Baptism Through Fire-100 Mile-Wilderness
Circumstances Change for the Changeling
Millinocket, ME, Appalachian Trail Cafe- Outside the Wilderness there is a Moosehead Lake tourist town called Greenville. My father’s mother’s kin are buried there underneath a hundred year-old Yew tree. Some of my wisdom comes from those laid under the Yew, but just as the cemetery these New England towns are in decay: peeling houses, crumbling foundations, and the brightest store is a pharmacy. Signs in Piscataquis County blaze “Manhunt Under Way.” The suspected murderer of a girlfriend flees to the woods stealing from camps and what he can to live. This ominous sign rattles my mother who is about to drop me off.
My parents become section hikers in the wilderness of the 1/10 mile. They tread a trail dear to me leaving their imprint. The next day the 1/10 mile is the hardest to me. Hugging my parents, the last I see of them are their footprints in the soft Maine mud. My mother believes she’s dropped me off in the company of a murderer. I’m not as concerned, but I’ve never had a child so I really don’t know.
It was my intention to thru-hike from Katahdin SOBO, but than I was dropped off in Monson. That night my feelings changed from New England to Pennsylvania and the 1,200 mile section yet to be completed. But God I’m so happy to cut my teeth over White Cap and Katahdin. A gentle soul on the trail called the Wilderness, “a baptism through fire.” I didn’t train at all. I left a blank slate of emotion ready to be filled on the trail. Starting the trail almost felt like starting a new job, but the type of job I’ve done before. In the Wilderness, I took the persona of a seasoned hiker with trail legs and it was true. Mind rules, matters suck.
Knowing what I knew about my plans and what others didn’t, I encountered both fresh opinions and the entrenched. Chances are I wouldn’t see these folks again anyway.
NOBO’S are realists plumb tuckered out from 2,100 miles that they don’t seem to be there like waving your hand in front of someone sleeping. The Wilderness and Katahdin are just a formality. SOBO’s are fresh idealists loving everything about nature wishing to stop at the ample supply of lakes and rivers. They even take side trails bless their hearts. NOBO’s carry a wry smile for the SOBO’s, their beyond talking about gear or routines and don’t know how to answer hyperbolic questions of their hike. I’m fresh too, trying to feel the old ways of the trail and even ask some beginner questions that go unanswered. Oddly, I usually ask questions that I’ve already determined my position, but just wanting to hear validation. I really want a contrary answer so I have something to think about all day. Every action I justify and so does everybody else, because fuck it that’s why.
The takeaway: greenhorns are idealists and veterans are realists.
My planning was neanderthal. Slapping some stuff together and clearing the cobwebs of my mind, I blundered into the wilderness. Seriously, I straight up pretended that I was in shape and it worked. I forced my mind on my muscles back to my hike in 2010. It worked. It’s not supposed to, but it did. Time traveling back to my fit days I focused on that strength and used my periphery to enjoy the new forest. Moments stand out like islands of my last hike here, bringing them out whenever I reached it. It’s nice to fill in the voids of my lost memory and rearrange the parts I dismembered. Most of all, I remember my hiking companion “What-Time-Is-It?” and the memories we shared.
Balsam fir roots strangled the trail crushing the slate like so much butter in hand. The roots squeezed the water out of the dirt turning the trail into a soupy mess. This love child of the Pennsylvania rocks and Vermud is strewn across the Wilderness. This isn’t a true characteristic of the whole Wilderness. The predominant tree is the balsam fir and than birches, beeches, white pine, cedar, maple, and other temperate trees find their way in. Coming up West Peak, the balsam needles are shed from the neck down standing shoulder to shoulder plaqued with teal-green lichen. It’s sweet scent of growth blossoms in my nose and I’m refreshed all day long.
Descending down the stairs of White Cap, the balsams fade to a mixed forest of sumac and birch. The forest breathes and rain washes the floor clean. Rain from the night prior steams through the leaves, my pack, and head. A long ray of sunshine shoots through the steam creating this drawn out rainbow prism. The forest of sumac turns into balsam into the monochromatic bright green of moss. Each tree sits on it’s mound of moss and no roots show. Filling the void of mountains, the lowlands provide large grey millstones representing a small visage of the mountains. The last forty miles turns into this fairy-tale landscape of twisted roots, rocks, and bogs. The elevation is flat, but the terrain requires the footwork of a basketball player.
The harsh climbs of Gulf Hagas, West Peak, Hays, and White Cap going north melt away to steady descent that continues for many miles. So easy, I wish I had something to break up the day. This is easily done with talking to other hikers. I love how people “let go” and characterize their true selves. The filter is loosened and there is so much room in our heads to play around.
I bitch to myself all day long about stumbling and falling, but it all falls away when I take my pack off. Pushing for higher mileage, the last few miles always get to me and I start repeating “Potaywadjo” or “Sempo Sugihara.” Potaywadjo, a shelter in the Wilderness, starts sounding like “potato wedge.” I’m hungry and I keep thinking of potatoes and nearly to Carl A. Newhall I see a ziploc bag with two potatoes, an onion, and a can of albacore. Raw potatoes are poisonous to eat, I don’t have oil or enough gas to cook these, and no can opener. I’m righteously pissed and oh yeah someone littered that too.
Cooking my oatmeal, Ridge Rambler exclaims “what, are you on a diet?” Looking at my food bag, I realize I packed for a diet. Oatmeal for breakfast, scarce snacks for the day, and freeze-dried food for night. I was eating more on the road trip than when I was burning 4,500-6,000 calories a day. Yet, remarkably I didn’t have the hunger when I hit Abol Bridge.
Did I see Katahdin at White Cap. Nope. Pemadumcook Lake. Nope. Nesuntabunt Mountain. Nope. Rainbow Ledges. Nope. Abol Bridge, yes. I got the feeling I wouldn’t see Katahdin until I was finally climbing it. This time there was nothing to celebrate. “It would be a shame if I didn’t climb it since I’m here,” I said resigned to the task. Katahdin is beautiful as it is treacherous. Pushing out at 6 a.m., I’m the first one up to the sign while two other hikers from the Cathedral and Knife’s Edge come minutes later. Even on the mountain, I’m yelling to myself “great fucking view,” as I stare out into the fog. Even on Katahdin I cannot see out. We share pleasantries up top while a small songbird plays around the sign. A sign that is quite new, but seems like it’s weathered fifty years. Despite what I write, I’ll romanticize about it later.
Onto the Swatara Gap in Pennsylvania.
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