By Cara Conroy, Assistant Manager, Patagonia New Haven
12:00 AM, Mile 0, CT/NY border
It was dark and quiet when we got out of the car, no one else around. “Ok guys, wake up.” They had about an hour’s nap while I drove to the Connecticut/New York border. I had been here recently, about a month ago my husband, Matt, and I did a 2-day backpacking trip from the NY state line to Kent, CT so I knew we were in the right spot. Headlamps, maps, water and the first of many cookies, then they were off.
My husband’s plan was to hike the state of Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, about 50 miles, in 24 hours. He wasn’t going for any kind of speed record (it’s been done before in under 12 hours), but he wanted to challenge himself to see where his limits are. It’s not just physically exhausting but mentally too. I think he wanted to see if he could use his mental fortitude to push the physical limits of his body and what that would feel like. Of course, he was hoping to finish in fewer hours, but 24 sounded doable. On day hikes with rolling terrain, we average 3-4 miles per hour. They only need to average just over 2 miles per hour…for 24 hours.
He wrangled a friend from work to go with him, Andrew. I offered, after hearing his initial plan of just having a bunch of water somewhere in the middle to re-supply, to be his crew and meet him at various points to fill water, provide snacks, or even be a way home if it wasn’t working.
1:25 AM, Mile 4.1, Bulls Bridge Rd
Our first meeting spot was the shortest. Just in case this was all a horrible mistake, I didn’t want to be too far away. They checked in with me and plowed ahead. They already climbed up and down Tenmile Hill. Not much of a mountain to speak of, indeed it’s even called “hill”, but I remembered it being quite steep, 800’ in 1 mile. Spirits were high and they were feeling good. They didn’t stop for any supplies, just said hi and kept going.
I watched them walk out along Schaghticoke Rd before they disappeared into the dark night. The trail heads up Schaghticoke Mountain and meanders back and forth across the invisible border of CT and NY.
5:15 AM, Mile 11.5, Route 341 in Kent
I actually had a pretty nice sleeping set up for myself. I stretched out in the back seat with my sleeping bag and a pillow. I brought an eye mask and ear plugs. I brushed my teeth by headlamp light.
I was starting to get a little worried. I was hoping they would finish this section faster than 2 mph, at least as good as their first section. The sun was rising and there was mist in the field beside me. When they did arrive I heard that Andrew’s knee was bothering him but not too bad. No one told me he was still rehabbing a recent knee injury. Andrew popped a couple pain pills and Matt ate more cookies. I filled up their waters from the jug I had in the car and sent them back off on their way.
I drove into Kent and found some coffee. Our next meeting spot was 9.5 trail miles away so I had some time to kill. I did feel a little guilty reading my book and sipping an Americano, but they were doing this crazy scheme of their own volition. Neither of them was under the false impression that hiking 50 miles in a day would be anything like hanging out in a coffee shop. So I continued to sit and enjoy my morning. Sleeping in the car was not as comfortable as I imagined it would be, even with my attempt at making it luxurious.
This next section, relatively speaking, was pretty easy. Up along a small ridge line then back down and 4.5 miles of flat hiking along the Housatonic River.
I have only vague memories of this section of the trail. When I was 19, Matt and I got interested in backpacking. We actually planned to backpack the CT AT, not in a day but I think we thought 3 days would be enough, with two other friends. We put a car at either end and started hiking north. Long story short, we didn’t make it. At the end of three days, we ended up fording the Housatonic and found a pay phone at Kent Falls State Park, we hadn’t even gotten halfway. We started calling everyone we knew to pick us up and drive us to one of our cars. A friend’s mom took pity on us and came to our rescue. I learned a lot on that trip, mostly what not to do. Thankfully it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the outdoors but made me want to keep trying. There’s a phrase that you can’t fish the same river twice, I feel like the same is true for a trail.
9:30 AM, 20.5 Miles, Dawn Hill Rd
Back on track! Current pace is 2.2 miles per hour. Andrew and Matt look tired but are feeling positive. More cookies and water then back on the trail.
You might be asking what I’ve been doing with 4-hour time blocks to myself in rural northwestern CT. I came prepared for a quiet day and the possibility of minimal cell coverage. I brought a book, which I finished, and downloaded a couple of podcasts. I thought I would nap more since I only got about 4 hours of sleep but I wasn’t actually tired enough for that. I drove through the Cornwall covered bridge, which was in West Cornwall not the town of Cornwall Bridge. Re-traced a few steps from a decade ago when I lived in the area for a summer as an intern with Sharon Audubon. Find a park to sit in and eat lunch or just be someplace that isn’t a car.
