Mile 2080

first look

A mostly true story.

Monson, Maine, is the last stop for NOBO hikers heading to Katahdin. It is a one-horse town lost to time consisting of a general store, a pub, and an inn. It is also home to an ATC Museum where you can get all the answers to the remaining questions about entering Baxter State park and summiting Katahdin. Monson is also the last stop before the Hundred Mile Wilderness. For thru-hikers, Baxter State Park’s southern terminus is fortified by the longest wilderness on the AT, ending at the Golden Road, home to the Abol Bridge Diner. It is the final challenge for all thru-hikers looking to complete the Appalachian Trail.

Misfit found herself browsing the ATC museum, a repurposed one-room barn. The room was divided in half by a counter that ran the length of the space. Behind the counter sat an ATC volunteer eagerly waiting for someone, anyone, to talk to. She was an odd woman with an equally strange speech pattern. She ended every sentence with a “yes? Yes,” as though she were asking a question to which she already knew the answer. The volunteer directed Misfit to sign her name in the register while she gathered literature about the trail. When she approached the counter, Misfit noted her name tag. She had a peculiar name to match her quirky mannerisms. “W. Weech,” it read. Perhaps she was not from around here. Perhaps it wasn’t worth noting; either way, it was only the beginning of her extraordinary tale.

Weech glanced at the register and then said, “Misfit! I’ve been expecting you, yes? Yes!”

“How could you be exp…” Misfit was cut off mid-thought. The room shifted, or maybe Misfit imagined things. However, as the conversation progressed, it was as though the room began to sway like a boat in violent waters. Misfit felt unbalanced.

“The Hundred Mile Wilderness is different for all thru-hikers. For some, it is a vacation; for others, it is a moment of reflection, yes? Yes. For you, Misfit, within the wilderness awaits three challenges, yes? YES! The first challenge is the test of time. Second, you must face yourself. The third and final challenge will be the Gatekeeper’s test. You must pass all three to prove yourself worthy of summiting Katahdin. Only true thru-hikers may climb the greatest mountain, yes? Yes.”

The walls bellowed as if the room were breathing. Misfit felt dizzy. “What are you talking ab..” she attempted to ask but was cut off once again.

Weech narrowed her gaze to emphasize the importance of her message. “You,” she emphasized, “must pass the three challenges of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, yes? YES. Only then will you be a true thru-hiker. Only then, may you climb Katahdin. Your phone will be of no use to you. You must carry all that you need. You must do so in 5 days. You must do this alone, yes. Yes…” she dragged out the last yes as things went dark.

With the next breath, Misfit found herself sitting around the fire at Shaw’s Hiker Hostel with the other hikers. They were discussing strategies for the Hundred Mile Wilderness. One of them was talking to her, but she wasn’t listening. Perhaps she was daydreaming it all. Perhaps she was exhausted from being on the trail too long. Either way, she turned to the other hiker mid-sentence and said, “I’m sorry, I think I need to go to bed. I’m losing track of time.” It was an understatement but also very accurate.

The following day, Misfit anxiously awaited the shuttle driver and hostel owner to unload the packs from the van. She was miffed that they took so long to get them to the trailhead. Specifically, she was unhappy to start her 20-mile day at almost 10 am. She received her pack and was about to take off when Shaw further delayed them with a group photo and a small speech. “There are no surprises lying ahead. Remember in these final miles to go slow and enjoy the ride. Although your cup may runneth over, it is important only to take a swig. After all, the journey is the destination.”

The words barely registered with Misfit. It was a phrase she had heard many times over the past four months. It was a cliche masked as wisdom. With that, Misfit turned on her heels and charged ahead. A few steps in, she passed the threshold to the Hundred Mile Wilderness.

Misfit hiked quickly, and the miles stacked up just the same. Soon she found herself alone at the base of the PUD (pointless up and down) to end all PUDs. The Chairbacks were a set of viewless peaks and a rough end to a long day. She checked her time. She checked her water supply. She checked the map. She managed to cover 15 miles despite her late start, which meant she only had five more to go before she was done for the day. She looked up the steep incline. It may as well have been a hall of mirrors. It looked like it went on forever. Nevertheless, she didn’t dare hesitate and charged ahead.

