End of the Trail
At 6am, as planned, the shrill, annoying beep of the watch alarm startled Mule from his fitful sleep. The pre-dawn chill pressed down on his face, unwelcome in its call to the importunate task of the day.
He stared blankly at the wooden logs of the shelter above the snoring pile of undulating sleeping bags to his left. His shoulders, back, hip and knees all hurt, the four ibuprofens he ingested having long ago worn off. He fumbled for the mini headlamp and, flicking it on, saw the misty plume of fog in the still air above him. On the ceiling he could just make out the graffito a hiker had written there: Never date a woman with a dagger tattoo, never play poker with a man whose first name is a city. Each cloudy breath hung above him, and he guessed the temperature at about 40°. Remaining in his bag Mule rolled onto his stomach, then came up on all fours; he gently bowed his spine downward, then upward, repeating it until his muscles loosened enough to bring himself upright.
There was soft moaning from the mound to his right and a boisterous fart to his left as he slid off the platform and began the routine he had known for the last 180-days: remove backpack from the shelter’s hangar and retrieve food bag from bear box, deflate back pad and pillow, stuff sleeping bag into sack, start water boiling, and change into dirty hiking clothes. After a tinkle in the woods the tea would be ready and he would quietly—he was always the first one up—nosh on an apple energy bar and sip his drink, looking at today’s portion of the trail guide.
His finger ran along the dog-eared page, tracing the mileage, elevations, springs, and hazards. Each tea-heated exhalation fogged the air so much that he had to remove his glasses. “Gonna be a bitch,” he said softly. “But the sooner I get going, the sooner I get done.” With practiced efficiency he neatly stuffed everything into his backpack until it was comfortably full. Mule had filtered spring water the night before and tucked a 17-ounce bottle in the side of his pack, ready to drink on the go. He shone the headlamp around the campsite, picnic table, ground, and shelter to make sure he had forgotten nothing. For over a month now, every morning was begun in the dark. And each morning the sun rose a minute or two later; the light was slipping away on him.
Mule carefully laced his boots, mindful of their state of deterioration, and with a fluid motion swung the backpack on with a grunt, and headed off into the gloaming; his boots crunching and poles pinging as he went. The path quickly converged on the trail and suddenly a young man, dressed only in shirt, shorts and sneakers streaked past Mule, running a race against no one. He darted around the bend and was gone. Mule then approached a sign that read: Today’s Katahdin Weather- High of 50°, 50% chance of rain, possible fog above tree line. Not bad, he thought, better than snow or thunderstorms.
When Mule began the Appalachian Trail in April he was told that it was a late start and, depending on his pace, the weather, and luck he may not arrive at Katahdin, where the trail ended, before they closed the mountain for the season. And this admonishment was poked at him by almost every southbound hiker who crossed his path. “You going all the way?” they’d ask. “Well you better gitty up, fella. They close that mountain to hikers October 15, turn you away at the ranger station—close the shelters.” He had pushed himself as hard as his body would go, but his pace, weather and luck had all been bad.
Despite training for months with a loaded pack and boots Mule twisted his ankle the first week out and lost three-days while it healed. In North Carolina it rained for five-straight days as a tropical storm raged through and he got bronchitis that made him miserable for a month. And since he hit Pennsylvania and its great fields of stones, his old basketball knees had been hurting like hell.
He turned a sharp corner blocked by a huge boulder and froze, there before him a cow moose and its calf stared stupidly in his direction. He reached for the small digital camera in his pocket but the shy creatures turned their ungainly heads and quickly bolted off the trail, vanishing into the pines.
The Trail had never been easy. The heat, the mountains, the equipment problems, the lack of good food or companionship, all had been hard on him. Often he had been on the verge of quitting but each time he sat down on a rock and convinced himself to carry on; his intractable personality refusing to permit a trip home without a digital pic of him standing by the AT sign at the top of Katahdin. He needed, badly, the ability to look everyone in the face and tell them that he had done the whole Trail. And when he shared these sentiments with a group of stoned hikers in North Carolina, saying that he was more stubborn than an old mule, they abruptly awarded him his trail name. He had met many through-hikers during this sojourn, most of them moving at a faster pace. Mule saw their names in the shelter journals: Pacer, Pilgrim, Preacher, Mr. Bones, Redwing, Boodles & Breeze. Horsefly, Continental Drift, Slomo, Hermit & Dragon Lady and Navigator. The varied and unique Trail names added a sense of cachet to the Trail. But as they progressed their writings became increasingly cynical, and then they were gone. Sometimes there would be an expression of capitulation, an injury, a girlfriend, a lack of funds, which granted the excuse for a quick exit of the Trail, usually with a pledge to return next season to pick it up where they left off. And other times, nothing, as if the hiker had just wandered off a cliff somewhere.
