Like most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Jonas acquired his trail name in Georgia. Now at mile 1,859 his brother, Noah, and I are joining him for a short section. Or not—the oddly named brain trust is deliberating on the issue as I listen from the safety of the motel’s second-floor porch, a summit I gained with some difficulty after the four-hour car ride. My trail name should be Out Of Shape Old Guy or Packin’ Too Heavy—not that I’m entitled to one as a mere day walker.
The thru-hikers just descended from the high Presidentials where they faced rain and winds in excess of 90 miles per hour. Consequently, their headquarters (financed on my Visa) is strewn with drying clothes, tents, sleeping bags, beer cans, and cupcake wrappers. Puma is sitting cross-legged in the middle of this chaos, studying the elevation maps of the Wildcats and Carters. He thinks Jonas’s itinerary is too ambitious. For Noah, not me. Apparently, it is already decided that my role is to set up stealth camps at strategically distanced side trails, so my cardiovascular betters can slackpack (AT speak for carrying light with road support). As Calves sees it I’m to set up tents, collect firewood, cook dinner, and have cold beer ready for their arrival.
But in addition to cold beer and a light pack, Jonas has another reason to ditch me: He wants to walk his older brother—the star athlete, the one who always won at everything—that brother, into the ground. Which will not happen with me in tow. Noah, on the other hand, is willing to accommodate the old man. That’s the family dynamic at work here: both sons looking to exploit my decrepitude for their own purposes.
I had hoped to manage—say 8 miles a day—if the boys carried my gear, but I can see it doesn’t fit into Jonas’s revenge strategy. Also, in honesty, I don’t like the look of the electrocardiograph-like spike representing Wildcat Mountain on Puma’s map. I had a gentler curve in mind, and if Jonas had been farther along, much of the AT through the Maine lake region would have served. But not this section. These mountains, the Whites and Mahoosucs, which rise along the borderlands of Maine and New Hampshire, have the reputation of being the most challenging of the 2,178-mile-long trail. Backpackers that have walked all the way from Georgia despair here. Just my luck.
It’s not clear to me why I’m determined to summit Wildcat. Some slow-aging vestige of male ego I suppose. I mean, well, I’ve been demoted to an SUV-driving baggage carrier. The boys are going on to all six Wildcat peaks, Carter Dome, South Carter, Middle Carter, North Carter, and Moriah; I should at least be capable of the first summit.
So I climb. Rest. Climb. Rest. Granite and tree root and every so often a glimpse of the boys, seemingly directly above. They’re talking about me. I can hear them in the pauses between my labored breathing.
“This could kill Dad. We can’t push him too hard.”
“What if he falls on the way down after he finally gives up….”
I rest and consider this reversal of roles in the hard mountain light. Six years ago, in these same mountains with Jonas, it was my skill with a compass that found the un-trodden Wildcat River Trail and led our party through thigh-deep snow to the Carter Notch Hut. I gave Jonas the compass when he left for Georgia. He threw it away before he hit North Carolina. Too heavy. Now he is leading the party.
Behind me, to the south and west, the land drops to Pinkham Notch and rises again along the long ridge of Washington before ascending into the clouds. Tuckerman Ravine, where the snow lingers past June, is still in Wildcat’s shadow. To the south of Washington, everywhere the horizon affords, the Presidential Range and the Whites rise and fall. And to the north and east, after another steep scramble, finally the knobbed summit of Wildcat E, still impossibly high and distant, and I understand I must turn around.
“And that was just Wildcat E,” Noah informs me. He is lying on his back at Stealth Camp A, a position he assumed immediately upon arrival. “Then you go 500 feet straight down, then up, then down another 500 feet. Wildcat D, C, B, A—way too many Wildcats….”
Noah, in his own words, has “left it all on the mountain.” And that after accomplishing only half of Jonas’s mileage goal. Even so, he is managing to joke about it. He has availed himself of a cold beverage and is holding forth on the absurdity of his brother’s quest.
“What am I going to do today? Oh, I guess I’ll climb a 5,000-foot mountain. Then another two or three 5,000ers. Tomorrow? Guess I’ll climb another mountain.”
And so on, while Jonas, fresh from an easy day of slackpacking and having succeeded in walking Noah into the ground, is looking down with satisfaction at his older brother. But to my surprise, he is not inclined to rub it in. Two thousand miles of trail seems to have infused Calves with an equanimity previously lacking. And clearly some sort of fraternal bonding has gone on across all those Wildcats and Carters. Noah has gained an understanding of the scope of his brother’s undertaking; Jonas is gratified that Noah has come to gain that understanding.
I listen, and watch the stealth fire mellow to cooking coals. Jupiter and Saturn brighten over the Androscoggin Valley. And with them, a late-coming epiphany that this trip, which I had been thinking of as a father-son thing, is mostly about brothers.
