New England: Kent to Manchester Center

June 18, 2004
Today was the day. No more Mid-Atlantic. I was rolling well before any one was stirring, making a rapid march for Kent, just over the state line. The trail was over grown and unpleasant and I was quickly soaked from the hanging vegetation, wet with last night's precipitation. The overhang was so thick that I almost stepped on the partially decayed carcass of a deer, chest cavity exposed, that had died on the trail. I had smelled it coming and had noticed the maggots just before it, and these things kept me from putting my foot through its squishy head. I was frustrated and wet and in a bad mood from my poor quality rest in the shelter.

I noticed during a break that I would soon be reaching a road that went straight to Kent. Or, I could take the AT up and over a certainly viewless hill. The decision was clear enough to me, although unthinkable for the purists on the AT. I was going to take the road. Thrilled with my bit of rebellion, I even took a side trail after crossing a large river and reached Bulls something or other road. I walked out to the highway where a gas station was located and bought something to eat and something to drink. Although I wasn't having a good time, I was really happy to be off the AT and finding my own route. This isn't a good kind of happy, as it relies upon taunting something else (the AT and its purists), but I tried not to think of that. In a further act of defiance, I decided to hitch into Kent rather than walking the road, and thus broke up my hike by about four miles.

I got a ride almost immediately from a kindly old man who dropped me off by the post office in town. I sent out a postcard to Birdie, found that my bounce bucket hadn't arrived, and set up forwarding to Manchester Center. Kent wasn't exactly the place that I like to spend time in, so I hurried through my chores of resupplying and eating, and then made my way over to the outfitter, where I found a thruhiker in a kilt sitting around with a very obvious non-thruhiker. I had bee chasing Haiku for a long, long time. He left little collections of words in the trail registers which usually expressed some sort of idea or image that I frequently agreed with. Unfortunately, the collections really were not haikus, and even more unfortunately in a fit of depression a week ago I had said so, rather snidely, in a trail register.

Haiku's sister had come out to meet him for a little while and the three of us sat around talking for a while outside of the outfitter. Sitting on one of the tables was a book about a Tibetan monk called "The Third Eye". It seemed like it might be interesting, and that it was being offered free to whoever wanted it, and so I stuffed it into my pack thinking it might help chase away the almost perpetual ennui that I felt during most of the day, but especially in the evening. Haiku was going to hike south and try to meet some of the hikers that I had told him were at the shelter last night and he and his sister offered to give me a lift to the trail. When we got there, a very sweaty hiker had just rolled in, so timing was perfect.

I set off through the cow pasture that was the AT, briefly, and then climbed up the minor hill on the other side. Even though it was starting to cool off, the humidity was still oppressive and I was soaked in short order. It was rare that I had a dry shirt on the AT, and this seemed to be causing my skin some problems just above my kidneys. I had a rash of sorts and this was yet another irritant to me. Of course, the AT couldn't come down off the minor hill without being dramatic, and so it plunged precipitously down the other side. And in true form, it dropped me off at the same river that flows by Kent. I should have just walked out of town along the river instead of dealing with the minor mountain.

I walked along the river following the old road bed and picked up some water at a stream before cutting over on a side trail to the Stewart Hollow Brook shelter. Even though the weather showed no signs of rain, camping in Connecticut is strictly regulated and you can only camp at certain places. Usually I ignore such regulations, but CT is a small state with not much ground to patrol, even if the ridgerunners can't write tickets. At the shelter was a woman who had been there for sometime. After eating dinner I got to know her better and found her a rather nice shelter mate. She had built her own house and this I found fascinating. We talked about home building and Maine (where she was from) until it got dark and started to rain extremely heavily. The sound of the rain on the metal roof was enough to end all conversation. Besides, it was hiker midnight and I needed some rest. I hoped that New England would prove more rewarding than the Mid-Atlantic, but if not I had learned a valuable lesson today that I could use if I needed to.

It rained most of the night, but in the morning only a thick mist remained. And lots of wet vegetation. I rolled out early and hiked along the river for a while, before the trail bent out to go into a field, then through more and more clogged trail. If it hadn't rained recently, the trail would have been fine. But, the recent rain forced the vegetation over the trail and I was quickly soaked. My legs became scratched and my mood soured. I knew what to do. The solution had been staring me in the face for the entire summer and I hadn't seen it. I had told people to look for it and had failed to recognize it myself. When the AT dumped me back along the Housatonic, I was determined not to leave good trail for bad, even if it meant that I wouldn't be on the AT. The river was pleasant, the hiking good, and I was determined to keep it that way. When the AT diverged again, I kept going straight. And I was free once again. Sure, I'd have to walk some roads for a while. But why not see something different? To be out on my own without a fixed path to walk was liberating after the conformity of the Appalachian Trail. Everything seemed prettier, even though conditions had not changed. Small things came into view, like odd sculptures and works of art in various fields.

