Day mileage: 24
AT total mileage: 1,649.2
Time: 8 hours
I was sound asleep by 2130hrs last night, and woke again for the first time at 0400. I'm not sure why my eyes opened that early, but I'm truly hoping it doesn't become a habit. I laid in bed for a while before emerging from my sleeping bag, the first person out of the 8 packed into the shelter to do so, and began packing up. At this point it was only 6 AM, but after the relaxing day before I figured I owed it to the trail to ride early and be hiking by a reasonable hour. With our group down to only four of us (at max, 7 and a dog) it was worth it to wait for the other three to be ready before hiking on. We departed shortly after 7, and began what would ultimately be a great day of foot travel on the Appalachian Trail.
From the shelter we hiked a few miles downhill before beginning the only real challenge of the day, a 1,800 foot elevation climb to the summit of Stratton Mountain. It was 6.8 miles from the shelter to the fire tower at the mountain's peak, and we arrived there shortly after 9:30. The easy terrain before beginning the climb allowed us to travel quickly in our established line, hopping over mud and flooded areas doing our best to keep socks and shoes dry. It's a battle I'm bound to lose against the Trail, but since we took the time off early yesterday a surprising amount of rainfall has been absorbed by the earth. I couldn't bring myself to wear my soaking wet and muddy socks for a third day in a row, so instead I wore a separate pair that had been used for a day or two before the rain that were still somewhat dry. Upon reaching the lowest point after the shelter, the point where the 3.6 mile climb up Stratton would begin, we changed paces, slowing a bit as a whole but maintaining a strong stride uphill. It was at this point that I provided some group entertainment. A little known fact about me is that I can quote the script of the 1994 film Forrest Gump nearly verbatim. While it's not a talent that will win me awards or critical acclaim, it's still rather entertaining, and kept the group in good spirits as we hiked along to me reciting the famous Tom Hanks lines (voice included) of the movie, filling in less important scenes with detailed narration. It took over half the climb to complete the movie, but Rocket, Legs, and Dorothy each said they were able to see every scene I described in their minds, and that they had a great time listening. Despite our efforts to find another movie everyone had seen that I could recreate the experience for, we couldn't find common ground, and the idea disappeared as quickly as it had come.
After two days of relatively upsetting weather, cloudy skies and rainfall of all sorts, there was an amazing feeling in summiting Stratton to a warm sun shining down and wispy clouds speckling a baby blue sky. We spoke briefly with a Park Service cabin caretaker, employed to maintain the shelters and cabins in the area, then headed up a 60' fire tower to see what views the wooded summit had to offer. Despite the wind, the views were incredible. Not since the Smoky Mountains have there been such incredible vistas, sprawling mountain ranges, and subsequent feelings of invincibility atop a peak. It feels so good to be back in the mountains, able to see for miles from atop a summit, immediately gaining the sense of hiking gratification that is craved after a long or steep ascent. The feeling of being on top of the world that comes with hiking 1,635 miles as if it were just for this moment. So there I stood, in a fire tower on the top of the mountain where Benton McKaye initially conceived the idea for a walking trail that ran from Georgia to Maine some 100 years ago, watching the clouds blow over the valley on a stiff breeze, truly happy with where I was and who I was able to share the moment with. Handsome Dan took a photo of Dorothy, Rocket, and myself before we head back down out of the tower, and upon my feet touching dirt again I turned my efforts to finding a new camera. My fingers are crossed that its solely the body of the dSLR that is broken, meaning the lens survived the water. There's no way to really know just yet, but I found an identical version of my Canon body and was able to have it overnighted to Killington, VT so that it will be there when we hike through on Sunday or Monday. Ideally I'd like to have it sooner, but beggars can't be choosers. In the end, as my dad keenly pointed out in conversation, it's quite amazing that the now dead camera survived 1,600 miles of mud, dust, pollen, rain, hail, snow, river crossings, rock rash, smashing into trees, and every other bit of daily activity it was subjected to while hooked onto the waist belt of my pack. I'm more than happy with the mileage (see what I did there?) that I got out of the camera, and in the end it's my 2nd backup body for when I'm actually photographing in the real world, so it's not a huge deal to lose it. I'll keep the bad camera and mail it home, perhaps being able to repair it upon my return later in the summer. Until then, I'll anxiously await the arrival of a new one a day or two from now, and will continue to marvel at Amazon's ability to get me a product overnight (sometimes even same day delivery) for less than $10 shipping.
