The Last White Blaze

Important Stats:

Days: 143
Miles: 2190.9
Beard Length: Grizzly Adams
Showers Taken: 41
Beers Drank: ??
Bears Spotted: 16
Zero Days: 13

It’s done. After 143 days, 5 pairs of shoes, 8 pairs of socks, and no underwear I finally reached the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mt. Katahdin.

The rest of Maine was as stunning as it was difficult. Vast expanses of a myriad of lakes could be gazed upon from many 4000-foot peaks while I felt the whip of the wind through my beard. The high peaks of Maine exhibited a very different feel than it’s companions in the Granite State. They seemed more removed, distant, isolated, and wild. One of my favorites was coming up and over Saddleback Mountain close to sunset with the unwavering light causing a golden shimmer across the endless lakes on the horizon.

Maine even flattened out (relatively) after the Bigelows for a short stretch including the crossing of the Kennebec River, with the only dedicated “ferry” service on the AT. Most popular for rafting, the damn holding the river is released around 10 AM each morning raising the water level from waist deep and sluggish to overhead and swift in a matter of minutes. After multiple drownings over the year the ATC introduced the ferry system shuttling hikers across the 400-foot width of the river.

One of the shelters just prior to the 100 Mile Wilderness had a copy of Dr. Seuss’, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” tucked safely in with the log book. So I stopped for a lunch break and read the book for the first time in years from cover to cover. As my eyes cruised over the pages of rhymes and colorful pictures, I could not believe how relevant this book is to everyone. And, aside from Yankees fans, it’s a reading level everyone can handle as well! Joking aside, I found solace in this one quote below:

But on you will go

though the weather be foul.

On you will go

though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

Onward up many a frightening creek,

though your arms may get sore

and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike,

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.

Over the past few months I have experienced and understood all of what Dr. Seuss is attempting to convey, well aside from the Hakken-kraks of course. And I knew I would hike far, but I don’t think I was ever fully prepared for the hike to end.

But as I ascended the ridge line up the jagged rocks of the Hunt Trail on Mt. Katahdin, that famous brown sign came into view, a shadow against the bluebird sky. And in that moment, I knew very quickly that my hike was ending, I was actually going to make it. My summit day was more perfect than anything I could have dreamed of. My imagination was plagued with the all too common photos of thru-hikers ending on Katahdin in a sea of clouds with minimal visibility.

But when I awoke in my tent for the last time on the morning of August 31st, I received a gift that I can only attribute to “paying my dues” for the miserable weather encountered over the majority of the AT. It was 5 A.M. the air was crisp and cold, unzipping my fly, I poked my head out of the tent and looked up to the sky to see a vast expanse of stars, a perfectly clear morning. Headlamp on, I exited my tent and packed up camp. Admittedly, I’m really unsure how to describe the odd feeling in my stomach as I folded, rolled, zipped, and stuffed all of my gear into my pack as I have done so many times before. Because I knew that the next time I removed all of it, I would be doing so to clean all of it in the comfort of my parents home. And as much as I despised my two least favorite camp chores, blowing up my Thermarest and hanging my bear bag, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could do this again tonight”.

After a half hour of hiking I no longer needed my lamp. The sun was coming up over the horizon, unveiling the absolute perfection of the day ahead. Clouds were distant and minimal. The wind was more tame than any other exposed peak I had on the trail, and the temperature was just cool enough to maintain comfort on the climb up. Passing by waterfalls and pulling myself over rock slabs going up and up, there was something surreal at the thought I was actually on Mt. Katahdin

The top of this very mountain was the end of the Appalachian Trail. A mountain that I have been walking towards every single day for the past 4 and 1/2 months. When I breached the treeline, I gave a quick “thank you” to Rachel, because I viewed the weather of today as a gift from her. And together, we walked and climbed up the rocks, ever closer to the summit.

Often in life, especially big moments, we place expectations on how we should feel during certain events. We are happy at weddings, sad at funerals, proud at graduations, and so on and so forth. For the longest time, I knew that finishing the Appalachian Trail, I should feel, excited. It’s not that I was not excited, I was over the moon. My adrenaline surged through my bloodstream with even the thought of touching that weathered brown sign atop the highest point in Maine marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the end of my journey. That’s why I was surprised that a different emotion seemed to overshadow my excitement; sadness.

