The Home Stretch

July 12, 2018

Destination: The Birches Campsite Today's Miles: 24.90

Start Location: Rainbow Stream Lean-to Trip Miles: 2185.70

The last sunset - at The Birches
Like many mornings since I got into New Hampshire and farther north, I woke up to the sound of red squirrels chittering away. They seem like such jittery and angry creatures.

Their southern cousin, the grey squirrel, is like a relaxed hillbilly, chewing on a piece of straw and every day is his oyster. He looks at you with curiosity and wonderment, and when he does get spooked he runs quietly off to join the other good ole boys. Not the red squirrel! The red squirrel is the nervous, neurotic, two pack a day smoking, obsessive coffee drinker New Yorker. The red squirrel manages multiple slums and is constantly having to make sure his housing projects are in order. We do not belong in his neighborhood, and he shouts at us and to the neighbors about the fact that we are there. The red squirrel spends a lot of time  looking out his window with binoculars assuming the world is going to end. He chitters when I arrive and set up my tent, and when he wakes up and sees my tent in the morning, he chitters again and then smokes some cigarettes while he decides what to do about it. It’s the most annoying sound ever, and yet, Frank pointed out that I will miss it after the trail. I know he is right. I once had a red squirrel yell at me while I was sitting down eating a snack. He then ran up a log nearby and for a minute I thought he might take my snack mix out of my hand. And yet, I will miss them. We don’t have them in Georgia. We have the goofy grey ones, the big hillbilly squirrels that sound bigger than they actually are when they run through the woods. I’ve gotten pretty good about knowing what animal is running away by the sound they make. Grey squirrels, red squirrels, chipmunks, grouse, deer, and moose (the bulldozer of the forest) - I have come to know the sound of their movement, most of the time anyway. I am quite sure I will miss these small details when I am off the trail. For now though, I still had them for another day at least, and I was enjoying them. 

I hiked out of camp about ten minutes before six. I had a lot to do today. My first goal was to get to Abol Bridge and out of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. At Abol Bridge camp store I could resupply with breakfast and snacks for Katahdin tomorrow, as well as eat lunch at their restaurant! Ultra Runner was still in the shelter when I left. She said she planned to summit on Saturday with a friend, but that she was going to the Birches tonight at least. I figured I would see her later. I hiked along at a decent clip. I passed Rainbow campsite and then later passed Frank, who had stealth camped farther north. I said hello and knew I would see him at the restaurant. He was going to summit Friday as well. I got to a slight climb called Rainbow Ledges and saw a ton of wild blueberry bushes. This time I was in luck! I found a few ripe ones and ate some. They were sweet! It was my first time ever eating wild blueberries that I had found. I got another view of Katahdin from the ledges before descending down towards Abol Bridge. I passed by a sign that marked the northern end of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It was time to leave for the promised land. 

Approaching Abol Bridge you wouldn’t think much of it. It’s a dirty gravel road and the bridge doesn’t look like much beyond its function as a way for vehicles to make it over the West Branch of the Penobscot River. But the minute an AT hiker steps out onto the bridge, Katahdin is visible in all its grandeur, closer than ever before. You can feel its heart beating, taste its dust, and understand it is a force to be reckoned with. It commands respect, and with that view from Arbol Bridge, the fact that I would climb it tomorrow instantly became real. This was happening!

I could taste the finish as I crossed that bridge, particularly when I saw Homebound on the other side talking with one of the Baxter Park rangers. I thought he had already summited, but he would do so tomorrow along with me. It was almost a little emotional seeing another thru hiker there. I guess it was a little emotional. There was a section hiker there with Homebound named Ozzie. He was finishing up his last section and would summit tomorrow as well. Ozzie is a 68 year old Vietnam Vet from Minnesota. He’s the nicest guy and one tough dude! He was all bandaged up from a recent fall and had blood all over one of his legs, but he was just chatting and smiling. 

I went inside to do my last and final mini resupply. I bought unhealthy things. Delicious, unhealthy junk gravitated towards my clutches. It was the kind of shopping you would expect from a death row inmate of it were his last meal and he was 8 years old. I bought a cinnamon bun and a mini lemon pie for breakfast. I bought 4 packs of M&Ms (gotta have some for the summit!), some twizzlers, trail mix and cliff bars. I even bought a pumpkin whoopie pie as a “snack.”  It was ridiculous, but I did it anyway; it was my last hurrah. I purchased a root beer and took it over to the restaurant. I sat next to Homebound at the bar counter and ordered an appetizer of poutine as well as a Reuben panini with potato salad. As I ate the entire thing, every last morsel, we talked about the rest of the day and summiting tomorrow. The ranger ha taken out names down as he was doing an informal count of hikers who would be at The Birches. They only put 12 hikers there, so I am not sure what they do when the bubble rolls through, but tonight we would not have that problem. Next we had to hike into the park, register at a kiosk, hike to the ranger station, pay $10 for The Birches and get a “free” Thru hiker permit to summit Katahdin, and then we could get set up at The Birches, which was near the ranger station. And that’s what we did. 

Frank showed up at the restaurant and we all finished eating. There was just one last detail - ice cream! There was an ice cream window around the side of the store and I got a cone with two scoops. Diabetes here we come! Hopefully not.... Ultra Runner showed up as I was finishing my ice cream. She was headed inside to eat some food. I had thought that I would see her later at The Birches, but she never showed. I think she either decided to go to town to meet her friend, or maybe even camped at Abol. If I’d known she wasn’t going to The Birches, I would have said a proper hiker goodbye. 

