The Grand Finale: Trail Update Ten

Southern Maine was a rough way to start the last state on the AT heading north, and I spent the last weeks ready to be finished. Even when the terrain started to flatten out during my last five days, it was tough to keep hiking all day: perhaps that was just due to the monotonous flat ground and mosquitoes, though. Maine presented gorgeous lakes, views of Katahdin every few miles, and (sadly) no moose, which I had hoped to glimpse. The first real sighting of my endpoint was at a calm lake, followed by another view from the side of a mountain, and it did not feel real to me that my grand adventure was near a close. (Especially because Katahdin is 16 miles away at that point, but the trail takes 35-36 miles to arrive.)

Another Katahdin view.

People around us were planning how to leave the park, common evening conversations were around jobs and places to live, and some hikers decided to keep on hiking different trails instead of returning to what they’d done pre-AT.

Summit Day

On the actual morning when Hops, Ozy, and I chose to summit, we woke up to cold, clear skies. Twelve hikers, including us, had camped at the Birches, a pair of long-distance hiking shelters for travelers at the Katahdin Stream Campground. People drifted out in the morning, with some leaving before light, and others having a leisurely last camp breakfast around a fire. We headed out around 7, and I felt strange walking past all the day hikers speaking with rangers in the parking lot. Could they tell we were finishing an adventure? The climb up Katahdin was easier than I expected, with a rough first third or so, then amazing open views and a leisurely climb to the summit.

The three of us stuck together for the whole final hike, passing hikers along the way. I continued to feel excited and happy along the way, and we enjoyed the rock scrambling on the way up as it kept the trail interesting (and we knew it was the last day). A few large clouds blew past while we walked through the Tablelands, where the trail flattens out after some challenging rock climbs to lovely views. At the summit, there was barely a cloud in the sky, and we reconnected with many of the hikers from the night before, took tons of photos, and enjoyed all the snacks in our bags. I’d wondered if anyone would cry, and no one in my little group did. I felt nothing but happiness at finally reaching the end of my goal, though I still didn’t feel in my bones that the hike was coming to an end.

We had a steep descent back down to the campground, where we hitched a ride to get celebratory burgers at the only restaurant near Katahdin. Hops had a family member who was picking us up, so we camped with some other thru-hikers who were summiting the next morning. I made cups and cups of tea, and I tried to finish all my hiking food so I could start fresh with better eating habits off the trail. (I am STILL craving Doritos, and it’s been ten days.)

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

I decided to hike the trail for a variety of reasons, some that I fulfilled on the way, and others that stopped seeming important as the months wore on. I loved spending more time outside, though instead of nature therapy, the Appalachian Trail is more a reminder that nature can be brutal and that we have absolutely no control over the elements, only our reactions to what’s outside. I saw people quit after five days of straight rain, people slip and hurt an ankle, knee, back, etc., and people who gave it all mentally but couldn’t keep pushing on. Not exactly a walk in the woods by any stretch, especially past the four-month mark.

I learned that I can do far more than I expected, and I successfully pushed back some of the lifestyle inflation I had been experiencing. There’s nothing like carrying your wardrobe, kitchen, house, and food on your back in one bag, to set you on a more minimalist course. My phone was primarily disconnected. I would check every day or so to see if I had service (sometimes), and I got used to using my phone (other than for photos or evening notes) only during each town stop, instead of each hour. Lots of news happened, and none of it mattered or affected my daily life as far as I could tell.

I had rough days as well, and days when I would have given almost anything to be sitting inside, but I never wanted to get off trail, I only wanted to finish. On those bad days, when I had to dig far deeper than I thought I could, I met another Katharine, the version of myself who comes out in hard times. Despite the weather, the challenging climbs, slippery rock descents, and monotonous days, she would still usually share food with others, cheer on her trail family, and try to keep morale high. I admired what I saw down there, and I hope to be more like her even when I am standing still.

The Adjustment

I finished the AT on August 25, bringing my thru-hike to a close after 149 days on the road. I expected to take until mid-September, but my pace was faster than I had predicted, even with 15 days of zeros, when my trail family and I didn’t hike a single mile on the AT. Following Katahdin, Hops, Ozy, and I went to camp in coastal Maine off the beach for a few days, as we were craving endless horizons after so many days under tree cover.

I still felt hungrier than usual, especially since my activities were lounging on the beach or having a leisurely walk through town, as my appetite hadn’t yet adjusted. Food that would typically taste salty and seasoned sometimes seemed bland, due to how much salt was in some of the hiking food I’d eat. Every salad was a miracle. Water from a faucet and showers on demand were luxurious. I called some friends to get the condensed news over the past months. My trail family posted photos in our group chat as each subsequent person finished Katahdin or neared a point of interest.

Currently, my feet still hurt every morning when I stand up, and I can barely touch my toes. I bought a pair of pants yesterday and wonder how long they will fit. I try to stretch a bit each day, but I don’t quite have enough energy yet to work out more seriously. I have been meditating each evening to get back to some of the quiet I experienced on the trail, and it’s been a joy to read actual hardcover books again.

What’s Next?

I fly to Peru this weekend for a retreat, a few weeks in Cusco, and…more hiking! Hops and I are doing a six-day hike to Machu Picchu, and we’re excited for the luxury of someone else cooking each meal and setting up camp. For most people that may not be glamping, but for a thru-hiker, it will be incredible. Come October 15, I will be back in NYC in my bank’s office, trying to condense my past six months into a short enough story form to share with my coworkers.

Beyond that, I’ll have my work cut out for me. I always have lots of plans, but for now I’ll be occupied with setting up a life and travel blog with Hops to keep people engaged with the world around us. (Stay tuned on Instagram after the holidays.) We’ll hike the PCT in a long time… at least three years. We’ll navigate our still-new relationship off the trail. I will visit everyone in our trail family and hopefully host a few in NYC. I also want to take a very, very long bath.

Good luck to all the hikers finishing up, and thanks for following this adventure with me!

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