Zero Day

Monson. ME, Monday July 28, 2014 — It’s 62F outside and rainy. Dreary is more like it, and an apt description for this threadbare and struggling little backwoods hamlet.

Monson doesn’t have much – only a few streets and a very nice lake. Unfortunately the lake doesn’t stand out. It’s one of a thousand just like it dotted all over Maine.

The slate industry that founded this once prosperous hamlet is all but defunct. The mill still makes a few counter tops and sinks but not much else. It’s a tiny shadow of the massive industry that operated here until the 50s. After that, the railroad left and pulled up its tracks. It doesn’t get much more final than that.

There’s still a Finnish community here. They came originally to quarry the stone. Names ending in NEN are the legacy of the hope and opportunity that once attracted their immigrant forefathers.

Most of the dilapidated buildings along Main St. are for sale as are what seems to be about one-third of the houses. Monson is just too far north to attract a ton of urban folks in search of summer cottages. So, the sellers hope and wait patiently for their escape ticket.

Life here is hard. The climate is harsh. The ground is rugged. The winters are brutal. The conditions toughen and harden the souls who survive here. Hardly anyone smiles.

A southern hiker at Shaw’s observed this morning that the people here aren’t friendly like they are in the south. In fact, he described them as rude. That’s not the whole story when life is as unforgiving as the stone upon which this town is built.

I’m having lunch at Pete’s. It’s a new business that radiates optimism through the gloom that seems to hang around here like the stale smell of garlic in a turn of the century New York tenement. I hope Pete’s prospers. Hikers will love the homemade baked goods.

Monson seems like a metaphor for dozens of dying towns in rural America. I’ve hiked through too many of them not to see the pain of their slow spiraling demise.

I’m reminded of the dying farm towns and whistle stops in the mid and far west. Change can be Darwinian in it’s callus destruction of lives, culture and place. As Americans and humans, we should remember that these are people, not statistics.

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When you say “For Sale,” you’ve said it all.

Three Fords. Not a Chevy in sight.

Shaw’s boarding house, Monson, ME, AT NOBO mile 2070.8, Sunday, July 27, 2014 — Three river fords today. It took more time to take off my boots than it actually did to cross the rivers.

Today was mostly non-eventful. I was at the edge of the pond at 0500 a.m. looking for, what has been for me, the elusive moose in situ. So far, no dice. The loons were still at it, though. I got some decent recordings of their serenade that I’ll use for soundscape in the composite video that will follow the conclusion of this hike.

Rain punctuated today’s hike for about the last hour. I didn’t much care. After all, I was headed for a hostel. There I could dry out and get ready for what comes next.

Monson is another down and out trail town. It once was the center of the slate roof industry. One that dried up, the slide has been precipitous.

The trail was rerouted from passing through town to where it is now, by-passing the outskirts of the village. Not sure why this was done. Without doubt, right now it is not doing Monson any favors. The trail passes directly through several towns along the way, so it’s not unusual for it to do so.

I’ll try to learn more tomorrow as I work my way through the items needed for a successful transit of the hundred mile wilderness.

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Blueberries!

Moxie Bald Mountain Lean- to, ME, AT NOBO me 2,052.9, Saturday July 26, 2014 — Today looked like a mundane bust with absolutely nothing about which to write until late this afternoon when everything changed.

This morning Eric, the owner of the Sterling Inn dropped me off at the Caratunk (don’t ya just love that name) trailhead around 0745 a.m. The walk would be an easy 18 miles with only a couple of bumps along the way, and that’s the way it was.

The mud is drying, but thunderstorms were forecast for late afternoon just In case the bogs need refreshing. Not to worry, this is 2 mph + territory. Compared to most everywhere else in this state, I was flying along today averaging nearly 3 mph. I’m surprised I didn’t get a speeding ticket.

As the approach climb to Moxie Bald Mtn. accelerated, a miracle happened. Ripe blueberries were everywhere! Yup, and having been forewarned by Tim at Harrison’s Camps, a half gallon zip lock was at the ready. Filled it, I did — and ate ’em too! All of them. Yum!!!

Just past Moxie I noticed that the water bars used to control erosion on hiking trails had been freshly scraped out. The brush had been pruned too. I was hoping to meet the trail crew at the shelter, and there they were.

