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...