A Portland man’s tale of self discovery in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness

A old friend of mine from childhood named Chris Poulos recently took a solo journey through the 100 Mile Wilderness. He hiked roughly 120 miles in ten days, alone with nothing but his supplies, his thoughts, and a pen and notepad.

He kept a handwritten journal of the adventure, which I have painstakingly transcribed into this blog.

Chris Poulos stands at the summit of Mount Katahdin near the end of his 120 mile journey.

Chris Poulos stands at the summit of Mount Katahdin near the end of his 120 mile journey.

Poulos dedicated his trip to his late grandfather, whom he first climbed Katahdin with as a young boy, and finished on the great mountain’s summit on his birthday.

Like myself, Poulos made the conscious decision to redirect his life on an upward path several years ago. His story, which I provide context to in my column for today’s Portland Sun, serves as an inspiration to anyone that knows him. He’s made mistakes, he’s been to hell and back, and now he’s focused on giving back to the world. He’s a law student at Maine Law, he volunteers at the Youth Center in South Portland, he mentors friends and strangers going through difficult times.

He’s a true role model, in every sense of the word. Here is his story:

I poured my heart and soul into this diary and for personal and professional reasons I am only releasing an edited version at this time. I am still processing the growth and transformation that occurred within me during this trip and some things are too intimate, raw, and fresh at this time to be included for any audience. I have wanted to write for years and finally found the peace and calm to begin doing so.

 One thing I will add is that I am here. As I write this intro, I am 100% present. I found that on the trail, and will lose it, and find it again.

 If you begin reading this, I urge you to read until the end.

 I am honored that I was asked to share this and I hope that this diary may somehow be of service to others.

 Smile. Unplug. Happy trails.

 Sincerely,

 Christopher R. Poulos aka “Counselor”

August 13, 2014.

 Today was powerful. I am not yet on the trail but I have arrived in Monson and made a new friend. The more I allow myself to be open to God’s plan for me and to be open to others, the more I am amazed and the more layers separating me from my true essence are stripped away. I now see this in others too, it happened today with my new friend and it was beautiful.

When asked why I wanted to practice law today, I told the truth, we both had time for me to give the full answer, which involves my own path leading up to law school, and for me to hear from this stranger, now friend, his own experience and tale. Two men, strangers, discussing God, relationships, life lessons, and nature in a pickup truck barreling through the backwoods and small towns of Maine.

Two people called me this morning before I turned the phone off. One was a dear friend and mentor of mine who, when asked, did not have any advice or suggestions for me, as he and I feel confident with my relationship with God, myself, and others. I will seek and receive his advice again in the future but it did feel good to be told I did not need it today.

The other called to wish me well and the words “I love you” slipped out of her mouth. It was a quick but caring “I love you” among a fury of other words and, I believe, was only meant to be caring. It felt good regardless, as I haven’t heard those words directed toward me in some time. She also shared a proverb that says, “If you take care of your character, your reputation will take care of itself.” I have found that to be my experience as I feel and as I know, that I have been given a second chance at life.

Also, to have this old friend and mentor of mine tell me he didn’t have any suggestions or advice for me today and to have my new friend, who is a Maine Guide, has thru-hiked three times, ran marathons and is a man of God tell me that I have a sound head on my shoulders and that I am ready for this felt really good.

The thing is I didn’t need him to say it. I am comfortable now in my own skin and believe I am ready for this. I no longer seek or need approval from people to be ok, and perhaps that is exactly why it feels like I have finally been given it.

Today I cried and saw a man cry. I’m coming to believe that some of the most powerful and wise men do cry and do say “I love you” because they are able to shed these layers, these shells we create that separate us from the beautiful, bright, balls of light that we all fundamentally are, our essence.

I cried when “Wild World” by Cat Stevens came on my Pandora during the drive here. The song always reminds me of a dear childhood friend, Anna, who was unable to find peace in this world and took her own life. Cat says, “I’ll always remember you, as a child, girl,” and that is how I remember her, with both tears and joy.

