The end, and the beginning
At 4:30 a.m. on September 7, 2022 I awake in complete darkness to the sound of the Penobscot river flowing gently next to my tent. I let the air out of my sleeping pad for the last time, and quickly pack up my things. I’m filled with nervous anticipation and excitement – my body knows something big is about to happen. Today is the day I summit Mount Katahdin and complete my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
At 5:30 Tinman and I set out from Abol Pines campground, about 15 miles from the summit of Katahdin. It’s going to be a 20-mile day in total, which I fully anticipate will kick my ass, but my body is strong and ready. Twenty minutes in, we arrive at the entrance of Baxter State Park and sign in. Trail up? AT. Trail down? AT. Camping in the park overnight? Nope. We’re doing it all in one epic push.
We hike a quarter mile into the park on a flat gravel trail, all is well. Suddenly, I hear the heavy snap of a branch off to the right side of the trail. “Stop, that sounded like something big” I tell Tinman. I look about fifteen feet away to see the giant antlers of a moose, moving slowly about the dense forest. Adrenaline rushes through my body as we slowly back away. What do I do if it attacks? I can’t remember. Do we run? Probably not. Does it hear us? These thoughts rush through my head as we try to get away as quietly as possible. After we’ve backed up about 100 feet, we wait. What do we do? There’s no way to get around the trail. Ten minutes pass and we inch forward again, wondering if the moose is still there. Sure enough, we hear a grunt. Back up. We need to get out of here. We turn to walk away, and a few steps later we look back – the moose is on the trail, staring us down. Adrenaline fills my body once again. Turn back, walk swiftly. Get. Away.
We walk the quarter mile back to the park entrance, not sure what to do. At this point it’s about 6:20 a.m., valuable minutes slipping away as we wait for the moose to move from our only path forward. We wait for a park ranger, but they don’t show up. At 7:15, I can’t take it any longer. We have 20 miles ahead of us, we need to go! Some fellow hikers gave us advice on what to do if we see the moose, so we start hiking once again, hoping it has moved out of our path. Luckily, it has. Well, that was a minor inconvenience, but nonetheless an exciting start to the day.
Adrenaline and anxious excitement continue to flow through my body as I push through the next 9 miles of mostly flat terrain. I hike as fast as I can without burning myself out, which ends up being just over 3 miles per hour. I went through some rough patches throughout my 6-month journey, but recently, I have been feeling like a machine, in the best shape of my life. I hike and hike and hike, trying not to feel rushed and trusting that everything will work out exactly as it should. We lost a valuable hour, but I am strong, I am determined – I can do this. I focus on where I am in each moment, listening to every step, every chatter of the pine squirrels, soaking in the beauty of the bright green moss, vibrantly-colored mushrooms, and the towering pine trees. I am so lucky to be here, doing this.
Finally, Tinman and I arrive at Katahdin Springs Campground where we acquire our permits to summit Katahdin. This is it, it’s here. I know that the 5.5 miles to the summit that lie ahead of me are going to be grueling, and will probably take 4+ hours. I continue to tell myself, I can do this. I can, and I will. I am strong.
One mile down. Easy, gradual climbing. Crystal clear, beautiful waterfalls rush next to the trail. Filter two liters of water for the miles ahead. Eat a snack. Hike, hike, hike. Eat more snacks. Small rocks begin to overtake the trail. The rocks get bigger, and bigger. We slow down. Squeezing through crevices, using roots to help pull ourselves up. We reach tree line. Massive boulders stretch out ahead of us, straight up into the sky. Put the trekking poles away. One hand here, one foot there, pull yourself up. Bouldering, climbing, for a nearly vertical mile. Turn around – I’m on top of the world. Hundreds of miles of green. Blue bodies of water dot the landscape. Huge, rocky mountains burst up out of the ground all around us.
Keep climbing. Finally arrive at a flatter section, where smaller rocks cover the trail ahead. I see the summit! I can see the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It is enveloped in a soft, wispy cloud, but no matter. Hike, hike, hike. Almost there. Silhouettes of celebrating bodies populate the rocky summit. Clouds circle people with outstretched arms. I see the sign. The sign that will mark the end, and also a new beginning. I reflect on the person I have had to become to complete this incredible endeavor. I am someone who has adapted to change, who has been scared to do the thing and done it anyway, who has learned how to respond to adversity with a calm and open mind rather than with anxiety and control, who has learned how to identify their needs and meet them. It may be the end of this journey, but it is also the beginning of the rest of my life.
We’re within 200 feet now. Look up, people celebrate, shed a tear, look down. Hike. Look up, folks snap photos, shed a tear, look down. Hike. Look up, see a familiar face, shed a tear, look down. Hike.
I am here.
The culmination of 187 days, millions of steps, hundreds of kind strangers, a singular focus, endless energy pouring into one goal. For the first time, maybe ever, I feel proud of myself. Every possible emotion bubbles up and over in my body. The tears burst from my eyes.
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