How Bad Do You Want It?

I sat at the breakfast table at Shaw’s, full of Poet’s amazing pancakes and wired on coffee. My hiking buddies, ET and Lady Slippers, and I were quietly studying our maps and guides, making notes and attempting to come up with some sort of plan for the final section of trail in Maine.

The universe loves it when I come up with a plan. Mischief, thy name is Mother Nature and thy playground is the 100 Mile Wilderness.

After comparing notes and some discussion, we decided on an 8 day attempt of those 100 miles, with a Katahdin finale on day 9. It was going to be a challenge. Maine had slowed me down. Let’s be honest, being on trail for almost 7 months had slowed me down. The days were getting noticeably shorter. I was running out of sunlight before I ran out of juice. ET and Lady Slippers, as flip floppers, were keeping pace with me just fine, but they were still building their mileage and endurance. Even still, we were optimistic (or just plain stubborn) about our ability to tackle the miles ahead of us.

Technical difficulties right from the word ‘GO’.

I like getting on trail early. I’m usually one of the first up, though not always the first out of camp. We had planned a 15 mile day that first day. After 7 months, I still hadn’t learned that I rarely got on trail early after a zero day. Enter wrench in the plans #1. Lady Slippers’ resupply boxes were nowhere to be found. As a resupply box hiker, I’ve had a couple instances with delayed boxes. For me, it’s no biggie, just run to the store and get something to make due. However, I sent boxes just to keep an eye on my nutrition. For the dear Lady, with allergies to pretty much everything, boxes are life. She wasn’t able to just run upstairs in Poet’s gear closet and make due. After some running around, editing of our food drop, and quick thinking, we finally made it to trail after lunch. Time to sprint!  Needless to say, we did not make our goal for the day, and headlamps were deployed to get as far as we safely could. We’d figure out how to make up those miles later.

Bring on the rain.

No rain, no pain, no Maine, right? We knew we were in for some inclement weather. We also knew we were food motivated, so no weather was going to stop us from getting to our food drop in a few days. Fortunately, that first day of rain wasn’t too cold, although fording a thigh deep stream first thing in the morning is a sensation I won’t soon forget! I wanted to see if I could make up a couple miles from the day before so I was determined to make it to a stealth site I had read about. The weather kept the views pretty much the same, grey and socked in, but the extra water rinsed the leaves and the fall colors were starting to pop in deep, pinkish reds and copper. It was enough to keep me distracted and moving, though still not very fast. Eventually the headlamp came out again, but not before I missed a turn and had to backtrack a fair distance. I wanted to do extra miles, not extra blue blazes! Annoyed with my mistake, I was determined to make it to my planned stealth site, hiking up and over Third Mountain in total darkness. The rain had let up, but cloud cover kept the stars at bay. It was amazing. I fell asleep that night with a very deep sense of accomplishment.

After a peaceful day over Chairback Mountain, through more deep, cold streams and along the Gulf Hagas Trail, I was finally back on track with our original plan, but had no idea where my hiking partners were. Since leaving the technical terrain of southern Maine, we rarely hiked together during the day, being solo hikers after all, and the lack of cell service made communications a guessing game.

A rare calm water crossing in between all the rain.

But one of us had to reach the food drop in a couple days, so I kept going.  No cell service also meant no way to get current weather forecasts. I knew more weather was coming, everyone on the trail was talking about it, but no one seemed to know when, or more importantly, just how much. I found out the hard way when I woke the next morning in roughly 4 inches of water. Astonished with just how many rookie mistakes I made, setting up in a ‘bowl’, leaving my pack outside in my vestibule, I assessed the water damage. Fortunately, everything on my sleeping pad had stayed dry, but poor Meg, my pack, was completely water logged. My one blessing was that, in a change of routine, I had taken my puffy, which usually stayed in my pack liner at the bottom of my pack, out and used it as a pillow the night before, saving it from the pool that had formed outside.

‘This is the heaviest Meg will ever be again,’ I had told ET when we left Monson a few days before. Mother Nature turned on the faucet and said, ‘Challenge accepted.’

