Appalachian Trail, White Mountains, NH – 8/20/12 – Valley View Campsite to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center – 8.3 miles
My neck had been a little sore ever since my slip-and-fall on Day 1, but this morning it felt especially stiff. Today, however, it would take a lot to spoil my good mod because we were hiking to our finish line at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center where Judy’s sister Deni was picking us up. As every hiker/backpacker knows, the only thing better than the beginning of a hike is the end of a hike.
We woke up to sunshine very early, 5:30 a.m. and began the business of packing up. Our tents and ground covers were soaked with dew but since we were ending today we stuffed them into their sacks and would deal with drying them out later. By 6:30 a.m. we left Valley View and hauled our backpack-laden butts back up that ridiculously steep trail to Madison Hut. There we filled water containers, used the facilities (flushing toilets!) and said hello to our LOTC friends. Judy chatted it up with the young thru-hikers who were waiting outside to complete their work-for-stay breakfast cleanup. We all put our feet in for a good luck photo.
The AT switched to follow the Osgood Trail and at 7:30 a.m. we started our ascent of Mount Madison, one of the Presidential peaks that the AT actually summits and our last steep test of mettle for this New Hampshire adventure. I think it was the toughest test of all. Imagine that God took an enormous rock, nearly a mile high, and hit it with a mighty sledgehammer. Imagine the rock cracking and breaking up into a heap of rubble, no soil to hold it together, just loose rocks ranging from the size of a basketball to the size of a Volkswagen. Then God says, “Okay, get to the top of that the best way you can.” Welcome to Mount Madison.
The glorious morning sun emerged from directly behind Mount Madison, beaming a piercing spotlight in our eyes as we climbed. There is no trail whatsoever, just moving from one 6-foot rock cairn to the next. I couldn’t even tell which side of the cairns was better, passing some on the left and some on the right. Sometimes I had to back up and go around the opposite side, constantly looking up, squinting, shielding my eyes from the sun to see if I was still on course. I only took a couple of photos of this segment. Judy put away one of her hiking poles and shortened the other to use her hands for balance. I stuck with my poles but I’m not sure it made anything better.
Looking down at Madison Hut with Mount Adams in the background – thank goodness we didn’t have to climb that too – some hikers said it was even worse than Madison
The half-mile to the summit took us 1.5 hours, elevation gain a bit under 600 feet, every step a logistical challenge. I think Judy rewarded herself with a few Snickers, always a good incentive. There were several groups at the summit, including some amusing New Zealanders who commented on the spectacularly clear blue sky: “This is New Zealand on a bad day.”
The feeling of elation that blossoms in the chest when a tough challenge is met – the summit of Mount Madison! Look closely to see the tiny towers on Mount Washington under my right elbow
Some of our friends from LOTC – never pass up the chance to get in the middle of a photo with handsome men
No more tough climbs, home free now, right? Not exactly. Now we faced the part I had both longed for and dreaded, a 3,000-foot descent in 3 miles, sort of the bookend to the ascent of Mount Webster. Our lungs would be spared but our knees would suffer, plus going down a steep pile of loose rocks is at least as slow as going up. The character of the trail now consisted of a brief plateau section followed by a short, steep descent, repeating several times.
The guys quickly pulled ahead of us and dis- appeared.
Me: Look at what we just went over! Judy: I don’t want to look. Mount Madison in the foreground, Mount Adams in the background
When the trail descended below the tree line the character changed again. Believe it or not, the steepness increased – no more plateaus – but the large rocks were embedded in soil and the trees hugged us close. I was bummed to lose the big views but Judy was ecstatic to be back in the more familiar terrain of the AT. The uneven big steps led unrelentingly down the mountain. My right knee began to ache so I began to compensate by always stepping down with my right foot (bending my left knee instead), knowing that I would wear out my left knee too.
Altogether the 3 miles from Madison Hut to the Osgood Camp intersection took us 4 hours, excruciatingly but necessarily slow, and my patience wore thin. I was hungry but too stubborn to stop to eat before the intersection.
An older fellow, a section hiker who had been leapfrogging with us for a couple of days, descended down the green tunnel with us and also stopped at the Osgood Camp intersection. As he prepared to move on, I pointed to the trail signs and said, “Look at the signage there, I think the AT goes that way.” Well, he took off in the direction I pointed without consulting the sign. Ten minutes later when Judy and I looked at it, we saw that the trail turned and that he had gone in the wrong direction. Too late to catch him. We figured that he would intersect with the road in a few miles and realize the mistake. I felt only a little bit bad because he should have checked out the trail sign plus his map and confirmed the route. Who was it that said “Trust but verify”?
In fact, the AT makes several turns in the last miles going to Pinkham Notch so every intersection required consultation with the map. Past the Osgood intersection the trail leveled out and we celebrated the creek crossings and soft dirt floor. Judy was quite happy, back in the forest environment that she loves. She stretched her legs and moved ahead. By now my right knee was quite stiff and my thighs were sore, so I kept an easy, relaxed pace.
West Branch of the Peabody River
Bridge over the West Branch of the Peabody River
Interesting fungi and ferns
A familiar sight: trillium
Judy rock hopping a stream
The trail crossed the Mount Washington Auto Road and we took a rest break. Occasionally cars passed by and slowed down to look at us. Why? Do we look like an exhibit or creatures in their natural habitat? One couple stopped and asked lots of questions: Had we hiked to Mount Washington? Was it scary? They had driven part way up the road but turned around because it looked too dangerous.
Our last trail section was Old Jackson Road, two miles of cruising at 2 miles per hour. We passed one older couple, moving slower than us but looking very fit with sturdy legs, out for a short hike as they were passing through the area. A good example for us.
And there it was: Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. It was 3:30 p.m., 9 hours since we left our campsite this morning. And of course they closed the snack bar at 3:00 p.m. Inside the VC I saw the section hiker who had taken the wrong direction, and when I said hello and tried to inquire about his hike, he looked at me and walked off. I guess he held me responsible for his detour.
We took our boots off and sat on the bench at the VC until Judy’s sister arrived at 5:15 p.m. I collapsed into the back seat of her car in a semi-coma for the 2+-hour drive to her home near Manchester. Once there, a good shower, a glass of wine and a great meal prepared by Deni’s husband, Fred, and I was ready for one thing: bed.
Why does it feel so good to stop hiking? Why do we immediately start planning the next trip? Always chasing that feeling of challenge and triumph, and ultimately finding connection, humility and gratitude.
Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined - how is it that this safe return brings such regret?