Top Three Moments #1: Queen of Katahdin
There is one thing every hiker has in common. It doesn’t matter why you set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. It doesn’t matter how long it took you. It doesn’t even matter how you did it. Regardless of any of these things, there is in every hiker a strong lust for Katahdin.
It starts off as this fantastic idea when you’re still in the southern states. Something so removed that it only seems hopeless to count it as your actual goal. Eventually you forget about it. You’ve been on the move for so long and still you can’t even feel its presence yet. Nonetheless, you’re drawn northward, magnetically, to that open space ahead of you. At some point you begin to dream of it again. You wonder about the feeling of that first glimpse. You practice poses for the sign in your mind. It begins to feel like a possibility.
Then one day it is there. It is small, off in the hazy distance and it grows in size with every peak you climb. This is when you begin to count down the mountains between you and the end.
Katahdin. Even the name means “Greatest Mountain” and it is. Hundreds and hundreds have come before it and many you remember for the beauty they offered or the torture you suffered, yet none of them compare to Katahdin. Standing at its base, there is no more prepared your body can be. This point also marks the most abused status your body may ever summit a mountaintop in. Skin and bone and sinewy calves, thighs and buttocks. Two thousand, one hundred and eighty plus miles you have put into building, and consequently destroying, the only piece of gear that can take you to the top. But you’re so single-mindedly focused that none of these things come to mind.
Despite every due that has been paid up until this point, there are still no easy endings. The path is well worn through the trees but as soon as the Alpine level is hit the trail disappears with the foliage. It becomes a game of eye spy, scanning the immediate surroundings for a white blaze on grey rock among an even greyer sky. They seem to always be in the least plausible places, leading you over and around and under and beside.
Then you come to the table. If you are unfamiliar with the topography of this beast, you may imagine you have arrived. It is, after all, the only logical assumption since you have been climbing hand over hand for several hours. But there is more. It is either a wonderful breather of the well-informed hiker or it is a dismal realization for the unsuspecting. After the shortly lived level land, one more mile of treacherous climb is left.
Your eyes are peeled, peering into the deep grey space around you, for the looming shadow of the sign. When it appears, there is an impulse to run towards it, but there is hardly enough reserve energy to do so, even if it weren’t barricaded in a grave of sharp, loose rocks for miles around. Your spirit soars but your knees buckle as you fall against the worn wooden sign that haunted your dreams and fueled your passion for longer than you have even been wandering this trail.
All of these things you have come to expect, as you painted the scene over and over in your mind through the past fourteen states. What you do not expect is often what becomes the defining moment of the experience.
There were eight of us and we climbed Katahdin in smaller groups of two and three. Somewhere during the last few states we had simply committed to experiencing the end with one another. We passed each other and waited for and hurried to catch up and then we stood at the base of the mountain together.
Five of us already sat on the summit, sprawled out in hiker trash fashion before the iconic sign. We waited as long as we could stand it. The blustering wind was relentless and we had already partaken in several rounds of photo shoots and naps. The clouds shifted endlessly but never lifted and seemed to hold the promise of worse weather to come. Finally we decided to start hiking back down and hoped to catch the other three on the way up.
As soon as the sign faded into the clouds behind us, the triplets emerged from the sky before us. They were drained and running on empty from the climb, not knowing they were less than 50 yards from the end. We were still high from the adrenaline of being on the summit and descended upon them with the excited knowledge of how close they were. A song burst out among us and we surrounded them as we sang:
“We are the champions!
We are the champions!
No time for losers,
Because we are the champions… of the world!”
It had always seemed like such a narcissistic song, but now I can only suppose that Freddie Mercury wrote it for that moment when someone who had spent six months living in the woods, thinking about a mountain over two thousand miles away, finally made it to their promised land.
By the last line they had joined in along side us, sensing that we had not even been off the summit long enough to loose the shine. The five of us stood and whooped and hollered as they continued up the trail, watching them until the disappeared into the atmosphere, wildly close to the terminus of their own journey.