Rangeley to the End
Spoiler Alert: This blog post ends with me finishing my thru-hike. I do a lot of the framework for every blog while I’m walking and I knew I wasn’t interested in my scorecard format, trying to judge what was the highest high point and the lowest low point. I talked about how impossible a task this was becoming in my last blog and it got more and more difficult in the last weeks of my hike. The Hundred-Mile Wilderness was breathtaking and stunning but also very, very lonely. Summiting Katahdin was amazing and exciting but I also said my goodbyes to friends there. Going home was joyous and a relief but it also meant leaving behind the best thing I’ve ever done and starting over from scratch. It’s never been all that straightforward. So instead I’ll just lay down what happened, how it happened.
I was standing on top of the Bigelows, slowly pivoting and scanning the horizon. I had heard that this was one of the first places you could see Katahdin assuming the day was clear, and it was. Clear enough to see all the mountains that surrounded me, all looking, you know, like very mountain-y mountains. I wasn’t even sure in which direction Katahdin might be, since the trail doesn’t always head true North and for most of Maine it’s going more West to East than anything. So I just circled and examined every mountain, hoping one of the small specks in the distance was the one I was heading towards. I was feeling pretty crappy and had barfed behind a tree on the way up, for reasons I chalked up to my body being done with my shenanigans. I ended up having to night hike for an hour to get to my intended destination for the day, but I set up camp pleased and relieved. The Bigelows is the end of the “hard stuff” in Maine and I could officially see Katahdin. This was the beginning of the end, the victory lap into the final climb. “I probably won’t have another hard day on the trail,” I thought as I brushed my teeth, finally getting rid of the gross aftertaste that hangs around after you puke. “It’ll all be a cakewalk from here.”
That was a pretty stupid thought, but the next couple days into Monson backed it up. I did seven miles in two hours to catch the Kennebec Ferry, lightening fast for me. Sometimes I’d think about my friends and family I would get to see soon and sprint a mile in excitement. Sometimes I’d think about leaving all this behind and would find myself stopping and staring at random things that seemed to have undue significance. I stared intently at my friends’ and fellow hikers’ faces, at shelter logs, at blazes and at my own feet deftly navigating rocks and roots it had traversed so awkwardly 6 months prior. Adding to this is the fact that Maine is So. Freaking. Beautiful. It’s ridiculous. We had all spent so much time along the way listing and debating our favorite parts of the trail and it was all a waste of breath. We didn’t know what could be yet.
So I trotted into Monson ready to continue my sometimes excitedly speedy, sometimes leisurely slow roll towards Katahdin. I was carrying seven days worth of food, five and a half for the 100 miles and the extra day and a half intended for the 10 miles in Baxter State Park to the base of Katahdin and for the 5 mile climb up Katahdin itself. When my dad was visiting in New Hampshire, he laughed at me when I held up a tube of toothpaste I was buying and said this was probably the tube of toothpaste I would summit Katahdin with (it was). I stand by the significance of that moment, so imagine how I felt staring at packets of oatmeal and imagining they would be the ones to fuel my climb up the final mountain.
So you’d think I’d be walking into the Hundred-Mile Wilderness pumped, prepped and ready to go. But I actually went in feeling a bit cranky. I generally carry 3 to 4 days of food at a time, so 7 felt astronomically heavy. There had been a terrible snorer at Shaw’s Hostel the night I was there, and while I usually sleep right through it, the noise coupled with my own anticipation had made for a sleepless night and I was exhausted. I had forgotten to wash my socks and they smelled pretty rank. I was going to go approximately 188 miles between sock washings, which seemed like a stretch of hygiene, even by thru-hiking standards. My feet were already in pretty terrible shape and I doubted this would improve the situation.
And the first day did not go well. Maine has a lot of creek and river crossings and has taken a firm stance against bridges. Water levels were pretty low so I rarely had to do any true fords, but instinctively I would see a river and just assume I was walking across it. Less than 10 miles into the 100 miles, the trail spits you right onto the bank of a river before taking a hard right and walking along the river for a stretch. And well, yeah. I was looking at possible rock hop paths without thinking to look for a blaze. Way too long of wandering around looking for the trail on the opposite bank later, another thru-hiker came across. Relieved, I informed him I had no idea where the trail went, happy this was about to become a team exercise. He nodded, looked around, sat down and started eating. “Great teamwork,” I thought, finally resignedly pulling out my phone, which had been turned off to save battery. After ten minutes of turning on my phone, waiting for Guthooks to load, waiting for GPS to find me, wandering around so I could see my little blue dot move and give me some perspective, I realized I was supposed to have crossed the river further down. Not being an asshole, I told the other thru-hiker we weren’t supposed to cross here and where the trail went. He looked up at me with a smirk. “I know,” he replied.
