A Walk On the Wild Side (Part 1)
Snapping awake, I sat up and nearly smacked my head on the low ceiling above the bed. My mouth was drier than a Gobi sand dune which could only mean one thing…I had a great time last night but was in for a world of pain today. Memories of yesterday’s events slowly flowed into my mind.
I had taken a Concord Coach bus up to Bangor the day before. Since I had a couple hours before the next bus left on the second leg of my journey up to Millinocket, the gateway town for Baxter State Park, I decided to swing by the grocery store for some last minute supplies. (Mostly, I wanted to grab some cheese. Vermont cheddar to be precise. At the time, I thought I’d be a rarity, carrying fresh cheese on the AT, since dehydrated foods are most preferred because of the lower weight. However, I’ve encountered tons of hikers nibbling cheese during the past few weeks. Refreshing to know that there are other thru-hiking turophiles out there.)
When I returned to the bus terminal, a tall man with salt and pepper hair was standing near the entrance and eyed my pack as I walked in. He came into the bus terminal a few minutes later and walked up to me while I was organizing my cluster fuck of a food supply on the floor.
“Thru hiker?” he asked me gruffly.
I figured him for a local and was slightly annoyed that he was interrupting my task. Fortunately, I didn’t say anything to that effect for within a minute I learned that the man was a thru hiker himself! The Machine, as he was known on the trail, was heading to Katahdin as well but wasn’t a southbounder (or SOBO) like me. Instead, he is what’s known as a flip-flopper, someone who starts hiking the AT in one direction but for one reason or another decides to get off trail and travel to another part of the trail and head in the opposite direction. In the Machine’s case, he started hiking at Springer Mountain in April, walked over 1000 miles in the following months and got off trail in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
Harper’s Ferry is a common place for flip-floppers to get off trail since it’s near the midpoint and one can get to Washington D.C. easily via train and then fly to another part of the trail. In fact, the Machine had arrived on a flight from DC earlier that day. From Katahdin, he would head southbound on the AT until he arrived in Harper’s Ferry completing his hike.
While the Machine and I were talking, a cab pulled up and a man exited with a backpack that had thru hiker written all over it. Within a few moments, he joined our conversation and introduced himself as Kelsey. He was a SOBO from California with a dark sense of humor. I liked him instantly.
The Machine and Kelsey had booked the SOBO special at the AT Lodge just like I had. The SOBO Special included a shuttle from Medway to Millinocket (no local buses travel from Bangor to Millinocket), a night’s stay at the AT Lodge, breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Cafe and a shuttle to Katahdin Stream Campground the next morning. All for a relatively cheap price, too. Since the three of us still had a couple of hours before the bus taking us to Medway arrived, we talked about our backgrounds, the AT and mingled with some of the locals.
One of the locals was a rather interesting chap. While the Machine, Kelsey and I talked about the AT, he sat there reading a Bible…which was upside down. Eventually, he asked us a few questions and it was clear his notion of the AT and thru hikers was a little skewed. Some of the gems that came out the man’s mouth include:
“Aren’t you guys worried about getting ambushed? I mean because you guys are carrying all that money.” (Most thru hikers are in their 20s and hiking on a shoestring budget. Plus, as I used to tell my students, word choice is important. “Getting ambushed”? We’re not going for a walk in Sherwood Forest, buddy!
“How long do you guys think it will take? Cause the trail’s like 9000 miles long, right?” (The Appalchian Trail is only a little over 2000 miles long. Just for perspective, the entire US – Canada border is not even 6000 miles long.)
With less than a half an hour to go before the bus arrived, a young woman rushed into the terminal with a large backpack. When she purchased a bus ticket to Medway, the three of us assumed she was another thru hiker. However, Liat was an Israeli who was just hiking a section of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Not surprisingly, she was staying at the AT Lodge in Millinocket before entering Baxter as well.
When the local bus arrived, the Machine, Kelsey, Liat and I all sat close to each other so we could continue our conversation. The four of us were getting along so well that someone suggested we go out for drinks after getting settled in at the AT Lodge. (I didn’t mind at all because I had booked an extra day at the campsite at Baxter State Park. So if I didn’t feel like going up Katahdin tomorrow, I could always wait until the next day).
