Sunday, January 29, 2017

Appalachain Trail: Mt.Katahdin

I woke up early the next morning and took my time making my coffee and wiping down my tent again before putting it away. Almost all shelter areas are just off the Trail by about 100 feet. Some of them are right on the Trail and some are nearly a mile down side or blue blazed trails. The shelter by the river had been just off the Trail, about 100 feet. Early in the morning, when I climbed up a side trail to get to the AT, I didn’t realize that I had come into the shelter area a different way and although all I’d done was walk parallel to the AT for 100 feet, I began to feel like I’d skipped part of the Trail.
Someone, early in the morning, this hadn’t occurred to me and the walk out of the shelter area had been so peaceful and flat, I was having a great time walking and letting my thoughts float around, but when I realized that I had walked parallel to the actual AT for about a minute, I began to feel like I’d now be lying if I told anyone I walked the ‘entire Trail.’ I can’t stress how insignificant this really was. The part of the Trail I missed, I’d already seen all the way down. It would’ve taken me 10 seconds to walk it. It wasn’t like I felt like I missed something important, it was that I’d stepped off the Trail and came back on to it a little further up. No one sane would be bothered by such an oversight, but my mind had been weakening. First it had been the debate over where to go when I finished the Trail and now it was the tormenting thought that after over 2,000 miles, walking around a tiny section was going to invalidate my claim to have walked the entire Trail. By the time I had this thought, I was over an hour away from the part I’d missed. It would taken an hour to get there and another hour to get back. I couldn’t turn back, It wasn’t possible to be so anal. I kept walking but a tormenting voice kept telling me that there was no point going on, I’d missed a few feet, I hadn’t walked the Trail. I tried to rationalize with the voice. I hadn’t even taken a short cut. In fact, the way I’d walked to go down to the shelter and back up to it, had probably been longer than the actual section of Trail. I’d appease myself, but then something in me would start panicking and repeating the same horrific mantra. I hadn’t walked the Trail. I was so close to the end, but I’d screwed up and missed fifty feet and that was that. This went on all morning. I passed a number of beautiful areas by ponds, rivers and lakes, but I could barely concentrate on them; I wanted to scream I felt so tormented. The entire walk, I had been free of anxiety; a few times in storms when the lightening began crashing nearby and I was on a ridge, I felt a little uneasy, but I never felt the racking anxiety sometimes felt in daily life, worrying about work or troubles at home. It felt like all the anxiety I’d missed, being out in the woods, had been stored up and dumped over me all at once in an icy shower of remorse and impotence. Worse yet, like never before in my life, the torment seemed to have a voice; the nagging thoughts hardly seemed to come from my own consciousness, but felt external, like I wasn’t thinking them, but being told, being scolded by someone else.
I was finally able to quiet my thoughts when I remembered a little part—again probably only about 30 feet—of the Trail that I’d accidentally skipped over back in Maryland. When I’d done that, I realized it immediately, but thought “I’m not going to be anal enough to walk back to walk what I’ve already passed, just because it was parallel to the ‘true’ trail and I walked on with confidence and forgot about it almost immediately. What tormented me about the section that morning in Maine was the idea that I could still go back and walk over it, but once I realized that I’d missed another tiny section, I began to feel better. Countless times, I’d probably stepped off the Trail and stepped back on a foot or two from where I’d left it. I didn’t count this against myself. I hadn’t taken a short cut. I hadn’t missed anything. There was no reason to say that I didn’t walk the whole Trail, it was only that my mind had lately been turning on me. I really don’t know how else to describe it. In those final days on the Trail, it was like my thoughts had become antagonistic. Everything I thought about, no matter how small, seemed to imply some terrible consequence if I didn’t make the right decision, but which decision wasn’t clear and I felt tormented trying to decide.
I don’t know why this happened but I’m assuming all the solitude and similar scenery might have had something to do with it. To entertain itself, my mind tried to destroy me. My eventual victory over my own thoughts was revelatory. I realized the ego was just a force, like the wind or physical lethargy, that had to be fought against. Because it comes from inside, it masquerades as consciousness or as the soul speaking to you, when in fact its just another obstacle to overcome. I realized that thinking something does not automatically validate it. At least in my case, a lot of thoughts are like commercials on the radio, rather than listen to them, I would be wise to turn the volume down or mute them altogether.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the most valuable lesson I learned after over four months in the woods which can be summed simply as: things aren’t as important as much as you’re liable to make them out to be; in fact, its up for debate weather anything is important at all. No matter what, things work out. I thought of other extreme obstacles I’d faced before in life and realized even the most terrifying only represented changes of direction and the outcome of all the bad had undoubtedly been good. This sounds incredibly simple, but for me, at that time, it was a revelation; it would take a Buddha to put it into the correct words.
The rest of the afternoon, the Trail skirted various rivers. It was a hot afternoon and I was tired from the morning’s battle with my mind. Each river looked so cool and inviting. I wanted to jump in and wade around but I continually decided against this; it was nearly enough just to look at the water while I walked and imagine swimming in it.
I came to a shelter late in the afternoon, probably around 4. I had been considering stopping there for the night, but when I realized I was about three hours from the next shelter, I had a snack and decided to keep going. It’s not so much that I was pushing myself, rather, I felt inspired to keep walking.
Immediately upon leaving the Wadleigh Spring Shelter, I started up the Nesuntabunt Mountain. The climb wasn’t long, but after a full day, it felt steep. I knew I was hiking against the clock. I had just about enough time to get to the next shelter before dark if I hiked at a good pace and I moved quickly up the mountain, sweating buckets.
All along the Appalachian Trail, you find side trails to vistas. Often they are worth your while. For some of the longer ones, I dropped my pack before checking them out. Sometimes, I felt discouraged to check out another mountain view, but each time, standing there, looking down on the world, I was always glad to have taken the extra minute. After all, it’s what I was hiking for. If I didn’t have enough time to stop, and look around a little, I had no business being out in the woods.
Where the Trail crested Nesuntabunt, there was no vista, but a sign indicated a side trail. I vacillated a moment, before deciding to check it out. I knew I didn’t have a lot of extra time to make the shelter area before dark, but neither was I going to come to many more mountains before the end. Rather than stand there and think any longer, I started down the side trail. By this point, thinking much about anything felt like a waste of time.
I had probably only walked 100 yards, when the forest opened up and framed with spindly pine foliage, was the most amazing view I’d seen the entire walk, some views had been more dramatic, others had been more intricate and graceful, but this view was beautifully affirming. Directly beneath me, was the Nahmakanta Lake serving like a giant reflecting pool for Mount Katahdin, which towered above everything else with the beautiful grey somnolence of an isolated mountain. I yelled. I couldn’t help it. Here, in sight at last, was the destination. Only recently had this mountain even become real and now, almost suddenly, I was standing before it as if seeking an audience.
After I got back on the Trail, heading to the Rainbow Spring Shelter area, I continually thought how absurd it was that the park officials had to greatly caution thru-hikers about being respectful on Katahdin. Never in my life had I felt more reverence for any kind of geographical formation. I may have faked it in the past, but seeing Katahdin through the trees, I felt truly honored just to be in the presence of the mountain. The last thing I wanted to do was climb to the top and drink beers or have a big noisy party. Every thru-hiker I talked to felt the same way, but claims continue that thru-hikers are changing the ambiance on the mountain. August of last year, the New York Times reported that 2,017 thru hikers had climbed the mountain in 2014, an 18% jump from the previous year. Baxter Park officials wanted to curb the number of hikers to ensure the number wouldn’t continue to rise. The closer I got to Katahdin, the more ridiculous this seemed. The area was hardly swarming with people and the people on their way up the mountain, were excited but in a very humble way. It strikes me as being a little alarmist to declare an emergency because, in one place, people are actually visiting one of our state parks, some of them walking 2,189 miles to get there.
I approached the Rainbow Spring shelter in the fading light and found it, like the previous night’s shelter, to be near a river. I was cheered to see Tarzan sitting out front, getting ready for the night and I sat down to chat with him a little. I had every intention of setting up my tent, but it was late in the day and with the shelter so close to the river, it seemed a peaceful place to stay, besides, I wasn’t sure if I’d have another chance to stay in a shelter. So, instead of going and getting my tent ready, I made the mistake of making dinner, lazing around and getting ready for a night in the shelter.
Tarzan and I enjoyed a long talk about how far we come since we first met in Virginia. We talked familiarly of parts of the Trail and people. I was really enjoying the conversation and it seemed all the more poignant as I knew I didn’t have too many days left before I’d be on Katahdin myself and the whole thing would be behind me. Talking to Tarzan that night, was an act of capitulation. Talking to someone else and assessing the Trail, I discovered what my relationship to it had been and I went to sleep feeling fulfilled.
I’d scarcely closed my eyes when the scurrying began. Every shelter had mice, but the Rainbow Spring Shelter was infested. Shelter mice are especially bold. I heard stories of them running all over the sleeping bodies and blatantly chewing through things, but, apart from seeing mice come right up to people when they were eating, I never saw them do anything too bold—I slept in my tent to avoid such things and even then I worried they’d smell food and come chewing through my $300.00 nylon home. Starting in Vermont, the behavior of the small animals on the Trail had become more audacious. Three mornings in a row, I woke to find holes chewed through my hanging bear bag. I was fairly sure it had been squirrels that had done this, so I took a chance and ate the trail mix they gnawed into, but with mice, it wasn’t wise to take any chances. After my scare in North Carolina, I was still a little uneasy thinking about the Hantavirus.
