Tales of the 50: wrong turns, racoons and Britney Spears

by Matthew Ritger | 10/8/07 10:17pm

It is 2 a.m. and I am lost somewhere on Smarts Mountain. My headlamp is fading, but I am trying to read the words scrawled along my forearm. By now, I've memorized the Emerson dictum branded on my skin: "We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough." But it's pitch black. I can't see a thing, and I'm tired.

By four in the morning, I'm sleepwalking. Every few minutes, I stub my toe and stumble awake, but we've got to keep going -- the eight-mile detour on Smarts has cost us three and a half hours, plus or minus complete demoralization. Regardless, we've got to hurry. The support staff at the next stop must be worried out of their minds.

Welcome to the Dartmouth 50, the most botched adventure of my life.

On Friday, I set out with my friends Noah Dentzel '10 and Andrew Smith '10 to conquer the historic trek from Hanover to the Lodge at Mt. Moosilauke. We left around 2 p.m., the latest departure time allowed by the Dartmouth Outing Club. We were confident. Too confident.

For the first 10 miles, though, everything was straight out of Emerson's "Nature." We steamrolled the rolling hills, churned miles out under the turning foliage, watched the sunset atop South Moose Mountain -- all according to plan. By the time we reached the second support station ("Pirate's Island" themed) near mile 20, it was dark, but we were right on track. For 20 minutes we stuffed our faces by the fireside, enjoyed back rubs from the enthusiastic swashbucklers and rested under the swaying fronds of inflatable palm trees. We vacated the oasis quickly, though, to get back on the Appalachian Trail and continue our progress.

Our eagerness became our downfall. Two miles later, we trudged straight past the AT and headed up Smarts Mountain on a veritable highway of a trail (in our defense, the safety team which later swept the trail made the same mistake -- they just figured it out sooner than we did). Within the bubble of our headlamps, the trail was wide, well trodden and gently sloping. A "through hiker" even jangled past, pungent body odors wafting, pots and pans dangling from his pack, which we took as a sure sign we were on the AT.

Two hours later, when our six-lane freeway of a trail dead-ended at a tent platform and we took out our map, it became painfully clear that we had made a terrible mistake. About face.

Back at the bottom of the mountain, we discovered the turn we were meant to take three and a half hours earlier. We had just hiked three quarters of the way up Smarts, and now had to start again. As if this wasn't bad enough, I couldn't get Britney Spears' new single "Gimme More" out of my head. We started again, teetering up the trail, more of a mess than Britney herself.

By 4 a.m. we had managed to stay on the correct path long enough to make it over Smarts, and begin the descent to the third support station. Between the infinite number of stars, a yellow thumbnail moon, and the new batteries in my headlamp, I could finally see again. I could even see far enough to notice that Andrew was limping.

We stopped around 5 a.m. for a water break and Andrew sat on the trail, staring at his right foot, which has a history of orthopedic trauma.

"Guys, I don't know if I'm going to be able to keep going," he said. We were silent.

Like magic, the silence was suddenly interrupted by Andrew's obnoxious ringtone (cell service? I have no idea either). I rolled my eyes, thinking for sure it was his girlfriend. Luckily, it was the safety staff of the DOC: light at the end of the tunnel.

An hour later, we had made it down to the third station (Disney Princess themed), where Ariel & Co. were relieved to see us. At what should've been the 30 mile mark, we had done more like 40. We were too far behind to catch up with the rest of the hikers, and the DOC offered to transport us ahead, skipping a portion of the trail. All the while, Andrew's foot was the size of a balloon, and about to pop.

The decision was clear. Noah and I wouldn't feel right arriving at Moosilauke after skipping any portion of the trail. In addition, we wouldn't be allowed to hike as a duo without Andrew.

We returned to campus, and faced our friends. Various responses have included: "Oh, so you're the group who effed up the 50?" and, "Hey, I heard you almost died."

Yes, we are that group. But no, death was never near, thanks entirely to the DOC's excellent planning and safety precautions. I'm not sore; I have nary a blister or a bruise. But I'm not too proud, either.

Returning to academia and safety means back to reading Emerson for me, every word of which now reminds me of our wild night: "... not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex."

Well, there wasn't any sleep or dreaming, unless you count my sleepwalking or the nightmarish early-morning hours. No beasts either, except for a raccoon that Andrew wanted to catch. No sex, but maybe that's why he was after the critter. There was madness galore, as our experience remains a dirty, once-in-a-lifetime muddle.

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