The Appalachian Trail stretches some 2,184 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mt. Katahdin in central Maine. The last stretch of the Appalachian Trail- as one travels from south to north- is known as The 100 Mile Wilderness of Maine, because the final miles, from Monson Maine to the top of Mt. Katahdin, is the most remote stretch of the entire trail, with no place to obtain supplies.
(Photo curtesy of Don Eno)
It is also worth noting that those last 6 miles of the Appalachian Trail and the 100 Mile Wilderness- the ascent to the top of Katahdin is the longest sustained ascent of the entire mountain-rage journey.
For years I had been passing what the Penobscot Indian nation called Ktaadn or the Greatest Mountain, musing within myself that I would one day climb it. But never had I needed to climb it so much as I did in the summer of 2010. I had always sought a mountain retreat for times of reflection and prayer, but Katahdin was not to be a typical mountain retreat. It was going to be a one day expedition, and I knew it.
This was no trifling hike. Those who have never made the climb often believe that too much is made of the place. Those who have been acquainted with its imposing majesty will tell you that not enough could be made of the place. Katahdin has demanded that she be respected by claiming the lives of 18 climbers since the 1960s.
But the circumstances of my personal life were such that I needed an atypical Mountain, even if it was for a single day. And, as I will here disclose, the view from the top that day was nothing short of supernatural.
At 3:30 AM on June the 15th I rolled out of bed at my home in northernmost Maine and began scrambling to hit the road by 4AM. I later discovered that I had grossly underestimated the travel time because of the primitive nature of the roads as one approaches Katahdin from the North. What I thought would be a 2.5 hour drive turned out to be a 4 hour drive. This small oversight came back to haunt me later in the day.
By the time I was at the trailhead and ready to make my ascent it was already well past 9AM. The park rangers had posted a notice advising against an ascent on this day because of sustained winds in excess of 55 mph on the mountain top. But it was such a gorgeous day, and others camping at the Katahdin Stream camp site had already begun their ascent. That was all the excuse I needed to disregard the warning and proceed. When I reached half way, I started meeting hikers that were coming back down. I then thought that the ascent must be shorter or easier than I had supposed, until we began to converse. The winds above the tree-line, they explained, were too strong to stand up without risking being blown off the mountain. None of them had made it from the tree line to the arctic tundra-like tableland of the mountain, much less to the peek.
There are other approaches to the summit, and other hikers may have made the summit before I did, but ultimately I spent 2 hours on the summit and tableland and never saw another person. Because of my late start on the climb I had to finish the last two hours of my hike in the dark. I am fairly certain, therefore, that no one else made the peek after me on that day.
Before I go further in the narrative, Id like to describe the mountain itself, for the reader. Although Katahdin looks very much like a cratered volcanic mountain, that is not the case. This mountain was created by God some 400 million years ago, through an intrusion of magma into the earths crust, which caused the massive upheaval that we know as Katahdin. Ages of glaciation pushed thousands of feet of Ice over the mountain from the north, creating striation that can be seen on the mountain and throughout the surrounding Baxter State Park.
I say God formed it through those means because the natural phenomenon itself does not do justice to this mystical mountain. When one looks at it from almost any vantage, it is plain to see that it is not the work of chance, but a Masters masterpiece. People find what they are looking for in nature as in any other pursuit in life. For those who look to dismiss the divine in creation, they can simply point to the natural processes to explain away a Creator. For those, like myself, that choose to believe, it is easy to see the natural processes- (in this case an upheaval of Katahdin granite due to magma) as the work of a master designer that set those processes in motion. One can only push back the question of cause and effect so far until he or she is once again confronted with the same questions, after all.
The unique ecology of Katahdin offers a hiker the opportunity to experience 2,000 miles of regional diversity in a 6 mile ascent. One can experience a temperate forest ecology at the outset of their climb, a boreal forest in higher altitude akin to that in the subarctic, and finally, on the tablelands, the open tundra of the arctic itself is represented.
It is my intent to write at about the flora and fauna of this great place in the future. Here let me say that there are marvelous things about this mountain that can only be found there and only discerned by someone who knows what to look for before they go.