I’m in my little cabin by the lake now, the rain is light and soothing, and the loons are calling. I thank God for this day and pray that sleep will find me tonight.

 August 14, 2014

Rain, lots and heavy. Rain, waterfalls, raging rivers and streams with no bridges. Some thru-hikers adopted me, at least for today, and we all worked together to make it across the abnormally high and dangerous rivers and streams. This stuff was NO JOKE. We crossed four rivers with very slippery rocks, rushing water and rapids, only one of which had a rope we could hold to avoid being swept away. Lots of waterfalls! One river, the first, about seven miles in was impassable. Phys Ed tried and got swept downstream with his pack still strapped to his back! He survived. He was able to swim/push himself toward shore and we plucked him out. We ended up finding a log suspended across the river and about five feet above the raging rapids. I began the day alone, before Phys Ed caught up, but a lot of hikers got bottle necked at this crossing, unsure how, or if, to proceed.  Our group was nine, but shrunk to five, as only five of us dared to mount the log and slowly push/pull/shimmy our way across the river and above the rapids. I almost lost my balance twice. Don’t tell my mom! The heavy backpacks do not help during these river crossings. Today has more of a story but it is late and I have to save batteries on my headlamp. I hiked 14.5 miles today and the thru-hikers did 15. They wanted to make it to a shelter and I was welcomed but chose to setup my own camp alone, as I prefer, next to one of the waterfalls.

The noise helps me sleep. I may not see any of them again on this trip as they are racing to Katahdin and moving faster than me. I hiked with Phys Ed today who I met at a pub in Monson last night. He is a teacher and lives in Pennsylvania.

I was given the trail name “Counselor” this morning by my new friend, the Maine Guide who has thru-hiked the trail three times and who actually helped design much of the Maine section of the AT, helping to move the trail off of the roads and into the woods. I hesitated to take the name, as I am not yet a member of the bar, but my friend explained that what I shared with him and what we spoke about last night has earned me the name, in conjunction with my intended profession, and so, now I am “Counselor” and I am honored. When a man like him blesses you by telling you your trail name you accept it and thank him, as I have now done. The thru-hikers agreed that crossing those four rivers and streams were the most intense and wild experience of their hikes and these folks already had over 2,000 miles under their belts, having started in Georgia.

August 15, 2014

Pain, wounds, patience, perseverance. I thought I was clear of river crossings for today but was slightly behind where I thought I was on the map and the fifth river remained! I began hiking all excited that my boots were slightly less soaked and that I had fresh bandages… and then heard the sound of rapids almost immediately. I did this final crossing alone and felt confident in my ability to make it across safely, which I did. I remain alone now. Today was a long sixteen miles. The trails are still very wet and muddy and I climbed three mountains after the river crossing. I don’t know how, probably from falling, but I cut my shin and it is bruised. I did my best to clean the wound, no big deal, and no infections so far. My ankle is also cut and my boot keeps rubbing it making it deeper and preventing healing. I also have two terrible blisters, one of which I cut open, drained and dressed. I have switched to sandals and I am carrying my still soaked boots, for now.

It is late now. I am alone in my tent having setup between shelters again. Time to save headlight battery. I hope the wounds don’t require me to abandon the trip. I will pray that they don’t and see how tomorrow goes.

August 16, 2014

Phys Ed, Scout, Nemo, and Fiver are the ones I crossed the log over the river with. Since then I have met No Filter, who smokes filtered cigarettes. Perhaps his mouth has no filter, but he seemed very polite to me. I’ve also met Bacon-Dog, he is my new favorite because he wanted me to hike with him at night, he goes slow, smiles, has good energy, and his name is freaking Bacon-Dog. I also met Tomahawk, who is just starting south now. He made sure to tell me his name is Tomahawk “like the missile”. Apparently he identifies more closely with the WMD than the traditional Native American weapon. Before I met him I was surprised that I hadn’t met a single soul from New England. Tomahawk use to be a commercial fisherman in mid-coast Maine and when I asked him what he does now he said “this, for now.”