Once I see them head off along the trail I start planning the next pick up spot. At home, the night before, I marked all the road crossings and calculated mileage between each section. Matt decided that 5-10 miles between would be a good distance so we decided on 7 stops scattered throughout the trail. I made 3 copies of the maps, I used National Geographic Appalachian Trail Topographic Map Guide and the 2018 Northbound The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller, with the stops and mileage between marked. While it’s easy to pick a spot on a map and say we’ll meet there, sometimes it’s hard to find that spot and make sure its safe for me to park. Then there’s timing. My worst fear is that I wouldn’t be there and we would miss each other. So I would calculate a best case scenario, usually 3-4 miles per hour for the hikers and make sure I was at the meeting spot in time. That usually meant that I was sitting there for about an hour or I’d hike south on the trail to see if I could surprise them but I didn’t have to worry about missing them. All in all, I got to drive around the prettiest part of the state and read my book with only minor interruptions.
12:52 PM, 27 miles, West Cornwall Rd
They’ve passed the halfway point!
Here’s where I got to do some trail magic. Trail magic is loosely defined as a stranger doing something kind for a thru-hiker without asking for anything in return. I had plenty of snacks and things I wouldn’t normally buy or have in my house, soda, Snickers bars, Gatorade. At this spot, I had pulled to the side of the road just next to the trail and sat in the back hatch to be ready to surprise someone with cold soda. It felt a little creepy sitting in a car trying to lure people with sugar but I knew it would be appreciated. Whether they were northbound or southbound thru-hikers, by CT they know the deal. I met a Northbound hiker and was pleasantly surprised that he wanted to sit and chat with me for a few minutes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he would take a few minutes to chat with a stranger while drinking a soda since he was hiking solo, a bit of unexpected conversation in a mostly solitary time is appreciated. He was from MA and was eager to see family and friends soon. He had a few folks who were planning to meet him on the trail and hike some sections with him. He just had to get through CT! Here’s the thing I’ve heard, again and again, people think the CT section is a cake walk after they’ve finished the trail and look back on their hike but from taking to hikers and reading trail logs at shelters, anyone in the midst of CT always talks about how surprisingly hard it is.
It must be some sort of coping mechanism that your brain wants to forget or dull the memory of harsh experiences. CT is hard! It’s constantly up and down without many satisfying views. Many of its peaks you don’t realize you’ve passed until you’ve been heading downhill for a while. After wishing him well for the rest of his journey, he took off up the trail and out of sight.
After just a few more minutes, I see Matt coming up the trail but not Andrew. He quickly tells me that Andrew is fine, he’s just a bit behind, his knee is getting really painful and Matt decided he needed to separate if he was going to finish before midnight. I knew that was a tough decision to make but it had to be done. It would be hard to find another chance this summer to do this and mentally harder to try again after failing. A quick water fill up and a cookie and Matt was on his way.
I had a few minutes to wait for Andrew and planned out a few options to present to him. He could keep going and maybe catch up to Matt, I could drive him past next section and be ready to join Matt at the next meeting spot or he could decide he was done for the day. He had hiked for over 12 hours continuously and completed half the trail, no small feat.
When Andrew arrived, I told him Matt went on ahead about 15 minutes ago but I had some options for him when he was ready to hear them. He was immediately relieved that Matt went ahead and said he had been feeling bad that he had been slowing him down. He listened to the ideas I had and said he was happy to stop. He had hiked further and longer than he ever had and felt good about his decision.
Once Andrew had caught his breath, he started peppering me with questions. I was glad to see his knee pain and exhaustion hadn’t killed his spirit but also sad to realize my quiet day to myself was over. After the initial barrage of questions, I was able to kindly let him know that I had just a few chapters left in my book and he agreed he wanted a nap. After a little searching, we found the nice trailhead parking area for our next meet up spot. I read and Andrew napped.
3:50 PM, 33.9 miles, Route 7 south of Great Falls
This was the first section Matt said was tough. He’s starting to get tired and the trail was constantly up and down. He said he kept getting views of where he was going but then the trail would meander back and forth making him feel like he was never going to get down to the road. He was actually making better time solo, about 2.4 miles per hour. He still had a long way to go and he couldn’t slow down at all if he was going to make it. A quick refuel and he was back on the trail.
