2018 Europe Trip: Milan, Turin

(This is part 2 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

On the night of June 22, we flew from JFK International into Milan on Air Italy, an overnight, nonstop, eight hour trip. While everyone else seemed to doze off for a few hours, I mainly stayed awake. I’ve never really been able to fall asleep on a plane. The anticipation and stress of such an undertaking didn’t help.

We were fortunate enough to have cousin Sara waiting for us at the airport. After a long day/night, we welcomed having someone guiding us through our first interactions with the train system and everything else that comes with being in a new country. She laid down the jet lag law: no naps, tire yourself out, get to bed after 7 PM.

We opened our trip with a late lunch at a wonderful neighborhood restaurant where we were treated like regulars (I’m sure Sara being a regular had something to do with it). It was a relaxed introduction to Italian eating — a plate of hams and cheeses to start, followed by delicious homemade pasta with a variety of sauces. We lingered over our plates and talked over all kinds of logistics.

I had read quite a bit about what to expect in Italy, and everyone talked about the pace of the Italian restaurant dinner. And yet, I was still somewhat unprepared. I’m sure there are plenty of times Italians rush through their dinners just as we often do back home, but many of our restaurant meals (including this one) took a decidedly relaxed pace. Take your time at every stage, enjoy every course, and be prepared to ask explicitly for the check when it’s time to go (and don’t be surprised when along with the check comes a drink, a snack, or some candy for your ten year-old daughter — or all of the above).

After our meal, our next step was the famous Duomo of Milan.

We took the train there, and I’ll never forget how it felt to walk up the stairs from underground and have the ancient cathedral dominating all my view. We didn’t go in, but walked all around it, admiring its many statues and its massive architecture from every angle (dodging crowds along the way). Here was also received some education on being streetwise, learning to say “no” in a firm voice when people tried to hand us free bracelets or other “gifts”, and recognizing some ways in which dishonest panhandlers or pickpockets might target people.

From the Duomo we launched into a massive (to us) foot tour of Milan. We walked through the Galleria, gawking at the high fashion shops and doing the traditional bull’s spin.

We ate gelato (sorbet for me) which would become quite the tradition on our trip.

Evie preferred chocolate and mango (often combined: eek), whereas I could have had lime-basil sorbet after every meal. We went down cobblestone streets and admired quintessential European city views of little balconies with drying laundry and small gardens on them. We checked out Sforza Castle (taking a moment to look at the cats snoozing in the sun at the bottom of the “moat”) and Simplon Park, and admired the Arch of Peace.

It was an excellent introduction to Europe, to Italian cities, to how comfortable we would have to get on our feet. We got back to Sara’s place in the early evening and talked about our travel plans well into the night. We also took some time to celebrate our daughter’s tenth birthday with cake and fun kid activities.

The next day, fighting off a weakened jet lag (indeed, Sara’s advice worked), we ate a breakfast of eggs and received a critical piece of technology that would make the rest of the trip easier: a prepaid wifi access point. It let us connect our phones (and Evie’s iPad) via wifi and access the mobile data network in Italy. We were never far from online maps, Italian/English dictionaries, restaurant reviews, and online entertainment for Evie. We also could easily contact our loved ones, and quickly communicate with Sara when we needed advice or just someone to share our stories with.

I can’t imagine having the same sense of complete comfort in another country in the 21st century without some form of connectivity. Definitely look into it if you’re thinking of making a trip like this.

Breakfast done, we grabbed a backpack and set out on a day trip to the nearby city of Turin, home of the 2006 Winter Olympics. It’s also the home of the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, and Evie is a bit obsessed with ancient Egypt, its mythology, and its artifacts. So we planned to have lunch in Turin, visit the Egyptian museum in the afternoon, and then explore the city a bit before heading back.

This was, in some ways, a dry run for the rest of our trip. Cousin Sara accompanied us to Milano Centrale, the giant rail station in the heart of Milan, and then departed — we would not see her again for the remainder of our trip (our busy schedule and hers never overlapped). Turin was a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy on our own — smaller in scale, with only one clear destination and plenty of time to enjoy in whatever way we saw fit. It also gave us a huge confidence boost in navigating the rail system.