I decided to sleep in a lean-to shelter tonight and risk having to be social. Three others are staying here, but one guy left, leaving only me and a couple that met while on the trail. They are very nice and it isn’t awkward or anything even though I’m the third wheel in the lean-to. They just hiked over twenty miles and are already asleep. They are, of course, thru-hikers, as are most people on this section of the trail with some exceptions. People tend to assume that I am a thru-hiker, I think it’s because of the way that I carry myself and the look in my eyes. I do always correct them, as I have not earned that title. I can spot the non thru-hikers from a mile away and some of the southbounders who are just beginning now, late, and whose chances may be slim as the seasons change. The northbounders, on the other hand, have earned their stripes, and it shows in their eyes and demeanor. They do, after all, have over 2,000 miles under their belts at this point.

I set an intention for this journey yesterday. Or, rather, an intention was revealed to me. I am hiking for and in honor of my Grandfather, Papou, who I first climbed Katahdin with while he was battling cancer but neither of us knew it at the time. He was with me that day and he is with me now.

It is late, but I am still awake. I am restless in the lean to and want to be in my tent alone simply so I can move and yawn without bothering others. My body is in pain and I need to stretch. Every step and movement hurts.

One cool thing about the lean-to is that it has a tin roof and tonight it is raining. This brings back memories. I once slept under a tin roof for a long period of time, and, although that was not a great time of my life, the sound brings me peace and security nonetheless.

August 17, 2014

Today was long, thirteen miles over five separate peaks and four separate mountains. I am still in a lot of pain and did not sleep last night but I am taking care of my feet, being careful, and praying and meditating, asking to be healed. I am on the mend. It rained hard again last night and today and all the mountains were covered in fog. I had hoped to see Katahdin from the top of White Cap Mountain. I am camping forty-eight miles in but have walked a little more than that, probably about fifty miles.

Right now I am in my tent, miles from the nearest shelter and camped on the side of a mountain right next to a pond. I feel like Thoreau. It is beautiful and peaceful here and I have found some stillness in my mind, heart, and soul in this quiet and enchanted place. The rain has stopped now. I am hoping for some dry weather. The loons are calling and fish are jumping in the pond. I am physically in pain but I am at complete peace mentally and spiritually, at this moment. I met a nice older woman tonight named Cowgirl who also prefers camping away from shelters. She is from Wyoming and camping with her dog, Cooper. We had a nice conversation.

There are good people in this world.

It is almost 11 pm and raining so hard on my tent that it woke me up. It has been cold and rainy almost the entire time. It is pouring now. Hypothermia would come in no time for someone unprepared. The sky just must get tired of being so cold and rainy eventually.

Last night, I met a beautiful woman who has the trail name of “Chamomile”. She looked at me with warm and piercing eyes and said, “A lot of the things I thought I had dealt with came up for me during the beginning.” Ain’t that the truth.

People and situations from my past keep appearing, similar to a log stuck in a hole of churning rapids, unable to find complete release to move forward down the river.

I haven’t written much about this because I don’t want to validate and reinforce these thoughts, memories, regrets, and desires.

Please Lord, take her from y thoughts and dreams. Take them out of my head so I can continue down this path, free from the beautiful and painful ghosts of my past. Redirect my thoughts to service.

How can I be of service to You and my fellow human beings? Forward Christopher… forward. My tears now mix with rain.

This trail is filled with old souls, I wonder if I am one of them.

August 18, 2014

Today was a pretty flat day except one small mountain. I hope I sleep early, as tomorrow will be a longer day. I am very grateful to get a break from the mountains and just walk through the woods and I’m grateful for the change of weather.

