Eran Hornick is inspired by Shai Afsai’s poem ‘Forty-four’.
In June of last year, my friend Dan and I drove to Maine to hike the renowned Mahoosuc Notch. It is famed by some to be ‘the hardest mile of the AT’ — the Appalachian Trail — and since it was within a four hours’ drive from Boston, we decided to tackle it. We drove to the trailhead the day before, 11 miles down a rock-and-dirt road out of Berlin, New Hampshire, parked, and pitched camp. We tossed frisbee along the narrow spur road we’d parked at the end of, a grassed-over lane with two wheel-ruts. Built a fire in the ring that was already there, read the first chapter of Frank Herbert’s Dune aloud, and went to bed in anticipation of our hike the next day.
In the morning we broke camp, struck the tent, and clambered up into the forest. The first two miles were simply a matter of following a decently blue-blazed trail, a spur, until it brought us to the white blazes of the AT. Here began the Mahoosuc Notch. And Dan and I, standing at the top of a short drop into a rocky dell, saw to our dismay that the Notch was snowed in. It was June 1st.
We debated what to do. Fortunately for us, another pair of hikers was attempting the Notch, and we witnessed them head into the shaded boulders. They trod slowly, and one of the pair post-holed through the snow and struck his knee on a rock and cried out. Dan and I exchanged a glance, knowing the Notch wasn’t a possibility for us that day. Instead, we headed south along the AT and bagged Goose Eye Peak, and looped our way back to camp and drove home the following morning.
Flash forward one year. One year and two months to be exact. It’s just me this time, but I find myself with three days off from work and decide to give another go at Mahoosuc Notch. I hike Mount Cube that Monday, on the Vermont border, then cross New Hampshire west to east on Routes 302, negotiate the 11 miles of dirt-and-rock road that leads out of Berlin, and park at what I’ve come to think of as Dan’s and my camp. No fire this time, just the sound of the forest brook and the dark, dark sky. I decide to sleep in my car, because of how many ticks Dan and I had gotten on our clothes and in our hair the year before. Closing the car’s door on the brook’s clear sound is a sharp loss, but it beats scratching an itch at the back of your hairline and pulling off a big fat dog tick, legs a-wheeling. In the morning I tie my boots, adjust my trekking poles, and hit the trail.
The first two miles are simple enough. Only a few downed trees, and a fairly clear trail in the stretches between blue blazes. Before I know it I’m at the junction with the AT, where the Notch begins.
The Notch is a narrow ravine between two sharp slopes of rock and shrubbery, hidden by shadow for the bulk of the year, thus maintaining a lower temperature than the surrounding terrain. I take a breath and descend the first set of boulders, those same ones Dan and I’d seen the two hikers gingerly poking their way over when one of them had fallen the year before. This year, in August, it takes a few seconds to descend those higgledy-piggledy rocks, and before I know it I’m winding my way through a three-dimensional labyrinth of boulders, chutes, small cliffs, and steep earth. I quickly realize that my trekking poles will be of little use, so I shoulder one of them, strapping it to my pack. A chill wind blows gently through the gulley. I am alone. What a joy of a challenge! Every step is a weighing of judgment — do I place my foot this way or that? Do I tread forward with my left foot or my right? How far can I reliably reach my arm to hoist myself up the next boulder? And here, why does the trail suddenly end in a fifteen-foot cliff? The trail must be hiding somewhere else. And where’s my next foothold? Can I properly balance on the pinnacle of that boulder pyramid over there?
The Notch goes on like this for one hour and fifteen minutes. That’s how long it takes me to cover the little more than a mile of Mahoosuc Notch. By the end, both of my poles are shouldered, and my elbows are scraped from slithering through a narrow opening under a garage-sized boulder — doing the worm while the tips of my shouldered poles scrape the ceiling of the boulder above me.
And suddenly, the boulders peter out, and I’m walking along the left-hand side of the ravine, ankles steadying against the constant slope, the occasional white blaze marking my way. At one point I’m tromping along the trail when suddenly it dead-ends in a cul-de-sac of pine needles and saplings. I push forward a few yards, then retrace my steps to the last blaze. No, it seems that I didn’t make a wrong turn. I return to the dead-end, peer around. Maybe a big tree fell down, blocking the trail? It turns out that’s exactly what happened. I crash over the downed branches, pushing aside the springy thin ones, letting them snap back into place after I pass, and step onto the larger branches to get over them. Then I am back on the trail.
Being a New England trail, the Mahoosuc Trail after the Notch is your standard steep ascent up granite and loose dirt, roots you have to grab onto to pull yourself up, and solid rock slopes that tend to make you stop and reconsider your climb. I take not-too-infrequent breathers, and at a sunny glen where the land levels out, I put down my pack and have some peanut butter crackers. The water flows in a thin sheet over the rock at the floor of the glen, and the sun dries the sweat on my back. I spend about ten minutes amid the sound of that flat brook flowing steadily, filling the floor of the glen and then trickling on down the ravine back toward where I’ve just come from. I pick up my pack and move on.