The brothers are leading the way up the Mahoosuc Notch Trail. Jonas is setting a considerate pace, which allows Noah and me the benefit of his tutorial on packing light.
“Cupcakes are good,” he says. “Also Mini Oreos and a powder called Crystal Light, but that everyone calls Crystal Crack.”
The ratio of mass to caloric intake is crucial—it would seem.
“All you really need is sugar—you burn it right off anyway.” He pauses to leap a stream, then continues.
“Maybe some tuna fish or peanut butter once in a while.”
This from a child raised on home-grown vegetables. I have doubts if this diet can be sustaining for 2,000 miles, so later, when I get the chance, I put the question to Purple Mist, Optimist, Daddy Longlegs, Sunflower and the rest of the parade of thru-hikers moving through the Grafton Notch State Park parking lot, where I was stationed in my role of slackpack support.
“It’s my understanding I say,” phrasing the question to what I think is my advantage, “that you can walk all the way from Georgia, living only on Little Debbies.”
But they all agree enthusiastically, nodding and mumbling through mouthfuls. They are eating cupcakes now, the last of the magic left in a box at this road crossing. The magic is the work of the Trail Angels, an informal network that supports thru-hikers by leaving goodies at random road crossings along the way.
Hot Rod and Slowpoke, two guys about my age, arrive after the magic has run out. Resigned, they plop down, lean against trees, stretch out their legs, and settle in to watch the action in the parking lot. I offer them a cold beer, which Slowpoke holds aloft reverentially as if it were a sacred object.
“Look Hot Rod,” he says, “an IPA.”
Hot Rod and Slowpoke christened each other on their first mountain, back in Georgia.
“I looked up,” Slowpoke says, “and Hot Rod was already halfway up to the ridge. So I yelled up, ‘What are you doing up there, hot rod?'”
“And I said, ‘Hurry up slowpoke,'” Hot Rod says, right on cue.
Clearly, they’ve told this story over and over, although they still seem to enjoy it. They’re old friends from the Florida panhandle—grown-up kids, supportive wives—comfortable with their new names.
“Do you think,” I ask, thinking about Calves’ newfound equanimity, “that trail names are a way to reinvent yourself.”
Sunflower nods. “It’s almost like it becomes your alter ego.”
Sunflower is eighteen, blonde, pretty, and has a paper sunflower pinned to her pack. She has left her phone on the trail and is asking after it whenever a hiker drops down the trail and accepts one of my beers. Sunflower started with her boyfriend, who dropped out down south, and has been content to carry on alone, without any attachments—romantic or otherwise. She strikes me as remarkably composed, independent, and thoughtful for her age. I ask Jonas about her later.
“Sunflower is amazing,” he informs me. “I ran into her today on the top of Old Speck when a freshman orientation group from Colby College showed up and started wandering around. No warm clothes, ridiculous packs and shoes. Sunflower was concerned. Asked if they had an adult with them.”
By the time we rejoin the AT, 1/4 mile from Mahoosuc Notch, Jonas has finished his discourse on a light pack. Mahoosuc Notch, reputed to be the most difficult mile of the entire AT, is a narrow, steep-sided valley partially filled with asteroid-shaped boulders. More boulders, yet to calve, hang precariously over the trail. Those that have already tumbled have formed a loosely packed rubble riddled with hiker-sized holes, which disappear into dark places where the ice lingers into late
I can report with authority on the ice, because I’ve just dropped—say 6 feet—into one of these crevices. I’m face up, but pitched sharply down at the head, like a back-facing sledder. Overhead, through an alarmingly narrow opening, Jonas’s face appears.
“Nice turtle, Dad.”
Turns out that turtle is a quasi-technical AT hiker term for a controlled fall, where the fallen (me in this case) tucks his head against his knees and drops on the protective carapace of his backpack. I got it instinctively. Still, to claw my way back above ground, I’ll have to get my head above my feet, which, given the narrow confines of my cave, is going to require a flexibility I’m not confident I can achieve. I should have taken that yoga class my wife recommended.
I should have done a lot of things it suddenly occurs. Like quit smoking, lost weight, got in shape. There’s nothing like a turtle to bring forth regret. It’s humbling.
I should be grateful that I’m unhurt and that my sons still want me around. Mostly, I should be grateful that they’re around since I may need them to help me get out of this uncomfortable and reflective position.
Solo Simon has turtled “a least a dozen times” between Georgia and Grafton Notch.
“You just have to hope you can get up and keep going,” he says.
Solo has joined our discussion group at the AT-Grafton Notch State Park parking lot junction. He accepts food but not beer. He is a retired textile executive from Atlanta, “a refugee from corporate America,” as he puts it. Before starting the AT in April, he had never backpacked before.
