Monday, October 1, 2012

The Whites!!! (Aug 19th-22nd)

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."
                                                                   ~Albert Einstein

On Franconia Ridge
The four of us woke up on the 19th excited to dive into the rest of the Whites.  We did our laundry and resupplied at the gas station across the street. At this point I had completely given up on trying to be healthy and went for whatever was lightweight and calorie dense. Gas stations usually provided these items. In fact, I did an entire pack shakedown in Hanover, getting rid of anything I didn't absolutely need.  We had a lot of climbing ahead and I wanted my pack as light as possible.  We got dropped off at Franconia Notch around 11am, ready for our hike up to Franconia Ridge and into the Presidential Range.  Our first task was to hike up Little Haystack Mountain where we stopped to take a lunch break in a small clearing.  Here I met Medicine Man and FM, they had always been a day ahead of me in the registers so it was nice to finally put some faces to the names.  They were really fun and little did I know at the time I would be spending the rest of my hike and summiting with them.  I didn't want too sit long as I was too excited to get on the ridge.

The two miles of Franconia Ridge are completely above treeline and the views all around on a clear day are suppose to be amazing.  And we had a perfectly clear day on our hands.  I emerged onto the ridge and was speechless.  Worth Every Step.  Everyone was in complete awe of the vast beauty that surrounded them. The ridge went up and over the summits of Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette.  We all took our sweet time along the ridge, stopping every few minutes to simply take it all in.  The hikers who got off before this, who never got a chance to experience this, well they fucked up.  This stretch was quickly becoming my favorite as it put every other view to shame. 

We paused at Mt. Lincoln before heading up to Mt. Lafayette. In his memoir, David "AWOL" Miller commented that the views from the top of Lafayette were bound only by the limits of his vision.  How superbly right he was. We all hung out at the summit for a bit, drinking some beers we packed out and basking in the glory of our awesome lives.  Realizing it was getting late, we all tore ourselves away and began the three mile descent to Garfield Pond.  According to my stealth list from the guys at the hostel, once you hit the pond, if you walked east off the trail a few hundred yards you will find an impacted site where a shelter from the 30's used to be.  Sure enough we found a large flattened area off the pond large enough for all of us (me, my dad, White Wolf, Pants, Meds and FM).  There was an actual shelter/campsite a mile up the trail but it was one you had to pay to use.  The fee was only $8, but is it was the principle of the thing, plus it would be full of normies, plus we had to climb up and over Mt. Garfield to get there.  That should be enough excuses.  We were happy with our pond, pond people we were.  I went to bed content and pondering how awesome the rest of the Whites were gonna be.

Looking back at everything we had climbed
The next morning my dad got up bright and early, hoping to get to Galehead Hut for some leftover breakfast.  Not interested in sprinting four miles for leftover eggs, I took my time over Mt. Garfield, taking a break with FM at a stream by the shelter.  As I continued with my descent, it seemed the trail maintainers decided to save themselves some time and effort - instead of actually creating a trail, they decided to simply blaze the stream that flowed down the mountain.  I caught up with White Wolf as he tried to maneuver over the slippery rocks.  Wondering if we were actually on the trail or just walking through a stream, we eventually decided it was both and carefully made our way down.  Eight years later, after a bit more rocky crazy trail, we arrived at Galehead Hut.  There were no guests at the moment, as they were all out doing their day hikes, so all the thru-hikers took over the porch, enjoying the view and eating $2 bottomless soup the huts offered during the day.

 As we were eating our soup, we received a pleasant surprise.  Around the corner comes Beowulf.  Beowulf was a hiker I met way back in N.C., but he was cruising and only saw him again when we both went back for trail days.  I had heard he summited at the end of July, so imagine my surprise when he strolled into Galehead, 360 miles from Katahdin.  My first thought was 'is he yo-yoing?  Am I getting lapped right now?' (a yo-yo is when you complete your thru-hike, then immediately turn around and hike back to GA. Don't ask me why, there is only one in the 2012 class that I know of attempting to do this ). Beowulf had summited at the end of July, and not wanting to leave the trail, immediately got a job with the huts.  He was at Greenleaf Hut, which we skipped.  It was his three day off period so he was just hiking around.  It was good to see a hiker who had actually finished, that this trail actually did have an end.  He was gonna stay at Zealand Falls Hut that night (in the croo quarters) so we would see him the next day.

