ECT Day 147 – Land’s End
If you’re just joining us or are confused about what is going on (ECT, what’s that?) then check out my intro article for a thorough explanation. Sometimes even I need to read it to remember what I’m doing next.
Les Crêtes #1 Campsite to Cap Gaspé
Bear Pole Camp to No Mo Trail Camp
ECT miles: 16.7
Total miles: 2882.8
Elevation change: 2733ft gain, 3353ft loss
What do Katahdin and the lighthouse at Cap Gaspé have in common? For all the obvious geographic differences between a really big mountain and a cliffy point of land jutting into the sea, the two drastically unique features fulfilled an almost identical purpose in my life. Katahdin was obviously a major summit to scale, but it also represented a spiritual climax, and in this Cap Gaspé was not delinquent. Both were, in overt and subtle ways, mountains to climb, and reaching the top of each was just a small part of what it really meant to set foot on the edge of the earth. Katahdin is a mountain, and it feels like it, towering over the rolling Appalachians of central Maine like some fictional Everest conjured by a dramatic fantasizer, yet it is still just the tip of the iceberg. The entire 2,200-mile AT lurks below the surface, with roots all the way down to Georgia. Cap Gaspé is not a mountain, but it is no less potent, and is equally suited to function as the tip of something much larger, to be a lightning rod focusing the scattered ions of emotion in the search for meaning. Katahdin and Cap Gaspé, as objectively cool as they are, are meaningful places for me largely because they have the privilege of marking an end. Mont Albert in Gaspésie is no less deserving of poetic musings, but it is the lighthouse on Cap Gaspé that will forever be the burning beacon of what the IAT really meant to me. For it was not just the physical landscape that ended, but an emotional one, and left in the wake of a long-sought achievement lies fertile soil. Once the dream has been attained, and the quick joy of long-nurtured satisfaction has been harvested, there is just a moment — a day, week, or month — for the furrows of the mind to lie fallow before the seeds of reflection, scattered on the urgent winds of nostalgia, begin to sprout and take root. In the hungry abyss of fulfilled purpose and existential dread, it is this new crop that will nourish the spirit and ego with assurances that it was all worth it, that I am better for the seesaw of struggle and elation, for the balance beam of selfishness and selflessness. May the bounty prove plentiful and ripen quickly. May it be of more substance than sweet illusion.
Another thru-hike finale, another spectacular finish capped with a hectic end. Today, SpiceRack and I hiked until we could hike no more, reaching the spectacular cliff’s edge at Cap Gaspé, above a blue sea and under a blue sky after a satisfyingly pleasant concoction of scenery, comfort, and companionship. The long wished for warmth and the epic landscape that the internet had promised came to fruition and did not disappoint. I felt lucky and grateful all day for the opportunity to do what I love, in a place that I love, with the love of my life. I let it fill my soul. Not for the last time, but for the last time for a while, I had the privilege of walking for miles with Spice, eating junk food, sitting in the dirt, and always getting to discover what was around the next bend. Even though I am more than ready for an extended break, it will be hard to give that up, and I will miss walking more than I enjoy thinking about it. However, as was the case on Katahdin, I was saved from the first wave of profound thoughts by a whirlwind of unexpected chaos. For this reason, the only lesson that I could definitively extract from the day was that the end is never the end. It is never as simple as just walking to the terminus. The story’s final line might be “happily ever after,” but life goes on when the book closes. That’s where the rental car drama lurks. It’s where the epic sandwiches thrive. This is where I need the thru-hiking wisdom the most, and where SpiceRack’s optimism puts mine to shame. Cap Gaspé was a worthy end to one story, one that I was not always sure that I would survive. It is also the beginning of another. Will I survive this one? Hmmmm, let’s see…
Although the 5am alarm roused me significantly earlier than usual, the sun was already up and the day already bright. C’mon sun, trying to make us look bad. Spice and I were angling for an early start to the day, as much to save us from the agonizing anticipation of resting on the cusp of our final day on the IAT, as to buy us the option of taking our time. We might not have had far to hike today, but there was a lot of appreciating, enjoying, and soaking things up ahead. So what did we do with the early start? We snoozed for 30 minutes of course. But that was typical, so we were still well-ahead of schedule when we actually woke up and moving, for real this time. While we breakfasted on coffee and fresh, day-old and kinda smashed, pastries, I raised my face to the sky. It wasn’t totally clear, but there were big patches of the blue stuff. I made a mental fist pump, stoked that my final two eyelash wishes had paid off.
