The Maine Event: Why Maine Is So Tough for NOBO Hikers
“Started From The Bottom, Now We’re Here” – Drake
After four months and three weeks of hiking, The Sauce and I arrived to the final state line of our journey—New Hampshire/Maine. The final stretch of our journey is a mere 281.8 miles from state line to Katahdin summit. After hiking almost 2,000 miles, surely this would be our lap of honor?
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Maine while hiking and this is the best way I can describe it: Throughout Pokemon (I’m old enough for this to be the Red or Blue addition, but please select the appropriate one for yourself) the young adventurer is gaining experience by battling trainers and gyms. Each area of the game has a unique flavor: caves, mountains, or the sea to contend with. At the end of your eighth gym victory it is time to head to Victory Road and face the final challenge of the Pokemon League.
The only issue is that Victory Road is an amalgam of all the territory you have passed through before. The trail is the same. The wet bogs of Vermont, the mosquitoes of Massachusetts (specifically the two mile section prior to Great Barrington), the rocky terrain of Northern Pennsylvania, and the mountains with varying degrees of difficulty, as per the southern states and New Hampshire. The first miles of Maine are insane. There are rebars almost growing out of rocks, awkward climbs that require technique and often elicit tears. I am 6 feet, 2 inches so have an advantage on these rocky mounds, but Clementine really struggled with the large drops between semi-flat surfaces.
This tough terrain persisted for much of the southern portion of Maine and lead me to the following theories on why Maine is so difficult.
Maine is the hardest state.
Every Maine mile is at least double any other mile on trail.
Mahoosuc Notch is described as the hardest, as well as the most fun mile on the AT. Fellow hikers have described this section taking anywhere from one to three hours. I walked this section with The Dungeon Master and we had an awesome time climbing up and over rocks.
We opted to climb through the small gaps, even removing our packs once. This is climbing territory, so hands are definitely favorable to trekking poles. The DM joked that the following mile after Mahoosuc is probably the second hardest mile on trail, and so on.
Even in the northern portions of Maine, where terrain is much flatter, you are constantly held back by roots and rocks at every step; they’re usually extremely slippery. This makes the average hiker feel frustrated that they cannot recapture their faster pace of miles gone by.
Trail Legs Cannot Compete with Exhaustion
By our arrival to Maine I had lost almost 50 pounds of body weight. My legs have never been so strong, along with feet that are hardened to rocks and roots. The Whites are a challenging place and the continuing mountains of Maine really chip away at your energy reserves.
The early starts to the day prevent rocks moistened from rain and mist to dry out. This makes climbing mountains difficult as you have to pay more attention. This moist start had become a daily occurrence as the nights drew in, thus adding more mental strain to one’s day.
The sparkling gear that each hiker begins with, or switches out as they become more in tune with their hiking styles, has a finite lifetime. The AT is essentially a game of who can last long enough while their body, mind, and equipment break down around them. The trail has many more places to lose balance; whether you fall more because you are in a weakened state, or you just don’t care enough to concentrate anymore, your equipment takes the brunt. Banter, The DM, and I had all had trekking poles break on us by this point. I replaced mine before Maine, but Banter didn’t want to spend a significant sum on his final few miles. He also had less grip on his well-worn shoes and this resulted in a twisted ankle as he climbed toward the Bigelows. Banter completed his hike with a sore ankle.
OB and Margarita also had rather tired shoes and they often found themselves sliding on rounder rocks, and wet surfaces. This became more worrisome as we came to more and more water crossings. Disco had shoes that at the end of his thru-hike had perhaps less support and grip than a banana peel!
I have come to realize that every task I undertake has a finite period. Whether this be university studies, a thru-hike, or a job; I take on the challenge with gusto. At least at first. When I have approximately completed four-fifths of an undertaking I begin to get restless. I still love camping and spending time with my tramily. I was done with hiking day in day out. The worry of wet gear when it is set to rain for several days is tiring. The mental effort required to achieve a day’s hiking over tough terrain is too much. Only a month ago I knew that I could do this with no trouble, but here in Maine I was losing confidence.
I had to dig deep and let my physical body take over from my will. My resolve may have been wavering, but my body was strong. I never doubted that I would finish my thru-hike, but I doubted that I would get where I needed to each day.
But if Maine was so tough, and I was so drained, how could I possibly finish?
The answer is simple. There is so much more to appreciate and enjoy than all the challenges and weariness that befell this journey. In fact, when you take a moment to step outside yourself and think about what you have going for you on trail, this is perhaps the easiest state of all.
Maine Is the Easiest State on the AT
As you get closer to the end of your adventure you become more and more reflective. This is the same feeling you have when you are finishing school, university, or a 40-year career. I spent a lot of time thinking about the following:
The trail builders and maintainers.
