Deep in my gut there was this instinctive feeling that New Hampshire would be the hardest yet most visually satisfying state that I would hike through on my journey of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT). Sometimes nicknamed “the Switzerland of America,” New Hampshire was both physically wearying and mentally exhausting; climbs were at times so steep that bent rebar was installed onto rock faces to form a “hiker ladder.” The trail did not slope up; it just went vertical! Class 3 and 4 scrambling became the norm. Then there was the slimy pools of mud. Second only to Vermont, the NH ground became so soggy and saturated with water that avoiding the ankle-to-knee-high “dirt soup” became a sport! To avoid postholing in the mud, one must leap with great aim from one half-implanted rock to the next. With one slip or wrong move, the hiker would be rolling around in the mud like a pig. Keeping balance on slickened surfaces takes much practice and patience. Bog bridges—two short round logs with long wood walkway planks nailed on top—were occasionally rotted on one end, teeter-tottering the unaware hiker face first into the watery mud pool.
As for entering the state, the auto bridge that spans the Connecticut River guides the hiker from the sleepy hamlet of Norwich, Vermont to the town of Hanover, New Hampshire. Hanover, a fashionable Ivy League college town, is home to Dartmouth College—a prestigious private university with an elite student body and faculty. The college, originally founded in 1769 by Christian missionaries to convert and educate Native Americans, had numerous state-of-the-art campus buildings that one would expect to find at such an esteemed institution. White blazes painted on the utility poles guide the hiker right past the Dartmouth College Green and through the heart of Hanover on Lebanon Street. Souvenir shops, eateries, cafés, and ice cream parlors suck the hikers in—it’s the vortex. The area was bustling with college students who were on summer break. Thayer Hall allows hikers to access an all-you-can-eat meal, which is hard to pass up for fifteen dollars! On the outskirts of Hanover near the high school was an upscale grocery mart called Hanover Food Co-op where I purchased an Italian sandwich to pack out, a milk to chug, and a few other calorie-packed provisions. The AT then enters the woods directly behind the Dartmouth College athletic fields. I felt like one of the mysterious ghosts from the 1989 drama film Field of Dreams, walking behind the baseball diamond and then fading away into the unknown. As I proceeded up the footpath, a sign indicated that the section of trail was maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club; however, as I would learn in the miles to come, much of the AT in New Hampshire was anything but maintained.
That night out of Hanover, my tent flooded from a sudden torrential downpour, saturating the down in my sleeping bag. There was so much moving water underneath my tent, my air pad was like a raft in the river; I felt as though I was sleeping on a water bed! Waking up to water puddles, I employed an extra Darn Tough wool sock to sponge out the water. Footslogging on trail that day, it seemed to rain even after the storm was over; the leaves continued to dump water, a phenomenon that I call the “afterpour.” As the sun began to break through the clouds in the late morning hours, I found a sun-warmed rock to loft my sleeping bag, “de-clumping” the baffle-encased feathers.
Reaching the summit of Smarts Mountain, I climbed the steely flights of stairs up Smarts Fire Lookout Tower to take in New Hampshire from an eagle’s vantage point. From the top of the now-decommissioned tower, dated 1939, peaks of the White Mountains became visible as did the mountains of Vermont. An old fire warden’s cabin is situated near the base of the fire tower and is now used as an AT shelter. After signing the logbook in the shelter, I noticed a moldering privy nearby.
At NH Route 25, I zipped off trail and reserved a bunk at Hikers Welcome Hostel. There I met numerous thru-hikers, including Brick and his canine sidekick Bailey. The hostel, an old farmstead, had a separate two-storied barn which had been converted into a bunkhouse. There was also an outdoor shower and a curtained-off toilet in the back. Inside the converted farmhouse was a mural painted with the words WELCOME TO THE WHITES as this was the last stop before entering the White Mountains of New Hampshire within White Mountain National Forest.
