Long, Strange, Lonely Trail

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Hiking Maine’s Leg of the (Incredibly Long, and Still Lengthening) International Appalachian Trail.

By Robert Moor  Photographed by Jerry Monkman

One day last summer I stood atop Mount Katahdin, my elbow resting on a sign bolted to circumflex wooden legs. Its gouged white lettering read:

KATAHDIN
BAXTER PEAK—ELEVATION 5267 FT.
NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE
APPALACHIAN TRAIL
A MOUNTAIN FOOTPATH EXTENDING OVER
2000 MILES TO SPRINGER MTN. GEORGIA

Beneath were inscribed major landmarks along the AT and their distances, ranging from a mile to just under 2,200. All the arrows pointed south. But I stared north.

For many people, this peak represents a megalithic bookend to the Appalachian Trail — a beginning or, more often, an end to a very long walk. But for a monastic few, it is merely a mid-point. After summiting Katahdin, these ultra-long-distance hikers continue north along an 1,862-mile-long trail, aptly called the International Appalachian Trail (IAT), which traces the mountain chain up through eastern Canada to the northern tip of Newfoundland, where the range slumps into the ice-clotted North Atlantic. To me, having thru-hiked the AT one summer back in 2009 — having limped to the end of a five-month walk, withered and wrecked, just to kiss that scarred brown wooden sign — the notion of reaching Katahdin’s great apex and thinking, Okay, halfway there! is almost unfathomable.

And yet, if all goes according to plan, the trail will soon grow yet more unfathomable — and vastly so. The trail’s planners have already begun working to extend the IAT over the Atlantic Ocean and down along the geological remnants of the Appalachians that lie in Europe and North Africa, which were pulled apart by the tectonic break-up of the Pangaea supercontinent some 175 million years ago. Even the IAT’s founder, a Maine conservation biologist named Dick Anderson, admits that it’s a “crazy idea”: a trail of more than 15,000 miles, spanning three continents.

Some would dismiss that as an unwalkable length. But then, many once believed it was impossible to continuously walk the full length of the AT, until Earl Shaffer, known then by his trail name The Crazy One, did it in 1948. The original International Appalachian Trail (through to Québec) was also deemed impossibly long when Anderson first dreamed it up in 1994. Then a man named John Brinda hiked from Key West, Florida, up to Cap Gaspé in 1997. At least fourteen people have followed in his footsteps since. In 2012 alone, two separate hikers began in Key West and walked all the way to the northern tip of Newfoundland — a nearly yearlong hike.

I thought of these two young men as I picked my way down the north side of Katahdin. I tried to imagine how they must have felt, having just crested, physically and emotionally, and then been forced to leave behind the tight-knit cohort of fellow AT thru-hikers and march on alone.

“I felt a little like a traitor,” one of those hikers, Sterling Coleman, later told me. It pained him to leave behind not just his friends, but the AT itself: After walking for 2,000 miles on trails blazed with iconic white swatches, suddenly he found himself following blue-blazed trails, which normally indicate a detour or a side trip. “That’s where the reality, and perhaps the sadness, kick in that you’re not on the AT any more.”

“It was very sad,” agreed the other hiker, Warren Renninger, who went by the trail name Lakeland Nidhatak. But then, “coming down off the Knife Edge, it rained briefly, and below me was this beautiful rainbow. So that kind of cheered me up.”

No rainbow appeared before me, but I felt an echo of Renninger’s excitement as I butt-scooched and tiptoed down the Knife Edge. It was the first day of my weeklong hike from the base of Katahdin to the border of Canada and I had no idea what lay ahead of me. It felt almost like exploring. When you set out to hike the AT, you carry with you some sense of what the Long Green Tunnel will entail. For me, the IAT bore no such preconceptions: it felt like walking off the map.

