Tag Archives: Appalachian Trail

A Shadow in the Corner

A Shadow in the Corner

I recently hiked a piece of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. I’d hiked it before—I’ve done the entire trail—but hadn’t been up that way for years. And I can’t say the Vermont section of the trail is a personal favorite, but I’ve had my moments.

Many years ago, when I hiked that same section of the trail—to the summit of Mt Bromley, a popular ski destination in the winter—I remember having begun late so I did not get to the top until twilight. My guide book had mentioned a ski shelter located near the trail so because several thunderstorms had rolled through during my trip up the mountain, I headed in that direction.

It turned out that the shelter was a large enclosed building. I entered into a spacious common room that was drenched in shadows as the light of day was waning outside. Suddenly, I realized I was not alone. Across the room lurked the shadow of human figure saying not a word. I said hello, not knowing if I was dealing with friend or foe. The figure began moving in my direction, but I did not have enough common sense to fear him. I was apprehensive, but most people on the trail are very friendly and open. My unavoidable “roommate” began telling tales of woe: He had lost his backpack; he had his car stolen; he needed to get off the mountain to attend church the next day.

I absorbed all of this, all the while trying to figure out if I would sleep a wink with my shadowy friend in the room. Ultimately, I decided that the better part of valor was to retreat out the door I had come through earlier and get further up the trail as fast as I could. I felt a little guilty about leaving the young man behind, but when you are alone on the trail it is often better to err on the side of prudence. I will never know what might have happened that night. But perhaps it is enough to know that “the wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way….” (Proverbs 14:8) The “way” in this case was not to stay.

The city of man with its activities and diversions never seems to be enough.-

Winter Light: Intimations of a Kinder Season to Come

IMG_0483In early February, the light of day begins to change. Without much warning, the steel gray of deep winter gives way to intimations of a kinder season ahead. Daylight lingers longer into the afternoon and the warmth of the light reflecting off the windows of distant skyscrapers battles the forbidding coldness of the moment.

And in the late afternoon, when the sky is clear, the setting sun paints the western horizon in vivid oranges and reds, hinting that the cloistered winter months will soon be a memory. It’s then when I begin to feel the draw of the hills and mountains of the countryside beyond the shores of this water bound city, even though snow and ice still covers much of the land. It’s then when I begin to dream of new adventures along the trails that I have traveled in seasons past. I have a particular love for the Appalachian Trail that crosses twelve states from Georgia  to Maine.

Web Pictures Group 2 086I am often asked why I leave the comforts of home for a less predictable environment.  I guess there are many reasons, but what I always come back to is the way the trail connects me to the mysteries of God’s universe. I may inhabit a world constructed by the hands of man and I may marvel at all its complexity and brilliance, but the city of man with its activities and diversions never seems to be enough.

The Bible gives us one explanation for this unquenchable desire to reach beyond the circumference of place and time. Solomon in Ecclesiastes says that God “placed eternity in the hearts of all men and women” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Elsewhere it says that Cain became a restless wonderer of the earth, and as such, he became an example of the seeming restlessness of people who, like ghosts, bustle to and fro in dances of endless activity. It is this desire for the eternal that is built into our human makeup, and it is the fact that we live in an impermanent world that we feel the strong, nagging need to seek places that provide the peace that comes upon us when we finally find a place that connects us to the God who brought everything into existence.

Recalling an Encounter on Mt. Moosilauke’s Gorge Brook Trail

view from summit of mt moosilauke-4-feature

It was the summer of 1992 and my three sons and I were attending a boys’ camp reunion at Camp Pemigewassett in New Hampshire. Outdoor activities filled each day. On the first day, we canoed down the Connecticut River north of Hanover. On the second full day, we had several options and I chose a hike up nearby Mt. Moosilauke. I had fond memories of family trips up Moosilauke as a child; my only worry was my youngest son Arthur being able to make it to the top and back. He had hiked before, but nothing as strenuous as this New Hampshire four-thousand footer. Its summit rose above the tree line into an exposed jumble of rock. Though he had a birthday coming up, Arthur was still just four years old. I could easily imagine hearing the plaintive cry that often came from the back seat of our car: “Dad, are we there yet?”

Moosilauke is the first high mountain on the Appalachian Trail north of Virginia. Hikers coming from the south look for it as a landmark as they push into the challenges of the White Mountains. The Gorge Brook Trail departs from the Ravine Lodge at the base of the mountain and is one of the easier ways to ascend, but it’s 7.4 miles round trip. For inexperienced hikers, that’s a full day venture.

Eric Kampmann with his three sons, Alex, Peter, and ArthurAs soon as we began, the two older boys, Alex and Peter, took off and quickly disappeared into the woods. We wouldn’t see them again for hours. That left me with Arthur and the fear that the inevitable cry, “Dad, carry me!” would soon pierce my ears. What would I do then?

But the cry never came. Instead, Arthur talked his way up the trail as if the climb was the most normal thing in the world. Motivated by a desire not to end up lugging him up three arduous miles, I joined in what became a lively continuous conversation. The big topic was his upcoming birthday. He was excited about the possibility of getting some Transformer Action toys, and he kept speculating about which one would be the best to get. Up and up we chattered until suddenly we were beyond the trees and near the open summit, the 3.7 miles behind us. Alex and Peter were waiting to greet us at the top.

We descended the mountain as a family, but Arthur’s non-stop birthday talk did not cease. In fact, about half way down, we met an older gentleman who stopped to say hello. Serendipitous encounters with strangers frequently happen on the Appalachian Trail and over the years I’ve come to expect, savor and cherish them. Arthur immediately brought our new friend into the birthday conversation and the kindly gentleman seemed to listen intently. It was a moment to remember. Even then, I recall thinking: maybe someday, in the distant future, Arthur would be ascending this same Gorge Brook Trail where he would come upon a family with a four year old. And I could imagine Arthur leaning over to hear the child talking and talking about his upcoming birthday and the wonderful gifts he might receive. My gift that day was the image of that moment on the mountain where generations intersected and a young boy shared his happy visions with someone just passing by.

Arthur and his friend collage

Remembering the Charm and Camaraderie of Crag Camp

Webster Cliffs Crawford Notch 0220202-R1-052-24A_3As the Appalachian Trail wound down Mt. Guyot to Crawford Notch, it took me past the Zealand Fall Shelter to beautiful Ethan Pond where I spent the night. Rain made the hike a dreary slog, but the next morning cleared and I descended to the Notch that had once been a magnet for travelers and tourists seeking mountain relief from the summer heat of Boston and other cities to the south. The first transcontinental automobile road, The Theodore Roosevelt International Highway (now #302), went through Crawford Notch. In the early years of the twentieth century, the area boasted four Grand Hotels.  Even in 1967, the Notch was still active with tourists, but the splendor of an earlier era had long vanished.

After crossing Route 302, the trail takes on a new character. It ascends the walls of Webster Cliffs on switchbacks.  The exposure is moderate, but as you rise above the Notch, you enter a new world: the southern Presidentials, a prominent range of mountains named for American presidents that is notorious for having some of the worst weather on earth. Its high winds can produce winter-like conditions even in summer.

I crossed Mt. Jackson with its rocky top and pushed on through the low-lying pines to Mt. Pierce (also known as Mt. Clinton) that provides some good views far to the north of Mt. Washington, the tallest of the range at 6,288 feet, and its weather and radio towers.

The Presidential Mountain Range viewed from Mt. Pierce

Shortly after descending Mt. Pierce, the trail rises again above tree line and remains in the open over the next eleven miles of the rock and bolder strewn Presidential Range.

I spent the night at Lake of the Clouds Shelter near Mt. Washington where I heard rumors of an off trail shack on the edge of King Ravine on Mt. Adams.  Later I would learn that the shack was Crag Camp. It had been privately constructed at a dramatic 4,200 feet in 1909 – the last of the high cabins – and was taken over in the 1930s by the Randolph Mountain Club. I was told that the camp could be accessed by the Spur Trail at Thunderstorm Junction below Mt. Adams.

Crag Camp, 1965 Photo by Chris Goetze My ankle had been acting up, so I decided to detour off the main route and descend to the Crag. I arrived in the rain. When I pushed opened the creaky door, I entered a hazy blur of people and smoke. All eyes turned to me as I tried to decide whether this was a vision of paradise or something more ominous. Then someone said, “Come on in and close the door.” I did as instructed and entered a world of camaraderie and warmth that came to represent everything I treasure about the trail.

The difference between normal life and trail life is that on the trail everything is compressed. In our everyday existence, time is elastic; it can seem to stretch on forever, but on the trail, time is a stern companion. You track when the sun rises and sets and live consciously by the cycle of each day. Hikers delight in fair weather but struggle under blasts of pelting rain and gusting wind. As the environment changes, so do your companions: they appear and disappear with regularity. We may have our own agenda, but nature and the trail are the ultimate schedulers.

