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Connecticut & Massachussets
Volume 42: Wed August 20, 2003
I last left you, breathless, after being kidnapped off the trail by Ceil. The saga continues....
After taking a shower and generally getting cleaned up, Ceil took me out to dinner where we chatted the evening away. It was absolutely great to get off the trail for a night, away from the bugs and feeling clean. Then we went back to her place where I promptly fell asleep.
The next morning she took me back to the trail and I hiked a few hours into the town of Kent, a land of the rich and occasionally famous. Word has it that Whoopie Goldburg has a home in the area, as does Henry Kissenger, although I didn't meet either of them in my stint into town. How cool it would have been to write about Whoopie providing trail magic where the AT crosses the road into town, though! What else does she have to do? Movies? Ha! =)
Kent is a small, cute little town that—according to one source (USA Today)—is one of the 100 best vacation spots in the country. My favorite part is the art sculpture of crumpled up soda cans with apples balanced on top. The 'soda cans' are actually about ten feet tall—not life size at all—with equally large apples for that added piece of interest.
I picked up some snack foods, bought a mosquito net for my head at the outfitters (the bugs are quite annoying out on the trail nowadays), and made some phone calls before heading back into the woods and camping at the Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-to.
The next morning I lounged around rather late before heading off to Cornwall Bridge where I met with the infamous Wanda of the Wanda and Pete gang, yet another letterboxer I'd meet up with on my journey. I bet all you non-letterboxing people never realized how many of us boxers there are out there, did you? =)
All-in-all, we had a great time tramping vegetation in search of letterboxes and swapping war stories of the Appalachian Trail. Most people are in awe of my hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I was in awe of Wanda's FIVE previous thru-hikes on the AT. You'd think someone would have learned their lesson after doing it once! ;o)
When Wanda saw my pack, she said I looked like a slackpacker because my pack looked so small and light. I covered the imaginary ears on my backpack and told it not to listen to her, it was a fine backpack and I was proud to wear it.
I also learned that people in Connecticut have their own, secret language. For instance, a grinder is not something I thought was edible, but it is here.
There was also a puzzling footnote in my guidebook about the Cornwall Package Store that's very hiker friendly. I was puzzled, because I could fathom no reason why a hiker would want to stop at a packing store. You might laugh if you're from New England, but where I'm from we call it what it is: a liquor store.
I signed the registry there and Wanda looked up her old entry from the days of yesteryear. I also picked up a Hawaiian Punch—since I was there and it was free. (At least for thru-hikers—they can get a drink for free.)
Our fun over, Wanda dropped me off on the trail once again, and I made my way to the pleasant sounding Pine Swamp Brook Lean-to. And there's another thing—shelters in New England are called lean-tos. I've been calling them shelters since Georgia, and where does New England get off calling them lean-tos? It's morally reprehensible if you ask me. =)
There I met another hiker, Jollies, who was raving about Papa John. A vein would pop out from his forehead whenever he wanted to say his name. Spit flew out when he succeeded. Naturally, I asked him what was up.
The story he told me was that Papa John had gone into Kent the day before and got drunk off his ass. He even brought more alcoholic beverages to the shelter less than a mile from Kent to party all night long.
Where he really went astray, though, was when Papa John couldn't hold himself any longer and proceeded to urinate in the shelter—directly onto hiker in question. Talk about being pissed off!
I could understand why he had a problem with Papa John, and I casually asked where he stashed the body.
But seriously, despite my personal dislike for the guy, Papa John is not deliberately mean or evil—he's just the kind of guy that manages to get under one's skin. Not just my skin, either, but apparently everyone he meets. A couple of weekenders that had met him at a shelter for about ten minutes delicately described him as "different".
Another hiker said that Papa John told them that he couldn't sleep well unless he has a beer before going to sleep. Obviously there's an alcohol problem there, but one quick-thinking hiker took advantage of that fact by creating a sign saying, "Free beer, here, 8:00 tonight" and posted it up somewhere before the shelter they were planning to stay at hoping Papa John would go after the 'free beer' and miss the shelter. (I did not learn if the ploy worked.)
Papa John simply is not a likeable fellow, but he suffers under the delusion that he is well-liked and popular. And perhaps there are some hikers that do like him, although my very unscientific surveys haven't uncovered any thus far. I shall continue my search for the hiker that actually likes Papa John, but I fear the quest will end in failure.
But I digress....
The next day I hiked a measly five miles to where the trail crossed the Housatonic River and where I would meet up with Amanda.
