They were walking into a hurricane, and they knew it.
But as anyone who has ever been involved in a doomed love affair can attest, there's a difference between what you know in your mind and what you feel in your heart. What you know you should do, and what you actually do. And on that late-summer evening in northern Maine, what they felt was warm and dry. But even though the sky was clear and the air perfectly still, the forecast was unambiguous: Hurricane Earl was churning up the Atlantic Coast, pushing masses of tropical moisture ahead of it, like snow before a snowplow. The weather report called for apocalyptic rains, beginning at midnight.
This information they chose to ignore. At sunset, they stuffed their packs and laced up their boots. All around in the campground, families gathered around charcoal fires, parents sipping beers while kids played beanbag horseshoes in the dirt. Like campers all over the country, they were settling in for the long Labor Day weekend, relaxing in the fresh air.
The 12 hikers were not here to relax. They were here to finish the Appalachian Trail. The journey had been long, beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia four months earlier. They'd hiked more than 2,160 miles. It had been a painful journey at times; exhaustion had etched itself on every face. Now they had 15 miles to go, and one more mountain to climb: 5,267-foot Katahdin.
At dusk, they drifted to the bank of Abol Stream, where a break in the trees allowed a view of the hulking, flat-topped outline of Katahdin, rising almost a vertical mile from the northern woods. They wanted to stand on its summit so badly that nothing--not even a Category 4 hurricane--could dissuade them from pushing on. And why should it? They'd loyally followed the plan laid out by their leader, Warren Doyle, for every step of the AT, and he had delivered them as promised at the foot of Katahdin on September 3, the precise day specified in his mile-by-mile itinerary.
Beside the stream, the group gathered in a circle and joined hands. One at a time, each member of the group spoke simple words of thanks. They sang a song, then hugged each other, then returned to camp to prepare. At 10 p.m., they shouldered packs, flicked on headlamps, and trooped out of the campground to a chorus of barking dogs. The trail crossed a narrow bridge before entering the woods. They hiked in a line, boots crunching the dry leaves. Two hours later, they stopped in a clearing. "Hey," someone said hopefully, "I can see stars!"
A few minutes later, the first raindrops began to fall.