I am sitting in the Outdoor Club of Dartmoth College, enjoying air conditioning after walking into New Hampshire on one of the most blistering hot days of summer. I am now two states away from the end of this journey, and some of the most exciting sections of the Appalachian Trail lie immediately before me–the White Mountains and then, Maine. I have been loving the experience every day lately, but I had to come through some hard passages to get here. In the past month of walking from New Jersey to New Hampshire we’ve had long stretches of swampy, muddy trail, days on end of horrendous mosquitoes, withering heat and soaking rain. We’ve also had a few wonderful, cool days of rest in between, but there has been plenty of challenge along the way.
When Sunshine joined me in southern New Jersey for her last visit on the Trail before the end we were just getting into the bad heat and mosquitoes that I had been dreading. We enjoyed three days of hiking together, ending in Greenwood Lake, New York where we rested and cooled off in the lake. Shortly after she left for home I entered one of the lowest phases of my hike. I was weary, mosquito-bitten, stumbling through days that baked like an oven, through stretches of swampy trail where the blood-sucking bugs would not let you to stop for rest. Relief came in the evening when I would camp near a creek, drench myself in cold water, then do my mosquito dance–keeping every limb moving so they couldn’t land–as I dried off and rushed for the protection of my tent. One day in upper Connecticut the cloud of mosquitoes got so bad that I began actually running down the trail to get away from them.
When I came into town and heard folks talking about “how bad the bugs are this year,” I wanted to tell them they had no idea. They didn’t know how bad it was up on the wet ridge above the Hoosatonic River where the mosquitoes flew so thickly that if you stopped suddenly you would feel a hundred little bumps as the cloud enveloped you. Huffing and puffing up the ridge it was not uncommon to inhale a mosquito up your nose or rattling down your throat. It was bad, and when I asked other hikers how they were fairing I usually got one of two responses: “I feel like I’m about to go crazy” and “This is the closest I’ve come to quitting.”
What kept me going was a matter of assumption: I was hiking the Appalachian Trail; this was what it meant to hike the AT; I was going to do it. But I was miserable. And I held onto the hope that there would be a change ahead. The mosquitoes reached an unholy climax on East Mountain outside of Great Barrington, Mass, and I was wondering how much more I could take when I crossed a state highway and walked up to a dry ridge where there was instantaneous relief. The mosquitoes were miraculously gone. A breeze cooled my skin. I walked to Bear Mountain Lake and laid down in the shade, truly resting for the first time in weeks. It felt like a giant sigh of relief, and even though the bugs would make appearances down the trail we were past the worst of it. The following day I would lower myself into the cool water of Upper Goose Pond and wash away weeks of fatigue and stress. It was the 3rd of July.
That is how the trail goes. The lows accentuate the highs, making the moments of luxury and relief all the more vivid and wonderful. Since leaving Goose Pond I have enjoyed some of the best stretches of the trail thus far: the dark spruce woods of Vermont; the stormy peak of Mt. Stratton where Benton MacKye first imagined a trail stretching from Georgia to Maine; a wonderful rest stop in Bennington where I paid a visit to Robert Frost’s grave (thank you trail angel Steve!). This morning we walked off the last section of trail in Vermont and were greeted by Diana and John who were providing trail magic: blueberry cobbler with whipped cream, lemonade, cokes–wonderful! There is so much to look forward to on the trail ahead: hard climbs leading us finally above treeline in the White Mountains, mountain lakes in Maine, and at the end, Kathadin and Sunshine. She’ll be meeting me at the Trail’s end a little over a month from today, and that fact makes me feel divided: eager to hurry through the weeks ahead to see her but also wanting to slow down time so that I can enjoy every last moment of this wonderful journey.