Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Toughest Section of the Appalachian Trail: Gorham NH to Rangeley ME (A Travel-tip Thursday Post)

It’s been a while since I have worked on writing up my experiences along the Appalachian Trail from back in 1987. In February, I ended my last section in Gorham, New Hampshire. This segment takes me into the north-woods of Maine and also serves as today’s “Travel-tip Thursday” post. Travel-tip Thursday is a writing prompt created by Pseudonymous High School Teacher.
After a restful night at the Breckenridge Rooming House in Gorham, New Hampshire, I set out to resupply for the next section of trail. The next thirty miles promised to be the most difficult on the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, as the trail climbed over mountains and fell into deep gaps.
As I was walking toward the business district of town, I stopped at Mike’s Exxon to fill my fuel bottle. A young woman was the cashier and came running out of the station, saying I couldn’t fill up my bottle. I complained, saying I had never had a problem before. She said I might spill some gas and I told her I had yet to spill any. Her attitude was snotty and I quickly became mad and told her it was a good thing I didn’t have a car here for I certainly wouldn’t buy any gas from her store and she said she didn’t give a shit and said she wished all us hikers would go home. As I walked off, I threatened to write the Chamber of Commerce and Exxon and complain about their service, but never did. Slim Jim and I met later at the grocery store and we both purchased food for the next section of trail. We then went to the Post Office to pick up mail. Outside, I packaged my food and put the excess into the box and mailed it on to Rangeley, Maine. After eating lunch in town, we hiked up the Mahoosuc Trail to the Appalachian and continued hiking north, stopping at the shelter at Gentain Pond. It was a short day, only 13 miles. Stephanie was at the shelter, decked out in her pink bikini., along with a couple of short-timers from Maine on a three day hike. The shelter was nice and sported a “21st Century” outhouse that used solar heat to turn the crap into compost.

Jim descending Mahoosuc Notch

August 9th was a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. There was no rest on this day as Jim and I left the shelter at 7 AM. The hike was much harder than the day before as we climbed up above tree-line at Success Mountain. As we descended, we crossed into Maine and then back up Mt. Carlo. Near the Mt. Carlo Shelter, there were many large rocks that had been sheared off in a glacier period and fallen on top of each other, creating cave-like caverns. Next, the trail headed over the East and then North Peaks of Goose Eye Mountain, then the South Peak of Fulling Mill Mountain before dropping into Mahoosuc Notch. The trail descends the south side of the notch, then turns east and runs .9 mile in the bottom of the notch. This mile is known as the most difficult mile on the entire trail as the path takes us up over and under and around house-sized boulders. At places we have to take our packs off and push them through or slide them down as we climb down ourselves. Jim and I spend an hour and a half exploring this section. In some of the deeper crevices, we find ice left over from winter. At one point, we’re overwhelmed by the smell of decay and then pass an elk that had fallen into the notch and died. Later, we learn that the Brits who are a day ahead of us stuck a candy bar in the Moose’s mouth and took a picture, saying it was truly a “chocolate moose.” On the far end of the notch, the trail climbs steeply out the north side. We hike another 2 ½ miles, arriving at Speck Point Shelter at 7:30, covering a total of 14.6 miles. There is a large group camping here, many who are a part of the Aloha Camp from Vermont. In addition to Jim and me in the shelter, there are three women. Camping around the shelter are probably twenty women (many high schoolers from the camp) and another eight or ten men. After dinner, I go for a swim in the lake (and find myself swimming with a beaver). It feels good to clean off before bed.

Jim climbing over rocks in the notch.

The next morning, we wake to the sound of rain on the roof of the shelter. It’s cold, gray and wet. We climb over Old Speck in the fog and drizzle, and on into Grafton Notch, stopping at the shelter there for lunch. In the afternoon, we continue on, over Baldplate Mountain with its mile of hiking above tree-line. The clouds were close in and we could only see one or to cairns ahead. The top of the mountain has been smoothed by glaciers, making it an easy trail to hike. We stop early after only 10.5 miles, at 4:15 PM, at Frye Notch Shelter, where we meet Wolfgang and his newlywed wife. They are from New Mexico and he’s an architect. A couple hours later, the group from the Aloha Camp comes into the area. They had planned to stop at the Grafton Notch shelter, but their leaders didn’t like the attitude of some hikers already there, so they hiked on to the Frye Notch Shelter. The campers set out to make a fire in order to dry clothes that have been soaked in the rain. I set out wool socks to dry and one of the campers, thinking she’s doing me a favor by turning my socks, drops one into the fire. Nevertheless, the fire was good for morale, after a cold and wet day. The campers roasted and shared marshmallows with us.
August 11 started out windy and cloudy, but by the end of the day, most of the clouds were gone. We hiked 15 miles, camping for the evening at the bank of a creek near the South Arm Road. The hike was tough, especially the south side of Moody Mountain which was enough to make anyone moody. We stopped at 5 PM. Throughout much of the day, I found myself thinking about journeys and pilgrimages and the difference, a thought I’d been exploring for most of the trip. I am enjoying the trip and although I am looking forward to completing the trail, I am also wishing I had a longer time to complete it. The hiking life feels good and I wish I could slow down and really enjoy it and not push myself to make miles and to finish the trail by the end of the month.
The next day, Jim and I hike 17 ½ miles. We run into Dave of the Brits at lunch time, Paul is somewhere behind us. We find this odd, as we didn’t see him along the trail. Dave joins us and we hike through the afternoon, stopping at the shelter on Sabbath Day Pond. In the trail register, Ben has left a note for me (he had skipped the Whites, having already hiked them, and is only a day or two ahead of me. Although the register mentions moose, we don’t see any, but there are plenty of loons on the lake and we enjoy their cry. In the evening the sky turns a beautiful pink color. As the color fades from the sky, we all get worried because Paul hasn’t shown up. He has the stove and pot for the two of them, so I lend my stove and pot for Dave to prepare dinner. By bedtime, Paul still hadn’t shown up and there isn’t anything we can do but go to bed.
The lake is beautiful the next morning. There is no wind and the water perfectly flat, except for when the occasional fish jumps. There are still no moose. It’s August 13, the birthday of two Sharons who have been in my life: my sister and an ex-girlfriend who was the best woman hiker I’ve known. Dave decides to wait at the shelter for Paul, saying he’ll give him till noon and if he hadn’t shown up by then, he’d set out southbound to find him. Jim and I leave the shelter a bit before 7 AM, hiking to ME-4. We arrive at 11:30 AM and set out to hitch a ride in Rangeley. The traffic is slow, but we wait for a ride as it’s almost nine miles from the trail into town. After an hour, a man stops and gives us a lift.

