Mink Brook to Brackett Brook
Moonlight Tofu Camp to Evening Cool Camp
AT miles: 23.3
Total miles: 1792.4
Elevation change: 7274ft gain, 7073ft loss
Even with the most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail looming on the horizon, I’d wager that today will go down as the toughest of the AT for me. I hope so, at least. It will be unfortunate if I find myself eating those words, and I do not make that claim lightly. Although no one talks about Smarts or Cube Mountain with the same hushed reverance as Moosilauke or the Kinsmans, they kicked my butt, big time, along with some other steep climbs up lesser peaks. I started on the backfoot, waking more dehydrated than I realized, and then was broiled all day as the trail flapped me up and down like a sweaty rag doll. All I could do was dunk myself in every stream large enough to make a sound, and put one foot in front of the other. It was pure agony at times, but at the end of the day, I was proud of what I achieved, despite the low mileage total. I won’t begrudge the heat as it melts the frustrating snow on the high summits, but I don’t claim to love it either. And with it lingering in the forecast, I’d better get used to it. Furthermore, with The Whites on my doorstep, I’d better get used to these gnarly climbs too.
Everything seemed fine and dandy in the morning when I awoke to a cool morning, feeling just a little bit cheated by my alarm. If I had anything to blame for my short night of sleep, it was myself for staying up late to do research on the camping restrictions in the White Mountains. I drank some water to get my body moving in the right direction, noticing how it sat funny in my belly and how the morning fuze did not vacate my head as usual. By the time I was packed up and ready to hike, a dull headache had settled above my left eye, and I cursed myself for my negligence. I knew that it was going to be a hot day, and I hated to start it with a water debt.
The morning heat was already pumping through a clear sky and sparse covering of baby beech leaves when the sound of the brook faded behind me. I didn’t gaze in wonder at the glowing green bulbs as I had yesterday, but I did think about how awesome those moments had been yesterday, inserting the pleasant past rather than facing the painful present. Whether it was the steepness of the trail, my suboptimal condition, the heat, or all of them combined, the climb was arduous. It was too hard, and I felt too weak for this early in the day. By the time I reached the top of Moose Mountain South, I was drenched in more sweat than I could replenish from my water bottles, and achingly sober to the understanding of my struggles to come. This was just the beginning. More mountains, more heat on the way.
It was already 75F when I checked my thermometer at 9:30am as I sat in the shade, taking in the view, relishing my chill sweat, and watching The Breeze assemble his long Gandalf-style pipe for a morning toke. I had no interest in smoke or conversation, so I clipped my sternum strap tight and continued on after guzzling some water, giving up all thoughts of economy in the name of at least maintaining my current level of discomfort. I knelt in a slimy flow of water, splashing my tights and hood with artificial sweat so that my body could conserve its own. The trail dipped into a shallow saddle, then rose gradually to the viewless summit of Moose Mountain North before tumbling many hundreds of feet to the narrow valley below. Near the bottom, I stopped at a rushing stream to again wet my clothes and drink my fill. My road to recovery was long, but I was fully committed.
For less than a mile, the trail was gloriously flat as it crossed first a road, then a swamp along the banks of a beaver pond. And of course, on the other side, another steep climb waited for its turn to break me. This one was hotter and steeper than the last, and just as long. Even though it was still early in the day, I turned on my audiobook, purposefully disassociating from the world, as miserable as it had become. I wanted nothing more than to take a nap in the shade next to a lake (it was perfect weather for that), but the book at least took me away from this hell I was living.
The view was a good one from Holt’s Ledge, yet still I had to question the sanity of the day hikers who were hiking up as I hiked down the other side. It’s too hot to be out here. These people are crazy. Maybe they weren’t crazy. Maybe I was just having a really hard day. It didn’t help that I’d bought way too much food yesterday in Hanover. My pack felt heavier than it had in weeks, a fact made all the crueler by my diminished appetite. I finished the steep descent, then followed the comparatively easy trail gradually up-valley to a trailhead parking lot next to a wide creek. Speaking of appetite, I was just starting to get hungry again. Time for lunch.
I plunked down in the dappled shade of a skinny oak between a Corolla and Tacoma. When I reached for my feet to unlace my shoes, I found a big ol’ tick, the first I’d noticed so far, squirming just above my sockline. Between my tights and long sleeves, I didn’t have much skin exposed at all, but this little vampire had found it. I used my Tick Key to lift it away, fascinated and unconcerned. This one at least would do me no harm. As an adult, it was easy to spot before any risk of Lyme transmission, but I did wonder about all the poppy seed-sized nymphs that were not so obvious. I vowed to check myself more carefully and more thoroughly in the future.
The mystery of my heavy backpack was partly revealed when I dug into what must have been a 20 pound bag of trail mix. I could only manage a few handfuls, and chuckled at my ineptitude in the face of a bulk-foods aisle. I filled my bottles and belly with water, and gave myself a final dunk in the creek before starting up the biggest climb of the day to Smarts Mountain. It was also now the heat of the day, and my thermometer read well north of 80F. That sucked, no doubt about it, but I knew what I had to do. Just take one step at a time, and keep sucking on Skittles and root beer candies. And that’s what I did. I threw in a few short breaks to catch my breath as well. I didn’t push the pace, which was agonizingly slow, and let my body dictate a safe and sustainable output.
If I thought that reaching Lambert Ridge was tough, then the final half-mile to the summit of Smarts was tougher by double. Not only was the trail steep as a staircase, but it was slick with gooey leaves as well. Reaching the top brought no consolation for I knew, deep down, that I’d been beaten. I felt no strength of pride in the way I’d struggled for each step. I felt a shadow of myself instead. Still, I was on top, and a fire tower called to me from above.
The view from the top almost made all the pain worth it, but not quite. I could see deep into Vermont to the southwest, Pico, Killington, Bromely, and maybe Stratton. Familiar summits on the horizon. Northeast, there were things that I would know in a few days, although the intimidating peaks and ridges meant nothing to me now. However, in the far distance, I could see where a solitary mountain rose above treeline. Its bare rock gleamed with patches of snow in the sunlight. It was beautiful, and also intimidating because that was where my path headed. To The Whites.
At the bottom of following descent, I was dismayed to realize that there was enough day left for me to tackle Cube Mountain. I had to keep moving, slowly as I was, no matter what. The ascent was nothing new, and it was actually the most enjoyable of the day. The heat had finally broken, and my body had turned the tide in the war against dehydration. Despite the long, rocky climb up slick slabs of white stone, I began to enjoy myself, perhaps just because I knew it was the last effort of the day, perhaps because it was actually kind of fun. The consistent views certainly helped. I pulled to the side of the trail one last time to catch my breath and snap a photo before realizing that I was actually on the summit. It had looked so far away, and now I was there. The warm evening sun dipped low through a hazy sky, the same fabulous view that I’d enjoyed from Smarts spread at my feet, a breeze chilled my sweat. It had been a crappy day by just about any measure, but this moment wasn’t crappy at all. Maybe it was even enhanced by all the crappiness, the ultimate contrast.
The drop down the other side was not easy, but it felt that way relative to the rest of the day. I picked my way carefully down slick rocks and roots, through a forest of fir, to the muddy flats below. The campsite along a buzzing brook was right where I needed it to be, right when I needed it, and I set up camp as the dusk faded to night. I did my tick check by headlamp, and ate dinner by moonlight. Unsure of exactly what tomorrow would bring besides more heat and more steep mountains, I decided that it was going to be alright. I’d learned from my mistake and would be better hydrated tomorrow, which would make all the difference. By making it through today, I was confident that I could make it through tomorrow, and the next, and the next…