Eight years ago, Chelsea Puzzo moved from Massachusetts to Utah to take advantage of the mountains and snow. In the spring, summer, and fall, she travels in her van to experience and explore different places, activities and ways of life. Over the next few years, she plans to complete the entire Appalachian Trail as a section hiker. This year she completed approximately 200 miles from Baxter Peak to Sugarloaf Mountain. Through her adventures, Chelsea hopes to encourage others to spend more time in nature.
The Appalachian Trail holds so much power in its name. Thousands of people set out on its muddy, rocky, bug-infested path each year, and half of them never make it to the end. Many turn back within the first week, lacking proper mental and physical preparation. Some bail out because of injury, or more commonly trench foot.
The trail breaks you down to a point you feel you can no longer continue another mile, but at the same time, it reveals how strong you truly are. The towering mountain peaks reward you with a feeling of accomplishment in the most humbling way possible. The trees tower overhead and create a silence unlike anything you have ever heard. The forest provides a home you never knew you had.
My AT adventure started early on the morning of the 4th of July in Baxter State Park. I didn’t sleep well, due to a mixture of nerves and excitement. I would start my journey by summiting Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. As I ate my breakfast and prepared a day pack for this section, I couldn’t help but notice that the mountain was brewing her own weather.
The initial approach was effortless. There were some rocks to step over but nothing overly challenging. The difficulty quickly intensified as I climbed higher, and the visibility became close to none. Boulder fields were never ending. The rain and fog rolled in, and we continued the intimidating, cold, and slick trek to Baxter’s Peak. At an elevation of 5,254 feet, we reached Maine’s highest peak. Humbled and honored, I stood where many hikers had before. Most of them end their 2,200 mile journey through America’s eastern fourteen states on Katahdin. Others, like my hiking partner and me, begin the a journey of a lifetime from this famous peak.
The next morning we set out for the first lean-to, Hurd Brook. We stopped in town for one last real meal before entering the 100 Mile Wilderness. For those not familiar, the 100 Mile Wilderness is the section of the AT running just south of Baxter State Park to Monson, Maine. It’s considered the wildest and most remote section of the AT. You will not find any towns or stores; you need to carry ten days of supplies and food. If you find yourself injured, and lucky enough to contact emergency services, you’ll wait hours for help to arrive – and a hefty bill on top of that.
The 100 Mile Wilderness was the most challenging section of our journey. On the first day, severe bruises bloomed on my hips, shoulders, and back and eventually developed into open wounds. Four days in, painful blisters appeared. Bug bites covered every inch of my body, and a spider bite developed into an ulcer on my ankle. Moleskin and bandages became our most valuable possessions. My body was falling apart, but I had no choice but to battle through the pain and continue.
We averaged about thirteen miles a day, depending on terrain. We forged through rivers and mud bogs; crested peaks of 3,500 feet; swam in the clearest lakes and ponds; and camped in the most alluring woodlands. The 100 Mile Wilderness was a sanctuary from the surrounding world: a place to get lost and be found.
The rain started to break me. Day after day of mud, rain, and river crossings had me at my breaking point. Everything was constantly wet with no relief of drying off. I found myself daydreaming of coffee, ice cream, clean clothes, and a shower.
After eight days of trekking, we finally saw the sign for northbound hikers entering the 100 Mile Wilderness. I threw my bag onto the ground and cried tears of joy. We’d made it through the toughest section on the AT! I experienced feelings I’d never had before: feelings of survival; of pushing my body harder than I’d ever pushed before; of victory!
We had our first and only zero-mile day in Monson at the Lakeview Hostel. We cleaned our clothes; took showers; picked up the resupply box; filled our bellies with pizza, beer, and anything else we could get our hands on; and put our feet up. The next morning we ate a large protein-filled breakfast and tanked up on coffee with other AT hikers. Refreshed and happy to have dirt under my feet, wind in my hair, and sun on my face, we returned to the trail.
The rain held off for the most part, except for intermittent sprinkles. Every day was more spectacular than the last. We hiked to Sugarloaf Ski Mountain, our final destination. We’d covered approximately 200 miles from our starting point on Mount Katahdin.
A feeling of accomplishment and sadness set in because we’d reached the end of this years’ AT journey. Two miles down, 2,000 to go. For now, I had to return the world and fast paced life off the trail.
Looking back, what comforted and amused me most during my hike was the lack of exhaust fumes, traffic, and manmade objects. I wasn’t confined to an automobile but freed to use my own two feet. I enjoyed the trail and forest in the purest form possible. I operated my body from the food on my back and the water from the streams.
It’s easy to conform to the instant gratification and convenience of the modern world and become disconnected from nature. I encourage everyone to take a journey in nature. Feel the dirt under your feet; surround yourself with the forest; drink from the rivers; lay beneath the endless roof of stars; and remember where you came from.