These journals had been a source of strength and amusement to Mule, especially important as his cellphone was worthless 90% of the time. He would read them over his rehydrated noodles, reveling in the schadenfreude; these virtual traveling companions and their boneheaded misadventures. Though he knew most
only through the journals, he had become familiar with them to the point of considering them friends.
With the miles, the mountains, and the months the list of familiar names ebbed, until Mule felt completely alone. And as if this isolation wasn’t hard enough he was now in the most difficult part of the trail, “the hundred mile wilderness” of Maine. From Monson to the end, no towns for re-supply or succor, no bridges over the many creeks and countless steep mountains and their hip-deep soul-sucking bogs. He had survived the hardest mile on the AT, a pile of giant boulders at the crux of two mountains called Mahoosuc Notch, where he was impelled to remove his pack and push it through the small holes, followed immediately by Mahoosuc Arm, a near-vertical 1600-foot climb up the smooth granite mountain. When he reached the shelter that night he collapsed. The daily rains exacerbated the misery, the water pooling on the boot worn trail so that his feet were constantly wet and muddy. Most hikers agreed that it was a good thing the wilderness was at the end of the Trail and not the beginning: no one would ever make it all the way.
The Trail had taken Mule through his own odyssey, and it showed on his face and body. The extra fat he had carried since high school was gone, twice he had to swap out his pants for smaller clothes, and when his brother saw his picture on a trail website he said that he looked like a concentration camp survivor. Indeed, the weight loss concerned him, more than the many bruises, scrapes and sprains he had suffered; at night he felt hip and shoulder bones poking onto the wooden floor of the shelters. But he took it all bravely. “They’ll be plenty of time to eat when I’m done with the Trail,” he said airily to the folks back home.
The path was getting steeper now, the pines shorter. Though Katahdin was not the biggest mountain on the trail, it was surely one of the toughest and already Mule wished he had traded his 40-pound pack for a small day pack at the ranger station. He was sweating more than he liked and after a series of quick switchbacks he broke out of the tree line and almost gasped, seeing what lay before him. Enormous, unending, almost vertically piled boulders stretched out above. Surely he argued, I walked off the trail, I took a wrong turn and if I turn around I can…but there it was, way up, just barely visible; a small white rectangle painted on a rock. It mocked him cruelly. “Oh my,” he lamented. “This Trail was created by some sadistic bastards.” Angrily he stabbed at the ground with his poles, took a deep breath, and moved on.
Within minutes it was clear that the poles had become useless. The path was nothing but boulders now, better to pack them up and go at it with hands and feet. A wet blast of wind hit Mule’s face, a veil of mist moved over the mountain and blocked out all but 100-feet ahead or behind. The wet rocks chilled his fingers and he regretted the act of mailing home his gloves last month (along with a few other
things, to save weight). The extreme effort had covered him in sweat and the many gusts chilled him deeply. “Don’t want to end the hike with a case of pneumonia,” he blurted to the rock in front of him. The wisps of mist raced across the path, and Mule, breaking with discipline, looked upward to see a set of large iron spikes in the rock, maybe 500-yards away. And he reproached himself for looking up there. He had trained himself to keep his eyes glued to the ground ahead, that looking up would only deflate his spirits and encourage him to take a break. He had read about the Katahdin Spikes, large metal bars pounded into the rocks long ago to assist hikers with the climb. “Oh god, the chin-up spikes,” he moaned. He knew they’d be a bitch, and his arms became heavy.
Fifteen-minutes later he was there, with a crowd of anxious hikers waiting for a turn to pull themselves up to a ledge eight-feet above. One portly man had removed his pack and tried repeatedly to haul himself up. He grunted, and grabbed at the ledge above. There were people above who could have helped, but he was a very big guy. After a final attempt he dropped back down with a curse, picked up his pack, and wordlessly headed down the path.
