Day 163: Summit Day
Truth in Advertising
I summited Katahdin on October 3rd. My posts have always been delayed, so I decided to continue that practice and not announce my finish the day I summited. I wanted to preserve the continuity of my journal as well as keep up any suspense about whether I’d finish, at least for the readers who hadn’t already guessed.
But that wasn’t the only reason I delayed this post. I sat down in front of my laptop multiple times yesterday but ended up playing more online Hearts than writing. I guess I knew that when I publish this one it means my adventure is really over and I’m quite ready for that yet. Plus, I knew that whatever I wrote would never capture everything I wanted to say. But I did get the van cleaned up and most of my gear put away, so the day wasn’t a complete loss.
This morning, after procrastinating all day yesterday, I decided to just tell the story of my final day on the trail, much like I’ve done for the other 162 days of my AT thru hike. Maybe I’ll write some kind of perspective piece in a month, when I have had a chance to process enough to have some semblance of perspective. Or maybe I’ll save that for the book, if there ever is one.
I didn’t need an alarm today. I’d been checking the time all night, whenever I rolled over or each time Gus kicked me while chasing dream squirrels. Even Northstar, who frequently sleeps through my breakfast noise and sometimes through the drive to the drop off, asked, “Is it time?” when I sat up and climbed from under the corner of blanket she and Gus had left me.
The lights came on in JW’s van about the same time as ours and he appeared at our door by 5:45. Alex would be keeping Gus in their too-tall-for-Baxter Sprinter Van, and Northstar would be dropping us off in our one-inch-under-the-limit ProMaster.
We’d camped only about 10 miles from Baxter’s main entrance, but the washboard dirt roads from Abol Bridge to Baxter Road kept us well under 25 mph. I don’t know why they bother with speed limit signs on Golden Road. The logging trucks ignore them and anyone who loves their vehicle can’t approach the maximum allowed speed.
We got our best view of Katahdin from the Abol Bridge. The peak wore a lenticular cloud like a jaunty French beret, white but pulled down low over one side of its bald head. The rest of sky promised better weather and clear views, though we expected highs in the mid-70’s which might make for a sweaty climb. I haven’t hiked in 70-degree weather since Massachusetts.
From the bridge, Katahdin looked huge and intimidating, a head, shoulders, and torso taller than any peak around it. Today’s 4,200-foot ascent would be the biggest continuous climb on the entire AT. With most of the ascent at more than 1,000 feet per mile, it would also be one of the AT’s steepest. We made small talk during the drive, but our minds were on the climb.
We pulled up to Baxter’s front door at 6:33, six cars back from the Ranger checking permits at the gate. The line crawled along slowly, but we beat the 7:05 deadline when our permit would expire with time to spare.
We pulled into the Katahdin Stream Campground at the base of Katahdin at 7:04. Despite mostly clear skies, the wind was ripping. The Ranger said to expect 40 to 50 mph gusts on the summit. I knew from experience in the Whites, those velocities can push you over if you let them, particularly if the trail knocks you off balance. In big winds, I use my trekking poles like outriggers, tripoding my way up the trail.
The Ranger also told me that I was thru hiker #1059 to attempt to summit, including all the southbounders and flipfloppers. My hiker tag from Springer Mountain read #2370. We’ve lost a lot of comrades along the way. With only two more weeks in Baxter’s season, not many more thru hikers will summit.
When I climbed out of the van and grabbed my pack, I felt strangely unemotional, almost inert. Mostly, I felt tired. My legs and feet hurt. I’ve approached my limit. I need to be done.
JW and I stopped at the trailhead sign for selfies at 7:10, along with a few other hikers we didn’t know. We walked into the woods, and suddenly it got real. This was it. My heart skipped a beat and excitement finally came rushing in.
I remembered hiking this mountain on my 50th birthday, thirteen years ago, as a day hiker. That time, I’d watched the thru-hikers, wondering what it must feel like. Compared to that hike, this one felt drier, warmer, and sunnier. That September day, the park threatened to close the summit because of the possibility for snow and ice. Instead, we got drizzle, 35-degrees, and only a few brief partial views between the clouds.
During that climb, the steep, rocky trail, the vertical climbs, the rebar hand/footholds, and runoff flowing down the middle of the trail surprised me. Today, I barely noticed it. Such conditions are normal on the AT, especially in New England.
