My last full day out on the Appalachian Trail started with me getting lost.
Southern Vermont and Northwestern Massachusetts are criss-crossed with a network of snowmobile trails, and not all of them are clearly marked. Occasionally, they cross the Appalachian Trail, which is generally very well-marked. But a foot path is a shade more subtle than a snowmobile trail, and sometimes if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to take the wrong fork.
Took me a quarter mile or so to notice. You see, I had my mind on breakfast. Of course, I had a couple of packets of dried oatmeal in my pack, and I could have run down to Sherman Brook, filled up a water bottle and boiled up a nice, watery pot of porridge. But the town of North Adams was only about a mile and a half downhill, and from the moment I woke up, I could hear the biscuits and gravy calling to me. So I packed up and hit the trail around 5:45 a.m., and promptly got lost.
I was also thinking about the weather. It hadn’t started raining yet, but the forecast called for everything from drizzle to thunderstorms all day long. I was hoping to make a few miles before the deluge began, then hole up for the rest of the day at a shelter three miles south of North Adams. Getting lost didn’t help my timetable any. But the siren song of a high-calorie breakfast eventually pulled me back onto the right path, and I made it as far as Renee’s Diner before the first drops fell.
The rain was coming down in a steady, soaking shower by the time I finished my second cup of coffee and headed back up into the mountains. But the shower diminished as I climbed, until the raindrops weren’t falling so much as they were coalescing right in front of my nose. Then I climbed right up through the top of the cloud and looked down at the rainy valley below.
So much for the weather forecast. For the remainder of the day, it didn’t rain a drop. But I was so far ahead of schedule that I needed to slow down, or else I’d be hanging around Dalton, Massachusetts for two full days with nothing to do. So I forced myself to stop moving. I found a wooden tent platform at Wilbur Clearing, dropped my pack, and spent the whole afternoon doing nothing but sitting there and watching the life go on all around me.
The chipmunks scurried around the tent platform. They chased each other through the woods. I spotted several entrances to their underground homes. Once I saw a chipmunk stuff a dried-up old leaf into her mouth and head for the nearest hole in the ground. The leaf was too old and brown to be food. But it was still soft and flexible, and I realized the chipmunk must be padding her nest.
I could hear the muffled sounds of a woodpecker banging away. I wondered why it sounded muffled, until finally I spotted the bird wiggling out of the perfectly round hole he’d drilled, high up in the trunk of a birch tree. I watched him for hours, as he’d duck into the hole and peck away for a while, enlarging the cavity. Then he’d stick his head out and look around, duck back in and peck some more, then stick his head out again. Every so often his mate would fly up to the tree, and he’d pop out and give her chase. They’d do a little mating on a nearby branch, then the male would fly back to the birch tree and work a little more on his excavation project.
I felt like I was witnessing Spring. It’s one thing to notice the new leaves unfurling and the buds opening as you walk on by – but there is always a lot more going on, if only you can slow down enough to see it.
At the time, I didn’t know that would be my last full day Out There. That was on a Tuesday, May 24th. I planned to meet up with Kirsten in Dalton on Thursday afternoon. Things didn’t work out that way. Around noon on Wednesday, Kirsten pinged to tell me she’d just returned home from the vet. Our cat wasn’t going to live much longer. Kirsten suggested I find my way home as soon as possible. So I hiked out to the nearest town, took a bus to Pittsfield, and caught the next train headed east.
Mozzie the cat was a bit of a character. I’m glad I knew him, and I’m glad I got a chance to say goodbye.
I wasn’t particularly sorry to leave the trail a day early (Hooey! Did I ever need a shower as badly as I needed that one!). The journey ended in an agony of sitting and waiting, as the train was already three hours late by the time it arrived in Pittsfield. But I am grateful for the time I had Out There, and I’m grateful for every moment that I got to spend on this trip.
The 2016 New England Tour is in the books. Thanks everyone for coming along! If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the Tall Tales & Shaggy Dogs podcast, and don’t forget to spread the word! Tell your friends, write a review, follow Abner on Twitter – and Thank You for your support!