I never thought I’d find myself saying, “Only a hundred miles left to walk.” As a northbound thru-hiker, when you enter the 100 Mile wilderness leading up to Katahdin it feels like the days and miles are flying by. The effort of six months (on average) and 2,000 miles are behind you, and only a few short days remain on the Trail. For many this spells feelings of relief mixed with anxiousness to finish. For me, I was feeling a desire to make it last, to stretch out every moment and get it all down in my mind’s eye. My wife-to-be, Sunshine, was by my side, and the morning we started into the wilderness we couldn’t get through a video interview for the giggle fit that overtook us. We’d been doing a lot of crying in the previous days as I remembered my young brother and continued to grieve his death, but on this clear, sunny morning laughter took us for a spin. We could not collect ourselves.
That was a long day: 19.5 miles over hilly, rough terrain in the wilderness. About midday we forded Big Wilson Creek and stopped to skip stones (Sunshine showed remarkable improvement in her skipping technique). We made a late lunch at Vaughn Brook and lay down in the water at the lip of a beautiful cascade. Cooling off in the brook we were unaware that we lay almost exactly one hundred trail miles from the peak of Mt. Katahdin and the end of the trail.
On tired legs late in the day we made the steep climb up Barren Mountain. Spectacular views from Barren Ledges showed us the lake-spotted landscape of western Maine and a distant thunderstorm shadowing the peaks of the Bigelow Range. We finished that day in the dark, guided by the small orbs of our headlamps into camp at Cloud Pond. We made dinner, bathed in the pond, and collapsed onto our sleeping pads thankful for a cool breath of air across the pond. In the early morning dark I awakened to the sound of what at first I took to be a guy from a neighboring tent walking out barefoot for a pee, exclaiming with each step as he crunched over roots and sticks. As my mind awoke I realized I was listening to a moose walking through our camp and grunting. I lay still and quiet as the giant animal passed uncomfortably close to our tent, knocking down small trees as it walked. Sunshine was listening, too, and we whispered to each other about how safe it might be to leave the tent and try to see it. Another moose grunted and called from across the pond, and “our” moose plunged down into the waters and crossed over to join it. It was not easy to go back to sleep after that.
Those days of walking were filled with poignant emotion. I thought about Zach a lot, sometimes lecturing him for his irresponsible choices, or recalling happy memories of good times with him, often invoking the words that had come to articulate my deepest feeling about his death: “Oh, God. Oh no.” And then there was my future wife walking by my side, happy Sunshine, recalling me to such joy and anticipation and desire for life. As we walked we often discussed the deeper things such as plans for our wedding day and whether dogs or cats are superior pets. This walking was hard on her, coming off the couch as she was and trying to keep up with me through fifteen and sixteen miles days, hot afternoons that faded into chilly nights. I was so impressed with her grit and strength, how she rose to the demands of each day and (mostly) kept a cheerful disposition through it all. Whenever we could we ended each day with a swim in one of Maine’s chilly ponds. I recall one night wading out in to the placid waters of Crawford Pond, looking up at the brilliant stars overhead and down at their perfect reflection in the water’s surface.
And then there was the fact of the looming end of the journey. Every day we drew closer to Katahdin, and every day we would climb to a promised view of “the greatest mountain.” The mountain played coy with us, however, and day after day it remained shrouded in clouds. At most we would see the very lowest flank before it disappeared in a solid bank of cloud. Each time we were denied a good view of Katahdin I felt a pang of disappointment followed by relief at the fact that we were not climbing the mountain that day. I wanted so badly to arrive at the peak on a clear day with long views; so I counted my blessings that there was still time for the weather to clear.
We passed White Cap Mountain, White House Landing, Rainbow Pond. We saw old friends from the Trail and made new ones. One afternoon we took a long break eating blueberries and service berries on Rainbow Ledges. As we attained the top of the ridge a flock of grouse exploded from the bushes, then cooed and scuttled along the margins of the trail beside us. Then we turned a corner and saw it: beautiful, grand, clear, just sixteen miles away–Katahdin. That day only the very peak of the mountain was covered in cloud. We could see 95 percent of the end of the trail, but still not all of it. Leading up to that moment a realization had been growing in me–part of me dreaded the end of the Trail. I dreaded the conclusion of this passage in my life that had come to be so significant to me. I dreaded going back to “real” life and the world, the expectations and pressures that come with it. I dreaded the closing of this chapter of my life and the finality it would add to my brother’s death. Still, I was excited and drawn onward.
