Words by Drew Bartlett
To try to explain what it felt like to approach that old wooden sign on Katahdin is nearly impossible. It felt like a dream. Sarah, my hiking partner, and I spent nearly seven months hiking toward this end goal and it was finally in sight. When we reached the sign we collapsed onto it and a flood of memories from the previous seven months and nearly 2,200 miles entered my head. Shortly followed by this were tears. We’d pushed ourselves through the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging times we’d ever experienced and now we were finished.
Seven months earlier I’d left from Springer Mountain, Georgia and all of the time from that starting point up to now seemed like a blur. Before leaving I’d envisioned the trip to be a romantic experience, and for the first couple months it was. The people I met, the places I’d seen and the world I was living in all seemed magical. We had no responsibilities, no bills, no worries. All we had to do was walk and enjoy the experience.
Before we knew it, we had become somewhat seasoned hikers, had achieved various trail milestones, and found ourselves trekking through the heat of a Virginian summer. One day while on a break in the Shenandoahs, Sarah received a phone call that her younger sister, Naomi, had passed away in a car accident early that morning. There are no words to describe the feelings for that moment. We all went home and spent the next few weeks with our families and visiting Sarah and hers. It wasn’t certain who was going to return to the trail out of the four of us or when. As time passed, Sarah made the brave decision to return to the trail and walk through her grief. I decided I’d walk with her.
When we returned to the trail in late July, it felt right to be back on the trail, but different. All of our friends were now hundreds of miles ahead of us and the two of us were only accompanied by the occasional section-hiker or southbounder. Nearly every encounter ended with them telling us that we weren’t going to make it to Katahdin in time. Despite the discouragement, we pushed on.
The summer blew past us and we began entering our last few states. We knew we had hard days ahead, but there were even harder ones behind us. Some days it seemed only a handful of words were spoken between Sarah and myself while she was grieving, but it seemed that as we moved forward she was healing and she, as well as our friendship, was growing stronger.
New Hampshire surprised us with beauty and challenge. The White Mountains started what would be the most strenuous stretch of the trail we’d faced yet. The weather quickly dropped below freezing. We faced ice, numbing cold, extreme ascents and descents, and our motivation to continue began to dwindle. Southern Maine proved to be even more challenging. The only time we felt some measure of warmth was when we were moving. Every morning we struggled to get up and moving and once we did it was hard to find any enjoyment. The only motivation came through prayer and knowing that I’d be back in my warm sleeping bag that night. The magic of the trail had long since faded and we felt lonely, cold, isolated, and wanted to go home.
A few trail friends who’d already completed their hike decided to accompany us for the remaining 250 miles. This lifted our spirits more than we could express. With them, we hiked in extreme snowstorms, forded numbing rivers, and experienced torrential rain. When we were only days away from finishing, we found ourselves caught in an ice storm on an exposed mountain at night and had to turn around for safety. In the aftermath of that storm much of the trail was flooded with water that was knee-deep and the river fords required tying ropes around our waists to avoid being swept away. It seemed that we couldn’t catch a break and Katahdin, though so close, was still out of reach. Despite the circumstances, we continued to push on.
As we climbed Katahdin, I was reflecting on what the past seven months had meant to me. What we’d endured and experienced, the people we’d met, and the people we’d been transformed into. I’d made lifelong friends, one of whom was by my side. I thought about how our story might inspire others, such as JetBlue Airways, who donated three round trip flights for Sarah’s sisters to help me surprise her at the finish. We’d been discouraged daily, battered by harsh weather and terrain, paralyzed by grief, pushed beyond our limits, yet we kept walking. I believe that we’ll be reaping the rewards of this journey and discovering what it meant to us for years to come. But for now I know I’ll never forget the beauty of a sunset over an ocean of mountains or all of the nights under the stars and the peace of waking up in nature, where I belong. I won’t forget the taste of a cold spring or the sweet smells of a lush, green forest. I won’t forget the friends I now call family and I won’t forget all of the hard times we went through, but more importantly I won’t forget the beauty of perseverance.
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Taking care of your physical health is obvious when it comes to outdoor activities; if you’re injured, there is a set limit to how much you can physically do (and a much lower limit for how much you should do.)
Though we don’t always pay attention to them, mental health and emotional health are equally as important. Pay attention to the voice inside your head that is telling you to come down. You will not summit today. That is OK.
I’ve made the choice to dedicate my life to my passion, and that doesn’t come without sacrifice. There are more days than not that not having a wife, a family or an established career can eat away at me. I experience a lot of loneliness because of my choices. I’m 45 years old, and there are days I wonder if I’ll ever have a different response to the questions people ask me. Sitting on a mountain top, tent flap open, sun going down, a majestic aura all around me fills me with inconceivable joy, but it also has its moments of aching solitude.