It's 11:22 a.m. on September 12th. At 11:22 a.m. on August 12th, I was in the midst of an insane rock climb up Mt. Katahdin. I was hoisting, I was scraping, I was sweating, and I was emotionally confused. Ringleader and I summited on August 12th, but we were emotionally drained from the unprecedented stresses of family, tourists, and the end of a 5-month adventure. Many thru-hikers say their summit day is one of the best days of their life; it's logical, but I think August 11th served a little better.
We were on a tight schedule. Some of our last days on the trail were marathon days; August 11th was a 21 mile day, and I remember every moment. We woke up on the trail in our busted tent to the sound of TP's voice, "I thought it was you guys getting in after dark last night." TP! We love TP! Ringleader got a 30-second conversation with her at the end of our marathon days in Virginia, but I hadn't seen her since Hot Springs. For months we were anywhere from 10 days to 1 day behind her - and our last day, we finally saw one of our first friends on the AT. She looked good and (we could tell, although she probably would not admit it) she was extremely happy to see us one last time. It was great closure.
After an extended two-hour morning, we set off on our 21 mile day. We were finally leaving the 100-mile wilderness and were making our way for The Birches campground in Baxter State Park. We chatted. We soaked it all in. We crossed paths with a few south-bounders and flip-floppers (including a sweet older woman who was convinced Ringleader's name was Almost There...). Finally, after a painful amount of miles across roots, we came to the last shelter in the 100-mile wilderness. The shelter journal was out of paper, so we wrote on the back cover. Little did we know this would be the last shelter journal we would write in...
On we went. We began speed walking with little hops in our steps. Then, we heard it. Cars. Trucks. Automobiles. The terminus of the 100-mile wilderness. We ran, ecstatic. We ran out to the street and kept going to the bridge. Now, more than ever, we could see the end. Katahdin stood before us grand and menacing. 5 minutes we stood there looking at the mountain before we realized that time was escaping us. On we walked.
Two minutes later we stopped at the Abol Bridge convenience store. Kate downed orange soda, myself a large helping of Gatorade, and a bag of Cheetoh's Corn Puffs between us. The well pump was being fixed by a couple of old men (coffee in one hand, a wrench in the other). While we waited for the fresh water (our filter was broken), a family arrived. "Do you know our son? My brother? My boyfriend? Oh, we have to use his trail name - Felo!" Of course we knew Felo, a new thru-hiker friend we had met only 2-3 weeks before. We talked for 45 minutes with his family, who were planning on intersecting him at the Abol Bridge and then hike Katahdin with him the following day. In a way, meeting Felo's family gave us a wake-up call - these people, your loved ones, will come from great distances to support you because they are so proud of your accomplishment. Our mom and dad were on their way to Baxter for the same reason.
With water filled and the day getting late, Ringleader and I entered Baxter State Park. I cannot say we were hiking. I would say we were strolling. 2,170-some miles we walked with barely a second of flat, pleasant ground, yet at the end of it all, we were walking on flat ground. The grade was not noticeable, and there were no rocks or roots. I was able to look up when I walked without fear of tripping! What I saw was remarkable. A rapid river, fresh air, lively trees and shrubs and flowers, rodents running, and the back of my sister's pack. It looked good for having traveled the entire east coast.
A few miles in, we took another break to document our last thoughts on film. Ringleader spoke first, so I went down to the river. There was a large rock slab jutting into the middle of the river, creating a thin but roaring waterfall. For the next hour, I inhabited the rock. I finished memorizing, "Oh, The Places You'll Go!", performing it a few times to an invisible audience. I basked in the sun and felt the warm fuzzies inside of me. When it was time to return for my confessional, I considered taking a picture of the rock. "No," I thought. "This one's for me."
Over the next hour I gave a confessional. I grew antsy within my talk, anxious to get to camp and upset that the setting sun through the trees kept dancing shadows across my face. Felo passed us in that time, and Ringleader promised we would see him tonight. Finally, we left. It was 7 p.m. and getting dark. We began with a quick walk. We rock-hopped two streams (in any other year they would have been tough fords). We were getting jittery. Then, out of nowhere, a sign. 2 miles left! More signs, with positively minute numbers on each one! That's when we started running. Running running running through the woods, yelling, screaming, making all kinds of noises, monkey and ape noises, panting, heavy breathing. Our packs were still heavy on our emaciated bodies, so the running gradually became intermittent sprints. Once, Ringleader yelled, "We got this!" and she took off sprinting. But, her trekking pole got stuck in some roots as she took off and she left it behind! Hahaha. I picked it up and passed it back, but the next 15 minutes of running included a mixture of gut-hurting laughter and gasping for breath.
By the time we got to the next road, it was dark and our headlamps were on. We found the ranger's station at the campground, checked in as thru-hikers #114 and #115 for the year, and headed for The Birches. This was it. The final destination. We were greeted by big hugs from Snickers and Sonic. We cooked our last freeze-dried Backpacker's Pantry meal with extra Minute Rice, sat by a dying fire, and went to sleep.
That was one month ago yesterday. Now, I work as a server at Carrabba's Italian Grille, biding my time until I can acquire a full-time career. Waiting tables is not the most flattering job; it requires precision and presentation when, in reality, most things the customer cares about (i.e. food) is out of your hands. Last night, one of my first out of training, was busy and every table seemed to be making their order difficult. Altering meals provides more opportunities for the kitchen to prepare the meal incorrectly, and it happened at almost every table. I felt my managers getting frustrated with me, and I did my best to remain calm. Then, the table came in. A couple, possibly mid-twenties but it was hard to tell. They frequented Carrabba's, although this was my first time with them. Her meal came out before the salads then taken back, was altered, and then made the wrong dish entirely. I felt terrible that I couldn't do such a simple task right. He found a pasta strand in his broccoli, and they took half of their meals home. Throughout it all, though, they never showed a sign of being upset. They laughed and were cheery. They sat patiently. Why? It was their one-year anniversary. Nothing would ruin this night for them.
Back in the kitchen, I washed my face to hold back tears of joy. One month ago I was running and laughing through the woods and today I was working for chump change. I was having a rough night, but this table reminded me to keep it in perspective. Today was my one-month anniversary. Mine! A cause for celebration amidst chaos. I'll always have that.