Day 160: Another Day in Paradise

Pay Attention or You’ll Get Lost

JW pulled out of the gravel pit, took a left, and headed for the trailhead before I finished getting organized this morning. Five minutes later, I finally had everything ready, so I fired up the van, and took a right, making sure Northstar paid attention to all the turns she’d need to make when she picked us up.

You’re probably way ahead of me on this one, but I must have been a little groggy this morning. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Nahmakanta Lake outlet. We drove around to all the possible parking spots, but still couldn’t find JW’s van. I saw the 32 Feet Up van at the lake access turn around, but none of the family, so I figured the family must be hiking south today after flipping up to Katahdin.

Hiking south. Hmm…south…not north…That’s when it hit me. I’d driven north to the pickup spot, instead of south to the drop off spot. Notch it. Forty-five minutes later, we pulled up to the Jo-Mary Road crossing. JW had left already, so Gus and I would be chasing him all the way back to Nahmakanta Lake. This would be Gus’ last day hiking, so he was pumped up for a challenge. Tomorrow night we’d be tenting, and the next day we’d be in dog-free Baxter State Park.

Another Day in Paradise

I’m losing faith in the AT. I thought I knew it well, but today threw me for a loop. Not only did the streak of uncharacteristically fantastic weather and incredible Fall scenery continue, today the trail was flat. Deliberately flat. As if a trail designed built it that way on purpose. I had to keep checking the map to make sure I hadn’t got off trail.

The trail went past and between hills. As in, not up and over them. That’s right, the AT went around not just one peak but a day’s worth of peaks. Even stranger, the summits it bypassed had no views, exactly the kinds of hills we’ve been pointlessly climbing for 2,100 miles. I felt betrayed.

Instead, the trail led me beside still waters, winding along lakeshores rimmed with orange, yellow, red, and green trees, blanketed by slowly drifting mists, and beneath blue skies. The placid lake surfaces reflected all of that, doubling the calming effect on my soul.

I think I love mists over water so much because I rarely get to see them in Arizona, but also because it recalls canoeing Adirondack lakes at dawn with my father. Is there any better sound than the muffled lapping of a canoe quietly disappearing into the fog on a mirror-smooth mountain lake?

River Crossings

Turbulent river crossings provided the counterpart to the ghostly quiet lakes and bogs. Today’s trail followed several small river valleys, entertaining me with river sounds all morning. Most of the crossings had enough steppingstones to keep my feet dry, but a few left no dry option.

At one of the wet crossings, Gus and I stopped to gauge the jump we’d have to make between stones and to guess whether the rocks were dry enough for a safe landing. Then I spotted some downed trees that appeared to span the stream that might be stable enough to support my weight. Gus loyally followed me out onto the log jam, but when he spied a nice flat concrete platform just upstream, he jumped off to take the easy route.

Except that rivers in the 100 Mile Wilderness don’t have concrete platforms. What they do have are masses of foam that look like smooth, white concrete. Or look like that to dogs. Gus’ landing was a bit different than he expected, as he plunged through the foam, disappearing beneath it. He popped up seconds later, sputtering, blinking, and looking at me like it was my fault. Or perhaps because I was laughing and trying to get him to do it again so I could film it.

He needed the bath. The trail had been unusually muddy, giving him black boots that would have kept him out of the van if he hadn’t taken the plunge.

Roots and Rot

Gus and I balanced on some of most rotted trail planks we’d encountered so far on the AT. The crumbling planks barely held my weight, with pieces flaking off as I walked across. Elsewhere, the trail was so tangled with exposed roots it looked like I’d stumbled into the Devil’s Snare guarding Harry Potter’s dungeon in The Sorcerer’s Stone.  Somehow, such inconveniences and dangers didn’t matter today. The trail was too pretty to grouse about its condition.

The Not-So-Wild-erness

Several thru hikers, including Just Try, rested by Nahmakanta Road when I arrived, so I dropped my pack, grabbed Gus, and led him over to the stream for a quick rinse. He’d gotten filthy again from the mud. Gus isn’t a big fan of baths, but he loves fetch, even in a strong current like the one in the Nahmankanta outlet. After retrieving a half dozen sticks, he was clean enough for vanlife again, though I had to carry him over the mud patches along the bank and leash him to keep him that way.