I had done some scouting of the route ahead of him. The trail goes through the town of Falls Village. White blazes on a well-worn trail through the woods is pretty easy to follow but when the trail meanders on and off paved roads it can sometimes be tricky to make sure you see the small blaze that points you back into the woods. I drove past a few of the crossings in town to see how well marked they were. I gave Matt a few tips before setting him loose again. He didn’t have a minute to spare wondering where the trail is or having to backtrack.
8:30 PM, 43.9 miles, Undermountain Rd
Last meeting point before the end!
Now that I had a traveling buddy, Andrew, we took our time walking around and seeing the sights of Salisbury. That took us about 15 minutes and included looking in all the shop windows and reading all the plaques on the war memorial on the town green.
Back in the car, we drove around to check out the other road crossings to scout out and make sure they would be clearly marked. There’s a half mile section along Rt 44 and Cobble Rd that passes a serene graveyard then turns into a pretty field before a half mile more that intersects with the trail parking lot, our meet up spot.
I actually fell asleep for a few hours and woke up at 8 pm. I started to worry that he hadn’t arrived yet. I started to do the math. Four more hours left in the day, 6 miles to go was not so bad but considering dusk was settling in and Bear Mountain, the tallest peak in the state, between him and the finish line, it didn’t look good.
That’s when I get the call. Matt agreed that he would keep his phone off unless he had a reason to contact me. He didn’t want to run out of battery then need to get help.
“Are you here? I’m in a field.”
“Um, I’m at the trail parking lot, our meeting spot. Where are you?”
“I don’t know, I’m in a field.”
“Ok, did you just walk along a road past a cemetery?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Great, I know where you are. You’re a half mile from me, do you want to come here or should I go over to you?”
“You should come here.”
We drove back to the other road crossing and indeed found him lying in the pretty field we noticed earlier. I asked if he could stand up and he said yes. I stood back and watched, he looked like a baby giraffe trying to stand for the first time, wobbly and ridiculous. He leaned so hard on his hiking pole I thought he might snap it but the pole held and he was able to stand. If I thought the standing part looked painful watching him walk was even worse. He hobbled over to the car and sat down. I gave him ibuprofen and Cliff Bars and assumed he would call it quits. He surprised me by, after just a few minutes, getting back up and hobbling back along the trail. We watched him walk through the field until we couldn’t see him anymore and drove up the road to the parking area.
It took him about 20 minutes to get the half mile to us. That gave me time to figure out what I should do. On one hand, he didn’t look like he could make it but I know him well enough to know that he would never give up on his own. I might have to pull the wife card and demand that it was not safe and he had to stop. But to do that just 6 miles from the end killed me. Even though I had not hiked a step of their journey, it had become something I was deeply committed to. I had given up my whole day to assist with his dream, which I didn’t begrudge, and I didn’t want to give up either. His fortitude was rubbing off on me. I decided there was another option. The original plan, after this last meeting spot, was for me to park at the end and hike in to meet them at the top of Bear Mountain. I came prepared with my hiking boots, daypack, and headlamp. I decided I would hike the last bit with him if he looked alright enough to keep going.
When he arrived at the car he did look a little better, not great but less like a baby animal and more like an exhausted adult. He was overjoyed at my idea to join him. After 8 hours of hiking solo, he was happy to have a companion. I was happy because I truly feared if I sent him off alone in the dark I might not see him again.
I gave quick instructions to Andrew about where to meet us with the car, which was really just pointing to a dot on the map and put my backpack on.
We set off, not at lightning speed, but at a good steady pace. This was the first time I’ve ever been faster than him. I’m usually the one slowing him down and needing breaks when we hike. It was strange to see him stumbling over rocks and going slow.
We had both hiked Bear Mountain as a day hike a hand full of times. We would usually start at the Undermountain Trail parking lot further north on Rt 41. After a few miles, that trail meets up with the AT for the last bit up to the peak. We had about 4 miles to hike before getting to that junction. We both remembered the junction had a nice big sign and was clearly marked. Then we both remembered that the top was just past the sign. Like all hiking memories, the top always seems closer than it actually is. Also, we had never hiked past the top and just assumed the border was just a short distance past.
The CT/MA border is unmarked. The way we knew we were there was that it was after the peak of Bear Mountain and halfway between a trail on the left, our exit route, and the Paradise Lane Trail to the right.
It was fully dark now. No other hikers on the trail. It was the kind of quiet where all you can hear is your own breath and all you see is the beam of light in front of you and darkness all around. The air was cool and felt good on my warm skin. I brought an extra layer in case it got cold at the top but the coolness felt good as we propelled our bodies further forward into the night.
