Eventually Fred realized that George had thought York’s Camp still ran as full-service accommodations. No longer. When Daicey Pond became part of Baxter State Park, some of the buildings were removed, including the kitchen and dining hall; housekeeping and guiding staff were replaced by a couple of park rangers. The ring of log cabins remained essentially as they had been back when Fred and their parents visited. Wood stove, main room, front porch, a couple of small and spartan bedrooms curtained off.
Neither brother could remember just why George had not been along on that trip in 1942. Fred thought of several ways to tease his brother about finally getting his way, but in the end he had decided not even to mention that all the planning and arranging and provisioning fell totally on Anna and Fred. As the picture gradually came clear, George was only too happy to rent a comfortable van so all four together could make the long haul north from the mid-coast island where Fred and Anna lived after rendezvousing at the airport.
“Mainers still resent that they were a colony of Massachusetts until 1820,” Anna explained to Betty, the plump Southerner who had chosen to sit in back with her, leaving the two “boys” to ride together in front. “They’re none too pleased that the Massachusetts menaces are now buying Maine back, property by property.”
“And less pleased that the Massatwoshits folks are the only ones who can afford it,” grumbled Fred from the front seat in a tone just light enough to be taken for irony or sarcasm.
Anna thought that was interesting coming from Fred. The old Boston family from which he and his brother came had long held the economic edge, and the brothers’ years, one at Harvard and one at Yale, had carried both safely into financial waters o f relative depth in spite of recent market turbulence.
The brothers chose to head north to Greenville, following the route their parents and grandparents had taken in the early days when they reached the camp via logging tote roads and buckboard. The day was overcast, the countryside open but not prosperous looking. It might have been depressing except for the exuberant defiance of front yard displays of chrysanthemums, the last of the summer petunia beds untouched yet by frost, apple trees heavy laden with fruit, and the first red maples putting sparks of fall color into the swamps and field edges.
Here and there a roadside stand offered sumptuous pyramids of tomatoes and zucchini squash for sale. Asters and goldenrods still lined the roads of the Kenduskeag Valley dairy country. Then cornfields and round hay bales stuffed like white pillow bolsters in their plastic cases gave way to larch bogs and tall white pines, miles of pines, second growth scrub and lonely bog flats.
As the miles ticked off on the odometer, Anna calculated once again that although they spoke of going to northern Maine, they were still only halfway up the length of the state. The residents who chose to make their homes at the top of the state certainly had to be motivated to make the long trip down to Bangor for shopping or medical care, and that was still a long way from Portland and the coast, which in turn Bostonians probably reckoned as being rather provincial.
“Did you see how impressive some of those piles of split wood are? And the size of the mounds of silage?” Inland Maine was distinctively lumpy. Isolated hills of blue dotted the landscape here and there. “Chill bumps” said Betty. “The whole land looks like it has goose bumps and it’s not even winter yet.”
“Even those carefully pruned shapes of the trees on the Christmas tree farms are lumpy,” George laughed, gesturing out the window at the acres of rounded trees dotting the undulating landscape in curving row after row. Fred pointed out that the marshes and bogs and scrubby forest lands of second growth reechoed the lumpy theme on a rather grand scale. There was affection in his voice as he added, “I could love these people with their landscape signaling an air of openness. There’s an air of modesty you might call not over-reaching.”
George had been observing the primness of the houses and the close-cropped lawns around them and teased, “I don’t want to be offensive, brother, but do you think that openness extends to minds? Will you be happy with the candidates they vote for in another month?”
No one chose to pursue that conversation. George was ten years older than his “little” brother and the two had never been close. Fred had suspected his brother of rather conservative political leanings, and his years in the South had given George some rather interesting—and sometimes dismaying—perceptions. George contented himself by pointing out to Betty the Civil War soldier statue on the monument overlooking the town green in one village, the column- fronted porches of the mid-1800’s architecture, hinting at previous eras of ambition when the Boys in Blue had made it safely back home and looked forward to coming years of prosperity after the War. The War Between The States according to Betty if she had chosen to say anything, which she did not.
So the soldier statue too failed to get a rise out of anyone. Anna was aware that Betty answered to a single name only north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Her family called her Betty Lou. Even their gracious veneer stretched thin when it was punctuated by George’s deplorable Yankee habit of shortening words. He was the only one who called her Betty, and that was when he was not calling her Betts.
As the landscape gradually took on a more northern look—more pointed firs, more black spruces—Anna observed that snowmobile dealers seemed to have replaced agricultural equipment dealers. A huge pulp log truck came thundering past them causing their van to sway and Anna to hope that her jars of pickled beets were not what was causing the clanking sound in the back with the gear.
“Doesn’t it look more moosey,” said Betty with sounded like genuine enthusiasm. Anna glanced over at her sister-in-law. In her careful coiffure and pastel slacks and matching sweater set and coordinating dainty little ballerina flat shoes, she appeared hardly ruffled from the plane trip. You had to hand it to her: she was a good sport. This trip had certainly not been her idea. Signs declaring the highway the Moosehead Trail and red and yellow blinking warning boards with black moose silhouettes confirmed that “moosey” impression. “Why do they call it Moosehead Lake?”
“Beats me. It looks more like an amoeba on the map,” said Fred. As navigator he had possession of the map. He glanced at it for sidebars of information and folded it and put it away.
