Editor’s note: This is a reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent during his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.
A bit wordier, this one. If you’re pressed for time, search for “AFTERMATH” and scroll up.
MONDAY SEPTEMBER 15
My last email might have seemed somewhat rushed, as I was sitting in the Monson library using the “good” computer (and yes, there was a “bad” computer as well), with Oopala, Buffalo Bobby and Wizard all hoping to get on the internet. I also wanted to make somewhat of a dent in the 100 Mile Wilderness that afternoon, and the hour was growing late. I wander back to Shaw’s Boarding Home, gather my pack, and hop on the shuttle back to the Trailhead with Snowberry and Easy Rider. Arriving at 3pm, I assume my give-or-take average walking speed (2.7mph) gets me ten miles to the second shelter before dark. I assume the average walking speed because I am told the Trail is easy from here — just walking around ponds and stuff. “Easy” in this case is relative to the rest of Maine — fewer big ups, but still rocky and rooty. My pack is also food-heavier than it’s been in some time; I’m carrying six days worth.
So the walking goes slower than planned and I have to night-hike my last mile. I have fresh batteries in my headlamp, and the Trail turns easy for a bit, so the night-hiking is great. The night-fording, of the Big Wilson River, is a little dicier, but low water levels allow me to mostly rock-hop and keep the insides of my boots dry. Half a mile from the shelter, I cross train tracks that carry high-speed trains through the area: not terribly wildernessy, I think. Stumble into the shelter, where Starbuck and Woods were both surprised to see me so late.
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 16
Awaken to a gray day, eat and start walking. The plan is to hike 15 today to a shelter that is reported to be in a beautiful spot on a ridge. Walk past a dirt road where some day-hikers have parked their cars; pass a high-school group hiking up the mountain. By the time I get to the top, the rain is steady, and the boots are wet inside and out; it’s also a bit chillier than past days. I’ve passed the day’s second shelter and am about six miles from my destination when I cross a day-hiker going south in a big hurry. He tells me that a “gentleman” has hurt his knee, probably a torn ligament, and that he’s got to go. I tell him about the school group in case he needs to get in contact with anyone.
I know at this point that Seabee, Tipperary and Crazy Jim (did I mention that CMo’s cousin was doing the 100 Mile Wilderness with her?) were all just ahead of me, and based on the day-hiker’s exchange, I don’t know whether the injured gentleman is one of them or his friend. In about a mile, I come across CMo standing on the Trail and talking on a cell phone; and Tipperary sitting on the ground wet and shaking. My heart sinks — who wants to see one of their good friends walk over 2,000 miles just to be injured less than 100 miles from the end? — but I notice he’s simply holding a poncho over another shaking person. The mystery is then revealed: it is the day-hiker’s friend Frank, or as he would eventually reveal, “Motel Man.” Motel Man is a 68-year-old North Carolinian who says he has section-hiked the entire AT over seventeen years without EVER spending a single night in a tent or shelter. He was doing the 12-mile Barren/Chairback Range as a day-hike with his buddy when he slipped on a wet root, heard a pop, and was unable to move or put weight on his left knee.
Motel Man has come into the wilderness without dry clothes, emergency shelter, extra food… all in the “ten essentials” of hiking preparedness. The only things he has of any use are sufficient water, a cell phone, and a space blanket (the foil-looking one). Tipperary has a two-person tent, which he has already set up, and he is going to stay with Frank until help arrives. One of CMo or I should stay too, as two healthy people are better than one, and since Crazy Jim has already moved on to the shelter, I volunteer. CMo donates her foam ground pad — planning to sleep on extra clothes for comfort and insulation — and heads out.
I’ve been hiking for over five months now, and before today, I’ve never halted my hike at 1pm for anything but a town visit, so it takes me a while to accept that I should go ahead and pitch my tent, which I do in the steady rain. Motel Man manages to “walk” himself backwards on the Trail about 200 yards to Tipperary’s tent using his arms — we only hold his leg straight; I donate my dry shirt, and he curls up in his space blanket. Tipperary is cold and very wet, and inexplicably doesn’t have a warm jacket with him; since he’s basically on Motel Man duty, I give him mine. I take Man’s cell phone and retire to my tent, where I put my wet backpack onto the already wet floor, and wearing my wet clothes I slip into the only remaining warm thing I haven’t given away, my sleeping bag. The forest service ranger calls at 3pm, sets up another call time at 5pm; I nap, dreaming of dry places.
