Hardly a day went by during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail when the Grateful Dead’s song “Box of Rain” wasn’t playing in my head. I don’t mean to say I listened to the music everyday as it played from my phone. No, it was a soundtrack playing in my head, whether I consciously heard it or not. The song sometimes played in the background while I was thinking about something else. When those thoughts paused for a moment, I’d discover the music was playing as a second track alongside my thoughts.
When I thought of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail — which I often did for more than 15 years — I never thought of my hike ending as it did today. But how could I have thought that? In my mind, there had always been only one way to finish a thru-hike and that was by standing on top of Mt. Katahdin. I know there are other ways to thru-hike. Many hikers who have finished at Springer Mountain will tell you that’s the better way to go. The weather is better going south and the trail is generally less crowded.
The Appalachian Trail from Pinkham Notch to U.S. Highway 2 in New Hampshire is only 21.2 miles long. When I decided to skip this section in order to allow my sprained ankle to heal, I wasn’t convinced I needed to come back to hike it. I tried to tell myself this was only one percent of the entire trail. Skipping it wouldn’t diminish my accomplishment. I would have still hiked more than 2,000 miles. In the end, I knew I was kidding myself. My wife saw through this. She also knew I was kidding myself and gently convinced me I needed to complete these miles. I had to do this and I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't.
Without a doubt, this was a big day. For many hikers, this was the end of their long hike from Georgia. Once they reached the top of Mt. Katahdin they would have walked 2,189.8 miles and earned the right to call themselves thru-hikers. Though I was not in that group, this was still a big day for me. I won’t be able to say I’m a thru-hiker until I complete 21.2 miles in New Hampshire, but I also need to summit Katahdin, and that’s a big accomplishment. What’s more, I will finally be able to see my wife and sons today.
Day 176, Rainbow Lake to Katahdin Stream Campground
Everybody I talk to is ready to leave with the light of the morning
Except for the 5.2 miles we will hike tomorrow, today was Tengo and Stick's last day of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. After today, I will still have three more days of hiking before I can say I’m a thru-hiker. These are thoughts we had for much of the day. They were unavoidable, even though we needed to focus first on hiking more than 21 miles today.
This was a day in which we could put the pedal to the metal and get down the trail as fast as possible. Looking at the trail profile, there was only one small climb to make. Other than that, the trail looked to be mostly flat. We needed to get extra miles in if we were going to outrun a thunderstorm that was in the forecast for Thursday.
Day 174, Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to to Nahmakanta Lake
And we were rolling, rolling, rock n' rolling
I woke up this morning at 5 a.m., which has been the usual time lately as Stick, Tengo and I have been trying to put in more miles each day before dark. The difference for today was I had slept in a shelter and was by myself. That meant I was able to pack up and get back on the trail sooner than normal.
Day 173, White Brook Trail Junction to Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to
And at last it's the real thing, or close enough to pretend
We were up early again today. Stick, Tengo and I are anxious to reach Mt. Katahdin and are pushing harder to get there. A more immediate concern for today had been to meet someone from Shaw’s Lodging at Jo Mary Road. We had scheduled for our food for the rest of the 100 Mile Wilderness to be dropped off there today at 4 p.m. We were thinking now that may be a stretch for us to reach in time.
Day 172, Chairback Gap Lean-to to White Brook Trail Junction
Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air
The cold breeze that began blowing last night continued this morning. It was cold enough that when I woke up and started preparing to pack my gear, I wanted to move fast to stay warm. The weather forecast didn’t show this to be a turn to winter weather, but the temperature was chilly enough to know winter wasn’t far away.
Last night’s thunderstorm woke me up and kept me awake for part of the night, but I’m not complaining. I stayed dry. What's more, the violent strength of a storm has always fascinated me. I ended up oversleeping my intended wakeup time by 40 minutes. I thought if I got an early start I would be able to catch up to Tengo and Stick this morning. Nevertheless, I was packed up and leaving camp about the time Boomer, Jason and Single T were just waking up.
Day 170, ME Hwy. 15 (Monson) to Abandoned Logging Road
Sound of the thunder with the rain pouring down
The distance from Monson going north on the Appalachian Trail to Abol Bridge, which is located at the foot of Mt. Katahdin, is 99.4 miles. It's called the 100 Mile Wilderness. The emphasis here should be on the word “wilderness,” not the inexact distance. This section is said to be the wildest, most remote section of the trail. The 100 Mile Wilderness crosses only a small number of roads, and most of those are primarily used by logging trucks.
I still couldn’t believe what the flip-flop hiker told us last night. He said a hiker named Skittles fell and broke her wrist just outside of Monson. Was this the same Skittles I knew? This morning I texted Skittles and told her what I had heard. “Please tell me this isn’t true,” I said. Later, when Skittles replied she said it was true. In fact, she had just left the hospital after having surgery to repair the break. There was good news, though. She said Jeff and she still intended to finish their hike. They would take another day off, then make a trial hike to make sure she could hike with her arm in a sling, but she thought she could. She would only need help putting on and taking off her pack.
Day 168, Bald Mountain Brook Lean-to to Horseshoe Canyon Lean-to
And I wished for so long; cannot stay
Northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who are nearing Mt. Katahdin can be classified in two groups. The closer they get to Katadin, it's more obvious which group they are in. Hikers of one group want to finish as soon as possible. It’s been a long hike, and by now they are feeling worn out. They are ready to do something else that doesn’t involve walking for 10-12 hours a day. Hikers in the other group don’t want their hike to end. They are slowing down to stretch out the experience as long as possible.
As I was preparing for my hike last Spring, I spoke to students at the school where my wife taught. She used my hike as part of some lessons for her fifth grade class. When she told them about the Appalachian Trail and my plans to hike it from Georgia to Maine, one student asked her how I was going to get home when I finished. Would I have to walk home? It’s an understandable question for a child, but also points to practical questions about my return home when I finish.