Day 7, Afternoon: My digital watch is no longer any use to me. Rain has gotten inside. The display now reads “L o’clock.” What time is that? Whether or not I can read it, the clock keeps ticking. Whenever I turn on my cell phone to take a picture, record a video journal, or make a call, an LED clock stares back at me. I can’t escape time, but I do feel some facsimile of freedom as I remove the watch from my wrist and tuck it into my pocket...
The watch was a gift from a good friend and ultra marathoner, Carl Laniak. On a training run in the Southern Appalachians earlier in the year, he caught me admiring his incredibly sleek and lightweight timepiece. “Man, I got this watch at Wal-Mart for ten bucks. If you need one, here you go.” I wore the device with great pride on all subsequent outings. I knew my split from point A to point B. I could calculate my pace. I loved my watch.
I now catch myself looking down at a pasty white band of untanned skin on my left wrist. “Oh, it’s only a freckle past a hair.” I laugh out loud to myself and agitate a red squirrel who now chatters at me from a perch high up in a nearby tree. I've seen very few hikers today in the northern woods. The sky darkens, I’m going to get wet. Up here in Maine, wet means cold. I now know what time it is: time to put on my wind jacket.
A steady rain falls and slowly begins to soak everything around me. I feel as though I’m standing still. Terrain washes towards me like waves in the ocean. I lift my legs in rhythm with the rocks and roots. They pass underneath me. A large wave approaches. I know what to do. I reach down and grab a good stick. Pushing off with this stick, my vessel stays afloat and rises to the crest of another muddy wave. I hear myself breathing.
I come back down into my body. I feel the cold creeping into me. My energy is waning. Hall Mountain Lean-to appears ahead. I duck into the dark shelter and out of the rain. An older hiker sits in his sleeping bag eating dinner. We greet one another. I light my small stove to begin heating water for a warm meal of black beans and crumbled-up corn chips. In a gruff voice, the hiker starts up, “this weather will get to you.”
I nod. The two of us sit across from one another and listen to the rain pelting the roof. As soon as my water is heated, I pour it into a Ziploc bag with the dehydrated beans and seal it closed. I tuck the bag into an insulated pocket and massage it with my hands, working the water and meal together. After a few minutes, I open the bag to add chips. I can feel the hiker watching me. I get out my spork and eat my meal quickly and quietly.
“Well,” I say, “I’m going to keep on hiking.”
“You’re going back out into this?”
“Yes, I have something warm in me. I’m good to go.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s six-thirty at night!”
“Thank you.” I now know the time, which can be hard to guess under an overcast sky. For a minute, time got away from me. Hiking from the shelter, I take the opportunity to pull out my phone and record a video journal. The LED clock stares back at me and I blink. “6:40 on day 7, climbing up Wyman Mountain, 252 miles in. Made it to Piazza Rock shelter and tarped nearby, 218 miles last night. Got a little less than ten miles to go.”
Day 2, 5:57 am: Morning comes early in Maine. The sun has been up for over an hour. I've been hiking for half of that time. I stop at an outcrop and breakfast on granola and coffee. Looking back across the flat lands to Katahdin, I hear the distant cry of a loon. A low veil of stratus hints at rain. The air is still. I reflect on how I got here.
In 1990, a hiker named Ward Leonard backpacked the Appalachian Trail in 60 and a half days. I learned of his feat during my first thru-hike at the age of 20. It took me over a decade to work up the courage and strength to try it myself. By way of many adventures, I built up the skills and confidence to go the distance, self-supported.
Since 1990, a handful of great athletes have broken the 60-day mark. Each of them doing so without carrying his, or her own food and gear. On these supported hikes, crews met them along the way to provide aid. In contrast, Leonard traveled as a backpacker without any pre-arranged support from a crew.
In the world of rock climbing, there’s a similar distinction between aid climbing and free climbing. In aid climbing, artificial support gets hammered, drilled, or placed along the route. In free climbing, only natural holds in the rock get used. The hiking equivalent of a free climb is to go self-supported, solely by foot.
It starts to rain. My mind wanders as I hike through a relatively flat, muddy and monotonous pine forest. The mosquitoes are unfazed by this steady drizzle. I keep moving, there are miles to go. I cross the logging road to White House Landing. I wave to a couple of poncho-clad hikers walking towards me on the road. At a nearby unmarked junction, I walk past a Ziploc stuffed with tuna wrappers and other such trash.
