Reflections beneath Mt. Katahdin
Cullen Thomas considers the forces of nature at the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.
In the basement waiting area of New York City’s Port Authority Station I watch the buses dock and depart from tight channels and chutes like sea creatures, floating in and disgorging, engorging and floating out.
Seated on my right, two old Amish women in black headscarves bent forward at the waist, heads in exhausted hands, like matching birds on a branch. Within reach is a moon-faced Hispanic fellow talking at cross purposes with a West Indian woman about nothing that, as far as my dim reach can manage, makes much of any sense at all; it seems they’ve just met: the apocalypse; a young kid who speaks Russian and should be in school, who they aren’t sure they can trust; some powerful or dangerous country she is trying to think of and he can’t name.
I would never otherwise in this life be here, midnight in the basement of Port Authority. But with my far away goal that starts from here, the top of that mountain, I am.
In Boston’s South Station, a big white girl with long stout legs completely covered in webs of henna.
I wonder what Thoreau might say about the relative peace of Boston as I see it now, before dawn, strange inventions stacked and jumbled around the highways, an obelisk framed sharply against the soft firelight on the horizon, the few people at this hour visible through the bus windows.
And what would he make of the grey-haired woman in baggy clothes and sandals talking to herself in the seat in front of me, a large coffee in one hand, the other raised up in a curious fist for a spell, her arm propped on the headrest of the seat next to her as she monologues about “a job in a studio”?
“They make me out to be Fran Drescher,” she argues, a pure light through the window around her, “but I’m nothing like Fran Drescher.”
I’m looking for that force of nature Thoreau wrote about. I suppose it’s here in this woman. But I want to hear the mountain’s version.
I’m surprised the Amish are coming so far north, all the way to Maine, it seems. The driver, a tall man with graying hair and glasses, repeatedly, with a certain pleasure, calls the bus a motor coach, which sounds to me like a throwback and an affectation all at once. Mechanized wagon.
My mother lived in Maine for fifteen years, and I’d often talked about climbing Mt. Katahdin during that time, up there on visits to the coast, the ocean visible through the porch windows. The high inland mountain sounded cool from there, a little holiday boast I made as we overate in the safety and warmth of Mom’s house.
The name is sharp and intriguing to me, pleasing even in the way it’s spelled, even the way Thoreau spelled it then: Ktaadn.
But I never got around to it. Never went inland, never got to know much of Maine besides that Penobscot coast, epic though it is: John Smith, Champlain, Negro Islands, odd naval defeats, a remote theater for the clash of empires, old women alone among pines and ocean wind.
And then for a long time I’d carried in my head a quotation from Thoreau, an idea that came to him as he climbed Katahdin in 1846, and which he wrote down later, appearing in his book The Maine Woods:
There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man.
Just a few weeks before my trip, hurricane Irene had flooded southern Vermont, where my mom and brother now live. I’d been visiting and watched from my brother’s kitchen as the harmless creek across the road rose, swelled, literally made waves, and left us with no where to go, marooned in the house.
And a week before that, the last of my brother’s quality cats, Tommy and Lulu, characters plucked from his backyard in Jersey City, had disappeared into the woods behind his house, stalked and carried off by fishers, no doubt, their necks ripped open and eaten. Not bound to be kind. Thoreau’s quote echoing in my head.
I while away hours in the small-town peace of Bangor. I buy a small black backpack for the climb. In a high-ceilinged corner coffee shop—as expensive as New York—a robust fellow wearing a baseball cap with military insignia sees me reading the copy of The Maine Woods I’d just bought up the street in Book Mark.
It may be of interest to me, my new friend informs me, that a locally famous man was coming back to town that weekend, an annual affair, to read from his account of being lost in the woods around Katahdin.
He walks off and returns with a page from the Bangor Daily News, places it down on the table in front of me. “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” the book’s called. Donn Fendler. He was 12. It was 1939. He survived for nine days. The picture shows a white-haired man with a strong, resolute face and the aspect of a tree.
He’s from Millinocket, my friend tells me, near the area where the Lost boy roamed, a southern station of Katahdin that Thoreau passed through and wrote about. Millinocket, another name that feels good to turn over in my mind, like a fish in a pan, tidy and right.
I am with 17 regimental freshmen from the Maine Maritime Academy, led by Commandant Loustaunau, a genial Annapolis grad in his mid-60s, whom these mugs, or midshipmen under guidance, refer to reliably as “Sir.”
They seem simpler, different to me than their nineteen- and twenty-year-old counterparts in New York. I turn to greet them, they extend to me the courtesy of the commandant, as I’m his guest, given the choice front passenger seat in our van; the mugs are cramped together in rows behind us. I hear their voices against the back of my head, can’t see faces in the changing dark.
