Day 151 – 9/12 (part 2 of 2)
0.8 Million to Katahdin
It was cool to step atop Mount Jackson, named after the 7th President of the United States. I grew up on what once was Andrew Jackson’s land in Tennessee, in a suburb of Nashville called Hermitage. The Hermitage is the name of AJ’s home that still stands on the plantation today. My old elementary school actually sits on what is still AJ’s land, which is why the school is called Andrew Jackson Elementary. Remember, those kids are following my blog as part of their P.E. curriculum, which is the coolest thing in the world to me. So, it’s cool to be able to tell the kids right now “hey, I was on Mount Jackson today!” I thought maybe they would like that.
It was only another couple miles to the Mizpah Spring Hut. The whole time the wind picking up, the skies darkening with ominous clouds, thunder in the distance. I thought it wise to maybe call it a day at the hut, although it would only be 5pm by the time I got there, with a few hours of daylight left to spare. The next hut was about 5 miles away and I didn’t want to risk getting caught in the rain and the dark in the Whites. I’ve risked my life enough the past couple of days. Much of the rest of the way up to Mt. Washington is above the tree line. That is the very worst place I could be on the entire trail in the middle of a lightning storm.
So, about the huts, the White Mountain National Forest is managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC maintains the trail, has camping spots set up where hikers can stay after a cash exchange, and also has these huts throughout the Whites (on top of everything else they do of course). I don’t have a list or anything. The Whites are the only place besides the Smokies where you have to pay just to be there, or sleep there I should say. Stealth camping spots are few and far between and it’s hard to gauge where you’re going to end up at the end of a day hiking through the Whites due to the ruggedness of these mountains. So, it’s wise to just bite the bullet and stop at the AMC campsites, forking out $8 each time.
Hikers can also stay at the huts, but only if there is ‘work for stay’ opportunity, or if you want to fork out $125! You read that right. The huts are actually pretty awesome, completely self-sustaining with the help of the young AMC workers who stay up there for weeks at a time. Arriving at the Mizpah Spring Hut would actually be my first experience at a hut. I’ve passed a couple by already, but didn’t feel the need to stop. When I arrived at Mizpah, there were much cleaner looking hikers loitering around outside, Weekend Warriors I suspected. Also, Wonderboy, Piper, and Counselor were there. Counselor had already set up his tent in the camping area on the other side of the spring. Wonderboy and Piper had already been promised ‘work-for-stay’ at the hut. I thought I’d see if I could do the same.
I walked into the surprisingly huge, rustic, cabin-looking structure consisting of a basement, a dining hall, kitchen, bathrooms, and 2 levels of bunk rooms, complete with solar panels to run it all. The dining room was full of kids on a scouting expedition or something. I stood in the foyer at the information desk for several minutes before a worker finally acknowledged me. I asked her if there was any work for stay. At that very moment a huge thunderclap filled our atmosphere. The deal with work for stay is that they will put you to work doing something, whether that be washing dishes, sweeping/mopping the floor, scrubbing baseboards, serving the paying guests, whatever it may be. I’m not above that…even if they do only let you get a spot on the floor. Often you will even get to eat the leftovers. That alone is worth it to me.
“Um, no, I don’t think we really do. Hey Sam, do we have any more work for stay?
“Nope,” Sam responded without even thinking about it.
“No, sorry, none right now.”
She rejected me just as I was thinking the thunder probably sealed the deal for my being able to stay there. However, they didn’t seem a bit phased by it.
I hung my head in disappointment as I stepped back outside to more rumbling. I asked Wonderboy about the campsite and he was quick to let me know there weren’t any open dirt spots, it was just these wooden platforms. This was not good news for me since I don’t have a free-standing tent. My tent is basically just a piece of waterproof fabric that I prop up with my trekking poles and some stakes. The stakes are required…and you can’t drive flimsy aluminum stakes into wooden platforms.
I went to find the caretaker inside his little Army encampment in the camping area.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” I could barely see inside the crack in the opening of his tent-like shelter thing. I don’t know what to call it. It was like a bedroom made out of fabric. Anyways, It looked like he was cooking or something.
“Um, yeah, can you just come back later and settle up?”
“Well, sure,” thinking in my mind that all I had to do was hand him some cash. It’s not that complicated. “But, hey, are there any flat spots without the platforms? I don’t have a free-standing tent.”
“I don’t know. You can go look for yourself. I’m not gonna help you find one or anything,” he remarked so very callously.
“Well okay, I didn’t ask you to help me find one. I just asked if they existed. Surely you know. You are the caretaker.”
“I don’t know.”
“Alright, man, real cool,” I replied sarcastically as I walked away in utter disbelief at the overt rudeness of this guy. I hadn’t dealt with this kind of behavior from people much on the trail. Almost all hikers are extremely friendly, outgoing, caring, awesome people. And people in the trail towns are usually the same.
