Trial And Error [2013]

The Hundred Mile Wilderness has long-been on my bucket list. I was stoked to finally be setting out five days ago. I arrived in Maine late the evening of 9/4. I spent the night in Augusta, a few hours from the trailhead. I wasn't sure how straightforward the situation would be in a small town like Monson, so I didn't wanna get there real late and fumble around in the dark. Instead, I arrived around 7a the next morning. I explored one access point and decided it probably wasn't the true start to the Hundred Mile Wilderness, so I found another access point a few miles trail south and started from there around 8a. Turns out I was right the first time, so my choice added about 3.5 miles to my trek. Doesn't sound like much, but it ended up being pretty significant. Wish I'd saved both the time and the extra effort. I tried not to let it get to me, since this trip is really a test run for my PCT thru-hike next year, but when you're on a solo backpacking trip, all you can do is get inside your own head.

I’m sure I’ve explained the three degrees of fun somewhere in these pages, but I’ll go over it again, since it’s the only way to accurately communicate this experience. First degree fun is fun while you’re doing it, like eating ice cream. Second degree fun is not fun while you’re doing it, but it’s fun to talk about later, like a close call. Third degree fun isn’t fun at all, and you almost never even mention it because you’d rather pretend it didn’t happen. But hopefully you at least learn something from third degree fun. The Hundred Mile Wilderness is second degree fun, mostly. It was gorgeous, and rugged, and miserable, and lovely, and intense, and amazing, all at the same time.

If I'm being honest, I have to admit that I bit off more than I could chew. Sure my conditioning and primary muscle groups were up for the challenge, but all of those little stabilizer muscles that I hadn't really used for months were about to experience some serious shock. By the end of the second day, I wasn't just sore, I was in pain. I was taping blisters, wearing my knee brace, relying heavily on my trekking poles for balance and support, and taking way too much ibuprofen to mask the pain of my shin splints. I was already just over halfway through the wilderness section, so I could no more easily go back the way I'd come than press on to the finish. I kept going. And if I was going to meet my friends in Baxter on Monday (as planned), I had to keep pace. It was a brutal couple of days. Even so, I was happy to be there. It was captivating and endearing in its raw wildness. Not as remote as I'd expected, given the literature, but certainly still inaccessible by typical means. Just a maze of logging roads and old two tracks criss-crossing the trail.

The miles were tougher than I'd expected. As you can imagine, the terrain played a huge role in determining my speed/distance each day. The big climbs were tough, but it was really the mercilessly steep descents that shredded my body and demolished my pace. It was tedious to pick my way down everytime, but it was equally necessary in order to minimize the impact on my knees. Despite the beating, I pressed on, tenacious as ever. On Day 1, I covered 22.5 miles in 13 hours. Day 2, 27.5 miles in 16 hours. Day 3, 26.5 miles in 12.5 hours. Day 4, 23 miles in 12 hours. Day 5, 13.5 miles in 8 hours. My pace wasn't sustainable. If I had been working the trails all summer - like last year - maybe I would've been equal to the task, but cycling just doesn't prepare your body for that sort of abuse. My confidence had begun to waiver as early as the start of the second day. I was already hurting, but I kept moving. My trek quickly became more about beating the wilderness than enjoying it. But really it wasn't me against the wilderness, it was me against my own arrogance, stupidity, and unpreparedness. I'd underestimated the wild, though not so badly that I had to evac. I felt miserable for much of the trip and often wondered whether I was having third degree fun. "How could I not love being in such a majestic place," I thought. I really only wish that I had more time, that I could slow down and just be there, that I didn't have to push beyond my own comfort and enjoyment, that my decisions hadn't irreversibly bonded this incredible place to my incredible pain. I had no regrets. It was just that my experience had been shaped by my forced timeline.

I hardly slept the third night, because the pain was so bad. To make matters worse, it rained all night and the bivvy sack was both restraining and uncomfortable, though to be fair, it and the tarp did keep me dry. I had camped on a sandy beach along a lakeshore, which under other circumstances might have been exciting. I imagine the view was stunning, but I couldn't see through the darkness and thick fog that hung in the air that evening and the following morning. I wasn't exactly bounding with excitement when my alarm buzzed pre-dawn, but I was ready to hike. I took lunch that day by the river, and as I was sitting on a bridge at a road crossing, a passenger truck drove by. It was the only vehicle I saw in the wilderness, and I nearly stuck my thumb out to get a ride back to my car. There I was, my gear sprawled out and drying in the sun, my feet bare and hanging over the lip of the embankment, my knees and shins throbbing. I saw that truck and wondered whether I'd had enough. I resisted the urge and instead watched the truck amble off in the distance. Then I was alone again, just me and the 18 miles that laid between me and any hint of civilization. Passing up on a prime opportunity to call it quits only hardened my resolve. I knew - somewhere inside of me - that I could finish. Otherwise, I would've given up right there. I just kept reminding myself that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other for a few more miserable hours, then I would have this experience forever. Nothing, and no one, could take it from me.

Dreams are made up of two parts: (1) the guaranteed goal; and (2) the challenge goal. At a minimum, you expect to achieve your guaranteed goal. For me in this case, it was the Hundred Mile Wilderness. In a perfect world, you'd like to achieve your challenge goal. For me in this case, that would've been bagging Katahdin and closing out the last few miles of the AT. We all know that life is imperfect, so when conditions prevent us from achieving our challenge goals, we must step back and take pride in knowing that fundamentally we've achieved what we set out to. Seeing the world in these terms has allowed me to push myself, to set lofty goals and strive honestly toward those goals without feeling defeated on those occasions where I don’t quite reach them.

Giving up on a goal, even a challenge goal, is supremely difficult for many of us. I knew I could summit, despite the incredible pain I was suffering. But at what cost? And for what purpose? My ankles were severely swollen and my feet numb and tingling. I was taking way more ibuprofen than the recommended dose. With each step, I wondered whether my knees might give or my shin splints turn to stress fractures. Sure, I could make it. But could I afford the possible consequences? And what was in it for me anyways? An ego boost? Not worth it. Maybe I'll make my way back sometime to finish it, but if I don't, that's ok too. I have much bigger goals than Katahdin, and I've learned enough this week to accomplish those, so I can't be dissatisfied. Lesson number one: invest in lighter gear. No reason to lug around 60 pounds. Grateful to learn that lesson here in the Hundred Mile Wilderness rather than via pack shakedown on the PCT.

Kailee met me at Katahdin Stream Campground yesterday and gave me a ride to my car this afternoon. It's awesome having friends all over the country. Seems no matter what I'm up to, I get to see people I care about. Thanks for the lift, Kailee!