Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The White Whale is Dead

-Needham, MA-

Right after I finished the last post, the crew of Brown Chicken, Brown Cow, and Cloud informed me that we were not leaving Rangeley after all. Turns out they met a former thru-hiker in town, who invited us all over for a night of libation and merriment. We left Rangeley two days later.

The terrain coming out of Rangeley was incredible. The never-ending rock slabs started to dissipate and well-worn and open trail became common place. Instead of being locked in a pine cave all the time, we now had views of the distant and uninhabited valleys of Maine, and what a sight it was. To look out over thousands of acres and see nothing but trees and lakes is something to be experienced. You would think that after being in the middle of the woods for months, I would have plenty of experience of feeling alone, but rarely did it happen before Maine. There was always the whine of an engine off in the distance, power lines strung across the landscape, or a road cutting its way through the forest. Not in Maine. Just you, trees, and lakes - that's it. An eerie but peaceful calm I've never experienced.

It was a couple days later that we came across the last major mountain chain before we made our way into the Hundred Mile Wilderness (more on this later), and the Bigelows did not disappoint. We caught them on one of the best days of the trip - no clouds, a calm breeze, and consistent sunshine. With enormous Flagstaff Lake to one side of the peak and Sugarbush & Friends on the other, the panorama was breathtaking. I almost fell on my face a couple of times because I couldn't peel my eyes away from the colossal expanse of nature all around me. I hung out on the summit for a good hour and a half, staring into the horizon, thinking about how after hundreds of summits and the thousands of steps they took to hurdle, there was now only one mountain left - Katahdin.

I stumbled down from the Bigelows and settled into camp earlier than expected because of a cold night ahead. Cloud dressed up in some hilarious flannels he found in the shelter and tended the fire looking like a 300lb Kid Rock with an alcohol problem. After a - let's go with, "refreshing" - night's sleep, I noticed that there were some new hikers that had pulled into camp after I had gone to sleep, named Wing-It, Don't Panic, and Tarzan. I had met them earlier in a town a while back, but I did not realize then that they were the appointed bearers of the Bad Wizard.

The Bad Wizard is a relic of long distance hiking, having already traveled the length of the Pacific Crest Trail in years past. This year it was going up the Appalachian Trail, and at the Trail Days festival, Rainman and I had put in our names to be considered as the new bearers of the Bad Wizard, but we did not get the honor. Few have ever carried the Wizard and those who have tell stories of its mystical powers and the misfortune it brings to the one who carries it. It is both a spiritual and physical burden - spiritual, with the bad karma it instills upon you, and physical, because the Bad Wizard is in fact a four and a half pound solid brass dildo.

Needless to say, I needed to carry it. So, when I asked, they were happy to let me carry it for the day to the next camp. No bad luck for me - a smooth 21 miles to Pierce Pond where I gladly returned the dildo to its rightful carrier.

I woke up the following morning unaware that I was about to get into one of the best trail magic experiences of all time. First, as most good things do, it started with a bout of cliff jumping with Space and Brown Cow near a waterfall not far from the Kennebec River (thank you to the both of them for convincing me to jump). We then rode our adrenaline to the Kennebec itself, where we crossed via creepy canoe boatman guy, and met up with the rest of the crew of Chicken, Cloud, and Suzy Creamcheese.

That morning we planned on going a good distance, but the crew was now bent on getting a good breakfast in town, and since the place was willing to pick us up from the trail, I was happy to go along with the new plan. Then we saw a note left from a mutual friend to us, explaining that she knew a raft guide in town and we could all go rafting for free. This was too good to pass up and so we started calling. From hiking 20 miles to free whitewater rafting in about 10 minutes. That's life on the trail in a nutshell.

Turns out she could only take three of us, so being a good doobie, I took myself out of the running just to make life easier for everybody. I believe that this move is what led us what happened next.

The place we went to for food was called Northern Outdoors, a family resort in Caratunk, ME with everything a person would want and more. Food, beer, huge hot tub, pool with volleyball net, small pond with kayaks, basketball court, footballs, game room, comfy couches, and cheap camping across the street. When we learned that we could stay for $6 a piece and have access to everything the resort had to offer, we were in.