A shorter, but more challenging day loomed ahead. Up and over White Cap Mountain. I optimistically hoped that I would have the legs to carry me a little further than planned, making the next day’s dash to the food drop a little less hectic. Mother Nature had other plans. Temperatures dropped and the rain kept coming. The winds and freezing rain pushed me around when I reached the summit. ‘Keep going girl, you’ve been colder, you’ve been more soaked.’ The beauty of starting trail in February and finishing in September is that you remember what it’s like to be really cold. It eases the shock, just a little. I stopped at the next shelter for just a moment to warm up and eat something and then kept going. When I arrived at the East Branch lean-to, the rain was gone, the wind was gone, and while it was still cold, it had warmed up considerably. The shelter was empty, too. The universe gave me a break, for once, and I took the hint and called it a day, hanging up wet things in vain, getting warm, and being reunited with my crew as they rolled in a few hours later.

Thanksgiving, AT style.

We were a shelter full of grey hairs, all wanting to ford the next stream, but making the wise decision to wait for water levels to drop some overnight. The next morning we were up and out at first light, coaching one another across a slightly less angry east branch of Pleasant River. For 2100 miles I had taken the weight hit, carrying my heavy Chaco sandals as camp shoes, but I was so very grateful for them in Maine, as I kept my hiking shoes as dry as possible for as long as possible, sometimes hiking in my sandals to get my feet the air they needed. When I stopped to put my trail runners back on, Lady Slippers dashed ahead of me and headed for the food drop. It wasn’t until then that I realized just how hard I had pushed myself to make sure one of us would get there in time. In that moment I was so thankful that she was even more food motivated than I was, knowing that her resupply boxes would be in our drop. By the time we all arrived at Jo Mary Rd, the sun was out and the parking areas were chaotic gatherings of food boxes and hiker gear set out to dry. I relaxed in the sun for a bit, eating every last bit of extra food I had to make Meg, who was still wet and heavy, as light as possible. Lady Slippers wasn’t about to carry the 9 days of food that showed up in her boxes, so we feasted. Eventually we made it to our campsite for the night, along with at least 20 other hikers, some of whom I had never seen before. There was a small window of good weather approaching, and hikers had jumped and flipped and changed their hikes to summit in it. But that evening there were calm skies and fellowship and a rare campfire, so I would worry about crowds later. I think that was the last time I relaxed in the 100 mile.

Then it really rained.

The first flash of lightning woke me up around 4am. Being a Gen Xer and growing up on the original Poltergeist movie, I immediately started to count the seconds between thunder and lightning. By 4:30, I started packing up, determined to not have dried out my tent the day before in vain. The lightest of sprinkles had started by the time I put Meg on and dashed for the privy, knowing I would have a dry space to organize my pack properly and set out. It would not be the first time I dashed to a privy that day. The storm came, and by the time I had to ford my first stream I wasn’t concerned about the level of the water vs the length of my shorts. I was soaked. In retrospect, getting on trail that early in the storm probably saved me, as the streams hadn’t risen to the levels they would eventually reach, making some of the crossings safer for a solo hiker. At that point, the goal was to keep moving and keep warm. Thank you, Maine, for all of your new, spacious privies!

Not the best smelling, but at least it’s dry!

Each time I came to one, I jumped in and got out of the storm for a few moments to warm up out of the wind or grab a snack to kept the internal fires lit. Keeping warm burns energy, a lot of it. By the time I reached my planned lunch stop shelter, I was zapped. My legs were jelly, the constant rain tapping on my hood was getting to me mentally. We had made a plan to push just a little further that day, to another stealth site, but it meant another climb, and I just didn’t know if I had it in me. Again I had gotten away from my hiking partners, and I had no idea where they were, if they had decided to stay put in their tent or push further. These were bigger mileage days we were now tackling, and I was concerned for them. Finally, I relented to the early day, stripped down to get into my warm clothes and hoped they were doing the same.

Hiking like the wind, in the wind.

Remember all those hikers I mentioned? After having some conversations, I realized there were a lot of people hoping to summit the same day I was. Which meant there were going to be a lot of hikers looking for a spot to camp the night before. Many of them were planning to finish the last stretch of the 100 Mile Wilderness that day, hiking 25 miles or more in the hopes to get a spot in The Birches shelter. Recognizing the fact that even if I could hike that far, I wouldn’t be catching or keeping up with any of them, I said goodbye to the picture in my head of me camping that last night in Baxter. Sometimes being a slower hiker is just the short end of the stick, and it really sucks. Instead, I set a goal to reach the last shelter in the wilderness. One last shelter stop. An almost 20 mile day, something I hadn’t done since New Jersey. One last big mileage day.

