My recent tour de New England began in Connecticut with my parent’s vow renewal to honor their 50th anniversary, and ended with a hike in Baxter State Park in Maine. I am very thankful that my original plan to hike the AT in sections from north to south sequentially had already fallen by the wayside, because although I did get into Baxter State Park, I was not able to hike Katahdin. I had learned that Baxter State Park is not very consumer friendly- for the sake of the environment, so no actual complaints here. I was unaware that I had to reserve a parking spot for one of the Katahdin trailheads weeks in advance. Without a reservation, none of the miles we did get to hike were on the Appalachian Trail, but I will gladly take the excuse to return to Maine in the near future. My sister Kate and I hiked the Marston Trail, which is a loop trail with three summits (we did two of them). I did not record the stats but according to Alltrails the loop trail is 7.7 miles long with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet.
The morning after our parent’s ceremony, my sister Kate and I drove up to Millinocket, Maine with the intention to hike Mount Katahdin the following day. They aren’t lying when they say they limit entry into the park to preserve Percival Baxter’s intention for the park: “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin, in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” (Percival Proctor Baxter). Upon arriving in Baxter State Park a great blue heron flew out of the woods and I had to brake to avoid hitting it. The heron proceeded to fly in front of my car down the center of the road ushering us into the park. We watched in awe as it flew. Our elation at this grand entrance was quickly followed by a long line of parked cars, all waiting to get into a parking spot for Katahdin. An older park ranger approached our car and explained in his thick Maine accent that we were unlikely to make it to any trailhead for Katahdin. He hadn’t ever seen a line of cars that long on a weekday, let alone a cloudy day, waiting for Katahdin. Both he and the ranger at the gate warned us that when we got to the split, we should go counterclockwise because of the steep, exposed section.
Kate and I signed into the trail log at 7:45 am, with no cell phone reception, no map and doing a hike we had not planned to do. As we began the first ascent, we both quickly took off layers we had worn to start, while mentally questioning why we were doing this. Luckily as our trail legs warmed up, so did our attitudes. Kate is nine years my senior. She nurtured and cared for me often when I was little. We have gotten along very well, but it has only been in recent years that we let down some residual guards and really opened up to each other. It really took my own failed marriage for us to connect even deeper. She told me a story about being at my house after the birth of my first son and thinking to herself, ‘this is not Liz.’ She knew I was trying to fit inside a box where I didn’t belong, and that a part of me was lost. Kate was supportive as I began to write again, push against those societal expectations and began to be ‘me’ again. She is an artist, the founder of a non-profit artistic institution in Boston and still my mental image when someone talks about a “cool woman,” so I do not take her unwavering support lightly.
As we started to catch a good pace, warm to a sweat and climb, I kept smelling whiffs of pine that smelled just like Christmas. Baxter State Park is home to the largest contiguous area of subalpine fir forest, hence the familiar smells. I opened up to her about how hard it is sometimes to live in my house since my ex moved out. The concept of home, holidays, family gatherings- these are the times I get that gut-punched feeling that I am no longer married. It’s natural to question your sense of home after someone you loved no longer lives with you. After her divorce, Kate explored the idea of home, shelter and created wearable art that provided shelter and comfort (Alone Together, tent dress). I never wanted to be a part of the club, but divorced women and single mothers have been so warm to welcome me. One thing I have gleaned from each of them, is how empowering it is once you hit the point where you begin to thrive and own your independence. “When you think about it, you’ve got three choices in life. You can move forwards, you can move backwards, or you can stay in the exact same place and not move at all. It’s up to you.” (Charlotte Freeman). I chose to keep putting one foot in front of the other, figuratively in life and literally on the mountain.
The woods changed as we climbed. At the foot of the mountains, there was a lot of space, bright green undergrowth and tall trees. By the time we got to the fork, the forest was darker, and more dense. I am going to take the blame for this one, since I am blonde, but we both determined that going to the left was counterclockwise (it’s not). As we neared the summit of North Brother, the terrain changed again. There were parts of the path that were very sandy, the trees grew shorter and I told Kate that it felt like we were about to walk out onto a beach. The mountain ranges that make up the Appalachian Trail are about 480 million years old. North Brother is my highest summit to date (4,151 feet), which is tame compared to most other mountains because time has worn down these mountains. The original range stretches across the Atlantic and parts of it are in the British Isles. As we continued to walk, I thought more about the evolution of most mountain ranges. Once part of the bottom of an ocean, huge and slow moving tectonic shifts push mountains up above the surface and beyond. All that violent change transformed them into beautiful landscapes that man can’t help but want to climb.
I hate to use the word, but the mountains in Baxter are truly majestic- regal, lofty, and supreme in greatness and silent. Other than some bird calls, the most outstanding memory of the entire hike was the times when I noticed that the wind had stopped blowing, because of the absolute void of sound. When we had stretches where we didn’t converse, I reflected on my oldest’s son’s behavior at the vow renewal ceremony. James told me he is mad that his dad can’t come with us on trips anymore, and that when the “whole” family is together, it is not whole for him. He didn’t say this directly, he’s ten, but in his own way he told me that he is disappointed that his dad and I were not able to stay married, but that other marriages, such as my parent’s, make it til death. All I could do was cry with him and let him know that he is surrounded by love, and I reminded him that often we traveled without my ex because of my “work schedule.” If the ocean floor can become a mountain range, home to the plethora of flora and fauna that thrive there after cataclysmic change, certainly my home and family can do the same.
The summits of North Brother, and Coe a few miles down the trail, were cold and cloudy. Kate and I were initially disappointed, but quick to remind ourselves that this is nature and it gives no fucks about our agenda. It was fascinating to watch the clouds move so fast at that altitude. We would see glimpses of the mountain peaks that surrounded us, but then the ghost-like clouds would cover them up again. Our last summit was Coe, and wondered why we had been warned about the “slippery rocks” by other hikers. When we got to the exposed part of the mountain with large granite slabs, we quickly realized what they had meant. The dry parts of the stone were easy to navigate, and we slowed down, but noticed that the wet spots were indubitably unsafe. Kate was the first to take a spill. She lost her footing and fell, laughing as she stood back up, only to fall almost immediately afterwards and roll down a slab. I’m laughing as I write this now, but it was scary to see her fall and not be able to stop herself from sliding down. A further way down the slope, falling became more unavoidable – it was nearly impossible to find a place to walk that wasn’t either wet or covered in black algae. We ended up sliding down on our butts- not scooting, but actually sliding down over the rocks.
Once we finally got back into the woods, the last part of the loop followed a large stream back to the split where we had accidentally gone left instead of right. The last few miles felt monotonous, my feet and knees ached and I was ready to stop walking. Writing about it now, I am glad we kept our complaints to a minimum. The prominent memories of that last stretch are the gentle sounds of the stream, the laughter and conversation with my sister and the sense of accomplishment once we got back to the car.
I returned to Maryland overcome with a sense of tranquility from the entire trip. I looked up the spiritual significance of the heron and found this: “The heron shows us the abundance of life in the sea, for when we see the peace, contentment, and tranquility that the heron finds at the edge of the waters, we are assured of the plethora of life present inside the waters. This works as a guide for those who are on a sabbatical to find healing, calmness, and stillness in their life. The heron is the guide to finding your sacred serenity.” (worldbirds.org) Continuing to hike, getting into nature and having authentic, truthful conversations with people allow me to maintain peace when I feel insecure, faith when I feel fear and plumb the depths of my soul.