About the Author, Leah LaRocco: “Hi there, I’m a Long Islander who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. My first love was the ocean, but growing up camping and hiking around Vermont also contributed to a deep appreciation for the mountains. Public lands are some of my favorite places to hike and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a regular weekend getaway. I work full time, but believe dreams and passions can and should be pursued outside of the everyday 9-5. As a naturalist, I hope to convey how incredibly healing the woods, water, and wildlife can be when we make the choice to step outside.” Find her via her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Website.
Click on Leah’s name above to read more about her adventures!
Day 9: Great Barrington, MA to North Wilcox Shelter, 13.8 miles
September 11. Today was my hardest day yet, not because of the terrain, but because I felt spent and tired, the weather was hot and still, and finding water was tricky because everything was dry. If it hadn’t been for a kind soul who leaves a water cache in one of the parking areas, I would have had to drink beaver pond water. The water sources were so disgusting, orange and slimy, standing water, or ponds. Not good options.
Because of a 3.5 day food carry and the extra water, my pack felt like a ton of bricks and my knee pain was just awful. I finally let myself cry for a minute and then kept moving. All there is to do is keep going. Every step gets me closer to my destination, so just keep moving. Tomorrow looks more challenging than today, but I’m taking my chances and not carrying extra water, just a liter at a time like I usually do.
I’m at the shelter by myself tonight, down a hill .3 miles, so that’ll start my day off in the morning. I have higher miles planned this section because of where towns are, 14.8 tomorrow, then 18 the day after because the terrain looked reasonable. I hope I can handle it. I need to make it to the post office In Dalton by noon on Saturday so I can pick up the box Rob sent to me. Another reason to push forward.
I saw 9 toads, 6 red efts, too many frogs to count, and a garter snake. Aside from a couple of views, today was a tough slog past a few ponds. Rain is in the forecast for tomorrow and I can only pray it doesn’t break me. I hope that sleep will give me a fresh outlook.
Day 10: North Wilcox Shelter to Upper Goose Pond Cabin, 15 miles
September 12. A new day dawned to rain falling steadily on the tin roof of the shelter that I had all to myself last night. I woke joyfully to large puddles of water, which meant the streams would hopefully be flowing again. Instead of getting me down, the rain provided some hope after the heat and dryness yesterday. I set out with my waterproof socks on, rain skirt, and umbrella lashed to my pack strap.
Somehow today didn’t feel as hard as yesterday. I was in a better headspace and the air was cool, the woods were peaceful, and there were red efts everywhere!! So I started counting to see if I could beat the CT record of 77 in a day. I’m happy to report that I counted 187 today, every single one, and managed not to step on any of them. As crazy as it might seem to count newts along a trail, it was a happy respite from counting dollars at work. The task also kept me alert and was a nice distraction from the knee. I finally broke down and started the meds my doctor gave me before I left. I’m still limping down the trail, but maybe now I’ll be able to limp farther and move a little faster.
The trail passed through farm fields dressed up for fall, glowing with goldenrod and fading milkweed, with touches of burgundy and sienna as plants prepare to breathe their last sigh before winter’s sleep. Boardwalks led through marshy sedge and I finally found two wild apple trees right on the trail! There were small spotty apples all over the ground, but I knew they’d be good to eat, so I knocked a couple down with my trekking poles and had a sweet, delicious snack that was better than any grocery store apple could ever hope to be.
There was also a little AT trail stand today at one of the roadside farms where I was able to buy a can of root beer, which was exactly what the moment called for. It’s one of my trail cravings and I knew it was a sign when they had it.
Being able to indulge my curiosity for nature has been one of the best aspects of being able to walk the AT. There are plants, fungi, and little creatures everywhere that beg to be investigated, and I have all the time in the world to do so. I mourn the days when I will no longer be able to revel in the vibrant beauty of a violet mushroom or the stark brightness of an orange salamander. The verdant greens are gentle on my eyes as they readjust to understand what natural color feels like.
Today I met a thru hiker named Noodle on his very last day of hiking the entire trail. He summited Katahdin 3 days ago and was finishing up an 8 mile stretch he’d had to skip. I freaked out and made a big deal about it and congratulated him, asked him how he’s feeling. This is a huge moment, enormous. He said he’s dreading going back to his life at home because no one will understand what he’s done out here. The feeling is so real. Hikers come back to the trail for the rest of their lives to be understood by the other people who are just as crazy as they are.
