One year ago today I set foot on the Appalachian Trail and began the journey of a lifetime. To mark this day, I would like to share with you the first chapter of the book, due in the fall of 2015.
One year ago today I set foot on the Appalachian Trail and began the journey of a lifetime. To mark this day, I would like to share with you the first chapter of the book, due in the fall of 2015.
Hello, and welcome to Where's The Next Shelter. If you've been here before, you know exactly what this is. If you've never been here before, you probably also know exactly what this is: the blog I maintained while living outside and climbing mountains every day for much of 2014. If you start here and keep reading, you'll see my tale told in reverse. You'll get the story of a malnourished hairy fella who travels south, gains a bunch of weight and goes to work for a software company. Oddly enough, that's what's actually happened over the last three months. Not here though. Not on this site. It's a blog; newest stuff is at the top. I'll save you from having to scroll to the bottom and click "Older" so many times. Use that big text above this paragraph to go back in time and see what really happened. Do it. I'm telling you, you'll be glad you did.
Exactly as it should. The first draft is about 90% complete. Then it goes into re-write. Then edits. Then layout, printing, binding and so on. I've been working almost nonstop since my return to polite civilization last October. The plan is to have something in your hands this summer.
Hi. This one comes with a warning. If you read my toenail post and got grossed out, you should probably skip the next few paragraphs. Look for the picture of me being surprised by a birthday banner and start reading there. Otherwise, hang on. I'm about to use some words that might make you uncomfortable.
As I write this, I'm enjoying a blueberry muffin and a cappuccino at the local beanhouse. Two hours ago I was crouched in my bathtub transferring my own runny diarrhea from one sterile container to another. Welcome home, my body says. Let's counter that smug sense of accomplishment with two full weeks of sputter-butt.
My first uncontrolled shit occurred on the penultimate morning in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. I awoke with the sun as always, climbed out of my tent as always, walked a few steps to pee (it's so good to be a guy) and released about 90% of what I thought was a fart. "THAT'S NOT A FART!" my panicked brain shouted. I had barely enough time to pinch off the stream before thrusting my pants down to my ankles. The brown spray began mid-squat and by the time my cheeks were on my heels I had given birth to a soft serve monstrosity. The relief was instant. Well, the physical relief. I'm used to at least a ten minute warning; this came out of nowhere and was a bit jarring to say the least. Then I remembered that for dinner the previous evening I had added one half of a gigantic greasy pepperoni stick to the menu. That and the three ultra mega protein bars were surely the root cause. Now all I had to do was Groucho-walk back to my tent, clean myself and -- oh yeah, I just left a trace. What to do about that.
Content with the pepperoni alibi, I broke camp, packed and went about my day. Katie was already at Baxter State Park and after one more day of hiking I would be too! When I arrived at Abol Bridge (the North exit from the Wilderness) I met a hiker named Red Foot who I had last seen in New Hampshire. "Hey Green Giant!" he said. "You're a hot commodity, did you know that?"
When I asked him what he meant, he cast a thumb over his shoulder and said, "There's a bunch of people back there pretty excited to catch up with you."
My smile widened and I asked, "Is one of them Lemmy?"
"Yep. And Voldemort, too."
I was dumbstruck. Sure, Lemmy I expected; I'd been leaving him notes and had even slowed down a bit so that he could catch me. Back in Massachusetts we pinky-swore to summit on the same day, but Voldemort... Megan ... I hadn't seen her since Pennsylvania, almost two months ago. We'd been in touch, but at best I would have guessed she was two or three days behind.
"How far back are they?" I asked.
"Oh you'll see them today," he said. "All of Lemmy's gear got ruined in a flood a few days ago and while he was drying out, she caught up to him. And then... and then, they did some ridiculous night hike, like fifty miles so they could catch you by today!"
All I could say was, "Holy shit."
Redfoot shook his head and added, "I know, right? She won't stop talking about you either." I smiled. Yep, that was her.
I thanked him for the news, gathered my stuff and walked the last few miles to Baxter where Katie was waiting for me. Lemmy and Voldemort may have made some ridiculous push to catch me, but Katie had driven twelve hundred miles to do the same. Day hikers and southbounders had been congratulating me for days and tomorrow was my birthday. I was feeling pretty damn good that day.