“Brief rest stop at Indian Hill Trading,” George announced when they reached Greenville.
green stone found here at Mt Kineo. It was a rhyolite, especially suited for making arrow heads. If only she could see that sharp prow-like peak cutting through the enshrouding fog. No Mt Kineo today. Trading however was in the cards. The store was genuinely all-purpose. They headed through the grocery store section, pausing only to snag a few artisanal cheeses while George surveyed the wines. They threaded their way through the moosey doodads and tchotchkes, pausing for Betty to pick up some moose potholders, some postcards and notepaper, on to the extensive clothing section to buy some warmer clothes for the Southerners.
While Betty cooed over the heavy sweaters and corduroy weekend-woodsman clothes, Fred chuckled over the racks of woolen plaids and lined bibbed overalls, togs which no woodsman he knew could or maybe would afford. “Look, they have Malone pants,” he said, pulling out a pair of heavy wool pants from the rack. “I remember these. Dark grey with that fine line of red. Real sharp. Father and Grandfather both swore by them for their version of working in the woods. Wore like iron.” Peering at the label he read, “Assembled in Mexico, Dry clean only.” Oh, well, at least you get the lumberjack look.
“Ever since L.L.Bean opened an outlet store in Ellsworth, we have preppy looking lobstermen around the Island,” laughed Anna. “Looks like the Northwoodsmen are now fashion plates as well.”
When they were back underway, Anna resisted voicing aloud her ruminations on the trip before them, what she thought of as The Preppy Trail. Different era from the Hippy Trail of the seventies in Southeast Asia. Well, perhaps the seventies, but 1870. Henry David Thoreau made the trip in 1846 and after that his followers made the trip drawn in search of the hearty simple life, the very air of which would cleanse them of society’s malaise.
Anna had learned over the years that when Fred referred to The Cape it was Cod, in Massachusetts not North Carolina, not the cape at Beaufort (which Betty pronounced “Beuwfuht” while Geroge never missed an opportunity to say “Bowfort”. Anna knew that if the conversation had turned to the University back when they passed Orono, Betty no doubt would assume The University was Thomas Jefferson’s august institution in Virginia, at Charlottesville, not U Maine at Orono.
But the brothers would never say Mount Katahdin for The Mountain, horrors be. Although that was the official USGS designation, the locals would tell you that Katahdin was Indian for The Greatest Mountain.”The” or “Mountain” would be redundant. Like those great unwashed who said “the hoi poloi”
Fred declared that the AT ran through the Daicey Pond camp between their cabin and the outhouse back when he was here with his mother and father, a fact which caused his mother great consternation. “The AT still runs right through the camp,” he added with glee, “but they have moved it to a more discrete location.” Betty looked puzzled. Well, Betty, you have lots of company. There are in our nation a good many folks who have no idea that the AT the brothers refer to is short for Appalachian Trail, the 2,000 mile foot trail that one hiked for pleasure, beginning at Katahdin and ending in Georgia. It may be free, but you still have to be able to afford it. Being out of work does not necessarily equal leisure hiking either.
Listening to these two old Ur-Preps talk, Anna decided that her favorite expression was their unaffected use of the term “Rip Dam”. Fred was rhapsodizing over the gorge, the dam, the fishing when he and his parents came this way to Rip Dam as they bounced along the unpaved road. It was not reassuring when the brothers consulted the map from time to time. The legendary Kakadjo Inn Anna had heard Fred speak of so often over the years turned out to be a rather unprepossessing log structure with snowmobiles already lined up hopefully out front. Perhaps there had been more there in the early days.
“Grampa stayed there when he fished First Roach Pond.”
“That’s where Mother and Dad stayed when they came by buckboard, 1932?”
“That must have been the year of the O.J.I. slide.” Anna mentally noted to ask for a translation later.
Betty and Anna looked at each other when Fred declared happily that The Golden Road on which they were traveling, belonged to the paper company and extended north all the way to Quebec. They were looking for the right fork marked on the map. Which fork? Which were roads to active logging sites? Let’s not miss that right turn. The right right turn, please.
A red fox stepped proudly across the road. Fred muttered a number. “Thirty two. Thirty three.”
“What on earth are you counting?”
“Flickers. They must be migrating through. Don’t know as I have ever seen so many. Thirty four. See their white rump patch? Can’t miss ‘em.”
After more miles of scrub and bog, Betty squeaked “Moose!” Moose!” George obediently braked and backed up. There in the fading afternoon light indeed stood a cow moose, up to her knees in spruce bog. They rolled the van windows down and brought up the cameras. The moose raised her head, and then continued browsing.
“There, honey, the trip is made,” said George turning around to smile at Betty over the seat back.”You can show everybody back home that you really were in Maine.”
After George judged they had enough photographs, he again headed the van down the road. Nothing but undulating gravel road was in prospect. When at last they saw a car approaching in the distance, George pulled over slightly and stopped the van. To Anna’s relief, George climbed out of the van and stood smiling in the road. The oncoming car slowed to a stop. Anna watched but could not overhear the conversation. Eventually George returned, grinning broadly, to the van.
“They’re from New Jersey,” he said. “They don’t know where they are.”
“Don’t they know where they’ve been?”
“Nope. They say they went for a climb somewhere and now they’re headed back to Greenville. They never heard of Rip Dam.”
As the other car passed them and accelerated, Anna heard them call out, “Good luck!” Indeed.
As the brothers discussed who still had the old canvas wall tent their parents had used, and no doubt, Grampa before that, they passed a sign reading “This is God’s Country. Why set it on fire and make it look like hell?”
