Tuesday, June 2, 2015
The CT-AT Challenge: Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut
The adventure was conceived, as many of my adventures are, with a Facebook message from Joshi. Attached was a link to the “CT-AT Challenge,” a promo from the Appalachian Mountain Club encouraging hikers to thru-hike the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. “Thinking of doing this with Cooper over Memorial Day weekend,” Joshi wrote. “Do you and Dylan want to come?”
I responded that I would ask Dylan, but I knew what his response would be. Like me, he generally says yes first and considers the implications of the decision later. Usually much later, when it’s too late to consider whether whatever scheme to which we have assented is actually sane.
I knew that the Connecticut section comprised a small fraction of the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail, which extends from Georgia to Maine (or Maine to Georgia, if you like). I hadn’t actually calculated what this worked out to in miles. If Joshi was proposing hiking the whole thing over a long weekend, then probably thirty or so, I thought. A reasonable, if challenging, task for an 11-year-old who had done some light backpacking to a couple of the White Mountain huts. I promised to carry the bulk of the weight, which would hopefully allow Dylan to move more quickly over the rough, rocky sections and steep climbs (yes, we do have those in Connecticut).
In late April, we had a planning meeting, armed with maps and guide books. “A small fraction” actually worked out to 51.6 miles. And then a few more if we intended to hike back to the road. Since we don’t own a helicopter, private jet, or hovercraft, this was our only option. So we extended the long weekend, and came up with an agenda:
Thursday evening: 3 miles
Saturday: 15.2 miles
Sunday: 14.6 (short day!)
Joshi wrote up cue sheets, with land marks and distances between each. “The kids can do this, right?” I nodded uneasily, thinking our plan to be a bit ambitious, but Bryan assured me that the kids would be fine. And we were never too far from a road, which provided some comfort. Dylan was guardedly confident, though he told me later that he spent the first night worrying about the following day. He wasn’t alone.
In 1999, I set out to do the Long Trail, a 270-mile path through Vermont that coincides with the AT for 100 miles before veering west, toward and over the Green Mountains. I had planned to do the trip with my friend Victoria, but she had injured her back and had to bail out. Much to the anxious chagrin of my parents, I decided to do the trail alone. Bryan had hiked the whole thing in 1996, and I knew from his stories that there were communities of hikers who looked out for one another and often met up in the evenings at the shelters and camping areas that dot the trail. My dad, who was not a hiker, was dubious, but resigned himself to my plan.
After only a week (75 miles) on the trail, I fractured my foot and had to leave. I soon realized the culprit for the injury: my pack, which was WAY too heavy. As I sat at Stratton Pond, soaking my sore foot, one of the AT thru-hikers started going through my gear. He unzipped my “backpacking” utensil set and pulled out a whisk. “Are you planning to whip up eggs on the trail?” he asked, shaking his head slowly. I also had a full-sized hair brush, shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste. “Let me introduce you to Dr. Bronner,” he said, and pulled out a small container of biodegradable all-in-one soap. “Use this for hair, teeth, body, and dishes.”
This time, I was determined not to make the mistake of carrying a pack that weighs more than my husband. I packed one spork (spoon/fork combo) for me, and one for Dylan. All of our meals would be freeze-dried,“just add water,” or sandwiches I made in advance. No pots or pans. A bowl with a lid (the lid would also serve as a bowl) and two cups. Full disclosure: I did pack some wine in a dromedary. A little trail magic was worth the extra ounces.
But man, food is heavy, especially when you’re also packing for a growing pre-teen. “Dylan has a huge appetite, and it’s going to be gargantuan on the trail,” Bryan reminded me. I wanted to make sure he had enough fuel to get him over the emotional and physical hurdles, so I packed lots and lots of trail mix—with M&M’s, of course.
So, despite leaving the whisk and hair brush at home, my pack was still burdensome. But I knew we would eat through much of the weight eventually. More important: we would not starve on the trail, which was Alexa’s fear (“What if you run out of food, mom?”).
Intro: Hoyt Rd. to Ten Mile River (approximately 3 miles)
We met Joshi and Cooper at their house in Southbury on Thursday after school. We had our Last Supper at Subway, and then drove forty minutes to the CT/NY border at Route 55 and Hoyt Rd. The air was cool, and the forecast showed that the evenings would be borderline cold, with temperatures in the mid-40s and down into the 30’s on Friday. These temps meant more weight, but I knew I would be glad to have my down jacket, which folds into itself to become a pillow.
We started hiking at 6:15pm, with Ten Mile River Shelter/Campsite as our destination, 3 miles away. After a straightforward climb to Ten Mile Hill, the trail descends and descends and descends. Dylan took the lead, yelling “Cooper! It’s just up ahead!” every few minutes until I told him to stop. Optimism often gets in the way of reality. Just as the sky was growing dark and we were beginning to wonder just how much farther, Dylan hollered, “Shelter!”
