Cheshire, MA to Congdon Shelter
Ramen Lawn Camp to Misty Shelter Camp
AT miles: 28.7
Total miles: 1618
Elevation change: 7684ft gain, 6516ft loss
Today I said goodbye to Massachusetts and hello to Vermont. The former didn’t let me go easily and the latter lived up to its steep and muddy reputation immediately. With accumulating fatigue and the wettest weather in weeks, I needed to dig deep to push into the evening, and finished the day soggy and exhausted. However, even though it was a grind, and even though I’m not a fan of hiking in the rain, I saw too much good stuff to feel down about the day. My body was tired, my mind tireder, and everything was sodden, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Actually, a dry lunch break would have been a game changer, but everything else was just the way it was supposed to be.
The sun was bright and glowing through the gray clouds well before my alarm was scheduled to ring. I woke up naturally, feeling refreshed, but was more than happy to roll over and snooze for another hour. It felt strange to ‘waste’ the daylight, but I needed the rest more than I needed the extra miles I could hike with an earlier start. Besides, it was raining, and packing up in the rain totally blows. By the time my alarm did ring and I was ready to start moving, the drops had stopped and the birds were singing. Just the way I planned it.
I said farewell to the other hikers as they rejoined the trail to continue their own adventures, then hello to a volunteer from Cheshire who helped maintain this wonderful campground. After backflushing a couple gallons of municipal water, breathing new life into my water filter, I filled my bottles and got hiking. The day was fresh, and I felt fresh. I did not smell fresh.
I finished the short roadwalk across a small corner of town, then through an adjacent pasture. The surrounding hills were all cloaked in a low cloud when I turned around to look backwards, and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I was wrapped up in it too. I joined the long ridge falling from the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. It was steep and rocky at times, but mostly the trail was smooth and gradual, and I settled in for the long haul. It was a long way up and it was going to take a long time to get there. None of those short and steep Connecticut climbs here.
Nearing the summit, the trail cut a tunnel through an enchanting forest of dwarf spruce, velvety moss, and foaming creeks. It reminded me of the red spruce forest before reaching the heart of the Roan Highlands, but I couldn’t recall the name of the place. That had been one of my favorite stretches of trail, and I was getting it again here. Cloud moisture caught in the trees dripped endlessly, and was the only sound between stream crossings. I struggled to keep up my pace, not because the trail was hard, but because it was so beautiful. Each turn was better than the last. Boardwalks got me over some muddy puddles, I splashed through the others.
On the summit, I wandered in the mist, giving a quick look around the wooden lodge and tall lookout tower. There was nothing to see today obviously, but the signs sure did make the views on a clear day look pretty. I would need to return, perhaps in a car the next time. Leaving the top as empty as I had found it, I followed the trail past a bunch of other trails and empty parking lots. They fell behind as the ridge narrowed even as the trail widened into a triple-width of mud. I took the less muddy route, managing to keep my shoes mostly clean, but realizing that it was all for naught after one mucky misstep.
Some more gorgeous evergreen forest brought me to a flat of rock ledges where I tried to take a lunch break despite the lack of views. All I wanted was thirty minutes to eat and give my feet a break, which didn’t seem like too much to ask for. But ten minutes after sitting down, the mist turned to legitimate rain, leaving me no choice but to hastily pack up, pull on damp socks, and keep hiking. I was kind of full, but only halfway content, and longed for a dry pavilion in the next town.
I hiked the long descent that followed under the protection of my umbrella, eventually holding it more for psychological comfort than practical function once the rain shifted back into mist. I reached a small town with a school, yet no name that I could find on my map, and strolled past the idling parents waiting to pick up their progeny. I wondered if they wondered who I was or what I was doing. Did they know that this sidewalk was part of the Appalachian Trail? Did they even know what that was? I was tempted to fill my empty bottles from a spigot protruding from the brick school wall, but thought better of it. Not that I looked unsavory per se, but I had enough self awareness to appreciate that I probably didn’t look like someone that a parent wanted near their thrid-grader. I glided on, enjoying the smooth pavement, puddled and lumpy as it was. I found my spigot on the way out of town. The last house had a hose with a sign next to it offering water to hikers. The trail provides. I filled up, chugged a bunch, then topped off again.
The following climb was where my legs and mind began to show their fatigue. My body lagged and my brain didn’t have the juice remaining to keep my feet churning faster than their natural pace. The trail wasn’t particularly challenging, but I felt ground down and settled in to the rhythm that my body could give. The sun almost broke through the clouds for a few minutes, giving me hope for the rest of the afternoon. I caught a glimpse of my elusive shadow and the forest billowed steam from the saturated beech leaves. I reached for my sunglasses, but they were steamed up as well, so I squinted, amazed by how much brightness the silver birch trees could add to the forest. Their bark gleamed like tall florescent bulbs, or like patches of fresh snow where it had peeled and fallen to the ground in large scrolls.
I struggled up a feature called a rock garden, which was just a steep callback to the rocks of PA, then along a wandering ridge of mud puddles and boardwalks. The sun disappeared and the clouds once again descended to my level, where they would stay for the rest of the evening. After a few slow miles, I climbed a short rise and saw a collection of signs. One of them welcomed me to Vermont and introduced the Long Trail, which is the oldest long trail and shares 100 miles with the AT. Tired as I was, I didn’t think too much about the border crossing. I already felt intimidated by the final three states, and dwelling on that in the wet weather and my diminished fortitude wasn’t going to help anything.
Vermont lived up to its nickname, Vermud, instantly and consistently. Wide mires spanned from bush to bush, with just a few stepping stones or branches sprinkled in the middle for a sketchy crossing. Moving fast across this stuff required more brain power than I had left, so my pace slowed, and my hopes for a 30-mile day got left behind. I ate my final bar and guzzled some water, hoping to jumpstart my body, but it was the sobering realization that if I didn’t pick up the pace, then I’d be hiking past dark. That seemed lame, and did the trick. I hiked faster.
After a windy gap in the trees under some power lines, I caught up with a hiker that I’d been itching to meet for weeks now. The Professor is a fellow writer for TheTrek, and had started his hike in the Florida Keys at the beginning of January. In addition to hiking the US portion of the ECT, he’s shooting for the calendar year triple crown as well as the record for most known miles hiked in a year, about 11,000. That’s a crazy amount of walking. Needless to say, we had plenty to talk about as we dodged the deep mud and hiked around misty beaver ponds, gray mirrors to infinity.
With some achilles discomfort, the Professor was moving a little slower than my typical afternoon rush, but I didn’t mind one bit as I followed him into the darkness. My mind was engaged again, and that felt better than being tired in camp. And I was impressed with his attitude. He was in it for the right reasons and pitched his motivations so well that I didn’t think he was crazy at all when we parted ways at Congdon Shelter. It was almost 9pm by the time we got there, but he informed me that he was hiking another 6 miles to the next shelter, then 38 more tomorrow to meet a friend. Okay, now that was crazy. I wished him luck and he reciprocated, then his headlamp disappeared into the cloud.
For the first time ever, I had a shelter all to myself, and I needed it. I could not have been more grateful for a table and bunks to spread out my things, or for a wooden floor to rest my pruny feet. I was tired as could be as my deep fatigue, held at bay by a dam of interesting conversation, burst its banks and washed over me from sweaty head to muddy toe. I wrapped up for the night and could barely keep my eyes open as I took notes on the day. My memory and vision started to blur. Had I been asleep or did I just zone out. I was as cloudy as the mist, as misty as the cloud. I needed sleep to blow it all away.