Friday, November 9, 2012

The Wilderness Part 2 (Sept 20th - 22nd)

"Happiness can only be found if you free yourself from all other distractions."

~Saul Bellow

This day was going to be an exciting day.  On this day, September 20th, we would catch our first glimpse of Mt. Katahdin.  Our dream, our aspiration, our goal, was about to become a visual reality.  If it was clear, we should be able to see her from the north side of White Cap Mountain.  So, first we had to climb White Cap.  But first we had to climb Hay Mountain.  But first West Peak, after Gulf Hagas Mountain.  Actually but first I had to get out of my tent.  You know how all you normal people complain about Monday mornings?  Well, not actually ever really knowing what day it was, I have to assume every morning was a Monday morning.  Not because I was dreading going to work obviously, but it was just so cold in the mornings now and my ankle was so stiff.  So this is why one moves to Florida.  Sign me up.  Once I got hiking, stretched out and warmed up things were fine, but the getting up part, I was starting to dislike it (In case you were wondering, after the hike I had to go back and use the date stamp in my photos to figure out where I was when.  It took awhile.  On the trail there are no holidays or weekends,  just days, and it's too wonderfully easy to loose track of them).  I finally packed up and hiked all those things previously mentioned.

View of Katahdin from White Cap (the one far away, to the left)

I gave myself a well-deserved break and had a quiet lunch on the summit of White Cap.  Owf appeared but kept going due to the cold.  I didn't care.  I just wanted to sit and stare at Katahdin.  There she was.  Now I just had to walk there.  I was pleased with the amount of flat that stood between us.  Though there was still 73 miles to go, not a lot stood in my way.  I started climbing down White Cap, and I want to mother the children of whoever built that trail.  I flew down it, it was so beautifully executed.  That combined with the excitement of seeing Katahdin for the first time put me in very high spirits.  It could have started lightning and I wouldn't have cared.  I sang a made up song about Katahdin in my head (and out loud) all the way down to Logan Brook Lean-To.

Tree shroom
Everyone had gathered there for a little break before pounding out the four miles to the east branch of Pleasant River.  Yes, Pleasant River, again.  I'm tired of Pleasant River.  First of all, it's not fucking pleasant.  This ford was one of the scarier things we've had to do on the entire hike, at least for my dad and I.  The opportunity to drown or break your leg in a river was a new terror introduced to us in Maine that I hadn't quite overcome.  Pants and I approached the river with Owf.  At first glance we thought nothing of it.  In fact we thought it would be easy because it wasn't very wide.  Owf stepped in first and immediately proved us wrong.  It doesn't look it from the picture, but that current was strong.  And the bottom of the river was nothing short of disastrous for anyone trying to walk on it.  Misshapen boulders of all sizes that must have been coated in ice.  Not only that, they created little pockets of death for us to get stuck in.  You could stick your trekking poles out in front of you to feel where to step next, and they either landed on a slippery boulder not of the flat variety, or they didn't land at all, the pole just going deeper and deeper until you could only assume there was no bottom for you.  All this while trying not to get washed away.  

I held my breath while I watched Owf cross.  She made it to a rock in the middle and climbed on with a look of exhaustion on her face.  "I need a break" followed with "This really sucks" was all she said.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my dad jumped out from behind a tree.  He told us to try and bushwhack upstream and ford, looked easier he thought.  A lot of good that was gonna do Owf, so we waited to make sure she arrived safely ashore, then Pants and I headed upstream to find a less terrifying way across.  We found a spot that looked a bit better, but not by much.  I started across and about halfway I got a bit stuck.  I felt around with my poles for my next landing but there didn't seem to be one.  I gave my dad, who was standing on the bank, a look that said "I have nowhere to go."  He responded with a look that pretty much said "Well you can't live in the river."  I know my dad really hated the fords and were the scariest thing on the hike for him.  I wonder what it must be like to do something that completely terrifies you, then turn to your only child and say "OK your turn."  I was very happy with how much my dad trusted that I could take care of myself out there.  I suppose you have to keep your 'be careful' nagging at low levels when you're doing the same stupid dangerous stuff.

