Sadly, I misplaced my last 8 days on trail. I had recorded them on my phone’s notes application, but when I reset my phone post-trail the note was inadvertently deleted. Here is the best representation of what I remember. So much for being ultralight, am I right?!
9/28/2018 2190.9 | Home
We woke up early, around 5:30am. We ate breakfast as we packed up. It was chilly and there were clouds hanging over head. The beautiful day yesterday had dissolved into what looked like imminent rain. As we turned to leave our little campsite I couldn’t help but feel like I’d forgotten something. I looked under the picnic table and felt up my pack as if I’d find something I’d forgotten. Only four times on trail had I lost or forgotten anything. It was unlikely that I left anything behind.
We walked out of the campsite into a steady stream of thru-hikers and day hikers that had also camped at Katahdin Stream last night. We’d met a few of the thru-hikers around us when we were in the HMW, but, for the most part, we didn’t really know any of them. It almost felt like we were finishing our thru-hike in a different year because we weren’t surrounded by the people we knew.
The first two miles were easy. Mother Nature decided rain wasn’t in the cards for us. The air only got cooler as the day went on and sleet fell intermittently as we ascended the well beaten path to the summit. When we got three miles in the terrain changed. Large boulders and rocks, random metal footholds, and crazy gaps we had to cross appeared. We were up pretty high too. It was times like these that scared me. I felt it on Baldpate and Kinsman, too. This pit in my stomach that made me feel like I couldn’t climb it, like maybe I should turn around, isn’t this unsafe? I pushed on anyway and tried to hide my fears. The cold was only increasing as we gained elevation and the day went on. I wore my gloves, hat, long sleeve shirt, base layer and regular pants. The jacket was too warm, but without it I was cold. I suffered the cold to keep from sweating.
As we ascended, every day hiker we passed either congratulated us or looked at us in a way that said ‘I’m completely out of breath and shocked that you decided to do something like this for six months.’ The congratulations kind of felt wrong to me. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I’d hardly done this alone and, as far as my personal journey, I still had a very long way to go mentally. We made it up the steep rocky bits slowly, taking in the views behind us as we climbed. The clouds hung low over the valley, like little cotton wisps.
After the hard climb, the trail plateaued a bit. A long dirt path led us through the alpine zone, past Thoreau Springs, and up to the summit. From Thoreau Springs to the summit we could hear people cheering in finishing thru-hikers. The energy was palpable. But somehow, I still felt a little bit empty.
I thought back to all of the times in the southern portion of the trail that I imagined myself summitting Katahdin, reminding myself what all of it was for. But I realized, it was never about Katahdin for me. It was never about finishing. Of course, I was going to finish and that was my goal and I wasn’t going to let myself fail. But, to be cliché, It was really about the journey. I felt more emotion and satisfaction when I summited Mt. Washington that I did summitting Katahdin.
We walked up to the summit, congratulations from every day hiker we passed, and were clapped in by the other thru-hikers. Despite the fact that we hardly knew any of them, the welcomed us in with cheers and hugs just like they did the thru-hikers they knew. That was the kind of community it was. Being a thru-hiker was like being in this little club. And, for the most part, that club was very inclusive.
I hugged a couple of smelly hikers and put my pack down. I climbed over the miniature boulders up to the sign. I took my gloves off and reached out a bare hand to touch the Katahdin sign. In all of my dreams of this moment I imagined the wind blowing, tears flowing down my face, and an overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction. In reality? I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. I stared at my hand on that weathered, all important sign. I leaned down and, as dictated by tradition, kissed it. Nothing. No tears, no smiles, just nothing.
I turned and looked to Miles for confirmation of the nothingness. He seemed like he was happy to be there, but he wasn’t crying or anything. Thru-hikers around us reacted in their own ways: crying, cheering, screaming, posing on the sign in the usual ways. Another hiker offered to take a photo of me on the sign while Miles had his hands full. I obliged. Honestly, the photos really weren’t bad at all, it wasn’t the photos or the girl who took them that wasn’t right, it was me. I could see it in my own smile. The forced look of happiness, the awkward pose. I had no idea how to feel or what to feel. I had no feelings at all.
I’d seen my friends’ summit photos before we entered the HMW: broad smiles, action shots of whooping and hollering, silly poses, relaxed hikers standing on top of this insane sign in this crazy place totally at home. I looked at my photo, disappointed, and did not have the heart or confidence to ask someone to retake my photo. I stowed my phone in my pocket and took one last photo with Miles. Awkward but hilarious, the definition of our relationship really. The photo is so us. But, once again, I compared it to the photos that our friends had taken. Krafty and Blackbirds’ summit photo together was iconic and adorable! Ahab and Tigerlily looked OVERJOYED in their photo. But that’s all they are photos. A snapshot of that one moment in time. Just because I see their emotions in the photo as that doesn’t mean they actually felt it. No one is more perfect than any other person. Did it really matter that the photos weren’t what I had imagined them to be? Why did I put so much pressure and expectation on moments like these? Does everyone do that?
The sun started to peak through, and the day turned out to be pretty beautiful. It began to warm up a little bit as we stood there, and the wind disappeared completely. It was the perfect weather and the perfect timing and the perfect everything. But I still felt nothing. NOTHING. HOW?!