The following morning, Pitstop drove to Hikers Welcome and picked me up for a most eventful double-zero which we had planned. This was to be the “sidetrip of all sidetrips.” We drove all the way down to the borough of Queens on Long Island in New York to attend the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. It was to be a break from hiking to get my mind on something other than the trail for a couple days. The idea formed after having a “lightbulb moment” with Marlene, the trail angel back in Tennessee, who told of how she worked as a girl with thoroughbred race horses. The Triple Crown consists of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and finally the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont near Queens.
Much history has been made at Belmont Park and equine legends abound; there is a storied past here and you can feel and smell the tradition. One recalls the 1973 Belmont Stakes in which Secretariat, facing a field of five horses, won by a mind-bending thirty-one lengths, a margin of victory not seen before or since. A horse length is approximately eight feet so one can imagine the enormous never-before-taken lead. Secretariat’s winning time of two minutes and twenty-four seconds still holds as the American record for a mile-and-a-half on dirt. There was a gripping moment in the final stretch run when the Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte turned his head back, as was captured in a famous photograph, only to see to his surprise the magnificent separation between his horse and the others. Entering the backstretch, Secretariat left Sham, a horse that had initially traded the lead with Secretariat out of the starting gate, in the dust. Secretariat continued to extend the advantage for the rest of the race, finishing out thirty-one lengths over Twice a Prince, the second-place finisher. With much exhilaration, the track announcer loudly described the scene as Secretariat moved swiftly from the backstretch: “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” The crowd of race goers erupted with applause and cheer. Many were afraid the horse was running so fast that the jockey would surely fall off, but this horse was born to move like lightning. As one spectator put it, “Just let him run. This is Secretariat’s race…let him run.” Watching the reaction of Penny Tweedy who bred and owned Secretariat, upon the record-shattering thirty-one length victory, is priceless. That must have been the happiest day of Penny’s life. Sportswriters became ecstatic and so Secretariat, dubbed the “Super Horse,” became the first horse ever to make the cover of TIME Magazine with the June 1973 issue. Not since Citation in 1948 had a horse victoriously completed the Triple Crown, the highest level of equestrian performance, ending a twenty-five year drought. Secretariat won with such a sweeping margin of victory that spectators in the grandstands openly wept in astonishment. And it all happened here at Belmont.
After checking into Casa Azul on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, Pitstop and I dined at a Portuguese restaurant called Mateus’ in Queens Village. Clinking stemmed glasses filled with a mixed table wine as a toast to the progress I had made on trail, we began eating our fine cuisine. The antipasto was delectable with cheeses and meats fit for a king. Pitstop ordered the bacalhau frito encebolado (codfish) and I stuck with the safer but no less sumptuous option—stuffed tortellini!
On the day of the race, Pitstop and I went to Belmont in style, wearing dress slacks and a collared shirt, the minimum required dress code. We also each sported a herringbone vest from a haberdashery. By tradition, both men and women wear hats to the Triple Crown races, ranging from the plain to the flamboyant. After considering the fedora adorned with a feather, the summery straw-woven Panama, and an assortment of other mobster-era millinery classics, the two of us ended up settling on the bowler hat. The bowler, called the derby in the United States, has a felt lining, rounded crown, and offers protective durability, which made the cap historically suitable to wear while racing horses or attending horse race events. Maybe we looked something like Laurel and Hardy or Orville and Wilbur Wright, all of whom wore the bowler, but dressing up for the venue was half the enjoyment!
After picking up a program and settling into our seats in the front row of the first-tier grandstands, Pitstop and I walked around and explored the park. Reserved apron bench seating at dirt track level offered the closest trackside views. This was the swanky section where the upper classes hobnobbed and wined together. Located just under the grandstands, the reserved apron, partitioned with little white picket fences, had several umbrella-shaded picnic benches and space for barbecue grills and food tables. The rising smell of smoky barbecued food from the “apron people” was entering my nostrils, causing insatiable hiker hunger to kick in! The exclusive trackside area situated right near the finish line was like a private lounge for the rich and famous. Winner’s Circle can also be seen at this level.
