Day mileage: 28.4
AT total mileage: 1,975.6
Time: 11 hours
As you can see from above, the push has begun. In what I'm calling the 'Maine Marathon', I'll be hiking this kind of mileage on a daily basis for the next week in order to make Katahdin by the 25th for a summit on the 26th. Most days during this time will be over 26.4 miles, hence the name of the challenge. While most hikers have slowed their pace immensely at this point, my desire to finish the Trail in a good number of days is huge. It had never crossed my mind until I began hiking with Pneumo and Jellybean all those miles ago as they both were pushing for sub-90 and sub-100 day hikes respectively, which made me realize I could easily finish under 120 days and even under 110. With two more zero days and a few more low mileage days than I had ever planned on, sub-110 is out of the question for me. It would require 35 mile hikes every day for the next week which I'll be quick to admit is not something I'd ever want to do, though I'm sure if I truly tried I could pull it off. Alas, with the schedule of my folks to come get me in Maine and my reasonably hikeable mileage, I'll be finished on 114, leaving me with a less impressive sounding sub-115 day hike. Yes, 114 is impressive in its own right, but I suppose you'd have to actually know me in real life to get my obsession with numbers and the way they sound- 110 would have been much better. But now I seem like I'm insane, so let's move on...
My goal had been to wake up around 4:30 and push on from the shelter we stayed at as a large group the night before. Unfortunately it was a damn cold morning in the mountains and no such departure was doable as I was quite comfortable in my sleeping bag. In the end it worked out, as everyone was happy to see I was still there when they woke up. I packed up and ate with the group before heading out, having asked Santa one more time if he wanted to press on through Maine with me be ultimately said he didn't believe he was capable of the mileage and would pass on the opportunity, meaning I'd hike the last 200-something miles alone. Saying goodbye and hugging everyone I headed off into the woods, having returned to the Lone Ranger mentality that I spent most of the mid-Atlantic section hiking with. A few minutes down the trail Santa caught me, explaining his wishy-washy decision making skills and saying he would hike the 17 miles to the Rangely, ME road crossing before making his decision. The group was getting off in Rangely to get a hotel room and relax for the night while my plan had me pushing on another 11 miles. He and I flew through the terrain at a clip I was much happier with than that of previous days, conquering over 10 miles of trail by noon, a feat that I felt hadn't been accomplished in quite a while. Sitting on a park bench overlooking a gorgeous vista of mountains and lakes Santa called his parents and ultimately decided in the moment that he would be finishing the Appalachian Trail with me at my marathon pace. This was truly a relief for me as I believe that to pull this kind of mileage consistently I'll need some moral support. We hiked on to the next shelter (where I had planned on spending the night before) and ate lunch with West and Gentle Spirit, two of the guys from the large group we've spent the last few days with. Eating quickly and heading back for the trail we ended up seeing the girls one last time as they pulled into the shelter. We said goodbye for a second time and left, ultimately being the last time we'll see them until they summit Katahdin in a few weeks time.
The afternoon flew by on level and somewhat rocky terrain, dropping us at the Rangely road crossing around 4 PM with 10 miles left to hike until we reached the shelter we were aiming for. Crossing over the road the trail began a gradual climb up past a large shelter with a famed cribbage board in a dual-toilet privy. Sounds strange, but this is in fact the Appalachian Trail so I'd expect nothing less. Sure enough, two toilet seats are positioned 3 feet apart with a cribbage board drilled down between them. There's a carved sign on the outside of the shelter that says 'Your Move'. We ate quickly at the picnic table, gearing up for the climb ahead. The trail immediately began the ascent towards Saddleback Mountain, a 4,120 foot peak that would require 2,000 feet of elevation gain from the shelter. From there it would dip and climb again to the peak of The Horn, dropping a thousand feet and then ascending again to Saddleback Junior. These three climbs, each happening 20-something miles into our day, were exhausting and very windy. At the peak of Junior the sun set over the mountain ridges across from us, as the sky became a watercolor painting and darkness settled over us. Headlamps turned on, we continued the 2 remaining miles to the Poplar Ridge lean-to. Side note: in Maine, shelters are called Lean-Tos.
Arriving around 2130hrs, we found the campsite and shelter half-full with hikers. It frustrates me (again) that the shelter was only half occupied, but people had their stuff strewn about leaving no room for anyone else to move in. Santa and I set up our sleeping bags behind the shelter and cooked a quick dinner before settling into our beds. The stars are incredible, as they usually are in the middle of Maine, and sleep will come easy. The plan for tomorrow will be a 27 mile day with a fair amount of climbing required, meaning it will be a physically stressful day. That's to be expected, I suppose. No way to do this kind of hiking without it being demanding.