Nearly every shelter is equipped with cords to hang your food from. Usually the cords have something like a tin can or a soda bottle suspended half-way along their length to discourage marauding small animals, but in practice, this doesn’t work at all. Outside the shelter, there weren’t any good trees to hang my bear bag. Even in the trees, I’d been finding a new hole in the thing nearly every morning. It was already dark when I got ready for bed and I decided I would just hang the bag in the shelter, as my two companions had done.
I guess it was the holes in my bag that attracted the mice. While they surfeited on the contents of my bag, I noticed they never bothered those of my neighbors. I had only just shut my eyes when I heard the mice begin to run all over, as if beginning a nightly jamboree. My food bag was suspended by my head, so I could hear them immediately running around on it. I grabbed my headlamp and shone it on the bag and was horrified to see four or five mice already on it, wriggling their tails in anticipation. I jumped up, expecting them to run, but they stayed on the bag, even as I lifted it and disconnected it from the rope. I had to brush them off, even then, the mice didn’t go very far.
I studied the situation for a while and realized I had very few options. There were no places near the shelter to hang the bag, leaving it anywhere else was just asking for everything in it to be gone by morning. I couldn’t put it in my pack or the mice would chew through it (I’d been told in the past, when staying in the shelters, it was prudent to open every zipper on your pack so the mice would have a way in that wouldn’t require their teeth.)I found an old bucket outside the shelter, but the inside looked like it had been used from some incredibly dubious purpose; it wasn’t big enough for my bag anyway. I knew as soon as I hung the bag back up, they be back on it. I was so exhausted after the long day, I could hardly think. It was totally dark, everyone else was sleeping and I was standing outside the shelter in my underwear holding my food bag. Then I remembered the glue.
In Connecticut, when the heel had begun flapping off my boot, I made the mistake of trying to fix it. I soon learned that anything you walk in for up to 12 hours a day cannot be mended. No matter the glue or technique, the abuse is too great, too much water, too many rocks. Your boot is as good as dead. Not yet realizing this, I bought a tube of gorilla glue, which, for a few days, I put on every night, until I realized that even after letting it sit all night, it took less than an hour for the heel to split from my boot once I started walking in the morning.
Now this glue, which I’d been carrying for a few weeks for no good reason, suddenly had a purpose. I opened it up and began to squeeze copious amounts of the stuff on the line that held my bag. Although it was a cartoonish response to the problem, it seemed to work. After I hung the bag back up again, the mice continued to scurry, running over my sleeping bag and myself several times, but I didn’t hear them on my food bag. I was just about to doze off when I heard a slight scratching coming from the bag, suspended just above my head. By this time, I was really tired and didn’t want to get back up again. It had been about two hours since I’d first bedded down and I still wasn’t asleep. I ignored the noise until it became too persistent to ignore. Irritated, I grabbed my headlamp and looked up at my bag swaying at the end of the cord with the exertions of the mice inside. Months of use in the woods and perforated the bag with small holes and nearly every hole boasted a wriggling mouse tail. It was a vision that would’ve scarred a murophobic, even having no previous dislike of mice, it made me, in my sleep deprived state, feel somewhat nauseated, especially when I lifted the bag off the line and the tails continued their gleeful undulations. I tried to grab a few, and pull them out by their tails, but it turns out mice tails are surprisingly greasy, at least these seemed to be, probably at a result of the mice’s nighttime labors in the food bags of hikers; they were probably coated in rancid oils of peanut butter, spam and tuna.
In abject disgust, I tossed the bag down, not really caring what happened. The mice took the hint and ran off after the bag hit the ground. I stood there in my underwear with my headlamp on looking at it, trying to decide on an appropriate action, but feeling too tired to make any decision. Eventually, I stooped down, picked up the bag and began to carry it lamely around the shelter area, looking for a place to put it where it would be safe from further mouse inquiry. There was no such place to be found. Anywhere I left my food, the mice would eat it. I tried not to care about this, but I knew I still had a few days to walk and I didn’t want to be left with nothing to eat. Besides, it was maddening to have carried all this food so far back in the woods just to give it to the mice that could survive on all kinds of stuff if they would just be a little more resourceful. They didn’t need my trail mix, dammit, I needed my trail mix! I hung the bag back up and squeezed unctuous amounts of glue all over the cord. The stuff I’d put on previously had already dried and I figured if I put on enough, maybe it would stay tacky enough until dawn. This emphatically didn’t work. No sooner had I put the glue away, turned off my light and gotten back into my sleeping bag, when I heard the little bastards start into my food again. I grabbed for the light and shone it on the bag to see three hearty mice—feet probably a little gluey—already on the bag. Hopelessly, I looked to the other two bags hanging undisturbed. I knew the mice would keep me up all night unless I did something, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I took the food bag down, shook the mice off it again and shoved it down in my sleeping bag. I knew I was taking a hell of a risk trying this. The mice were already emboldened by their success. It was possible that they’d have no problem following the smell into my bag with me or, worse yet, chewing through my sleeping bag to get to it. I cinched the drawstring at the top of the bag around my neck hoping I wouldn’t wake up to a sleeping bag full of mice.
After I got the bag down, the shelter was quiet, for lack of anything to go after, the mice seemed to have calmed down. I fell asleep immediately.
I woke up at first light and darted up, checking my bag for holes and my person for mice. Neither were in evidence and I crawled peacefully back into my bag and tried to go back to sleep, but I was too close to Katahdin to go back to sleep. After lying there a few minutes, I got up and started making coffee. Inspecting my food bag, I found the only thing the mice had gotten into my my trail mix, albeit a three-pound bag of the stuff, full of delicacies like cashews and dried fruit that I felt miserable throwing away. There are few things worse than throwing away perfectly edible-looking food when you are hungry and I had to struggle with myself not to just switch the trail mix to a new bag and pretend that mice hadn’t spent an evening bathing in it.
I was groggy that morning and an hour later when the Trail came to one of the most beautiful springs I’d ever seen, I plopped down next to the trickle coming out of the sand and looked out over the sky blue lake it fed. I knew the Trail would be ending soon but it was impossible to imagine what the end would look like. It was possibly my last full day on the Trail, but I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the moment as much as I thought I should. After the battle with the mice, I felt sleep-deprived and like I was starting to get sick. My sinuses felt inflamed and my joints ached.
As I walked on, I began to feel better. On the Rainbow ledges, I passed a sign that stated that Kathdin was something like 20 miles away. I stopped and stared at the sign. Could it possibly be right? I pointed it out to two girls passing by who looked like thru-hikers. When they saw how small the number had gotten, they pulled their packs off and almost seemed to fall over.
On the Rainbow ledges, there were wild blueberries everywhere and I ate a few handfuls as I walked, beginning to feel better. There wasn’t far to go now. 20 miles was the distance of a day’s walk and it was still before noon. I tried to not think about approaching the end and just walk as I had been doing all summer. I wanted one last attempt at the peace I’d been expecting—like how even after sleeping all night, five more minutes seems like it will somehow be enough to eradicate the feeling of sleepiness.
I walked down from the ledges and into a river that had been obscured by rocks and trees overhead to the point where it hardly resembled a river and looked more like a collection of trickling streams, weaving their way around the rocks. A few yards ahead was the last shelter. I considered stopping, but nostalgia seemed to be the only reason, which didn’t seem to be enough. Shortly after, I passed the sign facing south proclaiming the entrance to the 100-mile wilderness. The same warning sign about having adequate provisions I’d seen on the way in, in the wilderness, it was the best they could do for an ‘exit’ sign. I came to a dirt road where the Trail led into the Abol Campground.
Before starting up to the final camping area (9 miles up the Trail at the base of Katahdin), you had to sign up. Along this 9 miles there was no camping other than the designated site at the end. Arriving as I did so late in the day, I expected to find the list full for the day and to have to stay in the Abol Campground and do the 9 miles + the 5 miles up Katahdin and 5 miles back down. It would be a long day, but if I got up early it would be possible and, I figured, I could avoid having to contend for a spot at the exclusive campground 5 miles from the base of Katahdin.
Coming into the Abol Campground, the Trail follows a dirt road which crosses a bridge, from the bridge is the first close-up view a north-bound hiker has of Katahdin. I stopped reverently on the bridge for a while. I tried to impress myself with the notion that the proximity of the mountain meant that I would soon be finished walking, but I couldn’t make myself believe I would ever stop, not after waking up and doing it for more than four months. The end was still no more than a fantasy, something I diverted myself with while I walked, endlessly. I took another look at the mountain, and continued walking over the bridge.

Abol Campground had a little shop and restaurant. I stopped in to buy a can of soda, not really needing much more as I had over estimated how long it would take to get through the wilderness and still had a lot of food. I was drinking my soda when I ran into another thru-hiker named Big Bad Wolf. He told me that a ridge runner had been by the restaurant to ask if any other thru-hikers were going up to the Birches campsite (the one at the base of Katahdin). He said he only had two people signed up. The limit was 12. I was happily shocked to hear there was still so much room up there. I almost didn’t believe it could be possible. After all I’d been hearing about getting up Katahdin being so logistically difficult, it looked like it was going to be as easy as anything else had been on the Trail.
Just past the Abol Campground, down the dirt road, a trail, no longer really even the Appalachian Trail, but just a day hike trail leading to the base of Katahdin began. I expected a ranger’s hut, but there was nothing but an unmanned kiosk at the beginning with a list; two of the 12 slots had been filled in and I put my name in the third slot and walked around the kiosk in a circle—like a dog having found something unexpected in the forest—to make sure there was nothing else I was supposed to do, but that’s all it was, even at its most complicated, the Appalachian Trail never threw more at you than a pencil and a clipboard.