As we climbed back up to the road, a hiker came from the other direction and announced that someone had set up trail magic just ahead. JW got up to check it out, but surprisingly no one else did. Pub and Thriller had told me they’d gotten two trail magics in the 100 Mile Wilderness, one with a wood-fired oven serving made-to-order pizzas.

I’d been hearing heavy logging equipment in the woods and float planes above the lakes for days and had caught views of luxury cabins with manicured lawns from the peaks, not to mention the network of roads Northstar was using to meet us each night. I’d even found myself getting a little testy about the poor cell coverage. Roughing it in the Maine woods has gotten a little less rugged than it used to be.

One Bad Step

JW came back empty handed a few minutes later. He could smell the grill, he said, but didn’t feel like walking the extra mileage. After he’d left, I’d chatted with a hungry looking 20-something hiker named Dead Dad about FI dog collars and Gus, surprised that he hadn’t ventured off in search of a free meal. I didn’t want to know how he came by that trail name, but I did ask about the Nerf rifle and banjo sticking out of his pack.

He said his entire tramily had carried Nerf weaponry since the hiker parade at Trail Days in Damascus. The tramily was gone, but his rifle remained, though the ferryman’s dog had broken the barrel at the Kennebec crossing. A few minutes later, a shuttle pulled up and the driver called out that she was looking for someone with a broken foot. I hadn’t seen anyone limping or sitting along the trail and couldn’t help her.

Then Dead Dad raised his hand and said, “That’s me.” He said he’d broken a toe on root this morning and was heading into Millinocket for an x-ray, though he was pretty sure his thru hike was over. He didn’t want to hike another 40 miles or try to summit Katahdin with a broken foot.

That could have been any one of us. We’re all just one bad step away from an ER and a long sad drive home. I’d just been thinking about that this morning as I navigated the rooty trail.

Would You Rather?

I remember asking myself in one of my first blogs in March which would be worse, getting injured in the first or last week of a thru hike? Back then, I thought getting injured at the end would be worse, but I’ve changed my mind. Now, if I got hurt, I would know I could have finished. These last few miles are almost irrelevant. If I had to drop out in Georgia or North Carolina, I’d always wonder if I could have done a thru hike. Not that I’d quit today, but I’ve got nothing left to prove to myself.

From the Mail Bag

A few of you have commented that my stories have convinced them that they don’t really want to do a thru hike. That’s okay, though I never intended to crush anyone’s dream. But most of the trail journals and vlogs I’ve digested over the past 20 years gloss over the realities of thru hiking and paint a too-rosy picture of trail life. Knowing what I know now, I’d still want to thru hike the AT, but I think I’d have been better prepared for how hard it is if I’d read more realistic accounts.

I believe that soft-pedaling the hardships is one reason for the 75% thru hiking failure rate on the AT. Too many people underestimate the difficulty and overestimate their ability. That said, it’s hard to predict who will finish. I’ve watched a lot of uber-fit hikers drop out from injuries, disillusionment, boredom, or other reasons not related to their fitness level. Many of the hikers I met in Georgia who recently reappeared in Maine were not ones I’d have picked to get this far.

More from the Mail Bag

A few of you asked about my next adventure and whether I’ll be blogging about it. It’s hard to say what the next big one will be, but we do have some more long hikes that we’d like to do: Camino Norte, Camino Frances (a re-do), the Arizona Trail, and more of the English Coast Path. But we’ll probably do the Oregon Coastal Path before any of those. Other possibilities include a source to mouth paddle down the Mississippi River or the (main) Salmon River, and maybe biking across the USA or up one or both US coasts.

If The Trek will let me, I’ll probably keeping blogging about my adventures. Most of my past long hikes (Camino, JMT, English Coast, etc.) were published on under my trail name well before The Trek came online. And…yet another shameless plug for my two books – you can read Verde River Elegy and Gila River Elegy (available on Amazon, or if you contact me directly, I can get you a screaming deal). I should have another book or two out in 2024.

Northstar is trying to convince me to write an AT book, but I’m undecided about that. There’s no shortage of AT Journals, but she thinks the vanlife spin is unique enough to get some reads. We’ll see.

