A few years ago, I was struck by this thought: “For somebody who considers himself a Maine outdoorsman, you should not, as an old man, look back and realize that you never climbed Mt. Katahdin, never ran the Allagash, nor hiked the Appalachian Trail.”
So, I climbed the Mountain. That left the Allagash and the Appalachian Trail.
“Papa,” my granddaughter, Dana Reynolds, said recently, “I’ll do an overnight hike with you on the AT.” The year before she had hiked with friends from Monson to Pamola Peak. She loved it.
The year before, with the AT in mind, I had sought advice from Bar Harbor hiking writer Cary Kish, who has thru-hiked the AT twice. “What would be a good section of the AT for an old man?” I asked. Carey suggested the 13-mile stretch between Height of the Land on Route 17 and Route 4 south of Rangeley.
Let’s have some disclosure here. As a younger man I have humped a heavy pack for a mile or two in Elk Country, and to this day I do a lot of daily 2-mile walks. But tough terrain hiking was not on my resume. My daily walks are on open dirt roads with a few gentle hills. And in elk country the trails can be challenging because of altitude, but are mostly smooth, well-worn mule paths through meadows and aspen groves.
So, the other day, when I, my granddaughter and her father (my son Josh) set foot on the AT off Route 17 with our overnight backpacks what confronted me was not at all the Appalachian Trail that I had envisioned. Almost immediately, the terrain looms ominously if you are an 81-year-old man. Steep ascents. Helter skelter piles of sharp-edged granite. Big twisting, gnarly roots. Wet rock surfaces. Seductive footholds waiting to twist an ankle.
In four hours we covered 4 miles, a slow pace caused by my cautious step-picking pace up and down the rock piles and over root tentacles. My hiking mates were jewels who looked after Papa with love, patience and humor.
Taking a break at the 3-mile mark after conquering one particularly formidable rock pile, my granddaughter, who wasn’t even breaking a sweat, had a response to my gasping for breath and niggling complaints about how tough the going was. “Papa,” she said with a big grin, “you need to embrace the suck!”
As we resumed the trek, I thought about that. “Hmm, I think she means that I should learn to savor the pain, right? How do you do that?”
That night at the Sabbath Pond leanto, mile marker four, we recharged with a warming campfire, a barely adequate freeze-dried meal and a pleasant conversation with a thru hiker from California. He had left Springer, Ga., in February and had been on the AT ever since. Out of curiosity and admiration, we all grilled him: “What do you eat? How much does your pack weigh? Did you ever think of quitting? How many pairs of sneakers have you worn out?”
Answers: Beans and couscous. Fifteen pounds. Never. Three so far.
Trail beat, I zipped myself into sleeping bag and tent, all the while chuckling to myself about my granddaughter’s trail philosophy and most impressive youthful trail stamina.
To my utter surprise, dreaded Day Two on the trail seemed less intimidating despite my sore quads and stiff back. We covered the same ground in three hours instead of four. Granddaughter said my pace “had picked up a lot and I had been stepping with more confidence.”
To be frank, this particular experience was age confronting for me in an abrupt way, even more than last fall’s Colorado elk hunt. And yet, in a perverse sort of way, it was still somehow a personally satisfying departure from my daily life. And you want to know something funny? Contrary to Diane’s wishes, I just may do another short AT section one more time, to see if I can learn to “embrace the suck.”
The Allagash? It’ll just have to wait.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected].