The Boulder Field

No one wishes for fewer perfect hiking days; banner days with bright blue skies, mild temperatures, well-groomed trail, and incomparable views are savored both in the moment and for years to come. However, it’s often the less-than-perfect days, the days filled with “Type II fun,” that we think about first when we recall our time on the trail.

Type II fun was definitely the only variety of fun had at a boulder field in Pennsylvania.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers often call Pennsylvania “Rocksylvania,” since its rocky treadway is generally unappreciated by northbounders, who’ve previously walked on the softer trails of the South. Hikers complain of the 52 miles of northern Pennsylvania “where your feet never touch soil.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does often appear that all of the rocks from the surrounding countryside in PA were dumped on the trail. And, those rocks aren’t just lying there; they’re all arranged in such a way that hikers walk on the rock’s points and spines. I’d worn a pair of boots for 1442 miles, but Pennsylvania destroyed them. Rocksylvania is where boots go to die.


Chapstick’s feelings after catching sight of the Boulder Field through the trees

Now, I must confess that I’m of the unpopular opinion that walking on rocks is kind of (Type I) fun. It doesn’t slow me down; I’ve routinely done “marathon days” (days of more than 26.2 miles) in PA. But, the friend of mine from college who hiked in Maryland and Pennsylvania with me in 2011 couldn’t have disagreed with me more.

Chapstick, as my friend was known on the trail, were hiking along one day with Trauma, a section-hiker from Germany that we met in the woods. Because we were walking on a rocky trail, I let Chapstick dictate the pace and just fell in comfortably behind Trauma and him. We were exchanging stories and laughing when, all of a sudden, we popped out of the trees and into a boulder field. I heard Chapstick’s groan before I saw the rocks.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Stretching out in front of us was a 0.2-mile by 400 foot clearing that was filled with what looked like God’s rock collection. There were rocks balanced on rocks wedged between rocks squished under rocks, and the rocks were each the size of pieces of furniture.

Chapstick mustered his strength and set off across the boulder field. Trauma and I followed, each choosing our own paths through the rocky scramble, since we couldn’t find blazes anywhere.

Out on the rocks, the Pennsylvania sun beat down on us as we moved slowly, Chapstick sore and Trauma ill. The sun reflected on the grey rocks, and I squinted my eyes against the brightness and the sweat.

Halfway across the boulder field, it struck me as odd that I still couldn’t find blazes. I’d already hiked Huntington Ravine and other crazy trails in the White Mountains; I felt like I knew how to follow even unusual trails. While neither Chapstick nor Trauma was finding blazes either, we determined this might simply be because we were not able to see them from our vantage points (e.g., perhaps the blazes marking the trail were just on the opposite side of nearby boulders); moreover, we thought we could see where the trail met the boulder field at the latter’s north end, so we kept moving forward.

Exhausted from balancing on, jumping onto, and scrambling over boulders under the summer sun, we were grateful when we were able to duck back into the trees. I got a drink and looked around furtively for a white blaze, so as not to upset either of my hiking companions who were having rough days. We had a problem: The trail was nowhere to be found.

Certain that we weren’t far off the trail and would be able to wander back onto it, we climbed down from the boulders and started looking around for the treadway. All we found were rattlesnakes, lots of rattlesnakes resting coiled under rocks and at the bases of trees. Hearing more rattling nearby, I lost my patience with the whole endeavor.

I assumed a motherly role: “Okay, we’ve gotten off trail. It’s no one’s fault. Just relax on the boulders, and get some water in you both. I’ll head back across the boulder field, find the trail, and see if there’s a way for you to get back on it without crossing the boulder field again.”


I have no idea why “Boulder” is in quotes

Sure enough, on the south side of the boulder field, I found the Appalachian Trail, where a sign pointed down the short side trail I’d just come from, marking a “Boulder Field,” as though it might be a point of interest. I called Trauma, and we figured out the best way for her and Chapstick to get back to the trail.

After hiking over the Boulder Field, Pennsylvania’s rocks couldn’t scare us. We’d seen the worst the state could possibly throw at us, and we’d lived to tell the tale. As we continued northward, I thought, “Bring it on.”

On Being Spontaneous, Part Three

Over the last couple Thursdays, I’ve recounted the beginning of a hitchhiking voyage across New England.  By being willing to change our plans and experience whatever came our way, my partner and I ended up at a commune in eastern Massachusetts before we resumed our northward journey.


Quiver and me atop Washington

Before setting out on our adventure, Quiver and I had decided that we wanted to spend some time in the White Mountains again, and the best time to make that happen was after leaving the commune.  Therefore, we pointed our thumbs toward Gorham, NH, and headed to Pinkham Notch and Mount Washington.