Atop South Twin Mountain
Eventually we filtered away, off to tackle South Twin Mountain. One burly climb later, we were again sitting atop a glorious summit taking in 360 degrees of inspiring views.  We slowly made our way to Zealand Mountain. There was a side trail to the summit which I wasted my time with as it only lead me to a sign, with no view.  I got back and everyone was sitting around talking to a guy named Caleb.  He was a caretaker at Ethan Pond Shelter and told us to stop in when we passed by and he would play some banjo for us.  Eventually we all made our way down the mountain to Zeacliff pond.  FM, Meds, White Wolf, Pants and I were hoping to stealth at a view on the ridge.  My dad was taking a different approach to the Whites, hoping to take advantage of the WFS so he could carry less food.  I preferred to carry more food and avoid the huts. 

Tiny campsite...
After Zeacliff pond the five of us hiked another 1/2 mile and veered off the trail at a view to the east.  We were rewarded with a nice rock cliff and a gorgeous view, and enough (barely) flat spots back in the trees to camp.  We all agreed that we've known each other for at least two days, so we might as well be family and sleep practically on top each other.  It looked like a Big Agnes convention being FM, White Wolf and I all have the same tent.  This was probably one of my favorite camping spots.  Here in this overpopulated national park, which was bursting at the seams with people, the five of us found our own private nook with a view to the world.  We all brought our sleeping pads and bags out to the cliff to snuggle up and watch the sun set.  Only a little Norah Jones could have brought the whole scene together, which FM graciously provided.  My life couldn't have been more perfect, no where else I could think to be. Eventually we retired to the obstacle course that was our tent site, ready for the easy nine mile day we had planned for tomorrow.

With a great view...

The next morning I was the last to leave, milking every last second at this awesome spot.  I finished my descent off Zealand meeting everyone at Zealand Falls Hut.  Beowulf was there hanging out with the croo, and they gave us a bunch of baked goods for free.  The huts during the day were actually kinda cool, the guests are gone hiking so they are quiet, so the croo are a bit more relaxed and willing to slide thru-hikers some goods.  Though I still stand by the statement they would be cooler if they weren't there.  I saw from the register my dad had done WFS there the night before and was gonna try to make it to Mizpah Hut that night.  We had less ambitious plans to camp somewhere before that.  The boys were all hoping to hitch a ride at Crawford Notch to some gas station in the middle of nowhere to get more food as they were running low.  We were hoping to find a place to camp at Saco River right after the notch, saving the climb up Mt. Webster for the next day.  Myself having brought enough food to get through the Whites, I decided that instead of hitching to a gas station, I would have a waterfall themed day and take a few side trails. 

Chillin at Zealand Falls Hut
I was again the last to leave the hut, after going to check out Zealand Falls nearby.  I had an easy flat stroll (the only flat non-rock infested part of all the Whites) over to a side trail to Thoreau Falls.  I found Pants and White Wolf there having lunch and I decided to join them.  The falls rushed over a gently sloping rock face, so we were able to sit right next to the flowing water.  Pants and White Wolf took off before me to get to the notch.  I lounged a bit more, in no real hurry, but eventually got up and made my was towards Ethan Pond campsite.  I remember the caretaker we ran into the day before said he was at Ethan Pond and that he played the banjo, and, as if on cue, I heard a very melodic voice floating over the trees.  I made my way towards the music and found Caleb sitting in the shelter by himself strumming the banjo and singing.  I hung out with him for over an hour, eating second lunch as he played, pausing occasionally to direct the weekend warriors and college groups that were filtering in for the night (though it was only like 3pm, normies quit hiking really early).  Ethan Pond was another pay site so I had no intention of staying, and Caleb told me I would have no problem finding a spot by the river.  He also told me a lot of the caretakers will let thru-hikers do "Work for stay" at the campsites, which usually involved sweeping out the privy for like five seconds or something.  I said goodbye, thanking him for the afternoon tunes and made my way towards the river.

