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New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail
Ben & Billy eating dinner on Wildcat Peak E
Each state line was a major milestone of our progress on the Trail and
crossing was always a notable event for us. The transition from Vermont to
New Hampshire was perhaps the most impressive physical boundary of the
journey. The marker is set into the imposing stone bridge that crosses the
Connecticut River shortly before the trail arrives in Hanover.
Hanover proved to be one of my favourite towns on the trail. It is home to
Dartmouth College, an institution that kindly extends its hospitality to
hikers. We dined in their cafeteria, though Billy was still not fully
recovered from his illness and put in a shameful performance at the AYCE
buffet. Shortly after this meal I discovered that there were in fact TWO
Indian restaurants in town and I wasn’t going to be eating in either of
them. I had bemoaned the absence of curry on the trail for nearly 1800 miles
and had now blown my opportunity. If it hadn’t been for the fact that
Billy’s cousins had been good enough to take us out for plenty of Indian
food in Baltimore I would have broken down and cried on the spot. However
nice as Hanover was, we couldn’t waste time there - once again we were having
to rush to make it to a post office before Saturday afternoon. This time,
the town of Glencliff, set at the entrance to the White Mountains, was our
target. Billy needed to collect his cold weather gear for the Whites – mine
had been waiting in Hanover. It was fairly dumb of us to send our stuff to
different post offices, but these things happen.
New Hampshire was quick to live up to its fearsome reputation for steep and
plentiful climbs. In addition, the bugs were proving to be quite obnoxious.
Each week it seemed that the bugs had reached a peak of ferocity they
couldn’t possibly best, yet each week they somehow found a way. I was
covered in mosquito and black fly bites and I got stung by some evil looking
wasps. This was balanced out somewhat by the first moose sighting of the
trip. I was preoccupied with my feet and almost walked into the thing. Moose
are enormously great beasts – somewhere between horse and cow size I think –
and it was exciting to finally see one.
We made it successfully to Glencliff and began to steel ourselves for our
assault on the tough but beautiful Whites. We spent some time at the nice
hiker hostel and I was particularly taken by the excellent outdoor shower
system – complete with gravel floor. We weren’t, however, taken enough to
spend the night – it was way too crowded for a pair of borderline sociopaths
like ourselves. Several days worth of hikers were backed up there waiting
out the ‘bad’ weather before they dared to attempt the climb and feared
descent of Mount Moosilauke. We, on the other hand, preferred to face a
supposedly dangerous mountain than a night with too many other human beings
and so headed into town for a pizza dinner, before hiking on to Jeffers
Brook Shelter at the base of the mountain.
We were sharing the shelter with a trio of noisy Quebecois weekend hikers,
who managed to bang pots and pans around for what seemed like hours. The
porky female member of the party then fell asleep and snored loudly
throughout the night. It was a reminder that we were once again entering a
high tourism area – the White’s also boasted the toughest camping
regulations of any section of the trail so there would be no getting away
from them. That night, three inches of rain fell. This was the normal
rainfall for a month and we were about to tackle the trail’s most notorious
descent, the one the guide gave a special warning about being dangerously
slick in wet conditions.
The ascent proved to be less difficult than expected and marked the first
foray of the trip above tree-line. At the top we came across a student from
Dartmouth who was employed to brief visitors about the fragile alpine
environment and to stress the necessity of sticking to the path throughout
the park. We stopped in the cold mist and chatted to him a while – it was a
pretty sweet job he had – he just hung about at the top of the mountain all
day. He even had a little stone fort to store his supplies in and to shelter
from the wind. I resisted asking him whether he had to list his fort as a
benefit-in-kind on his tax return and instead we began the descent. The
North side of Moosilauke drops 1800ft in 1.6 miles and proved to be as
slippery as the guidebook would have you expect. However, the way is made
easier by the addition of occasional steps and embedded steel rods to help
with the most difficult sections and we didn’t have any real difficulties –
it certainly didn’t warrant delaying progress for several days to wait for
the weather to improve as some of our fellow hikers seemed to think.
We lunched at a snack bar adjoining some dumb and expensive tourist
attraction. As we loaded up with second-rate greasy food, we observed the
people. Our fellow diners were, without exception, fat, stupid and/or ugly.
The short approach path to the attraction, whatever it was, featured a 300
foot elevation change. We watched as the woman manning the ticket booth felt
obliged to warn would-be customers about the feat of endurance that awaited
them. Several humungous creatures were dissuaded from attempting the walk,
while two more ignored the warnings and waddled off down the mild incline.
