Dear Herm’s Hikers,
Go tell it on and from the mountain – MOUNTain KATAHDIN that is! As promised, it’s time to backtrack (That’s the last thing an AT hiker wants to do, but we do as we must.) and fill in the gap between Monson and Millinocket. After arriving in Monson, I quickly grew restless (That’s an AT affliction that makes the transition to the civiiian world difficult.) while waiting for the arrival of Rainbow Brite (RB), also known as Mrs. T, Mrs. Travers, or simply Cathy. So instead of relaxing and recupurating for a couple of days, I decided to hike part of The Wilderness so that RB and I would have only 50+ miles to go. This proved to be a wise decison because it definitely saved time and some wear and tear on my new hiking partner. The first 50+ miles of The Wilderness had some mountains that reached a top elevation of 3,650 feet at White Cap Mountain, but after The Whites, the difficulty of climbing any mountain in the north seemed to decrease. No doubt, most of this was psychological because after New Hampshire and Southern Maine, anything and everything seemed less difficult. So for a seasoned AT hiker, “The Wilderness” was in reality “The Milderness.” However, once again, I kept chanting in the back of my mind the AT mantra “there are no easy miles on the AT.” The main difficulty with this 100 mile stretch was resupply. Basically, a hiker is on their own until the White House Landing, a lodge and hostel that requires a boat ride across a lake, about 48 miles from Katahdin. There were a number of deserted logging roads that crossed the trail but they were 16+ miles from the main road and any chance of hitchhiking to civilization was non-existent.
After meeting with RB in Monson, we drove to Millinocket, our departure point south for the rest of The Wildernerss. Except for two days of rain and one rainy and cramped night in the woods (Thank goodness for the Big Agnes. The SL2 tent once again proved to be waterproof.), the hike was a sheer delight, a dream-come-true for AT hikers. For the last 50 miles, the trail snaked around a number of ponds and lakes on “relatively” flat ground with a trail bed of pine needles and leaves. Throw in an occasional glimpse of Mount Katahdin and you had a hiker’s paradise. Of course, there were sections of R&R, rocks and roots, but nothing like the past 300 miles. At Abol Bridge, a squat, unimpressive wood traffic bridge across the Penobscot River that looked like it came out of the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, we were able to get a panoramic view of the mountain only fifteen miles in the distance. It was almost as if you could reach out and touch it. It seemed that close after hiking over 2,000 miles. Inspiring and intimidating were my immediate thoughts! So close and yet so far away! But RB and I were confident about finishing. At last, I had my old hiking partner by my side and all was well. For the past week, I had spent most of the time hiking by myself, catching up with some other hikers at one of the shelters or hostels. Hiking by yourself is good at time, but it gets old in a hurry, especially in The Wilderness.
After spending a restless night at the Katahdin Inn, RB and I headed out at 5:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning to pickup Squeezecheese (SC) and hike to the summit. We had met with SC, my sometime hiking partner in Maine, the night before at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. If anybody gets a courage award for hiking the AT, it’s SC. When I first met hiim in Andover, ME, his legs were wrapped in braces and Ace bandages. “My knees are shot,” he said wearily at our first meeting, hobbling to his room as if ready to lie down on his death bed. Instead, he rose from his AT deathbed to become the AT Lazarus. What an inspiration! SC was a most welcomed addition to our summit party. He was refreshed, rejuvenated, and re-energized now that the end was in sight. I was glad that we now had another experienced hiker with us. Despite the lack of sleep over worrying about RB and I making it to the top of the mountain, the adrenalin was pumping at 4:30 that morning without chocolate doughnuts and/or coffee. To guarantee a spot in Baxter State Park, RB and I had stopped by the park HQ to reserve a parking space at Katahdin Stream Campground (the trailhead for the Hunt Trail on the AT) for Wednesday morning. Due to the summer popularity of the park and the mountain, that’s how the system works. To ensure a chance to hike, you reserve a parking space, not a camping space for a fee of $5.00. If you don’t have a reserved space and the lot is full, then you have to wait until 7:30 to see if there is a no-show. Then if you’re lucky enough to be the next in line, you get the space and a chance to summit. There are only about 25 or 30 parking spots so competition is keen. In addition to the reservation fee, there’s a $14.00 entrance fee to the park entrance. So if you finally get into the park and can’t summit, you’re out of luck and have to repeat the process. Lucky for us, the park attendant at the toll booth saw the magnetic Herm’s Hike signs on the side of the SUV and waived the entrance fee after we explained that were were hiking as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Assocation. I didn’t get the attendant’s name, but, once again, thank you for your trail magic and God bless you. Your generosity gave us an emotional boost that we were doing something meaningful for the families suffering from the disease.
