AT Day 185: One Hundred Miles to Summit

It’s been a hot minute or three since I’ve emailed you. It would be easy to assume, as with previous updates, I’ve been to busy walking to get my thoughts together. At first I did not want to write this final post, but over time I realized it was unfair to leave my story without an end.

We were late to leave Monson; first thinking our lax pace might suddenly disappear, but instead getting sucked into Shaw’s hostel. In addition to trail siblings from miles gone by (Wizard, Spinelli, Crazy Moon, and Beagle), we reunited with Newt, an extended Snooze Crew-zer from our canoe trip. Giggles also met her name-sister. There were three “Giggleses” on trail; first ours, then one who renamed herself to “Elmo” after hearing there were two others, and the third initially very far behind, then far ahead after the canoe trip. Their paths had never crossed. The meeting was at the opposite end than reuniting with old friends. After overhearing something, she turned to say, “Oh, you’re the other Giggles. I was hoping to go the whole trail without meeting you.” I wish our Giggles had bit back, “I would have said the same thing, if I had known you were such a bitch”, but she’s far too nice. In the meantime, she’s renamed herself “Gigs” to make sure there’s absolutely no confusion.

After a sumptuous pancake breakfast, we were dropped off at the 100-Mile Wilderness. These last miles of trail are isolated, splendid, and difficult. Its terrain, lack of road crossings (read: resupply points) demanded carrying extra pounds and a hard pace, lest we run out of food in the middle of nowhere. Despite the extra challenge, many of us had been looking forward to this section. I had first heard of how amazing it was back in Franklin, NC; the mirror end of where we hiked now. It was bewildering to consider how quickly 100 miles on the trail passed to only 100 miles left. In addition to too much food, I carried two extra rolls of toilet paper to deliver to Wizard and Spinelli, who left the morning of our afternoon. The wilderness delivered; a summating coda to an experience that is already so hard to describe. We spent the first few days stopping often, and gorging on the food we did not want to carry. Water was mostly plentiful, and pleasant to rest at. Like New Hampshire, this area would be swarming with black flies and mosquitos in the summer, but it had sufficiently cooled to make our airspace clear, but turn would-be swimming holes undesirable. That didn’t stop us from dilly-dallying. We called our little gang “Penis Wings,” for the Little Tommy Terror song. It was the perfect tune: upbeat and silly, but full of shouting anguish. Penis Wings felt like a group of old friends on a camping trip: myself, Gigs, Sparrow, Scatter, Scissors, and Newt. We seemed to forget the months, or the thousands of miles behind us; just a quick jaunt in the beautiful and unreachable Maine wilderness. I never got that TP to Wizard and Spinelli. Let’s pray tonight, for their butts.

Slacking off created a looming threat of needing to push miles to finish on time (Scatter and I had flights to catch!), but we soon hit much more tangible trouble. The purported most difficult day of this section had three peaks on it, and as we crossed each one the weather seemed to worsen. By the time we reached “Whitecap,” the last mountain before Katahdin, we were spread out, and each experienced a different form of storm: rain, sleet, hail, or snow, all in 90 mile per hour winds. The ground was littered with rigid, melon-sized rocks that would be hard to pass normally, let alone with body-knocking wind. Some of us lost our pack covers, some of us crawled, but we all made it. I was at the back of the bus, with the extreme wind turning gentle flurries into a frigid, loose but blinding curtain of snow, tiptoeing over the rocks and praying I would not break my ankle. I struggle to think of a more dangerous experience in my life, but time, care, and strong legs prevailed. That night, for the second time, I slept in a bathroom. The shelter below the peak was full, and after Scissors was nearly hit by a healthy tree’s branch being torn off by the wind while setting up her tent, we decided the spacious, ADA-compliant privy seemed like a good option. It was new, smelling more of lumber than shit, and slept four cozily. These trials were met equally, maybe even outdone, by the trail magic we found. The 100 Mile Wilderness was isolated, but connected by lakes and logging roads. Some canoers had brought with a grill and steaks to put on it, with booze and gallons of filtered water to wash it down. They shared readily; we had a big fire at a beautiful camp on the water, and in the morning they let us take from their unneeded leftover supplies. The next morning, some retirees that owned a camp up one of the few private roads were cooking homemade donuts, with a big pot of hot coffee. The canoers left us beer at another road on their way out of the wilderness. What treats.

There are so many reasons people came to the trail. For many hikers, this is their first foray into the woods, and they were eagerly looking ahead to the end, some even wishing to never backpack again. I was not one of those. To be embedded in nature so consistently, and for so long was a major draw for me. It’s no surprise then, the day before summiting Katahdin was one of my most emotionally taxing. I spent much of it alone, often teary-eyed, thinking of how it was the last day I would stop somewhere different than I had started. My oneness with the woods made the end feel like an injustice; I was a part of this thing now, to remove me would be like to take a babe from its mother’s arms. It’s a selfish thought; the woods will go on as if I was never there, but it took a lot of heavy sighs, time beside waterfalls, and walking beneath the full moon to get over the idea that my hike was ended. I wrote in my last shelter log entry that the summit is like the heel of bread: it’s not important, but you can’t bake a loaf without it. It was a cold slog up to the top, one of the most challenging climbs, going hand-over-foot, up rebar ladders and around tall rocks. The wind up high was fast, and cold, with icicles forming on the famous sign. We hid behind a large rock, to stay out of the wind, snacking and shivering till we were all at the top. The unpleasant conditions couldn’t keep us from taking our photos, though realizing my vision of myself lounging atop the sign in my shorts and Hawaiian shirt was made a more painful experience. Our group photo at the summit was a mooning; a final celebratory and encompassing symbol of our time on the trail. It was a solidary act, to show the strength of our bond, with sculpted bottoms testament to the physical effort, and to prove adversity is always met with unfaltering tenacity: proud, defiant, and laughing.

I found myself regretting that I did not have the foresight to skip some other section. Maine was so beautiful; maybe the Snooze Crew was right to skip back in Shenandoah. The feeling passed, as I realized I would not be the person I am here experiencing this end, had it not been for those days alone, or those days with others: The one-on-one time with Uncle Ya, the slow unspoken joining of MOTHRA SQUAD, or the instant friendships with Snooze and Koozie Crews. Had I not skipped, I would have missed Penis Wings; I might have even had the misfortune of good weather on Katahdin. All these moments and every in-between shaped my hike. It was experience unlike any other; so wholely indescribable, so incredible, and so subtly influential. Or maybe not so subtly.

See you soon,

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