We ascended Mount Washington via Huntington Ravine, the infamous trail that I love too much.  On the way down the mountain, we saw a moose trailside — the first (and, thus far, only) moose I’d seen in my life!  If that wasn’t enough, as I was coming out of the restroom at the trailhead, I ran into Sunbeam, a woman who tends to spend as much time in these woods as I do.  Quiver and I had hiked near her for several days in 2012, and we’d all stayed at Kincora (arguably the best hostel on the trail) together.  It was so fun to see her again!

Sunbeam informed us that she was working in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s High Huts and that, in keeping with the theme of serendipity, none other than Gluten Puff, one of Quiver and my favorite 2012 thru-hikers, was working in Greenleaf Hut that summer.  And, with that and hugs goodbye, we headed to Franconia Notch.

The most direct route to Greenleaf Hut is the Old Bridle Path, a trail that climbs from the Franconia Notch Parkway (where US-3 and I-93 coexist).  In getting there, Quiver and I hitched a ride in a police car.  Seriously.  (But, that’s a story for another day.)


Gluten Puff, Quiver, and me at Greenleaf Hut

Walking into Greenleaf Hut and completely surprising Gluten Puff was a blast.  Quiver and I had had these grand hopes of hiking our beloved Franconia Ridge after a short chat with Gluten Puff, but the conversation was so enjoyable that neither of us wanted to leave.  Besides, one of the most important take-aways from all the traveling I’ve done is that (apart from the Old Man in the Mountain) beautiful places are much more stationary and long-lasting than people; while seeing beautiful places is exciting and worthwhile, it’s also important to take advantage of the time we have with friends and family.  And so, Quiver and I spent a gorgeous summer day inside a hut on the shoulder of Mount Lafayette, talking with a special trail friend until lengthening shadows forced us back down the mountain.

From Franconia Notch, we hitchhiked to Burlington, VT, where (after swimming/bathing in Lake Champlain) I caught up with and introduced Quiver to Monica, a friend of mine from college.  After a wonderful night near a vineyard somewhere south of Burlington, we headed down Route 7 to Williamstown, MA (where we’d been just a few weeks earlier to hike Greylock), and then back to central Massachusetts along the Mohawk Trail (a highway).

As dusk was fading on the night before the day of Quiver’s flight out of Portland, ME, we seemed to be stuck 12 miles or so from my car.  Just as we were on the verge of making camp, a petite Asian American woman pulled up beside us and, in broken English, invited us into her car.  While her home was on the way to mine, she decided to take us all the way back to my place, and we arrived home just as darkness fell in earnest.

(One year later, I had the opportunity to thank that final driver when her name appeared on a sign-in sheet/mailing list from a project another AmeriCorps member had hosted.  She seemed as astonished as I was at our reconnecting.  Talk about a small world!)

The next day’s drive to the airport was uneventful but bittersweet.  The weeks of intentional spontaneity, of mountains, of community, of old friends and new, had come to an end.  I worked to cherish the memories and not cry because it was over but, rather, smile because it had  happened.


Lake Champlain


The Captain’s Party


Trailside signs indicated that the Captain’s was near.

The transmission of information along the Appalachian Trail is fascinating, a topic worthy of a sociology student’s research project.  Most of the time, information is passed along in the shelter registers or through word-of-mouth by exceptionally fast or slow hikers.  And, then, sometimes, news is conveyed by flyers and signs stuck to signposts or trees in the woods.  All of these forms of communication were used to announce the Captain’s Party.

The Captain’s Party is a beloved tradition on the Appalachian Trail.  The Captain is a hiker who lives just off the trail in Virginia, and once each year he throws a celebration for the thru-hikers who stop by his yard two weeks after Trail Days.  From what I can discern online, it seems that 2014 marked the 10-year anniversary of the hiker feast, which always includes lots of food, alcohol, games (the “Hiker Olympics”), and a campfire, where live music may be found.

DSCF1196I don’t know whether I would have stopped by the Captain’s Party, were it not for Quiver’s fond memories of the event from years past and his insistence that we join the celebration.  As it was, my then-19-year-old sister decided she could spend a week on the trail, and we arranged to meet her at the Captain’s Party because, weeks out, we were able to tell her exactly when we’d be there.

There is always something comical and a little uncomfortable about the collision of our various lives and identities, and the night my family was introduced to my trail world was no exception.  Suddenly, my little sister, who, as she joked the next day, hadn’t before been to a boy-girl party, found herself in the middle of the woods with a bunch of stinky, hairy people who were devouring everything in sight, smoking quite a bit of marijuana, and drunk on moonshine.  There was even a naked hiker walking around, trying to clothe himself in aluminum foil.  (Because, you know, what party is complete without an aluminum foil-clad man?)


In the late afternoon, a miniature Tent City was erected in the Captain’s yard.


