Day 161: The Best Night on the AT

The Night Before the Best Night

Alex and Northstar hadn’t wasted the day yesterday. They hunted around most of the morning and found a great campsite right on the shore of Wadleigh Pond. Or more accurately, as Gus discovered, right on the edge of a muddy bog that bordered Wadleigh Pond. Northstar took him down for a swim after picking us up at Nahmakanta Lake Road, but he sank up to his shoulders in sticky black muck before he got to the open water and returned a stinking mess.

After sacrificing our only remaining towels to clean him up, I sat down to work on my blog and promptly fell asleep. I was so far gone that when Northstar woke me up for dinner, I had no idea where I was. I must be tired. I’m hoping for many afternoon naps in the coming weeks, and perhaps a few without a dog who stinks like a Maine mud bog cuddled up next to me.

The Plan

Today, JW and I had planned to backpack 18 miles to the Rainbow Lake Outlet, which would leave us only 18 miles to the base of Mount Katahdin for the next day. But after looking over the maps, we both decided we’d rather camp 1.7 miles further at Rainbow Ledges. Comments on the FarOut app indicated that the Ledges offered clear views of Katahdin. But we’ll have to see if we have a 20-mile backpack left in the tank.

Speaking of tanks, when Northstar dropped us back at Nahmakanta Lake this morning, the gas gauge said that she had only 68 miles of gas left in the van. And Google Maps told us that she had a 40-mile drive to the nearest gas station. I said a little prayer hoping she wouldn’t make any wrong turns and asked her to text me as soon as she made it.

AT Purity Tests

The same trail magic crew as yesterday afternoon offered us breakfast as we passed their camp by the lake. JW and I knew that no real thru hiker ever turns down trail magic, but we’d both just eaten breakfast and neither of us wanted to burn an hour of daylight on a 20-mile day. Once again, I’d proven that I’m not a real thru hiker. And now I may have corrupted JW.

We only had two climbs ahead of us today. The first, an 800-foot ascent of Nesuntabunt Mountain, had all the hallmarks of yet another AT PUD (pointless up and down). The climb started with a right angle turn away from the lovely shoreline trail along Nahmakanta Lake, climbed straight up to the peak, and then returned to the lake level. If a shoreline blue blaze option existed, I’d have been tempted to skip the ascent and walk the smooth, level trail along the waterfront.

But the peak had some nice views of Katahdin, the surrounding lakes, and the increasingly colorful wooded foothills and was more than worth the effort.

Immediately after descending Nesuntabunt, the trail crossed a dirt road we could have taken to cut off a mile of trail and shorten our day. But this time, the promise of exciting views of Pollywog Gorge kept us on the (not-so) straight and narrow. Unfortunately, I’d give Pollywog Gorge views a solid “meh,” even though it was probably more scenic than the road walk would have been.

So, we ended up two out of three on thru hiker purity tests. That puts me at 67%, an “F” on a scholastic scale, but better than all-star quality as a batting average, effectively summing up the purity of my AT thru hike.

Taking the Blue Pill

All the blue skies and blue water over past two weeks has overwritten my memory. Was hiking the AT ever hard? Have we ever hiked in anything but perfect weather? Have we done any knee crushing descents? Was the AT ever anything besides gentle lakeside trails blanketed with fragrant colorful leaves? I don’t recall. Three weeks of Maine in good Fall weather erases a lot of pain and frustration.

I firmly believe that Maine is the AT’s apology for all the pain and anguish the trail has put thru hikers through for the past five months. Thru hikers go home loving the AT because of Maine. If Myron Avery hadn’t overruled Benton MacKaye, who wanted to end the AT at Mount Washington, the AT might be a forgotten historical footnote.

Road Crossings in the Woods

JW stopped to talk to a kilty flip-flopper he knew. I walked on, realizing afterward that I’ve become less interested in meeting new people as I get closer to the trail’s end. I hiked ahead and emerged out of the woods onto an empty, lonely road where I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu.

How many times in the past 2,150 miles have I walked out of the long green tunnel onto a road, blinked in the suddenly bright sunlight, and stopped to stare at an empty road trailing away in both directions into a deep green forest? Hundreds. Perhaps more than a thousand.

Each time I’d see a road through the trees, I’d hold a faint hope of trail magic or a nearby store, though it rarely happened. Most of the time, I’d stand alone on the side of the road, with no traffic in sight or earshot. If I happened to catch a car or truck zooming past, I’d wonder where they’re going. Did they know they’d just driven past the AT? Did they have any idea of how long I’d been walking? Had they ever ventured off the road into the woods?

After a moment of quiet contemplation, I’d plunge back into the long green tunnel, disappearing like Kevin Costner’s cursed White Sox into the rows of corn surrounding the Field of Dreams.

Rainbow Lake

JW caught up after I stopped for lunch at the Rainbow Stream Lean-To with Hope and Holler. Both of us were feeling the miles and the roots but were determined to hike the extra distance to Rainbow Ledges, still another 8.7 miles away. After lunch, we crossed Rainbow Stream on two bouncy, wobbly logs that served as a footbridge, though I had my camera out in case he put on a show. But we skipped the 0.7-mile (one way) blue blaze up Rainbow Mountain. We didn’t need any more extra climbs, miles, or views.

We reached the Rainbow Lake outlet around 4:00 pm, stopping briefly to filter water for our dry camp on Rainbow Ledges tonight. The campsites along the lake looked fantastic, my feet hurt, and neither of us was excited about a 500-foot climb, but we were committed to spending our last backpacking night on the trail with a view of Katahdin’s summit.

