It rained all night at the Wadleigh Stream lean-to but diminished to a drizzle by morning, when I sewed my pants in the overcast mountain light. Hollywood was a wreck. While we had hung a totally sick bear bag, our shelter and everything in it had taken on water. We had gotten into Hollywood late and subsequently left late the following morning, skipping a hot breakfast in favor of the convenience of a protein bar for the second meal in a row, something we would later regret (though we both agree that protein bars are awesome).
The rain was gone but left an engorged swarm of mosquitoes and thickened sludge in its wake. Pretty early on in the day, Milam dunked his feet after he slipped off a log in an attempt to avoid a ford (all the water crossings, even the tiny brooks, transformed into tactical challenges after the rain, some swollen from mere trickles to raging rapids). We split after that in an attempt to keep moving forward at rates that were comfortable for both, meeting for water and stopped the occasional logging road crossing. I managed to keep my feet out of the water, and though I want to brag about how my rock hopping skills are mad dexterous compared to a few days ago, I wouldn’t have made it across one particular stream crossing had another hiker not come up behind me.
“What do you think?” he posited under the brim of a red baseball cap.
“I’m not sure, I think maybe along here,” I gestured along a series of rocks that, while somewhat submerged, would in theory allow for a crossing sans foot-dunking.
“How are your boots?” He looked at my feet, as did I. I felt him clocking not only their dryness but their branding and style.
“They’re not too bad, they’re salvageable.”
“Yeah, mine are satiated,” he kicked at his ankles, his black leather boots were clearly saturated from rain, sludge, and stream. “I’m gonna go for it.”
He crossed with such precision that I wondered how he’d gotten his boots so wet before. I relished the image of his boots taking on a sadistic persona, requiring its wearer to take on so much water before they reached satisfaction. They were straight-up leather, afterall. I copied his path across the rocks and wondered if he had meant saturated, or if I had encountered someone especially clever, personifying his boots as a pair of twins bored of fords.
We made it to what we thought was Nahmakanta Campsite and took a break for lunch in the bugs. There we decided to take a half day, as our spirits were low and as damp as all of our belongings. Just as we set up Hollywood, our decision to stop was affirmed by a fresh batch of rain.
As we flicked mosquitoes away from the mesh on our tent, we decided take inventory on not only our food but our spirits, and make a realistic plan for the remainder of the wilderness (which was, without looking at the papers as I write this, about 70 more miles).
Our pace combined with our remaining supplies would have been calculated correctly to get us both out of the wilderness, but we had not accounted for the mountainous section ahead. We snuggled up in our sleeping bags as our tent pooled water at the boot, as it would the night through, and I traced my index finger along the elevation markings of the Gulf Hagas. It was steep.
I concluded, simply and without shame, that I wasn’t going to make it.
Lunch was spread on lake rocks a few miles past the actual Nahmakanta campsite, and we were gifted with a fabulous view of Katahdin and a moment free of bugs. I stripped down to my underwear, as everything was now drenched in my own sweat – the mosquitoes had grown in number and aggression, and my body was reacting adversely. Allergically.
And while the day’s trek was easier and more lighthearted, in such a way that may have convinced me to stay on through the edge of the wilderness, my legs were severely swollen and arms bruising from my reaction to the bites. I wore my rain gear to keep them off, the most effective (but not entirely impenetrable) preventative measure against the bugs I had taken thus far.
But for a few miles they let up, as did the tumultuous terrain, and for a moment we enjoyed ourselves and what we found around us on the ground – lady slippers taller than any we’d seen in Wisconsin, and one particularly sick fungus, the variety that after which the stereotypical psychedelic mushroom must be modeled (though no potency test was held). A couple of unknown birds cackled and called after us, following us for a good third of a mile. The harsh dissonance of their song still rings in my ears, and I wish I had caught more than a glimpse of one large grey wing.
But the glimmer of these gems was, in the moment, overshadowed by a bad fall off a bog bridge that resulted in a pulled calf muscle, and the mosquitoes found my hands uncovered and swelled my fingers until my ring no longer fit. We swerved into Antler Campsite, an expansive tenting area covered in a bed of brown pine needles and a crystalline view of Lake Jo Mary, and Milam hastily popped the tent open as I dove inside, as if escaping a line of fire.
I gave up any hope that I would rally and make it over the mountainous section of the wilderness. I had hauled ass to get out of the bugs and we still didn’t clock enough miles. As I peeled off my sweaty rain gear and merino tights, Milam made us dinner on a wooden table fastened between two trees. The whole look of the campsite screamed BOY SCOUTS, and I suddenly pictured two dozen pre-teens flooding into Antler, only to find me naked and inflamed, splayed on the floor of my tent. I unstuck my arm from the tent’s synthetic material to fulfill an invader mosquito’s death wish. Leave no trace.
We were a few miles from Jo Mary road where I had heard one could be extracted. So, naked and eating Indian food with Milam in the tent, I called Shaw’s in Monson. Kim, Hippie Chick, would send someone there for me in the morning, and Milam would complete the wilderness while I waited for him at the hostel. I would take a chunk of his unnecessary weight, and surely he would fly through the wilderness unhindered by my pace and his waterlogged tent and bag.
We stealth camped near Jo Mary road through both the thunder from the storm as well as 18-wheelers transporting logs over the unmarked bridge by which I would be extracted. We weren’t completely positive that it was Jo Mary, as our guidebook waymarks were enough inaccurate to make us wonder. We felt bummed and nervous that we were separating, but also felt excited for a new part of our adventure. In the morning we waited by the extraction point at the arranged time, and sure enough at 9:30am, an enormous silver sport vehicle craziness into the trail head.
“Somebody called for a limo?!” cackled the stout elder woman over the head of a small fluffy dog hanging out of the passenger’s window. This was Dawn, the former owner of Shaw’s, who popped her trunk and sat in the A/C while Milam and I loaded my gear and rolled up the tent. Then, after we embraced, Milam marched towards the mountains of the wilderness, and I sped off to Monson with Moxie the Pomeranian in my lap.