Not the kind of sadness that makes you ache and incapacitates you emotionally. More so, it felt like I was saying goodbye to a very good friend. Because although all of these places and mountains will still be there, they will never be there for me again as a thru-hiker. That’s when I realized something crucial about the memories that we make and moments that are important to us throughout our life. Although I can always go back to Mt. Katahdin to climb it and reminisce, never again will I be able to recreate the sensation and emotion of what it was like to be there after walking for 143 days from Georgia. Through flash floods, thunderstorms, heat waves, new friends, family visits, new towns, and memories I will never ever forget, and lessons learned that will guide me through the rest of my life. Therefore, it is my contention to argue that it is the circumstances of a place that are important to us, not the place itself.

When I reached the top of the mountain though, the place I had dreamed of being each and every night for so long, it took me a few minutes before I could bring myself to touch the sign. The sign was real, right in front of me. A tangible object that before was only a centerpiece in my dreams, was now within arms reach. On one end of the spectrum, I wanted to reach out and touch it, hold it, kiss it; but at the same time, I knew that final act would end the Appalachian Trail for me. So for awhile I just stood and stared. I read every single word on that sign as tears welled behind my sunglasses. I did it.

Finally, I reached my hand out and pressed it against the left side of the sign. I felt the rough and weathered wood against my palm and then pressed my head right in the middle and closed my eyes. Emotion flooded through me like a a fast moving train and my head spun, dizzying in a moment of elation and disbelief. After I lifted my head, I traced my right index finger over the eight letters at the top of the sign: K A T A H D I N. Just as I had imagined it.

In the tradition of most of my adventures, I pulled out my Tom Brady jersey for a picture on the sign and then shotgunned a PBR with a yell of triumph. It wouldn’t have felt right doing anything else.

After 34 minutes on the summit, I looked at the cairn and the famous sign one last time, turned around and did not look back. And for the first time in a very long while, I followed a blue blaze off the mountain to make the 7-mile hike down to the trailhead to meet my mom and dad who were anxiously awaiting my arrival.

Certain things I will struggle with as I reenter ‘normal life’. More people will call me by Bobby instead of Handy Man, water will come from the tap, and toilets will flush again. Undoubtedly, I will miss my alternative life as Handy Man, retrieving my water from a roaring brook, and digging a hole when nature calls.

No longer do I think about how many miles I need to cover today, where my next town to resupply is, and I will be a weather.com addict no more. I feel that often I will be bored, and I will miss the spontaneity and unknowing of where I will eat lunch every day and where I will sleep at night. After three days off of the trail I have already returned to do a Presidential Traverse with Jim Gagne yesterday. It felt really good to be back. And I know that it takes time to adjust to change, but I can’t help feeling that my life truly would be better in the mountains long term. On the other hand, contrary to popular belief, I do enjoy showers, Dunkin Donuts, and being able to go ten miles in a few minutes by car instead of it being a couple hour walk. And above all else, I did miss my family and friends. So the ‘real world’ is not all bad, but it will take some time getting used to. If I can give some advice to people though, it would be to spend more time outside, enjoy simple things, and stop watching the news.

From the bottom of my heart I want to thank each and every person who followed along my journey and supported me along the way. No matter how big or small, every single piece of help given to me along the way made a difference and got me to the end goal. I do not know if I could ever repay the kindness exhibited towards me over the duration of the AT, but I sure can try.

The biggest thanks of all goes to my parents. Not only were they supportive, but they were encouraging, enthusiastic, and interested in the AT. They were my rock that endured all of the phone calls, text messages, and emails when I had a hard day and thought I couldn’t do it anymore. They provided words that motivated me to help me press on, and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. All of the care packages, organization at home, and driving to visit and pick me up engulfed them in the AT as much as myself. For all they’ve done for me, I don’t think that I could ever show in words how much I love them.

Now that the trail is over, I know everyone will be wanting to know what’s next? That is consistently the number one question asked of me whenever I return from an adventure, and to be honest, I’m not sure. There is still much thinking and reflecting to be done. But as I have done for the pst several years, I will continue to seize opportunities as they are presented in front of me. My last night on the trail I finished rereading my favorite book, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. The book is an allegory of a Shepard boy in Spain who follows omens to achieve his ‘Personal Legend’ or your true purpose on this planet. And when someone is actively seeking their Personal Legend, all of the universe conspires to help them get there.

