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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 2/12/97



(Katahdin Stream Campground, Maine to Baxter Peak, Katahdin)

MONDAY, 10/3/83, MILE 2138.5 --- JOURNEY'S END --- I awoke a couple of times last night to the sound of rain. Although just a light drizzle, it indicated that the weather report which I had heard was correct. I would not have my moment in the sun on Katahdin. Needless to say, my dreams were extremely depressing. In the one I can still remember, I was bitten by a rattlesnake and was dieing when I awoke.

I had eight Pop-Tarts for breakfast this morning -- sort of a final Pop-Tart orgy. I doubt I will crave anything that sweet back in my ordinary life. I also had two cups of hot chocolate. Altogether, I ingested enough sugar to send an entire kindergarten class into orbit. Late morning burn-out would not be a problem today.

I waited around for a while, still hoping my mother would show up with some film. She didn't, and I could not resist the magnetic pull for long. I started up the road to the ranger's house with what turned out to be one remaining frame of unexposed film. I asked a guy I passed if he had any film that he would consider selling. He had just put his last roll in his camera. I even asked the ranger. He did not own a 35-mm camera. I dropped off my unnecessary gear on his front porch (a thru-hiker tradition), signed the hiker register, and started up the Appalachian Trail. It was 8:30 A.M., October 3, 1983. There were 5.2 miles to go.

Just as I was reaching the outskirts of the campground, I passed one final camper. I tried one last time. He told me that he only had rolls of Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 64 remaining. I had been shooting Kodachrome 64 exclusively all trip. I had despaired of finding anyone with film, and this guy had my exact brand. I have had my share of lousy luck on this hike, but I have also had instances of incredible good luck at times (and I made it to my mountain, so what else matters?). The roll that he sold me was only twenty exposures, but it gave me twenty-two shots compared to the one I had (you can always weasel an extra shot out of a 35-mm roll of film, if necessary).

From then on, my spirits were high. I was initially somewhat disappointed in not receiving a nice day to climb Katahdin. but Mother Nature had saved up one last curve to throw at me, and this one was a pleasant one, for a change. Contrary to the forecast, the sky cleared gradually as the day wore on. It remained hot, humid, and hazy, but even the haze dissipated considerably by afternoon.

The sole lingering tinge of disappointment was the memory of the low, solid cloud mass which had obliterated the sky yesterday evening. I did not see the fading alpenglow on Katahdin on the eve of my climb. Conditions were unchanged this morning. I know it seems trivial, but, somehow, I never really doubted I would actually get to live the vision I had followed for two thousand miles, even after hearing the forecast. It had grown so real, and I had worked so very hard to get here.

The beginning was remarkably easy. The path was wide, relatively rock-free, and climbed at a very gentle grade. It followed a bank of Katahdin Stream up to the base of a set of cascades, where it crossed over to the other bank. At this point, the trail became a bit steeper. Short side trails brought me to several overlooks of Katahdin Palls. Then, the Appalachian Trail left the stream and began ascending Hunt Spur. I had come 1.2 miles. There were four to go.

The trail climbed fairly steeply for a short while, then leveled off. It crossed several open areas with great views of the surrounding mountains -- particularly of a long range which stretched out to the west.

A rather routine hike took a somewhat bizarre turn as I neared the small stream crossing which would put me 3.1 miles from journey's end. A chorus of shouts and whistles erupted from the treetops just ahead. A young couple who had stayed in the lean-to adjacent to mine last night were perched high up in two tall trees, hanging on for their lives.

"Don't go up the trail," the lady warned me. "There's a very surly bull moose out there!"

Apparently, they had interrupted a couple of moose sharing an intimate moment, and the bull had charged them. Hey, I'd be just a little ticked off myself, were I in his hooves.

Actually, it was no laughing matter. After five months of giddy recklessness, the time had finally arrived for me to embrace sanity. In the autumn mating season, males become fairly crazed (of course, we human men have thoroughly evolved from that nonsense), and moose are plenty big enough to back up their anger. I paused to contemplate a sensible alternative. it would be stupid to take any crazy risks when I was so close to my goal. Images of some of the adversities I endured to get this far flashed through my mind. I got p___ed off.

