Day mileage: 19
AT total mileage: 1,759.0
Time: 7.5 hours
The night in the garage passed quickly, and I woke up early per usual feeling exceptionally tired. Packing up and thanking Betsy as she headed off to work, Legs, Santa, and I headed back up the hill to the Thayer house to meet up again with Rocket and Dorothy. There were a few hikers awake when we got there just before 7, and Dorothy informed us that Rocket Girl hadn't slept well at all. She was going to try and sleep in for a while longer, a decision that was fine with me as I was exhausted as well. Eating breakfast on the porch with everyone, a list was made of things that needed to be purchase at Eastern Mountain Sports in town, as one of the Thayers had offered to drive a load of hikers in to make some purchases. As I didn't have anything I needed to buy, I proceeded to flatten myself on the wood decking of the porch next to Naila as she napped, and caught up on a few hours of sleep as Dorothy, Santa, and Legs went into town. Waking up nearly two hours later, still comfortably entwined with the puppy, I took another shower in the Thayer's guest bathroom and got ready for some actual hiking. It wasn't until 11:30 or so that the gang arrived back from EMS and began packing up to hike out. Saying goodbye to the wonderfully hospitable Mr. Thayer, I caught up to my friends and headed towards New Hampshire.
We would end up with 4 miles of road walking before the Appalachian Trail would turn back into the woods. Descending from a higher vantage point on the side of the mountain where the Thayer household was, we crossed under Vermont's I-89 and over the Connecticut river on a bridge that had the letters 'VT-NH' stamped in the side of the concrete. With nearly a dozen of us hikers gathered there we took a group photo - officially having completed the 12th and entered the 13th state of the Trail. Cars honked and we cheered, and I added to the festivities by mounting my amazingly awesome American flag on my trekking pole and flying it as we walked into Hanover center. The trail walks down Main Street in town only after traipsing through a bit of the Dartmouth University campus. We took a quick detour and followed Santa to the university's library where in the 'Tower' room, there was some kind of filming of Harry Potter. I'm not sure the exact details as it's very much second hand information, but the tower room in the air conditioned library was a wonderful place for us to stand for a while on the hot summer day. Exiting the library and finding ourselves back in the insane heat and humidity of the otherwise beautiful summer day, we were approached by a grad student named Shelby who was interested in interviewing us for a project she's working on. She said she was willing to hike along with us so as to not slow us down, and would meet us on the edge of town before the trail ventured back into the mountains. We hiked down Main Street, passing by hundreds of people out enjoying the gorgeous day, and found our way out to where the trail left the paved road. Situated around this area is a Co-Op grocery store, which was perfectly placed for me to buy a liter of Gatorade before continuing on with the day. Standing in the parking lot as a group we were approached by an older gentlemen who asked if we were thru-hikers. Introducing himself as The Ice Cream Man, a famous individual on the Trail, Mr. Bill Atkinson invited us to stop by his house for ice cream and a game of croquet some 16 miles north on the trail when we arrived later in the day. Noting Naila's discomfort in the heat, he also offered to take her for the afternoon so she wouldn't have to climb mountains. We thanked him profusely, finished our shopping, and met Shelby to continue hiking while she interviewed us. The terrain for the day would include two serious climbs of over 1,200 feet each, a challenge in the heat of the late afternoon. Shelby did a great job keeping up with us, and I was actually rather quiet in responding to her questions. She spent about 3 miles hiking moderate terrain in our well-polished group before hopping off the trail at a road crossing that would allow her a quick hitchhike back into town. We hiked on, beginning the first of the two serious climbs. I hiked most of this alone, for reasons I'll now explain.
There are many approaches to the Appalachian Trail. Some people hike 2,000 miles or so, some complete all 2,185.3 miles. Some hikers skip sections via 'blue blazing' meaning to take side trails that might skirt summits or cut out more challenging terrain. There's 'yellow blazing' which means to utilize a car or hitchhike to skip mileage and jump ahead by a fair distance. 'Aqua blazing' refers to a fun and common practice of canoeing through the Shenandoah National Park, bypassing some 100 miles of trail. There's also a common practice called 'slackpacking' a play on slacking and backpacking, where hikers will leave their full backpacks with a trail angel or hostel owner and carry bare essentials for a day instead of every piece of gear, getting their packs back at the end of the day so they can camp normally. It's important to follow up this information by informing you of a very important phrase that's synonymous with long distance hiking- HYOH- or, hike your own hike. There is no right or wrong way to go about this adventure, and in the end it is only each individual hiker that can judge whether or not they have successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I happen to be in the somewhat strict camp with regards to what constitutes a thru-hike. I have worn my backpack for every mile I've hiked, I've not missed 0.1 mile of trail, and I don't much feel good at the thought of having it any other way. In the end, though, it is the opinion of each individual. Does physically hiking any distance of the trail over 2,000 miles constitute a full hike? Is it the same accomplishment even if you've utilized different avenues to make things a bit easier on yourself? I'm not sure that it is, but that's just me.
