Note: It’s Sept. 16, and I’m in Presque Isle, Maine. I made a tactical retreat from Caribou, and finally found a McDonald’s where I could plug in my laptop. Three young men are at a table behind me. One of them sounds like an extraordinarily immature Mark Ruffalo. Penis jokes all around.
This morning I stopped at the visitors center in Houlton, which lies at the southern end of Aroostook County. I chatted with a representative named Vera. She answered my questions about the pronunciation of “Aroostook” and the persistence of potato farming as a driving force of Aroostook agriculture. Then she realized the woman in line behind me was not with me, and transferred her attention.
Woman: What’s with this Baxter State Park?
Vera: It’s a very unusual park. It has a lot of rules, like you couldn’t bring your dog there.
Woman: I don’t have a dog.
Vera: Well, it was given to Maine by Governor Baxter, and he attached a lot of rules as a condition for his gift. There are no facilities there.
Vera: I mean, if you want to take a three-hour drive on gravel roads and look at the trees and maybe a moose, you might want to go there.
Woman: What can you tell me about Lily Bay State Park?
Vera’s derisive tone stunned me. I went to Baxter State Park yesterday. As I got on the road north out of Millinocket, I saw a disturbing sign: No vehicles over 9-feet tall or 22-feet-long would be admitted to Baxter Park. I knew I was in trouble.
And it was true, the Behemoth is too much a behemoth to tour Baxter State Park. But I met a friendly ranger named Mike. I think he would’ve let me in if I complained, but he said low-hanging branches might damage the camper. I had to admit I didn’t want that.
Then he took time to show me alternatives, places where I might park and then enter Baxter on foot.
While I was disappointed not to climb Mount Katahdin, I am glad old Percival Baxter attached his persnickety rules to his 200,000-acre gift. It’s a beautiful place,worthy of a national park, and probably safer from depredation than most national parks due to Baxter’s foresight.
Here’s part of what Baxter said about his desire to keep it wild: “Man is born to die. His work is short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes; but Katahdin, in all it’s glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”
They don’t make governors like that anymore, especially in Maine. And Pennsylvania.
Thanks to Percival Baxter, at least one place in Maine is not open for business. Other than tourism business. And I’m sure that gnaws at Gov. Phil LePage and his right-wing sugar daddies.
Sept. 15, Baxter State Park, Maine – The Penobscot River’s West Branch slid past me, thick and coiled and menacing. In the biting cold of a midSeptember Maine morning, it looked like a giant water moccasin stalking its prey, greenblack water flowing slowly and with deadly purpose.
I had made an end-run around the park’s southern end to get here. I bounced along over the rutted, crater-filled Golden Road, owned by the Great Northern Paper Company, and stowed the Behemoth on a gravel road near an entry to the Appalachian Trail.
I’d been here before, though it is hard to believe now. Jefferson Pepper, my self-styled spiritual adviser, told me to hike the last section of the Appalachian Trail, popularly known as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. When you count the portion that’s inside Baxter, including the up-and-down at Katahdin, it’s more like 120 miles. Anyway, I recalled climbing Katahdin as frolicsome fun, a reward for having endured the rest of the ordeal. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but I wanted to do it again.
When I discovered I couldn’t drive in, that hope was all but dashed. Yet I hadn’t surrendered the fantasy yet. I’m in good shape, I figured, and I might be able hike the 14.5 miles to Katahdin’s summit and get back before dark. Hell, it wasn’t even 9:30 yet.
I guess I thought I was Superman. I hiked for six hours, and it knocked my on ass. Quite literally. It tripped me, kneed me in the back and mocked my pretensions.
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.
And damn, it was cold. I jogged over a soft bed of pine needles in an effort to warm up and make good time. I began to sweat, but my fingers still felt frozen. When I came across other hikers, they wore hats and gloves and warm coats. I wore in my customary hiking garb of shorts and T-shirt.
By the time the big river came into view, the trail was a treacherous path of jutting roots and jagged rocks. After three miles, the trail turned away river and went uphill alongside a stream that tumbled violently over a field of boulders. Not long after that, I lost the trail. Just lost it. Completely.
I walked the along stream, holding onto birch trees to keep from falling in. Sure this couldn’t be the trail, I retraced my steps till I saw the white-blaze identifier of the Appalachian Trail. I was flummoxed. I climbed up hill on what looked like it might be a trail, before even that vanished. That’s when my feet slid out from under me.
I collapsed in a heap, lower leg and upper back sustaining minor damage.
Grateful no one was looking, I shook off the shock and returned to the water’s edge. I tried it one more time, ending up at the same place. I gave up and returned to the white blaze. Then I looked across the churning, whitecapped water and saw a slash of white paint on a tree.
