The last time I sat to write, we were still in Canada and I had walked zero miles of the Appalachian Trail.
While we didn’t spend any time in the city itself, our overall Montreal experience was memorable. Our groups disdain toward accruing exorbitant international network charges on our phones, paired with unexpected closures and detours resulted in our not checking into Hotel Le Dauphin until three in the morning. Beds, showers, stolen toiletries to repurpose into trail containers, and an espresso machine at the hotel’s breakfast easily shadowed any grumpiness at driving for so long and with little sleep. I made everyone fancy steamed-milk drinks, but couldn’t pour any sick latte art as there were no proper pitchers, a sign that the wand was not meant for guest use (that and the many taped over buttons). A few last glimpses of my former life in the milk’s microfoam.
Onward to Maine, then, where we were scared for moment that the border control officials would confiscate our camping food (thank goodness we had no lamb or goat?). We were met by Maine’s mountainous wilderness, as well as the first moose we had ever seen. She came skulking up to the side of the road just as we passed through the forest. She was enormous and majestic, her dark brown fur had a slight sheen visible from even our speeding vehicle – her eyes were even darker, and looked at us long after we past, just as we all did through the rear window.
In the woods of Baxter State Park we found Katahdin Stream Falls, and our reserved tentsite at exactly the beginning of the Hunt Trail head (which I planned). There we saw our first white blaze, though our Mile Zero was about 5 miles away and almost a mile up. There are multiple trails up to Baxter Peak, but the Hunt trail is what is considered the actual AT. As we set up Hollywood, we were welcomed by chatty red squirrels, mosquitoes and flies that varied in their numbers and level of annoyance, and Juliana – the friendliest park ranger we ever did meet, who assured our party that we wouldn’t be eaten by bears, probably.
The next morning we were breakfasting in, by comparison to the several hikers passing our site to start their summit, a lazy fashion. It was an attempt to relax, as I had been down everyone’s throats regarding the principals of Leave No Trace and was also radiating my anxieties about starting. But there need not have been anxieties. We were here. The previous night, after setting up camp, Milam and I wandered down to a section of Katahdin Stream and sat on the rocks. “Well, we’re here. We’re doing this,” Milam laughed, his voice muted by the sound of the water rushing over the rocks. He laughed again. “We’re so dumb.”
Our party started for the top around 8:40AM. Barbara and Alan joined us for the first two miles, though we were convinced we had gone much farther. The walk was leisurely in spirit but at times physically strenuous, so we stopped many times to take in the views of the falls on the baseball-bat-style bridge (logs set next to each other horizontally as opposed to one long flat walkway), the neighboring mountains, and Maine’s skyline. The Hunt Trail from the campground to the peak has an elevation gain of around 4150 feet, of which only 1200 are in the first two miles. We quickly shed layers, as it had been chilly at Hollywood and learned that your own movement on trail will often create all the warmth you need, regardless of how drenched in your own sweat you may be.
A boulder became our picnic table for lunch, as well as the point at which our group would split. Several hikers passed us going both ways – some were bound for the top, others would turn back at the rock scramble. Or at least at the part that became hand-over-hand climbing, in some places aided by iron bars pounded into the rocks. A cheddar bunny was dropped from atop the lunch boulder, and as it was devoured by the earth Milam called after it desperately in mourning: “Leave some traaaaaaaaaace…” (poking fun at my strict adherence to the rules and my “the conservancy says” attitude. I later dropped a small bit of crust from sandwich, though Milam will tell you I dropped the whole thing).
At times the Hunt Trail was composed of rock steps, and there were a few smooth stone inclines (on which I later ripped open the back seam of my pants). Those inclines were often 45°, and I’m still not sure of the better way to approach those rocks is by slanting your whole foot or getting on your toes and engaging your calves. Barbara and Alan recruited walking sticks, something I would later acquire on the descent.
The trail runs along and sometimes crosses Katahdin Stream, although at some point the trail WAS a stream, and we splashed and hopped along small stones to continue on our way. The crew that maintains this trail put some thought into this occurrence, putting in rock barriers to divert water and prevent the trail from becoming its own water feature.
Up to the boulder scramble Milam and I had been keeping together, but as soon as we passed the iron bars he really hit his groove. I feel like the bars, of which there are only three and just at the start, may serve as a warning to those who may not be physically, mentally, or emotionally capable for what lies ahead. At the bars, Milam took a picture for a couple about to turn back, as the upcoming section would not be fun for them – which is an incredibly reasonable deduction.
For Milam, jumping and climbing on rocks are some of the most gratifying forms of entertainment – and he had at least a mile-and-a-half of fun in front of him. For me the section was fun in a different way, a manic fun that included terror, regret, confusion, humor, and exhaustion. But every once and again, as I made my way up, hand over hand (often with Milam perched in a rock nook having a rest a few hundred feet above me), I would look behind and see how far I had gone – how high I had gone – a perspective easily lost when I’m counting footsteps and rockhops like singular grains of rice. Eventually they add up in a surprising and satisfying way.
