After enjoying a filling lunch at Doc Grant’s restaurant in Rangeley, ME, I decided to stay the night in town at The Farmhouse Hostel. While riding with a friendly stranger from town to the hostel, I recognized the presence of a seemingly never-ending battle in my mind of, “I need to make miles” vs. “I’m exhausted, sore, and I’ve earned a stay in town.” To the frantic voice, the drained one said: “I am in Maine. It’s getting cold. I am staying in town. End of story.”
After showering and settling in at The Farmhouse, I caught a ride to the grocery store. I gathered my resupply for the next several days and ingredients for my dinner that night. When you cook on a mini stove for a while, you truly learn to appreciate cooking on a full-size stove. Also, with less limitation on your supplies, cooking indoors begins to feel more like an art than a chore!Over dinner, I talked with some of the other hikers about their plans for summiting Katahdin. When would they summit? How did they plan to get home? I was still unsure of my final travel plans, but I knew I needed to at least start brain storming.
I had planned to hike about 20 miles the next day, so I could stay at Spaulding Mountain Lean-to. While talking to the other hikers, I discovered they all aimed to zero. Looking at the weather, I saw there was a 100% chance for the next 24 hours or so. I really didn’t feel like I could afford a zero day considering there were over 200 miles to go and it was already September 29th. Because the weather at Katahdin can get rough in the fall, they only guarantee the mountain to be open until about October 15th for thru-hikers to summit. After that, it is all weather dependent. In other words, I would have to cover the last stretch in 15 days to be guaranteed the opportunity to summit. The level of stress in calculating it all out was pretty intense.I considered both Braveheart and Peach’s tentative schedules, but I really wasn’t sure I would be able to pull a 30-miler in the 100-mile wilderness. I just didn’t want to push it to the limit. I decided to set out the next day like planned and I would just have to take it slow over Saddleback Mountain.
The next morning, I awoke to text from Rebel Yell who was about 20 miles ahead on trail. He and some others were at one of the lean-to’s and were planning to zero there. They all advised that I stay in town as Saddleback Mountain would be fairly dangerous in the pouring rain. I was torn, but decided maybe it was for the best. I’d just have to make up the miles somehow. So, I zeroed. The Farmhouse was a wonderful place to spend the day. They named it appropriately as there are several full-of-personality characters there including a pot-belly pig!
I was able to catch up in my journal, enjoy the massaging chair, and watch some movies. Although, I never really felt relaxed. I sensed the restless tension in my fellow hikers, too. We were all hearing the clock ticking in our minds.
I do think I truly made a good decision to stay put, though, as this one rain event became commonly known as the “Mainesoon” amongst the AT Class of 2015. Stream and river fording became impossible in some areas. In fact, that night the hostel taxi went and rescued several cold, soggy hikers from a random forest road. They were happy to pitch in a pay the fee because apparently the day had been frigid and miserable and the campsite they intended to stay at was on the other side of a raging stream.
Among the “rescued” hikers were Ryan and Cash. I enjoyed talking with them for several hours before bed. Ryan (who refused to accept a trail name) is from Boston and reminded me of what an old-timey, blue-eyed gangster would look and sound like. He seemed to stay freshly shaven, even on trail. I had first met him in Pennsylvania during one of the hottest, stickiest, mosquito-infested days and now here we were almost freezing to death in Maine. Cash, who was hiking with his girlfriend, Little Lady, is from Florida. I hadn’t met him until that night, but it quickly felt like he was an old friend. He has a way of speaking directly, no beating around the bush and no fluff. I really liked that about him.
Although the three of us were sitting at the hostel together, they were about 12 miles behind me on trail. As we exchanged laughs and stories that night, I silently hoped they would eventually catch me in the near future. I could’ve zeroed again the next day and waited for them to catch up, but I was just too restless for that. We talked into the wee hours of the morning about life, our changed perspectives, politics and future plans, but finally called it a night.The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, I was ready to go! Braveheart, Peach, and I hit the trail together at 9am. I hoped we would all camp at Spaulding Mountain Lean-to that night. It would be nice to hike and hang out with some girls as I hadn’t really had any female friends on trail since Rigga and I had been separated. Also, on the way to the target shelter there was one river ford I was relieved we would likely cross together. Most heavily on my mind, though, was knowing we would be passing the Poplar Ridge Lean-to. This particular shelter had become famous among the AT community due to a missing 2013 thru-hiker named Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay. Inchworm had been last seen at the lean-to and in two years had still not been found despite several search and rescue missions. It wasn’t that I realistically believed anything bad would happen to any of us, but I would be lying if I said the thought of passing that shelter didn’t creep me out just a little bit. The unknown has a way of toying with a mind.
The three of us hiked together in silence for a bit with the exception of heavy breathing due to the steep terrain. It was cold, foggy and misty, but I was thrilled it wasn’t raining. Braveheart stopped to remove her coat after a couple miles and assured us she would catch up. I stopped for a water break about a mile later and watched as Peach trucked on, slowly disappearing into the fog. I’m not sure why the day had such an eerie feel to it, but for whatever reason the unsettled feeling in me was very apparent. I waited a few minutes hoping Braveheart would catch up, but finally decided to continue on. Daylight was burning and I did not want to have to sleep at Poplar Ridge Lean-to.
