1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
My aunt wakes us up at 3:00 am. We are driving up the Mt. Washington Auto Road for sunrise. The road opens for sunrise three times each summer; today, it will open at 4:30 am.
Groggily, my cousin Natalie and I wash up and roll into the car. My uncle drives us up the winding road in the pitch dark.
I’d been hoping for a clear day so my family can experience the beauty of Mt. Washington, and we completely luck out today. Mt. Washington - the peak that spends upwards of 300 day’s per year in a cloud - is nearly cloudless this morning.
And the sunrise? Absolutely worth it.
I watch as the rising sun illuminates the entire Presidential Range below.
I hiked across that! I think. It’s a strange feeling to be up here again, this time via car, experiencing the sunrise of a lifetime.
We spend some time in the snack bar - I’m impressed at the fact they’re even open this morning - before slowly driving down. My uncle stops every so often to cool his brakes, which regularly give off the odor of burning plastic.
Later, we head to Wildcat D Peak, where Natalie and I decide to zip line down. The zip line drops 2,100 feet and reaches speeds of 45 mph before abruptly stopping at the base of the mountain. Luckily, we are securely harnessed in, and after the initial shock of dropping past the gate, I enjoy the brief ride down.
We also take the gondola to the summit. Ski trails cover the mountainside. Across from us are Mt. Washington and the Presidentials; we can even make out the faint outline of the summit snack bar and cell tower.
Soon, I will climb this mountain properly, but for now, I settle back and enjoy my time with family.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The wind filters through the forest and whooshes overhead. All deciduous trees have long since disappeared from the surrounding landscape, leaving only the austere evergreens - the pine, spruce, and fir - their trunks straight and unyielding over a mat of moss and ferns. When I close my eyes, I can see myself back in the Roan Highlands, hiking through pine forests onto open balds, only to be blown over by unrelenting gusts of wind. Ahead, the trees become stunted, their trunks contorted in the alpine air. Tree line is near.
Breathe, I tell myself.
I am halfway up Mt. Madison, heading south over the Presidential Range. Yesterday, I decided to hike the Presidentials before covering the section from here to Monson. I'd had no time to think, no time to worry, before setting out. After speaking with the staff at Pinkham Notch, I headed next door to the Joe Dodge Lodge to book two bunks: one at Madison Spring Hut, one at Mizpah Hut.
There are no shelters in the Presidential Range. Rather, the trail passes through three huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). I will reach Madison Spring Hut first, then Lakes of the Clouds Hut, just south of Mt. Washington, and finally, Mizpah Hut. Thru-hikers can sometimes work-for-stay (complete chores in exchange for sleeping indoors) at the huts, but hut crews approve and deny such requests at their discretion. I chose to make reservations to ensure a spot at the huts.
The lady in charge of reservations looked up languidly from her phone call. "If you're looking for trail information, you'll want to go next door."
I told her I'd like to make reservations for Madison Spring Hut and Mizpah Hut.
She looked me up and down. "You are aware of the distance?"
"Yes." 11.8 miles between the huts. Hikers often said the Whites could halve your mileage. It would be a long day, but not an impossible one.
"Well, if you don't make it, and we do have room at Lakes, you might be able to exchange," she said.
I will make it, I'd thought fiercely.
Mom dropped me off at Pinkham Notch early in the morning, and I started hiking automatically, relying on my body to remember what to do before my brain registered the fact that I would be heading above tree line. By the time I fully woke up and paused to think about what I was doing, I was standing in the middle of a thicket of twisted krummholz, about to emerge onto 12 miles of exposed ridge.
And now, short of an emergency, the only way off the mountains is to go up and over the Presidential Range.
I take a step. Another. The trail is all rock, uneven and steep, bearing more resemblance to a pile of randomly strewn rubble than the dirt trails of the south.
And suddenly, the vast expanse of the White Mountains opens before me. Directly ahead lie the jagged peaks of the Presidential Range. Behind me, I can see the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Range. Franconia Ridge lies further south, behind the Presidentials.
I freeze. I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful.
Once I start climbing, my full concentration on the ground before me, the heights seem more tolerable. There are at least 9 false summits before I finally reach Mt. Madison. From the summit, I pick my way down towards Madison Spring Hut. The hut is only 0.5 miles away, but the rocks are treacherous. I spend much of my time sliding down on my bum.
