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Katahdin, and the End of the Appalachian Trail
Volume 47: Thur November 20, 2003
Amanda and I found ourselves at the base of that great mountain called Katahdin. For me, it would be the end of the Appalachian Trail. For Amanda, it would be the hardest hike of her life—over five miles up 4,000 vertical feet to the highest point in Maine, and another five plus miles to return to the trailhead. The weather started partly cloudy but cold. It was expected to clear later in the afternoon and we hoped the summit would provide a spectacular view by the time we reached the top. The picture-perfect end to an amazing adventure.
We donned jackets, gloves, and hats and started the hike. At the trailhead I signed us in on the register, marking in the 'destination' field Katahdin. Baxter Peak. The top of the world. Or at least the top of Maine.
The first mile was fairly flat and easy going, but then the climb started. Gentle at first, then steeper. I’d pull ahead a bit, and when I realized that Amanda was no longer in view, stopped to wait for her to catch up. As the air grew thinner, the trail would pop out along viewpoints of spectacular beauty with leaves turning their autumn colors as far as the eye could see.
Then we hit the bolder field. Until now, we had been on a clear trail, cutting between trees and rocks and requiring no use of our hands. Here, house sized boulders littered the trail with white blazes going up them at impossible angles. Steel bars had been driven into the rocks at certain places for better hand and foot holds. It was reminiscent of The Notch in southern Maine, except this time it went up a steep slope. Upper body strength would be very helpful at this point, which Amanda had little of, I thought.
Wait a minute. I looked around. Where was Amanda anyhow? I found a rocky outcrop with a great view where I waited for Amanda for twenty minutes. Even my grandmother could have got this far by now, I thought. Finally, I went down to look for her.
I came around a rock and found Amanda laid out on a rock, not moving.
She groaned and twitched a bit.
"Hey, you!" I said a little louder. She looked at me. "How’s it going?" I smiled my most inspiring smile.
It was hard to get the full story out of her in a coherent flow, because she was so furious, but I noticed her pack looked a bit lighter than I remembered it.
"What did you get rid of?" I asked, trying not to betray too much alarm.
"Heavy fucking shit, that's what."
I couldn’t help but laugh. I had a strange sense of deja-vu. I offered to take some of the water in her pack and carry it myself. I had made this offer at the base of the trail, but it fell on deaf ears. This time, Amanda was much more receptive to the idea.
We trudged on, at an excruciatingly slow pace. I’d crawl up a boulder, then take a brief break for Amanda to catch her breath, then over another boulder where we’d take another break. Several other thru-hikers passed by us along the way.
At one point I asked Amanda for the cookies in her pack so I could snack on.
"What do you mean, nope?"
"I ate them already."
"What about the cheese?"
She shook her head. "Ate it."
"I REALLY enjoyed eating that."
"Please," I cried in desperation, "don’t tell me you ate the Pop Tarts!"
"Oh, I ate those back at the hotel when you were taking a shower."
I wanted to cry. Instead, I munched on some strawberry leather that, fortunately, I kept in my own pack. Then we continued on, through the boulder fields.
We reached the end of the bolder field two miles and as many hours later and the start of the tableland—relatively flat, easy walking. However, we also hiked up into the clouds cutting our visibility to almost nothing while a cold, strong wind tried to blow us over. Out of The Notch and into the Whites! Amanda and I donned all the clothes we had (the jackets, hats, and gloves had come off near the beginning of the boulder field) and continued up this terrible mountain. Amanda managed to stay pretty warm working up a sweat from her exertion, but I was practically bored at the slow pace and couldn’t even break a sweat. In fact, I was downright freezing from the inactivity!
We blundered on. Then I saw a sign through the foggy light. And a large cairn nearby. This was it. The end of the Appalachian Trail. Several other hikers were hiding behind rock wind breaks, resting. I approached closer to the sign so I could make out the words: "Katahdin. Baxter Peak. The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail." A white blaze was painted on a rock at the base of the sign: The last white blaze. I had made it. I was officially a thru-hiker.
I didn’t really dwell on the thought very much. It was cold, and I was anxious to start back down the mountain as soon as possible. That was my primary thought: Get back down. NOW!
But before I could leave, Amanda and I needed to take some pictures. Every thru-hiker needs a picture of themselves at the top of Katahdin. It would be criminal to come so far and not get pictures! And between Amanda and myself, we had five different cameras to work with including digital, disposable, and the regular old point-and-shoots. We came prepared!
Also, I pulled out of my pack a plastic bag that I had picked up in Connecticut. It was a Stew Leonard’s bag that I carried since my visit there two months before. The wind was too strong to hold it out, so I pressed it up against my chest as if it was a part of my shirt and got a picture. Look for the picture coming to a Stew Leonard’s near you!
