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 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.