"To live is the rarest thing in all the world. Most people exist, that is all."
The next morning Pants and I were able to get a pretty easy hitch out of Rangeley. We were hoping to get all the Saddlebacks out of the way and get below Poplar Ridge that night. Literally within the first half mile out of town we encountered a backlog of hikers debating the best way to cross a stream. And so began the fording. Maine became one of my favorite states simply because it was the wildest. Maine is more wild than populated; nearly 90% of it's land is forested. The 281 miles of trail in Maine are generally considered the most difficult of the 14 states. Part of that difficulty is the lack of footbridges over the rivers and streams. Maybe in an effort to lesson the impact and keep Maine wild, the deliberate moratorium on footbridges and subsequent forced fording of the rivers discourages novice hikers from attempting this part of the trail, keeping traffic low. I won't lie, I got pretty sick of taking off my boots and walking through rivers, especially when some of them were high and scary, but I truly appreciate the effort to keep the impact down. I love the solitude one can experience in Maine, the quiet beauty of it all, and if that means getting my feet wet during a few brief terrifying moments, so be it. It would be a bit hypocritical of me to bitch about them building roads to the tops of mountains, then complain that they didn't build me a bridge across this river. If I wanted to be on the other side of the river, I guess I have to walk through it.
The stream we encountered outside of Rangeley was small and non-threatening. The problem was were were lazy and didn't want to go through the 'laborious' process of taking off our boots. It is amazing how lazy we could be considering we were walking across the country. The fact that we were hiking from Georgia to Maine, a very 'non-lazy' endeavour I would say, gave us justification to be lazy in literally every other regard. Fine, I'll walk across the country, but I can't be bothered to take off my boots for two minutes. Lighthouse, if you're reading this I'm talking to you. I had to hold a knife to your head to get you to cut your toenails. Anyway, most hikers ford in their camp shoes, i.e. Crocs. Hiking in wet boots should really be avoided as it will cause all sorts of unfortunate problems (please refer back to the bleeding toes I limped into Hanover with). The removal of boots and socks, drying off feet and putting boots and socks back on just took extra time. Not that we were in a hurry, but if we could manage a way across somewhere via rock hopping or a fallen tree, we preferred that. Did I mention the streams were freezing. And that the stream beds consisted of slippery ankle breaking rocks that were impossible to grip. That too.
I found a fallen tree downstream that crossed the width of the water, but we didn't trust it. There were some rocks dotted across the stream with only a bit of water gushing over them, but my stupid short legs couldn't reach from one to the next. I'm not leaping from one slippery rock to another slippery rock. Carefully and steadily stepping from one to the next is one thing, but leaping? No. (I would be eating those words in 13 days). Most of us just succumbed to fording the thing to avoid wet-boot, but White Wolf, still on his 'I'm not fording any rivers or getting my boots wet I'll rock hop them all' kick, hopped over the rocks only getting his boots marginally wet. We one by one continued on our hike. Everyone got ahead of me as I made my way towards Piazza Rock Lean-To. This shelter takes it's name from a giant rock about a half mile up a side trail behind the shelter. At the time I had no intentions of going to the rock, I've seen quite a lot of rocks in the past few months, but wanted to take a break at the shelter. I reached a fork in the trail with a sign that I quickly glanced at and assumed read 'Piazza Rock Lean-To' so I veered left up a steep hill, thinking I was heading to the shelter. After about five minutes of extremely steep climbing, I began wondering to myself, what the fuck is this? This was the hardest shelter trail ever, I mean what is a shelter doing up here? It wasn't until I ran into a rock face with a spray painted arrow instructing me to belly crawl under a boulder then shimmy up a crack, that I realized I was not being led to the shelter. I couldn't even fit my pack through that. I assume when they were making the trails to the shelters, they would figure we would want to bring our packs.