How nice it is to enter the safety of the hut! I open the door to find myself in a dining room with two neat rows of tables and benches. One member of the hut crew stirs a huge pot of stew in the kitchen. A tray of baked goods for sale lies on the closest table, and a single rubber duck sits atop the check-in counter. After checking in, I pick a bunk. There are several bunk rooms, each with multiple compartments that contain two sets of three-story bunk beds. Each bed sports its own reading lamp.
More guests file in as the afternoon wears on. That night, we feast on salad, bread, broccoli, mac & cheese, and peppermint chocolate cake. As we wait for dessert, the four crew members introduce themselves.
"We pack out food twice a week," they say. "It takes 500 lbs to feed 300 guests."
Someone asks about the rubber duck.
"We learned about this from the summer crew, but apparently, one of the crew went to Lakes at night and put 420 rubber ducks in it."
Ever since, all the huts have been engaged in a rubber duck war; they send rubber ducks to other huts via hiker traffic, and the hut with the lowest number of rubber ducks wins.
I set out at dawn the next morning to give myself ample time to reach Mizpah Hut. Nearly my entire hike will be above tree line.
The sun rises directly behind Mt. Madison, casting its flaming light onto Mt. Adams. I gaze down into the gap between the peaks. Madison Spring Hut is a small white square against the looming black spectre of Mt. Madison. In the distance, lesser peaks emerge above a sea of fog. A wisp of cloud floats across the gap, like smoke illuminated by candlelight.
I circle around Mt. Adams and find the way ahead veiled in mist. The wind picks up, howling across the barren landscape, not strong enough to knock me off my feet, but enough to disconcert me.
I pass by a wooden post with a faded sign nailed to its top. Two other signs, dislodged by wind, lie stacked against its base. Stone cairns stick up like gravestones in the fog, marking the trail ahead. Time becomes measured in handholds, butt slides, unsteady footing, and seconds to the next step. Every mile stretches into eternity.
Hiking above tree line in the Presidential Range makes me acutely aware that nature is not to be trifled with. Not here, in this inhospitable - yet beautiful - landscape that man has not quite succeeded in taming. Here, where not even trees can thrive, I am a guest subject to the whims of Nature.
These mountains cannot be conquered, I realize. I can hike through them and enjoy them, but I am merely a guest, allowed to stay for a brief time. To be up here is to be face to face with my limitations: to conquer myself.
I make my way around Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Clay before beginning my ascent up Mt. Washington. The trail parallels the Cog Railway for a mile before the summit. I hear the train whistle, the steady chugging along the tracks, long before I see it. The train passes by, heading back down the mountain with a full load of passengers in back. A conductor stands out front. He waves as I stare at him. Numbly, I wave back. One by one, the passengers begin waving, too.
As I approach the summit of Mt. Washington, the wall of fog obscures everything but the rocks at my feet. I stop by the summit sign for a photo, then hurry into the snack bar to grab a bowl of clam chowder for lunch. Even in this weather, the place bustles with people. All the tables are full. I squeeze in next to Jim and Jim, a father and son duo.
"Are you a hiker?" the older Jim asks me.
"Yes," I say.
They'd ridden up the railway earlier that day - and gotten mooned by an AT hiker. "He just turned around and..." Jim mimes dropping his pants.
I struggle to keep from laughing. "Yes, that's an - unfortunate - thru-hiker tradition. The Cog Railway parallels the AT for about a mile, so I guess the temptation's there."
After all, thru-hikers have precious little in the way of everyday entertainment.
The wind blows at a steady 25-30 mph as I head down, with gusts up to 45 mph. After stopping at Lakes of the Clouds for a piece of cake, I move on towards Mt. Monroe, Mt. Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce. The trail circles around the first two peaks before summiting Mt. Pierce.
For the first time since sunrise, I find myself below the cloud layer, and the views are so breathtaking that I almost forget about the wind. Almost.
I stop often to take pictures. The wind is now so strong that my hands have trouble holding my phone steady. Each peak ahead looms over me. I find myself sighing with relief each time the trail bypasses a mountain. Just before reaching Mt. Pierce, the trail dips below tree line. Safe at last!
Atop Mt. Pierce, I look back towards the way I came. The trail is clearly visible: a line of rocks stretching all the way back to Mt. Washington. From here, I can see nearly half of the Presidential Range, though Mt. Washington remains hidden in the clouds.
