I woke up in my chill little tent for the last time, on a rainy Friday morning. Rainy, of course—because the trail doesn’t want you to end easy. Every day out there is hard. This one was hard and special, though. Special. I was up and out in no time at all, despite the rain. The last time.
The last time to fight with the zippers. The last time to check the water bottles for ice. The last time for everything. For everything. The enormity of it kept washing over me. Indescribable.
At least it was warm—warm enough, anyway, that I didn’t need gloves. I could have shoved my wet tent into my pack, but it seemed… disrespectful, after all that time. Poor Big Agnes. She went to the wall. I packed her up as though I’d need her again that night.
The sun was peeking over the distant mountain, just a horizontal slit of crimson under the gray clouds. It was gone quickly enough, leaving just the gray, and that was perfect, was perfect, because the day felt solemn. Seven miles to the finish line. I couldn’t even listen to music. I just wanted to be—to listen, to smell, to feel, to be present and alive for those seven miles. I felt like I was squeezing the whole hike into those three or so hours.
First the woods: the typical brown on brown, but the rain brought out that odd ammonia smell again. There were birds, more birds than lately. A bluejay clung to a tree and peeked around it at me. There were bugs. It warmed up as the trail descended, and eventually I had to take off the rain gear. It wasn’t actively raining anymore; just threatening.
Before I knew it I was out of the hills and down in the flats. A three-mile walk between the river and the canal, that green-slimed mudway that must have been hell, mosquito-wise, in the summer. I found a little green marble in the dirt, like a bird’s egg made of emerald.
Hot and cold. Hot and cold. I kept taking clothes off and putting them on. Seven miles. Three miles.
The canal ended at a staircase that went up to a footbridge, and don’t you know, it was one of those metal staircases that you can see through—just like the firetowers that I don’t climb because they tweak my fear of heights. I had to practice Lamaze and denial to get up there, but I did. I did. And I crossed the river and into West Virginia, and boom! Harpers Ferry, familiar Harpers Ferry, exactly at the edge of it I’d touched in July, and I knew I was almost done.
I still stopped at a trash can to throw things out. A hiker can’t pass up a trash can, even for something momentous. In this case, I dumped my water bottles, my toothbrush, my lunch, everything that was disposable and not nailed down, and also my actual trash.
I followed the white blazes to the street and spotted my friend coming toward me, and that was fantastic. We chatted and caught up a little, but I’ve gotta tell you, at that point I was reluctant to finish. The thought was actually a little nauseating. You can only delay so long, though. And we walked.
That last little part was high on a cliff over the river. Rocks, and river, and gray skies, and psychedelically painted crack houses and weird sculptures and a dayhiker and the sound of the train and traffic across the river and and and and and. Telescoping reality. Telescoping surreality.
And then we were there. We were there and I took the last step, and my feet crossed the place they’d been before, and the world stopped. It was done. It was done, and I was done, I was done the WHOLE FREAKING TRAIL. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry or throw up or some odd combination. I felt so much that I felt nothing specific, just a general chaos of thought and emotion. And a vast desire to get to the ATC headquarters and do some fist bumping.
On the way through Harpers Ferry, we ran into Broken Candle again. He dropped twelve pounds of pack weight and looked great. Good luck, Broken Candle! The trail never stops. The circus just keeps moving. People finish, people start. Everything overlaps in this odd eternal, wacky present.
At the ATC, the volunteers have a little celebration with people who finish there. We drank grape juice and toasted and took pictures and laughed, and that’s when it really started to hit me, I think. This thing, 40 years in the making and two years in the planning, and forever in the execution.
But there it was: 2185.9 miles. All of it. Springer, Katahdin, all the points in between. Six pairs of shoes. Winter to winter. Two time changes. Three porcupines, one rattlesnake, and a kitten. And you.