1300 Miles: Well That Was Fun.
I’m known for finishing what I start and am one of those horrible parents who raised the kids to abide by the same supposition. So the thought of, to borrow a current political euphemism, “suspending” my hike, didn’t initially sit well with me. I also don’t like the idea of becoming a statistic associated with throwing in the towel. But after hiking more than four months, nearly 1300 miles through eleven states and summiting Mt. Katahdin on August 23, I decided to head back home rather than flip south to finish the remaining miles from Rockfish Gap, where I began my thru-hike attempt on April 11.
But first, let’s back up a step. Summit day was clear and sunny. I was with members of my tramily and my husband, who had driven twenty-three hours to meet up with me at Baxter State Park, was by my side. It was, in short, an epic day.
The 5.2-mile trek up to Mt. Katahdin befittingly encapsulated my entanglement with the Appalachian Trail these past four months—flat, well-tramped dirt, roots, rocks, boulder scrambling and climbing. It followed a cascading brook, passed through birches, beeches and maples, then pines and Krummholz, finally emerging above tree line. It was glorious, harrowing, painful, fun, outrageous, stupefying, challenging and ultimately, magnificent.
As has been our pattern since Gorham, New Hampshire, the Northbound thru-hiker with whom I had been hiking the past three weeks, Spirit, reached Baxter Peak first—and waited for me to show up. I met another familiar face heading down a few tenths of a mile short of the summit. She told me it was both pretty cold at the top and that Spirit had collapsed at the foot of the iconic terminus sign sobbing at least forty-five minutes earlier.
My pace quickened.
Since the Whites, I’d been contemplating that Maine might very well be the end for me. I have tired of wearing the same frequently damp clothes, pulling on a wet bra each morning. It is no secret that I resent many parts of the trail’s foot-bruising and soul-wrenching architecture giving me the distinct impression designers could paint a white blaze on virtually any uneven surface knowing full well hikers will follow them like lemmings—and like lemmings, the trail has taken us over cliffs. And, Maine began to intimate what I was missing. Once I started passing by—and often swimming—in the northern lakes, I began to fancy taking my two year-old solo canoe that’s been shelved all season, repacking my remaining food and heading up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota for a few weeks yet this fall. I could be on the water vs. concerned with finding and carrying it. And the elevation changes are, by contrast, insubstantial. Then there is family. I’d be home just that much sooner to see my rapidly changing new grandson born back in May.
And so as I started to pull ahead of my husband, marching up over the littered rocks toward that sign, and searching for Spirit within the crowd, my heart was full of conflict. I expected to burst into tears. I expected an answer to become clear.
Instead. Spirit waved and enfolded me within a hug that will last a lifetime. We laughed and then I said I had to touch that sign still yards away. Quite likely, but apologetically, we jumped into line and took summit photos. We ate lunch protected by rocks out of the wind. And then, just like all of the other mountains summited, we simply headed back down.
Did rationalizing all the negatives ultimately account for why I stopped at Katahdin? Perhaps. Hatching a back-up plan certainly didn’t help. But I honestly did not make up my mind to suspend my attempt until we were one day away from reaching my next food drop back in Harper’s Ferry, and after I finally created a lengthy list weighing all the pros against the cons.
Five Reasons Why My Flip Flop Flopped
5) Heat and lack of water.
The reality of August temperatures in the mid-Atlantic states didn’t immediately register with me when I first starting meeting a suspiciously high number of thru-hikers heading south through Maine in August. With the exception of a handful who were indeed just starting out, turns out the “SOBOs” were actually flip floppers fleeing heat and lack of water. And here I was getting ready to head south, right into the El Niño frying pan. This is not a primary factor, but I’m using it to round out my top five list. Harper’s Ferry had been experiencing temperatures in the nineties for a week when I stopped to pick up my resupply box. On the other hand, I had few to no problems with water sources in the traditionally problematic states of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and the temperatures were pleasant, because I followed a flip flop itinerary first heading north.
4) Listening to my body.
From the get-go, I was told that my chances for success were increased due to my age and sex, a statistic or comment that I now cannot properly source. So–rumor has it that middle-aged women sustain less trail-ending injuries because it’s not beneath us to slow down and/or take the time to properly recuperate when in pain—in other words, we listen to our bodies. Even though my physical complaints will sound familiar to most long-distance hikers, it seems my body has been trying to get my attention for some time now. From plantar fasciitis to tendinitis to the latest bellows emanating from my left hip, swollen feet, and stiff knees that crack like knuckles, I decided to take heed. Besides, my family is already doing its part to keep orthopedic surgeons employed.
3) Just not feeling the trail.
