I don’t think I’m cut out for life in, say, Montana, and I’m pretty sure I’ve abandoned my abstract aspirations to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved the hiking part of our trek from the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to the summit of Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. I loved the spectacular views, the hour upon hour of physical activity, the freshly picked raspberries and blueberries and the rudimentary navigation and the relative solitude of being the only two people on the trails for days at a time.
I didn’t even mind the iodine treated water, blistered toes, eating the same thing for lunch for seven days in a row, carrying 30+ pounds of weight on my back, or sleeping in the rain in a cramped tent.
What was it, then, that made me reconsider my career as a professional outdoorswoman?
Two words: Sharp Teeth.
The second half of our trek was a veritable menagerie of New England wildlife. We saw hundreds of toads and dozens of newts. We saw owls and vulchers, squirrels and chipmunks, even a beaver and a porcupine. And they were all fantastic (especially the porcupine – he was my favorite. I named him Roger.).
I was less than enthused, however, about the bear encounters by day and coyote stalkings by night.
After leaving Brent’s parents’ house on Wednesday morning, we hit the trails running and covered 15 miles before stopping at Ruggles Pond, a park facility complete with outhouses (yes!), picnic tables, fire pits, and a sectioned-off swimming hole, all surrounded by lush evergreens.
Clearly people had been there in recent days, as the half-empty cups of beer could attest, but we had the site all to ourselves as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of apples and peanut butter sandwiches, followed by a short dip (of the feet for me, the whole body for Brent), in the pond.
We fell into a nice rhythm over the course of the week, pushing hard through the morning and meandering on until dinner time, cooking by the bank of a stream and then logging another hour or two of hiking before stopping for the night. We each brought different things to the table – Brent was a master of rigging bear bags and pooping in the woods; my expertise lay in bugspray application – but we found our stride quickly and worked well together toward our end goal.
After Ruggles Pond that first day, the afternoon and evening went without incident as we hiked another ten miles and cooked a macaroni and cheese dinner next to a waterfall. We were golden until about 7:30 PM, right as we were getting ready to seek out a flat area and set up camp. We had just rounded a corner and were following the Northfield Reservoir fence line when we heard an odd sound, something of a scratching from high above in the trees. I spotted them first: four bears, about 50 yards in front of us. These were not just any four bears, of course, but a mother and three cubs – a precarious situation, for sure, made more dangerous when mother and cub #1 ran one way down the trail and cubs #2 and #3 scampered further up a tree on the other side of our path.
We didn’t want to continue on and risk getting caught in between a protective mother and her brood, so we surveyed the scene and elected to climb over the fence of the reservoir (liberally decorated with NO TRESPASSING signs) and continue on our way in relative safety. From our maps, it seemed as though there was a road about half a mile further that would link back up with our trail within a mile.
Of course, it was beginning to get dark by this point, so after wandering around the reservoir, trying to figure out exactly which road was the right road (all were overgrown and none were heading in quite the right direction), we shimmied back under the fence – away from the bears – and decided to set up camp for the night and continue down what we hoped was the correct road in the morning. We worked frantically to unpack and erect the tent as the mosquitoes feasted on our arms and legs. We abandoned the prospect of hanging the bear bag because we couldn’t find an adequate tree, and dove into our sleeping bags.
Just as the first coyote walked by.
I didn’t notice him as he scampered through the trees (Brent did), but I did hear his piercing barks a couple minutes later. At first we thought it was a dog, but as the barks turned to shrieking howl after shrieking howl, it became clear what we were dealing with. On and off for several hours their cries continued as we wondered whether they’d gotten to our food, 100 yards down the road leaned up next to a tree in a waterproof stuff sack, and I wondered whether they were waiting for the ideal opportunity to ransack the tent itself.
Our food made it through the night unscathed, and I came out of the experience only slightly emotionally scarred. This was, in fact, our last encounter with both bears and coyotes, but it was striking enough to stick with me for the rest of the hike, lodged in my stomach each time I came around a blind curve or heard a rustle in the trees that surrounded us over the next three days.