"The hell with it," I heard a voice which sounded suspiciously like my own say. "I'm not turning back now because of one horny f___ing moose." Perhaps you would have to backpack 2135.4 miles to understand how I felt. I strode forward, mean and macho (and. . . well. . . kind of stupid), into a large clearing.

The moose (#8 on this trip) was standing at the far edge of the meadow, glaring and snorting at me, but I flashed him an even darker scowl and snarled a few choice phrases. I think I caught him by surprise. He gave me a startled look which seemed to say, "But I'm a big, bad moose," and stopped dead in his tracks. He continued to favor me with some nasty muttering, but stayed put. Sticks and stones. I called back to the tree people that he had let me pass, and I kept going.

As I ascended, the grade began to stiffen and the rocks over which the trail climbed grew into boulders. I was sailing along, still soaring on a massive Pop-Tart sugar high, encountering few real problem areas. The trail was steep, but walkable. I passed several slab caves along the way.

The breakout above treeline was breathtakingly sudden. One moment I was moving along, scaling huge boulders beneath a solid canopy of trees. The next, I was climbing a short, exceptionally steep pitch and popping out into the open sky. I was 2.4 miles from Baxter Peak.

The ensuing mile covered most of the elevation gain of the entire hike. I had to human-fly straight up enormous boulders. It wasn't pretty. At one point, I found myself an unwitting contestant on the new Baxter State Park game show, "Hike or Die." Earlier in the climb, I had passed several iron rungs driven into rock faces to help the hiker over the more dangerous stretches. Here, I reached a point where I had to drag myself up a vertical face to a tiny ledge overhanging a huge drop. The emcee of the show turned to me and asked, "George, do you think the state of Maine would blaze the trail over this rock to that ledge without adding handholds, if there weren't good natural handholds on the rocks above?"

I thought about it for a second and replied confidently, "Of course they wouldn't!" Dragging myself up to the ledge, I perched precariously on my knees and felt for those handholds.

A buzzer sounded. With smarmy phony sympathy, the emcee intoned, "Oh, I'm so sorry, George, but that was an incorrect answer! Now, try not to plunge to your death!"

Hanging there on my knees, my center of gravity was too far back, and I was being pulled away from the rock towards a long, quick descent. Finding nothing resembling a handhold, I pressed every available square inch of my body up against that cliff and gave it a warm embrace (well, to tell the truth, I was damned near making love to it). I somehow found enough leverage to pull my feet up and get off of my knees. Then, I was alright. I shuffled sideways to a more secure perch.

Except for that one incident, which was only bad for a few moments, the climb up Hunt spur was fun. It was maniacally steep, it had many tricky parts, and it was strenuous as hell, but I rather enjoyed it. Apparently, a superabundance of adventures has finally finished twisting my mind.

There were awesome views along the entire climb. I took my time, rising slowly and steadily. I never actually sat down for a rest -- I did not need one. I did pause a few times to take photos and enjoy the views, but mostly I climbed.

I finally reached "The Gateway" and broke out onto "The Tableland." I pulled myself up to the top of a final large boulder and a span of flat trail unfurled before me. I had survived the last great test and Baxter Peak was in sight. There were 1.6 miles to go.

I quickly passed Thoreau Spring, the final landmark on the Appalachian Trail. Exactly one mile remained. I felt nothing. I was nearing the top of a mountain which I had essentially been climbing for more than two thousand miles, but the end was coming on too quickly to sink in. My feelings were a mass of contradictions: I was glad it was over. I was sad it was over. I was missing my family and friends and looking forward to seeing them. I was already missing the Appalachian Trail and my life upon it. The hardships and occasional disasters were all behind me, yet I knew I would miss even those in the manner that a Sherlock Holmes would be diminished by the loss of his ablest foe, Professor Moriarty. Somehow, this incredible mishmash of contradictory feelings all added up to -- nothing.

Perhaps, in a sense, I had always known this would happen. It would explain why my driving vision had always been me on the eve of my climb rather than on Baxter Peak at the end of my quest.

I climbed the last stony piece of trail up Baxter Peak: a large pile of boulders atop a high, wind-swept plateau of naked rock. I followed the white blazes to the sign which marked the summit of Katahdin and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Then, in a habit which had become deeply ingrained after 2138.5 miles, my eyes automatically searched for the next white blaze. It wasn't there.

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©1997 George Steffanos



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