This time last year, I wrote a post with some highlights from the journals I kept on my Appalachian Trail thru hike. I was in the midst of transcribing them and expected to share more entries when I finished. Which…didn’t happen. Somewhere early in the seventh and final journal, I stopped. Momentum picked up with a play I was writing and before long, my attention shifted to preparing for my summer tour directing in Alaska. I debated bringing the journal with me on the road, but, ahem, I have a tendency to misplace things. It seemed inevitable I’d forget it on some hotel nightstand and kick myself forever.
Flash forward to my 32nd birthday last month. I finally finished the transcription. 40,000 words, accounting for nearly every day on trail. Having a digital record gives me piece of mind, but of course I’ll keep the journals forever. They still have a very specific musk, absorbed from their life in my filthy pack. I’ve never before experienced vivid bursts of positive memories from such a stale odor.
Much of the final journal focuses on Mount Katahdin, the AT’s northernmost point in Baxter State Park, Maine. The finish line. Touching the wooden sign atop the mountain is an epic symbol of everything a thru hiker bleeds, sweats, and dreams for; the radical and totally rad culmination of a life changing journey.
Katahdin already attracted eager campfire chatter on night one, with some people going so far as to declare their summit date. Granted, I can’t guarantee they weren’t correct and/or didn’t finish strong, but based on how I saw that sort of bravado play out, I bet a bunch of those people quit within a month.
Fixating on a finish line thousands of hard-earned miles away was not psychologically fruitful for me, so I nodded and smiled at other peoples’ fantasies, energized by their excitement if nothing else. I knew that in order to finish, I’d have to focus on achievable daily or weekly goals. Hiking X many miles today, finding ways to better pitch my rainfly on stormy nights, breaking down camp more efficiently. I rarely plotted further than my next resupply or two.
As soon as I set foot in Maine, though, it’s as if a primal magnet unlocked inside me. I was no longer nebulously heading “north”, I was hiking to Katahdin. And I needed to get there. With nearly 300 miles still to go, most thoughts funneled toward the mountain in some way, particularly how I was going to feel touching the sign. Was there going to be some God-like rush? Might I just dry heave and sob? What if I felt numb?
Then one day, with about a week to go, Katahdin appeared in the distance. It was not longer a hypothetical destination. It was that mountain, right over there.
Katahdin also carried the weight of ending my hike. The Real World would start rushing back, head-on. Bill, finances, emails, job applications, traffic, schedules. Every moment of every day would no longer be under my control. Also, I wouldn’t reek of dog piss every day and maybe my toes would stop bleeding. It wasn’t a total bummer.
My hunger was in full force by that point. Any thoughts not about Katahdin were about food. I could barely cram three days worth in my pack because the servings (a fancy way of saying mouthfuls of Skittles) were massive. I took to strapping loaves of ciabatta bread and family size bbq chips to the outside of my pack. I had a plan for every single bite, down to the number of pepperoni allotted per meal. If I wasn’t intentional, my mouth vacuum would destroy the limited supply.
I assumed the final days would be chock full of profound thoughts, but I mostly ended up chanting “Chicken Fingers Chicken Fingers Chicken Fingers Chicken Fingers” in my head for hours on end. Do you know how many different ways you can chant Chicken Fingers? A lot. Trust me, I’ve run the numbers. Woods Brain at its finest.
A couple weeks out from Katahdin, I committed to finishing with Tall Boy, one of the closest friends I made on trail. We met day three and hiked around 1000 overall miles together. While it would have been awesome to share the climactic moment with several people I met along the way, it felt right to finish together. The Katahdin Magnet was pulling us at exactly the same rate.
Our final days on trail were miserably rainy. Grey skies and muddy hiking from sunrise to sunset. It was a real struggle getting our asses in gear those last couple mornings. Yanking on wet, cold socks and underwear for the N’th time became a test of pure will; a task that never had luster to lose in the first place. Eager as I was to finish, my body and brain were beyond exhausted.
