July 28, 2013
I told myself the mountain had become more brutal, but as I hauled myself over the rough granite boulders, I exhaled heavily, accepting that I was older. My mind was still 25, and my body desperately wanted to agree, but the trembling muscles, under the recent scrapes and abrasions, reinforced the rapid passing of time since I had last attempted this arduous climb.
I paused on a rock, frowning as an eight-year-old raced past me on young, goat-like legs, and thought back to the morning. One day into a five-month hike, I missed the comfort of a soft, warm room and a hot breakfast.
I paid my check and headed to catch my Shuttle to Katahdin with Nokie. We waited on the sidewalk, peering down the road for the other guy going southbound, who was supposed to meet us. I finally saw Matthew striding toward us. He was about twenty and a good-looking guy with a tiny blonde ponytail. Everything he wore and carried was shiny and new, and he was obviously in good shape, but he said this was his first time doing any real backpacking. He was about to discover some previously unused muscles, I suspected.
We chatted a little, and I felt immediately comfortable with him. I told him he could stay at my reserved campsite since it was right at the base of Katahdin and had room for about four tents. He would not have to walk two and a half miles to his site, which would be a bummer after the 10-mile hike up and down the mountain. He smiled and thanked me as we climbed into the car.
The day was beautiful for a climb, and we started up quickly. The first few miles were pretty easy, and then we rose above the tree line and hit the first rock wall with rebar. This was pretty uneventful until we came to a rock wall with a broken rebar protruding from the rock face, at about shoulder height or a little higher. Here, we encountered Bill.
Bill was a young guy carrying a fully loaded pack. Even thru-hikers typically hiked with day packs due to the amount of hand-over-hand climbing involved. I watched as he pulled himself up using the rebar. Suddenly, he appeared to lose his balance due to the pack weight and fell to the rock below, where he said the rebar had “gone up him.” He appeared to have hit the jagged piece of metal as he fell.
I was unsure what to do, but I rushed over to help him remove his pack, sit up, and patch his hand with Neosporin and band-aids. He was a very matter-of-fact fellow, and as soon as we finished bandaging his hand, he promptly asked me if he was bleeding from the rear. I paused, feeling awkward, and as he twisted around to present his rear end, I briefly glanced down and said everything appeared to be in order. I was just thankful he did not drop his shorts.
We hiked with him for a while, as he appeared a little shaky but moved on ahead as he stopped to examine himself. We saw him on the table lands later as we headed back down. He seemed in pretty good spirits and thanked us for helping him earlier.
The rest of the climb up to the tablelands was a lot of hand-over-hand, and there were a couple of little scrambles that made me resort to my water bug posture, with 3-4 points of contact, but overall, it went well. Coming down was a different story, requiring a fair bit of butt-skooching and lowering myself down from one rock to another. At one point, I asked Matt if he was sure we had come up this way. The stones looked much steeper. I couldn’t imagine doing that climb in inclement weather.
The summit was kind of like tourist season in DC. There had to have been a hundred people of all nationalities. Many had come up the more accessible Saddle trail, and some up the shorter Abol trail. We even saw a north bound thru-hiker with his service dog on the table lands. She was a beautiful, very lean German Shepherd in a harness. He showed us how he would lift her the rocks. She went limp and hung very still until he set her back on her feet. She also stayed very close to him, clearly trusting the pack alpha.
We made it back down and set up camp quickly to shorten what was becoming a long entry. It was great hiking and chatting with Mathew. The time went by much more rapidly. We set up camp, and I made a couple of wraps while watching Matt pull out a bag of seeds and nuts. This bag was his sustenance for the next 5-10 days. I don’t recall, but may have shared some food. I know he headed back to town the next day to get more food. I had suggested his appetite might increase but did not impose my opinion. I’ve always found the trail a valuable learning experience for many type-A personalities who don’t want my thoughts, and I always try to respect their perspectives.
After Dark, I was awakened by a light on my translucent tarp and a slightly frantic “Who is in the tent.” It was Bob and Julie (father and daughter) that I had met at the Lodge I had stayed at last night. I had passed them coming down the mountain and knew they might be late. They had summited but come down in the Dark and were exhausted and disoriented. I grinned as Bob said
“Oh, is that a cuben fiber tarp?” through his haze of exhaustion. Julie immediately informed her father that there was no chatting, and I grinned and pointed them toward the parking lot. I can relate to the fascination with gear. Unfortunately, I share the addiction.
I crawled back into the tarp, moving gingerly as I nursed the lumps and raspberries given to me by Katahdin. I settled back in for the night on my Neoair pad. It had been a good, tough day. My legs ached as reawakened muscles struggled to repair themselves from the day’s activity. I popped a few Vitamin I and settled down, smiling in relief.
My trip had begun. I was going to sleep soundly – even better yet b/c it was a sleep of release. I believe everyone has a place where they feel completely comfortable and at ease. The forests, mountains, plains, and deserts have always been that place for me. I have always embraced the wilder world. These sometimes brutal, often beautiful lands are where my senses are reawakened to scents, sights, and encounters that most people don’t experience anymore.
The long-distance trails have made me who I am today and developed a confidence I would not have found elsewhere. Encounters with people and animals have taught me not only to think quickly but also to make wise decisions.
Ultimately, love will always take me home and ground me for a time, but peace and purpose will inevitably draw me back.