At the campground, all three of us packed our daypacks with cameras, water, Gatorade, snacks, sandwiches, and some foul weather gear. After registering at the ranger station and signing in at the trailhead, we headed to the summit under a perfect weather day, sunny with a high temperature predicted near 80 (minimum of 10 degress cooler on the mountain) and winds at 5 to 10 MPH. For the first miles, it was hiker heaven, a flat walk through a mixed pine forest and not too much in the way of roots and rocks. To me this was a scary situation because I knew the trail companion book and maps listed the 5.3 mile hike from the campground to the summit with a elevation gain of 4,188 feet over 5.3 miles. Throw out the first mile and that leaves an elevation gain of 4,188 over 4.3 miles Throw out the last mile on the mountain tabletop, which had an elevatoin gain of 600 feet from the mountain ridge to the summit, and that leaves an elevation gain of 3,588 over 3.3 miles. Now that’s getting rather steep, especially going up the side of the mountain above the treeline. I walked in silence, keeping my calculations to myself for fear of spooking my fellow hikers. After we reached Katahdin Falls, a mile into the hike, we started to climb, and climb, and climb. At first, it was a series of rock steps above the waterfalls and then some serious rock outcroppings about every 10 yards. With every step, the rocks got larger and the mountain steeper. As we slowly ascended, I started to worry. RB and I were having trouble climbing the larger rocks. To ascend, we had to throw our hiking poles ahead of us, climb hand over hand, and retrieve our poles. Ten yards later, repeat process until exhausted. It wasn’t too long before the hiking poles were folded up and stuffed in the daypacks. Progress was slow but steady until we reached The Gateway, an 8 ft. rock ledge with re-bar handles about halfway to the summit. Had we reached the trail’s end? It sure looked like it. There was no way RB was going to be able to climb up the gateway, a forboding and menacing wall of rock that led to the spine of the moutain that led to the summit. Maybe, she could have done it, and, most likely, she could have done it, but it wasn’t worth the risk. From the beginning, I insisted that any chance of serious injury was not worth the risk since we were so close to the finish. Safety was paramount. I was afraid that RB would fall and get hurt and that wasn’t worth the risk. Once you get hurt on the side of the mountain, it can be a most perilous trip back down. You either have to be carried down by rescuers or pulled out by rescue helicopter. There was no way I was going to leave my hiking partner of 30 years on the side of a mountain. And we were literally on the side of the mountain, huddled in a rocky notch above the treeline surrrounded by rocks the size of tractor trailers. What to do! What to do? That was the question. Frustrated, I bellowed this question to the neighboring mountains. My echo received no answer, but what followed was a philosophical discussion between RB and myself about the goals of the hike. After a few expletives deleted about our predicament, I repeated to RB that I could not leave her alone on the side of the mountain. She urged me to continue with SC, stating that she had food, water, extra clothing, and enough common sense not to climb donw the mountain by herself. She emphasized the goal of the hike was to finally place the Herm’s Hike memorial rock at the summit and repeated that she wsa more than content to patiently wait for our return. Poor SC, all he could do was listen. At one point, we considered letting him take the rock to the top, an idea that he readily endorsed. But sanity prevailed, or should I say RB prevailed, and after a kiss for good luck from RB, SC and I continued to climb without RB. We quickly realized the decision to leave RB was the right one. The climb was even more difficult past The Gateway. RB could relax and take some great pictures of the great views from her rocky perch. But despite the reassuring thoughts, I worried. How could I not. How could I leave the love of my life stranded on the side of a mountain while I pushed forward to the summit. But push on I did with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
So higher and higher, we climbed, hand over hand up the spine of the mountain that rose nearly straight up. We were dwarfed by the size of the rocks. All you could see was the next big rock directly in front of you. The layers of skin on my palms and fingers were peeling off with all of the pushing, pulling, sliding and scraping. Finally after about a mile of this mountain wasteland, we crested the spine and laid eyes on the mountain plateau. The summit of Katahdin was just over a mile in the distance. Our paced quickened, and SC dashed ahead, leaving me behind on the rocky dirt trail. He caught the scent of the finish like a bloodhound and raced forward while I cheered him on. At least we had a trail where we could now actually hike/walk instead of climb. A half an hour later, we were together at the summit. Finally, we had reached the end of the trail! Tears welled in our eyes as we thought back to the many months and thousands of miles. Emotionally, I was numb for the first few minutes on the summit. All I could do was just stand in front of the sign and stare at it in disbelief. I had reached the end of Herm’s Hike! After gathering our thoughts and emotions, we took turns taking pictures. Luckily, we met Dan, photographer and musician from Lancaster, PA, (visit him at http//: smithfactory.com) who took some pictures with his professional camera equipment and the promise to send us copies via e-mail which he did. Thanks Dan for the great pictures.