The Trail that followed was so unbelievable, I know I must be nearing the end. Never had anything been so flat, so scenic and peaceful. It was as if all the expectations of the Trail had someone settled way up here at the end; the result was Edenic.
It seems impossible to fully describe this now. I’ve been back in civilization for three months, almost as long as I was on the Trail. By this time next month, time will have equalized the experience; four months in the woods tempered by four months of restaurants, email, paying rent and agonizing about unimportant things. The import of those small moments leading up to Katahdin is impossible to recreate. After hundreds of thousands of steps, it ends with one, like the one I began with. I want to hold up each of those final steps like a photograph and say nothing about it, just display them, one after another. But the details to do something like this have drifted away, leaving only dull outlines of the sharpest details.
I couldn’t help it, I had to walk slow. I had the rest of the day for nine miles, which, by all appearances were going to be easy. The Trail seemed to end at Abol campground, what I was on now was a path which led to a climb. The ground under my feet, the only thing I was very cognizant of, had to change to signal the importance of the ordeal. For once, I understood that I was nearing the end of something before finishing it. Even when the greatest challenges in our lives come to an end, we are fond of repeating that they don’t feel like they are ending at all, perhaps this is to dull the shock when they do cut off so abruptly. I walked down the path at the end of the Appalachian Trail, walking along a ribbon through the forest which was rapidly running out.
Since leaving Abol Campground, I’d been walking along the Abol Stream, which bifurcated and expanded into other streams and rivers. I walked along the water thinking of all the rivers and brooks I’d passed without stopping to cool my feet and listen to the birds sing. I still had nine miles, but like all endings, I knew it would past quickly. I stopped and went down by the water to do at least one thing I’d neglected to do while in the woods and to slow things down a little.
I sat on a rock with my feet in the water for nearly an hour, finally doing something I’d planned on doing since I’d started the Trail: nothing.
Before starting in Georgia, I’d assumed that spending so much time in the woods would result in many such moments. I pictured myself sitting by brooks in Virginia and dark green copses in Vermont, just watching the world go by. While I did do this a few times, it wasn’t as much as I expected, so I took a moment, before the Trail ended, to try to rectify this. As usual, everything in me screamed to keep moving, constantly reminding me that, I still wasn’t where I planned on sleeping. After I got there, then I could rest. But experience had finally taught me, sometimes, it’s best to think of the Appalachian Trail not as a place you have to get to but a place where you already are.
The path to Katahdin eventually left the river. It narrowed a little and the inevitable Maine roots rose up through the packed earth, but it never became difficult. In the late afternoon, I came to a pond ringed with blueberry bushes. I greeted a man walking around barefoot. He didn’t say much, but walked behind me for a while. We ate blueberries together and talked a little. The golden late afternoon light coming across the pond was so beautiful, it hushed our potential conversation into reverent tones.
I crossed a dirt parking lot, then a dirt road. A sign pointed to the Birches and Katahdin Stream Campsites. The nine miles through Baxter State Park had been the fastest nine miles of the entire Trail; I had walked through them as if in a dream and seen very few people.
There was a small ranger’s station at the campground. I checked in, paid the camping fee and was given a form to send to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, proclaiming my thru-hike. The implication of this form was incredible and I folded it and put it away so I wouldn’t have to think about just how close to the end I really was.
The reservation campground, Katahdin Stream, was warm and bright, mostly out in a field at the base of the mountain. The thru-hikers, non-reserve campground, the Birches, was set a ways down off the road in a dim thicket of trees that actually didn’t look to be birch. I didn’t mind the difference and neither did the other thru-hikers quietly preparing for the night at six pm. As I pitched my tent, I kept thinking how for months, I’d slept in a different place every night. This was to be the last of such places. Tomorrow, I would finish the Trail and the experience would start to collapse into memory. I’d be left with the most impressive moments and, occasionally, a part of the hike would come back that I’d forgotten, a small, unimportant detail like a part of a conversation or a view from a minor mountain. I’d ponder this random memory and wonder what enticed my mind to bring it out again then it would fade. The only way to hold on would be to turn around and starting walking back to Georgia. I’d met people who were doing it. None of them looked especially happy about their decision, they usually looked compelled. As if what they’d been looking for hadn’t been on the first 2,000 miles, so they though they’d tack on 2,000 more.
Before everyone went to sleep, we all ate together. Other than Big Bad Wolf, I had, somehow, never met any of these other thru-hikers, but we all shared the moment: our last night in the woods. Despite the mice attack the previous night, I still had a lot of food left, plenty for the three more meals I figured I’d eat while out here. I dumped out my food bag and ate everything I had, leaving only enough for breakfast and a snack for later the next day. Even the other hikers seemed impressed by my ability to eat so much.
Soon after my surfeit of dehydrated meals, I crawled into my tent. Besides my backpack, my tent had been the only consistent thing in my life in the woods. I’d slept in it almost every night and most of the nights I’d slept elsewhere, I’d ended up regretting. As I lie there, staring up through the open flap to the treetops and the stars beyond them, I starting thinking off all the places I’d put this tent. The great places, like the spot in New Jersey, just past the Delaware Water Gap, up on the hill, or the little patch just off the Trail in the White Mountains where a storm probably would’ve blown it over. I thought about the times the tent had flooded and how I’d felt sleeping in it the first night, among all the scraps of the last camping trip that were still in the tent’s inside pockets. Anything I left in here, after I rolled it up tomorrow, would be there the next time. Who could say when the next time would be and what feelings I’d have when I saw the remnants from this trip. Among this quickly developing nostalgia, I fell asleep.
September 5th 2016
I woke up around 4, wide awake. It wasn’t until I woke up that I realized I was going to climb Katahdin and reach the end of the Trail. Not even upon arriving in the campground last night had this thought occurred to me. It came like a revelation and brought with it the energy to get up and break camp while it was still completely dark, especially among the dense trees.
The only other time I’d woken so early on the Trail was the morning in Harper’s Ferry when I was going to catch the train to meet Gina in DC. Today held no such concrete reassurances. Beyond climbing up and down Katahdin, I had no idea what to expect. There didn’t seem to be too many people around, so hitching out of the park looked like it might be difficult. The nearest town didn’t have a bus station, so I’d have to take a shuttle to somewhere else before catching a bus to Bangor, then another bus to Portland or Boston to the airport. I had studied these distances on the last page of the guide book, but, up until this morning, I didn’t ever think much about reaching them.
I had to use my headlamp to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind in the dark and to find the short trail that led back to the main campground to the ranger’s station.
If you’ve ever seen any pictures from Katahdin, you notice that all hirsute, exhausted and dirty hikers who’ve made it this far usually aren’t pictured with any kind of pack, or if they are, it’s a little day bag. The ranger’s station at the Katahdin Stream Campground, provides day packs to thru-hikers so they don’t have to bring their regular large pack with them, since going up Katahdin is a round trip; you go up to the top and come back down the way you came. For the sake of continuity (and because they’re crazy) many thru-hikers I’d talked to were considering taking their own pack to the top. I was initially among them. I’d come so far with my pack, it seemed almost treacherous of me to leave it behind for this last leg, but the night before, I’d changed my mind. There was no point in taking all my stuff up to the top and I’d had enough of this anal fixation with doing things a certain way. I was going to the top and that was enough. I didn’t need to bring my camp stove and my socks and rubber sandals with me.
At the ranger’s station, I traded out my pack, took all my food and a few warm layers with me, leaving the rest tucked into a corner. I’d already had coffee when I woke up, but there was nothing I wanted more than to have another cup once I got to the top of Katahdin. I still had an oatmeal pack and plenty of peanut butter, so I made an elaborate breakfast to fortify myself for the climb. The sun gradually came out and I continually expected to see the other hikers but after I’d cooked, eaten and put my thermos in my pack, I still hadn’t seen anyone.
The park at the base of Katahdin, looks like most other campgrounds. A stream runs through it, there’s a field surrounded by covered picnic tables and, snaking off from this center are lots where you park your RV or car and unpack your tent. In the early morning, I walked by a few of these tents and RVs. Most people still seemed to be asleep, but a group of young teenage boys who’d probably been up all night, were roving around carrying a soccer ball. We said hello to each other, each of us trying to comprehend the other, and then I set off down the final leg of the Trail.
The climb up Katahdin is like nothing else on the Appalachian Trail. Apart from the Dragon’s Tooth area in Virginia, I don’t remember anything else being such an obvious climb. On the AT, I was almost always climbing something, but I usually didn’t have to use my hands too much. With the exception of the Presidential Range, I was usually among trees and soil. The Trail could be strenuous, but I never had to look for handholds before making the next move.

The base of Katahdin is deceptively serene. The Trail follows the Kathdin Stream up the mountain, where at first, it begins to rush and, as you move forward, it begins falling. The Trail passes a few waterfalls before it becomes a scramble up rocks, still under a tree covering, something like walking up steep stairs. Many sections of the Trail had been like this and even as I climbed and the view around me became exceptional, I didn’t think much of my surroundings. I tried not to think about the end of the Trail, but, insistently, it pushed its way back into my desultory morning thoughts. Every time I reached a slight rise in the Trail, my eyes would dart ahead, looking for the fabled sign at the Katahdin summit. One thing every hiker is sure to do, is to get a picture of themselves at this sign. It’s the picture taken the moment one has finished the hike which captures all the unique joy that results from the completion of a long and at times, trying, endeavor. Along the Trail, in nearly every town, I’d seen these pictures. Many hikers have theirs made into a postcard, which they send back to everyone along the way who helped them. These postcards are on display everywhere. As a result, the sign which serves as their primary focus, takes on mythic proportions and every thru-hiker anticipates the moment when they’ll climb on top of it and shout or grin or weep.