Inside the building were rows of betting booths with touchscreen monitors. At the wagering stations, one can place his bet on a horse. The odds of each contender are listed in the program along with stats and race history. There were staffed tables and shops selling Belmont memorabilia and signed glossy photographs of previous Triple Crowners. In one such shop, I picked up a Belmont Stakes pennant to pin on my wall back home. Outside in the paddock, crowds swarmed around horses and jockeys that had come out to make an appearance. Jockeys are some of the shortest human beings, knee-high to a grasshopper. Their light weight is necessary for the health of the horse and to be within the regulated horse-carrying limits. Despite their diminutive size, jockeys must be able to control a horse running in excess of 40 mph. In the “backyard,” cocktails and beer flowed and hand-crafted cigars were sold from large white tents. Each of the Triple Crown races has its own official drink. The iconic mint julep always accompanies the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes’ official drink is the black-eyed Susan, and the Belmont Stakes has the Belmont jewel.
There were thirteen horse races held that day but it was the eleventh race of the 154th running of the Belmont Stakes that spectators had particularly come to watch. The eight contenders were 1) We the People, 2) Skippylongstocking, 3) Nest, 4) Rich Strike, 5) Creative Minister, 6) Mo Donegal, 7) Golden Glider, and 8) Barber Road. Three side-by-side jumbotrons facing the grandstands provided horse racing fans with live close-up footage as well as a summary of race results. Directly after each race, the horses, each with their assigned race number imprinted on the saddle blanket, were listed on the screen in the order that they placed.
The odds were digitally displayed on the jumbotron. Horse racing betting odds are basically fractions. The fraction represents the relationship between how much you stand to win relative to how much you must risk. With horse racing odds, the first number (the numerator) shows how many units you stand to win, and the second number (the denominator) shows how many units you must risk to win that much. For example, with the odds 5/2 you win five units for every two unit wagered.
NYRA Bets offered wagering from the simple to the complex. A straight wager is betting on one horse (e.g., win bet, place bet, show bet, across-the-board bet). An exotic wager is making multiple bets on multiple horses (e.g., exacta or quinella “two horse bet,” trifecta “three horse bet,” and superfecta “four horse bet”), each with incrementally lucrative payouts as they become more complex and harder to win than simple straight bets.
On a hiker budget, I had no intent on becoming a “compulsive gambler” but, after a small just-for-kicks wager, I did walk out with a few more bucks in my pocket! Creative Minister was the the favorite that night with 2-1 odds and Rich Strike (7-2) had shown in the Kentucky Derby that the odds don’t always make the horse. Using the TVG mobile app, I placed my little ten-dollar straight bet on the number six horse—Mo Donegal—an unpopular but promising horse with 5-2 odds. The post time for the eleventh race was 6:44pm ET. As soon as the horses ran out the gate, the crowd erupted. The final turn and home stretch are the most exciting as the horses race right in front of the grandstands. You can see the dust kicked up as the horse hooves quickly dig into the dirt track. The number six horse that I had put money on was making gains! Mo Donegal passed We the People and Skippylongstocking on the outside in the stretch; powering ahead, the rest of the field was left behind. Mo Donegal had won by three lengths, becoming the winner of the 154th Belmont Stakes in an official time of 2:28.28. The fellows sitting next to me became noticeably depressed, apparently losing a great deal of money as the results were listed on the screen. I didn’t come out a millionaire but hey, I was a few dollars richer!
The 1+1⁄2-mile race of three-year-old thoroughbreds, known as the “test of the champion,” was the final leg in the American Triple Crown. Being there at Belmont was a rare privilege and attending the event was great fun. After collecting my small but proud payout, Pitstop and I walked back to the hotel. That evening, we ate at a nearby pub and discussed the day’s happenings. Knowing that I had a hike to resume, we headed back the next morning, making the four-hour drive to the point where I’d left off in New Hampshire. I had a race of my own to finish, for I was on the Appalachian Trail, part of the Triple Crown of Hiking!
