Day 193: Mile 1981.2 | Poplar Ridge Lean-To
After a short day of hiking, we stopped shortly after Poplar Ridge Lean-to. A beautiful bed of pine needles shaded by the tallest trees we’d seen with modest view and perfect cerpuscular rays shining through the campsite, I just had to stop. I had a lot of mixed emotions running through my head. I was coping with being close to the end and somehow still very far.
While we sat at the campsite trying to decide if we’d camp there that night, Butter came upon us and tried to egg us on to go further. In all reality, we could have gone further. I think Miles wanted to. But I didn’t. I wanted to savor this experience now. When would we see another beautiful campsite like this? When would I ever feel at home like this again? I struggled to quiet my guilty mind. I should go further, I’m out here to hike not camp. I’m out here to make progress on myself and this trail. I quelled my anxious thoughts and decided to stay anyway.
I got water for the two of us. The water was clear and cold, spring water. Everything about the day made me want to savor it. The sun, the 65-degree warmth, the cold, clean water, the company of Miles. I was content. A feeling I hadn’t felt since that night before Moosilauke when we’d been with Blackbird and Krafty.
Miles borrowed my phone to call Skywalker, who had already made it to Katahdin by this point. While he talked on the phone, I sat in my tent and looked out at the woods around me. I breathed deeply and tried to absorb this as much as I could. To make it stick in mind so I would never forget it. I felt the salt on my skin, the dirt stuck to my calves, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to sit and be.
At 2am, while Miles was sleeping, I woke up to go pee. I stepped out of my tent without my glasses and found a spot. I looked up at the sky. The blurry view above me was so enchanting. The multitude of stars shining and twinkling in the sky was almost more beautiful than any of the mountaintop views I’d seen yet. I breathed in the chilly 50-degree air as goosebumps rose on my bare arms. Back in my tent, I put my glasses on and stepped back out to look at the stars once more. The crystalline shimmering stars captivated me, and I stood staring up at the sky until I got cold.
I climbed back in my sleeping bag, my wool leggings slid into my still warm sleeping bag. I laid on my back on my sleeping pad with my head on my inflatable pillow. I tried my best to really feel how it felt. To really take it in and stamp it into my mind. What if I never felt like this again? Sure, I could go backpacking any time after this. Sure, I didn’t live that far from here, I could come back. But would I? Would I really? With all of the place I wanted to see and people I wanted to meet and the life I wanted to build, would I really come back here? Would it be the same, then? It wouldn’t, I knew. So I took it all in as best I could. The simple, little things. The feelings that made it blissful. Those were the things I wanted to remember.
The feeling of contentness, the feeling of belonging, the concrete knowledge that this is where I was meant to be right here in this moment.
Day 194: Mile 1995.4 | Crocker Cirque Campsite
In the morning I woke up, exhausted. I’d basically stayed up the whole night. I finished packing long before Miles and I tried to help him get going. He offered me the last of his dirty water if I wanted it. I always wanted more water. I took the bag from him, his filter already attached, and screwed my water bottle on. I began to squeeze the bag to push the water through the filter. Wooooshh! The filter came off of the mouth of the water bag and exploded all over my dry clothes. It wasn’t cold out but it wasn’t exactly warm, either. Not the best start to my day.
We started walking and the day warmed with the rising sun. The terrain turned out to be easier than expected and I perked myself up with some good music for a little while. We made our way over Sugarloaf Mountain and ran into some nice day hikers. They passed us, I think these were the only day hikers to ever pass us on trail that weren’t ultra-running!
After the summit, Miles stopped dead in the middle of the trail. He put his hands back to stop me. “What?! What’s going on?” I asked him. “Shhhhh!” He hushed me. He whispered something I couldn’t hear. I took out my headphones and looked around, trying to see whatever it was he seemed to be seeing. “What is it?” I whispered to him. “Shhh!” He said. A moment later he unfroze and let me go. “It was a moose!” He exclaimed to me. “A real moose!” He’d only seen one other before, in the car on the Kancamagus Highway on our way to go slackpacking. He was thrilled that he’d gotten to see one for real. He skipped ahead of me and showed me, “She was right here!” I laughed. I’ve seen many moose in my lifetime. While seeing them is still majestic and exciting to me, I think it was far more exciting to Miles.
