I’m writing my last email update on the Appalachian Trail (finally) from the comfort of Dirt Stew’s mother’s house in Richmond, VA. Here, from the air conditioned office looking out on a well groomed garden, the rugged mountains of Maine seem like a fading dream…
Last time you heard from us we were in Monson, Maine, the last trail town. Leaving Monson, hikers enter the “hundred mile wilderness” where there are no resupply points within the hundred miles, and upon exiting the wilderness, there is only one camp store: Abol Bridge Campgrounds, a place where they encourage you to make your reservations by mail since they don’t have a phone. Once at the base of Katahdin, you are 15 to 20 miles from the nearest little town mostly on a dirt or gravel road. So at this point in our trip we finally felt like we had come to the middle of nowhere. In the real wilderness at last!
Having said that, the “hundred mile wilderness” has many logging roads, and half way through the wilderness there is a lake where you can summon a boat to pick you up and take you to an old renovated but rustic logging cabin called White House Landing, where they have food and cabins to stay in. We spent the night in one of these cabins, with a friend of ours, “Jay Bird”, a retired librarian who we had been walking with us for the last few weeks. Dirt Stew and I both ordered 1lb burgers for lunch, after which we did our laundry in a bucket outside. The cabins had propane lanterns, but we fell asleep before the sun set, and got up again as it rose: our normal routine. The peacefulness of the area was wonderful. We couldn’t hear cars, and we knew all the people within a few days walking distance of us.
We had off-and-on cloudy and sunny days. The day that the remainders of hurricane Earl hit us, we pitched our tent in a high area with no dead trees or branches that could fall on us. There was no wind to speak of, but I still wonder how many inches of rain we got that night, because when I woke up in the morning and stuck my head out of the tent I could see that the area we had chosen to pitch our tent had now become an island. There was flooding everywhere. The trail was a flowing stream in most parts- sometimes a waterfall, sometimes a lake depending on the incline. We packed up our stuff and walked about 2 miles to where there was a shelter that we hadn’t made it to the night before, and found people waiting out the weather. We decided that since we were already wet, we’d just keep walking in the rain. We got to the bottom of the hill where the spring for the shelter was, and found that it was so far under water that there was virtually no way past the lake that had formed without wadding through it. We decided to head back to the shelter and wait out the weather with the others.
We spent several hours playing word games and telling jokes with our friend Jay Bird, and another fellow, Mixed Sticks. By noon the rain had cleared and we decided it was worth it to move on and see what the trail was like. The water had already receded by a lot. It probably helped that we had such a dry year, so the ground just soaked it all in. We were a bit nervous, however, because there was a river we had to ford, and the level could have gone up to a dangerous level. Thankfully, though, when we got to the river we could tell we would be fine because the river was very wide, so the flooding was well spread out, and the current wasn’t too strong. There was a ridge-runner (someone who keeps an eye on a section of the trail) near the river, and she told us this was as high as it has ever been this year, but that it was nearly at a record low before that. They had just managed to put in a rock jump so you could ford the river without getting your feet wet, but now everything was submerged. So we were lucky. The water was only up to my mid thigh at the highest and we all crossed with no problems.
This last piece of Maine was one of the most beautiful. The hundred miles before Katahdin are so full of lakes, waterfalls, and beautiful views, it is hard to appreciate them all. Each time we got to a lake or a waterfall we knew if we had been in any other state this would have been the highlight of our day/week or more, but here we didn’t even stop for an early lunch because we knew we’d find something equally beautiful just a little bit further.
At the base of Katahdin there is a campground for thru-hikers, and another for weekenders. A group of us were planning on climbing Katahdin on September the 10th, and we signed in at the ranger station to do so. We got our “numbers”, 265 and 266. So I was the 265th thru-hiker this year to have reported in at the ranger station, and Dirt Stew was number 266. I sat and wondered how many of those people actually hiked the whole trail: every single white blaze, as we had done.
There are many ways of cheating on the AT. There is “blue-blazing”, which is taking another trail besides the Appalachian Trail to take a short-cut or go around a particularly tricky area. There also is “yellow-blazing” which is getting a ride down to a different section of the trail and therefore skipping part of the trail. And there is “slack-packing”, which comes in several forms. Simply, it is hiking without your full backpack (i.e. a day pack instead of the backpacker’s backpack), but many people use this as an excuse to walk backwards on the trail to avoid climbing up large mountains. They will keep their backpack in town where they spent the night, then get a ride to the top of the mountain out of town, hike (or run!) down the mountain back into town to spend another night there, and get another ride the next morning back to where they left off at the top of the mountain. This helps you out in several ways: you get to avoid climbing the mountain out of town (towns are almost always in a valley, so uphill is almost a given coming out of town), you get to avoid carrying an extra day’s worth of food since you spend the night in town twice, and you get to hike for a full day without your pack on.
Slack-packing is the most accepted form of cheating, and we had heard that 80% or more of thru-hikers slack-pack at some point in their hike. When we were first introduced to the concept, we agreed that we both considered it cheating and we wouldn’t do it, along with any other method of cheating on our hike. We were determined not to compromise our thru-hike in any way. We became very anal about it mostly to amuse ourselves. For example if there were two entrances to a shelter, we’d go the same way out that we went in so we wouldn’t miss a few feet of the trail. Or if we got a ride and got dropped off on the other side of the road, we’d run across the road to cover those few feet we may have missed. I’m sure we were annoying to everyone else, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay sane.
