What do we do given life?
We move around
Solitude, reach for light
Reach or slide
We move around
—Stephen Stills, “Move Around”
[On August 1 I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to complete my 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail backpack trip. Coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since my wife “rescued” me from thrombophlebitis near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, after which I was sidelined for nine months. This entry effectively finishes my A.T. travelogue. I’ll probably offer some sort of denouement later, a clean green ribbon to wrap up the whole series.]
The so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” which extends from Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge at the foot of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park presented a few surprises.
First, it is not truly a wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964. It is not federal land that restricts habitation and motorized vehicle activity. There are private cabins, gravel logging roads, and even an active sawmill whose racket can be heard from the trail.
Second, it is more rigorous than I was led to believe. There are two significant mountain ranges: the Chairback and Whitecap ranges, plus several individual, smaller mountains. There is also much twisting, turning, and root, rock, and boulder negotiation, especially during the first 50 miles.
Third, there were far more hikers than I envisioned. I expected thru-hikers and sectioners. But I also encountered day hikers. Even a family picnicking on a sand beach at Nahmakanta Lake.
For someone hoping for peace and solitude on relatively easy trail, this was all a bit disconcerting.
The good news is that I maintained my daily hiking average of 15 miles, arriving at Abol Bridge in my predicted six-and-a-half days’ time. I had more than enough food to sustain me the entire way (supplemented by wild blueberries and huckleberries for vitamin C).
A large number of veteran backpackers evidently didn’t feel confident about preserving a requisite quantity of food in their packs, since many relied on food “drops” by hostelries at one or more gravel roads. This surprised me. One of the appeals of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, in my opinion, is the challenge of shunning outside support and relying on your own preparedness.
I’m assuming there were the ubiquitous slackpackers using vehicles to haul their gear, since I met several northbound (NOBO) hikers with small packs headed in the opposite direction.
There were a few highlights. I was reunited atop Little Boardman Mountain with old friends Hums and Checklist, a young married couple from southern Indiana whom I’d met just before the New Hampshire-Maine state line. We later found great overnight spots at Antlers Campsite on Jo-Mary Lake, replete with swimming, blueberry picking, and the eerie sound of a distant loon. Thru-hikers Chef Decker, Pi (from Germany), and a southbound (SOBO) section hiker named Solo completed the Antlers group.
Our tents flooded that night from a torrential rain. Wet gear, especially wet boots and socks, is one of the banes of backpacking, but we had fun for at least a few hours.
For the second time I bumped into Warren Doyle, the dean of Appalachian Trail hikers, who has thru-hiked more than any other hiker (nine thru- and nine section hikes) and runs a school for aspiring A.T. backpackers. (He’s also controversial with some people, promoting athletics on the trail and violating regulations that he dislikes.) Doyle and a sweet woman aptly named Sweet Potato were at a gravel road and treating poor Pi, who had either tripped or fainted, then fallen, consequently restructuring her nose and left eye.
Another highlight was having Little Beaver Pond to myself for my final night in the Wilderness. This pond was a quiet surprise. It’s a concealed sub-lake that spills into the eastern tip of larger Rainbow Lake.
There is no sign for Little Beaver on the A.T. There is a sign for Big Beaver, but considering Big Beaver is 0.7 miles down a side trail, few hikers bother to walk it. But just a tenth of a mile down this blue-blazed side trail is a tiny sign with an arrow that reads “Little Beaver.”
I pitched my tent in a small oval of dry pine needles, the pond 100 yards below. Surrounded by blueberry bushes, I devoted an hour to plucking ripe berries until my baggie was heavy. These I gorged on later for dessert, then again for breakfast next morning. In between I watched the sun set over the towering pines that rose over the shore of Little Beaver, while stoking a modest fire, smoking my “peace pipe,” and pondering the immensity of Mother Nature.
It’s a cliché, but out here your ego dissolves and you can feel your insignificance. This is good. It’s something one doesn’t often feel elsewhere, and it’s one reason why so many of us, ever since John Muir, flee to the mountains.
Rejuvenated by Little Beaver, I burned almost 18 miles next day to exit the Wilderness at Abol Bridge and reach base camp at The Birches campsite for my Katahdin climb.
The Birches is set aside for distance hikers intending to hike Baxter Peak, tallest point on Katahdin. It’s located about a quarter-mile from family-friendly Katahdin Stream Campground. This separation ensures the Griswold family won’t be disturbed by the sight of dirtbag backpackers getting wasted or peeing in the woods. But for us hikers, it means a long slog to the stream just to fill our water bottles.
Only 12 hikers are permitted to camp at The Birches on any given night. On the night of July 31, I was sixth out of seven hikers to sign up. The others were Checklist, Hums, Heat, Chef Decker, Trash, and Wet Willy. (The last-named was a really fun fellow, but he had two blown knees and had no business being with us.)
Around suppertime, Ranger Pete Sweeney dropped by to collect our registration cards and ten-dollar camping fee. He also gathered us around the fire ring like a benevolent schoolteacher to discuss the sacredness of the mountain to native peoples…and to discourage us from celebrating too raucously at the peak.
I didn’t sleep much that night due to my excitement. I’d come 2,185 miles and now had only five miles left. So many times I’d wondered if I’d ever finish this Sisyphean venture, and it was hard to fathom the end was looming.
