My first backpacking trip began at Max Patch in June 2015. Amy, Linda, and Harper Lee were game for a trip that was the first of many more to come.
What set that trip apart from all of the others (aside from being my first) is that we began during a thunderstorm, which was terribly dangerous on a mountain with no trees. We all knew that we needed to get off of the bald as quickly as possible.
What we didn’t know was that the only sign for the AT was a four-by-four post with incorrectly labeled north and south arrows. Someone had used a sharpie marker to indicate north to the right and south to the left. Because we were in a hurry to get off the bald mountain (no trees! lightning!) we rushed in the direction we assumed to be north, toward Hot Springs.
It would be the next day, after we had already hiked six miles south, that we would realize our mistake. Without cell service, and knowing that we would not reach Hot Springs on schedule, we relied on the kindness of strangers to relay a message to our ride asking to be picked up in the very place we had been dropped off two days before.
That afternoon, while waiting to be picked up, we scowled at the mislabeled post and scratched the correct directions with a tiny pencil. It was a pathetic but satisfying way of showing our frustration.
Imagine my surprise when I returned this May after dropping off Low Gear at Lemon Gap to see a new post, correctly and beautifully emblazoned with the north and south direction markers. It made me smile to remember the chaos of three years prior.
Still, this was a melancholy visit to Max Patch for a variety of reasons, at the same time I enjoyed the best part of an advancing afternoon. I had just sent Low Gear on her way, and she was happy to be rejoining the culture of the northbound thru-hikers making their hopeful way to Katahdin. I wished I was with them, but I knew I had other things I had to accomplish before fulfilling that dream.
The better part of the day was spent on a blanket enjoying the clouds. I watched the hikers go by, envious of their hard-won miles. When I felt a few drops of rain, I packed up and made my way back down the mountain.
I recorded the songs of the eastern towhee, a vireo, and a turkey. I made my peace with leaving the mountain and remembered the hikes of three years before: the first, when we went the wrong direction, and then the one we completed later that year on my birthday, when we triumphantly arrived in Hot Springs on schedule. (That morning of my 41st birthday was one of the most beautiful I ever recall on the trail.)
Anyone who backpacks has a special mountain, I wager. Perhaps not the favorite, perhaps not the most difficult, but meaningful, nonetheless. Max Patch will stay in my memory as a reminder to always check which direction I’m headed before traveling too far, too fast.