Amanda also took a gag picture of my pretending to use her cell phone, which I affectionately call the "Can you hear me now?" picture. =)
I took pictures of Amanda as well—since she wanted proof that she really did make it to the top of Katahdin, because she had no intention of ever doing so again.
We stayed up there perhaps for five minutes taking pictures, but it was time to head down again.
Down hill went a bit easier for Amanda and required much less physical exertion, although the pace continued to be slow through the boulder field. There was no avoiding that. And rather than the trail being hard, Amanda changed to complaining about her feet starting to hurt. Not surprising, really, given that this was probably the longest she’s ever walked in a 24-hour period of her entire life.
After about eight hours, we made it back to the trailhead. I signed us out on the registration sheet, then headed towards the picnic area where the rest of the thru-hikers had gathered to celebrate our success.
The others who finished with me that day included Leapyear, Tipperary, and Loa among others. Leapyear you met in my last adventures. Tipperary was an older gentleman from Scotland who boasted of losing 70 pounds since starting at Springer Mountain. I remember him from North Carolina and didn't think then there was much of a chance that an old, fat, foreigner would make the distance, but I’m glad to see he proved me wrong. =) He’s a real character and a hoot to talk to. And he’s always telling people that he’s from Western Alabama to explain his accent, but then bemoans that nobody ever believes him. Loa is drop dead gorgeous but a rather fragile looking girl that hiked most of the trail by herself. (Her boyfriend did come out to visit for a good chunk between Virginia and Massachusetts, but she’d have gone on with or without him, I think.) It’s kind of inspiring to see a lone female make the distance, although she certainly wasn’t the only one—just the only one whose finish I witnessed.
Tipperary’s brother and cousin flew out to be there for his grand triumph. They also brought bagpipes to welcome in successful thru-hikers with, and now it was my turn. I’d never had a bagpipe serenade in my honor before, but in this unexpected location I would get my first. We talked about 'reentry'. After spending so much time on the trail, you forget certain vital functions about society like how toilets work and no, you may not pee wherever you want. And strangers won’t walk up to you and offer you food or sodas. Reentry is the process of relearning such vital and important things and acclimate to the off trail world.
I made a tally of Appalachian Trail measurements:
4,852,293 — number of steps I took (estimated)
56,000 — number of white blazes passed (estimated)
3,746 — AT from Springer Mountain to Katahdin (in kilometers)
2,173 — AT from Springer Mountain to Katahdin (in miles)
1,381 — Miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin (as the car drives, or at least as close to it as possible)
1,110 — Miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin (as the crow flies)
512 — number of Pop Tarts eaten (estimated)
497 — longest section (in miles) with no days off
162 — number of days on the trail
150 — gallons of sweat the typical hiker generates on a thru-hike (who measure this stuff?!)
93 — number of nights spent in a shelter
20 — pounds lost during the hike
19 — number of zero days I took
16 — number of nights spent under my tarp
14 — numbers of states traveled
2 — number of toenails the typical hiker loses on a thru-hike
1 — the one, the only, Appalachian Trail
In case you’re wondering about that toenails thing, I didn’t lose any toenails, which is why you never heard about it in my adventures, but most thru-hikers seem to have lost a couple along the way, and a couple I met lost as many as nine toenails!
Anyhow, Amanda and I finally said goodbye to my fellow thru-hikers and we headed off into the proverbial sunset. In this case, Bangor.
We got a hotel near the airport. Amanda was looking through the phone book and discovered a startling discovery in the process: West Broadway is a completely separate street from Broadway. Who makes up this stuff? As you might recall from the last episode of Ryan’s Great Adventure, West Broadway was the street Stephen King was reputed to have lived on, but Amanda and I found Broadway and headed west assuming it would turn into West Broadway. It didn’t work, but now we were once again hot on the scent of Stephen King.
It was much too late that night to go out and hunt his house down, so we waited until morning, loaded up the car, and headed off to West Broadway and found Stephen King’s house in sort order. The black, wrought iron fence in front shaped into serpents and other scary entities was a pretty good hint we were at the right place. I took some picture of Amanda in front of the house, but then we moved on not wanting to have the cops called on us for lurking around. Anyhow, we heard rumors that Stephen (seems like we should call him on a first name basis now that we’ve been to his place) was out of town working on a mini-series in Vancouver at the time so it’s not like we’d get a glimpse of him anyhow.
Then it was off to the airport. I was on my way to Boston for a week of more adventuring. I had a cousin living out there, and I swore I’d visit him before I left the East Coast. So off to Boston we went. Amanda and I first flew to New York City to catch a connecting plane—very exciting for me since it was the first time I’d ever been in New York City. =) I hiked within 34 miles of the place on my trip, but never managed to make it into the Big Apple. It would be different this time, though not by much. At least I could see the New York skyline and the Empire State Building on the horizon, but Amanda and I weren’t at the airport for more than a half hour before we had to board the connecting plane. Not much time to do the usual tourist stuff.