I hiked up to meet him, but I did not see a shelter. “Where is it?” I asked.
“It’s gotta be here. I can just tell.”
I sighed. “Dylan, from now on, unless you are standing in front of the shelter, do not yell ‘shelter.’”
He got it, at least for the moment. He would need some reminding over the next few days, though.
As it turned out, he wasn’t far off. We saw some empty campsites along the river, and then a sign pointing to the shelter. At the lean-to, two hikers were getting ready for bed. One was a young thru-hiker in a Bruins cap who had set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 2. He was headed for Katahdin. The other was an older gentleman who said that his goal was simply “to hike 40 miles.” He didn’t much care how long it would take him.
We said goodnight and headed for the campsites. The older hiker reminded us that 8:00pm is “hiker midnight.” We promised we’d keep our party contained.
We assembled our tents and then got to the important business of hanging our food. Joshi had found instructions on the “PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) method” of keeping food from bears and other critters, and so she had come prepared with bear line and a carabiner. View this method here:
Our food bags were monstrously heavy, and it took three of us to hoist them up while Joshi held the line from the other side. We looped the rope around a tree and fastened it with a carabiner, and lo and behold, it held. We spent a few minutes discussing our plan for the following day, and then crawled into our tents with books and Kindles.
I have always loved sleeping in my tent, especially way out in the woods, away from the sounds of the road. As I burrowed into my sleeping bag, wrapped in stories and memories of camping trips past, I thought about that first night on the Long Trail: I started my hike in the dark, at 9:00pm, because it was the only time I could get a ride to the trail head. My parents, who had dropped me off, begged me to stay in a hotel that night, but I was eager to get out on the trail. I hiked four reasonably flat miles to the first camping area and set up my tent in the dark. I was nervous, but excited, and fell asleep easily despite the scuffling and rustling of little creatures outside my tent.
Backpacking with my son was a game-changer as far as relaxing in the wilderness goes. As Dylan drifted off to sleep, my senses sharpened. I heard men’s voices outside the tent, and then a light shone in our direction. “Dylan!” I whispered sharply. “Did your headlamp just turn on?”
“What?” he answered groggily. “No.”
I peeked out from the tent’s front door. A man was setting up his tent. I couldn’t decide whether I found his presence comforting or disturbing. I wiggled back into my bag and tried to focus on the shhhhh of the river’s current. But my brain was wide awake. What was I doing out here, unprotected (except for the camping knife under my pillow), with my son who was too young to defend himself? And was I insane, asking them to hike fifteen miles in a day? What kind of mother was I? I was no longer confident that there were enough bail-out points. What if it got dark in the middle of our hike and we couldn’t find our way out? And what about all of the black bears in this part of the state?
Unable to sleep, I reached for my Kindle and tried to read away my anxiety, but I couldn’t focus. At some point the Kindle dropped from my hand and I slept.
Day 1: Ten Mile River to Stewart Hollow Brook (15.5 miles)
In the morning, our bags were still hanging from the bear line, but when we lowered the booty, the rope snapped, letting us know that the combined heft of our packs constituted the maximum weight the line could hold.
Breakfast was a hit. At home, I always insist on making oatmeal “from scratch,” so Dylan was delighted to see that I had brought packets of apple-cinnamon instant oatmeal, complete with “natural flavors.” I sprinkled some dried berries over the top, and voila, our meal was served. The real treat for me were the two packets of Starbucks just-add-water dark roast. No brew time. I could get used to those.
As we were finishing up our breakfast, the guy who had set up his tent the night before emerged. He was young, probably in his early twenties, and wore a US Marine Corps sweatshirt. He greeted us with a shy, friendly smile and set up his stove on the platform next to ours. Dylan looked disbelievingly at the guy’s breakfast packet. “How does that turn into an omelet?” he asked.
The guy was stirring water around in the pouch, which was labeled “Hearty Peasant Omelet.” Dylan was fascinated by the reconstitution process, though he admitted the meal did not look very appetizing.
We later discovered that the hiker’s name was Nate, and that this was his first backpacking trip. He was a Marine from East Hartford, CT who was also doing the CT-AT challenge, also hoping to finish on Monday. He seemed happy for the company, but judging from his fit physique, I had a feeling he would soon out-pace us. “I’m really glad I met people,” he said. “I was hoping I would meet people out here, but didn’t know if I would.”
I wanted to tell him that, if he went on, he would probably find hiking partners closer to his age, but I didn’t want him to think we didn't appreciate his company.