My destination tonight was Upper Goose Pond Cabin, the stuff of legend. I could not be more happy that I stopped here. This will be the highlight of MA, hands down. The cabin was gifted to the AMC and the NPS by a sporting club years ago with the express use of catering to AT hikers. It is run by two caretakers during the season (each pair gets one week per season and there is a waiting list of people who want to do this). The cabin sits overlooking the pond. There is an area for cooking, bunk beds upstairs, a kitchen, living area, and deck to sit on. The caretakers bring water up in jugs from a spring for the hikers. Ours also made a roaring fire in the living room and boiled water for tea. Tomorrow morning there will be a breakfast of pancakes. I feel so delightfully spoiled!
I’m here with 4 other hikers, one who is a nobo section hiker like me, one who is a sobo section hiker, and two who are thru hiking sobo. The conversation around the fire was all about the trail and once again I found myself feeling so utterly, contentedly at home with a sense of belonging to a community. I’m snug as a bug in a rug inside my sleeping bag, even though it’s starting to smell like a garbage dumpster. Hiker stank is real!
Tomorrow will be my longest distance yet in this stretch, 18 miles. This is the length I was hoping to do on a daily basis, but fate had other plans for me. After a thousand foot climb in the morning, it should be smooth sailing. Weather outlook is good, and I’ll be closer to Dalton where I’ll pick up a mail drop and meet up with Julia again.
Day 11: Upper Goose Pond Cabin to Kay Wood Shelter, 18.3 miles
September 13. I woke to the smell of fresh coffee and laid in my bunk for awhile before heading downstairs to eat pancakes with everyone. We ate by the morning light and another northbound thru hiker named Sonic had joined us in the night. So far it had been me, Cole, Keeper, Moose Man, and a local out for his first section ever. Breakfast was filling and warm, just what I needed to start the day. Before saying goodbye and leaving a small donation, I headed down to the dock and watched the sun rising over the trees as mist hovered above the water. Such a peaceful spot where the cares of the world felt so very far away.
I was the first to leave and as I got on the trail I could tell that the anti inflammatory medication my doctor had given me before I left kicked in. What a massive difference in how I felt. The pain was mostly gone and instead of limping, I was able to actually walk normally and speed on down the trail. For the first time in weeks, I felt like myself with my usual pace and I reveled in it. I know the pills will only last me 6 days, so I’ll see how badly the pain returns afterward.
Today was easy in terms of terrain. I had one mountain to climb and the rest was rolling forest and dozens of muddy sections with slick, mossy bog boards. I only slipped off once!
The trail passed by several beaver ponds that had formed these gorgeous habitats filled with bird life and water lilies. I saw kingfishers, common yellowthroats, and other warblers that were too hurried to let me get a good look. No beavers though in spite of there being some lovely mud structures with freshly chewed sticks on them. I’m dying to see a beaver swim through one of these ponds! Where is the master who created this masterpiece?
The terrain was smooth with pine needles, then laced with slippery tree roots, then strewn with rocks big enough to twist an ankle, then crossing lots of small streams on top of boulders, then precariously balancing in bog boards to avoid muddy swamps. The variety of ground my feet have walked over never ceases to amaze me. How boring a sidewalk is with its hardened strict lines and unceasing repetition. What have we done to ourselves by lining our streets with such dull repetition when nature provides us with such interesting variety? Safety, blah blah blah. But what imagination is borne of square manmade blocks when beautifully gnarled tree roots exist instead?
I got one decent view of Greylock today and it looks so much closer than it did a couple of days ago! It still boggles my mind that I am walking over a mountain range from state to state. Tomorrow I walk 3 miles into Dalton, MA where I’ll spend the day resupplying and resting before climbing up and over to Cheshire, then onto the slopes of Greylock where I’ll spend a night before summiting.
When I finally reached the shelter tonight there was a woman there with a man who had hiked in with no jacket, no water, and wearing Crocs on his feet. I didn’t know what the situation was, but he had autism or aspergers and had wandered in completely dehydrated so she’d filtered some water for him. When he left an hour and half later, it was because we encouraged him to get home before dark because he was starting to shiver and only had his cell phone for light. He said he lived 3 miles away and we could only hope that was true.