The forest road ended quickly and I got onto a paved road, following it as best as I could. I had picked up a map that the Connecticut Appalachian Trail Club had put out showing trailheads and connecting roads. I was going to follow my own path until I felt like following the official AT. I followed a variety of roads, with some traffic, but a broad shoulder, stopping from time to time to talk with fishermen on their way too or from their hobby. With the pale light, filtered through the mist, the Housatonic was something to marvel at. There is something serene and comforting about gentle, broad rivers that one cannot get from mountains or forest or the desert. A river represents the past, present, and future all at once and is a classical example of having to look at something as a whole, rather than as composed of parts: A river is more than just a bunch of water molecules.

I strolled throughout the morning, occasionally thinking about where to get back on the AT, or where to camp for the night if I was still off the trail when the evening came for me. Passing through the small towns of Connecticut gave me an appreciation for the beauty of the state that I had missed in previous trips through. A car or two stopped to tell me that they were former AT hikers and that I could have a ride if I wanted it. They all understood when I declined and told them that I was happy on the road. And I really was happy.

I passed one trailhead and began to approach another with no thoughts of leaving my own path. The weather began to clear nicely, although it never became hot. Only warm. I walked past a racetrack that I remembered had caused some controversy in the Appalachian Trail community. The ATC had opposed the development because the sounds of the cars could be heard from the trail and the track was even in view at times. I didn't understand the objection any more, for the simple reason that the sound of a road was almost always within earshot of the AT. At least the racetrack would be quiet in the evening. A race was going on and I stopped at the fence line to watch the racers power around the one curve that I could see. Shortly past the track the road climbed into pure countryside, with rolling horse farms and delightful houses. After talking with the driver of a car who had pulled over to see if I needed anything (wonderful!), I sat under a bush that held the buds of some sort of berry and contemplated. For one of the few times this summer, I felt at peace enough to think deeply about nothing. Nothing is hard to think of, but very rewarding. In the tall green grass, with a bush overhead, I was perfectly at peace.

After an hour I continued my walk, passing through a few towns on the way to Salisbury, which was something of a tourist trap, but still nice. I made it into the library just before it closed for the day (which was early) and then headed out of town on the road, once again. I could have continued on into Massachusetts, but decided that I was now ready to rejoin the AT, especially as there were actual mountains up ahead. For one of the most popular areas on the AT, the track was surprisingly empty of people and I reached the top of Lions Head to find only a couple, holding hands, on top, staring out into the distance, completely absorbed in themselves and the moment. I stepped quietly, and found my own little lookout on which to perch for a while.

The late afternoon light was perfect. Everything was perfect. I didn't even feel a bit of regret for not having done something like this earlier in the summer. The frequent bouts of unhappiness had been caused, at least partially, by the confines of a fixed trail. My reactions to other hikers had simply been manifestations of this. But, I was in such high spirits that I didn't reproach myself now that I knew. I sat on top of the Lions Head for an hour before beginning the drop down. Rock Steady, judging from some of the shelter entries, was not very far ahead and I was hoping to track him down before I got to Manchester Center in a few days. I motored off, but nearing Bear Mountain I ran into a young ridge runner and stopped to talk with him for an hour. Interesting fellow. He was a student in Maine, but born and raised in the Live Free or Die state of New Hampshire. Two winter traverses of the Presidential Range were under his belt, and he wasn't even 21 yet. We talked for a while about thruhikers and the PCT and a variety of other subjects, before he warned me that there were a bunch of Boy Scouts at the next campsite. I promised to camp lightly, hang my food, and be gone before the sun was up, for I was not about to camp next to a troop of young men who would want to talk until the wee hours of the night.