Let me explain now who Tipperary is, in case I haven’t already. He is a 62-year-old Irish priest, a great wit and perhaps the kindest soul on the Trail; is known and liked by pretty much everyone out here this year. When Mothmom was to pick me up in Vernon, NJ so many moons ago, she came to the road crossing a little early and found him there trying to figure out which way town was (it was over two miles away on the road), so she gave him a ride into and around town, mentioned the last name of “Heaney,” and a beautiful friendship was born. When she returned to pick me up, she asked who Tipperary was; I had at that point not even heard of him. (This is how the Trail works. I met him that night when she took me to the hostel in Vernon, but I first encountered him on the Trail in Massachusetts. She even wound up shuttling him around in Kent CT while she was up there slacking me and some others.) He was the perfect one of us to keep Frank company overnight but for his glaring lack of a warm jacket. So in the end, he provided the shelter and good company; CMo the early calm and decision making, and a ground pad; I, I think, simply warm dry clothes and a spare hand if one had been needed.
By 5pm, the ranger, along with two fish and game service wardens, have hiked up to our spot from a forest service road ending about a half mile away. The ranger is an EMT basic; he evaluates Man and determines he is stable; he sets up a bivy sack (basically a tent just a teeny bit bigger than your sleeping bag) next to Tipperary’s tent, and the others return to prepare for the extraction operation. I emerge from my tent to see if they need anything from me, return Frank’s cell phone, and retire to my tent (which now has a puddle on the floor) and sleeping bag (which is wet inside and out). Gorp (good ol’ raisins and peanuts) for dinner because I’m too chilled to set up my stove.
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 17
The wardens return at 6:30am and I emerge from my tent. The rain stopped overnight and the morning sky is a remarkable blue, blue like a clean deep lake more than a sky, bluer than any city or suburban sky I’ve ever known. The weather has allowed for a helicopter to be deployed to take Motel Man, who’s no-stay-on-the-AT streak has just ended but is in very good spirits considering his knee is severely injured and he’s about to be billed $6,000-$10,000 for his rescue operation, off to the local hospital. The wardens at this time don’t know whether they’ll need to clear an “LZ for the bird”: two of the three helicopters available to them need to land, while the third has a hoist that can lift the patient into the hovering machine. In case a landing zone is needed, they have brought chain saws, and they are almost saddened that they won’t get to use them when the Navy hoist helicopter appears.
Motel Man was on his way by 7:30am in what was an amazing, efficient and very confidence-inspiring extraction exercise. Tipperary and I kibitz with Doug, Russ and Adam of the Maine forest and fish and game services; we’ve all grown very fond of each other, they of us because we made their jobs much easier (not having to hurry up the mountain or bring shelter), us with them because they were such capable professionals, each other because everyone had a good sense of humor about the situation. The night before, before Russ and Adam left Doug there with us, they asked if we needed anything like replacement food for what we had or were about to feed Frank, and Tipperary asks not only for some extra stove fuel but a FLEECE JACKET; this morning, Russ has brought his wife’s jacket for Tipp, and I get my jacket back. I am awed by this maneuver almost as much as by the helicopter extraction. The three pack up Frank’s and their stuff and we say our goodbyes.
Tipperary leaves soon after and I spend a few more hours laying my stuff out to dry some, eating slowly, and pondering what’s just happened. The wardens were able to come into this “wilderness” with chain saws because it’s not a true federally-designated Wilderness, where operation of machinery would be prohibited; the 100 Mile Wilderness is the common name of this section, but it is not really a wilderness, in the same way that I am not really a moth.
Each day’s progress brings me significantly closer to the end of the journey; each 10 miles completed is as substantial as 100 miles was before. I climb up on to some high ledges overlooking a beautiful valley to the west, and lay out my stuff in the sun and dry breeze while eating lunch. I come across Tipp at the next shelter — the prior day’s original destination — and realize it has taken me over three hours to cover those five miles in good weather. I consider myself somewhat lucky that I didn’t try to negotiate the rocks the previous day in the rain. Tipp leaves before I do, but I catch him within a mile; he’s one of those just-over-2mph hikers, not-more-than-18-miles-a-day folks who simply doesn’t stop in the towns for very long, and thus is ahead of so many people he’s met. On this day, I have another 10 miles in me, and he’s thinking six more. I want to catch CMo and return her ground pad, and doing the math, that has me looking at 20’s or so every day. With a little more math, I realize this is probably goodbye for me and Tipp, and I say so; he responds “Ah, Mothman, only the mountains may never meet.” I practically break down in tears.