I allowed Maine to betray me. Summiting mountain peaks weren’t stirring my soul, it was the mirrored sunsets on unbroken waters of a breathless lake, the haunting call of loons, the hushed stillness of a pine forest. I longingly gazed at Mooselookmeguntic, Rangeley and Flagstaff lakes, lakes that I have already paddled, as I trudged past them. Two of my best stealth campsites were located along shorelines. My thoughts began fomenting a canoe trip instead of hiking yet more elevation changes in pursuit of white blazes. And have I mentioned that I’m a Pisces?
2) My NOBO tramily.
Since Andover, Maine all my trail companions have either been Northbound thru-hikers who were ending their hikes atop Katahdin or section hikers. It wasn’t hard to become swept up into their finish feelings. I do wonder had I been traveling with a group of Flip Floppers, or even buddied up with another hiker following a similar itinerary, if my enthusiasm for the trail and a drive to finish this year would have endured. Turns out summiting Katahdin did feel like an emotional ending for me.
Regardless, none of the above reasons were individually absolute. The nail in the coffin, and the number one reason, became the reality I wouldn’t be able to finish hiking the entire length within the window of time I had available to do it this year. I hiked slower and took more zeros than initially calculated. The most miles hiked in one day was just under twenty-one. As recently as Day 106, I hiked over twenty miles, but that took all day and my feet were mutinous. I didn’t want to force myself into a situation where I’d have to sustain high mileage averages for the sole purpose of finishing on time—even if that were possible. And I regret none of my zeros including sixteen (versus a completely half-baked plan of seven to ten) days back home in May to welcome that new grandchild.
Then again, it could all just be due to my horoscope and the lure of water.
This trip remains remarkable not only in the distance traveled to date, but measured in the relationships amassed over the years and past weeks. From complete strangers who housed me for a weekend; to friends I’ve known since college who provided the opportunity to slack pack—and wear great loaner clothes; to friends I’ve only known for a few years who gave me rides, held parties, massaged my feet, shared cabins, hosted me in their B&B and provided moral support; to friends who even had me witness their wedding at a hiker hostel when I reached Monson; to friends back home who have sent notes, cookies, biscotti and wine; to new friends, united now by our shared experiences traversing the Appalachian Trail, this experience far surpasses a mere backpacking adventure.
I’ve been home now for three days—unpacking, reorganizing, planning. Last night I read a bunch of current hiker posts. I vicariously celebrate their successes even if photos of the rocky trail sections still make me throw up a little in the back of my throat.
Come next year—or whenever—I’ll see if the trail still insists I get back on the proverbial horse and finish. That door hasn’t been entirely closed. And as the saying goes, the trail will always be there. But for now, I’m heading off to sneak in that canoe trip I promised myself before friends and clients get wind that I’m back.
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I’m sorry I’m not going to see you down south, but totally understand you thinking. I’m heading south on September 15th from Marion, Va where I started in March. Fall should be coming on pretty quick and I’m looking forward to following the changing leaves to Springer. I’m definitely going to hike the northern half next year. I will either start at Katahdin in August or Harpers Ferry in May. I’m hot to do the PCT, but will probably do it over 2 or 3 years.
The boundary Waters have been on my bucket list for years! Have fun
Love your story. It is very affirming for me as I have struggled with similar decisions in my life’s journey. Starting something with gusto and excitement and then at some point, either because I’d lost the enthusiasm or because it finally dawned on me to listen to my body, making the decision to stop. Looking back now, I don’t regret any of those decisions. Have fun on the water!
I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts; you tell quite a good story. 1300 miles is a great accomplishment! Congrats and good luck on your continued journey thru life.
Why is this a flop?? You enjoyed half the trail. The other half awaits whenever you want, if you want it. Even if you do a week or a month or two more or none at all. Thru hiking is totally overrated and actually means zip when all the fanfare is over. There are no hard and fast rules or expectations on an AT hike. You did not fail at 1300 miles – you enjoyed a trip of a lifetime with lessons to carry you on in your life back home. That is the real triumph of a hike of 10, 100, 1000 or 2, 180.
You are a “Waterwalker” and I understand your need to follow the “Path of the Paddle!” Love you dearly!! So happy that you made it so far!! Hugs to you and your new grandbaby. Hope your B-dub trip was a great one. See you again soon (probably on the water 🙂
It’s great to hear stories from a group of people that I fit into, and the strategies used. I’m tacking notes for when I do my trip when I retire. Thank you for taking the time to write about your journey. ???
As someone about the same age, I loved following you on your trek along the AT. I remember reading, I think in AWOL’s book, if you wanted to thru hike the AT it had to be the most important thing in your life. Obviously you decided it wasn’t but I love that you got out and pursued your dream and probably got everything out of the trail you ever wanted or needed. Definitely something to be proud of and will provide memories for a lifetime. Enjoy time with your family and happy paddling!