“That sign was there sixty years ago,” laughed Fred.
But where was Rip Dam? Out here in the lonely network of logging roads all the unpaved roads looked equally used. Which led to empty yards with skidders and log piles? Which led onward to Quebec? To Rip Dam? Two cars approached and sped by them, and a pickup. Traffic was definitely picking up. Men heading out of the woods at the end of a work day? Of course it was a guy thing: don’t even consider trying to flag any of them to ask directions.
Eventually they did recognize the turn off to Ragged Lake, the junction where the Golden Road heads up to Canada. After a single lane bridge—where Betty, not having yet seen enough log trucks, asked nervously “Do you really think that will hold us?”—they came to bullet riddled sign reading “Stop ahead”. Is that a joke? wondered Anna. The West Branch (branch of what?) and Rip Dam were now apparently only a few miles further.
George pointed out huge silvery piles of driftwood that rimmed the end of Chesuncook Lake. He called them “dry kai”. Fred finally got the guide book out of a pack and consulted it. “They built the dam in 1920. That made Ripogenus and Chesuncook Lakes, and that facilitated running pulp logs downstream. I remember seeing the last drive on the river in 1972. There ought to be a sign to Rip Dam just about here,” he said, bewildered. “The road crossed the river here at the dam. And further along, when they built the AT, that was where there was a famous suspension bridge over the water.”
“Don’t forget, this is New England,” said Anna. “They figure that if you need a sign, you don’t need to know. Haven’t you noticed that every sign we see tells you what the intersecting road is called and not a one tells you the name of the one you’re on? ”
At the sign pointing simply to McKay, Anna speculated that it looked like someone’s private property. “Maybe someone named McKay bought the Rip Dam and that’s why there is no sign now.”
“Turn down here and we’ll see if there is a gorge,” said Fred. “They may have moved the dam and the footbridge but they could not have moved the gorge.”
As it turned out, Fred was partially right. The dam was being rebuilt; the suspension bridge was gone, and in the early 1950’s they had bored through the rock and routed the torrent of water through turbines to generate electricity which was then sent off to power Millinocket. The lane marked “Danger, Keep out” had led the pilgrims to the current incarnation of the Rip Dam facility, by which was parked an eighteen wheeler truck body emblazoned with the GE logo and in front of which was gathered a group of hard-hatted men bearing coffee mugs. One for the road before they too headed home for the night. Anna and Betty got the whole story from the gentlemen.
At thirty-eight flickers they passed Big Eddy, a famous salmon pool now owned by Chewonki, the modern and recently co-ed version of outdoors school and camp. Fred sounded like a guide book as he recited: Little Ambejackmockamus flows into Big Ambejackmockamus. Big and Little Ambegeesus—Amber Jesus? Really ? Seoardnahonk Dead water? Sourdnahunk Falls. They had to be spelled to be believed. It occurred to Anna that perhaps Fred was name-dropping of a sort. One-upmanship? This was the route Fred had taken with his parents; the trip on which George did not accompany them. Was this some sort of sibling rivalry?
Little A Falls, Big A Falls, Horserace Brook. Horserace is a rapids according to Fred. Clever. Salmon Point. That sounded promising. Fred made Rip Dam sound like the Washington Monument. How could they not find it? They had to find it. It was one of the pilgrimage points on the Preppy Trail. They could see the West Branch accompanying them all along the way. At one pullover Anna announced she could hear the roar of a waterfalls. They took the next gravel pull-off and walked across the road to a small lane.
Three jolly women swinging cameras and binoculars came trotting up the narrow roadway.
“Is this Sourdnahunk Falls?” asked Anna.
“We don’t know,” the ladies chimed in unison. “We just asked the park ranger who was here a minute ago and he said he didn’t know, but this is definitely the Penobscot River. The West Branch.”
A few more steps took them to the water’s edge. As Fred looked upstream he suddenly grinned. He knew where he was. “Ah, see the falls upstream? Sardnahunk! This is where the guide warned us that the water flow varied considerably. It was dangerous when they let a head of water out to move the pulp logs. He put a rock at the water’s edge and told Mother to keep her eye on it while the rest of us went fishing downstream. Later he came high-tailing it back with Father and me. He got us all out in a hurry. He was quite flustered when Mother sweetly admitted that she had dutifully been moving that rock ever higher on the shore as the water rose. So she could keep her eye on it.”
Both men stood on the rocky banks and replayed those casts over the waters of long ago. You could see them seeing it, and then they made their way back to where the van was parked and waiting. There were miles yet to go.
After that, George, like a horse headed home for the barn, lead-footed it to the entrance to Baxter State Park. There was just enough light left to see that the top of Katahdin was swathed in what George called “a little cloud”. He had to turn on the windshield wipers to clear away the mizzle.
At the park gate, a pleasant ranger greeted them. “You going campin’?” He eyed the Massachusetts tags. “Any of you got a Maine drivers license with ya? “
Fred handed his over for inspection.
“Just saved yuself $12 dollahs. No pets? No fire wood? Evah bin thea before?”
What was Betty making out of his accent?
George and Fred both spoke. Their voices had taken on a tone of rapture. “Fifty years back.”
“Sixty-five years ago.”
The ranger bent down and looked into the van. “Well, now, Daicey Pawnd is just ahead, twelve miles to the left. Have a nice time.”