We found each other at the Mountainside Cafe, along with another letterboxer, Music Woman. The three of us spent the afternoon wandering around, visiting libraries, and finding food. Then Music Woman took her leave and Amanda and I found a cheap motel where I could take a shower and kind of get cleaned up. Then I watched Lethal Weapon 3 on the television while Amanda slept, exhausted from her red-eye flights.
The next four days I'd wander the Connecticut countryside with Amanda. We saw The Italian Job at a movie theater. We met more letterboxers. I delved deeper into the latest Harry Potter, brought to me by Amanda and under strict orders NOT to slice it up into a more convenient carrying size. (You'd normally think such instructions would be unnecessary, but Amanda felt it was better to be safe than sorry.)
One other nasty little chore needed to be done before I returned to the trail—a haircut. I hadn't had my hair cut since leaving California, and when a fly buzzed my head, got tangled in my hair, and died an agonizing death while I hopped around with arms flailing trying to extract it, I knew the time had come. I needed a haircut.
If you've ever been in a strange city and needed a haircut, you might understand my predicament. If you've never even paid for a haircut before because your mom has always done it for free, you might understand my nervousness even more.
Amanda and I found a cheap place where I could get a simple, basic haircut. I acted macho and read car and truck magazines while waiting my turn under the scissors. Amanda put fresh batteries in her camera, sure she'd be getting lots of great shots. I gave her the evil eye.
"Ryan, you're up!" A wicked looking lady with sharp scissors and misshapen teeth directed me to the nearest booth. I trembled. It was all I could do not to run out raving like a crazy man. Give me rain, mosquitoes, mudslides, bears, and man-eating porcupines. God knows, I can handle them....
"Sit down, Ryan."
I gulped. She was ready for the kill. I sat while she tied a plastic sheet around my neck—probably so I wouldn't get blood all over my clothes once the cutting began. The scissors came out—
Good GOD! Those things were freaking HUGE! I closed my eyes and said a couple of prayers to every God I could think of (better safe than sorry!). I cringed with every cut and pull of the hair.
With dizzying swiftness, the cutting was done. I think I blacked a couple of times but Amanda would revive me with bright flashes from her camera.
I opened my eyes slowly and looked in the mirror. And the haircut looked okay. It could have been shorter so I wouldn't have to go through the experience again for several more months, but it would do.
I hastily paid for the haircut and pushed Amanda through the door, making it out before either of us got seriously hurt.
Then I met Jan, Amanda's good friend and former college roommate in the dorm. You'd think with such a long history that Jan would have some good dirt on Amanda, but alas, it was not the case. Or at least that's the story the two are sticking with. Apparently, Amanada lived a very dull life before she met me. =)
Amanda and Jan insisted that no trip to Connecticut would be complete without a stop at Stew Leonards, a bizarre cross between a supermarket and theme park. Yes. You read right. I immediately knew this was no regular grocery store when I saw the petting zoo out front. I joked with Amanda and Jan that I've never been to a grocery store where the meat and produce was THAT fresh!
Inside, the maze-like corridors led you through the aisles lined with all things food, interspaced with animated singing chickens (in the same spirit as the Country Bear jamboree) bragging about how fresh the eggs are. Trees sang about how wonderful their bottled water from Maine was. By the bananas you could push a button and a giant, yellow Chaquita banana woman would start dancing and singing about how good she was.
Occasionally random people in the checkout line would win ice cream. And a wall in the front of the store had pictures of people from around the world holding Stew Leonard bags in front of various destinations. Three, I was surprised to see, were from people visiting Hearst Castle not far from my hometown of San Luis. Another was at an anonymous trailhead in Virginia on the AT.
Which, I thought was scandalous! To DRIVE to an AT trailhead in Virginia and get a picture? It defeats everything the AT stands for! I immediately decided to undo this injustice by getting a plastic Stew Leonards bag and carrying it to Maine and the top of Katahdin in true thru-hiker style. I would send the photo to them for posting on their board. Look for it coming to a Stew Leonards near you in a couple months.
On the last day of my trail hiatus, a dozen or so letterboxers from around the state organized a gathering in my honor. I was impressed with the turnout—the largest by far to date with a dozen or so people showing up.
We swapped letterboxing war stories and I mingled with such celebrities as Jay Drew, the Green Dragon Team, and Just Beth—instigator of the dead gerbil gathering.
