The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I chose to take a third break from the trail for several reasons.
Because of my own impatience and lack of foresight, I didn’t take a single zero while hiking from Georgia to mid-Vermont, and the cumulative toll on my body left me feeling wiped out at the end of every day. A night’s sleep, as always, made a huge difference, but after 1,700 miles, its curative benefits were greatly diminished.
Also, I was anxious to get home and take care of some family issues that had cropped up concerning my mother’s health and welfare. These were things I simply could not accomplish on my phone from a hostel. It also would give me a chance to do a small amount of freelance work so I didn’t feel like a total bum.
Mentally, I needed a break, and I felt that flipping up to Maine would break me out of the Vermont Blues (which were a hangover effect of many long, hot weeks going all the way back to Pennsylvania). The radical change in scenery would spark my enthusiasm, and I might even catch a taste of New England’s fabled autumn palette.
Finally, I was hot (except for those days when I was wet and cold). My core felt like a glowing orange heating element and even my stomach burned.
So I went home to South Carolina, where the average daily high temperature in August is over 90 degrees and the humidity was, if anything, worse than in Pennsylvania. Then again, I could wallow in the warm-but-refreshing waters of the Atlantic any time I wanted, or tumble into the neighborhood pool.
Jody thought it was a little extravagant to come home for just a couple of weeks, and she wasn’t wrong. But, like an inexperienced marathoner, I had failed to pace myself properly, burning up mental and physical reserves I was going to need for the final leg of my journey. Hiker Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce, author of The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook (the most popular AT guidebook before David “Awol” Miller came along), famously declared that NOBOs who reach get through Vermont have completed 80% of the miles, but a full 50% of the effort lies ahead of them in New Hampshire and Maine.
I am an adamant believer in HYOH — Hike Your Own Hike — and I resist phony hierarchies or adamant claims that one way is better than the other. But I confess that I have come to see those who properly pace themselves on a sustained thru hike (a short break or two notwithstanding) are the most artful of AT hikers. Such hikes, to me, are like elegant, finely threaded tapestries, where I would describe mine as more of a patchwork quilt.
Cooled off, chilled out, and pumped up, I flew to Bangor, Maine on Aug. 25. I was far more nervous than when I’d started the trail back in March, fretting about transportation logistics. But in the end, my flight touched down on time and I took a $5 taxi ride to the bus station with plenty of time to spare before the Cyr Bus Line ferried me north. I spent time talking to an an older flip-flopper, Marmot, until the bus arrived.
Riding an hour north as the sun set over a wall of dark conifers I felt as if I were in a Stephen King novel set in the mid-1950s. I waited with Marmot and a couple of other hikers for just 10 minutes at a gas station in Medway before the shuttle from the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket arrived, piloted by a somewhat prickly woman named Mighty Mouse.
Arriving at the lodge, I got my first look at hikers who had finished the trail. They struck me as battle-hardened, wise and in many cases, a little dazed. Five or six or seven months and then, quite suddenly, the grand adventure was over.
The lodge’s SOBO special includes the shuttle, a night’s stay, and breakfast the next morning at the Appalachian Trail Café. That night I ate spaghetti at the Scootic Inn with a young hiker named Foodie. I slept fitfully, as if I was a neophyte, and rose at 5 a.m. to catch breakfast before the shuttle departed at 6:30 for Baxter State Park.
Much to my dismay, I couldn’t find one of my sturdy old Mountain Hardwear rock gaiters, which had been with me on every mountain I’d climbed for more than 10 years. I frantically searched until just before the shuttle left to no avail.
The ride to the park was beautiful, rolling through thick, dawn-dark forests and past broad, dark lakes. Deposited at the Katahdin Stream Campground, five of us walked into the ranger station to obtain our permits to climb the mountain on this day. There was a good deal of anxiety and confusion about camping rules.
Baxter is an unusual entity. Created in 1931 on 6,000 acres of land donated by former Maine Gov. Percival P. Baxter, it has grown to more than 200,000 acres. The park is funded entirely through a trust created by Baxter and private donations, but overseen by a panel of three public officials.
In recent years, park officials have complained that AT hikers, whether thru- or section, consume an inordinate amount of staff time and frequently violate rules that prohibit alcohol, parties of more than 12, camping in non-designated areas and others. AT hikers make up just 3 percent of the park’s annual users.