The weight of her 5-day food supply made itself known as she climbed up the rocky mountain. Right-hand grabs tree left trekking pole on rock, hop, pull, climb, repeat. She progressed up the hill, trying desperately to keep up her earlier momentum. She often climbed hills faster than she descended to get it over with more quickly. Quick and painful, that is how Misfit liked her ascents. Right-hand grabs tree left trekking pole on rock, hop, pull, climb, repeat. She was drenched in sweat, blue in the face, huffing and puffing her way up the hill.

The monotony of a hike is a common occurrence for thru-hikers. Deja vu is often experienced after as many miles as they have covered. It can feel like climbing the same rock or hopping the same brook. However, the feeling of repetition hit Misfit a bit harder than usual. She had lost count but was positive she had climbed the rock ahead already. She knew she wasn’t going in circles; she could see up and down the straight ascent like a hallway. It was sometime after the dozenth Right-hand grabs tree left trekking pole on rock, hop, pull, and climb that she said aloud to no one, “I know I had done this boulder before!” and stopped dead in her tracks. Perhaps she had been on trail for too long. Perhaps she was indeed caught in a loop of some kind. Either way, it occurred to her that she wasn’t making any progress.

She checked her map. She checked her watch. Despite feeling like hours had passed, it appeared only minutes had, and she completed nearly no progress up the mountain. Exhausted, she sat on a nearby rock and sipped some water. She couldn’t continue at this rate. She had no climb left in her legs. She puzzled over her next move. With limited daylight left and several miles to cover, she decided her only course was to slow down on the ascent. Quick and painful wasn’t working. She had to take her time and conserve her energy. She took another sip, her right hand grabbed the tree, her left trekking pole dug into the rock, and she hopped, pulled, and climbed over the boulder.

Going slowly allowed her to observe the forest around her. She noticed mushrooms and moss that she usually flew by. She marveled at the living, breathing, natural surroundings. She was enjoying the climb instead of enduring it. Right-hand grabs tree left trekking pole on rock, hop, lift, and walk. She dried out as she hiked slower. The pack weight was less burdensome. Right hand on stone, left foot up, step, and climb. She lost track of time, looking at all the beautiful things surrounding her as she hiked, which is why she was surprised when it occurred to her that she was walking downhill. The PUDs were behind her, and she arrived at camp. Changing her focus from anticipating her destination to enjoying her hike broke the loop of deja vu. Perhaps the loop was just her imagination. Perhaps she faced her first of three challenges. Either way, it occurred to Misfit that by going slower, she moved faster, and it was a lesson that she would carry with her up the ascent to Katahdin.

The following day Misfit was looking forward to the next section. She would be hiking the lowlands of the Wilderness. Two days of nearly no elevation change between her and the next section. She welcomed the more leisurely walk. However, as she finished the last descent into the lowlands, the first drip caused her to flinch. She hoped she imagined it, but the subsequent drop led to a drizzle, so she raised her umbrella. The drizzle turned to a pour, prompting her to pull out the poncho instead. The pour turned into a torrent, and she pulled on her rain pants to complete her armor against the elements.

She danced around puddles and rock-hopped over muddles. She dodged waterlogged tree branches and solved mud puzzles. The time passed slowly, and the rain didn’t slow down. After several hours of constant pit pat on the hood of her poncho and trying not to soak her precious feet, her resolve cracked. Of course, that is when she happened upon the most enormous puddle she’d ever seen on the trail. It was as wide as lengthy, and the terrain funneled her directly through it. More importantly, standing on the far edge was a familiar apparition. Dry, smug, and wearing her comfy jeans and favorite cotton shirt. It was Rebecca here to test Misfit’s sanity. “I told you I’d see you again,” she said.

Misfit conjured up her mantra, “I am a llam….”

“That won’t help you here,” Rebecca spat. “The Wilderness doesn’t care about your spirit animal.”

Rebecca’s quick defense took Misfit off guard, which gave Rebecca her chance to present her case. “You are tired. You are wet. Best to pull off back there a bit and camp for the night.”

