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The origin of the modern marathon’s distance is a little-known bit of trivia. Many people can tell you that it comes from the distance between the plains of Marathon and Athens that Pheidippides ran to deliver news of a battle victory. But that’s actually only about 25 miles, short of the 26.2 miles marathoners run today. That extra distance came at the 1908 London Olympics. The finish line was set at the Olympic Stadium, but King Edward VII wanted to watch the start from Windsor Castle, 26.2 miles away. The route was extended to accommodate the king, and the distance has stood since.

I have run marathons, and in the delirious last few minutes I have cursed King Edward VII under my panting breath for adding a very painful mile and change to what seemed like a long enough run already. Now, having walked to Maine from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail I feel the same way. After more than 2,000 miles, I’m not done yet. The reason I’m not done is that Myron Avery, the man credited with bringing the trail from concept to reality, insisted that the trail end at the highest point of his home state, Maine. Originally, the northern terminus was set at Mount Washington, which I summited weeks ago. Now I’m hiking the extra 330 miles added just so Avery could get home.

The last fifth or so of the trail also happens to be some of the hardest miles. It has many of the trail’s superlatives–the toughest mile (the boulder obstacle course of the Mahoosuc Notch), the biggest climb (Mount Katahdin), the hardest section (the White Mountains), the worst weather (Mount Washington), the most remote state (Maine), and the longest stretch between re-supply points (the 100-Mile Wilderness). The section also introduces a new challenge, the river ford. From the beginning, these obstacles have loomed in our future. In the south, trail guide descriptions like “this is the last climb above 6,000 feet until New Hampshire,” and “the toughest rock scramble south of New Hampshire” never let the northbound thru-hiker forget that the hiking will get harder.

All this comes after a thousand miles of hiking that’s mostly as easy as just walking. From northern Virginia to Massachusetts, the trail can hardly find any mountains to climb. It rolls over some hills and across long flat ridges, a long green tunnel with only occasional minor obstacles. The miles are fast and the town stops frequent as it passes through the backyards of the mid-Atlantic metropolises. For thru-hikers who have built their mountain legs over the first few hundred miles in the southern Appalachians and have made the daily tasks of camping a second-nature routine, this middle stretch turns into a sort of extended vacation. No longer completely preoccupied with concerns about food, shelter, and basic survival, hikers start to relax and even, at times, have fun.

For two months here a thru-hiker could almost get into a town for a burger every day if he really wanted to. Hikers come and go as they meet up with friends and family or take a bus into a real city. The weather gets warmer and the sun stays up longer. The packs get lighter as we drop our winter gear and carry fewer days worth of food. The viewpoints are of not just mountains and forests, but farms, highways, power lines, and towns. As we go from shelter to shelter and town to town, it begins to feel more like a backpacking trip across Europe with a rail pass than a backpacking trip through the wilderness.

Accordingly, campsites can start to feel like an Amsterdam youth hostel. Large groups of hikers began to clump together into portable parties of five or 15 people rolling into camp at once or taking over hostels. Hikers have always formed friendships and groups of hiking buddies on the trail, but many hostels and businesses in town seem to think that the groups have been bigger and more common this year. My guess is that 2009 is the year when hiker use of cell phones and Facebook reached a tipping point. No longer dependent on shelter registers to communicate with each other, hikers have more freedom to speed up or slow down to stay with their trail friends. I won’t say it’s a bad thing. But this little thru-hiker sub culture felt very different in the long flat middle miles.

This hiker vacation culminated in late July at Manchester Center, Vermont. Two hikers from the area, just a few miles off the trail, hosted a two day “X-travaganza” of hiker socializing, movies, games, and copious amounts of food. Over 60 hikers found their way to this event, easily the largest gathering of hikers on the trail besides the annual Trail Days festival held each May. Only on my second night there did I realize just how far from the trail I really was. This was basically a giant slumber party, and we were a big group of extended friends. Hiking wasn’t why we were there, it was just something we all happened to have in common. The Appalachian Trail was almost secondary to our community.

