**This a continuation of the story of my 2017 hike**
I had to sleep in one of 2 positions last night, neither of which were very comfortable because of the bend in my arm and the stabbing pain I experienced whenever I tried to roll onto my right side. The splint seems to be making life more uncomfortable even though I know it’s for the best because it immobilizes my elbow. I woke up around 630 feeling poorly rested and achy. I heard one of the owners knock on the doors of other hikers and call out that breakfast would be ready in 15-20 minutes. We hadn’t signed up for breakfast, but I wanted to get a decent start on the day to leave time for slow hiking, so I rolled out of bed and began the process of changing clothes. By rolled, I mean literally rolled out of bed because it was the easiest way to sit up without putting any strain on my arm. Cotton remained in bed while I went downstairs to put together my breakfast.
As I mixed together my usual granola/muesli medley with a yogurt taken from the well stocked store in the back room of the hostel, I asked the owner if I could join the other hikers for breakfast with my own food. I received a polite but firm no, that would not be an acceptable practice because it might make the others uncomfortable. I had only asked the question to be polite, expecting an affirmative wave of the hand. His answer took me by surprise and amplified the growing feeling of losing my place in the hiker community. I directed my gaze at the highly important task of stirring my food while I pretended to be okay with the idea of eating alone in the kitchen. I felt silly for being so unhinged by the situation, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of rejection as the sound of idle conversation filtered in from the dining room. My breakfast went down in gluey lumps as Tucker, the resident terrier, rested his chin on my knee in the hopes of capitalizing on my loss of appetite.
I rinsed my bowl in the sink as the other hikers refilled their coffee mugs and loitered at the table. Then I went back upstairs to get ready for the day ahead. We’re “slackpacking” today, which means we are carrying only day hiking supplies in our regular packs, so I pulled out the items I didn’t need while Cotton ate a cliff bar and collected herself. I’m using today as a preview of what it might be like to hike with one working arm, and it became immediately apparent that my pack would be a source of struggle. Have you ever tried to use a zipper one-handed? Yeah, not so effective. Neither is closing a roll top, wide mouthed bag and then buckling it all together. I managed a lumpy version of the usually tightly rolled closure and slung my bag over my good arm to take it downstairs.
Cotton and I piled into the truck of the kilt-wearing hostel assistant whose name escapes me. We followed him 15 minutes up the road to deliver Cotton’s car to our exit point for the day and then he ferried us back to our starting point at the hostel. As we fussed with extending my hiking poles, the clasps of which had become vice-like and nearly impossible to open/close, I heard someone call out “Checklist!” I turned to find Hawaii, First Aid and Sunny resting on the porch of the hostel after their crossing of the Kennebec (this is part of the gaggle of hikers that I had spent a couple of days with around Mahoosuc Notch). I explained the origins of my splint as they each dug into their collection of snacks. They expressed sympathy for my arm, which I was grateful to receive while also feeling the simmer of envy at their ability to finish what they started.
Cotton and I headed down Main Street towards the river. I clomped along with one pole and my left arm slung across my chest. We passed what appeared to be a thru hiker who had been met by a few family members at the river crossing. I made eye contact with everyone we crossed paths with expecting to get interrogated about my arm, but no one appeared to notice, which was both a surprise and a relief.
When we reached the water’s edge, we saw the canoe ferry operator picking up a load of passengers from the western bank. To give you some context, from approximately late May to mid-October, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy contracts Greg Caruso, a part-time ferry operator, to assist hikers in crossing the Kennebec River. This is done because the crossing is 400-feet wide and has a strong current under the best of conditions. To make matters more complicated, there is a hydroelectric facility upstream that releases water without warning, which causes a surge in both depth and current. Needless to say, I had absolutely no intention of fording the river even before breaking my arm. Cotton and I watched the operator and the passenger at the bow paddle across the swift river. We were so mesmerized by the process that we didn’t realize we were supposed to be filling out release forms that were set up underneath an ez-up tent. We rushed through the forms and met Greg down at the canoe. He seemed nonplussed by my splinted arm as he lowered my bag down into the center of the canoe and held the sides steady as I took my position in the center seat. Cotton and Greg paddled us across the river towards a small gaggle of northbound hikers waiting to cross. We mentioned our intention of returning after hiking four miles south, and Greg reminded us of the 2pm deadline for the last crossing of the day. Our timing would be on the tight side, but if necessary we could always just turn back sooner and catch the necessary mileage north of our original endpoint. In thru-hiking land, miles that you cover twice only “count” once, so our plan was to hike south for 4 miles, then double back and hike 6 “new” miles north of the Caratunk House to just south of Pleasant Pond, making a total of 10 AT miles and 14.6 actual miles. I’ll pause here for those of you compelled to roll your eyes at thru-hiking logic. I totally get it.
