Katahdin: The Great Mountain at the End of the Trail
I summited Katahdin last Wednesday, July 27, 2022. It was my one hundred and thirty-sixth day on the trail.
I waited a day at Abol Bridge for some friends to catch up, friends I’d made early in my journey who always seemed to be just a step behind me. There was Pantless, who I’d first met at the Nantahala; her friend Shim; Goodall, who met me our very first day on the approach to Springer; and Stomps, who started out with Pantless and Goodall in the ‘Lil Zippers’ tramily. Since then, they’d separated, joined other trail families, scattered again, and somehow ended up back together for this final stretch in Maine.
My wife met me at Abol Bridge with our car. We drove into Millinocket for a meal along the bumpy gravel logging road. When we got back, the others were there, and we agreed to meet at 3:30 in the morning before they went across the road to the state campground (which had cheaper rates). Of course I didn’t sleep much that night, but I slept well.
Walking by Starlight
I woke up in the brilliant starlight, seeing the Pleiades and the planets spread across the sky. Katahdin was a shadow over still water beneath the stars. I walked down the trail to the Baxter entrance station, and saw the others approaching as I filled out my registration.
Soon we were all filing down the gentle trail in the dusky light, following first the river and then the noisy Nesowadnehunk Stream. We stopped only once or twice, and before I knew it the sun was up and we were near Katahdin Stream Campground. It was 6:45 in the morning when we arrived, and we’d walked ten miles.
The next step was signing in with the ranger. He wasn’t in the office until 7, so we caught him as he drove up in a big state park pickup truck. He started filling out our paperwork, pausing to take down the day’s weather report from his crackling walkie talkie (“Background noise doesn’t help!”, he barked as we chatted on the lawn nearby). I let the others go first, and then it was my turn. I’m officially NOBO number 181 to climb Katahdin — and my number at Amicalola was 1269. That’s a lot of people left behind.
The Last Five Miles
Starting the ascent was an emotional moment. I’d been here before as a little kid, and I recognized small things along the trail — the water crossing the path, the rush of Katahdin Stream. Here I was 25 years later walking the same path again, at the end of a four-and-a-half-month odyssey through the mountains. The morning was clear, and the pink granite blocks shined brightly in the sunlight.
The first two miles were easy, and then the boulders started. The Hunt Spur was just as amazing and terrible as I’d remembered, joining the clambering of Mahoosuc notch with the steepness of the Wildcats. The valley walls dropped off on either side of these huge terraced rocks. Our little group got spread out along the way, as we bouldered our way above treeline.
Finally we reached the ‘Gateway,’ where the alpine meadow begins. It’s unlike any other alpine zone in the north, a rolling summit landscape that feels like its own treeless world. I could have imagined myself in the tundra of Labrador or Nunavut, except for the drop at the plateau’s edge to forests and lakes far below. In the Whites, the ridgetops are steep, so you can see the line of trees reaching up towards the bald summit. At Katahdin, the mountaintop is its own sovereign slice of the farthest North.
It was strange to walk through that alpine world knowing that the endless Trail had its end within sight, at the top of the next hill. Soon we were only a mile away — the very last mile of the AT. The summit sign, small and distant at first, grew larger and larger. We walked up the slope, knowing this was the last slope we’d walk as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.
The Finish Line
Then, we were there. The rough wooden sign reading “Katahdin,” the big pile of rocks reaching up to a mile high. And the vast expanse of the Cathedral cirque behind it all, dropping down thousands of feet along a huge curved wall. People were milling around taking pictures.
It was a long half an hour we spent up there. We took a lot of photos with the sign, striking a new pose whenever there was a break in the stream of day hikers. It was around 11:00 when we summited, I think, though I wasn’t paying close attention to the time. We sat and ate snacks and said our goodbyes.
The others were going down a different way — down Abol Slide — but I was descending to Roaring Brook along the Knife Edge. I could see it stretching off to the east, a jagged crest of rock between the peaks. The South Peak was less crowded than the true summit, though so close to the same height that we’d mistaken it for the top on the way up.