We all headed to The Birches at our separate paces, though I walked and talked with Ozzie up to the Park registration kiosk, where we put our names on the list for The Birches. I stopped to get some water from Katahdin Stream, wanting it not just because I was thirsty, but also because of the stream name. And then we were off at separate paces. I enjoyed walking alone. It was time for me to think. Rafters drifted down the Penobscot after a day of whitewater, and I passed many beautiful views of both the river and tributaries feeding into it. I thought about my journey, and how I almost couldn’t believe I was here, at Baxter State Park, finishing. It wasn’t that I doubted I could do it, it’s just that the trip was so long and I focused on just experiencing it one day at a time. But that’s how it goes - one day at a time, one step at a time, and there we are. There I was. By being present in the moments, all of those moments of the journey, the rain, the heat, the cold and the grit, I had somehow made it to the other side. It’s a very different arrival experience than focusing on the end goal every day and worrying about getting there. I felt satisfied, amazed, and almost surprised. 

“I walked across, an empty land. I knew the pathway like the back of my hand. I felt the earth, beneath my feet. Sat by a river it did make me complete.” I felt the desire to sing these words once again, as I had sung them many a day on trail, these lyrics written by Keane. I had gotten to where the trail felt familiar, like an old friend or a comforting sanctuary. Sometimes I felt it most when I retired for the evening, and other times I felt it when the first rays of sun would hit my face, or when a view would surprise me as I moved along my way. “Oh simple thing, where have you gone, I’m getting older and I need something to rely on. So tell me when, you’re gonna let me in. I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin.” Sometimes that simple thing feels like it is lost, even on the trail. But it always shows back up in some way if I am patient, and humble, and ask for it to show me on its terms. And, as I’ve said before, perhaps Mick Jagger puts it best: I can’t always get what I want, but if i try sometimes, I might find I get what I need. That simple thing - if I’ve found it on the trail, then I can find it outside the trail. The funny thing about the trail is, it doesn’t end if I keep it alive. I don’t have to be hiking it to feel it. I don’t have to be living on it to connect to something more meaningful, more spiritual. I had these thoughts, and as I sang my songs and walked along, I believed them to be true. I hope they are.

The rest of the trail was a blur. I felt good; I was lost in thought. I know I saw ponds and pretty scenery, and I remember more blueberry bushes, but I had one thing left to do and so I just walked. I got to the Ranger station and checked in with a young Ranger named Justine. She was very friendly and gave me my summit permit. I was the 94th northbound thru hiker to make it to Katahdin and get a summit permit. I saw that Apollo and Skutch had summited yesterday along with others. Justine showed me a bunch of small packs and said i could use those to only hike up with a day pack, or just put some of my stuff in one of them and hike with clean weight in my pack. I picked up s funky looking one and took it to camp to consider using it. The hike up Katahdin was said to be quite difficult due to required bouldering moves in the section leading up to an area called the Tableland before the summit. I felt conflicted though, because up until this point I have always carried my full pack on all of the many mountains I’ve summited. I would think on this. I headed to the Birches. 

When I arrived at camp, Frank and Homebound were there. Frank had started  a fire to keep the mosquitos down. The last fire! I set up my tent and joined them by the fire. It had come down to this. Ozzie made it in a little later. Ultra never showed. It would be the four of us on this last evening on our trek. We talked about a lot of things, including Frank’s triple crown. We talked about pack weight as well. When I said I was thinking about leaving some weight at the ranger station, Frank said “why? You’ve carried it this far.”  I knew then that he was right. I knew it wouldn’t feel genuine to me if I didn’t carry my full pack, and so that decision was made. 

My pack is definitely not as light as it could be, though it is always getting lighter. Sometimes it gets lighter as I let go of the need for things. Sometimes it gets lighter as I consume things, but then heavier again when I resupply. Some things cannot get lighter and must be carried, whether I like it or not. The lighter my pack gets, the happier my hiking is. I feel free with a light pack. There is definitely a point at which getting rid of more would make my experience worse, and perhaps dangerous. I cannot just throw my pack away; I have to carry one. But if I work to make it lighter and keep it lighter, it’s amazing how quickly I can become comfortable with less. My experience on the trail has shown me that my pack is my life, my life is like a pack. I need to clear it of the unnecessary to make room for experience, appreciation, and the joy and satisfaction that come from simplicity and utility. I knew this before the trail, or I thought I did, but the trail has been a real and practical microcosm to give this theory a whirl. I will continue to try and lighten my pack, both on the trail and off.

We took pictures of the last sunset. We told trail stories. We joked about how we were all going to sleep with our food bags in our tents (and we did!). We stared at the fire, listened to each other and the sounds of the forest, each of us with our own thoughts, no doubt, flowing through our minds. We knew what this meant. We knew what we had to do. Frank talked a little bit about life after the trail, since he had the most experience with it. There was something calming about that. Then we all went to bed.

I got in my tent and prepped a few things for the morning. I would write my journal later. Tonight, I would lie back, look at the sky, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the forest. I listened to the little birds that I call the hunger games birds because of their birdsong. I might miss this sound the most. They have been my companions through it all for a while now. As the red squirrels yelled and the birds produced their haunting songs, I drifted off to sleep, grateful for this journey, grateful simply to feel alive.

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