Not so a week later. After Hanover, on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, we were kicked out of civilization and thrust back into the mountains. Gone were the daily road crossings with their pizza temptations. Those 25 mile days became a distant memory. Cruising speed dropped from three miles per hour to two. Hiker versus nature made an unmistakable return as the trail’s predominant theme. The trail was not sitting in the background any more.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the White Mountains. They are  known by their reputation as the most difficult sections of the entire trail. They are known for long stretches above treeline exposed to the elements, steep and slippery descents, and hand-over-hand climbs. They are known for bringing seasoned northbound thru-hikers with 1800 miles under their belt whimpering to their knees. The sign welcoming hikers to the White Mountain National Forest is within sight of the Oliverian Brook, an unbridged crossing that seems to function as a moat for the Whites. It’s the first ford on the trail, and I came to it after ten hours of trudging through the rain. After a moment of staring at the white blaze on the opposite bank, I quit hesitating and took the plunge. The current, running high in the rain, nearly knocked me sideways. I fought it, took small steps, and emerged alive on the other side. After four months on the trail, there are still new challenges. Welcome to the Whites, I thought as I emptied the Oliverian Brook from my pack.

The most ominous of the White Mountains is Mount Washington, the highest point in the northeast. The peak is in the Presediential Range, on which A.T. hikers spend some 12 miles above treeline. The traverse offers unparalleled 360 degree views, or a tour of the inside of a cloud, or possibly, within ten minutes, both. The weather station on the top of Mount Washington proudly boasts “the worst weather in the world,” and few disagree. Sitting higher than anything else within hundreds of miles, the peak also happens to be located at the intersection of three major North American weather systems and several other minor ones. This is a recipe for powerful, often unpredictable weather. The highest wind speed ever recorded on land, 231 mph, was on Mt. Washington. It experiences hurricane force winds an average of two days a week. Over a year, the average temperature is 27 degrees. Snow has been recorded at least once on every day of the year. I’m told that until the 1990s, more people had died on Mt. Washington than on Everest. This is a far cry from the farm walks of Pennsylvania. The A.T. goes directly over the summit.

The most bizarre part of the Mt. Washington climb is reaching the top of this inhospitable rock pile to find several buildings housing a snack bar, museum, a post office, and two gift shops. For those who don’t care for the hike, the summit can be reached by the Mount Washington Auto Road or by cog railway. These provide a steady stream of children, jeans, and fanny packs to the mountain. Actually, most of the trail through the Whites is shared with day hikers and weekenders. Many of them stay at the huts, large hike-in lodges with solar power, well water, and a full-time crew to cook dinner and breakfast. The confusion between subalpine backcountry and suburban backyard can be disorienting.

Nevertheless, the Whites don’t let you forget for long that nature is in charge. With winds usually below 50 mph and visibility rarely less than 20 feet, my traverse of the Presidential range was relatively mild. It’s easy to lose the trail here, with no trees to mark its boundaries, so the route across the ridge is marked with cairns, tall piles of rock. In the fog, just finding the next cairn can be a challenge. I hiked through the same weather above treeline on nearby Franconia Ridge, except with rain, sleet, and gusts of wind strong enough to lift the 40-pound pack off my back. At first, the conditions were startling. I struggled to keep my footing and keep moving in the right direction. Unlike the previous mountains, which might have been only exhausting or uncomfortable, this was actually a bit frightening. Four months after starting my hike, I was out of my element.

But gradually on that narrow ridge, something changed. I began to feel that simply by surviving, I was winning. I had climbed that mountain, and I would not be blown off the top of it. We were coexisting. I didn’t exactly start to get overconfident, but I did begin to revel in my situation. It was invigorating. I danced across the rocks, I sang louder than the wind, I reminded the mountain that I was higher than it.

Today all that stands between me and the end of this trail is a hundred miles of roadless wilderness and a 5,000 foot climb. I feel like I’ve seen it all, like it’s just more of the same for one more week. But the trail continues to surprise me. It’s not over until Katahdin.

-August 22, Monson, Maine