Papa Is Home!
It’s 4:30 in the morning. I have been awake for a little more than an hour. My plan is to start packing up by 5:30 so I could begin my assault on Katahdin by 6:00. It was a warm and muggy night. I didn’t sleep well. In part, due to the weather, but truth be told – it was more about the anxiousness associated with the big day that lay ahead. I roll over to heat the water in my cook pot. One of my favorite things to do while hiking is cook my breakfast while laying in/on my sleeping bag. One last Swiss Miss hot chocolate mixed with a Carnation instant breakfast followed up with some oatmeal. How many times had I had this exact same breakfast over the past five months? My hot chocolate concoction tasted good, as usual, and momentarily took my mind off the day’s impending activities. As I scraped the last bit of oatmeal out of my coffee mug, I mentally went through the items I would take with me on today’s hike: headlamp, water, snacks, rain gear, GPS locator, cell phone, water purification system, warm coat, and the ashes of a good friend. There is no need to take all my gear. I don’t plan on camping or cooking a full meal. It will be nice to finally climb with a lightened load.
It’s 5:15. It’s beginning to get light enough to see without the assistance of my headlamp. No sense in waiting another 15 minutes, so I get started packing up the tent and additional gear that won’t be summiting with me today. There was only one other hiker at the Birches Campground last night, Top Chef. I can hear him quietly packing up his gear. It’s 5:40 and I think I am ready to say goodbye to my last campsite. As I take one last look around to make sure I haven’t left anything behind, Top Chef walks by and says he will see me at the top. I watch him walk off into the woods and disappear from view. Ok, I think I have everything I need for the day in my pack. The extra gear I will be leaving at the Ranger’s station and pick it back up when I come back down. I can’t put it off any longer – it’s go time!
The Hunt Trail
After leaving the Ranger’s station, I have to walk through the Katahdin Stream Campground, the place where many SOBO thru-hikers stay before they begin their 2,196-mile journey southward to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Boy I don’t envy them. It’s 6:00 and the last thing I need to do is sign the logbook at the trailhead to indicate time I start, trail I intend to take up and then back down. The Ranger said I should count on eight to ten hours for the round trip. Please, there’s no way a ten-mile round trip will take that long! I start off and immediately realize I am moving very fast. The excitement of the prospect of finishing today has a little extra adrenaline coursing through my veins. I have to consciously force myself to slow down. Relax, there’s a long way to go, I tell myself. I know that today’s hike is tagged as one of the hardest climbs on the AT. How can that be??
The trail quickly turns up and my pace naturally slows a bit. I’m still moving pretty good as I don’t want to give the mosquitoes a chance to swarm and attack. I decided to start in my raincoat even though rain isn’t expected until late afternoon. While it is a little hot and increases how much I sweat, it’s a small price to pay to avoid the bloodthirsty insects. After about two miles of hiking, I pass a few day hikers trying to make it up to Katahdin. Upon discovering I am a NOBO thru-hiker, they offer encouragement and congratulations. I shout my appreciation over my shoulder, as I didn’t want to slow my progress.
I am sweating profusely. The air is heavy and it’s already an unusually warm day. I have to stop and take off the raincoat. Mosquitoes or not, I can’t overheat as I only have two liters of water on me. Another mile passes by and I find myself slowly emerging above the tree line. Even though the trail is pretty steep, I have found that I have been making pretty good progress. The legs feel strong. My pack is light. As I progress a little further, my hike has transitioned into a technical, bouldering climb. I hate this stuff! It is at the same time challenging, exciting, and a little terrifying. I keep my eyes fixed above on the next hand or foot hold. I won’t look down. I slowly make my way up the rock face, praying that it will soon come to an end (in a favorable way). This section of the trail is referred to as the Hunt Spur. I just need to make it about a half a mile to the Gateway and it should be smooth sailing. As I approach what appears to be a false summit, I encounter a Boy Scout Troop out on an adventure hike. They are all sitting, catching their breath. As I get close, one says – “We won’t let you pass until you tell us a good story.” On the one hand, I refuse to be held hostage by a bunch of teenage kids that appear to relish the technical climb. I think they were only stopped because their adult leader looked pretty fatigued. On the other hand, I could use the break and I always have a story at the ready, so I found a boulder and sat down. They seemed to want to hear about wildlife encounters while on the trail – so, wildlife encounters it was. Ten minutes later I had earned passage and continued my ascent towards the Gateway.
With one last pull I found myself on a relatively flat section of the trail. There were rocks strewn all over the place and a clear path that led towards the summit, now visible, but still almost two miles away. No longer in fear of a life ending plummet, my pace once again quickened, my eyes firmly fixed on the summit. I am now only one mile away. The trail once again turns toward the sky. The AT, which has been throwing all kinds of “stuff” at me for five months, wasn’t done yet. As I scrambled up the last climb, tears began to form in my eyes. Memories, good and bad, of the previous five months were racing through my mind. I climbed faster. As I summited the last crest, still 100 yards from the AT’s northern terminus, my emotions overwhelmed me. I could hardly believe that what I had started 149 days earlier would soon be over. I slowed my pace, unsure of what I should do next. I finally came to a stop and placed my hand on that hallowed sign. It was over. Top Chef had beaten me here by three or four minutes (those darn Boy Scouts). I asked him to take my picture on the sign and then I reciprocated. It’s hard to believe that something I had been dreaming of for months had finally occurred. It was surreal. As if the AT wanted to congratulate my accomplishment, I actually had some views. So this is what a mountain top looks like.
