See You Down the Trail
My last post was written around 1am on a train from Boston headed south to Richmond, VA. I chose this stop because Richmond is the home of my friend, Bru. A week earlier I had been on the top of White Cap Mountain. The sun was setting in a band of pink sky that melted into violet and darkened to a crystal blue above the summit. I could see Katahdin clearly and close up for the first time. Thinking that this would be the last phone service until the end of the trail, I gave Bru a call. He had reached the summit of Katahdin that morning. He told me that if I got to Richmond he would drive me home.
The last couple of weeks of the trail were underscored by uncertain goodbyes. We never knew if it was going to be the last time we saw a friend. Instead of the hopeful farewells of the beginning (I’ll see you down the trail) — when we could confidently count on the serendipitous flow of the trail reuniting us — we awkwardly tried to infuse a casual goodbye with the gravity of a final farewell (If I don’t see you before, congratulations and it’s been really great hiking with you). Sometimes you would see that hiker again and go through yet another goodbye, but often you would not.
The last time I saw Bru on the trail neither of us knew it would be the last time. I was glad to hear his voice on the top of White Cap and grateful for a chance to connect before going home.
• • •
On September 10th I sat with Rooster and Pied Piper at the Katahdin Stream campground five miles from the summit of Katahdin. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We had been at the summit, the end of the trail, at 10 am. We sat quietly in the grass, stretching our feet, eating what little food we had left. We occasionally tried to put our emotions into words but the experience had not quite sunk in and our attentions were mainly focused on getting a ride into the nearest town, Millinocket, ME.
A middle-aged couple from Massachusetts was our first target. They were waiting to meet their daughter, a thru hiker called Handstand. Soon they were joined by other family members who carried a congratulatory banner and shared stories of how they got lost trying to find the campground. The family had two cars. We thought for sure we could get a ride.
Soon Pro and Wilt walked into our circle. I had shared a final trail fire with them the night before. They were trying to get to Bangor, a larger city farther away, by that night. It was a bold hitch to attempt but they were determined (and very good at hitching). Before Rooster, Pied Piper or I could even stand up Wilt was walking towards a couple of day hikers in the parking lot. We waved to Pro and Wilt as they were driven away.
As hikers came down from the summit we learned that Handstand had gotten married at the summit. Her fiance was hiking with her that day and their friend was licensed to officiate. We had passed them on our way down but had no idea of their plans.
Handstand and her new husband walked into the campground. Family members held up the sign and waved. Handstand and her husband unzipped their jackets to reveal Mr. and Mrs. t-shirts. The family erupted in screams of delight. I called out congratulations, doubly for the summit and for the marriage. What an incredible way to end the trail. Our chances of a ride decreased to zero — none of us wanted to intrude on the day for that family.
We spotted another pair of day hikers and approached an SUV covered in stickers from national parks and hiking clubs. The two men were hiking around the area for the week and would be happy to give us a ride into town. We were offered sodas from a cooler the trunk. We all stood in a circle talking about different parts of the country and hiking trails, and Katahdin.
There were not enough seats for our entire group so I volunteered to sit in the trunk. I knew that my hiking friends would keep our trail angels engaged in conversation. I was grateful to sit in the back with all our packs and not feel the compulsion to be a part of the conversation. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. The realization that I had finished the Appalachian Trail was beginning to dawn on me and I wanted space to let those feelings wash over me. Katahdin was framed in the back window as we rode down a gravel road out of the park.
The next morning brought rain. Hurricane Florence was careening towards the southeast coast. I felt lucky to have reached the summit on such a beautiful day. The rain only added to the melancholy I felt that morning. My body was tired and ready for a break, but my heart knew that it was the first of many days that I would not hike.
When it came time for me to leave the hotel the next morning I was reluctant. My ride, Steve, had arrived and it was time to go. If you’ve followed my blog you’ll remember Steve. He hiked in 1974 and lives in Maine. Though I had only met my friends two days earlier, our experience at the summit forged a quick and deep friendship. I hugged Pied Piper and promised to get in touch with him about his van project. Rooster told me that when I came to West Virginia for hiking or rafting, to give him a call.
