As famous mountains go, Maine's Mt. Katahdin is the runt of the litter. A mere 5,267 feet at its highest point, it falls in behind four other eastern summits in elevation. It's not infamous for bad weather, nor does it take specialized skill to reach the top. In fact, some 35,000 hiked its flanks in 1997. If Everest is the playground of the elite, Katahdin is a blue-collar, people's mountain.
But it does share one attribute with the world's most celebrated high points: Standing on top is one heck of an emotional experience. To Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, reaching Katahdin and the surrounding Baxter State Park is the culmination of a 2,100-mile, months-long journey that begins in Georgia and makes the quest for the Holy Grail seem like a trip to the 7-11 for a loaf of white bread. To dayhikers and weekend warriors it's a test of lungs and legs and resolve. And to still others, it's a time to bond with a son or daughter before hikes with mom and dad give way to college and families of their own. In many ways, Katahdin is truly a big mountain.
Last October photographer Kit Noble and I scaled its ancient granite to sample the thoughts and emotions found there on an average day, which just so happened to be four days before the mountain "closed" for the season. What follows are the people and stories we encountered. Look closely and you may see some of your own hopes and dreams captured on top of what the native Abenaki Indians call Ktaadn, "Greatest Mountain."
Phil Stuart's son Lance and another member of Boy Scout Troop 125 out of Machias, Maine, were the first hikers we greeted not long after sunrise, but Phil wasn't far behind. With little prodding, the proud father shared the poignant story of why he was carrying a small, flame-haired Troll doll, complete with its own backpack: "My daughter Heather collected Trolls. She died last year at 18 after a long battle with leukemia." Phil intended to bury the Troll under the Katahdin granite in remembrance of Heather, who in 1992 received a kidney transplant, then months later made it to the mountain's harsh but enduring summit.
On this day, quiet and contemplative Jamison "Mr. Clean" Waines of Somerville, Massachusetts, was the first AT thru-hiker to thrust his fist skyward while standing at the weathered Baxter Peak summit sign. I gave him a moment to collect his thoughts and clear the mist from his eyes before asking about his experience.
"It's numbing. It's the perfect terminus," Jamison said of Katahdin. A devotee of ultra-light guru Ray Jardine, he carried a pack that weighed less than a Thanksgiving turkey for all but the most remote segment through Maine. "I could do big miles with a little pack, but eventually I learned that wasn't what it was about. It was about enjoying myself, being patient, meeting people and taking the side trails." Despite the small pack, he made room for "Lookout The Bear," a trail-worn teddy given to him by a girlfriend who ended their relationship just before he started his thru-hike. "But I didn't break up with the bear," Jamison added ruefully. "I like the bear." Not quite ready to give up trail life, Jamison planned to point his feet toward Georgia and start a south-bound thru-hike that day.
Interviewing Kim Corey, Melissa Paxton, Alexandra Lincoln, Kirsten Stockman, and Molly Bryan (l-r) was like trying to use a teaspoon to catch snowflakes in a blizzard. The words came thick and fast as the five women who work together at Mother's Kitchen, a tiny Bar Harbor, Maine sandwich shop owned by Kirsten ("It's about the size of a shoe."), completed each other's sentences and generally enthused about the Katahdin experience. "I borrowed this neck thing, I borrowed these gloves," said neophyte hiker Kim of Bangor, Maine. "But I absolutely loved it, because it's just...you just have to face your blocks, you know? I didn't really look back a lot, and I didn't really look up. I just looked at the next step."
Blonde, bespectacled Eon May, a typical 16-year-old, told me the trek up Katahdin was his first hike. "What did you think of it?" I asked. "It was tiring beyond belief," came his deadpan reply. What convinced him to come up? "Noah," he said flatly, hitching his chin toward his orange-hatted companion. Noah Mayers opted out of the bored-teen routine: "It's pretty amazing! It's probably the best hiking I've ever done." Noah's mom Natasha offered, "I want my son to experience the pleasure of living in Maine, and it happened to be soccer season, so I knew he was in shape!"
Just watching Jenny Maude, I knew she wasn't your average AT thru-hiker-not that there is such a thing. Her soft-spoken words lilted with a twang that sounded British, but drier. Australian? "Cape Town," she said. Jenny came all the way from South Africa to hike the AT. She started at Springer Mountain, Georgia, on March 22. "It was much harder than I thought it would be. I can't say that I knew very much about it. Before I came here I'd never met anyone who'd hiked it, even though I backpacked a lot at home." Her fondest trail experience: "The wonderful 'trail magic' from people on hikes, and in the towns. I had an idea that it would be there, but it was so much better than I thought it would be. It's going to be hard to go back to normal life in Cape Town after 61/2 months on the trail."
Though Quebec residents Dominic Arpin and Caroline LePage have tromped across all kinds of spectacular country, from the Canadian Rockies to New Hampshire's White Mountains to New York's Adirondack Park, Caroline proclaimed Katahdin her favorite. The effervescent pair didn't take their trek up the imposing Helon Taylor Trail lightly, knowing that this easternmost of the half-dozen routes to the top would lead them onto the infamously precipitous Knife Edge. "We didn't start with Katahdin," Caroline hastened to add. "We've been preparing for at least eight weeks by doing dayhikes every single weekend." "And in bad weather," said Dominic. "We did Mt. Washington three weeks ago and it was raining so hard we couldn't see anything to the sides of us." As a result, said Caroline, they didn't just endure the Knife Edge, they actually enjoyed it.
The climb up the western Hunt/Appalachian Trail left thru-hiker Robert "Rhyming Worm" Rubin bloodied ("Maine as a whole has beaten me up, and Baxter is no exception"), but no less enthusiastic. "One thing that's sort of amazing is that all the other big mountains on the AT have roads to the top of them. But then you get to Baxter and the roads are all dirt, and there's no road at all to the top of Katahdin. It's just very refreshing." Robert paused, looked around at the gathering midday crowds, and added, "It's amazing how a big mountain draws people."
When you hit the trailhead at 4 a.m., then spend 10 hours in frigid wind atop a shelterless peak accosting total strangers with a tape recorder and camera, you're not surprised when late in the day things get a little weird. Still, the last thing I expected to see glinting at me from a crevice at the top of Mt. Katahdin was a set of molars. Must've been the jaw-dropping scenery.
The only nuclear family we saw atop the mountain, shy French Canadians Pedro Neves and L?onie, Maite, and Johanne Cayouette, regarded our cameras and tape recorder with suspicion. They posed late in the day, and the 8- and 10-year-old girls-on their first big hike-needed no one to translate for them as they hugged themselves and clamped mittened hands to numb ears. "They are very cold," explained Johanne with a worried mother's impatience. "We must get down the mountain."