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Appalachian Trail, Monson to Caratunk, Maine

Gorgeous Moxie Bald Pond on the second sunny day in two weeks.

The sunlight peeks through leaf cover to the wishity wishity of a common yellowthroat, another warbler in my long count of birds through these thick Maine forests. Bullfrogs snap like tightened rubber bands and I smile entering fully my ‘happy place.’

Yes, weather makes a huge difference.

Each of us in our small group of friends, a ‘tramily’ or trail family, knew today would be gorgeous and it doesn’t disappoint full of sunshine and the slightest cooling breeze.

Much to Wendy’s horror, I skip a few miles from the north side of town to the south. Wendy is the AT expert at Monson’s Visitor Center and was reluctant to give me an official 2023 tag repeating over and over that I’d need to return to walk those miles.

I get it but really?? I mean isn’t enjoyment and fulfillment preferred to following the precise path? It’s not as if I’m claiming a record or declaring myself something I’m not.

Besides, she was adamant we’d need to take a detour – a longer detour – to avoid two rivers in spate, swollen three times flood stage. I guess it’s not required to follow the precise path but to walk continuously to cover all ground.

Tramily and NOBO Little Bear who got swept away at the rover but managed to right herself.
Typical Main trail in spring.
Cindy and Bud shared lunch on the road.

I don’t focus too much on that in this lovely forest easy to walk and full of sound. At least not until I’m spit out on road.

There’s a reason hikers hate road walks. Yes, it’s easier not looking down all the time for the next tripping hazard, but it’s hot and exposed.

I go quite a distance out of my way to cross the rushing Piscatiquis (piss-CAT-ih-kwis) then right back up again – and up and up. I pass sweet homes and a meeting house in tiny Blanchard, then only hear water for many miles.

The road is fenced as I enter Breakneck Ridge Hunting Club. The sun is getting intense as I crunch on gravel and the mosquitos will not let up. My freshly clean clothes and dry shoes last about an hour before becoming grungy again.

Who am I to complain? The 100 Mile Wilderness was an endurance test and this air is delicious. A downy woodpecker emerges from a large hole in the trunk of a dead tree. Her chicks cheep loudly to be fes first over their siblings.

Close to the trail crossing I meet Toast with a joint in one hand and a beer in the other. Cindy and Bud are parked nearby and offer deli meat, cheese and bread – and beer, though I’ve given it up at this point.

I’m so grateful. For food, for kindness, for sun at last, for an easy day. When I leave, the forest swallows me up again with streams-as-trail, rocks, roots and all my bird friends singing joyously.

Moxie Bald Pond in quiet reflection.
A nothing ford, but water was still up to my knees.
One hundred feet of joy in the green tunnel.

I arrive at Bald Mountain Stream, first wide, slow and reflective then rushing but an easy cross even if the stones are slippery. A short dark forest finally leads to a lean to and one of the best sites yet.

Or maybe it’s because I can finally see out to green, forested mountains, bluer in the distance and puffy clouds mirrored on its serene surface.

I set my tent right in it.

A loon tremolos as two NOBO’d arrive. The taller is a gentle giant known as Jelly Belly for the many pounds of candy he consumes. He sets a hammock nearby and tells me he’s from Alabama and had never heard a loon before the trail.

As if eavesdropping, the giant bird surfaces, his head slightly tipped in a proud, regal stance. He side-eyes us before diving under in one quick motion.

The other hiker is loud with f-bombs peppering the conversation. Wild-eyed and wired on something he’s ready for things to end and assures me he’ll touch Katahdin’s Summit then run right down.

I’m happy for the awe I felt at that stunning place so long ago, it feels like another hike.

We talk a long time at the picnic table and I’m taken with the depth of the conversation. It’s no surprise Jelly is hurrying north now to get back so he can begin law school.

Soon, Kaley and Addy arrive with a brand new tent. The conversation moves to our stunning rock ledge where a giant leech swims close, a wavy ooze with a bright orange belly. We all quickly remove our bare feet.

It’s early, but the bugs are aggressive so best to cuddle in now and watch the light change from the safety of my tent. I thank Jelly for our conversation and he answers hidden deep in his hammock with perfect Southern manners, “The pleasure was all mine, ma’am.”

The Sibs standing inside a painting.
Front row seat for the performance.

Peepers begin as solos, penetrating the silence like pattering rain before they meld into a chorus and lose any individuality. 