I passed the turn off for the campsite, now mostly in darkness, and found where the old campsite used to be. It had been closed for some reason (rehabilitation, probably), and I found a spot to camp there. It could absorb the light use of my tarp and sleeping pad for one night, I thought. Improbably enough, around 10 pm a hiking couple came by with a flash light, despite the fact that I was well off the trail. They, too, perhaps, had found the Boy Scouts were better left to themselves. I hadn't had a day like this in quite a while. After I made the decision to never leave good trail (or road) for bad, I was free again. My only doubt was now in my decision to leave at Manchester Center, but I had to leave sometime and the ticket was already purchased. My route had cut off about 4 miles from the AT distance, but rather than having lost something, I had, instead, gained immensely from the experience. I was back in business. I think I am in Massachusetts.

The sun couldn't come up soon enough, so I got up and packed while it was still dark and was hiking just as the world began to become non-black. I was in a better mood than I had been since...when? Race Mountain was first on the list and I thumped up it with something of a vengeance. Not because I was in a hurry or because I wanted to get somewhere. But rather because everything was in alignment this morning. My mind reveled in the physical output of my body, and my body cheered at the stillness of my spirit. Everything flowed and this was not work. I could have done anything in this state. But I was hiking up a mountain now, and doing it perfectly, without a missed step, stumble, off breath, or misplaced heart beat.

I reached the top quickly and gazed at the world around me and the path in front of me. The land had dramatically changed since the Mid-Atlantic and definitely for the better. In front of me was a lump called Everett. It had no aesthetic appeal, but I wanted to go there more than anything else. I didn't stop for long on top of Race, for the same reason that I had thumped along earlier. Down, down, down, then up, up, up, and I reached the top of Everett with the same perfect feeling as before.

No one was around, although it would not have mattered to me if there were throngs of tourists on top. There could have been a 7-11 here and I would have be happy and admired the 7-11 for what it was. I forced myself to have a seat on top and rest in the light, despite the slightly chilly air and my sweaty body. I sat and sat and sat. I did nothing but sit. I didn't think about where I was or when I was, or what I was going to do for the rest of the day. I didn't think about where Rock Steady was or if I would be able to catch him today before going into Great Barrington. I didn't scratch myself or look at a map. Nor did put my sleeping pad under my backside for comfort. No, I simply sat, and I did this with great precision.

When I was done sitting, I hiked. This is how things are when the world is with you and you are with the world. Walk when you walk, think when you think, sit when you sit. Although I've had success thinking while walking, it is best done by itself. I dropped off the steep side of the mountain and checked a shelter register to find that Rock Steady had been here the night before. I would not catch him before town, which meant that I would not catch him before I left the trail. This bothered me somewhat. Still, I was happy and content and continued my lope down to Shay's Monument, which commemorates the final battle of an uprising named after Shay. I couldn't quite remember what Shay was upset about, but I suspected that it had something to do with the federal government and states rights. Most large problems in US history usually have something to do with this conflict.

I moved through the fields and woods on the other side of the monument area and reached US 7, the road I was going to hitch to Great Barrington. I didn't want to hitch right away, so I found some shade by the side of the road and had a sit and some lunch. A truck pulled up and discharged a hiker. I could have gotten a ride, but was happy where I was. The hiker and I talked for a bit and I found out that I had just missed Rock Steady, but that he was planning to stay in a hostel not too far up the trail. I was going to stay in town tonight, so I might still be able to catch him. However, I gave the hiker a message from me to Rock Steady and watched him walk off up the trail. I sat for a half hour and then started the hitching process. It took about 5 minutes before a couple pulled over and gave me a ride into the center of town. After asking about, I found out that the only cheap place to stay was on the far outskirts of town and so I set off, happy that I would not be staying in the downtown area, which was a little crowded for my tastes.

I found the motel about a mile or two from where my ride had dropped me and proceeded to get a room for the night. While there were a few restaurants in the area along with a large supermarket and liquor store, the only laundromat was back in the center of town. My had both the front and the back windows open, which created a nice breeze way and I flopped over on the bed for a while, absorbed in how grand the last two days had been. I even dozed off for a while. I was filthy, stinking, and in bad need of a shower, but these things seemed somewhat unimportant to me. Laying on the bed in peace and quiet was more important.

I napped for some unknown period of time and then showered, changed into my rain suit, and walked back into the downtown area to do laundry. Inside of the laundromat I found stacks and stacks of the magazine of the John Birch Society. I read through many of them as I waited for my laundry to wash and then dry and found the opinions to be somewhat out of place for the traditionally liberal setting of Massachusetts. Still, they were an entertaining way to pass the hour in the laundromat, though I didn't feel much more educated than when I went in, despite finding out how beneficial Augusto Pinochet had been for Chile. The author of the letter on this topic was very serious, although most of what I had read in other places seemed to contradict his opinion.