The museum was a clear shot from the train station in Turin, but we took a meandering path, stopping and admiring various side streets and reveling in our newfound sense of freedom. We had an outdoor lunch at a pizza place near the museum (a common theme on our trip — outdoors dining in the beautiful weather).

We then walked to the museum and toured it thoroughly. Evie took on the role of expert, teaching us what she knew from her own exploration of the topic.

I felt personally impacted by the number of preserved ancient bodies — mummies, skeletons — physical remnants of lives long forgotten. It was a somber reminder of both our own mortality and the possible permanence of the physical, bodies which had long outlasted the religions and governments under which they lived.

After we finished at the museum, we walked around Turin. We stumbled onto a celebration day (La Festa di San Giovanni) with parades and music.

We then sat in the public park while Evie sketched a pond and fountain on a souvenir notepad. It was a relaxed way to spend the afternoon before getting back on the train to Milan.

In Milan, we managed the rail system to get back to Sara’s neighborhood, had dinner at a wonderful restaurant (Veal Milanese for me — a real treat) much later than we’d usually eat back home (dinner is served late in Italy! Going out at 9 PM is not unusual, but going out before 7 PM is) and then packed our bags for the next leg of our trip. We were headed out for six days, and crammed all we could into two small bags and a couple backpacks. It was time for our trip to really begin.

2018 Europe Trip: Introduction

In the next few posts, I’ll be writing about our family trip to Italy and Switzerland in June and July of 2018. On the trip: Myself, Jess (my wife), and Evie (our ten year-old daughter). Italy hadn’t been a dream destination for any of us, but sometimes the road calls you in unexpected ways.

Jess’s cousin Sara has been working in Milan for the past couple years, and has offered her couch (ok, really, her spacious spare bedroom) to family members who wanted to use Milan as a launching point for exploring Europe. We kept saying “maybe we should” and realized if we didn’t start really planning it, it would never happen. Life has a way of slipping by while you’re planning for the future.

So we stared seriously discussing it in February of 2017. We weren’t sure what countries we wanted to visit, how long we wanted to go, and whether we would bring our daughter with us. But if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s obsessively plan things, and this was a meaty problem I could sink my teeth into.

The trip started to really firm up in November of 2017, at another family member’s wedding. Over a few drinks we talked details, prices, potential timelines, and more. We decided for sure we were bringing our daughter, too. Over the next few months we dialed it in, buying airline tickets in January and then solidifying our destinations and how we’d get between them. Many people have asked if we followed a recommended tour, or booked ourselves onto one. We did not — we dealt with all the details ourselves, with all the pros and cons that implies.

I know this post has no grand descriptions or photos, but I wanted to set some context for the upcoming posts. This was a life event, not a “vacation.” It was an adventure. It was a trip we knew would cost us more than we could really afford. We planned accordingly, squeezing as much out of it as we could. It took us 16 months to nail down everything. I bought four travel books. I spent hours on youtube and travel blogs, watching people teaching Italian phrases and trying my best to understand the ins-and-outs of the European rail system and the cultural norms of the Italian cities we were visiting. I hunkered down with travel booking and review websites. We had to renew passports, pick out hotels, buy train tickets, fine-tune timelines, everything. It was a completely different trip than anything we had done before, in many ways, and it was hard not to over-plan and burn out.

In the end, our trip had us arriving in Milan on June 23 and departing on July 7. In-between, we would visit Turin, Rome, Orvieto, Florence, Pisa, Wengen (Switzerland), and Venice. We would spend five nights in Milan (thank you cousin Sara!), and two nights many other places.

So. Settle in, grab an espresso or limoncello (or even, to borrow a phrase, “a nice Chianti”), and check out where these eager feet got off to this summer…

2017 Hut Hike – The Things I Carried

During my posts about the big hike this fall, I didn’t really talk much about gear, about the specifics of nutrition, about what I carried and wished I hadn’t, and so on. So I thought a short post on those subjects might be worth doing. There will be no exciting pictures, no trail descriptions, no soul-searching moments in the mountains … so feel free to skip this post if that’s not your thing.