My stay at Crag Camp lasted two nights. I left behind nameless friends and powerful memories but I had to push on. I climbed back up to Thunderstorm Junction, hiked up the rocky side of Mt. Adams and then over Mt. Madison before descending to Pinkham Notch and the long journey back to my future. But the memory of Crag Camp lives on. In fact, I could not stay away. I returned to Crag with my son Alex in 1995; two years before, the old cabin had been torn down and replaced by a very different version of the camp. It still rested spectacularly on the edge of King Ravine, but the new building was nothing like the ramshackle cabin I remembered from 1967. In most ways it was much better – by AT standards the cooking, dining and sleeping facilities are now luxurious – but even so, the memory of those few days at old Crag keeps me coming back again and again.

The Randolph Mountain Club’s video introduction to Crag Camp today.

Discovering the Perfect Morning Song on Mount Garfield

Appalachian Trail at Franconia Ridge, viewed from Mt. Lincoln. Photo by Daren WorcesterThe Appalachian Trail from the South Peak of Kinsman Mountain twisted relentlessly down, passing Lonesome Lake with its fine views of the Franconia Range down to Franconia Notch. The Notch is a mountain pass running north-south with 4,000-foot Cannon Mountain to the west and the 5,249 feet of Mount Lafayette guarding the east. It is an impressive geological region, particularly when viewed from the road.

The trail heads east up 4,459-foot Mount Liberty and then cuts north over the narrow ridge that separates the Notch from the 45,000 acres of the Pemigewassett Wilderness to the east. The ridge is steep in places, but never dangerous and when the weather is good, the views are some of the best in the eastern United States.

Galehead HutWhen I finally summited Mount Lafayette, I could have headed down to Greenleaf Shelter but decided to troop on to the next tent site near Mount Garfield, another 4,500-footer. This section from Lafayette to Galehead Hut is some of the roughest hiking on the entire Appalachian Trail.

I reached Galehead the next day and though the mileage was minimal, I was a bit tired. Luckily, I had choices: I could struggle up the 4,900 feet of South Twin with a full pack or I could spend the night at Galehead where I would get a bunk and be fed dinner and breakfast. While I had not been planning on staying at Galehead, the decision was ridiculously easy. I dropped my pack on the porch, found a nice bunk and settled in.

Often, the things a hiker remembers from the trail are the difficult or dangerous moments: A lightning storm, getting lost or even getting hurt. The normal daily grind of churning miles fades into the deeper recesses of memory. That would have been true of my Galehead stay, except for one thing that happened early the next morning.

The dawning light outside the window of the bunkroom suggested the sun would rise on a clear and mild mid-summer day. I lay awake in my bunk, savoring the moment and complimenting myself on the choice of staying at Galehead rather than pushing up to the summit of South Twin. Just then, I heard someone singing “Morning Has Broken.” I had not heard this song before (it was originally an English children’s hymn, “The Morning Song”), but from that moment the lyrics became imprinted in my mind and heart. Every time I hear it sung (usually by Cat Stevens) I think of that day in that place on the hike that would not end until forty-four years later.  Here is the first stanza from the actual hymn:

Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Morning view from Mt. Garfield

A Brief Encounter with Grace in Nature

The Village of Glencliff in the Oliverian Notch, New Hampshire. Photo by GrandsirJust south of Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is the tiny village of Glencliff. Hiking through the town in the late afternoon during my very first Appalachian Trail adventure, I noticed an older man sitting on a chair on a dilapidated porch of an unpainted house. He was watching me with an air of suspicion, as if he was the Sheriff and I was trouble. When I heard him harrumph as I passed by, I got the message and simply asked if the Appalachian Trail was nearby. He gave me a nod and I was off to look for the white blaze that would lead me back into the woods.

Soon enough I happened upon an empty cabin just off the trail. It had been noted in the trail guide as owned and operated by the Dartmouth Outing Club, but it looked derelict to me. Nevertheless, I ventured inside and began unpacking. This dark, dank and uninviting shelter would be my place of rest for the night.

After a light dinner, I ventured out of the cold gloom of the cabin to take a short hike to an area that looked like an open meadow. As I drew close I could see that the light from the declining sun seemed to draw contrasting shadows against the bright yellows and greens of the high, uncut grass. I was the lone witness to this magical scene of natural tranquility and I soon felt as if I was melting into the beauty of this unexpected moment.

As I stood in the middle of this natural still life, I became aware of deer grazing in the far corner of the field.  They had not yet noticed my presence and so I kept still and quietly savored this fortuitous scene of solitary beauty. Time seemed to suspend itself just for my own pleasure. Then a soft breeze startled the scene much as a pebble does when tossed innocently into a placid lake.

