Sometimes you plan your summer; sometimes your summer plans you

Our summer in the woods remains a summer in the woods, with a few key differences: we’re sleeping in a stripped-to-the-studs house and not under a tarp, and getting dirty hanging drywall and such instead of walking all day. One thing remains: there’s no internet out here, so updates will continue to be sparse until we return to civilization. After that, the words will flow again, I assure you.

For now, to get you up to speed, this item gleaned from my “sent” folder:

Dear Friends,

This is the email that we always knew we might have to write, but (realistically or not) didn’t really expect to.

2012 will not be the year for our thru-hike.

The short version: We’ve abandoned our plan for a thru-hike this year, because one four-footed member of our little family is unable to complete it. This is not a bad thing. For the time being, we will be living in the woods in Virginia, helping to renovate Jessie’s mother’s little homestead, and making time for projects of our own. The future, as Tom Petty once sang, is indeed wide open–and we’re pretty darned happy about it.

The long version: Throughout our planning and preparation, we knew that taking our dogs exponentially increased the chances that we would have to abandon the trip, and in this case our gamble didn’t play out. The trail in Maine is more rugged than just about anything we four have ever hiked. Vonnegut is a great trail dog, mindful and attentive. Saki is his polar opposite. Despite many years of day hikes under her belt in the Sandias, the Sangre de Cristos, the San Juans, and the Blue Ridge, she is not a long-distance trail dog. The same dog who years ago leaped from a second-story window because something across the street interested her is also a dog who wildly hurls herself down steep, rocky descents, flails across river crossings, and plows into we humans, picking our careful way over tricky footing. All the “expert” advice about exercise mellowing these tendencies turns out to be wrong, at least in her case. Our second day into the 100 Mile Wilderness, she fell off a 10 foot ledge, and came within a breath of taking Dion with her. Her harness was leashed to the hipbelt of his pack, and her fall caused it to fail (yay for trailside sewing skills!), a testament to the force 70 pounds can generate in a even a short fall. Within days, her careless scrambling had injured her paws so badly that it was obvious we needed to get off the trail. We can’t do this hike with her, and right now there’s no practical way to do it without her.

We do appreciate the condolences we’ve received, but let us be clear: this is not a tragedy. Completing a thru-hike would have been a satisfying accomplishment, and we don’t doubt that the two of us, or even the two of us and Vonnegut, could do it. But we can’t do it with both of our dogs, and we made the only decision that we could under the circumstances.

The AT was always simply the first step on our new path anyway, and coming off the trail far earlier than planned simply means we get to the next steps more quickly. The preparations we made for hiking–simplifying our lives, eliminating debt, downsizing our possessions–are preparations that allow us to live the way we want to live, putting our time and effort and passion into things that matter to us rather than toward an employer’s bottom line. Thru-hike or no thru-hike, we are happy with where we are, and excited about what comes next.

Our short time on the trail was a rewarding one. We arrived in Maine in the midst of what the locals we talked to agreed was an unusually wet and stormy period. Baxter State Park, which contains Mount Katahdin and the first 14 or so miles of the Appalachian Trail, does not allow dogs. We set up camp at Abol Pines, just outside the park boundary, and took turns hiking Baxter.

Summitting Mount Katahdin was worth the trip by itself.

Jessie hiked Katahdin in rain and sleet, with 10-20mph winds and a fogged-in summit. Dion followed two days later, and enjoyed sunshine and expansive views. Regardless of the weather conditions, though, we both agree that climbing that mountain was one of the most difficult and most rewarding things we’ve ever done. It’s a tough hike–10.4 miles and almost 9000 feet of cumulative elevation change–and with the rainy conditions, most of the trail was under water, resembling a rocky mountain creek more than a walking path. About a mile of the trail is technical scrambling, climbing over house-sized boulders with the occasional assist of rebar rungs drilled into the rock. The land falls away steeply to either side, and the sense of exposure is exhiliarating and a little frightening. Most of the rest of it is staircase-steep boulder hopping, all of it under moving water. It’s a trip that demands much, both physically and mentally, and we’re both gratified to have done it. Seeing that iconic sign at the summit is a very special feeling.

Everything you’ve heard about Maine is true, and there’s more you haven’t heard. The 100 Mile Wilderness is a trial of endurance seemingly designed to test a person’s ability to withstand every kind of mental and physical hardship that can plague a body. The sucking mud, the jumbled rocks, the unending roots, the biting insects, and the calf-deep bogs all conspire to slow your pace and frustrate your mind. Dion, by some mystery of personal chemistry, seems especially delicious to the native bugs, and his “Bug Man” outfit–headnet, hooded windbreaker, bandana draping, hat, and socks for gloves–would have set new standards for wilderness fashion, had anyone been around to see it.

We have a few photos, courtesy of a much-abused disposable camera we found at a grocery store (ours got inadvertently left behind in Virginia at the start of the trip); we’ll get around to scanning them once the home office is out of boxes.

During our hours of mudslogging, while we batted at mosquitoes and hauled ourselves over boulders, we came up with a few suggestions for the Maine board of tourism. A favorite: “Like to hike? Maine can fix that!” Black humor makes black fly bites just a little more tolerable.

But truly, we had a great little Maine vacation. The dogs, Saki in particular, are still more lazy than they were before we left (which we both consider a benefit), and Dion’s pack got a very productive field-testing. Katahdin is burned into both of our memories, and our best moments–loons calling over still lakes, moss-carpeted and fern-filled woods worthy of the best of Tolkien, peak views of unbroken forest with no power lines or roads or towns in sight (including a view of Katahdin from the 40 miles we had thus far hiked)–more than made up for the bad ones. All in all, hiking 60 miles of rugged wilderness was not a bad way to spend a little over a week. We certainly enjoyed it, even while we were realizing that Saki needed to be taken home. I don’t think either of us would trade that time for anything. Thanks for your well wishes and your support, and stay tuned for the next adventure–we’re off the hamster wheel of work and paychecks and debt, and it’s only good stuff from here on out.

Love from the woods,
J & D

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One response to “Sometimes you plan your summer; sometimes your summer plans you

  1. Pingback: Wayfinding | Omphaloskeptic

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