August 14, 2013
Today’s mileage: 5.1
Total mileage: 2185.9
We did it. We finished our thru-hike. The end has come. Instead of typing away on my iPhone in our tent, I am typing on a MacBook on my couch. I would say that this change of technology would make typing this account of our last day on the trail a quicker procedure, but there’s a lot to say, so I’m not so sure about that.
I actually slept better than I thought I would the night before the big day. I kept hoping it was 5:00 AM, but I knew it wasn’t as I lay in the pitch black of the tent. The alarm went off and we knew it was time. Time to put away our tent, stuff our stuff sacks full of stuff, and pack our packs for the last time. We left camp at 6:00 and walked over to the campground parking lot to meet my dad.
Once my dad arrived, we took out all of the gear that we didn’t need for the last day and put it in the trunk of the car. We packed our food bags with chicken salad sandwiches, chips, grapes, and more from my mom. With our lightened packs and excitement mounting, we headed off on our last day of hiking. We had planned to hike Katahdin with my dad for months. It was part of my motivation to finish the AT. My dad had never hiked Katahdin before, so what better time to do it than on the last day of our thru-hike.
The first part of the Hunt Trail, which is the trail that the AT follows to Baxter Peak, was like many other parts of the trail in New England. The ascent wasn’t too steep and we made good time up to Katahdin Stream Falls. The stream had the clearest water I’ve seen by far on the entire AT. You wouldn’t need to filter this clear, cold water. It was a beautiful sight. Once we passed a small slab cave, the hiking began to increase in difficulty. Our pace started to slow as we heaved ourselves up the rocks and realized that we needed to ditch the poles. We stowed our poles away in our packs and headed on. People were already coming back down the trail, realizing that the trail ahead was too difficult for them to hike.
Once we reached the “rebar” section of the trail, we knew it was where several hikers had turned around and gone back. We were above tree-line as the wind picked up. It was slow-going for the next mile up to The Gateway. The three of us helped one another as we made our way up the trail. And by up, I mean that we were really going up. Like technical climbing, steep up. We contemplated the best route as we made our way along the trail, not always going directly where the white blazes were painted. There were better ways to go. We advised and warned each other of the trail ahead as one of us played guinea pig for the others, being the first to head up a difficult climb. There was one time when my dad was pushing me up from behind and Miles was grabbing my hand from above to hoist me up to the next rock. Often times on our thru-hike, I’ve thanked my German ancestors for my long legs and arms, but there were times on the Hunt Trail where they just weren’t long enough. It was by far the toughest part of the entire AT that we’ve hiked. NOBOs certainly get to go out with a bang on the end of their thru-hike. It was similar to the Cathedral Trail that we had taken up Katahdin three years ago, although I would say that the boulder climbing was more difficult on our hike this year.
We were locked in the clouds for most of the morning, but we had a few peeks to what was below us. We congratulated all of the guys who had finished their thru-hikes and were on their way down as we headed up to the summit. It was strange to think that we may never see some of them again or at least for awhile, since they live anywhere from Minnesota to Virginia to Pennsylvania. We congratulated each other and said our “see you laters.” One of the hardest parts about ending a thru-hike is having to leave all of the people that we’ve become friends with over the past five months. They’re the people that understand what we’ve been through because they’ve gone through it with us. We’ve all been leading the same lives and now we must all go back home. Of course, we will always be connected to one another now, no matter how far apart we are post-hike.
Once we saw a trail sign above us, we knew that we were approaching the Gateway to the Tableland. The Gateway is so appropriately named since it opens up to the vast, open Tableland. For thru-hikers ending their hike, it’s sort of like the red carpet to the end. The trail levels out until the last, short climb up to Baxter Peak. As we neared the peak, the clouds began to reveal more and more of the views surrounding us. We stopped to admire the beauty of our home state. These glimpses however, would be nothing compared to what we would see a few hours later. We stopped for a quick break at Thoreau Spring, where we were one mile away from the end of our thru-hike. At this point, Miles had to change his trail name from Miles to Go, to Mile to Go. The odd thing about our last day of hiking was that it felt so normal. I mean, we knew that the end was near, but I never felt overwhelmed with emotion. I was excited and a little sad, but I felt like tomorrow, we would be hiking farther north, just as we had always done almost every day for the past 5 months. Thru-hiking was our reality and ending that routine felt strange. Nevertheless, we weren’t set on continuing on the International Appalachian Trail into Canada, nor were we inclined to turn around and head back south to Georgia. It was almost time for this journey to end. It’s always difficult to end a part of your life that is so fulfilling and memorable, but I’ve always enjoyed trying different things in my life. Our AT journey was about to end, but it only means that we’re setting the stage for more adventures to come our way.