I drop down to a road (paved), then come to the first river that looks like I truly have to ford it. Starbuck, on the other bank with his boots off and eating a powerbar, verifies that I might rock-hop about 3/4 of the river, but the last 1/4 is impossible. Resigned, I walk in carefully over the slick rocks, never more than about 18 inches deep in water. It is invigorating. My boots have Goretex, a fabric that is seemingly designed to allow moisture in and keep it trapped there, but the truth is that the boots were still wet inside from yesterday’s rain. I empty water from the boots, ring my socks out, and proceed.
The miles up to that night’s shelter were gradually uphill and rooty, but paralleled a beautiful stream with many cascades. I walked through The Hermitage, a spot where pine trees that have never been felled still stand (as a point of reference, Shenandoah National Park in VA was pastureland prior to being reclaimed by the government in the 1930s; very few spots on the east coast have not been clear cut within the past 100 years), and past a trailhead for the Gulf Hagas, called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” a 5.2 blue-blazed side trail that many consider an essential part of this hike but that I simply don’t have time to complete today. (On a side note, Seabee is now being terribly honest about his blue-blazing as a way of cutting out miles or hard climbs. When I asked him in Monson whether he was going to do the Gulf Hagas, he responded, “A blue-blazed trail that ADDS miles? I don’t think so.”) Arrive at the shelter ahead of Starbuck; Siesta is already there. Sleep.
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 18
I awake with a sad thought: my beautiful appetite, which has seen me eat three breakfasts on one occasion, six plates of food from a Chinese buffet on another, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream BEFORE dinner on more than one occasion, etc., etc., won’t be with me much longer. It’s been fascinating to watch, and I’m somewhat lucky that I still have enough money that I can buy whatever food I want. I think about Skittles, who seems not to have had any money since before Harpers Ferry and usually eats dry ramen for dinner; and the others in cases similar, for whom the appetite hasn’t been a good thing. The flip side is that I carry more food per day than the average hiker.
I look at my data book, and I plan two lines of attack, one to get me to the summit of Katahdin on Monday (with bigger miles in between), and one to get me there on Tuesday, both of which are very doable assuming we don’t have anything like a major hurricane hit the coast in the near future. Either has me going 17-18 today. Eat and leave.
Six miles into the day, we’re at the top of White Cap, the “second-to-last big climb,” and the first spot with a decent view of Katahdin, 20 miles (60-some Trail miles) away. The day is clear and a little breezy, with some high clouds, and the view of the mountain is amazing. From up high (albeit 1,300 feet shy of Katahdin’s summit), you can tell that this mountain is different than the others. Mt. Washington in NH is 1,000 feet higher, but is on a ridgeline with other high peaks, and is a similar elevation change from the notch below, and is surrounded on the east and west by other impressive ridges of the White Mountains. Katahdin is 4,200 feet up from the valley below, and surrounding it are rolling hills for tens of miles on all sides. It’s the kind of view that makes you take a 90-minute lunch, which conveniently is long enough to get your boots almost all the way dry when you take them off.
I leave the mountain with Siesta, who has a pack half the weight of mine and is generally a much faster hiker than I am, and we spend the rest of the day walking extra fast and chatting about Trader Joe’s (he’s from Bethesda MD), music, how we’re getting home. The last four miles of day are on this smooth fast path, and we hit the shelter in good time. There are four southbounders: two women doing the Maine section, and two young men who have the world’s biggest backpacks — bigger than mine when I started even. They are the first of the “winter southbounders” I’ve encountered. They plan to finish in February or March (may be optimistic, since that has them in the Smokeys in January or February), and they are carrying such things as a hatchet and a palatial four-season tent; they are getting snow-shoes in a mail drop in New Hampshire. I deem them even crazier than the other southbounders I’ve met, but they are good fun and they’ve built a fire.
