One & Done (Part 2- Signing Out)
Katahdin stood proudly, her high sides bathed in sunlight though a fleet of endless grey clouds skimmed the lofty summit and hung a veil atop our finish line. They were not unwelcome. I’d dreamed of this day for twenty years and I wanted to savor everything about it. That brown sign was gonna have to wait.
I asked Firewalker if he could see Sapling and when he pointed almost skyward I knew she had gotten farther ahead than I felt comfortable with. But by now I’d understood she was much more adept on this particular mountain than I. The middle portion of Katahdin requires a lot of rock climbing. Being flexible has never been a forte of mine, but Sapling has it in spades. My only real worry was she might keep going to the top without us and I had envisioned ending this hike as it began, with her by my side.
I turned away from the stack of granite boulders I’d been attempting to navigate and gazed out upon mismatched forests seemingly bedecked in Fall jewelry but mostly still wearing their late Summer fashions. It was a vaguely familiar sight and I finally connected this vista to a picture I’d seen countless times over the past many years. My friend Bobby had given me an Appalachian Trail calendar for Christmas once. The photography was stunning and after serving its purpose I cut out four of the pages and hung them on a wall in my classroom. I taught 7th graders and, surprise, they could get a little frustrating sometimes. In those moments I learned to turn toward those photos and give myself a Zen moment, imagining myself hiking through a spot on trail like the one I now stood. It gave me a chance to cool down. It brought me perspective. It gave me peace- and probably saved some kids’ lives.
I checked the time and realized the day was flying by. The previous week through the hundred mile wilderness proved hard on Firewalker and I. Initially the rainy weather and dangerously swollen rivers had been our biggest challenge. And even though the last several days turned gorgeous we’d kept the pedal to the metal to the tune of twenty-plus mile days since our airline tickets for home had been purchased for Tuesday, less than 24 hours after our summit. So that chilly Maine morning I hadn’t had the heart to wake Sapling or Firewalker up as they dozed in their sleeping bags within our tiny riverside lean-to at Katahdin Stream Campground. They’d earned the right to sleep in a bit longer.
Sapling had met us halfway through our hike the day before and joined in for the ten miles across Baxter State Park. She, along with my son Lucas and wife Lori, had flown in together Saturday and stayed overnight at the Baxter Park Inn in MIllinockett. We were supposed to meet them at the Abol Bridge Store around Sunday noon, but imagine my surprise when Firewalker and I heard voices coming up the trail a mile out and it turned out to be them! We’d been high-fiving one another and celebrating our successful crossing of the Hundred Mile Wilderness beneath an ominous sign warning southbound hikers of the peril we’d just survived when I looked up and saw my beautiful wife’s face in person for the first time since she drove away from me in Pennsylvania. My heart skipped a beat. I was also shocked to see how big my son had gotten. No, he’s not a little kid. But I hadn’t seen him since before starting the trail and he’s been bulking up in the weight room for the past six and a half months.
Following hugs and kisses I introduced Firewalker to my family. It was both a beautiful and sad moment. Beautiful for the obvious reasons, but sad because the friendship I had forged with Firewalker was completely framed in our intensive hiking partnership. As a duo we were at the end of our time together. We had one more day and then we’d be parting ways to return to our lives in NC and Denmark, an ocean-apart geographically and a world-away culturally from the thru-hiking lifestyle.
I turned back to the vertical wall before me and saw no obvious way up. I studied its rough grey surface, dappled in a beautiful mural of black discoloration and pastel green lichen, searching for any indentation deep enough to offer traction to the palm of my hand. I found one just within reach on my upper right and winced in pain as my shoulder protested against the pulling motion. I’d fallen so many times recently and it had become sore as each time I braced myself for impact using my arms. I promised my body we were on the last day of this. No more weighted down miles on swollen and painful feet. No more dressing infected wounds with antibiotic creams and bandages only to plunge them into stream water. No more painful hands and fingertips wielding hiking poles into position with every step. No more right knee pain that I’d been trying to ignore for the last few weeks. No more heat and pressure rashes from the pack against my back… No more! I’d decided long ago this would be my only ever thru hike. One and Done.
Sapling had indeed waited up for Firewalker and I. She was sitting on some conveniently situated rocks and talking to a day hiking couple who were deciding to turn around instead of hiking on to the top. Vertigo was beginning to set in on them and the resignation was apparent in their voices. But as we squinted in the bright light of mid day I could see they were happy enough with their endeavor. Only halfway up and the views were spectacular already. They pulled out lunch to enjoy their perch on that Katahdin paradise and we bid them adieu. As we departed I drew parallels between their day-hike and the premature end of so many of my friends’ thru hikes. SpongeBob, Satellite, Better-Half and Manimal, Billy Goat, Safari, NiCole Slaw, Chia, Prepper and so many more did not make it the whole way due to injury, bad luck or waning desire. And while I personally felt proud to be closing the deal I also felt privileged to have met them all in this context and hoped they were satisfied with their outcomes. Those friends were deeply intertwined in my success and I wanted to carry some of their energy along with me to the end.
