We Made It to Mt. Katahdin!?!
Yeah, so I haven’t posted since Vermont…my B. Those last two states were just too awesome to take a zero day! Plus, Lucas and I had a strict deadline of completing August 15th; we bought a two-day bus ticket in advance (yippee for savings!). To make things easier, I figured I’d section this post into blurps summing up our experiences. Sorry for such a long post, but I tried to include only what mattered the most. Also, thank you all for your kind words and support throughout this journey; it means a lot to me. Enjoy!
The Franconia Range is by far my most favorite section of the Appalachian Trail, mainly because of its picturesque, 360-degree views above treeline. I absolutely love hiking above treeline. I feel as if I’m in another world, swallowed up by the immensity of everything surrounding me. For some reason, I get scared looking down from a boulder 20 ft tall, yet being on top of a mountain does nothing but inspire. I highly recommend this mountain range to everyone, even though the hike was somewhat strenuous, it was more than worth it.
Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence. — Nemann Buhl
In Maine, Lucas and I met a guy who’d hiked the PCT. He summed up the A.T. perfectly. When people call the Appalachian Trail a dirt footpath, they’re thinking of only 35% of the trail. Really, it’s more of scrambling up the side of a mountain to reach the summit. Sure, the PCT is nothing but picturesque views all the time, but on the A.T. I actually feel like I earn my views. I get to the top of a mountain–exhausted–look around, and just think “Wow, I’m here.”
I loved The Whites–it renewed my love of hiking! I hate to admit it, but towards the end I questioned what the heck I was doing, and blamed my deadline for a lot of my physical pain. Once we made it up Mt. Moosilauke, I fell in love with the mountains all over again. Someone once told me that mountaineers have a way of forgetting their hardships, and tend to edit their memories. …I can believe it. As soon as we made it above treeline, no matter the day, or how exhausted I was, I wanted to go and climb another. I felt my chest fill-up with the hopes of hiking another long-distance trail, possibly the PCT before graduate school, even though my hip would hurt, or my body wanted nothing more than to sit down.
If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere. — Frank A Clark
On The Trail, bad things do happen, and they may seem inescapable in the moment. There will be times where it seems like the A.T. is trying to dip you into fire, hold you in past your melting point, and then manipulate and bend your molten spirit into whatever it wants. The important thing to remember during those times is that metal, even though pliable after exposure to extreme temperatures, regains its strength once it has cooled. Its shape may have changed from outside forces, but the original material remains the same.
There’s nothing quite the same as bonding amid hardship.
The worst night I experienced on The Trail happened outside of Madison Spring Hut. The night before, Lucas and I stayed in the Mizpah Hut with two other hikers, Tigger and Neckbone, and did a Work-For-Stay in exchange for dinner leftovers and the option to sleep on the floor. We had heard from several Southbound thru-hikers that Huts had been taking up to 8 hikers for WFS, so group of four decided to hike on to Madison Hut. We didn’t think we were making a poor decision, especially since we had just all spent the night in a Hut, and our guide book mentioned a campsite option. Boy, was I naive.
I had so much fun that day going over Mt. Washington, but the rock-filled terrain required a lot of attention, and proved to be tough on the feet. Our group accidentally stepped off trail due to poor signage and began descending the last mountain of the day, although we were supposed to be climbing up to Madison Hut. After backtracking over increasingly more difficult terrain, we made it back to the intersection; Tigger drew an arrow pointing to the correct way after Lucas tried turning the sign, but then discovered that it was bolted into the ground.
So, after a couple of hours of added mileage, we made it to the Hut around 7pm, tired and ready for dinner. Long story short, the Croo members (aka the workers) rejected our request for sleeping on the floor, and pointed out a hand-drawn sign to the trail to the campsite. Her reason was understandable–there was already a couple doing WFS. The sun was almost set, and it began to get very cold and windy. Three different AMC members/guests offered us cheesecake brownies, headlamps, and their own cold weather gear because they thought we looked chilled (and probably pathetic, bundled up in all of our clothes). They were more than nice, and very concerned that we would be hiking the rocky terrain in the dark.
