A Zero for Body and Mind, part 2

(Time Suck Alert: This is a very long and wordy post.  If you have a real life, or anything else similarly interesting to do with your time, you may want to attend to that first…or get some snacks.  Snacks are good.)

Riding the train out from Indy, I can’t say that I slept well. Actually I can’t say that I slept at all, but that’s not because I was uncomfortable. I was stretched out on a reasonably comfortable bed (the two seats in the compartment magically fold down into a bunk that is just a little smaller than a twin-sized bed), and I had all the peace and privacy I could want. The rocking and rolling of the train was constant, and even the wooo-wooooooing of the train’s whistle seemed comforting — just loud enough to hear, as though they were piping it in like Muzak so that you’d remember you were on a train. (Definitely NOT the same sound as the freaking loud freight trains that scream through Bloomington in the middle of the night and drive me bat-freaking crazy.) Once we got out of Indianapolis, the city lights disappeared, the speed picked up, and you could lay there rocking and rolling in total peace…until all of a sudden the darkness would explode in violently bright red flashing lights and the loud clang-clang-clanging of a road crossing rushing by (well yeah, actually I guess it was the train doing the rushing by…but you get what I mean), and then just as suddenly it would be dark and quiet again. Far off in the distance there was some lightning — it would dance up and up, and then you would see a whole huge thunderhead silhouetted against the dark from the inside. Then it would disappear and all you could see was blackness.

The train passed through half a dozen nameless little towns that all looked alike in the dark, all quiet and deserted in the middle of the night. I was just starting to doze off as it was getting light and we were pulling into Cincinnati, and then of course I was wide awake again, trying to see everything as we passed. There wasn’t much to see — just a lot of grey and dirty industrial areas and freight yards. This isn’t a knock on Cincinnati, it’s just the reality of train travel.  Unlike flying at 30,000 feet, you get to see the country up close and personal; sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s not. It’s a lot like real life.

I did doze a little, but the trip just became too beautiful to ignore the further east we went. Sometimes it was agonizingly slow, but it was always scenic — through the mountains (like, literally through the mountains) and gorgeous gorges (see what I did there?), and through little towns and road crossings where it was fun to see people waving as the train went by.  (I remember always waving to the caboose when I was a kid…why don’t they have cabooses anymore?)

Late in the day as we approached D.C., I had dinner with a couple returning home to New Jersey after a 6-week Bucket List trip out west, where they had visited probably a dozen different National Parks and Monuments in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado — a lot of places I had never even heard of, and I’m a big fan of the National Parks.  They seemed like a typical older couple enjoying retirement, telling me all about their kids and their grandkids, but it turns out this was in fact their honeymoon trip: they were just married last year.  They had both lost their spouses after long, painful battles with Alzheimer’s (as if there is any other kind), and had become caregivers to the caregivers when they met.  Now they are on the first of several planned trips, seeing not only sights they’ve always wanted to see, but also those places that their deceased spouses had longed to see.  They made me laugh and cry, and they were wonderful.

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Tom and Joan. No, they are not this blurry in real life.

 

We had a good long time to chat because the train sat still on the track a lot of the time.  Passenger trains have to yield the right-of-way to freight trains, and you could tell the closer we got to larger cities by the how often the train had to slow down and sometimes stop all together.  If you’re in a hurry, Amtrak is NOT the way to go, but if you don’t care — or if you consider the journey part of the adventure, which I most definitely did — then taking the train is the ONLY way to go.  I don’t mind flying; in fact, I love flying and get as excited as a little kid anytime I’m near an airplane.  My dad was a pilot and I feel like I practically grew up in airplanes and helicopters…but I hate flying.  Yes, 9/11 was scary.  And frankly, now the prices of airline tickets are scary.  And yes, the security checks and baggage limitations are a hassle…but it’s the feeling of being squeezed into a seat that’s too small for even a five year-old, jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other people who are always sneezing and coughing with God-only-knows what kind of super virus, inside an insanely small and insanely loud aluminium tube, where you can’t see anything but some ratty old copy of SkyMall magazine and the only thing you get to eat is a lame packet of pretzels that contains exactly eight and half pretzels and costs $2.50.

Okay, maybe I’m ranting just a little.

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Way better than pretzels.

 

Union Station in Washington, D.C. was a far cry from the one I’d left in Indianapolis.  It was massive by comparison, and felt more like an airport terminal with dozens of shops and food courts, and big screen monitors to tell you what track your train was on and what it’s status was.  Mine was, of course, delayed.

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C’est la vie

 

I spent the next couple of hours people-watching, waiting to see some important member of Congress, or maybe a spy on a secret mission, or maybe a tear-jerking Hollywood train goodbye — you know, where the woman runs after the train in her high heels, yelling out to our hero Joe that Yes, she will wait for him….

Well, I didn’t see any of that.  I don’t think there are any important members of Congress, and all the spies were secret enough that I didn’t see them.  The closest thing to tear-jerking was watching a guy with one cell phone jammed between his ear and shoulder while he poked around on another cell phone with one hand and stuffed (yes, literally stuffed) McDonald’s french fries into his mouth with the other.

When the train finally came, I again waddled out onto the platform looking for the right car — not a sleeper for this leg of the trip, but “Business Class” — and again enjoyed my own little chuckle as the conductor looked at me and my pack and repeated (twice), “Business Class up forward; COACH here!”  But when I got to my car, I couldn’t find a seat.  Wait, what??  I paid for a reserved, business class seat (I may be insane enough to want to hike 2,200 miles but on the train I still want my comforts), but there was no seat to be had.  I was tired and confused and had no idea what to do, because the train was starting to move out.  An off-duty crew member invited me and my pack to sit down with her in the lounge area of the car while the car attendant sorted the issue out.  It turned out that some important looking guy with an expensive suit and big briefcase was sitting in my seat (he was probably the spy); he looked sheepish as he was escorted back to sit with the peasants, and I sat myself down in a very comfortable leather recliner as we zipped out of D.C. toward Boston.

And I do mean zipped — like, at the speed of sound.  Or something very near to it.  That train accelerated so fast I felt myself pushed back into that comfy recliner like a jet pilot.  It was almost alarming after that long, leisurely rolling trip in from Indiana.

