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.