Memorializing Katahdin

Julie near katahdin

Julie and Rumblestrip near the top of Katahdin. It’s a long way down from there.

The last day of the AT hike was one of the most memorable for reasons including it being the last day of the hike of course but also for much more. I shared some of my reflections yesterday but I also want to tell the story of our trail and Katahdin, if for nothing else, to get these thoughts down so I don’t lose some of the details that made it a special day.

We started the day with Rumblestrip, stealth camped along the side of the trail after hiking a 33 mile day the previous day. We were up by 5:30am and hiking by 6. It was a beautiful day to start, comfortably cool temperature in the early morning, warming a bit later but never really hot. We had clear skies with occasional clouds, but never enough to block our view. We had around 6 or 7 miles to hike to the base of the mountain and then a 5 mile, 4000 ft ascent up Katahdin.

Early on, we were actually passed by another thru hiker, Gobbler, an ultra-marathoner from WV. He actually ran the trail in 72 days while his wife met him throughout the day and at the end of each day so he could run the entire trail. He had heard of us from Elvis and knew we were runners as well. We chatted briefly and then continued on. Fortunately, we saw him, his running friend, and family at the end of the trail so we shared more stories and talked about running, something I’m looking forward to eventually getting back into.

After the initial few miles to get to the base of Katahdin, we passed a campground with car campers. We confirmed our route up and down the mountain and were looking for water before heading up. A guy named Joe congratulated us for finishing the trail and when I asked him if he knew about water there, he said they had plenty for us along with plenty of trail magic. He is a great guy, an Iraq veteran that hiked 350 miles of VA a few years back. He knew all about our life on the trail and was excited to share food from his groups stash. He was working with a boys and girls summer camp that has kids out in the woods and sea kayaking for a few weeks of the summer. It was cool to learn about them and simply awesome to get filled up on good food before heading up the mountain.

The hike was smooth in the beginning and then the climbing began. The ascent was steep and often had us climbing with our hands and using metal pegs in the rocks to pull ourselves up. It was fun this time though (it helped that it was beautiful out and that we knew it was our last climb of the trip). We met lots of folks, some whom we couldn’t help but tell about how monumental this was for us.

I remember when the three of us were up above treeline with about 1.5 miles to go saying to each other how amazing it was to be at this point. Julie said she wasn’t sure she’d get to this point. Rumble Strip said he’d been reading a book by a guy that hiked in the past and had to put it down before reading about the finish because it would get him too excited about finishing. Now, he was having a hard time realizing it was his turn and he was going to finish the Appalachian Trail. I had all kinds of emotions on the way up including excitement, sadness, and a sense of satisfaction that I don’t often experience. It feels so good to climb and work and then to reach the actual finish. This section of the trail was the most emotional for me as we had great views, easier walking, and time to think about all that we’d done over the past 3.5 months before beginning the final ascent to the summit.

Finishing a trail on Mt. Katahdin has got to be one of the best places to finish a major life journey. It was my favorite mountain of the trail and the day felt made for us with how beautiful it was. The actual top was somewhat anti-climactic because of how many people were already at the top. We were quiet about our accomplishment at first, especially because there was a new Southbounder looking to begin his journey south at the same time as our finishing. He was telling everyone around about the trail and what he was going to do. We had fun watching him while quietly enjoying snacks together behind some rocks. We eventually got up for pictures and told some people. We got lots of congrats and quite a few questions. We didn’t stay long because the breeze cooled us quickly, and we still had to get down.

It was at this point that we fully realized it was time to figure out what to do next and how to get out. Part of what makes Katahdin special is that it’s a huge mountain compared to everything around and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. It makes for a cool hiking experience but a formidable obstacle for those on foot and trying to get back to society. Our friend Achilles lives in Portland, ME and if we could get the 3.5 hours south to his vicinity, we’d have a place to stay. We took a different way down the mountain and Julie faced a fear of hers for me in hiking the Knife Edge trail down. This was a 1.1 mile section above treeline with talus rock jumbles forming a ridgeline with steep drop-offs on both sides of the trail. It was amazing but after an hour or so, we all simply wanted down. The descent was a bit over four miles and took us almost 4 hours. We made it down and then the logistics of re-entering society became very real.

We started walking out of the park and as it turns out, we passed some Mennonites on the way out and I joked to Rumble Strip that he should work some magic and see if they could help. Shortly after, a big white van filled with Amish and Mennonites picked us up and took us the first 8 miles to the edge of the park, at least getting us to the paved road. From there it was 18 miles to the next town. We started walking and after 15 minutes or so, a guy named Jason stopped to see what we needed. We had actually passed him on the way down and we all immediately recognized each other. He said he’d be glad to help us out and get us to town. After a few minutes riding with him, we realized he was heading much further south than Millinocket and I asked if he’d mind if we tagged along further. He obliged and eventually, we figured out with our phone how to book a rental car in Bangor, ME. This was 1.5 hours south of the trail and an amazing fortune for us. We picked up a car at the airport and had our freedom.

We drove down to Portland and were there by 10pm in time to chat with Achilles and his fiancée for awhile before falling asleep exhausted in our bags on the floor. The day epitomized the entire journey. The day was long, challenging, beautiful, and filled with amazing people and experiences that one can never plan for but can experience with a sense of openness and an eye for good people. It was the ideal way to finish the journey and it’ll be one memorialized in my mind for years to come.

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