I combed the area for a spot to set up. The forest floor was the same as Mt. Lafayette, where I camped with Coon and Slick, just this mossy, bumpy, brush covered area where the trees are no more than 2 to 3 feet apart. After about a half hour of searching I settled for a place I thought I could probably make work. I’d have to clear the brush, just a few small sticks. I set my pack down and went to work. I cleared the area down to the last stick. I reached for that last stick quickly as a bolt of lightning crashed nearby. I needed to get set up quick. I could be in a thunderstorm any moment now. Just as I put my hand around the stick, I also put my hand into something. Something brown, wet, mushy…and stinky…OH GOD, IT’S HUMAN POOP!
Little did I know when I got up this morning that I would end the day being treated like crap only to next literally get crapped on. Yes, I just put my hand right into someone else’s doo-doo. And, oh my good God almighty, it was under my fingernails! Ughhh, I’m cringing right now just thinking about it, trying to keep from regurgitating.
I rubbed my hand into the moss, using it as a towel of sorts. For whatever reason, my reaction was to put my hand as far down into the loose soil as possible and twist it around. I guess this was a pretty good tactic. It got most of the stuff off. But it was still under my fingernails! I gagged as I scraped it out with the tip of my knife. It smelled so terrible. This was probably the nastiest thing that’s happened to me since starting this expedition.
I didn’t even have any water to wash it off with, so I had to walk a couple hundred feet to the spring to fill up my reservoir before I could get it completely off. Out of all that I have been through, the crazy terrain, wild weather, and extremely difficult times, this was by far the longest 200 feet of the trail.
I finally got it all off my hand, though I’d probably never get it off my mind. I went back to the spot to get my pack. The crap was in the middle of the only place where I could possibly set up my tent. But there was no way I was going to move it or set my tent up there, even if I were to get it completely out of the way. I was traumatized. Why didn’t that person just go to the privy?! It was like 30 steps away!
I knew now that my only option was to try to get set up on one of these God forsaken wooden platforms. This is what happens when people try to make nature better. They ruin it…and cause other people to grab poop. I laid my tent out on a couple different platforms, looking for the one that fit the best. I then gathered small boulders to try to hold the stakes in place.
Just as I was trying to figure out how I was going to make this work, the bottom fell out. There was barely a warning except for the thunder that had been rumbling for the past couple hours. But, there was no progression of sprinkle to thunderstorm. It was like a storm just instantly happened. I quickly threw the rain cover over my pack and set the boulders in place at each corner of my tent in the quickest way possible. I tossed my pack inside my tent and held the roof up with my hands, hoping the rain would stop or at least slow down at some point. I tried, in the process, to prop the tent up with my trekking pole, but it just slipped right off of the wet wooden platform. I was stuck in this position holding my tent above my head and my stuff during this intense thunderstorm.
Lightning crashed down (or up, if you want to get technical about it) all around me. I was nervous. I personally love storms, but I hate being in close proximity to lightning. I guess this is a pretty normal human thing. The storm raged on for a half hour as the darkness of night crept over the mountain ridge. This was a continuous struggle to stay dry. Rain water was gathering on the platform, puddling up until it streamed directly toward my tent from various directions. There is only netting between the upper tarp and the floor of the tent, so the water can definitely come in if it wants. Not only was I having to hold the roof up, but I was also having to hold the floor up in places to keep the water from trickling in.
It is at these times that you feel so helpless. There was no other shelter I could go to. I was alone in this with no way out except to wait it out. If I tried to run for the hut I would just get soaked anyway. And then what if they don’t let me stay inside? Then everything will just be absolutely soaked with no advantage to show for it. I opted to keep waiting it out.
45 minutes into this I began to wonder if I would be stuck holding my tent up all night. A few minutes later, the rain stopped almost as abruptly as it had started. This was my chance. Again, I wrestled with the conflict of whether to try the hut or use the time to get the tent set up better. I chose the tent. I thought I may only have a couple minutes to do it right. I was correct.
I managed to at least get it set up in a way that it was holding itself up. But it was lower to the ground than usual, cutting my inside space down significantly. Then when the rain started back, it pooled on the roof of my tent, down above the foot space, instead of rolling off like normal. I felt like I was in for a long night. Oh, and it was getting cold, did I mention that?
I managed to change clothes, cook, and get everything organized in a way that I could minimize any further wet-effect. When I finally laid down I had to kick the ceiling of the tent every few minutes just to keep the rain puddle from collapsing it in on me. With the exception of the beautiful sights and the relief of water from the old couple, this was actually a really terrible day…really terrible past couple days actually. If you’ll remember, I wandered away from all my friends yesterday and got lost in the Whites.
I just want to be done with this day and done with the Whites at this moment. Sometimes the thought of quitting the trail rises up in your mind. Actually, it happens a lot. No one is making you do this. But you have to remind yourself that misery is only temporary. This rain will stop. My things will dry. The trauma of someone else’s poop on my hand will subside. I’ll meet nicer people this week. I won’t pass up water sources anymore. Everything is going to be alright.