October 18, 2008

Journeys Anew

As I begin this blog, it's about 1:30am on Saturday, and I'm sitting on the basement couch of my parents' house in Christiansburg, VA. The same house my family moved to eight years ago. The same basement that housed innumerable movie nights, pool games, battles of Trivial Pursuit, and various other acts of idiocy and randomness since my sophomore year of high school. The same couch that I slept on for an entire summer of college due to a sheer lazy unwillingness to even climb the stairs to my own bedroom. This post most certainly will not be completed in a timely manner, for I often find it difficult to keep a reign on my thoughts these days, so forgive me for the undoubted meandering and digression that ensues. The week and a half that followed our exit from the wilderness seemed like a whirlwind to me, and thus, I will try to make this summation equally swirling and turbulent and fast (although probably not the last one). The details I could include are mostly innocuous anyway.

Our first night in Millinocket was a Friday. Saturday we wasted and Sunday my parents arrived with the shuttle home. Both days the mountain was closed. We were hoping for Monday to summit, but late on Sunday we got the word it was a no-go. There had been a substantial amount of snow and ice dropped up on Big K and I suppose the park was trying to allow it to melt. We again began to consider all our options. The latest we could wait around was Thursday. The weather forecast did not seem promising, and none of the locals seemed to be optimistic about our chances. Hikers had been piling up in town for days - waiting, hoping, praying. As for myself, the only part of me that still even cared about the mountain was that tiny idea of getting a picture at the top. Just a stupid picture, yet one with so much gravitas. From your first thru-hiker steps in Georgia, the image of the Katahdin terminus sign is ingrained in your mind as equaling completion. Whether you find yourself to be a purist or not along the way, that sign is still the symbol of your ultimate goal. However, in reality (says the greater, more rational part of my brain), that's really all it is - a symbol. My hike, mentally and emotionally, had already come to a close. The sign would provide no extra fulfillment or closure, and knowing this, I didn't want to continue to wait around for it. On top of that, I knew that after leaving Maine, I would only have about a week left to spend with Shawn (no more silly trail names) before he would head home to Louisiana and we would both seek to remedy our very empty wallets. I wanted to make the most of that time, not spend it sitting in an Econo Lodge or on the interstate. I can't claim to know what his thought process was, but we again came to the same conclusion - if the mountain is closed on Tuesday, we go. And it was. So we did. But not before making a little pilgrimage to at least see the mountain and take some "summit" photos near its base. Then we all loaded into my Jeep and set a course south.

The drive was basically mind-numbing (as any 18-hour interstate drive would be) except for an unplanned detour through Rhode Island. Woohoo, I've been to Rhode Island! Finally we arrived at an old familiar Virginia doorstep, leading back to the civilized world. Yet this would still not be the end of the AT for Shawn and me...

Christiansburg happens to be nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, not too far a drive from most points on the trail between Pearisburg and Daleville. Coincidentally, Shawn had missed some of this section, including McAfee's Knob - known as "the most photographed place on the trail" - and (more importantly) The Homeplace Restaurant, a magnificent family style all-you-can-eat buffet and a long-awaited gorging spot for most thru-hikers. What better way to celebrate the end of our seven month saga? With our now well-conditioned legs, we flew up the 3.5 miles to the Knob, passing many a day hiker. As if we weren't day hiking ourselves. And honestly, I don't think we were. I had an incredibly surreal feeling as we headed down the trail. I had hiked this small section many times in the past, but I had never thought of it as "part of the AT." After I traversed this same 3.5 miles in June, they took on a whole new significance. Yes, I knew the miles well, but I had never hiked them wearing a 35lb. pack. I had never hiked them in 100 degree weather. I had never hiked them on the way to Maine. This trail wasn't just a fun way to spend an afternoon outdoors. It was now part of my thru-hike - a small part of a much greater whole. Back then I was hiking with Freefall, someone I had known since Georgia and had become great friends with. And as we stopped to peruse the trail registers, I saw our entries from June 4th and remembered that miserable sauna of a day, and it left me speechless. I still don't know if I can quite wrap my head around it. We saw the names of all the other hikers we had met along the way, some not until Vermont or New Hampshire, marveling at how close we had been and never knew, or at how far they had been yet somehow caught up. None of these other "day hikers" knew any of this. They had no connection to the trail (I assume, anyway). There was no added relevance in the steps they took.