Solo hopes to make the Frye Notch lean-to another 6 miles or so and on the far side of Baldpate (elevation 3,810) so he packs up and heads out, leaving me wondering at his transformative retirement. I’ve met corporate types in the woods before. They’re usually geared-up to the max and goal oriented, focused on shooting a rapid, or summiting all the 5,000ers, or breaking some obscure record. Man against nature, adventure instead of travel, more Nike than Thoreau. But the AT is no sprint, and Solo didn’t fit that mold. Perhaps he too has reinvented himself.
After three days of being overtaken by the northward migration of AT thru-hikers, I’ve seen (mostly from the rear) perhaps ten folks about my age. The rest are all in their late teens or twenties. So I ask Sunflower if there are any thirty- or forty-year-olds doing the trail.
“Sometimes you see two or three guys in their forties doing a section hike but there aren’t many,” Sunflower says. “There are more old guys like you, but they’re pretty laid back.”
A commentary that leaves me wondering if I’m both old and not laid back, or just old, when Jonas comes down the trail, and hands Sunflower her phone, grinning at me over her shoulder as he accepts a hug.
“A sobo [read southbounder] told me there was some weird angel interviewing hikers and giving away beers,” he says, opening one. “I figured it was you. How was your hike down from the notch?”
“Good.” I say.
And it was good to drop down gently through the trees: spruce, fir, maple, birch, the occasional big pine or runty beech. The late-summer woods still luxuriant and green but damp, despite three days of sun, as if in these shortening days, things will never properly dry out. The stream running loud, moss spreading to all sides of tree trunks, mushrooms in bright uniforms marching through the understory.
Not that I was aware of any of this. When I stopped at the bottom to write some notes on the Mahoosuc Notch Trail, I realized I hadn’t given my natural surroundings the least thought, although I could easily remember them. Which in turn led me to remember that what is most gratifying about getting out in the woods is essentially passive. You don’t get there by just going for it, but by letting it go. An escape not from but into another place, where mushrooms can be seen and unseen, where a change of season sensed like moisture through the skin, and the tinkling stream becomes a sort of white noise moving under the surface, healing without your knowing.
I suppose a Zen master could manage this enlightenment in a city park, or even in downtown Bangkok—although I can’t imagine how. It takes three days of leg cramps for spiritually challenged guys like me to begin to relax.
At any rate, all down the Mahoosuc Notch Trail, my newfound unconscious tranquility led my conscious mind back forty years, when I was about Jonas’s age and set off on my own five month-long journey. My trail, back in those days, took me across Canada, down to California, and back east across the southwest. I was hitchhiking instead of hiking, but I spent almost every night in a tent, much of it in the winter. For six weeks, I camped on a North Ontario lake and worked on a carpentry crew. We were building housing for uranium miners and their families. My commute was a 3-mile walk through the forest, although it shortened to 2 after the lake froze.
At the end of such a trip as a young adult, you are full of yourself to be sure, but also more sure of yourself. It’s still the arrogance of youth essentially, but it’s a liberating arrogance—especially if you don’t recognize it, which is how I remember it. You don’t need anyone. You don’t need a job (except for a grubstake); you don’t need parents, or a girlfriend, or a house. Just a tent and dry sleeping bag. Puma, Beehive, Sunflower, Jonas, they’re feeling this heady sense of self-reliance now. I recognize it, even as, or perhaps because, I understand that aging gracefully will mean accepting that I will become more reliant on others.
Perhaps, with retirement approaching, like Solo Simon, Hot Rod, and Slowpoke I too can reinvent myself. Still walk in mountains, but learn to watch my step—especially in the boulder fields. Sixty may be the new forty physically (not that I have experienced it—but that’s what they say), but perhaps it needs to be the new twenty emotionally. Perhaps I need to be more like Jonas; compass-less, unscripted, open to new possibilities.
Still, I imagine that for Jonas too, sometime in the future after he completes the Appalachian Trail, his ending will bring him back to the beginning, if only so he can understand how he arrived.
This story ends and begins here at another trailhead, where Noah and I get into the car and leave Jonas looking both ways. Behind him a continent of mountains. Also, Beehive, Puma, and Little Toaster, his most recent trail companions, left behind over the course of the slackpack. In front, all the mountains of Maine, with the highest, Katahdin, at the finish line. Peter Pan, who has the best trail name of all, is up there somewhere. Jonas has been texting him. But the Pan won’t wait up, he has a family wedding to attend. Calves is going to have to catch him, although Peter Pan is approaching the high Bigelows already. He’s moving fast, almost flying along above the tree line, living on magic and sugar, forever young.