Back I walked and continued with my normal chores, finding time for a nap and then coffee. Seven o'clock found me on the bed with two large sandwiches from the joint across the street, some beer, and a bed full of food that I needed to repackage before setting out tomorrow. The glory of the last two days faded a little bit as, now that I was fed, showered, and laundered, I no longer had much desire to be in town. A bed in the woods would have been just as comfortable and I would have had plenty of fresh air to boot. I left the windows open despite the cold evening air, and watched television for a while. I don't remember what was on, or even what it was about. I could remember, perfectly, the faces of the people who stopped along the road yesterday to talk to me, or where the couple who gave me a ride lived. I fell asleep with the television on, and six beers in my system, dull and dead to the world.

I slept for quite a while, but got up with the sound of cars on the road and showered once again. I checked out of the motel and bought a paper before adjourning to a greasy spoon diner across the street for some stomach stretching. I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to get back to the AT. But, on the place mat for the diner there was one of those silly tourist maps of the town and area. I could hitch back to where I got off yesterday, or follow my own path up a state road to where the AT was sure to intersect it. I liked the idea of following such a map, so I folded it up and put it in my pocket and set out. Of course, I carried a cup of coffee with me for the walk.

I strolled up the road, passing a large ski resort, and waved to the few early morning gardeners, who of course smiled and waved back. After cresting out the road stayed mellow for a while and I eventually found myself exactly where I wanted to be: A junction with the AT, complete with a garbage can for my paper coffee cup. I felt like Homer when he discovered that he didn't have to go to church: "Everyone is stupid except me." Of course, Homer later almost burned to death in a fire and I quickly realized that the arrogance in the statement was exactly what I had disliked in others on the Appalachian Trail. I had found my own route and was happy with it. Leave it at that. No judgement, no purity. I sat at the trailhead feeling pleased until I felt like walking. And so I walked.

I had no particular destination in mind, but the late afternoon found me near Upper Goose Pond, complete with a side trail that ran a whole half mile to a posh shelter that cost a couple of dollars a night to stay at. I didn't usually take such side trails or pay to stay in shelters, but neither did I usually wave at gardeners. So, I took the trail. As I approached the shelter, I started to hear the sounds of I-90 in the background and didn't hold out much hope. But, the lake was pretty and at the shelter I found numerous hikers, including Rock Steady. We did our usual thing of berating each other in front of the others, swearing to everything under the sun that this was the worst thing to ever happen in the history of the Appalachian Trail. Of course, all was said with a perfectly straight face and deadpan delivery, although most of the other hikers had caught on by the time we ended our dialogue.

I cooked and ate dinner and chatted with Rock Steady to find out what he had been up to since I last saw him in Delaware Water Gap. I also told him that I was going to leave the AT in Manchester Center to start the transition to the GDT. I tried to explain some of the unhappiness that I had wrestled with in the Mid-Atlantic, although this wasn't really necessary. My plans for the GDT caught the ears of some of the other hikers and some seemed to understand. Others were in love with the AT and couldn't. This didn't bother me. It is important to do what you love, rather than doing what makes you unhappy. I should have paid more attention to this during the first part of the summer. The sun went down and I stayed up talking with the caretaker of the shelter for quite a while before slipping into bed.

I snuck out of the cabin in the early morning before anyone was stirring, hoping to get something of a jump on Rock Steady so that he wouldn't run me down too quickly. The weather was overcast, but I didn't care very much. I was rolling along, happy and content, even though the hanging mist was beginning to give the look of imminent rain. I crossed I-90, now the second time that I've done this on a long distance hike, and pushed on along the easy trail. It occured to me that I should probably arrange transit out to Calgary, before starting the GDT, some time soon and this put something of a damper on the day. I crossed road after road while waiting to be rained on and contemplating logistics, something that I am loathe to do while out walking. In the off season, fine. Not now. I dropped down to a road and cut away from the AT, which led down a different road, and walked into Dalton in the thick mist.

I navigated through town as best as I could and eventually found the library, which had several packs out front already. Self conscious from my smell, I tried to be quick at the computer. A woman hiker that seemed familiar was at one of the other computers, but she was wrapped up doing something and I needed to buy a ticket. I tried to purchase a flight, but there was nothing that I could find on any of the standard internet sites for less than $600. Given that a bus ticket was about $100, I didn't shell out out the cash. I did order a new pair of shoes to be sent to my mother's house, where I was headed on Greyhound anyways. My kicks had plenty of miles left in them, but not enough for the rest of the AT and the entire GDT. My 30 minutes was up, and I had gotten nothing done except buy the shoes. I hadn't even talked to the cute hiker, and now she was gone.

