My journey started out difficultly. My car was broken into and my keys stolen the day before I was set to leave, just before that my travel plans changed and I had to do a last minute scramble to figure out how to even get to Maine to start my hike. Once I was finally on my way delays and layovers caused me to miss my bus from Bangor into Medway. I had my very first experience with trail angels before I even made it out to the trail when my cab driver from the Bangor airport took pity on me and gave me a place to stay. Medway is a good 1 1/2 hrs from Bangor yet the next day he also gave me a ride there. He said he was heading into Lincoln (the town before Medway) anyway and that it wasn’t an issue. He ended up saving me at least $200 by doing that. I also got to spend some time in a pretty cool little town, found my trekking poles, went to an open mic night, and drove by Stephen Kings house, none of which would have happened had my plans worked the way they were supposed to. If he isn’t what one would consider a trail angel, then I don’t know what one would.
I ended up having to change my reservations at both the lodge in Millinocket that I was staying at and the camp ground in Baxter State Park where I would spend my first night, but fortunately everyone was really great about it. I even got upgraded from a tent site to a lean to simply because they didn’t have any available for the next night. Staying at the Appalachian Trail Lodge was pretty amazing and everyone that worked there was awesome. I wish that I hadn’t needed to learn the lesson of listening to people when they give me advice still because I was given a lot that would have made the first part of my trip a lot more enjoyable and bearable than it was had I taken it. But that is another story.
The day that we summited Katahdin (Friday June 13) there were 7 other people that went with me from AT Lodge. We dropped our packs at the Ranger station, grabbed day packs for the climb, then set off. When we reached the base of the trail I realized that I had forgotten a couple of things and went back to get them and so started later than everyone else. It wasn’t a great day to be hiking, but there aren’t always going to be great days on the AT and it’s all part of the journey, right? It was about 55 and raining so I didn’t have high hopes for when we reached the top about being able to see anything. I didn’t really appreciate what a 4,000′ elevation change in 5 miles was but I can tell you that it is steep. I think that climbing Katahdin, and it was a climb, was one of the hardest things that I have ever done in my life to that point. I was completely unprepared for it. Aside from the rain at least half of the hike was up a stream. Literally. The path took you up the center of a stream. Now I don’t know if it was really supposed to be a stream or if it was overflow from Katahdin stream because of the rain, but our feet were not dry. The path was also more vertical than horizontal in most parts with rocks that you had to climb over. I ended up running into Holly and Beau at one point still below tree line and I got my original trail name from that meeting when I relived her of a cramping foot by massaging her calf. I was henceforth known as Magic Hands. We decided to stick together and finish the climb together. It was a good thing that we did because I do not believe that any of us would have finished the climb had we not been with other people. As bad as the hiking up a vertical stream was, the climbing once we were out of the tree line was worse.
After you leave the tree line on the Hunt Trail (what that part of the AT is called) you have to climb over boulders. Some of it is pretty scary because you are now 3,000′ in the air and are climbing vertically over boulders with no support. Once you get past the boulders you still have another 2 miles and 1,500′ (approximately) that you have to climb. The next part after the boulders is rock face. That was even scarier. At least for me it was. As we were ascending I could only think about how horrible the decent was going to be. At least going up our backs were to the open air behind us so we had no real concept of our height. Going down however we would not be so lucky. At least it had stopped raining. When you get to the top of the rock face there is a sign and a false summit (there are always false summits on the mountains I have learned). You are not at the top you are at the Katahdin Table. That wasn’t so bad, though we again had to hike up a stream (this time entirely intentional) so as to not damage the fragile ecology of the Katahdin Table. At one point 3 paths intersect and there is a sign the denotes the stream as Thoreau Stream and that Baxter Peak (the summit of Katahdin) is 1 mile ahead. Woohoo 1 mile! We’re almost there. The wind is blowing at about 35 mph and we are completely surrounded by clouds with maybe 200′ of visibility but we don’t care. We are pressing on to Baxter Peak! As we are nearing the end of our ascent we are passed by the others of our group who are now starting their decent. “Don’t worry”, they say. “you’re almost there!” We press on and finally, finally, after 5 hours of hiking we have reached the top. We are at Baxter Peak, the summit of Mount Katahdin, and right there in front of us large as life is the sign we all came to see. The sign that for us south bounders marks the beginning of our hike. The sign that says, “this is it, you have truly begun.” We always thought that when we saw the pictures of people at the top of Baxter Peak all happy next to the sign that it was because they were finished the trail. We realized as we stood there and took our pictures that they were just happy to finally be at the top of the mountain. The mountain we now had to climb down. We don’t stay long on top of Baxter Peak because the wind is gusting at 60 mph and the temp is now somewhere in the high 40’s. So we take our pictures, I play “On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons (I’ve been imagining doing that since I started planning my hike) and we start down.
It has been a grueling hike, a long day (we were up around 5 am), it’s been cold, and though we have summited, a little disappointing because of the cloud cover and our inability to have the 360 degree view that always seems so spectacular. We are all ready to get off of the mountain though so we waste no time heading back. When we get down to the Katahdin table though the clouds around and below us clear out. Baxter Peak is still completely cloud covered but we have an almost 360 degree view of clear blue skies. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I remember driving to the top of Pikes Peak with my dad when I was a kid and that was pretty cool, but nothing could have prepared me for the absolute beauty of being 5,000′ in the air and being able to see all of Baxter State Park and the 100 mile wilderness. The colors of the sky and the clouds were almost unrealistic. It was like looking at a painting. Never have I seen such definition and color in real life. This is what I came out here for. This is what makes that 5 hour 5 mile climb worth it. I learn that views like this one are what make all of it worth it. The air is so clean, and crisp, and pure, that you can see from New Hampshire to Canada. Ok maybe that is stretching it a little but that’s the way it seems.
The climb down is every bit as hard, and scary as I imagined it would be but every once in a while I pause to look out over the landscape, at the world below me and smile. This is going to be amazing. Hard. But amazing. We take it slow getting off of the mountain, at least until we are below tree line again, and it takes us another 5 hrs to get back to the Ranger Station. It’s getting dark and has started to rain again by the time we get there so I offer to share my lean to with Beau and Holly so that they don’t have to set up their tent in the rain. I’m so tired that I don’t even bother with dinner and elect to go straight to bed.
This trip is going to be hard. But man will it be worth it.