Poet’s quiet, encouraging goodbye was like the gunshot at a race’s starting line. We hiked quickly and with purpose through deep, muddy puddles, over roots, disappearing into the forest.
Fall was in full swing now, and the reds and golds were deepened by the mist and the rain. Beads of rainwater gathered on each leaf and pooled until a single, gigantic raindrop fell, or took the entire leaf with it, sending it spiraling down onto our heads and shoulders as we trudged through the woods.
I was hiking in the vicinity of Treble, Blossom, Cookie Monster, and Chupacabra since we’d split the cost of our resupply drop from Shaw’s. After convening and deciding on a campsite for the night, we split up and hiked our own pace. I pulled off trail to let a large group of hikers pass, as I normally did. I wasn’t a particularly fast hiker, so when I heard anyone behind me, I would let them pass so I could walk in silence.
When I reached the first ford, I squinted across the water and saw a flash of red on the opposite bank. After looking at the ford dubiously – the edge of a significant waterfall was a mere 20 yards away – I stowed my shoes and hiked up my rain pants, proceeding cautiously over the slippery rocks. After the dangerous trail routing through the Whites, I didn’t pause to question a ford at the mouth of a waterfall. Just more ridiculous AT trail routing, I thought, as the rushing water broke on me mid-calf. On Mt. Garfield, I’d down climbed a literal waterfall as part of the official trail. In comparison, this ford didn’t seem particularly dangerous, or even out of the ordinary.
I reached the opposite bank and looked around. The red flash I’d seen from across the creek sidled up to me, looking confused. “There’s a campsite here,” the hiker said, shrugging. “But I don’t see the trail.”
I looked around for a white blaze, then pulled out my phone to check FarOut, tracing the red line of the AT over the elevation profile map. Then I laughed, and swore at myself. “We crossed too soon. We were supposed to switchback to the base of the waterfall, then cross.” I stowed my phone in its Ziploc as rain continued to drizzle on us. The hiker in red stared at me, dumbfounded. I shrugged. “It was stupid to cross. I’m not crossing again. I’m going to bushwhack down to the trail on this side.”
Stupid, stupid, stupid, I chanted internally as I picked my way down the hillside, back to the trail. A quarter of a mile later, the forest spat me back out onto the AT, and I’d re-learned the lesson I thought I’d learned back in Georgia. Don’t follow anyone, I reminded myself. Hike your own damn hike. Use your common sense, Newfound. You’re acting like you’re brand new.
There were 3 more fords that day, and each one was challenging in its own way. One was very deep, almost hip-deep. Another was shallow but fast-moving. And the last one had deep, cloying mud that threatened to rip off shoes. I crossed that one barefoot, too tired to change into camp shoes, but still determined to keep my trail runners dry.
At camp that night, another group near us were coughing and sneezing pretty much nonstop. I edged away from the group to chat with Treble, whose partner was communicating Katahdin summit conditions to him through his satellite phone. We were planning on summiting Katahdin on the 26th, if the weather cooperated.
I woke up early, talked with my group about where we were headed for the day, then got moving. The elevation profile looked deceptively easy, but the day was filled with PUDs, endless mud, and even some rocky, scrambly sections.
It rained almost nonstop, but did slack off as I hiked through some alpine bogs. The bogs were some of my favorite parts of the 100 Mile Wilderness, filled with colorful fall foliage and featuring boardwalks lined with pitcher plants.
I passed the 2100 mile marker, and settled into a stealth spot with Treble, Cookie, and Chup. Blossom was behind us, and said she would catch up. Cookie went straight into the tent with his wife Chup, and warned us that they were starting to feel under the weather. I strung up my hammock a safe distance from them and prayed that I wouldn’t catch anything.
The next morning, I woke up at 4:30 to flashes of lightning in the distance. It hadn’t started raining yet, so I quickly packed up and headed out to my first ford of the day. It was a slow-moving, shallow ford, but dipping your feet in icy water first thing in the morning is no fun. I decided that fords were my least favorite part of thru-hiking, and was glad that I was only encountering them towards the end of the trail, when the pull of Katahdin was strong enough to propel me through my watery misery.
Around mile 5, I dropped my water bottle, soaking my shoes and socks. I’d miraculously kept them dry for three whole days of nonstop rain, and was pissed off as I trudged to the next shelter. A section hiker was bailing because of the weather, and donated his freeze-dried meals to the thru-hikers crowding the shelter. I ate that meal then and there, then packed up and hiked into the driving, freezing rain.