I stood on the summit and took in the hikers around me laughing and crying, saying goodbye to people they’d walked all the way here with. And just when we were about to turn and head back down the mountain, I saw a tweed hat and a dark orange striped wool shirt out of the corner of my eye. I looked again, and there stood Journeyman. I called out his name and went over to say hi. He gave me a big hug and told me, “I knew you’d make it!” The trail somehow made everything come full circle. It was in that moment that I finally felt something: pride.
I thought back to the night I stayed with Journeyman in Asheville, NC outside of Hot Springs. I had told him how I wanted to go home, that I wanted to quit, that I wasn’t sure if this was for me. He asked me, “Well what are you going home to? Are you okay with returning to that?” At the time I said no. I knew I hadn’t changed enough to be able to handle going home. In my own mind I would have called myself a failure even if no one else had.
When he dropped us off back in Hot Springs on the trail with Josh and Tang and Murdock, I had said goodbye to him. “Thanks for putting up with me, Journeyman.” I’d said and tried to force a laugh. I’d felt embarrassed about myself. I hated myself back then. I felt like I was a burden and I was constantly apologizing for everything including my presence. He looked me in the eye and said with a straight face, “Don’t do that.” I blushed, my cheeks burned. “Do what?” I’d replied. “Self-deprecate,” he had responded, frankly. “You’re better than that. You’re worth something.”
Journeyman was the first person to ever tell me not to self-deprecate straight-up. He was the first person to point out directly that I had worth. I’m sure he wasn’t the first person to tell me this. I’m sure others had tried. But no one had ever been so harshly direct with me. That day I’d said goodbye and realized that if I hated myself, how could I expect anyone else to like me? How could I spend all of my time vying for someone else’s approval (which I was constantly doing) when I didn’t even like myself. What kind of life would I have if I spent the entire time apologizing?
I’d seen him again one other time after that, in Virginia at Bear’s Den. When I saw him there, we hadn’t had much time to talk. But he told me he thought I’d come a long way. Now hearing him say, “I knew you’d make it.” On top of Katahdin reminded me of that conversation we’d had. That I should be proud of myself and I can allow myself to bask in this accomplishment. My whole life (every competition I’d won, soccer game I’d conquered, test I’d aced) I’d never felt a thing when I’d accomplished something. I forced myself not to feel anything because every single time an achievement was acknowledged I was sitting in my head telling myself that regardless of the recognition I did or didn’t get I wasn’t good enough. It didn’t matter what I accomplished. I was never good enough. Somehow this stranger who I’d met three times had shown me that I was. I had no attachment to this person, I barely knew him! But seeing him again brought back all of the memories of homesickness and the yearning to quit. And in that moment, I was really proud of myself. But that’s all I felt.
We said goodbye to Journeyman and made our way back down to Thoreau Springs where we branched off onto the Abol Trail blue blaze. We had considered taking Dragon’s Tooth down but had decided it was getting late, we were tired, and it looked terrifying. On our way down the Abol Trail I’d jokingly, and perhaps distastefully, made a joke about day hikers obsessively using their trekking poles, even in places where it would have been easier to not use them. I laughed about it but Miles pointed out that maybe I was just more experienced and I shouldn’t discount day hikers first experiences with trekking poles. While I was laughing, I tripped over a small rock and fell directly onto another small, and very pointy, rock. Right on my knee cap. I immediately began to cry. It hurt so badly it burned. When I got over the pain a bit I laughed and told Miles I was okay. We joked that it was my lesson for making fun of people. The trail wasn’t about to stop teaching us lessons just because we’d completed it.
The two of us kept marveling all the way down, “Wow. That’s it.” We were done. We’d completed the Appalachian Trail. It didn’t feel real. We were just going to go home now. And it wouldn’t be like the slackpack saga of the Whites. This time we were going home forever. Well, we could always come back. But it would never be the same. It wouldn’t be our very first thru-hiker ever again. It wouldn’t ever be our first experience with the trail ever again. We wouldn’t be newbs. It wouldn’t be our class of thru-hikers out there. We wouldn’t be learning and seeing everything for the first time. We were ‘experienced’ backpackers now.
We made our way down the Abol trail slowly. The bottom of the mountain was painted in fall leaves. The sun was out. The air had warmed. It was the most beautiful day. We followed the dirt road back to Katahdin Stream Campground, where my parents were waiting for us. We joked and laughed while we walked the road. We talked about what our lives might be like when we got home. We talked about how we didn’t want to be apart.
When we got to Katahdin Stream, my Dad was there waiting for me. I ran across the lawn of the picnic area and gave him a big smelly hug. They’d been waiting there for about an hour for us. We piled our packs into the station wagon and waved goodbye to the other thru-hikers, even though we hardly knew any of them. My mom and dad got into the front and Miles and I shared the back seat and we pulled out of the campground parking lot. I was thankful I didn’t have to sit there and wait for a shuttle to come get me and have to travel home by bus or plane. I was thankful that my parents cared enough to drive five hours to come and get me. I was thankful that I got to bring Miles home with me and I didn’t have to say goodbye. I don’t think I could have. If I had to say goodbye to him I think my post-trail depression would have started right then and there.
We drove home into the night, stopping for dinner along the way. When we got home I took a long, hot shower and scrubbed every limb and toe and finger. I patted my cat. I laid in the bed I’d left in my parent’s living room. I stayed up until 4am, patting my cat and thinking. I felt empty. Like I’d forgotten something. Like I’d left part of myself behind.