By 7am Spice and I were on trail, cruising through a flat and open forest on a superb two-track. The tree tunnel had a different vibe today, welcoming and light, with the sunshine pouring through the gaps in the ceiling of brightly glowing leaves. After witnessing this effect countless times already, I wasn’t surprised to notice just how much this brightness could affect my perception of the day and lift my mood, and I was grateful for the change. Even though my shoes were still soaked, there was no doubt in my mind that my feet would be dry again, sooner rather than later. After filtering water at a creek, I followed Spice past another campsite, then up to the top of a ridge. The trail maintained its excellent quality, though it narrowed to a grassy single-track before once again widening near another pair of viewing platforms. Like yesterday, to the right we could see to Gaspé Bay, which rippled subtly different hues of sapphire in the wafting breeze. To the left, the St. Lawrence gleamed dusty blue and silver with the reflected sunlight. It was much closer now, more vast and unsettling for even though my brain knew it not to be endless, my senses could not detect a limit. Still, the day was calm and beautiful. So what if the ocean was big? I could ignore that.
A most pleasant descent deposited us on a paved road with an even more open view of Gaspé Bay. From there, the trail plunged us back into the trees to follow rooty and twisty undulations through the forest as step by step, mile by mile, we approached our dead end. A stealthy runner almost startled my face off, but my heart rate was back to normal by the time Spice and I rolled into our first break at a wide junction where danced shadow and light. Had we known that we were now on an extremely popular route from a nearby parking lot, we probably would not have sat in the middle of the trail, but by the time we realized our treacherous error, our shoes were already off and our hands already deep in our bags of potato chips.
Fifteen minutes and many cookies later, we joined the procession of lightly provisioned adults and overdressed toddlers up a long gravel trail to the summit of Mont Saint-Alban. On the way I was hit by a surge of low energy, and chalked it up to poor nutrition over the past few days, and the IAT in general. My body was struggling to perform on a diet of potatoes, sugar, and oil, and I couldn’t wait to cram some veggies later in the day. These sputtering swings in energy were getting tiresome.
Pretty soon it was obvious why, even though this climb was no cake-walk, there were so many human beings tramping through these particular woods. The top of the mountain was still in the trees, but through human ingenuity and national park dollars, we were able to clomp above the canopy to the top of a three-story viewing platform. And the view was no joke. In fact, it was one of my favorite of the last decade. The panorama was complete and provided the ultimate sense of place. The water on two sides was nothing new, and now I could see the two bodies connect around the tip of a narrow cape to the west. This was Cap Gaspé of course, our final destination. As the peninsula whittled down to this precarious point, the transition of sea to land sharpened into vertical cliffs hundreds of feet high. The geologic drama was a delight, with the steady stone standing firm against the fluid motion of the waves. It was holding out, but losing the test of time as evidenced by the plumes of sand that colored the waves turquoise as they drifted into the depths like blood flowing from a wound. Closer below, I watched tiny ant-people drive their cars and wander around a campground. Nearer still, I watched our companions on the platform, an eclectic crowd, discover the beauty for themselves and snap the obligatory selfie. Spice and I took our time, gazing for long minutes from each side of the square. This was one of those places, these were some of those moments.