This morning I said, “Ok God, if you want this entire experience to be cold rain, wind, and fog will accept that.” Shortly thereafter the clouds parted. Goodnight.

August 19, 2014

Tonight was wonderful. I busted my ass for eighteen miles to be able to camp right on the shore of this big and beautiful lake. The weather is nice now and I hiked for ten hours today, making it to this beach by 5 pm. I hung up a clothesline and did my laundry with Dr. Bonner’s peppermint soap. I also went skinny-dipping and washed my entire body and hair with Dr. Bonners. I took all the dressings off of all of my wounds. I feel amazing now that I am clean and got to swim! The laundry is hanging to dry now. I’m gambling that it won’t rain. The lake is pristine and my tent is within feet of it. No one else is anywhere near here. I even made a fire and had Pad Thai for dinner. My legs, feet, back, and ass are all very sore. I wish I could make tomorrow less than ten miles but that would put me behind.

I met a guy yesterday who told me he was headed to the “Potato Dojo” lean-to. It’s actually a native word spelled Patawayjo, but we both got a good laugh. I also crossed paths with a southbounder today who asked how the terrain coming up was. I told him his next twenty miles were flat and easy, and this conversation followed:

guy- “So no mud, roots, etcetera?”

me- “Yes, there is mud and roots, but no mountains and no alligators.”

guy- “Crocodiles?”

me- “Nope.”

guy- “Pitbulls?”

me- “Nope.”

guy- “Water buffalo?”

me- “I believe there were two water buffalo, yes.”

(End of conversation, neither of us slowed our gait to engage in this discourse.)

I’m in my tent but not tired yet. I may read. Goodnight.

August 20, 2014

Today is my little brother’s birthday!

Today also marks one full week of no communication with the outside world. No cell phone, no Facebook, no email. I think I can hear coyotes but maybe not. I have a big stick.

 Anyways, it feels great to be unplugged and more present in nature, my conversations with others, with myself, and with God. Tomorrow I will enter Baxter State Park and there will be lots of humans, non long distance backpacker humans. I still have three days on the trail after today including Katahdin on my birthday.

I have no idea what the weather forecast is but I will find out tomorrow. I hope it is nice because you simply can’t climb Katahdin and summit in bad weather, it is too dangerous. Recently I saw someone post on Facebook how he planned to “conquer” Mount Washington. We don’t conquer mountains. They sometimes let us climb and enjoy their beauty, but only when they choose.

 The animals are going wild tonight! I mean really singing and howling. I met some nice people today, but again, left them and found yet another gorgeous lake to camp by alone. I set my tent up in the dark tonight after a long sixteen miles and a late start. I love using the maps I have instead of a computer. I learn the maps, then decide my plan, and then all sorts of unpredictable stuff happens and everything unfolds, ultimately, as it should.

 August 21, 2014

 I am through the 100 Mile Wilderness and camping on the side of the Penobscot River at the edge of Baxter State Park. My intention for this trip was to think about my grandfather and remember the time we spent together and what we taught one another, especially what he taught me. I have been and will continue to do that.

I had a great conversation at the edge of the river tonight with a young couple, both very plugged into God and nature. I also met two lawyers from New York City and we all hung out by the river before I eventually snuck off to my tent. Ten more miles to complete my journey to Katahdin. Over one hundred miles now completed. I ate food from the Abol Bridge Restaurant and now I am too full. I should have stuck to oatmeal and nuts.

Goodnight.

August 22, 2014

 I am now at the base of Katahdin and staying at a special camping area designated only for long distance hikers. The young fellow, Ian, and his partner, Courtney are here, as well as a southern man named Jean. I met Ian and Courtney last night, we had a lot to talk about, and get along well. I am glad we met.

Tonight we will have a big fire and sleep before we part ways and I move on to Katahdin, solo.

