So the hike is over. It ended yesterday on top of Mount Katahdin about 9 a.m. I was the only person on the summit. I took my own obligatory picture with that Katahdin sign and rang the virtual bell and then, as the clouds closed, I headed down the mountain-way down the mountain.
At the moment I was not in the best of moods. Several of my hiking friends had already summited earlier, and I had been assured that the climb up Katahdin was "no big deal" not!
The first third of the climb was indeed easy, a mile and a-half of a relatively gentle slope. The second third became more difficult boulders, ledges and moderate climbing. Then the mountain turned into a tempest of extreme challenge. The climb turned into a boulder scramble in which the hiking poles became useless and in fact became a liability. Each foot of progress up became climbing hand to hand, boulder to boulder, following those little white blazes.
Then that phase ended, and the last stretch of the climb went close to vertical straight up for another 300 to 500 feet all boulders with precious few opportunities to grasp anything. I simply tried to stay focused on the white blazes ahead and my next one or two steps and nothing more. I knew if I looked up or down or very far around me I would quickly probably lose my nerve and be in big trouble.
At several points when there were no handholds, no cracks in the granite and no "grabable" edges, there was rebar set into the granite steel drilled into the stone for a handhold or foothold to provide the only possible means of moving forward with the climb, which continued to be almost straight up.
"This was not," I thought to myself over and over, "my idea of recreation or fun." But the hike would not be complete until I made it up the last stretch and rang that virtual bell at the summit, so I continued to climb.
When I finally finished that last stretch of the climb I discovered that the actual summit was still another mile ahead albeit on level ground a mile filled with bowling-ball to large suitcase-sized boulders and stones.
"At least the climbing up is over," I consoled myself as I pushed forward. So, after having managed to safely and successfully maneuver through the most dangerous section of the summit, my foot caught on a boulder and I did my fourth and final (of the hike) face-plant into the ground. Both my knees which were already injured from previous falls hit first, then my hands and elbows, and then my cheekbone hit stone. I had never experienced the sensation of bone hitting stone, especially facial bone, so it surprised me. Stunned and lying face down on top of dusty ground with my head still reverberating from the impact of the stone on my cheekbone I screamed out in frustration. Slowly I lifted my hand toward my face, fully expecting a handful of blood. Thankfully, there was none.
I finally reached the summit and stayed for a short while. I was the only person up there that morning and quickly took my obligatory photos with the sign, and then, with a deep breath, started climbing back down the mountain, something even more precarious than the assent.
After several white-knuckle hours of descending boulder to boulder, I arrived intact at the tree line, and the rest of the descent became a more "business as usual" matter.
When I arrived back at base camp my dear bride was waiting for me. I had calmed down and my frustration level had retreated back to normal. My hike was done. I did not slip and fall down the mountain. No broken bones. My life was ready to shift gears back to whatever it had been before.
It will never be the same again. Everything I see now is processed through new filters experiences from a little bit over six months on the trail. And while one might be skeptical that my 62 years of living could be seriously impacted by only six months of hiking off the grid, I know it was. That is a fact.
I will never look at water the same way again. It comes from springs, streams and rivers and not from water faucets. I will not hear the same again. I now clearly know what the sound of silence really sounds like what it's like to walk through a cavernous woods just after dawn for several hours and hear exactly nothing, not a single noise, not a single movement, not a single distraction. I won't be able to sit down for lunch or dinner again like I used to.
Meals on the Trail were always conditional events especially dinner ¬ and were always tied to our need for shelter for the night. When one is so focused on core needs as the Trail demands, one is freed to a large degree from the pull and pressure of all the noise that envelopes life on the grid. The noise simply does not matter so much anymore; it becomes close to irrelevant.
And then there are the people, the hikers who become family out on the Trail. And I don't mean just those who become friends or those with whom relationships have been built. I mean everyone out there schlepping packs, tents, food and walking from sunup to sundown across 14 states, over mountains, across rivers, through mud, dust, rain, snow, thunderstorms, blazing heat always alone and always together.
Words were not always exchanged. We didn't all become friends. We did not all make it through the entire hike, either. But what we did we did together and we did as a community of wanderers, of slightly and many times more than slightly crazy people millennial's, moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, professors, physicians, nurses, Masons, veterans, sighted people and unsighted people.
The Trail gave us all purpose. It gave us all engagement with a greater group. It leveled everything and put almost everyone on a common ground with a common vision.
Together we gave and we received. Together we shared, we hurt, we fell and got back up. We were injured together and we healed together. We cared for each other and we kept each other's back. We watched each other grow and become more aware of our fellow man and our collective rolls in our world.
The Trail changed how most of us process the world around us. Yes, we all still process it differently, but now, after all the months on the Trail, the status quo has for most of us been forever rewired and rerouted in ways we have not known or understood before. The impact will be lasting and, just as occurred during the entire Trail experience, it will grow, change and morph with time.