The hike starts with a bridge crossing over the Ten Mile River, then makes its way up Bulls Bridge Road, a dirt road that extends gradually. Much to my surprise, Nate waited for us to catch up, in spite of frequent requests by the kids for another break, another snack, more water. We reminded the kids, gently, that we had a lot of miles to make, but also told ourselves (and, at times, the kids) that we could always stop for the night earlier than planned. As we hiked up Schaghticoke Mountain, Dylan seemed more and more interested in coming up with an Alternate Plan. The climb was steep and rocky, like so many sections of the AT in New England, and our packs were still heavy with four days’ worth of food. I worried that this trip would turn him off from backpacking forever, but his pace remained steady in spite of his frustration with the terrain.
Late in the morning, we had a near-encounter with a rattlesnake, who we heard, but, much to my relief, did not see. I thanked him for the warning and we went on our way.
We had lunch at Indian Rocks, on top of the ridge, and the peanut butter and jam wraps I had packed seemed to perk Dylan up a bit. Cooper, who had started the day feeling under the weather and generally listless, announced that he was now feeling “really, really good.”
Mid-way through the afternoon, energy and morale started to droop once again. Dylan frequently pulled the map from his pocket. “There’s a shelter at Mt. Algo,” he pointed several times, as an invitation to anyone who was inclined to cut the day short. Once we got there, though, it seemed too early to pack it in. The problem was that the next shelter, Stewart Hollow Brook, was another 6 miles away. Did we want to risk it?
“Well, I suppose we can really camp anywhere if we need to,” I said, though I was a little nervous. Dylan was disappointed but resigned himself to the task of more hiking without too much complaining.
From Mt. Algo Shelter, the trail descends down into Kent, and then climbs again up to Fuller Mountain. After that, the trail rolls up and down, mostly over boulders and jagged rocks, over the ridges before ascending steeply up to Caleb’s Peak. It was getting close to dinner time, and we were nowhere near Stewart Hollow. The kids were hungry and tired, and so were we. “We’ll stop at the next overlook,” I said. “We can cook dinner and then hike in the dark if we need to."
Just before 6:00, we stopped at a beautiful viewpoint called St. John’s Ledges. The kids dropped their packs. “Let’s eat,” Dylan said. We were both looking forward to the freeze-dried Thai chicken I was carrying. Nate decided to hike on. “I’ll see you at the campground, right?” he asked.
“Hope so,” I answered, more than a little skeptical.
Dinner in a pouch was surprisingly tasty, though I was anxious to get back on the trail while we still had daylight. With full bellies, we strapped on our packs, and encountered the most treacherous descent on the trail. Unencumbered, the trek downward probably would have been only mildly discomfiting, but with the awkwardness of all the weight, it was a little scary. Dry leaves covered the stone steps, making the footing slippery and uncertain. I was glad we weren’t doing this in the dark. I was starting to feel angry at the trail for tripping us up so late in the day. Every time I leaned forward to step down, the pack threw off my balance, so that I had to steady my arms to prevent myself from doing a somersault down the rocks.
We were soon rewarded with a 2-mile FLAT walk on a dirt road along the Housatonic River. We stopped and filled our water bottles at a brook along the way, hoping the campground would soon be in view. It was getting dark, and we put on our headlamps just as the road came to a parking area/trail head. We followed the path along the river. After a few minutes I realized I hadn’t seen a white blaze in over four or five minutes, which is unusual on the AT. But we couldn’t have missed a turn, could we? Where else would the trail go? Probably up, I thought tiredly.
We pondered what to do. Should we backtrack and look for a blaze at the parking area? Or just hike on and trust that, if this wasn’t the trail, it would intersect with the trail at some point? We chose the latter option, and eventually we came to the sign announcing Stewart Hollow Brook Shelter and Campground. Two women and a dog were sitting by the river. “You guys camping?” one of them asked. We nodded. “There may still be some room.” I was slightly disheartened. There was another camping area about a half mile away, but I was DONE.
We walked around the campground, looking for a spot without much success. The shelter, too, was inhabited by thru-hikers. Then we heard Nate’s voice: “Hey, guys! I saved you a spot!”
Relief! “Is there enough room for two more tents?”
“Definitely! Hey, did you see the sign I made at the road crossing? I dug an arrow into the dirt and wrote ‘Hi’ and ‘This way.’ I was hoping you would see it.”
I hadn’t, but Cooper had. “I saw it! I wrote, ‘Hi back.’”
I was glad we had already eaten dinner, because I had no desire to cook, even if cooking only involved heating up some water and pouring it into a pouch. We set up our tents and hung our backpacks. Dylan, who is typically a night owl, couldn’t get into his sleeping bag fast enough. I didn’t even want to think about what his feet looked like. Or mine. I could hear the river and thought about washing up, but it was cold now, at least down to the 40s, and I didn’t want to expose any skin.
