Have you ever felt like you’ve walked straight into a movie? How about a poem? Well, for the first time in my life, that’s exactly how I felt. Seriously! So I think it’s safe to begin this blog post there:
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Rewind to 2010. A young, 25 year-old Christine, and 27 year-old John, along with our friend and fellow thru-hiker “Jaybird” are hiking in the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine. It had just rained an inordinate amount from the remnants of Hurricane Earl, and we were on a mission. A mission the complete the entire Appalachian Trail, and we were only a few days away.
It was early September, the air was crisp, and the leaves were starting to change. We came to a junction and stopped. In one direction, the Appalachian Trail beckoned us towards Mount Kathadin, victory, and the end of our thru-hike. In the other, an overflowing stream needed to be crossed in order to access the Gulf Hagas which promised handfuls of waterfalls and tremendous views. To say I had blinders on would be an understatement. I peered across the stream and quickly cast my vote: “no extra miles!”
John, however, was more intrigued. He wound up fording the stream and ran down the side trail just to the first waterfall. He quickly caught up with us and showed us pictures.
I’ve regretted my decision ever since.
It took us 7 years to return to the same spot, and as the moment approached, it occurred to us that we were literally going back to The Road Not Taken. Despite the last line of the poem, I’ve always thought of this poem as an ode to regret and the frivolity of decision making.
Fast-forward to September 2017, almost to the day, 7 years later.
We slept really well at a campground somewhere hours away from the trail. We made the now well documented mistake of following the GPS, and found ourselves on a dirt road being asked by a computer to cross a mid-sized stream in our compact rental car. We headed back to the nearest town and asked a real human-being for directions. The number of times you need to make a mistake in order learn from it is STILL yet to be determined.
After paying $14 per person to drive on a gravel road, we found the right parking area off of “KI road” in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and donned our packs. A quarter mile from the trail head, we forded the Pleasant River and found a ridge runner sitting on the other side, happily stoned and waiting for his 10 day shift to end. I tried to ignore the obvious smell of marijuana as I put the insoles back into my wet shoes. He had little advice to offer, but we had a brief chat nonetheless.
We hiked onward and quickly found the intersection of the Gulf Hagas. Because of our blunder with the GPS, we arrived somewhat late in the day, but we were so anxious to see some of the sights on the trail that we had waited 7 years to come back to, that we headed down it despite the fact that there was no camping allowed anywhere near that area. The trail did not disappoint. As the trail followed the edge of this gigantic canyon, further side trails led us to points along the gorge where you could either peer down cliffs or stare at memorizing waterfalls.
Not much time went by before we started wondering how quickly we could get through the section, and where we’d be able to camp. We decided to cut back to the AT to find a place to camp just as night fell.
Instead of pounding out miles, we decided that we’d do this whole trip as more of a wander than a hike… much to the confusion of every thru-hiker we met. We originally planned to do some sort of big loop with some theoretical trails that existed on the map- with no idea of what their condition was like in real life. We also were happy to do out-and-back hikes on the Appalachian Trail, without any particular destination in mind.
We met lots of section and thru-hikers. Each one asked us where we were hiking to. We persistently responded without much of an itinerary but rather an intention that must have come across as a somewhat of a dopey plan for this trip.
We determined that wanted to:
a) See the entirety of the Gulf Hagas
b) See a moose
c) Get a good view of Kathadin (if the weather allowed)
This made no sense to the miles-per-day- oriented section and thru-hikers, most of which, by the way, were baby-boomers.
After climbing over White Cap, and getting our picture perfect view of Kathadin as well as a visit with a family of Spruce Grouse, we left the Appalachian Trail at Logan Brook Rd and headed towards the unknown. The road walk was quite nice and had more wildlife on it than any section of the Appalachian Trail. We found snakes, toads, frogs and birds every few steps. We hiked up to a commercial camp/ vacation home, and asked for directions. The gentleman who pointed us in the right direction did so with a warning. Apparently the last people to have made it through the trail we wanted to attempt came out cursing having traversed sections that were waist deep in bog. Nonetheless, we decided we’d give it a go, just for fun.
We got as far as a taller-than-John-bush-wack through what was beginning to feel a lot like bog when we decided we didn’t need quite that much of an adventure, and turned around. We decided to head back up the AT despite having to hike back over White Cap (in case you didn’t know, it’s somewhat of a climb).
As we walked the road back to the AT, pondering whether we had made the right decision (too many cross roads!), when a ground shaking stampede suddenly broke out in the woods next to us. Before we knew it, a bull moose appeared on the road in front of us, and while my heart was trying to climb out of my esophagus, John managed to reach for his camera.
At this point we had no regrets. The point of trying to get through the boggy part of this loop was to see a moose. All we had left was to experience the entire Gulf Hagas in order to call the hike complete.
Back on the trail, we quickly ran into more hikers. The trail was absolutely buzzing with hikers. It saddened me when we talked to a north-bounder who had absolutely no interest in hiking the Gulf Hagas because he wanted “no extra miles” and was “just excited to be almost done”. I saw my past self in the weariness of his voice, and silently hoped that one day he’d look back with nostalgia on the beauty of these miles in Maine.
We headed back south towards the Gulf Hagas and watched the thru-hikers pass us. Most had earphones in and their heads were down. A few of the slower section hikers stopped to talk to us. We took a side trail to get some water, and an extremely loud woman came down the trail after us and took one look at the pool of water and said “ugh, this is it!?” Then she shouted back at her friend, “it’s not worth soaking your feet in this tiny pool!” We had been painstakingly collecting water from this small source without complaint. I could see John snarling at the idea that someone would think of putting their dirty, stinky, smelly feet in a spring that people and animals relied on for drinking water.
Then the woman decided she actually wanted to collect water, and asked us for advice. I told her that she could use our bowl to scoop water into her bottle. I asked her if she wanted me to help her with that, and she said no. Instead she took my bowl and completely muddied up the entire water source with it. The water was only a couple of inches deep, and there was a layer of mud on the bottom that was easily stirred up. I had painstakingly taken a few drips of water with each scoop in order to preserve the pool of water.
She poured the bowl of water into her bottle and looked back into the mucky pool, huffed, and handed me back my bowl.
I gave John “the look” and we waited 5 minutes for the pool to settle back down as she marched off, so I could collect another liter.
Sometimes people really annoy us. We were ready to be off the AT.
The next day we got our wish. We took our detour once more and finally hiked the entirety of the Gulf Hagas Trail. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the AT, the Gulf Hagas was a complete sanctuary. We had waterfall after waterfall all to ourselves, and although the trail was extremely rugged, we were constantly rewarded with breathtaking views into the canyon. Deep into the canyon, the river flowed, and sometimes we could see the shapes and turns that the water made, and sometimes we could not.
On one occasion we came close enough to the water to jump in and claim a chilly but refreshing, and much needed bath.
We took most of the day on the Gulf Hagas, something we couldn’t have afforded on our thru-hike due to the amount of food we were carrying.
We passed the intersection for the last time, and I recited from memory The Road Not Taken. We had wandered around the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine for about 6 days, so we headed out towards showers, hot food and friends in Portland.
The inconsequential decisions in life lead us down distinct paths, and it’s unusual to be able to come back to a given intersection and take the Road Not Taken. We felt surprisingly grateful to have been able to do so. I’d recommend this hike to anyone who can get to the middle of nowhere Maine, and take a wander.