Friday, September 7, 2007

The Grand Finale

Ok, we are finally into the last leg. Here we go. It took us a little longer than we expected to get out of Monson. As it turned out my package was once again late in arriving so I had to wait for the morning to go pick it up and then I had to pack everything up. Apparently Maine does not hold itself to the same postal standards as every other state because it seems like practically every package that was sent to me there showed up late. So anyway, Chicken, Widowmaker, and I got a ride out to the trail head from some sectioners who were in town and headed off into the 100 mile wilderness around 11. Our original plan had been to do 19 miles that day, but with the late start that just didn't seem particularly likely. I really liked the wilderness from the moment we entered it. Something about the woods was just very pleasing. We stopped for an extremely late lunch around three right next to a really beautiful waterfall that was probably sixty or seventy feet tall. We all felt kind of sluggish that day even though the terrain was not especially challenging that day and as a result we ended up taking a number of breaks. During one of these Widowmaker and I sort of discovered a common interest in show tunes and we had a little impromptu musical review right there. This was of some concern to Chicken who kept shooting us dirty looks. Also during that particular break all three of us broke into an unexpected chorus of "Father Abraham" including the motions. This was broken by several fits of hysterical laughter by all involved. I know all of my camp people will know Father Abraham but I'm sorry to those of you who don't understand because I'm not going to embarrass myself further by explaining it. We decided to stop after 15 miles that evening (still not a bad distance for a half day). This turned out to be a wise decision as we just barely beat a thunderstorm into the shelter.
The second day in the wilderness crossed what is known as the Barren Chairback mountain range and it was pretty tough. There was a whole lot of upping and downing, though in truth it wasn't all that bad by comparison to much of what we had left behind. The thing that I think made it the hardest was the fact that my mind had already processed the fact that I was "done" even though of course I wasn't. The terrain that day was quite beautiful but any sense of "wilderness" that I had was destroyed by running into a day hiker walking a chihuahua. It started raining again that night as I settled into camp with Chicken, Widowmaker, and The Georgia Boys.
The next morning we crossed White Cap mountain. It was foggy, rainy, and cold. As a result I couldn't see a thing from White Cap which was the last view before Katahdin. It was also extremely windy up there so I couldn't even really hang out for a while comfortably. Fortunately, shortly after we stopped for and early lunch everything really started to warm up and we had really good hiking for the remainder of the day. We took lots of breaks even so and hung out quite a bit. The shelter we stopped at for the night was in an amazingly beautiful spot. There was a great shallow waterfall running down into a big pool right in front of the shelter. Unfortunately, the day had gotten cold again, otherwise it would have been perfect for swimming. It would have been great sleeping that night except that I had to keep poking widowmaker because he kept snoring. It was actually really funny because in his 3/4 asleep state he didn't understand why he was being poked and heartily denied even having been asleep.
The next day was beyond easy. We did 14 miles by noon so we could go eat a 1 lb hamburger for lunch at White House Langing, which is a little hostel halfway through the wilderness. The food was really good but the guy who ran the place was a jerk. We had planned on sort of taking our leisure there after lunch but not staying the night, instead he told us "you ain't stayin', you ain't payin', you ain't playin'". Basically, if we weren't staying the night we couldn't stay on the grounds any longer. It was immensly rude, and we moved on. The rest of the miles that day we just knocked out a few at a time with massive breaks to sit and chill in between. As we got closer to the end we found our selves more and more inclined to just sit and stretch the days out. That night at the shelter we were briefly joined by a southbounder named Frog who was really odd and unpleasant. He opened conversation by dogging on a couple of our friends who were ahead of us and he had met (though of course he didn't know we were friends). Then he gave us really counterproductive and passive aggressive answers to several very friendly questions when we tried to move past his remarks. After that we more or less stopped paying attention and he thankfully moved on.
The next day was amazing. We had apparently lost all of our will to walk. We would walk 3 or 4 miles and then hang out for an hour or so. It was exceedingly strange but really awesome in a lot of ways. It was so laid back even for a day on the trail. We had a really "veteran" moment when we met this southbounder who was just a few days out from Katahdin. He was carrying this absolutely enormous pack; and not only was it stuffed to the gills, there were also several daypack style bags hung off of it. He also had two little fussy show dogs with him that he was planning on taking the whole way with him. He was actually a really nice guy and we had a good conversation while we were all hanging out in this clearing by a pond, but we couldn't help but have a bit of a moment where we were all glad that we knew better than that. Our shelter that night was absolutely packed. There were tons of southbound thru-hikers and flip-floppers who were now heading south. Among them were a really cool Scottish guy named Otter, High Life (who was possibly the funniest guy I met on the trail), and Spider who turned out to be from my home town and the younger brother of my sisters friend Justin Ettinger. Its a very small world.