Up ahead a bit further on trail we ran into the most unexpected trail magic! On a tree stump right on the side of the trail, far from any road, was half a dozen Granny Smith Apples! Right across the trail from the apples was a beautiful cliff with a view of the valley below. Serendipity.
Despite the start, it turned out to be one of the best days I’d had on trail. Perhaps it was my new obsession with imprinting the trail experience on my brain, or maybe it was the perspective shift I’d been slowly going through this entire journey, or really it was a good day. I couldn’t tell. But I was happy.
Day 195: Mile 2000.4 | Cranberry Stream Campsite
We got up early and hiked as fast as we could to the next major road. We planned on hitching a ride into either Stratton or Carabasset Valley to get resupply and get back on trail. We’d agreed that we would forgo laundry and showers, neither of us wanting to spend money on something so trivial this late in the trail. We were both getting low on funds and I was trying to avoid asking my parents for help. I’d made it all the way here from Pennsylvania without their monetary help, aside from when we’d stayed with them in the Whites and their visits to us in Rangely and Andover. Okay so they’d helped, but that should have been enough. Having to budget such a small amount of money had made me a lot more grateful for what they did for me all these years when I was struggling. Not only budgeting money but budgeting my time. I realized how much time was worth out here, and most times it seemed like it was worth far more than money.
When we got to the wide, 50mph road, we held out our thumbs and smiled. We smelled awful. In pre-trail research you’ll find many articles about how to hitchhike politely. We weren’t following any of those rules: 1. Change into at least a clean shirt, you smell. 2. Wipe down with baby wipes or a camp towel. 3. Know where you’re going. We didn’t care where we were going or how badly we smelled as long as there was food on the other end.
We stood there for a good half hour and I started getting nervous. Our plan was to get in, get out, and then hike 5-7 miles further north that afternoon. It was already 10:45am. Eventually, An older guy in a Lincoln Town Car with the classic square 70’s metal glasses and a dog in the front seat. He asked where we were going and we told him. He offered to take us down to the local grocery store, he lived in Stratton he told us. In the car he told us about how he loved to bring hikers home and help them out, as his dog sat in my lap and licked my face. He offered to take us home so that he could cook us lunch and we could do our laundry and shower. He even had loaner clothes, he told us. We apologized about our smell and took him up on his offer. It seemed he wouldn’t let us refuse.
At the grocery store he went around and got stuff for burgers while we did our resupply. I was flustered by all of it. The small SureFine didn’t have a lot of the things that I usually got and I ended up with a lot of groceries, half of which weren’t even what I wanted. Tom, the trail angel, offered to pay for our groceries. I felt awkward and almost didn’t let him, but he insisted. While he was paying the chief of police came through and greeted Tom like an old friend. The police chief told us about how much he loves hikers and how whenever he goes grocery shopping, he grabs an extra six pack and leaves it at the trailhead for hikers. This small town seemed very happy to have hikers here.
I thought I was splitting some of it with Miles, but he didn’t end up wanting to split most of it by the time we got outside. I stuffed, and I mean STUFFED to the brim, all of the food into my pack outside the store. We saw Butter while we were packing up our food. Tom offered to take her with us, too, but she’d already put her laundry in at the laundr-o-mat. We said goodbye to her, and Tom took us back to his place. On the way, he showed us a little view point nearby his home. He drove us up this dirt road to the top of a hill and pointed to a peak way out in the distance.
“That there,” he told us, “is Katahdin.” Surprised, our mouths fell open. We didn’t think we’d see Katahdin for a few days. It was the most motivating and bittersweet sights I’d ever seen. I was so excited to get there, but I also wasn’t ready for it to end. For the past few days I’d hiked less miles than I’d said I was going to. I slacked. Subconsciously, I really wasn’t ready for it to be over. I think I was also tired, almost burnt out on the trail. But happy, too. It was a mixed bag.
Back at Tom’s house we showered, cuddled with his cat, and did our laundry. He made us lunch and left us alone to eat at his dining room table in the wood paneled cabin. He left out a huge smorgasbord of food for us: burgers, chips, corn, salad, beer, ice cream, fruit, yogurt. Whatever a hiker could want he had. We filled ourselves and Tom offered for us to stay the night, but we told him we really had to get back to trail. We were still trying to make the deadline for my friend’s wedding. He told us he appreciated us for not taking total advantage of him and told us a story of a hiker who stayed with him for two months once!