Feeling a little dejected for the first time in a few days, I walked out toward the main part of town, in the mist, and found a sandwich shop in which to feed. One sandwich, then a second, a two liter of soda, and some chips. I felt like eating more, despite the massive cheesesteaks I had just put away, but I thought better of it (bloated hikers are not pleasant) and hit the gas station on the other side of the road for some supplies to get me to Williamstown. I sat in town for a while debating whether or not to stay and wait for Rock Steady, but eventually decided to push on as I was sure he would stay with a local who put up hikers for the night. I wanted to be out in the woods and so walked through town and left the pavement behind. At the trailhead there was an older man waiting. He wanted to know if I knew the naked hiker. It took me a moment before I realized that yesterday had been naked hiking day (summer solstice). I said no and he explained to me that apparently a hiker had strolled through the town of Cheshire, just ahead, completely naked. He didn't seem angry, but rather like he wanted to meet a personality instead of the normal 9-5 crowd he normally ran with. I wished him luck and set off up the trail.

Rain still threatened, as it had all day long, and so I decided to stop early at the Crystal Mountain campsite. There were already three parties there and they had taken all the good campsites. I gathered water from the stream and then set out through the woods looking for a place to camp. I found a delightfully soft, sheltered spot near a powerline cut and settled in for the night, despite the early hour. I read The Third Eye for a while, but wasn't really tracking. I was thinking about the day and how prototypical I wished it had been. No problems, no rain, no moodiness. I had turned a page, or I thought I had, and now wished for a little more time on the AT. Then again, it hadn't rained on me and perhaps if it had I would have felt decidedly different. I just didn't know anything about the AT anymore.

It rained on and off throughout the night, but by the morning it had ceased, except for leaf drop, and the only real remnants of the storm was the perpetual morning mist. I rumbled along, content as usual in the morning, and dropped quickly down to Cheshire, which the naked hiker had streaked a couple of days before. It was a long time to be naked, I thought. It took me twenty minutes to go from one end of town to the other, and most of the track was on sidewalks through a residential area. I sat by the edge of a highway and watched cars drive past, towing their occupants to work. Greylock was above me. Since leaving Damascus, people had been talking about Greylock as a sort of divide on the AT: Once you clear it, you know that the world has changed and that you are truly in New England. Moreover, it was the first mountain that typified the northern New England playgrounds of New Hampshire and Maine. It was the gateway, in other words, to a new experience. I thought this unlikely, but rumbled up hill anyways.

The climb was pleasant and easy, despite being relentlessly uphill, and I enjoyed the change in environment that the large elevation gain brought. I climbed into a thick pine forest, leaving the leaves behind, and occasionally got enough of a view of the distance to see that the clouds and mist had lifted and been replaced by a pale blue sky. The trail dove back into a forest and I encountered the back end of a train of children. I passed child after child, wondering where the adults were. Passing kids on an uphill, rocky trail is not the easiest of things, and it wasn't until I neared the front of the long train that I spotted an adult, who soon noticed me and asked the kids to step to the side while I passed. I was almost at the top anyways.

Being the East, the top meant a parking lot and a lot of development. Mount Greylock is the high point in Massachusetts and it the setting for a war memorial from some conflict in the past. There is also a hostel on top and various interpretive displays and is generally a family oriented type place. Sort of like going to the Sears Tower and taking the elevator to the top. At the base was a rock with a quote from Thoreau carved into it. I wondered what old Henry would think of Greylock today. There were a few people on top milling about and looking off into the distance near the war memorial tower. There wasn't much to see except for a lot of farms and roads, but for the East it was a pretty sight.

I sat in the warm sun and tried to appreciate the place for what it was, but couldn't shake the thought that I had been in gas stations in Nevada that would be considered more scenic. I think, perhaps, the charm lay in that Greylock was rare for the area: A tall place with long views in a semi-natural setting, even if the long views were of manmade things and semi-natural meant most developed, well paved, and with plenty of "Do Not Walk Here" signs. It brought people into the outdoors in an easy, safe way and hopefully some people would become inspired to look for more. I doubted it, but I hoped nonetheless. I sat in the sun near the tower for forty minutes, watching people come and go, before deciding to make the run downhill to Williamstown. I passed a hiker on her way up, sweating hard with an overloaded pack, but with a smile on her face. She wasn't hiking as I was, but she was happy with how she was doing it. That was the important point. A few minutes after passing her, I found a nice overlook where no one was and sat down to take another rest. Williamstown and North Adams were clearly in view, and there wasn't a shred of wilderness left in the vista, but it was sunny and pleasant and I wanted to lay about anyways.