Lunchtime banjo
About a half mile before the notch I saw a sign to a side trail to Ripley Falls.  The falls were a half mile off the AT, so it would be an extra mile round trip.  Why not?  It was early and the boys were probably still at the gas station.  I hiked down to the base of the Falls and it was totally worth it.  There was a large pool at the bottom, I took my shoes off, sat on a rock, stuck my feet in and spent two hours journaling and reading at the base of a beautiful waterfall.  Not a soul came by while I was there. Most of the normies were done hiking for the day and very few thru-hikers would bother with a half mile side trail to anything, we hike enough.  I contemplated just camping there, but the river was only a mile away, and I didn't want to add a mile to my already long day tomorrow.  I had a lot of elevation gain to get to the base of Mt. Washington tomorrow, so might as well get this mile out of the way now.  I begrudgingly pulled myself away from the falls and hiked down to the notch.

Ripley Falls
Our timing was impeccable, all the boys were clamouring out of Trail Momma's car.  She had found them sitting in front of the gas station gorging themselves and gave them a ride back to the trail.  I don't know what we were all gonna do when the hike was over and Trail Momma doesn't randomly just appear to take us places.  We said farewell and made our way across the river in search of a home.  After we crossed the footbridge over Saco River we veered left off the trail a few hundred yards looking for impacted spots to camp.  We found a nice clearing complete with a fire ring.  We obviously weren't the first ones to have this idea.  Meds started a fire, we all made dinner and called it an early night.  We had a tough day ahead of us.  Eleven miles to the base of Mt. Washington.  Eleven miles in the Whites was like a 20 on the rest of the trail.  You just hike slower, the trail is too hard.  Plus if you have any appreciation for what you're doing, you don't just plow past the amazing views.  We had to climb over Mt. Webster, Mt. Jackson, Mt. Pierce, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Franklin and Mt. Monroe just to get to the base of Mt. Washington.  Needless to say I was hoping to get a good nights sleep so I was ready to high five all the presidents tomorrow. 

We got up early to get as much day as possible, we all agreed we would try and do WFS at Lakes of the Clouds Hut that night.  We hadn't had a "thru-hiker hut experience" yet, and though I was ok keeping it that way, there was no way I was going up and over Washington after everything else I had to do that day.  My dance card was full.  We all got going, slowly climbing up to Webster Cliffs.  White Wolf, FM and I got ahead of Pants and Meds, and the three of us hiked together most of the day.  We hung out at Webster Cliffs for a bit, and then traveled the half mile traverse, enjoying views all along the way.

White Wolf enjoying Webster Cliff
FM and White Wolf got a bit ahead of me, and as I turned a corner I came across the two of them chucking what appeared to be hamburger buns off the side of the mountain.  FM had gotten 'squirled' the night before, they had gotten into his buns and took little bites off all them.  No longer wanting to eat them for fear of getting some squirrel disease, he thought it would be fun to throw them off the mountain Stephen Katz style.  We then sat down to try and figure out where we were.  We all agreed that based on how long we had been hiking, we most certainly had to be on Mt. Jackson.  Imagine our dismay after hiking another hour and half to find a sign informing us that NOW we were on Mt. Jackson.  Seriously? That means we were only hiking a mile an hour.  I was warned this would happen, after building up our speed to 3-4 mph, you get to these mountains and get slowed down a lot.  It is very discouraging. If we're going this slow, no wonder the normies only do a mile or two a day. 

My frustration quickly subsided as I looked out from the top of Mt. Jackson.  What was my hurry? Why would I want to hike any faster? So I could leave this beautiful place? From that moment on I never for the rest of my trip cared how fast I was hiking.  I was slowly coming to the end of this journey and I wanted to savor every step.  Besides, I really had nowhere to be, and all day to get there.   

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