With my celebration done, I moved off to a private place and took out the small baggy that held the remaining ashes of my good friend Matt. After saying a prayer and one final goodbye, I scattered him atop a mountain that we had, seven years earlier, planned to summit together. I suppose at this point I should come clean. Matt’s wife had given me a small tube with some of Matt’s ashes at his funeral. I had faithfully been carrying those throughout my journey. Years earlier we had spread the rest of Matt’s ashes on a beautiful section of the AT that Matt particularly liked and I hoped I could get the rest to Katahdin. On one of my numerous falls, I broke the vial that held Matt’s remains and some of his ashes spilled out on my descent of Mount Moosilauke. I think he was laughing at me as I frantically tried to get him back into a ziplock baggie.
I decided to descend by the Abol trail as it is less technical, albeit steeper, than the Hunt trail and would probably be a little safer. Just under six hours after I had started my hike, I emerged from the woods one last time. A couple hours later I was back with Lori at a home she had rented in Millinocket, Maine, making plans to return home.
One Stop To Make First
The next morning, Lori and I got up early and made our way to the airport. Our flight wasn’t until 2:00 in the afternoon, but I was eager to start moving in that direction. We waited at the airport for four or five hours for our flight. It was strange to be sitting and not walking. Strange but good. The flight was uneventful and got us to Charlotte on time. All that remained was to make the two-hour drive home to Asheville. We weren’t going to be getting home until 7:00 p.m. or so. As eager as I was to be home, see my dogs and get in my own bed, there was one stop we had to make first. A week earlier, my daughter had given birth to my second grandchild, my first grandson. I really wanted to see baby Remi. Perhaps the greater urgency, however, was I wanted to see my granddaughter, Rowan, who had told me months earlier in no uncertain terms – Papa Home! As Lori drove down my daughter’s street, I could see the family sitting on their front porch steps. Our car pulled to a stop in front of the house and Rowan came running toward me like she was shot out of a cannon. I had made it home!
A Week has Passed
In the week that followed my return, I was able to spend time with all my kids. For those of you who have followed my blogs, you know how precious my family is to me. There is nothing I missed more than family while on the trail. What a great homecoming. Of course, I loved being in my home, seeing the pups, taking a long, hot shower, and eating something other than ramen and oatmeal, but nothing made me feel as good as being around the family once again. Life is good!
So, how do I feel now that some time has passed? Well, my feet are still swollen and my toes are numb. My legs still ache a bit but I have begun to shed the “Hiker Hobble.” As my body slowly adjusts to life off trail, my thoughts often return to my hiking buddies who have yet to stand victorious on that Katahdin sign. I don’t miss being on the trail, but I do miss the camaraderie of my fellow hikers. I have started to bump into many friends and neighbors who have been following and supporting my hike. They are curious about the details of my hike and have had many questions:
Q Are you glad you did it?
A Yes, although I have no desire to do it again.
Q Was it hard?
A It was much harder than I thought it would be. While it was physically demanding, I think it was harder for me both mentally and emotionally.
Q Are you planning to hike the PCT or CDT in the future?
Q What did you miss most while on trail?
A My family
Q If you knew at the start what you know now, would you have undertaken this adventure?
A Honestly, I don’t know. The sense of accomplishment is certainly wonderful, but the cost was pretty high. I missed birthdays, family vacations, numerous holidays, and some important firsts in my kids’ and grandkids’ lives. My body has suffered and I am unsure if my feet, knees, and back will ever fully recover – only time will tell. The trail was harder than I thought it would be. On the other side of the coin, I did overcome many obstacles, I did things I never thought I could/would do. I met some wonderful people and experienced a part of America I would otherwise likely never see. I had a grand adventure. I think I will change my answer to – absolutely!
So long and Farewell
I want to sign off by thanking those who have supported me throughout my hike. Certainly my Wife, Kids and extended family, but also those who have read my blog, provided moral support and prayed for my safety and wellbeing. I need to praise my heavenly father who walked every mile with me and sustained me in my times of weakness. I know I did not achieve this on my own. I also want to thank the many trail angels encountered for their generosity and sacrifice. What a blessing you provided. Finally, I want to thank my fellow hikers who shared a shelter, a meal, some miles and life while on the trail. It’s truly amazing how such a diverse group of people can not only get along but genuinely care about each other’s wellbeing. It gives me hope for our country’s future.
2 Timothy 4:7
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith
Note: For my friends and neighbors nearby, Lori and I will be hosting an open house next week to thank you for your support, celebrate my return, and share some stories from the trail. Please reach out to me or Lori if you have an interest.
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