July 4, 2017
Katahdin! The terminus of the AT for northbound hikers holds the beginning of adventure for southbounders! For Jay and me, as flip-floppers, the climb up Katahdin marked the midpoint of our journey.
From Millinocket, Maine, the Appalachian Trail Lodge shuttled us to Baxter State Park, depositing us at the ranger station. We parked our backpacks on the ranger’s front porch, stuffed a borrowed day pack with food and rain gear, and registered. Finally, it was time to go!
The first mile of our journey was quite easy, with a wide trail, gentle tread, and scenic vistas of trees, rock, and moss. Winding rock stairs meandered up the foot of the mountain, gaining elevation in four inch increments. The mile ended at a stream with a Boy Scout-built bridge and a privy! What a practical thing to put on this heavily used trail!
Continuing past the privy, the trail gave a little evil chuckle, and suddenly boulders began appearing as the gradient steepened. Tangled bushes and thickets of pines pressed around us, forcing us to stay on the narrow stony track, conveniently marked with white AT blazes. From knee-high to thigh-high, the boulders required climbing, scrambling, clambering, shinnying, and sometimes crawling. “This isn’t so bad,” I remarked breathlessly. “It’s a little steep, but I can do it.”
About the time I was thinking of lunch, we reached tree-line. Suddenly, instead of a narrow path, the painted white blazes traversed the tops of a whole field of boulders. These rocks were car-sized, and vertical. My eyes traveled out, and up, and more up. “Oh geeze,” I thought in sudden panic. “What have I got myself into? I don’t like climbing mountains!”
The clouds that had been hovering all morning suddenly descended to eye level, spitting a few raindrops, but mostly just obscuring the view with mist and fog. That was fine by me. What I couldn’t see, didn’t exist, which allowed me to focus energy and muscles on each individual boulder challenge, following Jay as he disappeared above me into the atmosphere. An occasional piece of re-bar hammered into a rock face helped me climb, but I often felt that I could have used a whole ladder on most of those boulders. Toes, fingertips, knees, thighs, even stomach and posterior came into use as I crept up the ridge.
Finally, after an eternity of granite, we reached what is known as the Tableland, a relatively flat mile on top of Katahdin. The trail continued to boulder hop, but with smaller stones and more horizontally. Fortunately for me, the clouds persisted, obscuring the view. I was able to lie to myself, “See, you’ve done the hard part. The top is probably just a few minutes of easy walking!” Although my intellect knew the Tableland was slightly over a mile long, my gut was happy to accept the lie as we kept walking and walking and walking…
Just as I was about to give up completely, Jay said, “I see it! We’re almost to the sign!” Hopefully, I stopped, looking up, peering through the swirling mist. No sign. No celebrating people. Just gray, blank cloud. My shoulders sagged. My eyes fell back down to the boulders, my feet relentlessly taking slow step by slow step. I was sure Jay was right, but I was too tired to believe.
We climbed over a tiny hump, indistinguishable from the hundreds of tiny humps I’d already ascended during this last mile. But there, through the mist, a shape loomed precipitously above us, dim blobs of color resolved to people taking pictures, and we were there! The top! Katahdin!!!
In honor of our nation’s birthday, we had brought patriotic wigs to wear for our picture by the famous sign. Many people laughed and cheered as we donned our 4th of July head gear and posed.
Ten minutes passed as we ate a quick snack, preparing for the five miles downhill still ahead of us. Just as we were finishing, the clouds abruptly rolled off the top of the mountain, revealing spectacular scenery below – lakes, mountains, trees, granite. Nature’s glory at our feet! The sign was mobbed as people rushed to get their picture with the view. We settled for a picture of the view a few feet away from the sign.
And then it was time to descend. Five miles, retracing the route we had so laboriously just climbed. But now I could see our route! It was amazing, looking at what I had climbed in blind ignorance. The last piece of re-bar completely did me in. As my toes felt for a hold on the rock, my eyes were inexorably drawn to the empty air between my legs. I froze, shaking, as I clutched that piece of iron with a death grip. Jay soothingly talked me down, helping me to focus on the problem of where to place each part of my body, instead of all the uninhabited expanse around my body!
We reached the ranger station just as the day succumbed to darkness, having spent 12 hours climbing up and plunging down this mountain. I couldn’t have completed Katahdin without Jay’s help. I was tired, sore, and so glad to be on real dirt, not bare granite! My sleeping bag had never felt so luxurious as we settled into our reserved campsite at Katahdin Stream Campground. Aaaaah!