Since the rains of Vermont, I hadn’t been using my camera much. I hadn’t had a way to back up my photos and I was afraid to loose them by dropping the camera or getting it wet. Before leaving the campground and my pack behind, I’d made sure to take out my camera, but now, as I came above the treeline and saw the boulderous climb above, I realized there might not be anyone there so early to take my picture. I may have to wait for someone else to finish the climb. Everyone still seemed to be sleeping when I left and by this time, I was a pretty fast hiker. I realized, I might be waiting a while, but, what better place to sit down and rest a while than the Trail’s end above all of Maine.
Coming out of the trees, the view opened up and even after so many beautiful mountain vistas, seemed to offer something exceptional. The early morning sun was still painting many of the peaks with and orange and purple light. The sky was almost completely clear, only a few little clouds crowned some of the distant peaks, like the soft-looking crowns of 18th century regents. All they needed, was the cross at the top.
Shortly after coming out into the open, above the treeline, the steep walk became a climb. Most other places on the AT above treeline, were long and ambling ridge walks. They didn’t go down or up too much, like walking along a series of peaked roofs. Here, even above the trees, the climb continued and grew steeper. It was hard to say if knowing the end was coming was helpful or prolonged the climb. I wasn’t at all impatient. I had plenty of time, but everything in me strained forward toward that sign at the end: the marker for the Trail’s northern terminus. I hasted over every boulder and tossed myself over each rock face hoping to see its saw horse-form silhouetted against the early morning sky.
The climb continued on. My thoughts ceased as I was forced to concentrate on where I was putting my hands and feet. Just walking along the Trail, I often felt removed from the experience, like I was just passing over a place in the world without proper regard. Climbing up Katahdin is the perfect conclusion to the hike, it brings you right up against the ribbon stretching from Georgia to Maine; it puts your nose in it. Until this point, I’d always met the ribbon at a perpendicular angle, now the Trail rose up to meet me and I was forced to climb parallel to it.

At the top of the climb, there was a sign I didn’t recognize, a classic ‘T’ shaped sign. When I got close enough to read it, what I thought was possibly the end, turned out to be a false summit, like so many others on the Trail. The climb ended, but the Trail continued across something like an alpine meadow but any green in the area was the result of lichen rather than grass or other verdure. The whole place was rocks except for the little bit of grass and the clots of algae around the Thoreau Spring.
On this flat area, I could see all the way to what looked like the summit. A distant figure was walking toward me. I skipped along the rocks, trying not to move too quickly. Hurting an ankle up here would be a costly mistake. The climb back down promised a lot of bone-jangling impact. If anything was hurt, it would be really hard to support myself while scooting down boulders. Still, I practically jogged down the rock-strewn path, I was too excited to slow down now. Only one thought remained: “you are accomplishing a life-long dream right now.” I’d had this thought before on the Trail. Really, every step I took, I was accomplishing my desire to one day walk across a large stretch of the US, but it wasn’t until the end was in sight that I knew I’d done it. I still couldn’t see the sign, but I knew it was close. I only had to walk from here to there and the dream was accomplished. I was no longer in Pennsylvania or even southern Maine with 100s of miles stretching before me, but at the end, on top of the Mountain, one or two rises away from the Northern Terminus.
As I was walking, the speck heading toward me gradually got bigger and bigger. When we were 100 yards away from each other, I could tell by the color of his jacket it was Big Bad Wolf. When he saw me coming, he let out a congratulatory yell. I yelled back. When we met a few feet further, I couldn’t believe I was talking to someone who’d been to the end. It was like talking to an astronaut, a human being who’d been some place so few humans ever go. He seemed a little overwhelmed, almost drunk. The words seemed to fail him and he just beamed. I was aware that, as thru-hikers, there was this incredible connection between us on that Mountain. I asked him how it was and he just shook his head. “You’re almost there.” He said pointing. “You see that black thing up there? That’s it.” I’d been thinking the summit was actually one peak over. Where he pointed seemed too low to be the summit, but on the Mountain the perspective must’ve been skewed somehow by the nearness of the thing. I wished Big Bad Wolf a hearty congratulations and best of luck getting out of the park and back to civilization. He grinned, again pointed to the summit, shook his head and continued down, as if unable to believe it was over.
I kept walking, gradually moving up the slope, hopping from rock to rock, moving up, getting closer to the sky. Somehow my attention strayed. I guess I was overwhelmed with the solemnity of the moment. I thought of the sacrifices I’d made, all the stuff that’d broke, all the rain, the garbled phone calls, the nights of insomnia in my tent listening to the wind, the beautiful rivers and peach-colored mornings, the cessation of the rain and then I was tripping, falling, stumbling up to the most persuasive false idol I’ve ever known. My pack fell from my shoulders and I leaned into the sign, wrapping my arms around it. It was here. It was real. The end. I took a few deep breaths, not sure if I was going to cry and then, suddenly, as if wracked by the most primal spasm, I threw my head back and shrieked the loudest yell of my life.
I let the echo fade over the mountains and then I did it again.
I can’t transliterate that sound into characters. It really deserves a picture, but I’m not the artist to create it. The sound I made was an auditory cloud, shot full of color, tension and relief. I listened to it fade and was about to add another, but I stopped myself. I knew I’d made the truest statement I could, anything else would just be talking to myself. I eased myself off the sign, looked it at like it had eyes, like it loved me, like it’d been waiting for me alone up here in the fog and the rain and the snow since April 29th. I took in the beauty of the sign one last time; already the riotous impression was fading. Four months for a moment of pure, unalloyed joy. My time was up. I embraced the sign again and got down.
I can’t tell you how long I was up there. Probably not more than an hour, but I couldn’t say for sure. I read the nearby metal plaque and plunked down for my coffee and a few last Clif Bars. I wondered how I would take the picture, standing on the sign, when I heard a sound. I scrambled to my feet just as a girl of about 15 came walking up. She carried nothing and seemed to be alone. I was dumbfounded but it seemed rude to ask her if she was alone so I just asked if she would take my picture by the sign; in a soft voice with a faint Russian accent, she agreed. I climbed onto the sign and she took two pictures for me. I climbed down, saw that they were satisfactory and thanked her.

I was able to return to my coffee when her parents walked up speaking Russian.

Откуда Bы?” I asked them where they were from, having been asked the question 100s of times myself while in the former Soviet Union, I remembered it well.
The father told me they were Kalmyks from Siberia. Almost dumbfounded, I thanked the family for taking my picture. I wanted to say more, but I felt almost mute with peace. Likewise the family respected the place enough to speak to each other in low tones. I returned to my coffee and my rock seat thinking how appropriate the first people I should meet after finishing the Trail should be native Siberians.
Others came and went in the late morning, a couple of thru-hikers, who screamed and asked me to take their picture, a few day hikers, a kid from Israel I’d met in the 100 mile wilderness and what seemed like an entire frat. When the beers started to crack open and I looked down and found myself looking at a long snaking line of others ascending, I decided I’d had my time and started down, glad beyond words that when I’d first reached the summit, I’d been alone and the weather had been nice, with the clouds and the people coming in, the reverent feeling I’d shared with the Kalmyk family was fading.
I continued walking, but I was done. I was only retracing my steps. The Trail was over. I showed off a little on the way down: passing groups on their way to the top, I wished them all a good hike. When they wished me the same, smiling, I told them my hike was over. Most day hikers realized what I meant and congratulated me. The wonderful feeling followed me all the way back down the mountain.
I got back to the campsite in the early afternoon and flung myself down on the grass. I lay there awhile before I went to soak my feet in the freezing stream. I was drying my feet when a man approached me. Was I a thru-hiker? He asked. Did I know Achilles? I told him I did. I’d hiked with Achilles before and I’d seen him coming down the mountain. He’d probably reached the top by now. He’ll probably be down in an hour or two depending on how long he stays at the top, I told the man who introduced himself as Achilles’ father. He congratulated me on finishing my hike and I congratulated him on his son finishing his hike. I was about to start down the road, when he asked if I needed a ride. I thought for a second, realizing what this meant. There’s be no more walking, from now on there’d be cars, cities, supermarkets, garbage cans and no bears, no quiet springs, no trees shaking in the wind at night.
I told him I’d love a ride.
The biggest readjustment proved to be sitting. Not because I was impatient, not because I was accustomed to being active. No. I discovered I could barely sit because my knees had become unaccustomed to being bent for so long. Usually when I ‘sat’ on the Trail, I was on the ground with my legs out in front of me. At first, it was comfortable riding in the car to Bangor, but soon the nerves in my knees were going crazy, shouting out all kinds of signals for pain. I tried to be subtle, but I was shifting around so much, everyone noticed and asked if I was ok. I told them what was happening. Achilles seemed unaffected by these bouts of knee pain, so I squirmed in silence.
When I got out in Bangor, I almost fell down. In addition to being pained, my knees seemed to have lost their strength. 120 days in the woods and I was instantly undone by the rigors of reentering society.
I thanked the family for their hospitality and stumbled off to the first hotel I saw, which later turned out to be the only hotel in downtown Bangor. I checked in and hobbled upstairs to my room.