Watching Owf trying to ford Pleasant River
I took my chances on a boulder I didn't trust and quickly moved to another, somehow not falling and arriving safely on the other side.  I bushwhacked back towards the trail, dried off and relaxed a bit now that it was over.  Manula and Tree Trunk arrived with the same 'how the hell do I get across this' reaction, and my dad proceeded to direct them upstream the way he had Pants and I.  He stayed to play ferry captain while we went in search of a place to camp.  We made our way up to Mountain View Pond and decided to camp at a spring east of it.  FM, Meds and Bubble Foot were already there calling it a day.  The site wasn't ideal, a bit marshy, we would certainly all sink if it rained.  But we didn't seem to care.  It was a mellow night, we were all a bit tired from the climbing and fording.  My dad eventually showed up with White Wolf in tow and we all called it a night.  

I spent the entire next day hiking mostly by myself.  I had a small climb up Little Boardman Mountain, which was more akin to a hill after everything we've done, and then headed over to Crawford Pond.  It had a lovely beach even with the dusting of fog that had settled over it.  I took a small break there, mentally marking this spot as somewhere I'd like to camp next time.  I loved Maine so I knew there would be a next time.  Perhaps in warmer weather.  I went on to hop Cooper Brook and took a break at the Lean-To just past it.  Everyone else was ahead and I didn't seem in any hurry to catch up.  I had an 11 mile stretch of flat ahead of me.  And I don't mean thru-hiker flat, like normal people flat.  I got up wondering what I was going to do in my head for the next 11 miles.

Crawford Pond

An elegant silence surrounded me as I hiked.  The air was so crisp and cool, it felt young, like I was the first one breathing it.  My mind didn't wander much as I walked, almost as if it reached a place of perfect calm and didn't need to think or worry about anything.  I realized this was true happiness.  I was happy.  And not due to some artificial or temporary condition, like a good first date or the fulfilment of some material desire.  This happiness wasn't even due to another person.  Being surrounded by loved ones is a wonderful thing that instills joy in us all, but being surrounded by only yourself and still feeling that same sense of comfort and stability and happiness?  That I think is rare.  I'm not saying I don't need anyone or anything, far from it, but I think after you spend enough time alone with only yourself and your thoughts (which is achievable if you live in the woods for six months) you really get to know yourself on a level many people don't.  Maybe happiness is the wrong word, but a sublime level of serenity washed over me as I realized that if you took away all the things that make you happy, a nice home with comfortable things, a good job, money, even friends and family, all of it, I would still be content with simply my own existence.

None of those other things will provide you with any kind of lasting happiness unless you can first be content without them.  I think if people learned to live modestly before they go about acquiring too much, they may realize the things they believe are making them happy are just adding to the miserable clutter.  It is in our nature to assume that our happiness relies on our relationships with other people and the acquisition of things.  But only you are responsible for your happiness, no one or nothing can provide that for you.  Yes this is the cheesy shit you hear on Dr. Phil, but Dr. Phil clearly doesn't know what he's talking about because if he did he would tell people to turn off the TV and go spend some time in the woods.  I mean most people don't even understand what it means to be happy and they're running around everywhere trying to achieve it through things like work, drugs, retail therapy, online dating, mediocre relationships and reality TV.  I think we all just need to get away from all those distractions and spend a little time with ourselves.  The goal isn't to walk around with a permanent smile on our face, not everything needs to be beautiful and perfect.  You don't have to know what you're doing in five years.  Accept that you will be angry and sad and disappointed, and feel OK expressing it.  Being happy doesn't mean life is perfect.  Embracing the sadness and pain of it as well contributes to the wholeness of who you are.  Refusing to get sad will not make you happy.  Refusing to acknowledge pain is just suppressing a part of who you are, and I truly believe you have to embrace all of it if you genuinely want to be at peace with yourself.  I wasn't skipping through the woods at this moment with some spastic smile strapped to my face, I just felt.....whole.  Wholeness, not happiness is the conclusion I came to.  Maybe wholeness should be the goal and happiness is just one component.  

Anyway, this is what I was aware of as I hiked.  It's not some great epiphany, just the realization that, only when I was completely free of everything and left only with myself, I felt as complete a person as I could ever be.

And then I tripped and fell.  Naturally.

 As I lay withering on the ground clutching my ankle, I looked around for the culprit.  The only way a person could have fallen here is if they were drunk or me.  There was literally nothing on which to trip, the ground was an even smooth bed of earth, practically a moving sidewalk, and yet here I lay on my ass.  I thought I might have stepped on some rock awkwardly causing my already shit right ankle to bend again.  But there was no rock.  My ankle had just given out.  It was getting weaker everyday and with every step I pictured it just snapping in half, bone fragments sticking out everywhere.  I gave the wounded solider a pep talk (come ankle, you can do it, only 56 miles left!) and got up to keep on keepin on.