I suppose that is a lot of the allure of thru-hiking - to feel like you're part of something greater than yourself. The trail is its own microcosm. It's a 2,176 mile long society. I can probably rattle off a bunch of rationalized reasons for why I decided to take on a thru-hike, but I think a lot of it probably was an uncanny longing to experience this separateness.....set apart-ness.....exclusivity. I'm not sure I can put a label on it. Yes, I whined and complained a lot, and yes, there were many days when I honestly thought "What the hell am I doing?", but even on the worst of days I think the thing that kept me and many other thru-hikers going is the knowledge that what we were doing was something spectacular, if for no other reason than that so few people have actually done it. It might sound pretentious, but I think it's true. Every thru-hiker has a totally different experience on the trail, but they always have one thing in common - they're hiking from Georgia to Maine. Now I can begin to see why so many people decide to spend their whole lives on or around the trail. It can be a hard thing to give up - to go from being a part of this secret society, to being just another grunt somewhere in the "real world."

Besides this club mentality, the world of the AT seems to be one of humanity and serendipity. A world where hikers become best friends in a matter of days, where people are constantly depending on the kindness of strangers, and the strangers are happy to oblige. When you strip life down to the bare essentials (food, clothing, shelter, hiking) a person’s actions can impact you drastically and immediately. That’s not to say that everyone you encounter on the trail is all peaches and cream. But the bad experiences are mostly transitory, while the good ones stick to your mind (and your ribs if you’re lucky). I can’t even describe how just a cooler full of soda and freeze pops can make a dubious day worthwhile. I’m a big believer in “everything happens for a reason,” and never have I seen it more evident than on the AT. Whether it’s hiking through a snow storm to find a miraculous shuttle and dirt cheap hotel, or wandering clueless into a random town only to have a family invite you into their home – stuff just seems to work out on the trail. As long as you have faith that it will, which I think is a key element. So many hikers have a preconceived notion of what their journey should be like. They try to plan and control – and then they usually quit. If you can’t learn to be flexible, then thru-hiking is not for you. A good motto for my hike would probably be “I’ll/We’ll figure it out.” There’s nothing wrong with making a plan, but plans change fast, and you’ve got to be able to go with the flow or you’ll sink fast. Things will work themselves out if you let them. There’s so much I would have missed – people, places, experiences – if I had put my nose to the ground and stuck to my mileage every day. I wouldn’t trade any of the last seven months for all the Dr. Pepper in the world.

Speaking of things working out.....way back in April, Shawn spent a week or so down in Hot Spring, NC doing some work for a couple of guys (Frank and Brian) who run The Duckett House Inn, a B&B and small sorghum farm. He did such a good job that they invited him to come back in October to visit and help harvest all that sorghum, which they turn into some delicious syrup, and I could tag along. As it turned out, the harvest was the weekend after we got back to VA, so after a couple days of visiting, we hopped back in the car for a little epilogue to our big adventure. It turned out that a lot of the harvesting had already been done by the time we got there, but we were still able to help out shucking the cane stalks, collecting and bottling the syrup, and generally cleaning up. In return, we got to spend a nice romantic weekend at a bed and breakfast, giving ourselves a little decompression time before easing back into rigors of being productive members of society. After another slight detour through Pigeon Forge and good ol' Gatlinburg (how could I resist?!) we returned to Christiansburg, before Shawn sadly had to rent a car bound for Louisiana so we could both figure out how to make some cash and make our next moves. And I mean "moves" figuratively and literally. I've decided that as soon as my finances allow, I am getting out of dodge and making for that flat delta land, where Shawn and I can make a real go of this crazy little thing called 'love'. I can't wait, for so many reasons.

Which brings me back to this basement couch. It is now about 1:30pm on Monday afternoon. I told you this post wouldn't be fast. I'm currently awaiting a phone call informing me whether I've aquired a position as a cash office clerk at Virginia Tech. Even if the answer is 'no', I've still got my good ol' standby job of cashiering at Au Bon Pain. Sitting on this couch, essentially being in the exact same place I was before I left, is sometimes strange and sometimes frustrating. The trail often feels like another dimension. Or like a dream. I can hardly believe that it all actually happeend. But deep down I know that I'm not really in the same place. Those months were real, and they were life-changing. When I set off on my AT thru-hike, I had absolutely no idea what would happen when I finished - no plans whatsoever - but I was confident that in the many months to follow, something would come up, be figured out, or present itself. And lo and behold something did. Like I said, stuff just seems to work out on the trail.

