SOUTHWEST + WINDRIDER: THE PERFECT COMBINATION
Words by Kendra "Lay's" Perkins // Hyperlite Mountain Gear Employee
Five months after taking our first steps through Georgia, Tyson (Tenderfoot as I had fondly come to call him) and I were welcomed to the Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Despite the early morning sun shining through the trees at its base, clouds covered Katahdin’s peak. This was the beginning of the end to our 2,189.1-mile journey up the East Coast. We had spent the previous night at a nearby campground outside of Baxter State Park as a result of overcrowding at Katahdin Stream Campground and were now driving back with my parents to complete the remaining five miles of trail.
I heard the pop of the trunk as it opened and inside laid our packs--his a black 3400 Southwest and mine a white 3400 Windrider, no longer resembling its original color. As I grabbed my pack and swung it over my shoulders, a feeling of despair washed over me. What would life be like after the AT? My diet of town pizza and trail Ramen wouldn’t be sustainable anymore, let alone socially acceptable. I’d have to get a job again. Daily camp chores, a dreaded task in the five months leading to up to that moment, would be sorely missed routines back in civilization. A world of unknowns awaited us, except one.
“Next time you see us we’ll be thru hikers,” I said. A proud grin swept across my dad’s face, and in traditional form, my mom gave a worried look.
We parted ways with my parents and were once again alone, together. I fell in line ahead of Tyson to set the pace as I had done so many times before, and we let the first few minutes of the day pass wordlessly. White Blazes whizzed by, and my legs moved effortlessly, one in front of the other. During those final days on the trail I would often find myself losing track of time as my body moved along in autopilot. I don’t remember who broke the silence, or even what was said, but I remember realizing how much I would miss this time together spent talking about everything, and nothing at all.
The well-groomed trail and towering tree line disappeared after three miles, and large boulders gradually took their place. Fog shrouded the summit, allowing for only a few feet of visibility as we hoisted ourselves over and around rocks, while clinging to iron rungs which protruded from the granite. This rough terrain continued for another mile before we crossed through the Gateway and entered into the Tableland--a flat, moonscape-like expanse stretching for 1.5 miles to Baxter Peak.
We followed the thin, gravel path weaving us through the protected mountain tundra, bright green lichen contrasting with the dark brown heath. Wind whipped across the now exposed plains, muffling our voices. We hiked closer to avoid shouting.
“You want to do highs and hopes?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “You go first.”
Highs and hopes started as an evening pastime that grew into a morning ritual with each of us sharing a high point from the day before and a hope for the day ahead. It went without saying that this round was for the full monty --the ultimate moment from the entire journey, and a new goal for life beyond the Trail.
“My high has definitely been the people,” he began. “Everyone we’ve met out here has been so rad. And my hope is that I get to keep doing these adventures with you.”
I turned while keeping stride to see him smiling at me and beamed back. “I’d have to say my high has been hiking the entire Trail with you,” I started, turning once again to see the same genial expression on his face. “I actually hate that we won’t get to spend every day together anymore. And my hope is to have a career I love. I don’t think I could work somewhere now that doesn’t involve the outdoors.”
“You will,” he encouraged.
Although we couldn’t see the summit sign yet, I felt it growing closer, each step like a magnetic force pulling me forward. My heart raced when it came into view, and time suddenly slowed as we made the approach. Finally, we reached our hands out and rested them on the rough, indented words that read “KATAHDIN”.
“We did it!” I exclaimed. After a moment letting our victory sink in, we stepped away and shrugged off our packs. Tyson grabbed my hand.
“Are you ready?” he asked without context. I looked at him curiously. Did he mean ready to take a photo? Or ready to get the hell off this mountain?
“Ready for what?” I replied.
I felt his grip on my hand get tighter as he lowered down on one knee. I hadn’t acknowledged the dozen people on the summit with us until that moment when their gazes turned our way. I muttered incoherently in disbelief as he spoke my full name.
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” I breathed without hesitation. Cheers erupted as we embraced and whispered “I love you” to each other. Time resumed its natural rhythm as we sat down to enjoy our last two Snickers bars, mine disappearing in just three bites.
Wind still howled in the background as we got to our feet and picked up our packs--not for the last time, but for the first as thru hikers --ready for the rest of life’s journeys, together.