I rolled over and shut the alarm off on my phone. The moment had arrived. I let the air out of my sleeping pad for the last time. I stuffed my sleeping bag into it's sack and then put everything not into my backpack like I had countless times before, but into the trash compactor bag I used to keep water from getting inside my pack. I changed into my shorts, pulled on my socks and shoes and went through a mental checklist of what I needed to bring with me. I had a couple energy bars to eat, my light thermals that I have been using to sleep in, my raincoat that I use as a wind breaker, and my wool hat. I think I am ready. I throw my backpack on and said farewell to "Sagebrush". I turned and started walking. First I stopped at the ranger's station to drop off my bag of stuff I no longer need, then I crossed the bridge over Katahdin stream and found a picnic table. I filled my water bottle up from the stream and then made my breakfast of oatmeal and instant breakfast. I sat down on the bench at the picnic table and gazed up at the sky. The stars were glowing brightly and I fixated on the one constellation that I always look for, Orion, the hunter. There he was perfectly displayed in the opening of the trees provided by the campground. I found it suiting that I was staring up at him while I was about to set off on the last leg of the AT, which follow a path called The Hunt Trail. I rose and walked to the edge of the campground where the trail head was and found the register. I wrote my name and time of departure - 3:25AM. I sighed and started up the trail into the inky blackness of the forest with nothing to see by except the red glow of my headlamp.
This was going to be my first time hiking in the dark by choice, I once arrived late to a shelter in Pennsylvania, but I never had to turn my light on. I started out cautious at first, not know how difficult it would be to stay on trail or negotiate the terrain. Slowly I gained more confidence and I picked up the pace. My body fell into a rhythm of breathing and foot falls. I made my way upward like I had so many times before. The night air was cold and I could see the plumes of my breath in the headlamp, but it allowed me to move fast without overheating. Faster I moved gaining more confidence with each passing minute. I slipped on a wet rock, slowed and said "Easy Buddy", like I would have to a young horse who was getting too eager. I stopped at a spring along the trail, filled up my water bottle again and shed my warm layers. I had to keep moving now in order to stay warm, but that is what I planned to do.
As I moved upward distance was obscured by the limits of my light. I moved in the small pocket of illumination that was available. I couldn't tell if the hill continued or was about to level off, but it didn't matter. I just continued my rhythm, strong but relaxed, fast and nimble. The passage of time was marked my the lightening sky. Then the boulder's began. Instead of just walking upward, now I was climbing. Pulling myself on top of ledges using roots or hand holds in the rock. Shortly after I broke treeline and I no longer needed my light.
I could see what I thought was the top of the mountain and I worked my way towards it ferociously. Boulder after boulder hopping from rock to ledge. As I crested the peak I was greeted not with the summit, but an are called Tableland, a flat rocky grass strewn plateau before the actual summit. I could see the peak this time and the early morning colors painted the surrounding clouds with flames of orange, pink and red (I think).
I started to get excited, I actually started to run. I wasn't on boulders anymore so I could cover ground extremely quickly. My breathing came in deep ragged breaths as I sprinted across Tableland. Then I started the final climb. One more climb left! The sun must have come up because I could see the shadow of the mountain cast on the landscape behind me. I was almost there!
Then, a ball of fire erupted from the top of the mountain directly in front of me.
I can see it.