Thursday, January 21, 2010

1987 Appalachian Trail Hike: Into the White Mountains of New Hampshire

I've been meaning to get back on my journals of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Interestingly, I find that the I wrote as much in the last 1/3 of my summer hikes of 1987 than in the first 2/3. During this summer I hiked from Central Virginia to Maine, having previously hiked the southern portion of the trail. Enjoy (and consider this my Travel Tip Thursday)! That's me on the left, heading down a mountain. I often used my pack as a clothes line, having a 1/2 towel, socks and underwear out to dry. I used baby diaper pins (which lock) to attach my laundry to the pack. Warning, some of you have already read the story of my discussion of politics at the Mt. Cube House.

I thought I could eat a lot. On my first morning in Hanover, I headed over to Thayer Hall at Dartmouth College, where I they had an “all-you-can-eat” breakfast for a reasonable price. I piled food onto my plate: eggs, pancakes, hash browns, sausage, bacon, and had another bowl of nothing but fruit. In my two months on the trail, I’d lost any excess I had, but I felt that I was taking advantage of the college by eating so much. Then I saw the rowers. The college was hosting some sort of camp for collegiate rowers and these guys, who were eating breakfast after having already done an earlier workout, could really shovel in the food. I ate alone, taking time to read Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley and to write less than pleasing thoughts about the book. It’s a shame that such talent was wasted on something so trivial,” I noted in my journal. “He makes observations and never gets into the “how” or “why” of things.” Twenty years later, I can’t believe that I was so uncharitable toward Steinbeck.
Although a preppy college town, Hanover had a lot to offer hikers and I was in need of a break. It’d been nearly a month and almost 500 miles since I’d last taken a day off (at Delaware Water Gap). I decided to use the day to prepare myself for the White Mountains. First order of business was to find a new pair of boots. The chaplain at the hostel told me I could ride with her into a larger town this afternoon if I was unable to find boots here, but she wasn't sure that they'd have anything more to offer. I spent nearly an hour at the Dartmouth Co-op, trying on boots. Nothing seemed to fit and I was about ready to give it up when one of the employees remembered some boots that were last years model stored upstairs. Sure enough, there was a heavy pair of Merrell’s, single-piece leather hiking boots, that fit. Since they were last year’s boots, I was able to purchase them for $80, about half their original price. I also picked out of a bargain bin a bright red polypropylene sweater. It was only $10 and weighed half of what the gray wool sweater I’d had mailed to Hanover. I spent the rest of the day picking up food and going throw my mail which included letters from two ex-girl friends with who I’d stayed somewhat friendly.
Much of the day I hung out with David, “the Cosmic Yankee” who was heading south on the trail. It felt like I was palling around with Jesus, as his long hair and eyes make him look like he could have been a model for one of the Dutch paintings of Christ. We talked philosophy and religion. David, who’d read the Bible and most Buddhist texts, was now learning about Native Spirituality and trying to live his life like Thoreau. While purchasing food, I took his advice on trying out lentils on the trail and purchased a bag. We spend time in the bookstore and he recommends two books to me: Angrka Govida, The Way of the White Clouds and Joseph Goldstein, Experience of Insight. I also find another interesting book, Eleanor Murro, On Glory Roads: A Pilgrim Book about Pilgrims. But did’t buy any of them as I couldn't carry anything more.