If you'd like to comment below on your thoughts, I'd be very interested to hear. Reason for bringing this up is that the option of a slackpack was presented by a thru-hiker with a car named Bangarang. He offered to drive our packs to the road crossing just shy of the shelter where we would stay, then give us our gear back. I was exceptionally back and forth on this despite the eager nature at which my friends all accepted his offer. It felt wrong. In the end I compromised- still carrying my backpack with important gear and the like, taking out things like my sleeping back and tent which I wouldn't be needing for the afternoon. I still carried a weighted pack. I found this to be a somewhat reasonable alternative, that didn't leave me feeling horribly guilty.
The first climb went smoothly. I did most of it alone as the others were literally running the trail with the newfound freedom of no backpack whatsoever. I eventually caught up to Rocket and Santa, noting from a vista that some serious storm clouds were moving in. An hour or so later after descending into a gap below, the sky got insanely dark in a very short period of time. Distant thunder became much closer, and the sky literally turned a sickly looking green color. At this point it was 1900hrs or so, but the darkness of the environment around us gave the impression it was much, much later at night. I stopped to put my headlamp on, a decision based on my poor vision in the dark woods and the desire to not stop during torrential rain to search for it in my backpack. It wasn't 2 minutes afterwords that the heavens opened and all hell broke lose on the Appalachian Trail. Torrential downpours were accompanied by incessant lightning and thunder in the distance, some 4 or 5 miles away. Pushing at an insane pace towards the summit, wanting to get the climb over with and find somewhere dry to stop, we hiked the steeply sloped mountain at nearly 3.5 miles an hour, a rate that's rather beyond my usual uphill speed, and way beyond Rocket's comfort zone. We stuck together as a group, three LED headlamps marching through walls of water in the pitch black of the woods, a sharp contrast to the ghastly green hue of the sky above. At one point the cracks of thunder and lightning measured out to be less than 1/4 mile away as we neared the wooded summit of the 2,600' peak. One crack of thunder was loud enough to leave my ears a bit sore, likely having been well over 110 decibels, and the closest/loudest episode we encountered. The three of us trekked on, beginning the uncomfortable descent of what was quite literally a river gushing with rainwater and drowning what should have been the Appalachian Trail. I did my best to entertain my two friends, singing and doing anything I could to keep spirits up despite the absolute misery of the situation. At around 2100hrs we neared the bottom of the mountain, approaching a state road crossing. In this moment, Rocket cheered loudly. Following her lead a loud and low pitched scream came from the darkness ahead of me as Bangarang quickly emerged from behind a tree, causing me to jump some 4 feet in the air, subsequently scream, and involuntary throw my trekking poles at him. Laugh all you want, but if you were the first person in a group hiking in the pitch black and someone jumped out from behind a tree and screamed, you'd jump like an NBA star too.
Bangarang led us the 0.1 miles off the trail at the road crossing to Bill Atkinson's house. In light of the ferocious storm, we were offered to spend the night. His porch was already full of hikers, but Legs, Rocket, Santa, and myself were given space on the living room floor. Cooking a dinner quickly, we still didn't make it to bed until 2330hrs or so. It wasn't an exceptionally long day, but having started well after noon o'clock and hiking through an insane storm, I think we did just fine. It's insane to think that I'm almost there. Some 425 miles from now I'll be standing atop Katahdin. If nothing else, that'll give me something to dream about tonight.
Somewhat dry on the living room floor of a trail angel and living legend of the Appalachian Trail, it's time for bed. Life is mysterious that way- from a grocery store parking lot on a hot summer afternoon to a full house of friendly people some 8 hours later while the world outside gets soaked in precipitation... I've literally found a port in the storm.