As they rattled down the dusty tote road, Georg remarked on how much the trees had grown over the years since he had been here.
Fred laughed. “The guide book says that there are hardly any vistas along here, just a leafy green tunnel through the trees.”
“Back then it was all logged off, open country and dry,” said George, and confessed, “I remember about here my roommate, who had agreed to come up to Katahdin with me, said he really couldn’t see why folks made such a fuss about Katahdin. We took the Bangor & Aroostook rail line and then hitchhiked. That was September 1942, just before our senior year in college. We walked in to Chimney Pond, but of course back then there was really nothing there, just logging camp remnants. He figured he could understand Mainers’ fuss and loyalty because it was about the only mountain they had. He preferred the White Mountains, but I assured him Mt Washington weather was not the least bit better. ”
The Harvard Outing club was on Mt Washington; Yale’s was at Tuckerman’s Ravine; Dartmouth’s huts eventually became part of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s accommodations. Back in the era when the East Coast wealthy sought refuge from the heat at fashionable summer resorts, some Yankee stock decided to head further afield, to the Great North Woods. Both brothers had been campers and then counselors at the same boys’ camp in Maine where their father had gone. They all had worn the same green shorts and green shirts—perhaps even the very same wool shirts and shorts, shrunk and felted by time—the camp uniform. Was it any wonder that these same men, the Ur-preps, New England prep school boys who became in their turn the Old Boys, set the style, albeit unknowingly? Faded madras, well-worn khaki pants, ancient and venerable tweeds, all with plenty of years of good use left in them. In Fred’s old album their father wore a white shirt and fedora. His mother wore a belted dress with puffy sleeves. Fred used to have a supply of red or green felted wool hats of a style which he called an Adirondack crush hat. The brothers wore billed caps these days. It wasn’t just that their caps always had the wrong logos; various subtleties of shape forever eluded them. On the other hand, no one in the younger generation did “preppy” quite like these two.
Fred recalled his first trip to Katahdin from summer camp. “Remember that old school bus the camp had? The one they probably got as a bargain—some school’s cast-off—and and then they painted it green? After rattling all the way up here in that thing, we camped up at Chimney Pond. And it snowed so we never did get up Katahdin. We never even saw the mountain.”
“Are we having fun yet?” Betty softly mouthed to Anna.
Miles later, after several opportunities to choose left forks (go right to head left) and to learn to spell Nesowadnehunk Stream (Wabenaki spelling was apparently as challenging as Gaelic), and having discovered that the van’s cruise control does not work at speeds below twenty-five miles per hour and that narrow winding unpaved roads really do require that drivers observe the Park’s 20 mph speed limit, George finally pulled the van into Daicey Pond Campground. All the park rangers had apparently called it a night.
They located their cabin and unpacked the van as quickly as possible as it was starting to sprinkle. After a hasty meal of sandwiches by the light of the gas lantern, the two couples acknowledged that they were tired. Betty picked up her flashlight, chose the cubicle on the right, and disappeared behind the curtains. Anna chose that moment of relative privacy to follow her.
“Excuse me, Betty.” Anna held out a wide-mouth canning jar and small plastic funnel. She thrust both into Betty’s hands. Without pause she explained, “When we were in Tanzania we were advised against venturing out to the latrine tent after dark. We could hear lions in the distance, but it was the hyenas we were being warned against. I learned rather quickly how to squat over a jar with a funnel. I propose you consider how far it is uphill to our latrine. Good night.” Anna turned, and before she could see the look on Betty’s face she pulled the wire-hung curtain closed behind her.
Hours later, tucked into her sleeping bag on the bunk on her side of the wooden partition that provided the only semblance of privacy in the small cabin, Anna listened in the dark with amusement. It was not the gentle sound of rain on the cabin roof which had awakened her.
Dawn came at something like 6:45 AM, only ‘something like’ because although it was growing light, there was a big pile of rocks in the way of sunrise. On the coast the sun had risen some time ago, but only now the dark shoulder of the great mountain was taking on a golden glow. Reflected in the still water of Daicey Pond, it made a lovely start to the day, especially as this was to be the day of The Ascent, climbing The Mountain.
Anna, Betty, George and Fred were sitting on the cabin porch, lined up in a row of wooden chairs, clutching their hands around steaming cups of coffee. Two yachting stoves hissed away on the porch and Fred from time to time stirred himself to stir the pots of breakfast cooking there. Although the cabin had a large wood stove, cooking inside was forbidden. Given how loud the sounds of mice nibbling at cracker packages were inside in the idle of the night, it was probably a good idea to confine the messier operations to the outside. The ranger had said that bears were not a problem but the mice certainly were. As it was, a cheeky little red squirrel darted forward to snatch anything left unattended on the porch. Its skill in managing to avoid ending up in the oatmeal pot it was investigating was testament, no doubt, to its extensive practice.
Fred regaled them with stories of his first trips, when the bear took the bread cooling on the windowsill here at York’s but left the dishtowel which had been covering the loaves. “Then there was the Russell Pond fishing trip when I was fourteen. The log book at the deserted cabin where we had been camping was filled with bear stories. On our way back from fishing we lost the trail. As we bushwacked along, I suggested to Father that we drop some of our string of trout one by one along the way. To slow down any bears which might be coming after us!”
