Entering Maine--August 25
January 1, 1970Entering Maine--August 25
Maine. It is the Holy Grail that northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have been tramping toward for five months or more. It is a place that has a kind of natural beauty found nowhere else. It also reveals its striking landscape and wonders only to those willing to negotiate the roughest and toughest sections of the pathway's entire 2,000 miles.
Maine greets us with Mahoosuc Notch, often called the A.T.'s hardest mile. Through the ages, large pieces of rock have become dislodged and broken off the mountainsides, falling in jumbled piles into a defile that is so deep and narrow that sunlight rarely reaches it. Patches of snow and ice often linger into July. It takes most hikers close to two hours to traverse this mile-long route as we must haul our backpack-laden bodies over, across, under, and sometimes through tunnels in this labrynth of house-sized boulders. At the end of the notch is Mahoosuc Arm, where the trail requires hikers to use feet, legs, knees, arms, elbows, and hands to grasp roots, tree trunks and limbs, stones, and whatever else we can to climb a rock cliff that rises vertically for more than a mile.
Yet, there is the reward of some of the most magnificent scenery in the eastern part of the United States. Beyond Mahoosuc Arm, the trail runs at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with miles of trail above tree line. Old Spec, Baldpate, Saddleback, and Bemis mountains provide Olympian views of surrounding ridgelines and lakes and ponds stretching to the far horizons.
There is no doubt that Laurie and I are walking in a land far from our home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Spruce and fir dominate the forest, with birch being about the only deciduous tree. The marhmallow-sized droppings of moose pepper the forest floor where snowshoe hares hop between luxuriant patches of bright red bunchberries. Carniverous sundew and pitcher plants add mysterious and odd shapes to the mucky and boggy areas that threaten to suck our trail running shoes off of us when we make a misstep. A long and sleek pine marten stared at Laurie with eyes that were both inquisitive and somewhat menacing. Days often start with a bright blue sky that becomes crowded with puffy white clouds by mid-afternoon. Perhaps what is most telling that we are far from home is the fact that the temperatures have only been in the 60s during the days and, on August 20th, dipped so low that the weather service issued frost warnings. Already, some of the leaves in the underbrush have begun to change colors, close to a month before their counterparts in Virginia and West Virginia.
We are now in the lakes region of Maine and nearly every night we are camped on the shore of some lake or pond. One day, after a steep and slippery descent of Bemis Mountain, our morning was spent picking handfuls of ripe blueberries and raspberries. A bright afternoon sun enticed us into the cold water of Long Pond before we set up camp on the shore of Sabbath Day Pond. Several loons floated by, often taking dives deep into the water to emerge a couple of minutes later with a fish sticking out of their bills. The loons' eerie (some people say manical), but somehow also strangely soothing, calls spread across the pond and echoed off the surrounding hillsides as we bedded down for the night.
The contrasting emotions that the loons' calls evoke somewhat mirror the feelings that northbound hikers are now experiencing. It has been a long trek from Georgia, and emotions are running high and are quite mixed. Some hikers can hardly wait for the hike to be over and are increasing their daily mileages. Others, realizing the journey is coming to an end, are slowing down as much as possible so as to enjoy each moment left to them. I met one lady who said she has begun to inexpicably cry and can't tell if these are tears of joy or sadness from almost having reached her goal. Although still enjoying the trip, some people find their bodies are exhausted and are becoming frustrated with Maine's steep and rugged terrain. (I'll admit to you that I have had to take a few days off just to get my emotions in check and give my body a chance to rest.)
A couple of days from now we will be in Monson, Maine, the last resupply town for northbound hikers. A day or two later, we'll enter the 100-mile wilderness, just barely more than a week away from standing atop Mount Katahdin.