Once we got to the AT Lodge, I still had to arrange my food drop. Since there aren’t places to resupply once you’re in the 100 Mile Wilderness, you either have to carry all the food you need with you or have someone drop some food off for you at a prearranged location. Since I figured it would take me about 9 days to traverse the 100 Mile Wilderness, I knew there was no way I was carrying that much food weight with this heroin-chic physique.
An hour later, the Machine, Kelsey, Liat and I found ourselves at the Blue Ox Saloon The flow of the conversation was matched by the steady stream of alcohol. Although we were having a grand time, it did become woefully apparent that Liat had a certain naiveté anout her and was unprepared for her trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness. For instance, since all of her backpacking experience in her native Israel had been in a dry, desert-like climate, she was missing certain items of gear.
I think it was right after she went off to the bathroom and left her wallet and passport lying out on the table in plain view that Kelsey suggested the three of us team up until we arrived at point in the 100 Mile Wilderness where Liat was to be picked up (since she was only doing a portion of the 100 Mile Wilderness we assumed she had arranged to be picked up at one of the logging roads).
The Machine, on the other hand, planned to climb Katahdin from the other side of the mountain so he would not be joining us. When Liat then dropped the bombshell that she hadn’t set up a ride and had planned to just hitch, it was pretty much decided that the three of us would hike together. (The logging roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness see little to no traffic.) We told Liat she should arrange a ride through the people at the AT Lodge and then we all went to bed.
Laying there in bed the following morning, the hangover combined with lack of sleep had me reconsidering my promise of the night before. Glancing at the time, I decided to head down to the Appalachian Trail Cafe for the free breakfast which was included in the SOBO special. As I got to the main drag, who should I see but the Machine and Kelsey walking down the street towards the cafe. When we first sat down to order, I told Kelsey about my thoughts about postponing for a day. Over the course of breakfast (which consisted of 3 eggs, home fries, sausage and bacon…oh…and pancakes), Kelsey convinced me to stick to the previous night’s plan. And by convince me, I mean he made me realize there was no way that I could let him hike with Liat alone. She seemed like too much of a liability. With 15 minutes to go before the shuttle left, Liat finally walked in to the cafe to eat breakfast. She got her food to go while we headed back for the shuttle.
Ole Man, owner of the AT lodge and former thru hiker, drives the shuttle into Baxter State Park himself in order to dispense some last bits of vital advice. In a wide ranging and profound lecture, he covered topics such as water filtration, the rootiness of the Maine wilderness and safely storing your food at night. I wouldn’t actually know because I didn’t hear a word of it. Since I was sitting in the back row of the shuttle van, the vehicle rumbled too loudly for me to make out most of what he said. (Kelsey told me the gist of it when we were hiking later that day).
Besides Liat and Kelsey, there were 2 other people in the shuttle, Spitfire, an older SOBO from Texas, was just coming along for the ride. The forecast had called for rain and he decided to wait until the next day to summit Katahdin. Since he wasnt going to be staying at his site that night, he told the rest of us to use it so we could all stay at the same site. The other hiker with us in the shuttle was Blue River Phoenix, a man from Savannah, GA. Blue River Phoenix had brought so much gear in his pack when he arrived in Millinocket that Ole Man offered to give his pack a shakedown. A shakedown is when someone looks at the gear in your pack and recommends ditching or swapping out certain gear. Apparently, the Georgian had brought so much unnecessary gear that Ole Man wanted to give him “Inspector Gadget” as a trail name (which Blue River refused). Despite sending some equipment home, his pack still looked big and heavy.
When we arrived at Katahdin Stream Campground, we bid Ole Man adieu and entered the Ranger’s office. Since Katahdin is a long, strenuous hike (that involves hand over hand climbing at points) Baxter State Park provides day packs for thru hikers to use. While a few hikers do bring their full packs with them up to the summit, the overwhelming majority make use of the day packs. While taking turns to register with the ranger, Kelsey, Liat and Blue River Phoenix picked out day packs from the large selection and began transferring gear into them. The top compartment of my backpack is detachable so I had packed the necessary items into it the night before. So while the others got their stuff ready, I went to Katahdin Stream to filter water for the day.
After a few minutes, Kelsey arrived to filter water as well. Soon Liat showed up. We weren’t sure if Blue River Phoenix was joining us but Liat said he still was organizing his gear and it looked like he’d be a while. So we took off.
