The Test Hike Was a Fiasco

Every plan works if you change the plan when it stops working.

In hindsight, it was probably a bad sign. I wrapped up Today in Tabs on Thursday afternoon and took the dog for a walk, and throughout the walk I kept having brief but intense stabbing pains in various spots here and there around my guts. It’s probably nothing, I thought. [Non-diegetic organ chords swell ominously.]

Friday, Mica and I headed to the western Maine mountains for our first practice hike. We planned to do the Grafton Loop Trail, a lovely forty mile loop that circles Route 26 outside of Newry and includes a short section of the A.T. in Grafton Notch State Park. Part of the eastern half of the loop was the first backpacking trip Mica and I ever did together, and I hiked the whole loop by myself in 2019, so it’s familiar ground and an easy single vehicle, multi-day shakedown for our new gear and our trail legs. We parked at the south trailhead and headed west, because it was already 3pm and the first part of the trail is a little easier if you go clockwise.

In hindsight, this was probably another bad sign: only an hour out from the trailhead, I had to poop.1 This is fine, I am both mentally prepared and physically equipped to poop in the woods. But squat hovering over a six inch deep hole while fervently hoping I haven’t misjudged the sightlines from the trail is not my favorite thing to do, and I’m generally good at avoiding it. I hike in the east—our outhouse infrastructure is unparalleled, and my digestive timing is locked in. But it went fine this time, and I figured one worry out of the way on the first day of the test hike is a Test Hike Success Story, right?

More concerning was how exhausted I was climbing the very modest Bald Mountain and then Stowe Mountain on the way to our campsite, a mere six miles and 2,200 vertical feet from the parking lot. I remembered the ascents on this part of the trail as negligible, and my saved GPS track2 says my “easy first day” last time was 10.3 miles and 3400 vertical feet. But this time I felt every step. Telemetry shows that my 2019 average moving speed was 2.1 mph. This time it was a sluggish 1.7 mph. I haven’t really gotten out on the trail yet this season and I am older than I used to be, as are we all, so maybe whatever? But in hindsight, this was probably another bad sign.

Our cozy camp at Sargent Brook. Mica is still working on his tent pitch (the wrinkly one on the right).

But Mica and I recorded some podcast content at camp (stay tuned for more on that) and we both slept great Friday night. I usually don’t sleep well the first two or three nights on trail, so this was a pleasant surprise. In hindsight… I truly want to see it as an endorsement of the comfort of my tent and sleep system so I’m declaring this one officially: Not A Bad Sign.

Saturday morning we started with a fairly short climb up to the open summit of Sunday River Whitecap (not to be confused with the other Whitecap, or the other other Whitecap). With fresh legs this climb was ok, and it turned out to be the last time on this trip I didn’t feel terrible, so let’s pause right here for…

Today in Birds:3

Via Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app.

Among the stunted spruces on the high elevations of the Sunday River Whitecap summit we heard what Merlin Bird ID told us was the distinctive song of the blackpoll warbler, which “breeds in coniferous forests, especially stunted spruces at high elevations.” I wish I had recorded it for you, because the sound clips in the Merlin app don’t do it justice. Test Hike Lesson: Record good bird songs.

Later on Saturday we saw a pair of Canada jays begging for treats on the summit of Old Speck. They were surprisingly big. Mica took this picture of one of them:

A Canada jay perched on the tip of a spruce regards Mica saucily.

Also, descending Old Speck we passed a male spruce grouse standing barely a foot off the trail who stared at us from underneath his bright red eyebrow as we passed, living his best life and absolutely unbothered.

This has been: Today in Birds.

The rest of Saturday was mostly uphill on land but mostly downhill in my spirits. We descended from Sunday River Whitecap to about 2500 feet, and skirted around the shoulder of Slide Mountain, then stopped for lunch at the last campsite before we had to climb Old Speck. I felt exhausted and nauseated, despite the relatively easy terrain, but I managed to eat some Triscuits4 and a packet of salmon. I tried to lie down for fifteen minutes on the large tent platform deck, but my legs and feet constantly threatened to cramp up. For the first time I started to wonder: hey, is this a bad sign?

The climb up Old Speck was a torment. After repeatedly leaving me behind, Mica finally had me go in front, because I was clearly going slower. This is not the hiking experience either of us is accustomed to. I kept getting dizzy when I stopped to catch my breath, and once or twice had that feeling you get when you stand up too fast and start to lightly black out. This very much seemed like a clear and present bad sign.