 

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Modern long trails are born of big ideas. The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton MacKaye in 1921 as a way to provide a continuous wilderness sanctuary for the citizens of the major industrial cities of the East Coast. Likewise, the International Appalachian Trail was conceived as a way of cutting across national and cultural borders, to ignore them just as nature does. Dick Anderson — a prominent fisheries biologist, former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation, and lifelong big-ideas guy — came up with the notion one afternoon in the fall of 1993 while driving north on I-95, the famous interstate highway that runs the length of the East Coast and basically dead-ends at the border of Canada. He went home and laid out a geophysical map of the Northeast, one virtually devoid of towns, roads, and borders, and began laying a line of little blue sticky dots along the ridge of the Appalachian range, linking the highest peaks in Maine, New Brunswick, and Québec.

At the time, Anderson was working on the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Joe Brennan, the former Democratic governor of Maine, who was running against a popular independent candidate, Angus King. On Earth Day 1994, Brennan, reading a script penned by Anderson, proposed the idea of an “International Appalachian Trail” as his own, telling a collection of reporters he was “confident that this narrow trail, connecting these special wild places of each of our political jurisdictions, will serve as a reminder that the mountains and the rivers and the forests are our real heritage, our common biological and geological bond.” The trail was to serve as both a symbol and a real-world example of cross-border cooperation — as well as a wedge between the two moderate-progressive candidates. “We used it against Angus all the way from Earth Day to election day,” Anderson remembers. “We milked it for everything we could.”

In the end, Brennan lost the election by a single percentage point. But the idea of the IAT caught on, spreading on both sides of the border thanks in part to a nationwide Associated Press story and a TV segment broadcast on CBC in New Brunswick. Soon, Anderson was receiving calls from people urging him to lengthen the trail even farther — first from a Québec native named Andrew Wake, who argued to extend the trail to the end of the Gaspé Peninsula, and then later by representatives from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. (Nova Scotia took some convincing.)

At the time, the full reality of what he was proposing — the daunting task of blazing and maintaining thousands of miles of trail — was still far off. “Neither Brennan nor I were hikers,” Anderson says. “I mean, I’d been in the woods a lot. I don’t think he’d been in the woods at all. But we were promoting the philosophy of the thing more than actually thinking of building a hiking trail.”

 

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From the base of Katahdin, I caught a ride to the Avalanche Field trailhead, where I trudged down a wet gravel path and skated along algal-slick boardwalks towards Katahdin Lake. The cold air dripped. I wore three layers (merino, synth puff, rain shell) and a winter beanie under my corduroy hunting cap, and still I shivered.

Down East had sent out a photographer only a few weeks ahead of me to photograph the trail, but in that time the season had turned. The leaves were now in full death-bloom, blazing in mottled hues that recalled ripe mangoes or sick skin. A small frog, spotted like a leopard, flopped out of my path on drugged legs.

It stopped raining by the time I reached Katahdin Lake around 2 p.m, but in the dim light it felt like dusk. I dropped my pack in the lean-to (which I had reserved weeks in advance through the Baxter State Park Web site) and walked out to the beach. The staticky hush of the wet forest, like the hiss and pop of a needle grooving on a blank record, fell away. I’d stumbled upon an expanse of utter stillness. The flat white lake fogged at its outer edges. My ears pulsed in the vacuum. A canoe sat nearby, along with paddles and life vests. On a whim, I hoisted it over my head, carried it down to the shoreline, slid it into the milky water, and J-stroked around a nearby island.

Afterwards, I cooked dinner and bedded down in the early murk. An owl hooted in a deep, clear baritone throughout the night, and a mouse repeatedly tried to peer into my sleeping bag, so when I rose the following morning, I was still heavy with sleep. In the night a great cold black wind had come in from the north, clearing the sky. The few remaining clouds resembled puffs of peach powder. I made my way past the slumbering Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps and pushed through a waist-high field of wet grass, eager to reach the official beginning of the trail.

If Katahdin is the knobby joint where the Appalachian Trail meets its international appendage, then the section I was walking through that morning is the cartilaginous space in between. Owing to a disagreement between Baxter State Park officials and the Maine chapter of the IAT, the trail does not officially begin until it exits Baxter. This gap stems back to a series of complicated negotiations between the IAT crew and Buzz Caverly, the cantankerous, fiercely devoted director of the park at the time, who followed Percival Baxter’s ethos of “wilderness first, access second.”

