Sabbath Day Pond Shelter to Sluice Brook
Loon No Moon Camp to Moose Camp
AT miles: 22.8
Total miles: 1990.3
Elevation change: 6211ft gain, 6880ft loss
The terrain eased a little more. The mileage total crept higher. Slowly but surely, the crashing waves of New Hampshire and Southern Maine recede, leaving the ocean of miles to flatten and settle. Today was not an easy day, and there was no danger of me pumping out a 30, but it felt more ‘normal’ and routine than any since my terrible struggle over Smarts and Cube Mountain, the day before entering The Whites with the mega-climb up Moosilauke. The thing is, I’m not even sure what ‘normal’ is anymore, and even if I did, I don’t think that I’ll ever find it in Maine. The forest is too dense, the trees too varied, the moss too thick, the boulders too large, the roots too knotted, the mud too deep, the views too grand, the wilderness too vast. Maine is a different world, combining some elements of earlier states, but mostly it is its own. The Whites were the ultimate barrier, protecting this enchanted kingdom of moss and moose like a moat of mountains, sluicing away the hubris and hearty confidence of someone who has hiked very far. I entered Maine raw and open, the shards of my protective mental shell shattered and scattered amid the boulders in Mahoosuc Notch. Now, the highs feel higher after knowing the depths of the lows, and I bounce between the two more easily. My power to dampen the mental rollercoaster is diminished. I am more of an emotional being now, less reasonable and measured. I reflect what I see more accurately, with less logical meddling. Some of these changes I hope to keep when all this hiking is done, and the others I will try to leave behind or bury under a pile of burritos and pizza. However, for now I hike on as I am, wild and different. There is no one quite like me, and nowhere quite like Maine. We dance, I triumph, I cry.
The morning was mostly normal except for the sounds of the other campers rustling, recapping, and readying themselves for the day. Even though I wasn’t a part of it, I was comforted to hear the loving interactions between family members. I wished them well as they hiked out of camp, our stories diverging after their brief entanglement. I finished packing up and got hiking myself after examining the shelter logbook. Poles (remember that guy?) was two weeks ahead and said that two-thirds of the lake was frozen when he hiked through. I looked at the bright beech leaves, grateful to have them for company instead of more ice.
The trail north was as smooth and flat as I dare hope for these days. That’s to say that it was far from being totally smooth and flat, but it was getting there. I finally hiked with a decent pace, plowing through fresh spiderwebs, catching them with my poles if I spied them shimmering in the sunlight in time. The roots were still tangled, and the boardwalks still slick, but boulders and scrambles were noticeably absent through the forested hills. My energy was spent traveling forward instead of up, and it felt good. I passed an empty and idyllic campsite at Little Swift River Pond, wishing that I could stay for days. There were boats for paddling, a fire ring for burning, and a privy for pooping. What more could I want?
I carried on down into the brightening glow of green as spruce gave way to beech and maple. Across a highway, I worked back up into the transition zone, where both coexisted, where brown leaves mingled with brown needles and brown cones amid the soaring trunks of smooth silver and cracking brown. There, I stopped at an empty shelter for lunch. The cool shade was perfect for sitting, and I sat, and I ate, and I drank. And so ended the easy portion of the day.
The big climb up Saddleback Mountain was not so tough, but it was spiritually linked to the mountains to the south. I clambered up some steep jumbles of rocks, using stiff roots as handholds, dodged around the sucking mud of two ponds, then puffed straight up the steep slabs to treeline and above. Similar to Baldpate, the massive bald summit was made up of huge slabs of flakey granite. Cairns and paint directed me between splashes of delicate lichens and moss to the wooden sign on the summit that sprouted from a pile of rocks. Extending north was an epic ridgline of the same stuff that I was pleased to have the privilege of traversing. To the south I could see all those damned mountains I had climbed, all the way back to Mount Washington, which was just a hint of darkness on the glowing horizon. Everywhere else, massive shimmering lakes filled in the low spots in a crumpled napkin of greens and more greens. It seemed that a third of this state was under water, a boaters paradise, mosquito paradise.
I began the steep dip to the saddle of the Saddlebacks on my way to the next prominent summit, The Horn. I chatted for a while with Giddyup, a distinguished gentleman who was putting the finishing touches on an almost-complete thru-hike, learning lots and enjoying the lively conversation, then continued the tumble down the cracked stone. Some of the finest walking of the entire AT continued from the bottom, across a smooth flat, then up a grippy slope of slabs to the summit. I could not have been happier as I let my long strides shift to stuttered toe steps as the grade increased. The Horn was similar to Saddleback, but afforded a shifted, and thus totally new view worthy of another break.
Down the other side, the magic wore off. I was tired, hungry, and too dehydrated to admit it, and the trail flipped back to its unfriendly ways. Boulders ran slick with water, and mud sucked at my shoes. I even got lost for five minutes as I tried to navigate around a large tree that lay across the trail. As I twirled amid a dense stand of short fir, searching in vain for a white blaze to guide me back home, I was filled with unease. How easy it would be to get, and stay lost, if panic took control. I tracked back to where I left the trail and tried the other way around. The trail was there, and I could have hugged it.
My love quickly dissolved during the stupid, just plain stupid, ascent of Saddleback Junior. Everything I hated in the world was represented in that seemingly vertical half-mile. Perhaps if I had been expecting the struggle I would have handled it better, but I hadn’t, so I didn’t. I raged to the top, sweating and grumbling, even spitting in disgust as I crested the round top. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a classy person, but I definitely would have said that I was above spitting on something or someone. I guess not. However, I did regret it immediately and felt ashamed, making sure to apologize profusely to the mountain and the universe.
I gave myself a timeout at the next shelter to eat, drink, and calm down. It was what I needed, a forced stop to take care of my needs and start acting like an adult once more. I drank all the water I had, then filled up at the nearby stream. I ate a chocolate cupcake Luna Bar, which was better than I deserved, but just what I needed.
Feeling a bit better, I followed the trail steeply at times down to, then across Orbeton Stream. Redeeming myself after yesterday evening’s slip in a creek, I somehow kept my feet dry with a display of balance, power, and grace such as Orbeton had never seen before. A steep scramble up the other shore deposited me on an old logging road next to a cascading waterfall. The flat surface made the perfect place to camp, and I pitched my tent hastily amid the gathering swarm of alerted mosquitoes. As I ate my couscous, I wasn’t sure what to make of the day. One of the good ones for sure, yet one of the tough ones as well. And why couldn’t it be both? It was a long day, after all. Maine is a varied state, and I am a complex being. We dance, I triumph, I cry.