In our conversation, Siesta talks about his plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail next summer. The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada, through California desert before hitting the Sierra Mountains and whatever is north of there in Oregon and Washington. At 2,600-some miles, it takes a similar amount of time as the AT because, while gaining and losing more elevation, the trail itself is graded for pack animals and humans, and thus you don’t run into the same sorts of rock scrambles and bouldering exercises we’ve been through so far. Siesta’s not alone: I can think of four others who are planning the same. It’s amazing to me that anyone would want to put themselves through the same sort of daily pain and exertion ever again. On the flip side, the life of the backpacker is a pretty simple one: Do I have enough food to get to the next stop? How is my health and my gear? Am I making the progress I want? There are really no other important questions we face on a daily basis, and once you get adept at answering those three, life is very good.
Amazingly, I developed a small blister on my foot today, my first since PA.
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 19
Today’s Trail sentiment is over my boots. I had a pair of backpacking-quality boots to begin with; they were intentionally stiff to provide extra support required when you’re carrying 50 extra pounds. Every day my feet hurt, but I figured that was by design. They had seen significant stretches of rain in every state, and by Front Royal VA, having not had a chance to dry out completely in over two weeks, I experienced something called “boot rot,” where the flex point over the toe box had worn completely through. Each time I stepped in a deep puddle, water would stream in through the upper. So, just short of 1,000 miles, I retired the boots. Since at this point I was carrying a lighter pack, I went with a lighter, day-hiking-quality boot, hoping it to take me 600 miles, where I’d get another pair for the home stretch. Let me tell you, with the exception of an minor split of an external seem, the boots have held up remarkably, surviving the PA rocks, the Whites, southern Maine, Vermont mud, two straight weeks wet in MA… the souls are still sticky and my feet have never hurt as much as in the beginning.
I move slowly in camp but Siesta waits for me this morning, mostly to flirt with the ladies. We leave 8ish and the Trail is like a superhighway; we get to our lunch spot 9+ miles away in under three hours including a smoke break, and I figure we averaged 3.25mph, which would be my fastest pack-on speed so far. Siesta is a good hiking companion and certainly gets me moving, but at lunch he’s hungry and asks if I have any extra snack food. There are two ways to get food from other hikers. One is called “yogi-ing,” where you imply strongly that you would like food. In southern VA, I gave a CLIF bar and some poptarts to Tinkerbell when I learned he had run out of food the previous day, but he never asked for it. (In making subsequent small talk, he asked me how heavy my pack was, because my pack is tall and heavy-looking because I fit everything on the inside, unlike others who might pack their tents or ground pads on the outside. I say Oh, 45 or 50 pounds probably. That’s too heavy, he replies, mine’s only 35. Yeah, I ALMOST respond, but I’ve never run out of food. He got off the Trail a few weeks later.) Asking for food sort of falls into a second category of “begging” and is considerably less cool than yogi-ing, which is by no means cool. I throw Siesta some crackers and hang out to catch up on my journal at this beautiful and serene lake while he takes off.
A few miles later, I duck over to another pond with a reported view of Katahdin, and I find Starbuck there with his eyes stuck on something to the left. When I clear the trees near the shore, I see it. “Katahdin” is the Penobscot word for “greatest mountain,” and, finally down on the valley floor, it is clear why. The mountain, impressive from the high view, is breathtaking from below. It rises from the earth like a Rocky Mountain, and it’s still a good 10-15 miles away.
So now let’s go over my “wilderness” experience: I’ve crossed several accessible dirt roads, a paved road, and a high-speed train track; met day hikers and a school group; in the next two days I would pass picnic tables and a boat launch, and hear half a dozen seaplanes flying above; I’ve heard the noise of logging operations and logging trucks when I’ve been near industry-owned land; I’ve met wardens with chain saws and seen a helicopter rescue. I had packed food enough to get me straight through the 100 miles to maintain the purity of the experience, but given the experience to date, I think it’s only fair to change my plans and visit the last hostel, the Whitehouse Landing Wilderness Camp. Located a little over a mile off the AT is an air-horn at a lake. Blow the horn and the camp owner comes across the lake to pick you up using his motorboat. If you stay overnight ($15, bunkhouse), he will drop you off about a quarter mile from the AT; if you’re just in for a burger (3/4 lb cooked) or pizza or Trail food, he takes you back to where you blew the horn. Some call this extortion; I call it capitalism, which is decidedly un-Democratic of me. It’s nice to have $15 to stay indoors AND save the 3/4 mile of walking. Siesta doesn’t have this so he yogis/begs half a pizza out of another hiker I hadn’t met, bickers about the prices of everything including the two sodas he drank (note that we are in somewhat of a wilderness), and heads back to the Trail.
