In August of 2001, before the world changed forever on 9/11, I hiked the Zealand Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, up to the AMC hut and Zealand Falls. I have distinct and fond memories from the hike. It was a day hike, in and out, under 6 miles roundtrip. I remember reaching the hut and hanging out in the sun on the rocks near the falls.
It was a similarly beautiful day this past August when I chose this hike for my new backpacking buddy Greg. It was going to tick off a lot of boxes for him. First, hiking up a mountain, visiting an AMC hut, reaching a waterfall, and he especially wanted to see the Appalachian Trail. I think he had some idea in his head that the AT would look different from every other trail in the mountains. So here we were, 18 years later for me, and 18 years older than my hiking companion. We planned to do a 2-day overnight backpacking trip, of which the Zealand Trail was going to be the first leg. I was holding options open for day two to summit Mt. Zealand, giving Greg his first 4,000 footer in the Whites, or scrambling over to Ethan Pond at a lower elevation, or even hiking back down in the morning and choosing a completely different part of the Pemi Wilderness area. Well…none of those things happened.
A lot of things conspired, the morning we were leaving, to tell me I should cancel. Pouring rain at home, my car acting up, the dog not feeling well. I was already in that ‘push through it’ mindset when off we went. It rained almost the entire drive. When we reached the Franconia Parkway near Woodstock and Lincoln the rain finally gave way to a beautiful, sunny sky. The temps were perfect for hiking, in the low 60’s. Our day was looking up. We geared up at the trailhead and off we went. Wearing a 35lb pack with everything I needed to be comfortable in the woods (except while carrying a 35lb pack uphill in the woods) I wanted to quit after the first 500 feet on the dirt road to the trail. I told Greg I didn’t think I could do it. So, I literally took my first rest break after only 500 feet on the trail. I took my time to do plenty of stretching before putting on my pack, but my body still groaned at the additional weight. Eventually, I started to feel warmed up and the first mile went well.
The trail started out as an old logging road, clear and flat. At about the half-mile mark it became rocky, the kind of rocky where the rocks were all different sizes, shapes, and embeddedness in the ground. Deep mud filled in all around the rocks. When I was younger, I was better able to scramble over this kind of terrain. As soon as the rocks would thin out the tree roots took their place. Those treacherous little shoe tip grabbers. I was already the slowest hiker on the trail, taking time to deliberately plant my feet with each step without these new obstacles to challenge me. Use it or lose it has always been my personal mantra. I may have even lost it but I’m going to try to get it back. Of course I remembered to bring a knee brace. Did I put it on, or did I bury somewhere unknown in my pack? What do you think?
People on the trail are always polite and supportive, giving way to each other as you are approached from opposite directions, exchanging pleasantries, providing conditions reports, etc. When every other person you see mentions your impressive pack you know they are not complimenting you on your spiffy new piece of gear. They are politely pointing out that you are overloaded, and possibly a newbie. I am not a newbie. I am a gear-hound. These are my toys. I like to bring them with me. I have always been this way. My daypack is heavier than most thru-hiker packs. I particularly like to bring redundancies in fire-building materials, cutting tools, and clothing. These items usually add bulk and weight. Along with the extra weight of my own that I was carrying, my knee started to alternate between being stiff and being wobbly. Always picking my way over roots and rocks and ever-climbing up and up, I started to take more and more breaks. They were very short breaks, not long enough to slow my breathing or heart rate. Or sweating, but enough to unlock my knee. Use it or lose plays in my head like The Little Engine that Could. Chugga chugga, chugga chugga, woo woo! Greg, by this time, had loosened up and he was starting to find it harder and harder to slow down to my pace. I assured him that we didn’t have to stay together the whole day. Hike your hike, I said. He looked back a few times as he started to get ahead and then, eventually, out of sight. I was relieved. I was holding him back, and he was causing me to try to keep up. That’s how people get hurt. I was now free to hike my hike. People passed me going in both directions. It was all good. I was feeling better. I had no one else to answer to if I wanted to stop again after just 10 feet. The views were beautiful. The air was fresh and cool, and I was doing it.
