Home Stretch, Wild Climbs

(Author’s note: I typed this all up on my phone so please pardon any typos for now! I just wanted to get it all published when I could 🙂 )

Wildcat

After my solitary stay at Osgood campsite, I decided to try for another work for stay at the next hut, the final hut in The Whites. That would mean I would only hike a ten mile day. I haven’t hiked that short of a day (that wasn’t a nero) since probably Georgia. I worried at the low mileage and told myself that if I still felt good after ten miles, I would move past the hut and find a stealth spot instead.

I needn’t have worried. Almost as soon as I stepped out of Pinkham Notch, the rocks piled up. I was so happy I stowed away my trekking poles ahead of time, because I needed my hands as much as I needed my feet.

At this point in the day, I only had five miles left to climb so I got a little cocky and started racing up the side of the mountain. After thirty minutes and what seemed like at least two miles later, my body was being worked so hard I could hear myself wheezing. I passed a guy day-hiking down the trail.

“Blimey!” He said in this rich, British accent. I loved that. Almost as much if he would’ve said, “bloody hell!”

“Hi,” I wheezed back.

“I can’t imagine doing this climb with a pack on. Is this hard?”

I almost laughed, except I had no energy to spare. “Yes,” I said. “It’s very hard. I won’t pretend that this is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

“Wow,” he said. His face was just filled with pleasant shock. “Are you doing the whole trail?”

“Yep,” I said, finding a handhold so I could pull myself over a rock.

“That’s just brilliant. Amazing. Good luck!”

“Thanks!” I said. I felt bad for not talking more, but I physically didn’t have much conversation left in me. He gave me a burst in spirits, however, so I pushed myself harder up the mountain.

After another grueling half hour, I felt I had to be at the top. There’s no way I couldn’t be close to done. I looked at the elevation profile and figured I had another .3 to the gondola at the top of the first peak. I could live with that. So I kept climbing.

Twenty minutes later and no gondola. I was starting to get frustrated and so unbelievably exhausted now that my water was running out. My body was being worked to its core for over an hour and a half and I had no idea when it was going to end.

I saw a southbounder and asked how far away the hut was.

“The hut?” He looked at his watch. “I was there at 10:00.”

I looked down at my watch. It was three in the afternoon. The hut should be less than three miles away. How hard was this climb?

I must’ve had a funny look on my face, because he kept talking.

“I did stop and take a few breaks though. I’m slack packing and I ran out of food, so I’ve been trying to yogi some. You’re close to the gondola, though, it’s not far.”

Well, at least I would have a point of reference. Once I reached the gondola that would mean I had just under three miles left.

I dug around in my hip belt and pulled out a Kind bar.

“Take this, I’m planning on staying at the hut tonight, so I don’t need it.”

“Are you sure?” He said, taking it from me. Thru-hikers never turn down food.

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll need the energy for the climb down. Good luck!” I said. I was in search of the gondola.

A few more minutes and I finally reached the moving chairs. I wanted to hang around for awhile, but the clouds started to creep over the trees and rain sprinkled from the sky. I saw a sign that said I had 3.0 miles to the hut. Normally, I could hike that in just over an hour. But this was The Whites. It could take me three hours based on this terrain. I just wanted to be done with this day so badly. And I still didn’t know if I would get work for stay at the hut.

There were times up Wildcat that I would look straight up at the rocks I would have to climb and just groan. I love rock-scrambling, it’s fun. But 5 miles of it with a heavy pack on and it taking three times longer than it would normally take me to hike those miles really started to eat at my spirits. The only choice I had was to keep moving, so that is exactly what I did.

Finally, after over three hours of climbing, I reached the hut. I was there at the perfect time: 4:30.

I dropped my pack off outside and walked in.

The chef looked up at the clock and then turned to me.

“Yeah, sure, we can take you. Have you worked at a hut before?” I told her I have and knew the rundown.

Later, two SOBOs showed up and also got work for stay, so we talked about the trail to kill time before we got leftovers. What’s cool at this point in the trail is that the NOBOs and SOBOs are crossing paths and get to exchange information about the trail. This includes where water is, where water isn’t, and other hot spots along the trail.  We talked all night about the trail and our experiences. That night, my work was to clean out the fridge and chip out the ice that piled up in the back. At around 9:00, I curled up in my sleeping bag on the dining room floor and fell asleep after what was the hardest day on the trail so far.