Back on trail we stopped at the first campsite. I really wanted to stop there. I don’t know why. It was still light out we were well fueled, I had way too much food and my pack was heavy, but I could’ve made it further. Instead, I told Miles I wanted to stop. He agreed after a while. I didn’t feel great about it, but it was the decision I’d made. We hoped to see Blackbird and Krafty that night, Blackbird had texted me to say she was nearby. We never saw them, but we did see Butter! We settled in and the campsite ended up being packed that night. Into town, out of town seemed to be everyone’s philosophy that day. Combine that with the southbound bubble and it was crowded.
The campsite was just after Mile 2000. We were so close to the end. Only 190.9 more miles. That was like the distance from Springer to Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies. Looking back now, as far as that seemed then, it wasn’t far at all. It was two weeks, maybe three. Two. Weeks. Maybe. Three. How had it gone by so fast and yet somehow so slowly, too? How were we here? All the things I had dreamed about being here, all the feelings I thought I’d feel, all the accomplishments and confidence and foundness I thought I’d feel. Well, those feelings weren’t as strong as I thought they’d be. I’m still a human, I realized. Nothing is the perfect fantasy you imagine it.
Day 196: Mile 2018.0 | Little Bigelow Lean-To
I finally got my shit together on this day. I powered through my heavy pack up to the Bigelows. It started out rainy in the morning, but the storm slowly petered out to fog and wind. The summits of the Bigelows was other worldly. Windy and cold but the sun slowly peaked through and it was beautiful. Everything we climbed revealed epic views. We saw the lake that Tom had driven us around down in Stratton below. Out in the distance Katahdin, or Mama K as many hikers call her, could be seen if you looked closely and had a map to help. I was on it. I was ready to move forward and hike my ass off. The weight of my pack made my feet unsteady and the wind didn’t help. I fell twice. My pants, still at home with my mom because I chose not to take them with me, would have been nice on this day. My legs were plastered with goosebumps. But I hardly noticed. I was too busy paying attention to the beauty around me.
As we moved forward the sun shone even more. We slowly made our way to the lean to and got further than the past three days, but still not quite as far as I wanted to. On the map ahead, I saw Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps. For the past four weeks I’d been getting random Instagram direct messages from other hikers who knew me telling me, “Go up to Harrison’s when you get to Pierce Pond, he has a surprise for you.” A month ago, I had no idea who or what Harrison was. I found out when I was home in the Whites, our family friends go there every year and they bought us the hiker breakfast for when we got there. It was such a nice surprise.
We decided to aim for Harrison’s the next day, 18 miles ahead. We hadn’t done more than 15 since the Whites. I guess that whole Slackpack Saga had burnt me out on big days. As much as big days made me feel satisfied at the end and as much as it felt good to push myself, I was just happier doing 15 mile days.
Day 197: Mile 2036.0 | Harriosn’s Pierce Pond Camp
We got up early and pushed ourselves. Miles pushed 4mph for a good while. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with him anymore and I let him go ahead. We’d been seeing more people lately, but we didn’t know any of them and neither we nor they attempted to make friends with each other. What I thought was another northbound bubble, turned out to be a bunch of flip-floppers. We passed a whole bunch of them on this day.
I plugged into my podcasts and sped through the day. Going my own pace felt good. I only stopped once. It was too cold to stop more than that. My legs had permanent goosebumps now. Breaks only happened when a perfect beam of direct sunlight broke through the trees. This stretch of trail was easy, though, and breaks weren’t really that necessary.
We made it to the camp by 3pm. Tim, the owner, showed us to a little cabin that he offered us to stay in for the night as a part of our surprise gift. He showed us to the showers and told us to make ourselves at home and he even offered to boil some water for us so that we could make dinner without having to get water or anything. We spread our sleeping bags out on the bed and took our showers. After showering we went up to the main cabin and looked through the photo albums he had. Photos going back into the 1930’s depicted the camps many patrons with their hunting and fishing prizes. The cabin looked exactly the same in those photos as it did the day we were there. We signed the log book and Tim gave us some clam chowder for dinner after his other guests had eaten. It was top notch, classic New England chowder. Miles had never had any before! After dinner we went back down to the cabin in the chilly evening air, chilly for summer that is, and sat on the front porch of the little cabin. It was right on the stream that connected the ponds. We sat and listened to the gushing water coming from the ponds, smelled the pine tree filled air, and laughed together about the crazy places we’d been along the way.