The rest of the hike actually passed quite smoothly. We both had our down moments, and Brent’s feet continued to ail him so we made frequent rest stops, but we pushed hard, covering upwards of 75 miles over the back half of the trip, and overall having a great time. We solved minute mysteries to pass the hours, and I taught myself to shift from writing stories in my head to singing quietly to myself to avoid needless animal anxiety. Peter, Paul, and Mary, Billy Joel, and James Taylor got me through lots of miles that would likely have been spent thinking up disastrous tales of mountain lion attacks. At night, I discovered that if I willed myself to sleep as soon as I got into my sleeping bag, I could avoid the fitful nights of tossing and turning with each leaf crunch.
It wasn’t perfect, but the benefits of the trails gradually began to outweigh the prospect of peril.
During our last full day of hiking, we stopped in the town of Troy, New Hampshire for lunch. Our guidebook had mentioned a bakery, a small grocery store, and a restaurant with “traditional hiker food” and we were excited for a break from peanut butter on bagels before continuing on to our final destination for the night – the Inn at East Hill Farm (more on that momentarily).
We wandered into Troy, the sun beating down and the pavement steaming, and were somewhat befuddled to find an antique store, an auto shop, and several boarded up buildings. After talking to a few locals (and becoming minor celebrities when they found out what we were doing) we learned that there was a mini-mart “with everything you could ever want” half a mile down one road and a below-average pizza joint a mile down the other. We briefly contemplated the mini-mart before returning to the local grocer – Stan’s Troy Market.
We’d both heard stories of ‘trail angels,’ kind folks who give you free meals or water along your journey, but thought they were somewhat of an urban (urban?) legend until we got to Stan’s, which stocked an eclectic mix of organic produce and natural foods products, and every kind of ding dong and ho ho and dorito you could want. The store didn’t have a deli counter or the like, so after unsuccessfully looking for some vegetarian options, I’d resigned myself to another peanut butter bagel when I came around the aisle with my gatorade to find the clerk (perhaps Stan himself) giving us the fixings to make two turkey and cheese sandwiches on thick wheat bread that he’d gotten out of the staff stash (turkey on the side for me, of course). We went to check out and discovered that he had charged us a total of $2.52 for the sandwiches.
Before leaving Amherst three days earlier, we’d made the decision to spend our last night on the trail at a small bed and breakfast at the foot of Mount Monadnock, our final destination. Brent did a quick search online and came up with the Inn at East Hill Farm, a b&b/working farm that seemed to cater as much to families as to the occasional passerby.
After leaving Troy, we summited Gap Mountain – one of the best parts of the whole trip – and made our way down the trail to the inn, just a mile out of our way. When we turned the corner into the driveway, we both stopped abruptly. In front of us sat acres of sprawling land, covered with swimming pools and playgrounds and porch swings and hot tubs, and most of all, hundreds of kids.
Somehow, we missed the line on the website about this being a “family-style summer resort.”
We checked in and boogied down to the pool, jumped in fully clothed and watched as the ickyness of three days without shower washed away. From there, we made our way to the hot tub, set off next to the indoor pool, just beyond the arcade in the basement below the dining room.
That night, we dined – all-inclusive and family-style – on manicotti (for me) and Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings (for Brent) before washing our clothes in the bathtub and sleeping under a ceiling fan. Lucky for us, given the torrential rains and piercing lightning strikes that were illuminated the sky outside.
We got up in the morning, ate a quick breakfast, and left our packs at the front desk to begin the 2.3 mile ascent up the most hiked mountain in the entire United States (second in the world, though we’re not sure to what). Mount Monadnock is just over 3,000 feet high, and we made it up in 1 hour and 1 minute.
We sat on the top for half an hour, enjoying the breeze and the views and the feeling of accomplishment of having completed a 7-day, 125-mile trek from state line to state line, and then meandered our way down the other side of the mountain, passing by hundreds of people lumbering their way up to the top – a bit of a shock to the system, since we’d spent the last four days in the woods without seeing a single other hiker.
Well, there was that naked woman sitting in a stream a quarter mile from the road a couple days back. But I’m not sure whether she counts.
Brent’s folks picked us up at the base and we wove our way back to Amherst on back roads – Fred’s scenic route – stopping for burgers and farmstand blueberries along the way. We showered and did laundry and went to see Mongol at the Amherst movie theater.
And then we commemorated our efforts with tequila.