Tuesday, October 5, 1999
Llama and I made it to Millinocket where we found a hiker hostel called the A.T. Lodge and found many familiar faces sitting in chairs staying warm as they waited for their final climb. Everyone was nervous, not about the last climb so much as to the end of the journey and the transition ahead of all of us. A few hours after completing our hike we won’t be hikers anymore. We won’t be seeing the same familiar faces, we won’t be living in the woods, we won’t be relying on our instincts and skills we’ve been developing and trusting. It’s like graduation and everyone will be going in different directions and you don’t know what that will fully look like.
There is a storm hitting Katahdin closing the mountain down. It was closed yesterday, today, and tomorrow to keep people safe. This mountain is beginning to get its winter clothes on and wants to show off the new snow apparel for us.
Hiking in the 100 mile wilderness gave me a new experience. With snow falling silently around me as I hiked for hours with the only sound being my boots crunching the snow underfoot. And I heard a voice. I was in my quiet place, a place nobody else goes. And there in my own quiet place the spirit of God whispered truth. And he confirms that I’m his son. That he loves me. And then there was a wimpy little whisper that came gurgling from my throat, and I said something like this, “this is just for me? This is just ours. You know my name don’t you? And it’s not Wadi, and it’s not Kenny. You have a name for me don’t you?”
“This is just between us, right? And I’m the only one who needs to know.” God and I have a secret.
Wednesday, October 6, 1999
“He who would travel happily must travel light.” Saint Exupery
The first white man to climb Katahdin was Charles Turner, Jr. in 1804. The A.T. uses the same route up that he used. Katahdin is 13 feet shy of being a mile high. It shares the joy with Cadillac Mt. on the Maine Coast in being the first soil touched by the morning sun every day in the United States. Llama and I are planning on waiting two days before attempting to summit but the mountain may turn me back before we reach it. Each morning at 7a.m., the rangers in Baxter State Park post the weather conditions and rate the day from 1 to 4, 1 being the most favorable conditions above tree line. They have been posting Class 4, blizzard conditions. We may not have the chance to follow any route unless the weather cuts us a break.
I guess I should be excited about this being over, but honestly, I have a lot of apprehension. The life I’ve grown accustomed to is about to end. Yes, I am ready for it to be over, but it will also be just that, over. I don’t have answers on what I’m going to do next in my life. I’m sad that this adventure is ending. I’m nervous about Llama and I, I don’t know where this relationship is going. I don’t know how I feel about her. I don’t know how to move out west with her heading back to Chicago. I don’t know what’s next for us or how to take a next step. I don’t know how to relate to her in real life. I just don’t like that I don’t know.
One thing I will not miss is the mice and chipmunks that nightly invade the shelters. In the last 100 miles I have truly never seen such aggressive critters on the whole trail. Even though we hang our food bags and even attach plates and other protective deterrents, teeth holes are found on my food bag and everyone else’s. All night in every shelter dozens of them run around evading our shoes and pots as we throw them. They keep me up at night with their scratching, squeaking, scampering and my worrying what they will eat through. In the morning there are holes and mice droppings in my pots and cups. I am glad I carry bleach to disinfect each nibble divot and poop stain. I will not miss them sitting on my head and peaking their noses into my sleeping bag. I quit, they win.
As I look back, I have noticed that there were more valleys and flat lands than mountaintops. I’m still processing through many of the dark areas in my heart I discovered and fears that revealed themselves. I realized that I really have more dark areas in my mind and heart than I thought I had. One thing I’ve learned is to just cry out to God and just own it. I just tell God, “I have this junk in my heart and I don’t want it anymore. Help.” I think it works. I think I have areas of growth and healing that I will leave this trail with. I have been able to throw my prayers into the sky to God, both the wheat and the chaff. God listens to them both and knows what is important and lets the wind carry way the rest.
I remember what my thoughts were when I thought of walking through a forest. I had no idea what I was doing. It was like looking romantically at the surface of the ocean with a brilliant sunset dancing colors across the calm surface. Yet just underneath is a whole world that you can never see without diving in. I was ignorant enough to pull this off somehow. And I’ve had the joy and honor to meet people of all walks of life on their journey who have done the same thing.
Thursday, October 7, 1999
Several hikers are attempting to scale the mountain even though it snowed through the night. The mountain has been officially closed for the day so there are no rangers out to help hikers should they need it. Apparently, they are in a meeting. So if a hiker gets hurt there is no quick help. If someone does get injured and needs to be helped off the mountain you will still get help, you will not be abandoned and left to freeze. And you will be given a generous fee to pay, $10,000 is charged (minimum) to you if you live or an heir if… Llama is still sick. Her body is more tired and wiped out than mine. She has no body fat, she has no insulation, her body has consumed every last piece of unused muscle and she does not seem to be able to heal from this cold. I think that if I’m going to be able to complete this mountain I might have to try tomorrow. I’m going to look for a group to go with, there are a lot of boulders to climb that are covered in snow and ice and I just want to make sure I stay safe. I’m hoping Llama can go, but she’ll make that decision tomorrow.
This hike has been the graduate school of self-discovery. I am not the first to enroll in this wilderness school. Every man or woman that God has used greatly in the Bible has spent time in the school of wilderness.
The first class I took was obscurity, learning continually downward mobility. Moses went to the far side of the desert where he spent his life being stripped of his securities of life and pride. Its where you learn that when everything is taken or lost, you can find out who you are with the real God and learn how to be loved as a child of God.
The next class is discomfort. Life was stripped from me taking me to the basics and it taught me what was important, what was of value and what was not. I had to experience the discomfort to know how to value life. Through my daily struggles I grew to know intimately the pain and, like Moses, know it well enough to lead others back to it. I believe that nothing God builds in me will be wasted.
