“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than you found it.” –Wilferd Peterson
I echo Mr. Peterson.
When my parents were involved in drawn-out divorce proceedings in my early teen years, the one piece of motherly advice my angst-ridden mind could capture was: always leave something/someplace/someone better than you found it (or them).
The embodiment of this advice, I noticed my mother meticulously caring for flowers she’d planted surrounding the apartment home she knew we’d inhabit but temporarily. She’d say, “The next people who live here will enjoy these flowers.” I’d shrug. They’d bloom. I’d sometimes put them in a vase for her. And at times I’d say, “I guess so.”
Barring knocking on the door of that middle-of-nowhere, French Lick, Indiana apartment, begging the question, “Excuse me, did you happen to enjoy the daffodils and surprise lilies planted here in 1996?” I suppose there’s no way to know for sure.
But, whoever those next folks were, I trust that the flowers brought a smile or two.
And so it is with the Appalachian Trail. And perhaps all of life. The lessons are to tread lightly, yet deliberately. Keep the next generation in mind. Give more than you take. See, and seek, more than you look. Consider the lilies, the daffodils. Consider your fellow man. Consider life, and be excited about it. Keep planting flowers regardless of life’s circumstances. Be aware of the impact of your footsteps, but keep planting one foot in front of the other.
I began to write this trail wrap-up sitting in a city park on a sunny Denver day. In my peacefulness, trying once more to get into the groove of writing, my peripheral vision caught sight of a woman strolling by, walking her dog. A pug. The pug was trotting dangerously close to the edge of the nearby pond. My concerned gaze met that of its owner, who said, “He likes to walk on the edge.” You and me both, buddy. That’s the only way to live.
Hopefully having located that “groove” once more, my mind explores several questions: Why the heck has it taken me four months to write a trail wrap-up? Isn’t this December? Why do mosquitoes exist? Exactly how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
As for the latter questions, I remain stumped. My best answer to the first, to myself and to all others who have wondered or expected more than I’ve delivered, is this: I’ve simply had difficulty punctuating the journey. And yes, it is December.
An interesting phenomenon occurs among long-distance hikers, and I suppose among all of those who’ve departed from the normal realm of things to pursue an experience so extraordinarily life-altering. It has to do with the issue of transition.
I remain in close contact with a couple dozen hiking companions through the realm of social networking. I recently implored them to share how the AT to “real life” transition has unfolded for them. The feedback was insightful, and underscored my emotion in writing the following excerpt from the journal I kept while in the woods:
“Last night I had a dream that I was very suddenly tossed back into a corporate setting. There was some sort of cheesy fundraiser going on, involving an obstacle course. The “Candyland-esque” destination was Mount Katahdin, the northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail. Much to my disappointment, none of my colleagues seemed to understand or care about the mountain’s significance; the sole focus was on raising money.
“The dream was a harsh reminder of what I’ve known: the day will quickly come when I long for an aching body under the burden of a heavy pack, and yearn to walk as I now do: in complete freedom. Ah, the stillness, interrupted only by the tumbling brook.”
That day has indeed quickly come. And with it, an awakening not only from this dream, but also from the dream espoused in the Shakespearian quote, “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
I offer these observations not from a pedestal, or to suggest others have not dealt with similar or more difficult transitions, but simply to say that nothing about the trail is a cinch to explain to those who’ve yet to experience it. Or, if a simpler word picture does exist, I should pay serious mind to honing my skills of articulation.
When last I wrote, I was in Monson, Maine, about to enter the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and complete the trek to Katahdin, after having “flipped” from the South.
The trip through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness poses an interesting catch 22 from the get-go. It is strongly advised that hikers carry a minimum of 10 days of food and supplies so as not to underestimate the harshness of the terrain and to be prepared should inclement weather impede presumed mileage goals. The catch is this: 10 days worth of food is quite heavy. I learned very quickly that packing this much grub will slow a person down, and almost guarantee a less than abbreviated trip through this section of trail. Some hikers purposefully carry fewer provisions in favor of forcing themselves to achieve higher mileage days due to necessity.
In my case, I packed for 10 days. I stayed for 10 days. I was more than okay with this.
