July 11, 2016 For week of 7/10/16
GILMANS CORNER, NH – “Here comes a hiker!” announces Austin, and the rest of us peer at the foliage where he and his dog are pointing. A pair of bare legs with knobby knees appears first, then a toil-tarnished figure with hiking poles and a large pack shrouded in a rain cover. He spots our big plastic pavilion beside the trail and looks quizzically, nervously at the four of us.
“Hey!” shouts Scott. “Want some Trail Magic?”
“Sure!” He turns aside, sheds his pack, wipes his face with a scuzzy bandana, and sits in the proffered camping chair. His legs are soiled with mud to above the ankles. Austin hands him a box of fresh strawberries and brings a can of soda from the brook, and Scott starts a hamburger for him. “You want cheese on that?” All day long, nobody ever says no.
Photographs of the Appalachian Trail are almost always shot from dramatic overlooks and mountaintops, and thru-hiker wannabes envision over 2000 miles of inspirational views. But in reality the trail is mainly a green tunnel paved with rocks, studded with slippery roots laid bare by decades of tramping feet, and long stretches of black mud.
Here where the trail crosses New Hampshire Route 25A, it traverses a section of low, silty glacial outwash that separates the Baker Ponds. It’s damp here, but it’s between hills, and the huge white pines that shade it obviously escaped the great hurricane of 1938. Hikers headed north on the trail have just descended the considerable slopes of Smarts Mountain and Mount Cube, which are warmups for what follows. In a few miles they’ll come to the foot of the Glencliff Trail and start up Mount Moosilauke, the first of the 4000-footers in the White Mountains. Then come the first of the northern challenges: the precipitous, slippery descent of Beaver Brook, the shattered rock trails of the Kinsmans, and the incredibly gnarly Fishin’ Jimmy trail down to Lonesome Lake west of Franconia Notch. Their daily mileage will shrink from around twenty to less than ten in most cases.
Those headed south are about to stretch their tired legs on easier terrain through southern New England, New York, and New Jersey – although, as one hiker said wearily, “You look ahead of you sometimes when you get a view, and there’s a bunch of mountains, and you know that, whoever built the trail in that neck of the woods, took it right over the top of every one of them.”
Scott and Austin are old hiking, canoeing, and camping buddies. They make outdoor videos and share an affection for the trail born of their own thru-hikes. Austin comes to this spot several times a summer to dispense what’s called trail magic; Scott’s a mean man with a grill, a few pounds of hotdogs and burgers, and bottles of relish, mustard, and catsup. They’ve also made up a couple dozen snack bags for hikers to take along with them.
Our fourth member is Steve, the intrepid videographer of “Windows to the Wild “ from New Hampshire Public Television. He’s set up his cameras and microphones under the tarpaulin roof out of the showers and has been recording our conversations with the hikers as they pause. Almost all of them seem delighted to be part of the scene. We address them with their trail names, and don’t even ask the ones they go by in their other lives.
Trail names are tricky. It’s de rigueur to have one (only a single hiker today didn’t), and it’s considered bad form to give it to yourself; your fellow hikers generally dub you by your appearance or performance. So today we’ve met, among others, Nova (from Halifax, naturally), River, Four Years, and Librarian (because, as her anointer pointed out) “she’s bookin’.”
A south-bounder – they’re called Sobos, probably because the full sobriquet is tougher to say than north-bounder – named Flyby was particularly well named; he never took off his pack and kept looking over his shoulder. Shortly after he left, another young man came in. He seemed a bit agitated, and to want to sit and talk. Eventually it came out he’d broken up with his girlfriend the day before, after they’d hiked all the way from Katahdin together. That had to smart.
All day they trickled past, from the first – Layers, a northbound woman who’d just spent the night on top of Mount Cube huddled and freezing in her tent while thunder rumbled across the Connecticut Valley – to the last customer of the day, who’d heard from hikers going in the opposite direction that there was trail magic up ahead, and arrived agallop after the grill had been packed and we were taking everything down. But he still got fresh fruit and a goodie bag.
Everybody had a story, though not everybody wanted to tell it. Nobody I talked to had a job to go back to. They’d all quit a job (IT was a popular job to have quit), or were hiking between school and looking for one. Some had retired, like the former owner of an EMT service, a fiftyish fireplug of a guy who carried both the name and a stuffed toy of Tigger, though it was clear that, unlike Tigger, he didn’t bounce much. He was on his second try at the trail, having been laid low halfway through last year by Lyme disease.
Many lovers of wilderness express some dismay at the current popularity of the AT, and it’s obvious that overuse has degraded some of it. But it’s still the same incredible slog – one foot in front of the other for months – that it was for Scott, Austin, and me; and it’s the least we can do to join all the other Trail Angels up and down its length in providing a little magic along the way.