One more steep descent, and I am at Mizpah Hut. Bruce, an AMC volunteer, checks me in. It is 5:00 pm, an hour before they serve dinner.
"Where did you come from?" he asks.
"Oh, so that's why you're late," he replies.
At dinner, I meet one other hiker who hiked from Madison Spring Hut. Several others didn't make it to Mizpah today.
"It's a shame, because they have to pay," Bruce notes.
The crew sets the tables. I sit near a couple of older section hikers named Debbie and Eddie.
"I'm a walker. I've always been a walker," Debbie tells me. "I like reaching goals. That's why I'd never do a thru-hike. There'd just be disappointment. I have other goals in life."
That's the challenge in life, isn't it? Setting huge goals and working towards them single-mindedly in the face of uncertain success: How difficult it is to embrace the possibility of failure! To take pride in one's accomplishments even if the goal is not reached! To toe the line between unbridled recklessness and overcautious fear!
I spend most of the next day sliding down cliffs on my bottom. With all the practice I've had lately, the not-so-subtle art of butt-sliding seems easier than before. The trail passes over two smaller peaks, Mt. Jackson and Mt. Webster, both below tree line, before heading straight down Webster Cliffs.
Northbound hikers stream by me. I gauge the difficulty of the upcoming terrain by looking at their faces. Towards the top of Mt. Webster, many of the hikers walk by wide-eyed and traumatized; as I reach the bottom of the rocky terrain, the hikers seem much more relaxed. Happy, even.
I run into Iron Man, whom I'd seen while hiking in Virginia and while doing trail magic in Connecticut, a couple miles from Crawford Notch. I'd told him about my intentions to flip-flop.
"You're doing the thing!" he says.
He tells me the terrain up ahead is much easier. Good, I think.
My cousin, aunt, and uncle pick me up from the trailhead on Route 302. After hoisting my pack into the trunk, I hop into their SUV and lean back into the seat, grateful and content.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The Chairback Mountains of the 100 Mile Wilderness are the closest I come to quitting the trail. As my terror over the rugged heights of Maine slowly fades over the next 24 hours, I review my fears.
There are the heights: the boulders of Katahdin, the rock slides of the Chairbacks, and the promise of worse to come. The threat of weather: I shudder to think of the wind knocking me off my feet on an exposed ridge. The sheer overwhelming realization that despite all the distance I’ve walked, nearly a thousand miles still remain.
I can still picture myself bouncing down a mountainside and into a valley.
Again, not how physics works, I tell myself.
I remind myself that I chose to be here to push myself to my mental and physical limits. There is joy and opportunity for growth in taking on a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, then conquering it, step by step. I made my decision to hike in a perfectly rational state of mind; my current fears are not rational, and I decide that I will not yield to them. Not today.
And so, I do not quit.
Instead, I look up videos of the terrain on the trail. Mt. Madison. Wildcat D. The Mahoosucs. My breath quickens just watching other people climb up precipitous rock scrambles, but I watch the videos over and over again, hoping that they will prepare me for the upcoming terrain.
I enjoy spending time with my family. Mom and I explore Bangor, ME before traveling to North Conway, NH. My cousin, aunt, and uncle rent a house for the week, and we join them there.
On a whim, I head to Pinkham Notch, one gateway to the Presidential Range in the White Mountains. The weather for the next few days looks beautiful.
“What is the weather in the Presidentials like in late September?” I ask one of the staff. Even as I speak, I know it’s an unreasonable question. The weather can turn on a dime; Mt. Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world. Snow can occur any month of the year.
He tells me there could be snow in September.
“I’m thru-hiking, and considering hiking the Presidentials now while the weather’s good,” I tell him.
“Well, you could always do them now, and if the weather’s good when you get here, you could do them again!”
I privately think there is little chance I will want to do the Presidentials twice, but I decide to hike up the Presidentials tomorrow, when the forecast looks good, rather than risk poor weather a month later.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
After staying at Katahdin Stream Campground, I leisurely stretch, eat, and watch Katahdin hikers head to the trailhead in the morning. I start hiking, enjoying the mossy woods of Maine, though after Katahdin, my legs tremble with fatigue at the slightest downhill.
