Keeping Balance in Solitude
John Stifler completes the Appalachian Trail, persisting through multiple injuries, at the age of 70.
By John Stifler
In 2017, at the age of 70, I hiked from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail; I fell down more times than I had fallen when I was a toddler learning to walk. I also spent more time alone than I ever had before. The relationship between those two experiences is worth pondering.
I’d always had good balance. I could walk on stilts, bounce endlessly on a pogo stick, do stunts on water skis. But balance is one of those bodily aptitudes that start to disappear at a certain age. In the course of five months, the trail made me well aware of that fact. In mid-September, as I hiked through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, one knee still carried some of the scab left from when I had tumbled down a rocky path in Maryland in May. The stitches where Pennsylvania rocks made a gash in my right forearm in June had been removed, but the bone still felt lumpy. And those were just two of my injuries.
My worst fall came after I had hiked 1,900 miles, and had almost reached Maine. By then, I was reckoning I would arrive at Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus, before mid-October weather could close hikers’ access to that great final mountain.
I fell near the summit of Mount Success, the northernmost peak on the trail in New Hampshire. I was trying to figure out how to climb a rock face 15-feet-high that offered no handholds and questionable footing. When I lost my balance, it was instantly obvious that whatever I was going to land on was very hard. Mount Success? An ironic name. For two minutes I lay there, in the rain that had made the rocks slippery, swearing at the top of my lungs, my pride and my forearm—the same one I’d gashed in Pennsylvania—hurting equally.
Mount Success is at the southern end of the Mahoosucs, a range of mountains almost as challenging as the White Mountains, with long, steep trails and the added appeal of being more remote. Here, the trail winds through spruce woods, around lakes and over bald peaks that offer stunning views of more mountains, lakes, and forests.
I would enjoy those views later. For now, the first thing to do was stand up, the second was to stop swearing, and the third was to squeeze and prod my forearm to make sure nothing was broken.
An hour farther along, the rain stopped enough for me to take off the jacket. Noticing blood inside the sleeve, I looked more closely at the arm. Sure enough, although the rocks hadn’t cut through the jacket, the impact had split the skin. I applied iodine and a Band-Aid and hiked onward.
I savored Maine’s mountains for the next week. I climbed, crawled, tiptoed and jumped through Mahoosuc Notch, a mossy, boulder-strewn obstacle course considered the hardest mile on the entire trail. It took me four hours. I crossed the Ellis River above a 60-foot double waterfall in Dunn Notch, walked studiously along boardwalks that spanned bogs between the west and east peaks of Baldpate Mountain, listened to the piercingly sweet whistle of white-throated sparrows, spent a night at the off-the-grid Hikers’ Hut south of Rangeley, and savored spectacular Saddleback Mountain, walking three miles across open bedrock—not the scrambled felsenmeer of the Whites, but smooth expanses of granite and gneiss where I didn’t have to look constantly down at the footing.
North of Saddleback, one week into Maine and, I thought, perhaps two weeks from finishing a hike I had dreamt about since I was 13, I spent a night in the Poplar Ridge Lean-to. I chatted with the other hikers who were there for the night, and I noticed the photo pinned to the shelter wall. It was the last photo taken of Geraldine Largay. In 2013, Largay was hiking the northern half of the Appalachian Trail and had less than 200 miles to go when she left the trail to make a toilet stop in the woods and was never seen alive again. Poplar Ridge was the last place where she had spent a night in company with other hikers. Her remains were found two years later, a mile off the trail. She had died of exposure and lack of food.
Her story evokes an oft-repeated safety mantra, “Never hike alone.” And that’s reasonable advice, except for one thing: A lot of us like to hike alone. Solitude is liberating. Keeping pace with someone else can be an unwanted distraction. Furthermore, when you have to make all the decisions yourself, you learn a lot.
Even if you frequently trip and fall.
Okay, so I had been alone when I fell on Mount Success. What if, instead of bloodying my forearm, I had broken a leg? My answer has always been that I think the solitude is worth the risk, and I try to be careful to minimize the risk.
