Friday, September 24, 2010

Climbing Katadhin and completing the Appalachian Trail

This concludes my posts over the past year on hiking the Appalachian Trail during 1987. (Here I refer back to the trip I took in 1983, that got me thinking about doing the entire trail and the short trip in 1988 that completed the entire trail for me. That's me in the first photo, toasting to having made it to the top of Katahdin.

I wake up again. It’s 4:30 AM; Chainsaw and Offshore Steve are talking. The last time I woke up, an hour earlier, the shelter was shaking from the snores that had earned Chainsaw his name. Dawn is still a ways away. I sit up, staying in my bag as the air is cool, and join the conversation. We’re all excited, anticipating the day, but talk quietly. A bit later, I try to go back to sleep, but to no avail. While it’s still dark, I fire up my stove, its roar piercing the silence for the last time this summer. I place a pot of water on the flame. As I wait for boiling water, I stuff my sleeping bag and roll up my air mattress. In a few minutes, I have boiling water. I pour the remaining of my oatmeal mix into the old margarine tub that has served as my bowl for the summer. Then, as I have done nearly every morning, I use my Sierra Club cup to dip out hot water and mix it into my breakfast cereal. Afterwards, I again fill my cup and drop a tea bag into a hot water and sit it all aside as I sit on the edge of the shelter, lacing up my boots. Even after the thirteen hundred they’ve covered since June and the thick calluses they’ve developed, my feet still hurt.

As I eat, I debate what I want to take in my pack. Bob, Jim’s father, invited us to leave stuff in his van. I could make the summit without a pack, but after months of hiking, it would feel like I was hiking naked. My pack is pretty empty, as I am almost out of food and fuel. I leave my tarp and a few clothes behind, saving maybe a pound of two. I pack up everything else and by 7 AM, Chainsaw and another friend of his who had arrived at daylight, along with Steve and I leave Katahdin Springs and begin our climb. We have a five mile hike, mostly uphill, with an elevation gain of 4000 feet. Soon, I’m out in front, leaving Chainsaw and company behind. It isn’t that I want to go this fast, but something is drawing me toward the top.

I take frequent breaks. It’s not that I need to break, but it’s a way to slow down. I stop and wait, looking at the changes in the leaves as I gain elevation. The poplar are already turning yellow. Up above the mountain’s peak, the clouds seem to dance across the top. I question myself, asking why I had taken the trip. I still don’t know for sure, but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity that few have had and that I have prevailed. I listen to the birds and the waters rushing through crystal clear streams.

Walking, even with a pack, is now second nature. I reflect back on my hikes over the previous five years recalling that first trip in the mountains of North Carolina with Don, Reuben and Reuben’s son, Nathan, in early May, or was it late April, 1983. We were dropped off at Spivey Gap and that first day we cross the Nolichucky River. It was a fourteen and a half mile day and we all were dead. I’d never hiked that far with a full pack. But we kept going. On our next to last day, we hiked in the fog up Roan Mountain. On the trail, we’d begun meeting that year’s crop of thru-hikers and Nathan and I collaborated on a poem that began, “Georgia to Maine, you must be insane.” Our last night on that trip, we nearly froze in Roan Highland Shelter. All our feet were blistered. Don decided he wasn’t going any further and asked that once we got to the road and the car, if we could drive back and pick him up. Reuben, Nathan and I continued on that morning. The air was cool and clear and when we made our way across the highland meadows, the clouds were all below us. My feet no longer seemed to matter. I knew I was insane. I knew I’d be hiking to Maine.
Offshore Steve approaching the summit.
I was amazed at how much of Katahdin was above tree line. Ever since we first went above tree line in New Hampshire, the elevation required for the alpine meadows were dropping. I love the feel of the openness when there are no trees. I paid attention to the short grasses that blew in the wind. The trail also got steeper and at places, I found myself grabbing for the chains that had been embedded in the rocks to aid hikers. But I still kept moving, being drawn on. Finally, when I got to the “Gateway,” just a mile below the summit, I decide to stop and wait for someone else. I didn’t want to summit by myself. I watched Offshore Steve climb up behind me and gave him my camera. He got photos of me leaving Thoreau Springs and we walked together to the top. Steve had completed the trail a year earlier, having come back to hike summit and complete the trail with Chainsaw. Chainsaw, having been joined by another friend of his hadn’t spent a month on the trail, was moving slowly. At 10:50 AM, Steve and I reach the summit. I break out a fifth of Johnny Walker’s Black Label that Jim’s father had brought for me and Steve and I share a drink. Steve snaps a photo of me sitting on the rock cairn with the sign designating it as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail to my back. I lift up my cup in a toast.
Below: Slim Jim on the summit.
Dave Webster and two Japanese hikers arrive just a few minutes afterwards. John, the caretaker at Upper Goose Pond in Massachusetts, where I’d stayed back in July, also appears and comes over to congratulate me. As I wait for Jim’s family, I explore the top, walking out on the knife-edge that connects Baxter Peak to another nearby peak. Jim and family arrive at noon. More people have made it to the top, many talking other trails than the AT, which are easier to climb. In the wind, I hear Amazing Grace. I wonder if it is some kind of “audio” vision I’m having, but then we’re all surprised when a bag piper comes up one of the “easier trails,” playing his pipes. The music is fitting for the party developing on the mountain. We have plenty of drinks. In addition to the Scotch, Jim brought along a bottle of wine, Chainsaw’s friend brought a bottle of Champagne (and firecrackers) and Chainsaw has a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. We celebrate with friends and strangers alike, freely sharing drinks and food.