I soldiered on, and several hours later than expected we reached the Old Speck summit with its tall steel lookout tower. I tried to have a snack, I think I managed a packet of potato chips. I was not ok. After three miles of descent from Old Speck we’d return to Route 26 at the Grafton Notch A.T. parking lot, 7.5 miles up the road from our car. This was our last plausible bail-out point before another 2 mile, 2200 foot climb up to our planned campsite for that night. After descending for an hour and a half with increasing nausea and wobbly legs, I stopped Mica and said:

“Listen, I’m gonna be so for real right now: I’m not ok. I don’t think I have the rest of today’s hike in me, let alone the rest of the loop.”

Mica told me he had started getting worried when he was consistently faster than me climbing Old Speck which, again, he’s a strong hiker but he has absolutely never been faster than me before. We decided it would be prudent to take our bail out option, and descended the last mile to the A.T. parking lot which was uncharacteristically deserted. But we didn’t wait more than ten minutes before a pair of charming outdoor bros in a Volvo with Massachusetts plates pulled in5 and cheerfully agreed to drive us back to our car.

Sunday River Whitecap has incredible views though.

What Did We Learn?

Don’t worry: I was in poor shape for carrying 25 pounds over mountains, but I was fine to sit down and drive. On the ride back to Portland I gradually recalled each of those events that were probably, in hindsight, a bad sign. But I still basically felt fine? I got some chicken nuggets at Burger King. I know I probably gave you the impression this would be a more dramatic story, possibly with more bodily fluids involved, but that’s just because I’m a messy bitch who loves drama. What actually happened was kind of worse, for me. I was convinced that over the winter I simply got too old to hike, and the whole plan for the rest of the year might have to be called off. Mica said I was being ridiculous, and that I was obviously sick. I still had my doubts. But after we got home I slept most of Sunday, and despite feeling a lot better Monday morning, all I managed to do was unpack my backpack before I had to lie down and rest again.

So one thing we learned is: I’m definitely sick, with some kind of annoying intestinal bug that has no big dramatic symptoms, just a low-key nausea and malaise. My wife reminded me that she had this exact thing a couple weeks ago, and also spent the whole time second-guessing whether she was actually even sick at all. So I’m provisionally willing to accept that I probably can still hike, and I may not be requiring a Lark scooter just yet.

Gear wise, we also answered most of our test hike questions. I learned that my adorable new ultralight Gossamer Gear Kumo 36 pack is not going to work with the load I realistically need to be able to carry. I love the bag in theory, but I think its load carrying ability tops out at maybe 18 pounds. My base weight is around 15, and with stove fuel, a few days of food, and a liter of water I need to be able to manage 25 pounds. At that weight the waist belt did nothing and my shoulders were aching by the second day. So I’m returning to my trusty eight year old Hyperlite 3400, which has never failed me, and I’m hoping it survives a few hundred more miles at least. On the other hand, this was Mica’s first hike with his brand new Hyperlite Waypoint 35, and he loved it. So that’s another gear question answered.

We also successfully begged a ride at the trailhead, which is a core skill of the long-distance backpacker. That couldn’t have gone better, really: we asked the very first people we saw for a ride, and they said yes immediately. People are ok sometimes.

I learned that I should record cool bird songs. In my defense, I wasn’t at my best physically so my content creation powers were not at their keenest.

On the drive home I was whining that it bothered me that my plan for the hike didn’t work, because I’m accustomed to my plans working. With characteristic forbearance, Mica reminded me that a mile above the parking lot we made a new plan, to finish hiking down to the road and then hitch a ride back to our car and go home, and that plan worked flawlessly.

“It takes more skill to adapt a plan to changing circumstances than it would to just try to stick to the original plan no matter what,” he said. When it comes to my hiking partner, in hindsight this was probably a good sign.

Mica on the Old Speck summit tower.

1  Look, I’m not going to sugar coat any part of this experience so while you may be here for Today in Birds, you’re also going to get Toenail News and Relevant Gastrointestinal Updates.

2  If no one objects I’m gonna start calling this “telemetry” so we all feel a little more like NASA.

3  Thanks to Tabs Music Intern Sam Gavin for this segment concept.

4  “The Electrical Biscuit,” my hiking lunch stalwart.

5  The good Lord sent My People to lead me out of the wilderness.

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