It was past midnight. I was so tired that the stars looked as though I was viewing them without my contact lenses. All I could do was concentrate on not closing my eyes for too long for fear I’d start sleep-hiking. My knees ached; I’d never hiked with poles before, but now I couldn’t imagine moving without them.
We were only halfway through our hike.
The “hike” was a 53.6-mile section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in New Hampshire. Stretching from Hanover to Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in Warren, this section of the AT is maintained by the Dartmouth College Outing Club and known as “The 50.”
Each summer and fall, 30 to 40 students traverse this section of the AT in an overnight push. Generally completed in 24-30 hours, The 50 takes hikers south to north, over Velvet Rocks, Moose Mountain, Mt. Smarts, Mt. Cube, Mist Mountain, and the formidable Mt. Moosilauke. Each mountain is progressively more difficult to climb, especially with growing fatigue from completing each previous peak.
The 50 is a remarkably popular event with students; so many want to participate that teams are picked by a lottery system. The entire extravaganza is managed by three directors and countless volunteers who provide food, basic medical aid, and encouragement at six support stations along the trail. These stations also dictate arrival cut off times; if a team misses it, it won’t be allowed to continue, helping to ensure participants aren’t putting themselves in danger by prolonging their time on the course.
It was during my senior year at Dartmouth that I finally got a shot at hiking The 50. My group set off from Robinson Hall on the Hanover, NH campus around 12:30 p.m. Friday afternoon. Our hiking boots and re-supplies — including Megastuf Oreos to give us much-needed boosts of energy late in the game — were sent ahead at a support station. We trotted along in our sneakers, anxious and jittery, yet eager to be part of this ritual. Our feet felt great by the time we reached the first support station, decked out in a Christmas theme, ten miles into the hike.
We enjoyed the jingle bells and Santa suits for 15 minutes while we changed our damp socks, bandaged our blisters, downed some energy drinks, and ate snacks despite the twisting cramps in our stomachs.
There were still 44 miles to go.
The glorious New England fall foliage slowly blended into a monotonous blur as we moved over the terrain. With each hour, our joints felt stiffer, making us grateful for the hiking poles we picked up at the second support station.
Time passed, daylight faded, and headlamps emerged. We hiked deep into the night, occasionally heartened by a stark white blaze on a tree trunk confirming that we were going the right way.
We had been warned about the perils of this hike: stories of teams getting lost and going in circles for hours and of hallucinations, which we fended off by making weary attempts at conversation. Most of the time I just listened, too drained to chime in.
Reaching the fourth summit, Mt. Cube, seemed to take forever; as we did, it started hailing. I deliriously led my group off-trail to search for an outhouse I thought was close by. While we stumbled through the woods, the sweepers — supporters who follow teams from station to station — passed us, ignorant of our deviation.
We reached the next station as the sun rose, never realizing our sweepers had passed us. Upon our arrival, the volunteers and directors sighed with relief, and I gratefully settled into the most glorious breakfast sandwich I’d ever eaten.
We continued on. Around mile 45, my knees were on fire and my stomach began to rebel.
We finally came across a road that marked the last stretch. One of the directors drove up in a bus, and two of us lugged our tired bodies aboard while our other two friends trudged on to complete the course after 10 p.m.
But I was so exhausted that thinking about anything beyond getting onto that bus and collapsing was impossible. It was only the next day, when I had to face my aching body, that I could start to consider the disappointment in coming so close, yet not finishing.
In retrospect, I made the correct decision. I’ve never been a quitter, but my body was telling me it was time to stop. To not complete the journey may have been the hardest part of The 50; however, I realized I shouldn’t be disappointed in my experience.
I pushed myself far beyond my limits, putting one foot in front of the other even when my legs were about to collapse underneath me. Even in those drained moments, I supported the rest of my team through their own exhaustion.
Hiking in the steps of students before me, I made it as far as I could. That, to me, feels complete.
. . .