2 miles in, I run into Perfect Storm and Nickel, two flip-flop thru-hikers. I sit beside them in a mossy clearing.
"15 months ago, I weighed 350 lbs," Perfect Storm tells me. "I wasn't always heavy...after I got married, I just started eating my emotions."
She wears a hiking skirt, and looks healthy enough now. She'd started in February.
I ask Nickel how he got his trail name.
"When I hiked in 2013, I got all my gear from Walmart. I wasn't sure if I'd like this hiking thing, so I nickeled-and-dimed it."
The morning continues pleasantly. Then, the trail runs past a series of swamps, and I get swarmed by mosquitoes.
I quickly learn why the mosquito is the unofficial state bird of Maine. The insect repellent I wear is completely ineffective. These mosquitoes bite through my leggings and seek out every inch of unprotected flesh. Every few seconds, I look down to find multiple mosquitoes latched onto my legs, their stomachs distended with my blood. I blindly slap at them with my hands, and each time, my hand comes away with a dead mosquito in my palm. At times, 5-10 mosquitoes hover around the same tiny spot of skin.
By the end of the day, I count at least 60 bites, not counting the ones I cannot see, or the multiple bites in the same place. My legs become swollen, lumpy, red logs. I struggle in vain to avoid scratching them.
The mosquitoes let up slightly as I approach Nesowadnehunk Stream, where I find a bright orange rope blocking the trail. 4 rangers have cut the existing wood bridge in two, so that both halves are slanted sideways, held up by carabiners and ropes attached to nearby trees.
"Excuse me! Is there an alternate route up?" I call out.
One ranger looks over. He's perched on one end of the bridge, an orange hard hat on his head.
"No!" he calls back. He pauses, considering. "You can cross. At the moment, it's still safe."
I walk onto half of the bridge. "Are you sure?!"
"Yeah. It just seems dicey."
I make it across the slanted, halved bridge without incident . Once across, I run into another ranger, who's collecting yellow check-in slips. I hand him mine.
"You're probably the last person to cross that bridge," he tells me.
That afternoon, I snag the last spot at Abol Pines Campsite. The large group of girls I saw on Katahdin comes by an hour later. I offer to share the site: there's plenty of room.
Their leaders introduce themselves as Reese and Sarah, head of a girls' backpacking camp. They'd already hiked 80 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness, and would be returning home the next day. The girls immediately start on their chores. Some collect water, some chop vegetables, and others cook dinner. It's like watching finely tuned clockwork.
They even invite me to dinner! Cheesy baked beans and rice with fresh onions, and blueberry pie crust for dessert! Delicious!
Most of the girls have trail names, and they chatter excitedly, telling me about themselves and asking me about the trail.
When I wake, I find a local man walking by our campsite.
"Are the mosquitoes always this bad?" I ask him, already scratching at several new bites for the day.
He shrugs. "You get used to them." A pause. "I have something for you."
He produces a small bottle of 100% DEET repellent from his fishing case. "Be careful with that. I've had it burn holes in my bags when it spilled."
I spritz the repellent onto my arms and legs, then stash the bottle in a ziplock bag in the outermost pocket of my pack. If it leaks, it should be safe there. The mosquitoes seem to let up slightly: They still hover near me, but no longer dive in for the bite.
Thunderstorms roll through early in the day. I awkwardly put my poncho onto my pack, hoist the pack up, and pull the poncho over my head. As I walk, I hold the front of the poncho out in front of me to catch the rain and protect my boots from soaking through. Every minute or so, I flip the poncho to one side, letting inches of collected rain spatter onto the ground.
Mt. Katahdin rises sharply from the surrounding landscape, visible from many viewpoints deep within the 100 Mile Wilderness. One of these viewpoints is on Nesuntabunt Mountain, a nondescript little bump on my profile map.
When I trek out onto the short side trail to view Katahdin, I find that I am not alone. Another man sits there, checking his phone as he takes in the view.
"My cousin died," he says conversationally, reading his texts.
"Sorry to hear that," I tell him, somewhat startled.
"He was ridiculously handsome," the man muses. "Growing up with him, he was one of those guys who'd walk down the street and be surrounded by girls...He was gay."
He doesn’t seem outwardly upset. As I turn to go, I leave him an orange I’d gotten from dayhikers earlier in the day.
