We climbed and climbed, seeming never to reach the top. The previous night having slept near the summit of White Cap, we knew we had a day of significant ups and downs, but weren’t really prepared for the straight scramble up Chairback mountain. We moved slowly shrouded in clouds, the dew was heavy laden on the trees keeping the rocks and roots pervading the trail wet and dangerous – it never really rained, but the humidity was high enough to keep us soaked all day. We were certainly glad when, after a 12 hour/15 mile day we climbed our last 250 feet (straight up, of course) and were welcomed by a fire outside the lean to set by some lovely Canadian section hikers.
We started early discussing why we decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Even before we left Seattle people began asking us; why hike? why the AT? and why now?
Our initial reasons centered around what we considered an ‘authentic’ American experience – one that exists outside the commercial superculture defined in America by consumerism, overconsumption, mediated isolation, overwork, and the crumbs offered us by late Capitalism.
One of the truly great things about the Appalachian Trail is the inclusiveness of the experience. Basically anyone can participate – young and old, rich and poor, working class or bourgeois. And after even 10 days in a wilderness the grime and sweat make it difficult to discern someone’s income, age or regionality. Furthermore, the quality of experience is not dictated by age, class or expensive equipment – Grandma Gatewood hiked the trail three times starting in 1957 with an army blanket, homemade shoulder bag and a pair of Keds.
Gatewood was a farmer’s wife from Ohio, not an expedition leader, and certainly not part of a ‘cultural elite’ to whom America now offers it’s most rarefied experiences. Nor was she a freakish reality show TV contestant – a Hollywood manufactured caricature of herself, a human desiccated by the pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of dignity. Rather, Gatewood represents a genuine American narrative – someone who wanted to see the country around her, to meet people and explore the world, to see the small towns that define true American culture, and be immersed in a transcendental experience (even without defining it as such). Her story is our story – an American story.
We’ve already seen many types of people on the trail – recent graduates, retirees, veterans, lovers, idealists, cynics, Americans and foreigners. The diversity is surprising and in some ways stunning. From the German with the newest camera and fancy ultralight backpack, to a fresh smelling and well groomed older Southern gentleman wearing a twisted bandanna and an external frame pack, all are bound by their willingness to participate in a singular experience.
We all have our own questions and problems, and our own reasons for undertaking this arduous journey. Yet something beyond the material binds us and provides the substance of the experience. Every spectacular view has already been photographed, and words have already been written describing the difficulty and scenic beauty of this particular experience – the value of the experience is not the product, which in some ways defies commodification.
The Appalachian Trail appealed to us as a genuine experience – a chance to experience a sincere Americana unadulterated by advertising culture and as individual as the people who hike it.
We are just about to leave the delightful town of Monson and get back on the trail. Our last leg rendered us nine days out without phone service, wireless, texts, meetings, netflix and email chains. Although it has felt surprisingly lonely and/or isolating being without these threads to our friends and family and community/work lives, it also has been pretty liberating.
I’ve listened to my thoughts a lot.
They often weave toward gratitude for these things I am missing and a desire to share them.
It was a laugh or cry situation, so I cried.
We went to sleep around 9pm and honestly the next days were so much better. We now believe this was our biblical test.
I looked up the drive where we were stopped and there was a white van. The guy in the driver’s seat waved, then held a cold Budweiser out window. He offered us two beers and a ride into town. at that moment he was literally an angel… weirdly his name was Michael. Michael my guardian angel. Salt of the earth. He was so nice and chatty. A Vietnam vet who said he was hard of hearing because of riding his Harley the last 36 years (his longest term relationship he joked) and also his years with Nascar.
The irony of climbing Katahdin for AT thru hikers is that you only get to count half the mileage and elevation towards your trail miles, as the summit functions as the northern terminus of the trail. We were happy to forget the 4267′ of climbing, though the descent was no walk in the park either.
Fortunately, our friend Rie made us some delicious savory granola snacks which buoyed our spirits for this arduous task.
The “Hundred Mile Wilderness” is one of the largest wilderness areas left in America, and doesn’t offer any services for hikers – not to mention no motorized traffic and absolutely no development beyond crude lean-to shelters. After packing in 10 days of food, we made it out in 7 with our spirits high and our feet relatively dry.
Including Katahdin (Maine’s dignified 5267′ slab of granite), we climbed 16500 feet and lost 17000 feet of elevation, summiting 12 peaks along the way.
Our journey began with an auspicious start – a beautiful 4th of July on Katahdin and good weather throughout the wilderness. Now in the lovely town of Monson, we’re looking forward to a day of rest and a few cold ones…
Drinking a Black Fly Porter by the Penobscot for our last night in town…