The sound of water lapping against the shore faded away as we wound our way up the hillside. The trail flattened for a short stretch before dipping into a hollow. Cotton peered back at me with wide eyes as the grade steepened. I assured her that I was okay, and she eventually stopped checking in with me at every change in footing.
The trail brought us within earshot of a raging stream, which I felt sure that we would have to cross in some perilous manner because: Maine. I felt relieved when it became clear that we were going to walk parallel to the stream for the time being. We picked our way through rocky sections with the occasional root-filled rise in elevation that felt like a warm embrace relative to the body slamming terrain I’d covered since entering Maine.
Then came the log crossing. One of the hikers from the Caratunk house stood warily eyeing the slick, narrow log that spanned the banks, hanging several feet in the air above the stream. He urged us to cross ahead of him, clearly steeling himself for the task ahead. Cotton went first, opting for the winged approach that resulted in a graceful navigation across the sodden, knotty log.
I balanced my pole in the fingers of my left hand and put one foot on the bridge. The surface was as slippery as I’d imagined, and I felt my pulse quicken while also wondering how Cotton had made it look so easy. The “railing” of the bridge (or should I say “bridge”) was placed at such a height that I had to bend at the waist to use it for support. I shuffled across the bridge without incident and stepped foot on solid ground with the dread of our return trip swirling in my stomach.
The weather was overcast and humid, and the darkened tree trunks, still wet from yesterday’s rain, amplified the greens around us. We crossed another log footbridge that had been cut with a mercifully flat walking surface and wasn’t as saturated as the previous log (Cotton maintained her winged strategy). The trail wound us through a sparse pine forest with brilliant moss and other ground cover with a raging waterfall off to our left. We stopped to take in the sound of water coursing over the boulders, but we didn’t give ourselves much time for gawking.
We eventually rounded a corner to see this large pond with a mist covered mountain staring at us from the distant shore. The trail skirted a beaver damn that made for pesky footing with jagged rocks and unevenly set boards.
I tried not to think about how close the water’s edge was as I picked my way past the dam. Our pace slowed even more as we entered an exceptionally rooty and muddy section. With the ferry deadline looming and sloppy tree roots as far as the eye could see, we decided to turn around and catch the remaining .2 miles on the north end of our goal for the day.
As we made our way back to the ferry, I became overwhelmed by a visceral sadness. I did my best to keep it together because, as mentioned many times over the course of this journey, it is difficult to hike with tear-filled eyes. But the gravity of the situation was too much for me, and I let myself cry for a few steps here and there as Cotton walked ahead of me. I had worked so hard to get here, and two days ago, I had felt so ready for the final northbound tasks ahead of me (e.g. the 100 mile wilderness and Mt. Katahdin). And in a matter of seconds, my intended version of a thru-hike had vanished. There would be no Katahdin this year. That scramble is difficult enough with all four limbs in working condition, so attempting it with one arm was completely out of the question. There’s also no way I could cover enough ground with one-ish arms to actually finish the southern half this year . I tried to pull myself back to my immediate surroundings, with little success until it came time to re-cross the dreaded slip ‘n slide. Cotton skittered over the bridge as easily as the first time, and put herself in position to take my picture as I made my way across.