The only thing I remember about coming down the trail is that I worried about Chainsaw, who had a little too much to drink. I remember navigating the steep part of the trail and hearing him a few hundred feet above me, singing at the top of his lungs. But everyone made it down safely. I was the first of our group to get to the bottom and back to the campground. John, the caretaker from Upper Goose Pond, was there at his campsite, waiting for his girlfriend to come down. He offered me a beer and we talked for half an hour. Later, Jim and his family arrived, along with Chainsaw and his friend and Steve. Jim’s father fixed a huge pot of spaghetti and feed us all, with enough pasta, bread and salad to fill up a bunch of starved hikers. Afterwards, I went with Jim’s family to Millinocket, Maine, where we spent the night in a hotel. In the morning, we stopped by the post office where I picked up a package I had sent there with clean clothes. It felt good to wear clothes that weren’t ripped and stained. Around noon, we dropped off Jim’s mother and brother at the airport (was it Bangor or Portland?). Then, the four of us—Jim, Bob (his Dad), Ginger (his sister) and me—started the long drive south, alternating between sleeping and driving or riding shot-gun and keeping the driver awake. I remember driving through Pennsylvania around 11 PM, not far from the trail, with the windshield wipers working overtime. At 6 AM, we’re in Statesville, NC and they drop me off at a Shoney’s. We all have breakfast, then they head on south toward Florida. I wait an hour before calling my brother who lives about 30 miles away.

My parents are at my brother’s and they come to get me. I must have looked wild. Having spent the summer hiking, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on me and my beard and hair were long and straggly. As I’d hiked through the summer, I had sent my slides off for development at Kodak and then had the slides mailed to my parents who were able to watch my transformation though pictures. My mother said it was a good thing, otherwise she’d thought I had AIDS or something, as skinny as I was standing outside of Shoney’s, with a backpack, looking homeless.

I had seen no burning bushes in the wilderness, yet the trip had changed my life. When I came back from the trip, I had decided to shift my career focus. I had also decided that I wanted to spend some time in the West, and the next year I applied for internships which led to the year I spent in Virginia City, Nevada. It also marked a tranistion that I had been undergoing since my divorice. I had dreamed of my ex-wife many times that summer, but the next fall I found myself forgetting that I had ever been married which was good as she had long ago remarried and had a kid by a different man. I, too, needed to move on.C
I had only a few days with my parents, before I had to head back to Pittsburgh and to school. It was a bittersweet transition. I had a hard time being indoors for extended periods of time and, if it wasn’t raining, found myself doing most of my studying outside, preferably sitting up against a tree. That continued until cold weather arrived.
Katahdin, from Daisy Pond, taken the day before we climbed to the top.
Although I had hiked over 2100 miles, I still had one short section of trail to hike in Central Virginia before I could say I’d completed the entire trail. I had planned to do this over Thanksgiving, but a water pump broke in my car and I was unable to get it fixed in time to get to Virginia, hike the 40 miles and then get back to Pittsburgh. I ended up hiking the last section at the end of February. I was on the trail for three nights and never saw another hiker the entire trip. The last day it rained hard. I got to the road, cold and wet. A guy in a beer truck felt sorry for me and said that although it was against policy, he’d give me a ride. He dropped me off at a diner down in the valley. I went in, sitting my pack in a corner, and ordered lunch and asked those around the counter if they knew anyone I could hire to take me to my car, which was at the trailhead, 40 miles south. A guy at the end asked about my story and what I was doing. I told him that I’d just finished the last section on the Appalachian Trail and didn’t want to have to walk back to my car. He told me if I could wait around till 3 he’d give me a ride as he was going into work at a plant down that way at 4 PM. Another unknown stranger, like so many before, would help me out. That night, I drove back to Pittsburgh, kind of sad that I’d finished the last section of trail all alone. That February hike in Virginia stood in contrast to the day on the top of Katahdin.