Rainbow Ledges

Hiking up to the Rainbow Ledges turned out to be the right call. We had the entire summit to ourselves and found two spots just big enough for our tents. We might have stayed even if our tents didn’t fit. The view was that good.

When we arrived, Katahdin wore a bonnet of puffy clouds. But as we sat and stared, the cover thinned and disappeared as the temperature dropped. Gradually, the sun set behind us, adding even more orange and red tints to the Fall tapestry. But we barely bothered to turn around to watch, preferring the faint sunset reflection on Katahdin to the real sunset in the west.

We cooked and ate our dinners in silence, transfixed by the mountain, standing cloudless and alone, high above any other neighboring peaks. After eating, as night fell, the nearly full moon rose, illuminating the mountain in a pale ghostly light. We lay back on the huge granite slab, softly talking about our thru hikes as the stars came out in parts of the sky not lit by the bright moon.

Midnight Tea

We stayed up well past hiker midnight, but eventually turned in. I would have taken off my tent fly so I could watch the sky while falling asleep, but the dew had already started accumulating on my gear. And the night was already too cold for a wet sleeping bag. I zipped up the tent and went to sleep.

The bright moon woke me just after midnight. Unable to get back to sleep, I pulled out my phone for a sleep-inducing game of Sudoku, when I heard heavy booted footsteps tromping past my tent. Then I heard the person gasp, “Look at that!” as they saw Katahdin in the moonlight. Then they tromped around more, back and forth around my tent, muttering and looking for a tent spot in the dark. Hopefully.

In the middle of a dark night, and only half awake, I could easily imagine more nefarious reasons for walking circles around my tent. Eventually, our visitor tromped off out of earshot and I drifted back to sleep. With my folding knife in my hand. Better safe than sorry.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Nahmakanta Stream Road, South Beach (Mile 2157.5)
  • End: Rainbow Ledges (Mile 2177.2)
  • Weather: Perfect. As usual. Does Maine even have bad weather?
  • Earworm: Caissons were rolling again.
  • Meditation: Jn 15:5
  • Plant of the Day: Fall foliage at sunset.
  • Best Thing: Katahdin views at sunset and in moonlight.
  • Worst Thing: Time’s running out on that moose.


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Comments 18

  • Lori : Oct 16th

    Big smile while reading this whole post.
    Thank you.
    I wish you well.

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Thanks, Lori. All the best to you, Steve, and your mom.

  • thetentman : Oct 16th

    Awesome. I am so excited for you.


    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Thanks, T! You’ve been great. Thanks for the encouragement… and the ice cream!

  • Kaye : Oct 16th

    Prayerfully, today you can say “I ran the race. I fought the fight”. I will say congratulations knowing in the next post there will be a picture of you waving in victory at the Katadyn sign. I hope Northstar can hike it with you. She’s had her own adventure! God bless you both and many more happy trails (maybe not as long though!)

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Thank you, Kaye!

  • Homeward : Oct 16th

    What a beautiful description of a wonderful walk in the woods and the awesome beauty of creation.
    But just a minute. Hold on, now. We may have reached a parting of the ways, my brother.
    I can growl at and ridicule the purists right along side you, but when you start passing up trail magic, we may have reached the limit of our relationship :-).
    Looking forward to the final chapters.
    Hike on, my brother!

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Alas. We were brothers once. 🙂

      • Homeward : Oct 18th


  • Thunder Road : Oct 16th

    At some point this spring I stumbled upon this blog, and a couple others written by your fellow travelers. I’m not an aspiring thru hiker or wish I’d done so, so I don’t know why I started following you folks.. but I did.. and I’ll miss it when you finish up your adventure. I’ve enjoyed your writing very much, and it has sparked long forgotten memories from a canoe trip a buddy of mine and I took from Colorado to Maine years ago… the hunger, the boredom, the wet, the hot, the cold, the self reflection… all punctuated by moments of amazement that made it all worth it. Thank you for stirring those thoughts up… it’s been fun to reflect upon them.
    Walking as far as you have is a wonderful accomplishment indeed.. congratulations!! But to me, what’s equally amazing, has been Northstar’s ability to somehow find places to camp for the last five months as she has worked her way north 15 -20 miles a day. Figuring out campgrounds, boondocking, Walmart parking lots, and stealth camping here in the East is no easy task.. add trying to find a guy wandering through the woods at the end of each day and you’ve got some interesting challenges indeed..
    So hats off to her as well! An adventure well done by both of you!

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Thanks, Thunder. I’ll pass your words on to Northstar. She’s the best.

      But I want to hear more about that canoe trip!

      • Thunder Road : Oct 18th

        Fort Lupton CO to Sebasco ME .. 1987…3500 miles.. 145 days living on PBJs ,spam, rice, Tabasco Sauce and butter flavored crisco ..
        I picked your blog to follow because of the canoe in your photo🙂

  • Alison : Oct 16th

    Gonna really miss your posts.

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      Thanks, Alison! So many pictures… so little bandwidth…

  • Sherry C Rouse : Oct 16th

    Great job! I’m assuming you did it! Today is my mom’s birthday (if she were alive she would be 102). So a fitting end (except for your last post).

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      I did! Happy bday mom!

  • tek : Oct 16th

    i’m so going to miss reading your entries, and honored to have been written into one. glad you didn’t have to get stabby!

    • Jon : Oct 18th

      It was cool meeting you on Franconia Ridge! Glad you stopped me. All the best!


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