Last hiker of the summer

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange maintains a short section of the Appalachian Trail, and this time of year he meets some very interesting people.

(Lange) I was sitting beside the Appalachian Trail, leaning against a stone wall, eating lunch. The dog watched me intently, in hope of a treat. She turned her head suddenly, and here came a hiker. Big pack on his back. Shorts and hiking boots, stained yellow T-shirt. He climbed very slowly toward us, appearing somewhat bewildered to find us sitting there so quietly.

From his gear and his demeanor — his ability to converse had atrophied– he was a thru-hiker, one of those hardy souls who sets out from Georgia in the spring and attempts to reach Mount Katahdin in Maine before winter. But he was late! I watch the hikers go by every summer; and the last of ’em, anticipating snowstorms 440 miles ahead on Katahdin, usually hotfoot through Etna before the first week of September. Ahead of them stretch the White Mountains, the tortuous Mahoosucs, and the 100-Mile Woods of Maine. This guy didn’t look as though he was going to make it up Moose Mountain, just over a mile ahead.

“How ’bout some soup?” I asked. He demurred, and then seemed to regret it. Thru-hikers endure so much for their obsession and develop such a state of fitness that mere mortals don’t appear on their radar. But swayed by the aroma of hot soup on a drizzly day threatening worse, he reached into the top of his pack for his cup. That was a good sign: the cup in the top of the pack. In backpackers who claim to be thru-hikers, I always look for evidence of buncombe. The most obvious are clean gear and clothes; carrying nonessentials; and inefficient organization. This guy’s dirty plastic cup came immediately to his hand with the loosening of one toggle.

The Appalachian Trail is 2160 miles long. The original proposal, in 1921, was that it run from Mount Mitchell in North Carolina to Mount Washington in New Hampshire; but soon the route had stretched to its present length. Eighty years later it’s finally finished and protected. Thousands of volunteers maintain the path and its shelters. I’ve got a little stretch of it myself; and each August I watch the hikers pass – trail names like Rebel, Daddy Longlegs, Superman.

This one was a retired lawyer from Maine; trail name, Bad Feet. He’d started in May, quite late, and was putting in long days. But this morning he’d hit the wall; even the smallest grades were daunting him. His color wasn’t good, and he looked as ready to quit as go on. But he mentioned the farther north he got, the more people he met in the woods. He was enjoying seeing other hikers for a change.

I gave him a bag of gorp and a glazed doughnut from the Etna Village Store. Then the dog and I and left him, gazing uncertainly northward toward the last six weeks of his journey into the snows of autumn.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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