10/9 Katahdin

November 22, 2013 at 3:23 pm

IMG_20131009_093025_227This is the hardest post to write.  I am not the first hiker to say that it felt like waking up to Christmas morning today.  As our sleepy minds thawed, we listened to the little stirrings all around us.  The sounds of camp and familiar voices filtered through our dream haze and woke us up with a feeling of excitement brimming over into nostalgia.  Already, we realized, we were at the end of a long journey;  An ending that we had silently hoped for on hundreds of occasions, that we had begged and pleaded each mountain range to bring us to.  Now our steps felt too hasty.  No more groveling on rock slabs or wriggling into sticky wet shirts in the frozen morning air.  But also, no more birdsong to act as our alarm clock.  No more sunsets that catch our eye through a sudden tree break to steal a quiet place in our minds.  No more of the camaraderie that comes with risking your life in foolish, voluntary ways that seem at the time to be completely involuntary.  IMG_20131009_092812_760And no more fighting to accomplish something so much larger than ourselves that leaves us, at the end of the day, feeling at peace.  We sat on the sleeping platform, cocooned in our sleeping bags and hesitant to begin the end.

Of course, surrounded by eager rustling and boisterous good mornings, our reverie couldn’t last long.  Everyone put their thoughts about the end to the side and began the act of embracing our last morning together with exuberance, wild abandon, and occasionally total shock or denial.  The picnic table in front of our lean-to looked like the ping pong table at a frat house. IMG_20131009_094148_326It was simply covered in empty alcohol bottles and pop tarts, and surrounded by a grubby horde of hairy men looking with reproach at the former while they devoured the latter.  Fortunately, after spending an entire summer cultivating digestive systems that could handle almost anything from Velveeta cheese to Giardia, none of us were too phased by the after-effects of celebratory imbibing. We deposited our backpacks trustingly at the ranger station and grabbed day packs covered with cheeze-it dust and sweat before heading up with only our essentials.

We had talked about going over the knife’s edge, but with family coming this afternoon to pick us up, the logistics aren’t in our favor.  Also, we realized that we’re done hiking.  Yes, it is a lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to and yes, we will be forlornly missing it and probably doing a good amount of winter hiking once the shock of returning to reality fades, but we can both agree that right now we are ready to go home.

IMG_20131009_095730_530The journey up was a festive one.  We passed ‘The last outhouse on the trail’ with only a few nervous drop-outs and for the most part stuck together in a giant clump until we reached the climbing portion of our ascent, where we discovered this had been a bad idea.  Climbing up was now a lengthy process where we crawled up each new rock section one at a time while a large group hooted and hollered and offered suggestions behind the climber.  It was actually a lot of fun, but did serve to slow us down a lot.  Those of us who might have been frustrated by that prospect, however, realized quickly that it didn’t matter anymore.  This was our last day together, and we felt like a band of dirty children sliding, climbing, and laughing our way to the top.

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We had briefly considered trying to hike at sunrise and see the first rays from the tablelands, like so many romantics before us have done.  Instead we were heading up in the mid-morning sun, facing everything in the daylight with a group of travellers who had become our friends.  This was so much better. We crossed the tablelands, which had a post-apocalyptic kind of barrenness and apparently hosted some very rare species of unassuming plants.

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IMG_20131009_104646_061We heard the top before we saw it.  With such stunning weather today, there was quite a crowd on the top.  Shortly after we heard the whooping and yelling, we saw the apex, covered almost comically with a massive crowd of little ant people.  Giving the impression of a full pincushion, it looked like something out of Doctor Seuss.  To end our trip here, in a 5000 foot high crowd, seemed impossibly silly.  We laughed and walked the last steps to the top.

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The crowd parted as we reached the fabled sign, weathered and well polished by grateful hikers.  Everyone began yelling, “Touch the sign!  Touch it!”  Holding hands, we each reached out and touched the sign we had walked almost 2,200 miles to reach.

Then we celebrated.

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We made it!  We could tell you about the hike down, and how we got picked up by Mark’s father and sister who selflessly drove about ten hours on a weekday to pick us up.  We could write more about how Mark tried another eating competition but was unable, after already eating a foot-long sub for dinner, to finish his eleven scoops of icecream.  Or we could talk about sitting in the cafe in Millinocket that night and watching the familiar faces all around us that were soon to become strangers again; how hard it was to say goodbye to the amazing people we met on the trip, and how hard we shut our eyes the next day when morning came and we woke up alone, surrounded by walls.  I could write about the beginning that grew out of the end of our trip, and how we are re-starting life with the small, humble, understanding that none of us change as we move through life, but rather practice how to live it.  But all of that belongs in another post for another adventure.  For now, we are done following white blazes.

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