We rose from our sleeping bags with the first rays of sunlight (except Wet Willy), packed our gear, then hiked to the ranger station to trade in our heavy packs for lighter day packs. I felt somewhat guilty about this, since I’d thus far prided myself on hauling my home on my back the whole way. My justification was that a heavy pack up Katahdin could be extremely dangerous, plus there was no camping at the summit that required a full pack. Also, with this short, five-mile “slackpack,” there would be no unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.
So I pulled out my Gregory day pack and filled it with peanut butter, tortillas, Clif bars, and my water flask. Going suddenly from 40 pounds to five pounds felt like heaven, especially with all the adrenaline pumping through me. I whisked through Katahdin Stream Campground, offered a knowing nod to Chef Decker (whose family was joining her for her final climb), and began my 5.2-mile ascent up the legendary mountain.
Katahdin is not easy. The climb starts with a glide on gently sloping soil, then steeper dancing on rocks, then gymnastics on extremely vertical walls of boulders. Some of the smoother boulder sections have rebar to assist climbers, this man-made addition courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.
But I had time and adrenaline on my side. Each day throughout my hike I had one song that I would whistle or hum to help my frame of mind. Today I gustily sang out loud about a dozen of my favorite tunes—from Burt Bacharach to The Byrds—not even caring if anyone else heard me.
About a mile from the summit begins The Tableland, a sea of rocks where the A.T. (here known as “Hunt Trail”) is delineated by stone cairns. This is cloud country, and the wind and chill increase dramatically. Suddenly, I see a group of hikers gathered near what looks like an oversized wooden sawhorse.
“Omoo!” “Omoo!” they shout. Heat, Hums, and Checklist have already arrived. There are hugs and congratulations all ‘round. We collectively soak in this magical moment.
As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1805: O! the joy.
We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures and responding—with as much humility as we could muster—to the day hikers’ many questions. Hiking compatriots Lobo (a biology teacher from Richmond, Virginia), Zippy Morocco (a Triple Crowner from Missoula, Montana), Rabbit, Trash, and Chef Decker arrived later. Cell reception was no problem at 5,300 feet, so I called Lynn to let her know I was okay, and I’d soon be home to take care of the moles tearing up our lawn.
Although I could have hung around the peak all day, I knew the climb down would be equally treacherous and cumbersome, plus I planned to thumb a ride into the town of Millinocket, so I reluctantly descended. A few hikers were still ascending. The last one I saw was Wet Willie. (It turned out he did reach the peak, despite the admonitions of his partner, Trash. However, on the descent he fell, gashing his head and breaking his glasses. He didn’t reach the hostel in Millinocket until well after dark.)
All of the August 1 summiters reunited at the Millinocket hostel, except Heat and Lobo, who were elsewhere with their families. We shared three large pizzas at Angelo’s (their white pizza was exceptional) and also, of course, shared our thoughts about the trail. Next day I joined Checklist and Hums on a shuttle/bus trip to Bangor. They flew home to Indiana, but I stayed over another night to decompress and celebrate with Maine lobster roll. (TIP: if you visit Maine and want fresh lobster, it helps if you’re near the coast.)
Since my start at Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 2, 2021, I spent over 160 nights on the Appalachian Trail, most of them in a one-person tent. About once a week I got either a motel room or stayed in a hostel to shower, eat, buy provisions, and clean my clothes. The animals I encountered included one bear, four beavers, two porcupines, two foxes, one rattlesnake, one copperhead (whose head I stepped on), one water snake, several black snakes, one bald eagle, one Northern goshawk, several grouse, and dozens of whitetail deer, red squirrels, chipmunks, orange newts, and toads. I hiked around multiple piles of moose scat but never saw one.
I met hundreds of distance backpackers and liked almost all of them. They ranged in age from 19-year-old Cole, whom I encountered north of Buena Vista, Virginia, to intrepid 80-year-olds. Women hikers were just as prevalent as men. A few hikers were transgender. Many backpackers like me walked solo, while others found security in a trail family (“tramily”).
Only one backpacker my entire hike recognized my trail name, asking “Isn’t that a book by Herman Melville?” when we identified ourselves. It was in southern Virginia at exactly the one-quarter mark. He was about 30 years old, a former thru-hiker now doing a SOBO section. His name was Deep Roots.
I met a number of eccentrics and heard about others. They ran the gamut from the motor-mouth ex-boxer at Niday Shelter to a man named Leafblower, who hiked with a large…what else?…leaf blower, and always rented an extra hostel bed for his machine.
My emotions also ran the gamut. Hiking alone, I often mulled over my past: vacations I took as a child, old friends. I constantly thought about my loved ones, especially my deceased parents. I’m not religious—in fact I’m agnostic—but I could sense my parents’ spirits being with me. Once, while alone atop Mount Washington in early morning, the grey clouds broke briefly to reveal a layer of blue sky with higher, wispy, white clouds. This serendipitous event coincided with my thinking of Mom and Dad.
But despite my sentimental moments and occasional bouts of loneliness, only once did I get choked up. It was on top of Katahdin while talking to my wife. I told her that hiking this trail was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally. It was harder than leaving home, than any job, than any marathon race. Raising a family was difficult, but she helped me with that. This thing, however, was all on me. I told her there were times of discouragement when I wondered if my hike would ever end.
Now…it was finally over. And I really felt it.
For my next adventure I’m planning a solo canoe trip on the Charley and Yukon Rivers in north Alaska. After all…we move around.
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