Traveler Loop in northern Baxter State Park

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.  There, 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.  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.

 

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The Bunk House at Chimney Pond

“Don’t put too much product in my hair, I am sleeping at Chimney Pond tonight.” The hair appointment had been scheduled for months; I had only reserved a space at the Chimney Pond bunk house shortly after 8am that June morning. I had wanted to go camping when I saw that I had two days off in a row.

However, quite frankly, I do not like sleeping alone in the woods any more. After 3000 miles of backpacking, between my southbound and northbound hikes, I like hearing others playing cards as I fall asleep. I like waking up to someone boiling water for coffee. Yes, I have friends who hike and camp, but sometimes I want to go when no one else can.

Staying at the Chimney Pond bunk house seemed to be the perfect solution to my odd need to sleep within earshot of others’ breathing and snoring. I had always wanted to stay there, but it never had space when I checked. After all, the lean-tos and the bunk house at Chimney Pond are highly sought after, due to its closely proximity to Baxter Peak. Hikers can sit at the shore of Chimney Pond and gaze up at the Knife Edge, the Knife Edge being one section of the glacial cirque.

When I saw that the bunk house had ample room that night, I assumed it was because of black fly season, an event hyped up to be far worse than it is. I hiked the entirety of the Maine AT in early June, and for the most part, the air was still too brisk for pesky insects.

I did not see the weather forecast for the next day until I pulled up to the south gate of Baxter State Park. The forecast for the next day read : “Showers and thunderstorms, 80%.” I had planned to climb the Cathedral trail
and summit the next morning, but that forecast did not look encouraging.

I would have summited that day, but I did not leave Roaring Brook until 4:30pm. The distance from Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond is roughly three and a half miles, a gradual gain in elevation, in the woods alongside water for much of the way. I felt more like myself simply because I was carrying the weight of a pack.

As I was approaching Katahdin in my car, I could see that snow still lingered in its upper reaches in the middle of June. From Chimney Pond, the snow banks, as they are called, appeared even more pronounced.

“Is that unusual, to have snow remain through mid-June?” I asked the ranger when I checked in. I had crossed a snow field on Mount Washington in mid-June, but I had never summited Katahdin from the Chimney Pond side in June before.

“Oh….happens every couple of years.” He told me there would only be two others in the bunk house that night, only three in a place whose maximum capacity is ten.

The bunk house there now must be less than 5 years old, set back in the woods off the beaten path of day hikers. For the cost of eleven dollars a night (versus thirty dollars for a campsite at Roaring Brook, I had a bunk (bring your own sleeping pad) and access to a shared common area, and food prep space, and a cribbage board, and a complete deck of cards.

My bunk mates were quick to tell me that the cabins at Daicey and Kidney Pond were even more posh. “They even have mattresses.” I had never noticed before reading the Baxter State Park literature more closely that more than a half dozen of the campgrounds in the park provided the bunk house option. I had also recently learned that Mainers could stay a maximum 14 nights in the park each season. In the spirit of setting goals that do not matter, I contemplated trying to stay at every bunk house in the park.

At dusk, I tagged along with a bunkmate who was headed to Chimney Pond to take pictures of the ominous clouds rolling in over the ridge line. As part of the field naturalist program at UMO, she planned to photography lichen in the alpine zone but she and her hiking companion had checked the forecast. They would wait one more day to summit.

I would not have the luxury of waiting a day. Having tossed and turned and jammed my hips into the wooden bunk, I woke up to the pounding of a downpour. Immediately, I made some quick decisions. I needed a new sleeping pad. I would not attempt to stay at every bunk house in the course of my life. Finally, I would not be ascending the Cathedral Trail that morning.

I felt so grown-up to turn down Baxter Peak and head back to Roaring Brook. More than once, I had hiked twenty miles in the rain because I was out of food and trying to make it to town or pursuing this or that deadline. The last time it happened, I promised myself that I would never voluntarily do it again.

I was strangely happy to be a party of one at that point, and be able to make the best decision for me, and not be pressured to go farther than I wanted. I do hope to have company for the Traveler loop and the Brothers later this summer, but I did like being at Chimney Pond all by myself.

Southwest Harbor

I finished all ten peaks, but I missed the last Island Explorer bus by a matter of minutes.  I briefly attempted hitching back to bar harbor, and then decided that the tourists from New York and Michigan were highly unlikely to pick me up.  It was not the same as hitch-hiking in a trail town on the AT.

