(Continued from: https://swanhikes.com/2020/07/24/drunk-man-walking/)
I made my way down the Jewell Trail in heavy fog thinking about the times I had hiked above treeline in the Rocky Mountains. It was going to be a very bad day for Rusty. No matter how vigilant I was above treeline, I consistently found myself off course, but I knew the general direction was down. My concern for Rusty was calmed by the awakening of nature around me. The fog slowly cleared as I made my way down the mountain.
It felt like a very long time to get below treeline, but I finally made it into the spruce and pines. I can smell them as I sit here and type. The smell of the forest in New England purifies the soul. The image of the jovial Jewell Trail is burned in my brain like a pyrograph. It was beautiful, but seemed to never end. I walked along the duff covered trail, alongside a stream, and close enough to hear the Cog Railway, whose base station I was walking to.
The all night rain soaked the trees and shrubs. The fog permeated every pore in my poor rain jacket and skin. Spruce and Pine boughs blessed my shoulders and pack with drops of dazzling dew. Weather-worn, I weaved my way along the winding trail and across the Ammonoosuc River to the base station. I left my pack outside and went in to use the WiFi and contact a shuttle to take me to Gorham, NH.
A local shuttle driver picked me up from the Cog Railway and took me to a hotel in Gorham, NH. I was really looking forward to seeing Rusty that evening. My foot hurt pretty bad, but I wanted everything to be perfect when I saw Rusty that night, so I hobbled down to the laundromat where I ran into Dave Mac, a hiking acquaintance and a traveling nurse. I had been asking different people on trail what they thought about my foot. No one thought it was broken. Dave Mac was the closest. He said it was a sprain. I found out later that there was a sprain and a break.
The weather started to get pretty bad and I was wondering where Rusty was. We started texting back and forth from her Garmin to my phone. Most of her hike that day was above tree line. It didn’t look like she was going to make it, so I took myself to dinner. While I was at dinner, the sky went from gray and rainy to black and stormy. Thunder shook the Chinese restaurant as I ate my Umami soup. I began to feel uneasy as it shook again and the waitress came by to congratulate me for not being on the mountain in that mess. I told her that my partner was up there and she was supposed to be at dinner with me and I was starting to get pretty worried. The waitress shared my concern.
I walked back to the hotel and started looking at the comments on the Guthooks app, to see what the trail was like and if there were any side trails she could use to safely exit. The comments on Guthooks did not inspire hope as I read things like, “Jagged rock outcroppings that cut your hands”. I texted Rusty to see if I could get dropped off at the trailhead she was hiking to and I could hike to her and spend the night. I was concerned with her being wet and cold. People die of hypothermia in the Whites in the summer time, and this was fall. She told me not to.
Thunder shook the hotel over and over again. Rain beat hard on the walls as it blew in side-ways. The mountains could not be seen due to the black wall of worrisome weather. I messaged my cousin, and called my brother and friends. They reassured me that if she made it that far, that she knew what she was doing. Plus, I was always telling everyone what an impressive hiker she is.
I was going crazy, but she finally texted me that she made it below tree-line and set up camp.
I was a different animal when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail – confident, determined, and stubborn to the point of folly. When I woke up on the swag between Mt. Washington and Mt. Madison, not quite below tree-line and damp from the rain the night before, it did not occur to me to be concerned about the cloud coverage. I had been warned numerous times about the weather in the White Mountains, but with over 1000 miles under my belt, I was fearless.
Swan’s foot had been hurting him for some time, and with more alpine experience than me, he looked at the fog appraisingly and said, “I’m not doing it today!”
He would take a side trail down to the cog railway that ran to the summit of Mt. Washington, and wait in town for me as I hiked an easy 12 miles to him. I didn’t even want to take the tent, because I would be in Gorham, NH that evening, but out of an abundance of caution I tied the tent to the top of my pack, put on all of my rain gear, and kissed Swan. It would be good to collapse in his arms at the end of the day, I thought.
The terrain in the Presidential range is unique and unlike the hundreds of miles that stretch in either direction, north or south, on the Appalachian trail. There is almost no tree coverage or even much soil. The rocks are jagged and range from a pale beige that is almost white in the high sun, to a deep gray that turns black in the rain. The vegetation is hardy and windswept, deep magenta and desaturated greens and yellows. All of it is low to the ground, and reminds me somehow of coral. Perhaps it is that walking along the trail in these mountains feels like being alone out at sea.