All day, it rained. I hiked over Whitecap Mountain and had no views of Katahdin. Cookie and Chup texted Poet to include cold medicine in their resupply drop, since they were feeling increasingly worse.
Hiking on Alone
By the time we picked up our resupply drop on day 4, my food bag was empty. I’d had hiker hunger before, but never like this. I’d always had at least one meal left – but even with the extra freeze-dried meal, I was out. I sat at the road crossing for a few minutes with my gear strewn around me, drying everything I could in the sun.
Now that the food drop was over, I was free to hike on, at whatever pace suited me. It was starting to seem like I was going to have to hike alone anyway.
“I feel like garbage,” Treble croaked the next morning, as a cold, bitter wind tore at his rain fly. He pulled his fleece tighter around his shoulders. “I can’t summit like this. I’m going to have to get off trail and do Katahdin on a day hiker pass.” He looked miserable. We’d decided to push back our summit day and attempt on the 27th, since the weather was looking awful on the 26th, and summiting the next day seemed out of the question.
“Goddamn plague rats,” I muttered under my breath, and Treble nodded in agreement. We’d named the other group, the one that had been coughing their lungs out on the first day in the 100 Mile, the “Plague Rats” for bringing whatever-it-was into the 100 Mile Wilderness. Treble, Cookie, and Chup had all gotten the bug. We didn’t know it at the time, but “the bug” turned out to be Covid. I was lucky to not catch it.
We’d outpaced the Plague Rat group a day ago, but the damage was done. To me, it seemed like common sense to quarantine away from other thru-hikers if you were sick – stay in a hotel maybe – especially right before the very last and most remote section of the trail. Common sense, or even simple common courtesy, appeared to not be very common.
Pushing the Limits of Possibility
My entire group opted to sleep in the morning of the 24th, and I hiked on alone from the Potaywadjo Shelter. I wasn’t sick yet, but figured it was only a matter of time. I worried that letting the weather push my summit day to the 27th would give the bug time to take me down. But summiting tomorrow isn’t possible, I reminded myself, as I passed a sign just outside the shelter area. I paused to read, noting that Katahdin was some 40-odd miles away. I hiked slowly to Pemadumcook Lake, deep in thought, turning plans and possibilities over in my mind.
Then, another sign alongside the trail made me pause. It simply read: “Katahdin View.” A well-worn path led from the sign, through a break in the trees, to the rocky beach of the lake.
I floated down the trail without really deciding to, pulled by something I couldn’t name. I stepped out onto the rocks at the shoreline, blinking in the light, Then, I turned to the left, and saw.
Katahdin dominated the northern horizon. There was no other word for it. She stood alone, proud, and dark against the cloudless sky. The bitter wind that had been pushing me down the trail was still. The lake was eerily calm. I pulled the hood of my puffy down, and let the light fall on me. It snaked along the back of my neck. I felt chills rise along my spine.
And in that moment, I knew.
I didn’t decide. I knew.
I was going to hike 30 miles that day. My longest day yet. And I would be standing on the summit of Katahdin tomorrow.
My Longest Day on Trail
As I stood on the lakeshore, I calculated the miles left, the elevation gain and loss, and put my arrival time at exactly 9pm at the last shelter of the Appalachian Trail: Hurd Brook Shelter. This would require me to hike an average of 2mph with no breaks and no lost time for elevation gain. Or, at least 2.5mph to account for elevation change and allot me time for two short breaks.
I took a couple pictures with Katahdin, in the spot where I decided to give it my all for the final push to the end of the trail, and set out at an even lope. The terrain was mostly flat, with only one good climb up Nesuntabunt Mountain. But the roots and rocks were constant and wore on my knees and ankles.
When I stopped for dinner at Rainbow Spring Campsite, I was a little over 20 miles into the day, and both knees were screaming from my fast pace, and the relentless mud, roots, and rocks. I swallowed a few Ibuprofen, propped up my Garmin inReach so it could catch a satellite, and texted my dad and partner for Katahdin summit conditions.
As I taped up both knees with the same roll of KT tape I’d been carrying since my knee injury in Georgia, my phone pinged. Tomorrow was still the best day for the summit, they both concluded. Bad weather was still moving in on the 26th.
Another ping. Don’t hurt yourself. Rest if you need to, no matter what the forecast says.