It was raining pretty hard when I arrived at the shelter Katie had reserved for us. The forecast for the next day (my birthday) was pretty crappy at the base of the mountain, and downright gruesome for the summit. Thick clouds, heavy rain, unusually high winds, below freezing windchill and zero visibility. We opted for a day of rest along with the prospect of fine weather for the following day. After a hearty breakfast we drove into the town of Millinocket to do laundry and eat more food. While we were in town we found Lemmy at a local hostel. We brought him back to the trail so he could knock out his final miles and meet us back at base camp where we'd summit together the following day. Voldemort caught up with us that evening and we all ate hot dogs, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and birthday cake. I blamed this sudden influx of calories for my upset stomach on the morning of our final climb. That, and the adrenaline which had also been keeping me up for three consecutive nights.
On the morning of October 9th, the sun rose around 7 AM. We were on the trail by 7:45. Lemmy and Megan would both "motor it" and disappear ahead of Katie and me. Moments later we'd all be together again; everyone stopped frequently to take pictures, remove or add layers of clothing or just gape, awestruck at the view slowly expanding behind us.
The climb up Mt Katahdin is divided into three phases. The first phase is a gentle approach through moss and conifers. The trail rises along Katahdin Stream, a wide clear rapid with many falls and crossings. Surrounded by trees, this first part could really be anywhere in Maine. It lasts for about a mile and a half before you literally hit a wall.
The second phase begins with a towering rock monolith into which steel rebar has been set to form rungs. Were it not for these handles and steps, Katahdin would be a technical climb requiring ropes and harnesses. At the top of the first wall, you begin zigging and zagging through more towers, each twenty to thirty vertical feet separated by narrow flat spots with just enough room to stand. Trekking poles are of no use here, the next two to three miles will tax your hands and arms just as much as your legs and feet. You'll gain about a thousand feet of elevation over each mile and it's not long before you're above the tree line.
Without the cover of trees the wind really picked up. We had just stopped to put on extra layers when we noticed a hiker with a long white beard resting on his way down. "That's funny," I thought. "That old guy has the same jacket as... Oh shit, that is Rockman!" His beard wasn't white; it was covered with ice.
"Holy shit dude! Is it really that bad up there? I mean, congratulations! But... is that ice?"
"It is," he said. "Once you get up to the table, everything's covered. It's probably low twenties, maybe upper teens up there. Look at this," he added and snatched a Gatorade bottle from his pack. He unscrewed the lid and turned it upside down. Nothing came out. "Frozen solid," he said. "And I was only up there for like half an hour. Once you get up to the Table the wind is insane."
Lemmy, who is from the desert, said, "This sounds like hell to me." Voldemort, who gets excited by the prospect of mortal danger was already a hundred yards up the trail.
The Table marks the beginning of the third and final phase of the climb. After several miles of boulder scramble you arrive at an otherworldly expanse. Basketball sized rocks and stunted alpine brush form a vast frozen hump. The trail is marked by ropes and cairns leading upward to the horizon, beyond which presumably sits Baxter Peak and the world famous wooden sign. Rime ice covered every surface. Megan and Lemmy had both succumbed to their adrenaline and, in her words "motored it" up to the top. Katie and I were about five minutes from the summit when we saw Lemmy walking back down toward us. "What the hell is he doing?" Katie shouted over the wind.
When he reached us I asked him the same question. "I have to go back down," he answered. "I am going to die up there." I made a hook with my right pinky finger and shook it at him. I then pointed back to the summit and shook my head. "It's so cold!" he added. "I am freezing!"
"Lemmy," I yelled, leaning in closer. "If I give you extra layers to wear, will you go back up? We have to do this together!" I rooted through my pack and handed him my down jacket and my wind pants. "These are a women's, size extra large! You'll have to use your pack strap to hold them up!" While the three of us put on the last of our layers the wind pushed the last of the clouds away from the summit. We could see Megan at the top by the sign. She had balloons.
Baxter Peak really sneaks up on you. You can't see it until you're about two hundred feet away because the sloping rock pile you're climbing creates a false summit.
