Nature’s Flowing Force

Pine needles crunch under my sneakers as I make my way up the steep slope. Their fresh earthy scent strengthens as I go deeper and deeper into the woods. It’s hard to maintain balance as we go further off the trail; rough tree bark aids me in preventing myself from toppling over. Beads of sweat roll down my skin as the sun peeks its way through the thick canopy of trees. I pray that we have almost reached our destination as my tired feet begin to ache. The sound of trickling water fills my ears, alerting me that we are getting close.

As we reach what seems like the top of the hill, it finally comes into view. The waterfall, approximately 45 feet tall, flows into a small water pool surrounded by dozens of boulders. The water flows downward over them in the form of a small stream. The boulders are warm; they’ve been baking in the sun’s rays all day. I drop my belongings onto them and begin taking off my t-shirt to reveal my bathing suit underneath. My toes embrace the boulders’ smooth surfaces. The only sounds I hear are those of nature: birds calling out to one another, insects buzzing among the tall grass, and the sound of water falling to the ground below. There are no cell phones ringing, no computer games beeping, no TV’s blaring; everything is the way it should be. That’s what I love about this place most. It provides me with a break from our normally stressed out world. It is in places like this that I truly feel connected with nature. Nothing stands in between me and the natural world.

I step into the cool pool of water, quite a contrast to the warm rocks. The pool is rather shallow, in fact it only reaches up to my knees at its deepest point. The bottom of the pool is covered in small rocks with larger ones in between. I step carefully from one to another making my way over to where the water falls from above; I do not fear standing under it. I finally come face to face with the shimmering curtain of water. First I stick my hand under; my skin embraces its cool and refreshing touch. I turn and face away from the falls, then take a step backwards into them. A smile spreads across my face as the water flows over me.

I think back to this moment often. It was the closest I had ever felt with the natural world. Nothing prevented me from touching, feeling, and enjoying nature. There were no barriers or fences telling me to stand back. Part of me desires to go back again to re-experience the serenity of nature and holds onto this moment deep in my soul. It proves that people not only shape nature, but nature shapes people.

Photo by efired

A Rewarding Escape

woman walking on forest trailMy footsteps are silent as I walk along the trail, softened by the damp leaves after the previous night’s rain. Like a creative child, leaves paint the ground with bright colors, scattered colors, no structure. Like a watchful mother, tall trees with thin trunks align the sides and arch over the trail, forming a roof of light green.

As I enter the trails of Thompson Park, nature beckons me with whispers. Her presence grows louder as I wander deeper into the forest. I am guided by a path winding between the trees, an uneven path with varying elevations that never fail to deceive me. As I walk carefully around puddles and step gingerly over twigs, I breath in the earthy aroma, enhanced by the light rain. An addicting sweetness. I hear a gentle breeze through the sudden rustling of leaves; they float like feathers before softly touching the ground.

Slow down. Observe. Listen. Slow down.

To my left, there is an oak tree. The tree appears ancient with a thick trunk, rugged and gnarled like the wrinkles on the hands of an elderly woman. The oak tree stores wisdom from experiencing numerous years of the forest’s ecological development. How interesting! Despite having no voice, the tree tells stories of the forest’s past through the pattern of the tree rings. Nature has her own way of communicating, but it is up to us to understand her language. I walk to the oak tree and feel its trunk, tracing my fingers along its ridges. Rough and uneven, but enduring. A few leaves still cling to the tree, fighting against the coaxing wind. In just a few months, the leaves will lose the battle.

I stand here observing and pondering the tree, unaware of the passing of time. Hiking at Thompson Park clears my mind of stress and worries, leaving a soothing feeling of Clarity. Of course, I will eventually leave and return to a life dominated by schedules and deadlines. But right now, I decide to forget everything.

I truly value these special moments; leaving the brisk pace of everyday to enjoy relaxation in the wilderness brings feelings of comfort and empowerment. Nature provides a chance for me to escape the routine structure of life and immerse in a world free of distractions, free of trivial matters. Free to let my body and mind wander.

I slow down and focus on the present.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.

south rim view of the Grand Canyon.When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.

I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.

Hiker on a Grand Canyon TrailMy first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.

Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.

But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.

As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.

