The Highs and Lows of BigeLOW
As I climbed some of the last 4k peaks I would on this trail, I decided to run my legs ragged. The first Bigelow peak surged by beneath me; my legs pumped upwards towards the rocky outcropping jutting into the sky in front of me. Blue mountains swelled on either side of me as I hauled my body upwards, past the lichen-covered rock, towards the open sky.
The wind flared upwards around me. The sun burnt my back and sweat stung the corners of my eyes. It felt like I could continue on upwards forever, balanced on the back of this exposed ridge, walking the line between earth and sky. My heart pounded, my pack felt light and my body felt free. I stood on the bare rocky top of the mountain and looked out at the peaks around me, gasping for breath. Emerald peaks as far as I could see stretched out on all sides. I smiled. It was beautiful. I was so grateful to be there.
And then I realized I’d have to go home soon. And I started to cry. These mountains would no longer be there to surround me every time I woke up. The open sky would be replaced with ceiling. I’d lose my trail legs. I’d have to find a direction other than north for a while.
I spun around slowly, looking at everything around me. The exposed ridge line of Old Man’s Head trailing off into the distance in front of me. Flagstaff lake shimmering in the sun. The valley full of pine trees below. The mountains steadfast, blue and green — the same as they always were. And soon, I’d leave, and they’d still stand. If I’d see this mountain range again — I had no idea. There would be other mountains, but never again would I be standing as a first-time thru hiker at mile 2,013 on trail, completely overwhelmed by the beauty and impermanence of it all. Shocked that my legs had carried me all that way. Incredulous that I hadn’t gone completely insane. Grateful that I still had tears to cry at how soon the end comes.
Breaking Up with the Trail
But oh my god I had so many tears to cry. It feels like every day for at least thirty minutes I cry while I hike. Usually it’s something tiny that sets me off. Sometimes I just look up at the trail in the morning light and start tearing up because I won’t be wearing my stinky pack and walking down it anymore soon. Sometimes I look at Lovechild making funny faces next to me in the shelter and start crying because we won’t fall asleep next to each other in shelters soon. Sometimes I start crying looking at a chipmunk running around a fire pit because he gets to live out here and I don’t.
At one point I even threw myself into a lake in the middle of a rainstorm after thinking “Well, I’ll never get the chance to be here again.” I actually don’t regret that one. It was incredible to swim out into the lake and hear the crystalline sounds of water droplets all around me. To be swallowed by the clouds on the gray water and be surrounded by the silhouettes of pine trees. I floated on my back, letting the raindrops hit my face, and was just happy I existed. The sadness was gone for a brief moment. But never gone for too long.
In short, the end of trail is like going through a weird break up of sorts. Everything starts to have a vague underlying tinge of sadness to it and you start crying and craving chocolate a lot. (Or maybe I’m just hungry.) You tear up at throwing away broken gear and used up trail runners because they remind you of the miles and memories you’ve had together. You over-romanticize times where you were miserable, in pain and wanted nothing more than to be off trail in a cozy house. You cling to the notion that there must be more ahead, deny all thoughts that your time is coming to a close.
I know I’ll miss being outside all the time; sitting next to thru hiker friends gathered around a fire and rummaging through their food bags for ramen; being surrounded by the wind in the trees and the sun on my face; being curled up next to Lovechild and friends in my sleeping bag in the shelters; waking up to the same winding trail and slight pull northbound every day.
The Reality of Things
However, humans also have an incredible ability to make anything nostalgic. Living on trail food has destroyed my dietary functions. With every ramen, spam and tuna packet I eat, I feel nauseous afterwards and throw up in my mouth for at least five miles. I get incredibly hangry due to being in a caloric deficit. My body is in constant pain and soreness from hiking fifteen plus miles a day. I hobble around everywhere because I can’t walk right until my heels warm up. Recently, my sleeping pad has had elusive and irreparable holes in it, so I wake up on the floor every single day with my hips and shoulders aching. My poles have also snapped above the tips — so I couldn’t use my trekking pole tent. I just got new poles at Shaws (but not before wearing down my carbon fiber poles to literal children’s sized poles.)
And — in the middle of the trail I was incredibly bored! (And being eaten alive by mosquitos and chemically burned by Deet.) I wanted nothing more than to be at the northern terminus in those moments.
So long story short — you’ll never be where you want to be. You’ll always glorify the past — even if it’s just as shitty and great as where you stand right now. So regardless of if I’m on trail, or off trail, I’ll remember to pause for a minute and think of how far I’ve come. To remember those first few hesitant and fearful moments at Springer Mountain. To remember how overjoyed and free I felt in the 4k peaks of the Whites and Maine. To remember that although I may never be sure exactly where I’m going — I always make sure things turn out okay.
The Hundred Mile Coming Soon
So now I lay in a bed at Shaws Hiker Hostel, listening to hikers talk about logistics, miles, resupplied and hitches — but now also about summiting Katahdin. Everyone can feel it. No one really talks about it. A small sadness lingers in the corners of everyone’s pack like a forgotten tent stake. It’s odd — this journey that feels like it has lasted forever is coming to a close. We’re about to finish the thing we never thought we would. The seemingly impossible walk, the seemingly endless wilderness — is ending. We’ll all leave our tramilies go home to our family and friends. It’s the last time some of us will see each other.
It’s more ominous when hikers leave in shuttles now. I won’t see them in the next hostel or next trail town — we’ll be finished with the trail before then. Lovechild joked that it felt like the end of a party, the same sad feeling of friends heading out to go home — except their home might be more than 2,000 miles away now. Now, I can’t comfort myself with the feeling that I’m still connected to everyone I’ve met since we’re all still on the same winding footpath — we’ll all be finishing it in the next week.
But at the same time, we all still will be connected. This strange footpath we’ve all wandered along — these some 2,000 miles — have been a journey that few can replicate, and fewer can wrap their heads around the “why?” But for those of us that have wandered along this year — into each other’s paths and lives — we’ve joined a community of hikers that will walk with us a lifetime. To all my friends on trail who are finished — I’m thinking of you, and happy for your incredible accomplishment and will miss walking with you. And to all my friends on trail soon to be finishing — I’m right there with you in this strange tangle of grief and excitement. See you at Katahdin 🙂
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Wow. That’s one of the most poetic posts I’ve read lately. Thank you for taking me there with you. I’m sorry you must move on, but you’ll be back. And you should write a book. Just sayin 🙂
What a wonderful and thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing and I and all the other readers will miss your thoughts on hiking.
Great article. Where did you learn to write like that?