It got better when we learned about the "logdominiums" (it's like a condominium, only its like a cabin in the woods!). With a mini-fridge, stove top, and plenty of bed space for the eight of us, it was worth the extra money to have this pad for the night. We ate a quality meal, burned the midnight oil, and had ourselves a night for the ages.

Alright, we've had our fun - it's time to go hiking, right? Nope.

I'm sitting in a comfy chair, watching some Sportscenter, when an attractive girl at the bar asks those words every hiker loves to hear, "Any of you hungry? Would you like the other half of my burger?". There was no hesitation and the next thing I know I'm introducing myself to Keltie Mullen, a local raft guide on the Kennebec. After about 10 minutes, she then says the second best thing a hiker loves to hear, "Well, I'm having some friends over tonight at my camp (this is Maine lingo for property) and you guys should come!" After some deliberation, we were in.

After a short stint of bridge jumping (because all good things, after all, start with bridge jumping) we made our way to her camp, enjoying the midday sun with cold drinks, snacks, and Playboys courtesy of our guest. I don't know why Keltie had a stack of Playboys lying around the house, but for a bunch of guys who have been away from regular contact with women, this move was a big hit. Her friends came over, the bonfire was lit, the dance party began, and we had yet another epic night of fun with our new friends.

Later that evening (either right before or shortly after the dance party comprised of Brown Chicken slapping a tambourine he had around his neck) one of the girls there asked me what we were doing tomorrow. "The same thing we do everything Pinky," I replied "Go for a walk."

"Ahhh don't do that. You should come rafting with us!"

Walking 15 miles or go whitewater rafting....hmmm...let me think about this....

"Well, don't twist my arm about it. Fine, I'll let you take us whitewater rafting. Jeez."

So, all of us got to go whitewater rafting on the Kennebec for free, courtesy of our new entourage of attractive female raft guides. While I didn't get to go on the first offer, I was extatic to take advantage of the second. Armed with the lingo I had picked up from Rainman earlier, we were shredding some serious gnar, slammin' our boat broadside in some nasty holes and rippin' through killer whitewater while the river was juicin' around 5000 cubes. Righteous.

We then headed back to her house again and relaxed the rest of the night away, exhausted from a long day on the river. After a good nights sleep in a comfortable bed, we put off leaving her house as long as we could until we couldn't delay the inevitable any longer. We set off for the trail once again, but we didn't like it. Keltie and Friends - thanks so much for one hell of a time I'll never forget!

We hiked the 11 miles up to the summit of Moxie Bald, the last bald summit on the trail. I had not "cowboy'd" (sleep with no shelter, just on the ground) yet since I had been on the trail, so with a gorgeous sunset and an even better sunrise in the forecast, I piled on all of the clothing I owned and enjoyed a beautiful night under the stars. The moon was like a spotlight in the sky and it was amusing to estimate how long you had slept by comparing where the moon was when you woke and where it had been from when you could last remember. Besides the cold, I was very jealous of Brown Cow, who cowboy'd practically every night that I hiked with him. One thing I'd change - spend more nights under the stars rather than under a rainfly.

We enjoyed good BBQ and an awesome night at the Lakeshore House Hostel in Monson, celebrating our last town stop before the end (at this point, there were a lot of "last" this and that, but any excuse to celebrate is a good one). Next was the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which is just that - one hundred miles with no major roads, towns, or civilization. If I thought I was in the middle of nowhere before, it wasn't even close to what followed. Truly alone.

However, while it is one hundred miles of nothing but the best nature Maine has to offer, it is relatively easy terrain to walk across, so the crew was able to pull big miles to get through it. There is a nice warning sign before you enter this stretch of the trail, warning you of the dangers of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and how you should have at least 10 days worth of food and supplies before you enter. Pssshhhhtttt...we had five and I had extra at the end. Guess that's the payoff for having walked from Georgia - doing 20 miles a day for five days straight is no problem at all.