White House Landing is the only hostel - indeed, one of the only signs of civilization - in the 100 Mile Wilderness. A series of cabins located on the shores of Pemadumcook Lake, White House Landing is reached via boat. At midday, I follow a side trail to Mahar Landing, where I find a simple wooden dock and a handheld radio. I call the hostel.
20 minutes later, I am speeding across the lake in a small, motorized boat captained by Bill, the owner of the hostel.
Rain showers pass overhead as I join a group of 3 hikers at a picnic table in front of the main cabin, which contains the kitchen, dining room, and store. Purple Crayon, a dark-haired restaurateur out to join his son for four days, has just called for a seaplane to fly him to the airport.
"Wait -- there's actually a plane that's going to land here?! In the lake?" I ask.
Apparently so. Purple Crayon expects the plane to arrive once the rain showers clear.
"I asked my friend - he's a pilot - if he could land his plane in the lake," one of the other hikers notes. "He said, 'Yeah. Once.'"
The other two hikers are northbound: Plow is a thru-hiker, lean with pepper gray hair, and Hoot is a section hiker, tall, thin and thoughtful in his bright red shirt. Both just hiked through the White Mountains and Southern Maine, arguably the toughest areas of the Appalachian Trail.
"How were the Whites?" I ask them.
Plow and Hoot exchange a look. "That depends," Hoot says seriously. "Do you have a death wish?"
A couple hours later, the clouds part, and we hear a plane whirring above. It's a small aircraft, with what looks like skis in place of wheels. The plane circles around once, then heads straight for the lake. Hoot and Plow rise to get a better look while Purple Crayon hoists his pack onto his shoulders, and despite myself, I find myself running down to the shore, iPhone in hand, snapping shot after shot of the plane as it lands. Hoot smiles as he catches sight of me grinning ear to ear. I feel like a girl in elementary school again, learning something new and exciting for the first time.
That night, I split a pizza with Hoot and Plow. Hoot pushes the last couple slices towards me. "If you're a real hiker, you'll finish that."
After breakfasting on fresh eggs and pancakes, Hoot, Plow, and I walk out to the dock and lift our packs into the waiting boat. The engine putters as Bill starts the boat to shuttle us back across the lake.
I settle down at Antlers Campsite for an hour-long lunch of goldfish crackers. To cut down on my pack weight, I decided to go stoveless for the 100 Mile Wilderness. As a result, all my food consists of light, high-calorie, processed snacks: lots of crackers, cereal, cold ramen, and cold mashed potatoes, none of which are in the least bit appetizing.
A group of four middle-aged men stop by, laughing and telling tales from their section hikes. One introduces himself as Doily Boy.
"How'd you get that name?" I ask.
He digs in his pack for a second and holds up a doily.
"It stuck to his velcro from the hotel, and he didn't even notice," one of the other guys says.
Later in the day, I run into dayhikers Sean and Gigi, who've carried in a wicker basket full of bread and sandwiches as trail magic. I stop by to chat and enjoy a sandwich.
"My grandfather used to own cabins down here," Sean tells me. He unfolds a map and points. "He'd pick them up from the train station, take them to the boat, portage them across" - he traces his finger across a lake - "and get here."
At night, I share the shelter with Timex, a clean-shaven, neatly dressed man with an interest in trip planning. He echoes what other hikers told me about southern Maine and New Hampshire. "Southern Maine was worse than the Whites," he says. "I hiked with a group of NOBOs who did 15-20 through the Whites, but took 10 days to do 110 miles in Southern Maine."
The 100 Mile Wilderness stays relatively tame until its southern 30 miles, where I must traverse over the Whitecap and Chairback mountain ranges. I reach Logan Brook Lean-to, halfway up Whitecap Mountain, in the afternoon, and decide to stay there to wait out an incoming storm. A northbound hiker, Megaphone, stops by for a snack.
"I'm just ready to be done," he tells me.
"Well, the terrain for you is going to be really flat - flat, flat - from here to Katahdin," I say.
"I wish I had good news for you," he says. "But from here on out, every day is just gonna get harder and harder for you, until you get to a certain point in the Whites, and then it'll get very, very gradually easier."
I swallow my dread. From what other northbound hikers have said, the Whitecap Range is easier than the Chairbacks; the Chairbacks will be my first taste of southern Maine.
Half the battle is mental, I remind myself. Take it day by day.