After a few more pictures, I finally opened my dayback and gently lifted the memorial rock which I placed beneath the summit sign. What is the memorial rock? A flat faced rock about 5 inches wide and 12 inches long that was given to me by a Lakota medicine man for the specific purpose of placing it on Mount Katahdin, the sacred mountain of the Abenaki Indians. The rock was reportedly from Bear Butte in South Dakota, a sacred mountain to the Lakota nation. RB first painted the rock white and then hand-painted the logos for Herm’s Hike and the Alzheimer’s Associaiton and the names of remembered Alzheimer’s victims. Needless to say, my fellow hikers were impressed with the history behind the rock. After placing the rock in view of all hikers along with my prayer bundles signifying the four directions and the cycle of life, I then placed memorial cards with the names of Alzheimer’s victims in one of the cairns along with one of the poems written by my nephew Justin. Another emotional moment that left me with tears in my eyes. As I turned around to look back at the Mount Katahdin, my fellow hikers were gently clapping their hands in tribute to Herm’s Hike. A tear or two or three rolled down my cheek. Life does not get any better than that.
After a quick snack, SC and I headed down the mountain with a song in our heart and a spring in our step. Since the trail ended at Mount Katahdin, we now had 5 dead miles to backtrack down the mountain. Along the way, I couldn’t help but worry about the fate of RB. Minutes later my fears were quickly relieved after I questioned some of the hikers heading to the top. They had all met the lady at the bottom of The Gateway. For over 2 hours, RB had greeeted hikers with a smile and enthusiastically cheered them to the top while waiting for her husband to return from the summit. That is the epitome of an AT hiker, whether is be thru-hiker, section hiker, 1 day hiker, 1 hour hiker, or 1 step hiker. After informing the passing hikers that I was the husband from the summit, they reassured me that RB was fine and in good spirits. My fears were relieved, but I stilll had to get down the mountain. And slowly I did, mostly by the seat of my pants. After about an hour, I finally reached RB and together with SC, we slowly and carefully hiked triumphantly down the mountain, finally arriving at the campground parking lot about 9 hours after we had left. We then headed to the Appalachian Trail Lodge for a victory dinner and few victory beers to toast our success. After dropping off an exhausted but jubilant SC at the AT Trail Lodge, we headed back to the Katahdin Inn. For RB and myself, the day and the hike had been a success. We had started the hike together at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and we ended the hike together at the Katahdin Stream Campground.
The fact the we did not summit Mount Katahdin together was immaterial and irrelevant! We had hiked our own hike. What a sense of accomplishment! What a sense of relief! It seemd all too surreal to be back in the hotel room knowing that my journey had come to an end. The numbers were mind boggling, 2,178 miles and over 5 million steps. Yes, I had hiked the Appalachian Trail. Herm’s HIke now belonged to AT legend and lore. Now all I had to was adjust to civilization, and from last year, I knew that could be a difficult process.
Stayed tuned for the next trail journal entry. As promised, I’ll discuss how the spiritual journey of Son-Dance on the AT ended. I think you’ll really enjoy it! Thank you for your prayers and donations. As always, hike in peace and hike with your angels!