I wind up staying overnight, eating only one dinner but a record-setting four deserts, and sharing in the company of Starbuck; a southbounder named Verb who is both a little clueless and has a terrible sense of humor about it — I give him a few weeks tops, since you have to be in somewhat decent spirits at the start to have any chance out here; Medicine Man, 2-Step, and Swiftsandal, all of whom I’ve been catching up to for a few weeks now; and, in a joyous reunion, Loa, who I met 20 minutes before I met CMo way back in GA, and whom I have not seen since NJ. Several men on the Trail have “pink blazed” with her for stretches, but she hiked a big section with her boyfriend out of Waynesboro VA, ending the hope of so many. We catch up and relish the fact that the remnants of Hurricane Isabel are blowing in overnight, when we will be under a roof. She also lets me know that Seabee had been carrying an extra ground pad, which he has given to CMo, so the pressure is off for me to catch her.
As two of you kindly forwarded to me, the New York “Times” featured an article today about the pilgrimage of AT thru-hikers through the city of Salisbury CT. I think the focus of the article was of Salisbury as a “weekend getaway” for New Yorkers, and featured the perspective of the townspeople exclusively. This is consistent with my comment from my Dalton MA email that Salisbury is the city where I felt most like a space alien. Perhaps the reporter tried to approach some thru-hikers, but they only spoke in clicks and grunts, or tried to eat his notepad.
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 20
Happy Mahwah (NJ) Day! While I’m sorry I didn’t make it up the mountain today, the weather is still bleak, and 46 Trail miles away, I made it pretty close to my original schedule. I never actually figured out if we had a town flag for me to plant in the ground at the summit anyway.
The weather radio at the Wilderness Camp tells of the potential for rain on Tuesday, the most logical summit day for me since I stayed here overnight instead of going on. A new possibility emerges, of walking short days to each of the remaining shelters, and summiting on Wednesday.
The “all you can eat” breakfast turns into “all Steve can cook,” but a few extra English muffins and I’m pretty full. I get out on the second boat, cross paths with those on the first boat, find a nice sand beach at a lake to catch up on more journaling, and when I get to the first shelter, I find Tipperary, Snowberry and Easy Rider. They, with Starbuck, are pushing on; Loa and Medicine Man are staying. I’ve never been good at short day’s — only 8 miles so far — so I push on. Bad choice: within two miles, I get soaked in another rain storm, but the clearing of the storm is beautiful, and the second shelter is a pretty site chock-a-block with section hikers.
Today’s Trail remembrance is of the sounds. Away from roads and towns, and without a radio, the forest makes music, soft and occasionally punctuated. Birds, the chirping territorial red squirrel, the moaning of dead trees, the rumble of thunder in a valley below, wind, rain, a spectrum of river flow. I wake in the middle of the night to pine needles softly sliding off of my rainfly, and stick my head out of my tent. On the Trail, you’re mostly under tree cover, and you’re almost always too tired to go to a clearing, but on this night, the tree cover is fairly thin, and the nearest city (Quebec) is hundreds of miles away, and I admire how many more stars there are here.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 21
Beautiful morning. This is the day Pace had targeted as his summit date, and I am envious. I change my plans: instead of stopping 13 miles away at the penultimate shelter on the Trail, I decide to push on another two to the campground at Abol Bridge. It will cost $8, but puts me in the shadow of Katahdin; Abol Bridge features the “postcard view” of the mountain. There is, of course, also a campstore there, so maybe I can get some good snacks.
I walk six miles along Rainbow Lake — the longest stretch along a single lake — and take lunch on Rainbow Ledges, 800 feet up with a great view of Katahdin again. Previously, I discussed the difference between those who recently started extending the journey with shorter days, and those pushing towards the goal with normal to long ones. I’ve been in the latter group, and each vista of my destination draws me towards it even more. Whereas 120 miles ago I finally became pretty certain I could hike this whole Trail, the approach has lost its sense of inevitability now, replaced by the sense of wonder and awe.
I pull into the campstore, now 15 miles from the top of the mountain, and find Tipperary, Starbuck, Snowberry, Easy Rider, and another hiker, introduced to me as Wildflower. In another case of How The Trail Works, Mothmom drove her around, gave her some sandwiches, etc., when she brought me to Vernon to trail run a few months ago. Despite being that close to Wildflower, I never actually met her on the Trail until today. She had finished on Friday, turned around and was hiking south until October 1, when her flight home was scheduled. This way, she gets to run back into old friends and, in my case, meet new ones.
