Forks of Tobique to Saint-Quentin
PB Sammies For Dinner Camp to Never Standing Again Camp
ECT miles: 24.27
Total miles: 2437.5
Elevation change: 1572ft gain, 1070ft loss
Rain and road walking. Speed and aches. If today proves anything, it’s that it is always possible to find one’s limits during a thru-hike, no matter the terrain. With a reasonable amount of effort, a full day of hiking is going to hurt, somehow, some way. Dirt road forever? I literally dreamed of endless dirt roads while I was parkouring over roots, rocks, and mud in New England on the AT. Now that SpiceRack and I are getting exactly that… ouch. Perhaps my memory is strategically forgetful when it comes to pain, but I can’t remember being more physically wrecked at the end of any day during this greater ECT excursion. That’s saying a lot. I’ve hurt a lot. Fortunately, pushing my physical limits has always been a significant portion of my motivation to thru-hike in the first place. Don’t ask me why, but I don’t think that I’d do it if it didn’t hurt at least a little. Today, it hurt a lot, but at least I had company. At least the land was beautiful. At least I saw sights that I will carry with me forever. At least all the pain was voluntary. How SpiceRack is coping with the same physical demands in addition to her innumerable blisters and comparatively untested legs is beyond me. Crazy strength.
That heavy New Brunswick rain came raging back in the morning after a few light dousings throughout the night. I had slept well, until a particularly loud deluge white-noised me back to the waking world. Was there thunder? I had no idea, the tent was thrumming so loudly. Spice, true to form, was able to sleep through it, but eventually joined me for a breakfast of a few Fudgy’s (Canada’s version of Oreos). It was a questionable move nutritionally, but after the abysmal resupply yesterday, the cookies were as nutritionally complete as anything else we were carrying besides the peanut butter. But we’d had pb&j’s for dinner. Decorum eschewed the notion of eating them for breakfast as well. Nope, it was sugar and palm oil all the way.
The rain was finished with us for the time being by the time we got hiking at 8am. Under a threatening gray sky, we set out on the wiiiiiiide dirt road, accosted by a swarm of noseeums, hoping that Gas Station Guy knew what he was talking about when he recommended this shortcut. Despite all the rain, the road was in good shape. Puddles of chocolate milk collected between the ridges of patchy washboard, but the packed dirt resisted gooping up like a boss. It was more like concrete that dirt.
Spice and I made good time even though we felt small and slow. The road was made for giants, with gradual turns and endless straights, and my perspective shifted almost imperceptibly with each step. The sky was wide, touching low on each horizon, and we couldn’t help making comparisons to the CDT in Montana where the clouds often leant tangible depth to the atmosphere, connecting heaven and earth with roaming towers and puffs. Other times they formed a lofty ceiling, an impossibly distant shell far above the reach of even the birds. Even though this was obviously a carefully managed tract of forest, it felt remote and wild, just like the purposefully wilded wilderness of the West. Even though we were on a road, each passing vehicle was unexpected. Even though the hiking was easy, we soon started to grind.
The hard dirt and monotonous repetition of identical steps, quickly exposed our softest parts. My feet, and Spice’s hip ached. And with many identical miles ahead, there was nowhere to hide from our discomfort. When the mental grind finally slayed our capacity for careless banter, we stopped for an early lunch. I finished my fifth bag of chips in as many days, which was certainly a record for me, but not one that I was eager to extend. The ketchup flavor left my tongue numb with vinegar, and the oily starch did little to nourish my body in a sustainable way.
When we started moving again, it was at a noticeably slower pace. Still, despite the unignorable grind, I was glad to be right where I was. Our dot on the map was making steady progress to our destination, unignorable progress. Rain came and went, a friendly local pulled out a massive bag of dope to offer us some, and my feet went from stumpy to stumpier. All the while evidence of logging increased. A wide swath of forest detritus stretched to our right as we churned up the longest and most gradual of slopes. On the left, the trees were cut in tiger stripes perpendicular to the road. The destruction made me kind of sad, but as a lover and user of wooden things, it was a scene that I told myself I needed to accept, just like a city landfill. To distract myself, I prodded the serene mud puddles with my trekking poles, delighting in each swirl of fine silt that erupted like tiny volcanic plumes on a distant, brown planet.
Our final break of the day was perfectly timed to coincide with the worst of the rain. We had just spread out our pads and kicked off our shoes when one of the swirling thunderheads finally made a direct hit. Too tired to do anything about it, we sat in resigned disbelief, willing the rain to go away. We just wanted to recover in peace, which didn’t seem like too much to ask. However, our pleas went unanswered. Spice massaged life back into my feet while thunder cracked overhead. The conditions were miserable, and all we could do was laugh. At least it was warm rain.
It felt like a major victory when we left the logging preserve behind and joined the main highway into Saint-Quentin, that is until we checked our distance to our motel. 1.7 miles had never seemed so insurmountable. Aaahhhhh. Resignation settled in as we marched up the wide shoulder. My feet were not feet anymore, just wisps of discomfort that barely connected me to the ground. Walking felt strange and unnatural. Spice was in her own world of pain, and we each moved forward at our own pace, deep in our personal struggles.
Despite dancing with my physical limits, I was able to escape to a different world through a landscape that captured my imagination. While the sky was now less threatening above us, humongous heaps of cumulous drifted across the horizon above borderless plains. They were so distant that the curvature of the earth obscured the gap between ground and cloud, and I imagined I was looking at the strange mountains of an alien world. They glowed brightly in the distant sunshine, and also cast their own deep shadows. The piles of meringue were impossibly tall. I’m not usually impressed by the height of clouds, but by turning them into mountains, I could not ignore their terrible proportions.
Saint-Quentin was the invisible town. Even when we were just a quarter mile away, there was nothing to see. Finally, with teeth gritted, we hobbled across traffic to our motel. It looked abandoned, but after a phone call, the manager promptly unlocked the door and checked us in. Three hours later, we had showered and recuperated enough to go exploring for food. The final golden rays of sunlight backlit a towering thunderstorm anvil, for one last beautiful distraction from our aches. We staggered down the road to Tim Hortons, then carefully escorted our bounty back to the room. Based on how we were feeling, we wouldn’t be doing any hiking tomorrow, which was fine by me. This road walking was no joke.