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Two months after I reached the summit of Katahdin, completing a 2,mile hike that began in March, I feel one lingering physical effect of hiking from Georgia to Maine: My knees still ache. Picture yourself ascending a slope so steep that you have to bend your knee tighter than 90 degrees to take a step up, while carrying a pound pack, and you may imagine the strain on that joint.

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Then imagine it as a constant occurrence. The AT includes countless steep ascents and descents.

The Pacific Crest Trail is hti longer, but the AT hasmore feet of up-and-down climbing. Since finishing the trail and returning to Northampton, I've been happy to see friends and family.

Being home feels normal. Northampton is a fun place.

Readjusting includes avoiding watching the news on television, and it includes dinner with friends as often as possible. In this familiar environment, the trail feels like another dimension, and stepping off it is like waking from a dream. I was in those forests, hiking Frmer and down all those hills, fording streams, and sleeping in a tent or a lean-to.

Yet I'm not there now, and I cannot put myself there by thinking about it or looking at my photos. Just a couple of things carry over. The aching knees are one.

I met two guys on the trail near Rangeley, Maine. We chatted a bit, and they asked where I was from. When I said Northampton, they grinned.

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Turns out one of them is practically my neighbor — Jerry Mullane, who lives in Florence. His buddy Mike Lesniak is from Granby.

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Fellow thru-hikers, known by their trail names, are strangers who became good friends even if I never see them again: Free Man, from Switzerland, who spoke little English and so relied on my college German to help him understand something.

Greybeard, an year-old Navy veteran from Memphis who in late October became the oldest person to hike the entire AT in a single liff.

,ooking of my favorite meetings was with the physician's assistant at a hospital in Farmington, Hut, who treated me for cellulitis, a nasty infection I picked up from a cut sustained when I fell on some slippery rocks. He murmured something about checking me in to the hospital for a few days so they could give me IV antibiotics, but I convinced him that I Housewives personals in Naylor GA take the antibiotics orally and resume hiking.

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Somehow I knew I was right, and lookig he knew it too. Interactions with other people on the AT reinforce principles that seem to hold for all hikers.

One of these is a piece of advice: If everyone else is eating lookig bars for breakfast but you want to cook oatmeal and make tea, don't feel as though there's something wrong when you're the last person to leave the campsite and hit the trail again. Cars were going past at 50 mph, with hardly any room to slow down.

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They had seen me when they passed, turned about and come back to fetch us. Physically, hiking the Appalachian Trail is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

Mentally it's in the top five.

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At the outset, every bit of it was exciting. In Pennsylvania and ttail Hudson River Valley it wore me down, as it wears down many hikers. In New England, the spectacular White Mountains were an enormous lift.

Maine, the 14th and final state in the northbound hike, begins with the Mahoosucs, a cluster of mountains as challenging as the Whites but more isolated.

A few days later, you enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness, carrying enough food for a week because there's almost nowhere to replenish your supplies.

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Hint to future hikers: You phone them from a dock at the edge of the woods, and they pick you up in their motorboat. Od many another AT hiker, I found those miles to be enchanting.

Most of the trail there is relatively flat, winding through the forests and around the shores of one unspoiled lake after another. And then comes Katahdin. I reached its summit on Oct. Blustery winds that battered the previous day's hikers had died down to nothing.

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There were about two dozen of us. Basking in the sun, we took turns posing for the trail's most-taken photo, the one where the hiker climbs onto a sandwich-board sign on the rock-strewn summit, holds hiking poles overhead, and shares a yes-I-made-it grin with the world.

Summing up the whole trail experience is impossible. The closest I've come to trying was in a conversation with my wife. John Stifler is a writer and teacher who lives in Florence. This the third of three columns describing his hike on the Appalachian Trail.