That's me, looking toward the end of the trail.
In town, we eat at the Red Onion, where the lady at the cash register tries three times to con us out of change. Several southbound hikers had warned in trail registers about attempts to short-change them in Rangeley, so we were on the watch. As we wash clothes, the Brits come in. Paul had arrived at the shelter at 10 AM, having spent the previous night out drinking with people he’d met at a road crossing. We brought groceries, including a couple packs of hot dogs and buns along with some beer for a “cookout” in the evening. Getting back to the trail is a little easier as people are getting off work and heading out of town. After we arrive at the trailhead, it’s only a mile and a half to Piazza Rock Lean-to. We all arrive back at the same time. Spending the night there are two women who are southbound thru-hikers and a guy who is a pilot in Alaska. We build a fire and share our hot dogs with them as we enjoy a cookout. The south-bounders agree to haul out our cans in the morning, making things even better.


  1. Mooselookmeguntic Lake, a good friend of mine from York County. Maine, would lie her teeth off as she developed the story of how the body of water got its name, involving a hunter, a gun, a moose, a bee and a lake.

  2. Wow. You are truly a mountain man! Thanks for taking me along for the hike...I didn't get one mosquito bite!

  3. Another great post and thanks for it.

    BTW, I always thought the "Long Trail" part of the AT was supposed to be harder, or did I just dream that?


  4. I've always heard about this being the toughest part. Thanks for confirming it with another gripping episode.

  5. Morning, Sage! You absolutely must commit these journals to a book with photos. You are capturing a piece of America that, sadly, most of us will never experience in a lifetime. What a blessing!!

  6. Wow, an anti-hiker tirade from a gas station owner. I guess she wanted you all to drive cars. the things some folks get bent out of shape over.

  7. Great Great stuff.
    I saw something recently about timing the section you are talking about due to seasons, and that many hikers are now Back-trailing the Appalachian Trail from North to South. I would read your whole trek in a book in a heartbeat!


  8. If I had not taken my backpacking trip earlier this year I would not understand the significance of having to take your packs on and off. My outdoor group is hiking a section this year, but I'll be in school. :(

  9. Vince, I think it was Twain who said, "why let the truth get in the way of a good story"

    Kathryn, no mosquitoes? better watch out for the black flies

    Randall, I didn't find the Long Trail section to be that tough--often doing 20 plus mile days there. This section, if I remember correctly, had about 30,000 feet of climbing and descending in a 70 mile or so section--that's a lot of up and down--a 1000 gain in a mile is steep!

    Ed, tough, but worth it!

    Michael, you know, if I pulled all my stories together, it might make a book... I figure two more post and I'll be on Katadhin and then I'll have to go back and pick up the sections I've skipped in the south

    Charles, I'm not sure what her problem was...

    John, on the Pacific Crest trail, there is more backtracking (people hiking to the SIerras, jumping ahead and then coming back when the snows are gone). Hiking North to South is okay, 'cept that you start out with lots of bugs and your in the middle states late summer and water can be hard to find

    Jen, taking the pack on and off can get old! Those were some big rocks we had to climb around.

  10. breathtaking views and report! the reader feels like we are there or want to be there NOW. Makes me want to combine my runs with hikes

  11. The top picture projects an air of tranquility, very nice. It seems like the cashier would be grateful for the business. BTW, I agree with others about the book idea.

  12. Buffalo, it was a wonderful journey, but I've been blessed with many exciting things in my lifetime

    Just Because, I like hiking so much more than running!

    Kontan, the gas station wasn't making much on me. My liter fuel bottle, back in 1987, would only cost me 25 or 30 cent to fill.

  13. There are points of both. Time takes the lead letting the miles fall away faster and then the miles take point letting the time fall faster. And that is the nature of living as we did.

  14. Great post, its got me interested in hiking more.

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