Out of the Whites

The next day was cold and windy, and I left the hut with a stomach full on breakfast leftovers. I embraced the cold wearing my rain coat and started up the hill.

This day shook me to my core. The descents were so steep and rocky I had no choice but to throw down my trekking poles and butt slide down the mountain. It’s like sliding down sandpaper. My butt was as raw as tomatoes at the end of the day. I hated how much I had to drop my mileage over these mountains. Up to this point, I was used to covering 18-20 miles, easy. Now, I’m lucky if I can manage 12. The days take so much longer, the falls are harder, and my stomach hungrier. I could eat my whole food bag in one sitting these grueling climbs made me so ravenous.

But I can’t eat all my food at once. And if my butt is bruised, I have to deal with it. Although let me say how much fun that was trying to sleep at night, rolling around with bruises lined up from my tail bone to my spine.

Finally, I made it to the shelter that day with the plan to Nero the next two miles into Gorham the next morning. I was so happy to see Team Pushwood already building a fire at the shelter. I’ve known these three since the first week on the trail, and they always make me laugh. It lifts my spirits just to see them at camp. We stayed up that night talking around the fire, and I went to sleep that night happier than is been all day.  We were finally done with The Whites, but the hardest part of the trail was still yet to come.

The Maine Attraction

I took a nero in Gotham at this hostel called The Barn and pretty much had the place to myself. My body was exhausted after The Whites and badly needed to recharge. So I took the day off and prepared myself to walk into Maine the next morning.

I planned a 16 mile day to a shelter just on the otherwise of the border. The hike wasn’t too terrible, but there definitely some rocky climbs. However, when I got to the shelter there were no camp sites left and the shelter was full with section hikers. I contemplated my next move as I cooked myself a pasta dinner. The only option I really had was to keep moving down the trail. The next shelter was 4.4 miles away, and the sun was going down. I knew that if I kept moving I would be doing some night-hiking.

So, I packed up my things and started back for the trail, but first, I asked a SOBO how the terrain was.

“Oh, it’s not bad,” he said cheerfully. “Just a bit of ridge walking.”

My heart leapt. I could do ridge-walking: that was easy. So I told him thanks, packed my headlamp in an easily accessible spot, and hiked on with an hour of daylight to spare. I figured I could get to the next shelter in about two hours.

How very, very wrong I was.

I hiked about a mile when I realized that this was not going to be easy ridge walking. As the sun began to set, I was climbing up Goose Eye Mountain and looked up. Steel bars jutted from the rocks and lined up like a ladder reaching over twenty feet of rock.

Well, I thought to myself. This is going to get interesting. I wrapped my headlamp around my forehead, clicked it on, grabbed a hold of he metal and hoisted myself up the rocks. For the next three miles, I climbed up and down wooden ladders, steel handles, skidded down rock faces, balanced on wooden planks, and butt slid down impossibly difficult crevices. All in the dark with nothing but my dim lamp.

I said a prayer of thanks to myself over and over again for remembering to pick up spare batteries at a store a few days back. My headlamp would’ve died without them.

It finally hit me, what my situation was. I was hiking alone, in the dark, over some of those most rugged terrain on the trail, in the middle of nowhere Maine, over a mountain range that peaked around 3-4,000 feet, in a state where I knew absolutely no one.

I thought about that for a second, and then I laughed. I wasn’t scared. I laughed because I was having fun. I laughed because I realized how much I’ve changed over this entire journey. If this was Apple Cider in the beginning of her AT hike, she might’ve panicked, or started to cry at being so alone in a slightly dangerous situation. I reminisced about my third night on the trail, when I stayed up all night, frozen in terror at what I thought was a bear circling my tent. I remembered being scared do so many things. I remembered hitch hiking for the very first time alone and how much that scared me. And while I still prefer to hitch hike with other people, I have no problem sticking out my thumb if I have to. I remember jumping off a bridge into a river in Vermont after telling Swahili how terrified I am of heights.

“Don’t you ever try to overcome those fears?” He asked me that day.

“All the time,” I said. And after a moment of hesitation, jumped 50 feet into a stony brook.

