I left Monson on July 17 with Face, Spam, Windscreen, and Pants. While I was feeling excited at the prospect of finishing, it was also sad saying goodbye to the Fellowship who had decided to zero in town. Where the trail intersects the road we were greeted by a sign cautioning us that we were about to enter the 100-mile wilderness. “The Wilderness” is touted as one of the most remote stretches of the entire trail – there are no paved roads and no ways to get into town. Surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most crowded sections of the A.T. We went to sleep that night with less than 100 miles to go.
We crossed the last stretch of difficult terrain before Katahdin during our first few days in The Wilderness. On the 19th, the 150th day of my trip, I summited Whitecap Mountain and was rewarded with my first glimpse of Katahdin. It is a surreal experience to finally see the finish line of such a journey after five months of slowly drawing nearer. So the big-K really does exist! After Whitecap the going got a lot easier, so we spent large parts of each day lounging on sandy beaches, swimming in pristine mountain lakes, and eating the first of the wild blueberries to appear along the trail. Spam and I camped one night on a sandy beach that we had all to ourselves. It was the perfect coda to the trip.
|View of Katahdin from Whitecap Mtn.|
On the 21st, two days before Katahdin, I wrote in my journal that I had expected “to be really hyped up and energized about being so close to Katahdin but I’m not. I’ve just got the same ‘this is a grind’ feeling as usual.” When I woke up the next morning it hit me for the first time: this really is it. This is the end. We hiked a quick 3 miles to Abol Bridge – the end of The Wilderness and the beginning of Baxter State Park – where we spent 6 1/2 hours celebrating at a picnic table by knocking back way more beers than anyone should probably drink in the middle of a day of hiking. We then did the remaining ten miles to The Birches, our last campsite on the A.T. I spent those several hours finishing the words to an A.T. version of “American Pie” that Spam and I had started a few days before.
|Katahdin from Abol Bridge.|
|Pre-Katahdin celebration at Abol Bridge.|
|Katahdin near sunset.|
I have told many people that, on a trip of this length, it is all but impossible to have “fun” every single day. Even if you are glad every day that you are on the trail, some days are just downright miserable. For months, the five of us had been looking forward to finishing the trail and enjoying all the comforts that come with the non-hiking life. While cooking dinner on the eve of my Katahdin day, the feeling hit me for the very first time: “Oh no, maybe I’m not so ready for this to end after all.” It was very sudden and a bit surprising because it was so different from my constant desire to just get the thing done. Here’s an excerpt from my journal entry from that night:
“We have all been thinking for quite a while now that we know what a thru-hike feels like, that we know what being a thru-hiker is all about. After all, we’ve done it all, seen it all, experienced it all, right? Well, I’ve just realized that we still don’t know one important thing: what it feels like to finish. And right now I feel like I’m being hit by a train. This is a whole new ballpark than what we’ve been doing. I’ve been looking at the photograph on the front cover of my guidebook (a close-up of a thru-hiker who has just finished and is resting his head on the Katahdin sign) for months now, imagining every single day what it must feel like to reach the finish line, but even after hiking all this way and experiencing all the ups and downs of a thru-hike (both geographically and mentally), I still didn’t – or couldn’t – feel that feeling depicted in the photograph until just now. Now I feel it. And it’s not so much a feeling of pride in the accomplishment like I thought it would be; instead, it’s a feeling of, ‘I can’t describe what it feels like to have been out here for this long, and I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end.’ Sorry for using the word ‘feeling’ so much.”
It was no surprise that I couldn’t sleep that night, but I woke up with a calm energy. I spent some time at the ranger station where I signed the last trail register and read through the entries of the people I knew. Then I hit the trail alone and so began the final 5.2 miles of the trail. My parents and brother and sister surprised me on the trail about one mile into the day; of course, I knew they had come to Maine to meet me, but I hadn’t seen them yet and didn’t know when I was going to. It was an emotional reunion and lots of tears flowed. After taking a few pictures, they headed back to the trailhead and I continued my climb.
|Signing the final trail register.|
In retrospect, Katahdin was probably the toughest climb on the entire A.T., but on a day of that significance the difficulty of the trail was irrelevant. I was flying up the mountain and passing hordes of day hikers who probably thought I was shot out of a cannon. As I climbed that final mountain I tried to replay the entire trip in my head, but my mind was reluctant to focus on anything but the task at hand. As I got nearer to the summit, I was suddenly able to see the sign in the distance, a sign that I had seen in literally thousands of pictures of past thru-hikers completing their trips. There it was. Face, Windscreen, and Yikes had already finished, and when I came into view they stood up and started cheering for me. The last thirty yards or so felt like they should have been in slow motion, as they might have been in a movie for increased dramatic effect. But, sadly, real life does not move in slow motion. In a few normal-length seconds I covered the last few steps, and before I knew it or could savor the moment in waking life, I reached the sign, kissed it, let out a victorious yell, and it was done. I wish – and will probably always wish – that I could rewind those last few seconds and relive them again and again. We waited for Spam to summit so that we could take some group photos with the sign before starting back down.
|Climb up Katahdin.|
|Climb up Katahdin.|
So, there it is. A week ago to the day I completed my thru-hike, and I still feel like it hasn’t quite hit me yet. Then again, maybe I’m just waiting for a feeling of revelation that won’t ever come. One of the most surprising things I’m experiencing is that I no longer feel that I can comprehend the trail as a whole – in fact, in a way I feel that I had a better view of the whole before I even started hiking. Norman Maclean nailed it in A River Runs Through It when he said, “Sometimes a thing in front of you [or behind you, in my case] is so big you don’t know whether to comprehend it by first getting a dim sense of the whole and then fitting in the pieces or by adding up the pieces until something calls out what it is.” I guess I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is that I just did.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I think the trail has changed me. It’s a question that I often asked myself before I started hiking and even while I was hiking. Now that I’m finished, I don’t really have an answer to the question. I mean, I’ve only been done for a week, so how should I know how I have changed? Maybe I will have a better idea how to answer the question in six months from now, or a year from now, or five years from now. Still, if I were to venture an answer at present, I would say that I think I have gained a calm, quiet stillness of spirit that I did not possess before. For the past five months I have hiked through cold, rain, bugs, pain – all things that I had essentially no control over. On the trail, when it starts raining you have little choice but to just keep walking. As the days and months and miles progressed, I think I became less prone to frustration at the things that were beyond my control, and I hope that I can carry that sense of stillness into my non-hiking life.
When life rains on you, just keep walking.
As this final blog entry comes to a close, I want to thank everyone for showing me so much support during this journey. Of the many feelings that I can’t adequately express right now, one is the happiness I have felt knowing that an entire group of family, friends, and well wishers back home have been cheering me on every step of the way.
It seems fitting to end this final blog entry by sharing my entry from the final A.T. register located at the ranger station at the base of Katahdin. Here it is:
Well, here we are at last. What a hell of a ride it has been! During the course of this hike I have experienced profound loneliness and joyous fellowship, indescribable happiness and utter misery and everything in between. To all those that have shared in this experience with me, I thank you for enriching my journey. You know who you are. With my final words in this register, I will share with you all a few verses by Townes Van Zandt, whose songs I have sung countless times during my hike:
Days up and down they come,
Like rain on a conga drum:
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is too much to bear;
Where you’ve been is good and gone,
All you keep is the gettin’ there.
To live is to fly
All low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.
GA => ME
2/20 - 7/23
|(L-R): Windscreen, Yikes, Sensei, Spam, and The Face.|