The entire time I’d been on the Trail, I’d never really been alone. In the woods, there was always the chance someone was hiking right behind you. In the few hostels I’d stayed in, I’d always been in bunk rooms. When the door closed behind me in the hotel, I was alone. All I could manage to do was to kick off my boots, pull a chair up to the window and fall into it, legs raised on the windowsill. I watched the life going by in the square below, happy for once to be removed from it, not to be part of the spectacle of human life but an observer of it. I took out my phone. For the first time since I’d crossed the border into Maine, I had service. I listened to my voicemails, I had three or four, they were all from Gina. I hadn’t talked to her since the five-second call in Rangely using someone else’s phone when she told me I’d been invited to a program in Albania.
Listening to the messages, I thought of Skinny Fat Man, the hiker I’d met who’d suddenly lost his girlfriend of two years while on the Trail. I thought of how Gina told me that something in our relationship had changed since I’d been gone. But the messages didn’t sound upset or despondent. They sounded genuine and happy. The last one almost broke my heart. She told me she’d just been calling to hear the recording of my voice on the outgoing message. I hung up and called her. It rang once or twice.
Hey,” I said, in a tired voice that tried, but did not succeed in masking my happiness.
I’m done.”
I wondered if you ever would be. Damn, it’s about time,” she told me.
We talked for more than an hour. I kept my stinky hiking clothes on, knowing I wouldn’t be wearing them again and watched the people walking by underneath my window from the privacy of my room.
Gina didn’t say so right away, but when I got around to asking if there’d been any news with the job, she told me that Albania was no longer on the table. I was surprised to find I hardly cared. I was done. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t need to go work overseas again. I was about to say so when Gina said,
now they’re offering you Thailand.”
Thailand? Since April I’d gone from nowhere to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to Olympia, Washington, USA to Korçë, Albania to Surat Thani, Thailand in my imagination. I couldn’t keep up any more.
Fine fine,” I said, surprised by my indifference. “Thailand it is then. As long as that’s ok with you?”
It’s fine with me,” she said, and in the kindest voice, “I just want to see you again. Would you get back over here?”
I told her I would, but that’d she have to buy my a ticket. The hotel had no computers and the library wouldn’t be open until the next day. I told her just to book whatever was cheapest. She told me she’d get on it right away and call me back with details. The conversation concluded with her telling me to get into a bath or something as she was sure I was all kinds of filthy. I planned on taking a very long bath, but I wasn’t quite ready to relax.
I went out into Bangor. The sun was setting and the air was late-summer warm. I had no destination, but I was drawn to the supermarket like a moth to a flame. Nearly since I’d started the Trail, I’d had this vision of what my first night off would look like. For some reason I’d imagined it would be rainy, but it was much better like this. I had been very focused on the food I would be eating, but now that I knew I was back in the world of corner stores and supermarkets again, it no longer seemed so important. Still, walking back tot he hotel, I carried a full shopping bag which was intended to last less than 24 hours.

Walking down the twilit streets of that northern city, I thought about my return home. I thought about Thailand where I’d be going to work in a few months, but mostly, I just put one foot in front of the other and walked. I no longer had a concrete destination, but I was still going somewhere. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Appalachian Trail: Maine. Pt. 2

The next morning, I hung around the beach for a while, almost reluctant to leave. I made a breakfast, which was something I hardly ever did on the Trail and sat around reading and eating before taking off a little after eight.
I tried to walk slow and to enjoy the day as much as possible. The ferry over the Kennebec River stopped at two and I wasn’t going to make it that far unless I jogged part of the way. The town of Caratunk was on the other side and I knew I had packages there so I’d probably stay in town over night and I didn’t feel ready to go into town, yet, having just been in one. It was also the weekend and I knew that I wouldn’t be hearing anything from the job in Albania over the weekend.
I stopped at a shelter in the afternoon a while before continuing on through the Maine forest which now seemed to be a trail that ran from lake to lake. Most of the walk that day was close enough to water that I could smell its rainy smell through all the pine and the earth and the stone.
The walk was almost totally level and, as such, didn’t require much attention, my mind foundered almost choked on possibilities. I had about a week left on the Trail. Very soon, I’d be walking back into civilization. The possibilities of this change distracted my attention from the simple Trail and, in my imagination, I left the woods and walked down city streets, greeting people from the past and eating with them, always eating.
Around two, I came to the shelter before the river crossing. Caratunk was only about two or three miles up the Trail on the other bank of the river.
It was so early, there was no one else at the shelter, which, like the place I’d stayed the previous night, was perched directly above a looking glass lake reflecting the forest back to the sky and gleaming like something from a fairy tale. I pitched my tent in a little area almost level with the water. It was a risky place to camp, but it wasn’t supposed to rain and it was too beautiful to resist; from inside my tent, looking out, it looked like I was camping directly on the water.
All the thoughts of meetings and meals had left me feeliing starved and somewhat lonely. To ameliorate both longings, I cooked most of the rest of my food, figuring, I’d replace it in town tomorrow, but the food turned out bland and when I considered the rest of the day at this shelter alone, I started to feel restless. I was pulled in different directions: I wanted to finish the Trail and go back to my loved ones and my life but, this far into it, the Trail had become a sort of life for me and I was reluctant to leave it so completely behind. I knew once I stepped out of these Maine woods, it could be decades before I made my way back. Unlike most of the other thru-hikers I’d spoken with, I didn’t have plans to thru-hike other long-distance trails. I’d wanted to hike this one, the first in the US and the most historic and I’d nearly done it. I couldn’t look forward to ever repeating the experience, this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me and it was nearly over. I watched the little lake waves lap over the stones at the foot of my tent and thought about the end, which, by this point, was less than 200 miles away, less than 1/10th of the entire Trail.
As I was finishing my bland meal, watching the water, Pace, who I’d met back at the beginning of the White Mountains, walked up. He and I had been crossing each other’s paths for a while and we’d walked most of the way into Rangely together. At this point, he was the person I knew the best on the Trail, so he was a welcome sight in the midst of my lake-staring solitude.
After we’d chatted about how scenic the Trail had become, Pace mentioned the hunting lodge which was nearby and served pancake breakfasts. He said he was going to find the place and sign up for the breakfast. As I knew I’d be going into town the next day, I didn’t have much use for pancake breakfasts and stayed behind reading. He wasn’t gone long when he came back saying something like “you’ve got to see that place!” before describing a large and rambling cabin in the woods which, he said, was surprisingly beautiful on the inside. There were still a few hours of daylight left, so I went.
Approaching the cabin was a long boardwalk made from treelimbs lashed together, the sort of thing you’d expect to find approaching Baba Yaga’s house. The boardwalk dipped at crazy angles like a rollercoaster track and walking it, I wondered if it would’ve just been easier to walk on the marshy ground.
A generator was chugging away outside the cabin and though the place was a little disorganized, it was one of the most peaceful places I encountered on the Trail. The proprietor was the type of guy who’s probably suffered so many comparisons to Red Green that I’ll just tell you he had a scratchy voice, wore flannel and lived alone in the Maine woods. He was accompanied by a poodle puppy who he was constantly fussing after. The whole scene was really adorable, not the tableau that usually springs to mind when one says the phrase ‘Maine hunting cabin.’
I asked the proprietor if he’d mind if I swung by for coffee in the morning. He said that was fine and I left him, eager to drink a cup or two of coffee in such a cozy place. I was also eager to go for a swim, but when I got back to the shelter, getting undressed and putting on my shorts seemed like too much work for a quick dip. I resolved that I’d get up early and, being so close to the water, I’d be able to slip right in. With an eye-opener like that, I would hardly need any coffee.
First thing in the morning, with the mist rising from the lake, I took a step out of my tent and was immediately in the water. I swam out a ways where I could look back on the shore and appreciate my vantage from the middle of such a large clearing. Even in the towns I passed through, it was rare to be so far away from a tree.
The water was surprisingly warm. To not break the early morning tranquility, I did most of my swimming with my legs to keep splashing down. I kicked against the dark water and turned myself in a circle, scanning the encircling horizon for a break in the forest; in every direction, the trees grew right to the edge of the lake, their reflections coloring the water under the rising mist.
I climbed out of the water, broke camp and headed up hill to the shelter. Pace was knocking down his tent as I approached. I waited a few minutes for him to finish and we walked over to Harrison’s, the hunting cabin, together.
Already at seven, the place was piping warm and suffused with breakfast time smells. The proprietor gave me a cup and pointed me in the direction of the coffee urn; he told Pace his pancakes would be up in a minute. The deal was supposed to include 12 pancakes, but I think Pace got around 14. I drank my coffee slowly, lazily enjoying something I didn’t make myself and the extra luxury of consuming it indoors. The dining room where we breakfasted was, I think, everyone’s ideal breakfast room. Everything was made out of lacquered wood, lamps with heavy shades stood on the end tables that hadn’t already been crowded out with chess and checkers tables. Two sides of the large room were walled with glass, so that the room felt almost like a greenhouse. From our table, Pace and I could see down into the forest, elevated as we were above it. The lack of other buildings in the area had drawn massive orb weaver spiders down to build their webs against the exterior windows so that one’s attention was constantly zooming in and out; focusing now on the background of the forest and now on the foreground of giant spiders and their webs just on the other side of the glass.
We lounged languorously enjoying the easy-going morning. I got up several times and refilled my coffee while Pace struggled with his pile of pancakes. It was a struggle to leave the place and if the weather had been more inclimate, it would’ve bordered on the impossible, but the day was fine and I was only about two miles from the Kennebec River, the ferry and Caratunk, Maine.