My Gear, Toe to Head

Feet (Boots): Keen Targhee II Mid (Waterproof)

I bought these because I’d done some hikes in the Keen Voyageur hiking shoe, and knew that Keen’s widths worked well with my feet. I have slightly wide feet and one of my feet is shaped a little differently than the other, so I need a forgiving fit. These boots had decent reviews, were waterproof, and promised to fit well. I took a chance and ordered them online (free returns if needed) and was happy with the fit. I know that many people hike, even in the Whites, using nothing but trail running shoes, but I can’t imagine the terrain we hit working with that approach. I was glad to have sturdy, waterproof boots with excellent traction and a little extra support in the ankles. Often we were hiking on very uneven terrain, pointy rocks, wet rocks, and so on. I needed the stiff soles and needed to trust the traction. That said, the looser fit these boots had made for some challenging situations as I tried to tie them tightly enough that my foot wouldn’t slip inside the boot. I had no blisters, but my toes did “mash” into the toe box a bit more than I would have liked, and I ended the hike with two black toenails.

Feet (Socks): Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks

I’ve long been an advocate of Merino wool socks for hiking, but reading up on the subject made it clear that my usual, tall, thick socks might not work like I wanted for the long days in boots. I elected for this cushion level and size after reading numerous reviews. These socks are stupid expensive ($20+ for one pair) but they are guaranteed for life. They held up great; I wore a single pair all four days and they still look like new.

Feet (Socks, part deux): Fox River Outdoor Wick Dry Alturas Ultra-Lightweight Liner Socks

I don’t remember who put me onto these, but I never would have thought of it on my own. It’s not good enough to wear the 20 dollar wool socks, you need to put a six dollar layer between you and the wool. But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Four days of rough hiking and I had not a single hot spot or blister. These wick moisture quickly away to the outer layers so it doesn’t cause problems. They are super-thin and caused no comfort issues at all. I highly recommend coupling these with the wool socks for extended hikes. I brought two pairs and alternated between them, and I’ll never do a long hike without them again.

Legs (Pants): Prana Stretch Zion Pants

These consistently rate near the top in almost every men’s hiking pants review, and I needed a new pair of hiking pants anyway. I wore a pair and packed a second pair as an emergency backup, but I never needed the backup. The pants dried quickly overnight, they handled the occasional abuse of me sliding on my backside on the rocks, and did a great of keeping me warm from the wind on the exposed ridge line. They have a great range of motion due to the cut and the stretchy fabric, they don’t need a belt, and they have more than enough pockets. These pants were perfect.

On this trip I wore the ordinary (not “convertible”) pants, but I’ve worn the convertible pants as well and they’re also great. Either option is a sure bet.

Base Layer (Underwear): ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Sport Mesh 6″ Boxer Brief

Avert your eyes if you’re unable to talk about underwear without giggling (or just giggle quietly; I don’t care). I wore a fresh pair of underwear each day; they’re light enough that I could afford the luxury of heading out in a clean pair each morning. In general, for this kind of extended hike you want synthetic (not cotton) underwear, and most male hikers prefer the “boxer-brief” style for a number of reasons. So I tried a few different brands, and this specific style from this particular brand was the clear winner.

And, yes, these were another 20 dollar luxury item (so I couldn’t in good conscience buy a pair of these for every day). It’s even hard to justify that cost for a single pair of underwear, but they’ll be the first pair I reach for for every future hike. They were lightweight, comfortable, supportive, and fit perfectly.

Note that I also tried the EMS version of this (for about a third of the price, purchased on a clearance sale) and found them nowhere near as comfortable. I didn’t even take them on the hike, opting for some generic athletic off-brand from Target instead.

Base Layer (Shirt): Russell Athletic Men’s Performance T-Shirt

These were nothing special; I just needed a reasonably priced polyester T-shirt and these fit reasonably well and didn’t break the bank. I wore a fresh shirt each day because I’m clean (or obsessive, you decide) like that. When I arrived at each hut, I switched into a clean shirt, wore it to bed, and wore it out of the hut the next morning. Something out trading out a sweaty t-shirt for a clean one before bed made me feel more civilized….