Don Hudson, currently the president of the Maine chapter of the IAT, foresaw this trouble when he first learned about the trail in October 1993. Anderson had invited him to meet in a café in Bath, where he showed Hudson the map with the blue dots. “Dick, this is a great idea,” Hudson had said. “And they’re going to hate it.”

Hudson meant not only the officials of Baxter State Park, who had long had a conflicted relationship with long-distance hikers — it is said that AT thru-hikers account for 1 percent of the visitors to the park, but take up 10 percent of the park rangers’ time — but also members of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), who wondered what effect blurring out the near-sacred ending point of Katahdin would have on the Appalachian Trail. Would people feel their Georgia-to-Maine thru-hikes had been invalidated? Would it complicate the AT’s status under the National Trails System Act? What would happen to all of those records (first thru-hike, fastest thru-hike, first thru-hike by a woman, first thru-hike by a blind man) that people had toiled for?

A compromise was suggested by the then-director of the ATC, Dave Startzell, who told me he counseled Anderson “not to characterize [the IAT] as an extension of the Appalachian Trail, but as a trail in its own right.” (Today, the word “extension” remains so taboo that Don Hudson refers to it as “the e-word.”) The IAT’s founders opted instead for the term “connector trail”; the IAT would connect to the AT, and in turn connect the AT to the world.

 

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I turned onto an old carriage path, tramping down baby pines and infant maples, and continued until I reached a gate that led to a wide logging road. On my left was a brown wooden sign indicating the “southern terminus” of the International Appalachian Trail, painted in the same white-lettered, hand-carved style of those on the AT. Below it was the IAT blaze (designed by Hudson): a white metal rectangle, about the size of a dollar bill, surrounded by a blue border. Printed onto the white background are the cruciform letters.

 

S    I    A
A
T

(SIA stands for “Sentier International des Appalaches,” a concession to the Province of Québec, whose law mandates all signs must be displayed in French.)

I was (finally) officially on the IAT. From here, the trail followed a series of wide logging roads for five miles, with each turn demarcated by a wooden post with a blaze and a small tin arrow nailed to it, some of them toppled over by the wind. Impressed into the gravel were occasional moose prints. Walking these logging roads turned out to be some of the most surprisingly pleasant hiking I’ve ever experienced. I followed the gentle undulations through stands of Jupiter-toned second-growth forest, the sun slotted neatly overhead. This must be what it once felt like to walk across the country in the 1910s, like the vagabond poet Vaclav Lindsay — hero to Kerouac and Cassady — who “walked the muddy roads as cheerfully as though they were the paths of Heaven.”

Around noon I reached Wassataquoik Stream, wide and calf deep, which I crossed with the help of a heavy rope that spanned the river and drooped soggily into the flow. On the far shore I followed a very faint trail, barely more than an indentation, a hint. This led to an area of what must have been old-growth forest, because the ground grew spongy, a layer cake of detritus. In many places there was, practically speaking, no trail. Fortunately, someone had carefully marked the route with blazes and strips of orange marking tape tied to tree branches, so that walking became a game of connect the dots.

An hour or so later, I stood in an old cabin that used to house the fire warden of Deasey Mountain. A tree had fallen on the cabin, caving in the roof and warping the floor. Sunlight slanted in on what resembled the set of a horror film. I found: an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a jar full of rusty nails, and an orange hacksaw; I half expected to find a skeleton huddled in the corner. The far wall was covered in bathroom-stall-style graffiti. One particularly puerile message read simply: “Roxanne Quimby Sucks,” a jibe at the millionaire co-founder of Burt’s Bees, who owns this parcel of land and graciously agreed to let the IAT pass through it.

From here, the trail climbed Deasey Mountain, scaling the slope hard and head-on for about a mile. On top of Deasey sat a fire cabin — a kind of amputated fire tower, legless and stout — held fast to the ground by steel cables. As I emerged onto the summit, a hawk floated at eye level off to the east, the sun like blood in its feathers. Katahdin’s volcanic silhouette rose off to the west, and beneath it a shard of Katahdin Lake. I sat at the peak for almost two hours, eating Vermont sharp cheddar and New York-style bagel chips and allowing the sun and wind to dry the sweat from my shirt, which I tied to one of the       steel cables like the flag of a lone explorer.