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You’d think there wouldn’t be a lot to see in the middle of the night, but I don’t think this part of the east coast even has night; everything seemed like it was lit up the whole way.  The only time it was truly dark was when we disappeared into tunnels, which unnerved me completely, especially as we entered New York.  I mean, we’re travelling underneath a RIVER, people!  Through a tunnel that was built, like, before your grandparents were born…aren’t you nervous even just a teeny little bit?!?   I tried to sleep and probably did doze off a little, but I was awake and watched as the sky lightened over the ocean.  The area was still pretty urban for the most part, but I saw some beautiful inlets and tidal marshes as we got closer to Boston.

I had to make a transfer in Boston that was…well, educational.  I had to get off the train at Boston’s Back Bay station and get myself across town, via the subway, to South Station in time to catch my next train up to Portland.  And I had to do it with my monster backpack.  During rush hour.  I got off the train at Back Bay and wandered around like a wide-eyed idiot, not sure exactly where to go or what to do.  A staff member very kindly took pity on me and directed me to the kiosk where I needed to buy a subway token, then pointed me down the stairs to the subway platform, saying with a gentle urgency, “And you have two minutes to make it!”

I thought I was moving fast, but those people in Boston MOVE FAST.  They blew past me like I was standing still.  I managed get to the right track and got myself into the car in time — along with a guy named Brian who had also been on the train out from Indianapolis (he had actually been travelling all the way out from California) — and we just stared at each other in disbelief as people literally pushed and shoved their way into and around the car.  I felt like a tackle dummy at football practice.  I had to hang on for dear life and brace my legs as if I were going to be hit by a hurricane as we zipped through about five or six stops, then quick rush out the door and run up an escalator with a huge bio-mass of people who all just seemed kinda cranky.

The train up to Portland was (of course) delayed, so it had been a frantic rush just to sit and wait, but Brian and I enjoyed the time people-watching and admiring the immense and beautiful station.  Brian was quite a talker, so by the time we finally boarded our train for Portland, I knew everything about, well…everything.  Brian might have been just a wee bit manic and grandiose, but he was fun.  (And I was also happy we were in different cars for the last part of the trip.)

The train up to Portland was again very slow and frequently stopped, which was starting to irritate me because I was getting tired and still had a long way to go.  But the staff on the train were so friendly and helpful it was hard to feel irritable for long, and once we were out of the ugly urban jungle the scenery started to get pretty again.  Finally there were some stretches where we could speed up and make up some time — but we pulled into Portland five minutes too late, and I missed my bus to Bangor.  (Which, by the way, is correctly pronounced “BANG-GORE”.  I know, feels weird.  But trust me on this one.)  I had to wait over four hours for the next bus in the not-so-scenic Portland Transportation Center, but it was still a lot nicer than the station in Indianapolis.

I finally got to Bangor after a two hour bus ride that would have been a lot more tedious if it hadn’t been for sitting next to a delightful man named Tom, who was on his way to his summer home up in Caribou — up in the far, far north of Maine — a place so far removed from the rest of us that it’s practically a different country.  Tom is retired, a veteran of Korea, and says he just doesn’t like the cold winters up north anymore, so he “winters” down in Connecticut.  This guy is my hero.

I got to Bangor just in time to catch the bus to Medway, and enjoyed the ride in spite of being nearly psychotic for lack of sleep.  I was completely exhausted but everything was so pretty it seemed a shame to close my eyes and let it all go by.  It’s not an area of stunning vistas, just miles and miles of deep forest and beautiful clear rivers.  It actually reminded me a lot of  a lot of northern Minnesota.

There were about five other hikers on the bus, and when we got off at Medway we gathered together all nervous and shy like little kids on the first day of school.   Alex was waiting for us at the bus station to shuttle us the few last miles over to the AT Lodge in Millinocket.  He somehow managed to not only fit all of us and our gear into the van, but also helped break the nervous tension we were all feeling.  We had all traveled a long way (although I apparently get the prize for having come the farthest), and we all know we are about to embark on something…significant, I guess.  Alex has thru-hiked the trail six times.  Six.  I’m not sure if that makes him a professional or some sort of vagrant, but he is a wealth of knowledge about the trail.

We got to the Lodge and met Paul and Jamie, the owners.  There was a flurry of activity as everyone got signed in and assigned their “bunks” in the “bunkhouse”…words that might conjure up images of something rough and rugged and bug-infested like in a John Wayne movie, but this is most definitely NOT like a John Wayne movie —

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Not your typical “bunkhouse”.

 

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The only bunk in the bunkhouse.

 

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Common area for uncommon folks at the AT Lodge.

 

I had actually reserved a private room for myself — less because I’m a pretentious snob than because I knew full well that I’d be up all night tossing and turning, and I didn’t want to keep everyone else in the place awake.  My room was gorgeous and more comfortable than most hotels I’ve stayed in — with blooming lilacs right outside the window.

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Marriott has nothing on the AT Lodge. Nothing.

 

After I got settled in, I walked to the restaurant next door for something to eat.  It was getting late; there were a few local guys talking and laughing at the bar, and the waitress was clearly getting ready to close things up for the night.  It occurred to me for a second that maybe this could be uncomfortable: I’m one of those irritating outsiders intruding on their time together at the end of a long work day.  But within five minutes, the waitress Katie had me hooked up with the best burger and the best IPA I have ever had, and the guys at the bar are laughing and talking with me as though we’ve been friends our entire lives.

Millinocket has suffered the crippling shutdown of the paper mill that essentially built this town, and people who have lived and worked hard here their whole lives are seeing a way of life change before their very eyes.  There is a clear distinction between those who are local and those who are from “away”, and they see hikers and kayakers come and go all season long, but they still had a genuine friendliness and interest in what I was doing, wished me a good hike, and looked forward to seeing me sometime again.

Maine is amazing.  From Portland to Millinocket, I have found it to be beautiful, friendly, and welcoming.  I have never felt so immediately and completely comfortable anywhere in my whole life.  It really is the way life should be.