But alas, my time with Amanda at an end, she drove me out to the trailhead, as I verbally complained about signs on telephone poles promoting tag sales everywhere. Why don't they call them garage sales—like normal people? Package stores, lean-tos, and now tag sales? Sheeze!
Amanda dropped me off on the trail once again where I pushed on to the Brassie Brook Lean-to, soaked to the bone from rain. The Weather Channel forecasted rain and thunderstorms for the next seven days in a row—oh, boy. I couldn't wait to see the ten day forecast!
The next morning I woke early to pull off a grueling 24 mile day due to a ban on camping in the last 14 miles. It was either 10 miles or 24, and I chose 24.
The first ten kicked my butt, climbing over treacherous, wet rocks to the summit of Bear Mountain. By the time I went ten miles, I had already fallen an hour behind my self-imposed schedule and if the slow progress continued, I could find myself stuck between shelters camping illegally in the dark.
Fortunately, the trail did get a little easier, heading downhill and staying mostly flat (although muddy) for about five miles. The trail passed by a monument marking the last battle of Shay's Rebellion, an interesting piece of American History that most Americans couldn't tell you much about—including myself. I know some details, but not enough to feel qualified to spout off my own opinions, so I'll keep my mouth shut. =)
Let it be known, though, that this historic site is now a cornfield. Way to go, America. Nothing shows contempt for history like planting a cornfield instead of informational displays about Shay's Rebellion so we can actually learn something about it.
However, I didn't really spend much time contemplating this fact. My feet were tired, rain was threatening, I was an hour behind schedule on a 24 mile day, and still had eight miles to hike.
At West Sheffield Road I had a decision to make. A sign was posted—a detour, an officially designated detour from the Appalachian Trail. I came close to taking one in Hot Springs when flood waters flooded the trail, but went through the yellow tape, sloshed through the trail, and stayed the course.
The detour sign said that the bog bridges, strategically placed where they'd be least helpful, were underwater. The detour followed roads around this half-mile section of trail, adding about one extra mile of walking.
Not wanting to wade through mud and water, I followed the detour secure in three things: (1) It was an officially designated detour and 'becomes' the AT so there was no shame in skipping a half-mile, (2) the detour was longer, so I could argue that it was *harder* than not taking it, and (3) I'd still have walked from Georgia to Maine regardless of the route I took.
Halfway through the detour, it started to sprinkle. Tired, I sat down on a patch of grass off of US7, pulled out my umbrella, and munched on some Pop Tarts watching traffic zoom by. I waited for a cop to stop and question the strange sight I must have made, but none came.
I was also facing another problem—I was quickly running out of water and still had about eight miles of hiking left. I placed my water bottle under the edge of my umbrella to catch as much water possible running off it, but the light sprinkle wasn't providing much.
Giving up, I put on my pack once again and trudged on. I found my way to the end of the detour and back crashing through the woods and up a steep hill.
I rationed my water for the last couple of hours, frustrated at all the rain yet unable to drink any of it. By 8:00, I was feeling rather desperate. My feet were absolutely exhausted, it was getting dangerously dark (especially without a headlamp), I was soaked to the bone, and incredibly thirsty having drank the last of my water a half hour before I expected to reach the shelter (and water source).
I started planning for Plan B, which consisted of camping in the trees illegally and using my tarp to catch the rain water for drinking—much more effective than an umbrella, at least.
And I'd have done it, except that I knew the shelter HAD to be close. So I continued pushing on. And at last I saw a sign. It was too dark too read—located about ten feet off the trail. So I walked out to get a closer look. And it was it! Tom Leonard Lean-to, only a short 150 feet down this side trail.
I hobbled into the shelter, happy to see the flickering candlelight and other hikers. I asked about where the water was—a first priority for me since I was dying of thirst and wanted to fill up my water bottle before twilight became pitch black.
Two weekenders offered their own bottle of water that I greedily accepted and drank. I promised to refill it the next morning after sunrise, although they waved that thought off saying they had gotten too much water anyhow.
Too tired to make dinner, I simply changed into dry clothes and went to sleep, happy that miserable day was finally over.
The next morning, I woke with a horrible cramp in my left leg, near my knee, and nearly fell flat on my face. I had been planning another long 21 mile day—a bit shorter than the day before, but still a long day.
But with my crippled leg, I decided to stop one shelter short of my original destination giving me an embarrassing 7 mile hike for the day. It was just as well, because I made it into the shelter about five minutes before a torrential downpour hit, and I smiled from the protection of the shelter.