I am sure that it was the infamous Walk in the Woods by one Bill Bryson that described the shelters and privies of Maine as decrepit, awash with vermin, and altogether unsuitable for the climate. I was blown away by how in the 20 or so years since this was written how much change there has been. The MATC that looks after the trail has been systematically replacing shelters.
We were finally in territory sufficiently cool enough that bugs were not an issue (less the odd swarm of no-see-ums) and with a front of wetter weather in the 100-Mile Wilderness we thoroughly enjoyed keeping dry in comfortable surrounds. I saw only a single mouse in shelters in Maine, and it was extremely cute, and we weren’t stopping there for the night. I’d rate the shelters of Maine possibly the best on trail (as a whole state).
The maintainers are also spending a good deal of time replacing the 40 or so privies.
New privies were wide and easily accessible. No more knees touching doors. They are light and airy. There are cute signs with inspirational messages, as well as mirrors and such. The Whites needed composting privies for the high use they receive. These privies are of the mouldering variety, which encourage peeing inside for the moisture—this saves time when it comes to No 1 and No 2 combos. The “Your Move” privy also had a setup that could only make you laugh.
It’s not often that you can settle in for craps and cribbage with a friend. (I’m 30 now and the dad jokes flow freely.)
Ladders, Rebar, and Boardwalks, Oh My!
The trail is brutal at times, but ladders and rebar change a scramble into a simple ascent/descent. When I first saw these I would think that the builders were crazy to make us traverse such terrain, but it serves a greater purpose. Not only is it a great safety factor, it also allows you to have a respite from the mundane one foot in front of the other terrain.
Maine can be a harsh environment in places. There are still plenty of mountains to navigate, more bogs than ever, and a never-ending number of increasingly difficult brook crossings. The crossings are actually pretty fun to work across. There was only one place on trail where I had to traverse water previously; after a particularly heavy rainfall in Virginia before Waynesboro. For as many tough crossings, the trail at times would be lusciously soft with pine needles—a truly weightless sensation.
A lot of pretty views around bogs and ponds could not be reached if it weren’t for the boardwalks that are laid in front of your path. It was noticeable that many old sections had been replaced with new boards in recent years. The old sections were left to decompose and provide food and habitat to the wilderness around.
The trail moves away from a direct route to Baxter State Park in the 100-Mile Wilderness. The more cynical and fatigued members of the community (this complaint was brought to me by OB) may say this is just to mess with hikers and to make the wilderness 100 miles—the 85-mile wilderness doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I felt that perhaps with flatter territory, the builders have built the trail to give the hiker more opportunities to see Katahdin. This builds anticipation, excitement, and gives the hiker time to reflect on their journey.
The Pure Beauty of Maine
Maine is far more remote than the rest of the trail. It is the 42nd least populous state in the USA and the least populated of the trail states (New Hampshire is not far behind). It is less developed than other states. There are no trail towns in Maine where you walk through the town. It is common to take a ten-mile hitch to resupply. This lack of development gives over to wilderness, untouched nature, and a feeling of serenity.
The watercourses of Maine provide the hiker with no shortage of hydration opportunities, as long as they have their handy filters. Some filtering sessions take much longer than anticipated as you end up getting lost in the views.
As you begin hitting your lasts on the trail, you become reverential and take the time to be more appreciative that these views won’t be in your day-to-day life for much longer. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for one more cheeky picture at the West Peak of Mount Bigelow.
The Trail Angels and Community
I have said several times that Maine is remote. So how is it that I received more trail magic here than any other state? In fact, there were four consecutive days when we received trail magic. In southern Maine we met families of former thru-hikers who traveled to Maine because they felt there was less magic to be had there. Cold sodas and snacks were provided to us as we chatted about how they got into doing trail magic because of their child. It is a common theme that this becomes a repeat experience for these trail angels.
Old Buzzard is a former thru-hiker who set up camp for the weekend at a road crossing to Andover. Not only did he use to maintain a section of trail, he also comes out to the trail to invite hikers to stop for a burger, chili, fresh produce, and even set up camp and enjoy the company. There are also locals who stock up a cooler several times a day as they pass the trail crossing to and from their homes. We were lucky enough to meet a couple who have been doing this for years.
There was even trail magic in the 100-Mile Wilderness!
The 100-Mile Wilderness has private roads crossing the trail, and we took advantage of this for a food drop on the afternoon of our third day. This made our hike over the Chairbacks and White Cap Mountain. What we didn’t expect was to be treated to breakfast by a wonderful trail angel. It was wonderful to speak to a person who has been doing this for three years here. Of all the places on the trail it was the least expected, and therefore hugely welcomed.
Community – Hostels
The trail angels, maintainers, and builders are all huge parts of the trail community. The hostels are just as important, if not more so. Hotels and motels in the South are cheap and with a trail family around 12, it was always cheaper to sleep in these options. The hostels are where the community dwells. Former hikers such as Yukon, who created the Human Nature Hostel, bring true magic to weary hikers.