Other Shirts: Miscellaneous polyester shirts

I packed, but did not wear, a long-sleeve polyester T-shirt from Columbia. I didn’t need it. When temperatures demanded, I wore (over my T-shirt) a zip-up polyester sweatshirt. Nothing special, just a mid-weight sweatshirt/jacket which I could easily put on and take off depending on the needs of the day.

Camp Wear: Generic sweatpants and fleece sweatshirt, big wool socks, plastic sandals

Again, nothing special, but I packed a single pair of sweatpants and an old fleece sweatshirt, which I changed into each night when arriving at each hut. I also had a couple pairs of clean wool socks in a thicker cut (doubling as emergency backups in case my Darn Tough socks got soaked or something). I had a pair of light sandals to wear over the socks (don’t judge, nobody wants to carry real shoes in their backpack) so that I wasn’t wearing two pound boots to dinner.

Warm, clean, dry clothes were key to making me feel like a human as the hiking day ended. I further justified these by thinking that I could re-use these as emergency cold weather wear if needed.

Jacket: Marmot PreCip Jacket

I debated for a long time whether to buy a lightweight waterproof jacket. If we encountered rain, I would be glad I had one. If we didn’t, I would have spent a hundred dollars on fancy waterproof material when a simple windbreaker would have done fine. In the end, I decided I should have a waterproof jacket anyway (and I didn’t), so I bought the PreCip, often considered a best “bang for the buck” value in the hiking rain jacket category. It folds down to a tiny, lightweight package, so it didn’t add much to my pack. I ended up wearing it just once, but its wind-resistance saved the day when hiking along the ridgeline on day four.

Hats: Generic beanie and visor

Again, nothing special. The beanie was useful late night and early morning in the cold huts, as well as on the ridge line on day four. The visor was all-purpose headgear when it wasn’t cold enough for a hat but I wanted the sun off my face. I’d have used a baseball cap or hiking hat but my head is huge and usually looks ridiculous in those kinds of hats. I also had a pair of thin gloves which saw limited (but appreciated) use.

Backpack: Osprey Atmos 50 AG

I splurged on a really good backpack. I knew the weight would be a big deal, and I needed to minimize its impact with an excellent frame and a good suspension system. I went to a backpacking store and let them convince me to buy the best bag they had in stock. No regrets here, even though out of all the gear it’s the least likely to see use outside of extended hiking trips. I also splurged for the Osprey waterproof pack cover, that never saw use.

Hydration: CamelBak Crux 3L

You need instant access to your water so a hydration reservoir was a necessity (having to open and close a bottle each time I took a sip would have driven me nuts). Each time I refilled it I had less than a half-liter of water left in it, so clearly I needed this large size, too. In addition, I carried 40 ounces of Gatorade each day (two 20 ounce bottles, made with instant Gatorade powder). I would drink from these whenever we stopped to eat. I probably could have gotten away with only one of those, and drank it at lunch each day, but it worked out fine to have two.

Trekking Poles: Cascade Mountain Tech 100% Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles Quick Lock

Poles are a necessity. They don’t need to be fancy, but they need to work. You have to trust them with a significant portion of your body weight. I practiced with these before the hike, dialed in how I wanted to have them in terms of pole length and walking style, and got used to how they felt. I used them for almost every step I took on the hike. On easy ground they simply spread your weight around a bit; on rough ground they turn your two-wheel drive body into a four-wheel drive off-roading machine. Like your boots, you have to trust these completely at times, so be sure you have them locked tight.

Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot Headlamp

A necessity for emergency use as well as simply getting around the huts. I picked this model due to solid reviews, dual-color (white and red, a necessity for preserving night vision) as well as using ordinary batteries (so I could bring spares).