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A Zero for Body and Mind, part 1

I hadn’t planned on taking a Zero so soon, but this is a beautiful day and a perfect place to relax and reflect a little on these first few days of my trip.  A “Zero”, for all you kids hiking along at home, is a day in which you hike…wait for it… zero miles.  Brilliant, huh?  Hikers will take Zeros periodically during their hike for a variety of reasons, but most often to rest and recuperate after a long or difficult stretch of trail, or maybe because they have to wait out some bad weather.  I’ve been on the trail for a  whole two days and the weather has been glorious, so taking a Zero is probably a little silly and indulgent.  But it’s my hike, as they say, so I get to indulge myself whenever I want.

It really has been a dizzying week of activity and emotions.  All of the frantic last minute preparations at home; obnoxious eleventh hour visits by Doubt & Fear (who were not invited on this trip, yet all of a sudden started following me around like a shadow…); the long but incredibly scenic train ride out from the Midwest — through the New River Gorge, across the Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Blue Ridge Mountains — followed by the mostly sleep-deprived and definitely sensory-overloaded trip up through the nation’s uber-ugly and hyper megalopolis; then the complete mental whiplash when finally arriving in Maine, with it’s jaw-dropping beauty and simply astonishing friendliness.  And of course the trauma challenge of Katahdin.  So yeah, today is a good day for a Zero: to rest and recuperate my head as much as my legs.

My train out from Indianapolis wasn’t scheduled to leave until midnight, so it was a long day of waiting and over-thinking nearly everything.  When my pack was finally filled with all the food I needed for the first part of my trip, it was suddenly and alarmingly heavy and bulky.  If you’ve ever read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” (and if you haven’t, you should, because she’s a gifted writer) you probably remember the part where she struggles to put her pack on for the first time, and describes it as feeling as though she had a Volkswagen on her back.

Yeah, it was like that.

I had spent months preparing my pack — researching, trying, changing, exchanging, and/or excommunicating a million different items of gear — and I weighed everything.  Now, to be clear: I’m not an ultra-light hiker by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I want to be (the idea of using nothing but a simple tarp as my shelter for six months, or cutting the handle off my toothbrush and dehydrating my toothpaste sounds absolutely ludicrous…but hey, hike your own hike and all of that), but I do know that ounces add up to pounds, and I wanted to carry as few of those as I could.  Slowly the list of things that I initially wanted to take, or thought I should take, evolved into those things I only need to take…and still there is a LOT of room for improvement.  Well, actually, there is not a lot of room: my pack is filled to the gills, and the extension collar is…well, extended.

Starting out in Maine means starting out with the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and while it is not in fact legally a true wilderness (a great deal of the land is actually privately owned, primarily by paper companies), it is in fact the most remote and rugged stretch of the entire trail.  It is over 100 miles to the nearest resupply point, and while I’ve heard that there are some people who can grind that distance out in four days, I am most definitely not one of those people (Frankly, I seriously question whether those people are really…people. You know?)  I’m planning on taking a full ten days to get through the Wilderness, and that means carrying ten days of food.  I know myself well enough to know that the first few days outdoors my appetite is practically nil, but I also know that I have to eat enough to avoid bonking — because bonking is bad, especially in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a challenging balancing act: don’t bring more food than you need, but be sure to bring all the food that you’ll need.

My food for the Hundred Mile Wilderness is pretty standard hiker fare — jerky and gorp and instant oatmeal and Clif bars and ramen.  I dehydrated some apples and pineapple for snacks, and also dehydrated some chicken and vegetables to add to the ramen.  To change things up a bit, and because one can only eat TOO much ramen, I dehydrated a couple of Campbell’s soups, and also dehydrated some spaghetti with my favorite sauce and dehydrated spinach thrown in (proud of me, aren’t you kid?)  All in all, it’s pretty good food.  It’s also pretty damn heavy: dehydrated or not, it was nearly 15 pounds!  And the weight was just half the problem — the other half was fitting it all into my food bag, and then trying to jam the food bag into the pack! After a lot of stuffing and re-stuffing I finally got it loaded into my pack…and then only with the help of my roommate.

In addition to carrying an absurd amount of food, I’ve also packed a few items of clothing for colder weather, which don’t weigh all that much but they take up extra space.  WHY, you ask, are you bringing clothes for cold weather?? Didn’t you just tell us it was 80 degrees?  Yes…but Maine has just had an epic winter, and it’s been a long, cool, wet spring. The trail up Katahdin didn’t even open until the last day of May due to snow and ice, and even then we still had to detour around a big chunk of trail because of ice that just doesn’t want to leave. Long underwear and fleece may sound silly now, but I wasn’t going to start my trip without them.

Well, fully loaded with 12 days of food, two full liters of water, and my cold weather clothing, my pack weighed in at 50 pounds.  FIFTY. It didn’t feel so much like a Volkswagen as it felt like a mini-van.  And it looks like one, too.  Everything has to be situated in the pack so that the center of gravity isn’t pulling me backward or throwing me forward, and trying to arrange everything correctly in the pack means pulling the extension collar up as far as it will go.  I look like an idiot. But at least I’m not staggering around like a drunken idiot.

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Soldiers and Marines may carry bigger packs that are a lot heavier, but I’m not them.  Not even close.

I just keep reminding myself that it will get lighter and smaller every day, and that once I’m through the Wilderness I won’t have to carry this much food weight again. Ever.  (Hell, I’m not even going to push this much food around in a grocery cart.)  I also don’t have to carry two full liters of water — which is like 5 pounds by itself — because up here, there is beautiful, cold clear water everywhere.  There will be places further down the trail where water won’t be as plentiful and I’ll have to carry more water with me, but not here.  It’s glorious.

Anyway…where was I?  Oh yeah.  Looking like an idiot.

Actually, I didn’t worry too much about looking like an idiot while waiting for my train at the station in Indianapolis, because I spent my time worrying that the building was going to collapse. The train station in Indianapolis is just about the most dilapidated and dreary place you can imagine, which is pretty sad for this otherwise great city known as the “Crossroads of America.”

We had dinner with my daughter and son-in-law, but because my train was leaving so late and they had to get up in the morning and actually work for a living, they couldn’t see me off at the station. We said our goodbyes and I have to say that Jessica was very brave — because she’s still convinced I’m going to be eaten by a bear or murdered in the woods by one of those mass murderers who like to hang out with the bugs in the woods, waiting for some random smelly hiker to happen by…. Okay, I shouldn’t joke about that; there’s nothing funny about smelly hikers.