We all get a site and I buy some canned ravioli and Progresso soup for dinner, real treats since they are not ramen or couscous. Tipperary buys beer for everyone, not the first time a priest has provided me booze, but certainly the coolest. Wildflower mentions that the 10 miles to the base of Katahdin are very easy. At almost the same time, Easy Rider hears on his radio that tomorrow is supposed to be nice, Tuesday has a strong chance of rain, and after that the forecast is fuzzy. We eat and retire to our tents.
In a shelter register I read a few days ago, a hiker named Dred wrote a long entry I wish I had copied down. The essence was that Maine has been the AT’s final exam: mountains like New Hampshire, rain like Virginia, rocks like Pennsylvania, rain like Georgia, bugs like New Jersey, rain like Massachusetts, and so on. However, with autumn setting in, and the bright red maple leaves contrasting with the dull yellow of birch and constant green of pine, the fallen leaves have formed a “red carpet” for our arrival. It’s true: I had spectacular weather in New Hampshire versus pretty good weather in Maine; the mountains in southern Maine are very nice, they are not as stunning as the Whites; the pond walking not much different than MA or VT; and the “Wilderness,” well, I hope I’ve explained that. With all of that said, I agree with everyone else I spoke to about this: Maine has been the reward for our time and effort. The other 13 states and 1,900 miles featured some nice scenery and serious hiking, all of which now seems as training for our time here. It’s as if the Trail said “congratulations, welcome, and enjoy” once we crossed the state line.
But now you’re me, and you hear that your target end date has weather forecast very much like the day you started. Is that a fitting end? You have enough food to hang out at the base of the mountain for a Wednesday summit, but your gut doesn’t think the weather on Wednesday will necessarily be much better. Tomorrow, though, you can see a line where you can actually finish with a chance of views and dry climbing. It would turn into a 20 mile day from here, but your last 20 on this hike. Snowberry and Easy Rider are planning to get up at 4am, leave at first light, and summit; and they are the ones with the weather radio. What do you do?
I rearrange some of my gear, journal and go to sleep, figuring I’ll just see when I wake up.
MONDAY SEPTEMBER 22
The Golden Road, a logging road, crosses the Piscatiquis River on Abol Bridge. Logging trucks run I guess whenever they want to. I’m awaken by one especially loud truck, and check my watch: 2:20am. It’s time to make my bum rush on the mountain.
The sky isn’t clear at all, but I can see the silhouette of Katahdin so I know the cloud cover is high. If I get to Katahdin Stream and the weather is not good, I plan to stay there and figure out plan B. As quietly as possible, I pack up my stuff, eat breakfast and leave. Everything happens slower that early in the morning, so I don’t leave camp until 4am, continuing the roadwalk and wide path until I hit the kiosk at Baxter State Park at 4:30.
Percival Baxter was governor of Maine in the early 1920’s, and as I understand the story, he tried to have the legislature purchase the swatch of land around Katahdin for a protected state park, to no avail. After his term as governor, he bought the land himself, and gave it to the people of Maine upon his death, with the stipulation that there never be any development in the park. To this day, there is no electricity, running water, or paved roads; no domestic animals are allowed in. Either from his original bequest or through subsequent donations (I don’t recall), the park now has over 200,000 acres under management. Entry to the park is free for Maine residents.
The Trail is easy and well groomed; the white birch stand sentry for my arrival. After this much hiking, I’m using my headlamp to find the direction of the Trail, but my feet are finding their own way against the treadway. I follow a river for a ways, pulling over at a cascade that I can’t see just to listen. By 6am it’s bright enough to turn off the lamp. By 8am, I’ve arrived at a campground that features an unobstructed view of Katahdin, also reflected in a pond. By 8:30am the sun starts to break through the high cloud cover, and by 9am I’m registering at the ranger station at Katahdin Stream. There are throngs of thru-hikers ahead of me, all of whom stayed at the camp last night, and they have started up the mountain between one and three hours before I do. The weather is getting better though (although, and nobody knew why later on that day, the weather was rated Class II, meaning above-treeline hiking was not recommended; one hopes for Class I, and Class IV means the mountain is shut), and I’m pretty committed to this now. I put all the gear I won’t need for what is now just a day-hike (tent, sleeping bag) in a pile in the ranger station so to not carry the extra weight, and start up at about 9:30am.
The Trail up starts easy, gradually climbing to Katahdin Stream Falls. The rocks start mingling with dirt around here, and within another half a mile, the rocks are winning. Suddenly, the rocks are much bigger, and by the time you hit treeline (which 2,000 feet of the mountain are above), you’re looking at boulders the size of those I described from the Mahoosuc Notch — you know, the one that took me 2.5 hours. You’re not going under rocks like there, but you’re always going up. The trekking poles are worthless here. It’s a reminder of how flexible my legs are, and how underutilized my arms have been. I pass Woods, who is hiking with his mother, sister and brother-in-law, on the way up, and several hikers who just finished — including CMo, Crazy Jim, and Seabee — on their way down.
And then, suddenly, the big rocks end, and the Trail hits the high ridgeline featuring easy walking and a view of the top. It’s 1.6 miles from here, less than an hour, and I almost don’t want to go on. Five and a half months reduced to pictures and experiences and another hour of hiking; it’s a moment where the whole hike almost passes before my eyes. It’s also the most breathtaking 1.6 miles of the Trail, especially with only a few white puffy clouds left in the sky. There is just valley below, mountains from two weeks ago off in the distance, and this amazing ridgeline left to walk.
At about 12:30 that afternoon, I make it to the wood sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, touch the last white blaze with my hand, and with joy, sadness, and enormous pride in my achievement, thus complete my adventure.
There were approximately 15 people on the summit: a few day-hikers, a thru-hiker and five family members, a group of five “thru-hikers” who I passed long ago and were known to yellow-blaze to get where they needed to — only one of whom I knew — and a park ranger. No kidding, within one minute of my summiting, two of the yellow-blazers got engaged. I got the requisite pictures of me behind the terminus sign; the crowd left; and I had about ten minutes alone before the next groups of day-hikers arrived. I ate quite a lot for lunch, took almost all of my remaining pictures, decided not to smoke my victory cigar quite yet, just admired the sights.
Nobody really thinks about the hike down, although it generally takes longer to get down than it does to get up. I, however, feel this huge relief of having finished, that if I happen to hurt myself now, yes, maybe I’ll have to be airlifted out, and maybe I’ll need to pay $6,000-$10,000 for the rescue, but I won’t have jeopardized the thru-hike; and I find that I actually hike and boulder easier, better now. No doubt, though, my knees are screaming when I get to the bottom. On the way down, I pass Woods and crew, as well as Snowberry and Easy Rider, who are surprised that I beat them out of camp.
Everyone but Seabee is at the ranger station, and I get a ride into Millinocket with team CMo, check into a hotel that I finally don’t need to share with someone I’ve only known for a few hours, call Mothmom to arrange pickup and return to NJ, and we all head out to dinner. Seabee and his buddy joins us there, and we have one last good time. Returning at 9ish, I consider walking down to the bar that all the others were planning to meet at that night, but, you know, woke up at 2am that morning and walked 20 miles, was a little tired.
I slept restlessly and woke early; try to keep myself entertained by SportsCenter and Headline News until the continental breakfast starts up. Team CMo, Snowberry, Easy Rider are all there. Since I stopped drinking coffee in the woods on the fourth day, I decide to start life without caffeine addiction, and pour myself a cup of decaf or “placebo” coffee. Everyone splits up, and I walk the mile or so into town. More ambling than walking because of the pain (today, coincidentally, being the 4-month anniversary of when I started taking Vitamin I — ibuprofen — almost every day), I still would rather do this than rest.
Yet the town visit is strange because I don’t have to do any of the things one normally does on a zero — laundry, groceries, maildrop. Without any of these things, I’m basically just a tourist. It almost feels like I should be back on the Trail; but there are no more white blazes for me to follow, a harsh reality that is still setting in as I write this. For the whole time I was hiking, I had flexibility over my schedule, my pace, the people I kept as company, the places I stopped, the towns I visited; but because I approached the hike as a “purist,” the white blazes were always there to tell me where to go next. Life as “Jim” is trickier than I remember!