Minutes later they were staggering back up, defeated. They sat, wheezing,
while their family continued without them. The staff of the snack bar, faced
with this endless stream of grotesque idiocy, was doing their level best to
bunk off work at every opportunity for surreptitious cigarette breaks. Their
fat, red-faced manager blustered about and failed to exercise any control
over his charges. It all made for entertaining, if somewhat depressing,
viewing and we somehow idled two and a half hours away there before hiking
the remaining miles to the last free camping for some days to come. Our
options from that point on were to pay for a camp site or to try and work
for stay in one of the huts. We’re never keen to pay for camping and the
work for stay option, though kind of cool, was also slightly stressful. Each
hut only had a limited number of places for work-for-stayers and in order to
maximise our chances of being taken on, we’d need to arrive as early as
possible and prematurely curtail our day’s hiking. In addition, the need to
work in the mornings would mean that we would be setting out later than
usual every day.
Our first experience of the hut system came when we stopped at Lonesome Lake
Hut for brunch. Each hut is staffed by a team of college-age kids who,
together with a varying amount of help from work-for-stay hikers, do all
that is required to look after anything up to a hundred paying guests. The
huts can only be reached by foot or by helicopter and when the staff aren’t
cooking, cleaning or entertaining; they spend plenty of time hiking supplies
in from outside. It seemed like a great institution. Pictures of previous
hut ‘crews’ stretching back decades hang on the walls and the huts
themselves are beautiful wooden structures, perfectly designed for their
purpose. The huts are popular with holiday-makers who walk from hut to hut –
reservations have to be made months in advance as places go fast even at $70
per person per night. We chatted to one of the staff as he fed us with a
mass of leftover breakfast goods and he gave us the low down on what we
could expect from the system. He recommended that we try to arrive by around
3pm each day, though the huts try and be as accommodating as they can be.
Encouraged by what we had seen, we hiked on with Greenleaf as our target.
The climbing throughout the Whites is probably the toughest of the entire
trail, but with so much of it taking place above the tree-line, it all
seemed so much more worthwhile. For once we could actually see where we were
heading and had extended periods of stunning views. That day’s walk along
Franconia Ridge is described by one guidebook as a ‘gothic masterpiece’ – a
description I rather scoffed at until we did it. It is probably the most
dramatic section of the entire Appalachians and a highlight of any
thru-hike. Greenleaf hut lay 1.1 miles down a steep side trail from the top
of Mount Lafayette and we reached this point two hours later than ideal.
Trying the hut would now be a gamble – if we were refused a place to stay it
would be a tough fifty minute round trip back to where we started. We
decided to chance it and bounced down the mountainside. We were in luck too
as we were the only hikers and they were happy to have us. We made ourselves
useful setting the tables before leaving the paying guests to their dinner.
After they were done, we were given our fill of leftover food – all good and
certainly better than our usual hiker fare.
The huts offer the work-for-stay option primarily to thru-hikers and they
rely on the honour system to avoid abuse. That night we witnessed a comical
attempt to take advantage of the huts’ generosity. Towards the end of the
day we had passed three hapless looking teenagers dressed in denim jeans,
one with an oversized bowie knife and hatchet strapped to his belt. They
told the crew they were thru-hikers and tried to wrangle dinner and a place
to stay. Their deception was less than successful, but they were fed
leftovers, as we were, and sent on their way. The next morning they were found
pitched-up outside the hut (a strict no-camping area). They were given a
lecture by the hut manager and reminded that they were idiots.
Our own sleeping arrangements consisted of a pair of mattresses on the floor
of the dining room – great, except that guests walked by all night to and
from the lavatories. They were invariably wearing head-lights and perhaps
didn’t realise that when they stopped to stare at the two figures lying on
the floor, they did a pretty good job of dazzling us. We lost any hope of
sleeping from 5am onwards as this was the start of the breakfast
preparations and the banging of pots and pans and smell of frying meat had
me wide awake.
After a breakfast of leftovers, we swept the hut very thoroughly – Billy’s
ever such a moral sort and he refuses to do a half-assed job of anything. We
eventually got away, about an hour after the paying guests. We powered on
back up the side trail to Mt Lafayette to find many of the guests just
arriving – it had taken us twenty-five minutes and them an hour and thirty.
At the next hut we scoffed down more free breakfast leftovers and pushed on
to Zealand Falls Hut where we again had no problem being accepted to stay.
Already there was a girl called Amy who was out for a week-long vacation and
was busy washing dishes when we arrived. She was very friendly and talkative
– I was fearful how her inquisitive nature would go down with Billy, but we
all got along just fine. After our chores and another good leftover-dinner
we sat down for the evening’s entertainment. I cringed when one of the
guests stood up and informed us that he would be telling us stories and
poems for the next hour or so, but, to be fair to him, he wasn’t bad.