Angela is a 40 year old solo female thru hiker who is flip flopping and planning to finish in Harpers Ferry. She left her job, left her city, and needed to get away from the news and life and figure some things out for herself. I asked her about the women on trail and she said there have been more this year than ever before. No way! She said there were camps at night where it was just women and it was so awesome. I am beyond encouraged to hear this!
I can relate to needing to leave the news behind. My anxiety level about the state of the world had gotten beyond a manageable level and being out here has been such a healthy escape from the toxicity of politics. I haven’t checked the news and when I’ve had a TV available, I haven’t turned it on. I don’t miss it a single bit. I’ve also been hard pressed to find anyone out here who has an Instagram account I can follow because they’re all off the grid. This is why people do this, to get away from all the garbage, the shit that is clogging up our lives and separating us from nature and real human connection.
Today marks a quarter of my time on the trail and it has gone by in a blink. How on earth can I go back to ordinary life after this? Maybe I’ll be ready, it’s hard to tell. I miss Rob and my cats and our dog. I miss hot showers and my bed and my garden. But I don’t miss so many other things. I am aware that I am changing, that this experience will impact my life. At the moment I’m not sure how.
I’m addicted to hiking, to being out in nature and feeling unfettered and free. I’m addicted to trees and sky and newts and frogs and butterflies and bears and beauty that is singularly experienced where only feet can tread. Oh the painful withdrawal that must happen when one is separated from these things, the rending of the heart that must take place. I don’t know how I will prepare myself for it, or how I will make those around me understand what walking this footpath has meant to my wandering heart.
Day 12: Kay Wood Shelter to Dalton, 3.2 miles
September 14. Today was so interesting. The walk down into Dalton was short and when I walked over the bridge into town, I was greeted by a very colorful lady. She started giving me all this advice about where a hiker should go in town. I told her I was headed for the Shamrock Inn and she very forcefully told me I shouldn’t stay there. Apparently there’s “more than meets the eye going on down there, if you know what I mean” and she also said I should leave anything in my room that I wouldn’t want taken. This didn’t sit very well with me, so I decided that I’d head in Pittsfield instead and stay at the Econolodge, which was cheaper and closer to resupply stores.
I walked to the post office, picked up my package and asked about the bus to Pittsfield. The lady didn’t know and suggested asking a business owner. So I went to the coffee shop, had a cup, and asked about the bus. They didn’t know. So I walked down the street and found the stop. Some other folks came along and waited as well, but they didn’t know when the bus came. Apparently it’s in its own schedule and no one knows anything around here. While I was at the bus stop, a man who’d been in his car in front of the Shamrock Inn came over and asked if I was a hiker, then handed me a bruised apple “for nourishment.” It was a kind gesture, but I got a weird vibe and just wanted to get out of this little section of town.
Thank God for Julia, my MA trail angel who lives in Pittsfield and came straightaway to whisk me out of there. We had a delicious breakfast of pancakes at the local diner before heading off to shop. We also stopped at the Pine Cone Hill outlet because we both have a weakness for fine bedding. They sell this stuff in the Hamptons and I’m always drooling over it. I found a lovely pillow cover that will be sent home as a memento from the AT and a reminder of the kindness I’ve experienced on this part of the trail. I’d like to point out that I hadn’t showered yet and was wearing all my dirty hiker clothes. The term “hikertrash” exists for a reason.
I did laundry and washed my clothes twice. I’m sure they’ll still smell like death the second I start sweating tomorrow, but I tried. Unless you’re just entering town to buy food, the chores can take quite a while. Tomorrow I’ll walk through Cheshire, but my next town destination will be in Vermont!!! I can’t believe I have 3 days left in MA.
I’ll be staying with friends in VT and I can’t wait to see them. The next few days will be lots and lots of climbing, but knowing a warm hug lies on the other side is extra motivation to keep going. I still have no idea how the knee will hold up, but hopefully I’ll at least have another state down before it gets rough again.
I’m thankful for a bed and fresh food today, but I also am ready to be back outside. The noises of town are disquieting, so much harsher than the gentle symphony of nighttime bugs that sing us to sleep every night.