As we began the short ascent up to Baxter Peak, I began to see the end. The clouds blew by and we had glimpses of a group of people and a sign. The sign that marked the end of our thru-hike. Of course, I had seen and touched that sign before, but it would never compare to the moment that was about to be. We were within twenty steps or so of the Katahdin sign when we stopped to wait for it to be clear of hikers taking photos next to it. We waited and waited, our anticipation growing by the second. When it was finally clear of people, my dad went up ahead to capture the moment and Miles and I looked at each other, signaling to one another that we were ready to take the final steps together to finish our 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Normally, we hike one behind the other, but this time we hiked side-by-side, ending our journey at the same exact moment. We reached the sign, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and touched its worn, wooden face. I didn’t cry, I didn’t break down, nor did I yell in excitement. Both of us simply smiled and looked at each other. We did it.
Unlike many people, thru-hiking hadn’t been a long-standing dream for us. It was only at the end of March 2012 that I even came up with the idea to thru-hike. Within a few days of discovering AT thru-hiking, I decided it was something that I wanted to do. I asked Miles a few days after that and he accepted this mission without even really knowing what it entailed. He told me after we got engaged that it was then that he decided to propose to me on our thru-hike. He may not have known anything about thru-hiking, but he did know that it would be a big step in our relationship. Thru-hiking became my dream. For an entire year, I planned, obsessed, and dreamed about our 2013 thru-hike. I believed that we could make it all the way, but I knew that there were so many variables that could prevent us from finishing. Injury, weather, family emergency, funds, and what almost got us off the trail, the mental head game, all could have cut our thru-hike short and sent us home before the end. I always knew that quitting and going home was not an option for us. I knew that we had to stick it out, no matter what, to reach our goal. And somehow, we were able to push through and overcome all of the physical, emotional, and psychological obstacles and walk home. Thru-hiking the AT was by far the most challenging thing that I have ever done in my life. It was also the most rewarding. And that is why we push through the most challenging feats of life. We know that if we overcome our fears and if we can maintain our focus through the toughest of times, that we will come out the other end a different person. And now, Miles and I will forever be rewarded from the accomplishments of our thru-hike. We will forever be connected with our trail family. We will have that draw to the trail that will never leave us. And most of all, we will always have the stories to remember together. We went through all of the same challenges together. We helped each other through every tough day. We will remember that we laughed way more than we cried. We can be certain that our love for one another got us through this hike and we came out the other end even more united than before. We did this thing together. I know that we’ll always look back on these last five months as the rainiest, smelliest, craziest, toughest, best time of our lives.`
We took our pictures with the sign and of course, had one with my dad as well. Not only was August 14, 2013 a big day for us, but it was also the day that my dad finally climbed to the top of Katahdin. He has lived in Maine for 26 years and never made it to Baxter Peak. He planned on hiking up with us since last spring, but it had always been something that he wanted to do. I can’t say that it was easy for him. The Hunt Trail is very challenging. I’m really proud of my dad for what he did yesterday. He struggled on the way down and it’s no wonder, since he’s not used to hiking everyday like we are. I know there were points where he was probably wondering why he was even doing it, but like thru-hiking, there’s a little pain (sometimes a lot), but there’s always the huge reward at the end of a long day, or when you reach a major milestone, or when you reach the end of your hike. Struggle always accompanies great accomplishment. Dad, you did it. I’m so happy that the three of us could accomplish our goals together. And don’t think that what you did is any less than what we finished there on Baxter Peak. I know, and I hope you know, that hiking Katahdin yesterday marks the pinnacle of a huge life turn-around for you and that is a major journey within itself.
We were sitting down to enjoy our sandwiches when it began to rain. It wasn’t an ideal lunch situation on top of the exposed peak, so we began the descent back to Katahdin Stream Campground. I touched the sign one more time, and as I hiked down from Baxter Peak, I let out a sigh of relief. I felt as if my shoulders came down from a tense position that they had been in for months. I could finally say the one thing that I had kept inside for so long: “It’s over. You did it.” Seriously though, I’ve never had a dream as big as thru-hiking. At times, it felt too big, it seemed too unlikely that we could actually finish the whole trail. But, then it was over. As we made our way down the rocks of Katahdin, I realized that I wasn’t on the AT anymore. I was hiking down the Hunt Trail, back to a car in a parking lot, and not to a shelter in the woods.
As we descended along the Tableland, the clouds burned off and we were rewarded with one of the most amazing views of our entire hike, if not the most spectacular of all. The mountains of Baxter State Park on our right and the valley of lakes and ponds spread out in all other directions. White Cap stood out in the distance and several other mountains that we had climbed in the days leading up to our Katahdin finale. Knife’s Edge appeared behind us and the summit and the people upon it grew smaller and smaller as we headed across the Tableland.
Going down the super steep, technical section was slow-going. The rocks were now wet from the rain we had gotten. There was a lot of butt-sliding going on in this section. We all struggled at certain points, trying to figure out what would be the best way down the granite boulders. At one point, Miles and I ended up in a dead-end section that was once the AT, but was rerouted a different way. Getting down into the boxed-in section was tough, but getting out was even tougher. If Miles hadn’t helped me out of this tricky section, I really don’t know how I would have escaped. I suppose I would have had to figure it out eventually. We saw a downpour approaching us from the west, but we couldn’t get below tree-line in time before it hit. We were soaked within minutes, but the shower passed and we were left with even wetter rocks and soaked clothes. It was a relief to make it down below tree-line, but we still had a few miles to go.