Sunshine and I relished a large dinner at the Abol Bridge diner that evening and then settled into camp at the Pines. We were out of the wilderness and just fifteen miles from the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It felt slightly unreal to be that close to the end, having walked that far. It took so long, and then suddenly we were there.
The talk among thru-hikers that night was the weather (it’s always that or food). Apparently, a big storm system was moving in and threatening to sock-in Katahdin for the next three to four days. Everyone was developing contingency plans of how they could kill time in the campground or in the nearby town of Millinocket. No one, if they could help it, wanted to end their hike on a grey day with twenty-foot visibility. For Sunshine and I it was a fairly limited choice. We had at most one day of wiggle room before we had to wrap up our hike and start the trip south for home. If the weather didn’t clear up soon we would have to take what we got, what the Trail gave to us.
A soft sunset reflected from the swift water of the Penobscot River as we got ready for bed that night. We conducted our usual ritual of recalling our favorite parts of the day, and then we crawled into the tent. My prayers before sleep consisted of a petition for clear weather and, if not that, then a heart that would receive and take joy in whatever came in the following days.
My parents told me that my little brother had died on the third day I was in Maine. I was on the slopes of Bemis Mountain. It had been a drizzly morning at the shelter, and I’d slept in, enjoying the patter on my tent. By the time I hit the trail the day was sunny and clear, and when I stopped on an open granite slope to check my messages there was one from Dad asking me to call home. His voice had a fragile edge to it, and there was also a text from Sunshine saying simply, “I love you.” I sat down on a small boulder beside the trail to call. Mom and Dad talked to me for a while—they wanted to know that I was on a safe section of trail and that I had people around me. I thought of possible events that could occasion a serious talk like this, and I watched the ants scurry around my feet carrying crumbs. Then they told me that my little brother Zach, ten years younger than me, had bought a motorcycle that week and taken it out on a windy road outside of Birmingham. He’d died on it the first day he owned it.
When I got off the phone with Mom and Dad I sat on the mountain crying for a long time and saying, “Oh, God. Oh, no.” I felt a reluctance to leave there—I wanted to stay in that spot all day, but I knew I had to start making my way towards home. I got up and walked ten more miles, weeping periodically, sometimes embraced by friends on the trail who saw me and knew me. That night I stopped at Little Swift River Pond and watched a moose wade through the shallows, noisily slurping lily pads. It felt restful to look into the eyes of another creature, to see its wild, placid gaze fixed on me. The next day my old friend from the trail Last Chance picked me up in Rangeley, Maine and took me to the airport.
My little brother was a gift to our family. He was the baby, a late surprise, and so we had a tendency to spoil him with our love and attention. At the age of seven he developed type1diabetes, and that made us all hold his life even more tenderly. At twenty years old he was doing well in college, honing his gifts as a graphic artist and drawer and beginning to step out on his own as an adult. Three days before his death he wrote me a message on facebook, anticipating my entry into Maine, that said: “Proud of you big bro.”
Zach loved adventure, and that love bound us through the years. We mountain biked together, jumped off rocks into rivers, and he was following this latest journey of mine with avid interest and support. Adventure was part of what he was after on that windy road riding a sporty motorcycle. I wish I could have given him a stern lecture before he bought that bike and went on that ride, but he probably knew that’s what would have been coming; so he never told me about it.
Zach also loved humor—he loved to laugh. From a baby he had a wonderful, full belly laugh, and it was our joy to try to bring it out. Because of Zach, tickling became one of my primary love languages—Sunshine is now suffering the consequences of that. He was much less serious than the rest of our family (save, perhaps, my older brother Ben), and he helped us to be lighter and sillier. There are countless other gifts that Zach’s life brought to our family and to me personally, and I will be counting those gifts for the rest of my days.