I want to hike alone tomorrow, or, rather, with God and the spirits of those we have lost as well as my undoubtedly worried loved ones back at home. I am focusing specifically tonight on my grandfather, Papou, who is here with me now.

This may be my last night in a tent, I’m not sure where tomorrow will take me after the climb. My car is about ten miles from the summit, making for an extremely long day if I try to reach it. I may hitch a ride or guerrilla camp inside Baxter tomorrow night.

August 24 through August 25

I didn’t have time to write yesterday, but what an amazing birthday!

Yesterday was a saga of wonderfulness. I met two new people just starting southbound and hoping to reach Georgia. Yesterday was my first time climbing this side of Katahdin, it was fun to have a new experience with the mountain I love and respect so dearly. We all got day packs from the rangers so we wouldn’t have to hike up the mountain with all our weight and heavy packs and that helped make the climb a breeze, honestly.

I am in the best physical condition and mental and possibly spiritual ever, and Katahdin was a fun and quick hike compared to years past. I took some time to reflect on the trip and my intention of remembering and honoring my grandfather. I did this particularly during the extra five miles I hiked from Katahdin’s base back to Abol Bridge.

I find myself so caught up in the daily life that I am not often conscious of the gifts and lessons given by people no longer physically with us, especially after so many years. This intention allowed me to remember, reflect, and honor these gifts and this journey through the wilderness allowed me to finally find the calm and the focus to write something unrelated to the law, as I have been trying to do for years.

After reading in my car, in the twilight, at Abol Bridge, after a sixteen mile day with Katahdin in the middle, I met a friendly southbounder just beginning his journey and I got a kick out of his bear spray and mosquito net for his head. He kept hiking that night and I think he has a good chance, despite the lateness of the season.

After we parted ways I decided to start driving south. My plan was to drive until I was too tired and then get a room somewhere. My plans are often eclipsed by the plan of the universe and that night was no exception.

I thought my through hiker friends would be long done with dinner, but I nonetheless, inexplicably, turned off the road toward 95 and headed to the A.T. Cafe in downtown Millinocket. I was truly led there upon no volition of my own. Sure enough, as soon as I opened the door I spotted my people.

The place was filled with through hikers and their families, all at one big table. I was immediately welcomed and greeted with warm cheers, smiles, and laughter. A chair was added for me and we broke bread- feasted really. They bought me dinner for my birthday and I had a wonferful piece of strawberry rhubarb pie, a la mode!

They even sang Happy Birthday to me.

They were all strangers, yet they were not. Is anyone really a stranger? The more I live and learn the less I believe in strangers.

I have found my tribe. Long distance backpackers. Sharp and hardened minds and bodies, yet soft, open, and beautiful hearts and souls. I am home.
I ended up bringing two of the through hikers back to Yarmouth to my grandmother’s house with me that evening and we had a wonderful conversation.

Want to surprise your grandmother? Have her wake up to a man and woman in sleeping bags in her living room.

We all had a marvelous breakfast of eggs, fruit, bacon, muffins, donuts, coffee, and juice. They were incredibly grateful and I brought them to Cousin’s Island and LIttlejohn in the morning to swim before Kim’s mom arrived to drive them to Rhode Island and then Jacob continued on to New York City.

At times on the journey I kept replaying what happened with the woman I love over the last year. The vision came to me of a log trapped in the rapids of a raging river. As, of course, many raging rivers were presented during the trip by virtue of timing, weather, and ultimately God.

A hole in river rapids is a place where the water flows upstream and anything that falls into it becomes stuck there, being churned and destroyed until it ultimately dies or is released.

I was the log trapped in the hole, replaying the past, churning, drowning. But now I am in the process of finding that release from the hole, to be free, to pop out and be allowed to continue flowing down this river we call life.

“The best part of the trail is the solitude and the companionship.”- Unknown

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Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a lifelong Portlander who works on a lobster boat, advocates for the marginalized and downtrodden, and occasionally ruffles feathers in City Hall and Augusta.