Miscellaneous Stuff I Carried

  • An Anker Powercore 13000 kept my phone charged up. I left the phone in airplane mode whenever we had no signal (most of the time) and used it chiefly for taking pictures. When we had signal, I’d usually send a few texts to reassure my family I was still alive, and then put it back in airplane mode. Each day I started at 100% and finished around 30, and would charge it back up overnight with the Anker (which is why I have so few pictures of the huts in the afternoon or evening). Well worth its weight.
  • A Coleman flask filled with Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey. A couple ounces of Whiskey a night made the entire trip feel less like a survival exercise. Others brought Bourbon, and we shared freely. No need to drink to excess; nobody needs a hangover while hiking.
  • A full-size cotton sheet sewn into a sleeping-bag liner shape. It was worth having a sheet to keep me a little isolated from the wool blankets.
  • A toiletries and first aid bag, with hand sanitizer, Coleman Biowipes (perfect for a morning “hiker’s shower”), toilet paper (just in case), contacts, glasses, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, medicines, tape, Gold Bond medicated powder (another step in the “hiker’s shower”), and more I’m probably forgetting.
  • A fancy fast-drying “camp towel” which I didn’t use once and wouldn’t bring again.
  • A journal, a paperback novel, and a pen. The journal and the pen, yes, worth taking. The book? Not so much. There are reading libraries at each hut.
  • Emergency supplies including a small water filter, extra boot laces, a small knife, a whistle, etc. Not heavy enough to leave behind, but not really necessary for everyone to have. In a group, you can coordinate and split this responsibility up, but you need some level of this kind of stuff.
  • Bags! Extra ziplock backs, extra trash bags. I had 4 kitchen trash bags in active use on the hike. One held my “hut” supplies (sheet, camp clothes), one held my dirty laundry, one held my trash, and the other held everything else. They kept my gear somewhat organized and dry even if I put my backpack down on wet ground. The extra zip-locks were great for isolating trash, keeping wet items away from dry, etc.

Miscellaneous Stuff I Didn’t Carry

Some gear that was “on the bubble” and didn’t make the cut?

  • Thermal underwear. The weather forecast didn’t require it.
  • A puffy jacket. I took a gamble that the fleece and the PreCip would get the job done (and I was right).
  • Rain pants.
  • Bug repellent.
  • Binoculars.
  • A lighter (I knew someone else would have it).

Nutrition

With our breakfasts and dinners taken care of, I decided on a “snack only” approach to the rest of the day. I carried three or four larger snack items (like a granola bar or protein bar) each day, supplemented with a homemade trail mix made of fruit, nuts, and starchy snack mix items (pretzels, etc). This was easier than trying to have a real “lunch” but by the end of the third day of eating the same type of “snack” at every break I was pretty sick of it. I made a critical error with the trail mix, not knowing how much to bring, and brought easily twice as much as I needed (and that was with trying to eat more to have less to carry).

Pack Weight

My “dry” pack weight at the start of the hike was around 22.5 pounds, including the weight of the bag itself. A full load of fluids (100 ounces of water, 40 ounces of Gatorade) would add almost nine more pounds, taking me over 30 pounds of weight. This would drop steadily over the day and then restart at full weight again in the morning. With my fitness level, this was probably too heavy. Losing two to four pounds from this would be a good goal for next time. Of course, we were extremely lucky when it came to weather; with real rain the pack might even be heavier with more specialty gear.

2017 Hut Hike – Day Four

(Some photos on these posts are courtesy my friends Bryan and Topher and posted with their permission.  This series of posts will be fairly photo-heavy.)

Day Four – Mizpah Springs Hut to … home

(I’ll supply an elevation profile for each day, courtesy GPS data from Bryan and processing done by Google Earth.)

My third sunrise in the mountains did not disappoint.  It was cold outside, but I was dressed appropriately and enjoyed my coffee in peace.

Oatmeal, bacon, and pancakes again — solid hiking fuel! My knees were pretty beat up at this point; even a night’s sleep didn’t cure them and every stair climb (the hut had a short upstairs to reach the bunk rooms) was a reminder of my age and fitness level. I joked that I shouldn’t have opted to take my father’s knees with me on the trip.

It was cold; we left the hut bundled up much more than usual. Our plan was to head to Lakes of the Clouds Hut along the Appalachian Trail, and then hike down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to the car. We reserved the right to hit various summits along the way (beyond Mt. Pierce, which we’d summit by nature of the trail itself), including potentially Mt. Washington (which we all silently agreed was probably not in the cards, given our [mostly my] pace and body condition). Adding Mt. Washington would add “just” three miles to our day, but we all knew they were three hard miles with the potential to end the trip on a sour note. Still, we left our options open.

