I have finished a hike along the shores of West Carry Pond just after dusk until finally reaching a campsite where the trail cuts back into the woods. Before setting up my tent I turn my headlamp off and sit for a bit on a flattish rock, taking in the dark and peculiar silence. It is too late to enjoy the beauty of the lake, but I will be rewarded instead with a sunrise over the water in the morning.
It seems there are very few people in a five mile radius. There was the clattering of a small boat being taken in or put out, a canoe or at most a row boat, to the south. To the north a dog barks briefly and isn’t heard from again, likely the companion of another thru-hiker or an angler. A coyote howls distantly to the west in search of one of his own. The sound of a high-flying jet is heard faintly overhead, but it’s passengers are far removed from this scene.
Without the assistance of a flashlight I try to imagine the feelings of early adventurers like John Muir who carried not even a lamp. Could I have endured such darkness night after night? I’m not sure. The coyote’s howl is returned by another even more distant.
This pond where I am camped — which I will call a lake — was crossed by General Benedict Arnold on his way to Quebec with 1,000 soldiers. I chuckle at this irony, because hiking the last few days I have been thinking I have perhaps betrayed some of my readers who are interested less in hiking and more in the caprice and freedom of such a journey.
Let me explain.
I long to write, and to write simply. Every day as I thoughtfully put one foot after another a dozen article ideas present themselves to me, and in fact are even written, if only in my mind. It is the tree of time that falls, blocking my path, that prevents the transfer of these words into keystrokes.
Sometimes I think I would be better suited to writing trail updates if I were no writer at all. I have, here and there, been following someone’s thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. After days or a week without signal, he seems without fail to still upload a few words and photos for each day. It is the writer’s curse to be vain, to wish every last character to be meaningful, without realizing that on such a journey as this each keystroke is meaningful, if not perfect.
It seems to me that the articles that win out always tend to be thundering and emotional, carrying to you only the highest highs and the lowest lows. This is, of course, a thundering and emotional journey, but not every hour of the day. My greatest fear is that I present a scary picture of a thru-hike, at least a thru-hike by someone like me, but these are only scattered instances, a sprinkling of bitter cinnamon on an otherwise sweet apple pie. The cinnamon may be bitter, yet it completes the dish.
I assure you the resultant articles are not intended to be dramatic, and certainly not to cause fear in those anxious for my safe arrival at home. These are just the moments that tend to fight their way to the top of the stack in my mind.
The truth is that the freedom and caprice are very much alive. I sought solitude on the trail, but found myself instead surrounded by 30 tents many nights. The only problem, if you could call it a problem, was that I hadn’t hiked far enough. Through New England I was rewarded with my solitude, and now I might see one northbound hiker a day in between towns. Now in Maine, I have true solitude, and my thoughts are crystal clear.
I stood at the top of one of the taller climbs a few days ago, looking hundreds of miles in every direction, and saw very little besides more mountains. There was Sugarloaf ski resort, abandoned for the summer. Rangely, Maine was large enough to be seen, but from there it was barely barely a pinhole in the fabric. I know there are people out there, but I could count the number of houses I saw with one hand.
It is as if I own the mountains now, paying for them not with money, but with steps.
I have set up my tent now and boiled some water, opting for hot chocolate at the last moment over coffee in the hopes that sleep might easily come. I have almost 10 miles to go before reaching the canoe crossing over the Kennebec, but this only operates for two hours every morning, so there is no way I will make it tomorrow.
And that’s okay. I will not pretend that I am wholly at peace, for someone with my disposition is never wholly at peace, but I am close. I am closer than I have been along the whole trail, and perhaps off the trail as well. As the hikers around me stress about time, or about the mountains that remain between Katahdin and their aching bones, I see the end very clearly and it is beautiful.
I saw Katahdin for the first time a couple days ago, and it might as well have been a star in the sky for as distant as it was. I think about the brief time I lived outside Denver and could see the snow-capped Rockies from the kitchen window. Could I ever have imagined a thought back then such as “Yes, I will walk, and I will be there next week?” Surely not.
I believe this calm to have many sources, but the primary source, the one that guides each step, is a sort of arête if you will, that I apply to each step. It seems to me that rushing poor steps slows one down, but allowing each step to be thought out and true does just the opposite. It is not how quickly or how many steps you take, but the quality of these steps that get me farther.
I had hoped to hike 20 miles today, but made it only 17. They were a good 17, however, rather than a poor 20. A poor 20 may have left me closer to the ferry, but also possibly injured or tired in the morning, but a true 17 were… Perfection.
It is 4 a.m. now. I have slept wonderfully and I feel energetic. I begin to think that perhaps I can make it to the ferry in time. I make a cup of coffee and do some yoga, which now takes the place of the Advil I stopped taking a couple days ago. I must use Advil sparingly because of problems in my pancreas and gall bladder, and I decided that it is now best if I stop completely for a while.
By 5:15 my pack is secured on my back, my headlamp is on, and I begin to slowly make my way through the darkness. It will be almost 90 minutes before the sun appears. My pace is quick but not rushed, and every step deliberate. There is no doubt in my mind now that I will make it to the Kennebec in time, and my only regret is that I will miss the sunrise over the lake back where I camped.
We must allow, however, that the only way to hike into the rising sun is to begin in darkness.