Only two hiking days were sacrificed for the whole Belmont episode. There was a rush of enthusiasm as I was back hiking again, now in the Whites, known for its many lofty mountain peaks. Within New Hampshire, there are forty-eight “four-thousand footers,” or mountain peaks above 4,000 feet in elevation. Peak bagging (aka hill bagging) is a popular activity in which peak baggers attempt to summit all of the 4,000-footers located within the state.
In the Whites, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) manages eight high mountain huts along the AT. The huts are full-service lodges which can be kind of pricey as they cater to a well-to-do hiking community outside of the thru-hiking sphere. Staying at the huts generally requires reservations, but AT hikers have traditionally been allowed to work for stay on a first come, first serve basis. Most work-for-stay chores involve cleaning dishes or sweeping floors but two hikers I know—Pipes and Thunderbird—had to “pick ice” after a waterline burst and froze in the Lake of the Clouds basement. AMC huts are staffed with a croo and each has a head caretaker. I did not stay in any of the huts as my preference is to sleep below timberline at a tent site or to stealth camp in the woods. The day after returning from Queens, I summited Mt. Moosilauke (4,802 ft), the first of the major peaks for a northbound AT hiker in the Whites. The descent of Moosilauke was precipitously steep and the water-slickened rocks presented a special challenge to the hiker. There were times on Moosie that I was literally hiking on a waterfall! Next were the Kinsmans, the hardest of which was the ascent of South Kinsman (4,358 ft). This is perhaps the most technically challenging climb on the entire trail for a NOBO. The haul up South Kinsman was much like the climb out of Palmerton, PA but continued for the better part of two miles. Working up the peak required much hand-over-hand climbing; finding handholds and footholds on the granite became necessary to avoid a bone-fracturing or life-ending fall. As I traversed along Franconia Ridge, weather did not cooperate. Wind whipped up and clouds moved in, producing low visibility and blocking the otherwise expansive views for which the ridge is known. The wind gusts blew me around as if I were standing directly under a commercial blower at a car wash. Franconia Ridge, which extends from the summit of Little Haystack to Mt. Lafayette (5,260 ft), is New Hampshire’s second-highest range after the Presidential Range. The narrow rocky ridge goes through a fragile alpine environment and so hikers are admonished to stay on trail.
Hiking the Presidentials was the highlight of New Hampshire. The Presidential Range of the White Mountains is the highest range of mountains in the Northeast and is home to the largest above-treeline alpine zone. Although I did not climb all of the Presidential peaks since many of them are on blue-blazed spur trails and loops, the AT does go up and over Mt. Washington (6,288 ft), the highest peak in the Northeast. Nestled at the base of Washington is Lake of the Clouds Hut, the largest and most popular AMC hut. The hut is a full-service mountain lodge with bunk space for some ninety hikers! Going up the boulder fields to the summit of Mt. Washington was really extraordinary. It is home to the most extreme weather in the world with wind speeds reaching up to 200 miles per hour and temperatures dropping below freezing even at some points in the summer. A few days after my summit of Washington, I learned of an experienced backpacker who died after succumbing to hypothermia. It was June and a hiker was dead from cold weather. There is a visitor complex at the top since the summit can be accessed by an auto road or a cog railway system. The Mount Washington Observatory, a high-tech weather station staffed year-round by meteorologists and scientists, is also located atop the peak. To my disappointment, the snack bar was closed when I summited so I had to forego the chili dog that my stomach for which my stomach was growling. Although I did not benefit from the open snack bar and somehow missed the fudge brownies for sale in the gift shop, I was able to refill my bottles with cold tap water from an outside spigot. The trail continuing down north from Mt. Washington is still well above tree line and totally exposed to the elements for approximately twelve miles. As the sun was slowly setting, I scurried up and back down Mt. Madison (5,367 ft) and literally boulder-hopped all the way down to tree line where I stealthed for the night. Getting stuck night hiking in the tundra would be dangerous since the above-timberline cairns would be hard to spot in low-to-no-light conditions.