Hiking around Jo-Mary Lake

I passed Cooper Pond, Mud Pond and found myself on the edge of Jo-Mary Lake.  I had the entire lake to myself.  It was there just for me it seemed.  After an extended break I hobbled my way to Potaywadjo Lean-To.  Owf and Pants were there and they presented me with two possible itineraries.  The only two scenarios ever available to a hiker:  we could keep hiking OR we could not keep hiking.  My original intent was to keep hiking another four miles, but after my fall I was liking the looks of 'not keep hiking.'  We had dinner at the shelter with a couple of SoBos, after which I retreated to my tent to "ice" my ankle with cold water and relax.  All the other guys were about two miles ahead at White House Landing, which was a hostel in the middle of nowhere.  If you wanted to go there, the instructions were thus:  find a blue-blazed trail after a dirt road and go east for about a mile until you got to a lake with a boat dock.  Blow the air horn only once and a man will row across the lake and come get you.  This, seemed to me a lot of work, to pay $40 to sleep in a shitty bunk and eat a hamburger (which was extra). I also heard the guy running it was a total ass (which was confirmed the next day by the boys).  My dad was planning on skipping it as well, though he wasn't at the shelter.  Not sure where he was...somewhere.

The next day we had 18 miles to Rainbow Stream Lean-To, our last night in the Wilderness.  It had to be my last night in the Wilderness because I was out of food.  We crossed Twitchell Brook, Deer Brook, forded Tumbledown Dick Stream (yep) and FM, Meds and Bubble Foot caught us just as we were reaching Nahmakanta Stream.  We passed Prentiss Brook and Nahmakanta Lake before climbing up Nesuntabunt Mountain.  The climb was brief but the top was suppose to have a 16 mile line-of-sight view of Katahdin (we were still 36 trail miles away).  Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see her.  We climbed down and Pants and I spent the afternoon playing alphabet games as we hiked past Crescent Pond, Pollywog Gorge, Pollywog Stream and Murphy Pond, finally arriving at Rainbow.  We all set up camp on a hill behind the shelter and enjoyed our last night in the Wilderness.

I couldn't believe how fast it went.  The next day we would hike 14 miles to Abol Bridge, where there was a small campstore, restaurant and campsites.  From there we would enter Baxter State Park and hike ten miles to Birches at the base of Katahdin.  For the first time in the last six months and eight days, I knew exactly where I would be sleeping the next night.  And the night after that.  We would all be catching up with Gribley, Daystar, Pace, Hungus and Cheesetowel at Abol the next day, reunited for the most epic summit ever.  


Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Wilderness Part 1 (Sept 17th - 19th)

"Do not be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upwards."

~Vladmir Nabakov

After a somewhat restful night, my dad and I headed over to Shaw's for some AYCE breakfast.  Big E, DK and Bubble Foot were there and I got some good Rhode Island recommendations from DK for our road trip back.  Her and Big E would be taking a zero, but Bubble Foot would be heading out with the rest of us.  Turns out he is a riot, too bad this was the first time we were getting to hike with him.  My dad and I got our stuff together before everyone else so we caught a ride to the trail and told everyone we'd see them later.  White Wolf was organizing a food drop with the hostel so he wouldn't have to carry an ungodly amount of food.  The 100 Mile Wilderness is just that, 100 miles of wilderness save for a few abandoned logging roads.  For a nominal fee, Lakeshore House would leave a bucket of food for you about 30 miles in, down one of the gravel logging roads.  The rest of us, not really wanting to pay for that, opted to carry back breaking packs to get us through the week.  They recommended carrying at least ten days of supplies.  I decided to go with seven days of supplies, but only planned on taking six days to get through the wilderness, leaving an extra day of food if necessary.  Ten days of food is appallingly heavy.  I could barely fit the seven, and I literally had bread dangling off my pack.  

I was also implementing a new Pop-Tart protection program.  Crushed Pop-Tarts is a woe of every hiker.  The only way to really keep them safe is to actually leave them in the box.  Unfortunately this also takes up more room, and wasn't an option for the wilderness.  So, I thought if I took my two boxes worth of Pop-Tarts and stored them on the very top of my pack, they would have less chance of getting crushed.  The downside was that I would be first removing like 15 Pop-Tarts if I wanted anything in my bag.  It was a price I was willing to pay to not have to drink my Pop-Tarts.  Osprey should really have a specially reinforced "Pop-Tart Pocket."  I think it would make some people happy.  Anyway, my dad and I got a ride to the trail and excitedly dove into the 100 Mile Wilderness.  We stopped to read the warning, both acknowledging neither of us had ten days worth of anything and stepped right in!  

