It was 4:30 a.m. The sun wouldn’t rise for well over an hour. Under normal circumstances, I would have gone back to sleep, particularly since I hadn’t slept well all night. But there was no hope for that this morning. With only five miles separating me from my goal and my journey’s end, I was far too excited for sleep.
And so I arose from the lean-to shelter located at the base of Mt. Katahdin, and quickly packed up all my belongings one last time. Several other thru-hikers were around doing likewise – some I had known for nearly the entirety of my hike, others I had just met within the past couple of days. But regardless of how long we knew each other, we all felt a strong bond with one another based on our shared experience. As we ate our final breakfast on the trail, there was a distinct solemnity in the air, though we tried to shake the feeling by joking around as if it were any other day. By 6 a.m. we could wait no longer. Katahdin was calling.
The preceding week on the trail was spent in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail. While access to any off-trail amenities was extremely limited, the terrain itself was relatively flat, especially after the steep climbs experienced in southern Maine and throughout New Hampshire. However, with three days of continuous rain, the roots, rocks, and mud made for a slow-going hike and ebbing morale. But an interesting phenomenon occurred as I progressed. I felt an ever-strengthening desire to keep moving forward, as if I were being drawn by a magnet to Mt. Katahdin. My mileage increased each day as the excitement of finishing grew.
And now that magnetic pull was reaching a crescendo as I signed my name at the register to indicate my intent to summit the renowned peak. It was a glorious day, with blue skies and a few wispy clouds. The start of the hike was easy – just a gradual incline on a well-groomed path, with views of a stream and small waterfall. But as I advanced, the difficulty began to escalate dramatically. As I passed treeline I was met with a wall of boulders and sheer rockface, which required a change of strategy from hiking to scrambling and bouldering. Additionally, the wind was strong and gusting once out of the protection of the trees, adding a whole different dimension to the difficulty of the climb.
It took nearly three hours to hike the 5.2 miles up the mountain, and 160 days to cover the 2,189.1 miles, but in that moment when my hand touched the sign atop Katahdin, time became a fluid concept. It seemed no time had elapsed at all, and at the same time I felt as if I had been a part of the trail for eons. For weeks I had tried to imagine how I would feel when I finally reached the northern terminus. Many hikers experience elation, a sense of accomplishment, sadness that marks the end of a chapter, relief. As I stood there, listening to the wind and taking in the panoramic beauty stretched out around me, I felt all these emotions and more – and I’ll never be able to adequately explain the experience. Furthermore, it will take weeks and months for me to process through all the memories and emotions. But what I can tell you with certainty is that hiking the Appalachian Trail has been the most taxing, most rewarding, and most beautiful experience of my life, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to live out my dream.
Until our paths cross again,