Often I have wondered what my Personal Legend is. And the AT is not my personal legend, nor were the seven continents, but they were pieces of it, and one thing tends to lead me into the next. The universe is this continuous flow that if you listen carefully, will carry you to where you need to be next. After thinking a lot about the AT and the past several months, I’m starting to believe that the purpose of my Personal Legend is not specifically an endpoint, but to follow all of the place in between.

Although I am disappointed that the trail is complete, and I will struggle back into the ‘real world’ (for a little bit), I appreciate what I have assimilated about the world and about myself. And without any more white blazes to follow, I will instead be following all of the lessons I have learned along the Appalachian Trail. Hope you’re proud of me Rach.

Peace,

Handy Man

Meredith, NH

September 5, 2018

Published by

robertgodonnell

Taking a long walk.

14 thoughts on “The Last White Blaze”

  1. Outstanding! Read many of your entries aloud to my wife and daughter. We shed a few tears with you. Thank you for sharing this journey with us. Best to you.

    Dan Duvall and family.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this journey with us. As someone who found just hiking Katahdin a life-changing event, I can only imagine how you must feel after hiking the whole thing. (We once lived in Georgia and have a picture at the Amicalola Falls sign as well.) We stayed at Katahdin Stream campground in Baxter Park and hiked up the Hunt Trail. Seeing your pics of the same shots I have really made me feel a part of your journey. I have no doubt Rachel is very proud of you. Thanks again for letting so many of us share your adventure and a part of you. I really enjoyed it and am sad as well that it is over! God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an outstanding accomplishment. Thanks for sharing your AT experience. Friend of your Dad’s, I know I don’t have to tell you but he’s a wonderful man. Kevin E

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i am speechless…….I am so proud of you, Bobby. Dad and I know how much you appreciate our support, and we were so happy to be part of your AT journey. I have learned a lot over these months about the trail and about you. Being true to yourself is one of them. Love you to the moon and back Champ! So happy to have you back home! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have followed your stories of the at from the beginning, I think you are an amazing man and your parents I know are extremely proud of you. I spent my life wanting to do a lot some things I accomplished and some I didn’t I let work and whatever else get in the way. You are an inspiration to me and i’M sure everyone that read your posts. I don’t know you my wife does and I am as proud of you as if you were my own son. Good luck with whatever you do in the future. Thank you frank GAZERRO

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Congratulations Handyman for completing this journing and for sharing your many experiences with us.
    I looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed your entries! Completing my own AT journey has always been a dream of mine and I can’t wait to experience it for myself.

    Never say never…you may find yourself sharing the AT again someday with someone special who will look to your experience as their strength and beacon to complete their own journey.

    I hope we can meet on a trail sometime and enjoy a beer together (not PBR!). 😉

    Welcome home Handyman!

    Like

  7. May peace be your journey, on trail and beyond. Maybe we’ll meet again in a NOLS course, on on trail, or never, thank you for allowing me to follow your adventure. Christian aka Ferret/ErDoc

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You are the second young man that I know who has recently completed the AT. Bobby, you have no idea how accomplished a writer and a noter of facts and feelings you are! As I’ve said before, u are truly a credit to all that has gone into the making of you. You are truly more representative of your generation than many of us see, never mind acknowledge. I know many “young people” and I do have hope for the future. Thank you for all of your deep thoughts, for showing us a glimpse into the feelings that your generation (whatever that label is!) and for letting us know that you all DO have deep introspective thoughts. I would love to say that Rach’s death will be the greatest challenge that you will face. But it is not so. Really, back when I was in high school (yes I can remember that far back! LOL) my class faced the untimely death of a few of our classmates. It was mind-blowing. I’d like to say that it was life-changing, but for many those deaths did not change our behaviors. But it became part of our memory banks. You have put into words the deep feelings that you have about Rach’s death. While I was never part of that SMH group, I dare say that you have spoken some of the unspeakable. Recently, a traveler at SMH asked me about the angel hanging in our nurses’ station. I was able to say that it was in memory of a co-worker who committed suicide. Wow, was the comment. Then silence. I felt relieved to say it. Thank you for giving me that. je

    Liked by 1 person

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