The first stretch of the hike is mostly flat and pleasant as it follows Katahdin Stream. Soon Kelsey, Liat and I picked up where we had left off last night, laughing and joking. I felt fortunate to be climbing Katahdin with them. Soon we arrived at beautiful Katahdin Falls and stopped for a snack. I tool one bite of my Cliff Bar and instantly realized I still think they taste like dog crap and I won’t be buying them again.
After the falls, the trail becomes increasingly more difficult. Eventually, after a steep hike, we arrived at the Gateway, a section of the trail that requires hand over hand climbing. Kelsey was excited as he was a rock climber. Liat, despite being about a foot shorter than both us, proved to be adept at climbing the boulders. The previous time I had climbed Katahdin, my buddy, Adam, and I had to take shelter from a suprise thunderstorm under a slanted boulder. The descent down the slick rocks that day was quite hairy, so I was quite grateful that it wasn’t raining now.
The forecast had, in fact, called for rain today and it seemed as if Pamola, the spirit of the mountain, couldnt make up his mind. The southern slopes of the mountain were engulfed in dense mist down to the valley while the northern half looked magnificent shining in the sun. As the three of us crested over the ridge to the plateau, the trail ran exactly through where the air was divided between blue skies and mist. As Liat walked ahead, she suddenly said, “Wow, that feels nice!” Just as I was about to ask her what she was talking about, I walked into the mist and you could feel individual droplets of water bursting on your skin as you moved forward.
Noticing some excellent boulders for seats, we decided to stop for another snack before continuing on to the summit. While snacking, Kelsey asked Liat what had made her choose the 100 Mile Wilderness. She said the main reason she had traveled to the United States was to visit friends in New York City. However, she decided to go on a short backpacking trip as well. Since she hiked primarily in the desert back home, she wanted to experience backpacking in a different environment. While doing research, she discovered the 100 Mile Wilderness. Kelsey and I were both impressed with her initiative. However, then we found out she had forgotten to arrange a pick up shuttle before leaving the AT Lodge in the morning. Luckily, there was a store before you enter the 100 Mile Wilderness, Kelsey recommended that Liat use the telephone there to arrange a ride.
After eating we continued along the trail. We were now on the Tableland, a flat section before the final, short ascent to the summit. The Tableland can be deceiving as many hikers feel like they are “almost there” but another mile must be hiked before they stand before the famous wooden sign on the summit. Then there’s the descent of course.
As we trudged along the thin trail as it snaked its way through a field of boulders and moss, the clouds began breaking. A stunning view emerged of a dense green valley dotted with an astonishing number of ponds and lakes. The dark blue water shone with brilliant reflections of the sun while the flatness of the surrounding landscape juxtaposed with the magnificent prominence of Katahdin. I’ve been to the summit of many mountains in New England, including two previous trips up the Great Mountain of Maine, and I’ve yet to find a vista that can awe me as much as Katahdin on a good weather day.
The views from the summit were even more amazing as we could now see down to Chimney Pond. We posed for the requisite summit photos then sat down for some lunch. The wind was strong on the summit and I quickly regretted not bringing my down jacket. Instead, I put on my rain jacket for the minimal warmth it would provide. It did very little and I was starting to feel uncomfortable due to the cold. Kelsey and Liat were also starting to get cold so we decided to head down. We had planned to stay on the summit for an hour originally, however, we ended up leaving after just 20 minutes. With the amazing visibility that day, it was frustrating to be heading down so soon. Ahh…there would be many more mountain vistas to enjoy.
As always it’s the descent of Katahdin which is most perilous. Perhaps this is true of all great mountains but in the case of the Appalachian Trail coming down Katahdin the effect is multiplied. Those same boulders that you were skipping over like a gazelle on the way up have you sliding whimpering in fear on the way down. Plus, the ascent up them and the long traverse over the Tableland have sapped your legs of their strength and control. Fortunately, the rocks were only moderately slick as descending Katahdin in the rain is as terrifying as it gets. Even Kelsey who hours before was climbing up the boulders with goat like glee was feeling the toll of the mountain. At one point, he turned to me and said “If anybody ever tells you that they hiked Katahdin, you tell them ‘NO, you CLIMBED Katahdin’!” For many people who climb Katahdin, it’s a similar story. They feeling they’ve done bigger, badder mountains, approach Katahdin with arrogance, thinking they’ll be up and down the mountain in no time. Pamola humbles them all.
Shortly after getting below treeline, we ran into Blue River Phoenix. He had only hiked 2 miles in 6 hours and he looked like he was struggling. There was probably two hours of sunlight left which meant he’d be hiking in the dark. We tried to convince him to come down with us but he was determined to continue on. So we bid him well and turned down trail.
When we arrived at Katahdin Stream Falls on jelly legs, it was decided one final snack was in order before walking the final mile to the campsite. As I quickly devoured my Snickers bar, I had the realization that I needed to make sure to get snack foods (the fuel for in between meals) that I really enjoyed eating. No more gagging on Cliff Bars.
Kelsey, Liat and I stumbled into camp a half an hour later. All three of us were completely wiped out. We set up camp, quickly cooked dinner and soon were fast asleep in our tents.
As I awoke the next morning, I heard the muted sound of voices outside my tent. After listening for a few moments, I recognized Kelsey talking and the slow drawl of Blue River Phoenix, however, there was clearly a third male voice. Unzipping my tent, I glanced out the door and saw Kelsey and Blue River Phoenix standing with a tall, thin man. I quickly put on my camp shoes eager to learn who the mystery man was.
As I walked over, the man nodded at me and said, “What’s up, brother? I’m Lucky One.” Lucky One acquired his trail name due to a series of near death experiences while serving multiple tours with the Army.
After the introduction, I learned why Lucky One was in our camp. According to Blue River, he was able to summit Katahdin after we met him on the trail yesterday but didn’t get back down to Katahdin Stream Campground until 11 pm. In his exhausted state, the darkness confused him and he was unable to find the campsite we were sharing. He walked around looking for it until finally, in frustration, he fell asleep on one of the picnic tables near the trailhead. Turns out, Lucky One, who continued telling the story from here, had flown into Bangor earlier that day from his native Missouri. Although the main gate at Baxter State Park closes at 8, Lucky One was able to find a cab driver who said he “knew someone” at the park and would be able to get him in. So the cabbie drove him all the way into the park and when he arrived at the main gate, he simply got out of the car and swiveled the gate out of the way. Getting out of the cab at Katahdin Stream Campground, Lucky One discovered Blue River sleeping on the bench. He quickly found the campsite and brought Blue River over.
By this point, Liat had woken up and we started to prepare breakfast. Some thru hikers like to get out of camp fast and just eat a cold breakfast. I was glad to find out that Liat and Kelsey were like me and preferred to take their time and cook a hot breakfast. On this morning, we all ate oatmeal.
Liat, Kelsey and I were still feeling sluggish from the climb the day before and it took us longer than we had planned to get packed. (Me talking too much may or may had something to do with that.) Shortly after 9, we were ready to go and said goodbye to Lucky One and Blue River, who had decided to rest a day before continuing south.
The course the AT follows out of Baxter State Park is primarily flat as it runs along riverbeds. I had walked on this section before with my buddy Adam so I knew how gentle the terrain was. However, I was apprehensive about river crossings in general and about the stream we had to cross today in particular. My apprehension stemmed from an episode during a trek to Alaska the previous summer in which I was almost washed downstream while fording a raging river. I was worried about the stream we were supposed to cross today, the Nesowadnehunk, because Adam and I had found it impassable on our previous trip and were forced to take an alternative route. So while Kelsey, Liat and I joked around as made fast progress along the trail, I was inwardly nervous.
However, when we arrived at Nesowadnehunk Stream, I started laughing. The water level was much lower than when Adam and I had tried to cross it. Kelsey lead the way and, by jumping from rock to rock, he was quickly across to the other side. Liat went next and I followed suit. (As I soon discovered, the water level at the streams and rivers could be dependent on the recent rain activity. Plus, Maine was having a below average summer in terms of rain which meant crossing Nesowadnehunk Stream and many of the other rivers was a lot less dangerous than in other years).
Not long after, we came across our first NOBOs. They were moving at a steady clip and had a look of determination in their eyes now that Katahdin was in their sights. We jumped aside to let them race past.
