I finished the Appalachian trail at about 1 pm on Tuesday, September 27th. The previous two days had been some of the best in Maine- bright blue skies, lovely rolling hills, crystal clear lakes, and a friendly dog named Lyle who followed a group of us to the Baxter State Park boundary line. There was a stay at a remote hostel that involved blowing an air horn to signal a boat to pick you up, a lovely beach for swimming, a reunion with a long-lost thru-hiker friend, and a night time hike for one final camp on a beach and star-gaze over a lake so glassy that it was difficult to see where the stars ended and the water began. Three of us forded two rivers at night (which, as you might suspect, was not particularly smart, as the rivers were almost crotch deep and swiftly moving), stargazed under clear skies from the top of a waterfall, and tried to soak in every damn moment of the end of the journey. I had wanted to end my thru-hike at dawn on the summit of Katahdin, but a late arrival to the campground at the base nixed that idea (I fell asleep at midnight, and the prospect of waking at 2 am to climb the mountain was unappealing). Instead, I arrived at the summit at 1 pm, dragging my feet, and trying to delay my arrival at the summit as long as possible.
Hiking up to the summit.
I wanted to feel joyous, to shout and whoop and yell my way to the finish like the thru-hikers who had finished just minutes and hours before me, but instead all I felt was a crushing grief. Six months, I thought, six months, and what do I have to show for this? Was I any better off than when I had started my hike? I honestly didn’t know, and in the emotion of the moment I made a vital mistake: I started second guessing myself. If I could hike the AT, I thought to myself, deep within the thralls of depression, then what was stopping anyone from doing it? Was my decision to hike the AT selfish? Was it worthwhile? What was the point? I didn’t know, so I stood on the sideline, drank a “celebratory” beer, watched my friends scream, and shout, and laugh, and tried not to cry.
At 3:30, after the crowds of people had left, I had the summit to myself. I turned around in a slow circle to take in the scenery, looked at the beautiful sign, traced out the word “KATAHDIN” etched and painted in white with my finger, and in one instant, my heart broke in two. I put my face to the sign, and bawled my eyes out. I cried like I hadn’t cried in years, the kind of crying where you’re glad that nobody is watching you make a mess of yourself. My pent up frustration at the entire state of Maine poured out, as did my worry about what a future without white blazes to follow had in store. I cried because the last two years of my life were so fucking awful, and because in comparison walking 2,181 miles was easy (even though it sometimes wasn't). I cried because I was sad to be finishing the trail, but also because I was ready for it to end. I cried because I felt loved by so many people, including strangers, every step of the way, and because without that support I would never have been able to make it.
After about five minutes of uncontrollable crying on the Katahdin sign I could hear my friends calling to me in the distance, wondering why I hadn’t yet caught up. I stood up, wiped my tears off of my face and onto the sign, picked up my pack, and did what I had been doing for the past six months: I walked it off. Three days later, snug in bed in the morning at my sister’s house, I reflected on my summit day for the first time with joy in my heart: GODDAMN IT, I hiked the Appalachian Trail this summer, and it was the best decision of my life.
Six months and five days.