I was furious. I had wasted ages trying to figure out where I was supposed to go, told him I was lost and he watched me wandering aimlessly for the last ten minutes. Mostly I was shocked. Thru-hikers are usually so kind and helpful to each other, I was taken aback. I turned and stormed across the rock hop angrily and … fell in. I landed on my hands and knees so my gear stayed dry, but my shoes and socks were soaked and I was extra appalled that this dude had been a jerk and then witnessed me slip off a rock into a river. If it had been anyone else I would have made a self deprecating joke or two, but instead I stood up and continued on without looking back, frustrated tears burning on the corners of my eyelids. I then proceeded to hike angrily fast into camp so I wouldn’t have to see him again, choosing to bypass the shelter and stealth camp in case he ended up there.
My detour meant I was slightly behind “schedule,” which normally doesn’t mean anything because I haven’t had a schedule in ages and if I ever tried to make one the trail would knock me on my ass with delighted pleasure. But I was meeting my family in Virginia to finish the stretch I had missed after getting back on trail after busting my feet and plane tickets had been bought and travel plans made, so there was a specific day I needed to get to Katahdin on. Days were getting pretty short so I was having to chose between hiking out of camp in the dark or hiking into camp in the dark to get a full day of hiking in. The second day was another one of me hauling ass, feeling exhausted and being cranky about having to drag my stupidly heavy pack up mountains. I wasn’t motivated by anything other than just wanting it to be over. I was too tired to feel excited about Katahdin. I secretly wished the trail just ended at Abol bridge, the road that ends the hundred mile wilderness. But Whitecap is the turning point for Northbounders. It’s the last real mountain you have to climb before Katahdin, and it’s the first up close view of Katahdin you get. There was no doubt about which splotch on the horizon it was. It loomed in front of me, with nothing but a long, flat valley between us. “This is the victory lap. It starts here,” I thought happily.
The Hundred-Mile Wilderness felt like no other part of my hike. It’s not as isolated as it makes itself out to be; two separate times I walked over dirt or gravel roads with cars that stopped to ask if I needed anything, and at one point you’re a quarter-mile away from a parking lot. I passed a couple southbound section hikers, a few day hikers and the ridge runner, but almost no other thru-hikers. I knew they were there: I saw them in log books, but after the first night, I spent all the rest alone in shelters. It was lonely, but there was something satisfying about it ending this way. I was pretty shocked to realize during this hike how much more I preferred hiking by myself, especially since I’d spent the first 200 miles anxiously making sure I stayed with people I knew. I love the people I met along the way wholeheartedly and I was always happy when whatever I was doing lined up with someone else for a stretch, but from Pennsylvania on I was pretty determined to hike my own hike and never slow down or speed up for anyone. I reveled in the “isolation” (again, at one point you’re a quarter mile from a parking lot) and my own comfort in it. I also really CANNOT stress how unbelievably beautiful the Hundred-Mile Wilderness is.
On my last full day in the 100 miles, it rained terribly. It was another hurricane downgraded to a tropical rainstorm. It hadn’t really poured since New Hampshire and I was very convinced that it just HAD to pour on me one last time, so when the sky darkened I gave it a grim and understanding nod and pulled on my raincoat. I ended up stopping early (“early” being 5:30) because I couldn’t pass up the chance to sleep dry in a shelter. It would mean a 25 mile day into the two camps at the base of Katahdin in Baxter State Park. The Birches, the campsite reserved for thru-hikers coming out of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, only allowed 12 people in it and you signed up via a list 10 miles from the site at the entrance of Baxter. That campground, along with Katahdin Stream next to it, are the only two places to camp in Baxter along the AT, so I desperately needed to make it there the next day (the 10th) so I could summit on the 11th and catch my plane on the morning of the 12th. I got up REALLY early the next morning, hoping to get on the list before it filled, and hiked out in the dark. The trail was a soaked and soppy mess, and I found myself having to take off my shoes and ford things I expect you almost never have to ford. It was unpleasant in the dark and I could tell my feet were hosting an array of problems stemming from hiking all of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in soaked shoes and unwashed socks. At 5 am, after I’d been hiking for a half hour and about an hour before it was going to get light, my headlamp went out. I had come into the 100 miles with extra batteries, but had put them in on my second night. I couldn’t believe they had died so fast, but I was using my headlamp more than ever before. I couldn’t see anything, so I just sat down and twiddled my thumbs in the dark until I could see enough to hike again. I was still exhausted and frustrated I’d wasted an hour I could have been sleeping. Once the barest bit of light started to illuminate the trail again, I hiked off on agonizingly painful feet.
I got to another ford, and when I took my shoes off, I saw the damage. I forced myself to cross before really inspecting it. The skin on the sides of my feet and in between my toes was cracked and bleeding. One of my toenails had a blister underneath it oozing blood and pus and I could tell I was going to lose it. My first instinct was to call my mom, saving batteries be dammed, but I didn’t have service. I looked through my pack hopelessly, like a dry pair of socks might magically appear, and finally settled on coating my feet in Neosporin. As I worked, I started to despair a bit. “This is so unfair. This is my last full day backpacking on the trail. This is supposed to be my victory lap. It’s flat and easy and gorgeous and I have to sprint on bleeding feet. This is not how this should be.”