Prior to entering this stretch, I had made the difficult decision that Katahdin would be the end of the trail for me, at least for this season, bringing my Appalachian Trail mileage total to approximately 500…a wee bit shy of the 2,181 mile length of the trail. I had been hiking since June with Boy Floyd, for whom Katahdin would be the end due to his need to return to professorial duties in Arizona. I had also been dealing for some time with compounding ankle injuries, and had come to terms with the realization that I once again needed to redefine my goals. Rather than head south from the Kennebec River through the toughest section of trail, I would “hitch a ride” with Floyd across the country post-Katahdin. It just made sense.
As such, this allowed the opportunity to truly enjoy the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, with no expectation of hurry. We gave ourselves the gift of pausing to pick low bush blueberries by the handful, to swim in mountain lakes and streams, and to enjoy longer than normal mountaintop breaks, soaking up the noonday sun.
Though bittersweet, leaving the trail when I did also enabled me to skirt the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene shortly thereafter.
One of my first observations through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness was the shift in perspective in a good deal of the hikers I encountered. Unlike acquaintances in the South, most of these folks had begun their hike in late winter or early spring, and were nearing the end of a traditional thru-hike. Understandably, some were less interested in getting to know fellow hikers, and more interested in just “getting it over with.”
A humorous example of this comes via Rock Monkey and Butter, two pleasant gals I shared a lunch break alongside. Still reeling from a panoramic summit view directly prior, I exclaimed something along the lines of, “Did you get a load of that amazing view back there?” Rock Monkey dryly responded, “No. After a while, it all looks the same to me. Mountains, trees, mountains, trees.” Butter, still staring at her hiking boots, quipped, “Gee, Rock Monkey, you sure look up a lot.”
Maine hiking also brought with it a sharp decline in the number of occurrences of folks posing the common question, “So, what do you do back home?” I had never quite known how to answer that question, and this was a welcome change for me. What do you do? I understand that this is perfectly normal small talk etiquette, and is not ill intentioned. However, the more I hiked, the less interested in small talk I became. To that inquiry, I envisioned myself responding, “Well, what I do back home is dream about hiking the Appalachian Trail, and not having to talk about what I do back home.” Yet, since I don’t fancy myself to be a rude person, I would offer a more appropriate response having to do with my background in counseling and hospice work. Then, I would hike on.
One of the most humbling experiences along the way was the chance meeting with a father and son duo named Larry and Luke. When we crossed paths just south of West Peak in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, Luke had acquired the trail name “Lightning Rod” the previous day. The story goes that to avoid being perched atop the exposed West Peak in the midst of a ferocious storm, the southbound pair had chosen to remain below tree line until the weather cleared. This would have been a foolproof strategy had the storm’s torrential rain not rendered the trail a waterfall, and had lightning not struck a nearby tree. The electricity traveled through the water, knocking both of them off their feet, not before blowing a hole directly through Luke’s hiking boot. The science of it is that had their feet been any further apart, the charge would have arced through their bodies, likely killing them instantly.
Then there are stories with endings less happy. I recall vividly another evening in the Wilderness. Having just forded the West Branch of the Pleasant River at Gulf Hagas, I paused on a log to hurriedly reunite my feet with my boots, eager to hike the last couple of miles to make camp before nightfall. In the midst of this task, a gentleman in his early fifties approached, introducing himself as “Open Mike” from New York. Through our brief pleasantries, I learned that he was “training” for his 2012 thru-hike by hiking a mere 1,200 miles in 2011. Even in this short exchange, his zest for life was contagious. When we parted ways, he went bounding across the river without even bothering to remove his boots, waving farewell as he reached the other side. About a week later, my hiking partner and I would hear two other hikers recounting the story of happening upon a “dead dude” in the middle of the trail, presumably of a heart attack. Despite their best efforts to revive him, Open Mike was gone.
Another memorable and more lighthearted occasion was crossing paths with two south-bounders trekking along at a fast pace, carrying only a meager supply of water. “Where ya headin’ tonight, folks?” I inquired. “Monson.” came the reply as they breezed by me. Monson? I thought. That’s over 60 miles away! Instead of audibly expressing my doubt, I muttered a “Good luck,” and kept heading north.
