The first day

Today I’ve been reading the first early posts from the most hardy (fool-hardy?) who have already set out in the incredibly inhospitable Georgia January weather to try their 2019 thru-hikes. The posts bring back a lot of memories, most of them good, some of them scary, all of them strong and clear.  It wasn’t as cold on my way up Katahdin on June 6, 1973, when I started my own journey, but it was just as crazy.  Here—from Take the Path of Most Resistance (Andrew Benzie Books, 2018— is the story of my own first day out there:

“Appalachian Trail stories almost always begin the same—with that first day of ‘what have I gotten myself into,’ the cruel moment in time when you learn that no amount of preparation, expensive gear, training, hard work, smart living, or good karma could have gotten you ready for this physical exhaustion. For most of us, ‘agony’ was just the word across the dictionary page from ‘agranulocyte’ until we faced the first uphill with a heavy pack and a stomach more likely filled with large, bickering crows than fluttering butterflies. And with lungs and knees screaming and exploding with the intensity of a derailed train car filled with Bakken crude, grinding and sparking on its side into the center of a sleepy little town in the middle of the night.

My trip, of course, had that beginning too. Three weeks before I flew to Maine, I had major surgery. A week before I carried the pack out on the tarmac to fly up to Katahdin, I still could not straggle more than 100 yards without a good rest, maybe a nap. A thoughtful person, being kind to himself, would have made the first few days on the trail as easy as possible as he healed and gained strength. I was not thoughtful. Ambushed by a lifetime of diligently following the rules, it never occurred to me that I could have hitched in to the first road the trail crosses five miles from its beginning, left the pack at the campground at the southern foot of the trail’s first mountain, found my way merrily up to the top with no load, and then retraced my steps back down for a good night’s sleep.

That’s the way most people do it. But I didn’t know that. Instead, I dragged sixty pounds of food and gear five miles over to the north side of Katahdin, up the infamously brutal Cathedral Trail, past the famous sign that marks the official beginning of the AT atop Baxter Peak, and then five miles down to Katahdin Springs campground on the mountain’s south side.

The Cathedral Trail pushes 2200 feet up Katahdin’s Great Basin in little over a mile. So it absolutely deals out the required train wreck of prostration that plows into everyone that first day on the AT.

But that’s not how I want to begin these stories.

I want to start instead with some advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one of his all-too-few playful passages, he once suggested a handy technique for staying off the path of quiet desperation to which his friend Henry Thoreau claimed most of us are doomed. I’ll pass it along, with the prudent suggestion that you may want to choose carefully where you practice his advice, lest you end up in some database of potential risks to society.

Every once in a while—Emerson said—you should stop a second, bend over, and stick your head down between your legs, eyes now upside down and facing backwards. With your comfortable ways of seeing then “unfixed” by this ungainly contortion, you will— he insists—look at a world made newly strange and wonderful from this fresh angle of vision.

That’s the real story of my first week on the AT.

. . .

On my first day, the Appalachian Trail didn’t, in fact, just unfix my vision. It quite literally took it away. The afternoon before reaching the official start of the path at the top of Baxter Peak, I had sat at my Chimney Pond campsite on Katahdin’s north side and looked up through a cloud-free sky for hours at the Cathedral route up the mountain. It appeared, I couldn’t help but nervously notice, to climb straight up the most dramatic and scary cirque on the East Coast— a huge horseshoe clawed into the mountain rock by the bestial power of ancient glaciers. It would be the last clear view of this trail that I had.

Within fifteen minutes of setting out the next sunny morning, I was fully, completely, and totally stuffed inside a cloud sock. And not just your ordinary sock resting in your clean, orderly drawer in your clean, orderly house. More like that soggy and impossibly bunched one your dog has energetically dragged out of the dirty clothes and is mauling through the house with the joyful, unthinking violence of an untamed puppy beast. The wind shot bullets of mist and fog the density of concrete, and visibility careened down to somewhere around sixty inches. At times, I couldn’t see my own feet below me as they stabbed around to find the footpath.

But oddly enough, the overall effect was to wrap me in quiet and stillness. My hiking partner and I were fully and completely wooled up in a very small world, with only wind, rain, granite, gravity, and the sounds of our own breathing for company. I haven’t been back on the Cathedral Trail since that day, so I have no idea what it really looks like. I wouldn’t doubt at all, given how scared I was on the way up it, that I’m getting ready to exaggerate its difficulty. But the socket-sized views of it I earned on June 6, 1973, were of a sustained rock climb—low-grade rock climbing, to be sure, maybe Class 3—but rock climbing without the reassurance of the customary harness and rope. Much of it involved careful hauls up over extended slabs of stone, sometimes using each other’s knees or backs as steps to the next hand placement. All of it seemed vertical. All of it was terrifying. Our palms turned bloody from the constant stabs at handholds, wet fingers rasping across rocks that had once have survived thousands of feet and hundreds of years of grounding glaciers with a solidity that had no trouble shredding the fragile skin of human hands.

During the three seconds when the wind opened up a tiny window to the ground below us, I caught the quickest, most desperate glimpse of where we started that morning, two thousand feet below at Chimney Pond. I was looking down with the same angle of vision I might have gotten sitting on an airplane wing thirty seconds or so after takeoff. Then the merciful clouds regrouped around us, shutting out the sense of just how exposed we were, and we started back grappling our way further up the mountain, sealed again in our envelope of concentration.

When we crawled out on the Katahdin Tableland in forty mile-an-hour winds, well over four hours into the day, I was never more scared, never more focused, and never more aware of just how massively violent and curious the physical world in which I walked could be.

After a brief pause bundled in the chaos of storm gear and packs, we regrouped and crabbed our way the last several hundred yards to the top of Baxter Peak and the beginning of the AT. I have no photos of the summit—the foggish haze on our lens ruined the two or three that we took through the bedlam of flapping straps and wind-flayed ponchos. But any image that any mechanical device could have pinholed onto paper would be a corruption of the experience of huddling unprotected up close to Maine rock for those two hundred seconds or so, assaulted by a universe gone all strange and titanic.

Like everyone around me, like everyone around you and like everyone we both know, I would many times in the future eat my peck of Thoreauvian desperation. But nothing—no matter how routine or normal or familiar—would ever again seem comfortably fixed or fully quiet to me. On my first day on Appalachian Trail, I had seen, felt, and heard the uncontrolled collisions, the epic searchings and matings, the wrenchings and grindings, the forces of the universe elemental, that are always just below every surface, just around every rock or cloud, however much our daily lives conspire to hide them. If you haven’t felt what I’m talking about yet, just wait until the first time that someone you love dies suddenly, unexpectedly. Or pay careful attention when you next kiss someone for the first time. Once acknowledged, these forces are impossible to forget; you’ll see them everywhere.

Thirty minutes down the trail the clouds disintegrated, the sun made the world normal again, and my hiking partner and I whistled our way off the mountain


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