I pulled the wine bag out of my backpack and offered some to Nate and Joshi. “You brought wine?” Nate asked in disbelief. “That’s awesome. I would love some.” I was so tired I could barely taste it, but it didn’t matter. We’d hiked 15 miles, we had made it to camp, and I was sitting. Couldn’t wish for much else at the moment.
Day 2: Stewart Hollow Brook to Sharon Mountain Campsite (approximately 12 miles)
Saturday morning was chilly, and we were sporting our down jackets once again as we cooked our breakfast and packed up our campsite. I was unusually delighted to find that I had packed blueberry pop-tarts to go with our instant oatmeal. It’s the little things.
The day began with a continuation of last night's flat river walk along the Housatonic, which continued for about two miles. It was a much more pleasant warm-up than the one we’d had the day before. Nate had told us to hike ahead and he’d catch up, which he did after about a mile. I was beginning to feel quite maternal toward him, and I was hoping he would find his way toward some of the other young backpackers we’d been seeing on the trip. There was a group of four young men who had planned to hike the entire AT from Maine to Georgia, in reverse of the more traditional south-north journey. But Baxter State Park, where their trip should have begun, was still closed to hikers due to poor conditions. So, the new plan was to start in Connecticut, hike to Mt. Katahdin, end then get a ride back to the CT-NY border and go south. Their pace and youth seemed a good match for Nate.
Nevertheless, I was very glad for Nate's presence later that morning, after we had hiked over Silver Hill and down to Cornwall Bridge. At the junction of the trail and Route 4 was a sign warning hikers of the dangers of the river crossing just past the road, at Guinea Brook:
The rock stepping stones across Guinea Brook are no longer safe to use. Crossing Guinea Brook requires fording or utilizing the blue blazed bypass trail. Use the “high water bypass” or the Mohawk Trail, or continue S on RT 4 to the Breadloaf Mountain parking area and take the blue trail to rejoin AT. The bypass is strongly recommended during periods of high water or icing.
I was all for finding the bypass trail, but Nate and Joshi both reminded me that we hadn’t much rain this spring, and that most of the creeks we had crossed thus far were pretty shallow.
When it comes to water crossings, I’m a chicken even under the most favorable circumstances. I have terrible balance (which my husband assures me is 90% mental), and I’m not a great swimmer, so I sometimes become paralyzed by morbid thoughts when faced with a log bridge or a rushing river. Add to that a heavy backpack and an 11-year-old son, and I’m a mess—at least inside. I tried to keep my expression stoic.
Nate crossed first, and, gentleman hiker that he is, led each of us across, first taking our packs, and then holding out his hand. The rocks were slick, and the river was higher than I liked, but we didn’t need to “ford” the river with para-cord as the sign implied. Onward.
This day proved to be the most arduous of our trip. Though the terrain wasn’t as steep and rocky as it had been the day before, it was consistently rolling, and we were making the trek on tired legs. We’d also slept in, and lingered over breakfast, and then lunch. For Dylan and Cooper, the previous day’s hike was by far the longest they had ever completed in one shot, and I think they were pretty daunted by the idea of doing the same distance again. But also determined. Belter’s Campsite was our projected destination, and every time we looked at the map, we were a little more skeptical about getting there. One of the women we’d met at Stewart Hollow had told us that Caesar Brook was a pleasant campground, just 8 miles from where we’d started. Dylan began to suggest that we stop there for the night, maybe enjoy some down time. This was sounding good to me. But when we arrived at Caesar Brook, it was only 2:30pm, and none of us could fathom quitting for the day just yet (except maybe Dylan, though he grumpily agreed to keep walking).
After about our 37th break, Nate decided to hike on (he had to finish by Monday, like us, and was determined to do the whole CT section). We figured that might be the last time we’d see him and silently wished him well.
Late in the afternoon, we passed another shelter, Pine Swamp Brook, and debated what to do. We weren’t going to make it to Belter in the daylight. Was it worth hiking with our headlamps on? Who knew what the terrain would be like? The kids were complaining a lot (with good reason). They wanted to stop, but they didn’t want to stop. They wanted down time, but they wanted to reach their goal, to hike the entire section. I wanted their wishes to drive the decision; the problem was, they were too fatigued to decide rationally. So we did the only logical thing: we hiked on. The larger map I was carrying in my backpack showed us something the smaller map hadn’t: there was actually another campground between Pine Swamp and Belter’s. Sharon Mountain Campsite. If we stopped there, we’d only be three miles short of our target mileage, and that might be a distance we could make up at the end. Spirits rose, if only a bit.
As we hiked over Mt. Easter, we met a pair of runners, a man and a woman, who had started at Bear Mountain, our final destination, earlier that day. They looked fresh and happy, twenty-something miles into their run. “I hate them,” Cooper declared. We got it.