Finally, I inwardly rolled my eyes. When had the trail ever been easy? Why would the last 25 miles be any different from the other couple thousand? The whole point was that it wasn’t easy, so why did I need it to be easy now, when I had clearly made it? I pulled on my nasty socks and shoes and began my speed walk again. I got to Abol Bridge around 1 pm, chugged some coffee and ate 3 cans of cold beans from the very picked-through camp store, as well as buying a flashlight to pilfer the batteries. I got to Baxter’s entrance at 1:45 to find that yes, the Birches were full. I ignored the ominous warnings that if you hiked in and couldn’t find a place to stay you would be expected to hike out again because I HAD to summit Katahdin the next day. Katahdin Stream Campground, which is next to the Birches, is reservation only, but I had been told there were sometimes sites available on weekdays and if not you could usually beg a kind soul to let you camp at theirs.
After going how many days without seeing another thru-hiker, I was surprised at how many people I knew at the Birches, people I had assumed had summitted days before. When I talked to the ranger, she told me of two sites reserved by thru-hikers, both of which held hikers I knew who were happy to let me camp with them. I ate my dinner and set up camp, and then it hit me that I was summiting Katahdin the next day.
I have never had an easier time hiking up a hard mountain.
It’s an insane climb, but I felt like I had balloons tied to my shoulders. I didn’t feel my feet, or the exhaustion, or the hunger, or any other discomfort that had worked itself into permanence in the final month. It was freezing and windy, but I didn’t feel any of it. I didn’t feel anything at all until my hands touched the weathered sign at the top, and I felt relief soar through me. It had occurred to me that I wasn’t going to trust that I would make it until I had. Ever since I’d hurt my feet I’d felt hyper-aware that anything could happen at any time and finishing could never be a sure thing. To know that I had made it, that I had done it and nothing could happen to take it away from me was the best feeling in the whole world. Excitement and joy came along with a bit of sadness and angst while descending back down the mountain, but initially, all I felt was relief.
I said goodbye to the hikers I summited with and sadly thought about all the ones I never got to say goodbye to. The next day I was back in Virginia, realizing that for all we had moaned and called it a lie at the time, Virginia is SUPER flat.
To be honest, I felt like my thru-hike ended when I summitted Katahdin. I did the 70 miles I missed in a series of day hikes with my family, which was a blast but didn’t really feel like thru-hiking. I wasn’t carrying my stuff, I wasn’t camping out and I could shower every night, so it wasn’t quite the same. But it was nice to have my family there, and to have a kind of transitional stage between Katahdin and the real world. I had spent most of my last couple of days on the trail fixated on Katahdin, and I was grateful for a chance to spend some time hiking and thinking about what comes next. Aside from the very detailed list of places I wanted to eat at and recipes I wanted to cook, I hadn’t contemplated what I was going to do after the trail, when the blazes weren’t there to tell me where to go anymore and I had to find my way on my own.
My family graciously went along with my request for me to hike my last day into Harper’s Ferry on my own, with my pack on. It felt important to do it this way and to carry the weight one last time. It was only 6 miles, and it was 6 of the slowest miles I have ever walked. I spent 15 minutes stock still, allowing a deer to venture as close to me as it dared and another 45 sitting and staring at an old fire pit. For all that I had sprinted up Katahdin, I didn’t want this day to end. The next day I’d have to get on a plane and put thousands of miles between me and this trail. I couldn’t come out and just visit it for a day or a weekend if I needed a fix. I was going to have to give it up cold turkey. No more blazes, no more shelters packed to the brim on a rainy day, no more fire pits with hiking clothes strewn about it, no more log books with entries ranging from hilarious to heart-breaking. I needed to take it all in while I could.
The excitement didn’t come back until the last half mile, and my family greeted me at the end with a ribbon tied between two trees at my finishing spot. The ATC popped a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne and I filled out my 2,000 miler application and got my official hiker binder picture taken. I poured through the binder again, thinking it was pretty cool I would probably be one of the few who got to see every single Northbounder.
My flight back to California included a layover at the Atlanta airport, the airport I landed at to get this whole adventure rolling. The flight had screens with one of those interactive flight trackers. I played with the map for awhile, zooming in along the Appalachians and following along the trail. As we started taking off, I realized that San Jose, California, my hometown, was 2,070 miles away. Obviously, it was as the crow flies but still. I had spent the first part of my hike feeling so far from home and now I felt like I was putting so much distance in between me and the place I felt most at home. But it was only 2,070 miles away. I mean, I’ve WALKED further than that.
One Last Thing
If you’ve been enjoying this blog and following along with my adventure, please consider a donation of any size to the International Rescue Committee. I’ve been fundraising for them over the course of my thru-hike and it’s a cause that means a lot to me. The page to do so is here and is manned by my brother. If you’ve recently started following, the blog where I originally talked about this fundraiser is here. Thank you all for the million and one ways you’ve supported me during the course of this journey!
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