Monson, Shaw’s, and the 100-Mile Wilderness
Shaw’s Hostel in Monson, ME, is one of those iconic places on the trail that every thru-hiker needs to stop at. And I mean “needs to” quite literally. In terms of resupply options, there’s practically nothing in the 80 miles leading up to Monson, and even less in the 115 after it. But even if a stop at Shaw’s wasn’t a logistical necessity, I’d tell every hiker to do it anyway.
I arrived at Monson on a warm and cloudless Sunday morning. Though the streets were empty of cars I walked in the grass, taking cover from the unrelenting sun in the cool shade of the big red maples that lined each yard.
I walked through town until I came across a large, white farmhouse with pale blue shutters. “Shaw’s Hiker Hostel,” a sign by the driveway said. I crossed the street and went inside.
In the kitchen, a woman was sitting with her feet up on the table, watching late-night clips on her phone. She introduced herself as Hippy Chick, and I told her I was Indigo. “Ha! Indigo, no kidding! Well, that’s the dog’s name too.” She turned her head and shouted toward the back of the house. “Indigo! Here boy!” I heard a jingle and the patting of four feet, and in walked a blue-eyed Australian shepherd. “Indigo, meet Indigo.”
Hippy Chick led me on a short tour of the house. In the bunkhouse, she snipped, “Hey! Indigo! Drop it!” I stood frozen in place, and was just beginning to raise my open hands in innocence when I spotted canine-Indigo lying in the yard just outside. In his jaw, he held human-Indigo’s (i.e., my) shoe.
Good News, Good Brews
A few hours later Evolution arrived. He looked weary and dropped his pack on the back porch with a loud thud. “I need a beer,” he said. I checked my watch. It was 1 p.m. But if hiker midnight is at 8 p.m., then hiker 5 o’clock must be at 1 p.m. So we cracked open PBRs and collapsed on recliners in the living room.
Evolution told me that a section hiker told him that a shuttle driver had mentioned that the Frubble—that is, Starfish, Snow White, Flamingo, et al.—was just a day behind us. I hadn’t seen anyone from the Frubble since Pennsylvania, and the spotty cell reception in New England had left me unsure whether they were 20 miles behind or 200.
I decided to take a zero the following day to wait for them. My aunt and uncle live close to Monson, and when I told them my zeroing plans they offered to drive up for the day and take me out to lunch.
The next morning I sat down to Shaw’s famed breakfast: coffee, hash browns, thick-cut bacon, sausage links, endless stacks of wild blueberry pancakes, and three eggs cooked any way you’d like. It was a huge spread, and it was easy to see who the SOBOs were—they ate slowly, politely, savoring each bite. They hadn’t yet learned that chewing one mouthful of food ten times is far less satisfying (and not nearly as efficient) as chewing ten mouthfuls of food just one time each.
My aunt and uncle arrived around 10 a.m. They’ve lived in Maine for almost 30 years, and although Monson is a half-block town with a population that wouldn’t quite fill a Boeing 747, my uncle knew all about its history and politics and economic ups and downs.
For lunch we walked down to the corner general store, and as we waited for our sandwiches I told stories from my recent weeks on trail. Of course, I left out all the times when I had cursed the state of Maine and all the bugs, mud, and rocks that made up its generously named “trails.”
On the walk back to Shaw’s we passed a SOBO I’d met the day before. He said that three NOBOs had just arrived, a girl and two guys. “Er, I’m going to run ahead,” I told my relatives. They nodded and smiled. They understood.
I sprinted the rest of the way and came around the house to find Snow White unlacing her boots on the back porch. She saw me and ran over wearing one shoe and half of one sock. We hugged, and over her shoulder I saw Flamingo and Frosting walk out of the bunkhouse. They all looked pretty much the same—a bit thinner, tanner, more bug-bitten—and it was hard to believe that after being separated for almost two months and 1,000 miles, we were all together again.
Classic arrived a few minutes later. I heard him before I saw him. “I am very ready to be done with the state of Maine. This whole state can just go to hell. Not the people, of course. They’ve all been wonderful. But the mosquitoes, the black flies, the goddamn rocks—all that stuff can just go rot in hell.” Classic finished his rant and came around the corner of the house. His shins were streaked with blood, both fresh and dried, but otherwise he looked fit. I recalled Starfish telling me that he’d lost nearly 50 pounds since Springer. I waved.
“Holy shit! Is that Indigo? I never thought I’d see you again. Well, that makes me sound like an asshole. What I meant to say is it’s good to see you again!”
It was classic Classic.