My roommate Chelle took me to the station and endured delay after delay after delay with me.  After a long day of waiting, the train finally rolled in like thunder at about 1:15am, and then suddenly it was a frantic rush to hoist that behemoth pack and get up the stairs to the train platform. (I’m not sure if Chelle stayed out of kindness or for the amusement of watching me climb those stairs….)

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Well, I’m happy to say that I made it to the top of the stairs without falling, and not even out of breath!  So that’s a good start.

The train platform was crowded and loud with people, which felt weird because it was the middle of the night.  As I walked along the platform looking for my car, the conductor was hollering, “Coach up front; sleeper car here!”  Great, I thought; I don’t have to walk all that far (and yes, I did indeed treat myself to the first class accommodations of a sleeper [well, a “roomette”], because when am I going to take a trip like this again?)  As I stood in the line of passengers getting ready to board the sleeper car, the conductor looked at me and my pack and then loudly repeated, with emphasis, “Coach up FRONT; sleeper car here!”  I just presented him my ticket and let him figure it out for himself: yes, perhaps I do look like hiker trash, but I’m traveling to the trailhead in comfort and style!

I waddled through the narrow corridor and found my assigned “room” (which is actually a space only slightly larger than my recliner at home, but with enough space to put my pack comfortably away and stretch out to sleep.  It wasn’t a suite, but it was heaven.)  Tom, the car attendant, came by to tell me some train stuff — like when breakfast would be served, and did I want cream when he brought my coffee in the morning? — and then I closed off the world, turned down the lights, stretched out, and watched as we rolled through Indianapolis into the dark.

 

Out of Baxter

I woke up early happy to find that my body still worked — a pleasant surprise considering the beating I’d taken on Katahdin.  Last night as I painfully crawled into my sleeping bag, I thought about staying here another day; it really is lovely, and it would give my body a day to recover.  I knew that the day’s hiking would only be about 10 miles, but even though it would be relatively flat and easy there would be no exceptions: in Baxter State Park you must stay at designated sites or you can be tagged with a pretty serious fine, and there are no other designated sites between Katahdin Stream Campground and the park’s southern border. This park was quite literally a gift to the people of Maine by their former Governor Baxter, and a specific condition of his gift was that the land be maintained forever as an undeveloped wilderness preserve and sanctuary.
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The people who run this park take that charge very seriously, and they keep tight control over the numbers of people allowed in the park on any given day. Just about anywhere else on the AT you can flop down and make camp whenever and wherever the spirit moves you, but up here your spirit better be movin’ your ass down the trail.

Well I slept like a log  and woke up early feeling pretty good, and I also knew I could get an early start and take my time (one nice thing about being this far north in Maine during the summer is that it gets light very early, like 4:30 am early, and the days are long); I had a beautiful, perfect day to make it 10 easy miles to Abol Bridge.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Everything was damp from having spent the night right by the stream, but it was a beautiful morning.  I took a couple of hours to get packed up and ready — my never-ending quest to see if the pack can be made lighter or more efficient — and then stopped at the ranger station to dump my trash and chat with the ranger.  While I was there, Paul from the AT Lodge was dropping off another load of hiker hopefuls.  After having the shit scared out of me up on Katahdin, there was a part of me that wanted to get in that van and go back to the comforts of Millinocket, but he gave me a big hug and wished me a good hike.  It was as simple as that; that relieved my worries for the day and renewed my excitement.

So I started walking.

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I was hiking out of the campground area when I heard someone call my name — it was Sean and Clayton, the billy goats from yesterday.  They said they worried when they didn’t see me at the summit, but they understood my decision not to go further. They told me that the sheer rock wall that stopped me almost stopped them as well, and even the last mile on the relatively flat “tableland” wasn’t easy.  By the time they summited the weather was pretty gusty.  They loved it but they were glad it was over.  They asked if I’d seen Jonathan, which I hadn’t; they had seen him at the summit but not after.  We could only guess that he had gotten down off the mountain safely since we hadn’t seen any kind of rescue activity.

Unfortunately, rescues happen fairly regularly Katahdin, and they aren’t easy rescues to accomplish, either — first, the rangers have to GET to you; then they have to man-handle you down someplace where maybe a helicopter can get you out of the park.  A rescue off Katahdin can take more than a day.

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But sometimes it just takes people a long time to make it up and back down.  And I mean a LONG time: the other day I met a guy who started up the mountain at 7:30 in the morning, and he didn’t make it down until 10:30 that night. AT NIGHT.  Yes, I was a good little hiker and had my fancy headlamp with me, but if I had been up on that monster after dark I think I would have just curled up into a fetal position and cried.

I hiked out of the park along with Sean and Clayton — well, actually they pushed on ahead quickly but I would catch up whenever they stopped for a break or to take in a view.  And there were many views. Sometimes it was a beautiful pond, sometimes it was a view of Katahdin, sometimes it was the work on the trail itself — log planks laid through a bog, or stone steps arduously and carefully placed on a steep slope.  It’s impossible not to appreciate the hard work of the trail maintainers here.

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Whenever I stopped for a picture, I was instantly swarmed by mosquitoes: a buzzing brown mass that would obscure my vision, fly in my ears, and generally make me nuts. I managed a couple of pictures, but the bugs were bothersome and I also knew there were a couple of water crossings ahead, so I put the camera (i.e., my phone) into my pack and just thanked God for the images that I will have in my soul forever: a deep beautiful forest filled with green spruces and pines and white birches; huge gray granite boulders covered with soft green mosses; a perfect azure sky, and lakes (or ponds, as they are called here) so crystal clear and deep blue they almost didn’t seem real.  And piles of moose poop everywhere.  It was fantastic.