Photos by the author and Sherry Yates

Bridging the Divide: A Leap of Faith

Author on edge of cliffEach person had reached the same spot, and the same dilemma; to cross or not to cross. In search for a lookout known as “Hanging Rock” in the Blue Mountains of Australia, my friend and I reached a chasm which now stood between us and the lookout. Among us were several other adventurers, each connected through their shared fear of this gap. The jump was not inconceivable, nor even that difficult. It was only about a metre long, yet to fall into its depth would be fatal.

Being my rather lanky self, I could practically step right across it. And yet, my mind prohibited me. All the potential errors had been worked out, and my mind could see no justification to cross the divide.

I leant over the edge, and stared down the yawning chasm. Vertigo had stolen any stability from my legs as I now quivered in the face of the divide. This was more than just a small hop, but rather a leap of faith. A leap, into the chaotic, foreign arms of nature. Fearful, I stared into it, unable to jump, yet unable to look away. And nor could the others who stood beside me.

Now realising the fragility of my life at this location, I began to wonder, why did I come? I was not forced to come here, nor was I tricked. I willingly chose to place myself here, in the face of a deadly abyss. What was I thinking? At this point, all I wanted was to return to my bedroom and watch television – a place where my life would not be put into question.

Author hiking on cliffWe all stood, thinking the same thoughts, sharing the same fears. Every five or so minutes someone would summon the courage to leap the gap, resulting in cheers from the onlookers. But for me, seeing this only added a greater burden. I could see just how easily the gap could be jumped, and yet my mind still would not relinquish thoughts of the consequences.

What if I fall? What if I die?

My thoughts had commandeered my body, and any attempts at rationalising only made the situation worse. I was petrified, and yet deep down, I knew that if I allowed this one act to conquer me, so too could the rest of my life be conquered by fear.

To quote Ernest Becker,

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

So which did the chasm represent? Was death staring me in the face, or was life?

In order to find an answer, I reached into my mind and pulled out memories of home. Congested, claustrophobic and routine. I now remembered why I was here, and why I’d left the safety of the city; I came to hunt butterflies. Not ones which required a net however, but the ones which now flapped their wings ferociously in my stomach. It was this pervasive, inescapable fear which I sought. The fear of the unknown, of the new, of the chaotic. And so I ran toward the edge and leapt.

Vast forested WildernessBefore I could even digest it, I stood at the other side. I had done it. This was why I came. Blood rushed through every inch of my body, awakening every sense I had. I walked to the edge of the cliff face, soaking in the glory of the view. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was alive.

From the cliffs edge I could see the entire world. Forests beneath me, an ocean in the distance in front of me, and blue sky above.

Author on Cliff EdgeIt was at this point I realised what Ernest Becker meant. Life could not be lived when clinging to safety. It was only when I let go of my fears of death, that I could truly live a life worth living.

It was at this moment, in which I also came to realise that there isn’t really such thing as humanity versus nature, as is so commonly spouted. Instead, there is only humans versus ourselves. Nature represents the transient, the uncontrolled and the unknown, all of which present great fear to humanity, as these are all the qualities of death. We fear our own mortality, and so we sculpt the world to remove its chaos – to avoid remembering that we are not in control. Life forever slips through our fingers, but we instead remain too fearful to diverge from the trodden paths. We choose safe careers, live within societally sanctioned schedules, and avoid danger at all costs, all in the hopes that we may live just that one moment longer. Though is this really living? As humans we are able to ponder the infinite, and comprehend the immortal, and yet we remain chained to the one thing we fear the most: our nature.

Louis O’Neill is a 21 year old Graduate from Macquarie University in Australia, having completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Writing.

Photos by patsuraseang

Mount Katahdin

The Challenge

Mt. Katahdin across Lake Millinocket in maine.The long, wide white blanket stretches as far as my eyes can see, covering the flatland below with snow that appears to be better than two feet deep. On first clear sight, the intense whiteness gleaming off the valley and the mountain burns my eyes. I put on eye-black and sunglasses and see clearly without pain. At mid-morning I finished packing the backpack and left the lodge, sleeping in after the long drive up from Boston, after the thickest of the snow had been cleared from the roads. That was preceded by a nearly eleven-hundred-mile drive from Atlanta. Three days out from my home base, I stand where I want to be, atop this hill looking out across an immense and beautiful land to the summit I am determined to reach by this time tomorrow. Now it is well past noon, the sun already headed west. Since I have been standing here, absorbing the terrain with binoculars and camera, the wind at my back has gained momentum and howls around my ears.