But the day after I left Poplar Ridge I had to make a serious decision about my own health. At the bottom of an acute descent on the north side of Spaulding Mountain, having hiked alone for several hours, I reached a deserted campground by the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. Taking off my pack, I noticed that my right arm was swollen from the wrist to the elbow. The skin around the area I had smacked on rocks at week earlier was red.
The following interior dialogue ensued:
This is an infection.
I’ve had infections before. I get over them.
You’ve never had one this large.
True, but the swelling will eventually go down.
Stop kidding yourself. This one needs medical attention.
In the morning, the swelling was unchanged. The arm felt horrible. Fortunately, the rest of my body felt strong, rested, ready to hike ten miles to the next highway crossing.
I made my way up the trail to North Crocker Peak, where I got a decent cell-phone signal. I found a hospital in Farmington, 45 miles away. I found a hikers’ hostel in nearby Stratton, where someone could drive me to the hospital. Walking two more hours, I reached the highway, passing the trail’s 2000-mile mark en route.
Five nights in the Stratton hostel, three trips to the hospital. A doctor put me on antibiotics and ordered an ultrasound to make sure there was no blood clot. On my return visit for the ultrasound, a physician’s assistant handed me a sheet of paper explaining that I had cellulitis, which, I was made to understand, is a nasty, potentially life-threatening kind of bacterial infection.
After three days’ rest, two antibiotic IV’s, and a prescription for antibiotic pills, I planned to resume hiking the next day. But the next day the arm was oozing pus. Back at the hospital, a different P.A. checked me, questioned the choice of antibiotics, and said perhaps I should be admitted to the hospital and put on an IV for, oh, maybe three days.
I was anxious. What if, after three days, doctors then ordered me to take a bus home? I dreaded the thought that I might get this far but not finish the hike.
Sudden insight struck. All my life, I had suffered from the peculiar problem of believing that if I really wanted something badly enough … I couldn’t have it. Now, as the P.A—Gary—was talking to me, something happened in that interior place where intuition lets us know who we really are.
“I have another idea,” I said to Gary. “I can hike tomorrow.”
I explained that the next part of the trail crossed at least three side trails where I could bail out and get back to the highway for help if I felt weak or the arm resumed its swelling. Furthermore, someone from the hostel could pick me up at the day’s end, so I could hike with only a light pack.
Gary was exceptional. Not just a trained technician, but a true, natural healer. He actually listened to me. Besides, I had discovered some kind of deep inner confidence, which I was now projecting. Gary put me on a different antibiotic and agreed to my plan. I would be hiking alone. The margin for error was small, but I could trust myself.
That next day’s hike was over the Bigelows, two of the last high peaks before Katahdin. I clambered over both jagged summits in dense clouds, seeing nothing but the rocks just ahead and the occasional white Trail blaze. Embraced by swirling gray, damp air, I couldn’t tell how close I was to the edge of some sharp drop-off. The solitude was relentless and profound. It was good to be concentrating on my footing and not thinking about my arm. I kept my balance.
Thirteen days and 180 miles later, I reached the summit of Katahdin.
John Stifler spent his childhood in the Catskill Mountains of New York and most of his school years in Nashville, Tennessee, a time that included his first steps on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After eight years teaching elementary and secondary school and five more as a fulltime freelance writer, he spent 32 more years teaching writing in the economics department of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He has published articles in Runner’s World, The Runner, American Health, New England Monthly, the International Herald Tribune, The Christian Century, Outdoors, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other magazines, plus a short story in the Sonora Review. For 20+ years he wrote about running and about performing arts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a senior writer for New England Runner, and he is this year’s recipient of the Road Runners’ Club of America award for Excellence in Running Journalism. He majored in English at Amherst College, holds an M.A. from Manchester University in England (where he hiked in the Peak District) and earned an M.F.A. in fiction writing from UMass. He lives in Florence, Massachusetts.