Another night on mattresses on the dining room floor, but this time we had
the nous to sleep with our heads under a table to isolate us from the
guests’ nocturnal wanderings.
Amy, quite inexplicably, seemed to have taken a shine to us and we arranged
to meet up at the next hut. She wasn’t able to keep up with our pace, but
she was smart enough to figure out an alternate route that would allow her
to beat us to Mizpah Hut. We were now entering the Presidential Range of
mountains and we enjoyed another magnificent, if short, day’s hiking.
Arriving at the hut, and again accepted to work, we set about our chores.
After we had finished laying the tables a group of southbound hikers - two
young Jewish guys who lived near Amy and a big porker of a creature -
arrived and were also taken on. After dinner the two Jewish guys clumsily
began clearing the tables, snatching plates away from guests who were still
eating while Porky just stood there asking when he would get his food. We
ate the leftovers – or at least what we could salvage before Porky devoured
This time the three of us got the use of a small loft room with bunks to
spend the night. When we got up the next morning to lay out the tables for
breakfast we found Fatso fast asleep on one of them. He awoke, saw that it
was time to start work and that he was in the way, and promptly went back to
sleep. I finally shifted the creature off of the table and he skulked off to
find somewhere else to sleep until his food was ready. The other two guys
figured they’d done plenty of work the previous evening and shot off as soon
as they’d eaten. We collared Fatso before he had chance to do the same and
put him to work. We might as well not have bothered as he was entirely
Mount Washington was our next big landmark and it tried to live up to its
reputation for having ‘the worst weather in the World’ by greeting us with
75mph gusts on our approach up the rocky trail. There is a visitor centre
and weather station on top and we spent a few hours hanging around there.
Amy bought us lunch in the cafeteria before getting a head-start on us to
the next hut. We frittered some more time away in the visitor centre before
deciding we’d better get on. It was 7miles to the next hut and a large group
of Northbounders had set out an hour ahead of us. We fitted in a quick photo
session on top of the mountain before setting off in pursuit at a pace that
was half-running/half-walking. This section of the ridge was beautiful and
the sun had come out to give jaw-dropping views. We quickly reeled in the
other hikers who had stopped for a break a few miles in. When we finally
made it to the hut though, they would only take two of us so we all made our
way down a steep track to a free campsite. There were a couple of others
staying at the same place and one couple had a dog that hilariously (for me
anyway) stole Billy’s cookies out of his hands as he was about to eat them.
The next day had Amy again planning an alternative itinerary to give her a
chance of meeting us for lunch at Pinkham notch. Halfway down the long and
hatefully rocky descent from the ridge we were rather wishing we’d taken the
same detour. The AMC workers cafeteria at Pinkham Notch was worth the effort
though - we paid all of $6 for a very good AYCE lunch. That night, Billy and
I hiked to the summit of Wildcat Mountain while Amy took the easier option
of riding the ski gondola to the top. Camping was allowed on the open grassy
summit and we enjoyed the fine views of Mt Washington before bedding down
for our final night together.
After saying our goodbyes to our new buddy, we hiked on towards the park’s
boundary. The going got ever easier until we finally arrived at a shelter
near the road to Gorham. Exhausted through a mix of hard climbing and the
stress of dealing with people, we were asleep within seconds of lying down –
barely noticing the two subsequent hikers who came to share the shelter with
Gorham was another good town stop and we made it into town in good time to
eat breakfasts at both Dunkin Donuts and Burger King. We took a room at the
Hiker’s Paradise motel, which at $45 was good value especially when it came
with cable TV, a refrigerator, free local calls and a cooked breakfast. The
Polish owner even rented us bikes for a dollar apiece, which though
decrepit, did the job and made a fabulous change from walking everywhere.
Our run to the grocery store was somewhat comical as we wobbled back down
the strip with backpacks loaded and more groceries swinging precariously
from the handlebars. We were buying a lot of food as the store in town was
good and we decided to buy and mail ahead our food for the four-day stretch
though Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. Meals bought from a decent grocery store
tended to be better and more weight efficient than those bought at a small
town convenience store like we would otherwise have to resupply in when we
got to the start of the Wilderness.
Two bottles of celebratory wine in the night before meant that I missed the
free breakfast, but we loaded up at Dunkin Donuts before being offered a
hitch back to the trail with a ’96 thru hiker. We had a solid slog over
tough hills, but we made it to the Maine border and the final state line
before the day’s end.
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: Maine