I saw the sign and felt a lump forming in my throat. I blinked and was transported back to Springer Mountain with Katie and Mark. I stepped closer and thought of my feet pounding on the rocks in Pennsylvania. A vision of a hundred instant pasta sides flashed behind my closed lids. The wind on my face was the pelting storm that pushed me down from Mount Washington. All the water stops, mosquito bites, blisters and blood were for this. All that pain, shivering and loneliness. All that beauty. All those sunsets and sunrises. Multitudes of birdsong, howling coyotes, crickets and frogs. The laughter of other hikers around a fire at the shelter. The joyous sounds of other hikers. I felt queasy and opened my eyes. I was mere steps away from the sign. I moved closer in slow motion. I could see Megan holding balloons and Katie drawing her camera from its pouch. I leaned in and kissed the sign.
"I am in Hell. Can I go back down now?" Lemmy begged.
I snapped out of it and answered him. "As soon as we get a group picture," I promised and pulled my friends in for a tight hug at the top of the world. We popped corks and posed. Everything was right.
The climb down seemed to take ten times as long as the rush up, despite the fact that we actually made it to the base in about half the time. During the descent we met a few more hikers on their way up. High fives and congratulations all around! Lemmy practically ran to the bottom, and when Katie, Megan and I arrived he was sitting in someone's camp wrapped in a blanket and drinking hot soup. It was sixty degrees.
I've been home for a little over two weeks now, and it's been rough. I can't stop thinking about the trail. They warned me that this would happen. Back in Virginia, I met a retired couple who had completed their thru hike in the 1970's. "It stays with you," they said. "We still think about the trail to this day." I'm okay with that in the grand scheme of things, but for now it still feels like there's something missing. I feel like a caged animal that has been let out of its cage, only to wind up back in its cage. Good thing I like my cage. It has a hot shower and an indoor privy. And I've been using both more than any normal person should. The hot shower is a miracle of modern technology. Hell, just having running water is a luxury; the fact that I can make it hot with a flick of my wrist... bona fide miracle.
These modern conveniences along with my recent accomplishment make me feel like the king of the world. And as the king, I spend a lot of time on my throne. A lot of time. I haven't gained back a single pound and everything I eat goes right through me. Of course, any thru hiker reading this knows exactly how this story goes, but from my perspective, I was able to justify each surprise run to the toilet with some recent dietary irregularity. Oh, too much barbecue last night. Maybe I shouldn't have had so much ice cream. Maybe I should have had more bread with that... um... sandwich. Maybe I should have remembered to replace my water filter before I entered the Hundred Mile Wilderness.
Looking back it's easy to see what happened. I ran out of Aqua Mira near the end of the hike, and during my scramble to get resupply before the Wilderness, I overlooked that crucial detail. "Oh well," I told myself, "this water is as clear as air, and humans have been drinking from streams for thousands of years. What can I do?" Yesterday I finally succumbed to Katie's insistence that I go get checked out, which is why I spent the morning collecting a stool sample and why I'll start a round of antibiotics this afternoon.
I hate that I'm wrapping up this account of my epic journey with a story about poop, but when you're telling a true story you don't get to pick the ending, just how you react to it. And to be honest, I don't think of this as the end at all. This hike is just the first step in a much bigger plan to achieve more lifelong goals. There's still much to do. There are so many trails and mountains out there. And I'm just getting started.
Recently a picture of me in my underpants went (slightly) viral, prompting literally thousands of comments and questions, the most popular of which I will now answer in no particular order: No, I do not look like Nancy Pelosi. I didn't get fired or angrily quit my job; I've been planning and saving for this for years. No, I'm not on welfare. Yes, those are Marine Corps "PT" shorts, and yes, I did change them. No, I have never tried meth. No, I did not walk on my hands or do pushups along the way. You can't see my tattoo in the second picture because I'm turned slightly to the left. And even though the guy in the second picture isn't wearing glasses, it's still me. I took them off. Just like Clark Kent.
Okay, now that that silliness is out of the way, let's take a look back at one of my favorite parts of the entire Appalachian Trail, the Hundred Mile Wilderness.
The Hundred Mile Wilderness is the final northbound stretch of the AT. It is widely regarded as one of the most challenging sections, not just because of the terrain but because of the logistical challenge it presents. The wilderness stretches from Monson, Maine to a place one hundred miles north called Abol Bridge. There's a famous sign at either end warning hikers that there is nowhere to get food or help, abandon hope, all ye who enter, and so on. There's not much in the town of Monson in terms of resupply and there's even less at Abol Bridge besides a small camp store which will sell you candy bars and (if you're lucky) a sandwich wrapped in plastic.