By the afternoon we had reached the completely flat stretch that runs along the Penobscot River. However, instead of enjoying the easy terrain, I began feeling extremely fatigued. I was even stumbling somewhat. After a few minutes, I told Kelsey and Liat how I felt. I had been eating enough but, like an idiot, I hadn’t put on my hat, relying on the tree canopy to protect me from the sun. It seemed more than likely that I had heat exhaustion.
Therefore, after exiting Baxter State Park, we decided to take a long break at the store at Abol Bridge. We had originally planned to end the day by entering the 100 Mile Wilderness and staying at the first shelter. However, after an hour of rest (and a Gatorade and several ice cream bars), it was apparent I wasn’t getting any better so we decided to stay at a campground nearby, Abol Pines.
A rather strange episode occurred that night. While we were setting up camp at Abol Pines, we noticed a man going off into the woods and coming back with live branches to use as fuel for his already roaring fire. Then later, just as I was about to get into my tent for the night, the man walked over to the edge our campsite and called me over. After cursing myself for putting my tent the closest to the lunatic’s campsite, I walked over to him. He had on a Boston Red Sox cap and I recognized his thick accent right off the bat. When he learned I was from Southie (he was from Charlestown), it was like we were best buddies. In the conversation that ensued, the man asked me several times if I wanted to drink whiskey with him. I refused each time, citing the fact that I was starting the 100 Mile Wilderness in the morning as an excuse. (In reality, I just make it a general policy to not drink with anybody who is crazier than I am). Just when I thought I had escaped the clutches of the evil man’s conversation and turned to leave, he asked me if I wanted to do something that sounded like a slang for the kind of drug I didn’t want to know about. After refusing the man’s entreaties again, I said goodbye and immediately went over to tell Liat and Kelsey what had happened.
However, I wasn’t done with the man, for when I walked over to my tent once again, he approached. He walked right beside my tent and said he was checking to make sure the music he was playing on his speakers wasn’t too loud. Just when I was thinking what a nice gesture, I heard him mumble under his breath as he walked away, “Because I’m just going to turn it up once you start snoring…” As I nestled into my sleeping bag and the man started singing loudly, I resigned myself to a restless night. Fortunately, I was completely tired from the heat exhaustion and somehow I feel fast asleep.
The next morning, Kelsey, Liat and I quietly discussed the lunatic over breakfast. Quietly because we weren’t sure if he was in his lean-to and we didn’t want to stir him. Kelsey thought the guy stayed up all night because when he got out his tent to go the bathroom around three in the morning the guy was still awake singing to his music.
Just as we were beginning to ponder whether the man was on meth (and whether that was the drug he had alluded to the night before) when a doe came running into our campsite. It saw the three of us, spun around, leaped over my tent and ran over towards the lunatic’s campsite. Then it stopped. We gestured as best we could to get the doe to keep running as we half expected the man to shoot it in a blaze of shotgun blast. (It might seem like I’m exaggerating but the man seemed entirely capable of this.) Luckily, the doe sprinted away and escaped unscathed.
After breakfast, we slipped out of camp. Within 10 minutes, we came across a sign informing us that we were entering the 100 Mile Wilderness. I definitely felt nervous because from this point on the only way out was to walk all the way to Monson (over 90 miles away…the 100 Miles Wilderness is not exactly one hundred miles nor a wilderness for that matter) or call someone to come “rescue” you at one of the logging roads. As we walked past the sign, I couldn’t help think of one of my friend Teddy T’s favorite expessions…shit just got real.
After a few miles of hiking, we arrived at our first shelter, Hurd Brook. As the three of us walked around to the front of the structure, we were surprised to find Lucky One there. It appeared he had slipped past us in the morning! We decided to stop to have a snack and hike out with him.
When we continued on, the terrain slowly became rougher. The first thing you notice are all the tree roots that cover the trail. They are overgrown and everywhere. After rain, some of them can be unbelievably slippery since they’ve been worn smooth by all the steps of hikers throughout the years. Between the roots and the rocks, you really have to be cognizant of where you put your foot down. Not only is it easy to take a spill but twisting an ankle is another common injury. Throughout most of the 100 Mile Wilderness (and the state of Maine for that matter), it was a rarity to see a stretch of flat, smooth trail.
