The Last Section Part 14: Anxiety at Abol Pines Campground

This is part 14 of a 188-mile northbound section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in September 2023. I started hiking at the road crossing near the town of Stratton, ME and finished at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the trail! Day 18 of the hike where this post begins is the day I finished the 100 Mile Wilderness, and would be my second-to-last night on the Appalachian Trail. 

Catch up with part 13 here!

Day 18 Continued: Reaching Abol Pines Campground

The Abol Bridge Camp Store

I think the woman who was working behind the counter at the Abol Bridge camp store deserves some praise. Fresh out of the 100 Mile Wilderness, I put my pack down against the building out front and wandered inside, my eyes glazed over in that just-entered-civilization hiker daze. As I perused the shelves of gas station fare, I realized I had absolutely no idea what to do next, despite the number of times I had looked over the options in the guides or tossed around rumors with other hikers about how everything worked. 

I eventually went up to the counter and decided to ask her a few questions, after waiting my turn behind two campground customers in plaid shirts and jeans who weren’t giving her the easiest time. She answered everything to the best of her ability. Despite the store being located at such a prime location on the Appalachian Trail, it started to sink in that it is not necessarily her job to cater to long-distsance AT hikers, yet she probably faces the same inquiries day after day, a hundred times over, and answers them all with kindness. 

This place wasn’t designed specifically for hikers, but does its best to be accepting of us with the resources it has. I, and I’m guessing a lot of us, could probably use this reminder every once in a while about some of the places along the Appalachian Trail. It’s a means to take a moment to be thankful for what they do for us. 

Setting Up at Abol Pines

The thru-hiker I’d been seeing on and off named Cloud showed up not too long after I did, as I sat on the stoop out front with a pre-made sandwich in hand from the deli fridge, trying to work through my next steps. Together, we walked across the street to check out the Abol Pines campground where we were both thinking we’d stay for the night. 

This was a Maine state campground right on the river, mostly just open grassy space among the trees that would make for comfortable car-camping, with a couple pit toilets and picnic tables throughout the site. There was no in-person registration, we simply had to put cash in an envelope and drop it into a box. 

For the remainder of the afternoon, I wish that I could say I felt accomplished for completing the 100 Mile Wilderness. I want to say I felt calm and relaxed while taking in the view of the river at camp, or excited that I’d be completing the trail within the next couple days. 

But the mood wasn’t that at all, not by a long shot. At this point, I felt jealous of southbound hikers who finish the entire journey with the finale at Springer Mountain in Georgia. I thought about how amazing it would be to just walk right to the end, at my own leisure and pace. How nice it would be that when I got there, I got there, like hiking south to the summit of Springer Mountain would be. There are far less specific regulations in that area. 

Figuring out the Logistics of Baxter State Park

In Baxter State Park, where I was now, there are a lot of regulations. In the coming few days, I would have a complete change of heart, and understand and appreciate those regulations. But I hadn’t experienced Katahdin yet, so I didn’t understand. I felt stressed and frustrated. 

For my friends at home, this is not an area of the Appalachian Trail where you can just camp anywhere you want. This is a very protected and precious gem of a state park, with strict camping regulations, and campsites that fill with reservations very fast and far ahead of time. Hikers can’t just casually walk until the very end and camp anywhere they want. 

In these last miles, hikers need to plan around some very specific logistics that can be hard to figure out until being in the actual moment. It’s like something along the lines of “these four different scenarios could happen, and each scenario could have two or three possible scenarios that follow it, but it’s impossible to know which scenario will happen until I’m there and see which one will happen, so until then I just have to twiddle my thumbs and wait.”

This handy chart that was provided at the Abol Bridge Camp Store is proof that with each question answered, a few new questions were created!

Although I’m sure that not every single hiker was feeling like this, I can assure you that many hikers were indeed feeling like this. More hikers who I hadn’t seen before showed up throughout the afternoon, and pretty much everyone had the same set of thoughts and questions. 

I went back to the Abol Bridge camp store and paid a small fee to take a shower at the campground, a rustic rinse-off but still a glorious little reward after I had been looking forward to it for a week. Although my clothes were still dirty, and I didn’t bother buying shampoo, I knew it would feel nice to finish out the trail feeling somewhat refreshed.

Anxiety is in the Air

By the time evening fell, my tent was one of several backpacking tents spread throughout the Abol Pines Campground. It was once again interesting to notice that a lot of my feelings were no different than on some other nights of the Appalachian Trail. I felt like a bunch of the thru-hikers knew each other, and I was an outsider, and I wasn’t sure if I really belonged. It continues to be astounding to me that just because victory is in sight, it doesn’t always automatically change much else. I guess the majority of change really does come from within. 

Yet something we had in common was that we knew the next morning, we were going to walk a short distance on the Appalachian Trail to a kiosk where there would be a sign-up sheet beginning at 7 am. The first twelve people to sign this sheet would get to stay at a shelter/camp area called The Birches in Baxter State Park that night, after nine more miles of hiking on the Appalachian Trail that day. Anyone who didn’t make the sheet would be directed to several other options, essentially, to figure something else out. 

It felt like dog-eat-dog, everyone secretly knowing they had to fend for themself. Were we supposed to pack everything up before walking up the trail to this kiosk, or could we sign up and then come back to our tents and continue the day at our own leisure? Would there be a ranger there to help us, if we didn’t make the list? What if we didn’t actually want to stay at The Birches, and would just rather find out if there’s an open campsite at the campground at the base of Mt. Katahdin? There usually isn’t an open camp spot, but sometimes there is, but how are we supposed to know, since we have to hike 9 miles to find out? And then what would we do if we’re there with nowhere to stay? 

I know there might be some questions for me here, such as why couldn’t you plan to do it this way or that way? But I think that digging into those details further might go beyond the scope of this post. They’re better saved for another time, should it turn out to be useful to write a post specifically geared toward hikers wanting the details of navigating Appalachian Trail regulations in Baxter State Park. 

So that was it, my mood at Abol Pines campground that night. It was like I hadn’t even just come out of the 100 Mile Wilderness, because my mind wasn’t reflecting on that anymore or taking enough time to be proud of it. My mind was only moving forward, trying to navigate logistical decisions. I had to rest comfortably with the unknown of exactly how the next few days would unfold, until my alarm would go off to wake me up the next morning. 

Read part 15 here!

As with some other segments of the trail that were about logistics more than enjoyment, I didn’t take many pictures. But the next morning, I would get to see this sunrise on my walk to sign up for The Birches campsite.

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