I ponder over what it will take for me to succeed on this hike. Success requires efficiency. Efficiency requires harmony. Harmony requires listening attentively and moving lightly on the land. The trail bends sharply at Potaywadjo Spring. Before I realize it, I’m wandering down a spur to the spring. Oh well, I take the opportunity to fill up on water. Back on track, my mind continues to wander.
I splash through the puddles along the trail for another mile and pass a couple of guys in ponchos hiking the opposite direction. Everything seems familiar. Another mile goes by and I pass a bag of trash on the ground. Wait. Something clicks, but I refuse to accept it. I hike on. Shortly, I come upon a muddy road with a sign to White House Landing.
I can no longer deny it. I've just hiked two and a half miles in the wrong direction. This means I get to add five bonus miles to my 38-mile day. Fuming, I scold myself. “This is great! About-face and back to it, then! Too spaced out, huh? Living in harmony, right? Listening to the trail? Okay, what’s the trail saying now?”
I stop in my tracks and stare down at the familiar Ziploc of trash in front of me. Without the loud slosh of footsteps, everything grows quiet. There’s only the gentle hiss of light steady rain atop my hood and the surrounding leaves. Bending down to pick up the trash, I now know the answer.
To move lightly on the land, to leave no trace… And to listen the first time.
Day 30, 8:30 am: Given the summer heat, it’s rather late to begin hiking out from town. With two back-to-back forty-mile days behind me, time well earned is time well spent. Leaving the Doyle, I’m a new man in new shirt and shoes. I've had a rejuvenating stay complete with hot shower, self-administered “foot spa” and soft bed.
Thanks to the replacement gear in my drop, I can trash the dirt-stained shirt that I've been wearing for over 1,000 miles. I’m not such a big fan of throwing anything away. I certainly can’t bring myself to dispose of the shoes that I bought so recently at Delaware Water Gap. They’re clunky, but they have a lot of life left.
I wait for the post office to open so I can mail the shoes home. Meanwhile, I load up on biscuits, gravy, eggs and coffee at the diner across the street. I feel a little more welcome indoors with my clean white shirt. After breakfast, the postmaster greets me as she unlocks the office. I hand her my package.
“Anything liquid, fragile, or potentially hazardous?”
“Just some old shoes,” I say.
“Potentially hazardous, then?”
We laugh. Duncannon is a good hiker-friendly town, but I’m happy to leave the hustle and bustle for the rocky ridgeline to the west of the Susquehanna. Today I will traverse the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania and like a needle across the groove of a vinyl record, move along to a new song. Everything is starting to feel a little different. No doubt, the fast-approaching half way point is a huge milestone for this journey.
Clouds block out the sun as I descend into the fertile green fields. With miles and miles of exposed farmland ahead, I’m thankful for this timely turn in the weather. As I climb over the wooden stiles and make my way across the valley, my mind begins to wander and I begin to reminisce about my two previous crossings…
On my 2001 hike, I gratefully accepted an invitation to join former thru-hiker “Lorax” at his family’s home for Easter dinner. As we hiked down a country road, I was amazed to find his home less than half of a mile off the trail. More amazing still was the spread of ham, potatoes, asparagus, salad, bread, carrot cake, lemon meringue and coconut cake that filled the table.
I remember the unkempt fields back in May of 2007. Uwharrie and I waded through waist-high grass all day. At no point could the poor dog see over the greenery. I eventually got to wondering what it must feel like for her. Judging by her happy panting, she didn’t seem to mind the lack of views. Just being outside and walking was good enough…
I smile at the memories. Not only does the trail feel soft and gentle today, it feels like home. In Boiling Springs, I take a short side trip over to a convenience store to pick up a sandwich, chips and ice cream. I sit outside on the porch of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s regional office and eat the meal. Soon I’m across the valley and back into the forest. As the light fades, I scramble around interesting rock formations to find a nice campsite on the ridge.
Day 3, 6:14 am: I walk an untamed corridor through conifers up White Cap. A fallen snag catches my attention. My freezing hands fumble with my phone in a cold, relentless, wind-driven rain. With my camera perched precariously on this snag, timer set, I stand back in the frame and document the start of what will be a very long day.