There was no one out on the trail that day, which is an oddity for the AT, but the White Mountains are remote enough that it isn’t unheard of. It wasn’t until the fog turned into a light, persistent rain that soaked all the way through my rain jacket, that I realized that no one was out hiking because of the weather. It didn’t matter, as long as I kept moving I wouldn’t be cold.
Sometime in the mid-morning I looked down at my phone to check my progress. I had a GPS map installed on it called Guthook, which could accurately pinpoint my location anywhere on the trail. I had made distressingly little progress, and was actually a bit off trail. I looked up and spotted a cairn off in the distance and walked to it, then I walked haphazardly to the next, losing the trail every time between cairns. It was extremely difficult to navigate in the fog above tree-line because everything looked the same in every direction, and the trail was not well worn. Side trails had been created in the places were 100 other people had gone the wrong way so often that it made the trail look like a spidery web with no real direction. Had I really only gone two miles?
I came across a hut at noon. The employees were outside, servicing the composting toilets. I won’t go into much detail about what they were doing, but suffice it to say that I did not think they wanted to have a conversation with me. I passed them, and they barely noticed my presence. They had other shit on their minds.
I rested there within sight of the hut but upwind of the smell. The rain had stopped for a minute and I told myself I really needed to pick up the pace. I got up and told myself “Ms. Rastelli, you better hustle. You got a hot date and you don’t want to be late.”
I pressed on, and climbed right back up into the clouds. The rain was more earnest now, the rocks sharper and more slippery, and the wind was picking up. I slipped on a rock and fell to my knees. When I fell, I had a little ritual that made me feel better. I always ate a snack while on the ground, preferably chocolate, before getting back up. I ate the chocolate and rose to my feet as much as I could, but the force of the wind kept me half crouched. I struggled forward,
but between the wind, the rain, and the difficulty of the climb, which was hand over foot in some places and still very difficult to navigate, I was starting to have to literally crawl. My stomach rolled over as I looked out at the endless black sea of unforgiving rock.
There is a little delusion that most hikers have, a delusion propped up by the quality of our gear, the food in our packs, the filters on our water bottles, and our outdoor experience. It’s the delusion that we have some sort of control over nature, that we can set a goal and with adequate respect and preparation, nature will invite us in. Under many conditions, this delusion is helpful, it allows a mere human to go off into the wilderness alone and emerge unscathed, and tap into the companionship with the natural world that is inherent to all other living creatures. The truth however, is that nature owes us nothing, and it is entirely free of limitations. So while I valiantly tried to keep my body warm, and the rubber side of my shoes down, the heart of the storm rolled in. I cried. I could feel the electricity building in the air around me, and I had nowhere to go but up. I was going to be the tallest thing around for at least another 5 miles and the wind consistently tried to blow me off the side of the ridge. The water was coming down as heavily as a cold shower, and with only 2 or 3 feet of visibility I was only sure I was going in the right direction on the rare occasions that I saw a cairn, or came across a sign.
I pulled my satellite phone out and began texting Swan.
“I hate this,” I told him.
“You can do it, just move slow,” he answered.
I kept on texting him as I made my painfully slow progress. It became clear that there was no way I was going to make it to town. At this point my only goal was to make it below tree-line. I sang to myself about how much I loved trees, and that, “all I want for Christmas is to get below tree-line, to get below tree-line, to get below tree-line.”
It took the entire day for me to go 7 miles. Sun was starting to set when finally, finally, I saw the forest a few hundred feet below.
“I love you!” I called out to the trees. When I hiked up to the first tree I put my hand on it and thanked it. The tree cover immediately made me feel about 10 degrees warmer, and protected me from the ferocious wind. I looked at the clouds and realized that this was why I had so misjudged the storm. After months of walking through the “green tunnel” that is the majority of the AT, I had no idea how different the same conditions felt when exposed. The trail was easy to follow, and although steep and slippery, I hopped down another few miles. I wanted to get as low as possible, I even considered night-hiking to town. As soon as I had that thought, the sky rumbled. I found a little patch of flat-ish dirt on the side of the mountain, and the first crack of lightning hit the mountains just as I pitched the tent. I mopped up the inside as best I could, because the inside had gotten soaked by rain in the 5 minutes it took for me to pitch the tent.
I texted Swan that I was safe, and that I would hike out to him early the next morning. Too tired to cook a meal, I changed into my driest clothes and laid down. The hardest day I’d had to date on the Appalachian Trail was behind me. Slugs gathered underneath the cover of my tent, and with a bit of amusement I counted my new slug friends until I fell asleep.
I’ve had harder days in the wilderness now, but that storm on Mt. Madison imparted more wisdom on me in a few hours, than most of my preceding years of life.