[NOTE: I wrote this article for a magazine called _Conscious Traveller_ which folded before the issue came out that the article was to appear in! So this is an out-take; enjoy—Laura]
I’m crabwalking down into the vast calderic bowl of one of the greatest mountains on the North American continent: below me is boreal forest, above me, kilotons of raw granite. Yet all I can think of is the shoes on my feet.
You see, I’m on the famous Saddle Trail on Katahdin—a steep slope of loose dust and rolling gravel that drops from the back of the mountain like a girth on a horse—regretting that for some reason I’ve chosen, for my first climb of this legendary mountain that is the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, to wear Vans. I’ve already been climbing for hours—my legs are quaking and I can’t keep my footing.
After the umpteenth skid, I crumple into a heap and burst into sobs. “I wanted to have a good experience here. Everything’s so beautiful but I can’t appreciate it,” I weep to my companion Jill. “I wanted to love this mountain but I can’t!”
Katahdin is a raw mountain, at an altitude high above the treeline, so a hiker or climber is completely exposed to the elements. It is a kind of freak mountain, looming so imposingly above the surrounding hills that it seems to have its own orogeny, and somehow defying erosion despite being over 500 million years old. The Penobscot hold that a malevolent sky spirit named Pamola lives on Katahdin’s summits, and resents the trespass of humans.
Pamola is definitely punishing me now. I continue my descent, booty-scooting, my mind filled with self-reproach. Jill cries out suddenly: “The trees!” We’ve reached the treeline. When I wrap my hand around the limb of a birch, its smooth bark feels soft after hours of contact with hard granite. We use the limbs as handholds to help us progress over the chunky rocks. Even so, it will still take many hours to reach the campsite after this brief moment of mercy.
Human narratives condition us to expect rewards at the end of an accomplishment, to the point where we feel entitled to them. Yet Katahdin deferred and even denied me those. At the summit, Baxter Peak, we had only a few minutes to take photos because we needed to be out of the woods by dark.
Time and space went wobbly too. Parties we met would say, “You’re almost there,” or “It’s just another mile,” yet two hours later we’d still be picking our way along the same unremitting rocky trail. One sign announced our campground was .1 miles farther and then the next sign said .2 miles—on the same trail, going the same direction. I stopped considering past or future because to think of anywhere other than where I was only caused pain. There was just the everlasting IS-ness of the mountain, and my demons fluttering up bat-winged into my face as we raced the dusk.
Yet these weren’t the fearsome demons of the mountaintop. These were petty, gnarly demons, embarrassing ones. For the first time in my life feeling my age because I couldn’t go any faster. Frustration for not being able to keep my vibe positive. My own inadequacy in wearing skateboarding shoes.
What finally motivated me to finish this trail? Food: the primal, animal reality of needing to get to the Chinese restaurant next to our motel before it closed.
Once the mountain released us, we were too exhausted to celebrate, even when the attendants at the ranger station congratulated us for reaching the summit. “That’s quite an accomplishment!” they smiled. “Yeah,” we replied weakly, as we headed for the car. It had taken us thirteen hours total to get on and off the mountain. We had each torn the seats of our leggings.
Yet the Chinese food was the best I have ever tasted.
Such was my experience of the mountaintop. But why do we often wish such things were different? That we always would know the sublimity of an experience while it is happening? Or that we should feel any certain way?
Katahdin took my pretensions about nature and flung them back in my face. Our primate hearts insist that like us, everything wants to be loved. Yet there is a cold, distant grandeur, a ferocious mystery of the world that possesses something outside human love or human laws. This is the realm of croaking ravens, of translucent clouds at eye level, of being so high in altitude that you get to see the feathers on the back of a peregrine falcon in flight.
For me, to have affection for Katahdin would be presumptuous. I feel, instead, something like an inner bow. The mountain, in its ferocity, gave me a new experience of my weakness but also of my endurance. Whether Katahdin is aware if it taught me or not, if it even cares, is up to it to know.