They had planned to party on top of the mountain with a cup of tea, a few songs off-key and a ceremonial chaw of Red Man's tobacco. After 2,126.2 miles, through 14 states, eight national forests and too many candy bars to count, they wanted time at trail's end to savor their mixed emotions.

But when Red Man, the Mountain Lyons sisters and Andy Coone reached the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine's highest and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, they stayed only two minutes before gale winds and rain blew them off the peak.

"It was typical getting up there and having it rain," said Coone, 30, a slow-talking hiker from South Carolina who finished the trail here in Baxter State Park exactly six months after he began it on a cold morning in Georgia. "Somehow it seemed very fitting."

As long as you avoid being mistaken for a moose, September is a great month to be in the Maine woods. Leaves here celebrate fall with a gaudy display of color that is reflected in a thousand rivers and lakes.

Baxter State Park, which is farther north than Montreal but only halfway through Maine, is just one of a dozen state parks with mountain peaks, hiking trails and breathtaking panoramas. But come September this park boasts something extra -- the scruffiest, stronggest-legged, wild-eyed hikers in the world.

They are "thru hikers," men and women who walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail along a spine of East Coast mountains. Every spring hundreds of hikers set off from Springer Mountain in Georgia intending to walk to Maine. By the time the trail reaches Katahdin's 6,000-foot peak, there are only a dozen or so survivors still on their feet.

They are trail hard when they begin thair last four-hour climb up the mountain. They come down woozy and confused with emotion. In a spiral notebook pinned to a bulletin board at the base of the mountain, they write their feelings, quote T.S. Eliot or make up poetry of their own.

9/1/82 Sad Day. Empty Now. What will I do? What does it all mean? On March 22, 1982 I thought it would never end. Today I cried because it did. --Laurie A. Messich, the Umbrella Lady, Annapolis, Md.

Stonefish 9/10/82. Easy climb, my fins never even touched the rocks. Difficult climb. Hardest one I've ever made. I cried hard. The fog swirled. --Stu Kane, New York.

"This mountain gets people real emotional," said Coone, who has a stride that seems impossibly long for a man shorter than 5 feet 8. "You start to see it from 130 miles away. It grows and grows. By the time you get here it is almost a legend."

Only 1,000 people have hiked the entire trail since its completion in 1937. Coone has done it three times. He can't say why exactly. It has something to do with accomplishment, sunsets in lush green places and a camaraderie that is depressingly hard to find outside the trail.

"You immediately trust people you meet on the trail," he said. "A lot of times you know who they are and all about their good and bad times before you ever see them."

That apparent magic is accomplished via the trail's underground information network. At shelters along the trail, hikers keep a steady supply of cheap, spiral notebooks for messages, advice, or gossip for hikers following. You can learn about "Muskrat" and "Chip Head" or "St. Pete Steve's adventures," follow the beginnings and ends of trail romances or peek into the psyching of a hiker debating with himself on whether to give up the trail. It is instant folklore.

By the time he reached Maine, Coone was travelling with three of this summer's more famous trail characters--Red Man and the Mountain Lyons Sisters. Mike Curran, a Minnesota printer with red hair, beard, complexion, cap, coat, and socks explains that he is called Red Man for the brand of tobacco he chews. Mary and Francine Lyons are from New Jersey and are also known as the Sisters of Perpetual Recreation because of their song and dance numbers, the clown makeup they frequently wear, and their specialty number of imitating bears begging handouts at the more populated spots along the trail.

Francine, a 22-year-old artist, had never hiked at all before starting the trail last spring. After 8.7 miles on the first day she declared, "This is a sport for idiots." After 30 days of continual rain in Virginia she called her mother to say she was catching the next bus home.

"Mom said the bus rates have gone up, keep walking," remembered sister Mary, a 25-year-old teacher who gleefully admitted conning her sister into thinking the trip would be a nice hike in the woods.

On Oct. 9, Coone, Red Man and the Lyons plan to attend a conference in Pipestem, W.Va., for all living hikers who have completed the trail. Beyond that none is quite sure what comes next. That sentiment apparently is a common one to have at the base of Katahdin.

This passage was recorded in the base camp notebook by a Georgia hiker: "I think my fear is that the rest of my life will be an anticlimax. I hope I'm afraid enough of that to do everything possible to keep it from happening. I think there is life after the Trail."