Around one in the afternoon, the four of us ascended up to Rainbow Ledges which had excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The midday sun was scorching so we found a patch of shade and had some lunch. I took out the Vermont cheddar and pepperoni I had bought back in Bangor and shared some with Liat, Kelsey and Lucky One. Although the cheese had sweated somewhat in the heat, it tasted deeeelicious.
When we started hiking again, Kelsey and Liat really took off, while Lucky One lagged behind. My afternoon slowly went down hill. First, I slipped on a wet rock. My feet went airborne and I fell hard on my side. Although I wasn’t hurt, it knocked the wind out of me.
About an hour later, I stepped on a slick rock and lost my footing. In order to stay upright, I did a pirouette and swing my other leg hard into a boulder. My shin slammed into it, cutting it open wide. As I was examining the damage, Lucky One came limping up behind me. He had twisted his ankle badly.
Earlier that morning, Kelsey, Liat and I had talked about ending the day at Rainbow Stream Lean to. Looking at our AWOL trail guides (the most popular guide with thru hikers, I also have another guide on my phone), Lucky One and I realized we were still about seven miles away from that shelter. Since we were pretty banged up, we decided to just hike two miles further and stop at another campsite.
When we arrived, the campsite was quickly filling up with NOBOs and SOBOs alike. Lucky One saw Dirty, a thru hiker he had met earlier that day. Dirty, a Virginian around my age, had already pitched his tent and was now tending a nice fire. After a quick discussion, we decided to pitch our tents near Dirty’s.
While Lucky One and I were setting up our tents, Raindrop, another SOBO, walked over. She was a 20 year old from Fryeburg, Maine and joined us for dinner. (Over the next few weeks, I was amazed at the large amount of thru hikers I met who were under the age of twenty one). The four of us hung out for a little bit before calling it a night.
I woke up early, as the sun was rising, and decided to break camp quickly determined to catch up with Kelsey and Liat. To save time, I ate a few energy bars instead of cooking a warm breakfast. As I was packing my gear, Dirty woke up. He said he would try to catch up with me. I hiked out to the sounds of Lucky One still snoring in his tent.
The trail passed by some gorgeous scenery that morning. Dirty caught up to me within an hour and we found ourselves constantly stopping to take pictures. For a good hour, we walked along a series of stunning cataracts running through a gorge. Plus, we saw few people that morning as we slowly hiked along snapping pictures.
Around 1 o’clock, we stopped along the rocky coast of a pond for lunch. It was a serene setting and we ate mostly in silence. As we ate, a pair of older section hikers (people who hike the Appalachian Trail in sections over a number of years) came down the trail heading northbound. The woman eyed my beard as she approached us and asked, “Are you Ginger Beard Man?” When I replied in the affirmative, she gave me a message from Kelsey. He told them that if I hadn’t caught up to him by the time Liat got picked up by her ride that he would take a zero day so that I could. I guess I made a good impression!
The hiking became more strenuous as scattered boulders covered the trail as Dirty and I went up and over Nesahuntabunt Mountain. To make matters worse, a light rain began to fall.There were tons of blow downs blocking the way. One tree was massive and had split in half across the trail. We were forced to climb up and crawl across it the trunk was so large.
Late in the day, Youngblood, a 20 year old from Kansas, caught up to us heading southbound. He had already done 16 miles and was moving at a fast clip. He decided to slow down and hike to the next shelter, Wadleigh Stream Lean to, with us.
The three of us finally arrived at the shelter just as it was beginning to get dark. Since it was so late, the shelter area was pretty crowded, mostly with a bunch of loud NOBOs. Kelsey and Liat weren’t there; they must have hiked on to the next shelter. We were able to find a place to pitch our tents a little farther up trail. Raindrop showed up shortly after and set up her tent near ours.
The sun set quickly as we pitched our tents. While we sat around making dinner, we wondered if Lucky One would show up but he never did.
I awoke in my tent to the gentle sound of birdsong. Soon I was out of my tent and making breakfast. While Raindrop, Dirty and I were looking over the day’s terrain in our AWOL guides (AWOL shows the elevation profile as well highlighting water sources, shelter locations and the such), we realized there was a pond with a sandy beach less than a mile away. We decided we’d stop there to swim as it looked like it was going to be a hot morning. We rushed to finish breakfast and pack our gear. Youngblood woke up as we were getting ready to leave. I guess you can wake up later when you hike so fast!