I thought back to all the times I was scared on the trail, and how I learned to overcome my fears. I thought back to the climb out of Lehigh Gap and how I almost died of fear-induced anxiety that day as my fear of heights creeped underneath my skin as I watched the valley below me get smaller and smaller. That day was the day I learned how important it was to trust myself. As soon as I learned to trust myself, I was capable of doing almost anything. I learned how important it was to trust that I did have the strength to pull myself over a rock, and that I wouldn’t let myself fall.

As I was climbing down from Goose Eye, I had a few hundred yards of ridge walk (so that SOBO didn’t entirely lie) and I looked up at the sky. I could see the stars for a moment before they hid behind some rolling clouds. I could see all the small towns in Maine light up in the valleys as they prepared to say good night. I felt all alone, and I never felt so comfortable. So at ease. So peaceful. I felt on top of the world, on the top of this mountain range that stretched for miles. I didn’t even wish I could share it with somebody. I soaked in that experience and I soaked it all in for me to remember for the rest of my life.

With just a mile to go, I started to get tired as I realized I hiked a 22 mile day. I also prayed that Pushwood would be at the next shelter so I could see some friendly faces when I rolled in.

I then remembered I had to work on my Pushwood call. They make this very loud grunt noise every time they see each other on the trail, and my grunts were extremely weak. There was no better time to practice than hiking over some mountains in the night with nobody around for miles.

So there I was, remembering what Swahili said about really getting the noise down from the diaphragm, and worked on my grunts for the next mile.

Not long after some gnarly climbs down slippery rocks, I saw a hammock set up alongside the trail. I made it! After an intense 4.4 miles that took me 3.5 hours to complete, I made it to the campsite around 10pm, the latest I ever strolled into a shelter. I had to climb up one last wooden ladder to make it to the shelter, and my heart leapt. I saw three headlamps on. There are only 3 people I knew that would still be up this late past hiker midnight.

“Ungh!” I grunted as loudly as I could as I climbed up over the louder.

The headlamps turned my way.

“Ungh!” I heard three grunts back.

I plopped my pack down and told Don Vino, Kaiser, and Pigpen all about my night hike and everything I had just been through that day. It was so awesome to see them. And then I laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and went straight to sleep.

The next morning was Mahoosuch Notch, the toughest mile on the trail. It’s basically a jungle gym of massive boulders that hikers have to make their way through. There were a few times when I found myself in a tight spot where I had to strategically figure out how to get up and over these massive boulders. Even though it was an insane total body workout, it was a lot of fun. My legs were a banged up, bloody mess at the end of that mile, and my muscles felt like jello when I was done. I took a food break with Pushwood before continuing down the trail, hoping that the hardest part of the day was done.

Haha. This is Maine. And it didn’t take me long to realize that the hardest part is never done. Sometimes I wonder if the trail maintainers purposefully made the trail so difficult as to just mess with our heads. Like its some sort of endless, open torture chamber.

The climb up Mahoosuc Arm almost left me in tears. I didn’t know how much more of these steep, insane rock climbs I could do. I’ve always heard of people quitting in Maine, and I never understood why somebody could quit when they were so close to the finish.

I could now understand why. These climbs beat me down and I could never eat enough food or drink enough water to replenish myself. Every step made me feel ten times more exhausted than the last. I’ve never had a harder time on the trail. And it just never ends. Every day is a struggle from start to finish. Getting to the shelter at the end of the day without just giving up and laying face down on the trail for all to walk over me remains a miracle.

After my third day in Maine, I was feeling physically and mentally drained. I wanted to make it to Rangeley so badly, but that was still over 26 miles away. I had to resupply in Andover, so Tinkerbell, Roadrunner and I decided to find a way into town together so we could charge our phones and eat food at the town diner.

Then it started to pour. We found ourselves getting dry inside and I ordered myself a huge onion cheeseburger and a slice of blueberry pie a la mode and still was unbelievably hungry. It was like I didn’t eat anything at all. My stomach had turned into a bottomless pit with my metabolism running at 100 miles per hour.

Hungry, tired, and damp, I looked outside the restaurant windows. For the first the in 2,000 miles, I could not motivate myself to get back out to hiking.  An idea started to gnaw at my brain.