I had forgotten there was a side field trip near the shelter up to this stupid rock. I was clearly on that field trip. If I had read the sign, I would have known this was the trail to Piazza Rock, not Piazza Rock Lean-To. Well, I've come this far, might as well check it out. I dropped my pack and poles and started crawling under. The rock was kinda cool, a giant, slanted stone slab that looked like it was being supported by a pebble. I had forgotten to grab my camera out of my pack so you'll just have to take my word for it. I sat and admired it for a minute before heading back. Not entirely sure it was worth the 45 minutes the whole accidental excursion took, but it happened. I finally found the shelter, and took a quick break before tackling the Saddlebacks. I hiked past Ethel Pond, crossed Saddleback stream and began the torturous never ending climb up Saddleback Mountain. Making my climb more torturous was the liter of whiskey weighing down my pack. I bought it to surprise Pants with later because I knew he was out, but with how heavy my pack felt, the surprise was going to happen the second I found him. And it was going to be a 'Surprise, look what I got you! Now you carry it!' kinda surprise.
|View from Saddleback|
I passed another group of thru-hikers laying by the side of the trail near the top, then finally got to the top and found Pants chilling next to the summit sign. He immediately wondered where I had been and I began telling him about my side trip to see a rock as I threw myself on the ground to rest. I then threw him the bottle of whiskey. He laughed and agreed to carry the whiskey as long as we drank the PBR's he was carrying. So we enjoyed a long lunch/linner on Saddleback Mountain, trying not to make eye contact with The Horn and Saddleback Junior, our immediate future looming in front of us. But it was getting late and we still had the five miles up and over those two mountains before Poplar Ridge...so away we went.
|Sun setting as we climb down Saddleback Junior|
By the time we got down to Poplar Ridge Lean-To it was almost dark and we were exhausted. FM, Meds, White Wolf, Flies and Owf were all there sitting around the fire. I found a flattish enough spot to throw my tent and joined everyone for a late dinner before heading to bed. Pants didn't even bother with his tent and just cowboyed on the ground by the fire. The next morning I got a late start with everyone else as we watched Flies fulfill an agreement/bet he had with FM that is too ridiculous to type. Some things that happen in the woods should just stay in the woods. As a group we made it down to Orbeton Stream. Half of us took off our boots to ford, while those with longer legs were able to rock hop. It was such a nice day, the cool water actually felt amazing rushing over my feet. We all sat at the bank for a bit, soaking our feet and watching Meds try out his new hobby, fishing. He decided to carry a mini fishing pole through all of Maine and tried to fish when he could. One by one we all trickled over Poplar Ridge and up Lone Mountain. We all met up for lunch at Spaulding Mountain Lean-To before cresting the NW shoulder of Spaulding Mountain, which was actually a pretty enjoyable climb.
|Meds and Flies fishing in Oberton Stream|
|Relaxing at Oberton Stream|
|White Wolf crossing Oberton|
We walked along the ridge over to Sugarloaf Mountain, passing a bronze plaque commemorating the completion of the last section of the AT from Georgia-Maine. The trail wasn't created in one continuous stretch, but was blazed in sections and took over a decade to complete. If you think hiking it is hard, I can't imagine all the work and cooperation that went into creating it. Now, as you can tell by the mileage on the plaque, some miles have been added over the years. Originally around 2,000 miles, to the 2,054 miles in 1987 at the time this plaque was erected, to the 2,184.2 miles I hiked today, the mileage keeps growing. Though for a number of reasons, many of the added miles over the years are due to trail relocation in an effort to keep/move the AT on public lands.
After the plaque, I began the insanely steep descent off Sugarloaf Mountain. I mean this was Moosilauke steep and was going to take me 10 years. I was hoping to get to Crocker Cirque Campsite that night, but after that descent, and the ford across the south branch of the Carrabassett River at the base, I was content with camping on the north side of the river. Me, and every other hiker who just came down that mountain. No one had any interest in hiking farther so we just made the tiny space work. I had to tent so close to FM I could hear him thinking. But we had a fun night hanging out by the fire (I say that like we had other options on our social calendars). Meds came back with a little baggie full of trout and we watched him attempt to cook them over the fire, but not before he accidentally spilled his baggie of fish water in front of my tent. I yelled at him as the slimy fish water started flowing directly towards my vestibule. Flies helped me quickly dig a tiny moat to reroute the fish water away from my home. If you are trying to deter bears from eating you and your belongings, sleeping in a tent covered in fish water is not the best strategy. While I was evading the enemy I briefly wondered what my girlfriends were doing, not digging fish water moats I suppose. Oh the paths we choose.....I smiled realizing I was still very happy with mine:) Maybe not at that moment...