We talked the finer points and challenges of maintaining trails in Maine. It was cool to learn how they canoe in because that’s not only the shortest route, but it’s the easiest way to carry heavy tools. They were also boating in new lumber piece by piece to build a replacement privy. That’s dedication.

Never again will I complain about tough times in Shenandoah National Park. In comparison, we have it easier than we’ll ever know.

Tomorrow is a 15 mile jaunt to Monson, the gateway to the “Hundred Mile Wilderness.” I have two food packages and I’m hoping my replacement tent poles are there. The only wrinkles are two river fords and the predicted rain. I’m going to try to burn up the trail anyway. I can use all the extra time I can get. There’s a bit of logistical arranging to be done including food caches and the extraction from Baxter State Park to Millinocket.

Only one hundred thirty two miles remaining before the final sunset on this most excellent adventure. Until then, I am enjoying the noisy loons this evening. It seems there are two nesting pairs on the pond arguing over territory. Their audio fireworks are forming a spectacular memory.

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Parting the water

Sterling Inn, Caratunk, ME, AT NOBO mile 2013.1, Friday July 25, 2014 — The sun-splashed Kennebec River sparkled as its icy water spilled along an ancient path to the sea. On the far bank ferryman “Hillbilly Dave” Corrigan’s paddle thrust a fire engine red canoe forward as he charted its path to where I stood.

What appears to be a lazy river belies the danger within. The icy water can cramp a swimmer in seconds. A dam upstream releases water that rises up to two feet in no time. The river also is wide. Wide enough to be called a real river anywhere.

After a hiker drowned several years ago, the Appalachian Trail Conference established a free canoe ferry service in the interest of safety. It’s a welcome ride, not to mention that the white blaze painted on the canoe’s deck marks it as part of the official pathway.

The 3.4 mile jaunt from Harrison’s camp passed in a blink. My package was at the friendly post office here in Caratunk. I forwarded most of the food ahead to Monson where I’ll be by Monday; from there to plan my march through the hundred-mile wilderness.

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A new privy under construction.

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Majestic Maine

Little Bigalow Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2014.4, Wednesday July 23, 2014 — The Bigalow peaks are in the record books. That’s not to say it’s all easy from here. It’s not, but the long hard slogging climbs are done, all but one – Katahdin itself.

The majesty of Maine remains on display. From the endless horizon to lovely lakes; from monster boulders to rocky trail, this state is special and stands out among the other 13 through which the trail transits.

This rugged country is especially challenging to the maintenance crews – volunteers one and all. The hard rock safety installations and endless miles of bog bridging could not be in place without incredible dedication. Some of these folks have to hike several days just to reach the area they need to work. Did I mention how heavy their tools are? I’m in awe of what they do and have done.

The Bigalows are special. As I cleared Avery peak, I wanted to linger, but thunder rolled in the distance pushing me to get past the final peak, Little Bigalow Mountain, before Thor could fry me with one of his missiles.

I barely made it off Little Bigalow’s slab rock top when someone up there turned on a remarkably cold shower. The motivational zig zag mood lighting spurred the pace just a little.

I arrived at the lean-to feeling like a wet puppy, but I was in good company. At the moment, we’re waiting for more drown rats to float in before someone throws the dark switch to mark the official end of the day.

Tomorrow the trail promises to be relatively flat. I’m planning to dash the 17 miles to Harrison’s Pearce Pond Camp which is noted for it’s massive breakfast. Stay tuned to see if I make it.

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A woman simply disappeared without a trace on the trail last year. The area isn’t difficult or dangerous. Sounds fishy to me.

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No bridges in Maine. Bull.


Tonight’s campsite.

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Maine worries more about squirrels than bears! Not a good message for southbounders who are headed dead on into bear country.

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Old fire tower.

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Hikes off trail for water. Passed through this keyhole to get some.


Entrance.

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Liquid sunshine!

Twenty four hours later…

Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps , AT NOBO mile 2030.5, Thursday July 24, 2014 — Today reminded me that Maine has more mud than Vermont and more rocks than Pennsylvania in spite of it’s glorious splendor. Yesterday’s rain dumped a lot of water on the Maine landscape with predictable results. It did what water does.