I left Hanover the next morning, June 28. It was good to be back on the trail especially since the weather was cool and the forecast indicated clear and cool weather for the next several days with temperatures down into the 40s at night. I made 10.8 miles in the morning, stopping for lunch on the south peak of Moose Mountain. My pack is now heavier as I’m carrying a sweater as well as a pair of lightweight wool pants that I had mailed to Hanover. I check my feet and am pleased to see that without breaking in the boots, my feet are blister free (of course, they do have some pretty nasty calluses from two months of hiking). After lunch, place half a bag of lentils in a half filled water bottle. The Cosmic Yankee had suggested soaking them for the afternoon to help them cook faster. I continue on, hoping for a nice view at the Holts Ledges, but am surprised to find the ledges closed off for falcons.
I arrive at Trapper John Shelter a little after 6 PM and set about making dinner. I’m not sure how long its going to take to cook the lentils. David promise that lentils don’t take nearly as long as beans, and I fantasize eating the poor man’s diet of the Middle Ages or the diet of the Crusades. As the lentils cook, I pull on my long pants, the first long pants I’ve worn since May. It’s quite chilly. The boots haven’t bothered my feet, but it’s a different story around the top of the boot on my left foot. That area is sore and I’ve happy to take the boots off and replace them with running shoes. The lentils take forever to cook and I begin to worry about what they’ll do to my fuel supply. After nearly 40 minutes of cooking, I eat them and there still a little crunch to them. I decide that as long as I’m cooking on a stove, to forego the life of a medieval peasant.
I’m slow to get up the next morning. When I wake up at 6:45 AM (at a time I’d normally been on the trail), I find it’s 45 degrees. The morning I spend climbing Smart Mountain and enjoy lunch from the top, at the fire tower, with great views. The air is clear and, unlike most of the summer, I’m on a mountaintop without haze. I take photos looking back at Holt’s Ledges I continue on hiking and by 4:45 PM, I arrive at Cube Mountain Shelter where I stop for dinner. As the weather promises to continue to be clear, I plan to head on to the top and camp at the ridge, an idea suggested by Warren Doyle in the trail register at Smart Mountain. There are no other hikers here, but there appears to be enough gear for ten, with coats and clothes and sleeping bags scattered around the shelter. Dinner is another new idea I found in Hanover, Spinach tortellini noodles stuffed with cheese. I take my time with dinner, then load up and continue hiking. A short distance after the shelter, I run into four counselors and twenty campers from Camp Norway, a girls camp and the campers are between the ages of 8 and 16. They’d dropped their gear at the shelter. I’m now glad that I decided not to stay to move on. I stop at the top of Cube Mountain, having only covered about 15 miles. I’m not making great time as the trail is more challenging than Vermont. I camp out in the open, enjoying the sunset and watching the distant ridges turn purple.

Jane and Happy outside of the Mt. Cube House
The next morning I lay in my bag for a while watching the weather change as there appears to be overhead clouds blowing in. Then I pack up and head down the mountain to find a place with water for breakfast. In the hollow, just before a highway crossing, there is a sign on a tree advertising the “Mt. Cube House,“ located a short ways south along the highway. The thought of pancakes and real maple syrup, made from the trees on this mountain, is too appealing and I decided to splurge on breakfast. As I come to the clearing at the road, I encounter another hiker, a south bounder named Jane with a beautiful dog named Happy (looking back on the photos today, I realized that her Happy and my dog, Trisket, could be siblings). Together we walk down to the Mount Cube House and I learned that she was spending the summer hiking through New Hampshire and Vermont. Somehow we got talking about her family. Her mother was an Episcopal priest and her grandfather a Methodist minister, both of whom who‘d attended Union Seminary in New York City. After her hiking was done, Jane was moving to Massachusetts to teach outdoor education.

The Mt. Cube House was a quaint place, just a few tables. They served pancakes with syrup, sausage, coffee and also sold maple syrup by the bottle or jug. Jane and I dropped out packs on the porch and Jane tied Happy’s leash to a post and we went inside. After the woman took our order, I walked around looking at the photographs and news clippings on the wall. I quickly came to realize that the woman who’d waited on us was Mrs. Thompson, who owns the farm with her husband, a man who’d been governor of New Hampshire. This fascinated me as I’d never been served breakfast by the first lady of any state. When she brought us our pancakes, I asked if her husband was still involved in politics.

“Oh yeah,” she replied, “right now he’s helping Paul Laxalt in his presidential campaign.

“What,” I asked with a puzzled look, “Laxalt is running for President?” (This was 1987, the summer before the first primary in the 1988 elections.)

“Oh yeah,” she said, “Who are you for, George Bush?” (This was before anyone but the law, liquor stores and pissed-off National Guard commanders knew that he had a son with the middle initial of W.)

Thinking back on this conversation with the vantage of hindsight, the ideal comeback should have been: “I’d be proud to vote for him if he just had himself a vasectomy half-century earlier.” Instead, I dug myself a deeper hole when I laid my cards on the table and said, “I suppose if I had to vote for a Republican, I’d vote for Bush.”