A kingfisher loudly calling clattered by. Out on the pond quietly floated a duck, a golden-eye according to Fred. Looking like a classic outdoor catalog scene, a flyfisherman in an Old Town canoe was already sending a graceful line curving over the mirroring water. Two brown young-of-the year juncos hopped fearlessly under the picnic table in front of the cabin, searching for crumbs, and a plump and sassy grey jay inspected the camp. Whiskey Jacks the loggers used to call them.
“Today we summit,” declared George, raising his coffee mug in salute to the mountain, its purple eminence now swathed in rosy clouds and golden glory. After two days of short excursions between downpours that sounded enticing. “We’ve seen a pretty good assortment of weather,” George continued. “We’ve paid for our mistakes, our omissions.” That would be the ham steaks Fred forgot to take out of the home freezer. They’d made do by rationing the frozen pork chops. Betty had gamely gone to borrow a corkscrew from the ladies in the cabin next door and pulled the corks on the Shiraz and the Sauvingnon blanc and the Malbec as well before she returned the invaluable implement. “We can see that we are coming to the end of our supplies…” And, thought Betty, our clean underwear.
George helped himself to the last half of wholegrain multi-seed bagel toasting in the frying pan. As he wiped the remnants of fried egg off his tin plate, he asked Fred if he remembered coddled eggs. “Mother gave us a set of Royal Worcester egg cups. Porcelain they were, with little metal lids. You put in the eggs, screwed down the lids and set them in gently boiling water to cook. Quite nice.”
Fred did remember. “Now,” he laughed, “we make do with eggs from coddled hens.” Anna explained that their neighbor who sold free-range eggs loved her flock and fed them only the most local and organic food scraps, items she had raised herself in her garden. She and Betty then rhapsodized ever the merits and flavor of the shade-grown organic coffee they were presently enjoying.
Breakfast menus had been a success on this trip. Anna had tried to at least allude to lumberjack breakfasts with baked beans and brown bread—when was the last time I saw that? George had crowed. She had provided canned kippers and at least symbolic trout, smoked and in a tin. The “cawn battah cakes” had been a huge success with Betty who claimed that Virginia maple syrup was indistinguishable from the Maine product. Anna noted wryly that neither Betty nor George had noticed that their sausages were frozen vegetarian links. The good old days were not always the best.
Anna also observed with amusement that the old terrycloth towel Fred was using still retained the faint image of a circus wagon with the name Tommy emblazoned on it. Where in the world had T. Fred Haines stashed that all these years? His brother still referred to him as Tommy every once in a while.
While Fred was straining out the dishwater solids for its later disposal uphill behind the latrines as the park rules required, George noisily brushed his teeth and spat over the railing.
“You can’t do that anymore,” protested Betty.
“What? Not spit! Why not?”
“Times have changed.” Betty was George’s second wife. She was considerably younger than he was. Anna wondered if she too had winced every time she heard the distinctive snap! snap! of George out there breaking off dead twigs from the trees surrounding the cabin. He could not see why the old tried-and-true system of gathering kindling was no longer allowed. Whenever Anna found the tell-tale bundles of sticks drying on the cabin porch, she bundled up their dirty little secret and took them inside so the rangers might not see them.
Anna brought out their jackets from the wire which ran the length of the cabin for drying clothes. As she and Fred stood admiring the view, Fred pointed out the scars on the mountain opposite them. “No, that line which looks like the Great Wall of China is not the famed Knife Edge. That’s on the other side of the mountain.” He pointed out that the letters O, J, and I on the slope opposite them had grown a bit distorted over the years, but their fancied resemblance to the alphabet was how that part of the topography got its name. “At least part of the slide happened the rainy night in September of ’32 when Mother and Father had to stop and put up for the night in an old logging camp. Mother was aghast at having to roll up in their dirty old blankets.”
They watched with amusement as a young family emerged from the ranger’s office with their small daughter, bright in fleece vest, matching toque on her flaxen braids, and day-glo pink clogs on her feet. Around her neck were binoculars and on her back she wore the Park’s dark green “Adventure pack”, no doubt full of cool nature stuff to do, but unfortunately so big it threatened to topple her. “Reminds me of one year in the late ‘50s when we went up in June,” said Fred. “It had been a tough winter, lots of blowdowns, and the crews had not yet had a chance to clear the trials. Remember that old wooden pack board I used to have?” Anna nodded. For years a pair of pale birch boards on a leather harness had hung in the garage. “That was an army pack board and the idea was to get the weight of your gear up over your center of gravity. The thing extended well up over my head. It kept catching and getting hung up when I crawled under the fallen spruce tree trunks. That was some hike. I hope she has better luck.”
Anna and Fred gathered the assortment of old ski poles and hiking sticks they had brought for everyone. They geared up and headed out. As they were signing out of camp, George commented on his two left gloves, one worn inside out. Fred confessed that his were two right gloves, one inside out. “I keep taking one off to do something and then I forget to pick it back up. The other one, the orphan glove, is still perfectly good so I can never bring myself to throw it away,” Fred confessed somewhat ruefully.
Oh, these two were certainly brothers. It would have seemed logical to Anna that they each trade a glove, but as they drove off to Katahdin Stream Campground, she observed that neither one offered to initiate a trade. Brothers.