I hiked a chunk of my penultimate day with Sunshine and Dreamliner, a (no longer) couple in their 20’s. We spent months together, sharing about our lives and goals. On that final hike, we shared our real names, only one of which I knew through Instagram.
Tall Boy and I spent our last night on trail in a shelter near the base of Katahdin, ready to check in with the park ranger the following morning to register for our climb. My sleeping pad popped yet another hole earlier in the week and no longer held air, so I laid on the wood boards, barely able to sleep. I was averaging about 4 hours a night. I stared out the shelter at the pitch black storm, hoping the rain would let up by sunrise, knowing in my gut it wouldn’t.
Tall Boy and I arrived at Katahdin alongside the trail family The Dirty Dozen. I’d heard tell of them a couple months prior to meeting. They seemed cool enough in our limited interactions, though large groups could monopolize space in hostels and campsites with limited flat ground for tenting. They decided to wait another day before summitting in hopes of better weather, saying things like, “I didn’t hike all the way here for a shitty view on Katahdin”.
There’s no use arguing anyone else’s trail logic. Hike Your Own Hike, and all that. I had a very different mindset. I didn’t hike all the way to Katahdin for any type of view. I’ve seen countless summit photos, and yes, it’s gorgeous. The AT is full of gorgeous views. I hiked all the way to Katahdin to save my life, and I can count on one hand the number of times I let weather derail me.
No part of me expected anything about the AT to be easy, even easier. I looked forward to every ounce of the challenge. Those lacking any trace of masochism need not apply. Don’t get me wrong, a sunny summit day would have been wonderful, but it seemed somehow perfect that the final climb put up a fight.
Speaking of the futility of arguing trail logic, Tall Boy and I carried our packs up Katahdin. It is customary to leave your gear at the ranger’s station, bringing only the basics like water and snacks. I left my drenched tent and perhaps my food sack behind, but everything else came with. Even other thru hikers find this ludicrous, as it is totally unnecessary. But whatever. My pack was my constant companion, occasional enemy, and home every step of the way. There’s no chance it wasn’t joining me.
I think about hiking Katahdin at least once a day.
It’s about 5 miles to the summit, gaining 4000 feet. That’s quite a sharp incline. The first couple miles were largely protected from the weather by a thick canopy of trees. Once we broke above treeline, the dirt and root trail gave way to several hours of rock scrabbles through a hail storm.
I overcame much of my fear of heights along the way, though I gotta say, I was grateful for the dense fog preventing me from seeing how how steep the drop-offs were on both sides. Pulling myself up slippery rocks, wetter than if I’d jumped in a lake, was startlingly scary. It was far from my first rainy climb and I’d even learned to enjoy the technical challenge. But something about the weather and the rocks–and the finality of everything–was overwhelming.
I was even more grateful to be with Tall Boy. We’d hiked together for so long, seeing each other at our highest highs and lowest lows. He intuitively knew how freaked out I was (plus I talk to myself, not as quietly as I think) and provided a steady drip of encouragement and tips for foot placement. He later told me he considered asking if we should turn around, but he didn’t want to stress me out more.
During a brief lull in the storm, I came eye-level with a rock I needed to hoist myself on top of. I took off my pack (definitely had some thoughts about carrying it, but we make choices and there ya go), tossed it up, and thrust myself upward. My feet were elevated but but my grip wasn’t strong enough to fully heave myself. I was slipping, with iffy, slick footing below.
At that exact moment, the wind resurfaced with a massive gust. I clung to the rock with all fours, frozen in place. Hail resumed pelting me in the face. I though about the hiker who snapped their leg in half the day prior on this very climb.
I know anxiety well, and felt the familiar ember starting to burn in my chest. It was perhaps the most galvanizing 30 seconds of my life. I had two choices. I could either enter a default state of panic, or I could be the version of myself I discovered thru hiking. My most cunning, nimble, capable self.