So on that day that we sat at the base of Katahdin planning our next day up and down the mountain. We knew it would be pretty silly to bring all our gear to the top. For the first time ever were coming back down the same side of a mountain, right back down to the ranger station, and nobody in their right minds would carry up their tent, sleeping bag, etc to the top of a mountain just to carry it back down again to where they came. For once, we left our stuff at the bottom like every other thru-hiker, and hiked north for the last time, the last 5 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Mount Katahdin stands alone 5,268ft tall, the highest mountain in Maine. There are few other mountains around, which makes the mountain all the more grand. From the low elevation we were at (1000ft or so), it would be a steep 4000ft climb in about 5 miles, in fact the single largest climb of our entire trip (although not the highest mountain).
The first few miles are not too bad. Steep, but not too tricky, but once above treeline the rocks turn into huge boulders and it is a tough rock scramble to the “table lands” on top, where the mountain flattens out and there is a mile of almost flat walking before you reach the final small incline to Baxter Peak, the tallest peak on the mountain.
I was pumped full of adrenaline. I felt like running up the mountain to claim my victory at the top. The climb for the most part did not seem too difficult to me (although I’m sure it was) – only when we mistakenly lost the trail for a few yards and scrambled up some particularly large boulders did I wonder how so many people really could make it to the top of this thing.
The day we climbed, was called a “Class Two” day, “Class One” being the best weather conditions possible, and “Class Four” meant that the trail was closed due to severe weather. From talking to the ranger, it seamed that most people summited on a Class Two day, and we were going to be fine, even though there was a chance of showers. The mountain was in and out of the clouds, and this almost made for a more terrific day to climb than had it been perfectly sunny. The clouds did wonderful things on the top, whisping over the ridge and creating beautiful sculptures in the sky. It didn’t rain, and I was thankful because the rocks were dry.
When we got close to the summit, I could tell because there was a crowd of people standing around, and I could just make out the sign. My heart was pumping so fast it was in my throat and I grabbed Dirt Stew’s hand and raced forward. When we got there there were tons of people in the way, taking pictures in front of the sign. Dirt Stew and I just hugged each other and waited for our turn to touch the sign. I couldn’t help but start to cry, and someone asked “did you hike the whole Appalachian Trail?” I said “Yes, once we touch the sign!” All of a sudden everyone around us was so excited for us, and let us in to touch the sign. As we touched the sign, I thought of all the people before us who had hiked this far, and all the emotions that had been felt here. We had now completed the whole Appalachian Trail! We were thru-hikers at last!
People were trying to ask us questions like “how many shoes did you go through?” and “when did you start hiking”, and I would answer “3 pairs!”, and “March 17th!” while still sobbing. It felt so funny, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Dirt Stew and I jumped on top of the sign and had lots of pictures taken. Soon our friends joined us at the top, and there were more pictures, more cheering, more questions…
We spent nearly an our at the top before realizing that we were starting to get cold, and it was probably time to head back down. We were going to head south on the trail for the first time. We joked about starting back again to GA, and even though it was a joke, I almost wanted it to be true. Otherwise this was going to be our last day on the trail. My body had been screaming at me to stop hiking, but I knew I was going to be nostalgic for the trip almost immediately, and in fact I hadn’t even gotten back down to the ranger station before I started to miss trail life. It was like saying good-bye to a loved one at the airport.
The way down was not as bad as I had imagined it would be. Mostly you could slide on your butt down the rocks, and it never did rain. We grabbed our gear from the ranger station and stood on the dirt road to start hitch-hiking to the nearest town, Millinocket. It wasn’t looking good for us since only one car passed every half hour or so, and there were at least six of us that needed a ride. Fortunately Dirt Stew and I flagged down a car and just asked the guy how far it would be to walk to the next thing along the road (answer was: far), but convinced the guy to give us a ride in the end.
In town there was a festival going on “Trail’s End Festival”, which turned out to mostly be a local thing, but we hung out at the festival trying to find other thru-hikers with rides down south somewhere. After a day with no luck, we decided it was time to book ourselves a bus ticket, and while I was in the cafe trying to book a ticket, a couple came up to us asking if we needed a ride to Bangor, ME (where the bus leaves). We said we did. Then they said they could actually take us all the way to NYC if that was better, and we jumped on the offer, and found a flight from New York directly to Richmond, VA.
The drive to New York City took forever. I don’t really know how long it took, 9 or 10 hours, but it took all day. I couldn’t stop thinking that we walked all that way, and a whole lot more than that too. How it was this far in a car was beyond me! I always think a car is lightning speed compared to walking, and you never think of the progress you really make when you walk day in and day out. We started to appreciate the magnitude of what we had done by seeing the states go by slowly in a car. We were happy not to have to ride all the way back to VA, though. One day in a car was enough sitting.
Back in civilization, we’re trying to get used to the old life-style again. None of my clothes fit, since I lost 20lbs, and none of my shoes fit either since I gained a shoe size. That’s frustrating enough. Then people expect you to shower every day, and change your clothes too! The first shower or two felt really good, but then we felt pretty clean, and had to be reminded to shower again after a couple days. Feels weird when you’re not completely grubby. My hair is a disaster now since I cut it short several months ago, and now it’s grown back rather badly. Tomorrow I’ll get a hair-dresser to look at it. I’m really not used to having to see myself in the mirror everyday!
What’s our plan for the future? You’re probably asking yourself. We’re off to the UK to visit family in a week, and we’ll be back early November. Then, unfortunately, we’ll have to join the working world again. Not clear exactly what jobs we’re looking for, nor where we’ll wind up finding any, but we’re open to suggestions!
I hope you have enjoyed following our journey… we have had a wonderful time. It is an experience I will have forever.