Lightning swept the smile off my face as it crashed down hitting a nearby tree scaring the daylights out of me and my shelter companion, Krazy K. Mustering my dignity and catching my breath, I yelled out, "Is that the worst you can do?!" into the heavens.
Krazy K thought I was crazier than he was, remarking that that last lightning bolt was TOO close and I shouldn't be testing my luck.
Just then, another lightning bolt struck another nearby tree and made the shelter jump. I told Krazy K stories about two hikers that died in a shelter back in the Smokies when it was struck by lightning, but assured him that hasn't happened again in the last 20 years. He didn't seem very comforted by that fact, though.
The lightning eventually faded, but it rained long into the night ensuring muddy trails for the next day.
My leg was still hurting, but not nearly like it had the day before. I hobbled a relatively non-eventful 14 miles to the Upper Goose Pond Cabin, a wonderful place with FOUR walls and mosquito netting over all the window openings. There was a caretaker there who'd make a pancake breakfast for all the hikers. And there was even a canoe one could take out on the lake for those hikers that felt the hike in wasn't strenuous enough.
Filled up with pancakes, I hit the trail in a good mood. The trail crosses over Interstate 90 where I waved to motorists driving under who'd honk their horns.
It was lots of fun, although I'd later learn that it was a tradition among many hikers to streak across the bridge wearing nothing more than their boots, their pack, and a smile. Unfortunately, I didn't learn about that tradition until the next day 20 miles away, so I can't claim to have tried it myself. Sounds like a real hoot, though.
At another road crossing, someone had thoughtfully left a welcome mat on the trail, a nice touch, I thought.
The next day I headed into Dalton, Massachusetts. As I learned from my guidebook, the town boasts of the Currency Museum, operated by the exclusive maker of the unique paper used by the US government for printing all of its currency. It sounded like an interesting place to visit, but it wasn't open when I passed through.
The trail went down Depot Street, a residential area in town. At one house a sign was stuck into the lawn saying hikers could help themselves to water from the spigot on the side of the house. On the front porch were two hikers I had met a couple of days back—Gazelle and Sketch—so I stopped briefly to chat with them.
Or rather, I meant to stop briefly. Tom, the owner of the house, came out and introduced himself. He'd been meeting and greeting hikers for over 20 years now, a friendly fellow with way too much time on his hands. I asked if he knew when the library would be open since he seemed likely to know, and said that if I could wait an hour I could use his computer to get on the Internet. Sounded good to me! He was taking Gazelle and Sketch to the laundromat and would be back in an hour.
The three of them departed and I slumped down into a chair on the porch where I did puzzles from a magazine and guzzled down a Coke that Tom had offered, waiting for their return.
An hour or so later, while I was deep into a Cross Sum, they returned. Tom asked if I wanted some ice cream, but I begged off not wanting to inconvenience the guy any further. He persisted, though, saying he'd get it for me, and I relented, saying if he was going to twist my arm about it, I'd take the ice cream. =)
A few minutes later, Tom returned with a platter. On it was a bowl of ice cream, covered with chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and sprinkles. Also, a slice of cherry pie and a bit of cake on the side. My eyes popped out in astonishment—calling this just an ice cream was like saying the pope was a 'little' past his prime.
I babbled my thanks and delved in. Tom entertained us with stories of past thru-hikers. Several years ago a hiker asked if he could borrow some pliers, which Tom was happy to provide. Until he came out of his house again and saw a bloody tooth hanging from it, having just been manually extracted. The hiker couldn't afford a dentist for his aching tooth and took it upon himself to do a little self-surgery using nothing more than a bottle of booze and pliers. Tom now does not loan out pliers without finding out why a hiker wants them first.
He also told of a story of a hiker, about five years ago, that decided to thru-hike in the nude. Whenever the trail came into a town, such as that one, he'd tie two handkerchiefs around his privates. Apparently, that didn't go over well with the cops in Kent that threatened to arrest him unless he covered up a bit better, and ultimately had to borrow some shorts from a fellow hiker for his duration in Kent.
I then spent another hour or two using the Internet before I said goodbye and headed off. My five minute break turned into a five hour delay.
I charged down the trail, hoping to make up time, through the rest of Dalton, up a hill, and down the side into the bustling town of Cheshire and the famous Cheese Monument.
This monument was in honor of a 1235 pound block of cheese delivered to Thomas Jefferson at the White House. It sat in the East Room for six months while the White House inhabitants ate it up. Cheshire is very proud of this block of cheese, even today, and the cheese monument stands in its honor.