Greg and I were both using hiking sticks instead of trekking poles. I have trekking poles but, for some reason, I picked my hiking stick when Greg showed up with his. Greg’s stick is special. In front of his house is an old-growth tree that is over 400 years old. His father wants to get rid of it and I’ve been telling him for years that I will chain myself to it if he tries to do anything foolish (because, you know, chaining myself to a tree is not foolish at all, right?). It is a magnificent maple. Unfortunately, its massive roots are starting to undermine the foundation of their house. Greg did some necessary pruning this year and one of the trimmed branches was especially straight. He cut it to the right length for his personal hiking stick, de-barked it tapered the tip and started carving symbols of his adventures on it from the top. This trip he was planning to add the AT logo. I think I valued the meaning of that stick more than he did. Walking along, every once in awhile, there would be a piece of trail without rocks and roots. I could look down and find my name spelled out vertically with an arrow pointing ahead. It made me smile but then I thought, he must have stopped here to wait to see if I would catch up. A couple of times people coming down the mountain would see me and say something like, “Your friend said to say he’ll be waiting by the river crossing,”, or wooden bridge over the marsh, or steep climb to the AMC hut. Thinking back now, I guess he was a little concerned about me.
My pace had become quite slow. It was late afternoon and I was dragging. The plan was to reach the hut, hang out a little while by the nearby falls, and then hike back down to get out of the protected area so we could find a campsite. It was around 4:00 when I reached Zealand Pond. There was a tiny little grassy beach. I hobbled off the trail, took off my pack, walked around in a circle catching my breath, and finally dropping down to lay against my pack and take in the view. I was finally enjoying myself, and drying off. I opened my pack and changed into a dry shirt and felt immediately refreshed.
Being only about 20 feet from the trail I knew I would catch Greg coming down eventually. As I was finally starting to feel comfortable a returning hiker spotted me and said my friend was only a five-minute hike away, at the place where the trail ascends to the hut. I figured he had been waiting there for me so I hid my pack under a shrub and took off to meet up with Greg. When I got to the place I knew he should be and wasn’t I figured he got tired of waiting and went ahead. I looked up the rocky climb. It was steep but I wasn’t wearing my pack so I thought I stood a better chance of making it up. At a point I believed was halfway up I stopped because my legs were very wobbly and I was becoming aware of the fact that going down was more difficult for me, so I stopped to assess my situation. I looked behind me and saw just how steep a climb I had made. I don’t know the vertical incline but it was steep enough that I thought if I was this wobbly I was definitely begging to get hurt. I started back down. I remembered this hike from all those years ago. This part was not even a mention back then. Now, I wasn’t going to make it to the hut. Ok. Stop. Take that in. At least I wasn’t going to get hurt either.
Throughout the day there was a group of four women I had been leapfrogging with. They took breaks for fun, like selfie-taking, not breath-catching like me. We carried on little conversations each time we passed each other. They were all different ages, one being close to mine. She was last in the group every time we saw each other, and she said she was having a tough time keeping up with the youngsters, but she was keeping up with them. They were hiking up to the hut to have dinner and stay over. They were expecting to hike up to the summit of Zealand to catch the sunset. As I was making myself comfortable back at the pond, I would continue to hear these women laugh and enjoy each other’s company for hours. Their voices carried back to me as the trail wound around the pond and climbed up to the hut. I could see the smoke from the fire up there. On my way back to where I had hidden my pack, I used my hiking stick to carve Greg’s name vertically, with an arrow pointing to the spot off-trail where I was waiting for him.
I got my Sawyer mini filter out and started drinking water from the pond, and washing the salt off my face when I heard Greg call out my name. I answered. He said, “I’m over by the waterfall.” I answered, “I’m not.” He laughed. I told him where I was at the pond and that I would wait for him. We needed to hike out of the protected area around the hut so we could find a campsite and now daylight was fading. When he finally caught up to me (see how I played that?), we spoke for a few minutes about his day and he got to catch his breath. When we finally got back on the trail to hike down it was already dusky. As soon as we passed the trail sign saying we were now leaving the protected wilderness area we started looking for some flat ground. There was no open ground, the forest being so thick, and everything off-trail was wet from rain the day before, but that didn’t really matter as we were camping in our hammocks. We had to do a little climb up and off the trail before we found a spot that had previously been used by people who did not practice “leave no trace” camping. There were remains of a fire that had no ring around it, a pile of cut branches and birch bark leftover from their fire, and a couple of cut saplings. All were too wet for us to use.
