One Journey Ends, and a New Adventure Begins
Well folks, we have the joy of writing to you today with the great news that we summited Mount Katahdin on Aug. 29 and can now officially call ourselves AT thru-hikers. Tomorrow, six months to the day after we left the UK, we’ll land back in Edinburgh and everything will most likely look the same as we left it. Things may well feel very different, though.
After all this time of sweating over mountains, enjoying dinner on riverbanks, and endlessly walking north, our way of living since March has been both beautifully simple and wonderfully extraordinary all at the same time. Now we go back to traffic jams, mortgages, and alarm clocks. It’s not all bad, though. Family, friends, taps, and a mattress are there, too. There have been lots of things we’ve been looking forward to getting back to, but regardless of how long that list is, leaving the trail behind will be a difficult adjustment.
The End of the Trail: Saving the Best till Last
In our last blog we talked about how difficult New Hampshire and Southern Maine were and you probably noticed we weren’t exactly enjoying our time in the final state on the trail at the time of writing. We’re thrilled to say that that changed soon after. The northern section of Maine (from the town of Rangeley onward) was a world apart from the south and really enjoyable. Broadly speaking, the weather was great and the rocky scrambles gave way to real hiking trail.
Northern Maine really did play to our inner souls. Both of us have a really strong desire to live by water and northern Maine is full of the most breathtaking lakes, ponds, and waterfalls. Almost every night we managed to find a camp spot near a secluded body of water and we would sit eating dinner while listening to the water lap up against the rocks and the sound of the incredible wildlife that called it home. What a life.
A large proportion of the trail in Maine is the 100- Mile Wilderness which makes up the final section of trail before hikers enter Baxter State Park, where Mount Katahdin awaits, and it’s a well known and looked forward to part of the journey for thru-hikers. The vistas are stunning, full of mountains and lakes that stretch all the way to the horizon. The section gets its name as, unlike plenty of other sections on trail, you really are in the middle of nowhere when you go through. So naturally, you need to carry all the food you’ll need for the 100 miles from the start.
Keen to keep our packs light, we plan long days and take the minimum amount of food we can get away with, which has its good and bad points. We cruise through in four and a half days on too few calories and can feel it by the end. We start to feel weak even after eating. We develop that tiredness behind the eyes that isn’t just from poor sleep. We start to become genuinely malnourished and the 2,000 miles that have come before probably don’t help. Thankfully, there’s a restaurant and a resupply point right at the northern tip of the wilderness and it’s only extortionately expensive rather than astronomically expensive. We dive in.
The 100-Mile Wilderness is an odd beast. It starts off mountainous for us northbounders but then gets incredibly flat (no complaints here). However, a flat elevation profile doesn’t always mean for plain sailing. Maine is rocky, rooty, and muddy. Don’t even get us started on the bugs. It’s funny; everyone seems to always go on about the rocks in Pennsylvania, but they’re nothing in comparison to Maine. However, more than 2,000 miles behind us we took the terrain in our stride. It was fantastic, we were back to hiking 23-mile days and being in camp by 6:30 p.m. again. It was a great feeling.
Successfully through the wilderness the next night, we camp with a tremendous view of Mount Katahdin, the trail’s famed and staggering finish point. There are a few places through the wilderness from where you can see Katahdin, but this is our first up-close look at the place that has been our destination all this time. I guess we feel more sentimental about the mountain than non-hikers would, but finally seeing this place that we’ve put so much effort and time into getting to is genuinely emotional and brings feelings of pride, relief, and excitement. We spend most of the evening gazing up at the mountain and reminiscing about our adventure, which we’re very aware is soon to end. All this happens over a few bottles of cider… keeping it classy right up to the end!?
Bright and early the next day, over a breakfast of doughnuts, we make the easy ten mile hike through Baxter State Park to the base of the mountain. We start early and are there by 10 (even though we stopped at every viewpoint possible), which gives us most of the day to continue the reminiscing and most importantly, nap. It’s a strange feeling being the day before the end. In honesty, at the time it doesn’t feel all that different to any other day. We’ve been immersed in this experience for so long, it’s difficult to fathom what it will mean and how it will be when suddenly removed from it. Writing this a few days on from finishing, it’s still difficult to get our heads around. It’s going to take some sincere reflection time once we’re back in the real world to really come to terms with.
Summit day finally arrives and as an added treat, Squid Kid, who we hiked more than 1,500 miles with before Robin got Lyme and who finished three weeks earlier, drives all the way from Maryland to be with us on our big day and share the experience with us. We were really happy to see him and have him with us. It just shows what a bond the trail creates.