When I emerged from the tree line and began climbing from boulder to boulder, the wind swirled around me so vehemently that I thought surely God was angry with me for having been so brazen as to ascend His mountain on such a day.
It is little wonder that the Abanaki Indian Confederation believed Katahdin to be the home of Pamola, the storm god. I imagined that this surely must have been similar to the welcome Henry David Thoreau received when he ventured up more than a hundred and sixty years before me and wrote concerning the place,
She (Nature) does not smile on him (man) as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.
Surely this place was not created for human habitation. The mountain tops of the world remind us that not all the world was created for human habitation and use. Some of it God created for His creatures and for His good pleasure. The Mountain tops of the world say to man, Just imagine! You are not the center of the universe after all. In this too, I must Amen! the words of Thoreau when he says,
The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.
The daily struggles and trials I was facing, on a personal level, had made me feel far from God, but it was not long in that fierce wind, that I began talking to Him without frill or articulate ornamentation. I had climbed close to God, and I felt that He was surely displeased with my life. But I continued climbing, in defiance of the wind- higher- closer, until I at long last reached Baxter Summit of Katahdin. The views had been breath taking since I had climbed free of the tallest tree, but at the summit you could look in any direction and see for a hundred miles.
I did what most people do. I basked in the accomplishment and set the auto timer on the camera so that I could get some photos to prove I had accomplished my goal.
But I then took some time to soak in the scenery. It was breathtaking, if not pristine.
I looked northwards and saw Americas largest unprotected contiguous forest, a forest being fragmented into ever smaller parcels and developed at an alarming rate. A forest hardly habitable by the creatures that the Creator had designed to inhabit it.
Turning to the east, I could see the lumber town of Milinockett- a city struggling to redefine itself in the aftermath of the disintegrated paper industry.
Turning southward, I could see Moosehead Lake, the largest fresh water bodies in Maine and the gate to the Maine Forest. Moosehead is a tourist region with aggressive development plans for the splintering corporate ownership of the land. Several resorts along the wild and proud lake are planned to turn its natural face into one of an amusement park, much like a beautiful young woman being forced to don too much make-up.
I could see the ever expanding and unsustainable development of civilization. The thought came to me while looking South-What an example of an oxymoron is the phrase sustainable development. Resources are not infinite. If we hope to preserve any of the natural world, urban borders must cease to grow, and humanity must become better stewards of the lands already under development.
We will run out of space and resources eventually if our vision for humanity doesnt change. The question is whether we will have the forethought to stop ourselves, before we run out, shy of wiping the natural places and their inhabitants from our shared terrestrial home.
Finally I looked to the West. There in the distance, i could see the Appalachian Mountain Range- that single constant of my life. There, Katahdins smaller sisters stood as the fortresses of nature. In the eastern portion of our country, those mountains represent the last safe havens of the natural order from its nemesis, the industrial revolution.
But a fortress can also be a prison-even a tomb- for those held siege within its walls. So too the flora and fauna, with no corridor of migration to retreat or expand with climate change, unable to gradually shift their habitat ranges northward over the course of years to compensate for the higher temperatures, these fellow masterpieces of our Father, the Creator, are hold up in their fortress, where we cannot wipe out their habitat, but where we can starve them out, scorch them out, drought them out.
I meditated on what my children would have of nature. What scraps will we leave behind for them? We preserve and conserve small tracts here and there, bones and other undesirable or unusable remnants of the feast of industrial consumption. Just enough to ease our conscious, and even at that, it is wrung from the ravenous mouth of human expansion. We never stop to realize that these pockets, unable to communicate genetically or with the immigration and emigration of species, is doomed to be a patch of weeds and rodents, just scraggly enough to feed another generations disconnect and distaste for nature.
After all these sad meditations, I knelt and, in a more formal posture and tone than I had in my walking discourse, acknowledged the Creator in a prayer. It was just then that I was reminded of Gods words to Abram- the father of the worlds three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam)- some 3,000 years ago, when he was drawn by God unto a place of vision.