October 17, 2008

Last Legs

I must admit, I have generally been dreading and putting off this blog for some time. Perhaps because I know it will take me so long to compile all the goings-on or to sort out all the swirling thoughts and emotions of my cracked brain into some kind of coherence. Or maybe because it's the last little bit of the AT I can still cling to. And I know I just ended that last statement with a preposition, and it kills me. But I digress. Whatever the reasons for my hesitance, I now suck it up and give you the end days of my hike.

I suppose the last time you heard from me on trail, I had put my tail between my legs and retreated back to Monson after a soaking, spirit-killing day in the 100 Mile Wilderness. At the suggestion of our friend, Nest, we did indeed consult a Maine atlas and were pleased (I was more overjoyed) to find a couple of wonderful logging roads that would slice of miles and days from our final trek. After drying and recuperating for one more night in Monson, we set out once again, on a bright day with bright spirits, equipped with interim hiking poles thanks to the lovely ladies at the hostel, and knowing our hiking days would soon be finished. We stood on Main St. and stuck out our thumbs, and it was none too long before we were on our way up to Greenville, where we would hit our road back into the wilderness. We were dropped off in front of an outfitters and had planned on simply walking down the road 'til we hit the trail, but the good Lord smiled on us yet again, and no sooner had we unloaded our packs from one car than we were throwing them in the back of another. In fact, the car belonged to none other than Jim Soandso, Democratic candidate for the Maine state legislature, and since Voodoo was so eager to learn all about his political ideals, he decided to drive us all the way up to the gate, leaving us only 2 miles of nice flat gravel road to walk back to the trailhead. And as if the day wasn't already shaping up beautifully, we had only walked about half a mile before we turned a corner to find a big bull moose standing in the middle of the road, staring right at us. We kept our distance, obviously, and waited for the big guy to move on before we went any further, but it was just one more of those random occurrences that seem to signal we're going in the right direction, wherever we are. We didn't go too much further before an AMC employee pulled his pick-up over for us to hop in, and in two shakes of a walrus' mustache we were back on the trail.

The first thing to greet us on our second wilderness inauguration was, of course, a river ford. But, huzzah! - it wasn't raining and the water levels had subsided, so crossing was as easy as throwing on some flip flops and wading to the other side. Voodoo even got a leech on his toe! Woohoo! Then a fairly easy five miles to the shelter for the night. An excellent restart. The next day's weather wasn't as gorgeous, but not demoralizing. The temperature dropped a little, and a general drizzle of rain pervaded. We had to cross the last couple of mountains between us and Katahdin, including Whitecap, where there was allegedly a wonderful view of the Big K. However, when we arrived there was only fog and rain and cold, so we didn't tarry. When we stopped for lunch at the next shelter, my hands were so cold you would have thought it was the dead of winter. Once we moved on, though, and descended some more the air warmed dramatically. We found our destination shelter that night to be spacious and new - a welcome sight. The word on tomorrow's weather was rain all day. Let me say, I had had more than enough of rain. Words can't even describe. Luckily, with all our shortcutting around, Voodoo and I both had more than enough food to make it to the end, so we opted on the side of dryness and spent the whole next day sitting in the shelter, being lazy and ridiculous, but definitely not wet.