The walk from the cabin to the village (Caratunk can’t really even be called a town—it was only a few places to stay, a post office and a bar spread out on a three-mile stretch of highway) the hike wobbled up and down a river bed, often crashing through the forest far below. Here and there, the Trail came out to promontories which overlooked sections of river or waterfalls. I’d had enough coffee to be feeling great about everything and I was almost disappointed to reach the River so quickly.
All the guide books and pamphlets declare the Kennebec River the biggest river on the entire AT that is forded, but this is not altogether true as no one in their right mind tries to ford it, unless they’re really impatient and don’t mind getting their stuff soaked. Saying the river is forded is basically just saying there is no bridge across it. Some kind of plant up river also serves as an artificial estuary and can change the level of water dramatically. Rather than risk any unpleasantry, I decided to take the ferry across provided by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. It was the only part of the Trail the entire way I didn’t walk over.
There were two other hikers waiting when I arrived and since the boat could only hold two we had to decide who would go and who would wait for the next pass. I managed to get a seat on the first crossing of the day, but before getting in the boat, I had to sign a waiver and put on a life jacket, a funny thing to do to cross such a pacific-looking body of water.
The crossing was easy, a few strokes of the oars and we were on the opposite bank. I hardly had enough time to ask the boatman how many hikers he had been seeing every day. “Not too many now,” he replied just as the bow was hitting the sand.
I walked up the river bank and was surprised to fin d the highway which constituted the town of Caratunk was right there, just past the line of trees skirting the river. I balked for a moment, uncertain what to do when the other hiker who’d been on the boat told me that there was another place to stay which had free hot tubs. Hot tubs, I hadn’t even dared to consider the possibility; for the entire hike, I’d had nothing but showers—immensely happy for each one, the possibility of soaking in a Jacuzzi was almost overwhelming and I stumbled the other direction to the hostel (Sterling Inn) where my packages had been mailed, unable to even wrap my mind entirely around the concept of a hot tub.
I tried to hitch down to the Sterling Inn, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic and I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to walk another mile. The morning was still quiet and there was little traffic down highway 201, which was hemmed in on either side by massive trees, leaving barely a sliver of sky overhead.
If the name of the hostel had daunted me, the look of the place was even less appealing. To stay in such a place, I expected to pay at least 50.00. The entire Trail, I’d only stayed in town a handful of times and if I hadn’t been trying to organize a time to interview for the job in Albania, I would’ve picked up my packages at this place and moved on. As it was, I’m glad I stopped. The rates for hikers were substantially discounted and the bunk room was nice. Because most cell phones didn’t get service in Caratunk, the place allowed guests to use phones (the only hostel I went to that provided this without raising an eyebrow when I asked) and the bathroom was equipped with a beautiful clawfoot tub. Immediately after checking in, I filled the thing up with water as hot as I could stand it. I must’ve soaked in the tub for more than an hour and no one seemed to mind. When I emerged, cleaner than I’d been in months, steam still rising from my hair, I went over to the social room, picked up a Coke and plopped down on the couch with a Bill Bryson book I’d found on the rack. I spent the rest of the day lounging around, drinking soda and making phone calls.
I checked my email periodically until the next morning, but I got no word of the job. I figured the safest thing to do would be to get back into the woods so I could hit the final town of Monson before the week had advanced too far. Early the next morning, I caught the shuttle back to the trailhead with a few other hikers.
I spent the day hiking with a younger guy named Achilles I’d met a few times. He and I talked about the Trail and hikers we both knew while hiking up Pond and Moxie mountains that day. At some point, we ran into a group of south-bounders looking particularly miserable. I continually expected to meet some horrible obstacle further up the Trail, but nothing materialized and in the afternoon we cruised into a great campsite near yet another lake, though this one was a bit too reedy and mucky to contemplate swimming in.
After I’d set up camp, gotten a fire going and cooked, I went down to watch the sun set over the water and noticed how the loons were all following one loon around, sort of like he was showing the place off. I’ve since read that this is something loons do. They show each other their ponds and lakes like people have dinner parties to show off their homes and apartments. I didn’t notice any of the loons eating, but after they’d all swam around the lake, they started flapping their wings in what looked like displays of dominance and chasing each other around in circles –so the dinner party looked more like a staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf rather than any kind of formal affair.
The walk the next day was mellow. The only memory I have from it were the south-bound hikers I met that, at this point, were starting to congratulate me. I tried to tell them that I wasn’t at the end yet, but, as far they were concerned, I was. There were only about 100 miles left and everyone seemed absolutely convinced, if I’d come this far, nothing would stop me from climbing Katahdin and finishing the hike. All the premature congratulations started to worry me. I felt sure that with each congratulations, I was inviting disaster. There were still 100 miles of rocks and roots to make it over; even after 2,089 miles, I wasn’t an expert on avoiding injury—if anything, I’d gotten a lot more sloppy. Since all I did was walk every day, I often took stupid risks. It seemed to me that if I was to get injured anywhere, it would almost certainly be somewhere at the end of the Trail. All the other thru-hikers I met agreed. When I got to the hostel in Monson, I found scattered groups of people talking about how they didn’t know what to say in response when people congratulated them and many worried about being jinxed. I guess being in the woods so long had made everyone a little more superstitious.
Monson had the feel of being near the end of the Trail. I couldn’t describe the difference from all the other small towns the Trail passes, but there was an end-of-the-road quality to the place, although it reminded me quite a bit of Unionville, NY, another town the Trail passed about a mile from, only in Unionville, hikers were permitted to camp in the town park, here there was really only one place to stay and everyone stayed there. For south-bounders, this was the first town they came to on the Trail and after starting their hikes in the 100-mile wilderness, they probably needed to stock up on supplies. For north-bounders, Monson was the last town before the 100-mile wilderness and Katahdin. In the hostel, most people were busy arranging rides or booking flights out of Maine and back home; rumors were already flying about Katahdin. Since Virginia, I’d been seeing fliers which read: “Don’t just finish, finish well.” The intention of these fliers was to prepare thru-hikers to be respectful once they completed their hike on the summit. In recent years, some celebrations had apparently been seen as excessive and limits were being imposed to curtail general rowdiness. Rumors had it that only a certain number of hikers would be allowed up the mountain per day, hikers had to camp in designated areas only, some of which had to be paid for, etc These were the persistent fears of hikers on the AT: that parts of the Trail would cost money and that they’d be forced to camp in a specific place. These threats were continually introduced and attributed to the governing bodies of the Smokies, Shenandoah, White Mountains and Baxter parks. The only instance these rumors came true was in the form of the $20.00 permit needed to camp in the Smokies. Nothing else on the Trail had to be paid for and, despite limits on camping in certain areas and stealth camping, no one ever forced hikers to stay in any one place.
The fact that these rumors had never proven to be true, didn’t stop hikers from starting them again, after all Baxter State Park, home of Katahdin was something of an exception—probably because it had been raised to such a mythical level at this point for most people. We were willing to believe almost anything about this place. As we’d been walking toward it since Georgia, it had ceased to be a real place and took on impossible proportions. It was easy to believe that the rules that governed this fantasy realm had little to do with anything that had come before them.
I checked into the crowded hostel and tried to use the phone, but there was too much going on and it turned out the person I’d been talking to wasn’t even an owner of the place, but an employee from Florida, which, in such a small, rural Maine town was confusing. I went walking around the town. The small downtown area bordered Lake Hebron and had the slightly dilapidated look of any small American community that has lost its primary industry and hasn’t started pulling in significant tourist dollars. The downtown of clapboards and peeling paint seemed to lean over the lake to view its tired reflection in the still waters. A few businesses were open and a little park on the lake provided a place for recreation. A sign up by the post office advised thru-hikers to stop at the temporary registration center set up in the Community Center. A sign board proclaimed Pete’s Place, a bakery up the street, to be hiker-friendly. It looked like a nice place to have a cup of coffee and flip through a paper so I decided to stop in before heading over to the Community Center.
The floor in Pete’s Place was made of long wooden planks which creaked slightly. The ceiling and walls seemed to be made out of the same thing. At the front of the store was a bakery display case. Wooden tables and chairs were set up around the room. I bought a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread and a cup of coffee, picked up a paper and settled in only to find myself drawn into conversation with the bakery’s owner, a jovial guy who’s name, it turned out, wasn’t Pete. I hung out talking to non-Pete for a while, eating my bread and drinking my coffee, feeling like I was a local just hanging out in the community I’d lived in for my entire life.
Out of all the places I stopped for a coffee along the AT, Pete’s Place was probably the nicest. I think it was the only place I’d been since I’d started hiking that didn’t make me feel like a hiker. In the small towns of the South and New England, you felt like a vacationer, in the mid-Atlantic states, you felt like a bum, it was only in this little Maine town, that a hiker just felt like another person sitting there on a hot August afternoon passing the time. This was especially significant as I noticed the previous day that I’d passed the four-month mark since I’d moved out to the woods. I’d been on the Trail for the equivalent of a college semester and while I felt good for having been able to reclaim some of the time I spend sitting in a desk under buzzing florescent lights, I was also aware of how long I’d been away from everything I’d ever known.
I paid up and was just about to say good bye to non-Pete when the door clanged and a hiker I hadn’t seen since Virginia strode in, Tarzan. Uncharacteristically, I practically grabbed him when I recognized his ‘Stay Stoked’ hat. On the Trail, even handshakes are non grata in a place where soap is limited and stomach bugs are always making the rounds. Hikers, especially later in the hike, are subject to very little physical contact, usually shying away from touching each other in any way. So it was odd that I felt inclined to hug this guy I hadn’t seen in months, but I’d been seeing his name in the log books at shelters since he’d gotten ahead of me after I left the Trail to go into DC and even though I hadn’t seen him in so long, it felt like we’d been on the Trail together since the beginning. If Tarzan was taken aback by my sudden friendliness, he didn’t show it and we went up to the Community Center together to register (sort of) for our dates to summit Katahdin about five days later.
