I had never entered Baxter State Park at the Matagamon Gate, the northern entrance. I could not remember ever driving through Patten, whose darling of an old-fashion downtown includes a Shop ‘n’ Save and a hardware store and not much else. I had never reached that crest of open land on route 159, where for the first time in my life, it became definitely clear that Katahdin is part of a range of mountains usually obscured from view when the mountain is approached from the south. For my 29th birthday, I wanted to climb a trail other than the ones on Katahdin that I know so well and love. My mother wanted to bring me to South Branch Campground, a site that she had only recently discovered and whose beauty is considered to rival Chimney Pond’s.
South Branch Campground boasts a beach on Lower South Branch Pond where hikers can jump in the refreshing water at the end of a long day under the shadow of the mountains that they just climbed. My mother compared the landscape to something out of the West Coast. The way the mountains dramatically slope into the body of water reminded me more of Acadia than anywhere else. The afternoon before our 10-plus mile hike of the Traveler Loop, we rented a canoe for $1 an hour and spent much of our two-and-a-half hours on the water floating. We did line our canoes over to Upper South Branch Pond, and we watched teenagers jump from the high cliffs into the water. Yet we were content where we were.
I moved back in with my mother in early June as part of a cost-saving measure. We are once again brushing our teeth together, and sharing meals upon occasion, and trying to remember to water the garden. Yet we seldom had a chance to relate like this, without telephone interruptions or work commitments to pull us apart. I always feel lucky to spend my birthday with the woman who gave birth to me.
On a daily basis, especially living with her, I am constantly in awe of how strong and tough that she consistently proves herself to be. For work, she takes care of the dying. Outside of work, she would “give anyone the shirt off her back in a snow storm”, as I like to describe her. When we hiked the Traveler Loop, she practically carried me for 10-plus miles. If she could have carried me, she would have, she said near the end of the day.
We had made a dangerous oversight in our harried, last-minute packing. We knew we would have to treat our water at the campground, and we packed 4 gallons of water and Aquamira. Yet in what was truly a frenzied departure, an “evacuation-of-Saigon” departure as my dad would say, we did not bring enough water bottles, and we did not realize this until 9pm when we were already settled in. The park recommends at least 3 liters of water per person on a hot summer day, and we did not have anywhere close to that.
I had hoped we would cross a reliable water source on the Loop, and I stowed my Aquamira in my backpack. Upon close examination of the map once we had already started our hike, we would have no such luck in the higher elevation of the Traveler Loop. The park ranger advised us to hike it counter-clockwise, up the Center Ridge Trail and down North Traveler. Once we veered away from the Pogy Notch Trail, we would be in dry country.
If we were more sensible stock, we would have turned around. We would have talked to the park ranger or other campers and seen if they had any extra bottles. Yet we are of stubborn stock, the sort of fools who are a couple miles in and do not want to fail even though the day will be a struggle. My mother is unbelievably stoic in ways, and who was I to be a wimp.
She ended up giving me the majority of water we had carried, and still bounded ahead of me like a high-energy puppy dog. I would study her path across the fields of skree and spiney ridges. We have hiked Katahdin and Washington and some of the other challenging peaks of New England together. Every time, she will claim it is the last time that she will cross the Knife Edge, last time in the Whites, last time on the Precipice. “Last Time” has become her trail name, but on this particular hike in Baxter, it could have been mine. I felt out-of-shape and without any fire under my rear end to keep me going.
We lunched on tuna and crackers at Traveler, and looked at all we had left to climb and what little water we had. I marveled that the Traveler Loop was still relatively new, in the last decade I believe. In my father’s guide book from 1978, it described only trails to Peaks of the Ridges and North Traveler. At that time, hikers still had to bushwhack to the top of Traveler, always a mysterious monster of a mountain. It was named Traveler because the mountain appears to follow paddlers down the Penobscot river. It was once thought to be the second highest mountain in the state before the discovery of mountains in the Western part of the state.
Even without bushwhacking, I struggled to lift my legs and keep going forward. My mother promised me her last half of water as we ascended North Traveler. I am going to take a break, I am going to take a break, I promised myself right before I banged my right ankle against a stump.
“I hate hiking!” I screamed at my mother, right before I started crying. A bruise quickly formed, but unlike last year’s birthday injury, I did not significantly break the skin. I could not see my bone. I do not know how I would have been rescued from that spot, so it was a blessing.
My mother did indeed give me the last half of her water bottle, but encouraged me to sip it a little at a time as we summited and descended North Traveler. The top of North Traveler looked familiar, and I could not figure out why, until I read afterwards that the upland meadows of North Traveler are reminiscent of the Southern Balds. I have never before seen that comparison in a Maine hiking guidebook. I am thrilled to know that I can feel the same effect of the Roans or Max Patch within a day’s drive from home.
My mother reached the junction of the North Traveler Trail and the Pogy Notch Trail before me. “You are never going to believe this! It says there was a spring 1.2 miles up the North Traveler Trail from here!”
I did not believe it. The spring was not marked on my brand-new map, nor did I read about it in any of the 1978 guides. We bee-lined to the car for water before a swim in the pond. “10 hours, exactly as the ranger said,” I pointed out. Yes, a 1 mph pace in a day of alternating between losing and gaining elevation.
“I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.” We had reservations for a campsite that night, but since my mother had to work in the morning, she agreed to drive home.
We could not find any eating establishments in Patten that accepted credit cards at 8pm on a Sunday night. We headed south on 95 to Medway, to the diner at the Big Apple gas station only a little ways from the exit. At that late hour on a Sunday night, locals packed the diner. I do not think visitors typically expect homemade biscuits and soups and dinner fixings at a gas station restaurant, but this is the place to eat north of Dysart’s.
I did not mean it when I declared that I hated hiking. I despise not setting myself up to have a cushy trip. I do not like feeling rushed out the door or unprepared.
In fact, I am still absorbing my favorite birthday present, a Map Adventures map of Baxter State Park. I am studying the possibilities, and creating a wish list. I adore being able to look at a map, and say, “Oooh, I have not been there or there or there”. It is a gift that I will use years after this memorable birthday.
Thank you, mom, for map, and giving birth to me, and everything in-between.