I went with the same strategy as before: hiking pole in my left hand (having not yet been given any doctor’s orders not to hold anything in that hand), and my right hand shuffling along the railing to steady my balance. About 2/3 of the way across, my right foot slipped off the log and I came crashing onto my rear, catching myself against the railing with both of my armpits, thus preventing myself from completely falling off. Here’s the slightly blurry image that Cotton managed to capture:
Pain shot through my left arm, and I had no idea what to do next. Standing up seemed both an impossible feat of physics and unwise given the slick footing. Cotton scrambled up the stream bank and back to the end of the bridge as I did the only thing I could think of: butt scooch along the wet log until I got close enough to grab Cotton’s hand. Not my proudest moment, butt scooching with a broken arm in the middle of Maine. Cotton helped me to my feet at the edge of the bridge and stared at me in wide-eyed silence. I felt humiliated for having fallen when Cotton had managed the crossing twice with no incident. Why was I such a klutz? [unrealistic expectations for hiking with a broken arm? who? me?] I felt like a failure as I stood there with my arm throbbing and my mind racing through scenarios in which the impact of smacking my arm against the log had just made my hopefully “simple” fracture into a misaligned mess.
There was nothing to do in that moment except keep moving, so I assured Cotton that I was okay, and we resumed our positions with her tromping ahead of me while I sunk into a desolate mood. I wanted to quit for the day, but I knew that part of my despair had to do with exhaustion and hunger, so I decided not to make any choices about distance until after we had eaten lunch.
We made it to the ferry with about 15 minutes to spare and had a breezy trip back over the Kennebec. Then we plopped down on the pebble covered riverbank and silently scarfed our respective lunches. As I ate, I knew that there was no way I could stop short of the 1,000 mile mark. My splinted arm was hot and achy, but that would likely be the case whether I hiked 6 more miles or went back to Caratunk and sat on the porch.
Onward we went, back across the road and into a hardwood forest that was basically a green tunnel with rolling hills and easy footing. The terrain reminded me of northern VA and southern PA, which caused my brain to ricochet through memories of the miles I had already covered. Back to the crying place I went, doing my best to blink away the tears so I could safely put on foot in front of the other. The trail eventually went down a gradual pine-needle covered hill and led us along several small streams.
With 2.7 miles to go, we stopped at one of the streams to filter water. I fumbled my way through the task with my working arm, eventually relenting and letting Cotton help. Neither of us were quite ready to move on, so we sat with our feet draped in the cool water. I don’t have a strong memory of what I said in those moments, but I do know that I cried a lot and Cotton continued to be a supportive presence with a helpful combination of validation and silence. We finally pulled our feet out of the water and did our best to dry off before donning our shoes to make our way north.
The trail got a bit messy, with bog boards and roots crossing the path with some frequency. We still had about an hour to go, so we took another short break to eat snacks. Cotton managed to drop a fair amount of her trail mix on the ground, so I dutifully sat in the middle of the trail and helped her eat it. Leave no trace!
The grassy parking area where Cotton’s car sat waiting for us appeared far too soon. We walked a little ways past the car to “officially” cover the necessary mileage. I dropped my pack and stooped over a flat rock to make a 1,000 mile marker out of Fritos on a rock. Then I ate the evidence, and we turned back to the car to call it a day. I have little memory of the ride back to the Caratunk House and most of the evening. I know we had macaroni and cheese with sausage for dinner out at the picnic table, and Cotton practiced her banjo for an upcoming wedding gig. I have a faint memory of the owners applauding our efforts with an air of incredulity. After dinner, we walked back out to the river to catch sunset, but there weren’t any colors in the sky to speak of. Both Cotton and I sat by the river stewing in our respective uncertainties. She wasn’t ready to go home, and I had no home to return to with no obvious next steps except “meet with orthopedic surgeon” and “don’t make arm worse.”
We sat by the river until twilight and then carefully made our way back to the house. I unwrapped my throbbing arm and fumbled through a shower, making sure to put neosporin on the scrape that the doctor warned me not to neglect. My wrist and fingers felt wonky, which made me worry about tendon and nerve damage, but there wasn’t much point in going too far down that road, so I told myself the weird feelings were to be expected. I iced my arm in the downstairs living room while rain pattered against the windows. Tomorrow I will start the process of actually resting and working on getting the swelling in my arm down. Today’s “1,000 mile mission” felt absolutely necessary and was likely a terrible idea based on the increased puffiness in my elbow. [2019 note: I would make the same decision if faced with that choice today, although I might say “fuck it” to the official versus unofficial mileage debate.]
Mile 2034.3 to mile 2044.3 (10)
(14.6 if you count the out and back across the river)
Total miles: 1000.1
Creature feature: a chattering king fisher, a heron at dusk at the river, and a few red squirrels.