We began with a short climb (0.8 miles, 550 feet) to the summit of Mt. Pierce. The temperatures began to warm up slighty as the sun rose, but the wind picked up the higher we climbed.

The trail leading from Mt. Pierce to Lakes of the Clouds is mostly an exposed ridge line, and we fought the wind almost constantly.

It would occasionally dip below the treeline, giving us a moment of shelter, but most of the time we were quietly trudging on bare rock and fighting to maintain our balance in wind.

On the plus side, though, the trail we took did not climb or descend too steeply at any time. It was a constant struggle against the wind, but we didn’t have the added difficulty of steep climbs.

We had several optional summits available to us as we hiked (Eisenhower, Franklin, Monroe) but we skipped them all. We weren’t here to check off mountaintops, and the views were already amazing (when we could stop and enjoy them) from the exposed ridge line.

It really was a fantastic experience, but it sapped all our energy. We arrived at Lakes of the Clouds (closed for the season) and tried our best to find shelter from the wind.

We ate lunch (Bryan even broke out the stove and boiled water for ramen) and decided we were not going to fight that wind for another 3 miles. We didn’t even want to summit Monroe, never mind Washington. So we turned our attention to the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.

We had been warned earlier in our trip that this trail was steep and difficult when wet. It was three miles long and descended a half mile, and steep was an understatement. Its first mile or so often felt like it was going straight down (1500-foot descent), often on an exposed rock face, often hiking directly on the same wet rocks which the fledgling Ammonoosuc River was flowing over.

At the very top, the parts in the shade were still frozen, adding a little extra challenge to the descent. This trail seems like a place where fresh legs would have been beneficial — our tired bodies and sore knees were a constant challenge on this trail. I sat down a few times and shimmied on my backside, rather than trying to figure out the best way to balance my tired body on my beaten knees (and risk tipping forward or falling backward and losing control).

Finally, the trail began to even out, and then it became downright pleasant. We hiked alongside the river, now swollen with water and beautiful, down a mostly gentle descent.

We took a moment to look back at the peak and saw how exposed the trail had been; we each photographed it to try and preserve the memory.

We followed the river and mostly quieted down, as we realized we had conquered the only real remaining difficult part of the hike together, and now we just had to finish a “walk in the woods” before it was all done. Alone with our thoughts, we spread out a bit and marched through the woods.

Eventually it leveled out completely, and a final mile or so through the woods led us to the same parking lot where the car had been left four days prior. It was 3 PM.

We stretched out, we hugged each other, we congratulated each other, we sat down on the grass and took off our boots, and then we packed our four bodies and four giant backpacks into the tiny Mazda 3 for the 17-mile drive to the other car.

A bit more than an hour later, those of us who had brought a change of clothes felt a bit more refreshed, and we sat down for dinner at the Woodstock Inn. We drank tall draft beers, we devoured appetizers, and ate those steak dinners we had been talking about for days. We looked back on the toughest parts, we laughed about the attitudes of some of the people we had met, we reminisced about the incredible views. We finished our food and still didn’t leave. We knew the real world awaited us … three hours of driving (with our sore knees that was something to dread!) was all that separated us from a return to reality.

It was hard to walk away from that restaurant, but we eventually did, sharing the highway with commuters ending their work-weeks.  Everything felt fast. The beautiful mountains and forests of New Hampshire turned into the familiar roads of 495 and 290.

And after three hours of driving, my daughter came running out of my house and gave me the biggest hug I think I’ve ever gotten from her. I was glad to be home.

But … I was certainly going to miss those morning coffees as the sky slowly brightened in the silent mountains of New Hampshire. I knew right then (and I know now) that I’ll be back, eventually.

2017 Hut Hike – Day Three

(Some photos on these posts are courtesy my friends Bryan and Topher and posted with their permission.  This series of posts will be fairly photo-heavy.)

Day Three – Zealand Falls Hut to Mizpah Springs Hut

(I’ll supply an elevation profile for each day, courtesy GPS data from Bryan and processing done by Google Earth.)

With morning came clearer skies and another beautiful mountain sunrise.

