I began meeting south-bounders (sobos) during mid-July as Sarah and I made our way through Connecticut. I expected sobos to treat me, a seasoned nobo, with some level of deference. After all, I had hiked about 1,500 miles compared to their 600 or so. It soon became apparent, however, that I commanded no respect from sobos. Whenever I met one, he or she would immediately offer some token nugget of unsolicited advice and quickly continue past me. Not one of them asked me about my experiences on the trail. I puzzled over this phenomenon as I continued northwards through Massachusetts and Vermont. When I reached Mt. Moosilauke, the southern-most of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the puzzling behavior of the sobos began to make sense.
Basically, the level of difficulty of the AT skyrocketed at the southern end of the White Mountains and remained in the stratosphere through the remaining 110 miles of New Hampshire and for another 160 miles through the southern mountains of Maine. The gradients were so steep, the tread was so rocky and rooty, and the weather was so harsh that I was only able to average 11.25 miles per day through that 270-mile section. It was hard to imagine being a sobo and facing that level of difficulty only 120 miles into the hike.
Most sobos begin hiking in June. One sobo told me that she started meeting nobos during the first week of her journey as she struggled to learn the ropes in the 100-mile wilderness. “They were mean to me” she remembered. “They told me that if I thought the 100-mile wilderness was hard, I had better get my act together before I reached southern Maine and the Whites in New Hampshire.” I realized that by the time a sobo endured the mocking of the nobos in the 100-mile wilderness and negotiated Southern Maine and the White Mountains, their attitude towards nobos, who hadn’t seen the Whites yet, would be anything but respectful.
If you ask a sobo where the hardest part of the AT is, nine times out of ten he or she will reply “Southern Maine.” If you pose the same question to a nobo, he will almost always answer “the Whites.” I think the Whites and Southern Maine are probably equal in difficulty. Thru-hikers tend to remember whichever of those sections they reached first as the hardest. As I neared the end of my hike in September, I began to meet sobos who were just starting out. They didn’t appear to be experienced backpackers. I wondered how they expected to traverse the Whites during October let alone the Smokys during mid winter. Did they even know the AT in Vermont had been ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene? Whenever I met one of these clean, starry-eyed hopefuls, I remembered my conversation with the female sobo, and stifled my urge to cross examine them. “Have a great hike” I would offer as they dreamily ambled by.