The mud was deep and black as onyx. It would make pretty good glue I suspect. I’ve written enough about slippery rocks that the eponymously named college probably owes me something for the ads. We had it all, in spades.

None of that nuisance stuff interfered with what was a watercolor day of storybook ponds and classic Maine scenery. I even crossed a road with a congratulatory 2,000 mile sign painted on it. Must be depressing for the southbounders. Some of them look so fresh and innocent. They have no idea what they’re marching into. None of us did.

Maine is dotted as thick as a Monet painting with rustic, and I mean rudimentary, cabins that people own or rent for fishing and hunting.

Built in the early ’30s, and not much changed, Harrison’s is a classic. Franklin Roosevelt once fished here. Tim, the owner and former actuary, is a good guy who treats hikers with extra kindness.

The actual reason I pulled in here was for the giant breakfast and the HOT shower. The mud and warm temperatures this week have taken their toll. Laundry can wait until tomorrow in Caratunk where I have to go to the post office anyway.

It’s a three-mile hike in the morning to catch the canoe that ferries hikers across the Kennebec River. The ferry was initiated after a hiker drowned and several others had close calls several years ago. The danger lies in a dam upstream that releases water without warning. The icy cold temp can’t be a favorable factor either.

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There’s a noisy loon in the pond.

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Tim joined us for breakfast.

Lovely day

Crocker Cirque Campsite, Me, AT NOBO mile 1989.8, Monday July 21, 2014 — As the aphorism goes, no rain, no pain, no Maine. Yesterday was a trifecta. Rain and pain in Maine. Today was the opposite.

Sunshine was welcome all day. It got a bit warm during the climbs and I drank four liters of water while hiking and one more upon reaching camp.

The tendinitis contracted from the beating I took in the White Mountains and western Maine is under control. I’m delighted.

Actually being in Maine, that’s a bonus, believe me.

The trail was generally good today allowing for a 14 mile outing. The ledger recorded two river crossings, neither of which required me to take my boots off thanks to convenient stepping stones and a well placed plank on the Carrabassett.

Sorry. No pics of the crossings. My gear, including my camera, is always double bagged in case I fall in.

I’m parked in a campsite, not a shelter. The next shelter is 12.4 miles and that’s for tomorrow. Meanwhile, my tent has taken its share of wear and tear. Big Agnes (manufacturer) promised to Express Mail a new stuff sack and poles to Rangely. Only the former arrived. Let’s hope the new poles are in Caratunk.

Today’s milestone is less than 200 miles to go. Tomorrow I will break the 2,000 mile barrier before the day is done. The countdown has begun.

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Tent platforms are necessary where flat ground does not exist.

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Real ankle busters.

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I’m starting to appreciate this kind of trail.

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Sat on the stump for lunch.

There’s good news tonight!

Sorry this one is out of sequence. Have I mentioned that I don’t like the WordPress ap anymore …

Horns Pond Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2002.2, Tuesday July 22, 2014 — Gabriel Heatter was a noteable radio newscaster in his day. His signature sign on was “There’s good news tonight.” That’s what I’ve got.

More than 2,000 miles have been recorded on the ledger. Only 183 left to go. Of course there are the Bigalows where I am now and a whole lot more that must be endured before the final climb up Maine’s feature mountain.

Today’s hiking was beyond strenuous. I was camped half way up south Crocker Mountain. As luck would have it, there are two of the steep little SOBs right in a row. They’re followed by a steep descent where a paved highway leads to the village of Straton which I by-passed.

Then comes one of the most beautiful ups yet. The trail scrambles between talus rock falls and monster boulder fields. It could have been a “Lord of the Rings” movie set. Bilbo my man, me thinks we might be in mordor.

I also was about close to exhaustion when I stumbled into the lean-to. It was hot today and the water wasn’t spaced out well. After quaffing some pond water, and following a calorie laden dinner – chicken with cheese potatoes – I am both stuffed and refreshed. The knees feel great too!

It’s difficult to describe the attraction engendered by Maine’s rugged and strenuous hiking. The isolation is everything which most of us were hoping this hike would be. I mean I haven’t heard a Harley’s obnoxious exhaust from the trail in Maine yet!!! Most everywhere else, they keep campers awake at night. Not here.