From Mt. Easter, it was a long and very gradual descent to Sharon Mountain Campsite, which was more primitive and less inhabited than the other spots we’d passed. We filled our water bottles, which were almost completely dry, and found a spot next to the four guys making their way to Katahdin. We were surprised they hadn’t gone further. They had so much gear spread about, it looked as if they could have been car camping. Their clothes hung on a line they’d tied to the trees, and they were gathered around three or four stoves.
The sign at the campground indicated that there was a privy (an outhouse), so I ran to find it. The sign should have had an asterisk. There was a toilet, yes. But no building of any kind surrounding it. It was a toilet in the wilderness, just down the hill from some campers. I decided to find a tree instead.
Dinner (mac and cheese for Dylan; pre-cooked “Greek feta quinoa” for me) was a somber affair. The boys were disappointed at not having met our mileage goal. We discussed possible alterations to our plans. Since Noah and Bryan were planning to pick up our car the next day and move it to our end-point, we had to let them know our plan at some point on Sunday. I was torn: I wanted the take-away for the kids to be that the trail was a place to chill, a place where what mattered was the simple lifestyle and not the miles, or the time. I wanted them to have the experience of a leisurely afternoon at one of the shelters. “We could get up really early tomorrow,” Cooper suggested, “and add on the mileage.” But that would mean a 17-mile day, and who was up for that?
“What about Monday?” the boys wanted to know. But Dylan had informed me earlier that day that he had a report due Tuesday and hadn’t worked on it as he was supposed to. Since I’d already pulled him out of school on Thursday, I couldn’t compromise his work. Cooper noted that it seemed borderline sacrilegious to have to talk about homework on the trail, and I silently agreed, but that was the reality of our situation. Joshi and I conspired softly while the boys drank hot chocolate. We finally decided that we’d check in with each other again around noon the next day. What else could we do? She texted Noah with an update.
Day 3: Sharon Mountain Campsite to Riga Campsite (17 miles!)
I had set my alarm for 5:50, but I heard Cooper’s alarm go off even earlier in the next tent. Groggily, reluctantly, I climbed out of my sleeping bag. I hadn’t slept a full night since we’d started. Once again, sleep had eluded me, despite my exhaustion, Danger lurked just beyond the tent door: bears, giant squirrels, shady characters, forest specters. The longer I lay awake, the more immediate and terrifying all of these threats became. At Stewart Hollow Brook, I had even begun to worry about Nate. Why had he really saved us a spot? What was his motive? What if that rustling I heard outside was Nate going through our backpacks, stealing our money (and our wine!)? Never mind that I kept my money (and my camping knife) next to me in my tent. As a woman, I felt like a target, and now I was exposing my son to maniacs and wild animals and maybe even hyper-fatigue.
And last night I'd heard music, too, a bass rhythm coming from somewhere off in the dark. Where? I imagined a group of Satan worshippers beating drums and making their way through the woods, toward us. But there were fireworks, too. So maybe not.
Daylight brought sanity (and maybe even relief that we’d survived another night). Joshi and I moved quickly, both of us secretly hoping that maybe 17 miles, an insane distance, was an actual possibility, as Cooper had suggested the night before. We untied the bear line and let the food bags drop. We needed coffee to function properly (or at least I did).
I’d packed another pop tart in with our oatmeal, which seemed like a good omen for the day. I let Dylan sleep in. Cooper was up, and he was feeling less optimistic than he had the night before. “I want to go home,” he said. “I can’t hike anymore.”
I moved away silently so that he and his mom could talk. I certainly understood the sentiment, and was so impressed that the boys had made it this far. We could hike to the next road get off the trail and still say we’d accomplished something pretty flipping remarkable.
Dylan, awake now, had overheard the conversation and was lobbying to finish the trail. “I really want to finish, Mom,” he said. I found it amusing that the kids had become yin and yang—when one was up, the other was down. I wondered if we might find a way to balance them.
In the end, Cooper rallied. We looked at the elevation profile on the map, and there was a lot of flat ground, including 3 or so miles along the Mohawk trail and some road sections. If ever there was a day to make big miles, this was it. We quickly packed up our gear, filtered some water, and set out. Cooper and Dylan had devised a system for getting up with their packs on. They would set the backpacks down and then lie backwards on the packs, slipping their arms through the straps and buckling themselves in. Then they would rock back and forth, preparing for flight. I would hold out my trekking poles, and they would grab onto them and pull themselves up. It was impressive.
We had a short climb out of Sharon Mountain Campground, up to an overlook called “Hang Glider’s View.” From there, the source of last night’s music became clear: down below was Lime Rock Park, a popular destination for car enthusiasts on Memorial Day Weekend. I had camped there with Bryan once, years ago, and we were surrounded by raucous RV-campers, many of whom were playing loud music. We snapped a couple of photos, and then it was a long descent into Belter’s, which had been our intended destination the day before. We stopped for a snack, and I ran off to find the privy. Once in the campground, I stopped and looked around, hoping to see an outhouse somewhere. Two hikers pointed me in the right direction. As I trotted off, another hiker poked his head out of his tent. “Morning!” he greeted. “Morning,” I yelled back. The privy was another exposed toilet. I was beyond caring.