I turned off my Garmin.
Under the Stars
I inhaled dinner, packed up, and set out as the sun began to set. I steeled myself against my fear of night hiking, and dug around for my headlamp. When night truly fell, and I peered into a dark portal of forest’s edge at another open creek crossing, I froze.
I breathed to calm my racing thoughts. “These mountains have been your home for the last 6 months,” I told myself. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you. This is your home.” I felt a shaky sort of smile spread across my face, and breathed calm. “You belong here,” I whispered, and felt it was true.
I clicked on my headlamp, and hiked on. As I hiked 3 hours into the night, a few pairs of eyes followed me, and I studiously ignored them, clicking my trekking poles together to spook them away.
Two and a half miles from Hurd Brook Shelter, I paused at the top of Rainbow Ledges and checked for signal. I found a couple bars of Verizon, and called my partner, clicking off my headlamp to conserve battery. In the absence of my headlamp, stars erupted overhead, and I craned my head back to trace the cloudy lines of the Milky Way. I had trouble picking out the constellations I knew – the smaller, unknown stars were so numerous they drowned out the familiar with their light.
“I’ll be at Katahdin tomorrow!” I shouted, half from excitement, half to make my voice heard through the crackle of bad signal. We talked for a little bit, solidifying plans. I planned to come back down the AT/Hunt Trail to Katahdin Stream, after briefly considering taking an alternate route down to Abol Bridge. He planned to get up early and send me summit conditions at 4am before getting on the road. I hung up and hiked over the exposed summit of the Ledges by starlight, then clicked my headlamp back on when I descended and re-entered the woods.
I crossed Hurd Brook on a rock hop, and strode into the shelter area at exactly 9pm. I plugged my headlamp and phone into my battery pack to recharge, strung up my hammock, set an alarm for 2:30, and climbed into bed.
Returning to Myself
I blinked, and my alarm went off at 2:30. I turned it off, inhaled one of my last snacks, and packed in 10 minutes. I hiked out of camp feeling strangely energized, yet calm. Summit day. I’d been dreaming of this day for months… for years.
And now, I was walking towards Katahdin, the same way I had done for the last 6 months – but today was different. Today, I was going to complete my thru-hike.
At 4am, my Garmin pinged. The weather was clear for the summit. I passed the sign marking the northern end of the 100 Mile Wilderness, and walked in silence and starlight on Golden Road.
As I walked, another hiker peeled away from the pre-dawn shadows at Abol Bridge and walked alongside me. We eventually came to a split in the path – the Appalachian Trail on the left, the Blueberry Ledges Trail on the right. Taking the latter would shave 5 miles and about 2 hours off my hike. It would still put me at just under 20 miles for the day. Taking the AT would put me at well over 20 miles, after accounting for the descent from Katahdin.
I thought about what it meant to bypass those 5 miles. To me, it meant little to nothing, I realized. After 6 months and 5 days of not skipping a single white blaze, I’d arrived at the final few miles, the last steps. My only reservations had less than nothing to do with me. What will people think of me, when I write about this on the Trek? I thought, the beam of my headlamp pointing from the AT, to the Blueberry Ledges trail.
And in that thought, it was abruptly clear to me which choice I had to make. I had walked nearly 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine, had essentially ran 30 miles the previous day, was about to summit Katahdin… and the primary thought in my mind was what people would think of me if I bypassed a measly 5 miles?
No, I decided. Fuck. That.
Instead, I turned my thoughts to what did matter. Did it feel less meaningful to me, to take this blue blaze? Did it feel like I was betraying myself somehow? Or, instead… did it feel like my purpose was finally snapping into place? Was my mind, at long last, aligning with my body’s needs?
The hiker who’d joined me at Abol Bridge lingered at the crossroads. His headlamp bobbed as he shifted his weight and inched towards the AT. “You coming?”
I thought of all the times I’d betrayed myself. Not just in Georgia, when I’d hiked too fast and injured myself. Not just in New Hampshire, when I honed in on putting away miles instead of living them. I thought of my previous marriage. The concessions I made to keep that relationship alive. The many small deaths of self I’d submitted to over the years. To be small. To be quiet. To fold, and fold again, until the whole of my self was buried many thousands of layers deep. I’d shown up for others during those times. I’d shown up for everyone but myself. I’d lost myself in a years-long struggle to be palatable… to be something less than what I was.
