She was in tears just as Captain America had warned me.
"She is in trouble and needs to get off the trail,” he had said.
I knew her.
I had hiked with her a few times previously. She was a veteran hiker — one who had hiked all over the world. She was in her 60s and — as many do — hiking the trail by herself. Her hair was snow white and she had a mom face and disposition.
Now she was standing on the trail, on top of a mountain talking to me.
I surprised her and spoke first. It was obvious she was in trouble. I don't think she remembered that we had met before.
She was in tears, breaking down as I talked to her. I knew and understood how and what she felt. None of us had anticipated what it would be like in the Whites of New Hampshire followed by the bad dream of the punishing Maine trail.
She was not alone. Hikers around her struggled, with only moderate success, to maintain a positive mental attitude. Sore knees, exhaustion and the creeping tentacles of defeat clung to the trail like bad dreams — spider webs in the face or tight, bad-fitting wet shoes.
I remembered in an instant when I looked into her eyes what a friend had told me earlier: "No one leaves the Whites with what they entered. The Whites will take its pound of flesh both physically and mentally."
Even though we were all within sprinting distance (235 miles) of our final goal of the lofty Mt. Katahdin, and we all had an investment of five to six months — some even more — of walking and sleeping on the ground and sometimes well over a week without a shower … Even now, hikers were dropping out of their AT hike.
It wasn't that we weren't up to the continuous physical challenge. A good night’s sleep, a shower and 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen usually took the edge off physical breakdown.
It was, however, the complete breakdown of the will and resolve that was difficult to overcome. After talking to dozens of hikers, no one exited the Whites intact. For most, the struggle to regain the high ground of hiking forward was a much greater challenge and a position from which there was no point of return. They were simply, done.
A fortnight earlier I recalled two encounters that had made the difference for me. I had been at my wits’ end. My tent had died just before a big rain and I was about to enter the Whites.
I had been talking to the south-bounders (So-Bo's) and none had had good words for the trail ahead of me. It was going to be brutal, and I was dreading it as I had been for a few weeks.
I made my way down the trail that day so preoccupied with worry and anxiety I almost walked right into a wisp of a So-Bo hiker. He couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds soaking wet and couldn't have been more than a year out of high school. I couldn't believe someone so young could be out here.
He stopped and stood completely still and stared straight into my eyes. The moment seemed frozen, then he moved forward in awkward silence — until this young SoBo spoke. What he said to me was something I know I will never forget as long as I live.
"You are going to be fine,” he said, staring straight into my eyes. "It will be OK. Don't listen to what the So-Bos are telling you about the trail ahead — about the Whites. I just walked it and you can too. You will be OK.”
Then, before I could thank him or even ask his trail name, he was gone.
I stood on the trail, on the same spot for what seemed like an eternity. I just shook my head.
How, I mean how, did he know? "What just happened" I wondered. “What?”
Later that day, I walked through a parking lot that the trail crossed and complained to some thru-hikers who were there.
"Everything is just so not working yada, yada…”
They patiently listened to me, nodding. A few minutes later as I stood in the parking lot trying to figure out what to do and where to go, a car with two women pulled up. In broken English, (they were French), they asked me if I needed a ride.
I hopped in. "Where you going?” they asked.
"Anywhere,” I answered.
As we drove off I spotted the two thru-hikers who listened to me complain.
"The Trail always provides,” they mouth as I drive by.
I understood instantly and nodded my head.
Slowly as we talk, she moves further away from the edge and begins to regain her composure. The trail had overwhelmed her and had taken her to the brink. We talk more.
"The hostel is only a couple miles more. I will be there later today and the people there are very nice. You will be fine,” I tell her. "It's going to be OK."
It's going to be OK.
The Trail always, always provides. You just have to have faith.
She is going to be fine. What had overwhelmed her that day is now under control — her control. She is a strong woman. She just needed a friend to remind her that she is not alone — that we're all in this together.
It's what we all need. You have to have faith, and when the time comes, you need to be the one who is there for the person who needs someone. Just like a catcher in the rye.
In roughly 12 days my hike will be over.
What it has taught me will last forever. I am sure of that.