New Jersey to Maine: Holy S*** I’m Done
I know I should apologize again for being the worst blogger on this site. It felt like the last half of the trail blew by. When I did have good service and access to computers, I was unfortunately spending my time applying to jobs and working out graduate school applications. You know, adult stuff. That’s right, I still had to adult on the trail, and I only had the span time it took to do a load of my disgusting, disintegrating trail laundry in which to do so (this is a practice I hope to take over into real life, start a new trend — minimalist responsibilities…) I do have good news: I have quite a few posts planned now that I have unlimited access to keyboards that aren’t from the 90’s and a Wi-Fi signal that doesn’t cut out every 16 seconds!
The Last Half
The last three months on the trail were completely unlike the first three, except for the part where you’re still waking up with the sun and walking until the sun goes down. As we trekked further and further past halfway, I also felt myself becoming more and more ambivalent with the journey. It is just like any other job, I think: the monotony starts to wear on you. Especially from Jersey to Vermont, where the trail has little elevation gain, only a handful of half-impressive views, and truly embodies the “green tunnel,” you’re pretty much only getting up and hiking everyday because, well, you made it this far and it’d be kinda dumb to stop now. It gets harder and harder to entertain your thoughts about quitting. They don’t come any less frequently, but you’ve walked 1500, 1600, 1700 miles already. What is a couple hundred more? We used to joke that we were praying for a rolled ankle or some other minor injury so that we had an excuse to get off trail. But, when push came to shove, when injuries and nasty weather and high water did crop up, we continued to push onwards towards Maine.
New Jersey and New York remain one of my favorite sections of the trail. We stopped almost every day at delis or pizzerias, and for the first time on trail I felt like I was eating a sufficient amount of food. New York offered better views than I had expected, and we could’ve slammed out miles, if we’d felt like it. That would’ve required not hiking off trail to eat deli sandwiches, though. It took us nearly a week to get through the handful of miles in Jersey, and I’m totally going to blame it on hiker hunger and not the fact that I was and always have been a fat ass.
Massachusetts has a special place in my heart, being the state that raised me and the section of the trail that I first took on. A couple summers ago, a friend and I sectioned the 90-some miles in Massachusetts. Walking through that section again reminded me just how much I had learned and grown, both as a backpacker and as a person. It also made me really, really appreciate the 20lb base weight I was carrying (seriously, I carried like 60lbs of gear on that first section. In the middle of July.) We were also seeing our first bubbles of SoBos, which helped to jostle me out of my coma-like walking state. A lot of people have some half-joking animosity towards people who choose to walk the same path through the woods in the opposite direction, but man was it refreshing to see them. They were 600 miles into their hikes, and had been through the ringer of the trail. But they were also still fresh, still in love with the trail beneath their feet, and they helped to remind us of why we came out here and the way we felt somewhere in Virginia: ferocious, strong, in love with the wilderness we surrounded ourselves with. They sent us into the Green Mountains in high spirits.
If you’re looking to do a section of the trail, Massachusetts and Vermont are the best. The climbs are not huge, but they exist. The trail is well maintained, and mostly easy to walk. The views are killer. The access to trail towns and decent food is distant enough that you don’t feel like you’re spending half your days on sidewalks, and close enough that you don’t need to carry a boatload of food.
There is a saying that, by the time you hit New Hampshire, you’ve done 90% of the trail and only 10% of the effort. Guys, this isn’t a joke. Hikers look at the elevation gain, the stupendous climbs, the time spent above treeline, the fact that is can snow up there at just about any time of year. We pick up our winter gear again in Hanover, know that we have to cut our mileages, and we still manage to underestimate the Whites and Southern Maine. It isn’t the climbs, it’s not the elevation that makes this section so hard. It’s the trail itself. You will spend so much time and energy just finding a safe place to put your foot down. It is incredible how both physically and mentally exhausting it is to be so focused on walking. There is about a mile of the trail before Pinkham Notch that is fairly level and free of rocks, and I actually cried when I realized I could just walk and not worry about slippery rocks, wobbly rocks, or safe paths. I had never wanted to quit before like I did in New Hampshire. To say I was done with lugging a pack up mountains was an understatement. I was counting down the miles, bemoaning just how much further it was to Katahdin.