I was huffing and puffing on this “relatively flat and easy” section of trail, but hey — I was keeping pace with the billy goats!  At about 11am I found them taking a break where the AT crosses the Nesowadnehunk — a “simple” stream crossing that was about 25 feet across and looked more like class II whitewater.  The boys apparently had waited for me to catch up to them there so that we could cross together.  I can’t tell you how touched I was by this.  These two young guys haven’t known me for much more than a day and will surely disappear over the horizon in no time, but they were looking out for me as though I were family.  (I had also saved them from a mistake reading their map earlier; they almost took themselves on a 6 mile detour off the AT!) This is that sense of “community” that AT hikers talk about; it’s real. People really do look out for each other out here.   Anyway, as sweet as it was for them to stop and wait for me, I chose instead to take the high water by-pass trail, even though it would add another mile to my day. I just didn’t feel comfortable taking a risk in that stream crossing if I didn’t have to.

The boys decided to ford it and looked for the easiest spot while I took a break, aired out my feet a bit, and ate an early lunch.  Sean found a spot a few yards downstream that looked “quieter”, but he was up past his waist in a few spots, then struggled to find a way up out of the stream on the other side.  Clayton cautiously poked his way across the boulders and then found the inevitable Invisible-Slippery-As-Shit rock, and he fell in up to his waist.  It took both of them a good five minutes to make their way across, but they made it safely.  As I ate lunch on one side, they stripped off their wet clothes and tried to dry out a little on a boulder on the far side  Thankfully for them it was a warm, sunny day — that water was cold.  We laughed and communicated by hand signals; the roar of the “stream” was loud enough to make 25 feet seem like the other side of the planet.

After I ate, re-filled my water, and put on new dry socks, I hefted my pack and went on down the by-pass trail.  I almost instantly felt isolated and alone.  There’s no rational reason I should have felt that way; the trail was well marked with blue blazes, and there were plenty of boot prints in the mud from other hikers ahead of me, but I felt like I was in another, lost, world.  I haven’t been hiking on the AT for a full day, yet already the absence of the familiar white blaze was disconcerting.  The trail meandered away from the Nesowadnehunk and it got quiet and dark.   I passed some pines that were unbelievably huge; they really stood out next to all the spruces, firs, and birches.  This particular trail may be a “high” water by-pass, but it certainly wasn’t a water by-pass by any means: it went through a couple of boggy areas and at one point over a slow, muddy stream on some very old, rotten slippery logs.  I took a cautious step onto the first log and sunk down into the mud; no way was I going to make it across that sucker! I bush-whacked a few yards downstream and found a narrow place to cross.  Deep, but narrow.  I walked through it as fast as I could, feeling my foot getting sucked down into the mud, and I was really glad I had lock-laced and double-tied my shoes, because I would have definitely lost them!  It was nasty, but this is part of what I signed up for, right?   A few hundred feet further on there was a nice clear stream to rinse some of the mud off.

I met up with the boys again right where the by-pass trail re-joins the AT; they were putting themselves together after their second ford of the stream, and it had been difficult both times.  They were both soaked and definitely humbled by the force of the water. Other hikers later talked about having lost various items in the stream, including their hiking poles, shirts, shoes, and a water bottle…one guy even lost his bivy (tent)!  I was soaked and a little mucky, and had hiked an extra mile, but I was glad I had.

I met a few other hikers during the day — all of whom passed me with ease.  I signed out of the park at a kiosk and continued another mile or so to Abol Bridge, where there is a small store and restaurant.  I got there about 3pm, and not a moment too soon: I was over-heated and dehydrated.  It had been a beautiful sunny day, but way too warm for hiking with a full pack.  Sean and Clayton were there, and were a couple of sad puppies because the store had no power today and so there was no soda or ice cream — those poor guys had spent the last couple of miles dreaming of a cold soda.  More disappointing to me, there was no cell service.  Hikers are commonly told that there is cell service here, but apparently this is a myth.  I was disappointed because I really wanted to get word to my roommate and daughter that I was safe and sound (there is no cell service at all in Baxter State Park, except maybe from the summit of Katahdin.)  I set up at Abol Pines, a campsite across the road, and happened to run into the park manager Tammy.  She offered to drive me a few miles to a spot in the road where she sometimes gets some signal, so I was able to send out a quick text message.  That was a relief for me.  I’m out here having the time of my life; it worried me that they would be worried.

I spent a fun and relaxing evening with Sean and Clayton.  After getting something to eat, we walked together a mile or so up a logging road (like we didn’t get enough walking today!) so that they could try for some cell service. We laughed and joked and were enjoying our accomplishment for the day when we turned around and saw Katahdin behind us. It was beautiful and very sobering. Pictures cannot do this moment justice.
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Later we were happy to see Jonathan arrive. He definitely had a long day on Katahdin!  Apparently he had put all of his cash in the back pocket of his pants, which of course became shredded over much boulder sliding up and down the mountain.  At some point just before he reached the summit, he discovered all his money was missing, so he went back down to see if he could find it.  Down at treeline he ran into a group of young day hikers, who reluctantly admitted that they found about $20 and gave it to him.  Jonathan never did find the rest, but he climbed BACK up to summit Katahdin before finally making it back down at about 8:30 last night, just as it was getting dark.  THAT’S a long day.

This is a beautiful spot (are there any un-beautiful spots in Maine?) and I think I’m going to spend an extra day here.  The last two days have challenged my body, and I promised myself that I would start out slow and easy.  My right foot is actually holding up pretty well, but tonight I have my first official AT blister! (which actually is odd, because I never get blisters anymore since I switched to my awesome DarnTough Socks), but overall my feet are doing pretty well. I have been taking my time during the day to stop and take care of them; it slows me down during the day but hopefully will pay off down the trail.  I have to take care of these babies!

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Sean and Clayton are moving on first thing in the morning; they hope to be finished with the 100 Mile Wilderness in 7 days (whereas I’m planning on ten); I probably won’t see them again.  They have been a pleasure and a gift to me these first couple of days, and I really hope they have a good hike.

Looking forward to a good day’s rest in this beauty spot, then I will start the 100 Mile Wilderness.  I’m taking my time and have no reason to rush.  I just have to be safe and smart.

The Limits of Technology

Just as a note — I will work on updating posts as I go, but on the trail there can be areas where it will be several days of little or no cell service.  I’ll upload my posts (hopefully in chronological order) as soon as I get service…so, if you’ve signed up to follow my blog (thank you!), you may find yourself getting nothing for days and then suddenly inundated with new posts.

