Started from the Bottom and Now We’re Here: North Adams, MA to Baxter Peak, ME
A couple of years before hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was on a hike with my mother in the White Mountains when we encountered two young women seated having lunch. They looked completely filthy, their legs were hairy, and they were gorging themselves on peanut butter. There was something in their eyes that told me they were thru hikers. They looked slightly haggard and more than slightly crazy, but at the same time they seemed at peace and confident. From one look I could tell that they had seen some shit I could not begin to imagine. I wanted to be exactly like them.
In Vermont we got a sense that our journey was coming to an end. Breaks to enjoy views became longer. Detours to beautiful lakes and ponds inevitably lasted the entire day. It was fantastic to be able to take the remaining 500 miles of our journey slowly and deliberately. I had grown to love the Trail, and it rewarded me with some incredible weather.
Vermont was also when we truly started to encounter Southbound thru-hikers, who all warned us about the Whites and Southern Maine. It was a badge of honor that they had and we didn’t. They all seemed to be very proud to have made it through alive. They had gotten the hardest parts of the Trail over with, all before they had reached the 500 mile mark. So, of course we had to mess with them.
“Are you thru hiking the Long Trail?” Gold Star asked a particularly serious group of SOBOs one day.
“We’re hiking the Appalachian Trail,” one of the guys snapped.
“We started all the way in Maine and are headed to Georgia”.
We all exchanged impressed looks. “That sure is a long way you’ve come,” I noted, while Gold Star, Flame, and Phu tried not to laugh.
“Yeah. And we have a long way to go,” another hiker noted as they squeezed passed us on the narrow trail.
There was some trepidation heading into New Hampshire. After all the build up of the Whites from the SOBOs, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It turned out to be my favorite part of the journey. Climbing up Mt. Moosilauke was the first truly challenging mountain we had faced in quite some time. I forgot how much I had missed the feeling of climbing up a very tall mountain with a heavy pack on. The views in the Whites got even more incredible from there, and the hospitality we were shown at the huts from the staff and their visitors made the experience that much more rewarding.
The end of the Whites seemed to mark the end of our sanity. Eyes started twitching. Laughs started to get just a little more hysterical. Attempts at talking to strangers would leave them confused and slightly scared. Our stay in Gorham, drunk off the excitement of finishing the Whites, had me, Flame, Gold Star, Phu, Sharkbait, and Free-Range Chicken all sitting around at a terrible Chinese Buffet for hours eating and laughing, while other visitors looked on mildly disturbed.
This insanity seemed to take on a new flavor when we entered Maine. It was hard to believe we only had one state to go. Southern Maine was unexpectedly tough, despite numerous warnings from SOBOs. The Whites had taught me that it was okay only doing 10-15 miles a day, as long as I was enjoying myself. By Southern Maine, I had grown tired, physically and mentally, of the steep uphills and the terrifying, slick, downhills that accompanied them. At some points, I would be going a mile an hour for long stretches of trail as I tried to navigate a treacherous section of wet, steep, rock face. Accompanying this trend was a fervent need to get into town, to get away from the mountains that were wearing me thin. It was clear that I wasn’t enjoying the Trail as much as I had in New Hampshire. My trail family definitely helped me through. We were all feeling the same way, and after a much-needed venting session, I felt a lot better. We started to cut our stays in town short, the trail became more forgiving, and I started to enjoy the last miles of my journey. Heading into Monson I felt reenergized and ready to tackle the 100-mile Wilderness.
The 100-mile seemed to throw everything the Trail had thrown at me in a small 100-mile stretch. Although not necessarily physically challenging, carrying six days worth of food on your back does weigh on you (no pun intended). The majority of the trail was a mix of rocks, roots, and mud, all of which had become familiar to me as the typical Maine trail. Although I enjoyed my hiked through the 100-mile, it was not as wild as I thought it was going to be. On one stretch of trail, there were several day hikers out with their dogs. When we mentioned we were in the 100-mile Wilderness, the most wild stretch of trail on the AT, one woman did not know what it was.
“You know there’s a restaurant down the road, right?” She asked a perplexed and disheartened Gold Star and I.
A couple of days later we met a SOBO who was four days into her journey. “You guys look like you have seen some shit,” she noted at one point when we were seated around the campfire. I grinned. I had finally made it.
Heading out of the 100-mile to Abol Bridge was a strange feeling. We were almost there. The last night on the Trail, camping at Katahdin Springs, had me reflecting on my journey. It was hard to believe that five months ago I was starting at Springer Mountain. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and also just yesterday.
On the day of our summit, we woke up at 5 am and started out. Although it was never discussed, it was mutually agreed that we would all hike up Katahdin separately. It was how we started, and so it was how we would finish. Above all, the AT was a personal journey, to be finished in solitude. Katahdin was a hike that I will always remember. It is by far my favorite mountain on the AT. There were some emotional ups and downs on that five mile hike to Baxter Peak. At one point, when I was on a sheer cliff face, with no possible way for a 5 foot three inch person to get up it, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I stared at the rock for a good five minutes, willing it to shrink so I could haul myself up. In the end, through sheer power of will, I was able to lift myself up and over, with only mild vertigo and minimal tears.
About a mile and a half before the summit, I encountered another hiker headed down the steep path. He had a beard, and looked like a typical Northbound thru-hiker, just finished with his hike.
“Congratulations!” I exclaimed, tearing up a bit.
“Congrats to me? I’m just starting! Congratulations to you!” He said, and started his hike down Katahdin and onwards towards Georgia.
Reaching the top of Baxter Peak was one of the best moments of my life. I had done it. I had hiked from Georgia to Katahdin. The mood on the summit was completely euphoric, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Saying you’re going to do something and actually doing it are two very different things. For a large part of my life, hiking the Appalachian Trail was in the “one day” category of things I wanted to do and would eventually get around to. Thinking about it, romanticizing it, was easy. Actually getting on a plane and heading to the middle of nowhere in Georgia was the most decisive and ridiculous thing I have ever done. Before buying that plane ticket, I had never decisively changed the course of my life before. Everything I had done up until that point had been going in the same direction: go to college, graduate college, get a job. It was all inevitable. The Appalachian Trail was a path that veered off course, and I am all the better for it.
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