The deer lifted their heads in unison, sensing an intrusion. They hesitated another moment and then were gone. Suddenly I was alone again in a place that now was losing the warmth of the soft, summer colors that seemed so abundant just moments before. The field and the surrounding forests were turning dark as the encroaching dusk washed the landscape in its gray hues.

For a short interlude that day, I know I felt the glad presence of grace in that setting. As night descended, I had to leave, to turn back to the cold embrace of that solitary cabin that awaited me. Yet today my memory returns to the field and the deer and the lustrous serenity of that late afternoon. I remember that day as grace edged in darkness. The light of that grace has held my heart over the many intervening years.

Meadow near Glencliff on the Appalachian Trail by John K

How the Appalachian Trail Prepares You for Life

Plaque at entrance to Appalachian Trail in Hanover, NHAs I entered the bus bound for Hanover, New Hampshire, I was leaving behind more than Providence, Rhode Island. I had finished college and stood on the precipice between the comforts of college life and the terra incognita of the rest of my life.  So as war was escalating in the Far East and as the Beatles’ White Album was climbing the charts, I decided to embark on a month-long walk in the woods.

Ledyard Bridge over Connecticut River at Hanover, NH leading into Appalachian TrailThe Appalachian Trail enters New Hampshire where it crosses the Connecticut River at Hanover. After spending a final night of comfort in a Dartmouth dormitory, I began my trek at the water’s edge. The most difficult obstacle to peace and tranquility on the trail is acclimating to nights alone in the woods. Over time you realize that not every noise is a mortal threat, but early on, you try to sleep with one eye open.

But the days were glorious. I soon began meeting fellow hikers and we would often spend a day or two walking together. This temporal fellowship would become an enduring and cherished feature of the trail; just as one hiking friend vanished into memory, another would show up to fill the void and on we would go, talking and walking as if we had known each other our entire lives.

Map of Moosilauke region of Appalachian Trail in New HampshireAfter crossing Mount Moosilauke, at the southwestern end of the White Mountains, the terrain becomes more challenging. One evening, after hiking all day alone, I arrived at Eliza Brook Shelter at the base of South Kinsman. I looked forward to a solo dinner and a good night’s sleep when suddenly I discovered a very chilling number of snakes hiding under a rock near the door of the shelter. Suddenly, Eliza was not the place I wanted to be; I quickly gathered my gear and took off even as dusk began to wash my surroundings in gray.

When motivated, you find unexpected resources within to achieve things you once thought impossible.

I tore up the mountain, often using my hands as well as my feet. The trail up South Kinsman is steep in parts, very steep as I recall, but that did not deter me. Up, up I went, past a picturesque pond to my left that I did not stop to photograph. Up past the tree line until I was standing alone in the dark on the summit of South Kinsman, one of the forty-eight four-thousand footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. But my adventure wasn’t over. I still had to get over to its neighbor, North Kinsman, and find my way to Kinsman Pond Shelter. It was a long night.

I recollect these challenging moments now with equanimity, but at the time I was discovering new emotions and new capabilities. Suddenly I had to get out of a place that changed in a flash from desirous to dangerous. I did not think about it; I just tackled every moment as problems arose. This was a rite of passage for me, an encounter with the unexpected which tested my knowledge of myself and my resolve. At Eliza Shelter I quickly decided to change my circumstances, even if that meant using all my physical and spiritual resources to somehow make things better. Encounters with the unexpected became an important theme of the Trail for me. How I responded would begin to shape my character and my life.

North and South Kinsman from Cannon Mountain, part of Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods:
The Book, the Movie, the Appalachian Trail and me

RedfordNolte-ftrAs someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2,185 miles), I looked forward to seeing A Walk in the Woods, the new Ken Kwapis film based on the Bill Bryson book. Bryson’s tale recounts the adventures of two middle-aged guys (44 in the book) who set out on what turns out to be a comedy of errors from their first steps out of Amicalola Falls in Georgia to the Smoky Mountains and beyond.

