As soon as we started the Mahoosuc Notch, it began to rain.
We looked at each other with grim determination, and did our best to stuff our layers into our waterproof bags, pack liners – anywhere where we thought our insulating layers and sleeping bags would be safe. I shoved my puffy into a dry bag and sealed it tight in my liner, pulled on my rain jacket and pants, buried my camera to protect it from the rain (sorry, no pictures!) and clipped on my pack.
As we proceeded into the hardest mile of the AT, we descended into a rocky jungle gym. The notch – a space chiseled between two mountains too narrow and too steep to be called a valley – was shielded from what little sun could filter through the storm clouds by sheer walls of vertical rock. As we dropped into narrow caves between boulders, the temperature dropped about 10-15 degrees, and our breath fogged and swirled around our faces.
As I stared down at my feet to judge a boulder’s slipperiness before attempting to jump across a crevasse, I noticed something. The raindrops falling in a steady drizzle were now… floating.
“Y’all,” I called out. “I’m glad we got an airbnb in town… it’s snowing… or sleeting… either way, it’s going to get colder.”
Groans of dismay rose up from among the car- and house-sized boulders, and we pushed on faster, wanting to outpace hypothermia. All of our “waterproof” layers were soaked through, and we were all chilled to the bone.
I was looking forward to the difficult climbs up the Mahoosuc Arm and Old Spec, because that would get my heart racing again and bring up my body temperature.
A Well-Deserved Zero
It took us 2.5 hours to traverse the famous “hardest mile of the AT”, and we did just under 10 miles that day to get into Bethel. Luckily for us, we’d been hiking with a local and section hiker, who we dubbed “Type 2,” since she seemed to be enjoying Southern Maine, and she had a car waiting at Grafton Notch. We all climbed inside her car and turned the heat on full blast, then took turns changing into our dry-ish clothes. We were all showing signs of hypothermia at that point. She took us to our Airbnb, and we took turns taking scalding showers. By the time I got into the shower, it had been a little under an hour since I climbed into Type 2’s car. As I showered, my toes and fingers stung as they defrosted. That was the closest I ever came to being hypothermic – on trail, or ever.
It was an easy decision to zero the next day, as the miserable rain continued. Blossom and I cooked breakfast, and I made a sad gumbo with the few ingredients I could find in town.
When I returned to the trail, the skies were mostly clear. The exposed rock on Baldplate Mountain was still slick, which made the ascent slow. I was slow over the next couple days, bruised and sore from the Mahoosuc Notch and mentally + physically exhausted from New Hampshire. I realized that no amount of sleep was going to cure my exhaustion – only reaching the end of the trail would. So I pushed on.
I did an in-and-out resupply at the next town, and had a string of nights by ponds. I enjoyed paddling out to the center of the ponds, halfheartedly hoping I would see a moose along the bank. I didn’t see any, but I wasn’t too disappointed – I’d take a bear encounter over a moose encounter any day.
I started averaging 15 miles a day again, but I didn’t feel strong like I had before the Whites. I felt completely wiped, and sore every morning. But I knew that each step, no matter how slow, was taking me to Katahdin.
Making it to 2,000 Miles
Saddleback Mountain, The Horn, and Saddleback Jr. were some of my favorite views on trail, second only to the Franconia Ridge. Clear skies and open views prevailed until the day I made it to the 2,000 mile marker.
For me, reaching this milestone felt more like an accomplishment than making it to Maine. I sat next to that marker – which someone had embellished with a crown of fallen birch leaves – and took a break to soak it all in. Most people took a picture and kept hiking, and I couldn’t blame them, since it was cold and dreary. But as I sat there in the leaves, in the mist and the rain, the enormity of what I had just done broke over me. 2,000 miles. I had walked 2,000 miles. There was less than 200 miles to Katahdin. The end was truly in sight.
I stood up, swung my pack over my back, and headed down to the road. When no one appeared at the parking area, I started hiking into town with my thumb out, resigned to adding another 3 or 4 miles to an already long day. Eventually, a couple locals did pull over. From there, hitching around town and then back to trail was easy – and hitching throughout the rest of my journey was a simple task. When you’re on the side of a road in Maine with your thumb out, people seem to know exactly what you’re doing – maybe they feel the urgency of Katahdin somehow, too.
I nero’d out of town the next day into a windstorm. As much as I loved my hammock, the one downside was trying to sleep in a windstorm, as you bobbed in the air and the trees you were strung up between swayed. I didn’t sleep very well that night as the temperature dropped and vicious wind ripped at my shelter.
Through the Fear
I woke up to bright sunlight, howling wind, and bone-chilling cold. I made breakfast in my hammock, since I was suspended over an empty tent platform at a mostly empty campsite. When it was time to go, I set out in my base layers and ran up the Bigelows.
The cold tore at my lungs, and I felt short of breath. I put my buff over my mouth and nose to hopefully warm the air a bit, and slowed down. But as I slowed down, the howling wind – which was shifting moss at the base of trees as it tried to rip them up by their roots – blew straight through me. I felt panic rising higher as I hiked to the exposed summit, where the wind literally knocked me off my feet, and my left ankle buckled as I hit the ground, hard. I sat on the boulder-strewn ground, stunned and bruised and scared and cold, shivering uncontrollably.
Something like a snarl escaped my tired lungs. “You walked 2,000 miles,” I urged myself through gritted teeth. “You survived the Whites, you survived the heat wave, you did everything, gave up everything to get here. There’s nothing this mountain can throw at you that you haven’t seen before. Get up.”