Day 3 of the wilderness included one last stream fording (it took some maneuvering, but was hardly terrible), a quick and easy 12 miles of trail, and then one last logging road blue-blaze. The weather called for clouds, but no rain, and for once it seemed that we had not been lied to. It was still cold, though. Even when we broke for lunch I could hardly stop moving or I would be overcome with chills. A shelter thermometer told us it was about 46 degrees at noon
. Jeez. After lunch, we sped down the last four miles to the road, eager to start shortcutting, and the closer we got, the more it rained. It started with a mere misting, which turned into a steady drizzle, and by the time we finally reached the road there were in fact rain drops. Luckily, there was a flat little cove of pine needles nearby, and we threw up the party tarp one last time right before the dripping gave way to real rain. This was not a boost to my already dwindling morale. The forecast for the next several days had called for more of the same. So huddled against the elements once again, we began to consider all of our options. The road before us (physically and metaphorically) had two directions - go left, back to the trail, and see out the last 2-3 days of the trail as originally planned, or go right, out of the wilderness to the highway and into Millinocket, and wait to return for the Big K summit. I have to admit that this little rainstorm was probably the last nail in the coffin of my hike. But then I have always been quick to side with ease and comfort. Basically I turn into a whiny pansy. I didn't want this to affect Voodoo's decision, because it's his trail experience, too, and I know that usually I'm being hasty and irrational. If he wanted to continue I would put on my big girl panties, suck it up, and walk on. Lucky for me, he chose town. We took a right, initially planning to walk a few miles to a campground for the night, but for one last time things worked out better than planned, as they always seem to do on the AT. After a few miles walking, a car pulled up alongside us, drove us all the way down the road to the entry/exit gate, and dropped us off with beer, iced tea, trail mix, tabouli, and lots of chips. We proceeded to inquire with the nice old lady at the checkpoint station which was the way into Millinocket and were informed that the chances of a hitch were probably slim to none. However, another lady, who frequently shuttles in and out of the wilderness, had stopped to chat, was about to leave, and offered to take us the rest of the way to town for a small fee. Once more, I became confident that this was the path we were meant to take. Everything would fall in its right place. In Millinocket, we opted to set ourselves up for a night of stylish relaxation at the Econo Lodge in celebration of the end of our journey.

Thus concludes the hiking part of this story. It has taken me a ridiculously long time to relate just this fraction of it, because my attention span is shorter now than it has ever been. Therefore, I think I shall pause and regroup at another time to continue the tale, for there is so much more to tell! And you thought this blog would end with my hike. Fooled again! Next time - forbidden mountains, road trips, and sorghum...

October 4, 2008

Livin' on the Edge

Sitting in Millinocket, ME. A town adjacent to Big K, but not really on the trail per se. It's called the "jumping off" point of the AT. The weather has been kind of on and off crappy the last couple of days down here in civilization, but apparently it's been pretty insane up at Katahdin. Like snow and freezing crazy, so Baxter S.P., where the mountain is located, has been closed for the last couple of days. So now we're sitting around town waiting for my parents to get here and start paying for stuff, and also for the weather to clear enough that we can make one last scramble up a ridiculously tall hill, take some pictures and then hobble back down into the real world. There are various other stories to be told of the in between time. But for now I'll keep it brief. Prepare yourselves for a massive blog to follow once the beast has been conquered.

Auf wiedersehen.

September 29, 2008

Let's try this again.

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I'm really sick of this whole "trail" thing. Here I am - back in Monson and not at Katahdin. Let me tell you why...

After staying (and paying for) two nights in town, our wallets told us that we had to get out of dodge, despite the fact that little Hurricane Kyle what making his way right over New England. What more ridiculous things can happen on this trip? A hurricane in New England? C'mon.

So off we go into this wonderous, beautiful, example of natural glory they call the 100 Mile Wilderness. The only things that really make this part of the trail more "wilderness" than the rest are the fact that there aren't any towns and there are many streams - small and large - that you have to ford. That's right, ford. Like in Oregon Trail. I don't know why this is supposed to be an enjoyable part of the AT experience. I mean, I have nothing against preserving nature and wilderness areas, blah blah blah, but why is the trail routed through it? It's the ONLY SECTION of the 2,176 miles where you really have no other choice than to get soaked, plus the fact that there's nowhere to stop and dry out for at least five or six days. If they didn't think it was a good idea for the last 2,000 miles, then why is it fun now?

