Eat the Ghost: Confronting the Trail Mind-Set
The morning of my longest day dawned with cool temperatures and winds that quickly shrouded the peaks above me in a layer of dense cloud. In the Horns Pond Shelter, where I spent a restless night slapping at mosquitoes that swarmed my face, I sat on my foam seat, cup of Taster’s Choice between my knees, and the current sectional map oriented to the Suunto compass open on the floor beside me. It was 5 a.m., and the shelter’s other occupants were still snoring away.
My goal was the Kennebec River, close to 30 miles north of me, over Bigelow peaks West and Avery, past Flagstaff Lake and around the three Carry ponds. I would need to use a ferry to get across the river. Four hundred feet wide and prone to sudden water level increases from an upstream dam, I’d heard about the dangers of attempting to ford the river from other hikers. Just weeks before I started hiking in Maine, the body of a 39-year-old man was recovered who apparently attempted to cross. The ferry’s current schedule was a two-hour window between 9 and 11 a.m. The campsite nearest to the river was Pierce Pond; just four miles away. The second-closest shelter was at West Carry Pond; 14 miles.
I blew on the coffee and considered my options. I could easily make it to West Carry Pond by this afternoon, which seemed like a waste of the remaining six hours of daylight and would require me to hike 14 miles in the morning and try to make the ferry before 11: a tall order. I could stealth camp somewhere between West Carry and Pierce Pond, but there was nothing but a lot of swamp and mosquitoes between them and I’d had bad luck picking my spots in the past. That left door three: hike the 27 miles in one day and enjoy a quick, four-mile walk to the river in the morning. Twenty-milers had become a nearly regular distance for me to cover in a day and I had two additional advantages: all the vertical gain and loss would be done in the morning and the summer solstice was nearly here, giving me until nearly 9 p.m. to step on the gas pedal and cruise the rest of the day.
I finished my coffee and accompanying breakfast Clif Bar, disassembled the stove, and applied a fresh coat of DEET to my exposed skin. I cast a farewell wave to the dozing SOBOs and headed off.
At this point in the trek, I had found a comfortable routine for myself involving nearly regimental amounts of sleep and food. With enough of these two, I could manage distances ranging from a 15-mile day (which I considered an easy day at this point), to my most ambitious so far: 23 miles (completed in the White Mountains). Nearing that 30-mile mark would be a different sort of challenge.
As I neared the top of West Peak, George Carlin told me to consider the flamethrower.
“Because we have them,” he explained in his usual gruff delivery. “Or, rather, we don’t have them. The Army has them.”
In the course of my trek, I developed a whole catalog Jedi mind-tricks I’d use on myself to take my mind off the surging lactic acid in my thighs or the stabbing pain in my feet that came at the end of the day. As I started the day, a Rolodex of Saturday Night Live sketches and favorite movie scenes began to spin. Some afternoons, I brought myself to gales of laughter from recreating Melissa McCarthy’s pitch for her own pizza eating business, or Kyle Kinane saving a skunk from certain death in a mayonnaise jar. A friend of mine calls this hiking mentality “The Monkey Mind.”
“That’s right,” continued George. “We don’t have any flamethrowers.”
Other times, my approach demanded more focus. While negotiating talus fields that tripped me and scrapped my knees I would catalog the contents of all the drawers and cabinets of my parents’ kitchen. On long climbs over false summits, I gave myself a walking tour of my college campus; recalling the library, dining halls and dorm rooms I occupied. At the end of the day, when my sweat gave off the smell of cat piss, I would recall a distant friend from high school and list as many details as I could; their parents; what kind of car they drove; who they took to prom.
By the time I reached Avery Peak, the morning’s clouds had long departed and I could see across the Carrabassett Valley to Sugarloaf ski area. Behind me, Flagstaff Lake was a royal blue jewel in midmorning sun. It was 10 a.m. and I was right on schedule. As I descended into the saddle between Avery Peak and Little Bigelow Mountain, I let gravity pull me down the trail and let my mind ease.
Every day had a low and every day had a high. I found it was impossible to predict when each would arrive. The highs weren’t always with a summit or reaching a campsite or shelter. Some days, my finest hour was making a replacement bootlace from a length of parachute chord. In my highest highs, I was convinced I was growing; that by breaking myself down I could build myself up again. I thought I was shedding skin like a snake, revealing something new and shining. A better me.
After passing close to Flagstaff Lake and cresting two smaller hills, I was positively glowing when I reached the West Carry Pond Lean-to that afternoon. My plan was to stop for an early dinner that would fuel me for the walk into the evening. Inside, I met a pair of SOBO hikers resting after completing the ten miles I was about to attempt.
“You’re a NOBO, so you’ll fly,” one assured me as I ate my instant mashed potatoes followed by a handful of jerky. I placed my last Snickers bar in my hip belt, where I could grab it later, and stretched my hips and knees.