The Way Down
Once Goodall and the others had left, I was quietly on my own again. The blue blazes as I meandered through the rocks reminded me that the AT had run out. There was no more of it. I was on a side trail. It was a weird empty but peaceful feeling, like I was floating in the sky between the gulfs on either side, dancing with the cliffs past the few other hikers that were headed out this way.
At the south peak, I climbed a few feet down the valley wall facing Chimney Pond, and sat there meditating for a long time. I said my weekly prayer for the last time on the trail, thanking the water and earth and trees for helping me along my way. I thought of how Katahdin, like Kittatinny and Catoctin, means the Great Mountain, the big one, standing high in the distance above the land. Mountains have an abiding presence like nothing else — maybe that’s why we’re drawn to them. Or maybe it’s something else. I wasn’t trying to think too hard in that moment, just taking it all in.
At some point I got up and left, continuing my dance along the cliffs. I passed a lot of day hikers who seemed frightened of the trail, straining to find a way along the rock walls. I felt myself slowly but inexorably descending from that place among the clouds, the plain of lakes creeping closer and closer on either side. Clambering down a steep rock face and up another, I wondering how they got away with calling this a ‘trail.’ I reached an alpine knob called Pamola and realized I could see the treeline far below. I kept on what felt like a skyway above the watery green plain, to a resting place with a huge rock shaped like a chair, then down through bogs and stunted trees along a boulder-studded ridgeline.
At some point in mid-afternoon, hours into my descent, I heard the sound of rushing water and realized it was Roaring Brook. The trail ended and I turned onto a path along the stream. Before I knew it I was in a campground, then a parking lot. I met Andrea at a swimming spot along the stream and sank down into the icy water just long enough to cool off. Then we were gone, heading back to Abol Brook for a final night in Maine.
The next day I met my friends for breakfast at the AT Cafe in Millinocket. We had eggs and pancakes and potatoes to our fill, and talked about the trail and what we were doing next. I finally met Goodall’s partner, and introduced my wife to Pantless and the others (she’d already met Goodall briefly on the Long Trail). We filed into the AT Lodge and signed a ceiling tile for posterity. Then we were all on our way, scattered to the four winds.
Postscript: The Long Road South
Since then, there’s been a lot of driving. The first night we stopped at Lowell, where I wanted to see the old cotton mills and boardinghouses that mark the first industrialization of America. That place changed the world in more ways than we know. Then we moved on through Massachusetts to Mount Frissell, where I summitted Connecticut just to say I had. In New York we decided to try doing trail magic, and drove around handing out coffee and donuts to any hikers we could find. Finally, we made our way down to Maryland.
The next two days were a blur of packing boxes, as we moved our belongings from my in-laws’ house to a shipping crate bound for Washington state. That’s where we’re headed in a few short weeks, to try and start a new life on the west coast. I have a job out there already, but not much else. As I heaved our vacuum cleaner into the U-Haul warehouse, I wished I was back on the trail. It felt like home.
More driving after that, through Virginia and North Carolina to the South Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge. I was back where I started. Then further and further south, stopping in Okefenokee Swamp before ending the day at a campground on the Florida beach. Now I’m at my parents’ house near Miami, where iguanas scamper up the palm trees and bananas grow easier than tomatoes.
In a week or so we’ll start out along the Gulf Coast and through the desert southwest towards California, then up along the Pacific towards the Northwest. It’ll be another journey for me, but a more prosaic one. It will be filled with highways and streetlights and gas stations, views of things I knew I had to see and stops in places I knew I had to be. I won’t be living with the landscape, moving through it at the pace of the seasons, learning the names and faces of the forest.
Because, of course, that’s the beauty of the Appalachian Trail. You can dissolve into nature on a journey like this, and still know that you’re joined by hundreds of people who share your path, moving slowly but constantly north. You see the best of people, and truly understand there’s more to life than this mechanized, bureaucratized world we’ve built around us. The forest lives, and the mountains live, and so do we.
I’m immensely grateful that I was able to take on this journey, and to complete it so surely and smoothly at my own pace. It will be a little while before I can fully digest the lessons of the trail — for now I’m adjusting back to artificial lights, and indoor air, and beds, and sitting still. In the meantime, I’ll thank Katahdin for being there, the great mountain at the end of the trail, together with all the many peaks and valleys along the way.
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