One finds a nook near me and wails away, singing to his own internal metronome, oftentimes trilling and buzzing. 

A pair of Bard Owls hoot to one another over my tent, cartoonish and exaggerated. 

Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-ahhhh! 

They travel stealthily on silent wings, then call from new locations, an aural hide-and-seek. Meanwhile my peeper keeps up the peeping. Who falls for s guy like that? Someone who likes the volume at 11.

As the dimmer switch brings my perfect mountain reflection to gray and black tones, the peepers slowly silence. 

And that’s when the loons rev up. It’s not a tremolo of alarm, rather a kind of party going on out there.

Tailgating at the pond!

How can I love this so much? A cacophony puts me to sleep, deep and sated to a final short intermission. 

This is right before an eager Hermit Thrush breaks dawn with his velvety wind chimes at 4 am. 

Pleasant Pond 13 miles

Solitude atop Pleasant Pond Mountain.

It’s easy to eat, dress and pack up when it’s dry. In fact walking on trail is a luxury on days like this. 

I’m up and out first and head for a thousand foot climb up Moxie Bald. Unlike a lot of mountains in the Appalachians, this one is open with views having been burned in a wildfire in the early part of the last century. 

The walk is surprisingly straightforward, still with plenty of rock wall climbs, mostly on slabs, but nothing like what I’ve already experienced. I’m becoming an expert. 

I still have puddles, rocks and roots plus a couple of amphibious companions in a ruddy and warty toad and a lovely snake, black and green with forked tongue checking out this hulking character. 

I easily reach the top where views reach back to my symphonic ‘pond,’ more of a sprawling lake and slate blue mountains under a weak sun. 

That fire must have been something, burning any vestige of vegetation to the bare granite that reaches in long fingers north towards my next mountain complex. 

I attempt a selfie sans bugnet, but the hungry flying blood suckers are fast and find exposed flesh out of reach. 

Still, it’s beautiful up here with views towards humpy green forested mountains like emerging leviathan in an even more expansive sea of green. 

Had it become clear now that the Appalachian Trail is almost fully forest? That the ‘green tunnel’ is a real thing and trees are very much on repeat? 

Less a pond and more an inland sea.
Attacked by flying blood suckers.
Moxie Bald.
The mountains continue.

I leave reluctantly knowing another two mountain tops await with many miles in between. The trail dives right back down and a hermit thrush welcomes me back, floaty and impressionistic sounds, lighter than air. 

These last days have truly been a gift. I knew starting from the north would be tough but rain and cold added an extra layer of challenge. 

I arrive quickly at another shelter where Pack Rat offers me coffee and a toke. I happily accept caffeine. We talk and laugh together as they slowly consider packing up. Now it’s the complex, double stopped, trill-filled song of a winter wren who sees me on my way. 

How is it possible I smell this bad already? Eau de mouldering privy is on full bore. Maybe it’s the humidity or lack of bathing in cold water. 

Soon I’ll get wet in a slippery cross at Baker Stream. It’s only up to my knees but I slip into a sitting position and am soaked. 

Say bye-bye to mouldering privy. 

Toast and Pack Rat at a lean to.

The sky is getting dark again but I’m not too worried about getting cold as I’ll have many miles of up and down before I reach the next views. 

It’s 1,500 feet, but on a trajectory similar to the recent Fed rate hikes and their subsequent effects – up and down and up some more and down, still more up before down a lot then up at last. 

Wait, that’s Middle Mountain with a so-so view. Kick it up, Blissful! 

I am feeling strong and pop out of the interminable lushness to the krumpholz and beautiful exposed rock covered in a white lichen like marble. 

It’s beautiful here, even more-so than the bald. More intimate and somehow the mountains feel closer. I sit on the rock and make a lunch of tuna and a multitude of snacks. 

There’s not a hint of wind so I create a feeding trough beneath my bug net.  Tiny black flies swarm like a dark cloud. 

One lands right in the tuna. Hmmm, this is the last of my tuna and I’m starved. Stir him in, it’ll add nutrients. 

I take in the views and my heart palpitates looking at the sheer height of the mountains. But wait a minute, I’m looking north. 

I pick up and transfer my fly-enhanced meal a few feet higher so I’m faced south and here I see the rabbit ears of the Avery Peaks in the Bigelow Range. 

Another 2,000 feet higher than where I stand. 

Oh lord, I hope the sun’s out when I get there. 