Tarzan went back to the Trail and I went to the hostel where I had my tent pitched in the yard. I asked to use the phone again, but the owners were busy making dinner for everyone. I tried to hang out and read, but there were too many people milling around in the yard; I was feeling overwhelmed by all the people and after a while, I went for another walk and bought another snack, sitting at the little park by the water to eat, watching the sun go down and feeling the beginnings of melancholy that evening in towns always seemed to bring on. I couldn’t even say what it was, I just started to feel kind of sad, the way I first felt as a kid finding myself on the kindergarten playground surrounded by unfamiliar and vaguely hostile faces.
I went back to the hostel as night was falling. I finally managed to get the phone, but Gina didn’t answer and while I was talking to my mom, someone kept calling on the other line repeatedly until I finally had to answer it and pass the phone back to the owners. I suddenly felt so bummed out that I decided to go to bed; I didn’t want to be around anyone anymore, I wanted to be back in my tent in the woods away from all these people.
I woke early in the morning, before anyone else seemed to be up and walked back over to Pete’s where I had a cup of coffee and another nice chat with non-Pete. We talked about everything but the Trail and I was thankful, with the final stretch on a four-month journey coming up, I was feeling so conflicted, the Trail was the last thing I wanted to talk about. After Pete’s, I went back to the hostel, packed up and caught a ride back to the trailhead. I walked about four miles before I came to a sign proclaiming the start of the 100-mile wilderness, warning hikers to have adequate supplies for 10 days in the woods. I knew I hiked stretches of more than 100 miles between towns before, but somehow, passing that sign, I couldn’t remember when the last one had been and, trying not to think of running out of food or breaking an ankle, I started the final part of the Appalachian Trail.
All the days on the 100-miles wilderness blur together in my memory and deposit themselves in the most unlikely places in my memory, turning up among the memories of Pennsylvania or Georgia. Somehow, unlike every other day spent on the Trail, they alone are totally disorganized. Perhaps this betokens the sense of unreality that began to descend on me on these final days of the hike.
The contents of these days are equally surreal. The 100-mile wilderness was like some kind of fairy tale Black Forest, inhabited by denizens both moral and amoral. As I walked this final portion of the Appalachian Trail, I met people I hadn’t seen since Tennessee, going in the opposite direction—some of them had feared they wouldn’t make it to Katahdin before the snows, got a ride to the end and were now walking back to the place they’d left the Trail. I met people with whom I had long, revealing conversations and I met people, like marooned pirates, who slunk through the woods, angry and vaguely hostile.
No rain had been forecast, but my first night in the wilderness was stormy. The shelter area was about half a mile up from a river and had no water itself. I was the first to arrive, but almost as soon as I’d gotten my tent up, other hikers began pouring into the area. Within a few minutes, I had gone from being alone to being in the company of about six people, which, on the Trail, is a lot. I went off to check the water source and found it dry. Since I was already all set up and going to get water anyway, I offered to fill up water bottles for those who’d just arrived and probably hadn’t stopped to get water down at the river either. I’d observed this behavior before and was glad I would get a chance to do it myself.
On the way back down to the river, I met a few hikers going up to the shelter. I told them there was no water and they stopped to fill up as well. Seeing so many people in such a short period of time when I’d hardly seen anyone all day, it was interesting to think how the woods had been wrapped so densely and insulating around us we felt alone, when, in fact, we’d been walking in a sort of line all day.
I brought the water back up and passed it out and everyone began to make their various dinners. I plopped down next to a tree near my tent. I’d brought a paper from Monson and tried to cook and read—which isn’t easy without a table. I was nearly finished eating when a light rain began to fall. Initially, I ignored it, thinking it would pass, but the drops grew heavier and began to soak my newspaper. I started putting things away, still trying to finish eating my meal, when the light rain turned into a storm. I ended up just tossing everything in my tent, grabbing a bag of trail mix and running for the shelter.
I leaned up against a beam, under the overhanging roof, ate and listened to the conversation of those inside. Mostly, everyone chewed and watched the rain. As it grew to deluge-proportions and lightening flared across the sky, I began to concentrate on my tent. I could see how water was building up around it and I worried that the contents inside were getting soaked, but it was raining so hard to run out and try to check would’ve been foolish. I would’ve ended up getting everything totally soaked just trying to get the flap open.
I was still concentrating on my tent, when I noticed a light bobbing like a will-o-the-wisp through the forest. Everyone’s eyes were drawn to it and the scraps of conversation I could hear over the storm expressed sympathy with this guy who hadn’t gotten in yet. The light continued to dart and flicker until it vanished from sight. I found myself growing anxious at the thought that this person had missed the turn off for the shelter area and was now plunging deeper and deeper into the stormy night wilderness. Just as I had begun to think about running down the trail to find this errant hiker, the light reappeared. Happily, it came bobbing down the side trail to the shelter and eventually it emerged in the clearing before us attached to a short, middle aged man. He was grinning and it was impossible to tell if he was happy to have found the shelter or if he was just the type who grins a lot, even while walking through storms. The guy was obviously soaked and everyone sort of guiltily looked down at their feet when he asked about the water supply. The sopping hiker took everything in stride though. He pulled off a few wet layers, ate some dry food and prepared himself a place in the shelter.
The rain let up about a half an hour later and I ran for my tent. I was happy to see that only a corner of my sleeping bag had gotten wet. Everything else seemed to have weathered the storm. I pealed off my wet clothes and got into the bag, trying to avoid the wet corner by tucking my feet up under me. A light rain continued to fall throughout the night.
I woke up early in the morning and made coffee. While I was hunched over the warmth of my mini camp stove, I looked up and saw someone all packed up and leaving. I hadn’t seen this guy come in the previous night, so he must’ve come in after the rain and I had gotten in my tent. If he was already leaving, it meant he couldn’t have slept much.
Now that the weather was nicer, I drank my coffee and went back to the rain pocked paper, I’d been trying to read with dinner the night before. As the morning advanced and, one by one, the other hikers started to hit the Trail. I eventually decided to get moving as well, but I realized that between dinner and coffee I’d used a lot of my water. Another source wasn’t listed for about six miles, which was a little too far to go without a drop. Reluctantly, I went back down the hill to the river for a second time. Between the two trips, I probably added a mile (up and down hill) onto my hike.
I was one of the last people to leave the shelter area, although I had been among the first up. Once I got moving, it didn’t take long to catch up to the others; there were some great vistas in the area and everyone was stopping to get a better look at the surrounding countryside.
The hike that day was comprised of peaks and marshes. You’d come down into a marshy area, then climb out of it, then descend into another. I did this throughout the day, luckily the marshes had walkways (usually just a couple of boards) thrown over them and the peaks weren’t too high, although they were rocky enough, providing a marked contrast from the green velvet of the marshes.
I had come to my second peak, where there was an old tower so shrouded in fog, I couldn’t tell what it’s purpose was. To me, it was just a giant base embedded in concrete—an incongruous thing in the 100-mile wilderness. Resting on this concrete monolith was a bag full of granola bars. It wasn’t clear if someone had left them intentionally and I felt bad thinking that someone might be out a substantial amount of calories in this wilderness.
I was on my way down, when I found a huge bladder of water lying in the middle of the Trail. In Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods, the blundering duo skipped over everything after the Smokies and came straight to the 100-mile Wilderness. I hadn’t seen so much stuff on the Trail since the day I started in Amicalola Falls. It was like I’d suddenly found myself back at the beginning of the Trail. I picked up the bladder, knowing that someone up the Trail would be very sorry when they discovered they’d lost it. I’d been walking about five minutes when I heard the murmuration of a stream and what sounded like people talking next to it.
I came into a slight clearing and saw two people and a dog sitting there. The dog was little but not very friendly; he barked at me non-stop and his owner did little to correct him—like he was thinking the same thing, but was too polite, or lazy, to say anything. The guys looked to be greatly different in age, like one was in his forties, the other in his twenties. The guy in his twenties had glasses, longish blonde hair and was lankly looking. The older guy was bearded with dark scruff. I held up the water bladder and asked if they’d dropped it. One declared he had. He didn’t thank me but rather cursed himself for losing it. It’s hard to describe, but the guys had a seedy look to them. They were both smoking, but I couldn’t smell anything in the air—which doesn’t necessarily spell meth, but their behavior was erratic. I stopped for water, so it was hard not to engage in some conversation. I don’t remember how it happened, but at some point, I mentioned that my grandma lived in Flint, Michigan. The words were barely out of my mouth when the younger, lankier guy, yelled out some town name in Pennsylvania, ‘Red-’ something, and added ‘highest murder rate!’ before adding, “get you some!” and chicken pecking rather violently at me. I’d never seen anyone show so much energy anywhere on the Trail. I hadn’t been talking about Flint in any kind of ‘dangerous city’ way, so initially, I had no idea what the guy was talking about and thought it possible that he was totally deranged. I told him I never heard of ‘Red-bone’ Pennsylvania or whatever, but asked if that was where he was from. He muttered something in reply, shrank into silence, but continued making a sort of brazen eye-contact with me. The scruffy guy didn’t seem alarmed by his friend’s odd behavior and continued talking to me normally, but, alone there in the middle of this wilderness, with one guy acting nothing like any hiker I’d met in over 2,000 miles and the other sort of looking me over while I talked, like he wasn’t paying attention to what I was saying, I decided to get moving. I told the guys to have a nice hike and I continued down the Trail to the sound of the dog’s barking, gradually growing more and more distant.