On the far side of the valley lies the end of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin rises nearly a mile, spare and majestic in the sun that has burned away the fog and clouds. Snow-covered, it rises formidable and forbidding. I take a deep breath and start down the steep rise into the deep snow of the valley, bracing myself against the wind that rips up against me like a buzz saw striking a brick wall, so bundled and determined am I.

A flash of reddish brown catches my eye, and I halt. Looking through the field glasses, I see a lone buck deer with an impressive rack of antlers crossing the horizon near the foot of the mountain. In my hunting days, before I woke up to reality, I would have brought along a rifle and taken aim, thinking of the impressive head I could place on the wall above the fireplace and all the good eating the venison would provide for mine and me. Not now, killing is not a sport. How could I have ever believed that it was? Instead, I take out the Nikon D3200 and take aim with the zoom lens. The buck pauses in his jaunt through the snow that is nearly chest deep on him. He looks my way, dead at me, I swear, as if any human taking any aim at him is worthy of his attention. I snap two quick photos, and he moves on, trudging a bit through the drifts, which gives me a good idea of how difficult the crossing will be.

Overhead a flock of crows caw and wing across the valley. How do they survive in this climate? No worms or greenery to feed on, unless you count the spruce, hemlock, and fir trees that must be what keeps the deer alive. Survive the crows and deer and moose do throughout winter in a place where after three days without food that I have brought along, I would be ready to chunk it in and head for the nearest pancake house. In warmer weather herons, egrets, tufted titmouse, chickadees, wrens, cardinals, and turkey vultures flock to the lakes and the mountain. Now the durable and resourceful crows are the only birds I have seen.

Lake Pemadumcook lies to the west, Lake Millnocket to the east. The land I am crossing lies almost equidistant between the lakes, frozen over on this February day. A southern boy, I have always wanted to walk or skate across a frozen lake in the dead of winter. Way up here alone, even with park rangers within a mile, I decide against such an undertaking. What with global warming running full steam ahead, the lakes might not be frozen solid enough to bear the weight of a hundred-eighty-pound man. I stick to the middle ground, the snowdrifts, cold and treacherous enough to suit my sense of challenge. After crossing the valley, the mountain is the beauty and the obstacle I must take on. As with any challenge, I will have to overcome myself, defeat overthinking and the weakening of will. That is the point of a challenge, isn’t it, making oneself stronger.
In their search for sustenance the crows have winged into the trees. The deer has vanished. I would like to see a moose, though not within charging range, and a black bear—those powerful creatures are in hibernation now. That is just as well. I have read that attacks by black bears are rare, but that would not provide much comfort if you were among the rare people attacked. The cold is biting and penetrating, but I believe I prefer it to an assault by black flies and mosquitoes that, according to what I have read and heard, are vicious and relentless in the warmer months. A sixteenth and seventeenth century French writer who explored and trapped in the northern woods and swamps thought them uninhabitable, due to the swarming, stinging insects.

The wind rips and roars out of the north, howling across the valley. I adjust the protective lenses and pull the ski mask tightly over my already chapped face and press on. The snow now rises nearly to my waist, the going is slow and tough. The thick pants and boots from L.L. Bean, Freeport, keep out most of the cold and damp. The thick gloves keep my hands from suffering frostbite. Impulsively I scoop up a handful of snow and slurp a small quantity. The taste is cold and hollow, but the moisture, along with the six bottles of water I have brought, is necessary to keep me hydrated, as the wind dries me outside and in. How far up the mountain can I make it today? Will I reach the top in this cold and wind? My goal for today is to find a camping spot, build a fire. The backpack carries several objects of necessity, including lightered wood to get the flames going. I must eat enough to replace the considerable energy I will have expended walking five miles and climbing half another, and stay warm enough to survive the night. I could be back in a warm apartment in ATL, but look at the shining and subtle beauties of winter I would miss.