Mostly I blew through that town with a quick stop at the Shell station where I ate dinner—potato salad, a candy bar, and a bottle of Coke. Then I charged up another big hill to the Mark Noepal Lean-to for the night, just as it started getting dark.
There I met John and Jackie—thru hikers known as "Not the Kennedys"—and a ridge runner named Mountain Goat. They warned me that the shelter has suffered 'porcupine incidents'—at least according to some imaginative registry entries.
I hadn't seen a porcupine on the trail yet, although several hikers I've talked to have. These three gave me the low-down. First they took me on a tour of the shelter pointing out porcupine damage. It seems that these fuzzy creatures crave the salt in the wood that makes up the shelter and nibble it.
Then they pointed out small piles of rocks strategically placed throughout the shelter. It was porcupine ammunition, and if a porcupine 'attacked' during the night, we would throw rocks at it until it left. (Naturally, hand-to-hand combat was not a viable option.) The biggest rocks were in the loft where they could be rained down with some serious force.
With vicious man-eating porcupines in mind, I fell into a restless sleep.
The next morning I woke up early and headed up Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. It was wet and rainy and generally miserable, so I went into the lodge there and ordered some food while enjoying the dryness indoors.
I read some literature about the mountain and learned that Melville thought it looked like a whale—inspiration for Moby Dick, perhaps? Also, I read about the superb views from the top where one could gaze into five different states. I looked out the window and saw fog in all directions. Oh well....
Time was wasting, though, and at last I continued my trek. By the time I left, the rain had stopped although the trails were still filled with water and mud.
The trail headed down to a road, MA2, about halfway between Willamstown and North Adams. I stopped to rest at an elementary school the trail passes in front of, laying down in the grass in the shade of a tree.
It was wonderful, but as always, I eventually forced myself back on my feet and continued. It was my goal to reach Vermont before dark!
And that's exactly what I did. I camped at the Seth Warner Shelter, tired and exhausted from all the mud on the trails.
The water source there was a river, which I gladly walked directly into to wash all the mud and dirt from my shoes, socks, and feet. It didn't last long, though, since I had to hike through mud back to the shelter, but I somehow felt better for the deal.
The next morning I woke up to rain—again. It had rained every single day since I got back on the trail in Connecticut, two states back, and I was sick of it. I was sick of the rain, the mud, and the trail. It was like May all over again. Nothing is more disheartening to a thru-hiker than day after day of rain and mud, and I finally reached my limits.
I headed down to VT9 about ten miles further down the trail where I planned to hitch into Bennington and get a hotel. At the road intersection, though, I met a woman selling hot dogs, fries, and drinks from her trailer thingy that you always see at fairs. This trail magic wasn't free, but it was a welcome sight on that otherwise horrible, wet day.
I spent a couple hours chatting with the woman and some other hikers that stopped for food.
I should point out that when I entered Vermont, I also started hiking on the Long Trail. The Long Trail stretches from the Massachusetts border and travels the length of Vermont to the Canadian border. The AT follows it for the first hundred miles or so before veering east and into New Hampshire.
The Long Trail's real claim to fame is that it's the first 'long-distance' trail ever—nearly 300 miles conceived and built in the 1920s. The Appalachian Trail wouldn't be finished until ten years later.
Rather than dieing a slow death to the much more famous Appalachian Trail, it's developed a cult following—locally in Vermont, at least—just like the AT. Many people attempt to thru-hike the Long Trail. Others section hike it. It's like a miniature Appalachian Trai.
And it was at this road crossing that I first learned about Cavedog who was trying to hike the entire trail in record time. He was hiking without a pack, hiking through the night without any sleep, and pushing 70 miles per day.
Which I frankly didn't believe because HOLY COW, 70 miles per day? I don't think so.... But this was just trail talk, and probably exaggerated.
So a lot of the trail talk was about Cavedog, who was supposed to reach the Massachusetts border by 8:00 that evening to make the record. In fact, he was supposed to be crossing this road where I was at at any moment.
I never saw Cavedog, although I heard later that he had passed out ten miles from the Massachusetts border—having failed at his attempt at a new record.
In any case, I got a ride with the food woman's daughter's boyfriend into town and checked myself into the Autumn Inn, a cozy little spot on the edge of Bennington.
After showering, shaving, and generally getting clean, I slipped into bed and watched television until I fell asleep. It was wonderful.
And that's where I'll end this installment of Ryan’s Great Adventure. Stay tuned for the next exciting saga that is in the works.....
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