Song of the day: Jackson, by Johnny Cash and June Carter. http://youtu.be/U3NJC18Oi04
I knew the Yankee heat and humidity by heart, so I figured that by getting a good early start, I’d be poised to reach Conway, NH by a reasonable hour just shy of sunset. The day was marked by a crescendo of sunshine and humidity, and I stopped more than once to wring the sweat from my red paisley bandana before pushing on. Since it was so much nicer than the long, solemn winter we’d had, there was no sense in denigrating the hot outdoor-feel whenever someone (usually not on a bicycle) quizzed me about the day’s weather or forecast.
There were a few big climbs. However, compared to last year, every five hundred or a thousand feet up felt almost like a non-event, so I felt slightly emboldened and yet still experienced a trace amount of apprehension about scaling the 2,500′ climb to the Kancamagus pass coming up soon.
After 5 PM, I’d reached the small town of Fryburg, ME, a stone’s throw from the New Hampshire line, where I’d be re-entering the state to continue west. My Uncle Mike, unofficial hospitality coordinator, had reached out to his cousin Connie in Jackson, NH, to see if I could crash there that night, but by the time I’d reached Fryburg, I called her to apologize that I couldn’t push the extra 15-20 miles up to their place. Undeterred and exceptionally sweet, Connie and her husband Bob offered to come pick me up and host me for the evening. We loaded the bike and gear into the back of their SUV and I compactly reposed upon the tops of the folded forward seats in the back with Tunes scrunched up next to me as we hurtled over Hurricane Mountain, a local hiker’s dream, an enjoyably scenic and rugged jaunt across the border and to their home.
Connie and Bob generously offered me incredible hospitality, and I ate my weight in vegetables at dinner. Both former teachers, they were in equal measure fascinating and entertaining hosts– they shared stories about recent black bear encounters and their attempts to thwart them; skiing trips on Wildcat and other mountains; their own travels and adventures, including stories from other wanderers they’ve hosted; and the history of their current town, population ~800. Connie taught me how to spot a poplar tree, and also pointed out other arboreal interests, including a blight on some of her evergreens. We were joined by their friend Peter, a longtime serious ski and aquatic instructor and cyclist, who offered to pedal behind me to the top of “the Kanc,” in a very kind gesture of solidarity. Peter was a quite fit 60-something, having ridden a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation over the last few decades, and I politely tried to dissuade him from joining me going uphill in the morning. I knew my effort would be a long, sweaty, slow, and probably disappointing day, and I’d been somewhat anxious about my first big ascent since my tour last summer, but undeterred by my light protestations, Peter agreed to meet up around 8 AM in Conway to join the perspiring parade.
My new family of friends fed me a delightful medley of cereals and fresh cantaloupe, let me toss my bike and gear into their trailer, and we took a short ride through the Ellis River valley to the strawberry field meeting spot, where we hugged out our goodbyes and best wishes. I couldn’t believe that I’d been so lucky to have such wonderful people so close to my route, my family circle, and to my heart. I wanted to tarry and hike with them, talk with them, and learn from them, but I needed to push on. Having been extended a warm welcome to return, I may take them up on it someday, but next time I’ll bring and cook the food and return the hospitality!
Smartly, we’d started with a 3-mile mostly flat warmup spin, which warmed up my joints and cardiovascular system, and I felt light and limber by the time we started our gradual uphill endeavor. I apologized in advance for my usual frequent stopping, as Tunes took her breakfast at one of the first stopping points before the covered bridge just a couple of miles in, but Peter was very patient and understanding. Best of all, his encyclopedic intellect meant that I was treated to an historical, geological, geographical, and otherwise interesting tour of the area. We spotted pink and white lady’s slipper flowers (I leaned that the rarer yellow ones would not grow alongside the road, but might be found if hunted deeper into the woods), observed gorges, and he kindly obliged to take a few tourist-pullover-spot photos of me and Tunes along the way.