The climb up Katahdin is joyous. The weather is perfect and we’re catching up with Squid for most of it; talking all the way the first few miles pass by very quickly. We’re also slackpacking (why bring your tent if you don’t need to) so are barely carrying any weight at all. The second half of the climb turns into a rock climb, but with so little weight on our backs it’s easy and fun. As we near the top it really starts to hit that this is all going to finish soon. As we start to climb the last few steps we both get teary. Squid gets teary and he’s already done this! It’s a big moment for us all.
We reach the sign and are both choking back the sobs. We wrap up in a tight embrace. “We made it,” is mostly all we can manage to say to each other. “We did it.”
What’s the Trail Like?
Friends, family, and strangers have all asked us this and all we can answer is: “It’s everything.” It’s so cold your shoes freeze solid so you can’t push your feet in. It’s so hot you drip sweat for hours and pray for rain. When the rain comes you’re soaked for days, and when it stops the streams dry up and you’re parched. It’s full of laughter, fun, and never wanting it to end, and there’s a whole bunch of just wanting to stop and go home and never hike again. There’s feeling hungry for days on end and there’s feeling so full during a town stop you have to lie down in the aisles of a Walmart because you ate too much pizza before doing your resupply. There’s a dozen mosquito bites in a day, there’s arduous climbs after knee-crunching descents and rocky scrambles after perfectly flat and smooth trail carpeted by soft, springy pine needles. There’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets and there’s hiking and camping through thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. There’s friendships for life rooted in shared experience and there’s just plain weirdos that manage to keep showing up. There’s blisters on your feet, rubbing on your hips, and aching shoulders from heavy packs. There are views that make it seem all worthwhile. There’s an incredible feeling of freedom and adventure and there’s the slavish compulsion to just keep hiking no matter how much you’d really rather not. Over 2,190 miles you go through it all.
Long-Distance Hiking with Your Significant Other
Thru-hiking is a huge test of an individual. It’s a huge test of a relationship too. The truth is, there have been times we’ve both questioned if we’d be able to make it through this experience as a couple. Before we started we joked that there was a 100 percent chance of us starting the trail together and an 80 percent chance of us finishing it together. That probably wasn’t too far off the truth.
Twice during this journey (one time each) we’ve both questioned if we can make it together and in both instances all we’ve been able to do is stop hiking, sit down, and talk. That’s all you need to do and all you really can do. Both of those times were in the first few hundred miles and we fixed it quickly. We came into this experience feeling like a strong team; we come out of it feeling like we couldn’t be stronger.
I think a lot of couples will (just like us) go into the experience assuming that they’d operate exactly how they do at home, but that’s just not the case – at the beginning, anyway. The AT forces you to redefine your comfort zone individually, and so it’s not always possible to be there to support each other while doing that. You need to work out how to survive yourself before you can then work out how to survive together. You’ll both find different things difficult and find different ways of coping with them. Give each other the space to do that.
Some Final Thoughts
Firstly, there’s a lot of people to thank. Our families have supported us every step of the way (pun intended) and that can be a lot to ask when real life continues at home while you’re away. There have been meaningful events, both happy and sad, take place at home while we’ve been gone within both of our families and we haven’t been there to share the joy or the pain. Friends don’t seem to have forgotten us and we can’t wait to reconnect with them.
We also what to thank Zach and the awesome team at The Trek. They were the source of a huge amount of pretrail information that helped us get ready and they’ve hosted our blog throughout this journey, allowing us to share our experience with you. There are still lots more hikers on trail and many blogs to read greater than ours, so keep coming back to The Trek! If you dream of hiking the trail A) you can, B) get your hands on a copy of Zach’s book Appalachian Trials. It helped us mentally prepare for the journey and that’s key.
Trail angels and trail maintainers have shown us no end of kindness and generosity through the entire trail. The community around the trail as a whole is a wonderful support network and we can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for us. Kind strangers have got us out of difficult and stressful situations countless times. We look forward to being the kind strangers for someone else in life.
As we’re writing this blog together, it might be a bit naff but we also want to thank each other. We couldn’t have got through this journey without each other. In dark times of soul searching and questioning what we were putting ourselves through, we always had each other to pull ourselves through. We take from the trail a profound belief that anything is possible if you just don’t quit. It feels like neither of us will be daunted by a challenge again. I hope that doesn’t come across as arrogant. We just believe we can get through it now. We believe anyone can. Just keep going.
This won’t be our last adventure, the feeling of freedom is ingrained now, and we’ll go looking for it again. Maybe a shorter trip next time, though.
The next adventure has already taken its first step, because after all, if you can get through a thru-hike together, you can probably get through anything together:
For the last time, Buck and Robin, over and OUT!
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Congratulations on finishing your AT hike. Enjoyed your excellent journal. If you ever happen to make it to Alaska, our door is always open
for fellow hikers. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77
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