It is done!
Yesterday, we climbed to the summit of Baxter Peak, the highest point in Maine, on top of Mount Katahdin, the Greatest Mountain according to the Penobscot, and finished the Appalachian Trail.
The dawn was clear and chilly; one of our going-away gifts from the trail was a final night spent tossing and turning, too cold to sleep deeply. So at earliest light, we arose and started up. The sun was behind the Greatest Mountain as we climbed… first past a stream with cascades, then two miles of uphill rock and root hopping, then we rose above treeline, and began to climb in earnest. Boulders with abrasive grit, hefting our bodies over and around and through, avoiding drops and crevices. It was not a climb in which one could contemplate falling.
At last we crested the mountain’s shoulder and found ourselves upon the Tableland, a mile of plateau that is home to Thoreau Spring. (He hiked and loved Katahdin too, apparently.) We dipped our bottles in and drank straight from the spring, the only time we drank untreated water on this journey. We figured: if not on a mountaintop, when? Plus, if we got sick, it’d be too late to derail our hike. So, a communion with the pure, slightly metallic water just a mile short of our peak, which sat above one final rock scramble.
We reached it alone. There was the weathered wooden sign, the one we’d seen photos of for months. We hugged, and touched it at the same time. It was surreal, like watching ourselves do it. We sat in the sun and summit breeze, gifted with a bluebird day at the end, and laughed. I told Zippy I could not have done it without him, and though he certainly could have done it without me, he said that I made it better. We will always have this to look back upon, to have survived and thrived by the grace of companionship, trail magic, and the little benevolent part of the universe. We wished someone could take pictures of us together, and in another gift, two men came up from another trail and obliged. When there was nothing left to see or do, we turned our backs to the Northern Terminus and headed down again.
Baxter State Park is easily more wild and rugged of trail than the Hundred Mile Wilderness. When Governor Percival Baxter couldn’t legislate the area’s protection back in the twenties, he purchased it with his own wealth, piece by piece over decades, and donated it to the state and citizens of Maine, under the condition that no new roads or development be built in it. The “forever wild” clause, as it is beautifully described. It was a perfect, memorable endpoint. And I was impressed by how many American families, of all shapes, sizes, and ages, had decided to spend their July 22nd clambering over its highest point. We must’ve passed eighty of them on the way down.
The day before, we’d taken it easy. There were only 13.5 miles of flat, calm terrain between the last shelter in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and the special northbounder base camp at Katahdin Stream Campground. Between the endpoints was Abol Bridge, from which we could see this amazing view of tomorrow:
From the little, overpriced store nearby, we bought one last day’s supply of junk food, lunch, and some quintessentially Maineiac treats: Gifford’s ice cream cones, the dubious Moxie soda (flavored with gentian root), and a Whoopie Pie to split on the summit. We sat around until we were finished sitting around, then got it done: forded one last river, stumbled across the last decaying, tippy bog bridge planks, washed out our shirts and wore them dry, and finally, registered for our hike with the Baxter State Park Ranger, a friendly young man named Yves. (We are very close to French Canada here… sometimes both flags are flown over stores, and the airy murmur of French can be heard.) He handed us yellow receipts indicating that we are northbound thru-hikers number 41 and 42 this year.
We encamped, and it felt like a holding pen, a walk-in site separate from the tourists’ reserved spots, there with Hurricane and NBC (No Big Climbs), who would also summit the next day, just an hour before us. Racehorses at the gate. We dined on the last packet of instant mashed potatoes, crawled into the tent under a full-ish yellow moon, and from there you know the story.
So, we were thru-hiking… and now, for a little while anyway, we are through hiking. We caught a ride to the tiny town of Millinocket with a couple of friendly day hikers, who stopped at a pond on the way so we could all soak our toes on the sandy beach. We got fed, a bed, and conked out promptly. We hopped on a bus headed to Bangor, mostly because J wanted to go to the town mentioned in “King of the Road:”
Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine…
We are holed up in an inexpensive hotel for two nights of transition, decompression, and the scheming of our next moves. We have no reservations and are traveling, of course, sans car. In a way, it is like backpacking: you never know what to expect when you arrive at the next shelter. Only there are no white blazes to guide us. We are now hiking through seas of people and cities. We are curious what emotions will show up as we make our way from here, no longer bearing the identity of Hiker, just two more dots in the crowd.
I do look forward to washing vigorously every single item in my pack, my shoes and insoles, and the pack itself. A shower is going to occur every day. Lotions will be applied. Vegetables will be consumed.
Also, I intend to post a few more AT-related journal entries: one of mostly photos, and one with a bunch of trip statistics, because I’m a Virgo and dig that kind of thing. After that, the website will go back to being general musings, and I won’t be offended if you unsubscribe.
Of course, it’ll pick back up again next May or so, when we start our next hiking adventure: the Pacific Crest Trail! Part of me (my toes, perhaps) can’t believe I am already able to fathom doing something like this again. But it’s true.