MOST of the time, the Katahdin Stream Campground in Baxter State Park in Maine is a simple cluster of tent sites and picnic tables. But for hundreds of northbound through hikers around this time of year, the little plot of land becomes a somewhat more meaningful place: the final staging area in their 2,175-mile journeys on the Appalachian Trail.
The hikers are on their way to the trail's northern terminus: the nearby summit of Mount Katahdin, whose long, bare ridgeline gives it the look of a slumbering elephant on the green plains of Maine. It is the turnstile between the wilderness life, defined by blisters, backpacks and the alter ego of a trail name, and the outside world, where there are hot showers and ice cream but also traffic jams, television and locked doors.
On a late summer evening at the campground, Bill Josler (trail name, Croc Walkers) and Donna Moot (Britannica) had just come down from the 5,267-foot peak. For them, it was the end of a four-month trek on the Appalachian Trail. Now they were in the midst of an impromptu party touched off by the arrival of Ms. Moot's daughters, Melissa, 15, and Erin, 12, and best friend, Laura Davis, 46, and Mr. Josler's son, Bill, 40. They turned the day-use parking lot into a festive scene with wine, sparkling grape juice, cookies and potato chips.
"I feel fantastic," said Ms. Moot, 49, brushing turkey-on-pumpernickel crumbs from her orange T-shirt. "I've wanted to do this since I was 18."
"I would never do it again," said Mr. Josler, 63, of White River Junction, Vt. His eyes blazed as brightly as the painted white stripes that mark the way on the trail. "There are two words I don't figure should be associated with the Appalachian Trail: dry and easy."
Mr. Josler and Ms. Moot are two of the more than three million people who hike at least a section of the trail each year. But as finishing northbounders, or nobos, they are in a select group. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 1,392 people set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia in 2005 with the intent to hike the entire corridor, which generally takes about six months.
But not everyone finishes. Because of health or family troubles, lack of money or just the tremendous tedium of walking all day, that number is whittled to a few hundred pilgrims, themselves whittled to wiry, weather-beaten figures who must arrive at Katahdin by Oct. 15, when Baxter State Park closes to campers. A smaller portion are sobos, who tackle the trail from Maine to Georgia.
In fact, since the Appalachian Trail opened in 1937, only about 8,500 people have walked the full route.
When this year's last through hikers, those who complete the entire trail, get to Baxter, many will find friends and family waiting. Some will find their last pieces of so-called trail magic, like the cold cantaloupes that a former through hiker from Savannah, Ga., Robert Croyle (trail name, Red Wolf of the Smokies), left along the trail during a recent visit to Maine. Others will find that while their packs have grown light, their feet and their hearts have grown a bit heavy as they inch closer to Mount Katahdin.
Across the picnic grounds from the party for Mr. Josler and Ms. Moot, Ari McKeown (a k a Hardcore), 22, of West Lafayette, Ind., rested in a lean-to near Katahdin Stream. She was waiting for Olive McGloin (Guinness Girl) and her husband, Darrell Johnson (Slip), two 35-year-old British air-traffic controllers she met along the trail, and some other friends. When they arrived, Ms. McKeown said, she would climb to the summit of Katahdin, known as Baxter Peak.
"It's kind of depressing because this is what I do - I walk," she said. "For five months I've been walking, and all of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh, I have to find something else to do.' "
Eventually, Ms. McKeown, Mr. Johnson and Ms. McGloin arrived at Baxter Peak. Mr. Johnson and Ms. McGloin lingered for three hours, sipping cocktails of gin and Gatorade, wondering what to do next. Mr. Johnson spread his arms wide in triumph, but his eyes betrayed a somewhat pained look.
"I hated that damn trail at times," he wrote later in an e-mail message. "But the people and the camaraderie was everything. Your life was conveniently packaged to fit on your back, direction gifted to you, being able to follow those white blazes."