Also, if you would like to make a comment (and I hope that you do), I have to “approve” them first before you will see them go through and show up on the website…it’s just a way the website helps to control spam.  Once I “approve” you (and rest assured I will), then all your future comments, questions, concerns will show up without further delay.

Also, be advised that sometimes you may see advertisements at the end of each post…I don’t have any control over these (except to pay more money for an upgraded version of the WordPress program, which I’m sorry to say I won’t be doing), so I apologize in advance for any annoying ads.  That’s just life in our age.

Thanks for reading.

The Greatest Mountain

Katahdin is simply stunning. There are no words to adequately describe this beautiful, looming, monster of a mountain. At least I don’t know them. That may be because my mind and body are exhausted beyond words.

They say that Katahdin was named long ago by the Indians local to this area, and that it means “greatest mountain”.  Personally, I think it really means “ass kicker” and someone just decided to be polite for the tourists.  Katahdin kicked my ass.

I didn’t make it to the summit.  I came about a mile short.  And I’m okay with that.  You see, I knew Katahdin would be hard; I had done my homework and knew that these mere 5.2 miles are considered the hardest five miles on the whole AT.  They say it’s “nearly technical climbing”, and I found out they say that for good reason: it’s practically straight up.  Like vertical.  Like, find a handhold or a toehold (and no, you’re not getting both), hang on for dear life, and pull yourself up vertical.

Well, to be honest, the whole five miles isn’t quite like that.  The AT up Katahdin starts out soft and basically level for about the first mile; it gives you a little time to look around and admire how beautiful even this one small section of Baxter State Park is, and it gave me a few moments to talk with three guys who were also headed to the top to start their SOBO journeys — Jonathan, a forty-something attorney from Massachusetts; and two younger guys from South Carolina, Sean and Clayton.  I was with them for maybe the first mile, then they disappeared like billy goats as the trail became steeper and steeper.

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One of the billy goats starting up Katahdin. Beautiful stone steps at the beginning…. They don’t last long.

 

I tried to take photos along the way — there was so much beauty I wanted to capture — but it took all my energy to keep hiking upward, and whenever I stopped to catch my breath (which was often), I would turn around and see what seemed like the entire state of Maine stretching out behind and below me, and that would just take my breath away again.  A lot of my pictures turned out to be shaking, blurry messes, and an injustice to how beautiful it truly was.  But hey, how many pictures of gorgeous, pristine, rugged wilderness can a person want to look at? If you want to see great pictures of Katahdin, you’ll have to use Google.  But if you want to really see Katahdin in all of it’s glory, you need to come here and experience it.

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Katahdin Stream Falls. This spot is worth a day hike in itself.

 

Anyway, it was rugged.  Like in the “Very Rugged” category.  The weather, however, was beautiful; we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day on the mountain: sunny and nearly 80 degrees (at the base), with some gathering winds higher up and maybe a late afternoon thunderstorm at the summit.

I made it to treeline in about 3 hours.  I think, anyway…because this is where the “hike” — even as rugged as it had been to that point — turned into a climb beyond even my studied expectations. This was where the only route up was up over huge boulders and rock faces that sometimes had a bit of steel bar sunk into the granite.  I ditched my hiking poles behind some boulders, prayed to God PLEASE don’t let me fall off this mountain (because yes, you can fall off this mountain), and somehow hauled myself up.  (Note to any future hikers: I think poles on Katahdin are a waste of time and energy.  It is just too steep and too bouldery [yes, that’s a word now]; you’ll just have to throw them up ahead of you most of the time, because you need both hands for much of the ascent.  And coming down is all about sliding on your ass, so leave them behind.)

When I got to the top of the boulder section, I scrambled along on all fours looking for the next white blaze, hoping against hope that the tough part was over.

Well the tough part wasn’t over.

The tough part was up a sheer rock wall, with no evident handholds or steel rebar, or even a hope from God as far as I could see. I actually didn’t think that could honestly really be the route up; it looked impossible.  Even for billy goats.  There was a white blaze off to my right; I followed that for a minute but found it was actually taking me back down the mountain (not that I thought that was necessarily a bad thing at that particular moment), so I turned around and looked again at that rock wall, said “You’ve got to be shitting me!”, and continued in vain trying to find what I hoped would be the real route up.  When that didn’t work, I sat myself down (read as: wedged myself between a couple of boulders), drank some Gatorade and had a snack as I tried to pull myself together.  The wind was pretty gusty at this point, dark clouds were coming and going, and the temperature was most definitely not in the 80’s anymore (yes, I was prepared for the weather changes.) I looked at that rock wall, looked at the ground three thousand feet below me, felt the jello wobbling in my legs and the fear in my stomach as I considered the fact that I still had to get back DOWN the mountain on those wobbly legs, and I knew my ascent was over.

The pictures below are not mine (I wasn’t exactly taking pictures at that point in time.)  They are snatched from the internet, but I’ve tried to give credit appropriately if I know the source.  But I wanted to post them to give you an idea and perspective of what this section of the AT going up Katahdin is like.

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One of the last climbs just below the Hunt Spur. What looks like the peak at the top of the picture is NOT the peak. Not even close.

 

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This photo give a little perspective on the size and difficulty of this particular point….

 

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This is the spot where my ascent ended. The “trail” is literally at this man’s back — straight up. (photo credit: warriorhike.com)

 

Before I started down, I took one good last look at the amazing beauty all around and below me. There really were some scary moments up there, but the view was amazing.

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I think I slid on my ass half the way back down (REI is going to get a very nice letter thanking them for their great pants, because I still have a seat in them…unlike a couple of unfortunate other souls I saw coming down) and the palms of my hands were rubbed raw from the granite. The last mile — pleasant enough to start — was where I really started to feel the abuse in my still-fragile right foot, and I picked my way down very, very slowly and carefully.  I didn’t want to end the day with a faceplant at the base of Katahdin.

I signed off the mountain at the ranger station, picked up my monstrously heavy pack, and went to my campsite for the night.  I put up my tent, collected some water, forced myself to eat a little, and retreated into my tent with my tail very much between my legs.