I climbed up the next peak, scrambled up a boulder at the summit and ate lunch. The encounter with the grizzly duo, seemed to have used up some energy and I was starving. I worried that stopping would allow them to catch up to me and I didn’t relish the idea of having to talk to them again. After I finished eating, I was disappointed and even a little unnerved to hear feet on the Trail directly behind me, just as I was tightening my pack. I spun around, but was relieved to see two other hikers from the shelter the night before. I greeted them and continued on my way.
In the afternoon, I came to a somber-looking shelter perched on a small cliff, about 30 feet up from the forest floor. Someone had his stuff scattered all over, drying out after last night’s rain. I didn’t see anyone, but, dropping my bag to rest for a minute, I saw someone sit up from an incumbent position in the shelter, a groan followed. “Oh, hey, man,” the guy said, sitting up in his sleeping bag. We talked for a minute and he told me how he’d been sick and had to stay in Monson a few days. He thought he’d gotten over it, but, since last night, it seemed to be coming back. He started listing off the symptoms of an illness that sounded very unpleasant to have in the middle of the forest and as he talked, I tried not to make it obvious that I was edging away from him. Despite all the rain and the altitude changes and the chills at night, I had managed not to get sick the entire time I’d been on the Trail. In fact, waking up and hiking every day, I felt healthier than I ever did in my normal life. I almost felt like I was coming to believe in all that paleo-crap. I ate almost nothing but junk food, but living outside and walking all day seemed to agree with my constitution.
I told the guy I hoped he got better and shouldered my bag. I heard his head hit the shelter floor before I’d taken a dozen steps. “Ugggghhhh!” he groaned after me.
Past the shelter was another stream, but sitting by this one was a much more approachable-looking guy, the guy I’d seen leaving the shelter early that morning. He introduced himself as ‘Skinny Fat Man’ or SFM and we talked a little about the up and down topography of the Trail that day. SFM complained a little about climbing and descending over and over. I assured him that after Chairback Mountain, the walk all the way to Katahdin looked good.
I talked to a sobo,” I told him, “who told me after tomorrow, it’ll be like a red carpet all the way to Katahdin—maybe some roots and stuff, but no more climbs.” SFM seemed relieved to hear this. “Good,” he said. “Because I’ve got to finish on the fourth.” It was mid-day September first when he said this. “I’ve got to be back to report to the army on the fifth.” I’d talked to a lot of hikers since I’d gotten to Maine who had to slow down or speed up to catch a ride or meet families for their hike to the top of Katahdin. In fact, it seemed almost everyone was planning on meeting someone at the end. I couldn’t help but to feel a little saddened, thinking how when I got to the top, no one was going to be there to see it. When I had these thoughts, I had to remind myself that I’d undertaken the walk alone. It was my own endeavor and there was no reason to expect anyone else to share in it. Besides, meeting my family would just be distracting at the end. I wanted to wait until I was done before I saw them. SFM understood this, he was going to be alone on the top as well; he told me that he’d just broken up with his girlfriend of two years since he’d been on the Trail. I couldn’t help but to ask
Was it because you’ve been gone too long?
He paused for second before telling me that, to some degree it actually was. Over the next eight miles or so, he filled in all the details and the more I listened, the more I began to worry that perhaps I had made the same mistake. I tried to console SFM and myself by saying something like, ‘well, at least you were able to discover your relationship had problems.’ Thinking that any relationship that couldn’t withstand a four-month separation must have other flaws. “No,” he insisted. “Before I left, everything was fine.” Now I began to feel terribly worried. What had Gina told me the last time we talked? ‘the damage was already done?’ or something like that? I started to imagine her, in that moment, back in California, already committed to breaking up with me—just not wanting to do it on the phone when I was on the other side of the country, in the middle of the woods. I didn’t have service anyway. Maybe she’d already tried to call a bunch of times to break things off.
There was something at once relieving and terrifying about talking to SFM. I realized that I hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone since I’d started the second part of the Trail. For two months, I hadn’t talked to anyone about any subject much deeper than the weather. Occasionally, I had long phone calls, but it was different talking in person with someone. The topic of conversation unnerved me, but it also felt great to be talking about something important.
SFM and I walked into the evening, shortly after we’d met the Trail had leveled out, in places, it was some of the nicest ground I’d walked on since Massachusetts. I reached the shelter area just as it was getting dark. I was totally shocked to see that no one else was there. I hadn’t been alone at a shelter since Georgia. I’d camped alone in quite a few places, but never next to a shelter. It was almost spooky that there was no one there—shelters always had one or two people, at least. I tried to get SFM to stay. Even after hours of walking together, we were still in mid-conversation and I think we were both reluctant to break it off. But he couldn’t afford to stop so early. I’d seen this guy hitting the Trail about an hour before me this morning. I’d been hiking myself for about 12 hours and this guy still wanted to keep going. I was impressed, but when he suggested I come with him, I refused bluntly. I wasn’t in such a hurry that I had to walk in the dark, besides, I liked the idea of having the whole shelter area to myself.
Ok,” SFM told me. “You’ll probably catch up to me tomorrow anyway, like you did today.” He was right, he’d left nearly an hour before me and I’d caught up to him. So, it was certainly possible that I’d catch him again. We parted that night, both of us thinking we’d see each other again, but we never did. For the next few days, I asked everyone I passed if they’d seen him. No one had; only once did I get a report that he was seen leaving a beautiful campsite almost in the dark, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t stop and appreciate the place longer.
After SFM took off and I finished eating, I tried not to think that I’d done some irreparable damage to my relationship of five years. I worried for a while, but I’d done too much worrying when I’d first crossed in Maine to start again. After everything I’d gone through, I couldn’t help but to think that things would work out; somehow they always did.
That night I didn’t sleep much. I was beyond tired and even though I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, I couldn’t stay asleep. Several times in the night, I had to pee. I continued using a new trick I’d discovered back in Vermont. Instead of getting up, I could just roll over, open the flap and pee out from my tent. I had been doing this for nearly three states with great success. It was always really inconvenient to get up from an incumbent position on the ground, especially after a day of hiking when you’re awakened from a sound sleep.
Since I wasn’t sleeping, I was drinking more water than I usually did and I must’ve leaned over to pee three or four times. When I woke up in the morning, I was surprised by how strong the smell of pee was. ‘Guess, I didn’t lean out far enough. I thought to myself. But after I’d gotten up and had coffee, I discovered the what the problem had been. I’d been so tired when I’d come in last night and with the dark coming on, I hadn’t noticed that I’d pitched my tent in a shallow ditch. All night long, when I’d peed, it’d collected under my tent. I had to laugh as I rolled up my urine-sodden tent: I’d been living in the woods for more than four months, but I still didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t even manage to keep from peeing all over my tent. I used a wet rag to wipe the tent off the best I could and hoped that setting up early and leaving the tent out overnight, in the dew would take care of the rest.
The morning climb was easy and I was at the top of Chairback Mountain in about half an hour. On a clear day, one can see Katahdin from Chairback, but it was still early in the morning and the fog hadn’t lifted enough to see anything. It didn’t matter. I knew it was out there and I knew I was close enough to see it. The end was a near and tangible thing. After walking through mountains all summer, I knew that one of the peaks rising up ahead of me was the last one I’d go up before returning home.
The idea of home, however, was tricky. Coming down from Chairback, and feeling celebratory, I starting thinking about what I was going to do when I finished the Trail and realized I had no idea. Worse yet, I realized even thinking about what I was going to do was giving me a kind of anxiety I hadn’t felt the entire time I’d been out in the woods. If everything turned out, I was going to have to go to Albania at the end of September/early October. Before I left I had to go to California, see Gina, pick up some stuff and go to Michigan and see my parents. I didn’t know which place I would be going to first. I knew it would take me a while to get to Portland, Maine or Boston to fly out and I still had to figure out transportation while in Maine, but this didn’t really bother me. What was so agonizing was the decision to go to Michigan or California first. The life I had left behind was so thoroughly split in two I didn’t even know how to begin to reenter it.
The walk soon leveled out as I met the great ‘Red Carpet’ section leading to Katahdin. The Trail kept running alongside these creeks and streams. Every time the water bifurcated, the Trail would veer off down the tributary. Appropriately enough, the shelter I stopped at for the night, was also on a river. I still hadn’t solved the problem of where I was going first, but, as the day wore on, I gradually grew less interested in it and was able to almost stop thinking about it entirely. Still, I was unnerved by how difficult it seemed to be to make what should’ve been a simple decision.

Contrary to the population at last night’s shelter, the place I now found myself in, was nearly full. There were only three guys in the shelter itself, but along the river and up the hill, there must’ve been 15 tents. This gave me something to think about. Back in Monson, when I’d ‘registered’ to climb Katahdin, I had been told that the campsite at the base of the mountain—The Birches—only held 12 people at a time. The Birches campsite was ten miles north of the last shelter area on the Trail and five miles south of the summit of Katahdin (10 miles round-trip).I foresaw a great bottle-necking occurring here. I knew that everyone I was camping next to this evening, was planning on hiking Katahdin, as were all the people up ahead on the Trail. I decided I would just wait until I got up there before I started to worry about it and went down by the river to eat my dinner and watch the ribbon of sky overhead begin to darken for the night.