A few days before my trip up to central Maine, I was standing in line at a grocery store, unloading handfuls of protein bars, fruit, and other snacks onto the conveyor belt, when the patron in front of me made a friendly observation: “Looks like you’re ready for some backpacking.” Not quite, I told him—I […]
By Cathryn McCann
Oct 04 2017
The expansive view from Baxter Peak, the 5,267-foot summit of Mount Katahdin.Photo Credit : Cathryn McCann
A few days before my trip up to central Maine, I was standing in line at a grocery store, unloading handfuls of protein bars, fruit, and other snacks onto the conveyor belt, when the patron in front of me made a friendly observation: “Looks like you’re ready for some backpacking.” Not quite, I told him—I was prepping for a long drive and multiple hiking trips. He paused for a moment, then offered another thought: “You know, I’ve never understood the concept of hiking. You walk up just to walk down again.” Before I got a chance to play hiker’s advocate, he shuffled forward to slide his card into the chip reader and move on with his day.
The thing about a five-hour drive is that, even with the windows rolled down and the greatest of playlists turned up, you’re inevitably provided with the best environment for pondering, well, just about everything. So as I cruised hundreds of miles along the highway, occasionally reaching for some of those crunchy snacks, I pondered what the man in the grocery store had said. Was it crazy that I had spent hours—days, even—making lodging and travel arrangements and buying food and meticulously packing, just to walk up some mountains and back down again?
Here’s where I landed: If it’s crazy, then I sure have spent a lot of my life in a state of insanity. And that’s fine by me.
It’s fine because to me, hiking cannot be summated by two directions. Up and down—that’s the basic concept, surely the goal, but not the experience. Had I told the grocery store gentleman (let’s just call him Earl) that the snacks he saw strewn across the conveyor belt would, in 48 hours, be fuel to get me “up and down” a mountain that had been standing tall for over 400 million years, shaped and sculpted by glaciers, and climbed by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt, I wonder if his opinion would have swayed. This is, after all, a place whose Penobscot name means “greatest mountain,” a spectacular geological formation with a bouldered trail only a few feet wide. Would he care? About any of this?
People from near and far have heard of Mount Washington, the moody grandfather of New England. But one state over and 200 miles away, there stands a mountain that tempts adventurers from all over to the rural back roads of Maine, the lush forest of Baxter State Park, and trails that seem more like a dangerous game of rocky hopscotch. It’s Mount Katahdin, and you don’t need to understand the concept of hiking (or why I needed so many snacks) to appreciate its magnificence.
That’s because the Katahdin experience begins far before any upward directional movement. The mountain defines its region of central Maine. Country stores, lodges, campsites, and entire towns proudly tout the name of this centerpiece of the 235,000-acre Baxter State Park. Its mere mention injects a shot of energy into an otherwise calm and rural classic-small-town New England atmosphere. And rightly so. The evening before my hike I sat back in an Adirondack chair on the grounds of the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket, felt the breeze blowing from across Millinocket Lake, and gazed at the mountain I planned to summit. Although appearing so small from my lakeside refuge, the mountain, wide and dark, had already ignited the experience—far before any hiking.
At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, however, as I rubbed my sleepy eyes to a partially open position and felt around to shut off my phone’s blaring alarm, I threw Earl a mental bone. OK, sir, maybe this is crazy. Is this worth it? It’s just up and down…. And yet, armed with my snacks and some 5 a.m.-worthy strong coffee, I soon was traveling along a gradual uphill to my destination, the trailhead at Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park, feeling energized about the day ahead of me. And what did I find?
The beauty and enormity of Katahdin does, of course, make it a very popular destination. There are multiple campgrounds and trailheads at which to park and begin the hike, all requiring online registration (capped at a certain number of vehicles) weeks ahead of time. Despite my early arrival, I did have to wait in a long line of cars for about an hour before proceeding to my parking spot. Whether it was the caffeine cheer or ascent anticipation, I felt there was a communal buzz to this traffic, however—nothing like I-95 on a Friday. People laid out maps on the hoods of their cars, laced up their hiking boots, and walked around sipping their early-morning beverage of choice. I sat in my car and wondered if Earl had ever experienced being alone and surrounded all at once, as I did. Me, the green Subaru in front, and gold Toyota truck in back—we had all collectively pounced on our alarms that morning, layered up in clothing, and driven into this car parade, all with the intention of going up and down. So, hey, I wasn’t alone in my insanity.
That’s the thing: The community is part of the up-and-down experience. Turns out, the couple in the Subaru and the friends in the Toyota and I formed a bond for that one day. The guys were always about a half mile ahead, the Subaru couple a half mile behind. We snacked on the same ledges, swapped phones for photos at the summit, and became friendly strangers during our hike, all because of this desire to go up and down a mountain in the middle of Maine on a Monday.
And that communal feeling only grew with the elevation. I arrived at the 5,267-foot summit just moments before a man who only identified himself as Billy Goat. Mount Katahdin is special because it’s the final destination for all the truly remarkable folks who spend long days trekking about 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia on the famous Appalachian Trail. I watched as Billy Goat reached the sign he had spent many assuredly difficult months of his life working toward, and you bet I joined in with the crowd clapping and cheering for him as he threw his hands into the air in celebration and, probably, relief. I only wish Earl could have been there.
And then there is, of course, the Knife Edge Trail—the original draw for me and for plenty of other hikers whose blood pumps with adrenaline. While running only 1.1 miles from Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak, the Knife Edge experience is still intense, and the climb technical. From Pamola Peak, the hike begins with a steep descent down jagged boulders, only to be followed by a steep ascent—it’s really more of a tactical climb than hiking—before flattening out into a narrow, rolling ridge of rocks that often exposes hikers to fiercely windy conditions. It’s tough, maybe even scary, and requires focus, smart movement, and physical fitness. Some spots are as narrow as four feet, with 2,000-foot drops on either side, and yes, the trail has claimed numerous lives over the years. Proper equipment, weather preparedness, and good decision-making are a necessity, even for just that one-mile stretch.
If you’re prepared and careful, however, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The 360-degree view of the rocky trail, piled loose and high like Mother Nature’s delicate one-mile cairn, and inner basin, rimmed with thousands of gray-toned rocks casting shadows into the bowl of thick forest beneath, are the sights Earl didn’t see. Pulling your body weight up and over a large boulder just to go and do it again, all in pursuit of a beautiful summit, is the experience Earl didn’t have. Making it across and looking back at what you just did, and at the seemingly minuscule world below, is the feeling Earl doesn’t know.
In the end, it’s not just about going up and down, or even across, over, above, and below. It’s pausing on a teetering boulder just to feel balance. It’s stopping to look at a never-ending landscape you wish could be a permanent mental imprint. It’s checking to make sure the green Subaru couple and gold Toyota guys are doing OK. It’s sitting at the summit and just breathing. And then, it’s eating a delicious grocery store snack when you’re all done, and feeling thankful you know that, just like life, hiking is less about the ups and downs, and more about the nuances in between.