My lean-to for the night sat in the middle of a rocky clearing on the far side of the next ridge. It was fresh, new, the wood still golden. It opened directly onto the western horizon, so the sinking sun shone into it like a Klieg light. (Later that night, a full moon, nearly as bright, would dolly around to take its place.) I leaned against the far wall and ate my dinner, eyes closed, shirtless, warm, and utterly content with my first day on this long, strange, lonely trail.

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On the afternoon of my third day on the trail, I stood in the general store of the Matagamon Wilderness Camps — having hiked miles down snowmobile paths, paused alongside the Penobscot to photograph a bulbous stone sea lion called Haskell Rock, and finally exited onto a paved road — and bought an iced tea and a bottle of aspirin. As I paid, I asked the man and woman behind the counter if they had seen anyone else hiking the IAT this year. They mentioned seeing Lakeland — “he was amazing” — as well as a group of Greenlanders who’d walked from Katahdin to the border.

This was the first I had heard of the Greenlanders. Curious, I later called up the group’s leader, René Kristensen. Kristensen told me he had moved from Denmark to northern Greenland twelve years ago to work at a home for disadvantaged youth in the northern town of Uummannaq. Since becoming acquainted with the idea of the IAT through a board member from the Maine chapter, he’d begun exploring a route for the trail in his own backyard. These expeditions eventually culminated in a two-week-long hike along what will likely become the future route of the IAT in Greenland.

“The area where we are developing the trail — the Nuussuaq Peninsula — is a place where people never go. I mean, never,” he said. “You can go for two weeks and you don’t see anybody, no houses. It’s just nature.” Hiking along that section, he said, would not be like hiking other sections of the IAT: since there is no physical trail, hikers will be obliged to carry a map, compass, and GPS; since there are wide, frigid river crossings, they are advised to carry a small inflatable raft and telescoping paddle; and since there are polar bears, they should probably carry a rifle. “It’s the most extreme part of the whole IAT. Definitely.”

However, when Kristensen, his friend Lars Poort, and five native Greenlandic boys showed up in Maine — eager to see the beginning of the trail they had spent years scouting — they found it had its own challenges. Some days the temperature soared to almost 100 degrees, forcing them to hike only in the early morning and spend the afternoons cooling down in streams and lakes. The flora and fauna were completely alien; the only area that resembled the Arctic deserts of Greenland, he said, was the barren summit of Katahdin. The group’s favorite section of the trail was the one I had just completed, between Katahdin and Matagamon. On the night his group spent in Lunksoos Lean-to, a brief thunderstorm rolled through. The boys, for whom the northern lights are as common as clouds, were mesmerized. “That’s another thing we don’t have in north Greenland — we don’t have any thunderstorms at all,” Kristensen said. “I’ve been in north Greenland for twelve years, and I have never, ever seen lightning. People don’t know what it is.”

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Back in the general store, I paid up and pressed the dewy can of iced tea to my forehead. Before leaving, I asked the cashier if it was possible to hitchhike from here; the next several miles of trail were road walking, which I was eager to skip.

The woman behind the counter shook her head doubtfully, and her male coworker huffed. “The ones that’s gonna walk it, walk it,” he said. “You’re trying to cheat.”

The barb cut deeper than he likely knew. Back in 2009, I had walked every last inch of the Appalachian Trail for exactly this reason — to do otherwise felt like cheating. And it’s true that road walking is a big part of the IAT experience; IAT thru-hikers walk hundreds of miles of roads, especially on newer sections of the trail, like those in Newfoundland. But I was not a thru-hiker, and I hate walking on roads.

I went down to the river, washed up, and then walked to the roadside, where I soon managed to flag down a new, blue Ford SUV. In the front seat were a German couple, Kai and Barbara, who were touring the Northeast on a hunt for spectacular foliage with the aid of a special foliage-finding smartphone app. They dropped me off at an intersection, where I soon hitched another ride with a thin, bird-like woman who drove me another couple of miles to the home of Cheryl Stevens. We crept down the road looking for what had been described to me by Cheryl as “a yellow farmhouse with a green roof,” but which turned out to be more the color of Key lime pie, with a black roof. She recognized the place right away. “Oh yeah, this is the Stevenses’ place,” she said. “Why didn’t you just say that was where you were going?”