History of Katahdin

ragged mountain top of Mt. KatahdinThe Native Americans of the region gave the mountain its name. They believed that the Spirit of Katahdin had extraordinary powers and that anyone who ventured onto the mountain risked never returning. The white settlers and visitors to the region were determined to climb the mountain to its summit. The first recorded climb was made by Zackery Adley and Charles Turner, Jr., surveyors from Massachusetts, in August of 1804. Henry David Thoreau made the climb in 1840 and described it in The Maine Woods, spelling it Ktaadn and grousing about the difficulties and privations of long distance hiking in the north woods. Seems he preferred the woods around Concord, where a quick hike into town could provide refreshment and society. The first woman to reach the summit was Elizabeth Oakes Smith in 1849. In 1895, Frederic Edwin Church painted the mountain. In 2011, his work, Twilight, sold for $3.1 million. (Too bad old Fred was no longer around to reap the munificent reward for his labor. I hope his descendants got some of the haul.)

For several decades after the mountain became a popular visiting site the roads were nearly impassable by car or horse-drawn wagon. In the 1930s, Maine Governor Percival Baxter acquired a great deal of land in the area and eventually donated better than 200,000 acres for a state park, Baxter Park—what else? The roads were improved, and the number of visitors per annum increased, though I am the sum total of visitors so far today. According to the US Board of Geographic Names, the summit is actually “Baxter Peak.” I prefer to stick with the name given it by its original inhabitants. “The Spirit of Katahdin” bears many more poetic possibilities. The mountain’s most famous and difficult ridge is the Knife Edge between Panola and Baxter Peaks. I plan to return in the summer, with company, and make that climb. On my own in February, I will be more than content to reach the summit the best and least difficult way I can. The park ranger at the station discouraged me from camping out overnight, but I am determined to make the climb on my own terms—mine and the mountain’s.

First Leg of The Climb and Night

hiker with snowshoes in winterUsing a staff and fairly well-conditioned legs for an old coot, I climb along what I believe is the Abol Trail, the shortest route up the mountain. The slippage of rocks during the winter of 2013-2014 forced the park to reroute the trail, with several switchbacks, so it is now over a mile longer than before. The steep trek is made mostly into the wind that blasts me with spews of snow. More than once during the arduous climb to reach even this modest elevation—maybe 2,000 feet—it occurred to me that I am a damn fool for taking on the mountain alone. Alone and at age fifty-nine. Should have done this thirty years earlier and with at least one friend. But this is where I am and when. Make the most of it. Looking back, or down, is a waste of time and energy, and I will need a whole heap of the latter to make it to the top and back to the lodge.

After clearing a mostly dry patch of ground, I pitch the pup tent and go in search of dry wood. The kindling I brought along remains dry. Scouring the area with flashlight, I find some fallen hemlock saplings that have been held off the snow by trees fallen before them and set to work with a hatchet. Better than an hour later I have about chopped myself out and believe I have enough to get a good blaze going. Enough to keep the fire burning until sunup? No. I go back to work with the flashlight and the hatchet. Necessity can summon up reserves of energy you never knew you had.

With enough wood to make it until daylight, I hope, I get the blaze going strong and steady and fit my six feet, one-eighty into the tent, snuggle down into the sleeping bag. The wind has died down considerably, though occasionally it kicks up, blowing snow, as it blasted my face several times during the climb, threatening to put out the fire. Also, there is the danger of a spark igniting the tent. I have been assured by the salesman at L.L. Bean and by the manufacturer’s brochure that it is fireproof. Still, I placed the sleeping quarters a good fifty feet from the fire. Making doubly sure there is next to no chance of conflagration, I crawl out of the sleeping bag and part the tent’s flap.

Most of the swirling snow vanishes in the heat from the flames. Fatigue overcomes worry, and within minutes I drift off into a dreamland where warm sunny beaches dominate the landscape. Waking after three hours in order to relieve the old bladder is a hazard of late middle age one has to learn to live with, easier to live with when the air around you is not several degrees below freezing. To amuse myself, I write my name in the snow with the troublesome urine that woke me, stoke the fire, and add a few more pieces from the fallen hemlocks, then slide rapidly and shivering back into the downy bag. Sleep is not so quick to come this time, and every sound I hear puts me in mind of some approaching menace. The bears are in their caves, no wolves on this mountain in decades, my rational mind assures me. Still, the darkness that surrounds me and the fire is all but complete. Only faint light from the quarter moon and the rest of the cosmos reassures me. More snow falls. The wind starts up again. Shivering, I snuggle deeper into the bag. Soon even the overactive imagination wears out, and sleep kisses me with its lovely, soft lips.