Returning to my family’s house in Birmingham was a mix of tender mercies and bitter grief. I wept with Mom, Dad, and Ben, and I was proud to stand with them as we held Zach’s memorial service and remembered him among family and friends. As two weeks off the trail drew to a close I was faced with the decision of whether to return to Maine and finish the journey or not. I couldn’t quite imagine going back and picking up where I’d left off. This particular journey and my entire life had changed in ways I could not comprehend yet—Zach’s death was still not real to me, and I often caught myself thinking and feeling as though he were still somewhere out there in the world, a phone call away. What made the difference for me was the support of my family and friends. It was hearing my father and brother say they wanted me to return and finish the hike. This has always been a walk of purpose, and with the death of my brother I felt I’d lost that purpose. The happy, exhilarating conclusion that I’d been planning was no longer possible, not the way I’d imagined it anyway. But my family’s hopes gave me new purpose. I could hike for them, and for Zach. His words to me before his death, “proud of you brother” echo in the back of my mind and help me go on.
I’ve been back on the trail for five days now. Last Chance picked me up at the airport and was able to join me for the first few miles back on the AT. The frostbite he acquired in the Smokies back in March is recovering remarkably well, and he has regained much range of motion in his fingers. We hiked one night and a day together, exploring the caves by Piazza Rock, and then we parted ways on top of Saddleback Mountain. We waved to each other from distant peaks as I continued north and he returned home.
The AT has felt like much the best place for me to be in these days of grief. The woods and lakes of this country are comforting to me. I watch the birch leaves shimmer in the wind, I listen to loons call across the pond at night, and I feel calm and peace coming to me from the world. I stopped at Orbeton Brook for a while the other day to swim and skip stones. That was one of the things Zach and I did together, and when I got an exceptionally good skip with my last stone I smiled and talked to him: “That one’s for you, Z. I hope you liked it.”
Sunshine met me in Caratunk this morning. She’ll hike with me two more days to Monson, and then we’ll enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the final leg of the Appalachian Trail. We’ll climb Katahdin sometime in September, Lord willing, and then we’ll return home to begin preparing for our wedding and our life together. I’m so thankful to have her by my side.
When we summit that “greatest mountain” I’ll be carrying my little brother with me. I will also have in my heart my family and the friends and loved ones who have helped me make this journey. It’s not the way I had imagined finishing, but I know it will be good. I will be unpacking this moment in my life for a long time to come, but for now it helps just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, pressing on towards the tall mountain and looking back to see my lovely girl behind me.
Go with God, little brother, until I see you again and can give you a big hug and a good tickling.
* I am very grateful for the friends new and old who have reached out and offered their sympathy and support during this time. Thank you so much.
I am sitting in the Outdoor Club of Dartmoth College, enjoying air conditioning after walking into New Hampshire on one of the most blistering hot days of summer. I am now two states away from the end of this journey, and some of the most exciting sections of the Appalachian Trail lie immediately before me–the White Mountains and then, Maine. I have been loving the experience every day lately, but I had to come through some hard passages to get here. In the past month of walking from New Jersey to New Hampshire we’ve had long stretches of swampy, muddy trail, days on end of horrendous mosquitoes, withering heat and soaking rain. We’ve also had a few wonderful, cool days of rest in between, but there has been plenty of challenge along the way.
When Sunshine joined me in southern New Jersey for her last visit on the Trail before the end we were just getting into the bad heat and mosquitoes that I had been dreading. We enjoyed three days of hiking together, ending in Greenwood Lake, New York where we rested and cooled off in the lake. Shortly after she left for home I entered one of the lowest phases of my hike. I was weary, mosquito-bitten, stumbling through days that baked like an oven, through stretches of swampy trail where the blood-sucking bugs would not let you to stop for rest. Relief came in the evening when I would camp near a creek, drench myself in cold water, then do my mosquito dance–keeping every limb moving so they couldn’t land–as I dried off and rushed for the protection of my tent. One day in upper Connecticut the cloud of mosquitoes got so bad that I began actually running down the trail to get away from them.