The next morning we were on the way to The Birches, the campsite resting at the base of Big K. It was an amazingly lazy sort of day. We got going early but we stopped again in about three miles at the Abol Bridge Campsite. There is a beautiful view of Katahdin there and a camp store at which we gorged ourselves on junkfood one last time. Widowmaker and I set off from there ahead of Mystery Chicken as he had some stuff he had to take care of there at the campsite. A very good portion of the next six miles of trail followed the Penobscot River. It was a lovely piece of trail to walk along. Widowmaker and I talked a good deal but there were also long patches where we hiked hard in silence. I would imagine that we both had our own thoughts that we were dealing with. I at least was excited to be nearing my goal, but as one might imagine, saddened because that part of my life was almost over forever. The trail turned away from the Penobscot and began following a tributary and shortly got to Big Niagra Falls where Widowmaker and I had agreed to wait for Chicken. We were joined by our compatriot in the early afternoon and hung out there on the rocks all day. It was wonderful. In some ways I wish more days on the trail could have been relaxed in that way. At the same time I know I would have gotten itchy feet if I had tried making that little time during most of the trip. Anyhow, I think it was about three in the afternoon when we finally pushed on to finish up the day. We got to the Birches around 4:45 and spent the rest of the day just hanging out and cutting up. It was a marvelous day. It was as though we were trying to hold on to all of the best things about the trail, the freedom, the comraderie, and even the innocence of the whole thing (we reverted to childhood quite a bit that day by engaging in several impromptu trekking pole and lighter fights). I think about that day a lot. It was surreal, in that I had a definite sense of accomplishment but we weren't actually finished yet. I went to sleep that night not really knowing how I felt or knowing how I would feel on the morrow.
We woke early the next morning so as to watch the sun rise over the side of the mountain. That didn't work out all that well as it was a kind of lack luster sunrise. On the other hand it did give us even more time to hang out, and we had to wait for Widowmaker's family and my own to arrive. Widowmaker's arrived on schedule, my own gave me a few moments of worry that they weren't going to get there. They finally arrived however, and it was a great reunion. I was honestly surprised by how much it seemed I had missed them. I hadn't realized it until right then. After all of the greetings were taken care of though I quickly stripped my pack down until all I had was some food, water, a camera, a sign, champagne, and a cigar. In short, just the items I would need to get up the mountain, celebrate, and return.
The climb up Katahdin was exceedingly enjoyable and not as hard as it had been made out to be (though that may just be because it was the only thing we had to do that day). There was some beautiful trail before we broke out above treeline and after that happened each new view was better than the last. I'm not going to say it wasn't a pretty tough climb though. After a couple of miles the trekking poles went away because they are more or less useless when it comes to climbing boulders. Even so we were so amped up, this change seemed fun rather than challenging. Chicken and I were talking, joking, and having a good time. However, when we reached the false summit that marked the last mile of the trail we agreed to split up and finish the trail with our own thoughts. I went first and I wish I could tell you that mile gave me some epiphany that had been as yet untouched. In truth though I barely remember what was going through my head besides, "oh god I can't believe I'm about to finish, I don't really want to finish, yes I do, no I don't, yes I do." It was confusing. All the same, I was glad of those last moments of just being me and the trail. We had spent a lot of time togethor and I think it was important that I said goodbye alone. When I got within sight of the Katahdin sign I could also see that there were about 40 dayhikers gathered around in the area. Honestly though, I only partially noted this enough to be a lit put out that we wouldn't have the peak all to ourselves for the finish. Most of my attention was focused on the faded red sign that is the holy grail of the Appalachian Trail. My pace speeded up for the last hundred meters or so as though I were being drawn in my a magnet. Finally I had reached my goal and all I could do was just place my hands on the sign and feel it. Feel the thing I had been chasing all those months. I felt the faded, scarred wood. I felt the letters carved into it spelling Katahdin. I felt it as though I were trying to glean some long lost knowledge from its surface and that was all I did for several minutes. Shortly thereafter Chicken got there and the time for thoughtful contemplation was at an end. He touched the sign and looked at me. I looked at him. We both started yelling and screaming at the top of our lungs. I'm pretty sure we scared a few of the day hikers but it was a release and celebration that was a long time coming and much needed. A little while after that Widowmaker arrived with his sister and brother-in-law who had wanted to summit with him and we all celebrated togethor. We drank the champagne, I smoked my cigar, and we took as many different pictures with the sign as we could think of. It was an amazing ending which was capped by the fact that it was an amazingly beautiful day and you could see practically forever from Katahdin's peak. Of the several hours we spent up top I spent a good amount of time just looking south imagining the way I had come and all the things I had seen and done along the way. The trip back down was a blur and unimportant anyway. The AT thru-hike was over, going back down was just the first steps back into ordinary life.
And so this is where I leave you. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write this last entry. I suppose part of me didn't really want to finish since it is the last thing I had really connecting me with my trip and now that this is finished I am truly done as well. In response to Beth who tried to contact me a couple of posts back. I tried to contact you through blogger but I couldn't get access to your profile and you didn't leave me any contact info. I'm sorry I haven't responded in this fashion before now. I also hope you might still be checking this blog from time to time in order to see if I've gotten up off my rear end and finished. If you ever do my email is and I would love to offer any help I can for your preperations for your own trip. Again I'm sorry for not posting again for so long.
Well thats all, but I wouldn't go without leaving you all a few more pictures. So here it is, my hike of the Appalachian Trail in an extremely abridged version.

I'll add some more pictures soon, but I want to go ahead and get the post up.