100 Miles of “Wilderness”
Rejuvenated by a full day of rest and real, non-Pop-Tart food, I took the 10 a.m. shuttle from Shaw’s back to the trail. Also on the shuttle were Skipper and Walkabout, a German couple who lived on a houseboat and seemed to travel constantly; and Turtle, a recent VT grad I’d met on the way into Monson.
Poet drove and gave us a detailed rundown of everything we could expect in the 100-Mile Wilderness. He told us about all the best shelters, campsites, and lunch stops; the fords where we were sure to get wet feet, and the ones that could be navigated with a deft rock hop; the toughest climbs and the views at their summits that made the effort worthwhile and then some.
When we arrived at the trailhead and shouldered our cornucopia-like packs, Poet sent us off with a sonnet he’d written near the end of his own thru-hike. I won’t repeat it here, because written words can’t do it justice. But it was brilliant. And if you don’t believe me, head on up to Monson, ME, to hear it for yourself. It’s worth the hike.
Turtle and I hiked together until we reached the ominous sign that marks the entrance to the 100-Mile Wilderness. “Do not attempt this section unless you have a minimum of ten days supplies and are fully equipped,” she read aloud. We looked at each other and smiled. “Well, I’ve got about 4.5 days,” I said, “and I could stretch it to five. And five rounds up to ten. So I’d say that’s close enough.” Turtle rolled her eyes. She had planned to spend five days in the Wilderness. I was hoping to get through it in less than four.
My legs felt good and it was a beautiful day, and I practically jogged the first hour. Turtle kept a more conservative pace (a far wiser strategy, I’d learn in short) and soon fell behind.
The trail climbed up a small forest ridge and then passed through several of Maine’s iconic rock gardens—huge open expanses of solid stone where only the hardiest alpine plants can endure. Eight miles in, I began to pass waves of SOBOs. About half of them still carried the fresh, enthused glow of the beginning of their adventure, while the other half looked as if they’d trade every ounce of gear in their overstuffed packs for a hot shower and a burger.
I said just a quick hello to the first few SOBOs before carrying on. Then, as the trail began to descend back into the thick forest, a guy came walking up the trail and flashed me an oddly familiar smile. I stopped and we chatted about the upcoming miles for a bit, and eventually I blurted out almost aggressively, “Wait—where are you from?”
It turns out that we did know each other. His name is Kit, and he, too, had grown up in Chapel Hill and attended Carolina. He was friends with my sister and worked with her as a lifeguard for years. We had even been neighbors during my sophomore year of college, and I’d once attended a party at his house—a birthday party for a member of the UNC Dance Team, in which I had clearly identified myself as a non-member.
We caught up briefly and then wished each other luck, and I think we each felt a twinge of jealousy for the other’s place on the trail. I know I did. But I was glad to see that he was one of the cheerful, enthusiastic SOBOs—and I’ve got a good feeling he’ll stay that way.
I hiked until around 7 p.m. and, satisfied with making 24 miles after a late start, set up camp at a one-tent stealth site halfway up Columbus Mountain. Out of habit, I checked my phone and was shocked to see that I had a solid three bars of LTE coverage—more bars than I’d had in the entirety of Southern Maine, town stops included. Wilderness, pshh, I thought. And so I curled up and watched Netflix until a spectacular violet-orange-red sunset stole my eyes. Then I slept.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from my second day in the Wilderness. I do know that I hiked 26 miles, and that it was a foggy, dreary day, and that when I summited White Cap Mountain I could barely see the end of a trekking pole held straight out in front of me.
I camped below the summit of Little Boardman Mountain and felt a wave of relief, knowing that the second 50 miles of the Wilderness were pancake flat but for a few short spikes.
On the third day, the waves of SOBOs swelled again. I was making incredible time, stretching my stride over the smooth wide path and falling into a zen-like rhythm. I even toyed with the idea of making a push all the way to Abol Bridge. I was curious to see whether I had a 50-mile day in me, and this would be my last chance to find out. But I quashed that notion when I recalled Poet’s last words to me back on ME 15: “Enjoy it. Take your time. When they get to the end of the trail, most people wish they’d taken longer to get there.”
Around 5 p.m. I arrived at a shelter at the base of Nesuntabut Mountain. The shelter itself was empty, but around it were about 15 tents. This had been a typical sight all through Maine—shelters aren’t mosquito-proof.
I sat down at the picnic table and made myself a tuna wrap. As I was licking my fingers clean, a young guy (he looked no older than 18, but I’m 24 and have been mistaken for 17 so… who knows) walked into camp. He looked anxious, even a bit irritated, and as he came closer I saw that he held a small aerosol can in his hand, with a white-knuckled finger on the trigger: bear spray.