Breakfast on the third day was oatmeal again, but followed up with pancakes and bacon. The previous day, we had discussed our options for Day Three. Our plans called for two possible approaches to Mizpah Springs Hut. Both took us down to Route 302 for a midday break. One was substantially more difficult than the other, and even with a good pace would get us into the hut after dark. Looking back on day one, we had all decided the shorter route was better. It would get us into the hut by mid-afternoon again, giving us a chance to rest and relax before our last day, when we would have some rougher climbing to do.

So the day started with a descent down to Zealand Pond and some nice hiking through forested terrain. The path was a mix of ups and downs which eventually dropped us a few hundred feet in elevation.

There was a mild but persistent unpleasant odor here, maybe from the pond ecosystem, maybe from the hut’s compost system, we weren’t quite sure. The bridges here were frosted and slippery, a little preview of cooler weather to come.

The path began to slope more upwards before cresting and then descending consistently towards Route 302.

We took the A-Z Trail and the Avalon Trail for about five miles, over around four hours of hiking to arrive at the Crawford Notch Highland Center in time for a lunch break.

It was interesting going from the more remote areas of the mountains into this more popular section; we passed day hikers with no packs, groups of kids playing and throwing rocks in rivers, and other signs of “civilization” which seemed at odds with how we had spent the last couple days.

But the trails themselves were mostly pleasant (yes, there were some steep challenges but they never turned into hours-long endurance events).

The unfortunate story of the third day was one of cumulative damage. No particular section was terribly difficult or painful, but every downhill step caused my knee to twinge in pain, and it started to happen on uphills too. I felt not just “out of shape” but older and weaker as well. It was frustrating because my spirits were high and my overall physical approach felt stronger than on the first day, but the repeated ups and downs were causing pain at every step. I quietly worried I was damaging my knees, but kept up a solid pace.

We broke for a trail lunch (granola bars, trail mix, jerky — the usual) out on the patio of the Highland Center. We even bought a beer for each of us, and sitting in the warm sun sipping a cold, well-earned pale ale is one of my more pleasant memories of this trip.

After using the facilities and discarding some of our accumulated trash (lightening our backpacks and giving us a chance to wash our hands with actual warm water!) we crossed Route 302 and started the climb to Mizpah Springs Hut via the Crawford Trail. This section of trail climbed steadily up, 1500 feet in a mile and a half, but we actually made time on that leg as compared to our predicted pace, which was a first. My knees were grateful that the downhills had stopped, and maybe that cold beer had alleviated the pain a bit. A comfortable 0.7 mile cutoff from the trail to the hut brought us to our last overnight stop of the trail at 3 PM, with a few hours of warm sunlight awaiting us.

It was the most pleasant afternoon of our trip, sitting outside in the sun, finishing off our whiskey and sausage, and reflecting on our progress so far. We went inside and played cards, we made conversation with our fellow hikers, and we were acutely aware that our little vacation from reality was approaching its completion.

Dinner was an incredible carrot, ginger, and quinoa soup with loaves of fresh bread (honestly, I could have eaten just that) followed by some salad and a lasagna (for my non-dairy diet, they prepared some pasta and sauce, which was fine but I just wanted more soup and bread). Every meal came in four courses — soup/bread, salad, main dish, and dessert. I’ve not focused much on the other courses, but the Croo puts a lot of work into all of them and they were always much appreciated.

After dinner, we stepped outside with most of the other guests and admired the stars as a member of the Croo explained the Milky Way and pointed out constellations with a laser pointer. The view of the night sky was amazing, one of the highlights of the trip. Without a moon and with minimal night pollution, the Milky Way stood clearly visible and every section of night sky rewarded us with an explosion of stars. It was hard to go back in.

We stayed up until lights-out, playing Pitch in the hut’s library as a couple played Bananagrams next to us at the same table. I think we wanted to extend this night as long as possible. I read in my bunk for a little while, and finally drifted off to another good night’s sleep, cold but bundled-up in an eight-bed bunk room we had to ourselves. At six, again, I stepped outside for my last open-air coffee of the trip, and made it back inside in time for the 6:30 wake-up, a pleasant song played on ukulele by one of the Croo (I’ve not mentioned this before, but every morning the Croo wakes anybody still asleep up at 6:30 with a song, a poem, or a passage from a book; the ukulele was the most pleasant of the trip).