I hug La Copa goodbye in the morning. He tells me to take care of myself: I tell him to crush Katahdin. Saying goodbye to people on the trail is never easy. You form such intense connections in such a short time. People I hike with for a day know me better than some friends I’ve had for years. And I hiked almost half the trail with La Copa.
I try and follow his instructions- I eat and nap and slather my blisters in ointment. I think they’re getting better, but then Poet’s dog jumps up at me and pops one and I have to try and not cry in the middle of the hostel. It’s going to be a long hundred miles.
Poet suggests I slack pack the first 15 miles of the wilderness to make sure I’m not going to die of an infected leg (the fact that this is possible shows how much of a joke the 100 mile wilderness is). He drives me to a side trail so I can southbound back to the highway. I’m not really feeling it. I’ve resigned myself to hiking alone and doing low 20s to the end. There’s no one close behind me and I can’t catch La Copa. What’s the point?
I rejoin the AT after a mile of side trail. There’s a shelter there where Poet left a package for La Copa and Poet asked me to make sure it is gone. I get to the side trail and see a familiar pair of black and red Leki poles. One bottom section is bent. I just watched Poet replace the other bottom section- we joked about making a prosthetic out of it to replace my leg. But La Copa always hikes with his poles. How could he forget them?
Then it hits me. He’s at the shelter! But this would only give him 15 miles the day before, and it’s after nine. La Copa hasn’t slept past 5 since we started hiking together. He must be really hurt to still be in the shelter. Suddenly, I’m running. I see the footbox of his sleeping bag and before I know it I’m yelling. “What the hell are you doing here? What happened? Are you hurt?” La Copa sits up in his sleeping bag and looks at me like I’m the biggest idiot in the world. “I’m waiting for you.”
Oh. My eyes get big. If you haven’t hiked a long trail, you might not understand what a big deal this is. Plenty of people have waited an hour or two for me (especially La Copa while I’ve been hurt). But to wait an entire day in a shelter, eating down your limited food and with nothing to do? And to push back your finish date when you have flights booked and deadlines and family waiting for you? This is huge.
We quickly make a plan. La Copa had expected me to be coming north, so we could just head out together. Instead, I’ll run south, get shuttled back, then hike to the next shelter. La Copa will meet me there. It will be tight for me to make it before dark. I head out and start hiking as fast as I can, injuries forgotten, pain numbed by adrenaline. I know there’s three SoBos ahead and I make a game out of catching them.
I pass the father/daughter couple before the first river ford. I see Travis, the 3rd, on the other side of the next ford. I ignore the rope, placed as always in the worst fording spot, and plunge in. “Be careful! I fell in!” He yells at me, but almost before he’s finished speaking, I’m climbing up the bank. I exchange niceties and start to hike off, fast as I can. “Wow, you’re really moving! I’m going to try and keep up!” Travis falls in behind me, chattering about how impressed he is that I haven’t dropped him already. I don’t mention that I’m trying not to visibly limp, and that downhill and blowdowns are taking me 3 times as long as I try not to pop my blisters. He spent the night at the shelter with La Copa, so I explain what I’m doing. 3 miles from the road, he’s visibly tiring. I tell him if he can keep up, I’ll make sure he gets to the hostel.
We reach the road just as a volunteer is replacing the registration forms at the trailhead. I badger him into giving us a ride to town. Then I start the whirlwind of packing, saying goodbye to my new SoBo friends and getting back to the trail. Poet drops me at the trailhead with a hug, and then I’m rehiking the side trail and climbing up, up, up, to Cloud Pond shelter. Two SoBos are leaving the side trail as I get there. “Are you Fun Size? La Copa is going to be so excited to see you!” One of them chirps. It’s a long 0.4 side trail to the shelter, where La Copa is back in his sleeping bag, waiting for me.
We’re up early as normal. In fact, everything feels familiar and comfortable and I almost forget I was going to be alone on this section. La Copa sticks to me like glue, putting me in front so he won’t accidentally lose me. We climb the Chairbacks range in the drizzle, up to one peak, then down and back up to the next. Everything is slick from the rain. Coming down from Chairback, we lose the trail in a jumble of slippery slate boulders. La Copa yells at me to stay still while he figures out where the trail went, worried I’ll hurt myself. Instead, I see him go down hard on one of the rocks, bashing his knees, staying down for a full minute until he makes sure he’s unhurt enough to continue. I find the trail and he falls in behind. Now we’re both limping a little.