When I returned to the group, it occurred to me that the hiker who’d poked his head out of his tent might have been Nate. I looked at my watch. It was almost ten. Couldn’t be. But Dylan was curious now, so he ran back to see if it was his hiking buddy.
He reappeared a few minutes later. “It’s Nate!” he yelled. “He’s packing up, so we’ll probably see him later.” Dylan rattled off some story about how Nate had planned to hike even further yesterday but had met a girl on the trail and ended up staying at Belter’s instead. I smiled.
The day was the warmest we’d had so far, and I was ever more grateful that the terrain was so forgiving. We walked along Route 7 for a bit, crossed a bridge over the Housatonic, and then went back into the woods and along a shaded, plush section of pine needle-covered trail. I looked at my watch a few times and was impressed by the time we were making, but I didn’t want to think about it too much. I was familiar with the ebbs and flows of the kids’ moods, and we had Prospect Mountain to climb.
At the end of the River Trail was a sign, directed at hikers just entering the trail we were leaving. “Bears have been seen on this trail,” it read. “Keep your children and other treasures under control.” Thankfully, there were still four of us.
In Falls Village, we stopped for a snack at the Great Falls Overlook, a pool of water at the base of a waterfall. We were tempted to take off our shoes (one of Cooper’s shoe was now a shredded mass of material being held together by duct tape) and cool them off in the pool underneath the falls, but the thought of having to put socks over wet feet kept us from giving in.
In all of the years I’ve been hiking and trail running in Connecticut, I had never heard of Prospect Mountain. And yet, it turned out to be one of the more significant climbs on our trip. How much of that was due to the elevation, and how much was due to the fact that we were 3.5 days in and tired of climbing, I’m not sure. But it went up, and up, and up to a false summit, and then up again. But at least we were rewarded with a view.
The four thru-hikers from the campsite the night before were eating lunch on the summit. “Is this Prospect Mountain?” I asked. For much of our trip, there had been a discrepancy between where we thought we were, and where we actually were, usually to our disadvantage.
“If it’s not,” one of them answered, “I’m going to cry.”
“It is,” Dylan declared, undaunted by the fact that his accuracy in determining our location on this trip was only about 50%. This time, he was right.
The cheddar cheese I’d packed for lunch had pretty much transformed into rubber, but at the moment, it was damn tasty, and filling, too. I ate it with some soggy crackers and a few slices of pepperoni.
At this point in our hike, we were beginning to believe that making it to Riga, and ultimately to Bear Mountain and our final destination, was actually a possibility, even a likely one. Cooper was certain, and announced once again that he was feeling “really, really, really good.” Dylan was dancing and chattering happily. Joshi and I were cautiously optimistic.
Just as we were finishing up our lunch, Nate appeared, one earbud in, moving at a rapid pace. “Nate!” the four thru-hikers greeted. He waved, then paused to give us a brief update. He’d been hiking with the thru-hikers for the last day, though he'd slept late this morning. “Those guys move,” he added. He had, as Dylan said, met a girl. “She was cool. I talked to her for an hour and a half.” Awwww, I thought. Nate didn’t stop for lunch. I asked how far he was going. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll see where the day takes me.” So, he had learned the thru-hiker’s mantra. Good.
Joshi and I convened to discuss the plan. Over the last 24 hours, she had devised several creative alternatives, all of which would allow us to complete the entire CT section one way or another. Noah was being very patient with us. Since he and Bryan weren’t planning to move the cars until later that evening, he told Joshi, via text, that we had until dinnertime to decide.
“Here’s my plan,” Joshi said. “We drop a bunch of our weight at the trailhead at Route 41. We take only what we absolutely need. The guys can stop by the trailhead on their way to dropping off the car, and they can pick up our stuff. We’ll stash it somewhere, behind some trees maybe.”
I liked it. We were going to hike to Riga and complete the whole 17 miles. I looked at the elevation profile again. We had about 6 miles of flat or rolling trail, and then there was a big, 2.5 mile climb up to Lion’s Head before Riga. I remembered the trail as being rocky and steep, without many switchbacks. Could we do it?
We finished up our lunch (our packs were becoming so much lighter now that we had eaten through most of our food!) and hiked down toward the town of Salisbury. Cooper briefly advocated for a ride from Route 41. “We could hang out, play cards, and camp in the car, or just leave.” But when we reached the road and the trail to Lion’s Head loomed ever closer, he found another reserve store of energy and confidence, just as mine was starting to deplete. I texted Bryan from our road walk at Route 44: “Kids want to push on to Riga. I’m so frickin’ tired.”