As I stepped out of the car, I breathed a sigh of relief, happy not to have wasted a whole day or worse trying to catch rides. “Well, that took less time than I’d expected,” I remarked.

“That’s because you cheated,” she said, matter of factly. Clearly, I had entered a town that had seen its share of ultra-long-distance hikers; these people knew the rules.

Cheryl emerged smiling from the house, alerted to our approach by her two German shepherds.

She shook my hand. “Rob?” she asked.

I smiled.

“How’d you get here so soon?” she asked.

My driver leaned her head out the car window.

“He cheated,” she said.

Cheryl nodded.

 

 

Cheryl had invited me to stay at her house after noticing Down East’s photographer poking around in her backyard. She called up the magazine’s office and told them that when I came along, she and her husband Roger would be happy to put me up for the night in a camper in their backyard, just as they had for dozens of other hikers in the past.

Cheryl invited me inside and sat me down at her kitchen table. It was a cozy, hunting lodge-style house with the head of a sixteen-point buck mounted on the wall. Nearby was the skin of a 330-pound black bear. Cheryl plunked a plate of pork chops and gravy on the table and, sitting across from me and lighting up a smoke, casually implored me to eat.

Cheryl was at once beautiful and tough, with that ability former rocker chicks have of expelling smoke through the side of the mouth and squinting, duskily, so as to appear both amused by what you are saying and curious to hear more.

She told me that she had encountered her first thru-hiker in 1998, when a sixty-year-old long-distance hiker named Eb “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart walked through town. (Eberhart was the second man to hike from Florida to Cap Gaspé. He later recounted his hike in the popular hiking memoir Ten Million Steps, which mentions Cheryl and Roger by name.) Cheryl was driving a school bus at the time, and she pulled over to ask Eberhart if he wanted a ride. Eberhart waved her off, but soon walked by her home, where he saw the yellow school bus parked in the front yard. Again, Cheryl invited him inside. “He came at a time when I had absolutely no food in the house, and no money,” Cheryl said. “It was awful, I was so embarrassed.”

Nonetheless, Cheryl fed him, sewed up a busted water bottle holder on his pack and, when he wasn’t looking, stuffed some cash in a pocket of his pack. (“Not realizing he was a doctor,” Cheryl added, laughing. “I just felt bad, because he was walking all alone.”)

Since then, the Stevenses have fed and hosted at least one or two thru-hikers every summer. An IAT lean-to — unfortunately named the Roach Farm Shelter, after the farm’s previous occupants — sits in the Stevenses’ backyard, so hikers almost invariably come walking right up past their front door. Cheryl set up an old camper van next to the lean-to and stocked it with bottled water, cans of ravioli, and moon pies. When squirrels chewed up that camper, she set up another newer one nearby.

Cheryl is not a hiker — she simply has a soft spot for the dispossessed. At the moment she has one son serving in Afghanistan and another working in the mining industry in Alaska, and if they were ever similarly adrift, she hopes someone would take them in. Plus, she is a sincere, if unorthodox, Christian; she readily admits she swears like a pirate and drives church people nuts by letting strangers into her house. However: “When someone knocks at your door, you let them in and give them a drink of water, because that’s what Jesus would do. And hey, you never know when Jesus will be the one knocking at your door.”

She and Roger remember one hiker in particular, whose name they can’t recall. He had a long beard and long hair and a beatific face. Unlike most hikers, who take full advantage of a place to rest, he insisted on putting in some work on the family raspberry patch in return for the free lodging.  “After he left, our raspberries went right friggin’ wild,” Roger remembers. “I mean, we had raspberries the size of your thumb. Cherri said that he was an angel, that he touched our raspberry patch and look what we got.”

“So that’s why I do the things I do,” Cheryl said. “Because something good will come back.”