Rapunzel attaching her pack to the zipline

I’d definitely attend Trail Days again, if for no other reason than the chance to catch up with old friends, but it’s grown into something that I think feels a little too large and unruly.  Meanwhile, the Captain’s Party seems to serve the same function that Trail Days once did:  It gathers a bunch of friends together on the trail and builds community by allowing everyone to share in a joyful celebration.  I was very glad I was able to attend.

My sister was, too.  She said that she loved how quickly she was welcomed into the trail community that night.  (While she didn’t partake, she enjoyed the flirtations and invitations to smoke pot that were directed her way.)  The next morning, as she approached the zipline leading from the Captain’s onto the Appalachian Trail, a young man helped her across and, eying her long braid, christened her “Rapunzel.”  And, thus, she became one of us.

Bemis Road Hostel

As I’ve written before, I appreciate single-serving friends.  Even greater is my appreciation of single-serving friends who become long-term friends.  Such is the case with several people I met at a shelter in Maine last year.

I was out in the woods on a section hike on the Appalachian Trail south of Rangeley.  The weather was beautiful, and I was enjoying backpacking after a couple months away from the mountains; thus, my deciding to stop hiking early and at a shelter one day was particularly uncharacteristic.

I don’t believe in fate or destiny or karma; I don’t think the Universe willed me to stop at that shelter.  But, I am very glad that I did.

Tenting near me were Joe and Jay, a father-son duo who were section-hiking near their Bemis Road home.  Interesting characters who were passionate about the outdoors and eager to learn more about the trail, they talked for some time with me as we all ate.

That night was Joe and Jay’s last night on the trail that summer, but they met me again 36 hours later, as I crossed Bemis Road.  It was chilly and raining, and they invited me to climb into their truck and go to their house, where I talked with them and Joe’s wife, Betsy, and ate sugar snap peas and brownies before they drove me somewhere to wait out the deluge.  They invited me to stop by and park my car at their home next time I was section-hiking; I thanked them for being trail angels and figured that morning marked the end of our interactions.

I was wrong.

This past August, I decided to head to the Maine woods again and looked up Joe and Betsy.  I called them a bit hesitantly, but when I said that I’d hiked with Joe and Jay the previous year, Joe cheered, “Rainbow!  It’s good to hear from you.”


Joe and Betsy and their four-legged family members

They said that the offer to leave my car at their home still stood, and I did so.  I hitchhiked to the Rangeley trail crossing and headed south to Bemis Road, picking up a section of trail I’d missed.  As they’d instructed, I called Joe and Betsy at the Height of Land, the Oquossuc trail crossing, so that they could meet me at Bemis Road.  Betsy answered the phone and, with this sweet but no-nonsense, trail mother voice, she told me that she had already prepared a bunk for me and would have dinner ready by the time I got to her home.  Touched and astounded by her generosity, I stammered my thanks and hiked down to Bemis Road.

My wet day of hiking ended with a hot shower, a delicious dinner and a pumpkin beer, great company (including the canine variety!), and the best night’s sleep I’d had in weeks.  At the end of the evening, I sat at Joe and Betsy’s counter, snacking on caramels and chocolate, as they presented to me their idea of turning their camp into a hostel.

There are some fabulous hostels on the Appalachian Trail:  Kincora, the Appalachian Trail Lodge, and the (now-closed) Blueberry Patch are some of my favorites.  However, I honestly believe that, when it opens next year, the Bemis Road Hostel will be among the best of the best.  Joe and Betsy’s camp is warm and cozy, and it’s situated in a stretch of woods that is quite in need of an affordable hostel.  More importantly, Joe and Betsy genuinely care about hikers; they’re the type of trail angels that most of us sorely need by the time we reach northern New England.


Concerned that I wasn’t eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, Betsy sent me on my way with these rainbow carrots from her garden.

If you find yourself on the Appalachian Trail in 2015, be sure to stop in at the Bemis Road Hostel and tell Joe and Betsy that Rainbow Dash says, “Hi!”

Incidentally, it seems as though I should add that Joe and Jay weren’t the only friends I made at the shelter that night.  Soon after I’d arrived, as I flipped through the shelter register, a southbounder (a “SOBO”) arrived at the shelter for the night.  The hiker introduced himself as Ups and asked whether I’d seen a friend of his who was south of him on the trail.  Then, we fell into easy conversation about the AT, weather, Massachusetts (where we both had been living), intentional communities, New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and life in general.  We talked for a good hour or so before I decided that I should ready my campsite for the evening.  We exchanged contact information and tentatively talked about hiking together after he’d completed his thru-hike; honestly, I doubted we’d ever see each other again.  We have, indeed, stayed in contact with one another and met for several hikes, and we may very well be starting the Pacific Crest Trail together next year.