For nobos, the last stretch of the Appalachian Trail actually begins at the Abol Bridge Campground and Store, a rustic outpost on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. It's little more than a log cabin with a Schlitz sign on the roof and dusty mosquito coils inside, but for a nobo, it might as well be the Ritz. After several days in the wild, uninhabited woodlands to the south that yield tantalizing views of Katahdin, hikers stumble in for 71-cent doughnuts, 95-cent ice cream bars and icy cans of beer.
"They all seem to look alike," said the proprietor, Linda Belmont, 59, who wouldn't hazard a guess at how many through hikers she has seen in her 27 years at Abol Bridge. "The shabbiness - and the smell. They're very excited and happy, and yet the majority of them, I think, have mixed feelings. It's become a way of life."
MANY believe that the last 5.2 miles of the trail, leading to Baxter Peak, are among the toughest, with VW Beetle-size boulders and jagged rocks tracing the route up Katahdin's long ridgeline. At the ranger station at the Katahdin Stream Campground, Masafumi Saito (a k a Masa), 32, a solo hiker from Yamagata, Japan, swapped his big backpack for a lightweight daypack to help make the climb to the peak easier.
Dawn brought slanted sunlight and blue sky, but a light breeze pushed clouds through the valley, indicating unpredictable conditions ahead. Mr. Saito, a former shopping center developer, spent the previous night at the base of Katahdin in the company of just a few mice, one aspect of trail life he will not miss.
(Mice are known to many through hikers. Once, Ms. Moot, sleeping nude in the heat of summer, felt a few crawl into her bag and leapt out of it, much to the surprise of the Boy Scouts sharing the shelter.)
"I went fast," Mr. Saito said, "four months, one week, one day." He spoke little English but said that he felt good, though he added that he was eager to return to the life he left behind. Through e-mail, he learned that his sister had given birth. Mr. Saito, whose father died eight years ago in a car crash, said that he often thought of his mother and how she must feel in the middle of the night, with her son in a distant wilderness.
Precisely at 6 a.m., Mr. Saito bounded onto the Hunt Trail, the footpath that led to the end of his Appalachian Trail journey. His borrowed backpack monogrammed with someone else's initials gave him the air of a child leaving for the first day of school rather than a man at the brink of achieving an extraordinary goal.
As the trail grew steeper, Mr. Saito's memories tumbled: the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, populated by bears and chipmunks; the lightning and rain of the Smokies; the snow of Georgia; the trail angels who took him to the hospital when he caught a cold and when he cut his hand.
"Many friends, many kindness," he said.
Mr. Saito walked as if he were one with the earth, his arms rigid at his sides in spots that would send the arms of day hikers flapping for balance. This is a common sight to Jean Hoekwater, a Baxter State Park naturalist, who pointed out that while through hikers make up fewer than 2 percent of the park's visitors, they're easily identified from a distance. "Their movements are really efficient," she said. "And for me, there's a look in the eye."
Ms. Hoekwater and her colleagues have seen through hikers propose at the summit of Katahdin, play games or sing a song. One wore a tuxedo; another carried a tuba, which he had brought with him from Georgia and played at the top of each mountain.
"There are all kinds of rituals," she said. "It's such an emotional thing."
After scrambling up the boulders on Katahdin's treacherous ridge and practically dancing along the flat tablelands, Mr. Saito momentarily pulled away from a reporter and photographer and was swallowed by the mist swirling around the peak. A few minutes later, the mists parted to reveal him standing alone at the holy grail that had taken him five million or so steps to reach: the worn brown sign that reads "Katahdin: Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail."
Some hikers believe that it is inauspicious to touch the sign.
"The largest problem by far is reaching the Big K," wrote Blue Jay, using a trail name on whiteblaze.net, an online forum for trail users. "You have had some of the most joyous times of your life, building to a massive emotional climax, then you're sitting in a car, bus, train or plane with the rug pulled out from under you. Once you touch that sign, the money world says 'you're mine.' My advice, don't touch it. Take your picture near it, but whatever you do don't touch it."
Mr. Saito, sniffling, touched the sign.
"That," he said, wiping tears from his cheeks, "was a very long walk."
Then he lighted a cigarette and stared down at the foggy world below.