Well, we walked down the campsite trail a little ways until we saw that it trended straight down, in a way steeper than the A.T. had been all day–steeper than the guests’ tea back at the Hut! At this point, ravenous and ready for sweet sleep, we decided to search the side trails by the Hut, looking for a spot enough feet away. We found a gravel area out of sight from the Hut, and then sat down for dinner. Around 8pm, a Croo member came up to us and said, “Sorry, I’m not trying to be a dick, but you’re too close to the hut. You have to leave.”
He then suggested that we hike 3 miles up and over Mt. Madison (which is a 3,000 ft descent) to the next campsite. After scarfing down our food, we began to pack-up with the intentions of just hiking the 0.6 down the crazy-looking side trail. The original Croo member who had told us that we couldn’t sleep on the floor came over, too. We told her that the other Croo member just gave us very poor advice to hike over an exposed mountain at night, through strong winds. She apologized, and then said don’t listen to him, but then told us to please leave now.
Again, long long story short, we hiked an hour and a half down this steep, slick
trail riverbed, unable to find the unmarked campsite. We all fell down the wet rock multiple times, and Neckbone even broke a trekking pole. Once we saw a sign that said we were 1.4 miles from Madison Hut, we decided to set-up camp on this sloped trail itself. We had no idea where we were, but we knew that we had descended at least 2,000 ft. There was running water nearby and the humidity had returned, allowing us to shed a few layers. I slept on a large root that night fighting gravity, which was trying to roll me sideways, down hill.
In the morning, we met 4 avid hikers. They said they have hiked this particular trail up to the Presidential Range many times, and that they had no idea where the campsite was. One of the guys was a thru-hiker back in ’07, and he couldn’t believe they had sent us down this rugged trail in the dark, or that they had suggested we hike down Madison. Why would the workers push thru-hikers into dangerous conditions?
The most disappointing thing about this whole situation is how the Croo members treated us like second-rate citizens. They talked to us like we didn’t matter/weren’t their problem. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t even try to understand our situation: we were thru-hikers, we were exhausted, our options were limited, and we are human. We all felt like garbage after our interactions with them. Who were we to ask for something like shelter in a harsh environment? It’s not a feeling I expected in the Whites, especially since most people involved in the A.T. community are so kind, and very understanding.
An hour into hiking down the random side trail, I kept thinking, “What could/should we have done differently?” All four of us were on an early August deadline, so a 11.8 mile day seemed right for us to try. We knew that if we stopped at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, it would have been a very short day. We thought that the campsite mentioned in our guidebooks would at least be clearly marked, and that the trail would be decently kept if thru-hikers are turned down often. I think it should be a part of the Croo members’ job to do a better job marking the campsite–a single, hand drawn sign is not enough. We got lost and had no idea where we were for an hour and a half, at night.
If the Whites are getting overcrowded with thru-hikers, to the point where there’s several “leftover” hikers in the evening, there needs to be other, safer options available. The Whites are the most dangerous of all sections on the Trail, and there are long stretches above treeline where there is no place to camp/it is illegal to do so; maybe there should be long-distance, hiker specific shelters built alongside the Huts? I understand why the Huts want to accept only two thru-hikers a night for WFS, but what about those that get caught in the same situation as us?
I feel fortunate for having experienced this particular hardship with the people that were there. Sharing similar emotions with Tigger, Neckbone, and Lucas helped me face the discomforts I had about the situation, and feel like I did indeed matter as a person. I am thankful for Neckbone scouting out the area for potential campsites; I am thankful for Tigger for trying to cheer me up; I am thankful for Lucas reminding me that although things are not OK now, they will be OK.
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end. — Ursula K. Le Guin
I have mixed feelings about my time in Maine. I absolutely loved watching the sun set over a lake each evening, but I also disliked the absurd amounts of mosquitoes because of the lakes. Speaking of which, our August 15th deadline buzzed over and around our heads like a big fat, merciless mosquito, wanting nothing more than to suck the life right out of us. We had to keep moving in order to out-run it’s incessant whine. Even though it stormed everyday, making the rock slabs impossible to climb without assistance from tree roots, we had to keep moving forward. And even though we were so tired we often sang in our “best” opera voices aloud, open-mouthed ‘ahs’ echoing between rocks, just to distract our burnt-out minds from the need to sleep–we made our miles.