At the middle of the scramble the mountain looked as if it came to an end at the top of the pile of boulders, which blocked view of the tableland plateau and true summit. I was grasping onto a ridged rock, swallowing some vertigo, when a group of three lady hikers approached in their descent. They were really excited to see me, excited to tell me two were southbound thru-hikers, and one of the lady hikers – obviously the leader – refused my response to the inquiry of my status.
“Are you thru-hiking?!” She planted herself on top if the boulder above me, in a pose that made it seem she was a Grecian statue of the Goddess of hiking, chiseled from the mountain itself. I clung to my rock, convinced that if I let go gravity would fail and I would fall into the sky.
“I’m gonna try.”
“That is unacceptable! YOU are a strong, female hiker and you have to say YES ABSOLUTELY I’M GOING TO GEORGIA.”
Her thighs were cut and she drove her trekking poles into the rocks in pulse with her speech. She wore a hiking skirt and nothing else, her empowered femininity was framed by the slabs of earth jutting from the ground, the mist clearing from our altitude, revealing everything, as I stared up at all of her.
“Yes,” I exhaled as I adjusted my weight and some loose rocks fell off the mountain into the abyss of rocks and pines to their deaths as surely I would shortly follow. She was mostly right: I am female, I certainly was strong (smelling), and technically I was hiking (though it was currently crawling). “Absolutely I am going to Georgia.”
“You’re doing it. After the top of those rocks, it’s only another two miles or so to the summit. YOU GOT THIS, GIRL.”
Milam and I rejoined at the tableland, where I found him sleeping in the grass, bare feet soaking in the sun. The same group of lady hikers I had encountered were likely the ones who giggled at a napping Milam on the edge of the tableland, and I warned him that they may have given him a trail name that we wouldn’t hear of until Monson.
And at the edge of the tableland, we saw it – the peak. A few more hikers passed us in their descent, and we would be the last ones up the mountain. During our final climb before the sign was in tangible reach, a joyful “WOO!” rang across the plateau. Someone had made it. We would, too.
By this time we were already tired and were very aware of the amount of water and light that remained at our disposable, which were not ideal amounts. But when we got to the sign, and now as I write this – after the long descent back through the scramble and the woods (a mile of which was in the dark) on my very upset knees – nothing mattered but that we were there.
Overcome with emotion and exhaustion I cried, though I tried to hold in the water I didn’t have to spare on sentiment. It was quiet, absolutely, all for our gasps at what at first we thought was a crow – but on closer inspection, it was a Golden Eagle. He circled close around us and put on a show, flying out far from the side of the mountain to dive, putting on a show. He talked to us, and followed us back down through the rock scramble, talking at us all the time.
We got back to Hollywood at 9:25, clocking us at just under 13 hours. We had gone past our turnaround time in order to complete the trip, and in the woods when the sun sets, suddenly dark is absolute pitch. Luckily, I had my headlamp (as the ranger board had urged us to take), and Milam and my walking stick got me down the last half-mile or so of the trail back to Hollywoof. Barbara and Alan had hot meat and veggie stew on the ready, and we inhaled it. We joked that we should have our thru-hike catered, and that we would be the scourge of the trail if we did – as well as incredibly popular. Hot, delicious, substantial, homemade food after a hike like that? I can already feel the hiker hunger setting in.
And thank goodness we already had Hollywood set up, our tent, sleeping bags and pads unrolled and inflated. Never have they felt more fit for royalty, though I suppose laying anywhere at the base of Katahdin would at this point be comfortable. Tomorrow, Friday, I’m taking a zero, and then Saturday we head out toward the wilderness.
I wondered about the whereabouts of the numerous people we’d encountered on the mountain that day, some whose names we did not collect but assigned to them in our private conversations. Snake Guy, a young Georgian with dark hair and eyes who stopped to chat during our lunch on the boulder- he had an interest in the AT’s native snakes (though he assured Barbara and Alan that he wouldn’t touch them). We ran into him again at the tableland, and he was continuing on tomorrow. Thigh Guy, who was the first hiker I saw go up the trail in the morning, had descended the rock scramble just as I was beginning, and we shared a laugh and mutual digust at the giant trace someone had left (and not buried) nearly right on the trail. The brothers, who we had passed and were passed by on several occasions early in the day, who were reliving their childhood experience of climbing Katahdin with their father – the bigger brother was struggling and urged the fitter brother to go on without him, but they stayed together and made it at least almost halfway. I was upset that they weren’t able to summit, as my jerk reaction saw their pilgrimage was surely wraught with symbolism and metaphor, but Milam observed that that summiting was besides the point. The fitter brother, who had clearly kept up with a love for the mountains as he moved quickly and bouncily over rocks, wanted to be with the bigger brother. It wasn’t about the miles or the climb or getting to the sign, it was about being together – which was what it was about for the mom who went up with her son for 20 minutes, in fashionable sandals, a sunhat, and a leather purse.
I told Milam I was making a plan for our upcoming days together. “More walking, right?” He smiled and turned over in his bag for a well earned sleep.
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