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When in Monson…

By Bruce “RTK” Matson

While no statistics exist, it’s unlikely that many hikers pass up the opportunity to stop in Monson, Maine on their AT thru-hike north.  Sitting at the gateway to the 100-Mile Wilderness, most at least need to resupply in this town for the long, last push. Many thru-hikers look to “zero” in Monson to prepare mentally as well as materially for this special time.  With just over a hundred miles remaining on a 2,200-mile journey, it’s time to “catch your breath” and consider the magnitude of the adventure that is about to end.

I loved Monson, but for the Platinum-Blazer, there’s nothing immediately obvious as a luxury or “platinum” experience in Monson.  Yet, with some preparation and planning (particularly if you refer to Platinum-Blazing the Appalachian Trail: How to Thru-Hike in 5 3-Star Luxury), a nearly complete platinum experience awaits the thru-hiker in this tiny Maine town.

Many experienced hikers will urge you to “make sure you stay at Shaw’s.” Others will say you “can’t miss Lakeshore House.” If you are looking for platinum accommodations, Lakeshore House Lodge & Pub has private, essentially bed & breakfast, rooms.  Yet, you can also secure a private room at Shaw’s Hiker Hostel. I had a private room at Shaw’s, but regardless of where you stay, Monson is compact and completely walkable from either home base.  Hence, it’s easy to indulge in the food options available – food being the first thing most thru-hikers seek out once securing a place to lay their head.

For a town its size, the hiker food choices are remarkable, even if many are not premium or “platinum.”  The first thing gbolt and I did after checking in at Shaw’s was to walk up to A.E. Robinson Convenience Store and enjoy an excellent pizza – one that made the “best” list in Platinum-Blazing the Appalachian Trail.  On the walk back, we stopped at the Monson General Store, an exceptional deli that also merited mention in Platinum-Blazing. Gbolt and I purchased local, blueberry honey to enhance our peanut butter tortillas in the upcoming wilderness (sounds like a “platinum” peanut butter wrap to me!). Choosing pizza over BBQ was a tough decision, because Spring Creek BBQ was open (it opens for Thursday thru Sunday only each week in season). Spring Creek is also noted in Platinum-Blazing.

Before returning to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, we stopped by the new ATC Monson Visitor Center. The ATC set this up to help mostly with thru-hikers planning their finish, particularly their day up Mt. Katahdin – likely a response to Baxter State Park’s concerns about summit celebrations and the rising number of thru-hikers entering the park to complete their time on the AT. Being able to see a model of Katahdin and the related maps added to the excitement and anticipation that characterized our time in Monson.

One platinum food experience in Monson can be found at the Lakeshore House. (In 2018 a new, very platinum dinner experience was introduced on weekend nights at The Quarry restaurant.) The town is pleasant and quiet, with a finger of Lake Hebron reaching into town and sitting right next to the outdoor dining at Lakeshore, where even poorly-dressed hikers can enjoy excellent meals in great setting (sometimes with outdoor entertainment). Thus, if you don’t stay at Lakeshore House, you must visit for a drink or a meal and the atmosphere, which includes exceptionally friendly service by Rebekah and her wonderful staff. Likewise, if you stay at Lakeshore, you must visit Shaw’s Hiker Hostel.

Known by most hikers affectionately as just “Shaw’s,” this hostel has operated in Monson for over 40 years.  In 2015, Hippie Chick and Poet (2008 thru-hikers) acquired Shaw’s Hiker Hostel and has operated it since then for the hiker community. As a hostel, Shaw’s is about as complete as any on the AT.  In addition to the usual services and amenities, Shaw’s offers many things that set them apart.  “Poet’s Emporium” is a real outfitter and the resupply options are among the best at any stop anywhere on the Trail.

The platinum-minded hiker will be drawn to two services also offered by Shaw’s – slackpacking and food drops. Alas, the 100-mile wilderness is no longer quite the wilderness it once was.  Now for a variety of fees, you can have resupply dropped for you in the middle of the wilderness (thus, avoiding a heavy pack with 4 to 7 days of food).  Or, even better, you can be an ultra, Platinum-Blazer and slackpack through a very large portion of the 100-mile wilderness with a return each night to a bed at Shaw’s (or elsewhere). While I’m proud of my Platinum-Blazing adventures, gbolt and I decided to tackle the final stage of our journey with full packs, including six days of food.

Another meaningful part of visiting Shaw’s is the opportunity to commune with fellow hikers – most of whom are poised to begin the final leg of an audacious journey that started over 2,000 miles south on the top of Springer Mountain. For me the atmosphere was an interesting mix of excitement, anticipation and reflection, almost a reverence for what everyone had accomplished by actually getting this far in the trek north – little bravado and lots of mutual respect, regardless of one’s age or worldview.  Again, at least for me, Monson and Shaw’s is a mandatory zero – pause long enough to contemplate all that has happened and to prepare for a finish that will honor the effort put forth.

Lastly, but not to be forgotten, Shaw’s is perhaps best known for its outstanding hiker breakfast – featuring 3 eggs to order, bacon, Poet’s famous home fries, juice, coffee and unlimited blueberry pancakes.   Shaw’s breakfast was not selected as the “Best Platinum Breakfast” in Platinum-Blazing the Appalachian Trail, but it was the choice of many and was certainly one of our finalists. It really should not be missed.

After gbolt and I enjoyed this fabulous breakfast, Poet ran us to the trailhead, and we started the last part of our long journey on the AT. Monson had been the perfect respite materially (resupply – I picked up a box from home, supplemented those items, and replaced a sleeping pad that had leaked), physically (a zero day of rest & relaxation before the six-day sojourn), and spiritually (time to reflect with fellow hikers and privately about what the 6-month journey had meant).  Although this town of less than 1,000 inhabitants did not “win” the award for “best platinum trail town” in Platinum-Blazing, it was a finalist on my list – and, pound for pound there may be no equal.  So, when in Monson . . . be sure to take some time there and enjoy every moment.