The woods of Baxter State Park have remained as Governor Percival wished, forever wild and forever for the people across 200,000 square miles of old-growth old-world forest in the great North Woods of Maine.
Driving down the forever single lane dirt roads with the trees hanging over you, it’s not a terribly welcoming place at first blush. Luckily, it holds the crown jewel of Maine, Katahdin. Largely because of this, tens of thousands of folks flock to the Park each and every year to get a dose of wonder, some photographs, and maybe even a sighting of Pamola the Storm God.
Outside of Katahdin, Baxter is largely a mystery to most. Natural waterslides exist, legendary trout the size of small children are said to be there, the aforementioned man-moose-eagle hybrid Pamola lives here, and folks from Wyoming can even be seen, which I thought was certainly a mythical occurrence.
The Traveler stands on the north side of the park, far from the crowds and hubbub of the southern half of the Park. It has no attention-grabbing features like storm gods or “Knife Edge” sections or flatlanders asking where the gift shop is, but I’m here to spread the good word that it deserves your attention. I know because, of course, I climbed it. And I climbed it because the light of such a hidden but known reputation is music to my moth-like ears.
Nothing is more amazing in the Maine woods than the absolute proliferation of the wise-old-man-of-the-woods species. They shuffle all over the hidden places and vast spaces of the great sighing pine forests, wearing the same clothes they wore when Carter was President, floating around on the westerly wind and dispensing very important wisdom to the next generation of forest spirits. The park ranger told me in no uncertain terms that only uninformed attack the Traveler Loop counter-clockwise, it’s far superior to go clockwise. He told me some other things, but I’ll keep those to myself. If you want to know, I’m sure he’ll be at the ranger’s cabin next spring.
It’s June and everything is gold and green and buzzing on the shores of South Branch Pond. The lean-to I booked last minute sits right next to the entry road, but I don’t hear anyone after I settle in. I move my car from the dirt patch by my little wooden shelter to the main parking lot, since the headlights don’t work and I’ll have to move it tomorrow morning before starting before the sun does.
First on the trail next morning, mouth full of granola and the spider webs that the first man up gets to break through on his way up. Got turned around once on the approach, but eventually ran into a lake and knew I was off course, and shortly afterwards the upwardness of it all began and I was well on my way. I start at 5:00 in the morning and I’m done by 11:00, seeing one other enterprising fella at around the halfway point.
The solitude, the space, it gives your brain to work and consider and ruminate. It feels good to get back out there and be reminded of that. Room is needed to grow, as is sun and water. I wonder how many people I know in my close circle who have even spent a single hour alone with their thoughts, let alone six while working over and around a mountain older than anything they’ve ever touched and felt and tasted. I wonder how many could even drive their car to work with the radio off and make it there in one piece.
This is a big, wild world. Full of places to get scared, to get acquainted with yourself, to get good and lost. This isn’t a place where I want to go on a rant, so I won’t. But I wonder when the last time you, reader, did something you were unsure of. Or that someone told you not to. I think it’s worth considering.
Many years ago, and feeling further away every time I reminisce on it, I tried to climb Pico de Orizaba in Mexico. I was driven to basecamp by Joaquin, an ancient spirit of the Mexican alpine, and he responded to a question of mine by saying no, in fact, it did not ever get old being awed by Orizaba and the mountains and their secrets.
After I rounded the bend and got back to the campground, with a sore knee that made me feel much older than 25 years, I ran back into the ranger and he gave me a similar answer, it never ever gets old. Everything old can be new again, and everything old remains.
And that big Traveler stands upon high cloaked in clouds and mystery and golden light and it never ever moves but is wiser than all the rest of us combined with all our frettin’ and foolin’ about the temporary and the ungraspable.
I’m not on par with the ancient birds and folks and mountains in age, wisdom, or wordplay, but I’m certainly starting to understand what they mean. It never does get old, this mountain climbing business.