"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.