Thursday, July 3, 2014

Last Steps


The last few days of my hike blew by so fast I hardly had time to register their presence.  They possessed a surreal quality unlike anything I've ever experienced.  I could see Katahdin and I was walking towards her.  This was about to be done.  Then my trail family and I would dismantle and return to our corners of the world to do whatever it was we were going to do next.  Ninety-nine percent of us had no idea what that was.  In two days we would be done with this journey, and we hadn't even thought to figure a way out of the woods and back to the populated areas of the plant, let alone a life plan.

We woke up the morning of the 23rd with 15 miles to get to the Abol Bridge, the northern end of the 100 Mile Wilderness.  Abol Bridge was not a town, but simply a bridge with a small camp store and restaurant, with a picturesque view of Katahdin.  We all seemed to float there.  I hit Rainbow Ledges  early in the afternoon and was greeted by Gribley, DS, Pace, Hungus, Towelie and Cheesewater.  We were finally all reunited for our last big climb.  We spent a good hour of that gorgeous day taking in the perfect view of Katahdin.  Our hunger eventually tore us away from the view and we all headed out of the wilderness to Abol Bridge.  My dad was already there with Trail Mamma and SOS.

We all piled into the restaurant for our first real meal in days, before heading down to pitch our tents by the river.  The camp store didn't have much to offer, but we only needed one more day of food.  I had envisioned some grand meal for my last night on the trail the following evening, but the selection at the store quickly crushed those dreams.  It's probably more fitting I have mac & cheese anyway.  My last mac & cheese.  FOREVER. I mean it. And while we are on the topic, here is a list of foods I will never be eating again, in case you have me over or something: mac & cheese, Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides (all varieties), oatmeal, poptarts, honeybuns (they have 43 grams of fat, normal people shouldn't be allowed to buy them anyway), ramen, peanut butter, anything flavored with peanut butter, bars (I am talking all bars here people, including but not limited to Powerbar, Cliff, Luna, Nutrigrain, Nature Valley, Fiber One, Odwalla, Moto, Z-Bar, ALL BARS.  I don't even want to see bar shaped things), Nutella, jerky, nuts, gorp, trail mix, processed cheese, pepperoni, salami, tortillas, Folgers instant coffee, pasta in general really (just too soon) and powdered drink mixes.  Not only will I not be consuming these items, I prefer them not to be in my general area.  Right.

The camp store did however have a selection of beer we all generously helped ourselves to.  And so began the best hiker party since trail days.  I will spare you the details of this night, mostly because I can't remember them.   But I couldn't have asked for a better last hoorah with all of my favorite people.  We only had ten flat miles the next morning to get to the base of Katahdin, inside Baxter State Park.  We all took our time, stopping by the rivers and relaxing when we felt like it.  Soaking up our last day on the trail.

We reached Baxter late in the afternoon, and one by one went into the ranger office to register as a thru-hiker.  I was #540.  I thought back to the thousands that started at Springer.  We beat the odds. We did this. We finished. Well, we still had to climb Katahdin, and she was no joke.  Considered the burliest climb on the AT, we saved the best for last.  After getting assigned my campsite at the Birches I took time to look through the register.  The last register.  I found the names and thoughts of all my fellow hikers who had stood in this moment before me.  I decided to wait until the next morning to put my profound words of wisdom in the register.

Our group was too large to fit in one site so we had to be separated.  Pants, White Wolf, Meds, FM, Bubblefoot, Owf, Stoves, my dad and I headed to the Birches, the shelter half a mile back in the woods they normally put thru-hikers, while Gribley, DS and the rest were given a car camping spot in the actual campground.  After we set up camp we headed back to sit by the fire with the rest of the group.  It was a quiet night, all of us just trying to process the enormity of the moment.  This was our last night on the AT.  We all hit our tents to get an early start up the mountain.  There were also just no more words.

The next morning we were all hiking by 6:30am.  This was one day we had no interest in sleeping in.  White Wolf, Meds, FM, Bubblefoot and I all stopped at the ranger station before heading up.  If you want to know what I wrote in the register, I guess you'll just have to hike the AT:).  We then began our ascent of the last and best mountain.  Hungus was not joking, this was the hardest climb on the whole hike.  No wonder there aren't very many SoBo's.  If I had to start with this climb right out of the gate, I too would probably have been like "you know, nevermind."  The first few miles were a gradual ascent, marching us past the last (or first, if you're a Sobo) privy on the trail.  We began singing "The Final Outhouse" to the tune of the "The Final Countdown" as we continued to climb.  We slowly spread out, until Meds and I were confronted with a bottleneck of hikers (day and thru) who were having problems getting up some of the steeper portions.  This is where we put our trekking poles away as we encountered scrambles and sheer rock faces.  Meds eventually got ahead of me and I continued the climb on my own.  My excited emotions were temporarily subdued as exhaustion (both physical and mental) set in.  This may be the end of my journey and there were a lot of thoughts running through my head, but I was also climbing a mountain and those thoughts couldn't compete with the physicality of what I was doing.  This mountain was ridiculous.

