Well I’ve been home for a couple of days and have enjoyed the rest. Getting home was a little wild. 4 hitches and 3 flights later I made it home last Tuesday night. I was greeted by my family and it was wonderful to see everyone. I should post some pictures later on but this will probably be my last entry (and a long one, I am presuming).
The most common question I get back home is asking how the end was. Most of you have kept up with my journey and know up until the end. I will do my best to try and explain to you how I felt and the way things were. The easiest thing to start with is the details.
The 100 Mile Wilderness leads up to the final push. I would have liked to taken as much time as possible in my final days but I didn’t really have the time and didn���t want to carry eight days of food so I pushed myself a little. I miscalculated my food but was able to get some off people carrying too much and hike about 20 miles a day for 5 days. All my friends were either way behind me or already done so I figured I would be alone for the last bit. Fortunately a friend from back in Vermont and New Hampshire, Ishmael, had taken some days off and I caught him. We hiked the 100 together and ended up summiting together as well. It was really wet, which made for rough hiking but we were so close to the finish it didn’t really matter. To tell you the truth it never really mattered. You enjoy sunny and clear days more but you learn you have to deal the (and occasionally enjoy) the rain in order to for there to be sunny days.
The day I climb Katahdin, it was partly cloudy and chance of rain. It rained all night the night before and stopped in the morning so I took advantage of it. Woke up early and hit the mountain hard. I passed the only people in front of me about halfway so the rest was a time of quite reflection as I climbed my last mountain. It was an odd feeling. Most thru hikers talk about the end being bittersweet. Happy to finish but sad to be leaving the life you have been living. It was my 150th day, so I spent most of my time thinking about the journey I had walked throughout those days. Ups and Downs, smiles and frowns.
About a mile out, I could see where the top was. I decided to not look at it but to hike the trail. I kept my head down and walked exactly as I had done for 5 months. Knowing the end was out there but not being able to see it. As I climbed, the terrain got flat and I knew I was close. Before I knew it there was a big wooden sign in front of me. I knew what the sign looked like. I had seen it a thousand times before in pictures from past thru hikers that litter every stop on the trail. I tell people that I’ve seen a thousand pictures of people with the sign and they all look different. It was now in front of me.
There was a couple who had taken a different trail up who were at the top as well. After about two minutes, they left and I had the mountain to myself. I sat on a rock and stared at the wooden sign. I cannot tell you what I was thinking at the time. It was one of those times where you are thinking about everything but also nothing. I just stared. After about 20 minutes, I stood up and approached the sign. I stood an inch away. The moment of the end had come and I touched the sign. I can say with no shame that a tear or two was frequent throughout the last mile as well as at the top. I was done.
I spent the next two hours on a rock by myself. Dozens of other day-hikers showed up, took pictures, talked to each other, enjoyed the mountain. I went hours without saying a single word. There is no way to compare the feeling with words. I sat there as an emotional castaway utterly unable to relate to anyone. I do not mean this in a negative way but my feelings would go unheard. Much like now. Surreal.
Ishmael was behind me and I waited for him. I eventually picked him out and watched him approach. I will never forget how it was to see him reach the top and know that only I knew how he was feeling. He gave two fist pumps with his poles about 30 feet out when he saw me standing next to the sign waiting for him. He walked directly up to the sign and fell as he reached it. He tried to talk but the emotion, the feeling, kept his words from being understandable. Untranslatable to those who will likely never understand. I understood the mumbles completely. About 50 people watched as he lost it in pure ecstasy and bliss. They had no idea what was going on. A couple, who we hiked with told some people what we had done and word quickly spread on the mountain top. They watched grown men cry and sit with the heavy burden of our journey on our shoulders. They just watched. Later, we were greeted with congratulations and questions about our journey.
It took me three hours to shake the heavy burden of my thoughts and celebrate. We offered hugs of accomplishment and smiles of indescribable joy. We took pictures, lit cigars, and enjoyed a bottle of champagne that I had carried the last 114 miles. Some of the day hikers spoke to us and each other as heroes, but none of that mattered. We were heroes to ourselves.
The weather turned on us and we had to leave. We had about an hour and a half of the most intense storm I experienced on the trail. Nickel-sized hail above treeline surrounded by lightening is as about as dangerous as it gets. But we made it down the mountain and eventually home.
It is good to be home. My body needed it. It is not built to be pushed physically everyday for five months. Near the end I got weak and was more tired than I had ever been on the trail. It was a funny feeling the next morning, waking up and having to tell yourself that there is no more hiking left. You were done.
People think the trail is a 2176 mile path that leads from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. I don’t even know what to say to that. I know my attempt to tell you what it is will be futile but I am going to try.
