8.8
Trip Miles: 105.9
At the fraternity house in Hanover I noticed Buckeye had sneaked “The Rock” into my backpack. A 2002 thru-hiker created it as a joke. Attached to it was a small register. If you found “The Rock” in your backpack, you were destined to carry it north for a distance until you found the opportunity to sneak it into somebody else’s backpack. The idea was that eventually it would be carried all the way to Mount Katahdin.
August 25, 2002
Moose Mountain Shelter to Smarts Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.6
Trip Miles: 118.5
Over the course of the next few days I hiked intermittently with a young guy named John A. Kalb. He was a section hiker and I think he was from Hanover, New Hampshire. He interestingly never adopted a trail name – I’d wager that only one in every fifty long distance hikers on the AT similarly never used a pseudonym.
We had the Smarts Mountain Shelter all to ourselves. It was topped with a fire tower, where I enjoyed a splendid sunset.
August 26, 2002
Smarts Mountain Shelter to Ore Hill Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.6
Trip Miles: 125.9
The trail between Hanover and Glencliff was punctuated by a series of strenuous climbs. It felt more like a continuation of the trail from Vermont, rather than the fabled White Mountains of New Hampshire.
August 27, 2002
Ore Hill Shelter to the Hikers Welcome Hostel
Today’s Miles: 7.4
Trip Miles: 138.5
If arriving in New Hampshire marked a transition in my Appalachian Trail experience, then the Hikers Welcome Hostel certainly amplified it.
I made it to the hostel early in the day, just in time to catch up with Hollywood, SoFar, and Buckeye. They had spent the previous night there and were preparing to hit the trail. They’d consumed a mass amount of great coffee. I helped myself to large quantities of it too, and everybody was feeling giddy and full of a silly joy that’s only experienced by a gang of happy hikers on a long distance trail.
Later in the day I accepted a shuttle into the small, interesting town of Warren for a few hours to purchase groceries for resupply.
That night there was rendezvous of northbound and southbound hikers around a roaring bonfire. Music was played from a cassette or CD player (I forget which). It was an album by John Prine, who I’d never heard of until this day. A few of the hikers seemed to know every word to every song as they danced around and sang along to some of the more upbeat tunes. I was told to check out the “Prime Prine” album for starters (I did after the trip).
Late in the evening came a moment that I’ll never forget. A guitar was available. A middle aged southbound hiker brought it to the campfire. A number of songs were played, but the one that I’ll never forget was Where Do the Children Play by Cat Stevens. At the time I didn’t even know it was a Cat Stevens song, but this guy’s voice sounded exactly like him.
The lyrics of the song resonated deeply with the thru-hiking lifestyle, and I forever associate the song (And generally Cat Stevens as a whole) with the Appalachian Trail.
August 28, 2002
Hikers Welcome Hostel to Beaver Brook Shelter
Today’s Miles: 7.9
Trip Miles: 146.4
The Hikers Welcome Hostel was (And still is) run by a former thru-hiker whose trail name is Packrat. He was out on a day-hike on the day I arrived. He’d recently done the Pacific Crest Trail – his photo album from the PCT was kept in the main room of the hostel and was a favorite conversation piece.
Another aspect that makes the hostel special is simply its location. For the northbound hiker, it sits just before the AT soars above treelike for the first time up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire. Beyond here in the White Mountains, in lieu of shelters, there’s a series of “huts” maintained for guest services by the local trail club, the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Most thru-hikers aren’t particularly fond of the club, most often referred to as the AMC, to the extent that some hikers like to refer to them as the “Appalachian Money Club.” In 2002, lodging at the huts came at the cost of about $65 with breakfast and dinner, or over $30 a night simply for a flat, hard bunk under a roof on which to sleep. Thru-hikers are notoriously cheap with their money, so most balked at the costs. In many areas the huts were the only places you were legally allowed to “camp,” and by the time we got to New Hampshire we were greatly accustomed to sleeping the woods and mountains without reservations and certainly without fees. The huts were essentially operated as lodges for paying guests, and each hut employed a staff of college-age employees, traditionally called the hut “croo.”
To their credit, the AMC maintained a “work for stay” program. Thru-hikers were allowed to stay at the huts for free under the condition that you were willing to work as one of the “croo” for the evening. There were a couple of problems with this system. Namely, the croos would sometimes take advantage of the hikers and have them do a great majority of the labor, especially before and after the meal service. Leftovers were often slim to none and being in the presence of so much food for hours at a time could be a tortuous experience for a thru-hiker. Secondly, only two work-for-stay slots were available at each hut, so as a hiker you’d have to arrive early to secure a spot or else you were out of luck.
Because of this, illegally “stealth camping” in the White Mountains was a popular activity for thru-hikers. It came with some risk though, as rangers and ridge runners regularly patrolled the Whites and particularly kept an eye out for thru-hikers that were camping illegally. This hostel, in late August, served as a meeting place for southbound hikers to share their experience in the Whites (And favorite stealth camping spots) with the northbounders.
Once again I consumed a high amount of coffee in the morning, setting the tone for the rest of the day. I had 3500 feet to climb up Mount Moosilauke, which in many respects feels like the first “real” mountain on the Appalachian Trail. I distinctly remember three things about the long, steady climb.
First is the blue sky and concurrent crisp, perfectly light chill in the air. Early autumn had arrived in the mountains of New Hampshire.
Second is the smell of the air. It was decidedly that of alpine trees, of pine and Christmas, but there was more to it than that. It was mixed with a perfect concoction of pungent mountain soil and my own nostalgic body odor that I’d come to associate with happiness and freedom on the Appalachian Trail.