In a short while I catch up to a hiker. He’s around sixty, and he’s covering ground at about a third my pace. I hear his trekking poles clacking against the rocks many turns of the trail before I see him, and when I catch up to him, we stop and chat. He’s a section-hiker, it turns out (a through-hiker starts the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and in six months walks to Maine (or vice-versa), while a section-hiker takes a week here, a week there, to drive to portions of the AT and cross that section off their list, completing the feat piecemeal). He started a few days ago down near where the Mahoosuc Range begins, at Route 2 in Berlin, and he comments on the steepness and cruelty of the trail he’s trying to best. He says he wishes he were as young as I. We wish each other well, and I push onward.
About a quarter-mile from the top (though I didn’t know I was that close yet) I meet another two hikers, a man and a woman, who are clearly in great spirits. We’re passing each other along a thirty-degree inclined boulder slab, and I step to the side to let them pass on their way down. The woman is chatting aloud, to whomever can hear (her partner and me): ‘I’ll just take this slope straight on, and my toenails will grow back tomorrow,’ she says, referring to what it feels like when you aim straight down a steep slope and your toes jam into the front of your boots with the full weight of your body behind them, ‘or next year,’ she adds with a chuckle.
I tell them my name. ‘I’m Kim,’ the woman says, and the man says his name is Michael.
‘How far is it to the May Cutoff?’ I ask.
‘To Speck Pond,’ I say.
‘Oh, it’s about three-quarters of a mile. The pond is really nice,’ Kim says, ‘you get right down to the water’s edge. And there’s plenty of evidence of beavers up there.’
‘Cool,’ I say, ‘a real beaver’s-eye view.’
We bid each other goodbye, and they head down toward the Notch, and I head toward the summit. Before long I come to the lookout.
You don’t actually come to the pinnacle of Mahoosuc Mountain — rather, it’s a sort of double peak, two adjacent humps scraping the sky, and the trail traverses the lower of the two. It is at the cusp of cresting this secondary peak that I stop, turn around to embrace the break in the trees, and see the valley open before me.
Growing up, and well into my twenties, I used to entertain these idealistic dreams of going into nature and seeing wild creatures: polar bears, wolves, grizzlies. The surviving megafauna of our epoch. Some of these I succeeded in seeing, and others I only came close to. However, even when I found myself in polar bear territory, albeit during the wrong season, I comforted myself with the knowledge that the ground I had my feet on was the same ground that the bears, at times, had their own feet on, too. I extended this idea further with the heart-lifting thought that even when I’m in the middle of Providence or Boston, the landmass beneath my feet stretches out and up, to Maine, Quebec, Labrador, and beyond, where, as Melville puts it, bears are said to erupt.
When I crest the littler of the two Mahoosuc peaks and turn around to face the valley, I can see the continent stretching out before me. I see swaths of solid green, and interspersing the treed carpet there are ski slopes, road cuts, little specks of colour that are the sloped roofs of houses. Lakes and ponds, and a light haze that mixes with the mountainous horizon — more peaks in the distance, including New Hampshire’s Whites and the looming Presidentials. Beyond the New Hampshire mountains, I sense more — the other notches that sprinkle the landscape: Dixville, Crawford, Evans, Franconia. And further, beyond my scope of vision, the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks of New York. And to the north, the same ground upon which I had some of my most formative tastes of nature years before: seeing Labrador’s iconic bears, wolf prints in the red mud of Northwest Territories, learning to whistle through cupped hands at the Aurora Borealis to encourage it to unfurl its blue-green display.
And not just the landmass and the bears and the oceans, but the friends I met and the personal hills and valleys of my life. As I take in the panorama, I feel a resonance, and I see the stage upon which all of my life’s joys and troubles have come to pass, every sorrow and success, and that all of it fits in the palm of my hand, in the scope of my eye, at this moment at the rocky edge of Mount Mahoosuc in Maine near the New Hampshire border.
The entire rest of the hike feels inspired. After leaving the viewpoint and coming over the mountain’s hump, I greet two through-hikers: ‘How are you?’ I say to them. The girl gives a weak smile, but the guy beams and in a voice brimming with peace says, ‘Good…’ and leaves it trailing off with possibility.
In short order, I arrive at Speck Pond and sit to have my lunch. I am struck with the desire to say the brachot (blessings) before eating, and even sing the entire birkat hamazon (grace after meals) as I begin my hike down. And in spite of the rain that makes my descent slippery, I feel in a precious state. Every leaf and fern and stem emanating from each wood-chip stump, every worm-eaten hole in each leaf, the browning greenness, the water dripping through the leafy treetops, the peeling birch bark, the blue blazes spray-painted on the trees, now overgrown with lichen — all of it takes on a certain sheen, a sharpness, and yet a specific softness in my eyes. Moss, fungus, the forest brook, the moose scat. My steps, my using the trekking poles, picking my footing carefully as I descend the wet rocks. The white tree-growing mushroom that looks like a chalk travertine from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Praying that the rain will stay light, and uttering my thanks for keeping it light. It’s as if I’m plugged in to my surroundings, aligned and on the same page. As if the forest and I have been placed here with the same brushstroke.
I’m glad I’m here.