Mothmom arrived that evening; we ate and got ready to leave early. At 8am we checked out and drove into Baxter. She was startled by the sight of the mountain, but by the time we got into, clouds had surrounded the previously clear summit. Some hikers including Dred and Medicine Man were at the campground, and provided the run-down on everyone who went up that day: Loa, Starbuck, Face and Blaze, Leapyear… sounded like a fun group, but I think I had better weather. (Tuesday’s weather was pretty bad, as predicted.) Exiting the park, we startle an adult black bear on the road; only fair, since I never did see a moose. We took the long way home to NJ, across Maine and through three of the scenic notches in the Whites before heading home. Her 9 hour drive up turned into a 16 hour marathon journey home.
I find myself returning to a world different than the one I left, a world where people watch as a woman deceives men into loving her for a cash prize on national TV (why are we rewarding this?), a summer of bad movies and Bennifer, and one where, other than the passing of several favorite cultural icons, the major news story while I was gone was that we apparently won a war. Cars are uglier, nosier and faster than I remember. I go to the supermarket looking for fruit or yogurt or breakfast treats, and the wide selection of useful and useless products leaves me as befuddled as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (who, strangely enough, I kind of resemble now). I have the feeling that a new journey is just beginning.
Shoutout to all of you who offered your best wishes along the way. Shoutout especially to those who told me that the AT had once been a dream of theirs too. I hope that through my writings, you have vicariously hiked the Trail yourself, because heaven forbid I ever recommend that anyone actually do what I’ve done.
Shoutout to those of you who provided me stuff: Yolanda and Evangeline for the care packages, Erin for the bandana (which served as my dish cloth — trust me, this was an esteemed position in the bandana caste system), Ken and Karen for the Swiss Army knife.
Shoutout to Gene — who I gave the Trail Handle of “Spiritual Advisor” — who took me under his wing and provided me with great advice about long-distance hiking, gear, cutting weight, intricacies of the AT; took me on my only backpacking trip prior to starting the hike; and, on one rainy and dreary weekend, brought me Doritos and cookies and outside-world company.
Shoutout to my other day-hiking buddies: Deb and Peter in MD, Jeff in NY.
Shoutout to my hosts, John and Judy in Alpharetta GA (the 2003-04 Pro Basketball Prospectus will be hitting stores very soon), and Chris and Krista in Rutland VT (ski Okemo). What a welcome way to start my trip, and what a lovely way to get out of the Vermont rains.
Shoutout to my drivers, John (to the south terminus) and Uncle Jim and Aunt Pat (reunion). Shoutout to Crazy Jim for 30 miles of slackpacking.
Shoutout to Debra, Chip, Morris, Laurie and Cecil at IBM, whose understanding, support, and navigation of the crazy IBM internal systems made my leave of absence possible.
Shoutout to the dozens of people I am happy to call my fellow Americans, and in some communities churches, who provided me and my compadres food, drink, shelter and transportation at times when we needed these, asking nothing in return but our thanks and good behavior. Trail Magic makes the Trail magical.
Shoutout to the hundred-plus hikers I met along the way. Without others around, I would have thought myself crazy to do this; with others, I realized I was still crazy, but in good company. Their advice and friendship and, in the case of Fatman, extra stove, made this trip what it was.
A special shoutout to my supply chain manager extraordinaire, Deb, whose reliable and thorough maildrops made my visits to towns so much less complicated than they otherwise could have been. She’s available to coordinate YOUR next adventure; mention “Mothman” for 10% off her normal rates.
And a final shoutout to Mothmom, for a little of all of these. Without her love and support, sodas and cold cuts, and hours and hours of driving, I don’t think I’d be reporting my success today.
AND ONE FINAL THING
I promised I wouldn’t be preachy or emotional in an early email, but I’ve learned something this year and I want to share it. I first had the wacky dream to hike this Trail about two and a half years ago, and spend a bit of mental energy preparing myself for it up until the time I finally left. I sunk a good bit of money into the trip, put my job in some peril, left family and friends and singing groups for six months, significantly increased my chances of long-term overuse health problems like arthritis. The AT is an adventure I would never recommend to anyone; but at the same time, it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I’m glad that I was able to identify and act on the opportunity to take it.
If you have already or are currently living a dream, my hat is off to you; I understand now. If you have a dream, do your best to make it happen. Life is short, and you owe it to yourself to at least give it a shot. Even if I had ducked off the Trail at the first road crossing in Georgia, I would have been happier knowing I tried than if I had never tried at all.