COLUMN: Maine makes for tough hike

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By Jay Cason

After hiking about 150 to 160 miles through the soggy, mosquito-infested mountains and bogs of southern New England, I headed north to finish the final 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail that meanders through Maine before it crosses into New Hampshire.

I'd already completed the rest of Maine's 280 AT miles in a 2004 hike.

Normally, I'd cover 60 miles in about four days. But this section of Maine is anything but normal. It is reputed to be the toughest stretch of trail on the entire 2,170 miles of the AT. And as far as this hiker is concerned, the section, which includes the infamous Mahoosic Mountains, more than lived up to its reputation.

Throughout most of the AT, a typical day consists of hiking along mountain ridgelines before descending into gaps that generally include some combination of streams, lakes, roads and towns. While some of the ascents and descents are steep, most are gradual. In Virginia, for example, a 1,000-foot ascent might be achieved in three or four miles. And once a mountaintop is reached, there is usually at least a mile or two of level ground to hike along before starting a gradual descent.

In Maine, there is no such thing as a gradual descent. Everything is straight up and straight down.

I started my Maine hike from The Cabin, a hiker-friendly hostel owned and operated by Margie and Earle (aka Honey and Bear) Towne that is located near Andover. But before returning to the trail, I decided to lay over for a day so that my feet, which had blistered from hiking 160 miles with wet feet, could dry out. During that layover day, I met two other "mature" hikers whom I'd encounter off and on during the following days.

The two could not possibly be more different, but that's one of the things I enjoy most about hiking the AT. The common experience brings folks together who probably would not otherwise encounter and exchange ideas with those from completely different walks of life.

Karl Baker is a lawyer from Philadelphia who grew up in New York City. He became an avid backpacker several years ago, when he decided to develop a healthier lifestyle after doctors told him he had a bad heart and would live just a few months longer.

Instead of giving up and tossing in the towel, Baker laced up his boots and started hiking. Four years later, he's still going strong, practicing law and backpacking whenever possible. A few weeks from now, he will have completed the entire AT.

Perhaps Baker's childhood education in the school of hard knocks toughened and prepared him for the challenges he's faced as an adult. The son of a white mother and African-American father, Baker grew up in a time when such mixed marriages were not accepted by a majority of Americans. He remembers vividly occasions when he and his parents were treated shabbily, especially when they visited relatives in Virginia.

"One time a white waitress intentionally spilled hot soup in my mother's lap," he recalled.

I've never had a better hiking companion than Karl Baker.

The other mature hiker, Hunter from Ohio, was in the final stages of his third thru-hike. He used to be a park ranger, but after a series of broken marriages and health problems, he quit his job and started hiking almost full time. Living much of the time in his car, he hasn't had a job in 13 years.

"I've been living off my savings all that time," he said. "I'm not sure what I'll do when the money runs out."

On the trail in Maine, it didn't take long to realize that it was going to be an even tougher hike than anticipated. I had expected the rigorous near-vertical climbs, but hadn't expected that I'd be hiking in the same wet muddy conditions I had to deal with in southern New England. But Maine had a near-record amount of snowfall during the 200-08 winter and was continuing to have above normal amounts of rain. So in addition to the exhausting climbs and descents, I also had to either bushwhack around or plod through the ankle deep mud that covered almost every flat section of the trail.

The second day out was especially challenging. I covered 13 miles that day, including a steep 2,000-foot descent of Old Blue Mountain and a near vertical 1,500-foot descent of Moody Mountain. The next morning, my knees were so sore I could barely climb stairs, much less another mountain so I took a zero day to recuperate.

I left Maine a few days later. I had planned to hike the White Mountains of New Hampshire after leaving Maine, but decided that my knees needed a break. Besides, I was really fed up with the ongoing rain and mud that seemed to dominate all of New England this year.

So after a month in the northland, I decided to head to south. There is a 40-mile stretch of AT that runs through northern Virginia and West Virginia that I haven't covered yet. Hopefully, I'll enjoy at least a few days of dry trail there before heading home.