God, Thoreau, and a mountain named Katahdin

To climb Mount Katahdin is a priority for many people living in Maine. Some people believe it is an official rite of passage and that until it is done you cannot consider yourself a true Mainer. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet, was given its name, which means “the greatest mountain,” by the Penobscots.

Being from Pennsylvania, I know I will never attain the moniker of a true Mainer and will always be considered from away, but I also like challenges. So climbing Mount Katahdin was definitely one challenge I was hoping to accomplish.

The trip to Baxter to hike Katahdin was well planned and primarily based on a favorable weather forecast. So when we ascended out of a cloudbank to an area known as Thoreau Spring in all of its wetness, cold temperatures and relentless fog, the day was far from what was planned. We were at an elevation of approximately 4,600 feet and could not see a thing. To make matters worse, I was not alone. The entire family was there, both kids, ages 10 and 8, and my wife. Determined to cross this milestone off of my list, we set out a day in advance to set up camp. On the morning of the hike temperatures were in the mid-70s, and bright sunshine greeted our day.

We hiked up the Abol Slide. Considered the most direct and quickest route to the summit, its name aptly describes what we faced: rocks, boulders and more rocks. At the mid-point in our climb, I realized I had not been seeing any other people ascending or descending, and the weather was quickly deteriorating as we made it above the tree line. Temperatures hovered in the mid-50s with a steady rain. Rocks and rain do not mix, and it was then that I realized this might not have been the best choice of routes.

According to the map, we were approximately 600 vertical feet from the summit, but where was the path? The white blazes were gone, fog was thick, and the rain was now blowing sideways. Abol Slide was closed off behind us by the fog and rain. We were alone and feeling very vulnerable. The clouds were thick as they wrapped around the top of the mountain, visibility was less than two feet, and at this point I knew we were in trouble. I was lost.

With emotions in high gear and the kids, my wife and I all on the cusp of mental collapse, I took a moment to reflect on the situation, and to have a little conversation with the “man upstairs.” After seeking divine providence my panic gradually lessened. At my feet I saw a rock with a white blaze marking it, and then another — it was a trail. Pulling from my reserves of energy and confidence, I made the decision to follow what I believed was the Hunt Trail down the mountain. We were far from out of the woods, literally and figuratively, as the weather worsened, making the path itself a dangerous obstacle.

Not too far down the trail I slipped on a boulder, injuring my leg. Pulling off to the side to tend to the injury, I again questioned what we were doing and if we were even moving in the right direction. Next, out of the fog stepped a man looking professionally outfitted in his safari hat, hiking-poles and a small backpack. He had a long beard and appeared as if he was out taking a leisurely stroll. This undoubtedly was not his first trip to Katahdin. He stopped and asked if everything was OK. Confirming we were on the Hunt Trail and, yes, we were going in the right direction, we moved to the side to let him pass. He then asked if he could hike down with us. I glanced up at him, and then to the soggy grey sky, and smiled.

Together, we all slowly made the descent and in a few hours we were walking a path to the campground. The path split, the man went right and we went left. Extending our thanks and goodbyes to him, he simply turned, smiled and said, “No problem. Have a great day.” Once back at camp I again looked up at the evening sky, ever thankful for our safe return. The next morning we drove home.

Years later when I was telling others about that day, telling my “God story” as it has since become known, I realized I did not know the man’s name. In the blink of a day, the weather, the cold and the stress, we never exchanged names. Since realizing this, it has bothered me and undoubtedly will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Still, it remains a great story.

Henry David Thoreau hiked Katahdin in 1846 and wrote about it in his book, The Maine Woods. In reading a new biography on Thoreau, I found that he, too, did not reach the top of the mountain due to the weather. In fact, the path he took was very close to where we ascended.

I will never know if Thoreau had his own moment when faced with adversity on the mountain; perhaps he whispered some thoughts to Emerson. But I now know Thoreau and I shared the same space, the same piece of a mountain, and we both shared the same miserable weather that eventually turned us both around and off the mountain.

Thoreau and I made it back, in spite of the mountain, to tell stories of that day. Thoreau writes: “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.”

This was truly a moment we both experienced and now share, and knowing this has me yearning to get back to the mountain, to perhaps again look up and speak to the one who listens, and at the same time, achieve something Thoreau never did.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over a year ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.