The beginning of the Wilderness was not flat, but wasn't super hard.  Lots of small ups and downs.  In keeping with our expectations, the trail was also not as defined.  It was more overgrown, and there were fewer blazes.  Within the first three miles I had to pause often to figure out where to go, so it was inevitable that one of those times I would get it wrong.  As I approached the first shelter, I found Cheesewater hanging out.  He looked at me quizzically and wondered what I was doing coming from there.  "I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail" I told him, and he proceeded to point out the AT, which was most definitely not where I had came from.  Huh.  Well somewhere I started walking my own path apparently, but I at least got to where I intended to go.  Still not the best start to the most remote section of the AT.

North Pond

 My dad decided to carry on while I took a quick break with Cheesewater.  After his drunk hitch out of town he ended up camping practically on the trailhead the previous night.  We got up to make our way to Little Wilson Falls.  We wove around North Pond, Mud Pond, Bear Pond and James Brook before hitting the falls.  The Wilderness is one of the prettiest parts of the AT, dotted with ponds and brooks and streams oh my.  If it weren't literally freezing there would have been ample swimming opportunities at several beaches.  Little Wilson Falls was gorgeous and I sat there with Cheesewater having lunch for about 30 minutes.  He got up to start hiking but I wanted to stay a little more.  Not long after Cheesewater left, FM strolled up, so I sat a wee bit longer with him.  We finally decided to leave when a group of non-thru hikers that I had passed earlier showed up.  They were about to ford the river above the falls before we caught them and showed the correct way downstream at the base of the falls.  Don't ford rivers above waterfalls people, I mean come on.

Little Wilson Falls

FM on the falls

We left them as they decided they first wanted to have lunch so we headed downstream to ford.  The water was actually low enough down there so we could rock hop across.  I hiked quietly up an unnamed hill, slowly taking in the views.  Green still dominated, but the other colors were gently creeping in.  A twinge of sadness settled in my stomach as I hiked.  We really were reaching the end.  As I watched the leaves fall from the trees, I remembered what the trail looked like when I started.  There wasn't a leaf to be found.  Then all the sudden, it seemed we were walking in a green tunnel.  And now, two seasons later, we were slowly going back to how we began, with the colors changing and the foliage dropping away.  I was taken off guard at how deep my sadness was to be leaving the trail soon.  My excitement for Katahdin was indescribable, excitement to see and stand on her and be able to say "Yes, I actually did this." My body was ready to be done, my ankle in severe pain with every step, I was tired and cold and sick of Pop-Tarts.  Yet, like a relationship you've exhausted but are still unwilling to leave, I clung to the trail.  It was almost like it comforted me while I suffered through the pain it caused me.  Part of me wanted to hurry.  Embrace the elation of being so close to accomplishing a long sought after goal.  And yet another part wanted to linger, savor all the beauty the journey towards that goal has brought me.  It was an odd internal struggle that consumed my mind until I was greeted by Big Wilson Stream. 

Before spring came in Georgia

Brief fling with winter, thank you Tennessee

Green tunnel of Virginia

Colors fading away in Maine

Meds, Owf, Stoves, Bubble Foot and a hiker I hadn't met before, Log (and her dog Yo-Yo) had all caught up.  It was quite obvious no one would be rock hopping this one.  Everyone made it across safely, though there was a brief moment of terror when Yo-Yo got a bit swept downstream.  But he survived just fine and ran his way back along the river to find us. What is the AT if not long stretches of boredom pierced by moments of sheer terror?  It was about 5pm when we got to Wilson Valley Lean-To.  My dad and Log decided they would try to hike a little further.  Owf, Bubble Foot, FM, Meds and I all decided to stay.  Ranger Bill and J-Dub showed up a bit later.  Cheesetowel was ahead somewhere and so was Pants.  We got a nice fire going and had an entertaining night swapping hitching nightmares.  White Wolf showed up eventually and stayed for storytime, but was in the mood for a night hike and took off when we all went to bed.  Our ten mile day meant we would be making up for it tomorrow, unless we wanted to starve.