Until this point, I was comfortable with having five or six miles to go by 4 p.m. I started calling it my “four p.m. push” and it helped me focus on wrapping up the day’s hike and shift focus to tomorrow’s goal. But leaving the West Carry Pond Lean-to at 5 p.m., I was staring down not four miles, but ten.
The trail out of West Carry was as easy as the SOBO hikers had said: a muddy but mostly level trail with lots of roots but wide enough to drive a four-wheeler on. I quickened my pace and reached with my feet to extend my stride. My boot lost traction on a root and slipped backward, bringing my momentum to a screeching halt. I tried to adjust the straps on my trekking poles and somehow succeeded in dropping both. I had to stoop to pick them up with my pack still on. My back and knees groaned in protest.
A thin, razor-sharp voice somewhere behind my ears said:
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stop it, somewhere else replied.
I white-knuckled the poles, gritted my teeth, and focused on the next bend in the trail. I checked my watch and scanned the sky for the sun’s position; still riding high above the lake behind me. A slight rubbing started to warm my heel.
While I could occupy myself in the opening miles, eventually every day my hiking mind, confronted with only the same stimuli, turned on itself. The trail turned my mind into a curious child, bored with the toys in his room, who decides to venture up into the darkened attic, where he starts opening boxes marked “Some Are Missing,” “In Hindsight,” “Should’ve/Could’ve,” or “What If.”
The kid opens the boxes and a procession of ghoulish figures come staggering forth, slack-jawed and wild-eyed, with long bony fingers grasping as he flees for the door.
In my lows, I thought about these ghosts. In my darkest moments, in the depths of the misery, confusion, and pain, every cold and cruel thing I’ve done, every insecurity or embarrassment, came screaming back at me with teeth bared, hungry for flesh. The things that still haunt and hurt circled overhead like vultures and I heard myself, saying with dead-level certainty:
You really think you’re changing out here, don’t you? Look at yourself. What do you think all this is going to get you? A job? Fame? Respect? Nobody gives two shits. You don’t deserve this. You can make this stop. Just walk out to the road and hitch a ride. You could be eating pizza in a Motel 6 by tonight. Go home.
Months ago, on a cold afternoon in Pennsylvania, I stood shivering in Crocs and long underwear outside the James Fry Shelter while my sleeping bag and entire contents of my pack dried on the floor. I made ramen for lunch and stood with my back against the wall outside to feel the warm sun on my face. I closed my eyes. As suddenly as the sun emerges from behind a cloud, I was crying, hunched over with my hands on knees, my body shaking in big choking sobs. I had found the bottom.
On that snowy afternoon in Pennsylvania I felt like a plug had been pulled and something was draining. I picked myself up, organized my gear, and found just enough cell service to reach my girlfriend. She talked me down and I listened to a podcast while I cooked dinner that evening. I chewed and thought. My breakdown was caused by my inability to be alone with myself and allow my subconscious to roam freely and deal with whatever it dredged up.
The next day, as I walked in more freezing rain to Boiling Springs, my actions became imbued with a fine awareness of control. Patience, I would tell myself on the longer and more difficult sections. The word became my mantra. Patience.
Even on the worst days, I focused not on what I couldn’t do, but gave myself credit for everything I could. I listened to my intuitions and the more I gave myself what I needed, I again began to hear to myself, this time saying, “You are forgiven. For every weakness, anger, hunger, or denial. You are loved and you are forgiven every time. Put the pain away.”
Back in the Maine woods, shadows lengthened as I skirted a pine swamp thick with mosquito swarms. The sun had set into the pines far behind me and deepening gloom was settling around me. White blazes faded to hard-to-spot gray smears on thin trees. Every rock’s moss seem to guarantee a twisted ankle. Every inch of me ached with a tiredness that went beyond muscles and joints; it was weariness on an existential level. I began to have creepy visions of the entire cast of extras from The Walking Dead, shuffling out the murk. It was 8:45 p.m. and if my approximation was correct, I still had close to a mile left. My feet had gone numb. Ahead, the last of the sunset shone electric pink over Pierce Pond.
I had been up to the attic, opened the boxes, and stared inside. Now was not the time to relent. I would make it to the pond, pitch my little tent, gobble down my rehydrated rice dinner, and fall asleep under clear skies. Tomorrow was a canoe ride to a nero day at the Kennebec River Brewery and maybe a swim. I couldn’t lose. I began a long series of reflections on what I’ve done, what I’ve seen, and the course I’ve set.
Do you remember in high school when they cut you from the varsity soccer team and you signed onto the cross-country squad that same week?
Do you remember when you hit the doe in Big Bend last winter? The sound of her crumpling into the bumper? How you felt standing in the headlights when you thought about her crippled and bleeding in the flat Texas dark?
Do you remember when you quit your job and moved out of your house within a month to begin planning this adventure?
Finally, I made a promise to myself:
That ghost is weakening now, stumbling, tripping, falling.
Run the ghost down, Evan. Put your foot on its throat.
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