Misfit saw sense in that. She was tired. She was getting rained on. She hated wet feet. She hated wet socks and wet shoes. Rebecca had noticed the agreement in Misfit and pushed again. “Get some rest. Tomorrow you can go back. Skip this section, or just head home.” However, Rebecca tried too hard and fast with her last comment.

“Go home!?” Misfit shot back. “There is no going home! I have not crossed 2,000 miles to turn around now!” Rebecca’s confidence faded a bit. That is when Misfit did something neither of them expected. She lifted one foot, held it before her like a weapon, and took a decisive step into the filthy cold, wet mud puddle. As she did, a drip landed on Rebecca’s shoulder. The water seeped into Misfit’s shoes sending a chill up her leg. Her face cringed at the sensation, then smoothed over. More drips landed on Rebecca’s face, shoulders, and legs. Each bead melted away her comfy clothes. Misfit squished her other foot into the muck, and Rebecca’s freshly shampooed scent faded. Step. The humidity frizzled Rebecca’s hair. Squish. Rebecca’s socks soaked through, along with Misfit’s. Splash, squelch, swish until the two were standing nose to nose. Rebecca was reduced to hiker clothes, smelly and wet. She was nothing more than a mere reflection of Misfit. She was powerless. “I am Misfit. Hear. Me. Roar.” She whispered such that only the two could hear the words. With her final step, Misfit exited the puddle and walked through Rebecca as if she wasn’t there. Perhaps she never was. Perhaps this was the second test of the wilderness. Either way, Misfit splashed down the trail like a kid playing in the rain and enjoyed the remaining hike to camp.

Two days passed without incident. Misfit was closing in on the northern terminus of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which also meant the entrance to Baxter State Park and the ultimate destination, Katahdin. At the end of the wilderness, she happened upon the Gatekeeper’s kiosk, but no one was in sight. This was the first time it occurred to Misfit that she hadn’t seen any hikers since entering the wilderness. She was alone, and her supplies were limited. She sat and waited. The day turned to evening and evening to night. The time passed slowly, and Misfit was restless. The temperature dropped, and she wrapped herself in her quilt. It was a restless night. Eventually, the first light came, and the sun began to rise. It was then that the Gatekeeper presented himself.

“Who do you hike with?” he asked.

Misfit looked around. She was obviously alone; why would he ask this question? She was apparently taking too long to answer because the Gatekeeper repeated his question. “Who do you hike with?”

Misfit thought about the question, which reminded her of a conversation with Gandalf when she was just beginning her hike. “I… I hike with everyone,” she said.

The Gatekeeper must have accepted her response because he simply followed up with another question “What is the destination?”

She was headed to Katahdin. After all, she was standing outside the park as they spoke. She almost said as much but hesitated. He hadn’t asked for her destination; he had asked for the destination. Finally, she met the eyes of the Gatekeeper and said, “The journey is the destination.”

Without a moment’s pause, the Gatekeeper continued, “Only twelve may enter, and you will have a place beyond these gates if you can answer my final question. How far is the view?”

Misfit didn’t know where to start with this one. What view? The summit? She repeated the question in her head. The view… the view… THE VIEW! It hit her like a freight train. The number came to her clear as day. It was the number that determined all hiker’s decisions to head down a side trail for a view or continue. It was the distance that was simultaneously too far and close enough to carry on. The number was tacked on to the very length of the Appalachian Trail itself. “Point three,” she said.

The Gatekeeper stepped aside. “You are NOBO hiker #698. Proceed.” Misfit walked passed the Gatekeeper and onto the Golden road. It was a short .3-mile walk to the Abol Bridge Diner. Immediately she spotted other hikers entering the diner and headed that way herself. Perhaps the whole time, hikers were just ahead and just behind. Perhaps she merely hiked five days over mountains, streams, and through the rain. Perhaps she experienced something far more significant than she will ever comprehend. Either way, she was out of the wilderness, and tomorrow she would climb Katahdin and complete her 2,200-mile journey.


Summit Day >>

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