I took a brief nap on a warm rock in the sun and then sat some more. I looked in the distance and knew that my days of hiking in the East were numbered. Not only on this trip, but in the future as well. I didn't belong here any more than I did in Manhattan. Maybe I would some day. After all, I did belong in the past. My own future, for now, lay elsewhere. My musings over, I finished the stroll down to the road and then made a right turn and headed towards some development or other. I never actually made it into the main part of whatever town I was heading into, but did find a strip mall with a good supermarket and a truly horrendous Chinese buffet. I've never had a good Chinese buffet meal, and don't know why I flock to them without fail. A philosopher or scientist or thinker had something to say about people who do things like this.

Fed and resupplied, I walked back to the trail and headed uphill, through a steep, rocky area, until I broke through to Vermont. I celebrated by unburdening myself on the stateline, but well in the woods. There was a shelter close by and I thought that I should give a shelter another try before the end of my AT hike. It was, most unfortunately, completely filled with the kind of hikers I try to avoid. One can usually spot the sort by their propensity to build fires during the day, even when it is in the 80s. I sat by myself for a while and was very happy when I saw Rock Steady walking up the shelter access trail. We did our normal routine for the benefit of the shelter dwellers and then set up our respective personal shelters in a camping area next to the permanent one. This was a rather funny event, as Rock Steady had just picked up the hammock that he had last used in Tennessee. After forty five minutes of listening to my various remarks and suggestions, he finally got it rigged. Then he had to redo it because it wasn't tight enough. We both thought this to be rather funny. Tomorrow was my last full day in the woods. After that, nothing but a Greyhound. Oh, and the Canadian Rockies. And Wilderness. I needed it, and knew why, now. That had been the lesson of the AT this summer.

I hit the ground running thinking about stopping in Bennington and just hitching to Manchester Center. After all, I wouldn't be missing too much by doing and would save myself a little walking. But, it seemed like a shabby way to end my section hike of the AT, and when I got to the road I kept going and settled next to a river to rest for a while. Vermont was proving to be a little unscenic, especially after the pleasant terrain of northern Connecticut and Massachusetts, but at least the hiking was easy and the weather was more or less stable.

Rock Steady caught me on the ensuing uphill climb and was a little surprised to see me still on the trail. He had assumed that I would simply hitch to Manchester and we went through our normal routine of baiting each other with whatever barbs our respective wits could throw out. We hiked on and off together through the greenery and reached Goddard shelter in the late afternoon. There were two father-son teams at the shelter lounging about, but neither Rock Steady nor I were especially talkative. Our time together was drawing short, as I was planning on stopping at the next shelter for the night, while he was going to push in an attempt to catch another hiker called Norway. Both of us had been chasing Norway for quite some time, gaining a mile here or there, and it looked like he was just up ahead. Norway had completed the 4-State challenge, which made him something of a celebrity and both of us wanted to meet him. The 4-state challenge is to hike from Virginia and clear through to Pennsylvania, through West Virginia and Maryland, in a single day. The distance is more than 40 miles and few people are actually able to do it.

In the warm afternoon sun the two of us hiked out together and rumbled the remaining few miles to Kid Gore shelter, where I was to stay. Rock Steady ate dinner at the shelter and we talked for a while before he set out. He was good to hike with and I was sad to see him set off down the trail without me, but we had different things to do with the rest of our time. Kid Gore had a nice view of a valley and I got something of a sunset, but I was a still a little melancholy and was happy that no other hikers showed up to disturb my sadness.

I didn't have to hike very far today because I didn't want to go into Manchester tonight, and there was a shelter just before it. A measly 23 miles to. Still, I was thumping along at 6 am in the early morning light, thinking about the difference between this summer and the last. When I drew near to Canada last summer I was ready to be done hiking, but not ready to go home. Nothing was there for me that I really wanted to come back to. Just my job and my stuff. In the border picture, I'm wearing a forced, barely recognizable smile on my face. This summer, I was pushing for the end so that I could get out to Canada and start on the GDT. I barely noticed the climb up and over Stratton Mountain and was surprised to pass the caretaker cabin and then the associated fire lookout tower. The cabin was there, presumably for the caretakers of the area, although I couldn't see much reason for it needing a caretaker. I supposed the actual job of the caretakers were to keep people from sleeping in the tower, which is exactly what I would have done had the timing been right.

