Kennebec River to Monson, Maine
I’ve noticed a trend in the attitude toward the ever-increasing number of hikers on trail these days. Ever since walking through the small towns in the south, I’ve witnessed how people are either excited and open-minded, or they are anxious and dreading the herds that will soon walk down their street and through their doors. I can understand that it can be overwhelming to have two, three and even four dozen hikers walk into a town all at once, like a swarm of bees, hungry for a burger, and thirsting for a shower. I’m up here, months ahead of the herd, hiking a very, very different hike compared to the rest of the hive.
I recently had a side by side comparison of these attitudes. I hadn’t planned on staying the night in one particular town, which I won’t name names as I don’t want my experience to frown upon someone else’s as maybe the owner was just having a bad day, or maybe he’d watched too much of Donald Trump’s rants the night before. But, after having a nice, restful evening, I woke early and went down for breakfast. I asked the night before what time it would be available, and we agreed sometime between 7 and 8 would be fine. But as I sat down with a cup of coffee and a few pieces of toast, the owner went off on his own rant, at how the trail has changed, at how trail magic is now something so regular and common that it’s no longer magic, and in fact there are people out there “paying their bills,” by driving up the trail, shuttling hikers, offering food and alcohol (sometimes for a fee), and selling illegal drugs. It’s apparently spoiling hikers, creating a party atmosphere, causing entitlement and apparently, which this notion fired up this man further, these trail angels are avoiding things like taxes, health codes, electricity bills, etc. Feeling anxious, I started stuffing myself with carbs, a bad habit of mine when I get nervous, but at least I’d be hiking twenty miles that day, so those calories wouldn’t go to my waistline.
I could sit through that rant, I could, but a short while later, after going upstairs to retrieve my bag that was already packed, the man made me feel unwelcome, or more like a nuisance, even though I was his only guest and helping pay for all those things like taxes, health code fees and other bills. With my pack on, and almost without looking at me, he asked, “Are you ready to go yet or what?” He said, a mild tone of irritation. “Um, yeah,” I said, perplexed and now yearning to stuff my face with more carbs. He looked at my pack, realizing that in fact he was being a disrespectful jerk, but nonetheless felt reason to rant. “It seems it’s always hikers who ask me how early is early to get a ride back to the trail that always end up being last to show.” He said this because hikers often ask when they can get a lift to the trail (a service this place advertised), and many of us want to get an early start, without it being too early for the folks driving. We agreed between 7 and 8. It was 7:45am.
I was soured when I went back to the trail. Why did I stay there, I asked myself, now bothered and regretful. That’s money wasted, I now thought. And then I tried to find reason in the experience, and I saw that it was beneficial to be reminded of the depth of which the growing number of hikers is causing alarm along the trail. And although its not the hikers who people are necessarily concerned about, as it’s more the yellow blazers, which are people following the bubble, hitching miles and piggybacking off others so that they can have one continous party the whole way… Drunk, high, loud and disrespectful, these people are giving the rest of us a bad rap, ignoring LNT practices, and ultimately being a drain on the community. Many of us like to have a good time in trail towns, but you need to hike the miles in between for that reward. I don’t know if there is a solution to the growing presence of yellow-blazers on-trail, or folks assisting hikers without genuine intention, as this man so ranted about.
On the complete opposite hand, I was warmly welcomed into the town of Monson, a town I took a short blue-blaze into, and a town that I originally planned to hike into and out of quickly. The 100 Mile Wilderness and the final miles of the Appalachian Trail sat just to the north, and I was itching to wrap this puppy up. But as I stood outside the post office, realizing I needed to wait out their lunch break, and therefore it would be wise if I sat down for my own lunch, a woman walked toward me and asked if I was Speedstick. It’s funny, because right before she did, I looked at the group who stood a hundred feet away, and thought, “Wow, they look like hikers,” and marveled in the sweet, but unlikely idea.
The woman, Rebekah, introduced herself as the owner of Monson’s Lakeshore House Lodging & Pub, a very clean and hiker friendly establishment that sits right beside a lake that promises a spectacular sunset. I instantly liked her, and wouldn’t need persuasion to stay the night. But before walking inside, I met the rest of the group who were gearing up for a day hike. Among them was Rookie, a southbound thru-hiker who I’d met just north of Erwin, TN. He was one of the last southbound hikers that I’d meet, and it was so exciting to see a familiar face, and to share that special bond with a hiker who understood the challenge and complexities of hiking in the winter. Such a serendipitous meeting is the best trail magic, the real definition of trail magic, and Rookie would ultimately end up meeting me in Baxter State Park, four nights from then. But there’s still plenty of miles to share with you first. That night I hung out by the fire with Rookie, Rebekah and Peaceful, another hiker who was now the caretaker at the Hostel. There were a dozen locals, and everyone was so excited that I was there, their first northbound thru-hiker of the year. I had a blast, and to be honest, I would’ve loved to have stayed longer. I’d booked my plane ticket while in Caratunk, a town that sat beside the Kennebec River, and unfortunately, I did have to get moving. In retrospect, I would’ve waited to Monson to buy my ticket, as such commitment caused me an unnecessary amount of anxiety. I had a remote and rugged stretch of trail ahead, guaranteed to see nobody, and I’d set my mileage goals high, and that might not have been the best idea. But again, I craved the desert of the CDT, and I was ready to get this lonesome and cold winter hike done. Miles now. Smiles later.