Then I saw it - Katahdin. Brown Cow and I had separated from the pack and I remember seeing him sitting atop a rock, staring North, speechless. I joined him and we marveled that after all this time, all the days, miles, and adventures we had each been through, we stood there with our massive beards puffed from our faces and our wind-ripped eyes squinting at the finish line. It was a surreal realization. It was right there. It was then that it became clear that I actually did walk there. There was no question about it now. I had walked the entire East Coast of the United States, and now I was a mere 15 miles from completing this adventure.

You may or may not know, but I had been carrying a full copy of Moby Dick with me since Franklin, NC. For the entire trip, I had chipped away at it, reading a chapter or so most nights, and I had reached the final chapter. Some said that I had to finish the book before I made my way up Katahdin, but I couldn't bear to read that chapter. I knew how the book ends. I know that Ahab doesn't kill his Moby Dick and is consumed by the sea while trying to slay the beast he had pursued around the world. I did not want my adventure to end this way. I was going to write my own ending. This Ahab was going to kill the White Whale after all.

The next thing I know I'm laying in my hammock at the Birches campsite, located at the base of Katahdin. A moment later, my pack is on, and the moment after that, the crew is atop the shelf, a mere mile from the summit. We could see the clouds streaming across the sign, and while we couldn't see it, we knew it was there. I flashed memories of all the things I had done in the past 173 days and all the friends I had made - and how the one person I wanted to be there was on the otherside of the continent. I thought about how, in a very Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck-to-Matt-Damon-at-the-end-of-the-movie (the second time he pulled a Good Will Hunting line on me I now realize), Rainman had threatened I arrived at the Birches me to finish the trail. "If you use me and my reason for getting off the trail, I'll fucking kill you." I hadn't even said anything alluding to this connection, but that's what best friends are able to see whether you like it or not. He was exactly right. I was thinking about it. I was thinking about how we had both agreed to do this trip together, so to do it with out the other wouldn't make sense. Rainman knew exactly how what I was thinking and he called me on it. He knew the thought had crossed my mind once or twice and he wanted no part of it, because he didn't want to crush the dream for both of us. This is the only time I think I will ever smile after someone threatens my life.

200 yards away - my face gets that tingly feeling and I'm not alone. All of our voices start cracking and waffling. There is no appropriate conversation, nothing to say, nothing that would even come close to building up this moment further. No big speech or zany one-liner. It was just time.

10 feet away - I stared at the famous Katahdin sign for a good minute. I wanted it to look back at me and see me there, to recognize that I did not quit despite injury, pain, weather, social pressure, or any other of the hundreds of reasons an aspiring AT thru-hiker leaves the trail. I made it, you son of a bitch, and now it is time for me to finish.

I touched the sign, threw my pack and poles down the mountain, and screamed to part the sky itself. All that I had been through, all that I had endured, all of that was now over. It was back to cotton clothes, regular showers, and hugging my girlfriend. I was excited to get back, but my life as a nomad, free of stress and responsibility, was gone as well. could wait.

We shot photos on the top, soaking in our final moments as professional hikers, before we parted ways at the summit. I made my way to the bottom, greeted my parents, said goodbye to my hiking entourage, and drove for home. Apparently I smelled so awful that my mother grew nauseous and had to pull over to vomit a couple of times. Despite changing out of the dirty clothes, wrapping all my gear in an industrial garbage bag, and hanging my feet out of the window, my mother was incapacitated by the smell and retired to the front seat, curled up into the fetal position, trying to get to her happy place. Thankfully, we made it to the hostel without further incident and I got my shower. Five hours later, I was asleep in my own bed, dreaming about the past 24 weeks of adventure.

And now I'm back. My brother just got married, my girlfriend broke it off having moved on to one of my good friends, and I'm living at home with $500 to my name and no plans for the future.

Welcome back to reality.

Anyone up for another adventure?

To all that helped me along the way, by either welcoming me into your home or offering a kind word, thank you. I could not have done this without you.

To all who are thinking about doing something like this, do it! You won't regret it.

To my hiking family - I'll never forget you or the moments we shared. It was one hell of a time. If you need anything, just call and I'll get there. God knows I can walk there if need be.

Thanks for reading,