Then it was off to Boston, but I’ll save that adventure for my next episode, just because I can. =)
However, I’ve had lots of people ask me about some of my gear, so I thought I’d tell you about some of the things I did that might have been a bit different than most people you’d find on the trail.
For instance, a pad to sleep on. I’m the only person I met on the trail that didn’t bother to carry a sleeping pad of any sort. It’s not the type of thing I’d necessarily recommend others do because it does take a little getting used to. I deliberately left it behind to force me to try going without it, and I had my mom on standby to mail it to me if it was just too hard to go without it. And the first couple nights I was out on the trail, I would have done it! But then a remarkable thing happened by the third night: I slept well. I figured out how to sleep comfortably without a pad, and then just went without one the rest of the time. But the other thru-hikers seemed to think it was complete lunacy to go without.
Then there was water. I didn’t treat any. A filter was much heavier and larger than I cared to lug around, and I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of spiking my water with chemicals the whole way either. After looking into how common contaminated water really was, I decided to not treat water at all. Oh, there were predictions that I’d get sick and regret making such a decision, but I never did get sick on the trail. Which I think really annoyed some people that did treat their water religiously where I kind of DESERVED to get sick for daring not to treat water despite all the warnings. Ironically, all the hikers I met who claimed to have gotten sick from water usually treated their water in the first place. The only difference I can think of is that maybe I’m less susceptible to getting water-borne contaminates, or else I was more picky about the water I drank from. Water filters and chemicals are not 100% effective and could give some people a false sense of security that any water is safe to drink from as long as it’s treated, but that’s not true. So while I made a point of stocking up at a good spring instead of a nearby lake, others would lower their standards and treat less worthy water. It’s just a theory, though. I did tend to be very selective about the water I drank from—much more so than other hikers. I did carry some Aqua Mira to treat any water that I was forced to drink from (for lack of better choices) that I had concerns about, but I only used it in Maine four times and once in Massachusetts on the whole trip.
A food inspector would have been appalled at how I cleaned my dishes, which consisted of rinsing it out with unpurified water most of the time. I figured any contaminates in it would be killed the next time I cooked with it. If there was an oily kind of substance that didn’t rinse off with water, I’d use leaves to wipe the pot and plasticware clean then rinse with water. Soap? Why bother? Appalling, I know, but it must have worked because it never got me sick. (Again, ironically, most other thru-hikers I think did get sick at least at SOME point on the trip, but I think that was mostly due to person-to-person contact rather than unsanitary dishes.)
I always had a fanny pack on for the camera, snacks, and whatever else I wanted immediately available without having to take my pack off. I’m the only person I ever saw using one, though, which really did surprise me. It’s not the usual 'must need' item you see on backpacking lists, but it was so useful, so convenient, I’m really surprised more people aren’t using them.
Most of the trip I went without a headlamp or flashlight. I carried one the first hundred or two miles until I sent it home because I never used it. It wasn’t until Maine and it getting dark early that I found one useful. If it’s dark, I slept. Why carry the extra weight of a light? But I am, once again, the only person I ever met that neglected carrying a light source most of the time.
Of course, you all already heard about my umbrella. That’s not too unusual on the trail—a lot of people carry umbrellas now as their protection against the rain, but it’s definitely only a minority of people that use them.
And a LOT of people commented on my shoes, since I wore only running shoes the whole time. Very lightweight. Not waterproof. And lots of hikers predicted they would shred to pieces on the infamous rocks of Pennsylvania or the rugged terrain of Maine, but they didn’t. I expected them to wear out between 500 to 700 miles of use, but one of the pairs lasted nearly 1,000 miles far exceeding my expectations. The shoes weren’t waterproof nor did I try to waterproof them on the theory that if it rained long enough and hard enough, your feet will get wet no matter what. At least the lightweight shoes dried faster to compensate for getting wet easier. And I read somewhere that a pound of weight on the feet requires the same amount of energy at six pounds in your pack to haul around—a very convincing argument to ditch the heavy duty shoes as far as I was concerned. And the running shoes didn’t require so much breaking in. They worked well for me, though. Few people went to the extreme that I did, but I did notice a lot of hiker’s shoes getting lighter and lighter the further along the trail they made it. Most people ditched their heavy duty ten pound boots somewhere along the way for lighter versions.
And naturally, there were a LOT of people commenting on my diet of Pop Tarts, pint sized ice creams, sodas, and junk food in general. One should keep in mind that I typically wrote about food I was excited about. Most of the time I wasn’t writing about my mac & cheese dinner because, well, it was boring. Calories were never a concern. I lost 20 pounds while deliberately trying to guzzle down as many calories as possible! You can let yourself go a bit while on the trail.
And that’s all I can think of for now.
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