The worst part is Southern Maine, though. You know it isn’t that much nicer, but no one warns you about those mountains the way they warn you about the Whites. Maine takes pride in its shit trails (seriously, we met a Maine local who was complaining about a section of the trail that was reworked to make it safer. She was complaining about how it was “just” hiking now.) In the words of Fourman, a lack of vegetation on a 45 degree rock face doesn’t count as a trail. Seriously, Maine trail designers just looked at a cliff face and thought, yup, let’s put some white blazes on that. If you like rock climbing, put on a big ol’ pack and go “hike” in Southern Maine. I thought so many times, “man, this would be impossible if it was raining.” And then, it rained. For a week. And what slow pace we were making trying not to fall off the trail became even slower. They tell you that the Mahoosuc Notch is the hardest mile of the trail, but they conveniently forget to tell you that 95% of the rest of Maine is only a smidge less traumatic. I am not a violent or generally angry person, but I wished for some really nasty thing to befall the person that thought the trail up the second peak of Baldpate and down the other side deserved to be a trail. And the person who thought rebar ladders were totally safe and fun to climb in the rain with 35lbs on your back.
MATC earned all my love back, though, in the 100 Mile Wilderness. At least 6 times a day, I wanted to pitch my tent and live there forever. I was surprised by how well maintained the trail was, as well. Not that MATC hasn’t done an excellent job with trail maintenance elsewhere, but I assumed that the remoteness of this section would mean the Maine rocks and roots would be preying on the ankles of sad, exhausted hikers. Water was low enough, too, that we only had one true ford. A cold snap in early Maine had started to turn the leaves early, and weeks of seventy degrees and sun led us out of Maine. It was some of the most fantastic hiking I have ever done. We weren’t ready to be done, either. The trail had chewed us up and spit us out alive, dozens of times, but it had given us some unforgettable moments of beauty, too, and like good little victims of Stockholm syndrome, we were irreversibly in love with and indebted to this trail.
The Very Bittersweet End
And then, there was one little, 5 mile section left, and it felt like we had stood on Springer yesterday, not six months before. My parents met us at Katahdin Stream Campground. We blew through 21 miles, including a stop for a burger and celebratory “we survived the wilderness” beer. My parents had brought cake for my belated birthday, but even better, they woke up at 2:30 in the morning to make us chocolate chip pancakes before we began that dreaded final ascent.
Yup, 2:30 am. Better known as zero dark fucking thirty. It was the first day of Autumn, a new moon, and some of the clearest weather the mountain has seen in awhile. We broke camp and started our climb by 3:00, and the first 2.5 miles were ugly. It was cold (the thermometer on the hiker register said it was 39 degrees at the base of the mountain), and it was dark. There was also that nice part where we were awake at 3 am and I had forgotten to make coffee (don’t do this). As we got nearer to treeline, I was expecting to be blasted with “above treeline and a couple thousand feet in the air and middle of the night” cold winds to make the ascent that much more miserable, but we were instead greeted by a warm and gentle breeze. It wasn’t a gentle climb by any means, but the sun started to lighten the landscape in hundreds of shades of purple and pink and we weren’t frozen anymore, and our hearts kept leaping at the knowledge that we were so close to the end.
They say Katahdin is the first place on the East Coast that the sun touches in the mornings. Watching the sun climb into the sky that morning was unlike anything I had ever experienced. We were the only hikers on the mountain, as well. We might as well have been on our own planet. We had that magnificent summit entirely to ourselves on a perfect September morning. I reached out and touched that sign and was overcome by emotion. Both Homeschool and I did that terrible, bittersweet thing where you laugh and sob at the same time. There was so much pain, so many struggles behind us. So many times we had to drag ourselves over our miles. So many incredible moments of laughter and love shared between half-strangers and views that could’ve knocked you to your knees. So much had happened in those last 2,190 miles. And suddenly, it was over.
Many times, I had wanted to quit. Even near the end, in New Hampshire, I was over it. But hiking down from Katahdin, I had to wrestle with a strong desire to turn around, to scramble back up those rocks. I get why people yo-yo. I had expected to get off trail, and then look back on those miles through rose colored glasses. I expected to be stupidly happy to be done, for a week or two or three. I knew I’d miss it; I wasn’t new to backpacking and the masochism required to enjoy it. But I thought it’d take some time to miss it. I didn’t expected to miss it before it was even over.
But it is. We were off the mountain by 11am and home in Massachusetts by dinner time. And my knees are happy. Lucky for me, it’s fair season. There is no better excuse to consume a 3 foot long corn dog, two baked potatoes, fried dough, and cheese curds than having just completed a thru-hike.
StinkyCheez is out. Until the PCT…
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Congratulations on finishing your AT hike. Great last post. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77
Congratulations. My feelings exactly, a trail to me does not go up a cliff face. 🙄