It was difficult to walk through town, past quaint cafes and residents enjoying the afternoon on their porches, knowing we had to hoist our packs (minus some weight, yes, but still) up to Lion’s Head. My mood darkened. We walked through a neighborhood of “church houses” called “Noble Horizons.” “Well, that’s a self-righteous name,” I snapped.
And then, just around the bend, was the trailhead. We took off our packs and discussed what we could leave behind. No rain in the forecast, so ditch the rain covers. Not cold tonight, so either fleece or down jacket, but not both (I chose the down, since it was also my pillow). No flip flops (I was hesitant to leave them behind, but Cooper reminded me that it was only one night!). Dylan ditched his book. I had brought my Kindle, which was light enough to justify carrying. Dirty clothes: gone. Trash: gone. We stashed everything behind a couple of trees, and then covered it with leaves and pine needles. Joshi took a picture of it and texted it to Noah. Hopefully the guys would find it easily, even in the dark.
When we’d arrived at the trail, a group of somewhat un-trail-ish looking guys had asked us if we knew of any stores in town. Now they were lingering in the parking lot, which made us hesitant to leave our gear behind. It was late afternoon, and I worried about climbing over Lion’s Head in the dark. After forty or so minutes, we decided we’d better get going.
Lion’s Head is a popular spot with local runners and after-work-hikers. It’s a short, steep climb to one of the best views in Connecticut. So, we encountered a lot of folks on this last push, which helped to keep our spirits up, I think. It was really warm now, and my shirt was saturated. But the boys were full of adrenaline, and were practically running up the trail, if that was possible.
After what seemed like an unusually short amount of time for such a climb, we reached an overlook. “Lion’s Head!” Dylan yelled. I looked at the map again, skeptical, and then at my watch. “Sorry, bud,” I said, “but this can’t be it. Not enough time has gone by. Not humanly possible to hike that far.” This was true, but when I showed the map to Joshi, she pointed to a sign on a tree right near where we stood. “Lion’s Head.” It wasn’t even 6:00pm. How was it possible? To be honest, it really wasn’t possible. It was clear that whomever had measured the distance in that section of the trail had mis-measured. But who cared? We were actually going to get into camp at dinner time! And we were going to finish this thing! I may have actually screeched over the hills. “Yay!”
“What a great day!” I exalted as we hiked down toward Mt. Riga. I had stayed there with Bryan years ago, and remembered the shelter as being the most beautiful shelter on the CT AT. The campground was nestled in the trees, but the shelter, a three-sided lean-to, overlooks the valley, and is spectacular at sunrise. I hoped maybe there was enough room in there for us. That way, we could sleep outside, without having to set up our tents, and wake up to an incredible view.
“Too bad we’re out of wine,” I said to Joshi. “THIS would have been the day to celebrate.”
Joshi said, "I'm so pumped I could just keep hiking to Bear Mountain tonight!"
My legs protested at the thought. "Sorry, but I'm not with you on that one," I replied.
We stepped over the creek, a sure sign that the shelter was near, and then I saw a most welcome sight: a bear box! This is a cache where campers can store food, eliminating the need to hang it from the trees. One less job to do that evening.
The shelter, alas, had no vacancy, as the thru-hikers had arrived before us. I worried that the campground would be full: it tends to get crowded on the weekends, and this was a holiday weekend. And we did have trouble finding a spot, but after making the rounds once, we found one, just big enough for two small tents. “Perfect!” I declared.
And then the day got even better. “Look who’s here,” Dylan announced, coming back from a trip to the stream. It was Nate, and he carried something beautiful and precious in his hand: beer. “I went into town,” he said. “I got myself a chicken parm sandwich, and some beer. So, if you have a cup, I can pay you back for the wine you shared. I hope you like Corona.”
“I would drink Schlitz right now,” I said. “We’re heading back to the shelter to make dinner, so I’ll see you there.”
Dinner was a communal, high-calorie affair. We shared reconstituted chili (really tasty), Greek feta quinoa (slightly less tasty but not bad), and ramen noodles (the most popular entrée). Nate poured beer into our camping mugs, and I made hot chocolate for the boys. The bugs were nasty, so we hurried through, eager to get into our tents. We talked about eating real food the next day, and about banana splits. On day two of our hike, we’d run into a guy who’d told us he was going to get off the trail in Kent and head to Annie Bananie’s, an ice cream place he’d heard about. Banana splits had invaded our daydreams for two days.
Just before bedtime, Joshi and I went down to the stream with a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap. I washed my feet, which were black, and I cleaned off the thin but stubborn film of dirt that covered my legs. It felt like a day at the spa. I could slip into my sleeping bag without thinking about the dirt I was taking with me. I dared not think about the state of Dylan’s feet, and looked away when he took off his socks. I gave him a kiss, reminding him with disbelief that we had hiked 17 (ish) miles that day, and that this was our fourth and last night on the trail.