Soon it was Mule’s turn. Setting his pack on the ground he calmly removed some light rope, tied one end to the pack, and the other to his belt loop, then pulled himself up over the ledge, then used the rope to pull up his pack, and moved onward. Two hikers applauded loudly as they watched him scamper. One shrieked, “all right man, you made it look easy!”
Maybe twenty-minutes later the path turned into a smooth ledge and he saw three women hikers gathered around a familiar sight: the runner who had passed Mule at the bottom was seated on a boulder, holding his nose. Blood ran down his lips and shirt, and the women were giving maternal advice and bottled water. One of them slowly rubbed his back and murmured reassuring words. Another hiker went by the group and smiled. “Slow down there fella,” he said smugly, “the summit’ll still be there whenever you arrive.”
By 11am as Mule climbed the boulders it was incipiently clear the weather was getting worse. The temperature was dropping and visibility sucked. He took a break in a small nook, trying to stay out of the numbing wind; beads of sweat and mist dripped from his hair and beard. The constant wiping of his glasses was getting annoying but he didn’t want to remove them and rely on his poor vision. The energy bar he gnawed on was bland—from day one it had been so, and he thought of how fine tomorrow would be when he could begin to have real food again. He only ate them because they were packed with calories and didn’t spoil. Food that keeps you alive he would muse, but oh, the thought of hot, nutritious meals with his family nearly drove him to distraction. And he thought of his sometime girlfriend Beena, she would work her magic in the kitchen with chicken curry and vegetables; he still couldn’t name most of what she served but it was
always delicious. And after the meal, the desert, the dishes would have to wait. And a cold foamy glass of beer—the simple pleasures were waiting for him after the summit, 5268-feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
Up he went, feet, knees, and hands, crawling more than walking as strong winds blew cold on his back. How could this be a trail? It was so steep and slippery. And how could he forget to bring gloves, they would have been so helpful here. Through the mist above he could hear hikers conversing, cursing the conditions, and Mule hoped none would fall and be injured. He would have no choice but to assist carrying them down the mountain and that was about the worse thing imaginable.
A young couple above him argued in French. He got a brief glimpse before they vanished in the boulders. Even after all the months and miles, the falls, the dizzy-headed bouts of dehydration, the wrong turns, the encounters with wildlife—the stinging insects; never before had Mule felt so far out of his basic comfort zone. This mountain was built for alpinists, not AT hikers. He felt woefully unprepared, a softy in a hard and unforgiving place, each rock became his tormentor. He had a slow and troubling presentiment that one of them would break him and be his end. And he would slip and fall into a deep crevasse, facedown, unable to cry for help, slowly freezing, alone. A long smooth slab of granite greeted his ruminations and slowly, deliberately he scrambled to its apex. He then saw that the angle of the path decreased, it was rounding over what they called the Saddle. The mist was thicker, and when Mule stopped to take a smartphone selfie he saw that he was not smiling and that the rocks behind had faded into white.
Within ten-minutes the path leveled off, hallelujah! Walking on relatively flat ground. There were cairns to guide him and a shallow spring-fed pond fanned out around the Trail. Mule knew it, surely there was no doubt now, he had reached Thoreau’s Spring, named for the famed philosopher who first wrote about the mountain on one of his long rambles around America. Mule remembered reading Thoreau’s arcane prose for a class in college. No doubt if he was alive today he would fit right in with the many eccentrics on the Trail.
Mule had passed the toughest part of the climb and the summit was barely three more miles. But the leveling off also brought a fresh cold breeze. He adjusted his pack, shook off the chill, took a swig of water and moved on.
The cold wasn’t all bad, especially since he was above the tree line. Last month Mule was traveling through the Presidential Range of mountains in New Hampshire, and with little warning a thunderstorm rolled in producing lightning bolts and hurricane-force winds that terrified him. There was no shelter whatsoever; he cowered beside a rock for almost an hour as the rain pounded down on his head and claps of thunder rent the ground nearby. No, cold and wet is much better than that, he thought.
