|©1997 George Steffanos|
Although I intended to end this story at the summit of Katahdin, somebody asked me the uncomfortable question, "After all you accomplished in this quest to change your life, how could you let it all fall apart again?"
Ironically, I discovered that a last stand is ultimately final only if you lose. About four years and one month to the day that I stood beside the pond in Katahdin Stream Campground, experiencing the sweet taste of victory, I stood in a tiny cell as the steel doors slammed shut before me. My Sherlock Holmes analogy was all too apt. Like the literary creation, I too was prone to come alive only in moments of adventure and danger. The drug use that I found so amusing in 1983 grew into a major problem, and like Mr. Holmes, I fled from the monotony of ordinary life into the world of white powder.
I lived a schizophrenic lifestyle for many years after this great adventure. I chased excitement and the thrill of exploration when I could, and courted danger and death when nothing else was available. I walked a dirt track around a tiny south Pacific island with my brother, visiting one gorgeous beach after another. The total tourist capacity of the island was three rooms, and most of those beaches did not even have names. I trod deserted Manhattan streets at three in the morning. I stood on the Continental divide in Colorado in the rain, watching the raindrops splashing off my right shoulder begin their journey to the Pacific ocean while the water dripping from my left shoulder was on its way to the Atlantic. I stood in the middle of a housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where life was cheaper than a vial of crack, watching junkies shoot up in the middle of open lots in broad daylight. I traveled back and forth across the country with my cousin in a Mustang convertible and climbed Mayan ruins in the Yucatan with my brother. I spent the dreariest month of my life crammed into a closet-sized jail cell with two other people in a facility that was under continuous twenty-three-and-a-half-hour-a-day lockdown. The ensuing months in various other Connecticut jails and prisons were little better.
Fulfilling my quest did not end all of my problems forever. A person fights many final stands before the ultimate one which we all lose. For more than a decade, I have ached to tell this tale, but I could never get it to gel. Like the challenge chronicled in this book, that too began to seem a lost cause. The reason it took me all of these years to write this story is that I needed all of this time to understand exactly what I was attempting to accomplish and exactly what I came away with, which were not necessarily identical. I have already written early in this story what the former was. The one great prize that I took with me from this adventure was that I am no longer afraid to try, and I do not fear lost causes.
I threw away my promise when I was young and foolish, and have spent the past twenty years toiling in dreary low-level jobs, working for people to whom my value as a human being was on the level of a mid-priced piece of machinery. My 1987 wake-up call led to a slow, ten-year climb out of the abyss. Several months ago, I quit the latest dead-end job and struck out in an attempt to sink or swim on my own, being my own boss and trying to make a living in a career which fascinates and challenges. As of this moment, it looks like another lost cause, but time will tell. What I lost site of for a few brief years following this adventure was the meaning of life itself -- at least, what it means to be alive. Fiction can have happy endings, but life keeps going on, and the battles keep on coming. You cannot lay down and bask in your success when you reach the top of that mountain, because there is another one beyond, and it might even be higher and more rugged. And that's okay. As much as we enjoy reaching that mountaintop, the deeper satisfaction lies in the long, arduous journey itself.
I am as firmly convinced now as I was then that, considering what I was and everything which happened to me early on in this hike, I was destined to lose this contest. As I have said, losing a struggle into which you have invested everything you have is painful. But winning a lost cause is a moment which will shine in your memory forever.
About fifteen people were on the summit of Baxter Peak when I arrived. After taking in the views for a while, I took a picture of myself standing next to the Appalachian Trail sign, propping the camera up on some rocks and using the self-timer.
There was actual sunshine up on the peak. Much of the haze had disappeared, and it continued to clear as I walked around the summit. A fairly strong breeze was blowing, so I put on my chamois shirt, but it was still surprisingly warm. After all of the crazy weather I had experienced these five months, I suppose it was only fitting that, at the end of the trail, I should be standing atop a 5000-foot summit in northern Maine, in the month of October, feeling comfortable in shorts, with a heavy shirt thrown over a sweaty tee shirt. What a long, strange trip it's been.
I guess I looked like a thru-hiker. A girl walked over to me with a big smile. "This must be a big moment for you," she said.
I said, "Yeah."
She asked, "How come you're not more exited?"
I shrugged. Eventually, she walked away, looking confused. How could I explain to her what I could not yet explain to myself?
I stayed up there for about a half-hour before starting back down. It was a comparatively-easy and uneventful trip. The clouds closed in again, but that was okay. I had experienced my moment in the sun on Katahdin. I arrived at the ranger's house in Katahdin Stream Campground at 3:30. My mother had been there some time in the late morning. A note she had left with my stuff told me she would be back to pick me up around 3:00. Since it was already a half-hour past that time, I wasn't overly optimistic.
I sat down at a picnic table in the middle of a clearing next to the little pond formed by a dam on Katahdin Stream and wrote in my journal until almost 6:00. Katahdin was once again totally obscured in clouds, having faded back into the mists of northbound thru-hikers' dreams.
I tried to touch the excitement I had always felt when I envisioned myself standing on this spot back in the darker days of the adventure, but I couldn't. Being human is to be in a continual process of remaking yourself. As years pass, you become a different person. Sometimes a monumental event can accelerate that process to a few weeks or months. The man who hiked the southern Appalachians could have felt that excitement were he here today. Time expands on the Appalachian Trail. I had been serene and confident about the journey's outcome for a long time. I could no longer touch his sense of hopelessness and despair. I was no longer he.
I spent a lot of time talking to people who stopped by my table, wanting to touch greatness or something. I guess it was my fifteen minutes of fame. Eventually, the place quieted down. Campers started cooking their dinners, and the aromas were playing havoc with my stomach. I had eaten all of the food I had. There was nothing for me to do except be hungry and wait for my ride.
As I sat there, something happened. I looked up from my journal writing for a moment, and was immediately transfixed by the sight before me. I slowly stood and walked down to the edge of the pond in order to make the picture complete.
The clouds had cleared once again. A man I had thought gone forever returned to me one final time. And so together we stood, next to the pond, staring across the water and over the surrounding evergreen forest towards the naked granite summit of Mount Katahdin. The sun had already set upon the campground, but its last fleeting rays were crowning that summit with a rich, golden alpenglow. It was the evening after, rather than the evening before my climb, but it really did not matter.
Ten minutes later, Katahdin was back behind the clouds.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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