The purpose of the AT, I realized, was to return to myself. And here, a mere handful of miles and hours from the summit of Katahdin, I’d finally learned how to.
Could I hike those 5 miles? I was strong. I could handle the pain that would be sure to come after hiking well over 50 miles in 24 hours. I could absolutely be a purist, and, yet again, prove everything to everyone besides myself.
But I didn’t want to.
And I didn’t need to.
My breath fogged around my headlamp’s light. “Nah.” I grinned. “I’m taking the Blueberry Ledges Trail.”
The End, and the Beginning
I strolled – skipped, really – down the Blueberry Ledges trail, following a single fresh footprint from another thru-hiker turned dirty blue-blazer. I felt giddy. Dawn crept up around me, peeling leaves from shapeless shadows, turning the sky blue, then pink, then red.
It was a perfect, relaxed, calm-before-the-storm approach trail to the challenge of the day: Katahdin.
I walked into the Birches campsite just after sunrise, and strolled up to Katahdin Stream campground to get my permit. Permit secured, I commandeered a picnic table to eat my last meal on the AT and sort my gear. I would leave the lion’s share here, and carry only the essentials up Katahdin. First blue-blazing, and now slack-packing. I’d refrained from both till literally the last day on the AT, and couldn’t be happier to be opting out of puritanism.
My joy was back. I was buzzing with excitement, pausing to admire the fall colors and streams and soak it all in. As I climbed the Hunt Trail, waterfalls cascaded around me, and switchbacks slowly turned into rock scrambles. These scrambles were a thousand times harder than anything I’d encountered in the Whites. Don’t look down, I told myself as I stowed my poles and dangled over sheer rock faces, feet and hands scrabbling for purchase. You’ll have plenty of time to look down when you’re returning from the summit.
Then, I climbed a feature known as The Gateway – where the scrambles abruptly end and you walk onto flat ground. There, above treeline, I entered an alien world. It was a wide, open plain on top of a ridgeline filled with reddish, scrubby brush and stunted weeds. As I walked through Thoreau Spring, my foot went ankle-deep into the water. It was the clearest water I’d ever seen in my life, and because of this, the pool looked more shallow than it actually was. I shook it off and hiked on.
“Congratulations,” day-hikers and thru-hikers alike told me as they passed. I ran into so many thru-hikers that I hadn’t seen since Georgia, since the Whites, since the heatwave in Pennsylvania.
“Don’t jinx it,” I would respond, or: “Don’t congratulate me yet! I’m not there yet!” In my mind, it wasn’t over, until it was over. But at the same time, for me, it was already over. I had my Katahdin moment at the Blueberry Ledges trail. I’d had my realization. I’d already returned to my deepest knowing.
Still, I hiked on. A loose line of hikers was scattered on the silhouette of the peak ahead. As I approached, some passed me on their descent, while others hiked on to the Knife’s Edge trail.
When I made it to the sign, the summit was mostly empty.
Clouds rolled in, blocking the sun, and a quiet chill settled over the summit. I had been thousands of miles from this place. Then hundreds. Now, I was mere steps away. I stepped forward. Three steps. Again. Two. Then, pulled by the magnetic draw of the terminus, the same insatiable pull that had called to me from Georgia, from the very beginning and even before that… I took the final step.
I stretched out my hand and rested it on the sign that I’d been walking towards for half of this year. My fingers were steady as they traced the letters, worn smooth by many thousands of other hands.
As I climbed onto the northern terminus sign atop Mt. Katahdin, I realized that I was doing two things at once. Two things that were opposite, yet true at the same time. I climbed, placing my feet in the two divots worn in the wooden cross-beam by countless other hikers. As I rose, I fell forward, onto my knees, into the back of the sign.
As I rose to my feet, I fell to my knees.
A victory, and a defeat.
As I threw back my head and howled, it was for the loss, the end.
And as my hand came up to rest on my heart: I knew that it was also a beginning.
To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
To let it go.
A note to the reader:
If you’ve made it this far, reach around and pat yourself on the back. This was a very long post! I thought about splitting this into a Part 2 and Part 3, but I couldn’t find a place to break it off cleanly. So, I decided to leave it as it was.
This isn’t where I stop writing about the AT and the long path I took to get to it. I’m currently writing a book. If you’d like to keep reading, you can follow my work-in-progress by connecting with me on Instagram, through my newsletter, or on my website.
Thank you for reading.