Into Rangeley: The SOBOs Are Coming

The trail in Southern Maine was eerily empty when I passed through it. The SOBOs hadn’t made it there yet, and most of the NOBOs were still making their way through the Whites.

And whether from lack of foot traffic or lack of care, the trail was also a mess. Hardly a foot of it was dry. And there were so many blowdowns and roots and rocks and turns that I wasn’t so much hiking as tripping forward for eight hours a day.

For three days I repeatedly passed and was pay by two other NOBOs—Uncle Grandpa and a guy from the Netherlands. Each time we saw each other we’d shake our heads in weary disbelief and show off our latest fall-wounds.

On the day I passed through Mahoosuc Notch and climbed  Mahoosuc Arm, I walked for ten hours and made 12 miles of northward progress. The Notch was still packed in with snow, and dropping down into it was like stepping into a refrigerator: the sun vanished behind the mountains and the boulders and the temperature dropped from a balmy 80 to 50, and lower in some of the narrower slots. I postholed a few times and the snow came up to mid-thigh level. So far that day I’d seen one group of day hikers walking in the opposite direction. With each step through the icy crust I risked a broken ankle and/or a shredded femoral artery. And it might be days before anyone found me. Well, I thought, easing forward on the groaning snowpack, hopefully they’ll see the donor emblem on my ID. My organs would be well preserved down here.

A few days later I caught up with Uncle Grandpa just before the road into Rangeley. He was planning to stay at the Hiker Hut Hostel, and it’d been a long while since I’d been warm and dry and sated with real food, and so we stumbled and limped through the last few miles together.

I stayed at the Hiker Hut for one night. The hostel owner, Steve, was a former professional triathlete, but he was unlike any triathlete I’d ever met. Sure, he had the analytical mind and perfectionist tendencies and shredded physique of all elite endurance athletes. But he also meditated, taught English in India for half the year, and passed around mason jars of homegrown weed for us to sample. And he had a pet chipmunk.

Three of us stayed in the bunkroom that night: me, Uncle Grandpa, and Caveman—SOBO so named because he didn’t carry a cell phone.

I’d spotted a few SOBOs in the wild over the previous week, but only for a few passing moments before they scampered off south. This was my first chance to observe one for an extended period of time, and I was fascinated.

Caveman was chipper and optimistic and almost philosophical. He asked Uncle G and me questions like, “How do you think the trail has changed you?” and “What’s your mantra?” and “What were you searching for when you decided to hike the AT?” To this last, Uncle G responded, “Nothing. I just like to walk and thought I could do a lot of walking,” which though brusque (some might say “shallow,” and they’d be wrong), was pretty much true for me as well.

I could tell Caveman was a bit disappointed by our answers, and perhaps disillusioned to the trail and what he hoped it would bring him. I felt bad. Thru-hiking is a fantastic experience, but Uncle G and I were coming off a brutal section. Our bodies screamed at us to stop walking, our stomachs growled for real food, our bank accounts told us to get jobs.

So for the rest of the evening, I made sure to mention plenty of the good times I’d had on the trail—and there were plenty to pick from. The quirky hostels and their quirkier owners; the one-block towns and the wonderful and fascinating people who lived in them; the trail magic that always seemed to appear on the darkest of days.

Caveman’s optimism seemed reinstated by these stories. I began to think that maybe he’d look back on this evening on the darker days to come, and that it might help him finish his hike. I began to think he might be able to make it.

Then he told us that he’d sent home his tent. “I think I’ll just stay in shelters, or cowboy camp under the stars.” He looked helplessly dreamy at that second idea. And as much as Uncle Grandpa and I advised otherwise, Caveman was sure he’d be fine hiking 2,100 miles shelterless.

Later, when Caveman was out of the room, Uncle Grandpa turned to me. “Well, we tried. Sometimes you can fix stupid, but you can’t fix stubborn.”

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