Yes, I was disappointed not to make it to the top; it seems like everyone has — old ladies, little kids, even a blind man for God’s sake (although in retrospect, that may have worked in his favor — looking down off the side of that mountain is a wee bit unnerving…); I was frustrated, and I was definitely humbled. But I’m trying to keep all that separate from feeling humiliated, because I’m not: I climbed the Greatest Mountain, and if i didn’t make it the last mile to the summit, it’s because I used my Greatest Judgement and lived to hike another day.

Katahdin will always be there.

Dateline: Maine

Well, I made it. After over 42 hours of traveling — taking three trains, two buses, and a van — through a total of fifteen states, and after long waits and interminable delays, I finally made it here to Millinocket; I’ve made it to The Beginning.

It’s amazing how traveling can wear you out, even if you are just sitting there passively watching the world roll by your window.  I was utterly exhausted by the time I got here. “Here”, by the way, is the Appalachian Trail Lodge — a beautiful, century-old boarding house that owners Paul and Jamie operate as a wonderful hostel for AT hikers.
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I’m staying here for a couple of nights; l want to be as rested and ready as possible before tackling Katahdin.

I haven’t even set foot on the trail yet, but I am already having the time of my life. There is so much to tell about! Alas, it will have to wait — this little traveller needs her beauty sleep.

Be Prepared

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Boy Scout, like my big brother.  Well, that and an astronaut.  Yeah, I was that girl — you probably know the type: kinda dorky and uncoordinated, completely lacking any hint of feminine grace; the one who didn’t get the memo on how girls were “supposed” to act.  Although to be honest, I have to credit my mother with never having sent that memo.  Yeah, it was the late sixties and maybe the times they were-a changin’, but let’s be honest — the world still expected girls to stay in their place and act like…well, girls.  Girls did NOT play baseball, football, or hockey; they played with Barbie, not G.I. Joe, and when they wanted to play camping, they were expected to stay in a little pup tent in the front yard and have tea parties with their dolls…not stage amphibious assaults on the beach and capture the neighbor’s hill with toy machine guns.  Mom would just shrug her shoulders, and dad would shake his head…but the truth is I never once felt any kind of pressure or expectation to “just act right and be normal.”  (Actually, I think mom was the prototype counter-cultural tomboy in her day, and today at 80 years old is still tougher than a lot of men I know…I like to think I didn’t fall too far from that tree.)

Well I couldn’t be a Boy Scout, of course.  Mom did try her best and found me something that was at the time the next best thing a girl my age could hope for: she signed me up for Blue Birds.  I think I lasted two weeks.  Maybe.  Maybe not even two weeks.  I mean, we were sitting around some lady’s house, drinking lemonade and knitting.  KNITTING.  Seriously?  I wanted to know when were we going to go camping and hiking…when were we going to learn how to paddle a canoe, or build a fire, or gee, I don’t know…just GO OUTSIDE??  Knitting?!?

Yeah, so I quit Blue Birds.   I don’t think mom ever blamed me for that one.

But the point is, I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and in spite of the Blue Birds trying to subvert my interests into a rather ugly scarf (or was it supposed to be a placemat?), I’ve had a lot of fun adventures hiking, camping, and canoeing over the years.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any experience backpacking.  Well actually, I did go backpacking once — for about five days at YMCA camp in fifth grade.  I got to borrow my brother’s Real, Genuine Boy Scout backpack, and for one brief shining moment in my life, I was the leader of the pack — I was the one who knew how to make a fire, and set up a tent so that it didn’t fall down in the middle of the night, and I was the one who could read a map — thanks to my big brother, who I think probably pitied me a little after that whole Blue Bird thing.  It was only five days through the woods and farm country of western Wisconsin, but for those five days I was the one who could hike all day and enjoy it.  It’s not much, but it’s the only backpacking experience I have.

The Boy Scouts motto is “Be Prepared”, and when it came to planning this hike, boy was I going to be prepared!  I’ve researched and studied and read everything about the AT I could get my hands on.  I bought enough new stuff to equip a platoon of Marines…then learned what things actually worked (or rather, what worked best for me) and ended up replacing a lot of things and buying more.  I can’t tell you how many types of hiking shoes I’ve experimented with over the last couple years.

But beyond just equipping myself with “stuff”, I was going to be the best damn prepared hiker on the AT!  I was going to have my house in order, literally and figuratively; I was going to have myself in shape for hauling a 40+ pound backpack through the mountains, and I was going to be well practiced by having several shakedown hikes on the nearby Knobstone Trail (which, by the way, is actually a pretty good little AT facsimile….)  I was going to have a number of mail drop boxes put together and organized perfectly so that my roommate wouldn’t have to do anything more than take them to the Post Office .  And oh yeah — I was going to blog all of this whole experience, sharing what I’ve learned and showing all my wonderful preparations.  I was going to be prepared!

Well I’m not.  Not nearly.

I’m leaving TODAY, and although I can say that I’m packed (well with the exception of a couple small odds ‘n ends…like my first aid kit.  Oh yeah, and money….), the fact is I feel horribly, sickeningly unprepared.  I’m not nearly in the physical shape I wanted to be (something gross like 20lbs overweight), and I didn’t get the practice hikes in like I wanted to.  My house is most definitely NOT in order, and my maildrop boxes have yet to be filled and organized (although the research on what to send, where, and by what date has been done.)  For crying out loud, I just wrote my first post on this blog last night!

I’ve made a minor profession out of procrastination — if it can be done, I can be late doing it  — but this really takes the cake.

But there’s no turning back now.  Well, maybe there is; maybe a sensible person would indeed turn back now.  But, well…yeah, no.  I never said I was sensible.  I said I was stubborn, remember?

Late tonight I will leave on a train from Indianapolis, heading for Washington, D.C.  From there, I take another train up to Boston…where I will catch yet another train to take me up to Portland, Maine.  There I will transfer to a bus that will take me to Bangor, where [yes] I transfer to another bus that will drive deep into Maine and drop me off in the little town of Medway.   And at Medway, I will finally be picked up by a shuttle that will take me to the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, where after two solid days of traveling, I am going to crash in an exhausted heap.

And mind you, I still won’t be even close to the trailhead.  One thing about getting started on an AT thru-hike:  this trail gives new meaning to the phrase “You Can’t Get There From Here.”

