AT Sobo Part 11 – Away from the white blazes and into the Pemi wilderness for an adventure
Skidding down the steep scree-lined slopes of Mount Webster, I was about to emerge from the magic of the mountains to witness the magic of human kindness in the form of a ‘Trail Angel’, and I was ready for it. Mount Webster was a total nightmare of a descent because my legs were still so exhausted from my conquering of the Presidentials, and by the time I arrived at the bottom I was a teeny bit grumpy. Hambone, always ahead, was sitting in the road where we were supposed to call his dad and get some things dropped off to us, but there was no cell phone service. Cars passing us on this fast road who were travelling from further afield didn’t really know what hikers were and sped past us dirty travellers with some disdain. Hambone’s new hiking pole had also snapped on the way down Webster and he didn’t want to discuss it, so we sat on the dusty grassy highway bank, unspeaking and miserable, as fat raindrops chose that moment to make an appearance; perfect.
Hambone decided the only thing to do (before our least favourite option of hiking on without our other belongings from his dad and minus enough food), was to hike a little way up a side road to where the trail continued and see if he could get phone service up there. If not, he’d be back and we’d have to figure out a Plan B. I stayed to watch our bags. He was gone a good long time and I wasn’t expecting good news when he emerged, but he eventually came out of the road-head with a grin. “Good news and bad!’ He said.
“What?!” I asked over the roar of passing traffic. “Well, there’s no service anywhere up there so we have to figure out a new plan… BUT, there’s our first solid Trail Angel set up just at the top of this road!’ So, excited, I shot up, grabbed the packs and followed him back from where he had come. Sure enough, a few minutes walk up the winding side road and I could see it; a few cars parked on the side, a large tarp draped over the parking space and the luxurious scene of folding chairs, a few folded out tables, 3 coolers and a portable grill!! Oh my goodness; trail magic.
The provider of this magic was a man called ‘Whispers’. He was a computer tech guy who also created pyrotechnics for festivals such as Burning Man and Glastonbury, but who also loved hiking and helping hikers out. He had provided everything hikers could possibly want, from hot dogs to cold sprite, beers and rolls of duct tape we could take strips from to wrap around our poles for emergency repairs. What a man! Trail Angels are so special. We sat there for the whole afternoon; eating, drinking and making friends with northbound hikers who were coming out from the woods in the other direction. Whispers wasn’t only a fan of hikers but had also obsessively mapped local trails for himself too; especially the off-the-grid older trails that were lesser used. He and Hambone huddled together for a long while that afternoon, sharing information about the upcoming stretch of forest leading towards the beautiful Franconia Ridge. I heard murmurs of ‘wilderness’, ‘old logging camps’, ‘washed out bridges’ and ‘bushwhacking’, and I knew from the gleam in Hambone’s eyes and his pocketing of Whisper’s hand drawn map that I was soon going to be presented with another adventure.
We filled our bellies and our bags with enough food to last a few days and left the lay-by at dusk in a hail of goodbyes and promises to keep in touch. Wandering up into the forest, we didn’t go far. We lay down in a bed of pine needles near the sound of the river and tried to sleep in a cloud of mosquitos; urgh. The next day we moved further into the new swathe of deep forest, and a storm followed closely behind us; threatening to break at any moment. Later on, Hambone explained we had some options. We could carry on the AT path, which would take us up and along some high and precarious exposed ridge-lines – dangerous in the storm, or we could use his map along with the hand-drawn map Whispers had given him and push off the beaten path; deep into the ‘Pemigewasset Wilderness’, to explore some old logging camps from the late 1800’s that had lain abandoned for 90 years.
I wasn’t sure what to do. He explained that the threatening storm and the fog we were experiencing were sure to make the top of the ridge frightening and unpleasant, and that the Pemi Loop would eventually take us out of the deep forest and back to the AT just before the stunning Franconia Ridge itself. I hesitated for a while but eventually decided to do it, firstly making him promise that he wouldn’t hike far ahead of me and disappear because I had no maps of the area or any idea where I was going – we were going decidedly off-grid.
Stepping gingerly over a deep, wide river and plunging into the wet foggy woods away from the familiar white blazes was a little unnerving, but I trusted him and I was right to. What an experience! It was a longer trail than the AT route but generally flatter, and much more wild and unused. It was scarily easier to step off and get lost because it was not marked well, but between using my basic GPS to get bearings and a paper map we found our way for 25 long miles; weaving past areas where it seemed no one had been for an age. Occasional old camps loomed into view along the sides of the trail, deep under the regrowth reclamation of the forest; abandoned cracked cauldrons used for cooking and feeding hundreds of hungry logging workers lay on their sides smothered by green blankets of new growth, and old rusted tools leant on tree trunks; being absorbed slowly back into the fabric of the wood as they lay unmoving and idle. We navigated washed out bridges over big rivers, bushwhacked between unconnected trail ends and followed rotten railway lines; overgrown and long abandoned. I felt completely, safely and happily lost.
Twenty four hours and many awestruck moments later we emerged back onto the AT and its familiar white blazes to hike up onto Franconia Ridge. Each time I push myself out of my element out here is frightening, but instructive. Using paper maps, a spirit of true exploration and my common sense, I had learned that I can take bigger leaps into the unknown than I ever realised. Fear is useful but it’s also a liar, and pushing beyond it’s walls had yet again taken me to places I’d never go if I listened to it. I’m blossoming out here. Between hunger, pain and tears I am growing into the strong and physically capable woman I wanted to be through all my years of pain, and I am beyond grateful. I know that my current teacher and hiking partner Hambone will need to accelerate his pace to upwards of 40 miles a day at some point and leave me, but in the meantime I’m soaking up every lesson he can teach so that I’m ready to go it alone when the time comes.