Lemme’ tell ya, southern Maine is the place to go for adventure!
Right into Maine, we saw a baby moose feeding on aquatic plants in a lake; of course we ran as soon as the mother snorted at us. That had been Lucas’
main Maine goal on the Trail, so he was super stoked to see those funny-looking, almost unreal seeming creatures. When we went through Mahoosuc Notch (otherwise known as the “Toughest Mile of the AT”), an hour into the challenge, we saw a wall of gray roll into the valley. Within minutes, it started to pour a cold, see-your-breath type of rain. I wasn’t too sure we’d make it out.
Imagine a boulder field in the bottom of a ravine, where there are 10-15 foot drop-offs that lead into caves filled with ice, or running water with floating dead rodents. We army-crawled through caves in the black mud and slide down wet rocks over ten ft tall. I was scared. At times, Lucas had to lean over the rock face, grab my hand, and physically pull me up because I couldn’t reach the next handhold. It was pouring out, so all our clothes and packs were twice their normal weight, plus the water below us was rising. We sang the Indian Jones theme song as we clung to tree roots jutting out of a rock slab, afraid we’d fall and get washed under.
After three hours of constant scrambling, we finally made it to the gap between the Mahoosuc Notch and the Arm (another toughy). We set-up our tent on a mega slope, because it was the only spot where a puddle of water wasn’t forming, took off all our wet clothes, and then jumped into the tent. It rained for sixteen hours, solid. We ate our dinner of potato chips and expired, 450 calorie meal replacement bars within the tent, over our sleeping pads. Just before bed, Lucas and I switched pads due to discomfort. In the morning, I saw tiny poops near the head of the pad I was laying on.
I said, “Hey, does this look like poop to you?”
Lucas said, “Nah, it’s probably crumbs.”
That evening we found a small hole the size of a mouse in our tent’s bug net…Future hikers, beware of crumbs!
THE HUNDRED-MILE WILDERNESS!
Lucas and I expected the Hundred-Mile Wilderness to be the most wild and remote section of the A.T. Of course, we were wrong. We saw at least a handful of day-hikers, everyday, for the five days it took us to reach Baxter State Park. One time, we saw a group of people wearing their bathing suits walk out of the woods. No water bottles or packs. I think the sign warning hikers to take in at least 10 days worth of food into this section is a little outdated. There were several Trail Magic opportunities, and many people camping off of the dirt logging roads. I heard more chainsaws and boat motors in this section than in any other–I’m pretty certain that the title draws people in.
We made it to the summit of Mt. Katahdin!!!!!!
…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some. — David Mitchell
I am still processing the end of the Trail. I’ll have to write about the takeaway in another post (not to mention this post is already long enough!). Let’s just say, things got weird. Mt. Katahdin was, I think, the toughest mountain on the trail, but very much worth it! We didn’t cry when we reached the top, and it didn’t feel real when we reached the bottom. I joked that we had transitioned from thru-hikers to day-hikers during our descent. Within an hour of reaching the Ranger’s Station, we got into the back seat of Tigger’s parents’ car, and drove to Bangor, Maine. Within an hour, we sat in a Mexican restaurant, celebrating the end of our journey with warm food for the first time in five days and mango smoothies, unsure of where we’d even sleep that night.
Tigger and her family were headed home to Massachusetts, so we had to get our plan together quick. We called all the hotels in town; they were all booked for some fighting match. Lucas and I eventually found a dirt road behind a construction site, and slept beneath crackling power lines until 4am. We woke up with the sun and quickly tore down camp before we were spotted, and then we walked less than a mile to the trucker’s stop, to wait for our 7am bus. It felt like a dream. Sitting in a diner, surrounded by lots of chatty people, drinking endless-coffee after being used to taking a dry spoonful of instant every morning, felt so surreal. And the two-day bus ride to Florida didn’t help me snap back into “normal” life either.
And that’s where I’ll end this post. Just know that I’m not quite used to post “trail life” yet, and that there’s more reflection to come! Again, I apologize for a long post but, if you’ve made it to this point, I hope it was at least interesting!
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I love David Mitchell!