Monson, ME to Fourth Mountain Bog
Root Beer Float Camp to Peace Needle Camp
AT miles: 20.5
Total miles: 2103.3
Elevation change: 5453ft gain, 4790ft loss
The other day, I found myself looking at my leggings, pulling at them and running my hands across the strained seams, thinking, “wow, these have come a long way.” Following that train of thought, “wow, I’ve come a long way.” There are some memories of this thru-hike that seem impossibly distant now. The significant blurring starts in New York, and generally increases the farther I let my mind wander into the past. A few days stand above the haze, such as the Roan Highlands or Clingmans Dome, but even those feel pulled from a life barely connected to my current one. The trail has changed so much since then, and who knows, I’ve probably changed too. I take it on faith rather than logic that one can trace my footprints through and across countless valleys and bumpy ridges from Maine to Georgia. This land is so varied, yet so alike, and a long hike like this one highlights those differences and similarities in a way that feels obvious yet too large to understand at the same time. As I started into the 100 Mile Wilderness today, the last section of the AT before the final climb up Katahdin, I felt that acutely. The trees, roots, rocks, leaves, and shade all felt new and exciting, yet they were more of the same. Each step I took was both unique and exactly what I had done a million times before. Now, as the end approaches, these steps feel numbered rather than pulled from an infinite supply, and I find that thought more comforting than unsettling. Now when I let my mind’s eye drift to the summit of Katahdin I’m filled with a tingle of excitement and delicious anticipation. Not too long ago, the same mental journey was too intimidating to consider. I’ve checked off each milestone one by one for months now, focusing on just the next town or visit with SpiceRack, rarely thinking all the way to the end. Now, the final summit is the only milestone left standing in front of me, and I find myself with 100 miles left to figure out what that means.
I awoke to a cold and rainy morning, rattled from slumber by a passing semi truck. It was still early, but traffic was picking up, the world was getting to work. I lay in bed listening to the rain pummel down in waves, feeling cozy and like I wanted to do anything but hike. Yep, I didn’t want to do anything at all, but that wasn’t going to cut it, so I slunk out of bed and got the kettle heating for a brew. The hot drink would perk me up.
However, the opposite happened. As the rain eased and the day brightened, I grew more tired and began to brood. This was not my morning, not my day. I felt heavy and unmotivated. The leftovers that SpiceRack reheated and served were yummy and healthful, but they weighed me down, pressing me deeper into the couch cushion. But I had to hike, like it or not, so I started moving in that direction, first resupplying, then corralling all my gear that had spread across the vanscape. Eventually, under a brightening sky that promised sunshine, I stepped out into the parking lot, not ready, but ready to go. I poured the puddles of rain water from the shoes that I had not hidden well enough under the van, and slopped them on. Hoisting my pack, I hoped that the heavy load of four days of food was heavy enough to see me comfortably fed to Abol Bridge. I’ll find out in about four days, I guess. A final hug from Spice, then into the woods, feeling slow and tired already.
A few slips on smooth slate, slick with rain and loathing, soured my mood and strengthened my resolve to hate the day. I hiked on in anger, but even at my lowest, I admitted that my disgruntlement would not last. This forest was too beautiful and the day too perfect. It was only a matter of time before I felt like my happy self again.
The trail may have been gorgeous, but it was not easy. It dipped and turned endlessly over and around fins of stone and rooty gorges of spruce and fir. All types and colors of moss were represented, and the tread was springy with a deep bed of needles in between the hard rocks and slick roots. Ferns and fruitless blueberry bushes brushed my legs, leaving them damp with the memory of the morning rain. A pond or two poked through the trees along the way, singing their siren song, calling for me to take a dip in their clear water, but I ignored them, sticking with my sweat shower instead. There was no doubt about it, this was some of my favorite trail of the entire AT, and I couldn’t even attribute that notion to splendid mood inflation. I felt that way depite my mood. This was a special place, and even the bugs respected its sanctity by keeping their distance.
I felt my spirits lifting as I smacked up a rising fin of slabby slate to a view of nothing in particular. Then a twinge of the same foot discomfort that had scared me so in Lincoln gave me a zap as I traversed a horrendous slope of talus, briefly dipping my mood once more. However, by the time I finished up lunch after fording the knee-deep Big Wilson Stream, all my moodiness and worries had been swept away by the rushing water. The foot soak and rest in the sun was the final reset I needed. The mental storm had gone the way of the real one, and I felt clear and finally ready to accept the gifts of the wilderness once more.
The warm beech forest was too dense with shade for my sunglasses, which I thought was pretty darn neat. I perched them on my hat for a few sweet miles, then slipped them back on at the next bright river. This one rushed by, narrow and swift, and I searched for a dry crossing, settling for a risky leap between boulders. I crouched low, compressing the springs in my legs, then burst forward, really having little idea of how far I could jump while carrying so much food. I gave a hoot and a fist pump after landing dry on the other side. I ate a bar, and watched the white tufts of tree seeds float by on a warm breeze, feeling pleased with myself and good about life.
The victory was short-lived, however, as I soon found myself crotch deep in Long Pond Stream. There was no jumping across this one. Even with my poles, I barely managed to stay on my feet as I shuffled over the slippery boulders that lay hidden below the shiny brown surface of the rushing water. Still, the big climb of the day was ahead, and my damp leggings kept me cool as I started up the steep steps and textured slabs. The beech disappeared, replaced again by spruce as I panted higher, pushing hard to beat the sunset to camp. I caught my breath at Barren Ledges while ogling the vast ocean of green spreading to the east. It shimmered brilliantly in the clear sunshine, mirroring the optimism that I now felt with a good day of hiking under my hip belt. I could just make out the Bigelow Horns on the horizon. They seemed closer in time than space, but for how long would that last?
I earned a similar view on top of Barren Mountain, but didn’t linger this time. Dinner and sleep were calling me a few miles ahead, and it was time to scoot. The following ridge was a tricky mix of mud and roots, but soon enough, just as the orange sun flamed out through the tall trunks of whispering pine, I dropped my load at camp. The deep needle earth was too loose to hold fully-tensioned stakes, so I carefully tightened each guy line, little by little, until I had a floppy tent to call home for the evening. I snuggled with my couscous against the descending chill, scooping a glob of peanut butter to hold me over until the pasta finished soaking. Not a breath of wind stirred the air. No sounds drifted on the wind. The night was perfectly peaceful, and I felt that too. A stormy and moody morning, a bright and beautiful afternoon, and now peace. That’s all I wanted for these final days. Peace, and maybe a burrito too.