“You see a bear?” I asked. The kid swung around.
“No! Wh-why, did you?” He raised the aerosol can ever so slightly.
“Oh, whoa—no, I didn’t. Haven’t seen one since… Vermont, I think.” My trigger-happy acquaintance nodded, but he didn’t seem convinced.
“Hm. I heard of a guy last year who had his pack stolen out the shelter. Bear just walked on up and took it. Middle of the afternoon.” He sat on a stump and began pulling items out of his pack with one hand, keeping a firm grip on his bear spray with the other. “All’s I’m saying is those bears better not fuck with me. I ain’t playing. I came ready.” As he said this, he pulled a black handgun out of his pack, examined both sides of it, and set it on the ground beside the spray bottle.
My stomach was growling for another snack but I hurriedly stuffed my food bag into my pack and said a terse goodbye. I wasn’t sticking around to see which one of the objects at his feet he’d grab and point at the next unlucky hiker that came stumbling out of the brush.
I hiked on late into the evening, passing Rainbow Stream just as the sun set and ignited the roaring falls. At dusk, I stopped at the edge of a large campsite in a grove of pines. I’d made 35 miles in 12 hours, which left only a flat 15-mile stretch into Abol Bridge. Almost there, almost there, I repeated to myself as sleep took me. And I was glad for it too. I was also almost out of food.
At some point in the previous days, too exhausted for cleanliness and order, I’d started shoving trash into my food bag. It wasn’t much of a problem when the trash was only Clif Bar wrappers and empty peanut butter jars.
But on that final morning, my trashiness caught up to me. I reached into my food bag and pulled out the only food I had left: two packets of plain oatmeal that had been soaked with the drippings of a lemon pepper tuna packet. I had no choice but to choke it down.
I’ve experimented with savory oatmeal in the past, sometimes even with delectable success. This was not one of those times.
A 15-mile day sounds like a breeze until hypoglycemia sets in. My legs felt empty, wobbly, numb. I had to sit down every 30-45 minutes for fear of collapsing. With six miles to go—my mind empty but for thoughts of food—I remembered a pack of Altoids that a section hiker had gifted me on my first day in the Wilderness. I dug the mints out of my pack and emptied the tin into my mouth. Cinnamony, but far from satiating.
I arrived at Abol Bridge in the grips of delirium and walked into the camp store and bought a box of blueberry Pop-Tarts. Then I walked outside and sat down against the brick wall in a sliver of shade. I polished off half the box almost before the door had swung closed behind me.
Two White Vans
As I sat enjoying my sugar high a large white van pulled up next to the store. I recognized the driver as Good Samaritan’s wife, Gail.
I hadn’t seen Samaritan or his wife since before Harpers Ferry, and I prayed Gail would recognize me. She was always a reliable source of Cuties clementines and roast beef sandwiches and inspiration.
Gail did recognize me, and she walked over and we caught up and gossiped about who was where and with whom on the trail.
I never thought I’d be more excited to see a large white van until another one pulled up only moments later. This one was slightly smaller and older and it had a logo plastered on the side: “The Leapfrog Cafe.” Out stepped Fresh Ground, talking a mile a minute per usual.
“Indigo! We’d heard you were way up the trail. How are things? When’s the last time I saw you? You seen Starfish an’ Snow White an’ all them recently? You ready for Katahdin? You hungry?”
Gail has reserved a campground for her van and she let me set up my tent in it, and it was the only car campground I’ve ever enjoyed staying at.
The campground overlooked a widening in the river; the water here moved so slow that you really had to stare at the dark blue pool for a good while to convince yourself it was moving at all.
A cool wind blowing over the lake kept the black flies and mosquitoes at bay and it felt wonderful sitting there in the hot afternoon light. Loons drifted across the sun-soaked water in pairs, and every few minutes one would sing its sad, low song. And best of all, you could walk to the edge of the lake, look to the north, and have your jaw drop at the sight of a huge, majestic wall: Katahdin.
The dark immensity of Katahdin stood stark against the pale blue sky, and the peaks and ridges of the mountain looked so close that my hand itched to reach out and run a finger over them. Fresh Ground spotted me in my awed state and pointed out the various features: the rock slides, the false summits, the tablelands. “It’s really not a hard climb,” he said. I found that hard to believe, given that my neck was sore from simply looking at the summit.
I slept well that night. Lying in my tent I could literally see the end of my hike—the end of the northern stretch, that is.
Fifteen more miles, I told myself. Just 15 miles, and this time, you won’t have to walk them all hungry.
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