Forty Years, Forty Posts #37

When I lived in Maine I discovered a fondness for the outdoors, though I still prefer a cabin to a tent and if the cabin has wireless internet and cable, all the better. I prefer a tame wilderness, the kind of pastoral countryside that Emerson would have rambled across before jotting down magnificent thoughts in his journals, or would have inspired Wordsworth to write a poem about clouds and flowers.

Maine has plenty of tame wilderness, and a bit of wild wilderness. Usually I’d go for day-long sojourns, footing it up a hill or through some woods without need for belay equipment or a 22-gauge shotgun. I’d come across brash deer and brasher raccoons, but rarely anything as remarkable as a bear or a moose (though I always hoped to see one from a safe distance).

The pinnacle of these expeditions was the top of Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the second-highest peak in New England. It’s a good five hour hike, uphill of course, and while you don’t need mountain climbing gear or heavy-duty camping equipment, there is some rigorous bouldering and opportunities to take deadly falls or get hopelessly lost. You might also run into a ton of ungulate, if you are unlucky enough to find one dozing on the path. That didn’t happen to me, but I heard it happens and turned it into a (yet unpublished) story.

You have to embark at dawn, so you have to time to go up and come down before darkfall. It is easy to take such a climb to be mythic in scope, and for me, a farily recent transplant to the state, and even more recently a nonsmoker and enjoying a spate of new outdoorsy activities, I did just that, moving steadfasly forward on a path that Thoreau himself had taken some 150 years earlier, and one that had changed very little since. I felt like I was climbing up to a better me, one who would do such a thing as climb a mountain. I had a partner and met others on the way, but preferred to hang back, seeing this as a solitary journey.

I ate a PB&J sandwich half way up (it was a warm day, and I didn’t trust anything else to be warmed by the sun for six or seven hours before eating it), and washed it down with fresh water from a mountain stream that was better than any bottled water (though it may have been why I got terribly sick later that week). As I neared the peak I met climbers already headed down, including some sinewy mountain men with Grizzly Adams beards who had hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, an amazing two-month effort that several hundred of the hardiest hikers do every year. Being the northernmost point of the trail and the last day of the season, there were dozens of them, comrades from the trail, and I envied them for having done such a thing and marveled at their long adventure finally being over.

I arrived at the summit at the hottest part of the day, and was greeted by the tangy scent of urine and a horde of blackflies. The peak of Kathadin has a pyramid of stones placed there by climbers so it could be officially a mile high. It seems the quicker climbers who arrive first at the top that day (and perhaps every day) and toasted their accomplishment by marking the stones with their scent. It was an abysmal climax to an epic climb, and it didn’t help to see nine and ten year old children had taken the same great trek in flip-flops.

(Mt Katahdin Sign photo by Matt Pettengill, taken from Flickr and covered by the Creative Commons license.)

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