As I climbed, trailing behind JW, memories of this year’s thru hike flooded my mind. Amicolola, Springer, Blood Mountain, Deep Gap, hiking the Smokies with Brian/Buff, Gatlinburg, Hot Springs, McAfee Knob, Harpers Ferry, the Mason-Dixon Line, and so many more. I pictured each in my mind and tried to picture all 21 of the 100-mile markers I’d passed.
I emerged from the tree line at 8:40 at vertical granite wall equipped with rebar hand/foot holds drilled into the outcrop. A small traffic jam of hikers stalled at the climb, waiting their turn while trying to not get blown off the mountain. JW stood off to the side, retying a shoelace, and losing his lead on me.
The woman ahead of me struggled to find a foothold, so I offered to brace her foot with mine, but she declined, saying she “couldn’t climb over anyone to reach her goal.” I replied, “That’s positively un-American, ma’am.” She laughed but still wouldn’t accept any help.
After my turn came, I climbed up and passed her and her significant other, who looked at me and said, “Those poles helping you out on this climb?” He said it with a sneer and a mocking, critical tone. Wow. First of all, what the heck? Twenty-two hundred miles on the AT didn’t change that attitude? Amazing. Second, yes, they are helping on this climb. They keep me from falling over in the wind.
But the trail has changed me a little. I just smiled, said, “Yup,” and hiked on.
By 9:04, I reached the Hunt Spur, a bouldery outcrop on the long, steep climb up Katahdin’s arm. Next came the Tablelands, a rocky, mile-long, plateau-like section that leads to the short, steeper climb to Katahdin’s summit. The last time I walked this trail, I couldn’t see 50 feet ahead of due to the thick, low clouds. Today, the wind and sun had finally taken Katahdin’s hat off, and I could make out tiny figures standing at the summit.
I touched the iconic Katahdin sandwich board sign at 10:16. I’ve watched dozens of videos of hikers weeping when they reach the sign, so I half expected to get a little choked up, but it didn’t happen to me. For sure, I had no trouble mustering up a wide grin for my selfie and felt a huge sense of accomplishment, but I dropped no tears.
I recognized none of the hikers who’d gotten there before me, so I asked a stranger to take pictures with my phone as I (illegally, yet another recent Baxter rule) climbed on the sign and raised my arms and poles in triumph. I felt great.
Then I climbed down and looked around. What should I do now? Turn around and hike back down? Channel my best Forrest Gump and say, “I’m pretty tired…I think I’ll go home now.”? I at least needed to wait for JW, so I sat down behind a boulder to escape some of the wind, put on an extra layer, and watched the parade of hikers coming up behind me.
JW rolled in at 10:27, one of many who summited in the hour after me. A few hikers broke down in sobs when they reached the sign, crying and falling on their knees. Most hooted and hollered. A few broke out (now illegal) contraband and toasted themselves. Literally. I saw one hiker who climbed up in a tuxedo and another in a NASA spacesuit pajama onesie. I witnessed one marriage proposal (it appeared to be a yes).
And one dog, an Australian cow dog named Wade Wilson, who had last growled at Gus in Virginia, and we hadn’t seen since. His owner, as usual, wasn’t particularly talkative to me, so I didn’t find out whether he’d snuck his dog past the Rangers (doubtful) or gotten it certified as an emotional support or service dog (more likely). I will not be telling Gus about this.
And everyone got their picture and checked for cell coverage, needing to announce their happiness to the world. I know I did. Coverage was spotty and only a few of my messages got through, however.
I recognized most of the hikers, having talked to many of them, and shared shelters or given rides to others. Most of those said congratulations, but suddenly I was back in Pennsylvania. People retreated to their tramilies and besties, leaving me feeling like an outsider. I hadn’t expected that after all the comradery I’d experienced over the last month. It felt weird, sobering, and bittersweet, yet somehow an appropriate reminder of some of the less pleasant aspects of my thru hike.
Eventually, you have to climb back down the mountain. Just like Springer Mountain, no road access to the summit exists. Without a large tramily to wait for and celebrate with, there’s only so much to do on the peak. After an hour, we’d looked at all the views and taken all the pictures we wanted. We’d considered hiking out to the Knife’s Edge Trail, but the howling wind made that an exceptionally bad idea. The narrow precipitous ridge is scary enough even in the best weather.