Early Saturday morning, I’ll be shuttled another hour or so into Baxter State Park and dropped off at the base of Katahdin.  I’ll register with the friendly neighborhood ranger, and then set off to hike up what is said to be the most difficult five miles of the entire AT.  When I get to the top, I’ll turn around and come back down the same way — thus beginning the first five miles of what I hope will be a 2,185 mile journey to Georgia.

So — I have a lot to get done, and need to stop rambling on here.  I’m planning on keeping this blog updated throughout my hike; I have a nifty little WordPress app on my nifty little smartphone, and should be able to send updates whenever I have cell phone service (or whenever I’m in town with wi-fi.)  I’ll be pecking away on one of those asinine little phone screens, so don’t expect this same high level of thoughtfully composed, quality writing.  As I’ve said, I’m somewhat challenged when it comes to doing even big, important things in a timely manner, but I will try to keep this blog updated on a regular basis.  I will try my very best.  I make no promises and give no guarantees.  Hell, I may not have anything interesting to say — I mean, you don’t really want to read “Got up, ate, walked, and then walked some more.  Ate and slept; more tomorrow….”  At the very least I’ll try to post a photo or two.  But I hope I can bring you along on this trip of a lifetime so that you can enjoy it with me.

Please keep your hands and feet in the car until the ride has come to a complete stop.

Here we go, ready or not.

 

Wait, you’re doing what?

I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Yes, the whole thing — starting in Maine and going south to Georgia.

At least I’m going to try.

What, you ask, is the Appalachian Trail?  The Appalachian Trail (referred to as the “AT” by all the cool kids) is the oldest continuous hiking path in North America, and is one of the longest in the world — 2,185 miles.  Both of America’s other premiere long trails, The Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, are longer — at 2,663 miles and 3,100 miles, respectively — but the AT is the granddaddy of them all.

The northern terminus is located atop Katahdin, in Baxter State Park, Maine; the southern terminus is at Springer Mountain in Georgia.   In between, the trail travels through 14 different states as it follows the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range, one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth.

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The Appalachian Trail is hardly a remote wilderness, however.  It’s been said that most of the population of the east coast (read as: a freaking TON of people) live within a 3 hour drive of the trail, and nearly 3 million of them visit various parts of the trail each year — especially places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  Most of the time, a hiker on the AT is never more than a few hours walking from some sort of town or major road crossing.   That said, there are areas in Maine where the trail travels through some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the lower 48 states; a person can hike for a hundred miles without crossing a paved road.

The initial concept of the trail dates back to 1921,  but it wasn’t actually completed until 1937, and since then there have been innumerable changes and alterations.  It was designated as the country’s first National Scenic Trail in 1968, and is now a unit of the National Park System.  The AT is managed and maintained by a truly unique partnership of public and private entities — all coordinated by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) — and includes the National Park Service, the US Forest Service , multiple state agencies, and at least 31 local trail maintaining clubs made up entirely of volunteers.

Every year, more than 2,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the Trail — completing it’s entire length in one calendar year.  Most thru hikers begin in early spring at the the southern terminus in Georgia, and they hike northbound (or “NOBO”), finishing with a dramatic climb up Katahdin sometime in September or early October.  NOBOs enjoy a hike with spring, but they also hike with a deadline: Baxter State Park closes the trail up to the summit of Katahdin by October 15th, due to snow and dangerous winter conditions.

A small percentage of thru hikers begin at the northern terminus of Katahdin and hike southbound (“SOBO”) toward Georgia.  These intrepid, contrary souls are faced with the most difficult and challenging parts of the trail at the very start — Maine and New Hampshire, where the trail is often remote, extremely rugged and very unpredictable, and where blackflies attack like swarms of crazed kamikazes — however they don’t face a pressing deadline to finish in Georgia by any particular date.

Yes, I’m one of those contrary souls and will be hiking SOBO (although no, I don’t really consider myself to be “intrepid”.  Stubborn, perhaps…but not intrepid.)

The truth is, most hikers, regardless of the direction they choose,  don’t actually make it the whole way.  Numbers vary from year to year, and for different reasons, but typically only about 25% of the people who attempt a NOBO thru hike actually make it; the number is slightly less for SOBOs.

Why?  Because it’s hard, that’s why.   The trail is over two thousand miles long; the total elevation change is equivalent to climbing Everest 16 times.  On average, it takes about five or six months for most people to complete the trail — although some people are able to finish it in as little as four.  I will not be one of those people.  Injury and illness certainly take their toll over the course of 5 or 6 months, but many hikers struggle more with the mental challenges of the hike than they do the physical beating.

No — WHY are you doing this??

Umm…I don’t really have a good answer for that.  Right now anyway.  As I’ve prepared for this hike over the last year and a half, I’ve read several books and online trail journals, and it seems like everyone says that they have had “a life-long dream” of hiking the AT.  Well, that’s not true for me.  Hell, I didn’t even know what the AT was up until a few years ago.  My daughter’s-best-friend’s-father had just completed his section hike of the trail (as the name implies, a section hiker is one who hikes the length of the trail in individual sections, over the course of a few – or possibly several – years.  Yes, they are far more sane.)  I said “that sounds cool”,  and went on doing whatever it is I did.  But a couple of years ago, while drinking too much beer with my good buddies at the VFW, my good buddy Mike tells me that thru-hiking the AT has always been on his Bucket List, yet he doubted that he would ever really be able to do it.  I think we talked about it all night; I was truly fascinated.  So I came home and started reading.  And reading, and reading some more…and then one night at dinner I idly said to my roommate, “That sounds cool”, and she said “Well why don’t you do it?”  

And I sat there without an answer.  All I could think of were all the reasons I really could do that:  I’m at a time in my life where I’m lucky enough to have the means, the time, and at least a fair level of fitness…so why couldn’t I do that?  My roommate is encouraging and supportive, volunteering not only to take care of things at home, but also to serve as my logistical support chief…so why couldn’t I do that?

A lot of people have dreams on their Bucket Lists that they will never realize, and here I have the opportunity to go on the  adventure of a lifetime.  So the question is, why shouldn’t I do that?

So I’m doing that.  I leave for Maine tomorrow.

I’m scared to death.