When I came into town and heard folks talking about “how bad the bugs are this year,” I wanted to tell them they had no idea. They didn’t know how bad it was up on the wet ridge above the Hoosatonic River where the mosquitoes flew so thickly that if you stopped suddenly you would feel a hundred little bumps as the cloud enveloped you. Huffing and puffing up the ridge it was not uncommon to inhale a mosquito up your nose or rattling down your throat. It was bad, and when I asked other hikers how they were fairing I usually got one of two responses: “I feel like I’m about to go crazy” and “This is the closest I’ve come to quitting.”
What kept me going was a matter of assumption: I was hiking the Appalachian Trail; this was what it meant to hike the AT; I was going to do it. But I was miserable. And I held onto the hope that there would be a change ahead. The mosquitoes reached an unholy climax on East Mountain outside of Great Barrington, Mass, and I was wondering how much more I could take when I crossed a state highway and walked up to a dry ridge where there was instantaneous relief. The mosquitoes were miraculously gone. A breeze cooled my skin. I walked to Bear Mountain Lake and laid down in the shade, truly resting for the first time in weeks. It felt like a giant sigh of relief, and even though the bugs would make appearances down the trail we were past the worst of it. The following day I would lower myself into the cool water of Upper Goose Pond and wash away weeks of fatigue and stress. It was the 3rd of July.
That is how the trail goes. The lows accentuate the highs, making the moments of luxury and relief all the more vivid and wonderful. Since leaving Goose Pond I have enjoyed some of the best stretches of the trail thus far: the dark spruce woods of Vermont; the stormy peak of Mt. Stratton where Benton MacKye first imagined a trail stretching from Georgia to Maine; a wonderful rest stop in Bennington where I paid a visit to Robert Frost’s grave (thank you trail angel Steve!). This morning we walked off the last section of trail in Vermont and were greeted by Diana and John who were providing trail magic: blueberry cobbler with whipped cream, lemonade, cokes–wonderful! There is so much to look forward to on the trail ahead: hard climbs leading us finally above treeline in the White Mountains, mountain lakes in Maine, and at the end, Kathadin and Sunshine. She’ll be meeting me at the Trail’s end a little over a month from today, and that fact makes me feel divided: eager to hurry through the weeks ahead to see her but also wanting to slow down time so that I can enjoy every last moment of this wonderful journey.
* Note: This website is experiencing some buggy-ness that I will not be able to address until I am off trail in the fall. Images associated with posts are not longer loading in the header above, though they are still viewable by clicking on individual thumbnails at the bottom of the post.
Walking into Pennsylvania was a treat: lush, piney woods, soft trail to walk on, and some of the best shelters I’d found on the trail yet. The caretaker at Quarry Gap Shelter (my first stop in PA) was anticipating a big crowd the night I arrived and left pizza in the bear box, but I was the only one to stay. I happily sat on a bench and began chowing through slice after slice as darkness fell. On my third slice I heard a rustling near my feet and looked down at what I took at first for a raccoon. Closer inspection revealed it to be a porcupine headed on a bee-line for my feet. As this was my first encounter with a porcupine hurried thoughts raced through my head: “Are they aggressive? Can they really shoot their quills?” I sat up straight, and my abrupt movement brought the porcupine to a halt. Unsure of what to say in this situation I spoke the first words that came to mouth, “You can’t be here.” The porcupine did an about-face and scurried into the woods.
I’d heard plenty about how rocky and hard the trail in Pennsylvania can be, but my first few days in the state were ideal. I passed the half-way point on the trail near Pine Grove Furnace, and I ate my way through the half-gallon challenge (a half gallon of ice cream consumed in one sitting). A tip to future thru-hikers: select a light and simple flavor for this challenge, not peanut butter cup. Just before the town of Boiling Springs the trail descended into corn field bottomlands, and I walked through a long afternoon of pouring rain and soggy trail. The first taste of rocks came before Duncannon, and a few miles past the Susquehana River things began to get things, as they say, serious. The trail through the last eighty miles of PA can feel like one long, dried-up river bed. Sometimes you walk across fields of large boulders, hopping from one to the next on increasingly tired legs. Sometimes the dirt path is peppered with sharp little rocks that wear down your soles (and soul). And there were snakes, plenty of snakes. One morning I saw two timber ratters and a copperhead before 10 AM.