Katahdin Stream Campground was a popular place, where the Hunt Trail angled up the mountain. In High Summer, hikers might find it challenging to even find a place to leave their car here but George had his pick of parking spots for the van. While Betty took advantage of the car mirror to give herself one more swipe with her lipstick and chap stick Anna looked around and saw that more than half the cars were from out of state. The hikers wore an interesting assortment of costumes, bright, efficient gear. Most were young and bearded, but a few were white-haired, balding, somewhat portly. These were the ones wearing nice windbreaker jackets emblazoned with corporate logos and caps with golf course emblems. “Probably day hikers,”she whispered to Betty.
“Oh, like the ones we used to call bunnies. The ones from Texas at the western ski areas,” laughed Betty. “What would you call that fellow with the serious fleece, the one with the jacket saying Vail, the New Zealand Milford Trek vest and the cap that says he visited the British Trust properties?”
“When we were climbing Kilimanjaro, we encountered this same culture,” said Anna. “There’s an international culture that ticks off the highlights on all the continents. They have their own customs and costumes and lingo. Kili was like this too, strictly regulated. Reservations had to be made far in advance, with numbers in the party limited to what what was figured to be the area’s carrying capacity. You had to keep to that schedule in order to make the climb. Not all that different here, really.” She looked the man over more carefully and decided he was not in much of a hurry. “I’d guess he’s not a through-hiker.”
The man in question greeted the ladies and confirmed Anna’s guess. He said this was his tenth year and he was on his last section of the AT. He hoped to finish today. As they were talking, a young couple in baggy shorts, towering packs, and clanking water bottles strode by.
“You about to finish?” Anna inquired pleasantly. “Yes,” called the woman over her shoulder.
“And what will you do then?” asked Betty.
“Get off this damn mountain and take a bath and go somewhere to eat some decent food,” she said, scurrying after her companion.
“She doesn’t make it sound like fun, does, she?” Betty observed.
Even before they could finish signing in, they were greeted by a ranger who looked ostentatiously at her wrist watch.
“Going up?” she inquired.”It’s getting kind of late to start. And it’s Class Two today I’m afraid.”
“Oh, we’re just going part way,” George assured her. “Not like back in ’40 when we ran out food. I went into Millinocket for some sardines and hitchhiked back. By the time my ride dropped me off it was getting pretty late and he left me on the wrong side of the mountain. I had to climb over the mountain in the dark to get back to Chimney Pond where we were camped.”
The ranger frowned.
“What does Class Two mean?” asked Betty.
“The weather’s not looking good enough for hikers to plan on going above timberline,” the ranger said.
“Is there someone up there to tell you if you can go any farther?”
The ranger looked at Betty with perhaps a hint of condescension. “No, we just figure that anyone should have enough sense to read the weather conditions for themselves. If not, they don’t belong on our mountain.”
“Our mountain?” said Anna a few minutes later as they stood scrutinizing the bronze plaque on the boulder at the edge of the parking lot filled with all those out of state license plates.
Fred read aloud from the bronze tablet, declaiming in proper style:"The works of man are short-lived. Monuments decay, buildings crumble and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in its massive grandeur will forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine. Throughout the ages it will stand as an inspiration to the men and women of the state."
Betty said, “That really puts you in your place. A bit grim, isn’t?”
“Given that The Mountain has claimed something like twenty people—since they have been counting, that is—”said George, “I don’t think that’s much more than a gentle reminder. Since Baxter had to buy the whole damn mountain and give it to the people of Maine, practically shove it down their throats as a gift because the tight-fisted Maine legislature wouldn’t spend the money to buy it, he had a right to express his opinion. This great park, the jewel of the state, is sort of a last laugh on them, don’t you think?”
“Twenty people?” gasped Betty.
“Nineteen, actually, said Fred. “Mostly on the Knife Edge I think.”
“That’s the trail with a cliff on either side, right?”
“It’s not that bad,” maintained George. “It’s not all that different from a mile of sidewalk. At least some places. Even where it’s just rocks, I never had to yell at the camp kids to stay on the trail or anything.”
“You were lucky,” laughed Fred. “One of the campers I took up Katahdin was a butterfly nut. He had smuggled an insect net along. So there he was, dancing along the Knife Edge, determined to collect a specimen of the rare Katahdin Arctic butterfly.”
“Did he get one?” asked Anna, horrified. “That’s an endangered species, found nowhere else in the universe. He’s lucky you didn’t give him a good push.”
Betty shot an equally horrified look at Anna. “But it’s 1,500 feet down on either side, right?”she said.
“Whose side are you on, Betty?” laughed Fred. “But no. Neither he nor the butterfly was pushed to extinction. The kid eventually became an entomologist. I understand he went on to work for the Smithsonian and he switched his interest to flower flies. So he’s safe.”
“Nowadays they’d throw you in jail for his antics,” declared Anna.
“He’s actually a champion of biodiversity now,” Fred said. “And flower flies are invaluable pollinators.”
“Penance,” huffed Anna.
“Ugh, bugs,” grimaced Betty.
Realizing it was time to change the subject, Fred flourished his walking stick, assumed a professorial voice and said, “When the great ice sheet sheared off the top of the Mountain, a pair of glaciers on either side then put on the finishing touches, scouring away the slopes simultaneously from both sides, until they almost met in the middle. Voilá: the Knife Edge. It’s what they call an arête. From the French for stop I suppose. Or détente,” he said with a smile at George.
“Brothers,” Anna declared.
They made their way through the hikers’ encampment of pop tents, bright nylon domes in all colors of the rainbow above which hung a spider’s web of gear. Anna, who had been trained by Fred that every proper knot has both a name and purpose, was impressed by the plastic pulley-like gadgets which commanded the aerial arrangements. She pointed out this innovation out to Fred who gave them only a glance and a grunt.
