The top of the world
By Kayla Carter
Moose and bears – check.
Views galore – check.
Katahdin – check.
I’ve seen about everything one would expect to see after completing the entire Appalachian Trail.
While all of those features definitely make great memories, there’s so much more to take away from the experience.
Of course, there are all the amazing people who helped us along the way – everyone from our parents to trail town strangers. Every day I’ve been home since Sept. 22, I’ve had at least one of my fellow through hikers contact me. I love knowing that I’ve made lasting friendships while being out there.
If only I could hand out superlatives to some of the hikers I met:
I give “Sky Chicken” the most memorable award for nursing, carrying a baby bird that she named Hitch after finding him stranded on the trail.
My favorite fellow East Tennessean on the trail was named “Titan.” He definitely wins the most competitive award. This guy could hike, sometimes run, nearly 30 miles a day.
I met a girl named “Cropdust” and every word that she spoke made me almost pee in my shorts. I dub her the most humorous hiker.
How could I leave out “Forget-Me-Not?” Not only does she have a neat trail name, but she would get an award for most original through hike. Having started her hike in February (brrrrr), she made it to her home state of Vermont by May. She took June, July and half of August off to work at an all-girls camp then hopped back on to complete her through hike. We hiked to the summit of Katahdin with her.
The second best aspect of the whole AT experience is more intangible.
My 2,000-plus-mile walk through the woods was as much of a spiritual journey as a physical one. Once we got farther away from home, the mental game was on. If I had measured my emotional status on a daily basis, no doubt it would look like the elevation profile of a section of the trail in Virginia called the “Rollercoaster.” I admit I slipped in and out of a depressed state of mind. It sounds absurd because the trail is so rewarding, beautiful and chock-full of supportive people. Still, it wears you down mentally.
Overall my mental strength seemingly followed the trail’s elevation at a glance. I went from my happiest, or highest point – Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee, down to the lowest extreme – the Hudson River in New York. After we got an emotional boost in July from attending a wedding back home, my enthusiasm and motivation was reinstated.
From New York on, the excitement and confidence of actually, maybe, being able to complete this mission was motivation enough. My eyes were always captivated by scenery and my mind challenged by open-minded people in Vermont and New Hampshire. I think it was the White Mountains that really brought me out of the funk I was in. I attribute this to its scenery and the people with whom we were lumped together.
Reaching Maine meant we had about a month left on the trail and to keep an eye out for moose and loons. My favorite place in Maine was The Hiker Hut in Rangeley. The owners, Katherine and Steve, have such a minimalistic approach to life. It was easier to relate to this idea since I was living in the woods with only the items I could carry on my back. They really broke down the mainstream expectations I had for a hiker hostel, as well as a living situation, with their third-world influences. Steve will forever inspire me to be more environmentally conscious. He also taught me that life is more meaningful when it’s measured by sincere interactions with other people, not by materialism.
After Rangeley, we made it, of course, to Monson, Maine, which is a through-hiker’s last stop before the 100-Mile Wilderness. As always, we dodged a couple spurts of rain by timing our hikes just right. Everyone kept remarking about how perfect the weather was this year for a through hike, and I was thankful for that every step of the way.
However, the night before we climbed Katahdin it dropped down to about 30 degrees. It reminded me of Trey Mountain in Georgia, when it dipped down to about the same temperature and a few flurries of snow drifted down onto the shelter where we slept. But, it was nothing compared to the icy, fierce winds that almost blew us off the top of Mount Madison in the Whites.
I’m especially thankful for the perfect weather we had the day we were able to summit Katahdin.
A clear sky at the AT’s Northern Terminus on Sept. 19, which also happens to be the day I was most surprised on the trail, made for the best view of the entire trip.
Noah, or Botany rather, told me he wanted to take some extra photos of us with the famed Katahdin Baxter Peak sign. After we posed for a few clicks of the camera, he squeezed my hand harder, looked me in the eye and said, “Kayla, it’s been my honor to have you by my side throughout this journey.”
He reached for something in his pocket and continued,
“I would be even more honored to have you by my side throughout the journey of the rest of our lives. Will you marry me?”
Through tears of joy, there was no hesitation on my part to say, “Yes!”
It all came full circle at that moment.
I said, “Yes,” to allowing myself this life experience, and at the end of it,
I said, “Yes,” to begin a new experience with the man I love.
For the first time in my personal life, I’ve finished something I started. The confidence I’ve gained from hiking the AT is insurmountable.
Also, the AT taught me the importance of giving and helping others. I don’t have the space to thank everyone who helped this dream of mine come true. I may have done all the legwork, but there was a cast of folks behind the scenes that would nudge us closer and closer to Katahdin with random acts of kindness. I’m in awe of how the AT community is always so willing to help each other.
I’ll carry that lesson on with me throughout the rest of my life.