Speck Pond Shelter to Maine HWY 4 (Rangeley)
I was craving a shower to wash off all the dirt and grime I’d accumulated since Killington, VT. It had been twelve days since my last shower, and I hadn’t done laundry since March. It was April 22nd.
Additionally, besides cuddling up with my own funk night after night, it seemed I had pine needles and bits and pieces of branches and lichen imbeded in my socks and hair. I had taken one particularly thrashing fall, where I slipped on the ice, scraped across a boulder and then to make misery worse, I fell atop a pile of dead trees, their limbs like potential daggers to my vulnerable flesh. I picked myself up, picked the branches out of my hair and proceeded forward yearning for town.
Which brings me to a strange encounter in the woods, at dark, and in the rain and fog.
I considered hitching into town at HWY 17, but traffic was light, and it would’ve required two hitches. I stood on the side of the road hopeful anyway. And as I did, the rain that had began moments earlier had paused, and rays of light cast down on one of Maine’s many beautiful lakes. The color was magnificent, a dozen shades of blue and yellow, and as I stood there, the horizon revealed more and more mountains. Spectacular.
After 25 minutes, at 7:15, I decided to postpone town for tomorrow. It was 3.8 miles to a shelter, and another 9 to Hwy 4. I’d have more time to enjoy town comforts if I went in the next morning. So, I crossed the road, pulled my trekking poles out of my pack, placed my headlamp on my head, and walked into the forest.
The trail, although fairly level for the next 13 miles, was rugged. Roots and mud, ice and snow, and the lakes were frozen as well. I couldn’t imagine seeing anyone at the shelter, and especially not hiking the trail at that hour. But then I came upon three headlamps, their light bouncing back and forth in the dark night. Two teenage boys and their mom were stumbling around in the dark trying to locate the trail, the fog making it hard to see the trail. “What are you doing out here at this hour?” I asked. Only thru-hikers hike in the dark and rain, generally speaking. They didn’t really answer, just remarked that they couldn’t find the trail very well. “We’ll it’s a pretty rugged section at this time of year, with all the mud and ice,” I said while indicating that the trail was up the hill. Indeed it would be hard to find with such limited visibility, and I suppose if I hadn’t been so accustomed to following the trail for over three months, I too might struggle with its whereabouts.
One of the teenage boys hopped in front of me, his black rubber boots looking six sizes too big for him. “You’re carrying alot of gear,” I said, surveying the obnoxious amount of gear strapped onto his backpack. There were several items, like a chair and tent stuffed into garbage bags and then strapped onto his backpack. “I know,” he said, “I don’t like it.” And with that, my hiker hunger stirred, and I asked if I could go ahead of him, anxious to reach the shelter, still another 1.5 miles ahead. “Follow the girl,” he said trying to keep up, but ultimately they were no match for my hiker hunger speed.
A half mile later, I came upon a herd of headlamps, a dozen people marching through the woods and a heap of people resting on a rock. “Are you here to save us?” said a few teenage girls, concerned. “I’m just a solo hiker, but what are you all doing? Is there someone here that is responsible for you and knows where you are going?” I asked. Someone in the middle of the mass of headlamps, and buried in the swirl of fog, said yes. “Are you going to the shelter?” I asked. Another unconvincing yes.
I left these Lost Souls, feeling a little bad, but if an enormous group can’t navigate 3.8 miles from a parking lot, well, they shouldn’t be out there in the first place.
I hiked on, navigating in the dark, down rock and over ice and snow. I showed up at the 8-person shelter weary that this enormous group would show up and cause chaos. Generally speaking, as I lightly mentioned to this group, the shelters were reserved for hikers out for three or more nights, not for overnighters.
It was 9pm. The rain pinged against the tin roof and the fog made it hard to see a nearby firepit. And at 10:30, still no lost souls. I turned off my headlamp, put earplugs in, and hoped that this group would be quiet and respectful when they showed up late. But they never showed.
I hope they were smart and turned back. I’ll never know where the Lost Souls spent their night. It’s such a shame when people make such unnecessarily bad decisions in the backcountry. Those teenage kids had a terrible time no doubt, and I’m sure that they won’t be looking to explore these trails for recreation in the future. A bad experience can have a lasting effect on a person’s first time out in the woods. All spoiled because their leaders underestimated the terrain, the time and the weather.
As for me, by 5:30am I was hiking toward Hwy 4, excited for town. The weather would eventually clear, but not until after noon. Until then it was brisk, and I kept a fast pace, eager for a burger, but also to drop below the snowline, which sat at 2,500 feet. Then, it was all downhill.
I caught a ride to Rangeley with two other backpackers hiking Saddleback Mountain. They dropped me off at the post office, where I picked up new shoes. As I pulled my pack on and wandered toward a restaurant, several people stopped to ask, “Are you hiking the trail already?” And, “Are you north or south?” People were in disbelief, suprised and astonished. Even a police officer took a few minutes to chat about how early I was. And the folks at the convenience store snapped a photo of me after I purchased a 6-pack of Baxter Brewery IPA. They all wished me luck, congratulating me as I had approximately 200 miles left to hike. It felt good, and let me tell you, it felt even better when my skin felt the hot water wash away 12 days of dirt and grime.