In the movie Robert Redford, now 79, plays Bryson, and Nick Nolte, 74, plays his sidekick, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (based on Bryson’s real life ne’er-do-well high school pal Matt Angerer). Katz and Bryson stumble through the trail and even though both succeed in struggling up the nine miles to the summit of Springer Mountain, their pain and suffering is only a comedic appetizer to what follows. As spun by Bryson, an infectious and inquisitive storyteller, the book is fun, hilarious and informative.

bryson2 outdoorsThe movie tries mightily to replicate the charm of Bryson’s narrative. Sometimes, though, what’s funny on the page is difficult to translate onto the screen and good literary humor becomes slapstick and pratfalls. Unfortunately, this is often what happens with this film. Hopelessly out of place on the trail, Nolte is actually quite funny, always just one small step from total collapse or meltdown.

As Bryson, Redford has the straight man role. He participates in the action but the trail experience doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on his character. That is not my recollection of Bryson’s character in the book. I recall him as terrifically observant: He learns about his unfamiliar environment and wants us to learn with him as he bumbles along. That’s what makes his book so popular with trekkers, even though the two hike a mere fraction of the trail.

Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail at 9pm on June 21, 2007The movie does capture one aspect of the AT that made it worth the time and price of admission. The grandeur and beauty of the southern half of the trail are on full display. Although the film was mostly shot in Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park (where the trail begins), there are also breathtaking views of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and Fontana Dam. One aerial shot pans over Max Patch in North Carolina where on a good day a hiker can pause and marvel at the majestic mountains within the borders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Another reason I enjoyed the movie, despite it shortcomings, was my own relationship with the trail. After college, I hiked 115 miles of it in New Hampshire and then left the trail for almost 30 years before returning in the 1990s. I then “section hiked” the entire trail finishing in Maine in September, 2011. Along the way I had some amazing experiences, including one night lost in the rain on a mountain ridge shivering miserably in a soaked sleeping bag.  I counted every hour as I waited stoically until the morning light allowed me to find my way to warmth and safety.

Sunrise in the Smokies in North CarolinaFor the next several weeks, I plan to share some of the highlights of my own adventures on the Appalachian Trail. It should be fun.

Watch the trailer for A Walk in the Woods

 

A Walk in the Woods: The Book, the Movie, the Appalachian Trail and me

RedfordNolte-ftrAs someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2,185 miles), I looked forward to seeing A Walk in the Woods, the new Ken Kwapis film based on the Bill Bryson book. Bryson’s tale recounts the adventures of two middle-aged guys (44 in the book) who set out on what turns out to be a comedy of errors from their first steps out of Amicalola Falls in Georgia to the Smoky Mountains and beyond.

In the movie Robert Redford, now 79, plays Bryson, and Nick Nolte, 74, plays his sidekick, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (based on Bryson’s real life ne’er-do-well high school pal Matt Angerer). Katz and Bryson stumble through the trail and even though both succeed in struggling up the nine miles to the summit of Springer Mountain, their pain and suffering is only a comedic appetizer to what follows. As spun by Bryson, an infectious and inquisitive storyteller, the book is fun, hilarious and informative.

bryson2 outdoorsThe movie tries mightily to replicate the charm of Bryson’s narrative. Sometimes, though, what’s funny on the page is difficult to translate onto the screen and good literary humor becomes slapstick and pratfalls. Unfortunately, this is often what happens with this film. Hopelessly out of place on the trail, Nolte is actually quite funny, always just one small step from total collapse or meltdown.

As Bryson, Redford has the straight man role. He participates in the action but the trail experience doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on his character. That is not my recollection of Bryson’s character in the book. I recall him as terrifically observant: He learns about his unfamiliar environment and wants us to learn with him as he bumbles along. That’s what makes his book so popular with trekkers, even though the two hike a mere fraction of the trail.

Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail at 9pm on June 21, 2007The movie does capture one aspect of the AT that made it worth the time and price of admission. The grandeur and beauty of the southern half of the trail are on full display. Although the film was mostly shot in Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park (where the trail begins), there are also breathtaking views of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and Fontana Dam. One aerial shot pans over Max Patch in North Carolina where on a good day a hiker can pause and marvel at the majestic mountains within the borders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Another reason I enjoyed the movie, despite it shortcomings, was my own relationship with the trail. After college, I hiked 115 miles of it in New Hampshire and then left the trail for almost 30 years before returning in the 1990s. I then “section hiked” the entire trail finishing in Maine in September, 2011. Along the way I had some amazing experiences, including one night lost in the rain on a mountain ridge shivering miserably in a soaked sleeping bag.  I counted every hour as I waited stoically until the morning light allowed me to find my way to warmth and safety.

Sunrise in the Smokies in North CarolinaFor the next several weeks, I plan to share some of the highlights of my own adventures on the Appalachian Trail. It should be fun.

Watch the trailer for A Walk in the Woods