Roll Call

We never caught PBJ or Sauce today. I think they’re gone and will summit a day ahead of us. Just Try was waiting at Nahmakanta Road, but only stayed long enough to pick up her resupply from Alex before heading out again.

Proof walked up at Nahmakanta and re-introduced himself. We’d met in Pennsylvania but hadn’t crossed paths since then. I remembered his name but couldn’t put it together with his much beardier face. Once again, we leapfrogged Hope and Holler.

Our nearo day yesterday cost JW and I most of the people we’d hiked near for the last few weeks. Everyone seems to be pushing hard, doing 20-milers to get to Katahdin as fast as possible. We’re not carrying our food or camping gear, so we’ve got less incentive to hurry. Then again, even if we had heavier packs, Maine has been so kind to us, we’d rather savor than gulp down what’s left.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Jo-Mary Road (Mile 2142.4)
  • End: Nahmakanta Stream Road, South Beach (Mile 2157.5)
  • Weather: Perfect. Again.
  • Earworm: Dark Age (Book 5 of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Series)
  • Meditation: II Tim 4:7 (Thanks, Mike!)
  • Plant of the Day: Moose-bane. It must be everywhere.
  • Best Thing: Mist over the lakes, rivers, and bogs. Magical.
  • Worst Thing: Still haven’t seen a moose.


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Comments 23

  • thetentman : Oct 13th

    Thx for the post.

    I suggest the ‘Donut and Bacon Cheeseburger Trail’.

    Contact me for details.

    Northstar should contribute to the book with all those harrowing van-driving stories.


    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Lol. Northstar should definitely write the book. That girl has talent.
      But it’d have to bagels and mushroom Swiss burgers

  • Alison : Oct 14th

    Voting for the book, twice or three times!
    Monstrous thanks for not glossing over the hard parts. Increases motivation! (Gotta get the two-dog logistics figured.)
    Baxter is just weird—try getting a permit for rock samples.
    Also cheers!

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Thanks Alison! As if Baxter would miss a few rocks.

  • Lori : Oct 14th

    Again, I’m reading an entry to my mother during a visit with her. She perked up at the mention of Jo-Mary Road. Her parents spent a lot of time camping and fishing in that area. Thanks for sparking more memories!

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      My pleasure. Beautiful spot.

  • Smitty : Oct 14th

    Looked back Jan 17 your first post I was the first comment. You seemed so insignificant, another dreamer. Now barring ironic circumstances you did it! Congrats 👏🎉

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Where you been? Thanks for following and making me laugh.

  • Homeward : Oct 14th

    I never pass up the chance to take a jab at Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. It occurs to me that the experiences you have described in the 100 mile wilderness (and mine are many other people’s) contrast greatly with his wild and whacky descriptions. I guess that is the definition of literary license.
    I also very much agree with your assessment of how people’s expectations and level of preparation is a major mismatch with the requirements of the trail.
    Finally, I look forward to some future posts where you quote Jeremiah Johnson and say “Huh? What trouble.” May our Dad bless you keep you safe to the summit and beyond.

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Thx! You come far, Pilgrim.

      “Leave it be. Nothing wrong with quiet.”

  • Denae Carr : Oct 14th

    Hi Jon & Northstar & Gus, I’ve been reading your stories the entire season on the Trek. Your unique perspective have generous helpings of “grit” & “saltiness” I’ve laughed frequently at your stories, especially the times you seem exasperated by people encounters.
    Congratulations on your thru-hike! Thank you for sharing. Denae

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Thanks, Danae!

  • Cheryl “Clinker” McCormick : Oct 14th

    Hi Jon, The Incident!

    You have nearly completed months of hiking and I want to congratulate you. Your blog popped up on my cell phone back in June or July. I started reading it because you were cursing your Ram van. I was curious because my husband and I have one, the squatty short Promaster City, and we love ours. It was immediately obvious that you write well so I continued to follow your blog, the first since I completed a thru-hike in 2013.

