Editor’s Note: Blue Ridge Outdoors contributor Chris Gallaway was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and contributing a blog to BRO when tragedy struck his family. Read his other dispatches from the trail: A Cold Start, Trail Magic, Difficult Winter, Monuments, Spring!, Family, and Virginia is for Limpers.
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 and the last hundred miles 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.