The trail becomes your life. Completely. Every single day, for as long as it takes, you have one goal. Every second of everyday is set for reaching this goal. At the beginning the goal is so far away, so overwhelming, you can’t even comprehend it. Everyone I talked to experienced the enormity of the task at the beginning. Several are willing to admit feelings of great fear and an unprecedented burden that even lead to tears. But you walk on. Eventually that goal fades and your life becomes simple. Walking north is just what you do. It is who you are. Nothing else matters really. There are ups and downs but you never worry. You do everything you can to enjoy everything. The wild blueberries were ripe throughout the second half of Maine. Every time I saw them, I would pick as many as I wanted. I spent hours one day picking around 500 hundred of them. On my way up Katahdin, I passed some blueberries. I was so focused on reaching the top that I passed them by. But I asked myself, ���If I don’t stop and pick the blueberries, then why am I really here?’ I went back and told myself never to forget that.
Hiking becomes as second nature as breathing. Your mind has so much free time that most of the day is spent in deep thought. About the past, future and the present. You begin to question everything. You boil the importance of everything you knew and learned down. You learn what is important to you and have revelations on life. The people you hike with become your family. A family of friends only wanting to help the other.
One thing everyone experiences is kindness. I cannot tell you of all the wonderful people I met. The compassion and graciousness. I can tell you without a doubt that I believe in good people and always will. I have hope in everyone. For those who showed me compassion or kindness on the trail, I will never be able to repay them for what they did.
It’s 4 am and I can’t think about anything else than this. I’m not even sure this makes sense. Just my thoughts poured out. I can think of two things that completely changed my journey. The two people who by far had the biggest impact on me were Master Alex and Allgood. Allgood carried a mandolin the entire trail. Most people think that is crazy. These are the people who cut their toothbrush in half and assign themselves schedules. Allgood has an amazing ability to realize a moment and make the best of it. Most of the time in these moments, he would bust out his mandolin and just pick bluegrass. He played for entertainment sometimes but the majority of his play was for the moments. We would hit a mountain top, a vista, a waterfall or stream, hell anything. He would just pick bluegrass for hours on end sometimes. No one ever talked. We were all taken into the moment and realized it. Nothing else matters. These moments would also occur in shelters or around campfires after a deep discussion or whatever. Sometimes half a dozen guys would sit around in silence or to bluegrass and would say nothing. Everyone in thought and knowing everyone else was in thought. These are the times when I would have the realization that I was exactly where I needed to be in my life and doing exactly what I needed to do. No worries. Master Alex is from Quebec and sometimes has a funny way of saying things but it always makes sense. One day we were sitting around discussing what we wanted to do for the day. It was a debate for the rational/typical verse the irrational/spontaneous. He looked up at me while sitting on a rock with his big bushy beard and in complete seriousness and a slow tone said, ‘You can do…whatever you want’. From then on whenever any of us found ourselves making a decision we would remind each other. “We can do…whatever we want.” These things changed the trip for me. And though they would never ask for anything from me, I am forever indebted to them for it. I did whatever I wanted and even when I left Allgood, I would find myself in those moments and be able to hear his bluegrass faintly in the distance.
I knew after about a month and half I would never be able to explain this. I still can’t. This post is getting long ( I know), but I could talk about this for as long as you wanted. In the Shenandoahs I came across an entry in the register from a southbounder from the year before. Upon reading it, I knew then that this is how I would explain it. It is from H. M. Tomlinson’s 1912 book The Sea and the Jungle.
“The finest passage in any book of artic travel is in Warburton Pikes’ Barren Grounds, where he quotes what the Indian said to the missionary who had been speaking of heaven. The Indian asked, “And is it like the land of the Musk-Ox in summer, when the mist is on the lakes, and the loon cries very often?”
You feel at once the country the Indian saw around him would be easily missed by us, even when in the midst of it. For taking the bearings of such a land, the sextant, and the miles already traveled, would not be factors to help much. Now the Indian knew nothing of artificial horizons and the aides to discovering where they are which strangers use. But in summer the mist of his lakes were but the vapor of his musings, the penumbra of the unfathomed deeps of his mind whereon he paddled his own canoe; and when the wind-fowl called it was memory heard; it was his thought become vocal then while he dreamed on. I myself learned that the treasures found in travel, the chance rewards of travel that make it worthwhile, cannot be accounted beforehand, and seldom are matters a listener would care to hear about afterwards; for they have no substance. They are untranslatable from their time and place; and like the man who unwittingly lies down on the hill where the little people dance on midsummer’s night, and dreams his pockets were filled with fairy gold, waking to find pebbles there instead, so the traveler cannot prove the dreams he had, showing us only pebbles when he tries. They are like the Indians lakes in the summer. They have no names. They cannot be found on the best maps. Not you nor any other will ever discover them.”
You should probably read that again. I have read it many times and always read it twice.
Here, I have tried to translate the untranslatable. No matter what I say, I feel that I can only show you pebbles. Unless you are there and do it you will never fully understand anything I have said here. Most of you will never hike the Appalachian Trail. I encourage you and pray that you find your own trail. Your own Katahdin. I promise you will never regret it. Thank you so much for listening, I have honestly enjoyed writing this and all the comments from friends, family and strangers. It means more to me than you know and I wish great things for each and every one of you.