Sunrise, Back on the Trail

 winter in forest at sunsetOf the many things for which I give thanks, preeminent this morning is that this journey will be completed today, and I can return to the warm lodge to thaw out before the long drive home. In the meantime, I give thanks to the spirit of the mountain that I am here, that I have the opportunity to see and be in this place when so many the world over haven’t the choice to make such a journey, much less have a warm, comfortable lodge awaiting them when this arduous leg of the trip is done.

All of that gratitude is, of course, dependent on me making it to the summit and back down, unbroken and unfrozen. Some of the wood on the former fire still glows red and white hot. The dry wood I stuffed into the backpack gets the blaze going again, and I can have coffee and warm food.

I wish I had been at the summit for sunup, where it has been written, by John Knowles in A Separate Peace, that “the sun first strikes US territory.” I will camp up there come summer. For now, I am content to be here and, after some jerky and powdered eggs, a cup of Joe, I resume the snowy, rocky ascent.

As expected, the higher the altitude, the more difficult the climb. After a half hour, I reach a pass between rock formations and gut it out for another hundred feet or so before reaching a plateau where I can lean against a rock wall and catch my breath—no easy task with a wind of at least forty mph blowing down on me. Ahead is the steepest leg of the climb, so far. Don’t look back, time is gaining on you. It is yet early morning, maybe eight by now; I intentionally left phone and watch behind. The concerns and obsessions with the every-day world have little place up here. The climb, the summit, the view of the white valley and greenery peeking through the snow are what matter. Those and survival. I have come this far, in part, to test myself against the elements, to see if I still have what it takes to meet nature on her terms and live to tell the tale. The crows circle overhead, cawing. Are they mocking or warning me? Probably neither. They have their own concerns, and it is doubtful that I am one of them. I stir myself and trudge on. Motion staves off the cold far better than stasis.

On this stretch of the trail, the rocks are slippery, treacherous. It behooves the climber to take his time. A talent for navigating the hurly burly of city life is of no use to you here. The nearly sheer rock wall shields me from the full brunt of the wind. I dig in with the staff and trudge on, following a pass between cliffs. It occurs to me for the first time that I have naively failed to bring along any rappelling equipment. No harness. It is just as well, I am a neophyte at this sort of mountain climbing and would be likely to commit some oversight that would send me tumbling down the mountain. What I have is determination—my girlfriend calls it stubbornness, sometimes pigheadedness. I make up my mind that I will not quit, will not turn back. It is the mindset that does not guarantee success; no matter how pigheaded the climber, nature can kick your booty, kick it all the way off the mountain. I have a great respect for the forces that surround me, the Spirit of Katahdin. So I keep digging in with the staff, pushing my legs and back and arms and heart as far as they will go before breaking. Finally, finally, the top of the pass is reached, and I collapse on the plateau, spent, for the moment.

The wind has shifted and now blows up the mountain, at my back, a godsend. I rise to a sitting position. Thank heavens for the insulated pants and the thick downy coat and gloves, for the staff and for the pigheadedness I must have inherited from both parents, who were never quitters. I get up and press on.

Hiker on summit ridge of mountainThe summit is within sight. An arduous last few hundred feet lie between me and it. Steady on, heart and soul, arms and legs and back. You can make it. The mountain will not defeat me. In a way, it and the elements are helping me along. The sun is up and good and bright, providing the first warmth of the day. The wind has slowed to maybe twenty mph and pushes me upward. I dig in, trudge on, and try not to think of the finish, the descent, the return home. I hope to pass this way again, but it will never be the same as this, the first time. Relish the climb, the challenge, moment by moment, foot by foot.

Another difficult pass, then a nearly straight shot to the summit. I stand on snowy rocks in the wind, swaying a little but holding my ground, gazing across the valley to the distant blue hills. I clear the snow from the sign: KATAHDIN BAXTER PEAK…NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, it reads. I have made it. Or has it made me?

Photos by Tim Markley, Patrick Lienin, Galyna Andrushko, tomas1111, and Duncan Andison.