|Owf cooking fish over the fire, she's thrilled|
|Owf, Meds and Solo|
The next morning we had climbs over South and North Crocker Mountains before we could float into Stratton, the next town to grab some resupply. Unlike my spry days of the south when I was comfortable carrying five to seven days worth of food at a time, my joints were wearing thin and carrying more than three days hurt my knees and ankle something awful. That meant going to town more often to resupply. That would be a problem in the 100 mile wilderness but we weren't there yet so let's not talk about it. Where I currently was, Stratton was only eight miles away, well eight miles to a road that led to Stratton, then a five mile hitch. While we were all having breakfast, Flies strolled over casually and wondered what time the post office closed. He needed to get there to get his food drop (some hikers sent themselves food drops instead of having to rely on the scarce grocery stores and gas stations in the north). Everyone had that look like his dog had just died and no one wanted to be the one to tell him.
Tell him that it was Saturday morning at 8:45am, that the P.O. was closing at 11am and not open tomorrow which was Sunday, and that unless he wanted to hang out in Stratton for two days he should start running because he had eight miles over two mountains to hike and two hours to do it. Plus getting a hitch into town. The only thing Flies had going for him was that his long wavy blond hair made him look like a girl from afar, so hopefully he could get a quick hitch. The look on his face was one of displeasure as he quickly got up to start his hike/run. Two seconds later he was back "Which road is it?!" "The only road you come across man!" Two more seconds later "Which way do I hitch?!" "GO LEFT!" We all shook our heads, agreeing the kid had no chance, as we finished packing up to start our own hikes.
Happy I wasn't playing 'beat the post office' that morning, I took my time over South Crocker Mountain. Also it was steep and hard. As I paused to keep my heart from exploding I let Meds pass me, muttering something about the ATC being a bunch of sadistic fucks. At least I wasn't the only one struggling. North Crocker wasn't as bad, and the descent was nothing short of glorious. Nice and gradual all the way down to ME 27. I didn't see anyone else at the road so I assumed they all got hitches into town. Solo females will get a hitch much faster if they don't have their dirty bearded counterparts standing next to them. You just have to hope it's not the white Astro van that pulls over. The first vehicle that passed me pulled over, a nice family in a pickup truck. There was no room in the truck so I hopped in the bed. The little boy was very curious about me and tried talking to me through the back window. I attempted to answer all his questions best I could, though I could hardly hear with the wind gushing past me at 40mph.
I thanked them as they dropped me in what I guess would be the center of town. Stratton, ME had a population of 368. If my cat were on Facebook, it would have more friends than this town had people. It consisted of a few hiker motels, a diner and a general store. Oh and of course the post office, which Flies miraculously made it to! The kid can hike, and I found him sitting at a picnic table with White Wolf, Pants, DS and Gribley. It seemed DS and Gribley had caved on their 'no showers in Maine' plan, succumbed to Stratton and spent the night. They were about to head out with Pace and Hungus. FM, Meds, Flies and White Wolf had already gotten their rooms. I was still unsure if I wanted to spend the money to stay, but after checking the weather, decided I might as well. The Bigalows were what loomed ahead, they were mostly exposed and a storm was coming in that night. Pace, Hungus, Gribley, DS, Roller, Sunkist and Towelie didn't want to pay for another night so they were just gonna try and shoot for the first shelter before the storm. By the time I got my town chores done it would probably be raining, so I just agreed to split a room with Pants.
We said goodbye to our friends, resigning ourselves to the fact that we would still be a day behind them, and headed over to the Stratton Diner for some grub. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed and watching a movie. Meds popped by to see if I wanted to grab a drink, but I was honestly more content in my shitty motel bed. I could tell I was getting exhausted because every time I got to town I was too tired to do anything. And not just exhausted from that days hike, but from the entire journey. My body was ready to be in a permanent state of rest. But my body still had 188 miles to hike. The hard part was, though my body was putting in it's two week notice, my mind was nowhere ready for this journey to be over.