Red Rapids to Burntland Brook
Gas Station Chalet Camp to Hegge Noodles Camp
ECT miles: 23.1
Total miles: 2390.2
Elevation change: 673ft gain, 587ft loss
Why are we here? That was the question of the day. It’s not a new muse by any means. I think that anyone in the middle of a long journey will at some point ask the ‘why’, whether it be during a thru-hike or after a long sit in front of a desk. When the going gets hard, we ask “why?” And the answer isn’t always obvious. This morning, with the future of our hike in limbo, this question was achingly relevant and the answer disgustingly abstract. Could my eternal optimism inspire the mental gymnastics needed to twist this painful road walking into a worthy endeavor? Even in the afternoon, as SpiceRack and I cruised on a thin whisper of rekindled hope, I chuckled to myself about the shaky logic and insidious ego that had me pounding pavement in Nowhere, Canada instead of spending my precious summer in the Sierra mountains that I love so much. Blisters in New Brunswick, or peak-bagging in Yosemite? The answer seemed obvious, yet here I was on this crazy, awesome, brutal adventure. Why?
With our emphasis on recovery rather than hiking huge miles, there was no reason to observe the usual alarm this morning. Traffic on the nearby road eventually rustled me out of a log-like sleep, but Spice was in deeper, and hanging on tighter to her dreams. I gazed with unseeing eyes at the blue tent canopy, burning much too brightly for this early in the morning. My mind was quick to recap our options for moving forward. I still liked our plan to switch shoes and see how the first five miles went, but I was overwhelmed with the myriad of other options that my brain had cooked up in the night. They all sucked, and Spice’s feet would have the final say. The clouds were clearing to blue by the time we got up and moving around 8am. We bought some oj, coffee, and cookies from the store, calling jinx when we said, “breakfast of champions” in unison. We lingered a little longer, scrutinizing the strange coins in my palm, but then there was nothing else to do. It was time to hike. Time to figure out if our plan would get us where we needed to go.
Spice’s feet were immeasurably more comfortable in my larger shoes, and she got up to speed quickly with just the occasional zing. My toes felt a little squished in her shoes, but as long as there was no downhill to contend with, I was confident that I would keep all of my toenails. Fortunately, there wasn’t even the hint of elevation change for at least the next week. Thank you, New Brunswick. We followed the beautiful railroad bed-turned ATV road in fragile anticipation. So far so good, but the day was young, and trail pain is patient.
At the five mile marker, we were still moving and feeling good so we decided to keep going. The sun was bright and the air warm, and although we weren’t yet out of the woods, so to speak, I began to relax. We were drying out, our surroundings were lush with vibrant life. White flowers and tall green grass swayed in an indistinguishable breeze, and we cruised on our private gravel track, safely distant from speeding cars and buzzing lawn mowers. When we dipped near the river, its languid yet relentless waters reminded me of the great truth of thru-hiking: slow progress is still progress, and hindsight reduces it to a blink. I stopped to poop and took it as a good sign that I couldn’t catch up with Spice until she stopped for a lunch break in the shade of a bushy birch.
A pack of growling ATVs forced us to move our drying socks while we ate, but we otherwise had the first part of the day to ourselves. It was great to see Spice stepping with impunity again, and once more I had trouble catching her after I stopped to filter water. The trail burrowed through a glowing canopy of green, giving us shade when we needed it, then opened back up into a wide field of wildflowers as we approached the town of Plaster Rock. We had a laugh when a quick Google search revealed that the mystery pill that Spice had taken to reduce pain was not in fact prescription-strength ibuprofen as she guessed, but instead a vicodin leftover from an earlier dental procedure. Whelp, that explains that.
A big n tall bridge, swept by a barrage of fluffy white tree seeds, delivered us to the other side of the river and into town. Roasted and ready for a second lunch, we collected hummus, pita, and iced tea for a picnic on the shady lawn of the church next door. The rest was just what we needed, and gave us time to reevaluate our condition and progress. We were suitably beat down, but not more than usual. Onward! With just miles of pavement ahead of us, I pulled off my tights to hike bare-legged for the first time since journeying to the Appalachians. There would be no ticks hunting for my blood for the rest of the day, and maybe not for a while. My pasty legs looked alien and burned like white granite in the bright sunshine. Gosh, I look like a total nerd! Spice agreed.
We stopped for some more iced tea on the way out of town, moving a little slower, feeling a little achier than we had in the morning. I stepped mindfully, trying to be as gentle with my toes as possible. However, this was likely just a glimpse into Spice’s world. She stepped more tenderly on the hot asphalt with feet slightly swollen from the efforts of the day. Road walking, as fast and carefree as it is, and as much as we both the treasure the companionship and conversation that it enables, inevitably punishes one’s feet. We were deep in it now, trying to ignore the buildup of discomfort for as long as possible. We buried it in the big views of vast fields in the verdant river valley and another listening of Sour, while thanking the trees for their lengthening shadows and the universe for the quiet road.
During our final break of the day in a grassy ditch next to the road, a concerned passerby pulled over to make sure that we weren’t dead. Not yet. Really, I took it as a compliment. So relaxed that we look dead. She had seen us earlier as we were walking out of town, and was impressed by our sleeping pads, apparently saying to her daughter that she, “wants to know those people.” We politely declined her offer to take us back to town, then waved as she drove away, glad to not be dead in a ditch on the side of the road.
The final five miles of the day went a little slower still, but the grind through the golden hour was glorious despite our aching feet and tightening joints. At 9:45pm we passed an abandoned church and pitched our tent in the overgrown parking lot. Surrounded by private land, we had to do the best we could, and it was hard to imagine that’s we’d find a better spot. The mosquitoes caught us there, so we sheltered in the tent, competing in a foot massage-off (like a dance-off, but better) while our ramen cooked. We both won, bigly. Despite feeling generally beat-down, I think that I can speak for Spice too that both of us felt pretty good about the day. The incontrovertible evidence that all this pain was worth it still eluded me, but the successful day of better weather and health had gone a long way to wiping away my darkest doubts. Day by day, that was the only way forward at this point. Another one down, sleep, then onto the next.