Hostels are vital in Maine.
Yukon includes shuttles to and from the trail in a hiker’s stay. We loved it so much we stayed two nights and slackpacked between the two road crossings to Andover. With a relaxed atmosphere, environmentally friendly practices, a chilled-out TV room, as well as indoor and outdoor communal areas, there’s little more you could ask for. And who can say they’ve stayed in a geodesic dome before?!
Hippie Chick and Poet, who run Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, are also a must visit on the trail. The vibe is relaxed, with a filling breakfast available for purchase. The resupply in the gear shop run by Shaw’s is great for a town that only has a small general store and gas station. Some hikers utilize their 100-Mile Wilderness food drop service, and others even slackpack the whole way to Baxter State Park. Regardless of how you utilize their services, Shaw’s is clearly community over profit.
Community – Hikers
Many hikers make the decision to flip-flop to Katahdin as fall approaches. This rewards both the NOBOs and the new SOBOs with unexpected reunions. In our final few weeks I met hikers who I had spent significant periods of time with such as Champ and Patience, as well as those who I had shared short conversations with. This was a strange feeling, but it reminds you that every person has their own unique and wondrous experience.
What is the point of undertaking something so daunting as the AT if you do not have someone to enjoy it with? I am keenly aware that this experience is different for each individual. For me, I have found more enjoyment from sharing the experience. I often walk alone for a portion of the day, but there’s nothing better than getting together at the end of your miles to compare slips and falls, animal sightings, and what song Nightingale was singing as you passed him.
Some experiences are better shared. A relaxing afternoon at Northern Outdoors was spent in the company of my trail family. This experience alone would have been less entertaining. Hot food, cold drinks, and a hot tub are very attractive to weary hikers. We laughed the day away and returned to the woods that night energized.
Ravioli rejoined us for the 100-Mile Wilderness, having finished his thru-hike at Harpers Ferry. He had enjoyed this section when he had hiked previously and wanted to enjoy the remainder of the tramily adventure. His return was a huge refresher to all of us, as well as something we had been looking forward to.
Our tramily is large and we are aware that there are other hikers who need to stay at the Birches Campground in Baxter State Park. There are 12 spots available for NOBO thru-hikers each night. We were smelly and wanted real food as well so it was an easy decision to go to Millinocket the night before summiting Katahdin.
Fetch had spent several weeks with us in various sections on the trail during her summer vacation. She came to visit Banter, her husband, but ended up being a huge support to all of us. It was wonderful when she returned again, to not only celebrate her birthday, but to hike Katahdin with us.
Even with hindsight it is hard to describe how I felt summiting Katahdin. I walk all day, everyday in a single direction. I take the time to enjoy the moments that I can, and ride out the storms that befall us (emotional or otherwise). When you see Katahdin for the first time you cannot but help feel a sense of finality. When you cross Abol Bridge at the exit of the 100-Mile Wilderness, you are ready to go.
We all hiked with high spirits. We had a full tramily. Not only was Fetch with us, but Bubbles had decided to jump forward and join her tramily. There is no correct way to hike the AT and it was important for her to finish with the people she had spent so much time with on the trail. It was magical for us too!
On summit day (or the night before) you register with the ranger station and begin your ascent. We all slackpacked. My legs carried my belongings a long way, they didn’t need to come to the summit too. I took my quilt and extra layers, as well as a celebratory Dr Pepper for the summit. Half the group took the original trail for the first mile, and the other half took the diversion due to a downed bridge. We reunited and began ascending the more technical areas of the climb.
Above tre line, the weather is changeable and we hit Katahdin on a cool, cloudy day. We still were rewarded with views during the ascent of the Hunt Trail, as well as the descent on the Saddleback Trail. It gold colder as we got higher. Plants were holding on to the first frosts of the fall, with more to come in a matter of weeks.
OB and I arrived to the summit first. I was crying. He was crying. We hunkered down to await the arrival of the rest of the tramily who arrived over the next hour. The tears were a common theme. Each time a new arrival came to the summit, everybody fought off a fresh bout of tears. We had done this. We had done this as individuals, as well as a tramily.
The Journey Vs. The Destination
This is an age-old sentiment. The thru-hike is the sum of your experiences. It is the highs and lows. It is the peaks and the ponds. Katahdin isn’t just a destination though; it is a journey within itself. I have never been so excited and energized to hike a mountain as Katahdin. It will live forever in my memories as a true life experience. I will spend my future trying to give back to this community. I will also rest a lot. No thru-hikes for at least a year!
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Nicely written and enjoyed your article. Hopefully your future adventures will be similarly rewarding.
Vermont is actually the least populated of the trail states. Maine has double the population of Vermont, with 1.6 million inhabitants. Otherwise, great article.
Congratulations a hike well done -thank you for sharing x Amazing Trip, determination and stamina.
Makes your little hikes with Dani down the River Thames look like a walk in the park x