The scarcity of supplies at either end forces most hikers to enter HMW with overloaded packs. Every pocket and pouch bulges, seams straining, barely containing an imminent explosion of gorp or tuna packets. Crushed ramen and squished honey buns hide among stinky socks, while bulkier non-edibles are now banished to ride on the outside of the pack. Pots and pans bang on rocks and catch on branches as these top-heavy travelers plod and waddle through the wilderness. Of course, there is an alternative. Many are tempted to keep their loads light by trying to cross the wilderness in as few days as possible. "Oh, I'll just crank out a few twenties and cruise through in four days!" they'll say, forgetting that over the past three weeks, less challenging terrain held them back to single digit daily mileage. "Or I'll just hike all night and do it in three..." These are the same people whose log book entries I would read days later while shaking my head. "Only seventy miles left and I'm down to one raisin and half a piece of sugar free gum. *#$%^ Maine! Looks like tomorrow I'm eating squirrel again."
There actually is a third option which I learned during my stay at a hostel in Rangely, about a week prior. At the advice of a former successful hiker, I purchased and packed my supplies for HMW a week prior, and mailed twenty pounds of food to myself at the Post Office in Monson. That's a LOT to carry in addition to my regular kit so I took advantage of a local service which will (for a hefty fee) meet you about halfway in at a private logging road, and deliver you the second half of your supplies. This option makes the most sense, especially if you're with a group of hikers willing to split the cost. For reasons I'll explain later, I found myself about a day ahead of Lemmy, leaving me to enter the Wilderness with a bunch of people I'd only just met, people who preferred to carry packs heavier than their own bodies or to run all night and have squirrel for breakfast.
Having worked out the midway drop, I happily crossed the threshold with a comfortable pack and the knowledge that I could take my time if I wanted to. The date was October 1st, and one of my last phone calls home was to establish that Katie could expect me at Baxter by the evening of the 7th. This allowed me a positively luxurious pace for that final section and I began taking advantage of that luxury on the very first day.
Only seven miles into the Wilderness I arrived at Little Wilson Falls. A shallow wide stream flows over smooth slate, funneling into a notch at the top of a seventy five foot drop into a box canyon surrounded by trees of every color. The canyon walls have eroded from below, leaving an inverted stair step resembling basalt columns. The sun filtered through the leaves shone on the rocks like light through a stained glass window. Just above the roaring falls is an easy rock hop to a footpath which leads to a campsite positioned just far enough upstream to mute that roar down to a soothing whisper. It was the middle of the day, I'd only traveled seven miles, and my hands were setting up my tent as if they had a mind of their own. "Well," I thought, "looks like I live here now!"
I spent the afternoon climbing around on the slate columns, soaking in the sun and building a fire on the rocks near my tent site. My early stop on that first day positioned me miles behind the squirrel eaters. No more hikers would be starting the Wilderness until the following morning. I hadn't planned it that way, but as I was eating by my fire that night I realized that it was now likely that I would not see any other hikers until Katahdin. With no real reason to hurry, I opted for the slower pace. I'd get to really enjoy these last few days, and maybe if I was lucky, Lemmy would catch me.
The following morning I had a leisurely breakfast and allowed myself another short day. It was only ten miles to Cloud Pond, which was decidedly clear when I arrived. I ate by the water, camped alone and awoke in a cloud.
On day three, I picked up the pace a bit and climbed Gulf Hagas where I saw my first moose on the AT. There was a loud crash and splash to the left of the trail. It sounded like someone had driven a Volkswagen into the pond and when I turned toward the racket I saw the unmistakable silhouette looking back at me through the mist. When it became clear that the beast wasn't going to do any tricks, I snapped a few shots and marched on, up and over Chairback.
On day four, and in fact all the remaining days in the Wilderness, I camped alone. Other than my midpoint resupply and a few southbounders, I had no human contact. I wandered, talking to the birds and singing to myself. I was surrounded by gold and purple trees, I squished through bogs and scrambled up impossibly tall rock towers covered with blueberry bushes, leaves now crimson, berries long gone. For two days it rained, soaking my shoes and saturating my socks. On the penultimate night, the rain fly on my tent finally broke, requiring me to rig something with hooks and a wind breaker to keep dry. The final day brought more rain and low temperatures and I did not care because tomorrow morning I would arrive at Baxter state park, where I would finally get to see Katie again! As I squished my way through those final miles, I felt like I was moving in slow motion, savoring every leaf, pine needle and puddle. I simultaneously wanted this to last forever and be done.