Then she asked me what I had against Laxalt. At the time, I’d never even been to Nevada, Laxalt’s home state (and now my home away from home and the subject of my dissertation). All I could think to say was, “He’s good friends with Jesse Helms, who’s an embarrassment to my home state.”

“Oh, we do differ,” she said. “We’re good friends with Jesse. My husband wanted him to run for President.”

She wanted to know why I didn’t like Jesse and I mentioned something about his policies on Central America and she asked me if I wanted to Central America over to the communists.

At this point, I realized I’d dug my hole a full six feet deep and if I didn’t shut up quickly it’d become my grave. So I let her run off her diatribe about what’s wrong with the world as I tried to eat my pancakes, not feeling a bit guilty about pouring on the syrup. This lady obviously hadn’t learned the philosophy that the customer is always right. We paid our bills, but I didn’t leave a tip. She’d already given me enough tips and I didn’t think she needed any more.

Once we got outside, Jane busted out laughing. Being from Vermont, she knew of the Thompsons and their politics and could see I was digging myself in deep, but didn’t know how to tell me to shut-up. As we were shouldering our packs, preparing to hike back up the road to the trail, her husband and Laxalt pulled up and came over to say hi, before going in and learning what kind of radicals we were. This was New Hampshire, six months before the primary, and I had my first experience with the type of politicking the state takes for granted.
At the trail head, Jane headed south, up Mount Cube and I continued on north. On the shores of Upper Baker Pond, I’m lured to stop by the sound of an English woman asking where I was heading. I walked over and we talked for a bit. She was working for a camp on the other side of the lake and had paddled across to escape for a bit. After she paddles back toward her camp, I take a swim, photograph some flowers and lily pads, then store my camera and then hike on. About a mile from the lake, I am startled to hear something scrambling up a tree. I stop and look up to see a small bear cub on a limb, maybe 15 feet over my head. He’s peering down at me and I think it’d make the perfect photo, but my camera is in my pack. Then I decide I better look around and sure enough, maybe 50 feet away in some heavy brush is Mamma Bear and she‘s looking straight at me. I decide to forego any photographic pursuits and slowly continue down the trail, feeling her eyes sear into me as I walk. Afterwards, I’m a little shaky but also glad to have been able to see the cub up close, even if only for a moment. I stop for the night at Jeffers Brook Shelter. It had been a lazy day, with long stops at Mt. Cube House and Upper Baker Pond, yet I covered nearly 16 miles.

The next morning, I began the climb up Mt Moosilauke. I’d heard it was a tough climb, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. This is the first mountain on the trail that is truly above tree line. Down south, along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, there are bald areas on the mountain tops, but they are not truly above tree line. As I climb higher, I enter an evergreen forest. Continuing higher, the fir and spruce become smaller. Then, as I approach the top, they are little more than shrubs and finally they’re no more, just rocks and grass and alpine flowers. There are number of other hikers on this section. I talk for a while with a researching measuring the acid level in the clouds. Another guy gave me what was left of a bag of pita bread. I shoot mostly black and white film on the climb up and down the mountain, but change to color slides when I’m at the top. I stop at Eliza Brook shelter (isn’t that the name of a whiskey?) for the night, after hiking 16 miles. I’m later joined by three New Hampshire good-ole-boys who are in their mid-20s. They have a friend hiking the full leant of the trail this year, the four of them having hiked together since they were in their teens. They have a large bottle of vodka and offer to share with me. I pour myself a cup. Later, as I’m getting ready for bed, they build a bonfire with flames leaping a dozen feet into the air and stand around the fire talking and smoking hash as I try to sleep.
On the first day of August I am treated with views along the Kingsman Ridge and Lonesome Pond. I sit up on the Kingsman Ridge for a long while, looking over at Lafayette Mountain. For some reason, I think about how it was to be married. I know my ex would not have wanted to make this trip, but it seemed sad to know that I’d never share with her my feelings and I looked in awe at the glorious mountains.
I now realize that the trail in the White Mountains are going to be tougher than anything I have experience. The trails are steep, seeming to go straight up or down mountains with large boulders and what little flat area seems to be marsh. Also, because of the number of hikers, I’ll now be limited to camping at designated sites or staying in shelters. I make only 11.5 trail miles today, stopping at Liberty Springs Tent-site. The two and a half mile, 3,000 foot climb from Franconia Notch to the campsite is tough, but not nearly as hard as some folks had made it out to be and I make it in approximately an hour and a half. I arrive fairly early in the evening and after dinner, climb up to the top of Liberty Mountain for sunset. From this vantage point, I can see just how rough Franconia Notch is, with its sheer cliff walls. There are wonderful views of the Presidentials: Lincoln, Garfield and Washington. I can also see Mt. Lafayette and Gyot. I stay on top till 9:15 PM, not only watching the sun set but also the light drain from the skies and the distant peaks of Vermont become a purple silhouette as a few stars appear. There are a number of others on the top and we talk and walk together back to the campsite, going slowly with only the light of a waxing moon and small flashlights to guide our way. The air is now quite cool. Having seen the mountains I’ll be traversing over the next few days, I’m psyched.
My posts of my 1987 hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking the Berkshires
Hudson River through CT

