"After" - Part 2: Looking Back at Hundred Mile Wilderness

Somewhere several miles outside of Westanuthin

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.

This is no joke.

This is no joke.

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."

Fuel is heavy and sticks are free.

Fuel is heavy and sticks are free.

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!"

Little Wilson Falls

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.

Moo.

Moo.

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...

Mt Katahdin as seen from Hundred Mile Wilderness


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"After" - Part 1: Looking Back at Southern Maine

Tight spot! Tight spot!

Tight spot! Tight spot!

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. 

Life, ah, ah, ah... finds a way.

"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. 

Day 153: Mt Katahdin - 2,185.3 miles

This afternoon, after walking for nearly five months I summited the northernmost mountain on the AT! I was joined by my wife and trail boss, Katie. I was lucky to have relatively good weather and the company of two awesome trail friends, Lemmy and Voldemort who I met back in the very first hundred miles, a lifetime ago in trail terms. 

Voldemort, Green Giant (me) and Lemmy

Voldemort, Green Giant (me) and Lemmy

Katie and I will take a couple of days to drive home, where I will eat and rest and eat and wash and eat. After I eat some more I will finally have time to go back and fill in some more details missing from the last few short updates here. I'll take a few days off and then begin working full time on the book. For now, sleep calls and will not take "no" for an answer. 

Mt Katahdin as seen from Hundred Mile Wilderness. 

Mt Katahdin as seen from Hundred Mile Wilderness. 

Day 144: Monson, ME - 2,070 miles

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Three days ago I had what could've been one of the best days on the trail this season. After a spell of unexpected and unusually cold weather, the temperatures in Maine finally shot up into the 60s and even the 70s. In time to climb the Bigelows. 

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After a tough climb I spent several miles above the tree line. The valley below was filled with every color: red, yellow, and orange deciduous trees mixed with green pines and blue ponds. 

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After descending back into the valley I had a campsite all to myself on the eastern side of Flagstaff Lake. That night I camped by cool water to the sound of gently lapping waves and the occasional singing loon.  The Milky Way blazed overhead while I made a fire and had my dinner by the lake. 

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Now I am in Monson, and tomorrow morning I will begin the 100 Mile Wilderness. Once I emerge on the other side only Mount Katahdin remains. 

 

Day 136: Rangeley, ME - 1,964 miles

Lemmy. Still single. 

Lemmy. Still single. 

I've been reading AT through hiker blogs for years, and I've always noticed one thing. Toward the end, they all stop writing. Now that my hike is nearly finished, I understand completely. 

I rise with the sun. I eat breakfast while I pack as quickly as I can. I walk. Even though I am constantly struggling against roots, rocks, and mud, I take very few breaks. As soon as I stop walking my body temperature drops. The uphills kill my thighs. The downhills pound my knees. ("Downhill" means something completely different in Maine. To descend 500 feet here you must do the following: climb 1,000 feet, then descend 1,010 feet. Repeat this process 50 times.) 

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The nights are quite cold, but the stars are beautiful.  

Within the next two weeks, I will be entering something called the Hundred Mile Wilderness. There is definitely no cell phone coverage there.  When I emerge from the Wilderness my last task will be to climb Mount Katahdin. 

There will be precious few opportunities for me to communicate with you all between now and that day. Please do not mistake these long periods of silence for lack of adventure. I'm taking careful notes, and I can't wait to share.  

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