I woke up about an hour ago in the gloomy light of the damp Logan Brook Lean-to. I slept there alongside a southbound couple. My quilt barely kept out the cold. The rain fell through the night. The temperature plummeted. A memory from years back swam through my consciousness…
April, 2010: it’s the last night of a solo three-day, 75-mile reconnaissance of 6,000-footers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s been raining all day. I decide to skip the last peak and retreat to a shelter. When I arrive after 4:00 pm, I join two dads and four teenage boys already hunkered down. With long faces, they tell me the temperature will drop below freezing.
Packing only a summer quilt, I know I’m in trouble. I get to work. I put on dry clothes and eat. I clean out the small fireplace that’s filled with sodden paper from failed attempts. I scavenge for small twigs around the shelter. When I have a decent pile, I carefully select the smallest to build a nest. I light the starter and diligently feed the flame until it’s grown.
Our countenances brighten in the paleolithic panacea of the fire’s glow. The rain stops. I make a couple of excursions to gather wood. Long after the others have gone to sleep, I sit as close as I can to the flames. For many dark hours, I drape myself over the warmth. Near sunrise, I pack up and hike on. Lesson learned: never leave home without the skills and tools to start a fire…
Picking my way through wet and rugged Maine, I take a mental inventory of my gear. It may be minimal, but I still have what I need. Without switchbacks, the trail drops into a col. I cross a sloppy bog, then slip and slide over another peak. The day wears on. The serrated terrain saws away at my endurance. I remember to eat. I remember to drink. The rain begins to taper off.
5:34 pm: I know where all of this water is going. Long Pond Stream is swollen out of its banks. It’s been raining for two of the three days that it’s taken me to get here. Already this year, fords in the Hundred Mile Wilderness have stopped some of the southbound hikers. I remember the Mainers in Millinocket talking, “If we can get a week of dry weather, things should calm down.”
So much for a week of dry weather, but thank goodness for the rope across this stream. I've been warned about the streams without ropes. Given my progress over the last eleven hours, It’s likely that I will have to attempt them after dark. I take a 30-second video. In my fatigue, I misidentify the creek as Big Wilson. I wade into the rushing water. There’s little time left to waste.
This early in the season, there are few northbound hikers to give me information about trail conditions ahead. Shortly after stopping to heat a quick Ziploc dinner at Wilson Valley Lean-to, I meet three of them fording Big Wilson Creek. Regarding the ford, one hiker says: “This one isn't bad, it’s the next two that you need to watch!”
“I was nearly swept away. We held onto each other. Thank God for my poles,” the second hiker says.
“There’s a waterfall downstream. We saw one hiker cross the gorge on a fallen tree a little ways upstream. It looked pretty dicey to me. Good luck,” the third hiker adds.
Digesting all of this information, I don’t think to offer any in exchange. From the sound of it, the worst is behind them and they know it. The way the last hiker says “Good luck” sends shivers down my spine. I fight my way onward across Big Wilson.
Darkness descends into the northern woods. My headlamp casts a white light onto the underside of the leaves above and over the mud and twisting roots below. Eyes reflect everywhere around me. I hear the roar of an angry creek ahead. I boost the power of my light and survey an awful scene. The water moves at a terrific speed into a black void to my left.
I choose to cross upstream. I find a good stick to keep my balance. There are two channels. The first channel is no more than knee-deep. Halfway across, I shine my light into the next channel to determine its depth. I resort to probing with my stick. It’s waist-deep. I tie a lanyard to my pack and loosen my straps.
Crossing the channel, I feel my feet slip out from under me. My body gets carried downstream towards the void. Things happen fast. I lunge for a nearby log with my right arm. I manage to grab a hold and pull myself onto the bank just as it breaks free. I shine my headlamp downstream and watch my stick and the log disappear into the darkness.
9:45 pm: My heart is pounding. I immediately get up and keep walking. I don’t bother to process what just happened. The black forest embraces me, the volume fades. All too soon, the trail begins to descend again. I start to hear the familiar sound. I can hardly believe what I see. A frothing flume slices through the mountains, it’s depth and speed unrivaled by any previous crossing. I yell out in agony and awe. What a day!
I remember what the hiker said and shine my light upstream. I don’t see the fallen tree, so I bushwhack up the gorge. The creek drops out below me. I finally spot the tree. It’s about a foot in diameter and twenty-five feet long. It hangs at least ten feet above the torrent. On the opposite bank, its canopy drapes across a protruding fin of rock.