Next up: The Final Climb...
Let me start by thanking everyone for the well wishes and congratulations! I've been on an emotional high for the last week that's really kind of hard to process. I've gone abruptly from wind in the trees and rushing water to honking horns and flashing lights everywhere. My body has been through a lot, my feet hurt, and my intestines are having a hard time figuring out what to do with real food. On top of all that, every inbox I own right now is flooded with messages from people saying, "Hey, we saw you in your underpants on the internet!" It's enough to make a guy want to go hide in the woods for a while!
Well, I'm glad everybody seems to like the before and after stuff, because I do too! I took a selfie every day and plan to compile those into a time lapse. I also did this:
Okay, now that all that silliness is out of the way, I'd like to take you back with me to Southern Maine. As I mentioned before, this is right around the time when most hikers' blogs seem to disintegrate. Which is too bad, because Southern Maine is where things start to get interesting. But it happens for good reason; it's tough terrain, and it's not exactly the most "connected" place in the world. Trust me, I'm not complaining.
You would think that by the time we'd finished The Whites, we'd have learned not to expect high mileage days ever again. But still, many of us would proudly announce at night, "Tomorrow's going to be the day, fellas. I feel a 20!" And each following evening we'd all gather eight miles north, only to repeat the same hollow cheer, this time with less energy and conviction. A lot of people really let this get to them, and it messed with their heads. I know, because it messed with mine.
Thru hikers tend to be goal oriented people, and by the time we've hit a thousand miles, we tend to take it for granted that we're going to continue to hit our mark. And then one day the trail kicks you in the ass with a giant moss covered boot and now your daily routine consists of steady failure. After a while it just feels like banging your head against a wall, so painful and futile. Eventually I took the hint and lowered my goals. "Tomorrow's going to be the day, fellas!" I'd proclaim. "I'm going to get up before sunrise! I'm going to be packed and hiking by first light! I'm not going to take long breaks, and I'm going to finish with my headlamp blazing! Guys... I'm shooting for a TWELVE!"
That night, all of New England encountered a cold snap that the locals called "surprising" and "unusual." Of course, we didn't know that they were using those words because we were out in the middle of nowhere, so when the temperature dropped to 28 that night, many of us feared that this was how it was going to be for the rest of the trip. My cold weather gear was waiting for me at the next post office, so I spent that night (as did many of us) wrapped in every piece of clothing I owned. Still, I awoke every 15 minutes, uselessly turning in my 45 degree bag, exhausted from shivering but too cold for real sleep. In the morning, someone made a fire and we all huddled around it, drinking coffee and not talking.
"Well..." someone started, "I always told all my friends that I was walking from Georgia to Maine, so technically, I can be done here, right?" It wasn't obvious whether this person was joking or serious, but I'd recognized his demon, having recently wrestled my own.
This was how we began our day at Mahoosuc Notch, which the AWOL guide describes as "the most difficult (or fun!) mile on the AT." The Notch is a tremendous boulder jumble at the base of a mile long sheer vertical cliff. The rocks are as big as refrigerators, cars and houses. They lie about at every angle while trees cling impossibly to their sides and tops. Water flows beneath them, mostly unseen, a murmuring gurgle from somewhere below. "If I fall off of this," you think, "I'll bash my head on that pointy bit right... there. Or... Or, if I'm lucky, I'll slip past it and just drown in the dark. Okay, here goes!"
I enjoyed The Notch. I took me about ninety minutes to travel one mile, but I got to climb and jump on rocks that reminded me of McConnell's Mill back home in Pennsylvania. Of course, it was tough, but it was also beautiful and amazing. And it was warm enough by noon that we all were covered with real sweat.
Southern Maine really did a number on a lot of us. That whole area leading up to the Hundred Mile Wilderness is known as one of the "yellow blazing capitals" of the AT, meaning that a lot of people get into cars around there. Most will just jump up to Katahdin, but some actually just go home. I'm definitely glad I stuck with it, because what came next was hands-down, my absolute favorite part of the entire hike.