AT Sobo Part 6 – I fall in love with Maine & worry about being slow
I probably realised early in my hike that I had a fear of being left behind; a fear I didn’t even know I had. Doing the best I could to get over wet rocks and navigate steep inclines quickly in Maine, I would feel the dull panic of being too slow and too old. In my real life I’m relatively successful; I tend to be organised, know where my place is in the world and am self sufficient and independent. These beliefs pulled me into a false confidence about my ability to feel the same anywhere as long as I worked hard and tried hard enough. Not so when it’s lashing with rain, you miss your friends and family, you’ve slipped and grazed the same shin three times in ten minutes and you’re still miles behind everyone else.
The trail seems to be a place where all the things you think you know about yourself are turned on their head, and I was realising that those tables had turned on me.
I was now not the one who knew what I was doing. I was the one trying to keep up with people I barely knew and who were the only buffer between me and a what I thought might be a very lonely experience.
They were fast. Hambone and Avery were on their third AT thru hike and had also hiked the wild and rugged the 3100 mile Continental Divide Trail last year. Morgan, Avery’s girlfriend, was less experienced but she was 20; so super fresh and adaptable. They were also incredibly funny, good company, wild and young; having lived lives growing up in Pennsylvania so far removed from my own experience that I was learning a books – worth of new things every day about their culture, politics, the wilderness and myself. I started getting up super early to beat them out of camp so I could work on getting my trail legs and still stay level on mileage.
They liked this idea. Trail legs, by the way, are when your everyday “I’ll go to the supermarket and maybe walk the dog” legs slowly and agonisingly turn into solid endurance machines over a period of a few weeks. It takes time, and it hurts. Toenails turn black, calves cramp, leg muscles seize all night with an intensity that will make you cry, and you wake each morning walking like a new-born foal with a Bank Holiday Monday hangover. It’s rough. My strategy worked well, but I ended up going too fast and too far one day and finished up 8 miles ahead of them at the Caratunk river.
This river doesn’t look deep or wide on first view, but you’re not allowed to cross by wading or swimming. You must use a seasonal canoe ferry service that can take two people at a time and only between 9-11am. This sounds bossy and awkward, so people disobey the rules because they don’t want to wait around, but then people also die. The river floods periodically and without warning because of the release of water from a hydrodam upstream, and a hiker died last year when he was wading across the shallow flow, only to be swept away in moment when the water rose many feet in a matter of minutes. It took many weeks to find his body downstream. So I wasn’t going anywhere that night except for staying right there and waiting for 9am.
I was exhausted. I knew from my research that there was a tiny B&B next to the river. It was dusky as I knocked on his screen door and asked if he had any room for the night. He was a strange man who seemed to simultaneously tell me he had space but also seemed to not want me to come in. Too tired to worry about this, I just nodded at the availability and stepped past him inside. It was a quiet place with low ceilings and home made higgildy-piggildy partitions, loaded with antique brick a brac from around the world. He was an AT thru hiker and had made a little re-supply shop in his home with shelves filled with everything from freeze-dried veggies to snickers bars and toenail clippers. There was a freezer full of ice cream and walls of bear-hang rope and medical supplies. Fascinating, but I wasn’t really allowed to explore because it was nearly 9pm, which, he told me, was silent time in the house. I was solemnly shown to my room which contained 2 beds, but I was thankfully the only occupant. I lay down and tried to text home on my useless phone with my useless SIM card. No joy. Overwhelmed, exhausted and in pain I fell into a semi sleep, glad to be in a bed.
I woke like I was something Bram Stoker would have written about, and hobbled down to a glorious breakfast and met some jolly section hikers who weren’t nearly as tired and gross as me. I filled up on pancakes, smiling and chatting, but nursing a small fear I’d lost the team already. Then they all appeared in the garden, coming here for a famous milkshake (which I hadn’t known about!) before the ferry opened. Overjoyed I headed to the river with them, and we paddled the canoe across the river with the ferryman two by two until we were all safely over.
The next days were full of more confidence and magic alongside rivers, beaches and lakes, past portage routes for Native Americans, past routes of retreat and advance during different wars, and crossing the Benedict Arnold trail which I got a lot of stick about. If you don’t already know, Arnold was a British-born man who became an American General, but was actually a traitor to the USA when he defected from the American Army to the British side in 1780. I didn’t mind the jokes though, my new friends were just revving up for Independence Day when the real crowing would begin! In the meantime, these happy, gorgeous and easy few days of flat began to slowly rise under my feet, as southern Maine hove from my imagination into view, and the biggest mountains yet; the Bigelows and the Crockers, appeared on our maps.