Almost at once they entered the green galleries of forest. Anna was tempted to linger over every blue bead lily remnant, each lone and tiny ruby of a Canada mayflower, the paired leaves that whispered that a pink ladyslipper orchid had been seen here in June. Forester Fred made certain they gave due honors to the large stumps along the way. Marvelous shelf fungi and mobs of toadstool mushrooms decorated the mossy trail side. Here was the botanical richness which lured Anna.
Before long the sandy bottomland path gave way to rocky stretches through which they had to pick their way. Where the trail side fell away to deep ravine, they caught glimpses of pure clear cold water rushing through boulder fields. The color of the water was an enchanting no-color. Had it been easy, Anna might have been tempted to scramble down the bank and take a cool sip just to test its magic properties.
George must have read her mind. “We didn’t use to carry water,” he said. “You just drank from whatever watercourse was handy.” The two of them waited by a streamside boulder while the others caught up. Anna admired the long green fronds of what she suspected was an aquatic moss. George inspected his footwear.
“I once met a fellow at Sandy Stream Camp, a farmer maybe. He wore a denim jacket and denim trousers back before that became the fashion, you know. He said to me, ’You goin’ out to cut some rough stuff?’ I think he meant was I going to cut pulp, but I could never be sure. I think he saw the W. H. Brine label on my socks. You know, those white wool socks we used to call crew socks? They were standard issue from the camp outfitters of the day.”
Brine started out making clothing for private schools and camp uniforms and the like, before they moved into the lacrosse world. Then they did soccer and hockey and volleyball and eventually were bought out by New Balance, the sneakers.
Just then Betty came puffing up. “Did you know it was on this very trail that the guy got lost for days at age twelve or something like that? He wrote a book about it? Fred was telling me about it. His name is Fendler and he’s still giving talks about how not to get lost on the mountain, stick together in the fog and stuff like that.” Betty eyed the clouds apprehensively. Then she eyed the trail ahead. Stone blocks had been laid to make a staircase. She took a deep breath and started up.
Up and up they climbed. In places they had to pull themselves up by root handholds. Again and again they heard the water racing down over the rocks in the stream beside them. Every now and then a mixed flock of tiny birds would sift through the trees. Chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, perhaps a kinglet whispering among them. Enchanting.
Where they had to scramble up the bare granite cheeks of trail, Anna found herself worrying a little. First one brother took the lead and then the other would forge ahead. Steep and getting steeper. On one such bald scrape they stopped to admire the view. They were high enough to see the ponds that dotted the undulating countryside.
George took out a map. “I had this in 1940,” he said. “I took it to Kinko’s and got it copied and enlarged.” He ran his finger over the print. Sourd na hunk. Daisey Pond. “Did you hear that ranger say ‘sod n’hunk’?” he chuckled. He showed Betty the map and gestured to the west. “Over there is The Owl and to its right is Pamola and then Baxter Peak. To the left of The Owl is Doubletop and the line of Mt Coe and the Brothers, North Brother and South Brother Mountain.”
Anna smiled to herself at the idea of mountain brothers. Fred reminded her that Doubletop was the handsome cone they had seen from several vantage points in their hikes the previous days. It stood slightly apart from Katahdin, reminding her of the way the peak called Mawenzi stood near Mt Kilimanjaro. Ever the botanist, Anna had chosen to stay behind with George’s wife # 1 the day the men were going to summit Kilmanjaro. But Anna figured, why go above where any sensible animal or plant lived? She had been frustrated by the rapid pace they had maintained uphill for days. They were bypassing all sorts of rare plants, strange plants, endemics found nowhere else, and she meant to see them. Their guide had been thrilled to be chosen to forgo yet another ascent to the top. Each trip was again to risk altitude sickness. Now he would earn the same pay for a leisurely stroll downhill. Anna most vividly remembered how he had taken a stick and drawn a cone silhouette on his black arm, explaining that the peak he had sketched was called Mawenzi, the Neighbor, the friend. He sang a song to that effect in Swahili. “You are here. You are my neighbor, my friend,” he had said.
“Mawenzi,” she said to Fred, pointing to where the map said Doubletop. He nodded and smiled.
It occurred to Anna to wonder which brother would suggest that today’s climb had gone far enough on this trip. The first objective had been the Katahdin waterfalls, a cascade Anna had never seen except in the framed old photograph Fred cherished in his study. The trail crossed the freshet at the foot of the falls on a single plank and then wound up through the trees and rocks to where the head of the falls thundered down.
Fred paused long at the falls. He handed Anna his camera and had her take his picture. At Big Niagara yesterday on Nesourdnahunk Stream he had jokingly posed with his walking stick held out like a fly rod. “Father and I had crossed at the Toll dam” he’d said. “We fished from that very rock over there, the long rectangular one,” he had said. Anna had asked who paid the tolls and to whom. Early loggers had built a dam and charged the next ones who came along wanting to send their logs down on a flow they had decided. Now Fred did not clown around, but Anna could sense that once again he was visiting his parents.
As they caught their breath at the head of another long pitch of rock stairs, a young couple came trotting down the mountain. “It’s too wet and windy up there,” they said and sped on by. Anna and Betty looked at one another. George and Fred did not look at one another and both took up their walking sticks and headed upward.