The water levels were pounding over the rocks in the streams, drowning out all other noise, even my own voice. It put me in a sour mood as I revisited the old ‘not good enough’ self-flagellation. Not fast enough, not strong enough, even after all these miles and all these months! Why was I even out here?  I reluctantly stopped for lunch, not even bothering to acknowledge that I was making great time. There was a breeze starting to pick up, and I was finally away from the giant, rushing streams that bothered me, and I needed to refuel.

Sometimes things happen for a reason.

I sat there, quietly eating with a couple other hikers that stopped as well, when one of them pointed out a duck in the stream. It was riding the current, nonplussed by the speed or choppiness of it, dipping its head occasionally in the water to catch some food. It reminded me to stop fighting the situation. Let go, girlfriend, and see what happens. Ugh, fiiiine.

I started moving again. The wind picked up, the terrain flattened (REALLY flattened, not just Maine-flattened), and I felt carried. ‘Fly, Feral Queen!’ My legs stretched into long strides, it felt so good after fighting over so many rocks and roots for so long. My body responded and relaxed into the movement. This is what I liked to do. This is what I had built the ability to do over 2100 miles. Feeling like one with the elements that were cranking up around me, I sang to myself, remembering that it takes strength to hold notes and stay in tune while moving. I was strong. Forget everyone else, LET GO of expectations and what you hoped for and really see what you have. I was witnessing the transformation of the forest, trees LETTING GO of leaves and coloring the trail with them as the wind whipped around me. Could I relax into that and be present on this journey?

I found that I could.

I arrived at the shelter just before dark, having stopped on the top of Rainbow Ledges to call my husband to make him aware of the odds of getting into the park and see what plans he could make and if he had heard from Lady Slippers’ husband, who was able to communicate with her through her Garmin. Sent my location to my bestie, who was already tracking me. I messaged my tramily, all of whom were already off trail, to let them know where I was.

The shelter was totally dark.

Confused, I looked around for some tents. Was I really the only one who hadn’t made it out of the 100 Mile Wilderness that day? Was I the only one who did the math to realize most of us weren’t going to be staying in The Birches the next night? Was I the only one who wanted to make this journey last just one more day?

Turns out I wasn’t. And again, things happen for a reason out here. I spent what would be my last night on the trail in fellowship with another solo female hiker. We shared stories about our journeys, about how we both had a tramily but were solo hikers. We discussed our plans for the next day, and what would happen after the trail. We talked about getting to finally see our husbands and how much we despised hearing, ‘your husband let you hike by yourself?’ Most importantly, we talked about how grateful we were for our journeys, and how amazed we were with what our bodies were able to accomplish. It really was the perfect final night.

I hiked out those last 3.5 miles in a sea of emotion. I had been keeping the lid on like a pressure cooker since my first day in Maine, and as I got closer to Katahdin it was getting harder and harder to maintain my composure. There was no specific emotions, just ALL of them, sitting just behind my eyes and catching in my throat. I paused briefly, noticed the terrain was about to start heading downwards and decided to see if I had any service. No sooner had the faint two bars showed up, Godzilla started roaring. (My text message tone is Godzilla, my ring tone is Rick Astley. Yep, still a Gen Xer!) My tramily had sent me messages cheering me on, my bestie sent her support, even my kids had texted, and they rarely do that. The floodgates opened. I stood there, with a mile left in the wilderness, and bawled like a baby. I let it all go. All the planning, all the worry about others, all the expectations, all of the doubt. My journey was almost at the end, and I celebrated.

I walked out of the wilderness, wild and free.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments 2

  • Shocktop : Sep 29th

    Yes! Keep those Feral legs going! Thank you for an inspirational post (as always).

    Reply
  • Dottie Rust : Sep 29th

    Dandelion! I met you at ATC where I volunteer in the visitor center…maybe I took your photo?

    I’ve been following your Trek posts & I gotta say I am so damn proud of you!!! Keep letting go of the negative stuff, keep your chin up, adjust your crown & RULE THY KINGDOM!!!

    Congratulations on a trip well done & unforgettable!

    “.com”
    💜🤟💜🤟

    Reply

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