MONSON, Maine — With a large backpack secured to his thin frame, the young man walked briskly along the shoulder of the dirt road. It had been raining all morning. His curly hair was dripping wet, and his boots were coated with mud.
He was dirty, he smelled and he knew it.
Jason Rakes, a 23-year-old from Arkansas, had been hiking and camping practically nonstop for 2,000 miles. He was ready for a shower and a warm bed, and he knew where to find it.
Monson. Less than 2 miles ahead.
With an estimated population just shy of 700 residents, the tiny town of Monson is located near the Appalachian Trail, a famous footpath that stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. For hikers, the town is an important place to purchase supplies, rest and plan.
“There’s a bakery and a gas station,” Rakes said, referring to his guidebook. But first, he was headed to the Shaw’s Hiker Hostel to drop off his pack, claim a $25 bed and change into some dry clothes.
Of all the towns located along the AT, Monson is especially important because it is located on the southern edge of the 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote section of the trail. For hikers headed north, it is the last glimpse of civilization they see before hiking 100 miles to Baxter State Park. And for those hiking south, it’s the first town they reach after walking through the woods and over mountains for several days.
Former high school teachers and AT thru-hikers, Kimberly and Jarrod Hester moved to Monson with their 3-year-old daughter, Julia, in May after purchasing Shaw’s Hiker Hostel. Known as one of the oldest AT hostels, Shaw’s has been in operation for 38 years and has a reputation of serving a “killer breakfast” of blueberry pancakes, homefries, eggs and bacon.
Since opening for the season on May 15, the Hesters have been catering to hikers nonstop. They offer free rides to the trailhead, cold drinks on arrival, hot showers, soft beds, laundry services and foot soaks in epsom salts.
“We plan on making this a redneck Riviera of sorts,” Jarrod Hester said.
In the short time they’ve run the business, they’ve also developed a small gear shop where they sell items that include dehydrated meals, lightweight camping gear, cookstove fuel and first aid products.
The Hesters know firsthand about hiking the AT. In 2008, the couple hiked the entire trail, and along the way, they adopted the names “Hippie Chick” and “Poet.” It’s a longstanding tradition for long-distance hikers to adopt “trail names.”
On Sept. 11, when Rakes arrived at the hostel, fellow AT hikers “Hasselhoff,” “Little Red” and “Fly Away” were sitting at the kitchen table chatting. Rakes introduced himself as “Silent,” a trail name reflecting his reserved demeanor.
“Since June 5, we’ve had guests every night,” Kimberly Hester said. “We’ve definitely had our share of full houses, with all 24 beds full and five to eight tents in the yard.”
This year, an all-time high of more than 3,000 people attempted to hike the entire AT; next year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy expects this number to climb even higher.
“We’re ready for it,” Jarrod Hester said. “We’re kind of excited about it.”
“Monson really appreciates the hiking community and recognizes that hikers bring a lot of life to the town,” Kimberly Hester said. “I feel like the town definitely sees that ecotourism might be its future.”
Three years ago, registered Maine Guide Phil Pepin opened 100 Mile Wilderness Adventures and Outfitters, a complex of rustic cabins tucked in the woods on Pleasant Street in Monson.
His intentions were to lodge and assist thru-hikers (those attempting to hike the entire trail without any significant breaks) and section hikers (those attempting to hike just a section of the trail). But since then, he’s had some negative experiences, including guests writing on walls, stealing money from his donation jar and trashing rooms. These problems always seem to involve thru-hikers, not section hikers. As a result, he now turns away most thru-hikers. Instead, he focuses on serving section hikers, mainly people attempting to hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness.
“This generation is going to have to change their attitude because more and more places like myself are closing their doors to thru-hikers,” Pepin said.
Pepin has thru-hiked the AT three times — in 1971, 1982 and 2010 — and has spent many years maintaining sections of the trail as a member of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.
However, in recent years, he’s been discouraged by the changes he’s seen on the trail.
“There’s just way too many people,” Pepin said. “I hate to generalize, but it’s become a party crowd. … I hope it can change and something can be done. I’d be sorry to lose the trail I grew up with.”
Just down the road, Shaw’s Hiker Hostel has served approximately 1,000 hikers so far this season, many of them thru-hikers, and the hostel owners haven’t had any bad experiences with guests so far. The Hesters have heard of problems with AT thru-hikers, but they suspect the troublemakers are few and far between.
“It’s 1 percent of the hikers, if that,” Jarrod Hester said. “And that 1 percent gets a lot of publicity. We’ve got to focus on that 99 percent who are just loving and rocking this trail.”
From Shaw’s, hikers need only walk a few hundred feet to reach “downtown” Monson. On Main Street is a post office, gas station, Spring Creek Bar-B-Q, the Lakeshore House (a restaurant lodge) and a bakery-diner called Pete’s Place.
“Business is really growing now that the word has gotten out on the trail,” Pete Weymouth, who opened Pete’s Place about two years ago, said.
The walls of the bakery are covered with AT memorabilia, along with taxidermy mounts and odd antiques. On the chalkboard menu is a special called “100 Miler”: three eggs, three pancakes, choice of meat, homefries, toast, coffee, juice and a choice of baked beans, grits or hot cereal. The $15 meal was designed to satisfy the appetites of hungry hikers.
“[The hikers] are here because they want to be here,” Colleen Pinkerton, co-owner of Pete’s Place, said. “They have either just came off the 100 Mile Wilderness or are just about to finish their long journey. They’re usually pretty happy — and hungry.”
During the hiking season, Pete’s Place serves breakfast to hikers starting at 5 a.m., an hour before the bakery opens to the public, so they can catch an early shuttle to the trailhead. And the owner never intended to offer hamburgers or ice cream, he does now because so many hikers suggested it.
“We do whatever it takes to help them continue on their journeys,” Pinkerton said.
At a wooden table at the back of Pete’s Place on Sept. 11 sat Warren Doyle, a man from Tennessee who said he’s hiked the Appalachian Trail 17 times —- nine thru-hikes and seven section hikes. He was in Monson that day to take a break while leading a group hike of the trail.
Over the years, Doyle has become well acquainted with the AT — and the communities the trail visits.
“In 1975, there were no hostels here [in Monson],” Doyle said. “I was hiking with 19 students from the University of Connecticut, and we stayed in the town’s gazebo.”
At that time, the AT had a slightly different course. Instead of striking through the forest 2 miles west of downtown Monson as it does today, the AT followed Pleasant Road to Main Street, where it turned left and traced the busy road to Elliotsville Road.
In 1982, the AT was moved off the roads of Monson and onto a new forest path. At that time, many sections of the trail were being moved off roads in an effort to make the hike more of a wilderness experience.
Despite the trail being taken out of the heart of town, Monson remains an important stop for AT hikers. In July 2012, Monson became the first town to earn the designation as an Appalachian Trail Community by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“I think Monson still sees the same amount of hikers [as it did before the trail was moved], if not more,” said Keith Shaw Jr., son of the late Keith Shaw, who founded Shaw’s Boarding House —recently renamed Shaw’s Hiker Hostel — in 1977. “They still have to come into the town to resupply before they hit the 100-Mile.”