As nice as it was up there, it was also overwhelmingly busy, and soon Spice and I felt the familiar pull to keep hiking. It was all that we had done, and all that we knew how to do. We passed lots more people during the following descent, flowing through them like salmon swimming upstream, then finally broke free from the crowds when we turned off of the popular Alban loop. But the walking was no less beautiful from there. Actually, it was incredible. A wide track of lush grass mowed through a hillside of bushes and down to the bayside coast where we followed along the water. The high sun was hot, but the breeze did its thing and kept us coolish. Waves crashed below, filling the air with the energy of their rumble and the scent of their spray.
The trail bumped us along for a few miles, always hot, always beautiful. At the second parking lot we learned a lot about the local whales before teetering across a rocky beach tucked between low cliffs. From there it was back up away from the water’s edge as the shore became steeper and more rugged. A trio of weedwackers cleared the trail ahead, and Spice liberally distributed her best “bonjour”’s, to every other hiker that we met. She even started singing it to no one in particular, to the tune of some song from Beauty and the Beast. Whether it was in her plan or not, the melody soon became trapped in my skull. Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!
We were in for a surprise when the trail joined the main road to the lighthouse, now just a mile or so distant. We had expected it to be paved and teeming with cars, ones that might give us a ride out of the park after we had finished our hiking business. Instead, it was gravel and teeming with walkers. This was not a public road after all. We’d have to walk back to the nearest parking lot. Shoot, bonus miles. And the people, holy moly. Not in a long time had we seen so many people. The parade was endless. Packs going this way, family blobs going the other. We turned onto the crunchy gravel and were swept away.
We missed our turn back onto the trail and so were soon carried by up the final hill to the cape on our wide highway. I could feel my anticipation growing in my heart with each unconsidered step. The crowd had dissipated somehow, evaporating somewhere, but I wasn’t complaining. Even though I was power hiking next to Spice, I wanted our pace to be set on our own terms, not by the awkward force of the human river. We had hiked far and endured much to reach this place, so it seemed reasonable that we might make this moment what we wanted.
At the top of the hill, we rounded a bend, and there it was, the lighthouse, Le Bout Du Monde. The white tower was capped in red, a color scheme shared by the scatter of nearby shacks on the grassy slope. It was an impressive edifice in a spectacular location, and I looked on in reverence as Spice approached what had until now only been known to me in pictures and my imagination. It was perfect, a perfect place to end this journey. I walked up, gave her a big hug, and put a hand on the angled wall. I was proud of us. I was proud of her. I was proud of myself. Whatever reaching this spot meant, we made it. It hadn’t been easy, but we were here now. The surface was rougher than it looked, as was our hike, but I had a feeling that most things living on the edge of the world adopted a rugged texture. And we were on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. Land’s End. The trees grew right up to the jagged edge of the cliff, abruptly disappearing as if wiped clean under the stroke of a massive eraser.
We sat with our backs against the white concrete on the shady side of the lighthouse to relax, relive, and observe. A loose crowd of tourists wandered around, a lot of them I recognized from Alban. I wondered if they recognized us, the dirty ones with the backpacks, as we brewed up a final pot of coffee and bit into the last of our remaining pastries. Similar to my experience on Katahdin before, I couldn’t claim to feel much, here at the end of the IAT. Back then I understood why no wild fits of emotion grabbed my heart. There was still a lot of hiking left to do and many question marks about even just the next several hours. But here on Cap Gaspé, with just two miles of backtracking and a few hitchhikes to our rental car, was that really so much to worry about that I couldn’t feel the magnitude of the achievement? Was I really so numb and tired that I couldn’t conjure up one small epiphany? What was the achievement anyway? What did the IAT mean to me? Certainly less than the AT, and it was just a small, though essential, part of the ECT. Did I still feel like I had unfinished business? How would I feel when/if Spice and I reach the Florida Keys? There was a glimmer of elation, yes, but it was a tentative flicker rather than a roaring jet. Or maybe it was actually relief that I was feeling. Relief that it had so far all worked out. I’d been pretty much assured of our success for several days now, but this did feel different. I was tired, but it was the good kind of tired.