Wooded Main mountains
Me and the flies on Pleasant Pond Mountain.
The Bigelow Range on the AT to the south.

From here it’s down, down and more down. Trees happily seem to appear just as I need them to manage rock walls. Of course there’s also my butt. On Katahdin I slid down most of the way off those boulders. I have a big hole in my rear end I have yet to patch. 

The shelter is near the pond, but really amidst the trees with a view to more trees. The tent sites sit down a long muddy trail past the privy. It’s not scenic, but it’s flat. 

The sibs arrive and we wander to a tiny crescent of beach and wade in to wash our feet. The pond is dotted with summer houses. Someone mows his lawn. 

I eat at the shelter but crawl in before dark as a pontoon floats by below, music cranked. I burst out laughing. 

Pond Life

Caratunk 6 miles

It’s a short, easy six miles to a road. It’s muddy with stream crossings and rocks. A Northern Parula clears its throat over and over. Lady Slippers line the path, bright bulbs on giant stalks. The forest is so dim I have no idea what time it is. 

I’m at the road soon, hearing the logging trucks speeding past nearly a mile before. I begin the walk to the Inn and get picked up by a fisherman in a jeep. 

The Sterling Inn is lovely and ready for us hikers with comfy rooms and a resupply. Shoes arrives and the Sibs, Pack Rat and a couple of NOBO’s about to finish their hikes. 

Along with their arrival is the arrival of bad news. It’s news that I need to leave the trail. I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and will have to get back home to begin treatments. 

What does one do with this sort of news? I guess feel all the feelings – rage, confusion, sorrow, denial – and the added heaviness of loss, after connecting with lovely hikers, of having to leave the group. 

Truth is, I feel lucky to have experienced as much of the trail as I did. I climbed Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin in sunshine with views and so much joy. Apparently my “Blissful” spirit preceded me on trail and I gained a bit of a reputation.

I survived the 100 Mile Wilderness in relentless rain and cold. Not an easy task as many hikers struggled mightily. The young man I named Music Man on that first day on Katahdin was rescued after developing hypothermia. (He’s since rested and is back on trail) Another developed a stress fracture and will rejoin in a few months after heeling. Two others gave up entirely.

Somehow, I persevered, came up with solutions to make it an exciting walk, and found bliss inside the hardship.

One night in pouring rain cuddled in my corner of a lean-to, I stayed up late gabbing with Shoes cuddled into his corner of the lean-to like we were at a slumber party. With Ingrid, I laughed in the wind as we hung every wet item on trees – including bras and panties and the soggy sleeping quilt– both desperately hoping against hope this monsoon was an anomaly. The Sibs encouraged and cheered me knowing I’m in a complicated space right now. We even have a theme song in Steely Dan’s “Peg” which we danced to in a bar. Those two made me feel like I accomplished a lot in my two weeks.

Maybe I did.

Like so much in life, in this short moment, I was afforded only a taste, just a handful of memories to savor along with new knowledge and renewed respect of a famous trail. 

Will I return to the Appalachian Trail? I don’t know. I have a far tougher trail to walk now with unknown challenges and an unclear destination. Perhaps my desires will change after this ordeal. Who knows?

My guide book tells me I have a top notch medical team helping me navigate the wilderness and at least parts of a plan in place as we gather more information about my illness. Plans are good, and I’ll embrace this adventure like all of mine, step by step.

What I ask from you is that you share that special sauce friends give each other when one of them has to prepare for the battle ahead.

  • Be my trekking poles to keep me balanced.
  • Be my map to guide my footsteps.
  • Be my resupply to keep me nourished.

One thing that really made me smile happened on the bus heading to the airport. My new hiking friend Kaley sent this message with a comment from another hiker.

“Driving away and Packrat says, ‘strong woman right there’…agree”.

Gawd, I needed to hear that.

17 Responses

  1. Hi Alison! Just wanted to let you know I’m praying for a speedy recovery for you and sending lots of good vibes!

  2. Oh Blissful, such difficult news. I can only imagine all that is going through your head. I do know that you have been such a source of inspiration and strength to me as I have listened to your adventures. I hope that some of the strength and resilience that you project outwards, can now be turned on itself, focused in on you in your cancer journey. Your inimitable strength and ability to find bliss in hardship will see you through this and turn you out the other side stronger. You will be very much in my thoughts on Friday and beyond. Across many miles I send you hugs and positive vibes. You’ve got this and your friends and followers have got you.

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