Raindrop, Dirty and I raced along the trail excited about the prospect of going for a dip. We arrived at the beach in less than half an hour and were surprised to find no one there. The three of us had encountered a large number of NOBOs the past few days so we had assumed we’d see some at the beach.
The morning sun was strong and we all stripped down to our underwear. As I slowly stepped into the water, I was pleased that it wasn’t that cold. I ran a few more steps and dove into the pond. The water felt wonderful as I swam around. Youngblood soon arrived and joined us in the water. The four of us stayed at the pond for over an hour, swimming or sunbathing on the beach. No one else arrived and ruined our pond paradise. As Dirty said, “This might be the greatest time I’ve ever had swimming.”
Finally getting dressed, the four of us left the beach together but within minutes Youngblood, then Dirty and finally Raindrop outpaced me. After trying to keep up with Raindrop for a couple minutes, my heart was bursting out of my chest and I had to slow down. Soon I was winded and opted to take a break to get some calories. As I was looking through my food bag, I realized I had been going through my food way too fast. Even if I rationed everything out until picking up my food drop the next day, I was going to quite low on calories. I had seriously underestimated the amount of food I’d need.
I ate a lone Snickers bar and went on my way. The terrain was gentle that day. It followed alongside the shore of the huge Nahmakanta Lake and featured no elevation gain whatsoever. What more could you ask for? Well, a lighter pack and more food for starters!
Hours after leaving the beach, my energy began to sag. Soon I started having back spasms. I couldn’t stop to have a snack because I wanted to make sure I still had food to get me to the shelter that night and to the location of my food drop the next day.
The lack of food caused a snowball effect and my afternoon seemed to go downhill from there. My feet seemed to be killing me more than usual. I didn’t run into any other hikers for hours and just seemed to get more and more miserable. And those damn back spasms!
However, despite the hours of struggle hiking, whenever I’d stop to give my back a rest, I’d find myself sitting next to the lakeshore or alongside some lonely stream. The steady rush of water slowly eroding rock. The cry of a hawk echoing over the lake. The setting would be so calming. For it seemed like there wasn’t another human around my miles and I was blessed to experience sitting there among such serene surroundings if only for a moment. Those moments saved me that day.
Desperate, depleted and possibly delusional, I finally stumbled down the side trail that lead to Potawadjo Shelter late that evening. I came around a bend and saw Dirty tending a fire and Raindrop setting up her tent. They both greeted me with smiles and told me they saved me a spot. Suddenly, I felt uplifted.
As I set up my tent, I told Raindrop and Dirty about my day. Dirty opened his food bag and said he could give me some food. I thanked him immensely as he gave me a Zip lock bag full of Spanish rice and a few snacks.
That evening as the three of us sat, laughed and, most importantly, feasted around the fire, my body radiated with gratitude. Or at least that’s what I thought it was until I realized it was my feet still burning and throbbing in pain.
Not long after the sun set, we decided to put out the fire and go to bed. A huge thunderstorm erupted minutes after we got in our tent and the percussion of rain on nylon played until late in the morn.
The throbbing in my feet continued for several hours as I laid in my tent, rain drops pummeling down, trying to fall asleep. More than once, as I tossed and turned on my sleeping pad, I reminded myself that I needed to take off my boots at least once during the day to give these poor feet of mine a rest.
Feeling sluggish after a sleepless night, I stayed in my tent for a long time that morning as I listened to the sounds of Raindrop and Dirty preparing for another day on the trail. One of them noticed a side trail that lead to a pond about 10 miles ahead and they began talking about camping somewhere nearby.
When I finally emerged from my tent, they could both quickly tell that I wasn’t feeling great that day due to lack of sleep. So I told them to not bother waiting for me and I would meet them alongside the pond they had been discussing later that evening.
Almost an hour after they left, I finally trudged out of camp. I felt lethargic from the moment I took my first step. Soon the same pain pulsing in my lower back returned. The constant onslaught of rocks, roots and boardwalks punished my feet. I was utterly miserable.
The little bit of respite I would get from stopping to rest or eat a snack would quickly evaporate. Even though I received some food from Dirty, I was clearly still not getting enough calories. Around 6 miles before the location of my food drop, I completely ran out of food.