When we started hiking, it was already raining. There's no way to avoid that. But it caused the trail to alternate between walking over slick rocks and roots and through muddy swamps and mammoth puddles. I tried my best to pussyfoot around and keep my feet dry, but eventually there's just no way around it. I mean literally - there was a giant mud bog and no way to get across except straight through. After that, it was kind of nice on the one hand, since I just had one less thing to worry about. On the other hand, my boots, socks, and feet were now completely soaked. Eventually we came to the first ford, Little Wilson Stream, which isn't exactly little. The water level was undoubtedly higher from the rain, and just upstream from the trail crossing is a 60 ft. waterfall, making the current pretty swift. I got there first and decided to just get it over with. I made it about a whole six feet in and as I went to lift a foot, the current took it right out from under me. Luckily, Shawn had followed behind and was there to grab me, so I and my whole pack didn't go completely under. We started slowly trudging across together, until a combination of current, slippery rocks, and clumsiness took me down again and Shawn with me. The stream took both of our remaining hiking poles. Later, we crossed Big Wilson Stream, which I also would be lost to, had it not been for the guide rope I clung to for dear life. Why they don't put guide lines across all the fords, I have no idea. At the end of the day, we finally got to a shelter only 10 miles into the wilderness that was jam-packed with other soaking hikers (surprisingly four of them section hikers).

Needless to say, after all of this, I was fairly miserable. Luckily, we knew of a road (not really a wilderness, huh?) where people were shuttled into the wilderness for slackpacking, and we had those beautiful, beautiful maps, so this morning we walked down to the road, called a shuttle, and got our butts back into town where it's warm and dry. So like I said, I'm back in Monson.

Now it's time to regroup. If there was any part of me that was looking forward to this wilderness section, that part has died a horrible death. I rue the very thought of setting foot there again, and a pox upon those hikers who find it adventurous or exciting in any way. Unfortunately, this is the only section of trail left before Katahdin. However, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. As we were strolling down the street today, we ran into a couple of friends, Sampson and Nest, who we hadn't seen in awhile. Nest is even more of a notorious blue/yellow blazer than we are. He's probably walked more miles of pavement than he has trail. He informed us that they planned to get to Katahdin in four days. "Just look at the Maine atlas and you'll see how," he said. And that's exactly what we plan to do. I don't care what else is out there to see on this trail. I just want it to be over with as soon as possible (and as cheaply as possible). If there's any way to shave off days/hours/minutes until the end, we will find it. I'm not exactly sure how all that will happen, but if I am to return home with any kind of spirit or sanity, it will definitely happen.

Hopefully the next time you hear from me, this whole farcical charade will be at an end.

P.S. - THANK YOU, Mom and Dad, for making the last part of this idiocy financially possible!

September 26, 2008

Monso(o)n, ME

Here I am in my last town on the whole AT. I don't have a lot of time for blog amazingness, so this is the jist.

We hiked out of Stratton and made it to the little burg of Caratunk, which is not really a town, but a post office. Except that nearby is the awesome outfitters, Northern Outdoors, complete with incredibly cheap accommodation, restaurant, microbrewery, and most importantly - giant hot tub. We got a ferry across the Kennebec River from a crazy guy named Hillbilly Dave, and then spent the entire day being lazy and clean and soaking in big bubble baths.

As I mentioned before, we have determined an ending date that I have to meet my parents by. Also, this weekend there is supposed to be some major rain blowing in from all these fabulous tropical storms and hurricanes and whatnot. Who wants to hike in that? I rarely want to hike on nice days, so obviously not me. This being said, we decided that rather than hike out of Caratunk, we would hitch ourselves all over creation one last time to get to Monson. Incidentally, it was perhaps the best hitch I've had on the whole trip, as it was from a logging truck driven by an old guy with the greatest Mainer accent ever. After Monson is the last stretch of the trail, called the "100 mile wilderness," which happens to actually be about 115 miles. This will take us approximately a week to complete. Therefore, once we see how the weather goes, we'll be embarking on our long-awaited final days.

Good Lord, I can't wait to stop hiking.

That's about all the news there is. In just a couple of weeks I'll be back in Virginia, still being a bum, but without wearing a backpack all day.

See y'all then.

September 22, 2008

Uh, yeah.....

Welp. Made it to Stratton. Bumped into the whole gang of kids again. Watched a bunch of movies at a nice little hostel. Went to the post office and found out my Camelbak wasn't there. I don't know if it's because it didn't make it here in time, or because it was shipped UPS or FedEx or carrier pigeon.

Also, Leki's entire customer service department seems to consist of a voicemail box, which I have left messages on to no avail.