2,189.8 miles. Day by day, I chip away at this goal. I begin recording the miles I have left, down to the nearest tenth, at the end of each day, just to prove to myself that I'm making progress. Just like any big goal in life, I think. Keep moving forward.
I meet another flip-flop hiker at Logan Brook Lean-to: Wandering Star. She is a former thru-hiker, rail thin, with short white hair and a British accent. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes is carefully packed in her fanny pack.
"We were up on Whitecap in October," she says, "and had a whiteout. We couldn't see. Finally, I said, 'Let's set up our tents right here.'
"We got into our sleeping bags to warm up. Next morning, I made double oatmeal for Lucky Star.
"'For me?' she said.
"I knew that if we were ever going to get off this mountain, she was our best shot."
"And you still came back?!" I ask.
"Oh, I love it," she says.
I get lovely views of fog on the Whitecap Range. At least the terrain is tolerable, with many rock steps. The Chairbacks, though, nearly beat the fight out of me.
Ready to quit, I write in my journal. 13.5 miles. 6:11 am - 7:21 pm. Rock scrambles. Terrifying. Too tired to write. Or eat dinner. No water.
I face long stretches of steep, rocky terrain for the whole day. Not long after dawn, I find myself staring down a wall of medium-sized boulders: a rock slide up to the summit of Chairback Mountain. All day, I venture up and down ledges laced with roots and loose gravel. On each ledge, I can envision myself falling and bouncing off the face of the mountain.
Physics doesn't work like that, I tell myself, to no effect.
I remember, despairingly, Megaphone's warning that the trail just gets worse from here. As I carefully pick my way up the deceptively small bump on my map that is Chairback Fourth Mountain, I find that I have a phone signal. I call home, unable to keep panic from creeping into my voice. I never anticipated the steepness, the ruggedness, of Maine. I knew the trail would be rocky at times, but the boulders, the long slabs of slippery slate and granite along cliff edges - these shake me to my core. My brain exaggerates the distance and consequences of every fall, so that every step feels like a deadly move.
Fear does not act rationally. My fear clouds every shred of reason from my thoughts as stress floods my veins with cortisol. It's hard to breathe. Hard to eat. Hard to move.
And so, I ask Mom to meet me the next day, a few days earlier than planned. We will travel to New Hampshire the next week: My aunt, uncle, and cousin are visiting the White Mountains, and we plan to meet them.
At night, I lay out my sleeping bag and crawl in without bothering to eat dinner. One more night and one more day, I think. Perhaps my last day and night on trail, if I quit. Even in my fear-addled state, I feel a pang of regret. Ah, well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
August 8, 2017. Mom carefully packs me a sushi dinner and drops me off at the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, ME. Tomorrow, I will summit Katahdin and continue my thru-hike, making my way back to Clark's Mountain Road, PA.
The bunk room seems stuffy with the smell of unwashed hikers' laundry. I am a bundle of nerves. My hands tremble just thinking about hiking above tree line. My mind races endlessly with potentially fatal mistakes: a slip, a fall, a bolt of lightning --
I am scared. No, terrified. Scared my feet will fall apart. Terrified of the terrain. The weather. The heights.
The heights. I once read that most people fear falling, not heights. I'm not convinced there is a difference for me: I am afraid that I-will-fall-and-the-height-of-the-fall-will-kill-me.
That night, I manage to eat only four pieces of sushi. The sounds of Millinocket rise through my windowsill. Lovers quarreling. Cars screeching. A man walking drunkenly down the road, singing loudly to himself. In the end, I fall asleep to the rhythmic pounding of my heart.
August 9, 2017. I get into the Baxter State Park shuttle in a daze. There are five hikers heading into the park to summit today. Josh, our driver, asks if anyone has a camping pass. I hand him my Katahdin Stream Campground reservation.
By the time we get to the park, a 0.5 mile long line of cars awaits. Josh pulls out of the line and drives up the narrow gravel road, bypassing the other cars.
"Is that the no-pass line?" he asks another driver.
It is not.
With no room to turn around, he attempts to squeeze in front of a truck.
"Do you mind if we get in here?" one of the hikers asks.
"F--- yeah!" the driver shouts.
"We've got a reservation."
"So does everybody in this line!"
"I'm sorry," Josh yells, rolling down his window. "I feel like a dick for doing this. I thought this was the no-pass line."