I can’t say that I’m always cheerful, but I certainly try to remind myself to see the silver lining in every cloud. Going over Saddleback Mountain definitely challenged my ability to see any positivity in that day. I can’t pinpoint anything in particular that compromised my mental state, though. Looking back, it must’ve been the combination of terrain, stress, weather, and loneliness.
When I reached the top of Saddleback the wind was whipping violently on the ridge and whisps of hair slapped my tender face. My eyes watered and I could barely see through the fog. Although it wasn’t actually raining, the mist dampened everything, including my spirits. Mentally, this was one of my worst days on trail. Walking up and down sheets of slick, wet rock made me anxious. Sure, I had done it a hundred times before, but this time I suddenly had all sorts of irrational (well, somewhat irrational) fears flood my mind as I slid around on the mountain’s rock face. “Trekking poles can’t be relied on for stability and the tread of your shoes can only create so much friction – what if you fall? It’s a long way down. Could Katahdin still be achieved with a broken leg? What about the time it would take to get to town with an injury, then see a doctor, and get back on trail? Would there still be time to summit if that happened? I’m so cold. I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to do this – right? What is my family doing right now? Do I have service? I’d like to stop for a break to call them, but I don’t want to worry them…and it’s too cold to stop.”
While all of these thoughts furiously circled through my mind, I became angry with myself. I tried to push on, but at one point I balled my fists, screamed out loud at the dark grey sky, sobbed, gasped for air, trembled and finally folded to the ground giving in to desperation. After a few minutes of just letting all go I started to feel numb. I crawled behind a rock, partially taking shelter from the wind.
I don’t remember choosing who to call, but I do recall begging out loud that I would have enough service to make one. I just needed to hear a bit of reassurance from someone I loved. My sister’s sounded worried when she answered the phone, “Jess??” As soon as I heard her voice, I began weeping and could barely understand my own words, spewing at her all my emotions at once. She attempted to reassure me, but I could hear in her voice that I had upset her which in turn made me feel horrible. After all, I was the older sister of 10 years and had always been the one she could lean on. Now here I was, crying uncontrollably over a thousand miles from home and laying all my burdens on her. The helplessness in her voice was sobering and I immediately felt guilty for making her worry. I tried to tell her I would be okay and that I just needed to vent a little, but my phone lost service. Great.
I gathered my thoughts, composed myself and decided I was going to continue on. Although I would’ve been embarrassed for her to find me in that state, I was still hoping for Braveheart to catch me and I didn’t understand why she hadn’t yet. In fact, I was becoming slightly concerned. I stood up, wiped the tears and snot that had been pouring down my face, turned into the wind once more and slowly put one foot in front of the other. “That’s all it takes,” I told myself, “one step and then another.”
Shortly after my first and only real “breakdown” moment on trail, the sun started peeking through the clouds. I tried to focus on how beautiful the scenery was, but I really didn’t care. At that moment, i just wanted to be done.
I was lost in my mind, hoping my family wasn’t too worried about me when I saw it: Poplar Ridge Lean-to. It looked all too familiar, because I had seen it time and time again in various articles about the mystery of the missing hiker. I sat down at the shelter and looked at my map of the trail ahead. Because it was later than I had hoped, I had two choices: stay at this shelter and hope for Braveheart’s arrival or ford Orbeton stream alone. The problem with fording the stream is it was still about 3 miles out. I would likely get there just before dark and submerging my body in freezing water didn’t seem like a great idea since the air temperature was already in the 30’s. Also, considering the “Mainesoon” had ended less than 24 hours ago, I knew the water would be raging. I really didn’t want to stay at this shelter alone, especially since I was already feeling I had reached my all time low on the trail. Was it really worth risking my life at the ford, though? No. It wasn’t and I knew it.
Logic prevailed, but I reluctantly unpacked my pack, cooked dinner and watched the last sliver of sunlight disappear behind the trees. I tried not to think of it, but, as always, actively atempting to not think of something has the opposite effect. So, my mind began to wander while I ate. “I wonder what happened to Inchworm? Maybe she wanted a new life and disappeared? Is she still alive somehow? What did she eat for dinner when she was here? If she died, did she suffer and was she scared? Did she not make it safely across the upcoming ford? Did someone hurt her?” Little did I know, her body was still lying helplessly in the woods within a couple miles of where I sat and she was last seen. Inchworm would finally be discovered in just a few weeks time, finally allowing her family some closure.
After eating, I cleaned my pot and hung my bear bag. I sunk down into my sleeping bag and looked down the trail once more, hoping to see Braveheart’s head lamp drifting towards the shelter. No such luck. Where was she? Was she okay? It took several hours, but I finally felt myself drifting off to sleep. All of the worries and questions would have to be tended to in the morning. It was time to rest – tomorrow would be a new day.
Below are a few more photos from this stretch of trail:
Happy Trails 🙂
*I’m aiming to FINALLY finish updating this blog before beginning the PCT. Better late than never, right?! Stay tuned for the end of one adventure as I transition into the next. Thank y’all for following!