The field of stones spread out pell-mell, disorienting Mule. Only the ethereal cairns, stacked long ago by kind-hearted Trail builders kept him moving in the right direction. Up ahead a line of dark figures marched steadily toward his position. As they converged Mule saw that they were two young men and three women and when they emerged from the mist were naked but for their boots and hats. They smiled as they passed expectant that Mule would begin a conversation, an inquiry as to why they all shed their clothing in such a cold place. But Mule said nothing, perhaps more as a reflection of his months on the trail and the myriad goofball things he had seen; he had become desensitized to it all, and they passed in silence.
Mule arrived at a strip of bog logs, split logs placed in marshy sections of the Trail to minimize damage from the constant foot traffic. He hopped onto the first, extending his arms and gingerly moved ahead. Hikers must be careful on these improvised bridges, quite often the log will be completely afloat in a viscous puddle of mud and decomposing peat, disguising its inability to support weight. If Mule were to step on one of these it would completely, splash! His leg sank to the knee and his foot slid off the log, putting him thigh-deep in. He swore loudly and tried to hastily exit the mud via the large rocks to the side. But they were too big and he changed tactics, walking in the mud till he came to the next log and stepped out. He stood their dripping and caked with mud and cold to the core.
Shifting his weight back and forth the mud squirted from his well-worn boots. His hamstring ached, it had bothered him a lot in Virginia and here he had re-injured it. Mule knew better than to stand there dissecting the situation—nothing to do but move on and use body heat to dry off. The sudden wet in his socks and boots expanded the leather and his feet smarted with the increased movement within. The rocks again became rounded and he had trouble maintaining a steady pace. “Blast those shitty logs,” he mumbled bitterly, and carefully placed his boots on the rocks ahead, mindful of their slipperiness. The wind blew, his back shivered, the goosebumps rose on his sweaty flesh. The fog was so thick it was easy to forget he was on an exposed ridge almost 5000-feet high. The fog did have a good side, though, it masked the valleys below and protected him from the frequent bouts of vertigo he suffered when above the tree line. His chest would tighten and his crotch tingled. His limbs grew heavy; his coordination waned. Don’t look down there he would admonish. But even with his eyes glued to the trail in front, the sounds of lower earth would reach his ears. Lowering cattle or bleating sheep would assail his ears and threaten his balance.
It then dawned on Mule that upon reaching the end of the Trail he would reverse course and re-trace the entire day’s hike. He chafed at the idea, knowing full well that going down a wet mountain is harder than going up it; but he treaded on. Eventually the steady pace warmed him enough to be thirsty and when he
reached to the small side pocket on his backpack he found it empty. He stopped, smacked his forehead and stomped the ground; no need to look around, he knew that the water bottle had fallen out when he slipped off the log, and was buried in the mud. Mule lashed out bitterly at himself, “a damn-fool thing to do, dummy.” That was the last of his water, there would be no more until he was back again at the creek by the campsite. “Brilliant move, Einstein, now what do I do?”
In the hazy distance a chest-high pile of rocks took shape. The cairn stood there defiantly against the harsh elements, guiding Mule along the Trail. He stretched his legs from rock-to-rock, careful not to slip on these ankle-busters. Aside from the whistle of wind around his ears the mountain was silent and kept its secrets hidden in its deep, cold core. Not even a trilling bird could be heard. Another cairn in the distance; no, this one moved, reshaping itself into a pair of legs, a cowboy hat and a backpack. Before long he saw a young man with an ample brown beard, peppered with small drops of water. A large cigar was pressed to his lips, and he raised his hand. “Halloo!” Mule called cheerfully. “Much farther to the top?”
“Ja, est ist,” he replied. “Mebbe, ein tausen hundered meter,” the European man said with a big smile. “Es ist sehr kalt unt vindy an der spitze.” Not sure of what he had said and aware that they would have a difficult time understanding each other, he thanked him and moved on, excited he was close. For over five-months Mule had lived this pilgrim’s life, trudging from dark to dark, meeting the craziest and strangest characters, carrying only what he needed to survive the next few days, eating the worst food he had ever known. And in every hostel and convenience store along the way he saw the photos posted on cork boards: triumphant, tearful, righteous, relieved, and exhausted faces of people gathered around the weather-beaten wooden sign that marked the northern terminus of the AT. Some did the goofiest things: a woman straddled the sign in a clown outfit. A man balanced himself on top and ripped off his shirt in a downpour, another juggled three water bottles. These images were permanently seared into Mule’s memory, driving him on until he too would stand penitently before the Katahdin sign and take “the photo.” Until now he refused to consider what he would do for it, that would be hubris and, he felt, the cause of his downfall. No, he would wait till he stood at the altar of the AT before deciding what to do. Surely, the correct thing would come to him at that time.