  1. Really enjoyed this, Sage. The description of the climb and the pictures make it all very vivid. Experiences like these can be life-changing, especially when they mark a point of transition, where we let something go and open ourselves to other possibilities. I'm glad you took time to describe the personal journey as well as the physical one.

    The account of the trip back to complete the trail is bittersweet as you describe it. But it's a reminder of what it takes to endure and make it through to the triumphs.

  2. I sort of hate to see these posts end, Sage. I climbed and hiked with you - something I'd never do in life.

  3. Thanks for sharing the memories with us. I really enjoyed reading about the trip. I grew up wanting to hike the long trail along the other mountain range but now due to my bad knee, I'm not sure I got a long distance hike left in me. I might just break it up into pieces over many years.

  4. That was quite an achievement, and I know it's 20+ years, but belated congratulations.

  5. Ron, thanks, this was a highlight in my life and looking back on it, it did change me

    Kenju, I have more hikes to write about! And hopefully more that I've yet to take to tell you about.

    Ed, long river trips aren't bad on the knees... I'd love to go to Churchill or down the Yukon!

    Vince, thanks,

  6. I missed this yesterday. Great pics, as always. Better memories, I'm sure.


  7. Do you still view it as sad that you finished alone, or has time changed your perspective?

  8. Man am I sorry I got so far behind! I know now we are twins separated at birth or in a parallel Univers-ity!

    Refer to all of this written by you for me about us!------ "In my last post, I sarcastically repented of being a chauvinistic, mI’ve not heard since I got rid of my vinyl records in the mid-80s when I left the South to continue my schooling.Misogynistic, homophobic racist for my hatred of Disco. Here, I became aware of wonderful music by groups like Yes, Steely Dan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Fleetwood Mac, Jeffro Tull and Bad Company. I even saw them in concert in the mid-70s. And how about Traffic’s “Low Spark of the High Heel Boys”?

    Good stuff Bro--- Look forward to many more years Lord willing of growth and maturity and WARP DRIVE VISION!!!! LOL


  9. sage-- I don't know why I was dropped from following--but it has happened a lot lately with Blogger.


  10. wow. i have not done the complete A spentT but enough nights on it to feel familiar in your campsite...nice summit...and glad you found favorite with a good old boy here in VA....

  11. Nice story Sage and a beautiful part of the country. I once lived in the Smoky mountains. Best time in my life! I love the pics!

  12. i get a lot out of reading your tales. i did hike myself, just last week and it was transformational.

  13. Wow. Unbelievable tale...and so great that you can get it all down here for us to share with you.

    I SO MUCH prefer hiking vicariously through you...and I enjoy hearing the pride and satisfaction you express for having done what you set out to do.

    Now. Order me some room service...will you?

  14. Your memory is amazing as were your hikes. I too feel that I was there with you but glad it was you...
    Love how you found your life that summer

  15. Sage, great blog! I've just skimmed over most of it so far to get acquainted. Like me, you're a man of words, something I appreciate about you. You've got some very rich experiences to share, and I like that you take the time to share them with a descriptiveness that brings me into your world. Nicely done!

  16. Randall, yes, the memories are still great after 23 years

    Kontan, it doesn't bother me that I finished the last bit alone, but it was anti-climatic after the Katadhin experience the summer before.

    John, that was some great music, eh? Glad your still here.

    Brian, Virginia is a great state and there is more of the AT in VA than any other state!

    Flaubert, the Smokies are wonderful--I've hiked them both in the summer and the winter.

    Pia, I kept a journal. Using that, maps, guide books and photos, I recreated the journey. It was an amazing summer!

    Stormhorn, thanks for stopping by. We both have a love of words, but I envy the way you play that sax--you are able to get such a soulful tone, it's beautiful and takes the mind away.

  17. David, I'll have to check out your blog and see if you wrote about your hike--I have my journals of the John Muir Trail and will have to write about my hike on it.

    Kathyrn, How did I miss you? Oh, you were in the hotel room waiting for room service! :)

  18. I have loved these posts about your walk on the trail. I can just imagine you standing there at Shoneys. My niece is an adventurous sort and I have scooped her up a number of times in similar circumstances.

  19. Thank you for sharing your memories with us, Sage. These were wonderful posts and the pictures were amazing!

  20. The wonders of your writing keeps me glued to the screen, screening each word and sentences with utmost patience. You have revealed what you had reveled. interesting.

  21. So... does finishing the blogging saga of this trip compare to the feeling of actually finishing the trip? ;)

    Sorry you went it alone at the end. I wonder if you'd feel the same about hitching today that you did then?