The record-setting 2015 AT thru hike by ultra athlete Scott Jurek brought the issue to public attention. Rangers issued summonses to Jurek for uncorking a bottle of champagne at Baxter Peak, littering and having too many people in his party. Media were issued tickets for not having proper permits. Jurek, a truly decent guy who wasn’t out to break the rules, paid a $500 fine and bore the brunt of public criticism.
In response, the park began requiring AT hikers to obtain a free permit before climbing Katahdin in 2016 (in 2017, they limited the number of permits to 3,145). The park maintains a shelter and campsite exclusively for AT hikers, The Birches, where a limited number of hikers may stay.
The rules are not all that clear, and several hikers worried out loud that if they take too long to climb and descend the mountain, they’d have no place to stay.
“Don’t worry,” the ranger quietly told Marmot, “we’ll work something out.”
He wasn’t quite so friendly with me, but I must take some of the blame. After he scoffed at my stated plan to climb Katahdin, descend, and hike 10 miles out of the park, my ego took the reins.
“I’m not too worried. I grew up in Colorado and I’ve climbed much harder peaks in the Rockies and Sierras,” I said.
“Well, you’re in for a rude awakening. I’ve seen hundreds of people from Colorado come off this mountain and tell me it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” the ranger huffed. “I’m telling you right now, you aren’t going to be able to do it. And if you camp illegally in the park, you’ll get a $1,000 fine.”
I left the ranger station at 7:45 a.m. burdened only with a light-blue daypack, since the park prefers that hikers leave full packs below. I exulted in every second of the next five hours as I climbed up, then down, this spectacular mountain. Katahdin may be 9,000 feet lower than the highest peaks in the Rockies and Sierras, but it is every bit as majestic, beautiful and fun as any I’ve ever climbed in North America.
After a brief warmup on gentle, duffy tread, the Hunt Trail/AT crossed a bridge over clear, cold Katahdin Stream and headed steeply uphill into dense coniferous forest. The weather was beautiful, clear and cool, but I was soon sweating profusely as I made my way up deeply rutted, root-choked, rocky tread.
Perhaps a mile up this first steep ridge the trees fall away, leaving hikers to scramble the next couple of miles over, around and through enormous boulders, and pull themselves up some steeper faces using rebar handholds and steps. The ridge includes the 2nd steepest mile segment on all the AT — gaining 1,640 feet — as well as the 21st steepest 1/2-mile segment.
It’s Class 3+, rocky with a ton of scrambling up the ridges, I wrote later. Super fun and mountain goaty, slow going but breathtaking. Favorite climb on the trail so far.
I leaped joyously up the ridge, feeling right at home, and reached the flat, stony “tableland,” where I could see Baxter Peak (terminus of the AT, though not actually the high point on the mountain, which lies further east). Although fairly flat for the first half-mile or more, the going across the tableland was rocky and required careful foot placement.
Walking rapidly up the last hundred yards to the iconic Katahdin sign, I could see there were perhaps a dozen other hikers on top. I reached out and touched the sign at 10:10, then turned slowly to take in the gorgeous views of nearly unspoiled forests, mountains and lakes spreading in every direction. Katahdin, which means “The Greatest Mountain” in the Penobscot Indian language, rises above all that wild land like a benevolent emperor.
I turned my attention to these hikers, many of whom had just finished their 2,200-mile odyssey. I was almost giddy to find Legs and Verge, the sisters whom I’d camped with in the old apple orchard way down in Tennessee, and whose parents I’d met in Virginia, were among them, as were their sometime hiking companions, Sweets and Jingle.
Legs took my summit photo. I chose not to mount the sign, as most hikers do, having always felt uneasy about that triumphal pose; surely kneeling before it would be more appropriate. I also was keenly aware that unlike these happy-sad thru hikers, I still had another 500 miles to go.
Sweets told me it was almost impossible to describe what she was feeling. Relief, exuberance, mourning and probably a half dozen other potent impulses, juked with adrenaline and endorphins. Something like that.
“But I don’t think I can describe it,” she said. “You have to experience it.”
I realized at that moment that in flip-flopping, I might never experience it at all. The Colorado Trail trickles out into southeast Denver, for NOBOs, and Durango, for SOBOs; the Continental Divide Trail starts and ends on flats in the middle of nowhere, ditto for the Pacific Crest Trail. The AT ends on a literal high, the most spectacular point in all its 2,189.1 miles. I felt giddy, as I always do on summits, but I knew that I would never really experience the emotions of my erstwhile NOBO compatriots.