Nestled by the base of the fire tower was a group of about eight hikers, at least six of them being recognizable as distance hikers. I sat an ate some lunch as a few at a time went up the tower, strictly regulated by the caretakers, who were there as well. I sat apart, not really wanting to talk to anyone at the moment. It wasn't the normal moodiness, but rather that I didn't see much point in getting to know people that I would be leaving tomorrow. I climbed to the top of the fire tower, but couldn't see much. The air was hazy and there were clouds forming. I dropped back down and set out for Spruce Peak.

I walked down to Stratton Pond where several of the hikers from the tower were sitting around after a swim in the blue waters of the pond. I said hello and kept going into the woods, now wanting to share the end of my time in the woods with no others. I wound through the woods until the AT dumped me out on an old logging road, which I trotted down to Prospect Rock, which was the last "vista" marked in Wingfoot's book before the shelter. I went out to the rocky outcropping and stared down into the valley below that held Manchester Center, VT. Although rain seemed imminent, I sat on the rock for thirty mintues thinking and pondering the nature of my section hike. It was so different than what I had experienced on my first AT hike, and even more distinct from my PCT hike. It was too much to think over, however. I would have plenty of time on a Greyhound to ponder the mysteries.

I left my last vista and rumbled to the shelter, reaching it at the exact moment that the heavens broke and rain began to fall. The shelter was an actual cabin and I surprised to find it in such good condition being that it was very close to a road. I had a little food left in my sack and ate it down as hikers streamed into the cabin and the rain came down. I finished The Third Eye and gave it to another hiker, who had just finished his book. I tried to make small talk, but not even the presence of two pretty young women could do much for me. I was done and just waiting for tomorrow. Once tomorrow was here, I was sure to feel better about things.

I rolled out of the shelter in the early morning to enjoy a final misty scene before reaching the road, which I judged to be less than an hour away. I romped along, continually thinking that I should stoll, instead of romp. But I wanted to reach the road and I had spent enough time in the woods to know that what I saw here was the same as I same before. There is a saying that goes something like, "The only thing you bring to the mountain is yourself." Or something to that effect. Just before the road one of the hikers from the shelter caught me, in time to share a hitch and snap the obligatory end-of-trail photo. I smiled genuinely this time.

We stood in the mist by the side of the road and waited for a few minutes before a co-ed in a Subaru wagon stopped to give us a lift into town. She dropped us off next to a restaurant and then went on her way, having earned a little good karma by helping us out. I bought a newspaper and got a table to wait for the hikers that I knew would come down from the shelter soon. The restaurant quickly became a mini hiker convention. Plate after plate of food came and went as I got to know the hikers I had spent the night with. As I had predicted, my mood was completely different now that I was in town and officially done with the AT. I got to know Tom, for example, and found out that he was behind a sequence of intricate, well drawn and written cartoons that I had been enjoying for the last few weeks. He would leave them in shelter registers and they were always on point and carried a dry wit. Monty and Rio had gotten on in Pennsylvania and were trying to hike to Katahdin during their summer break from college. Monty was especially amusing after she ordered a sundae following her breakfast.

None of us had any real plans and these three were all going to stay the night in town. The main problem was cost, as the only reasonably priced place in town was beyond the budget of the ladies, and neither Tom nor I particularly wanted to leave them. And so we let go of finding a place to stay cheaply and let Providence do its thing. This, I thought, would be a fair and objective test: If I actively did nothing, and just let things happen, would they work out well? We spread out through town, as I needed to get to the postoffice to see if my bounce bucket had arrived and to pick up my bus ticket before the place closed at noon. Both items were waiting for me. I retrieved a few things from the bucket and then mailed it off to Evanston to my mother's house.

Back in town I met up with the ladies and Tom at the local outfitters where Rio was trying to get her pack worked on. A strap had broken, or something like that. Every town stop is the same, except for this one. This one was the last, and I was also putting the Providence theory to a test. No active work on my part. Just eating pizza with Tom and then sitting around eating ice cream with Monty and Rio. And then we found the church. The First Baptist Church was advertising a Ham and Strawberry dinner. Monty and Rio led the way inside and they inquired if we could work the dinner in return for being able to stay in the church. And so Providence provided a place to stay the night at no cost. We even picked up a Long Trail hiker on our way, thus forming a rather formidable workforce.