As with most adversity on the trail, the challenge of the rocks drove us thru-hikers together. We bonded over the pain in our feet and the fatigue we felt from day after day of jumping our way down the trail. It felt like the most exhausting round of the lava game we had ever played–no touching the ground! Pennsylvania was beautiful in it’s own way, though, and I met some good traveling companions along the way. Coolie McJetpack and Ambassador kept the conversation going through the end of a long twenty-four mile day. Sugar Bombs and young married couple Atlas and Glover kept spirits high with their dry humor. Goose and All the Way were a duo of hikers from Ohio: a forklift driver and a Vietnam Vet who’d been hiking together for a while. All the Way had fallen and lodged his forearm between rocks bashing it black-and-blue. When I met him the arm was gingerly lifted in a sling, but he was upbeat and planning to continue his hike regardless, citing his trail name, All-the-Way, a motto he carried from his days in the military.
Yeah, Pennsylvania was pretty great, but something was compelling me to walk faster despite the tiredness in my feet. Sunshine would be joining me for one last visit on the trail (the last before Kathadin), and I wanted to get past these blasted rocks before she came. On a cool morning in late June I climbed a wide, shady trail into New Jersey, my seventh state on the Appalachian trail and a welcome change of scenery!
One of the great pleasures of life on the trail is reading trail registers. You get into the shelter after a long day of walking and sit down with the log book in your lap to read notes left by friends who passed this way before you. Many are humorous; some give a simple account of the conditions on the trail that day. Often times words of encouragement have been left for those who will come after.
Pennsylvania was a challenging state to walk through with its miles and miles of rocky trail stretching from Duncannon north to New Jersey. The trail often resembled a dried up river bed with boulders lined up as far as the eye could see–an obstacle course of slanted, sometimes slickly wet surfaces to balance across. When the rocks were not large and filling the trail they would be small and pointed, wearing down the soles of your feet and poking them painfully. But as with all adversity on the trail, the discomfort produced another highlight along the way: humorous log entries about how much the rocks suck. At the last shelter in Pennsylvania I spent a long morning laughing over the musings left by friends before me: graphic representations of why Pennsylvania did not fit humans, a wonderful break-up letter to the state, and perhaps my favorite, Punkin Pie’s brief sarcastic remark: “Goodbye to my home state of PA. I’ll miss you like I’ll miss a boil on my butt.”
Every day I look forward to getting a brief insight into the experience of friends who have moved ahead of me on the Trail. I leave my own notes and hope they are of benefit to those behind me. It’s one more way in which the Trail functions as a vast community of fellow travelers.
* Click the thumbnails below for some colorful examples…
I must admit I had low expectations for the state of Virginia. After hearing plenty about the “Virginia blues” that plague thru-hikers as they walk through this state that constitutes fully a quarter of the entire Trail I had my hopes set low. I was pleased and surprised to discover how much Virginia had to offer. The historical insights along the trail, the wildlife (especially in Shenandoah National Park), the bounty of wildflowers and wild produce (ramps!)—the Trail was constantly engaging and the countryside beautiful. I had my down moments of physical pain and discouragement, but over all I have delighted in this long stretch of the AT.
Leaving Virginia I walked down into the town of Harper’s Ferry, the mental halfway point of the journey. It felt like a triumph and a fresh challenge: 1,000 miles down, 1,000+ more to go. Not long after crossing the Maryland line the Appalachian rocks made their appearance in the trail bed, a foretaste of what was to come in Pennsylvania. My feet were already feeling tired.
I’ve received a lot of help here at the midway point of my hike: strangers have welcomed me into their homes, friends have hosted me for days on end while I edit video and then joined me for a cold, wet hike to the Pennsylvania line. This is the farthest north I’ve ever been along the eastern seaboard, and every state I enter from here on out will be for the first time. I have two more episodes to post in my video journal before I conclude that project and turn my focus entirely to hiking. It’s been a challenge and a delight to share this experience with others as I go, but I am eager and excited to focus my energies on just the hike from here on out. There will be so much to take in along the way, I know, and I hope that I will have a good story to share after finishing (assuming I do finish!). Thanks for following along in the journey–I look forward to sharing more on the far side of this hike.