Leaving the Barren-Chairback Mountain Range for another day, background, AP reporter Ryan Lenz hikes back to civilization after abandoning an attempt at hiking the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004, north of Monson, Maine. Heavy rains, improper clothing, and inadequate conditioning contributed to Lenz's decision to turn back just 15 miles into the hike.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL Six miles into a hike on the upper reaches of the Appalachian Trail, I was wiggling like a worm to escape a waist-deep slurry of gritty, black soil sucking me deeper with each scream.
Editor's note: With cold weather setting in, diehard Appalachian Trail hikers are completing their Georgia-to-Maine trek, facing the final challenge, the 100 Mile Wilderness. An Associated Press writer and photographer recently hiked this stretch for this report.
Logs placed over sloppy pits to help hikers had disappeared, replaced by footprints leading through the thick bog. Getting dirty was better than getting lost, I thought, following each print carefully.
The next moment, the ground let loose into a quicksand grip of mud. Just seven hours into my first day, it was clear it would be me against Mother Nature.
Even as I extricated myself, I realized it would become a bare-all battle. Stripped to my boxers as we continued, the wet pants hanging from my pack slapped a cadence on my bug-bitten legs.
Welcome to the 100 Mile Wilderness.
It's a stretch of Appalachian Trail that weaves from Monson, Maine, through forests, over mountains and across rapids. It's a challenge even for seasoned hikers and one of the final barriers for thru-hikers covering the entire 2,170 miles from Georgia to trail's end atop Maine's Mount Katahdin.
Jeff Shedd, 44 of Tulsa, Okla., left, and AP reporter Ryan Lenz compare equipment at the Long Pond Stream shelter on the Appalachian Trail, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004, north of Monson, Maine. Shedd was reorganizing his 58-pounds of gear and food, foreground.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
''Do not underestimate the difficulty of this section,'' warns a sign at the start of the wilderness.
A group of four hikers stood gazing at the weathered sign. Some bounced with excitement, while I cowered and played tough. The forest swallowed the trail within 20 feet. Those who start have no choice but to finish or turn back.
The Appalachian Trail Conference estimates that only several hundred hikers will finish the trail this fall in Maine, winnowed from about 1,600 who left last spring from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the trail's southernmost point.
My plan was to follow those ragtag hikers who brave the miles into Maine, and chronicle that effort as they pushed through the final stretch.
The reality of that plan, however, was that a plunge in the mud was only my first taste of the trail's peril. For days afterward, those soggy cotton pants taunted me, with each muddy slap, that I couldn't finish.
Hikers equipped with Gore Tex and trekking poles pass lumps like me with ease, exhibiting a tunnel vision and a determination they've perfected over hundreds of miles. With a nod, they pass and are gone.
While striking vistas beckon and rivers flowing through gorges toward perfect waterfalls demand at least a moment of pause, thru-hikers move over rollercoaster ups and downs with bionic grace too fast to enjoy the scenery they leave behind.
The plan was to cover 12 miles a day, a modest amount for thru-hikers but a challenge for an out-of-shape farmboy from Iowa.
My hiking boots filled with water during stream crossings, then burped with each step afterward. Several inclines left me a sprawl of limbs after a grunting tumble. And being wet from sweat and a deluge of rain left me chafed in places I didn't know existed.
''There's something about the wilderness. It's a section of the trail where you're definitely on your own,'' said Don Shorely, 70, who called himself ''The Abominably Slow Man'' and returned to the trail after cancer treatment.
There's something about the wilderness, indeed.
Though never a successful Boy Scout, I did ready myself for this: I made three trips to L.L. Bean, not to mention a hike into the snow fields of Mount Rainier in Washington state. Preparation enough, I thought, for a long walk.
''But even when the profile makes it look fairly flat, it's not just a walk in the woods,'' Laurie Potteigger, an Appalachian Trail Conference spokeswoman, told me after my return. ''Roots and mud and rocks definitely slow you down.''
By sunset on Day Two following the mud bath and subsequent rain shower on Day One we had covered only 15 miles. I struggled in a soaked sleeping bag for a little shuteye.
''Man these hogs are squealing,'' Jeff Shedd, a 44-year-old jet mechanic from Tulsa, Okla., said as he rubbed his legs. The last to arrive in the lean-to, he hurled his bag into the shelter to escape the weather.
Carrying 58 pounds in his pack a slew of baggage including a one-pound bag of M&Ms, a dictionary, campfire popcorn, a jar of peanut butter, and a French coffee press he was determined to finish the wilderness, even if the rain intensified his misery.
I tried to focus my thoughts on Thoreau's noble ''tonic of wilderness.'' But it was hard to think at all.
And in the morning surrounded by unshaven, unclean, unkempt hikers just 48 hours after we started photographer Robert F. Bukaty and I decided to raise the white flag and turn around.
The rain had made the trail slippery and turned streams into rapids. Because of the danger posed by the streams, the only way out was to bushwhack through the woods toward a safer place to cross.
Through thorn patches and brush piles, over miles of flooded logging roads and down gravel roads, we trudged 15 miles looking for a way out.
The faces we saw during our escape were other hikers also cursing Mother Nature. Word spread of two missing or stranded hikers, one from Chicago the other from Indianapolis. Not us.
We learned later that 6 1/2 inches of rain had fallen during the night.
Some say the appeal of the wilderness is a getaway from the hustle. For others it's a test of mettle. Standing on the roadside with a thumb in the air, I knew I had failed the test.
The rescuer who returned us to civilization was not a game warden or a mountain man. It was a teenage girl bumping along a logging road in a red Chevy Blazer. Her eyes were wide as she saw us limping along.
We were lucky she stopped. She said she normally didn't give rides to hikers especially those hiking in their drawers.
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