After his cousin Lot moved away from him, God said to Abram, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
I am sure, before Abraham, the father of faith, heard these words, he had already looked around. He had seen the immorality of the city dwellers. He had seen the desecration of the land of promise. But after hearing these words of promise; after knowing that everything he saw he could have as an inheritance, and not him only, but his children and their children for ever, I am sure that he pulled out his binoculars of faith and took another look. Through the binoculars of faith, he saw further than one can see with the natural eye. He saw not only across the entirety of the Holy Land but also he saw children, when his wife was yet unable to conceive. He saw down through history too, for Jesus said hundreds of years later, that Abraham desired to see his days and saw it.
He saw an inheritance for his children. One that he never saw materialized in his lifetime. We are told that when Abraham died he didnt even own enough land to set his foot on. Not enough to burry himself or his wife in. But he saw it, in a vision of faith and because he envisioned it. It became a reality.
So I too decided to take another look, from atop Katahdin. Only this time through the binoculars of faith, per chance I could see something I had not seen before; an inheritance for our children.
I first looked again to the North. But this time I looked beyond what was and onto the landscape of what yet could be. There I saw an old growth forest, able to sustain the woodland caribou, eastern timber-wolf and under canopy raptors that the Maine Forest once sustained. I saw families enjoying recreations now prohibited by the North Maine Woods Association, like horseback riding, mountain biking, and dog sledding. I saw trappers, anglers, hunters, able to hunt truly majestic quarry-the quarry that God intended for this great land, rather than the ones so common throughout the rest of the lower 48 states.
I looked again eastward toward Millinocket and saw a thriving town with a diversified economy, standing as a gateway for visitors to one of Americas greatest natural treasures.
I looked southward again. There I saw sustainable communities, filled with people that are conscious of their ecological footprint and working in harmony with the environment of which they are a part.
And finally, westward again. There I stretched my eyes to look through the binoculars of faith with greater vision than I have ever permitted myself to exercise. There I saw the entirety of the Appalachian Mountain Range extending from the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire, south to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, as a permanently protected wilderness corridor for the creatures, great and small, that God intended for us to share this magnificent region with.
Too ambitious a vision. you say? My people parish for a lack of vision the Creator declares. In the wasteland, isnt a mirage a reality just reflected somewhere it is not by the atmosphere? This vision too is a reality of the lands future, projected into the present.
As I descended the mountain that day, the sun sank on the horizon and I became enveloped in darkness, little realizing that this too would prove prophetic of the couple years ahead of me; little knowing I was about to descend even deeper into the darkest period of personal trial that I had ever endured.
But all that is now behind. Here I stand, ready to begin a new ascent; an ascent into purpose and vision.
The vision and burden for conservation that I have here shared was the first thing to be restored to my heart.
But I am reminded that Abrams story did not end with his vision. For as soon as he beheld his inheritance through faith, God required action. For it was then He said to Abram, Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.
And so I too, must explore these forests, and share the experience with those of you who will read it. I must step my foot on it, and claim it for my children- for your children, and their descendants.
I intend to hike, dogsled and canoe these forests in every season, and share with you the beauty of the experience, in the hopes that it will birth in you a passion for place, birth in you a care for the conservation of creation.
I fully realize that Abraham did not realize his vision in his lifetime. He never saw the fulfillment of his vision for his descendants. And I too, may not in my lifetime realize the fulfillment of this grand and divine vision. But if this burden, this passion can be shared and ignited in you as well, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
It is significant also in the story of Abraham that Lot, his kinsman, lifted up his own eyes and chose for himself the developed plains towards the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was not until Lot-the discontented portion of Abrams soul-was removed that God lifted Abrams eyes.
The vision God had for Abram was far greater than the vision Lot had for himself. For Lot claimed the paradise of man while Abram claimed the promise of God.
It is my hope that you will choose with me the vision of the Creator over the materialistic visions of man. I, of course, speak not only of the forest of Maine, but for creation care around the globe, in your back yard.
It is said that, during the summer, Katahdin is the first point in America to receive the rays from the rising morning son. It is my sincere prayer that the vision I acquired there on that summit, will be the beginning of a new and brilliant day for those native and living creatures of the Maine Forest in particular. But also, that you would be ignited with passion for creation care in your near environment.
I know dark clouds
Will gather ’bout me
I know the way
Is rough and steep
But beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed
Their vigils keep. (Poor Wayfaring Stranger, an American folk/hymn of the early 1800’s)