 

I spent three days at the Stevenses’ place, waiting out a bout of freezing rain that came on like a climactic flu. After a breakfast of french toast — Cheryl had hoped to feed me grouse and eggs, but that morning’s hunt hadn’t borne fruit — I bid farewell to the Stevenses and walked down their road, my trekking poles slung across my shoulders like a yoke. Alongside the road were maple syrup stores, potato farms, Amish men on bicycles, and a few large barns that had somehow gotten phantasmagorically warped and hollowed out, the doors rotted off, their roofs bending at impossible angles like great fungi.

Near the town of Houlton, it began to downpour, and I took refuge under an overpass where local teens had scrawled the kind of earnest graffiti familiar to anyone who grew up drinking beers in the forgotten corners of a small town: Jesus Saves, Slayer, Smokey Wakey,      I ♠ Cam, God Is Love, Life Is Death. A young nurse named Cassie took pity on me and pulled over to give me a lift on her way to work. Thanking her, I proceeded to a recreational trail that had been built on the path of an old railroad. It ran for miles in such an unceasingly straight line that I found I could walk for many minutes at a time without opening my eyes.

The next day, I arrived at the base of Mars Hill. Along its crest was a row of white wind turbines, all turning slowly except the second-most to the right, which appeared to have been temporarily debladed, like a cubist dandelion blown bare. Far off, you could hear the sound of the turbines — an airplane forever whooshing far overhead — but as I scaled the steep ski hill, another sound emerged, a high-pitched whistle that wobbled parabolically in tone: oooOOOEEEOOO oooOOOEEEOOOooo. As I traversed the ridge, I realized, with relief, that the motionless, silent turbine was located directly above my lean-to for the night.

When I got to the shelter and peered inside, I was surprised to find someone’s pack exploded across the floor. I turned around. Fifty yards away was a group of people barbecuing under the broken turbine; way up above, tiny workmen could occasionally be seen tinkering with its guts. The barbecue consisted of a family of potato farmers from Mars Hill and a single thru-hiker (unmistakable, for his sunbleached beard alone). The hiker used my arrival as an excuse to scurry back to the lean-to. The farmer asked if I was hungry (I was), and gave me two bright red hot dogs and two Bud Lights. I jogged back to the lean-to and offered the hiker one of each, but he politely refused. This was my first sign that something was not right with him; no thru-hiker turns down free food.

I sat down at a picnic table someone had hauled into the lean-to and set to eating my hot dogs and drinking my beer. I was thrilled to have company for the night, and immediately took to asking the thru-hiker all of the usual questions (How long have you been on the trail? Where ya headed? How ’bout these road walks?), but the conversation refused to flow. He told me his trail name — which was Trog, or Grok, or Bork, something Norwegian-sounding, small and slippery, which my brain simply refused to grasp — and a few sparse details about his last few days, which didn’t seem to match up. Finally, he admitted to me that he had thru-hiked from Shenandoah to Katahdin and then caught a ride here. It was unclear who or what prompted him to keep hiking, but he was woefully unprepared for the IAT. He hoped to walk north as far as he could go before it got too cold, but he didn’t have maps, a guidebook, or a passport to cross the border.

Our conversation remained stilted until we got onto the topic of land management, when Trog revealed himself to be a hard-core green anarchist bent on disassembling our culture’s “synthetic” lifestyle and starting from scratch. It was ironic to be discussing a resetting of the clock to Year Zero beneath a space-agey turbine — which, to our mutual dismay, lurched to life during our conversation.

At some point, the talk turned to why the trail involved so much road walking. Trog pointed out numerous sections he had passed today where the trail could simply be routed over nearby mountains. I pointed out to him that this was more difficult than it looks, because the trail needs to be granted access to each of those parcels of land by their various owners, which takes a lot of time and money. Trog said that was “bullshit” (a favorite term of his, spoken with total and blind conviction); the government could put a trail through whatever land it wanted. “Look at the railroads,” he said.

I pointed out that the IAT was a private enterprise, unaffiliated with the government, and even so, it had taken the “government” (which was really a group of private citizens bolstered with federal aid and CCC labor) decades to construct the Appalachian Trail. Even still, they had their challenges. When it was first being established, some people in southern Appalachia resisted what they called “the government trail.” One family opposed it so vehemently that they strung up fishhooks across the path, so as to snare hikers.