Betty and Anna followed to the next bare expanse of rock. The view had closed in but Betty suggested this would be a good place to have something to eat. They all settled gratefully onto the bare rock hugging their outer layers of clothing close around them.
It was grey and damp. Tough choice: wear your gloves and fumble or take them off and freeze? Was that a distant rumble of thunder?
Anna had enjoyed the different sounds as they ascended. In the trees the different packets of air each had their own personality. For a few minutes the wind wooshed and branches thrashed. Then the air would become still and a light rain would make soft sounds pattering on the leaves. At this moment, however, she definitely did not want to hear either wind or rain. The various granite expanses she numbered in her mind seemed to taunt “Slippery When Wet”. Yes, yes, she knew that ninety is the new seventy and seventy is the new fifty, but fervently she hoped one brother or the other would realize what a good idea it would be to have the exposed rocks behind them when the skies opened in their next deluge.
Men! Anna looked hopefully at Fred. He sat with his back to the rest of them however. Just behind her, up mountain, sat George and Betty. She heard Betty remind George that there was still one hard-boiled egg that should probably be eaten today. George had carried a hard-cooked egg on every hike. It was his preferred trail snack. She heard him crack the shell on the rock.
Then she heard Betty let out a yelp and scramble to her feet. George began to swear and Fred called something to her. She turned around and saw them dancing through a swarm of black-and-white insects. She could not be certain, but they looked like wasps. One, two, perhaps a half dozen, perhaps more, buzzing voraciously in pursuit of George’s egg.
“Drop it,” she shouted to him. “For heaven’s sake, don’t swat at them. That just makes them attack.” She did not need to say anything more. She could hear all three bolting down the mountainside right behind her. She got her wish. They beat the rain.
Back at the cabin, over a glass of wine, finishing the last of the cocktail nibbles, Anna found herself alone with George.
“George,” she said, “what draws you to Katahdin, to The Mountain?”
For a brief moment George looked startled. Was he not accustomed to being addressed so directly about personal matters? Then he cleared his throat and smiled. “As you know, I had spoken of it to a friend so he wanted to see it. I remember walking up in the fog and drizzle to Chimney Pond. During the night it cleared off. I found myself inside that circle of mountains with the moon rising over the eastern edge and Pamola Peak. Such beauty. That’s what draws me.”
After early dinner by gas light, Betty and George declared that these evenings which grew dark at such an unseemly hour were spoiling them for civilization. They gathered up flashlights and headed off to the building which was now designated the library, leaving Anna and Fred cocooned in sleeping bags on the porch chairs. After sitting awhile listening to silence take over the camp, Fred commented that surely in June when the days were long and the sun was only beginning to think of setting at 9:30 or so, this camp must have a totally different personality.
The sky had darkened while they sat, carrying the reflection of Katahdin from a blue-and-rose-and-gold light show to silver apparition; progressing beyond shadows to afterthought opaque and dark as death, leaving only imagined memory, conjuring only the vain hope for stars.
Anna eventually reported her conversation with George. “He says he doesn’t have a Bucket List; you know, a list of things to do before he kicks the bucket.”
All of them realize that they are not likely to make this trip again. After a time Anna spoke again. “He says he’s pretty fulfilled, although there are lots of things he can picture himself doing next. I asked what brought him back here.”
Anna could almost feel the pond and the mountain waiting for the answer. “It’s the beauty.”
After another pause she spoke again to the dark. “Fred, I feel how vividly you experience your parents here. There is something spiritual about a grand mountain, isn’t there?”
“All paths lead up the mountain they say,” said Fred with a touch of amusement. As scientists both, he and Anna had had many discussions about religions over the years. They had decided that although they personally did not use the same vocabulary as most other people did, they could appreciate the sentiments. “Governor Baxter directed that his ashes be scattered in his park. Maybe that’s who I feel, or maybe it’s Thoreau, and yes, my parents.”
The only sound was the lapping of Daicey Pond a few feet in front of them. No loon call, just the endless murmur of the shore. “I think of the Knife Edge as an instructive metaphor, that narrow and sometimes rocky path up there between the peaks,” Fred’s voice softly said to the dark. “It threads the narrow edge between the abyss of Eternal Before on one side and, on the other side, the abyss of Eternal After. Makes the life of Immediate Now seem awfully precious, doesn’t it?”
In the morning they packed the van and the ‘boys’ walked over to the Twin Pines for one last look across the pond. They cheerfully posed standing one man in front of each tree trunk. Anna had scouted out the perfect spot and she signaled to the passing ranger to enlist her help for making a photograph of all of them. She stationed the ranger on a slight rise of grass in the lawn from which the camera viewfinder framed the trees from roots to tops. One of the old trees had a top which time had slightly gnarled. They weren’t perfect twins after all. At their tops the arms of the pine branches beckoned to each other, embracing a view of the mountain.
“Oh, that’s great,” said the ranger handing them back the camera. “Now you have a photograph for your children and grandchildren to look at. Someday they too will come back here to take their own picture. Maybe these old trees will still be here. The mountain certainly will be.”
Yes, the children will look at our funny hair styles and quaint clothes and notice how the two brothers do and do not resemble each other, do look like them, and do look like the grandchildren as well. In some way as yet unimaginable to us they will record their own visit for their children and the next generations to come.
Katahdin will call them, and as long as there are rocks and pines and people, that narrow blade of life carried by the genes, that thin line edging the abyss will respond and bring them.