Day 4: Riga to Bear Mountain to Undermountain Trail (6 miles)
The oatmeal seemed especially bland on Monday morning, but really, who cared about breakfast when burgers and fries awaited?
“Can you believe we only need to hike six miles today?” Cooper asked. “Seems like nothing.”
How was it, though, that my pack still seemed so heavy? I had really packed lightly this time, unlike my stint on the Long Trail in ’99. And our food was almost gone. Shouldn’t I be feeling spry?
No matter. We had “only” Bear Mountain to climb, and then it was down, down, down to Sage’s Ravine and the Undermountain Trail parking lot, where our car (and, Cooper reminded us, the cookies he’d left in it) awaited. And then burgers and fries and ice cream, and, later, beer.
When we’d planned this trip a couple of months earlier, Joshi had suggested that we try to be off the trail by noon. In our households, May 25 is an important day: it’s the day of registration for the Vermont 50, an epic mountain bike race we’ve been doing for a number of years. The race usually sells out in about 20 minutes. Yes, Bryan and Noah could probably sign us up, but would they remember? And didn’t it make sense to have as many laptops open to the registration page as possible?
At planning time, I’d thought that a noon finish was unrealistic. But we were out of the campground and back on the trail before 8:00am, while fog still hovered over the hills. This was the longest time I’d spent in the woods since that Long Trail hike, and I was ready to ditch my pink hiking shirt, possibly forever, as it seemed unlikely that even the Sport Wash laundry detergent would be able to wash out the Essence of Thru-Hike. My hips were chafed from the belt on my backpack, and my shoulders were droopy and tight. I thought about the massage gift certificate I’d gotten for Mother’s Day. I’d be making an appointment this week.
The day before, I’d worried about running out of snacks, but I still had a Ziploc and a half of trail mix, which I encouraged everyone to eat. I knew that the other side of Bear Mountain was going to be a steep descent, with shaky footing, so the less weight in the pack, the better. But our appetites had already jumped ahead to burgers and ice cream.
We made it to the summit of Bear more quickly than I’d imagined we would (it seems this section of trail was measured by the same mathematically-challenged, or highly generous, person who had measured the previous section). The fog hadn’t lifted, but the view wasn’t entirely obscured, and we stopped to enjoy it. Bear is the highest peak in CT (though some argue that it’s technically in Massachusetts), and it’s a proper climax to a fifty-something mile trek. While relaxing on the summit, we met a hiker from Pennsylvania who had hiked the entire AT a number of years back, and was trying to recapture some of his experience this weekend by hiking seventy miles in three days. He asked if we’d acquired trail names. “Not this time,” I said. Later, Dylan told me he’d come up with a name for himself: Power Ranger.
The descent was a bit sketchy, the only descent of this kind we’d encountered since the first day, coming down from St. John’s Ledges. The unsure footing slowed our progress a bit. I remembered hiking up this trail with the kids two years earlier, and remarking to them, “Imagine doing this trail with a huge pack on your back. That’s what the A.T. hikers do.”
On the way down, we met a group of young hikers—two women and a man—who were just starting their CT/AT journey, going from north to south, instead of south to north as we had done. They asked if we had any tips, and Dylan, always in search of a listening ear, was more than happy to share.
Finally, just before noon, we reached the sign for Sage’s Ravine, which signaled that the parking lot was near. Joshi confessed that she had, for a brief moment, wondered if she had told Noah the wrong parking lot. I was too busy worrying about whether Cooper’s chocolate chip cookies were still in the car.
After pausing briefly for a photo with his mom at the sign for Sage’s Ravine, Dylan was off again, so far ahead that we could no longer see him (an incorrigible habit of his). After a few minutes, we heard him yell something that could only have been “parking lot!” or “car!” or “the end!” (or, dare I hope, “chocolate chip cookies!”). I felt a rush of emotion: relief, admiration for the kids, gratitude for my son, for these friends, these beautiful trails. And hunger. Powerful hunger.
We had done it! 54 miles in 4 days. Joshi and I wiped our tears and took photos with the kids. I thought back to that first night in the tent, when I lay awake thinking how completely insane and irresponsible this whole venture was. And yet, the kids had risen to the challenge, and with remarkable grace and confidence. It was an accomplishment I don’t think they quite understood in the same way that Joshi and I did.
“The cookies are still here!” Cooper yelled from the back seat of the car, where the boys had already settled in as Joshi and I changed our shirts in an attempt to smell less offensive. Cooper looked up ice cream shops on his phone. While Joshi and I were still celebrating the achievement, the kids were already focused on the next trip: the journey to find the great Banana Split.