I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t look like any kind of natural ford. I hadn’t considered it, and I didn’t remember it. Two small logs, about four-feet long and side by side about eight-inches wide, had been placed at the edge. You had to step lightly across this mini-bridge before reaching the boulders that allowed for a less perilous crossing.
(I intended to photograph this on the return trip. When I arrived, four women, three from England, the other Irish, were fording. One fell in and got drenched. I kept the camera in my bag, not wanting to embarrass anyone. We discussed the problem on the far side, and they said they too had lost the trail at this junction and were befuddled.)
I reached the other side. There’s another crossing up the trail, this one not quite so worrisome. An hour later, I reached Daicey Pond Campground.
I knew all was lost. I walked out into the open and felt the soothing balm of sunshine for the first time after laboring in the shadows all morning. I should’ve been happy, yet I was forlorn.
It was nearly noon. I wasn’t going to see Katahdin today, much less climb it.
Four women stood in the parking lot, scrutinizing a map and looking confused. One asked if I knew how to get to Little Niagara Falls, and had I seen it? I had seen the sign for Little Niagara about a mile back, but I kept moving.
How was it, she asked? I fibbed and said I’d seen it, and it was great, because I didn’t have the courage to reveal myself as the kind of idiot who would hike for two and a half hours and walk right past the route’s star attractions.
They headed off toward the Niagaras. I stood in the sunshine, my Piggly Wiggly shirt soaked with sweat, defeated.
I knew there was nothing to do but turn back. At least I’d get to see Little Niagara Falls and Big Niagara Falls. First I stopped at Little Niagara, which is nice enough, even if it doesn’t conjure up majestic imagery. I clambered around on the surrounding rocks and took a few indulgent self-portraits.
Then I went off to Big Niagara, just a half-mile or so down the trail. When I arrived I found an unoccupied rock, drank a little water and ate lunch. The fare was Ritz crackers and extra-sharp cheddar.
I sat there, gazing at the falls and contemplating my absurdity. I also thought about the names of the cataracts. It sure seemed odd to call one of them Big Niagara and the other Little Niagara. Because we all know there is only one “big” Niagara Falls, and that’s 750 miles southwest of here, on the New York-Ontario border.
Up on a big slab overlooking the falls, I saw the women I’d met at Daicey Pond. I gave them a wave. I went back to what I was doing, which was a whole lot of nothing. A couple minutes later I was startled to hear a voice. It was one of my new friends, bearing a camera, asking if I would take their picture. Of course I would.
That’s how I met Alice Chicoine & Co. Alice and I got to talking. She asked if I was retired. I’ve gotten this a lot lately. And to think I had deluded myself into thinking I was looking pretty good. But you can’t escape the wrath of time.
Look at that face: It’s no wonder that my wife can barely stand the sight of me.
I told her about my “book,” then asked her where she’s from.
“I’m a Maine-ah,” she said.
No way. Maybe she has the accent, but she’s far too outgoing and engaging to be from Maine. Maine-ahs are famously taciturn, after all.
Alice returned to her party. They formed into a line. I took several shots, then climbed over to return the camera. Another member of the group handed me her camera, and then another.
By now we were old friends, me and Alice and her sister, Joyce Grondin, and their pals Debbie Clark and Anne Borsavage. The first three are Mainers, from the Augusta area. Anne was visiting from New Milford, Conn.
We stood there chatting, absorbing the sun and having a grand time. Joyce is a fellow former newspaperman, so to speak. We got so chummy I felt brave enough to ask their opinion the whole “Maine is open for business” con. Debbie rolled her eyes. Turns out they’re not big fans of Phil LePage.
I gulped a huge sigh of relief.
One of them, who asked not to be quoted directly, leaned in and conspiratorially shared her opinion that LePage has “foot-and-mouth disease.”
“He shoots from the hip,” Alice said with a smirk. Then she frowned and said the incumbent governor reminds her of her dad. Joyce had to agree.
Alice, Joyce and Debbie are children of the old Maine. The Maine of pulp and paper and blue-collar labor. Their parents worked in mills, factories that don’t exist today even as dilapidated remnants. Joyce and Alice’s father worked in a cotton mill before getting out and turning mailman. Debbie’s mom worked in the cotton mill; her dad in paper mill.
When they turned 18, Alice and Debbie got an apartment and shared a shift at the cotton mill. One of them worked 3 till 7, the other 7 till 11. Work in the mills was plentiful then. Now most of Maine’s mills have disappeared or dwindled to skeletal operations.
Maine may be open for business, but the route to decent jobs is closed in too many places.
Well, that was fun. I had to get going. I had untold miles to walk to get back to the Behemoth. At least I would shuffle along with a whole new outlook. Alice, Joyce, Debbie and Anne had salvaged my day.
I made it back by 3:30 or so. Sure I stumbled over roots and even once did a faceplant. I lay on the trail for a few moments, wishing someone were there to take my photograph.
It would have been a fitting illustration of my day.