At first light the next morning, I broke camp and descended to a stream crossing where I met up with Steady who ended up hiking with me the rest of the way down to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (what are called gaps on the southern portion of the AT are referred to as notches in New Hampshire). Just before getting to the visitor center, a cow moose was spotted, which was thrilling to view in the wild. The visitor center is an AMC-run complex and was quite roomy inside. The lodge has numerous hiker services, including a cafeteria, bathrooms, showers, vending machines, small outfitter, and map store. Worn out from the Whites, I took a coin-operated shower in the basement of the center where dehumidifiers were constantly running to dry out wet hiking gear. In the cafeteria on the main level, I met up with Eagle whom I had not seen since Pennsylvania. A caffeine-enriched coffee from the self-service breakfast bar snapped me out of my White Mountain fatigue. Leftover pancakes were free and so I loaded up.
While eating and conversing with hikers, I schemed on a plan to get through the Wildcats, a tough mountain range that lay ahead. Knowing that my body was asking for restorative time off and that a full resupply would be needed after the Wildcats, I decided to stay two nights at a hostel. The hostel, the much-loved Libby House B&B and Barn Hostel, was located to the north and accessible from NH Route 16. The thought was that I would nero the first day, doing hiker chores, a resupply, and then sleeping that night in the bunkhouse. On the second day, I’d get shuttled back to Pinkham Notch, hike the Wildcats, then stay for one more night. The following morning I’d get dropped off on US 2 where the Wildcats end. Steady called Paul the owner and arranged for pickup. Pipes met up with us at the center as did K-Bar. Waiting for our ride, I was expecting to see a dinged-up mini van which is the shuttle vehicle of choice for most hiker hostels; however, Paul pulled up in a classy white 1980s Cadillac in near-perfect running condition. Our four-hiker squad (myself, Steady, Pipes, and K-Bar) hoisted and swung our packs into the capacious trunk of the Caddy. En route to Gorham, Paul told us humorous tales of his own hiking experiences. Back in the 1970s, Paul had thru-hiked the AT with an aluminum-framed pack and pup tent, which were common in those days. Upon arriving in Gorham, Paul drove us around for a dime tour, pointing out all the hiker amenities and restaurants in town. At the hostel, I jumped into a steamy shower and changed into pajama-like “loaner clothes.” Steady, K-bar, and I shared a load of laundry in the coin-operated machines.
The Libby House is a quaint Victorian home that is set up well, accommodating thru-hikers by the dozens. The house itself is a bed-and-breakfast and the other side, the old carriage house, was converted into a hiker hostel. The bottom level has a community kitchen, living area with sofas, laundry machines and a shower. Every nook and cranny was used in some way for hikers. Even the old horse stalls of the carriage house were repurposed into “bunk stations.” Upstairs, the attic space had been retrofitted into a bunkhouse with two rows of twin beds, each separated by a partition curtain for privacy. The Libbys were once a prominent family in Gorham who also owned the general store and the local lumber mill. Paul informed me that the Libby family built the house with wood produced from their own mill.
After settling in and having a packsplosion—dumping the contents of my pack onto the mattress—I signed up on a list to get shuttled to Wally World whereupon I filled up a buggy with enough food to feed a small village. Weighing my pack back at the hostel, the pack weight came in at a record fifty-three pounds! Slackpacking is not an activity I engage in as a thru-hiker; however, the practice is not uncommon on the AT, especially through the Wildcats. Hostels often provide daypacks for hikers to use while their gear is left on their bunks. Although I did not want to violate my own self-administered rule against slackpacking, I did not want to carry a week’s worth of food that was putting my pack weight into the fifty-pound range. The tradeoff decision was made to carry all gear as normal in my regular pack but to leave all but one day’s food that I’d need for the Wildcats. It’s a strategy I came to call “half-slacking.” The night before the group hike through the Wildcats, our squad went out to eat at Nonna’s Kitchen, an authentic Italian fixture in downtown Gorham. Steady ordered eggplant parm, K-Bar the veal parm, Pipes got scampi, and I requested a generous helping of lasagna. The waitress, having a connection with Paul at the hostel, provided us with a complimentary plate of fried ravioli! I polished off a green bottle of Peroni Nastro Azzurro, a crisp and refreshing pale lager common in Italy.