I got up to wander around, read the informational signs, and see the epic beauty from different angles. My legs all of a sudden felt heavy, but my heart was light, with or without the rapturous bliss of a life goal completed. This was an amazing spot, no doubt about it, and I was lucky to be here. We all were, even the ones who drove most of the way. I closed my eyes, feeling the breeze on my face and my open palms. I didn’t need to hike almost 2,900 miles to appreciate the warm sun on my back or the wild energy saturating the air, but I was glad that I did. Even if I didn’t understand why it mattered that I walked here, I was comforted in my ignorance by knowing that I had. Besides, what could I know today that I didn’t yesterday? The journey was long, and so the lessons and changes were revealed over days, weeks, and months. Anything that I might have learned was already a part of me by the time I lay my hand on the lighthouse. The gleaming white tower was a symbol of transformation, but not the catalyst. I might never know the gradual changes that millions of small steps had shaped within me. However, I think that I was finally ready to be okay with that.
So really, what do Katahdin and a lighthouse have in common? As much as I looked to them to guide my sense of achievement, neither offered answers that I didn’t need to discover for myself. However, touching them gave me permission and focus to take a breath and do my own digging. Deep reflection on a journey is difficult without a sense of finality, and that is what Katahdin and Gaspé provided. Helping this, both are totally awesome and epic places to finish a thru-hike. They are arguably the most awesome and epic places to finish a thru-hike, in my experience. On Katahdin, the earth ran out, leaving only sky ahead. At Cap Gaspé, all that was left was water. I am no more a fish than I am a bird, and both Katahdin and Gaspé were peaks with no beyond. But of course, that’s not totally true. Neither Katahdin or Gaspé were the end. The end of a chapter, perhaps. I kept hiking with SpiceRack from Katahdin’s summit, along the knife’s edge and north to Gaspé on the IAT. And now the journey continues from there. Not the end, it is really just a new beginning.
At 3pm Spice and I decided that it was time to get going. At 4pm we were riding out of Forillon National Park under the kind care of a vacationing couple. At 5pm, two hitches later, we were 34 miles from Cap Gaspé in the town of Gaspé, confused as hell trying to figure out where we were supposed to go to pick up our rental car.
The Enterprise location in town was 2.3 kilometers up the road and closed ten minutes ago by the time we power walked there. Our steed was parked out front, but the keys were behind the desk of a dark store front. Hopeless, I let Spice take the lead as she harnessed her inner hurricane to move whatever mountains needed moving. She was a force of nature. She had a puppy to see.
After a few phone calls, we caught one last ride to the airport with a smiling man who smelled of fresh sawdust and owned more chainsaws than words in english. At 6:08pm we pushed through the double doors of the single-terminal building and waited at the rental car desk for our help.
Nathan was friendly enough, but when he told us that we would not be able to return our vehicle anywhere other than this location, he left us no choice but to lie to him directly in the face. I hated him for that. Our reservation meant nothing, he said. “Welcome to Canada,” was a popular excuse. In a way I felt bad for him. This guy has no idea what we’ve been through to get here, and how dangerous that makes us. We come from nature and we are forces of nature. There is no alternative. That car is ours. So with a complete understanding that his boss was going to be very angry with him and that we might see an erroneous charge of $700 on our credit card if we didn’t return the car right back here to this isolated corner of the world, we promised that we would do just that knowing full well that we wouldn’t.
With the wheels that we needed, it was time to cruise. After a stop at the grocery store for some epic sandwich supplies, Spice hit the gas. IAT: check. Now on to the next adventure…
However, the IAT wasn’t done with us just yet. Before long, we were misty-eyed as Olivia Rodrigo, undoubtedly the soundtrack of rainy road walks, tugged our hearts back to to what already felt like the distant gold of the good old days. The physical trail receded behind us, but the potency of our memories would take longer to fade.
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