Beauty, Maine and Suffering…

In continuing with our Perspectives theme of recent weeks, I’d like to offer another behind the scenes look through photo and story.  The image above was taken from a vista on Little Bigelow Mountain along the Appalachian Trail in Maine, October 2009. You will notice the outlined slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance, and as the sun broke briefly in the wake of a passing storm, the beauty of autumn in New England is illuminated below.  The trail had risen above snowline to allow this unique vantage of a world caught between seasons. Many who view this photo are taken by its beauty, and several have commented that if they had been in this position they might stop and stare for hours. What they fail to recognize is that the photographer was caught between two seasons as well.

Arriving at this moment was two weeks and 174 miles in the making. I’d traveled to Maine in a transition of my own. I had just moved back to Iowa, leaving the experiences of Montana behind. Though I didn’t doubt this was the right decision, there was some internal conflict attached to the inevitable lifestyle change I would soon endure. Furthermore, I’d had plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail that year, which had unfortunately fallen through. Given the opportunity, I came to Maine to see the fall colors and revisit the section of Appalachian Trail which had kicked my butt when I first hiked it in 2004. I’d come because I love hiking, but I also came with something to prove.

I’d left Mt. Katahdin with twenty one days to hike the 281 miles southbound through Maine. I was immediately put through the ringer as it rained nearly nonstop through the 100 Mile Wilderness, some of the most intense sustained downpours I have ever seen. The hike was a slog. Trail tread turned to muck and swollen streams raged dangerously out of control. With forty degree temperatures and the impossibility of staying dry, the first stretch was a shivering test of will.

Passing Monson, the weather cleared for a day or two, but upon reaching the Kennebec River I was warned of a forecast for snow. I raced on, hoping to clear the Bigelow’s before it set in, but Mother Nature had other plans. The storm hit during my approach and I was forced to hole up in the Little Bigelow Lean-to waiting for it to pass. The next morning I awoke at dawn, faced with the unpleasant acquainting of sense of urgency and frozen socks.  With limited rations and a schedule to keep, I needed to traverse the Bigelow Range and make it to the next town before nightfall.

I arrived at the topic of our discussion two miles after breaking camp. Believe me, the sight was every bit as beautiful as the photograph portrays, and that single awe inspired moment justified every struggle it had taken to get there. However, the view wasn’t the only thing that was breath taking. It was probably about twenty degrees at this moment, and a strong wind whipped down from nearby peaks. Already soaked from the heavy snow that clung to trailside vegetation, I was so cold I could barely manage to press the shutter button. It was a gorgeous sight, but definitely not the place you could linger and marvel for hours.

And it only got harder from there.

From that enchanted, albeit frigid vista, I still had thirteen and a half miles to go. This included climbing another thousand feet in elevation; but only after making an eight hundred foot descent. Welcome to the Appalachian Trail. (For you non-hikers, this is what a 1,800 foot climb looks like.) Remember, carrying all of your gear on your back and navigating rocky terrain makes things a little more arduous than your standard afternoon stroll. Add snow cover to the mix, with slippery footing and ankle twisting hidden obstacles, and it becomes a daunting challenge, even for experienced hikers.

Down and back up, five miles later Avery Peak marked acquisition of the Bigelow crest. As cold as things had seemed at lower elevations, conditions here were downright brutal. The wind blew so hard you could barely breathe. It was a struggle to stand upright. Snow pelted your face in icy blasts, and four foot drifts buried the trail.

As a point of emphasis, it’s worth noting here what makes up a hiker’s attire. When setting out on a fringe season trip, you have to be prepared for the worst possible conditions. However, also having to carry everything you might need to wear, it’s not practical to tote a full expedition suit simply for the prospect of snow. Instead, you must rely on your wits. You layer clothing, do your best to stay dry, and don’t leave yourself in a situation where exposure can take its toll. As seen here, my lightweight rain pants, jacket, and trail runners might leave me vulnerable, but I was far from dire straits. I had the appropriate clothing layered beneath, and was fine as long as I kept moving. (As for stopping to set up self portraits… sometimes the photo instinct overrules common sense.) That said, it was imperative that I got across those mountains and to lower ground before nightfall.

There was also an issue of cautious navigation. Not only was there the difficulty of post-holing through deep snow, but route markers were completely disguised. Sometimes you were lucky to pick out a slight indentation on the white plain, others you had to guess.  I had a general idea of where the trail went based on memory and terrain, but still had to proceed with extreme care. This was not the time to get lost, and with no one else on the trail any debilitating fall could prove potentially fatal.

With some hard work and perseverance, I did make it out just fine. I managed to get across the mountains, drop back below snowline, and with a little extra hustle made it to the road and caught a hitch into Stratton before dark.

As for the rest of the hike, would you believe it only got harder?

I left Stratton the next day beneath the deceptive welcome of a clear, sunny sky. It was nice to see, but I soon learned what an afternoon of snowmelt followed by subfreezing temperature does to a trail. These shots are not of a frozen stream. That is the Appalachian Trail.

For the next several days I hiked from sun up to sundown, facing peril in each uncertain step. At times it was all I could do to crawl on hands and knees, utilizing my trekking poles as a makeshift ice axe. I said I had come out there with something to prove. Well, I did. This was hands down the most challenging hike of my life. I faced extremely difficult, progressively worsening conditions, and never gave up… until the end.

As a presumed joke, someone had left a pair of old crutches at the trail crossing with Maine Route 4. I should have taken it a little more seriously. They would have proven useful soon enough. A couple days later I felt a jolt, followed by excruciating pain in my leg. It was in the precise location, and a hauntingly similar sensation, of a stress fracture I’d suffered in high school. The next day I hobbled my way into Andover, which is where the hike would end. I was unable to walk, and probably for the best. It wouldn’t have been wise to continue toward infamous Mahoosuc Notch given the icy conditions anyhow. Those last miles didn’t matter much. I’d seen them before, and this was beyond my control. I could go back to Iowa now, proud of what I’d done and knowing I was worthy of meeting the challenges of the trail.

So there you have it. I hope this sets the stage for a better understanding of all that transpired before and after my quivering finger pushed the button to snap that Distant Sugarloaf picture. I really do love the shot, but it took more to be there than most could ever imagine. Maybe that’s why it means so much…

One more funny little twist to this tale- the photos from that hike were almost lost forever. Be watching for the conclusion of this story, telling of how I lost my memory cards, only to have them returned through the kindness of a true trail angel…

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