Sarah Jane Hatfield, a former graphic designer at The Mountaineer, has embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. During her journey, she’ll be sending dispatches from the forest, which we’ll publish each Wednesday.

This week, we join Hatfield as she grapples with the realization that she’s less than 500 miles away from summiting Mt. Katahdin.

“The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can’t be organized or regulated. It isn’t true that everyone should follow one path. Listen to your own path.” — Ram Dass

I didn’t like math as a kid, and I don’t like it much as a hiker, either.

As the window to summit Mt. Katahdin quickly approaches, every northbound thru-hiker has been crunching the numbers — including Broccoli Rob and I. All you have to do is divide when you want to finish by the remaining mileage, keeping in mind that Mt. Katahdin closes in mid-October. This calculation produces the daily mileage needed to meet your goal. Ours was low, at just 13.5 miles per day, with a completion date set for Sept. 30.

Broccoli Rob seemed a little uneasy about it all. So we chatted Friday night about our goals. His plans differed from mine, and that was ok. He hiked out Saturday morning, and will summit Mt. Katahdin by “hiking his own hike.” I’ll be doing the same: everything at my own pace.

That night, I laid in my tent, thinking about how different the upcoming days would look. I’d be making hiking decisions based on my wants and needs alone. That realization made me feel good. Of course, I would miss my camping buddy. That’s what we’ve become over our three months of traveling together — camping buddies. He has a mission, and so do I. We discussed the possibility of him coming with me to complete the 275-mile section of the trail I skipped during the birth of my grandson, Maverick. It’d be nice if that came to fruition. Either way, the last 500 miles of my journey will be exactly that: my journey.

I reached the iconic wooden sign that reads “Katahdin 500 Miles” Sunday morning. This was a monumental moment for me. I began to ponder: have I achieved what I set out to achieve during this quest? Was I really ready to summit Katahdin? Was I ready for the Whites, a large mountain chain spanning New Hampshire? The Whites are quite intimidating, after all. I pray that I’ll be prepared.

I’ve met many southbound thru-hikers this week who just hit the 500-mile mark. I reminisced about how I felt 500 miles into this adventure, and found myself wishing I was as far away from the finish line as they were. I don’t want this journey to end. It will, though, and soon I’ll be atop Mt. Katahdin, faced with the fear of what’s next.

During conversations I had with two southbound hikers named Anubis (pronounced: ah-NEW-bus) and Bop It, I uncovered a new perspective: the northbound hiker is close to completion, the southbound hiker has just started out, and each camp is defined by a distinct energy. Anubis said that there have been countless times when a Nobo (northbound hiker) has warned him about the hard journey ahead. Yet it’s the Sobos (you guessed it, southbound hikers), as Anubis pointed out, who’d just conquered the most difficult parts of the trail. One particular Nobo couldn’t grasp what Anubis was trying to express. Luckily, they both dropped the subject before it got too heated.

I met Anubis and Bop It the morning Broccoli Rob hiked out. I was 2.5 miles into my day, probably itching for a reason to leave a good mileage gap between Broccoli and I. I stumbled across some trail magic in a parking lot and noticed a bunch of hikers gathered around it. Cold beer and snacks at 9 a.m.? Don’t mind if I do.

Everyone present was a Sobo. I enjoyed the conversations I was having and decided to hang out for awhile. Three hours later, Anubis, Bop It and I were sitting on the ground in a circle, sharing the last beer and a few peanut butter balls, wishing we were all hiking in the same direction. None of us were going anywhere fast, so we decided to camp a tenth-of-a-mile back at the gorge. We pitched our tents a little after 12 p.m. The afternoon was filled with great conversation. I think the trail knew I needed this communal feeling.

As the day wore on, our friendship blossomed. We took notice of some local folks setting up for a small, low-budget wedding near. They asked if we wanted to help out and attend. I couldn’t pass up that offer, so we joined in. A few Nobos I’ve been yo-yoing with showed up and helped with the wedding, too. It was such a beautiful experience, witnessing the love between the bride and groom. They were enamored with one another. The night air was filled with warm fuzzies and twinkle lights. The energy levels were indescribable, and once again, I was happy.

The next morning began the end of my journey. Five hundred miles to Katahdin. I didn’t start hiking the A.T. because I needed to “find myself,” unlike some of the younger hikers I’ve met out here. My goal was to refine myself. The solitude of the A.T. allows the soul a chance to refine — and refresh — itself. During my journey, I’ve dug deeper into my soul then I’ve ever gone before. I fought the physical battle early on. Then, somewhere in the middle, the mental battle arose. The next 500 miles will be spiritual in nature: a push to continue pushing north.

Pondering the end of this adventure has me ready to face anything. Am I ready for what comes next?

Follow along on YouTube at Katahdin or Bust.

Week 26 mileage: 82.6.

Appalachian Trail mile marker: 1,698.6.

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