Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Rest of the Story

So, here it is.  Finally.  Several weeks after the fact.  Yes, I finished the trail, on August 21st at about 5:18 a.m.  If you are reading this and didn't already know that fact, um, where have you been?  I for one have been bumming around home, doing the odd chore and working alittle in the meantime, but more on that later.  Lets rewind, say, six weeks to my last post when I was taking a break from the physical and mental punishment that was southern Maine at the Andover guest house...
     Heading out of Andover was tough, given the terrain we had just come through, and of course, the weather.  The only comfort lay in being told that things got a bit easier farther into the state, but those rumors usually proved unreliable.  The rain kept up to some degree or another for most of the remainder of the trip; everyone joked that we wanted some rain, just a little, every day just so we could say it was wet all throughout, but fortunately that didn't happen.  For all the tough terrain, the backbreaking climbs, and the constant mud, Maine definitely made up for itself with scenery both awesome and subtly beautiful.  The rain made the many rivers swell, making the fords more difficult, but also the waterfalls grander and the water pure and plentiful.  The crossing over the Kennebeck River required a ferry in the form of a canoe, captained by... well exactly the kind of character you'd expect to be plying a flooded river in the rain with a boat full of smelly people, Robin Hood-esque hat and all.  
     Many of the hikers, myself included, felt Maine was a good time to pamper ourselves, and as such I took several stops, one in Stratton and another in Monson, at the latter of which I was treated to a stay with the family of one of my mom's co-workers.  They happened to own a summer home on a lake near the trail and put me up for a night.  It was a nice getaway, and one in which I got to bask in the mild celebrity of being a AT hiker for one of the last times.  Throughout much of this area, I was playing leapfrog with Mangey Moe and Beershake, an ultralighter who I had seen numerous times before realizing that I had met him before; he worked at the EMS store in Fairfield where I bought some equipment and was finishing a hike he had started last year. I also finally caught up with Chris the New Guy, someone who I had hiked with in Virginia but got ahead of me when I stopped for some family visits.  Who knew that over 1500 miles later we would be reunited and finishing the trail together.
     Leaving Monson, we entered what is ominously and erroneously called the "100 Mile Wilderness", supposedly for its remoteness and lack of roads.  In reality, several dirt roads with possible resupply crossed the trail, but the area definitely had a quieter air to it; gone were the distant rumbling of trucks on the highway. audible even is the valleys .  At this point, the weather cleared to near perfect conditions and the trail dried out some, making for great hiking.  Because of this, and due to the fact that mom and Ryan were coming to pick me up at a later date than I anticipated, I took my time, finally being able to enjoy the views without getting soaked.  True to the rumors, the landscape eased somewhat as we walked along several lake and narrow canyons filled with waterfalls.  I indulged in one last stop at a hostel called Whitehouse Landing, situated on a lake and home to the famous 1-lbs burger as well as a family of loons.  Listening to the loons cry at night, so close to the end of the hike, was the first real heartbreaker moment when it became apparent that thing would have to end soon.  
     The last few days were ones of reflection and anticipation.  After more than 4 months on the trail I was ready for a few straight days of sleep in my own bed, but with the weather cooperating, I didn't want things to end.  The rest of the world beckoned however, and so somewhat reluctantly I pushed on.  After all that time, slogging through rain and wanting to be done, once you get that close it seems far too soon.  The approach to Katahdin offers several views of the mountain and a walk along the Penobscot River before finally entering Baxter State Park.  With little fanfare we all signed the register as family-bearing SUV rolled into the parking lot.  
     The last night on the trail, there was no partying or huge celebrations, just a modest fire.  It was a good crowd for the most part, with Chris, Timeless, Barefoot Sage, all people I had hiked with briefly at one point or another, as well as several others.  Chris's and his father, who had arrived the day before, were going to attempt to reach the summit for sunrise and I decided to try as well.  Leaving at 3 a.m., we donned headlamps through the forest and set off.  Being anxious to reach the top in time for the big show, I left them behind as the trail started to become more difficult.  Once above treeline, the clear skies and near full moon made for eerily beautiful and bright views, but also reduced the temperature to what felt like near freezing.  Huge wind gusts buffeted me around as the trail climbed over and around cold and rough rocks.  The top of the mountain is a small plateau, offering some rest for the last push, up more jagged ground to the real summit, surmounted by an artificial  pile of stones to push the peak to exactly a mile high.  From the top, you have a breathtaking view; there are no nearby mountains to speak of, and the plethora of lakes reflect the rising sun as the lights of Millinocket, the only nearby town start to wink out.  To the west, the shadow of the mountain loomed large, projected into the morning mist like a dark, intangible pyramid.  
     I lingered at the summit for a good hour, freezing and entirely alone as Chris and his dad were taking the ascent very slowly.  Somewhat worried about them, I started heading back only to encounter them on the open plateau well after the sun had risen and the air started warming.  I decided to head down a different trail than we ascended, the Abol Slide trail, essentially 3500 ft. straight down a former rockslide.  Looking down, you can just tell the next hour or two of your life is gonna suck, but by that point, I was beyond caring.  I had finished the trail, what did it matter if I broke some bones on the way down?  I reached camp at the base around 8:30, just as the day hikers were starting their climb, much to their chagrin and my delight.  I definitely got some strange looks for coming down the trail so early.  
     I got a ride out to town with Chris and his parents and checked in to the hiker hostel there.  Mom and Ryan came up the next day and we went on a short hike in the park down to some waterfalls and got to see 3 moose, all in the span of about 5 minutes.  The next day we went whitewater rafting on the Penobscot, which is always exciting but also tiring; afterwords I declared I was done with physical exertion into the foreseeable future and jumped in the jacuzzi.  Then, it was over.  We left for CT the next day, I slept most of the way, and woke up back home, been here since.  
     So there it is.  The dry account of things.  Riding home I had so many thoughts, so many ideas to put here, but putting those feelings into words is another matter.  I think thats enough writing for now, hopefully I'll get some more meaningful thoughts in here in the near future.  Peace out, yo.