Testing the trunk with my foot, I determine that it can hold my weight. I straddle the log and inch my way across. Halfway, I shine my light down into the water. The movement and mayhem makes me dizzy. I can’t believe what I’m doing. I’m committed and there is no turning back. Somehow safely across, I start jogging up the trail fueled on adrenaline.
The noise fades. The terrain begins to mellow out along with my mood. There are only a few miles left to get to Leeman Brook Lean-to. I will make it there before 11:00 pm. If it’s unoccupied, I’ll sleep in the shelter. If occupied, I’ll set up my tarp. A thought lingers in my mind: if I can make it through this day, I can make it.
Day 1, 7:45 am: We rumble down a rough, rural road in northern Maine towards Baxter State Park. The twelve-passenger van is full of geared-up hiker hopefuls ready to take their first of five million steps southward. Our driver has “Eye of the Tiger” blasting on the van’s stereo speakers. Without talking, each of us retreats inward to reflect on his pack contents, hike itinerary and what exactly he’s gotten himself into.
The music is turned down and we come to a stop. The state park ranger greets us at the gate. We hand him the required hiking permits and he takes a head count. With the window down, mosquitoes quickly swarm the van. “Hope ya gotcha bug dope,” the ranger chuckles. We drive on into the park. Bugs are the least of the warnings we've received. More disconcerting are reports of unusually high water levels on the river fords to come.
On the final countdown, there’s little time left to worry. The northern woods look wet and wild. The van bounces and sloshes through puddles of mud. The driver strategically accelerates up the next hill to maintain momentum with minimal traction. I suddenly feel small and vulnerable in a foreboding landscape. I smile somewhat nervously at the sight of the mighty mountain before me.
I remember months ago showing an online video to my science students of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from the edge of space. The mission clock ticks away in the corner of the screen. The door slides open. The video captures the last bit of air rushing out of the tiny capsule. Outside, a black void extends far beyond the curve of the Earth some 24 miles below.
“Sometimes you have to get up really high to understand how small you really are.” Baumgartner’s breath quickens in his space suit. He unclips his harness and inches closer to the edge of the opening. “Time to go home.”
We offload at the ranger station at the base of Katahdin and shake hands with our chauffeur, a thru-hiker himself. “Good luck,” he says in a wise, almost wistful way. With two clicks of my pack buckles, I’m ready to get hiking. My fellow hikers let me go ahead to register at the station as they fuss about with their gear. Within minutes, I’m climbing up the Appalachian Trail on a five mile approach to the summit.
8:40 am: I reach tree line. It’s a perfect class one day, the first in a week. A harmless cirrus layer blankets the sky and keeps me refreshingly cool on the climb. With 38 miles to go for the day, I try to take it easy on the ascent. Just like the previous two times on this mountain, adrenaline courses through my veins. But this time is different. It’s the beginning, not the end.
An evergreen forest spreads out beneath me, dotted with the sky blue mirrors of innumerable ponds, each uniquely shaped. I scan the horizon to the south, identifying the looming Barren-Chairbacks, the shadows of tomorrow. I rest on a rock and hydrate at Thoreau Spring. I quiet myself. The journey has yet to begin.
Back on the trail, gliding over grey talus and residual snowfields, I cross the Tablelands to Baxter Peak. I pause by the sign and take the obligatory start photo. It’s 9:42 am, time to start hiking to Springer Mountain. Time to go home.
I watch each rock carefully and take comfort from the high angle of the June sun. There will be plenty of daylight to get where I’m going. A famous quote from John Muir comes to mind: “Wherever we go in the mountains, we find more than we seek.”
Coming down the mountain, I greet my fellow hikers on their way up to the summit. Smiles seem mostly worn, each of us squinting into the light of a future unknown. I wish them happy trails. With our separate schedules, we won’t see one another again.
Back below treeline, the giddiness is mostly gone. I get to work at my job for the next two months, carrying my body and what it needs back to the Southern Appalachians. Given the air-quality, noise-level and scenery, it’s not that bad of a gig. And despite its lack of diversity, the food always tastes delicious. There’s just never enough of it.
While finishing off a bag of gorp, the first of many to come, I roll up on a rushing stream that must be forded. The water is higher and faster than normal. I select a sturdy stick from the ground to use for balance. Stepping in, the power of the water takes me by surprise. Not yet out of Baxter Park, I’m well on the path to humility. Softly, I walk on across the Penobscot and into the Hundred Mile Wilderness.