We drop down to a river ford, and then climb up to Whitecap. It’s our last real climb before Katahdin. We start to see more and more SoBos as we hit the first wave of the bubble. It’s a little overwhelming, as I see more people on the trail here than I did in Georgia. We crest Whitecap, debating if we should stop at the first shelter, or push on another 4 miles to the next. Its still early, but my ankle chafes, the way my leg did when it was blistering. When we reach the shelter, it’s full of SoBos, the lean-to orbited by a cluster of tents. Well. That solves that problem. The next shelter only has 3 SoBos in it. I take my socks off. My ankle has a ring of sores, but no blisters. At least those are easier to dress? Even after my zero, I’m still falling apart. I just need to be done.
I count SoBos in the morning. It’s a nice day for a change, but the bugs are awful. We’d been warned about this stretch, but I still can’t wear pants, and I can’t put deet on my blisters, so I am unprepared to deal with the swarm of mosquitoes. Every time we stop to cross a river, they descend. I can’t even swat at them properly. One by one, my blisters pop, from bug bites or me trying to discourage the bugs. Each pop is excruciating and I try very unsuccessfully not to cry. My ankle is getting worse too, and I try not to limp in front of La Copa, but there is no where to stop and fix it when the bugs are this bad.
Finally, we reach a shelter after 20 miles without a break. We run for the privy- a nice new one with bug screening. It’s big enough to fit both of us. La Copa sits on the seat and makes a backpacker pantry meal: I sit on a bale of wood shavings and eat bagels. It’s maybe the most disgusting place I’ve eaten lunch. It’s another ten miles after that to our shelter. 27 SoBos is my final tally, but we find Heatwave in the shelter too. We chat about the CDT while La Copa glares at me to go to sleep.
We wake up at 4. We have 33.2 miles today to the base of Katahdin and I’m worried I’ll need every second of daylight. We head out in the rain, but it soon stops. We pass a million SoBos as always, and then, descending from Rainbow Ledges, I get my first real view of Katahdin. It’s an intimidating looking mountain- rising steep and sheer, every thing around it the low level forest that we’ve been walking through. We do another 20 without a break, and then after lunch, bump into Gin Gin, the ridge runner I met at Shaws. She’s happy to see me on trail and tells me that my leg looks a little better.
And then we leave the 100 mile wilderness, with it’s sign warning to have 10 days of food. I’ve done it in under 4. There’s a little store at Abol bridge, where we get soda and donuts and then we’re running to the ranger station below Katahdin. It’s a fast final ten miles on beautiful trail. At the ranger station, the ranger pulls out the Nobo register. There’s one other name on it- Foot Print. La Copa takes hiker number 2. I am number 3. I will also be the first woman to finish this year.
I sign into the trail register at 5:20. La Copa stopped to get water, but he soon flies past, legs blurring. Adrenaline is fueling both of us- there’s no way I can keep up with a pumped La Copa on a steep uphill even when I’m healthy, but the initial climb doesn’t seem so bad. Stone stairs soon turn into scrambles. I’m less careful than normal- my knees only need to last one more day and then they can finally heal.
I break treeline and the scrambling gets real. Little rebar hooks are sometimes the only handhelds or footholds as I scale giant boulders. I put my poles away and focus on the problem of getting up the mountain. On a ridge, I hear La Copa yell my name, high above me. My shout back is pure joy.
Finally the scramble ends and I reach the summit plateau. It’s a long way, but easy going to the summit, where I can see the sign that marks the end of the AT silhouetted against the ridge. I see a tiny figure pick it’s way along to the summit and think I hear a shout of triumph on the wind. La Copa has made it. I crest the final climb and see La Copa sitting just below the sign. I make my way over.
It doesn’t feel how you’d expect to finish a long trail. There’s elation and joy and pride, but grief too. I didn’t want the PCT or the CDT to end, and I feel the same way about the AT, but I know it’s time. The PCT broke my heart, the CDT my mind and the AT my body, but the triple crown has put me back together in a way that is better. I’m stronger, more independent and a different person to who I was before. Besides, I know these trails aren’t really over. They will live in my soul while I heal and then I will come back to them. An adventure like this doesn’t really leave you. I can finish the triple crown, but I will never truly be done. And so I reach out. And I touch the sign.