My dad was tired and the last three miles were tough on him. We took it slow and stuck together. My dad felt bad for slowing us down, but we didn’t mind at all. It was our last on the AT after all. Even if we did have to hike in the rain and in the dark for the last 1.5 miles, it wasn’t even bad compared to other situations that we’ve found ourselves in. It was approaching dark near the end, so we put on our headlamps and slowly finished out our 10.2 mile day. It’s always a good idea to have a headlamp on you, even if you think you’ll be back by dark. You just never know what’s going to happen.
As we approached the last 1/4 mile of the trail, we heard a voice and saw a light up ahead. I thought it might be the ranger looking for us since we hadn’t signed out at the register yet. It was actually Miles’ mom who had driven up to the park to welcome us. She had been there awhile and was obviously worried that we hadn’t made it back by dark. I was worried about my mom, who was back at a cabin in Millinocket, waiting for us to return around 8. We had no way of contacting her since we didn’t have cellphone service in the park, so we were just hoping that she was okay. I know I would be worried if I were her! When we saw the trail register, we were so relieved to be finished. We were done hiking, even though the last 5.1 miles weren’t a part of our thru-hike. I think that thru-hikers should be able to have a helicopter pick them up from the summit when they finish. It’s the least that the ATC could do for us, right? Miles and I quickly headed over to the ranger station to sign our last log book of the trail before heading back to the car. We were low on gas too, so Miles and his mom followed my dad and I until the cabins, just in case we didn’t make it.
We made it. I ran inside the cabin to let my mom know that we were all okay. By this time, it was 10:00 PM. We had planned on having a nice dinner at the restaurant at the Big Moose Inn, but when my mom realized that we weren’t going to come back before the restaurant closed, she ordered us some food to eat back at the cabin. We all ate a late dinner and I was relieved to see that my mom wasn’t totally freaking out about our tardiness. She was worried, but not as much as I thought she would be, thankfully.
We were beat. We stayed up talking for awhile and eating of course. I hadn’t taken a shower in 8 days, but my exhaustion far outweighed my desire to take a hot shower. I threw everything that was on the bed onto the floor and went to sleep. I was in a bed and I didn’t have to hike tomorrow. I could sleep in a bed every night from now on and take as many zero days as I wanted to. I don’t even remember dreaming last night. I must have slept that well.
And with that, our journey has come to a close. I feel a strong mix of emotions as I write about our last day on the trail. It took us exactly 5 months to hike the AT. March 14th to August 14th. We were the 129th and 130th thru-hikers to complete the AT this year. And if I counted correctly, I am the 12th female to finish this year. If you are worried that this is my last blog entry, then have no fear, because I fully intend to continue writing my blog. I won’t be writing everyday as I have been for our entire hike, but I hope to be writing every week with a focus on our hike and how it continues to impact and shape our lives post-AT. I will be posting our Month 5 overview soon, tons of photos from my camera that I can finally upload, and the nominees and winners of the 1st annual Avery-MacKaye Awards. Never heard of the Avery-MacKaye’s? You’ll just have to wait and read to find out what they are exactly. I have immensely enjoyed writing this blog and I continue to be amazed at the outpouring of support that we received through this outlet. I never could have imagined that I would have over 200 followers, that I would be reading several encouraging comments a day, and that we would even receive trail magic from the most giving individuals that are now our friends. I have always enjoyed writing, but never found the time to write on my own outside of school until the past year. This blog has not only given me the opportunity to share our story with all of you, but it has driven me back into doing something that I love: writing. I feel for certain that after writing everyday for five months, I can continue my passion beyond our hike. While all of what I write from now on may not appear on this blog and will not always pertain to the thru-hiking, it is one passion that I am certain that I want to continue to pursue everyday. I hope to improve upon it and to bask in its fulfilling nature. For me, this has been a journey through writing as much as it has been a journey along the Appalachian Trail.
There is much more to say in the future of this blog, but I want to say thank you to all of you for reading and being a part of this adventure with us. Through 2,185.9 miles. Through every state. Through every pain, every tear, every triumph, and every milestone. Our lives are forever changed by this insane thing called thru-hiking. There have been 152 other times that I’ve had to end these posts with one final sentence. One that I hope will sum up the day. But tonight, I find myself at a loss for words. You’d think I’d have it down by now. I feel the thoughts of the day and the entirety of our thru-hike rushing through my brain, a constant flow of moments, each one pushing against the others, vying to be the winner. Wanting to mark the finality of our journey. I will leave you with the lyrics that I left in my last log book entry on the AT at the ranger station at Katahdin Stream Campground. The few times that I did listen to music while hiking or in town, I would often listen to this song. Even from the first month on the trail, it came to perfectly describe how I felt many times. And even though it may have been describing our struggles, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit better every time I heard this song. It kept me going. I knew, I just had to keep on truckin’.
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me, What a long strange trip it’s been.
Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home, Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ home.