Guys and gals all sleep together in one room but in separate beds like brothers and sisters. Brick and his husky Bailey were there and so even the dog had his own allocated sleeping space. We’re all a close-knit family; I recall feeling like we were a bunch of kids being “tucked in” by the headmaster! That evening it was lights out strictly at 9:00pm. Paul came up the creaky stairs sharply on time and wished us all a pleasant night’s rest.
A three-person team (myself, Steady, and K-Bar) were dropped off at Pinkham Notch whereupon we began the steep ascent of “Wildcat D” Mountain. At the top is the Wildcat Ski Area’s gondola where we heard metallic clinking of tools from maintenance workers. Then the three of us tackled Wildcat Mountain, the three Carter Mountains, and finally Mt. Moriah. A stop at the remote Carter Notch Hut provided relief from the rain part way through. At the hut we ran into Thunderbird and Tapeworm who were completing the same twenty-one-mile Wildcat section. While hiking as a group or trail family (tramily), I find much pleasure in learning from others. Steady told me about his college experience at UVA studying history and about his field work with the Forest Service. He is also a remarkable swimmer, having been on a swim team in high school. One day Steady wants to swim across the Chesapeake Bay! It’s called the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim and is one of the premier open water swim challenges in the country. K-Bar, the short but tough-as-nails ex-Marine, chatted with me about random stuff and about her RV. She and I swapped stories about AT life and joked about how a hiker must “scoot on one’s boot” to survive the Wildcats. Pipes did not join our squad on this day since he had already hiked the section the previous year. Pipes received his trail name because he is a bagpipe player and totes along a practice chanter to improve his pipe skills and finger muscle memory. The day was a success. Paul picked us up along with Thunderbird and Tapeworm at the trailhead on Route 2. After one more night at the historic Libby House, I was shuttled back to the trail early the next morning. Because the weather was inclement and the forecast called for cold temps and rain, Steady and K-Bar decided to zero yet another day. I went solo with my overloaded fifty-three-pound pack and hightailed it to the New Hampshire-Maine state line, which was only about sixteen miles from the trailhead. Pipes was there at the border; using our iPhones the two of us took turns snapping pictures of each other in front of the rickety sign using. The drizzle turned into a cold sleet storm but I somehow managed to make it through the “Switzerland of the AT.” Maine was now before me—the last state of the AT and the critical linkage to Canada on my hiking expedition of the ECT from Key West, Florida to Belle Isle, Newfoundland.
A framed poem hanging handsomely on the wall of the Pinkham Notch Center reminded me in folksy but sincere language the reason for which one may be compelled to pursue the outdoor life. The poem, signed simply “Kibbie,” the author, read:
Yuh can have your city buildings,
With their twenty stories high,
An’ a janitor tuh warm yuh,
An’ a roof tuh keep yuh dry.
And yore pretty painted windows
An’ yore rugs upon the floors—
Yuh can have ‘em an’ yore welcome,
But I’ll take the great outdoors.
I’ll take a hoss and saddle,
An’ a blanket for a bed,
An’ yuh can have yore cities,
But I’ll take the world instead.
Where the roof is made of starlight,
An’ the floor is made of sod,
An’ the walls are trees or mountains
An’ the janitor is—GOD!
Well said, Kibbie…well said! The world of hiking and the life of the great outdoors is beyond measure and cannot be compared to anything built with human hands.
There’s just nothing like it.