100 Mile Wilderness | Appalachian Trail
Day 4 — aka resupply day — began on a breezy morning at Logan Brook Lean-to. My damp tent had dried overnight. The same could not be said for my socks and underwear. In true thru hiker fashion, I pinned them to the outside of my bag to hopefully dry during the day. After breaking down my tent, I strung up the ground tarp between two trees. It was dry within fifteen minutes… the magic of synthetic materials.
I knew I had a long day ahead of me. My resupply was 19 miles away on the Jo-Mary Road. I also knew the hardest elevation was behind me. Until Katahdin, of course. There was a small mountain coming up (Little Boardman) but nothing as grueling as the Barren-Chairback and Whitecap ranges.
Everything I’d been told was true so far. The day was mostly trekking in the woods on baby pine tree-lined trails. There were roots and rocks and challenging spots, of course, but compared to the previous three days, this was a walk in the park. I stopped for a snack on the edge of Mountainview Pond (if ever there was a place for a moose to appear, this was it), and later in the day on the narrow, rocky beach of Crawford Pond, a much larger body of water. Between the two was Little Boardman Mtn (2017ft), which I barely registered passing over. That’s how efficiently I was chugging along.
Something else happened on day four that was one of the most profound experiences of my whole trip.
So, obviously, hiking 100 miles is a physical undertaking, one I had spent a year preparing for. I also knew it would be mentally challenging, but I didn’t know exactly how. I had imagined moments of fear (being alone, getting lost, encountering a bear or moose). I had imagined needing to push myself mentally to overcome physical pain (because of injury or exhaustion). I had imagined having to problem-solve (everything is wet, my tent broke, I ran out of fuel). What I had hoped for but had not been able to imagine was the overwhelming mental peace, focus, and clarity of purpose that happens on the trail.
There is a fantastic article on the REI blog called The Nature Fix: The Three-Day Effect. It explains how, after three days in the wilderness, we can measure a nearly fifty percent improvement in creative thinking and insight problem-solving. One or two days aren’t enough. You need at least three, because that’s how long it takes our frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is essentially our attention task-master) to recalibrate and unwind.
According to the article, which quotes cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer: “When the attention network is freed up, other parts of the brain appear to take over, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy and productive day-dreaming.”
Strayer goes on to say, “You notice cloud patterns, sounds and smells, and it becomes really acute. You don’t need a watch anymore. You forget what day of the week it is.”
Now, if this all sounds a bit woo-woo to you, I’m here to tell ya, this phenomenon is no joke.
Sidenote, before I started this blog, I was a fiction writer. And a huge part of why I started hiking alone during Covid is because I couldn’t get my brain to quiet down long enough to engage in creative thought. I was too busy worrying, reacting, and planning. When I went to the woods for day hikes, I found it easier to think, but I was still having to regularly pull my attention back from distraction.
On day four of the 100 Miles I brainstormed a new book. Start to finish. Character development, story line, plot twists, the whole shebang. Could I have done that on day one? No way. Could I have done it sitting in front of my laptop? Nope. Could I have done it while day hiking a 4000 footer? Maybe a chapter, but not a whole plot.
For the first time in longer than I can even remember, my mind was free to explore.
And here’s some more woo-woo for you: On this day, I noticed when the scent of the woods changed. I heard the most subtle sounds and saw shapes, colors, and movements in ways I’d never had the attention to see before. It was an awakening in every sense of the word.
Back to the trail. I passed Copper Brook Falls Lean-to and made a mental note to stay there whenever I came back to the 100 Miles. Or at least stop for a swim. The site has the most incredible swimming hole I’ve even seen. It was empty when I reached it around 2pm, but I pressed on, knowing I had another six miles to cover to reach Phil’s bear box.
Something else that happened on day four was the fast-spreading word of trail magic. It’s amazing that news travels at all in the woods, but it really does. The first southbound hiker I saw that morning had told me there was trail magic at Jo-Mary Road. Trail magic is when nice people bring food to the trail (usually at a road crossing) and leave it for passing hikers. I knew about it but hadn’t ever experienced it. Every time I passed a hiker, he or she mentioned the magic.
The six miles went by quickly. The terrain was almost entirely flat without many obstacles. I hit Jo-Mary Road at 3:45pm and turned to find the spot Phil had described. That’s when I found the trail magic.
Now, when I started the 100 Miles in Monson, there was a cardboard box on the side of the trail with a whole watermelon in it and the words ‘trail magic’ written in sharpie on one soggy flap. Not particularly magical, given the effort required to either carry a whole watermelon or stop to cut it up.
This trail magic was not that. This was some actual hocus-pocus.
These trail magic fairies were a husband and wife from Bath (Maine) who had been setting this scene up for several years, always over Labor Day weekend. They had a canopy tent, several grills, a campfire, even a toilet in the woods. And they had food. TONS of food. Ribs, steak, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, and every packaged snack you could imagine. Soda. Beer. Weed. A variety of hiking essentials one might have forgotten or run short on. It was insane. It was magical.
I stopped long enough to chat and eat a sausage, a burger, and a bunch of chips. I thanked them profusely and then went off to find my resupply. It was there in the woods, secured in a bear box, just like Phil had promised. I left behind my trash and a nearly-spent fuel canister and packed up my new goods. There was a box of things other hikers had discarded, deeming them unnecessary for continued transport. I picked up a plastic baggie of lovingly prepared instant oatmeal mixed with dried fruit, nuts, and chia… and a package of Nutty Buddy bars I was REALLY excited about eating later that night.
Phil had marked a camping spot on my map at Cooper Pond, about a mile up the trail. That site would put my day at around twenty miles, a record and certainly enough to call it a successful push. But I was still technically behind schedule, and even more significantly, I wasn’t tired.
But, I was feeling pretty grimy.
I walked into the beach on Cooper Pond, a short distance off the trail. There was a small, dammed pool at the edge of the lake where a water outlet ran into the woods. A perfect backcountry bath tub. I used my wilderness wash to clean up and wash out some clothes. Feeling refreshed, I got back on the trail for the last three miles to Antler’s Campsite on Lower Jo-Mary Lake.
I arrived just before 7pm and found several hikers—including Grampa Fuzzy—making camp. Antler’s has no lean-to but many large, flat tent spots. It is also one of the few places where you’ll find cell service. Lower Jo-Mary Lake is beautiful, and I ate my very special Nutty Buddy while dusk turned to night. The stars over the lake were overwhelming; so many layers of lights, almost too many for eyes to take in. With zero light pollution, all there is above you is the universe.
Day 4 was a biggie. I experienced profound mental clarity, enjoyed the most magical of trail magic, took a bath in a lake, completed my biggest mileage day yet, about 22 miles, and I was back on track to complete the 100 Miles in six days.
It’s appropriate, then, that Day 5 tested every ounce of mental strength I had.