“I think I’m going to yellow-blaze,” I told Tinkerbell and Roadrunner.

“Don’t do it,” said Roadrunner. “You’ve come all this way without doing it.”

“If I can get a shuttle to pick me up, I’m headed to Rangeley,” I said. After looking up the drive in google maps and seeing it was over an hour drive, I didn’t really feel like hitch hiking that alone. But, I couldn’t get a hold of any hostel in Rangeley that would drive out here. So it started to sink in that I might have to go back out hiking in the pouring rain, my spirits dampened, my body broken.

Still, nobody moved. After sitting at the diner for two hours, Roadrunner and Tinkerbell had a proposition.

“We yellow-blaze to Rangeley,” said Roadrunner. They’ve already yellow-blazed part of the trail before, so they weren’t new to it.

“Alright, so it’s a day of hitch hiking in the rain,” I said.

Some hikers look down on yellow blazing because it’s not an honest attempt at hiking the whole trail. I used to look down on it myself until I asked myself the question: would I rather be miserable for days or find myself in the middle of a new and unique experience?

As an answer to that question, we walked out of the diner and stuck out our thumbs. We didn’t have to wait long for our first hitch. A middle-aged man in an SUV pulled over and asked us where we wanted to go.

“As close to Rangeley as you can get us,” we said. “Any amount helps.”

“Hop in,” he said.  He was a friendly guy and told us about the area and we told  him about our trip. He drove for about twenty minutes until he said this was the furthest he could take us. We were so grateful that he got us that much closer and we wished him a good day.

Now, we were on Route 17, a straight shot to Rangley. We just had to find a car that would get us there. On a road that saw little traffic. We were sticking out our thumbs for a good twenty minutes before a car finally pulled over.

A young guy named Donny with long, brown hair invited us in. We squeezed in the back and he told us about the times when he hitch hiked across the country and all the music festivals and shows he worked on. He then hooked us up with some safety and drove us to this gift shop off the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

“Sorry guys, I would totally take you all the way into Rangeley but I don’t have the gas,” he said. “The lady in here is nice though, she’ll let you hangout.”

So we thanked him and hopped out the car. It was pouring now and it was getting darker. We tried hitching for what felt like another half hour, but nobody picked us up.

Finally we resorted to hanging out by the gift shop and come up with a plan if we got stuck here.

Tinker bell went inside to order pizza, and Roadrunner and I assessed our situation.

“It’s pouring rain, we’re miles from the trail, 20 miles from Rangeley on a road nobody drives on, stuck outside a random gift shop in the middle of nowhere Maine,” recounted Roadrunner. He and I looked at each other and then burst out laughing.

Tinkerbell came back out and gave us news about the pizza, and then suggested we start yoging for rides when people pull into the shop.

We didn’t have to wait long when we saw a minivan pull up and a woman get out of the car with a sweatshirt that said Rangeley.

Gotcha, I thought. I followed her into the store, pretended to browse and then cut the crap and walked up to her.

“Hi,” I said. I tried to look as pathetic as possible, but giving my situation that probably wasn’t too hard to accomplish. “My friends and I are hiking the Appalachian Trail and we’re trying to find a way into Rangeley. If you’re headed that way, would you be able to help us?”

The lady looked at her husband and what looked like her three older kids and then said, “Sure.”

I was so happy I could hug her. Our pizza was ready, too. So we hopped into their van, packs, pizza and all. I could tell they’ve never picked up hitch hikers before, so we started talking all about the trail and the culture and how close we were to being done and our favorite memories.

Twenty minutes later, they dropped us off into town and we said goodbye. We made it! I was in probably one of my highest spirits on the whole trail.

I could finally take my zero. I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world.

-Apple Cider

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Jessica Talbot : Aug 13th

    Dang girl. I am so impressed by you! I miss your face so much, but I cannot imagine how amazing it must be for you right now.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    TicTac : Aug 15th

    You have such an amazing gift, a gift that allows you to express yourself so clearly. Your feelings, your fatigue, your joy, it all comes tumbling out in your sentences – and all typed on your phone of all things. Thank you for sharing so much of your journey with us, and I look forward to hearing all about the remainder of Maine, and of the Big K.
    TicTac

    Reply

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