We ate dinner with the church goers and then cleaned up, providing some relief to the over stressed volunteers. Of course, nothing could be done without a little clowning.

We scrubbed and cleaned and worked for an hour, much to the delight of the church members. I think all of us wanted to give a good impression of AT hikers and were extra diligent not to appear lazy and pampered.

After finishing the cleaning, one couple from the church offered to put us up at their home, which we readily accepted. There was room for all, as they were on the wealthy side and had had a large family that had since moved out. Shower, wash clothes, make a beer run. Yes, Providence is always at work. It was a good end to the AT.

The family made us a large breakfast in the morning before church services. I hadn't been to church in many years, and neither had Tom (who is Israeli and highly non-religous). But, we went anyways to experience something different. And, besides, Monty and Rio were going. The service was good and not preachy at all, something I didn't expect from Baptists. After the service, in which we were thanked for helping out with the dinner (thanked, despite getting far more than we gave) last night, an elderly couple offered the others a ride back up to the trail. And that was it. A last photo and I was left sitting on a bench with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

My bus left tomorrow in the afternoon and I needed to find a place to stay. I'm sure the family from the last night would have taken me in for a second night, but I wanted to be alone for a little while with my thoughts. I decided to wander about town for a while and see the rest of Manchester Center. Besides being something of a tourist trap with lots and lots of outlet stores, it was also a very nice, quaint town if one bothered to walk off of the main drag. I explored for a while, then made my way over to Sutton's place, which was a fine, old house that took in boarders for the reasonable rate of $40 a night (compared to more like $150 in the local hotels). Sutton was a retired French teacher and seemed to immediately recognize that I needed some space and quiet. I got cleaned up and then went out for dinner and beer before retiring to the quiet house. Everything was over except for the bus ride. And the GDT. Back to the Wilderness that I had so missed for the first half of the summer. Back to Home.

I slept well at Sutton's place, though I couldn't manage to stay in bed past 7:30 and was thus on the streets of Manchester Center in the early morning with a rumble in my stomach. I walked around a bit and eventually settled on a nice cafe near the bus stop for my breakfast fix. I left my pack outside and sat at the counter with a newspaper and a cup of coffee. I downed a well made omelet (one of the first on the AT) and homefries and toast and drank more and more coffee. There were no hikers in the cafe, which seemed odd, but neither was it filled with tourists. Just quiet locals enjoying breakfast. I paid my bill and was preparing to leave when I heard a woman's voice behind me, "Lousy, stinking hiker trash." I turned about and saw the woman I had noticed in the Dalton library but had not gotten to know. Then, it struck me that I had seen her before in Duncannon: Indy. Indy had been taking her own route north, generally along the Appalachian Trail, but also on roads or in cars and now here she was.

We sat and talked as if we were long separated friends as she polished off an order of blueberry pancakes. This a facet of long distance hiking that is hard to understand outside of our small community. Bonds form almost instantly from the shared, common experience of trail life. Indy and I had more in common than usual as we had both found that our route to happiness did not involve walking past every white blaze on the trail. After several mugs of coffee, one of the cooks stuck his head out of the kitchen and asked us if we wanted to try some sourdough pancakes. He had made up a test batch and had extras. Stacks were brought out for both of us and were delicious. This was my first experience with sourdough pancakes and I couldn't believe what I had been missing out on for thirty years of living. More coffee and then we departed, with nowhere in particular to go.

For a couple of hours we strolled about town as I showed her what I had found and where certain services were. I found myself wishing that I was going to continue on with hiking, mostly so that I could spend more time with Indy. This, I knew, was a poor reason to do anything but it didn't change my thoughts in the least. As the time for my bus drew near, Indy and I parted and I retired to the bench near the CVS where the bus stopped. There was nothing more for me to do other than endure the overnight ride back to Chicago and a week off before setting out on the GDT. I tried to be philosophical for the moment, but couldn't muster a thought beyond the bus ride. In a rather undramatic fashion, the bus pulled up and I hopped on, scoring a window seat on the mostly empty bus. The green fields and hills of Vermont rolled slowly by. I looked at my watch and calculated how much longer it would be till Chicago. I clicked the calendar button to see how many days it would be till I was walking north on the Great Divide. The time couldn't pass quickly enough.