AT Sobo Part 10 – Leaving Maine, heading into New Hampshire and the whites
Maine was done! On to the glorifies of New Hampshire. What an adventure thus far. The days after Mahoosuc Notch turned into a blur of dark pines and rain. I spent one particularly favourite night in a beautiful wooden split-level shelter by a silent deep pond. I sat, listening to rain hammer on the roof and watching thick tendrils of mist curl around the beaver dams, desperately hoping a moose would emerge to drink. I think they were all, like me, sheltering from the rainstorm.
A few days later I emerged into the next town and gratefully booked a hotel room. I’m no purist on the trail which means I don’t only follow white blazes, so I took a blue blaze down the mountain which promised to take me into the town rather than trying to hitch 5 miles whilst soaked to the bone, standing in billowing cloud by the side of the road. Hilariously this didn’t work out. At all. I ended up trapped on the wrong side of a wide and dangerous river that was utterly impassable, and with very little reception I called the local hostel to ask where I was. “What can ya see?!” He asked down the crackly line.
“Errr a really big river, and a pumping station, and a bridge that explicitly says I can’t cross it, with barbed wire everywhere.” There was silence. “Yeah” he said. “You’re lost alright.”
“Which way should I go?”
“I don’t know” he said “I never knew anyone getting lost there. Good luck!” And the phone went dead.
Ahh hell, I thought. Brilliant. Only 5% battery left and wet to the bone. Then I saw another older section hiker emerge from the same path. Together we guessed, backtracked and bushwhacked for a couple of hours until we emerged on a bridge over a railway line. We had to shimmy down the bank and then walked the railway line into town like true wild nomads….into a Pizza Hut.
We took a couple of days rest in Gorham because the Presidential Range was up next. Ice cream, Epsom-salt baths for my feet and plenty of motel tv and local cider were what we were all about. Then it was ON. Up we went onto the Presidential Traverse; the greatest range in the White mountains and a dangerous one at that, with 23 miles of hiking and more than 9000 feet of elevation. The hiking route is almost completely above skyline and the terrain is pure shattered moonscape rocks, which need hyper focus and concentration. At every entry point up onto the range are ominous signs stating that it’s the most unpredictable weather in the USA, and that even if it starts to rain you must turn back because death is a feasible outcome if you continue. Wow. Luckily, the sky looked clear and I was keen to get up there.
Scattered through the Whites are ‘Huts’; expensive places for more well-heeled walkers to stay in bunks, and where teams of young hosts and hostesses (affectionally named the hut ‘Cru’) cook and clean, looking after the guests for dinner and breakfast. The guests change every night as a new wave comes hiking in the next day and the previous folks move on. Rarely do thru hikers pay to stay though, as it’s 100 dollars for a bunk, dinner and breakfast. However, if thrus arrive to the huts at the right time, then they can ask for a ‘work for stay’, and some lucky ones will get selected to wash up, clean down and sleep on the dining room floor after the guests have gone to bed, to be out before they wake for breakfast. We didn’t do this.
We hiked so far that day we nearly completed the whole range and went past most huts, only stopping to eat cold leftover breakfast they put out for passer-bys to eat so that the Cru don’t have to carry the waste down the mountain. The ‘leave no trace’ principle applies equally to the ‘fancy’ establishments, where everything that’s brought in MUST be taken out again.
I managed to fall over on my way up Mount Washington; the biggest peak at 6288ft. It was my worst fall yet as I couldn’t get my arms out in front of me to protect myself, and I fell face and chest forward on to the moonscape rocks. A jagged edge met my chest hard and I was winded, squirming face down with pain but glad in the microsecond it happened that it had broken my fall with centimetres to go before my face met the next rock down. I couldn’t get up though. My heavy pack pinned me on the floor. I felt a hand on my back and my pack lifted from behind. Once on my feet I turned to thank my saviour. She was a girl in her twenties with blood under her nose, a cut on her eye and black swelling on one side of her face. ‘You ok?’ She asked. ‘Yes, just.’ I replied, clearly not quite ok yet.
‘Don’t worry’ she said. ‘It’s easy to do’. I couldn’t stop looking at her face. ‘What happened to you?’ I asked. ‘I fell over earlier today, just the same as you. Only, when I did it it was so shocking and painful that I wet myself. Did you?’ Dumbstruck I shook my head, staring at her and imagining how much it hurt, knowing that there’s no way down this mountain range that’s easy and you just have to get through whatever happens. ‘Well, she said ‘you’re doing ok then. Have a good hike and take care’ and with that she walked on. I had definitely done myself a mischief with the fall, and would go on to have two weeks of great pain from what I believed was a bruised or fractured rib. Regardless, I pushed on that day.
Summitting Mt Washington was extremely satisfying and then after a coffee at the high cafeteria for the day tourists I pushed my aching legs to follow Hambone miles further until I could go no more. Officially you are supposed to stay in the Huts if you stay on this mountain range, and it’s easier to do this because the rocks and barren terrain are very hard to find a safe spot on. Hambone remembered a stealth site that he’d stayed at a few years before and we poked around the bushes and patches low trees in the dark. Eventually he found it; pushing through some greenery and emerging into an almost fairy ring-like space with clear views of the peaks ahead and behind. We both set up camp on the bare ground, no tents needed. I was so cold as we were still so high up, so pulled on every piece of clothing I had and made a rudimentary dinner of stuffing mix and crumbled cheese into it, sharing it with a tired Hambone. Sliding into my sleeping bag atop my ground sheet, I cinched the top around my bare and chilly face and lay back to look at the deep black sky and the spread of a million bright stars. Cowboy camping was now my new favourite thing.