Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Limp in the Woods (Day 164)

An Appalachian Trail Tale
Day 164: KATAHDIN = 5 miles, then back down
Miles to date: 2,186

Nein mehr weiß lodert

Done. Relieved of my duties. But first, the part prior...

~~~~~~~~~~

I have served my term in Millinocket. Today is the day. I am released, and I am relieved. I’d wished to wipe clean this most onerous of journeys the day before yesterday, for it was Labor Day and it seemed rightly suitable to finish an Appalachian Trail thru-hike on such a day(1). But then the weather won, as it would again yesterday--as it forever does. And then again, who gives a shit about any such official designation when the calendar itself is completely arbitrary?! Every day on the AT is Labor Day. Capital L, capital D.

Capitalizing on an early start--‘twas damn near dark-early when the encephalon cells began to clank and clash--I was easily able to secure a ride from town back to Baxter State Park, a distance of about twenty-eight miles. Easily able, because I shelled out for the shuttle that the AT Lodge offered, in their ten-seater beater. I asked the van driver if he’d mind driving there in reverse, so instead of me having to pay, he’d owe me the money, but he didn’t take the suggestion seriously. Oh, well, for a fair enough sum, I was back where I belonged: anywhere but in Millinocket. Another day and I would’ve paid for prison admission. Three hots and a cot. Shawshank Preemption.

Back at the Birches Campsite, tantalizingly close to this toll road’s long-targeted exit ramp, I’d meet up with a German thru-hiker named Restless Cowboy. Male, thin-ish, grin-ish, thirty-ish. The two of us decided, with nary an utterance, to tackle the mountain collectively. We weren’t a big collection but we did just that, pausing persistently to lasso our breath, only to take in yet another breath-taking view whilst doing so. Respiration, perspiration, inspiration. Pant, pour, roar. Even by AT standards the mountain was a beast. Katahdin the killer. Labor day #164. As it had been with countless other peaks to its south side, one doesn’t “hike” it. No, walking would never work. The “hiker” is forced to clamber steeply upward, employing other bodily parts than just the feet to continue forth, to continue north. Only when in close proximity to the summit do things begin to mellow, and the hiker can safely return to his or her feet.

We stopped and slurped some liquid at yet another majestic mountaintop leak, Thoreau Spring, before continuing forth. No filtering or chemical doctoring required, naturally. “Only a mile to go,” I joked to my latest and last hiking partner. “Two thousand one hundred and eighty five down!” Our feet hovered a foot or two off the ground; it was the first time I hadn’t felt them in months. “Now was a good time, wasn’t it?” smiled Restless Cowboy, his English somewhere on par with my German. “It was,” I replied. “It always was, now and then.”

And then, there were no more white blazes in sight. Nein mehr weiß lodert!


At the broad, seductive summit multitudes of mountaineers loitered and reconnoitered. It was rush hour and very much a rush. Just as it had been with the uncontrolled exuberance back during the first few weeks of this odyssey, the exhilaration here was palpable. The views were endlessly tremendous, a panorama addict’s paradise, while the wind howled and enlivened the experience. A true summit. Fueled by the gusts, a fleet of pretty serious-looking clouds came and went as though behind schedule, but it was a relatively diplomatic day otherwise, given the peak’s proud history of hellish hardship. Most everyone was on his or her feet, but a few sat firmly on their backsides seeking shelter, set to stay a while. No one was going to die on this day, not here, not now.

The planning hadn’t been mastered as I had hoped it would a trio of days ago--for that so-called perfect peak day, a day above and beyond reproach (but mainly above). I’d long since learned that the path and the conditions enveloping it are the ones in control, not those of us passing through. You hike the trail on its terms. We trivial little beings are merely visitors, blessed beyond belief, striving to survive its worst, while awaiting its best. Individually, collectively. The AT always wins, of course, for it is indifferent(2). And hikers aren’t just the visiting team; we’re also the underdog. But every so often the underdog prevails, as we dozen or so thru-hikers at the top had. We didn’t win by completing the AT; we won by having the opportunity to step foot on it. The celebration persisted. A moment of catharsis struck. I barked wildly.

Restless Cowboy looked my way, as we hunkered down behind some knee-high, lichen-coated boulders and divvied up the last of our remaining snacks. We were waiting for some of the horde to abort, so that we could get some decent pictures alongside the deteriorating, defaced summit sign, without the droves milling about behind it. We both felt that when summits are shared by so many they tend to carry less significance.

“This was sweetly bitter, yah?” he asked, smiling. Restless is clearly a smiley type. Quiet and contemplative (still waters run deep, even in Germany apparently), but seemingly always smiling. I hadn’t known him but for a few hours and already I liked him. Although our paths had crossed as far back as Virginia, we never really had the chance to speak. I wished we had, but at the time he had his brother with him (who returned to Germany due to visa constraints) and I was with Backstreet and bunch.

“The snack?” I returned. Weird, I thought, this doesn’t taste bitter at all. We were gnawing on cheese and crackers…neither bitter, nor sweet.

“No, I mean finishing this trail.”

“Oh, for sure” I answered, “it is sweetly bitter,” failing to correct his English. And although the Appalachian Trail is a hard trail to love, I meant what I said: it was bittersweet. When my soul was in the lost-and-found, the path always helped me find it. Always.

I went on. “Ya know, it’s funny, but for the longest time I wanted nothing more than to be off the goddamn trail, but now that it’s time, I almost hate having to leave.”

“And do you have to?”

“Nah, not really. But I’m ready. Besides, there could be no better place to leave, high up here.”

“Ending on a high note,” Restless smiled. “I believe in happy endings.”

“All’s well that ends well,” I added, cheesily. I was simply too tired for any kind of emotional valediction.

The crowd would eventually disperse and when there were just the two of us remaining we took our customary summit shots. Neither of us cared to pose much--it felt somewhat strange to stand there and act cheesy, saying cheese. Sweetly bitter, indeed. It had been a long journey, full of tough times, and strange and wonderful occurrences, and strangers-cum-friends. Restless summed it up nicely, in an unexpected twang of slang, when he said, “this hike was a trip.” We then turned our backs on the mountain and began heading down. It was good timing, since another storm was beginning to brew.

Long live the AT!

The End. Without End.
"Fool's"note 1: I should've started this parade on Fool's Day.

"Foot"note 2: If there's anything the trail--and indeed Mother Earth--teaches you when you're out that much closer to it, it's its indifference toward us. Along with these three 'its' in a row, I share this indifference. 

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