The Last Climb: Mount Katahdin

Well, today was it.  It’s a little strange, given that six months has led up to this last climb, but I’m oddly reluctant to talk about it.  It’s one of my traits that the more important something is to me, the less I want to talk about it to other people.  I just want to keep it special inside of me.  But you’ve all been reading along this far, so I’m not going to let you down here, I’ll do my best.

The weather really was bad, but it didn’t matter.  I woke up at about five to get an early start, figuring the rain would slow me down a fair amount, and went to get my food bag from the bear cables…only to discover that here, on the last day, a mouse got it.  There were holes chewed through it and half my food supply for the last day and a half was ruined.  I shrugged and grumbled a bit and got used to the idea that I’d be eating a lot of peanut butter tortillas today, and ate about half the breakfast I was planning on eating.  Not a good way to start a tough climb.

Visibility was low on the mountain, and because I didn’t get much to eat this morning, it was tougher than it should have been, although not having my pack helped.  This is the only time I’ve slack-packed on this journey, and it feels weird.  Climbing up Mount Katahdin was almost silent the whole way.  The thick clouds muffled noise, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that I’d become stuck somewhere between the physical world and the spirit one.  img_3050 img_3052 img_3054

It was a ghost world up there.  I did get lost in a way…I never lost the trail but I did wander inside my own head while I climbed.  I was reliving all the emotions I felt the whole hike, all the happiness, the pain, the sadness, the effervescent sense of achievement, the boredom, the love, all of it.  I was thinking of all my friends who weren’t there.  I was also deeply inside my own muscles, feeling how much I have changed, and I know that it’s not just physical.  Anyone who says I’m not tough enough, or strong enough, or thinks I’m not capable of incredible things, is going to find out that they have underestimated me and I will never let those people direct my life or the direction I choose to go from here on out.

When I reached the summit, I was basically sitting inside a rain cloud.  I couldn’t see a thing.  I didn’t get a summit photo with the sign.  But I did manage this video before the moisture in the air actually drowned my phone, so now that my phone has dried out in a rice bed and I could recover the data on it, here you are.

It felt great, being up there, but whoooooo coming down the Hunt Trail was a little scary, so I’m really glad I didn’t try Knife’s Edge or anything.  The wind picked up hard as I came down, so that at times all I could do was stand still and lean into the wind to keep from blowing right over.  And my emotions sort of flatlined on the way down.  I encountered a couple walking towards the waterfall  and they were really excited for me, but all I could manage was a “yep,” and I’m pretty sure I was a little dead around the eyes.  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it, but I had felt a lot and suddenly it was too much and I basically shut it off.

The rangers were really, really kind to me, and let me stay at The Birches a second night because it was the last day of the season and they didn’t think the shelters would get full at all.  And as I sat in my sleeping bag, drinking tea, and looking down at the rain coming down, completely alone, I sort of wished that there would be someone else there.  I didn’t want to admit it but I had hoped I would finish with my friends and it absolutely sucked that I hadn’t.  This wasn’t how I wanted to end my hike, but there was nothing for it so I crawled into my sleeping bag.

AND THEN there was rustling around the edge of the shelter.  And of course my first thought was “maybe it’s a moose!!” haha.  But it was even better than a moose, it was FRIENDS.  Sota walked around the corner and if I could have gotten out of my bag faster I would have probably knocked him over with a big hug.  Feel Good and his girlfriend Tatiana came afterwards, and then two other hikers I’d never even met before, and Sota’s brother.  HUGE CROWD.  Instant friends, just add water.  I think I told Sota about fifty times how glad I was to see him.  So yeah, I got to finish with friends after all, and my last night on the trail was spent with the people I love.  My heart was so full.

The next morning, they all took off to have their own summit experience, and Sota’s mom kindly gave me a ride into Millinocket, where I would meet up with my own mother in a few hours.  I saw Chicago and Wander for the last time in town, and then, suddenly, my mom was there, and it was time to go.  I was so glad to see her!  I’ve missed my family a lot during this journey, and I am glad I get to see them again (and my dog Noah aaaaahhhhhh it was the best reunion).  I am clean now.  I am back at work, and in January, I’m moving back to my adopted hometown (and trail town!) Great Barrington.  I’m getting back to life as I used to know it, but it will never be life as I used to know it again, I think.

This hike has been a dream of mine for a few years now.  It didn’t happen quite the way I imagined it would, and I’m not at all sure that I started out imagining anything too specific, but I thought that I would start in Georgia and end in Maine and I would hit every mile in between.  That didn’t happen.  I can’t mail in for my 2000 miler certificate and I’m more of a LASHer than a thru hiker.  But I started in Georgia, and I ended in Maine, and the fact is that it’s not even remotely important where I went on this hike or how I got here.  What is important is that this hike was my dream, and I made it happen, and it changed me.  It changed the way I think of this country, and of the people who live in it.  The hike introduced me to people facing their demons and people running from their demons.  It introduced me to rich and poor, young and old, people who think like me and people who don’t.  I’ve met a larger cross-section of America than ever before in my life, and honestly, I’ve loved them all, genuinely and from the bottom of my heart.  I’ve said before that it is the people who ended up making this hike what it became, and I don’t have the words to say how grateful I am for the friends I’ve made out here, and for the friends I left behind at home to do this.  My world is so, so much bigger than it was before.  I’ll never stop being grateful for this experience.  I’ll never stop being entirely humbled by this experience, and at the same time immensely proud of having done it.  I plan to do it again.  I feel like a whole human out here.  For six months, we all lived like cats; we lived like kings.  The freedom, and the simplicity, to do what I wanted, when I wanted to, was deeply healing, when I consider the frustration I was feeling with life before I came out here.

And while the trail meant many, many things to me, the most profound of those complex emotions, the one I kept coming back to on the trail, can be boiled down into this quotation:

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

-Paul Tillich

Alone can be hard.  But alone can also be strong, and you’ll find both these things out here, in the woods, if you care to look.  And if you’re sick of alone, and find yourself in Great Barrington next summer, in the middle of a grand adventure along the Appalachian Trail, let me know.  I’ll lend you a hand.

Xena, signing out.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    Tony Valentine : Dec 7th

    Your story was incredible I’m planning a thru-hike in 2018 April and reading your story and understanding where your mindset and spirit was, it was incredible I hope I could have the courage like you to fulfill my dreams in 2018 thank you

  • Avatar
    David Odell : Dec 7th

    Congratulations for finishing your AT hike. Enjoyed your excellent journal. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

  • Avatar
    DaveMan : Dec 9th

    What an amazing journey, Thank you for sharing it with us and a BiiiiG congratulations, you are a huge inspiration.

  • Avatar
    Skooch : Dec 16th

    Congratulations on a journey walked well, Xena. Loved your trail log notes I got to read south of Rutland. Hope that ankle is better and YAY for G Barrington!

    Tears from this cat, this king. You have magic with words.



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