The driver relents, and we get to the ranger station by 7:30 am.
I check in, leave my pack in the waiting area, and grab a daypack from a box. The daypacks reek from the sweat of hundreds -maybe thousands - of thru-hikers, but I'd rather carry a daypack than my full pack up Katahdin.
8:00 am. I begin hiking up the 5.2 mile Hunt Trail, which the Appalachian Trail overlaps on Katahdin. I race through the first mile, which consists of flat, forested dirt paths. The terrain becomes rockier, but not overly outrageous, in the second mile. I complete the first two miles in less than an hour.
Then, I reach tree line.
Huge boulders face me. I scramble up, using my hands, knees, elbows, and bum to lift myself. The rocks seem endless. An iron rung is drilled into one boulder. I haul myself up onto a cliff maybe 2-3 feet wide. I move slowly, my heart beating furiously as I contemplate the view below.
This is NOT fun, I think.
I cross paths with a family of four: Phil, a middle-aged man with curly hair, glasses, and a single walking stick, David, his son, tall and athletic with brown hair, Anne, a fit middle-aged woman with a bright pink jacket, and Emma, her daughter, who wears her hair in a bun.
The trail runs straight up a 4-foot boulder. A 5-inch piece of iron is drilled into the stone, maybe 3 feet off the ground. I reach up, trying and failing to find a handhold. I can see one a few inches out of my reach. David scampers up and offers his hand.
"Thanks," I say.
He helps the rest of his family up. They continue on.
As I climb, the sky darkens. A steady drizzle begins. To my right is a peak - what looks like the summit. I can see a mile of the rock path up the mountain and the bright dots of dayhikers' jackets as they stream up and down the path. Then, a sheath of fog rolls in, obscuring my view.
More and more people begin turning back as the rain continues. I pass a large group of girls, all around 10-12, putting on their rain jackets as their leaders tell them it's time to abort their summit attempt. I look behind me and watch the last bright colored jacket disappear into the fog.
Suddenly, I am alone on the trail.
I waver for a moment, wondering whether I, too, should head back.
You didn't come this far to turn back, a voice in the back of my head says. Besides, the weather report didn't mention thunderstorms.
So, I keep going, step by shaky step, trying to ignore the uncomfortably high terrain.
Maybe it's a good thing there's fog. At least I can't see too far down, I think.
I make my way up the peak. The terrain here is still rocky, but the boulders are considerably smaller.
The peak is a false summit. My GPS states that I still have 1.8 miles to go.
I find Phil, David, Anne, and Emma huddled against a boulder just over the peak.
"Is there any chance I could join you guys?" I ask. At this point, visibility is perhaps 20 ft, and I am half convinced I will die up here in a storm.
"Sure!" Anne says. "You don't have to do this alone."
So, we push on together. Upwards to the Gateway, then the Tablelands, where the trail finally levels off.
The wind whips through our jackets. The air is damp and misty. The land seems barren and desolate.
This place is not meant for man, I think.
"Not the best day to do that monkey bar, hanging off a cliff, fearing for your life thing," Phil remarks.
At 12:40 pm, we summit Katahdin. I climb onto the sign for the iconic picture, joy and terror vying within me.
We descend via the Abol Trail, a trail so steep that for a couple miles, I can look back and see the peak straight above me. The trail follows the path of an old rock slide: a gray scar against the green mountainside. I inch my way down, often turning around to lower myself, or sliding down the vertical drops on my butt.
Somehow, I manage not to fall - not on the Hunt Trail, nor the vertical part of the Abol Trail - until we reach flatter terrain and I go off to take a bathroom break. On the way back, my feet slip out from under me, and I land flat on my back.
The Abol Trail emerges into a road 2 miles from Katahdin Stream Campground. A ranger drives past us in a truck as we begin our road walk. Anne nudges Phil.
Phil flags the truck down.
"You had a question?" the ranger, an older lady, says.
"So...is the, uh, shuttle back to the Katahdin Stream Campground running?"
The ranger laughs and agrees to give us a lift back to the campground. We arrive at 6:00 pm.
That evening, I listen to a ranger deliver a talk on all the fatalities that occurred in Baxter State Park, feeling rather glad to have safely summited Katahdin, and especially grateful for the family's company.
*Labeled from July 3, 2017, day 95, for simplicity