After spending an appropriate amount of time atop Stratton, we began the 4 mile descent to the Stratton Pond shelter where we intended to have lunch. Hiking down the mountain wasn't obnoxious, and again we witnessed areas where the previously rushing water had been absorbed back into the earth leaving us with a slightly muddy trail to hike. Anything is better than the complete lack of care required to trudge through 4-6" of muddy water for hours on end. We got to the shelter around noon-thirty, a large post & beam structure with plenty of bunk and loft space for two dozen people, and probably even more in a pinch. Upon arriving we noticed a hiker had left clothes out to dry, and with further investigation we learned it was Deep Blue. Having parted ways with him back in Bennington two days prior, he had hiked through the night, arriving at 8 am after watching the sunrise from the top of the windy fire tower earlier that morning. He woke up and ate with us, ultimately deciding to hike on now that we'd all met back up. We left the shelter an hour after arriving, and began what would truly be an easy afternoon of relatively level hiking terrain for the next 12 miles. This section was substantially muddier than the morning, but even with careful steps we maintained a solid pace through the forest. The hours passed by steadily with fun conversation amongst the 5 of us, being intermittently disrupted by Legs as she walked into a fallen tree, then later did a 180 spin before plopping down into the mud due to a low & slippery wooden bridge of sorts. Around 1630 we hiked a half mile down a road, still 'on trail' before a wrong turn brought us out to a gorgeous rock face overlooking the valley below. We stopped for a moment, but ultimately found seats on the rock and stayed a while, listening to music and relaxing in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Trekking on, we were a short 5 miles from our intended destination for the evening. An hour and a half later we emerged at the road crossing of VT 11/30, a fast paced four lane highway delightfully marked by the A.T. Conservancy with an enthusiastic 'Don't become road kill!' sign. Crossing quickly, we gathered in the parking lit at the trail head and split up. Rocket and Dorothy would go into Manchester, a town 5 miles west for a resupply while the remaining three of us hiked on the 2 miles to the shelter. Rocket secured them a ride from a woman leaving the parking lot (a day hiker we later learned had thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail just a few years prior). Legs and I headed up the next mountain, the puppy Naila leading the way, while Blue hung out by the road for a little longer.
We arrived at a gorgeously built and completely empty shelter a shirt time before 1900hrs, cooking dinner and listening to country music as I explained to Legs my sadness about this weekend. Zac Brown Band, one of my absolute favorite artists and a band I would kill to be an audio engineer for, is playing two nights at Fenway Park in Boston. I'd considered many months ago about getting off the trail for either the Friday or Saturday show, but never followed through with finding tickets. Regardless, we cooked and ate, joined by Blue and shortly after by Rocket and Dorothy as well. They had picked up a bottle of Jim Beam while in town, and we had a nice Friday night on the trail in each other's company. At 2100hrs we piled into our sleeping bags, the massive double decker shelter to ourselves, and streamed a comedy on Dorothy's large smartphone from Netflix. Quite the sight, I'd imagine; five hikers in their 20s, trekking the length of the Appalachian Trail, having an 'exciting' Friday night with a bottle of bourbon and a movie in the middle of Vermont's Green Mountains. Bed came next, but only after moving packs around upon the discovery of a half dozen mice running around.
Tomorrow we'll do another 24 or so mile day, hopefully in equally gorgeous weather. I'm exceptionally happy with where I am and who I'm with, and now that I've got less than 30 days on the trail remaining, I look forward to experiencing the rest of it with this great group of friends I stumbled into.
Onwards & steeply upwards in the morning.