Peter was carrying one bag of Tunes’s food to help reduce the weight on my bike by a couple of pounds, and I’d emptied most of my water bottles to ease the load going up over two thousand feet. On the way up, a svelte road-biking-cyclist guy around my age passed us, sized up my tank in a near double-take, and cheered, “You are a warrior! That is unbelievable!” This bolstered my sweaty spirits, and I broke 6mph for a little while, riding on the high (and the less severe gradient). I needed to stop a couple of times before the top and catch my breath, once fending off a moment of hot wooziness, but Peter never faltered in his chipper support, offering me a Cliff bar for energy and some reassurance that the top wasn’t too far away.
At half past noon, I finally reached the summit, and we took lunch together. Peter shared his carrots and grapes, and I made a PBJ while Tunes had a little chewy treat. After several days of worry that I would hurt myself trying to climb this thing, burdened by the weight of my self-supported mobile home, it was nothing short of life-affirming that is done it without too much pain or suffering, and that I felt pretty good overall at the top. I was thirsty, however, and I’d totally run out of water, but when we were looking around for a well pump, a vacationing couple noticed my predicament and furnished three bottles of water, so that Tunes and I both had plenty. He was celebrating a 30+ years anniversary (35, maybe? I forgot) with his wife, enjoying the mountains and staying at the Wentworth, a fancy and well-known hotel in the area. I was grateful that they’d come to my rescue, just in time, with just what I needed. It was a lovely lunch, and then Peter and I went our separate ways just before I made the plunge downhill, speeding the remainder of the 35 mile total route, from Conway to Lincoln, over the Kancamagus highway.
Flying downhill past the great White Mountains of New Hampshire was an incredible thrill, and even though motorcycle weekend was just kicking off in this area of the state, bringing in thousands of rumbling two-wheeling tourists, I had the downhill coast almost entirely to myself. When the road finally leveled out in the city of Lincoln, I was feeling pretty euphoric and ready to make the next and immediately impending thousand-foot climb into the following big city, North Haverhill. But first, I stopped at an outdoors/sporting equipment store, thinking that I could get some advice on camping, or just to get off the saddle and peruse water treatment tablet options for a few minutes. On a tiny sign in the corner of their door, I noticed the words “Hiker Hostel: Lincoln, Chet’s Place” with a phone number listed. Suddenly, I recalled the advice of a frind of mine (shoutout: Pedestrian) who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and told me that if I found myself in Lincoln, NH, I should stop by this “secret hostel” and meet the incredibly inspiring man who ran it. Intrigured, stinky, and a few days behind on my blog, I decided to take a short 35/40 mile day and investigate this free or donation-based lodging option, which was mostly intended to serve AT hikers whose route also intersected with this funky town.
Covered in hiker graffiti, the six-bunk, multi-couched communal dorm had once held over 30 hikers one night during a very busy, rainy week, Chet told me upon my arrival. He was an incredibly warm spirit, and my friend was not incorrect when he’d mentioned that the hostel owner was one of the bravest, most inspirational trail angels ever to exist. As far as the hostel itself, which was an addition to Chet’s own home, amenities included a warm shower, laundry room, and shelves of take somethinhg/leave something clothes and accessories awaited any long-distance travelers who sought refuge there. Then, of course, were the many stories of other admirable hiker heroes and heroines, artists and trailblazing strangers, wayward partiers and unscrupulous hobo types boasting trail names like “Zero” who spent multiple days freeloading on the reclining chair in the main house’s living room. The trail had taken all kinds of people at all abilities and body configurations, and the hostel owner had taken in most of them, including the odd skiier, traveler, or in my case, cyclist and dog.
I had the whole place to myself, and was sound asleep before 8 PM, exhausted from the day’s efforts. Earlier in the evening, Chet had recieved a local call from someone suggesting that they’d potentially spotted the two murderers who had recently escaped from a NY prison. Between that message and the bear-intrusion anecdotes, I was quite happy to be safe and indoors. Plus it absolutely poured rain in the middle of the night, so I was very lucky to have missed all of that, indeed.