Grafton Notch to Sawyer Brook
Dancing River Plunge Camp to Big Time Beech Camp
AT miles: 17.7
Total miles: 1947.8
Elevation change: 6106ft gain, 6503ft los
Do I dare say that I’m am finally finished with the hard stuff? First the White Mountains of New Hampshire, then the Mahoosucs of Maine, had flogged me into a sweaty mess of mental and physical fatigue. At the end of everyday, even the short ones, I was exhausted and felt no closer to Katahdin. With relentless steeps, copious scrambles, and lingering ice and snow, during this past week and a half I often wondered where the AT of old had gone, and when it would return. The mega views were awesome, no doubt, but I missed smooth trail most of all. I longed for a single easy mile, and delighted on the rare occasion that I got one. After hiking north from Grafton Notch today, I am cautiously optimistic that I have finally broken through the hardest of the AT. The journey up and over the Baldpate Peaks wasn’t easy, that’s for sure, but in comparison to Mahoosuc Arm or the Wildcats, it was a breeze. Smooth miles followed through a warm, but not hot, forest, over hills, but not mountains. Finally, I felt like my strong, can-hike-over-anything self again, and that felt good. And you know what? Even if I run into a giant pile of boulders tomorrow, I will always have today. Today was what I needed, and it was fabulous.
It all started with a longer night of sleep. Waking up at 5am everyday for the past while to beat the heat or afternoon storms, had worn me out. When I awoke at 6am today, just like the good ol’ days, I felt amazing. That single hour made a huge difference, or so it felt. I watched the beech leaves bob in the wind through the sunroof as my brain booted up. I didn’t need to imagine the breeze because I could feel it on my face when it blew through the open window next to my head. It was deliciously cool and dry. All that humid garbage air had moved on to harvest someone else’s sweat. Sweet.
SpiceRack and I slowly moved to the kitchen and couch, sipping coffee and munching on a bagel of cream cheese and green onion, then a loaded veggie bagel sandwich. I worked on my resupply while she brought these wonderful treats into the world, then we sat for a while, lingering in the calm peace of campground life. If there was any reason to rush, then we were unaware. Finally, at around 10:30am, we made Blackbird safe for the voyage, putting things in drawers and closing windows, said farewell to our host and drove back to the trail at Grafton Notch. By 11am I was hiking across the road, away from the last of the hardest, towards the first of the unknown.
Whether it was the long rest, perfect weather, or smoother trail, I felt absolutely wonderful. The beechy forest glowed like it does, and I moved with a rested ease on trail that actually felt like trail. It was all uphill, yet it was gradual at first, and did not involve any steps higher than my knees, nor the use of my hands to hold myself steady above a slippery slab. All I had to do was walk, like a pedestrian. The final stretch to the summit of West Baldpate Peak was a steep set of stone stairs, but they were just like normal, human-sized steps, not small ledges fit for giants.
From the top, East Baldpate was a sight to behold, rising in a large dome of rounded granite, sparsely stubbled with short spruce trees. The layers of stone peeled and flaked like a croissant, but held firm rather than crumble into a jumbled pile of boulders like so many other rocky summits. However, as cool as Baldpate looked, it was everything else that truly caught my attention. The air was deliciously not humid, which felt fresh on my skin while also enabling the sharpest details of the surrounding landscape to reach my corneas. It was like a veil had been lifted. The greens of the forest had never looked so vibrant, nor the distant peaks so sharp. Maine was a vast sea of trees, with just a few lakes gleaming sapphire and several twirling wind turbines to break the beautiful monotony. It was all I could have asked for, and I was in love, excited to see what I might find across the horizon.
The climb up the steep, croissant slabs of East Baldpate was a fun return to my childhood memories of similar granite in Yosemite, or to my later summit trips in other corners of the High Sierra. The rock was steep, but grippy, and I never once felt insecure. The wind gusted sharply, testing my balance, and chilling my sweat, as I pointed cairn to cairn across the mighty bald summit. On top, I found a sunny spot out of the wind and sat for lunch. I wasn’t hungry yet, but the place would never be more perfect.
The down was much like the up, steep and slabby. Again the grit of the granite gave me confidence in my purchase, and I had no trouble getting back below the treeline. There, the relatively smooth trail resumed and carried me through the forest, over unknown hills and slopes. Green leaves hung above. Green leaves pushed skyward from below. Long-armed bushes filled the space in between with yet more green, completing the tunnel. I sped through, enjoying the presence of vibrant life all around me, occasionally sidestepping a toad or fallen tree. The wide, cloven footprints of moose remained squelched in the mud, and piles of scat were scattered everywhere, but I never saw what left them.
A short steep up Surplus Mountain didn’t earn me anything except for another gloriously gradual downhill to the thundering Dunn Cascades. When I gathered water at the next brook, the blood-hungry mosquitoes and black flies slowly massed around me, but they were lethargic in the warm afternoon air. It was easy to swat them away while my bottles filled, and then to outrun them when I started hiking again.
The final big ascent up Wyman Mountain was so gradual that it barely registered to my legs, and for that I was grateful. It had been a long while since the last time the trail didn’t take the shortest and steepest route to the top of something. Or maybe this something was just not that steep. It was hard to tell for all the trees. Was I on a wide lump or a sharper ridge? Now that the leaves had filled in, I was locked in my personal dome of green, deprived of greater context for where I was.
It turned out that the steep was waiting for me across the summit. It was a long, slow descent down the other side on uneven steps, but I took my time and made it easy. I was in no rush with daylight on my side and no thunderstorm hounding me, so I let my legs take care of the walking and my mind wander to where it would. At the bottom, I found a picnic bench and flat campspots along Sawyer Brook amid an ocean of beech leaves. I pitched my tent after kicking clear a patch of tick-litter and tumbled inside, zipping the door quickly behind me to keep the bugs out. Couscous soaked while I nested and snacked, noticing that I couldn’t taste the sweat on my lips or feel the ache in my legs. It was like I hadn’t hiked at all today. Is this what it used to be like, before The Whites? Is this how it was going to be from now on? I tried not to hope, but it was inevitable. I tried not to congratulate myself either, but it felt good to have the big mountains behind me. As demoralizing as they had been, I was on the other side now, and better for it. Smooth trail and couscous never tasted so sweet.