This is a topic I later spent an afternoon discussing with Dave Startzell, the former director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. He told me that, given its relatively young age, the IAT is  not unusual in its use of roads. A lot of long trails start out being routed over existing roadways. “For example, in Maine, the Appalachian Trail once made extensive use of logging roads,” he said. “Over time we were able to relocate a lot of those sections. But you’re talking about a program that spanned more than thirty years, more than $200 million, and involved acquiring over 3,000 parcels of land.”

As Trog and I talked — on topics ranging from animal mating habits to Foucault’s Panopticon — we fired up our stoves and each ate a second dinner. It felt familiar. I was again back on the trail: sharing a lean-to with a person of great conviction, considerable originality, and dubious mental health, discussing matters of great importance and no importance at all, late into the early evening. All the while, the wind turbines of Mars Hill whined overhead. Fortunately, I had brought thick, waxy, silicon earplugs. I have no idea how Trog managed to sleep. The sound of modernity must have been excruciating.

 

I awoke before dawn the next morning. Frigid air was rushing over the hill from Canada, where the sun bleached and then re-dyed the sky’s hem. Mist pooled in the land’s concavities like some terrible flood. As the sky lightened, the long row of turbines began to glow. Up close, I found the turbines were shapelier than from afar. Each blade bore a curved dorsal fin and the ball-and-socket joint of a Japanese dancing robot. I marveled at these beautiful (if noisy) creations as if they were alien redwoods.

At the bottom of the hill, I turned north to reach the border. The road ran into an orange barricade with a blank white metal sign. I had to walk around to the far side of the barricade to read what it said: “Stop! This marks the United States border. Crossing at this point is illegal.” Glancing guiltily about, I tiptoed back onto U.S. soil.

For the next eight miles, the trail skirts the border. In fact, it is the border; the border trail runs east-west, providing a route for immigration officers to patrol and letting hunters know where an American forest ends and a Canadian one begins. Placed at regular intervals are waist-high stone obelisks that read USA on one side and CANADA on the other. The trail slaloms haphazardly between these markers. I happened to be on the Canadian side when I ran into a border patrolman, whose SUV sat parked in the middle of the trail. He had dark skin, a mustache, and a Southern accent, and, through our brief conversation, revealed himself to be a fan of barefoot hiking and an exceedingly nice guy. I asked him if I was in trouble, being on the Canadian side of the marker, but he said I was okay as long as I stayed within the “boundary vista”— the 20-foot-wide swath of cleared land that forms the trail — which constitutes a geopolitical gray area. How fitting, I thought, to walk the International Appalachian Trail in a purely international space — to walk within a border.

The last five miles of the trail constituted a series of rolling peaks and valleys. Beavers had managed to dam each valley, so when I emerged from the woods onto a neighborhood street many hours later, my boots were squelching. I stopped and bathed in a shallow culvert, then laid out my things to dry on the road. A man on a yellow Vespa made multiple passes, regarding me with justified suspicion. Hiking on, a little farther down the road I encountered a nice old couple washing their camper van, who gave me an apple, cold from the icebox, and a Vietnam vet who stopped me to tell me how everything in this town was going to hell.

At last, I turned and up ahead I could see the yellow gates of the border crossing. I walked into the border office and asked the (mustachioed, putty-faced) agent there if he might please take my picture in front of the Canadian flag, to commemorate the end of my hike. He frowned and shook his head. Outside, I found a burly logging truck driver from New Brunswick to take it instead. I asked him if he’d heard of the IAT. He had not, and did not seem to care. It was a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion to my trip. But then, that was fitting: I turned and stuck out my thumb back towards Presque Isle, but the trail went on.

Robert Moor is a journalist and essayist living in New York. He is currently 
writing a book about trails — from tiny insect trails to footpaths that span continents — due out from Simon & Schuster in 2014.

Robert Moor is a journalist and essayist living in New York. He is currently writing a book about trails — from tiny insect trails to footpaths that span continents — due out from Simon & Schuster in 2014.

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