I stayed on top for only 20 minutes or so before saying starting down. About halfway across the tablelands, I saw a familiar figure approaching.
“Looks like someone needs a haircut and a shave,” I shouted.
“Pony!” Patches shouted back, and we rushed each other for a hug. He eyed me and laughed. “Man, you look so weird without your beard and long hair. You’re all clean-cut!”
He also pointed out my perfectly — and, it must be said, accidentally — color-coordinated outfit, from my light-teal headband to the blue technical t-shirt I’d scored in Palmerton, Pa. for just $15, and even the light-blue daypack I’d borrowed. Even my socks were aqua-hued.
And, in a move I would soon regret, I decided to be “economical” and return to the trail wearing a pair of Hokas that had been languishing in my closet rather than buy another pair of Altras, with their ultra-wide toebox.
But he was right. My bare cheeks and banker-length hair left me feeling like a poseur, a doofus, a day hiker. But there were plenty of miles ahead to fix that.
It’s tempting to think of our meeting as miraculous or ordained (not that I believe in miracles or ordination), but we had semi-orchestrated it ourselves. I had told him I’d be on the mountain Aug. 25, barring a missed or late flight, and he was close enough that he could time his own ascent for that beautiful, late-summer day. He was slackpacking today with his brother-in-law and then, he’d be done. I assumed he was the first of our Virginia crew to finish, but later we learned that Easy-E had climbed Big K on Aug. 16.
We laughed and swapped stories and ate Jolly Rancher hard candies (on which I’d gotten Patches hooked) for 15 minutes before he rolled on toward triumph and I headed down the mountain with 14 miles to go before I slept. If anything, the trip down involved as much hand-work and care as the ascent — a fall here could put an ignominious end to my hike — but I arrived back at the campground at 1:15.
Including stops, it had taken me five-and-a-half hours. Ambling through the campground I saw Legs, Verge, Sweets and Jingle eating at a picnic shelter. I got water from the stream then sat down to eat and chat. Spying Sweets’ filthy Dirty Girl gaiters, I got an idea.
“So I guess you won’t be needing those gaiters now….” I began.
Explaining that I’d lost one of mine, I asked if she’d be willing to sell hers to me for the rest of my journey. Sweets had bought them for $20, put 2,189 miles on ’em, and now was willing to part with them for the low, low price of just $5. Deal. (It was purely coincidence that the pale turquoise of my new accessories perfectly matched the rest of my outfit.)
I made a point to say hi to the ranger when I hoisted my pack for the flat, 10-mile stroll along the Penobscot River to the park boundary. I walked awhile with park trail steward Long John, who answered my questions about the natural and human history of the area and told me some good spots to stealth camp once I was out of the park.
I reached Abol Bridge in late afternoon. The sun was now hidden behind a layer of dull clouds, and the air was hot and muggy, promising rain. Walking into the Northern Restaurant I had my sixth reunion of the day, this one admittedly remarkable, if not miraculous: Focus, whom I’d met the year before on the Colorado Trail (she was NOBO on the CDT), was just a day away from finishing the AT and completing her Triple Crown. In flipping, I’d sacrificed the experience of finishing at Katahdin, but I realized there was a distinct upside: I stood an excellent chance of running into almost all the hikers I’d met, whom I otherwise might never have seen again.
The restaurant was expensive, but I was famished. I ate a burger, salad and clam chowder. I believe that the Samuel Adams Oktoberfest ale to be the single finest beer, in the moment, of my life. The server was surely trying to boost her tip when she urged me to buy a 16-ouncer, but I was glad I did (and it had no effect on me, intoxication wise).
I crossed the bridge and pitched my tent in a small glade near the river and collapsed in a heap. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it if the Doubting Ranger were there, but I felt thoroughly thrashed, having jumped back on the trail with a 20-mile, 4,200-foot day.
My feet definitely took a beating on K. Butt chafe. Def. a long day to start, I wrote before falling asleep. I had to get out to avoid Baxter hassles. I won’t be doing this every day, promise. Slow down. Take more pictures. Take more breaks.
I woke around midnight to the lonely sound of rain pattering on my tent.