I almost broke that day, my dear readers. Late in the afternoon, I felt abysmal. Every step was torture. I won’t lie to you. There were moments that I thought about quitting. That self doubt slowly creeps in and you find yourself checking the guidebook for the nearest logging road.
During those periods of doubt, when it seemed like hope was lost, memories of my parents came to me. Images flashed in my mind of those tough last few years of both of their lives. The nonstop doctor’s appointments. The side effects from treatment. The pain they endured. The one constant in all those images were smiles. I can see them both now..the broad, exuberant smile of my father and the sly grin of my mother. Smiles, despite pain that must have been overwhelming at times, as if to say, “I’m not done yet. I still find joy in this.”
So I would stop and take off the backpack that felt like a chimpanzee on my back. Breathing in deeply, I’d slowly scan my surroundings. The smell of pine would tickle my nose as if for the first time. The chatter of chipmunks playing in the trees. The sun reflecting brilliantly off a lake. I’m not done yet. I still find joy in this.
Still more than 3 miles from my food drop, I was stepping like a turtle and my mind was again descending to doubt. Well, thru hikers have a saying…the trail provides. I always thought it was a bunch of bullshit. However, on that afternoon, when the only thing keeping me going was sheer force of will, the trail provided.
As I stumbled down the trail, a pathetic picture of a man, I came across a large barrel. According to a sign on the side, it had been placed there by a boy scout troop from Wrentham as trail magic. I reached to open the top of the barrel and realized Dirty and Raindrop had taped a hand written message addressed to me on it. They said they heard the pond they wanted to check out wasn’t that great so they were gonna push further north. It warmed me to know that they had been thinking of me.
I aggressively wisted off the top of the barrel. Inside were jars of peanut butter and boxes of crackers and energy bars. As I grabbed one and then another, I thought for a moment they were all empty! Fortunately, there was a full jar of peanut butter and some crackers. I sat and quickly devoured them all.
As I started to hike again, I felt considerably better. The final stretch to my food drop seemed to fly by. Arriving at Jo Mary Road, I followed the instructions given to me by Ole Man at the AT Lodge. In a matter of minutes and a short walk down the dirt road, I found the bucket my food was in, hidden below a tarp.
I loaded the smorgasbord into my empty food bag and placed my trash from the past 6 days into the bucket. I popped my pack on my back and marched triumphantly back to a stream near the trail. I sat down on a flat boulder alongside the stream and took off my boots. Placing my bare feet in the cold, running water was so soothing! I opened my food bag and dined on cheese, pepperoni and chocolate chip cookies.
After enjoying my streamside picnic for close to an hour, I finally packed up my gear and put my boots back on. I was four miles from the next lean-to, Cooper Brook, and I assumed that Raindrop and Dirty would stop there for the night. Now well fed and full of newfound energy, I stepped down the trail with a quicker gait.
However, by evening I hiked close to 11 miles already, so my body was ready to rest for the day. So I was elated when I saw the sign leading to the lean-to. Descending down the short path, I was amazed at what I saw. The lean-to was located in a narrow gorge with Cooper Brook flowing in front of of it. As I walked down further, I noticed there was even a waterfall.
However, my mood soon dampened when I realized my companions of the last few days, Dirty and Raindrop, weren’t there. Since the small camping area was filling up with tents, I snatched a spot and starting setting up. There were two older hikers camped near me. However, the mental strain had worn me out and I was in no mood to socialize. So after quickly cooking dinner, I hopped in my tent.
Just as I was about to zip up the door, a young hiker I had noticed in the shelter came up to the tent. “Are you Ginger Beard?”, he asked. When I told him I was, he said my two friends had asked him to tell me that they were going to hike on a few more miles. Then he walked off.
It rained again that night. As I laid in my tent, dry from the surrounding deluge, I took comfort from the fact that Dirty and Raindrop had left not one, but two messages that day. However, replaying the day in my head I was hit by a startling realization. Since I had run low on food the last two days before picking up my food drop, it would stand to reason that the same thing would happen again in a few days. For when I was divying up everything for my food drop bucket back at the AT Lodge in Millinocket, I had simply divided my food in half.
Perhaps, I thought, I could ask Dirty for more food. If I ever catch up to him or Raindrop that is. Because it didn’t seem likely I’d ever see Kelsey and Liat again.
To be continued…