They talk of guns, parasailing, moose hunting. “Two in three years for me,” one of them says, “my dad’s gotten only one in thirty.” Skydiving. “You pass out for the first five seconds.”
“No you don’t.”
We are in moosewoods on narrow roads, sometimes dirt, arriving at the camp in the dark. It’s cold already, past mid September. This part of Baxter State Park is only open for a few more weeks. A few cadets make a fire, their faces still unclear, most of them in academy sweatshirts pulled over their heads. One pulls out a camp stove, a little Bunsen burner and hot plate, cooks a steak in the dark. The smell will bring animals, I tease, thinking of my brother’s cats.
We sleep in lean-tos exposed to the glass night, shoulder to shoulder, bundled in bags and layers, the commandant to the left of me, two cadets to the right. Cold doesn’t give a damn, does it. Thoreau’s Indifference Principle. But we sleep.
Knife’s Edge is closed, so is Cathedral. We take Abol Trail.
It’s rugged and steep, your breath is short, the cold and mist is lifting, the air ecstatic and pure. At the tree line, pictures, and it gets steeper and all rock, hand over hand in challenging moments. My heart is racing, the mountain asserting itself. We’re up into nowhere, Brodsky’s “far-flung strew of stars,” only rock and pine. This hasn’t changed, thank God.
As I climb with the commandant he recalls through labored breaths the academy’s summer training cruise aboard the State of Maine in 2009; Mom had served as ship nurse. “She kept looking at everyone, asking, ‘Are we going to be okay?’” It was bad, he said, chuckling now, massive shipping seas, the Maine listing in the ocean’s power, the worst he’d ever seen. But they were going to be okay. And yet how could he know, I wondered. The funny part was that there really was never any guarantee.
We’re almost single file at times. “The guy with the steak knows what he’s doing!” a mug yells over the rocks, Steak man way up in front, leading the charge. Everything done and said in a measured upward motion. A heavier-set smiling cadet, bringing up the rear, looking new to stepping through infinitely angled rocks, confesses, “The most exciting trip I went on in high school was to a potato chip factory.” They will soon be engineers and third mates.
The last stretch to the tabletop, “like a short highway,” Thoreau wrote. Guy had never seen a highway. An oddly awesome terrain, viciously wind swept, “as if it had rained rocks.” Thoreau imagines Prometheus bound to them. And then something much greater and not bound at all.
I’m shivering wet. There’s a desperation, truly something merciless in the wind. It doesn’t give a damn, does it. No conversation or quarter, and so a hint of something inspiring. I rest flat on my back behind the large cairn; for a moment I mistook it for the summit. Windward the rocks of this pagoda are covered in a blanket shock of white hoar frost. Behind it is the only place out of the wind, which must be reuniting after being split by the stone just a foot or so past my face, the powerful stream of it racing back into a whole.
We regroup down a slope. Bagels with peanut butter and jelly. I give out ginger snaps; I’m given Sorrento cheese. We stretch out stiff in the sun of five thousand feet. “Thoreau’s spring” on the tabletop doesn’t do him justice. It looks like a trickle. He deserved better, I think. Maybe the reason’s the autumn. Even the white paint of Thoreau on the wooden sign marking the spot had been completely blasted out by wind and pebbles, leaving bare wood in the grooves of the name that your eyes could now easily pass over.
At the summit there’s a crowd and a bonhomie that prevails. There’s awkward room on the stones, a joyful understanding, not just of the clear accomplishment of the top, but of the humility at the center of 360 degrees of laws beyond us.
The way down is a study in ankles and knees, paths between elephant stones, a mountain stream falling as you descend into pounding waterfalls. If titled just a few degrees more, many parts of Katahdin would be unclimbable by most who go up it.
We’re down and in the vans again for no more than fifteen minutes and almost everyone is asleep. I talk softly to the commandant about Castine, history, these sleeping mugs. We get back in the dark. The commandant lives on campus in a beautiful house. I eat at the dining room table with him and his wife, their kids grown with families of their own. Steak and potatoes, our sore legs near their new golden retriever.
After dinner the commandant’s wife shows me photos of their house and town after the microburst a few years before, when my mom still lived there. Four minutes of sudden, violent wind, she says. Not even wind, really. The opposite of a tornado. It tore up and knocked down hundreds of huge trees, crashing them against houses, cars, the bleachers at the athletic field, screaming through Witherlee Woods, transforming the face of it.
In their son’s old room that night, on the soft bed with clean heavy quilts, my back, legs, knees, and feet, sore and spent, my eyes closed for sleep, I cast myself back to the top of Katahdin, up to that moon world of the tabletop and summit. I imagine how dark it must be there now, devoid of human soul, forbidding, howling, that awesome, sacred disregard.