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.