So, we hoisted our packs and headed down. Plenty of hikers were still climbing as we left, including Soup and Shoulders, who had struggled a bit on steep exposed sections. As we descended, we could hear the hiker’s shouts when they reached the sign for a surprisingly long way, despite the wind.
We had decided to go back via the Abol (Rock) Slide Trail instead of the official AT path on the Hunt Trail. We’d heard it’s a less punishing descent, but with a drop of about 3,500 feet over one less mile than the Hunt Trail, it promised to be a knee-buster. It was, reminding me of the worst of New Hampshire, but without the mud and water running down the middle of the trail. It was also quite hot, between the air temperature and all that exposed, reflective white granite.
Once we reached the tree line, we not only got out of the wind, but the trail flattened out a bit, making it more of a hike than a scramble. As I walked the easier section of trail, I shifted from survival mode to something more contemplative. I client’s text beeped on my phone in a sporadic window of cell coverage. Could I get a report done by the end of October? Ugh. I’m not ready for that yet.
My thoughts turned back to my hike, remembering all that had happened over the past six months. I’m happy with the way I did this thru hike. I loved having Northstar and Gus along the entire trip. I like slackpacking and my knees thanked me for leaving the heavy stuff behind most days. I love vanlife.
The last three weeks in Maine have been the best part of the hike. Maine was beautiful. The weather was fantastic. JW and Alex have been a Godsend. I so needed all that.
I made a few videos on the way down the mountain. In each one, I eventually trailed off, lost in thought, forgetting to turn off the camera. I must have 30 minutes of footage looking up at my chin as I plodded along staring ahead in silence. It will take me months to process all this.
I hiked into at Abol Campground at 1:37, tired and happy. The climb and descent were hard, but I’d been well trained and ground it out like it was nothing.
Will I miss hiking every day? Probably, but not tomorrow. Maybe once I get the feeling back in my toes and when I don’t wince in pain when I first stand up in the morning. I’ll definitely miss Maine and the woods in Fall. Thinking all that over, I lay on a picnic table, staring up at the colorful trees, the blue sky, and a sliver of the greatest mountain.
While I waited, the guy who had mocked me for my trekking poles walked up and asked if I knew how to get a shuttle out of the park. He had no cell coverage and couldn’t call for one. I was sorely tempted to plead ignorance, but Matthew 5:43-48 echoed in my ears. So, I told him I’d be driving into Millinocket and would be happy to give him a ride. He was still a bit much, but his wife was really nice and kept reining him in. They both were very appreciative.
We dropped JW off at their river camp at 2:55. Alex surprised him with a bottle of his namesake (Johnny Walker), so we toasted our hike (I was driving and stuck to Lime La Croix) and said our goodbyes. They planned to camp at least one more night at the river and then take a short tour of the Maine coast until JW has to return to work.
We dropped off our passengers at the hiker hostel in Millinocket just before 4:00. Two weeks ago, I thought we’d have a celebration with our little tramily after finishing the trail, but almost everyone we knew got ahead of us in the 100 Mile Wilderness and summited yesterday. We didn’t know today’s finishers well enough to be invited to their parties or to invite them to one of ours.
That’s fine. Northstar, Gus, and I did most of this trail alone. We are our own tramily. So, it’s most appropriate to spend this night with just the three of us.
We pulled out onto the highway and headed for Bangor to find a nice motel, a long, hot shower, a washing machine, a sizzling steak, and a draught of something cold and bubbly.
We are done.
- Start: Katahdin Stream Campground (Mile 2193.2)
- End: Katahdin Summit (Mile 2198.4)
- Weather: Wind advisories, then back to perfection
- Earworm: Kodachrome (Simon & Garfunkel)
- Meditation: II Tim 4:7
- Plant of the Day: Leaves on the trail. I’ll never tire of that.
- Best Thing: Touching the sign.
- Worst Thing: It’s over.
Stay tuned. I may post my trail name story in a few days. Normally, I don’t share the story with anyone who hasn’t camped at least 10 consecutive nights with me. And even then, it usually requires a bribe of peanut M&M’s to get the story out of me. I need to decide if reading almost 170 blogs equals 10 nights of camping.
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