The wind was blowing steady now, wet and uncomfortable—mostly on the nape of his neck, the part not covered by the backpack. “You’re never as far as you think you are on the old, A.T.” he mumbled. He stopped and wiped his eyeglasses, and when he repositioned them he saw that the trail stretched out in a long right turning gentle arch that dropped off on either side. A small white blaze shone on a rock up ahead. He had passed about 165000 of these beacons that had obviated the need to carry maps, and without the blazes he would have been lost a thousand times over. “When is this damn fog gonna let up!” Mule barked, and his head swam; his balance faltered, and he tottered. Mule had neglected to halt for lunch and his body had long since burned off the light breakfast he had eaten at the shelter. He planned for a meal of an energy bar at the summit, he did not forget that his water was gone and winced—he might get lucky and Yogi an extra bottle from another hiker there, but it was the worst kind of optimism to expect that kindness. No, better to assume there would be no water till he returned to camp. But Mule felt comforted by the continued wet and cold, at least it would help to repress his thirst. The wind whistled past his ears, harder now, and a very fine rain slashed across his face. For a moment he halted and stared at his boots. They were top of the line and purchased just for this hike. And they were ready for the dumpster after 2100-miles. Almost all the seams and stitches had broken, they had been completely soaked at least 250-times and partially burned thrice; the left heel was working its way loose with every step. Tonight he would patch them up with duct tape and glue…wait, no, tonight he would throw them into the camp dumpster and catch a ride into Millinocket for a hot meal and a bunk at the hostel! Mule looked again at the boots as if to say, stay with me a little longer boys, a few more hours and you can rest for eternity—that’s all I’m asking.
And then it was there, barely visible up ahead, maybe 200-yards; a group of dark figures huddled around a wooden easel, a large stone cairn off to the side. It all rested on a cloud covered narrow ridge which invited Mule to come forth. He ignored the pain in his leg and stumbled forward until he stood before it. The wind blew in gale force gusts now, the rain pelted hard on Mule’s back. The many people stood there smiling, calling out words of encouragement, or talking on their cell phones, as they waited their turn at the sign for a final photo. Each hiker was doing something crazy by the sign. A French man opened a bottle of champagne that he had carried the entire Trail, did a handstand on the sign and with the help of a girlfriend, chugged from the bottle. A teenaged-girl mounted the sign and formed a lotus position, several others kissed the sign; still others kissed each other.
Doing a slow 360 with his head Mule could see it was nothing like he had imagined. All the photos had shown smiling people under a bright sky with verdant mountains in the distance. Today he stood in a cloud: cold, oppressive, uninviting. This isn’t right, he thought. I should be ecstatic—pissing my pants happy now, dancing a jig with strangers. One-by-one the hikers went up to the sign and had their photos taken, then gathered their dunnage and began the trip downward, only to be replaced by more hikers who had materialized from the mist. Mule stood shivering, holding his phone, unable to move toward the sign. Hunger gnawed at his gut and droplets gathered on his eyeglasses. He made eye contact with a pair of familiar looking hikers who had just arrived. One of them gestured for Mule to go
ahead, to take his turn. But he shook his head and stepped backward, drifting toward the cairn where he retrieved his backpack and fished out a couple of ibuprofen. He drew a deep breath and became renewed. And he finally realized what came next, what this had all been about.
Up ahead, opposite the direction Mule had come, was the Knife’s Edge, a difficult and dangerous path that lead over the spine of Katahdin and down to the forest below. It then continued out of Baxter Park and toward the Canadian border where it carried on to Cape Gaspe in eastern Quebec, 743-miles away—all with very few towns along the way.
There were miles of wilderness before of him. Mule grinned, tightened his pack, looked down at his boots, and began a slow, steady march northward, determined to make the forest floor before dark.