Hours flew by as we kept putting one foot in front of the other. We passed the Undermountain Trail Junction and got excited because we knew we were almost there. I remembered, from previous hikes, that Bear Mountain has a few false summits. The trees open up and there will be an expanse of exposed rock and a clearing enough to call a view. We passed a couple of those before getting to the actual top, unmistakably there was a 10’ pile of stones marking the top of Bear Mountain. Once we reached that point I had Matt pose for a picture and insisted we turn off our headlamps and enjoy the stars. Just a minute was all we needed before moving on.
I had a small clue that my map reading skills were not quite perfect when we got to the Undermountain Trail sign. It confusingly seemed to indicate that the Paradise Lane Trail was further from the summit than I had thought. I didn’t mention anything to Matt and didn’t even want to spend too long looking at the sign but once we started heading down the mountain, quite steeply I might add, it was clear that I misread the map. In stolen moments, as to not be suspicious because I didn’t want Matt to doubt my navigation or have to admit that the end was further away than we thought, even an extra half mile might have broken him, I glanced at the map and realized my mistake. I had thought the bigger red dot just next to the border was marking the peak but instead a smaller dot further from the border was the peak. All in all, not a big deal. We weren’t off track or wasting time but it could have been a bad blow to morale. I headed down first so he could take his time on the steep terrain and I might be able to help/catch him if he slipped. I also was scouting for the trails we were looking for to tell us we passed the border. Every few minutes he would call out and ask if I saw it yet and I would respond back in an upbeat sounding voice that it’s just a little ways ahead, we’re almost there. Later he told me he wasn’t fooled but also too tired to care.
The terrain just started to level out and not be too steep. I kept scanning around, I didn’t want to miss our endpoint or our trail back to the car. Another reason for my initial plan to meet them at the top was that I could scout out this part so we would know the exact border spot. Also, I was a little worried that Andrew wouldn’t be able to find the right trailhead to park at. Sometimes things that look clearly defined on a map are hard to ground truth. I knew the trail out would be to our left and the trail past the border was to our right. I looked to my left and saw what looked like a clearly defined trail but not marked with any blazes. In the dark, I wasn’t completely sure it wasn’t just my mind wanting it to be a trail.
Sure enough, we found the Paradise Trail on our right, we were definitely in Massachusetts and it was exactly midnight! We must have crossed the unmarked border a minute or two before. We took a moment to celebrate. I was so happy to be there to share the moment with him. He thanked me profusely and said he never could have done it without me. My participation made it possible to only need to take 2 liters of water at a time and have well-timed cookie breaks.
I knew this journey wasn’t truly over till I had him back in the car. We walked back to the unmarked trail and decided it looked like a trail and there were no other options, this had to be right. It was 0.7 miles of gentle grade to where the car should be. On the way out, Matt told me just a moment before we decided to take the unmarked trail he was about ready to suggest we just cuddle up under his space blanket and wait till morning. While a space blanket is a great piece of emergency gear and I’m glad he thought to have it in his pack there was no way I was going to fight him for space under a piece of foil all night.
Miraculously, Andrew was right where we wanted him to be, anxiously waiting for us. It truly was amazing that he found the right place to park. I didn’t realize I was sending him down 8 miles of unpaved road to an unmarked pull out with just a metal gate to show that maybe it’s a trail. Later, after re-reading The A.T. Guide, it clearly states that our exit trail was supposed to be unmarked.
Matt slept well that night. The next few days revealed a swollen right ankle and various body aches that caused him to wince and hobble around. Even before those symptoms subsided you know what he said to me? “I bet next time I could do it faster.”
P.S. I realize how cruel it is to so often mention cookies that seem to impart Herculean strengths despite adversity without also offering the recipe, so here it is.
Monster Trail Cookies – about 2 ½ dozen cookies
Recipe adapted from The Great American Cookie Cookbook
1 ¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cup crunchy peanut butter
1 Tbsp maple syrup
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 ½ cups regular or quick-cooking rolled oats, uncooked
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Heat oven to 350 F and place sheets of foil on countertop for cooling cookies
Combine sugars and butter in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until well blended. Beat in eggs. Beat in peanut butter, syrup, baking soda and vanilla. Stir in oats and chips with a spoon.
Scoop or form 2” balls. Drop 3” apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake for 11-13 minutes, until just beginning to brown. Cool on baking sheet for 2 min. Remove cookies to foil to cool completely.