The AT is for history nerds
When I pass people on trail and we strike up conversation, they often land quickly on me being a young woman from New York City. Everyone wants to know I have adjusted to what they believe must be a monumental transition. I always laugh. In the obvious ways, it is true. But while the AT is a wilderness of trees, NY is a wilderness of people. In both, you are almost always alone. The adjustment is there, but it is not what people think it is. I am not bothered by the risk, the uncertainty, or the strangers, but I am often overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the rest of my life laying untouched before me.
In The Last American Man, the book by Elizabeth Gilbert about Eustace Conway the mountain man from South Carolina, she points out the tried and true practice throughout American history of young men leaving civilization at 17 to become mountain men and cowboys. A famous favorite in the US, we have Teddy Roosevelt. Like him, I have left New York City at 17 to find what I can in the mountains. And that history of the wilderness lives on in the tradition of AT thru-hikers.
My curiosity was tickled this past week by a sign telling a brief history of the journey Benedict Arnold took with his 1,100 men between the kennebec and dead river on his way to besiege Quebec. In true AT fashion, hikers follow their exact route, crossing the Kennebec river in a canoe, as a result of it being the most dangerous unbridged river crossing on the AT, and walking the portage trail between the West and East carry ponds. My research yielded the following. The Continental Congress believed that a successful siege of Quebec would result in massive militia turnout from the French and eliminate the British control of the American and Canadian colonies with greater efficiency. However, the maps given to Benedict Arnold of the Maine wilderness for his journey were altered by British loyalists, making the journey appear easier and shorter than it was in reality. In the end, 500 of his men either died of cold, starvation or sickness. Or they simply refuse to continue on. As a result, the campaign was almost entirely a failure. I cannot imagine trying to traverse the Maine wilderness with nothing but 18th century camping gear and a military uniform, and the reminder of the pain this land can inflict was enough to redouble my gratitude for modern backpacking miracles like nylon and ripstop.
Logbooks: living in the past
If you hadn’t noticed, I am a total history nerd. I love reading about the people that have made our world what it is, and it is a joy to try and immerse myself in a world that is all but gone.
But it is undeniable that the living history of the Appalachian Trail goes beyond mountain men. My main form of communication these days is the shelter logbook. Shelters are wooden lean-tos that are found every 10-20 miles on trail. Inside is a notebook where people sign their name and the date they were there. They contain drawings, advice, stories, messages and journal entries. People discuss which towns are the best for resupply days and which mountains are the hardest to climb. I keep tabs on friends down the trail who have gotten ahead of me and I leave notes for those that I have left behind. News travels only by word of mouth, and friendships are easy to make, even if they rarely last more than a few days. Instead of being constantly in contact with the world, I rely on small tidbits of information passed up and down the trail to entertain and sustain me. In contrast to the way I usually live, it is oddly comforting. It is nice to live in the past a little bit and let go of the need to be constantly consuming information. The greatest thing is that when I catch up to people ahead of me, I already know them by their logbook entries.
A few days ago I cowboy camped for the first time. I rolled into a nice flat spot below the impressive Maine Saddleback range after a long day of scrambling up and down rocks. I took one look at the ground, decided I was too tired to set up my tent so I just unrolled it and slept on top in my quilt. Surprisingly, I slept really well. In being actively open minded and not worried about the consequences, I was just able to relax. Of course, I still had the energy to go canoeing with two other SOBOs, Larry Bird (who has been keeping me updated as of late as to which bird calls belong to which) and Stickyfingers (whose wife surprised us as a trailhead the other day with a fully cooked breakfast – I love trail magic!). So we rowed out to the middle of the lake on a canoe left by some generous soul and soaked in the sunset. It is these magical moments, watching the sky change colors, sometimes staring at the horizon for hours or waiting for a mother duck to coax her chicks off trail, that keep each day grounded in being grateful for the miracle that is nature and the blessing that it is to be alive and doing what I love.
Major Timothy Bigelow and Tears
In another strange feat of history, one of the largest mountain ranges within the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail are the Bigelow Mountains, named after Major Timothy Bigelow (a member of Benedict Arnold’s expeditionary force) who climbed it for “the purpose of observation” – no doubt to keep the company from getting more lost. Thing night before my big climb I slept on the top of the ridge and watched the sun drop behind West and Avery Peaks of Bigelow mountain. It was the most beautiful moment I have had on trail, even though the next day set in with heavy rain, winds and fog that dampened the mood and made the climb above tree line treacherous and exhilarating.
It seems that my Katahdin summit has cursed me with bad mountaintop weather. Two days after my climb through the Bigelows I traversed the sugarloaf-Crocker range in the heaviest thunderstorm yet. I almost delayed my summit of Sugarloaf mountain as lightning crept closer all afternoon. Luckily, it passed before I reached tree line and dried up before I reached camp.
Finally, the next day I was blessed with some spectacular views and clear skies in the gorgeous alpine fields atop Saddleback mountain. From Saddleback Junior, you could see the trail wind up for miles through the rocky saddle ahead. After what had already been a 13 mile day, with the biggest summit still to come, I dropped my pack and started crying. For joy of course! There is something even about the pain that feels to good to be real. Because this pain always feels worth it when I finish the climb. I jumped up and waved to my friends Smokey and Prometheus, who I could see a few miles ahead without the trees in the way. They waved back and I let my tears fall into the wildflowers before I moved on. I think tears are a weekly necessity for thru-hiking.
Food and Feet
I am happy, as always, and enjoying life. I have stopped cooking breakfast and dinner, instead I eat a lot of summer sausage, chicken salad packets and snacks throughout the day and cook my main meal at lunch time (preferably overlooking a view). I am learning to manage the daily aches and pains of putting my body through such extreme changes, but things still hurt now and then. For now, I will just keep following the white blazes!!
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