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Destination: Katahdin

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

The Final Climb

Each day at seven a.m., the rangers in Baxter State Park post the weather forecast and rate the conditions from 1 to 4, with1 being the most favorable conditions above tree line. Today was Class 1! What great luck to climb this unique, incredible mountain on a day like this. I signed the register and began climbing at 6:30, before the weather rating was actually posted. It was very cold, but the sky was blue and the breeze negligible. For a while, today felt like so many other days on the trail ... not the last.

But the higher I climbed, the more the feeling changed. While each mountain has had its own personality, Katahdin really does have a strong one. It seemed like almost no time passed before I hit tree line and stood above the world. Breathtaking. I looked up at where I was going—another 2,000 feet—and wondered where among the rocks and boulders that final sign was waiting.

I felt no anxiety about the rest of the climb, although I had for many miles before today. Suddenly, that anxiety was gone, and I felt comfortable. Turbo Turtle made me happy with his observation that my climbing and footwork skills were much improved, and that helped as I chimneyed up one location where house-sized boulders looked like they'd fallen from the sky into a huge, jumbled pile. A few rebar hand- and foot-holds were well placed to give added security and crucial help in a couple of tricky spots. For some reason, though, the climb felt almost easy, despite the fact the Thru-Hiker's Companion calls it the most difficult. Not for me. Not on this day.

After a few miles of steep climbing, I crossed the wide-open Tableland. Frozen mist stuck out sideways on the alpine vegetation and on the "Please stay on the trail" signs. I could see the sign marking Thoreau Spring—named for Henry David Thoreau, who climbed Katahdin in 1846—-from nearly a mile away. Once I passed that sign, the final, moderate, half-mile ascent was in front of me. My feet flew like I was walking on air. I hardly realized I'd started to run as I reached the summit. When I looked up from the rocks, I saw something that made my heart leap into my throat, and I started to cry. I shouted "YAY!!!" although it didn't feel like my own voice.

The Sign at the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail

The Sign at the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail

And there it was: the sign I'd seen in so many photos on so many walls for so many years with so many other people standing behind it, sitting in front of it, kissing it, sitting on it. I didn't think I'd react the way I did when I reached that point, but the culmination of almost six incredible, physically and sometimes emotionally challenging, soul-satisfying months hit me as I walked over to touch the big, red sign with the word "Katahdin" painted in large, white letters. "The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail," it read, and I just continued crying as I turned and watched Split P and Turbo Turtle approaching. I shouted again, and Split P cheered back over the wind.

The only other people at the summit before I arrived were two women I didn’t know. As I'd approached the summit, crying and cheering, one of them held out a camera to me before my hand had touched the sign. I was maybe six inches from it.

"Will you take our picture?" one of them asked without a smile.

"One second," I replied, catching my breath. My hands were shaking.

"It's pretty easy," she said sternly. "All you have to do is point and press the button." She was impatient.

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I took the camera and snapped the photo of the two women. The one who hadn't asked me to take the picture thanked me, and that's the last I saw of them. They disappeared as I turned to see Turbo Turtle and Split P reach the sign. Split P lay against it for a long moment. Then came Gaited Mule. I'd expected him to whoop it up as usual, but he was silent with a slight smile behind all of that facial hair. He stopped a few feet from the sign and stood quietly, watching while Split P continued to lean against it. Finally, she stood up and said, "C'mon, Mule. Come touch the sign." It was so sweet the way he reached out his hand and walked over to it. Funny, Gaited Mule's reaction and mine were the exact opposite of what I'd expected them to be. You just never know how the emotion will manifest. It's an incredible feeling.

*Sigh* I really don't know what more to say. I'm now sitting in my parents' home in Rhode Island, where I'll be visiting until for a few days before flying home.

Now that I'm finished with my thru-hike, I'm trying to grasp that I really did it at all. It almost doesn't seem real. After only days off the trail, I almost feel as if it were a dream. I have no aches and my feet look like they always had before. Being "out here" feels like it always did, too. The thing is, I know something has changed. I'm changed. I don't think you can go through this experience without being somehow affected and altered by it, even if in some subtle way you might not at first realize. Sure, the old jeans fall to my ankles now, but the differences go a lot deeper. All I can say is, whatever it is you do, if you eventually thru-hike or not, make the most of and appreciate each day, because the days pass and things end, and it's like *poof* ... it's over. The memories are wonderful. So are the pictures. But the journey is the treasure.

Me at the Summit of Mt. Katahdin (scanned too small years ago, before the slide was ruined by a flash flood ... but that's another story)

Me at the Summit of Mt. Katahdin (scanned too small years ago, before the slide was ruined by a flash flood ... but that's another story)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Deb Kingsbury


Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on June 13, 2019:

Thank you for reading and for the compliment, Liz!

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on June 13, 2019:

Thanks, Larry!

Liz Westwood from UK on June 13, 2019:

This is an interesting and well-documented account of your climb.

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on June 12, 2019:

Very cool story! Thank you for sharing!

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