So, we did it. In 5 and a half months we walked the 2190.3 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. I can’t even begin to describe how we felt on that last morning. We stayed at the base of the last mountain at the Birches, a lean-to reserved in Baxter State Park. We had been catching glimpses of Katahdin for the last hundred miles and we were now looking at it from its base. This day felt like it was a long time coming and the next morning we were up before the sun had cleared the horizon. Not totally because of our own decision making. When you are sleeping six inches away from a stranger who is dead-set on getting up and packing at 4 in the morning, you pretty much have to join him or sit in your sleeping bag grumbling about early risers.
The climb up Katahdin was intense but extremely enjoyable. It was steeper and more precarious than any we had experienced on the hike. The beautiful thing about a mountain range that is hundreds of millions of years old is that erosion has made nearly every ascent a walkable climb. Katahdin, however, was different. The trail goes straight up rock cliffs and because of the alpine environment the sheer size of the mountain is very present. I am in a constant state of denial that I have a fear of heights, but was faced with some moments where I really had to talk myself into it before pulling myself over a vertical rock face. This was made especially difficult because of the over large backpacks we had on, though we had very little food making them lighter than normal. Having the last climb on the Appalachian Trail be one that stands out from the rest of the hike felt very fitting. It created the last day into a genuinely momentous occasion.
We climbed into the clouds and made it to the last mile where the mountain flattens into a rocky plateau. Normally a mile feels like it takes no time at all, but because we were squinting into the fog and trying to see if the summit sign was coming into view every minute felt like an age. When we finally did see the sign come into view, emotions took over. We had been walking to this point for months. Relief and happiness, pride and triumph, a bittersweet feeling of the end…. There were so many emotions warring inside of us, we almost felt light headed and hysterical. I kept bursting into laughter and Sean would not stop smiling. We had made it. We were fairly isolated in the clouds, you couldn’t see a think past fifteen in front of you, so all of our attention was on the sign. We stayed up there for nearly an hour just relishing the emotions and being present in that experience.
However, even though the terminus of the trail is at the top of the mountain, it isn’t the end of the hike. We still had to make it down the mountain and meet my parents who were picking us up. We decided to go down a different trail than we came up; the Hunt Trail is the one the Appalachian Trail follows and we descended down the Saddle trail to Chimney Pond. By the time we were nearing the parking lot where we were to be picked up my feet were throbbing in pain.
On the first day that we had entered the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the last stretch of trail through some of the remotest sections of Maine, I had cut my foot. We had been fording a river of slippery rocks and I was worried my plastic crocs would not have adequate grip and that my barefeet would have been better. This was a mistake. There was either a piece of glass or sharp shale that I slipped on. It left a significant gash on my foot. We were in a section of trail where it would have been hard to find a place to recover in and we did not have enough food to stop for longer than a day. The only thing to do was clean it out and continue. Over the course of the next couple of days, in response to the cut and the subsequent alteration of my normal walking pattern, my feet swelled, blistered, and just generally hurt. It was the last stretch though, and we could literally see the end and therefore I just wanted to keep going.
I think this decision was spurred by the fact that we were ready to be done the hike. The hike was amazing and such a fantastic experience but the last section of the hike was difficult. We had spent time off the trail in New Hampshire and Vermont a couple of times. Switching from trail life to regular life felt a little disjointed and made us really face how long we had been living in the woods and camping. While we both love camping and doing these long distance hikes; 5 months, let alone nearly 6, was a long time. It was important to us to make it to the end of the hike, but the last section was harder emotionally than the rest of the trail where we really relished and loved everyday. This was coupled with Maine being the hardest section of trail. It was a little bit wilder than everywhere else we had walked through. There were rocks and roots making an obstacle course of the trail and the mountains we crossed were strenuous in their terrain and incline. A counterpoint to this was that it was some of the most beautiful sections of trail we had seen. The mountains were beautiful and the alpine summits gave views that left you breathless. The pine forests and lakes with loons singing their haunting song at night was magical. Simply put, Maine was incredible. So luckily, it wasn’t all hardship and pain at the end. Though it did leave me limping as we came up to the parking lot where my parents were picking us up.
The first couple of days of relaxation and rest were blissful. We got to see, call, and talk to family and friends. We were well fed – with real food! It all felt heavenly. Another prospect that felt really exciting to us was the concept of going home. On the trail, we mitigated the transient homeless feeling by tenting most nights. There is always the option to stay in shelters but both Sean and I prefered the tent. It provided a sense of consistency and privacy that I find to be one of the basic principles of feeling at home. If we had to stay in shelters for too many nights in a row, we both felt that we could not sleep as well. Our tent definitely became our home away from home. So when it broke while in Maine it added to our need to be done with the trail. A broken home isn’t nearly as comforting as memories of our cozy apartment in Montreal. We also had been talking at length about what we were planning for our future. Both in our immediate future and the long term. Therefore once we finished the trail we were both eager to get home and begin the next adventure, even if it was going to be a more domestic one. Having six months devoid of much domesticity made it all the more appealing. I have memories of wistfully dreaming of cutting up vegetables and trying new recipes while stirring our camp dinner of ramen and instant mashed potatoes.
So soon after leaving Katahdin we were kindly driven back to Montreal and got to put our house and lives in order for the next stage of our lives. Sean is applying to schools and going to study in Computer Sciences while I am going to try my hand at freelance writing. We are both so excited for these prospective new directions that we have been eagerly setting up foundations to begin. Hopefully all of that will begin this coming week!
We have heard much of the post-trail depression that some hikers experience. Some people find the change of lifestyle, and the return to a more mundane schedule, hard to adjust to. Others have talked about how when you are hiking at such length every day, your body increases both its production and release of serotonin. Reducing the amount of exercise done in a day can put hikers into a depression purely on a chemical basis. However, I think armed with this information, Sean and I both have been feeling good post-hike. We have tried to keep staying active, though obviously not at the same level, and constantly working on projects and improvement for our future that has kept us from feeling any kind of despondency. Instead, we have come to value the hike even more as we look back on it. There is such a fondness and nostalgia that we are already experiencing when thinking on memories. I find it is important that we can talk to each other about the hike, which helps when the urge to reminisce arises. It is hard talk at length to people who haven’t done it , partly because I imagine the long stories of creating the ultimate dinner out of only dehydrated food is incredibly boring. So having someone to talk to about the minutia has been great. Sean went through the photos we have of early sections of the hike and said that he looked back on Georgia and North Carolina which such fondness. The wish to return to trail life might return, we have even begun to discuss potential shorter hikes (400 miles instead of 2200) if we ever manage to go on vacation again, but the sadness that we are not on the AT has not hit. Hopefully we can move forward and keep our fond memories of the trail but not become desirous of returning.
We both learned so much on the trail. About ourselves, about each other, and where we want to go in life. We got to have experiences that we would not have been able to have anywhere else. We lived an alternative lifestyle for a few months and loved it. We learned that we could overcome struggles and achieve our goal even when it became difficult. The Appalachian Trail has been life changing in many ways. I know they will be memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. The people we met and the places we saw all have this patina of love and glory around them because it was overall such a good experience for us both. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are excited to see what the future has to hold because even though we made it to Katahdin our adventure isn’t over yet.
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