Then there is time management. It takes a long time for a life of faith and trust on God to be forced into the open and to grow strong. This is one class that should never be cut.
The last class is solitude. Nothing significant ever happens without great amounts of time in solitude with God. You have to be willing to march out of step and to move into this rhythm.
The wilderness is a place of power, hope and grace. It is a place where the past can be erased and a future given. In the wilderness is where a burning bush experience can take place where God calls our names fulfilling my deepest desire, bringing life to a cracked and dry soul. To have God pour life into it and restore me.
Friday, October 8, 1999
Bright and early we woke up, alert and excited to drive to Katahdin. The dark clouds over the mountain have blown away over the night and though the temperature is still below freeing it’s going to be a beautiful day. We took a shuttle to the mountain and reached the Baxter State Park front gate to be greeted by a smiling park ranger. Our shuttle driver rolled the window down and the ranger stuck his head into the van to take a look at all the hikers packed in. He said in a slow purposeful voice, “you know that the mountain is closed today don’t you?”
We all nodded our heads while smiling and mumbled “yes.”
The ranger continued, “you know you can all be fined and arrested if you are caught climbing the mountain today, right?”
We all nodded our heads, continuing to smile while looking him in the eye. In our most innocent and voices that tried to convey, “we would never break your rules and climb your mountain,” we answered, “yes sir, we understand.”
We proceeded to the Katahdin Stream Campground where the trail starts up the mountain. We all fell out of the van as our muscles stiff and cold. The mountain is listed as a class 4 this morning. A class 5 means everything is closed due to weather and not possible to climb. When we had our packs on and were just about to start walking, another ranger pulled up to tell us again that the mountain is closed and that a rescue operation started at $3,400 an hour just for the helicopter. We said we understood that what we were doing was not legal but it was also our only weather window before the next storm was predicted to hit tonight and stay for another 3 days. He nodded his head and understood why we were there, this must happen every year for him. As we looked around, there were probably around 50 hikers attempting to summit today making it a very crowded reunion and it also gives us a greater chance of safety knowing we have help if we need it.
I took a few deep breaths, looked at the mountain, said a silent prayer, and began to walk. It was very cold, but the sky was blue and no wind. I walked the first two miles with Llama but every few minutes she would need to rest and hold herself over some bushes because she thought she might throw up. She was not doing well. It was a laborious 2 miles for her weary, beaten, and sick body. Before tree line she decided she couldn’t safely continue because of her lack of strength and the risk she would put others in once we started the bouldering section of the trail. So with tears in her eyes she pushed me on and she turned back making a smart and difficult decision. She is hoping to come back next summer to try again when the snow and ice are gone and her health is back to normal.
After I left Llama I joined up with Perma-Grin, Crumb Snatcher, and Cupcake and in a matter of moments we hit tree line and stood above the world. It was breathtaking. We began to work our way up the ice-covered boulder scramble. The day felt like so many other days on the trail … not the last. But the higher we climbed, the more the feeling changed for me. When we got to the boulders I really started to have fun, my body was warmed up, I was with great friends, and I loved the adventure of working together to scale these icy challenges. I chimneyed up one location where house-sized boulders looked like they’d fallen from the sky into a big, jumbled pile. A few rebar hand- and foot-holds were well-placed to give added security and critical help in a couple tough spots. The Thru-Hiker’s Companion guidebook called it the most difficult but we just pressed through with grins on our faces. I looked up at where I was going–another 2,000 feet–and wondered where up there among the rocks and boulders was that final sign. I felt no anxiety about the rest of the climb. I felt calm and strong for the first time in weeks.
At one moment I was standing, taking in the view, sucking some water down and grabbing a snack when several hikers stopped to talk with me. One of them asked, “I heard you went to seminary are you going to be a priest?”
I responded, “possibly something like that, I’m not really sure. I just wanted to know more about God and thought a seminary might help me.”
They just stared at me. I’m not sure what that means. They asked me a few more questions and I tried to answer them as best as I could but really, we all just wanted to keep moving up to the top.
When I got to within 1 ½ from the summit I hit the wide-open flatland making the end feel like and a sprint. Just gorgeous. White clouds would whip up around us and float away. There was frozen mist sticking out sideways on the alpine vegetation and the “Please stay on the trail” signs. Once I passed that sign, the final, half-mile ascent was in front of me. My feet flew like I was walking on the clouds themselves. I hardly realized I’d picked up my pace as I reached the top. When I lifted my eyes up from the trail, I saw something that made my heart jump into my throat and I shouted “YEEEEEEEEEES!!!”
There was a crowd of people getting their pictures taken with the summit sign. People were cheering and in excitement. Everyone seem to be on an emotional high except me. I had emotions of deep pride and contentment, and I felt exhausted. When the others had cleared away 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. I just slowly read the sign and stood looking at what 6 months has brought me to. I took all of my pictures I needed it and then a few more when something caught my eye, climbing up towards the summit was a black bear cub scrambling up to within the hundred yards to the summit, Everyone was turning in every direction looking for a momma bear. When his curiosity was satisfied he turning around and made his way back down the barren rocky side.
Then it was time for me to begin the hike down. I was told that a ranger was out handing tickets out on another trail to the summit and I didn’t want to wait for his arrival. Five more miles back to a new life, whatever that is going to look like. I’m filled with so many conflicting emotions. Excitement, fear, anticipation and hesitation. I’m also glad to just rest and let my body heal.
I am ready for something new and the time to reflect on this journey. God was always faithful to me and I was faithful to stay on the trail. I pray that I always the obedience to follow God’s leading, to have an open heart and mind to learn, and ears to hear his voice.
Throw wrote, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and I could not spare any more time for that one.”