    It has been very interesting to compare our experiences as older adults, traveling nearly the same pace 10 years apart. Many times I was aggravated reading your blog because I could remember hikers who were being heavily supported, usually by a family member nearby in a van. They looked better nourished, relatively cleaner, and sported a more robust attitude. Many of our observations and experiences are the same though!
    It has been a pleasure to travel with you and thank you for your grit to write everyday and get back on the trail each morning. Northstar’s daily scouting certainly deserves to be congratulated also.
    I wish you the very best, and would be pleased to meet or host you and Northstar in your future travels.
    GA>MA 2013

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Thanks, Clinker! Northstar is truly a gem.

  • Deb : Oct 14th

    I wish we would have been home when you hit Delaware Water Gap. Our plan was to ask you two out for dinner. If your books on rivers are as fascinating, funny and as well written as your blog, I will be buying them. I agree with Northstar and feel you are the person who needs to write an updated version of hiking the AT. You hit on every emotion and it’s great when an informative article can also make one laugh out loud.

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      It would have been fun to meet! Thanks for following along!

  • Rushmore : Oct 14th

    Thanks for pointing out the realities of a thru-hike. Many of the blogs make it sound so easy to get to food, hotels, beer, weed, etc. Hubby and I hiked in 2000 and, while I think a lot has changed in terms of shelters ,hostels, food availability, etc. I know the miles and difficulties add up, with or without a van. And while we never considered a “supported” hike, I think you’ve done a marvelous job.

    Remember, we still need to know the origin of “the incident”! 😉

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      You’re welcome. Stay tuned…

  • Lisa Fontenot : Oct 14th

    Hi Jon.

    Your blog about your AT journey and experience has been very entertaining to read. Rather than scare me away from a thru-hike, I’m planning on doing one near my home just to see what it’s like and if I might consider actually attempting the AT (after much training/conditioning, of course). It’s been nice keeping up with your thru-hike and hearing the perspective of someone nearer to my own age, and the reality check is refreshing.
    Thanks for letting us tag along.

    • Jon : Oct 16th

      Sounds like a good plan. Good luck!

  • Ron : Oct 27th

    Thank you for your honesty, and humor. I agree that it’s easy to prepare for the highs – the value lies in preparation for the lows. I’ve been trying to figure out some of the commonalities between those who complete the hike (I’m purposely avoiding the word “succeed”) and those who don’t. There is obviously some selection bias amongst bloggers, but, aside from dumb luck, it seems like humility is a major factor. It makes sense that if you can’t laugh at yourself and ‘the suck,’ when the yourself and the suck are all you have, you are going to struggle. Any thoughts from a more seasoned thru hiker?

    • Jon : Oct 27th

      Thx, Ron. Good question. It was very hard to predict who would finish and who didn’t. I watched some awesome, very experienced hikers drop out. Some to injury, some to finances or home situations but most just said they got sick of the trail (or something similar to that). Some who made it to Maine were ones I’d never have thought would make it out of Georgia.

      I’d look for these characteristics:
      1. Reasonable level of fitness.
      2. No pre-trip physical ailments – bad knees, heart, etc Those are very tough to overcome on trail.
      3. Luck, dumb or otherwise, mostly in not getting injured. But also in finding friends, seeing good stuff, weather.
      4. Mental preparedness. Knowing what to expect, particularly for the heat, humidity, cold, rain, trail conditions, loneliness, boredom, green tunnel, food, ticks, poison ivy, noro, a-hole hikers, etc. Parts of the AT are awful.
      5. Won’t quit attitude. I just kept hiking when my head and heart screamed at me to quit. I knew I’d regret quitting later despite how I felt in the moment. I met a lot of hikers in the NE who were just hanging on to finish.
      6. Support. On trail – having friends on trail makes a huge difference. Off trail – people back home rooting for you and not pressuring you to come home.
      7. Ability to be alone for long periods. Not hours. Weeks or months.
      8. Peer pressure. I didn’t want to have to tell friends, clients, blog readers, etc that I quit.
      9. Milestones. I kept going just to reach mini goals along the way… a friend’s visit, a state line, a cool spot, a mileage marker.

      Others probably have a different list. Good luck!

      • Ron Abrons : Oct 28th

        Thanks for thoughtful response and for letting us enjoy the journey with you. I look forward to my own time on trail once the kids are old enough to come along (or not care that I’m gone)


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