Delaware Water Gap to the Hudson River
Photos of PA
Duncannon to Delaware Water Gap, PA
Duncannon, PA
Maryland and Southern PA
Northern Virginia


  1. I wonder why now, 15 years later, I ever gave my JanSport away? I had fifteen thousand miles worth of memories invested in that pack.

    *Shrug* Though the views be different these travel posts do make the memory stir. Thanks Brother.

  2. I had a similar reaction to Travels with Charley. Seemed like an end of the days kind of book.

    Man I used to get my money's worth at a buffet. Not as much anymore.

  3. Thanks for reinforcing why I never talk politics with a stranger. The only way the conversation can go is down to a depth of six feet.

  4. Cool, as always. The AT tends to bring out the stories, inasmuch as there seems to be a greater supply of "characters" on that trail.


  5. Walking Guy, a friend had a Jansport pack that fell apart on the trail and they shipped him a new one!

    Charles, Glad to know that I didn't offend at least one with my slam of Steinbeck... I still think GRAPES OF WRATH to be one of the best

    Ed, it was kind of weird... I wonder if she spit in pancakes?

    Randall, yes, there are a supply of characters on the trail.

  6. Your tangles with the bears and the Republicans were classic. I think your course of action of moving away from them as quickly as possible was most appropriate. In both cases.

    And I thought I had remained friendly with a couple of ex-girlfriends, but none of them ever write me letters.

  7. I am loving your trail stories. I would love to go there someday and hope I'm able to hike a portion (as in not too old). Wich I had done this myself in the 80's.

  8. Very nice picture, and amazing scenery.
    But I think you should have focused more on the mountains to enhance the color scheme of the picture itself, or just lessened the brightness.

    Best Regards,

  9. I need to get out more: your journeys remind me that I need to reconnect with the world - and the people - around me.

    This was a glorious journey, and I'm so glad you shared it.

    (Re. the Delaware Water Gap - I drove through the region on my way to/from NYC in November. Vowed to return with my camera, because even from the highway, it's unbelievably glorious.)

  10. There are some lovely pictures n your post :)

    Here via Netchick's Meet 'n' Greet

  11. Well, first of all, what a little punkin that Happy was. Of course, none can compare w/Triskit.

    Good for you for speaking your mind like you did. I admire you for having done it.

  12. I'm so jealous of your bear sighting! I didn't see any bears in Yellowstone. One more reason I have to go back...

  13. Bone, Good insight!

    High School Teacher, you've got a long ways before you're too old, there's been people in their 80s that have hiked the trail

    B&B (is this an ad site making a critical remark?) My photos are all slides that I've copied onto digital

    Carmi, the DWG is a pretty area, but the White Mts was like being out west

    Oracle, Thanks

    Stephanie, I'm thinking that Happy must be Trisket's granddaddy!

    Jen, you should hike with me, some people find snakes, I seem to find bears... I have a post on bear encounters--I think you've seen it, I wrote it 3-4 years ago and it can be found by searching my blog

  14. Probably one of many on the list I may not make. Thanks for sharing your wonderful stories and experiences.