I checked my ankle – twisted slightly, but not sprained, I hoped – then stood in a low crouch to keep the wind from catching me off-balance again. I saw red as I hiked up and over the Bigelows while the wind threatened to drag me off the rocky spine of the summits, and hiked with a vengeance, pissed at how quickly a twisted ankle could end my hike, angry with the wind and the cold and myself for not being faster so I could’ve avoided this weather altogether. I didn’t even try to look for Katahdin on the horizon, which I knew I could see from the summit.
By the time I reached the shelter area, my ankle was throbbing and I was exhausted. I ate a freeze-dried meal, which I reserve for bad days on trail, and clocked out before the sun had fully set.
Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camp
The next morning was still, cold, and quiet – like the chill and howling wind of yesterday had never existed. I flexed my ankle, and there was no pain. I swung my legs out of my hammock around 5:30, and got going at 6 with my headlamp lighting the way.
It was my best day on trail. The trail flattened out and wove through pine forests and along lakeshores. I finished hiking by 2pm with 18 miles behind me – the first day beyond 15 miles that I’d had since the Whites. I made it to Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camp, an off-grid cabin run by caretaker Tim, who makes breakfast for thru-hikers if you’re among the lucky few to sign up for it the day before.
A group of guys from Massachusetts were at the camp, staying in a few of the cabins, and were in the middle of a lobster boil. They called me over, and more of my friends as they caught up, and we proceeded to have the best trail magic experience on trail. Lobster, salmon, clam chowder, and beer – lots of beer, and they urged us to drink more along with Peach, a 2018 thru-hiker who was there to do trail magic as well. After hanging out inside the main house, which was filled with oddities and gorgeous natural light, we stumbled up trail to camp.
The New Englanders shot off fireworks on the opposite bank of Pierce Pond, and they exploded directly over the waterfall that Blossom, Candyman, and I were camping beside. I watched it for an hour, then rolled over and slept like a rock.
The next morning, Tim sent us on the the Kennebec River crossing after giving us each an enormous pile of wild blueberry pancakes, sausage, eggs, and coffee. The walk after the Kennebec ferry was scenic – the colors had seemingly changed overnight. Fall was approaching. And with that, the end was looming.
The next day was going to be a rainy one. I got up at 4am to hike as far as I could before it started. It held out till 7am, but when it started, it didn’t stop. There were several fords that were made trickier by the relentless rain, but I managed to keep my socks dry by changing into camp shoes.
Into the 100 Mile
The next morning, all of our gear was still wet, and we had one goal – get into Monson. Monson, Maine. The last town before Katahdin. It almost felt like any other town day – the empty, lightweight backpack, the dreaming of town food and showers and a warm bed. But as we hiked closer, the energy turned jubilant, but also reserved. Ready for town and all its offerings. Thinking about the last 100 miles that stood between us and our goal, the finish line: Katahdin.
And then, thinking of the After. After the hike. After we climb down Katahdin – what next?
I booked a room at the Lakeshore House, a hostel situated above a bar and restaurant, but also signed up to pay for breakfast at Shaw’s the next morning. I wanted rest, and I felt introspective. Shaw’s was completely full, and I wanted to have a private moment to reflect before starting the final leg of my journey the next day.
I stayed up too late journaling and reflecting. I finalized some plans with my partner, who was picking me up from Baxter State Park. At that point, my goal was September 27th. I didn’t think I could do the 100 Mile Wilderness any faster than 7 days, and I had organized a resupply drop with my friends Blossom, Treble, Cookie Monster, and Chupacabra. I had 7 days of food split between my pack and the drop. I was determined to take my time in the 100 Mile Wilderness – to try to soak it all in.
It occurred to me, abruptly, that in a way, I had failed. In these last few hundred miles, I had failed to be present – to enjoy the hike. And now the journey was at its end. There was only 100 miles left of trail, and then I would be abruptly dropped back into the middle of the life I’d walked away from six months ago.
Had I been present enough? Had I gotten what I came for? Were my questions answered? These unspoken questions echoed around me in the empty hostel bedroom, as the radiator in the corner clicked and hummed, and other hikers shifted in the rooms around me. I realized that it didn’t matter if I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. The hike was at its end, whether I was ready for it or not. All I could do now was make the most of these last 7 days.
After breakfast, Poet drove us to the trailhead just outside of Monson. It had rained all night, and the tires sloshed in the gravel parking lot as we pulled up. Thru-hikers poured out of the van, pulling on our rain jackets as a steady drizzle started up again. We put on our packs and stood in a loose circle.
“Be careful with the fords,” Poet, one of the owner’s of Shaw’s hostel, advised us. “We’ve gotten heavy rain in the past 24 hours. If the water’s anything more than hip deep, turn back and wait.” We nodded, but I don’t think a single one of us were going to heed that warning. We were seasoned thru-hikers; we knew better, but the call of Katahdin was too strong. Poet let his warning sink in, then continued: “Your first good view of Katahdin will be from the top of Whitecap Mountain, if it’s clear. It’ll be closer than you think.” He hesitated, then smiled knowingly.
“It’ll be closer than you’re ready for.”
I turned my head and looked into the forest, into the familiar arch where trail met trees. How many times had I left a road or parking lot and walked into the green tunnel? It was all shadows and dull fall colors now, saturated with rain, beckoning us.
“See you up trail,” Poet concluded. We all responded in kind, in reserved murmurs, as he hopped back in the van.
Then we turned, and entered the woods for the last time.