When I thought of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail — which I often did for more than 15 years — I never thought of my hike ending as it did today.
But how could I have thought that? In my mind, there had always been only one way to finish a thru-hike and that was by standing on top of Mt. Katahdin.
I know there are other ways to thru-hike. Many hikers who have finished at Springer Mountain will tell you that’s the better way to go. The weather is better going south and the trail is generally less crowded.
|Date||Sunday, October 8, 2017|
|Weather||Overcast with brief sprinkles, then clearing to partly sunny|
|Trail Conditions||Rugged with a couple steep descents on slippery rocks|
I gave up my chance to finish triumphantly, as most NOBO thru-hikers do, with fists raised standing atop the sign at Mt. Katahdin’s summit. In exchange, I gained experiences I could never have expected in all the times I dreamed of how my hike would end.
I was able to keep hiking with Stick in the Woods, and I gained a new hiking partner, Tengo Hambre. These two men provided a constant reason to laugh each day. They were also good people to have on the trail to watch my back. Nothing bad happened on the trail in Maine, but if it had I knew I could trust them to come to my aid.
The other thing I gained when I decided to end my hike with 21.2 miles in the White Mountains was the opportunity to finish with my family. This was a finish I could not have scripted, even if I spent all of those years of planning for my hike focused only on this day.
When Landon and I woke up and prepared to return to the trail, the sun was not yet up. We had no problem seeing, though, because the moon was shining brightly.
Rain began to fall as we went over South Carter Mountain. I had dreaded this might happen, as I knew wet rocks would make the descents treacherous. I was anxious to reach the end and didn’t want anything to slow me down.
The rocks would have slowed me down well enough without the added slipperiness. There were several places where one step to the next was far greater than a normal stride. Trekking poles weren’t enough to stay steady on these descents. I sometimes had to use roots or tree limbs as handrails down this sketchy trail.
Some of these descents have been likened to a free fall without a parachute.
Adding to the difficulty, there were times when we would come to a trail junction and have to spend time figuring out which direction to go. The Appalachian Mountain Club had posted signs that identified trail names, but didn’t say which one was also the Appalachian Trail.
I had seen this happen in other places in the White Mountains, and unfortunately, sometime hikers had written or scratched in “AT” into the sign out of frustration.
I know that local hikers and day hikers use the other trail names, but they are meaningless to hikers walking from Georgia to Maine or vice versa.
Eventually, as we continued over North Carter Mountain and Mt. Moriah, the weather slowly began to clear. Views opened up when we passed rock ledges. At one view point, I could see all the way to Gorham.
As we were about to begin our last descent, I texted Kim to let her know about our progress. I thought we could reach Rattle River Shelter by 4 p.m. This turned out to be an over-optimistic prediction.
Though the trail was less steep after Mt. Moriah, it was covered in wet leaves. Walking our way down the mountain was like walking on a Slip’N Slide, which added time to our descent to the shelter.
At last, Landon and I were reunited with Kim and Logan at about 5 p.m. Kim and Logan had waited for nearly two hours for us to reach the shelter, but they didn’t complain.
The walk from the shelter down to U.S. Highway 2 was just under two miles and was extremely easy. We were excited, but few words were spoken.
Once we got to the highway, I still wasn’t quite done with my hike. There was still about one tenth of a mile to walk from a hiker parking lot at the highway to Rattle River Hostel. Until I reached the hostel, my hike would not be complete.
Kim and I walked silently together, hand in hand. This was the way my hike should have ended. She had been with me the entire time, not physically on the trail, but always supporting and encouraging me. I could not have done it without her.
When we got to the hostel, we still didn’t have many words to say. Everyone was happy, of course, and they said congratulations to me. All I could say in return was “Thank you.”
Instead of whooping and hollering, as might have happened on Mt. Katahdin, we were reflective and quiet. There weren’t many words to be said that could express the relief of completing my hike, nor the gratitude for doing it with my family’s support.
Then Kim reached into her daypack and pulled out a t-shirt. A friend back home had given it to her to pass along to me when I finished. It put a fitting, final word on this long journey.
And so today, my world it smiles
Your hand in mine, we walk the miles
Thanks to you it will be done
For you to me are the only one
Happiness, no more be sad
Happiness, I'm glad
If the sun refused to shine
From “Thank You” by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)
I would still be loving you
When mountains crumble to the sea
There will still be you and me