As I finally reached The Gateway and made my way across the Tableland (a flatter section we cross for less than a mile) the summit loomed in front of me.  I was sad to see how far away it looked then laughed at myself for such a silly thought.  I finished the rest of the climb on my own, passing very few people.  Most everyone except for my dad was ahead of me.  As I got closer to the summit I could see the sign and my trail family gathered around.  My friends started cheering and whistling as I made my approach and tears started to swell in my eyes.  I tried to keep myself from balling as I walked up to the sign that until this moment existed only in my dreams, and gave it a giant kiss.  I did it.  I was done.

I had to take a moment to myself, my mind and body unable to process everything.  There were red eyes everywhere, hugs and high fives, pictures and smiles.  Never in my life have I worked so hard and given up so much for something.  Never in my life had I felt more accomplished, more proud, and more amazed than I did in that moment.  I paused to look around at the view that opened before me.  To try to put into words the beauty that surrounded me would be an insult to the majestic scene.  The human language does not have a word to describe it.  There are also very few words to adequately describe how I felt.  I was going to miss the mountains.  That feeling of accomplishment when you climb to the top, that moment when you let yourself rest, bathe in the sunlight and let the breeze wash over you.  The quiet calms you and you hear nothing but your own thoughts.  But even those eventually go away and you are allowed to simply be content with your own existence.

Before I left for this journey the entire thing felt like total insanity.  Because it was.  But the peace and clarity I achieved has led me to think that maybe mental clarity and total insanity are really the same thing.  Everything else felt mediocre.  I refuse to let my existence bathe in mediocrity.  I want to be challenged, and I want everything I do to result in the same joy and gratification I felt on that mountain.  This was a journey that dismantled my life as I knew it, but captured my heart and soul.

My dad made it to the top not long after I did, and was greeted with the same cheers and happiness.  We all took time snapping our summit photos, and while some chose to begin the descent (it was very windy and freezing), most of us decided to stay on the summit a few more hours, soaking up every last wonderful minute out of this experience.

Hungus proposed to Pace at the top, a secret we had all be sworn to keep for awhile.  We cracked open some whiskey to celebrate and stayed just a little bit longer, putting off the inevitable descent back in to reality.  To say this was a life changing journey would be an understatement.  Not in the sense that I had some life altering epiphany that fundamentally changed who I am.  I'm not Julia Roberts in "Eat Pray Love."  I didn't come out here to find anything, to escape from anything or really to even change anything.  But some things did change.  Tiny small shifts in my perceptions that will alter my being for the better.  I can take comfort in knowing that if everything goes to shit, I lose all my possessions and home, my job, all of it - well the happiest time in my life was when I didn't have any of that anyway.  I don't know how anyone can walk away from an experience like this and still hold any deep attachment to material things.  I'm not saying I won't buy or enjoy these things again, but I definitely don't have the same desires I once had (It's been two years since the start of my hike and I still don't own a car and live quite comfortably in a studio apartment).  I would rather fill my life with memories rather than things.  I would rather have more time than money.  I've realized that when people lack meaningful relationships and experiences they fill their lives with meaningless things.

It was also brought to my attention how wasteful our society is.  I realized this after doing a resupply at a grocery store one day.  I sat in front of the grocery store and took all my purchases out of their packaging so I could more easily fit them in my pack.  In front of me stood a mound of garbage, just unnecessary packaging that was being tossed within three feet of where I purchased it.  I stood baffled at how wasteful it all was.  Even those green little plastic bags we use at the store when buying our fruit.  It's not going to protect them from bruising that's for sure.  I mean why?  So we can keep our apples separate from our cucumbers for the car ride home?  When you spend six months packing out all  the trash you create, you will begin to realize it might just be easier to produce less trash.  The argument was made to me that is saves time at the register if all our apples are grouped together in these wasteful little bags.  Well, if you really think about all the things that have been invented in an effort to "save time" that have been at the cost of our health and environment (something I've become attached too needless to say), it's enough to make you wonder if those few minutes you're saving are really worth it.

And then there's time.  People don't take enough time to enjoy small simple pleasures.  I realized this when I was watching an ant colony battle a giant beetle.  It was fascinating and probably something that I would step right over in any other situation.  But in that moment I realized that there is an entire world around us that we just fail to notice. That there is so much amazing stuff happening around us all the time that we don't take the time to appreciate. Time that we're so intent on saving.  I have simply learned it's ok to just slow down.  Enjoy your days.  We don't get a lot of them.

And go hiking:)