I could see a large group of people gathering around the summit, but it was still another mile away. My heart was racing and I wanted to just take off running, but I was content with taking it easy and holding Pauline's hand across the tableland. Mount Katahdin was the most magnificent mountain I had ever been on, and the mile-long flat stretch at 4,000 feet took my breath away. I can't remember a time when everything felt that right, strolling to the summit with my girlfriend. I finally felt as if I was sharing the entire Trail experience with her - the ups and many downs and every emotion in between that I had felt over the last five months. We were both dead tired - drained emotionally from the strain of months of separation and the illogical anxiety that we both felt prior to seeing each other; and drained physically, too, from the single biggest climb on the entire AT, more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain to reach the 5,267-foot summit.
After the mile-long tableland, is one last climb up to the summit. We took it slow over the loose boulders - we weren't going to get injured this close to the end! Finally, we reached a point where we could see the sign clearly and Pauline turned to me and asked me if I was going to run. I gave her the camera to take a video as I took off sprinting towards the sign that I had seen in my dreams for months, years. The sign was further than my eyes thought, and I had to push through my body screaming at me to stop before I ran past a group of about 10 day-hikers, slapped the sign and let out a long, unexpected yell of triumph and satisfaction. The group turned and looked at me, slightly confused and amused by my behavior, and a few gave some light claps.
I took a moment to gather myself in my elation and shock and then I ran back down to Pauline to walk back up with her. I can't accurately describe the emotions that ran through me then and in the days since then - relieved to be done, excited to be going home, elated to have accomplished a dream, nostalgic for the hike that I had just finished, and still plenty of more emotions, too. I stood on the sign with my arms outstretched and my head towards the sky - I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. In the middle of my photo shoot and laughing and elation, the day-hikers began to realize I had hiked nearly 2,200 miles to get there rather than just the 5.2 miles from the base and they all seemed a lot more interested in my incredible amounts of excitement and happiness.
It was incredibly special having Pauline there with me at the summit, sharing that moment with her. It meant so much to me to have her there. The day was beautiful and everything had worked out according to plan - even with Hurricane Irene trying its hardest to mess it all up.
My mom and aunt had joined me, too, hiking the first three miles and then deciding to wait for Pauline and I to do the last two together as fatigue and having adequate time became an issue. I was incredibly impressed with everyone's ability to get as far as they did on what was without a doubt one of the steepest, most exposed climbs of my hike. Descending proved to be an extremely exhausting affair, as my moms legs decided two miles from the car to stop working, after she had strained them past exhaustion on the way up and the first mile back down - climbing Katahdin isn't remotely like any mountain anywhere close to Atlanta, her legs were in a state of shock no doubt. I helped her slowly down the mountain as best as I could, as it quickly got dark on us and the rocky trail provided obstacles with every step. But we made it. And as exhausting as the whole hike was, it really was a fitting end to my thru-hike. We had all made it down off the mountain safely, and although we had struggled mightily in doing so, the hike had illustrated perfectly the five months of highs and lows that I had personally experienced.
"Adversity makes for great memories", I remember someone had written in a shelter log book back in Pennsylvania. The accomplishment was so meaningful to me because it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Physically - I got up every day and walked up and over mountains, and on rocks and roots, in 100 degrees to 20 degrees, with bugs swarming and crawling and biting, and knees aching and feet swelling. But that was the easy part. Mentally, pushing through some of the toughest times I've ever experienced to stand arms raised on Katahdin is a feeling that will always give me chills and always bring a smile to my face. I did it.