In that moment, Katahdin became a final exam. It required me to use everything I learned about keeping calm during a storm, starting all the way back in Oakland, researching gear while negotiating divorce documents. Getting cheated on and repeatedly lied to by my best friend was a real storm, and I lived through that just fine, in the end. This was only some frozen water.
I looked my fear in the eyes and said, “Listen. I’ll hang out with you later. Now is NOT the fucking time.” I breathed deep, readjusted one hand, then the other, and flung myself up onto the rock. I gashed my knee pretty good in the process, but I was mobile.
I had the boost of ego necessary to tackle the rest of the climb. My finely honed hiking instincts kicked into gear. I laser-focused my attention on every decisive step, every handhold; one limb at a time, no wasted movements.
The terrain flattened for a stretch, at which point we hiked against a current of ankle-deep rainwater. Then another rock climb before the summit sign poked through the fog. There were a handful of thru hikers already at the sign, cheering for Tall Boy and me as we took our final steps on the Appalachian trail.
We hooped and hollered like goddamn champions. We accomplished something that so many people dream of, and so few even attempt. Never did being in the minority feel so good.
Here are a couple photos of the proudest moment of my life. I have digitally enhanced versions, but I prefer them as is. If I summitted on a clear day, I’d want those blue skies a’poppin. Haziness is apt when you spend all morning hiking through a storm cloud.
(For context, here are a couple of my friends’ pictures. Photo credit to Estus on the left. On the right is Junior, whose parents I am currently housesitting for in Fairbanks, AK.)
Reality cut my celebratory mood short. When you’re sopping wet in the wind at 5267 ft, you get cold fast if you stop moving. Cut to the bone cold, full body-quaking shivers. After about 10 minutes of not generating heat, my hands and feet started to numb, an early warning sign of hypothermia (not the kind of numbness I worried about in my tent). Living in the woods for six months, I grew to respect that Mother Nature couldn’t care less about your plans, nor should She. It was time to get moving.
Everyone opted for an alternate, less technically demanding route down the mountain. Tall Boy took his worst tumble on the trail, about a mile after we got moving. He went down hard, connecting with jagged rocks in multiple spots. I witnessed a lot of falls and this was one of the most brutal. Again, Mother Nature had priorities outside of shepherding our victory lap.
Moments after re-entering the tree line, the sun came out and stayed out for days. Because why not. Once we were on safe, flat ground, the emotional faucets opened. Tall Boy and I talked about how proud we were of ourselves and each other. How this is something we would carry inside us the rest of our days. How we earned our spot among an elite group of athletes without cutting a single corner along the way. How happy we were to finish together. Straight boys are so cute when they cry.
Soon we were on a shuttle to the nearest town, Millinocket, with our fellow summitters and The Dirty Dozen who got their sunny summit the following day. Everyone wins on Katahdin. Except for that maybe person whose leg snapped…
That night, Tall Boy and I shared a beer with our summit crew. I barely knew a several of them, but for that brief window of time, we were family.
TraI shuttled to the airport in Bangor, ME a couple days later alongside Bengt, a young German on a six month travel Visa (very common on the AT) who I met way back at the Atlanta airport. He had dropped his thru hike around the midpoint and selectively section hiked the rest of the way. We started the same morning, hiked very different hikes, and finished within hours of each other. What a world!
* * *
Shortly after completing my journal transcription, I went back and re-read my first post on this blog. I wrote: “I needed to get this journal up and running. It already feels more real.” One of the best tips for prospective thru hikers is to announce their intentions to hike as loud and wide as possible. Putting it out in the world has an immediate affect, holding you to a new level of personal and social accountability.
So here goes. I have a new Katahdin in sight. A trek that seems as hugely challenging and fundamentally doable as walking across 14 states.
I’m writing my first book.
Much more to follow, very soon!