Baxter Peak, Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine
On August 28, 2017, I completed the Appalachian Trail.
When I woke up, it was still dark and very cold. Autumn comes early to the northern woods of Maine, and what counts for autumn there would be considered winter just about anywhere south of it.
If I couldn’t see what I was doing, I damn sure wasn’t going to be freezing while doing it.
After twenty or so minutes deliberating if it was worth leaving my sleeping bag, the sun had risen just enough that I didn’t need a headlamp to pack up camp. I moved through the process deliberately. I’d done it more than a hundred times that summer, but I didn’t want to rush. The last thing I wanted to do was forget something. I also wanted to savor it a little. Everything since the night before had a ring of finality to it. My last dinner. My last time setting up a tent. My last journal entry.
I left most of my gear at the ranger station. The dry-bags holding my sleeping bag, tent, extra clothes, food scraps and the few other items I wouldn’t need for the day were tied up with a bit of para-cord to be picked up on my descent. My backpack had only water, some snacks and a few extra layers thrown in for the final ascent. And Trex, my trusty dinosaur, strapped to the side of course.
I practically ran the first mile and a half up the Hunt Trail to Katahdin Stream Falls. The trail was an easy grade and the day was cold and clear. It felt good to have almost no weight on my back, and the eagerness for the peak was in me.
The trail rose steeply after the falls. My pace slowed, but I was still nimble compared to other days. I swung from the weathered tree trunks and rock crags, climbing the boulders with a grace I wish I had in the White Mountains.
That all changed once I broke tree-line.
Everything before that last climb up the Hunt Spur was practice. The White Mountains, the Mahoosuc Notch, nothing was as technical as the short distance between the treeline and the tablelands of Mount Katahdin. Climbing it required use of metal hooks and spikes driven into the rocks. Oftentimes, I left my fate to the rubber of my trail runners, hoping the smear kept me on the rock.
I can’t imagine attempting this climb in bad weather. The trail often winds past drops off the side of the mountain and scrambles over sheer rock faces. Even a little bit of water or wind would have made the climb much more difficult.
Luckily, my summit day was a one-in-a million nice day. There was almost no wind and the sky was a crystal clear blue. Even with the chilly start in the morning, the peak temperature was mild.
Even after climbing the Hunt Spur, the trail isn’t done. It’s another two miles over the tablelands, a relatively flat-ish section of trail to Baxter Peak.
I finally laid a hand on that weather-beaten, scarred, cracked and oh-so-formidable Sign at 9:46 am, approximately two hours since I signed in at the trail registry.
I’m still not sure how I felt after reaching that peak. I expected to feel elated, overcome with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. I’d just finished the greatest trial of my life and proved myself equal to it. I thought I might feel kind of sad. The adventure was over. Now was just the long walk down.
But I didn’t.
I felt happy, sure, and maybe a little sad. There was even some awe at finishing the Appalachian Trail and the view from the final peak, but it wasn’t the overwhelming kind of feeling that causes a lot of thru-hikers to weep at the sight of the Sign. It was more that I felt all of these things at once and wasn’t really sure how to process it.
Physically, climbing Katahdin didn’t feel any different than other peaks on the trail. As callous as it sounds, I saw spectacular views for the last four months and 29 days. I’d had my fair share of perfect hiking weather.
At that time, it felt like any other peak, but everyone was just more happy to be there.
I hung out for a bit. Talked and celebrated with other hikers. Had my photo taken atop the Sign, as is tradition. I ran into a few other hikers I’d met along the way. Powerade, Southbound and Colby Jack summitted that day as well, so it was good to see them again. When the peak started to get more crowded with day and section-hikers, I decided to make my way back down.
This might have been the thing that was serving as a mental block at the peak. The trail to Baxter Peak is not a loop. I had to hike back down the same five miles to get back to Katahdin Stream Campground, where my parents would pick me up. Even though I “finished” the trail, I was only half done with hiking for the day.
On the way down, people congratulated me on completing the trail when they saw the AT tag on my backpack. As I hiked, the praise and congratulations started to wear down the funk I’d been feeling.
I did it. I finished it. I proved that I could complete a 2,200 mile long journey through snow, rain, heat and difficult terrain. As I neared the top of the Hunt Spur, there was a big, stupid grin plastered on my face. This wasn’t another difficult hike to do. This four miles was a victory lap. I could take my time, enjoy the view, and revel in my accomplishment.
Then I saw a familiar orange hat pop up from the Hunt Spur, followed by a familiar face.
Dad hiked up the mountain to meet me.
We hugged. We laughed. He cried a little. We went through the customary ritual of him Shanghaiing some poor bystander to take a dozen photos on his little point-and-shoot that still has pictures from my Eagle Scout court of honor more than seven years ago.
He and my mother started hiking up a few hours ago. Mom decided to turn back at the Hunt Spur, but Dad wanted to try and make it to the peak to meet me. He looked up longingly at the crowd of tiny people in the distance while I looked longingly at the trail down the mountain. It was two miles back up to the peak and as nice as the victory lap was, I wasn’t eager to add four miles to it.
Eventually, though, I led Dad up the tablelands to the peak. It was worth it to share the accomplishment of finishing the trail with him. It’s something I know he wanted to do, and a few extra miles is the least I could do to show my thanks for his support and encouragement on the journey.
We didn’t get to revel at the peak for long. He left Mom to hike back to the car on her own and happened to have both of their water bottles, most of the snacks and the car keys in his backpack. After our photo, he handed these to me and sent me back down the trail ahead of him to “save his marriage,” as he put it.
I practically bounded down the tablelands and when I got to the Hunt Spur, I fell back on my favorite technique for navigating technical terrain; throw myself either up or down it and hope it works out for the best. This sometimes results in me hopping the last few feet from a rock to the ground. My knees don’t thank me for it, but so far, it’s worked out.
The enormity of what I’d just accomplished didn’t hit me until I was back at the campground. That was it. It was over. 2,200 miles. I finished what I set out to accomplish. I didn’t even feel all that tired from the almost 15 miles I walked that day, just elated.
Mom was waiting for me in the parking lot, sitting with a group of trail angels handing out snacks from the back of a pickup truck. I started for her, when I was waylaid by a few other hikers.
Skills and Super Boring, a couple I’d met back down south and hike with through Massachusetts and part of Vermont, were apparently just a day behind me since we separated. They planned on summitting the next day. We hugged and congratulated each other on our accomplishment.
“Are your parents picking you up?” Super Boring asked.
“Yeah, that’s my mom behind you,” I said.
After a brief scolding for ignoring my mother, I gave her a hug. We finally got into the car, where there were snacks and cold drinks a plenty while we waited for Dad to make his way down.
A long car ride back the next day, and I was back home in Connecticut, ready to take it easy for a bit.
The adventure concluded. The mountain climbed. The dragon slain. I’d made it there and back again in mostly one piece. Would I do it again? Maybe. But first, I need to be a real human being for a while. I’m sure they’ll be another adventure soon.