AT 2017: Day 162, Poplar Ridge Lean-to to South Branch Carrabassett River

You can't let go and you can't hold on

When I left Poplar Ridge Lean-to, sunlight was splintered by trees as it pierced the thick morning air. Light glistened where it caught droplets of water clinging to the needles of spruce trees.

This scene was nothing like the dramatic vistas I have viewed from mountain tops, but to me, it was far more beautiful.

Walking through the cool air of the peaceful forest was just one more reminder among many of why I was hiking this long hike.

DateTuesday, September 19, 2017
WeatherCloudy, changing to partly cloudy, with a high temperature in the low 70s
Trail ConditionsMany rocks and roots, and one extremely steep descent
Today's Miles13.1
Trip Miles1974.0

I reveled in this tranquil moment, turning off my brain of extraneous thoughts, and just walked. I absorbed the air, the sun and the light scent of spruce trees.

When I finally engaged my brain to think again, I began to think about Geraldine “Gerry” Largay, who was known by her trail name, Inchworm.

When she left Poplar Ridge Lean-to in July 2013 and walked this same section of trail, Inchworm thought she would soon meet up with her husband, who was waiting for her at a road crossing.

The 66-year-old hiker had already walked 900 miles by this point in her hike. She was walking what’s often called a flip-flop. She started in Harpers Ferry and planned to continue south from there after she reached Mt. Katahdin.

But Inchworm never reached Katahdin. She never even reached her husband. Somewhere along the same trail I was walking, she went off trail for privacy to take care of bodily functions and got lost.

The forest is thick in this part of the trail. The terrain is extremely rugged. Even on the trail, it’s difficult to walk in the tangle of roots that cover steep ups and downs.

When Inchworm discovered she couldn’t find the trail, she might have panicked, but maybe she didn’t. Though she didn’t have a lot of outdoor experience, she was trained as a nurse.

All we know is that she attempted to send a text message to her husband. When she was unable to get a useable cellphone signal she climbed a hill, hoping a better signal could be found there. None of her messages ever reached anyone.

Her husband became alarmed when she didn’t arrive at the road crossing, and before long he alerted authorities. A large search effort was organized, which eventually included family members, hikers, game wardens, airplanes, helicopters, and even U.S. Navy personnel. This part of the trail passed land owned by the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School.

None of the searchers ever found inchworm.

Investigators say she survived at least 19 days on the knob where she had set up her tent. It wasn’t until two years later when her remains, her green backpack, tent and other gear were discovered. They were found about 2,300 feet from the trail, a chance discovery made by two surveyors who just happened to be in the area.

A much happier moment happened to me as I walked this section of trail. I was surprised to run into Jeff and Skittles. After meeting them at Sam’s Gap in Tennessee, we hiked more or less together for another five days, but I hadn’t seen them since.

They were slackpacking and walking southbound today. We had a nice chat, but then had to depart to continue hiking.

The trail continued a descent to Orbeton Stream, then began another rugged climb, this time up Lone Mountain. The summit was completely covered in thick trees, so there wasn’t a view from there.

A little more than two miles beyond the summit was Spaulding Mountain Lean-to. Tengo and Stick had been there for a while and left shortly after I arrived. I stayed at the shelter to collect water and eat lunch.

The trail then took me up Spaulding Mountain, but didn’t cross the summit. The forest through this section of the trail was extremely dense with small trees.

A short side trail led to the Spaulding’s peak, but I decided to skip it to make up some time I had lost talking to Jeff and Skittles.

Another eight tenths of a mile farther I reached a bronze marker attached to a large boulder. It was put there in 1987 to honor the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who were so integral in constructing the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s. This particular spot was selected for the marker because it’s where the final missing link of trail was finished to complete its full distance. At that time, the trail was 2,054 miles long.

By coincidence, the marker was located, according to 2017 mileage, exactly 200 miles from Mt. Katahdin. For once, I didn’t feel regret that I had another 19.2 miles beyond that to complete my hike. By now I had accepted the extra miles were part of my hike and it wasn’t done until they were done.

The trail remained rugged but pretty, even without views.

Before starting the day, Stick, Tengo and I had decided to push ourselves a little more, with a plan to hike 13.1 miles.

I knew the trail ahead would become more difficult because the trail profile showed it would make a steep drop to the river. Nevertheless, I didn’t think reaching our planned campsite near the Carrabassett River before dark would be a problem. I had no idea how wrong I was.

The next 2.6 miles were not bad, and I covered that distance in under an hour and a half. By this time I had reached the rim of the valley, and though I couldn’t yet see the river, I knew it wasn’t far away.

The next mile of trail turned out to be much more challenging than I expected, though admittedly, I made it more difficult than it needed to be.

As with any steep descent, I took this one slowly to help prevent a fall and injury. The trail had a couple of confusing turns, made difficult not just by the steepness of the descent, but also by large boulders and thick vegetation. More troubling, the sun was now sinking below the mountain that stood on the other side of the river.

At one spot I missed where the trail went to the left around a giant boulder. If there was a white blaze to point the direction, I failed to see it in the fading light.

I took a right turn around the boulder and came upon a narrow ledge. There was a 20-foot drop from the side, with jagged rocks at the bottom.

The ledge extended around the boulder, with just barely enough room for a human to walk. By that, I mean there was no room at all unless I did everything I could to hug the boulder and make sure my body weight was balanced above my feet, not extended over the ledge.

I couldn’t believe this was the right way, but I also knew in the last several months the trail had already passed over some crazy spots that at first didn’t seem humanly possible to cross.

The ledge became so narrow, and the boulder provided so few places to grasp, I was uncertain what to do. I hadn’t fallen yet, so keep moving? Back up over the same narrow part I just walked?

I couldn’t see ahead to know for sure that was the best way to go, but I decided to go ahead anyway. I continued to inch my way slowly along the ledge as the sky became darker and darker. This was the slowest, most treacherous 40 or 50 feet I have ever walked.

Once I finally got around the boulder and onto wider ground, I saw a white blaze intended for southbound hikers, which pointed a direction around the other, safer side of the boulder.

My feelings of relief overcame the shock I was feeling earlier for being in that perilous situation. Still, the danger wasn’t completely over. I was still only about halfway down to the river, and now darkness was setting in, as was a thick fog. I stopped and put on my headlamp.

Once I reached the river, I had to pause a couple minutes to sort out the best way to rock hop across it.

Then after making my way to the other side of the river, I saw a small campsite and walked to it. Another hiker was camped there, but not Stick and Tengo. He told me he thought a couple hikers were camped just up the trail, so I continued on.

I finally reached the campsite at 7:30 p.m., about 30 minutes after dark. Tengo and Stick were just finishing dinner when I arrived. They saved me a nice, flat spot for my tent.

Even after walking nearly 2,000 miles, this trail continues to surprise, challenge and delight me. Occasionally, it makes me question why I’m doing this hike, yet I continue to do it anyway.

Somehow the trail finds a way each day to remind me why I am here.

The wheel is turning and you can't slow down
You can't let go and you can't hold on
You can't go back and you can't stand still
If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will

From “The Wheel” by Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.