Our evening in Millinocket happened in a haze. We’d gone to bed late or slept poorly (damply) for a few nights running, we’d hiked consecutive 20+ mile days, and we had only one left. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired.
Our moms picked us up at the base of Katahdin, bearing sandwiches, and drove us into town after we talked with our finished friends. We showered and went to dinner. I felt so heavy sitting in my chair in the restaurant. I wanted to join the other hikers at the local bar, to congratulate everyone and say goodbye, but we still needed to buy food for the next day, still needed to get some sleep before waking early. So we didn’t go. Instead, in the hotel room, I started to realize that no matter how hard I’d wished for the trail to end sometimes, now that the end was here, it wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t easy, just going from tired and wet and dirty and starving to having almost everything you’d been wishing for, right there. I’d thought it was all I wanted, but it still hurt. And we weren’t even done yet.
I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. Then suddenly I woke up to a knock on our door. “I think we’re late,” Eric said. The alarm was going off, silently, on my phone. It was time to be getting in the car to drive back to Baxter. We ran around like mad, our moms making coffee and microwaving our breakfast sandwiches while we put on clothes and shoved things in our packs. I put on my shoes for the last time. I was happy about that. They were killing my feet.
The weather was bad. Gray, with rain predicted for the afternoon. They told us the wind would be gusting 40mph at the summit, to turn around if we got above treeline and it was too intense. We agreed, but I was thinking nothing would make me turn around and hike down.
We all started down the trail together. My mom went with us as far as Katahdin Stream Falls. She stopped there to enjoy the falls for awhile and then move the car around to the other side of the mountain to meet us. We’d heard coming back down the AT wasn’t ideal, and that if we could get someone to pick us up there was a gentler descent we could take. Eric’s mom continued on with us.
The trail was steep and before long she was out of sight behind us. She told Eric not to wait for her, that she didn’t want to slow us down, but as we got higher and higher and felt how strong the wind was, and how wet we were getting (it wasn’t raining but we were in a cloud), we knew we couldn’t actually just leave her to climb the mountain alone. We were hovering at treeline, wondering what to do, when she caught up to us and we continued on. A moment later we heard someone call out. There was a man waiting on the ledge above us. He waited while we all climbed up, then asked if he could hike behind us. “He” was Mountain Man, and been climbing alone and felt “creeped out” without any other humans around. So we three became four.
Mountain Man isn’t a thru-hiker, but he climbs Katahdin this particular weekend every year and knew the mountain well. He was happy to hike with Eric’s mom, so we knew she was okay, and we could hike ahead a little bit and finish the hike together. For the next mile and a half or so, we’d hike, then stop until we could see their silhouettes through the cloud, then hike on.
The mountain was surrounded in cloud, so everything was wet. I had all my layers on, fighting that temperature battle when the wind is whipping like crazy and it’s cold but you’re working hard and sweating and freezing all together. The wind was strong enough to knock me off course and it was hard to see much. The day before had been so beautiful, but I couldn’t really be upset about our weather. It felt like the only really appropriate ending for us: tumultuous and stormy but enlivening and urgent. The way the whole thing was.
There was a half mile of flat trail called the Tablelands before the last climb to the summit. My eyes were straining to catch a sign-shaped outline through the mist for probably an entire half mile. I can’t remember exactly what I said when I finally saw it–“There it is!” or “I saw it!” Eric asked how far it was and I couldn’t answer, just pointed. Close enough to see.
Then there it was. Eric was whooping, I was whooping. I was dimly aware of Eric filming, of him kissing the sign. I just wanted to touch it, smack the palm of my hand on it. I did that twice. And then read it. “KATAHDIN: Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail”. That kept repeating in my mind.
Three shapes came out of the fog, day hikers who’d come up a different trail. “You must be the happy people, you must be thru-hikers.” They’d heard us yelling. They were cold and stuck around long enough to congratulate us and take a quick picture before leaving. Then Mountain Main and Eric’s mom arrived. We took pictures. I was worried the phone was getting destroyed by all the water in the air. And it was getting really, really cold up there once we stopped hiking. So we decided to save the bottle of champagne that Eric had carried up for once we were below treeline again.
Then it was time to go. We went back down on the Saddle Trail, following blue blazes, not white. I got ahead of everyone and thought about waiting. But I could hear them behind me, chatting happily, and I realized I wanted some quiet for a little while. I didn’t want to talk or listen to talking. I just wanted to walk alone, for a little while, and let it sink in.
Because I hadn’t cried. I always just assumed I would–everything makes me cry. I felt my throat and chest get warm and tight the way they do when I’m about to, but no tears came. As I was walking down (it was more like an extended, controlled fall or slide down, it was so steep) I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It’s done. That’s what I kept thinking to myself, by myself. It’s done, it’s done, it’s done. A very large burden was lifted.
As it turns out I hiked ahead of the group all the way back to the parking lot. It got warmer and warmer as the winds calmed, the trees got taller. I took off a layer at a time until I was back in what I’d started in. I ate a few handfuls of crackers. None of us had had much to eat and I knew I must be starving but I felt mostly numb. I couldn’t stop yawning, couldn’t stop thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d just finished the Appalachian Trail and I couldn’t stop yawning. At one point I was stuck behind a group of slower hikers who hadn’t realized I wanted to pass yet. “My god, can you believe this?” one woman was saying. “You hike like a thousand miles or whatever and then have to face THIS? I would kill myself.” I laughed. She couldn’t be more wrong.
The last mile or two went on forever, and by the time I found the parking lot most of the adrenaline had worn off and I felt so, so tired. I wasn’t sure how I’d find my mom, but then there she was hiking up the path toward me, iPhone filming away, asking if I had anything to say. Nothing epic. Something like, “I want to change into dry clothes.”
Not long after, Eric and his mom and Mountain Man (whom we’d talked into coming down the alternative way with us and offered a ride back to where we’d started), came down. The champagne was still in Eric’s bag, so we popped it in the parking lot. It was a twist off cap so nothing exciting happened, but we toasted and it was good.
And then we were done. It was all done. We’d actually done what we dreamed up nearly two years ago. Despite everything, all the incredible heat and cold, the merciless bugs and rocks and roots, the food that was supposed to be there and wasn’t, all the disgusting showers, pounding rain and drizzling rain and threatening rain, the endless climbs, the pain in knees and ankles and tendons. We had actually walked, in no direct line and over every damn mountain they could find, from Georgia to Maine. And it was done.