The Katahdin climb is the hardest on trail. It has an elevation gain of 4k feet in five miles. But after the middle section, where we’d ascended into clouds, it became walkable again. It was here, in the final mile or so, that I got my first grainy glimpse through shadowy mist of that iconic brown sign. I questioned whether that’s what I was seeing up ahead as an optical illusion played havoc with my eyes and a spot where people had seemingly gathered appeared much lower than the terrain to its right. I later learned I’d been fooled by the infamous Knife’s Edge. But as breaks occasionally appeared in the clouds it became apparent that the end being in sight was no longer just a figure of speech. I could actually see the end of a two decades old dream.
I’m positive that all northbound thru hikers have spent a fair amount of time dreaming about their final moments on trail. When you’ve been actively pursuing such a goal for half a year it’s impossible not to. I probably did it most when under anxiety or duress. Laying in a hospital bed in Erwin Tennessee with Norovirus; feeling sorry for myself when my daughter Sapling decided to end her thru hike; stopping every other stride up a steep mountain in Virginia to massage a torn leg muscle; gritting my teeth with every painful footstep in northern Pennsylvania; lying in a crumpled heap after yet another fall and afraid to assess the damage out of fear I’d finally be knocked out for good- coming back from these kinds of moments bore a recurring Happy Ending style dream of triumphing over each of these disasters to ultimately stand on the sign, arms aloft in a victory salute, tears of joy streaming down my face and the world grinding to a halt in acknowledgement of what I’d done.
But I wasn’t in Hollywood.
We’d started so late and hiked so slowly that everyone who’d already summited were now on their way back down. The great thing about that was we were getting one last chance to say goodbye, this time knowing it would truly be for good. We saw V6, Slug, Moose Jaw, Chili P and her parents, Stogie, Overkill and Ninja. For some reason it was Ninja who I needed to see most in that moment. I’ve never written about him and he’s the person I probably have the least in common with on the whole trail. But we had some sort of connection that always went beyond surface level stuff and delved deeper into “brother from another mother” territory. Ninja came and went through my hike like a ghost but I was always thrilled to see him for reasons I’m unsure of, though now I’d say it stemmed in part from our differences and the cool mix of accessibility and independence he carried himself with. I was sure, as he stepped up beside me, he’d pull out his usual half-empty bottle of whiskey and offer me a swig. But when I told him that he said he wouldn’t disrespect the mountain that way. Always full of cool surprises.
My stream of thought was interrupted by those farewells so many times during my final push toward the top that I hadn’t really reflected enough to get emotional about the journey as a whole. I tried to force it in the final few steps, thinking thoughts of posing for the requisite selfies with Sapling on Springer Mountain in the cold of early March; scoring my first hitch-hike in an 18 wheeler; pausing to watch beautiful sunsets and then racing to set up my tent before dark; calming my nerves after hearing strange sounds while alone in the night; feeling the presence of my sister as the wind rustled tall grasses; enjoying the warmth of steam rising off black coffee as it wafted across my sleepy face; smiling at the expressions of disbelieving strangers as I answered their questions in Trail Towns; walking across rushing rivers on bouncy rope bridges; feeling the slickness of white paint on my fingertips as they slid between chunky pieces of blazed pine bark … these thoughts were all beautiful reminders but I didn’t find them overwhelming and I was cool with that. Sapling and Firewalker, on the other hand, got pretty emotional. And I took joy in their tears as we all shared the moment and hiked past the Final White Blaze of thousands to reach Katahdin’s highest point.
I’ve met a few celebrities in my life. I spent the better part of a day with Michael Jordan once, and even got to play a little ball with him. I had a conversation with Rachel Ray at a wedding. I literally bumped into Oscar winner Sissy Spacek in a clothing store and we laughed as we apologized. But all those encounters came as a surprise. I hadn’t dreamed of them for decades beforehand. Katahdin’s sign is as much a part of the mountain as the basketball is to Air Jordan. It’s a celebrity and I’ve thought hard about what it would be like when I saw it.
Just out of touching distance I noticed the wood was not brown at all. The elements had stripped the stain, leaving a more natural and handsome grey behind. It stood stout and rock solid, and the white routered letters spelling K A T A H D I N reminded me the world’s biggest stars only go by one name. Sapling was filming a video and stepped aside to allow Firewalker and I to approach together first.
The gravity of the moment finally struck me. I’d succeeded. But in place of pride and emotion and a Hollywood ending was… thankfulness and understanding. I’d been gifted determination and used it. I’d been injured but not catastrophically. The hard times Sapling and I went through early on were now fully replaced by the joy of hiking our own hikes to our own versions of complete. We didn’t need the same things. We had both found what we were looking for. I love you honey.
I embraced Firewalker and held his eyes just long enough to know what he was thinking. I’d met and shared powerful moments with so many people, but he was my strongest connection and we’d gotten through some really tough times together. We’d spent our days cutting up and talking seriously, often in the same breath. Or sensing when the other needed space . We’re both stubborn and would have made it without each other, but I’m sure glad we didn’t have to. We’d offered ourselves something greater than friendship alone. Commitment.
He went right and I left as we hiked the final step. Through choked up tears Fire lifted his gloved hand and said “Bring it here, Captain, on the count of three… One, Two, Three…” and our clasped hands fell down upon the sign with one final word-“Family”.
Thanks Loyal Readers, you were an inspiration!
Captain Fantastic- 2023 AT Thru Hiker
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