Meds about to ford Big Wilson
 The next morning we all got up early, ready to pound out a 16 mile day to Chairback Gap Lean-To.  It was going to be a long day with lots of climbing, and it was also freezing.  At least it would keep us hiking.  I spent most of the day chatting and hiking with Owf.  It had been some time since I had hiked with Daystar, Pace and Sunkist, so it was nice to spend a day with another girl.  I was so used to being surrounded by farting beards that I forgot how refreshing just hanging out with a girlfriend for a day can be.  We crossed a few streams, forded Wilbur Brook, passed Vaughn Stream and Long Pond and then hit the 100 mile mark right before Long Pond Stream Lean-To.  I remember how excited we were when we hit our first 100 miles back in Georgia, and now we only had a 100 to go..... We all took a quick break at the shelter, where we also found Pants and White Wolf.  FM, Owf and I attempted to pull water from the trickle at the shelter, the whole time cursing myself that I didn't fill up at one of the million flowing streams I passed earlier.  We than began the climb up to Barren Ledges and then Barren Mountain.

100 to go!!!
It was actually getting colder as the day progressed.  Owf and I stopped at the base of Barren with Stoves to inhale a speedy lunch.  My Pop-Tart protection program was failing.  My Pop-Tarts were still getting crushed.  On top of that they were a nuisance to take out everytime I needed something in my bag, and then I had to keep a close eye on them because the squirrels, unable to resist a pile of Pop-Tarts, kept trying to steal them from me.  Who knew Pop-Tarts could cause such problems in a persons life.  It was too cold to not be moving so ten minutes later we were hiking.  Be exhausted from continuous hiking or freeze were the options at this point.  We climbed up Fourth Mountain, down Fourth Mountain, up Third Mountain, down Third Mountain.  You get the idea.  Also, I think they were running out of mountain names.  I finally got to Chairback utterly exhausted from hiking 16 miles without much rest, and found I wasn't the only one.  My dad, Stoves, Owf, Log, Mad Hat, Tree Trunk and Manuela were all going to squeeze into the shelter like sardines.  The shelter would be cold, but, it was going to rain that night and they didn't want to get wet.  So it looked like the rest of us were going to battle the rain.  Problem was there was nothing but crap for tent spots.  With the exception of Bubble Foot, who hammocked (also not the most weather proof sleeping system), we all pretty much had to set our tents up in bowls, which meant if it rained really hard, we were going to wake up in our own individual lakes.  Well, to say it rained hard was quite the understatement.  We each woke up in our own individual oceans.  The ground under my tent was a water bed.  It was an aerobic act just to get out of my tent without flooding it.  Needless to say, no one got an early start that day.  Rain is a hiker's snooze button.  Plus I was afraid if I left my sleeping pad I would drown.  


There's a trail there somewhere

Eventually, one by one, hikers started emerging to brave the wet and cold, packing up in the rainy drizzle that was left after the downpour of the night before.  Not exactly the most amazing birthday morning for White Wolf to wake up to.  He still got a happy birthday song out of it and a truly amazing drawing from me, that I'm sure has since been framed and hung on a wall in some prominent location.  Meds, my dad and I began our hike down to the stream and up Chairback Mountain.  The rain had completely washed out the trail and we had a hard time trying to figure out where to go.  We figured a way across the pond that had appeared overnight, and started up what we thought was the trail, though there seemed to be a stream running through it.  We were hoping it was just runoff from the rain and that we weren't actually following some random stream uphill.  There hadn't been a blaze in awhile so we were just relying on our gut, and it was right, when the "trail" we were following finally began to look like a trail and we spotted a blaze on a rock.

Meds fording Pleasant River

The three of us eventually made it down to Katahdin Iron Works Rd, a gravel logging road where everyone else had gathered.  The sun had miraculously come out and everyone was drying out their gear. I jumped on board and proceeded to do the same.  This was also the spot White Wolf had paid to have a bucket drop.  He went in search of his goods (they hang it in a tree so animals can't get it) and returned not only with a resupply for himself, but beer for everyone!  We had a nice lunch before we all headed down to ford the West Branch of Pleasant River.  This was a pretty wide ford with a slick rocky bottom, not made any easier by the heavy amounts of rain we just received, but we all made it across in one piece.  After the ford we had a gentle afternoon with a gradual climb up Gulf Hagas Mountain.  We all decided to pull up before the summit around Carl Newhall Lean-To.  It was quickly getting too cold.  So cold I dove into my tent and didn't really come out for the rest of the night.  The next day we would climb White Cap, one of the last real tough mountains......other than Momma K of course.  You know the end is drawing near when you run out of mountains to climb.