I stopped keeping a journal on my last segments of the Appalachian Trail. What follows was written from memory in 2018, sixteen years later.
September 18, 2002
Poplar Ridge Lean-to to Sugarloaf Mountain
Today’s Miles: 10.9
Trip Miles: 338.6
Last night wasn’t the most comfortable night of the trip at Poplar Ridge Lean-to. This was one of the older, antiquated shelters in Maine, where the sleeping platform was composed of a series of boards that were rounded like baseball bats. Historically the gaps in the resulting floor were filled with pine boughs and general duff from forest floor, serving as the mattress. Nowadays we just lay out our foam pads and air mattresses over the wood.
It was another exquisite day of hiking in the Maine woods, capped off with a mountaintop “shelter” on the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf is the second-highest peak in the entire state, second only to Katahdin, at 4,327 feet. It was topped with a round, fully enclosed structure that was lined with windows – a rustic shelter for skiers that was open to hikers and a wonderful place to spend the night.
Its single room was spacious and austere. The centerpiece was a wood stove, complete with a tiny dilapidated sofa that directly faced it as though it were a television. A working radio sat in a far corner. We greatly appreciated all of these simple luxuries, particularly the wood stove. We gathered an ample amount of firewood and made good use of the stove.
It was rumored that Katahdin can be seen from this peak – Katahdin, the holy grail of months spent on the Trail and the great prize of the journey. The path to its summit, for most of us, leads more than 2,000 miles to the top with an elevation change that’s equivalent to climbing from sea level to the top of Mount Everest and back sixteen times.
We looked north to the farthest horizon with hopeful eyes, pining for a glimpse of the mountain. It was difficult to be certain of it in the hazy distance – just another undramatic bump on the horizon – but the ability to see it with our own eyes carried a momentous weight. This is what made the night on Sugarloaf especially spectacular.
There we were, like kings on a high aerie amid the Maine wilderness, fit with a warm fire, rock music, and electric lights. We stayed up past our usual bedtime, and an indoor retreat allowed for timely forays after dark to view the stars as they were meant to be seen. In addition to seeing Katahdin, this may be the first time I viewed the bright expanse of the Milky Way.
September 19, 2002
Sugarloaf Mountain to Stratton, Maine
Today’s Miles: 10.6
Trip Miles: 349.2
After a spectacular evening we were once again with range of another town, and this time it was called Stratton. The fall colors had begun to show themselves among New England’s quintessential, fragile White Birch trees. After viewing Katahdin last night, the additional knowledge of hiking into town lended a celebratory tone to the day.
In fact the entire trip from this point forward took on a sense of achievement and celebration, and I think this is largely responsible for the general agreement among hikers that Maine is the best state on the Appalachian Trail.
To me, these rural towns in the backwoods of Maine felt in many ways like we’d returned to the deep South. Everybody drove trucks, everybody had funny accents, and everybody seemed to enjoy going four-wheeling and shooting things and getting into all kinds of wholesome trouble in the woods in their spare time.
Stratton in my mind was the shining jewel of such a town, and we descended upon the place as a band of thru-hikers who were having the best days of our lives. The White Wolf Inn was particularly accommodating and accepting of our general attitude, and maybe even encouraged it.
In addition to Hollywood and SoFar, there was a whole gang of hikers in town that included the aforementioned Yahtzee and his crew. Upon discovery that the White Wolf had a bar with cheap PBR on tap, a couple of pool tables, and karaoke tonight, things went full throttle and the AT hikers took over the small town for the night.
The locals in the bar drank with us and ate up every second of our raucous festivities. One guy started buying everyone shots – maybe the first time I ever did shots in a bar. They called the drink a “Third Reich.” I guess it goes by several names, but it was a shot glass with a third of Jagermeister, a third of Rumplemintz, and a third of Goldschlager.
I sang a little bit of karaoke for the first (And one of the last) times in my life. I chose “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol, and butchered it thoroughly. Somebody did “Cause I got High,” which everyone loved. I also had the honor of picking the last song of the evening, and chose “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan, of course. I’d recruited some help with the singing, but toward the end of the song (At the end of the night) the DJ shut down the machine. That didn’t stop us, though, as Yahtzee and I finished the song a cappella.
September 20, 2002
MAINEAC 2001 Reunion
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 349.2
I was so hung over the next morning, and the effects lasted throughout most of the day.
I’d arrived in Stratton just in time for a special reunion. A hiker called MAINEIAC from last year owned some land nearby, and hosted a get-together of thru-hikers from 2001.
Pee-Wee Pam and Jiff of 2001 drove into Stratton and took me away to Maineac’s property. They were a lot more clean and civilized than when I last saw them on the Trail last year! They are excited to be going to the hiker reunion. I, on the other hand, was so hungover that it made me especially unsociable, and I felt bad because of it.
Riding up the twisting mountain roads worsened the condition and made me extra nauseous. I felt better once we arrived, and the first evening was relatively quiet. The pictures below are from the ensuing days there.
September 21, 22, 2002
MAINEAC 2001 Reunion
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 349.2
The reunion was a really nice time – simply lounging around, having a fire, barbecuing food, and hearing stories. Baltimore Jack was back on the Trail (Of course) in 2002. He’d been a couple weeks behind me this season, and found his way up here for the gathering. I think he came up from Andover, Maine.
There were a lot of great people here and it was good to see them again. Wonder and Strider of 2001 put together a documentary about the Trail, and they interviewed all of us at the reunion for the movie. If you’ve made it this far and found reading my AT journal to be worth your time, then you’ll certainly find these videos to be worthwhile viewing too.
September 23, 2002
Stratton, ME to Avery Campsite
Today’s Miles: 8
Trip Miles: 357.3
After the reunion I got a ride back to Stratton and hiked out of town alone. The reunion had put me at least a couple days behind my friends, but I imagined that maybe I’d catch them sooner or later. Besides, I’d always enjoyed solo hiking anyway, so I enjoyed the interlude for now.
Immediately north of Stratton I entered the Bigelow Range. It was reputedly one of the most beautiful parts of the Trail in all of Maine. This was a high standard to live up to, and the Bigelows certainly did not disappoint.
My friends from 2001 may have taken me directly to the trailhead. It was mid-afternoon but I was feeling strong and made good time. The range featured a west peak and an east peak, with a designated campsite in a saddle between them. I’d heard that it’s a fine idea to view sunset on the west peak, utilize the campsite, and see the sunrise the following morning on the east peak. I intended to (And ended up doing) exactly that.
Sunset on the west peak was magnificent. I cooked dinner a couple of feet down from the Trail and sucked the marrow out of life up there.