At this point, it’s an open question whether we’ll finish the trail together because of Doyle–or in spite of him. He’d been behaving strangely since we arrived at the edge of Baxter State Park (where Katahdin is located). He’d insisted on hiking into the park by night, and made a point of refusing to register. During our rest stop at the campground, he shooshes us so the rangers won’t hear. “It’s like he’s on the run from the law,” someone says.
Indeed, Doyle has a legal history with the park, dating back to his first Expedition. When they reached Katahdin on September 2, the mountain was closed due to weather. Devastated, they had to drive back to Connecticut in time for classes the next day. (They returned to summit a month later.) Then, in 1978, Doyle and a friend again found the peak closed because of bad weather. They hiked anyway. It was a harrowing climb: His friend fell on the icy rocks and broke his arm, and they ended up getting arrested. Doyle chose to go to jail rather than pay the $25 fine.
The mountain isn’t closed today, but perhaps it should be. We leave the shelter of the campground, and the rain continues, harder than ever. We hike parallel to a rushing stream. Dave slips and falls in, twice. After a couple miles, the trail turns upward; this is the climb proper, the long, steep ascent to the summit. Almost immediately, Dave falls on the slick rocks.
As we wait for him to right himself, Doyle says, “I offer this option reluctantly, but I feel as if I should because of the weather. We could, if we wanted to, return to the campground and come back to hike the last five miles tomorrow.” He pauses to let it sink in. There’s an extra day penciled into the schedule, in case of bad weather on Katahdin. “But as I said, I offer the option reluctantly,” he continues. “Because we don’t know what will happen–there’s a chance they could close the mountain tomorrow.”
The next day’s forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. But not everyone knows this.
“I think we should take the bad weather day,” says Pokey, to a round of agreeable murmuring. She’s the most experienced hiker besides Doyle, and also the most independent member of the Circle.
“I’m going so slowly,” Dave adds, “and I’ve already fallen four times.”
Then James steps forward: “Come on, Dave!” he says passionately. “You can do it! You’ve hiked 2,000 miles! There’s only four more miles to go–four miles!”
Everyone looks at each other, stunned. James has barely raised his voice the entire trip. “I didn’t come all this way to have you quit now, Dave,” James continues. “We’ll drag you up the mountain if we have to.”
And just like that, the mood shifts. They’re almost done. The summit is close. They have hiked for 126 days, through rain and cold and heat and pain. They will keep hiking.
The trail climbs brutally, straight up the fall line, in a series of steep scrambles up slippery rocks. Above treeline, the trail snakes around, up, and over a seemingly endless jumble of huge, gray boulders, like the gnarled backbone of some fallen giant. Cold wind rakes across the ridge, driving rain and sleet sideways, stinging our faces.
It soon dawns on us that we might have made a mistake. With his shredded knees and 26-inch inseam, Dave can’t handle the terrain on his own. Greg and Jimmy guide him, pointing out hand- and footholds and, sometimes, literally hauling him up. Eddie volunteers to carry his pack. While Dave struggles, the rest of us wait–in order to finish together–freezing in our wet clothes, huddling together behind rocks for warmth.
Despite the very real risk of hypothermia or injury–Dave falls yet again, cutting open his shin–we’ve long passed the point of no return. Going down would be as dangerous as continuing. “It’s just not an option,” says Duane. Luckily, nobody else falls or gets hurt. One by one, the hikers crest the top of the ridge, even Dave, and stumble across the tablelands toward the famous sign at the summit, marking the end of the Appalachian Trail, the end of the adventure, the end of the Circle.
They’ve come a long way, and not just in terms of the miles they walked or the pounds they lost. The weight will come back, sooner than they think. But the true impact of the hike will continue to ripple through their lives. “It’s been a resurrection,” Hazel says a few months later.
Together, they’ll share a bond no solo hiker knows. Even Pokey, who had appeared on the verge of breaking the Circle, later reflects, “I have found myself doing more to go out of my way to help others around me.”
But right now, on the very top of Katahdin, the hikers’ hands are frozen, their legs and minds numb. They join hands, quickly, one last time, then gather around the sign while somebody extracts a camera from a pocket and grabs a foggy snapshot. Nobody is inclined to linger. The hike is done. It’s time to go. They grab their packs, and exchange quick hugs, icy rain mixing with the tears on their cheeks.
“Whether or not we should have done it doesn’t matter,” Dave tells me months later, recalling that epic night. “We did it. Eleven people joined the Circle, and we finished the trail. And it’s a memory now. I think about it every day.”
I have a memory I’ll take with me as well–something I saw just an hour before we reached the summit. It seemed odd then, but makes sense now. As we’d scratched and clawed our way up the mountain, with Duane and Jimmy almost literally carrying Dave, I’d looked back and spotted Doyle, on the rocks far below. He’d stopped to watch as the group pressed on, through the worst moment of the climb. He had his hands on his hips, and a faint smile on his face. The Circle was working.
Bill Gifford, the author of Ledyard, aspires to hike every mile of the AT. Once.