Will completed his Appalachian Trail thru-hike on August 7, 2016!
[[ let’s journey back to the day before the summit…]]
When I landed in Bangor, Maine after midnight on Saturday – much later than originally planned thanks to several flight delays – I realized that it was technically already Sunday, the day that I would hike to the top of Mount Katahdin with Will and he would finish his journey that started way back in February in Springer Mountain, Georgia. This was the day we had been anticipating for months, and the thought should have excited me. Instead, my anxiety only worsened – I had a lot to do before summiting the mountain with Will.
I grabbed the keys to my rental car at the airport and headed for Millinocket, Maine, about an hour’s drive from Bangor. I had never been to Maine before and, in preparation for the trip, I learned this: Maine is scary. Fact: my GPS would fail, my phone would lose signal, there would be nowhere in sight to get gas or to stop for directions, and I would end up stranded and alone alongside one of upstate Maine’s dark, open country roads.
And it wasn’t just the drive to Millinocket I was nervous about. Once I made it there, I had to drive the next leg to Baxter State Park (by 6am the next morning) to meet Will, and THEN I had to make it up Mount Katahdin – the tallest mountain in Maine – on four hours of sleep and no practice. (My pre-hike research via TripAdvisor described the mountain as “very intense” and “not for the faint of heart.” Eeek.)
All of this is to say that, when my plane landed, besides feeling anxious about the obstacles ahead, I was frankly a little irritated at Maine. The thought of traveling down dark, empty roads and possibly losing GPS and cell signal at any moment (I didn’t, by the way) annoyed me. Also, in planning for my visit to Baxter State Park I learned that the park has no electricity and no cell service. I had to reserve a parking spot weeks in advance and I had to arrive at the gate 45 minutes before it opened if I wanted to make it through in time to meet Will. Maine was not making this easy. Why were they so behind the times? Where were my modern-day comforts? And why all the rules?
I learned the “Why” on my drive – that dark, empty, quiet drive from the airport in Bangor to the tiny map dot of Millinocket, Maine. That drive that I had been so scared of. I learned it in a moment when I looked up to see the biggest, brightest stars in the clearest sky I had ever seen. It soothed me and it stirred me at once, as first glimpses of nature’s grandest sights – oceans, mountains, skies – tend to do.
It was then that my heart softened toward Maine. If Maine is “behind the times,” maybe it is purposeful. And maybe they don’t make rules because they are uptight and demanding,
but because they have something worth protecting.
It was then that I realized how much we need Maine – and all of the remote, inconvenient places like it. We need majesty; we need grandeur. Sometimes more than we need comfort.
When I finally met Will at Baxter State Park early on the morning of August 7, 2016, we began our trek up the Great Mount Katahdin. If I admit my fears of being stranded on the side of the road earlier may have been a bit irrational, will you trust me when I say my fears about that Mountain were actually completely legitimate? It was STEEP. It was ROCKY. It was LONG. If the weather had been anything but perfect, I truly do not think I could have made it to the top. If there had even been the smallest drop of rain, the rocks would have been too slippery for me to grasp. (This was more crawling-bouldering-rock scrambling-pushing/pulling-lifting than it was “hiking.”)
When we made it to the top, my entire body and mind ached. I collapsed immediately on a rock. Will smiled, walked up to the Mount Katahdin sign, had a special moment, and then we took pictures. There were probably 30 other hikers at the top, too, laughing and snapping photos and eating their Nabs. There were no fireworks or confetti or TV crews, but there were a lot of really happy, proud people.
We rested, we celebrated, and then we hiked (crawled/scrambled/slid) back down the Mountain.
As Will adjusted back to “regular” life in the weeks following his thru-hike, the question he heard over and over from interested friends and family was simply: “how was it?” But how do you summarize a 5+ month hike crossing 14 states, over multiple types of terrain, through every season?
Will’s time on the trail was a collection of moments – both good and bad – moments that stretched him and taught him and instilled in us both a deep appreciation for our country’s natural beauty and for the people who work hard on its behalf. I’ve learned that there are two versions of the Appalachian Trail: there is the physical trail itself – the wooden signs and the dirt paths, the boardwalks and the blazes – built and maintained over decades by hundreds of dedicated volunteers. And then there is the Appalachian Trail as a subculture – a collection of hikers, trail magic-givers, shuttle drivers, townspeople, hostel owners – who pour their hearts into the trail and what it stands for. There is this subculture of hiker parades and ice cream challenges and cold Cokes on the side of the road – and a feeling of camaraderie that requires nothing more than shared experience to sustain it.
I’ve seen people give and give – to themselves, to the mountains, to strangers they’ve never met before and will probably never see again.
Because some things are worth protecting – and that goes both for the sky and the trail before us, and the desire to explore and achieve within us. God has given us both and they are good.
Meridith and Will, aka Root Beard