Tomorrow features a couple of leg burning climbs, but it’s a relatively short day with scattered thunderstorms forecast in the afternoon. I has wanted to hike 17 miles to a shelter from which I’d get a running shot at the Kennebec ferry and my food drop in Caratunk, but considering the weather, I’ll split the days.

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Someone has a sense of humor.

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Tough as granite. Really?

Rangely, ME, Saturday, July 19, 2014 — I returned to Rangely today to continue my hike early tomorrow morning. Before I left Kennebunkport, my friend Ed taught me a new trick. First a little about Ed.

We first met Hashing in Panama where he worked for the Panama Canal Commission. After the canal reverted to Panamanian control, Ed stayed on to close the books and retire on the coast of Maine.

He’s also a busy guy, meaning he doesn’t know how to sit still. With manic levels of creativity, he has landscaped his property into a showplace in a neighborhood of showplaces.

It first started with mortar-free stone walls and morphed into granite. Then there are the flower gardens. Who knows where it will end.

I thought knowing how to split granite might be a useful skill to use at home and for maintaining the trail. So I asked Ed to show me how it’s done. After all, if he can do it…

How hard could it be? Turns out that breaking rock at its most basic level isn’t difficult at all. Learning how to read the rock is a matter for another day.

As we drilled the holes and pounded the wedges, it occurred to me that cracking rocks in two might be a metaphor for thru hiking. On the trail, as in life, being flexible and willing to adjust to people, circumstances or conditions is a productive skill. Otherwise you are at risk of being too inflexible and cracking like the chunk of the rock of ages (granite pictured below), and probably faster than you think.

The trail takes and the trail gives. An old hiker maxim says that the trail will provide. For the most part it does. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for perfection, without the flexibility to adapt to what you actually get, the end of your hike may be near.

That’s a hard lesson for those used to having the authority or resources to virtually dictate their will. You see, on the trail nobody cares about your title, rank or the size of your wallet. The trail doesn’t either.

It took longer to drag out the equipment than it did to split Ed’s rock. It went that quick. In those split seconds I realized that being as tough as granite really wasn’t that much of a virtue. Sometimes being strong isn’t what you think it is.

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Wow! Elapsed time = < 5 minutes!!!

High Contrast

Poplar Ridge Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 1975.6, Sunday July 20, 2014 — Today is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Then, as Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on lunar soil, I watched along with the rest of my Ft. Benning, Ga. Infantry Officer Candidate School class from the position of parade rest in our company day room wearing only our skivvies. A black and white TV flickered history in the making.

Today I resumed hiking from Rangely. I’m typing this blog on an iPhone with more computational, photographic and communications capability than the entire Apollo program. I’m still in my skivvies tho, only this time I’m reclining in my sleeping bag with 205.7 miles remaining in my thru hike.

The sojourn off and return to the trail generated about the same level of contrast. I drove my car back to Maine to make returning home easier. The traffic and noise of NYC and the fine living in Kennebunkport are as far from what I’m doing now as one can get.

I thought about that when I retrieved and purified water from a spring this afternoon. Let’s see — genuine spring water with no extra charge for a fancy label… What a deal! Likewise as I pushed over Saddleback Mountain, The Horn and Saddleback Junior on my way to camp.

This afternoon the clouds were low and furtively dashing in between the peaks as light rain snare-drummed its tune on my pack. Why would I want to be doing anything else I thought while vividly daydreaming of on-demand hot showers and the purring of my cat Sophie as she lapnaps each evening. Hummm… It may be time to git this sucker done, don’t ya think?

I’m at a shelter cared for my the same guy who built it 57 years ago. He placed a fascinating monograph in the shelter. It’s chock full of history and answers to almost every question I have had drilling away in my head. Thanks Dave for all you have done for this trail and those of us who hike it.

Thanks also to Donna, my host yesterday. She and her friend Dave took me on a nice day hike to one of the more interesting area peaks. The three of us enjoyed a scrumptious dinner after which I slept like a rock. Best of all, the view from her deck overlooking Rangely lake is to die for. Could an itinerant hiker enjoy a warmer welcome. I think not.

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Last stop before trail realityville.

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Good info at the trailhead.

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Fresh moose tracks

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Traditional Maine “baseball bat” shelter floor.