Anyway - all of this is slightly frustrating, but it's nothing major enough to detain me from hiking. Or finishing, for that matter. I can make it with one pole and a water bladder wrapped in a plastic bag.

Off to the last stretch of civilization! Next stop - Monson. Then a mad dash for a big mountain and the last of my sanity!

September 18, 2008

The Third: We make it to Maine!

Back again and away we go!

Heading out of Gorham, we struggled over the last of the Whites and spent one more night just within the AMC's grasp (luckily they let you get away with a few free shelters right at the end). The next morning we awoke eager with the knowledge that we were only a few miles from reaching the final leg of our journey - Maine. That long-fabled enigma of a state did in fact exist. And on top of that, our last mountain in New Hampshire was Mt. Success. What a morale boost! Mt. Success! How can you climb it and not feel accomplished?! And as we descended from that physical and mental high, all I could think was "Man, why am I not in Maine already?" Until finally we came across that little, blue, anticlimactic sign, marking our crossing into the home stretch.

In Maine we left the White Mts. and headed into the Mahoosuc Range, but this does not mean that the there was a reprieve from the extreme terrain. If anything, it was even crazier than what we'd experienced in NH. Alternating between scaling sheer, slippery rock faces on the acsent and slip-slide-falling down them on the descent, besides maneuvering across/around mud bogs that will eat your boots whole. We made it about five miles into the state before finally calling it an exhausting day. Plus, lying it wait for us at the bottom of the next mountain was Mahoosuc Notch, known as perhaps the most strenuous and difficult mile on the entire Appalachian Trail - basically a ravine covered with the biggest, baddest boulders, which must be climbed over, under, around, through, or however you can manage. We decided to stop, get a good night's rest, and tackle the demon in the morning on a beautiful day. Unfortunately, meteorology was against us. Sometime during the night the rain started and continued through the morning. Besides the fact that I hate hiking in the rain, I hate the thought of hiking the most arduous part of the entire 2176.2 miles in the rain. So what did we do? What do you think?

We packed up and headed down into the Notch of Doom. Well... at least to the beginning of it. Then we dumped our packs and went weightlessly rock-skipping around for a good 20 minutes or so, before we came back out, grabbed our stuff, and blue-blazed our way out to a road, like sane people. The road was an incredibly desolate gravel road, which eventually connected with a highway, according to our estimations of the map. However, we really had no idea exactly how far down the road we had to travel to get to the highway. Luckily, after a mile or two of walking, a lone car containing two very lost fishermen came to our rescue. With the combined efforts of our rudimentary orienteering and a GPS system we finally made it to pavement and our heroes dropped us in the tiny "town" (more like "building") of Upton. Turns out it would have been quite a long walk, indeed. Our ultimate destination was the slightly larger (but not much) town of Andover, which we discovered was about 15 miles down another remote byway. In fact, a woman who actually lived on the road described it as "desolate." Of course, we really had no other choice, so we got to steppin'. I'm not exactly sure how far we walked down that road, but it was a fair ways. Four cars passed us the whole time - three going in the opposite direction, and one that flew past, I'm pretty sure mocking us. It wasn't the highlight of the day, but where else were we gonna go? Finally, I caught sight of a Jeep pulling onto the road just ahead of us, and flagged him down with all the pathetic arm-flailing I could muster. The driver and his beagle, Baxter, had pity on us and thankfully whisked us away to Andover, where I began this incredibly rambling triology of blogness.

We spent the night in Andover at a quaint little guest house, with several other hikers, including the Gatlinburg kids from Gorham. Movies were watched, food was eaten - a good time all around. On the morrow, we did our hiker errands and once again walk/hitched out of town to a campsite near the trail. That night, as we sat marveling at the fact we were in our sleeping bags at 7pm, I heard the rustling of leaves and snapping of twigs nearby. Peeking outside the tent, I saw a huge bull moose - antlers and all - headed in our direction. It came withing about 20 ft. of our camp before noticing we were even there, upon discovering which, it merely turned around and lumbered back from whence it came. Unfortunately, we didn't get any pictures, due to the dwindling light, but hopefully there will be more sightings of this kind before the end.

Can I just stop for a moment here and comment on how baffled I am that I can write so much about these things? When did that happen?