Route 27 to Safford Notch Campsite
Aspen Or Birch Camp to Where’s The Water? Camp
AT miles: 10.6
Total miles: 2019.5
Elevation change: 4341ft gain, 3606ft loss
Just kidding! I did not hike 100 miles today. That would be crazy. However it was day 100 on the AT for me. The misty morning that I spent clambering up all those stairs in Amicolola with Crunchberry and Rooster on Day 1 seems a distant memory now, and it is. 100 days is a long time and I am fortunate to have seen so many new and beautiful places while staying healthy for the duration. Back before I had even set foot on the trail, I had the thought that I might try to hike the whole AT in 100 days or less, for no reason other than it sounded like a cool challenge. Achievable, yet just barely. Even just a month ago I still fantasized that I hadn’t squandered my shot at keeping that schedule. Obviously, I’ve missed that goal by almost 200 miles, but it’s an easy thing to let go. Appreciating now what it would take to average 22 miles per day from Springer to Katahdin, I am sure that hiking that hike was not for me. I’ve pushed myself hard enough, and glossed over too many places that deserve a longer visit. This thru-hike has already felt too short, and I will not regret that I was able to spend an extra week in the Appalachian Mountains. Because the AT is the final 2000+ mile trail in my sights (as part of the ~4400 mile ECT), I’m not sure when, or if, my next Day 100 will happen. This is the third time I’ve hit that number, and each time it has been a special day of good hiking with great friends. Fortunately, those things can also be had without hiking 100 days in a row. All it takes is one. The excitement of Day 1, the satisfaction of Day 100, and everything in between. It’s all good.
I woke up just how I wanted to, right where I wanted to be. No alarm, and next to SpiceRack. It had been a warm night, feeling stickier this morning with the advancing warm front, and my subconscious had kicked off the covers to keep me cool. A few lethargic mosquitoes bounced around the ceiling, probably logy with a full load of my blood. I watched them and the quaking aspen through the sunroof glass, grateful to be right where I was, which was a van full of yummy food. I was ravenous with the hunger of 100 days, and Spice got me started with a bagel and creamy coffee. I consumed both while wondering what makes ‘french vanilla’ different from regular old vanilla.
At 10am we had our scheduled video call with the family friends who had graciously agreed to take care of Tango and Blackbird while Spice and I hike the northern portion of the ECT together through Canada. It was a hoot of a call, and left both of us feeling great about entrusting them with our home and friend. Getting that sorted was one of the last major logistical hurdles standing in the way of the trip, and it felt like a weight was lifted when Spice closed the laptop. Then, a couple bowls of cinnamon toast crunch preceded more business talk regarding camping near Katahdin and hiking north from the summit to the border. However, then it was time to start the slow move back to trail. The number of bugs and humidity both increased dramatically as I put together my resupply for the next two days. It was going to be a warm one, and I longed to be high in the hills, catching a breeze.
It was the heat of the day when all three of us scooted across the highway and back into the trees. My thermometer read 85F, which may have been the record on the trail so far. The dense shade of the green ceiling above provided little relief from the uncomfortable stickiness of the brooding humidity. Rain was on the way, no doubt about it, and I almost hoped that it would happen sooner rather than later to clear the air. At least the first two miles were pretty much flat and smooth. Spice and Tango turned around after the first, and I sped forward, aware that the mountains ahead would take all the daylight I could scrape together.
Almost as soon as the trail began to ascend, I realized that I had underestimated the Bigelow Range. Lulled by the smoothness of Crocker into a false sense of having put the really rocky and hard stuff behind me, I was shocked and sobered to see the large boulders draped in damp roots and moss that passed for trail ahead of me. If the terrain was this choppy down low, then I was in for a tough ride up high.
The sweat flowed and I scrambled, dreaming of the fresh breeze on that first epic overlook that never seemed to come. The trail steepened and I guzzled down my first bottle of water. Damn, it was hot. But then that viewpoint appeared and it was all worth it. The Bigelow’s were nothing like the Crocker’s, or anything else really. They were sharper and rockier. Scarier and more exciting. North and South Horn loomed ahead, rising as sharply as their namesake, and I could see plenty of exposed rock beneath the sparse covering of stunted conifers. To my left, Flagstaff Lake shone with the unfriendly sheen of dull mercury. To my right, Sugarloaf and Crocker Mountains looked relatively tame and round under a blotchy covering of varied greens. Above all, hung the featureless gray of a sky that was ready to dump. Cool.
I wasted no time closing the distance to the Horns around the shore of Horse Pond and the campsite infrastructure scattered in the woods nearby. Then it was another brutally steep climb to South Horn. This one wasn’t scrambly, but that just made it easier to hike faster and work harder. On top, the views that I glimpsed through the burning sweat in my eyes were even better than the last, but with Bigelow West now looking at me with even more exposed rock and intimidating sharpness, I didn’t hang around too long. When the rain did come, I wanted to be up and over, not just up.
The connecting ridge was surprisingly smooth, which was great, but it also meant that my respite from the hard climbing was short-lived. Still, I was already damp with sweat, so I had nothing to lose by charging hard up the tallest peak of the day. The final scramble up the exposed summit ridge was a highlight for sure, made all the more wild by the gusting wind and scooting clouds. Rain showers now blurred patches of the horizon including Sugarloaf and Crocker. My time, it seemed was short. After a quick, but intentional absorption of the same, yet different view, I hustled down the other side hoping for another hour without rain. One more peak to go.
I didn’t get my wish, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The shower started as I hopped up small boulders to Bigelow Avery Peak, dampening the stone and making me question every step. The warm drops blew sideways, gusting across the open ridge in visible waves, limiting the views while also enhancing them. Twenty degrees colder and I would have been worried about my dampening shirt, but for now, the cooling rain was a relief. At the top, I made my visit even briefer than that on the last summit, stopping just long enough to see the dark point of Bigelow West lurking behind the curtains of rain. It felt distant and inhospitable, like no place that I had been or wanted to be, even though I just had.
With nothing but downhill to camp, I sheltered beside a tree and pulled on my rain jacket, which of course, stopped the rain almost immediately. Back down amid the the dripping maple leaves, huge boulders with mops of mossy hair and cavernous mouths exhaled cold fog, the effect of hidden strongholds of ice turning to mist in the warm humidity. I scrambled and tumbled like an ant over and around house-sized blocks, slipping occasionally on soapy roots and slabs.
I found good camping at an official backcountry campsite at Safford Notch, then struggled to find the nearby water. It was hard to distinguish between the sound of the stream and that of the whooshing wind in the treetops, but I eventually did find it and filtered my fill. Lounging in my tent without my quilt so that my damp feet could breath, I felt nothing but gratitude for the epic day, and all the ones that came before. 100 days is a long time. However, by my figuring, I’m not even halfway through my hiking in 2022, what with the rest of the ECT and all that. When the new year kicks off, 100 days might not actually feel like too much after all.