A short time later I met another fellow, he too carrying minimal supplies. Appearing physically depleted, he stopped long enough to pant the question “How feasible is it to run the southern half of the Wilderness?” Run it? I thought. There were bits of this mountainous section I struggled to hike! And it’s edging on dusk…you’re trying to RUN the most difficult portion of this somewhat technical stretch at night?” Again, I chose to refrain from vocalizing my opinion. In doing so, I learned that the men were a part of a trail running group, and were attempting to complete the entire length of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in a 24-hour span. And I thought I was tough!
Upon exiting the Wilderness, Floyd and I took advantage of a rainy day by “zeroing” at Abol Bridge Campground before the 10-mile hike to the base of Katahdin. Walking to the camp store for a bit of resupply, I heard the most familiar laugh in the distance. Could it be? Indeed, the laugh belonged to “LOL,” an aptly named trail friend I had not seen since North Carolina. She (and her dog Swayze) had “flip flopped” to Maine as well. What a treat to see familiar faces, and to dole out hugs accordingly.
The day of our Katahdin climb was classified by Baxter State Park as a “class 2” day, which meant all trails were open, but that climbing was not recommended amid changing weather conditions. On the ascent, the mountain was completely socked in by fog, which turned to freezing rain and high winds the further we climbed. I soon realized my error in approaching this mountain with an air of overconfidence, thinking “I’ve climbed nearly a dozen Colorado 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet); how hard could this be?” The answer is: Mount Katahdin, at 5,268’ in elevation, rivals any peak I have summited to date in terms of difficulty. And it was glorious.
On the descent, Floyd and I made the decision to stick with our new acquaintances Pierogi, Metso, and Turtle, three lovely ladies who were a bit tentative about the mountain. “Team Fox Force Five,” as we coined ourselves, exhibited teamwork at its finest, sharing quite a few laughs in the process. Many of these moments were inadvertently captured through 48 minutes of pocket audio, as I had somehow managed to turn on my phone’s “record” button. I could not have asked for a more precious memento.
Because we had made such slow work of the mountain, night had fallen by the time we completed the descent and reached the trailhead. Our original plan had been to hitchhike to the nearest town, Millinocket, 24 miles away. However, the park was now closed. Not a soul was in sight, making this typically “easy hitch” nearly impossible. To top it off, we were wet and freezing, not to mention physically spent. At this point, Floyd looked at me and said, “Groceries, I know it doesn’t seem like it, but sometime soon, we will actually be warm and dry again. But probably not tonight.”
Just then we noticed something miraculous: was that a forest ranger in the distance? Floyd rushed to catch him as he was leaving for the night. Before we knew it, we were throwing our packs in the back of his truck. We had a ride to Millinocket!
We spent the following morning lounging in Millinocket’s AT Café while awaiting our ride back to Monson. I spent a good portion of that time poring over and being amazed by the book Blind Courage, Bill Irwin’s account of his journey as the first blind man to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Finally, our ride arrived. “Hey, I hope you guys don’t mind,” Charlie said, “I need to swing by this guy’s house on the way back. I’ve been doing some work at his place the past couple of days, and I need to drop off some batteries he left in my car. I don’t know; some blind cat who hiked the AT.”
And that’s how Boy Floyd and I met Bill Irwin. It could not have been planned in greater fairytale fashion.
This incredibly gracious trail legend was as genuinely as excited to meet us as we were star struck to meet him. Eager to share his trail experiences, he invited us into his home, to stay for a cookout, and to “come back next year and stay in the guest suite.” What a way to cap off the journey!
In completing this chapter of the adventure, I’d like to extend a special thanks to Snowshoe Magazine for the generous support and coverage of my travels. I’d also like to offer my extreme gratitude to Mile High Mountaineering, Columbia, KEEN, and Icebreaker for the amazing gear sponsorship. Thank you all for your patience in the punctuation of this story, which decidedly looks something like this: … (as in, “to be continued…)
One thing is certain: the Appalachian Trail has my heart, and I will return to it.
Until then, I vow to heed my own advice. I will tread lightly, yet deliberately. I will keep the next generation in mind. I will give more than I take. I will keep planting flowers regardless of life’s circumstances. Above all, I will keep planting one foot in front of the other.
My hope and prayer is that I’ve made my mother proud by leaving the trail just a little better than I found it. And that perhaps I’ve left a few smiles along the way.
Thank you for walking with this dreamer.
To read Maria’s previous AT blogs, click here.