We set up camp in the dark and I sent Greg down to the nearby stream crossing with a 4-liter collapsible water container that my Sawyer filter fit on. I sent Greg because I could pull age rank. He, apparently, stumbled in the dark with a headlamp on the fritz, got his boots wet, and only filled half the container. Oh well. Then we started gathering whatever dry sticks we could break off standing trees since everything else was so wet. We didn’t stand much of a chance making a fire, but we could cook our dinner over our twig stoves. It was damp and cold that night. We went to bed super early. After such physical exhaustion, your body does not relax well to damp and cold. In my hammock, I pulled on my thick wool sleeping socks and wrapped myself up in my 32* sleeping bag. I’m a horrible sleeper but I think I got myself settled and passed out. This was night one of our two-night trip.
Sometime around 5am I became aware of an intense headache in the front of my head. I haven’t had headaches in years so I was thinking it had to be dehydration. I tried to go back to sleep. Soon I was feeling that saliva production in my mouth thing that means only one thing to me. I was going to throw up. With the headache, I scrambled out of my sleeping bag, had to the pull off the wool socks because they didn’t fit inside my boots, get the boots on, get up on my amazingly stiff and sore legs, and run away from the immediate area trying not to throw up all over my gear. But that was not all. No. Throwing up was not enough. Like a wild animal, I clawed through the top of my pack for my trowel and tp. I managed to find a place where I knew I would have to hunker down for a little while. I was hoping to blow out whatever this was quickly. At the same time, I was getting worried. I had never gotten sick backpacking. It was very difficult the day before when I was feeling fine. How was I going to get down off the mountain if I was going to feel like this? Maybe my water filter failed. Was this the dreaded giardia? By the time I decided to try stumbling back to camp Greg was getting up. It was still early but my wretching and moaning woke him up. I wasn’t sorry. I needed to not feel alone. Everything was still too wet to start a fire. I didn’t want to get back into the hammock (where I would have been comfortable) because my head and stomach were still not settled so I lowered myself down on the thermal tarp I had under my hammock. My head was pounding, my stomach was gurgling and churning, and my mouth started watering again. So this was going to happen in waves for the next hour. Greg was breaking down his gear and packing up. I felt an internal pressure to get moving. I wasn’t going to be carried down the mountain. I didn’t think it was going to subside soon enough for me to just wait it out. I tried to make tea but my hands were too shaky, so I settled for warm water. At least I would have something to come back up that wasn’t dry heaves.
Somehow not clear in my memory, I managed to pack up my gear with some help from Greg, load up, grab my hiking stick like it was my lifeline and get myself back down to the trail. No coffee, no breakfast, no second-day adventures. I was solely focused on putting one foot in front of the other, favoring the weak knee, and making it unaided to the parking lot at the trailhead. Greg stayed with me all the way. The four ladies from the day before came up behind and then passed us. I tried not to look like rangers should come and rescue me. I’m fairly sure I didn’t pull that off. They tried boosting me with, “Yay, you did it!”. A couple of hours in I realized that though my stomach was empty and I was not really drinking, I was feeling better. When we reached the old logging road I must not have realized where I was on the trail. I stopped for a rest as an older couple, a fit older couple, were heading up the trail passing me. I asked about how far we were from the trailhead. The woman shouted back five minutes! I was embarrassed. She was right. We were right there, with the parking lot just beyond. I opened the back of my car, where I keep a 10-gallon water container and towels. I washed as much of that sweaty salt off as I could. I combed my wild hair, washed my hands, brushed my teeth and began to feel a little human again. When we got in the car I blasted the air conditioning, not because I was hot, but because the humidity was so high I just wanted to feel dry. We rested a few minutes. I knew Greg was starving and that I should have something. There was a little general store with an attached restaurant on 302 a few miles down the road, in the direction of home. By the time we walked up to the counter to order I felt famished. We both ordered a sandwich of beef brisket with caramelized onions and cheese on crusty bread. In that moment we were eating a five-star meal. We were both so satisfied.
We didn’t talk about doing anything else. I just drove home. After I was home a few days I thought, it was one thing to get sick on an overnight hike but it was the knee that took me down in the end. My knee has not recovered from the hike. I think I really blew it out this time. Now I have to begin the long road that will ultimately end with another knee replacement. My vertical hiking days, especially with a backpack, are over now. We’ll see what happens after I eventually get the new knee. My recovery took a long time with the first knee. I’m glad I did what I could while I could. I’ll look for flatter adventures in the near future. Still telling myself use it or lose it.