Katahdin Call to Hikers: Celebrate and Give Back to Millinocket
I moved to Maine about two and a half years ago, for the ocean and the mountains and the hiking.
I know for everyone else, there are mantras like: “No pain, no rain, no Maine.” I know it is just a final destination to check off, that vague lumbering idea of Katahdin. For many thru-hikers, the trail is the first time they’ve been to Maine.
But for me, it’s more personal.
I’m hiking NOBO because I want to know that I’m hiking home.
So on the days when it sucks, when I hurt, when the weather is awful and I’m soaked to the bone or freezing and debating giving up, I know that I can’t give up because I want to HIKE home, not fly or drive here.
I was never more certain of this choice than this December, when I rucked the Millinocket Half-Marathon.
Millinocket is one of the towns on Katahdin’s doorstep. For a long time, it was a prosperous mill town. But first one, and then the other, mill closed. The area has faced much of the depression that those of us who grew up in Rust Belt rural areas know well: a loss of jobs, and with it, a loss of identity. Folks who came from mill families lost steady jobs. Young folks started fleeing to areas with better job prospects.
I grew up in rural Illinois and lived in both the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and upstate New York. I know this struggle well. And, admirably, the town is working hard to come back fighting.
Three years ago, help in that battle came from an unlikely place: a free marathon organized by Gary Allen of Crow Athletics. That first year, 60 runners participated.
Since then, the race has taken on a life of its own.
It’s a Boston qualifying marathon with a half-marathon option. In 2017, over 1,100 runners participated in the race. It’s an odd combination: a half- and full marathon in northern Maine, the second weekend of December. Logistically, it takes a certain kind of hardy soul. (In 2016, it was -10F at the race start and didn’t get much better.)
It also has free registration, on purpose, to draw in racers so they get to know the area and spend money. Want a finisher’s medal? You can order one ahead of time, pay for it, and support a local artist. Want a race T-shirt? Same deal. They host a big craft fair in the high school and you can pick up all manner of handmade items, and every local business turns out specials and support for the racers.
The racers, amazingly, give back in spades, donating to local organizations and participating in a weekend’s worth of events. Many come back for personal vacations other times of year. The locals go out of their way to make racers feel welcome (whiskey shots and hot soup shots along the course? Yes please!). And the entire thing just has this fantastic Maine feel of community and love and trail magic.
The town has really embraced the race in every way imaginable — you feel like you are part of a large, extended family. In December, I grabbed dinner the night before the race at the American Legion, and got breakfast the following morning put on by Northern Timber Cruisers Snowmobile/ATV/Cross Country Ski group. I bought ornaments and goodies at the craft fair and helped a friend take donations to the clothes and toy drives there.
It feels a lot like home.
I was feeling great about participating, but I’ve had Achilles issues since October and I wasn’t able to run the half-marathon. So I decided to ruck it instead, carrying my thru-hike pack and the majority of my gear. I figured it would be a good training opportunity for the AT. (I might be a little obsessed with shakedown hikes.)
But the half-marathon didn’t go exactly as I expected. I greatly underestimated how amazing the atmosphere is — even with 25ish pounds on my back, I hiked a bunch of sub-15-minute miles and finished my half-marathon not far off from some runners. It felt awesome.
It also deeply affirmed my decision to thru-hike NOBO.
There is a long chunk of the race route that runs along a mostly unpaved stretch of the Golden Road, which has some stunning views of Katahdin. You spend several miles staring her down as you run or walk.
I’d seen her once already checking out the mile markers with friends prerace, but when I saw her then, trudging along the road with my pack on my back, she took my breath away. I almost stopped dead in the road.
I just kept staring at her and whispering to myself:
You and I have a date next year, and I’m not going to miss it.
My thru-hike felt closer to me in that moment than it had in all the months of planning, during my painful shakedowns on the Maine AT in August, or poring over guidebooks and hiking memoirs. Katahdin was no longer a looming idea or a vague end destination. She became part of my home, and part of what I’m coming back to. I’m excited to slide into Millinocket after I finish, to drop in to the Moose Drop In and buy a couple AT shirts from the gals there, and eat my weight in pizza.
But I’m not writing all of this as a here’s why I’m NOBOing thing, though it probably seems that way. I’m writing it because I want your help.
I want you to celebrate my adopted home, and the beauty of the trail, the way I will be.
I’ve signed up for the Millinocket Marathon this year. Whether I successfully complete my thru-hike or not, I’m going to ruck the full marathon with my thru-hike pack and gear on Dec. 8, 2018.
For you hikers and trail lovers who can make it, I invite you to come join me.
Because if you love Katahdin, you have the people of this region to thank for her.
Think about Mt. Washington for a moment. Think about how touristy that beauty is.
And realize that a similar plan to commercialize Katahdin was floated — and shot down by Mainers. They opted to keep Katahdin wild. Can you imagine if the Northern Terminus was the kind of zoo that Washington is? Would you feel half the grandeur, half the wonder and odd relief and sadness at finishing or starting the trail that you do now, if people were plopping out of cars next to you?
I can’t imagine so.
(For the record, Mainers are also to credit for protecting the Carrabassett Valley, keeping the stretch of the AT through the Bigelows gorgeous.)
The people of the region have paid for that in other ways — they bet on industries that have dried up. The least we can do as hikers is to thank them for keeping this area so strikingly beautiful.
So, at minimum: if you happen through the area, please stop in to Millinocket or some of the other little towns up here and spend some of your hiker trash dollars. Buy food. Stay a night and take a hot shower. Buy a T-shirt or a hat. Plan an actual trip here rather than just passing through at the start or end of your hike.
But even more importantly: come ruck the half- or full Millinocket marathon with me on Dec. 8 with your hiking gear.
If you’ve thru-hiked the AT already, come back to enjoy the area. If you haven’t, come to see Katahdin. I guarantee you, it will inspire you.
There are so few ways that we as hikers can give back to the trail communities we depend on, short of not being jerks when we pass through. This is your opportunity to join me in showing these folks just how appreciative we are.
I’ll be there, looking very much like I did this year (though probably gaunter and maybe still a bit exhausted from my hopefully successful thru-hike). I’m even making it a point to wear this hat again so you can find me and come talk trail love:
Come with an open heart. As Gary says, this isn’t your traditional race: you don’t run Millinocket for what you get; you run it for what you give.
And to that, I say: come hike Millinocket for what you give.
Help me get #hikerswithsass to be part of the Millinocket running scene. And if you register or document training hikes, post about it using #hikerswithsass, #runmillinocket2018, and #hikemillinocket2018 and let’s see if we can’t show this town some true hiker love.
–Race details: http://www.crowathletics.com/millinocket/
–Race registration, free: https://www.zippyreg.com/online_reg/index.php?e=1031
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I am glad you got to visit and enjoy, the home many of us were forced to leave at a young age in order to go to school or make a living. Our home will always be Millinocket. It is an exemplary example of hospitality for anyone lucky enough to be visiting this beautiful area of the state of Maine.
Welcome to Maine!! I have lived in the Mt. Katahdin area my whole life and although I love to travel, it’s always so nice to come ‘Home’ to this beautiful place.
How exciting for you to be hiking the AT. Will you have a blog or Facebook page so I can follow your adventures along the AT? I volunteered at the Millinocket Marathon & Half last Dec. ’17 and I will also be there this year; I will be watching for your pink stocking hat!
Good luck to you and…….”May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”–Edward Abbey(1927-1989)