On the way out of town Steve and I stepped into the Appalachian Trail Cafe to grab food and coffee for the road. Many tables were filled with hikers, some I had not seen in weeks. I introduced Steve and while I ordered food I watched him recount stories from his hike and answer questions from hikers eager to know about the trail of 40 years ago. I signed my name on the ceiling, a thru hiker tradition, and we were soon on our way.
My attentions were focused on getting home. The hurricane was threatening plane and train schedules south of Washington D.C so I bought a train ticket to Richmond for that night at 9pm. After a lobster roll dinner and beers with friends in Boston I found myself standing beneath a giant screen of train arrival and departure times. I couldn’t seem to figure out the correct platform for my train and started to wander around the station. Someone called out, “Blueberry!”.
Pied Piper walked towards me. He had a ticket for the same train and knew the platform number. I’m not sure if trail magic works off trail, or if I can attribute that moment to the familiar maxim — the trail always provides — but it felt like magic and somehow the trail provided a seat buddy for me, at least to Philadelphia. For a few hours more I was gifted with the friendship and familiarity of a fellow thru hiker.
After a fitful night of sleep, and Pied Piper’s exit at around 5am, I arrived in Richmond, VA. Bru was waiting for me with a cup of coffee. We spent the day driving around the city, eating dinner with his family and recounting the last few weeks of our respective hikes. In the morning we headed for North Carolina. During the drive we called Walkman, and processed the end of the hike. We talked about how we hoped to transition back to life at home, and what we would miss from the trail. Having a friend during the transition, and journey, back home made it easier.
It wasn’t until Bru and I had said our goodbyes and he drove away that I realized the trail was finished. No longer was there a chance that someone might walk up to me and address me as Blueberry. There were no more stops to make before home or trail friends to see. Any processing and remembering I would experience would be done without the camaraderie of other thru hikers.
• • •
Since coming home I’ve seen the summit pictures of many friends, received texts and made a lot of phone calls just to hear familiar voices. There is a surreal realization that some hikers, some people, that I met on the trail I may never see again. I experienced this feeling the last time I was on the AT in 2012 for a 600 mile section hike. Nothing can be done to return or recreate those months of hiking. They are over, yet intangibly they are ever-present. My memories, friendships, and internal emotional landscape are forever imprinted by my walking.
On my third day home I received a summit picture from Pumpkin Spice. He was a part of my hiking crew through the White Mountains. That particular group of hikers created the most enjoyable energy I found on trail. I had seen Pumpkin Spice last at Rattle River Hostel (a few hundred miles from the end) and hoped I would be able to reunite with that group, but it never happened. I wasn’t able to share goodbyes with those friends.
Due to some off-trail business, Pumpkin Spice skipped a few hundred miles in Virginia so that he would not arrive in Maine too late (Baxter State Park shuts trails to Katahdin the second week of October). He was checking in to see if I was still interested in joining him for some of those miles since I live close to Virginia. “Of course” I responded.
My tent, backpack, clothes and gear are still in a pile at my apartment. I don’t miss the physical discomfort of hiking and camping, I don’t miss the mediocre food, but I do miss the people and the simplicity of walking. The chance to get back on the trial with the purpose of supporting a friend during his last miles of a thru-hike, brings me a lot of joy. As I think about seeing a hiking friend, perhaps a few more if we can get a crew together, I realize what a beautiful network of people I have joined. I’m grateful for the possibility of seeing friends I didn’t get to congratulate in person or hug farewell.
There are many other hikers I wished I could have seen before the end, some are still hiking, many are home already. Luckily goodbyes don’t mean much on the trail. Even though we’re finished walking, I think most hikers would agree that to our trail families, hiking partners and AT 2018 hiking class, we feel more comfortable, and confident saying, “I’ll see you down the trail”.