I went back to the Circle K, where the clerk had been so friendly to me hours before.  She was more standoffish this time.  I do not know if it was because I truly smelled like I had been hiking in the heat for over twelve hours, or because I asked for a phone book and phone to call a cab.  My cell phone battery had been dead since 4pm.

I opened the yellow pages to cab numbers, but the number that came to mind was the only one I still know by heart: my mother’s.  I did not think she would be home at 8:30 on a saturday night, but she answered on the fourth ring.

I do not even know if I told her ahead of time that I was hiking the ten highest that day.  “Mom, i missed the last bus and i am stuck in southwest.  can you come and get me?”

“Well, I am on call but i will be right there.”  My mother is a visiting hospice nurse.  She was on call to respond to the sick and dying of the Bangor area, and that was the only reason she was home.

Sure enough, thirty minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot.

“I smell like hiker trash, mom.”

“Well, I will turn off the AC and roll down the windows.”  I climbed into the passenger seat.

“You do smell ripe.”  Ripe, ripe like the peaches and plums and nectarines that have waited too long to be bought.

We headed out of Southwest Harbor and passed the Echo Lake swimming area.  My mother chimed in.  “Should we stop at the Ledges and jump in?  I have been carrying my bathing suit in the car all day.”

I too had wanted to go swimming all day, but pushed myself so that I would finish.  I needed a swim, to remove the sweat and calm my harried mind.

It was 9pm when we pulled into the ledges parking lot, only a few degrees of light away from complete darkness.  We started down the path, and a couple who showed up after us shared their flash light…

Bigelow

Nothing reveals more about people than the reading materials that they keep in their bathrooms. I never appreciated this until I stumbled into a bathroom that had such poignant poetry plastered on the wall next to the pot that I did not want to leave. It was then that I decided what I wanted to keep on the shelf next to my toilet: all my trail maps and guides.

That’s right, I am a map junkie, even when they are maps of places that I have already hiked. I still look at my AT maps and see the side trails that I did not take when I was trying to see how many miles I could hike in one day. This gives me an excuse to go back to some of my favorite places. In addition, I received so much trail magic that I feel in debt and want to pay it forward.

One August day, I decided to combine these two agendas. I planned to hike the Safford Brook Trail, which I had never taken, up to Avery peak in the Bigelow range. The Safford Brook Trail is right around the 2000 mile mark of the AT, a perfect spot to hand out PBR and whoopie pies to any hikers whom I crossed. Usually, trail magic consists of leaving a cooler of cold beverages by the side of the road or cooking pancakes in a parking lot. Yet I am not a sit-around-and-flip-pancakes kind of girl. Envisioning physically challenging trail magic in a remote location, I packed 18 cans of PBR, 8 whoopie pies, and headed to the summit.

The Safford Brook Trail is my new favorite route up my favorite mountain, more of a gentle ascent than the Fire Warden Trail. As good as it felt to take a side trail I had never travelled before, it felt even better to be back on the AT, like returning to my grandmother’s house. As weird and spontaneous and impulsive and crazy as I may be perceived in the rest of the world, the trail is a place where hikers embrace the quirky and creative.

Once on the AT, heading southbound towards Avery Peak, I could not wait to start unloading the beer. Carrying the load was becoming more of a workout than I anticipated. I started through the section of humongous erratic boulders, some of which have to be twenty foot high or more. I came around a corner, and, underneath the overhang of a boulder, a northbounder had fired up his stove and was cooking some ramen for second breakfast.

“A hiker!” I exclaimed, and then planned how I would work this situation. Do not get me wrong, hikers are a friendly bunch. Would you not be friendly if you were alone in the woods most of the day? Yet especially so close to the end of a thru-hike, hikers are reluctant to talk to section and day hikers, and answer the same questions about how often they resupply, how many bears they have seen, etc.

Immediately, I announced that I had thru-hiked, and I had trail magic. “Want a beer or a whoopie pie?” He took both. We talked some more, and the only thing I remember was that he said a section hiker came to the lean-to last night and declared he hated hiking. This thru-hiker said, “If you hate hiking, why are you out here?” I was happy that he was 200 miles from Katahdin, and still loving it.

The next northbounder whom I met was overjoyed to accept a whoopie pie. For someone as desperate for calories as a thru-hiker, whoopie pies are gifts from god, despite having no nutritional value. When he asked me my trail name, I sheepishly pointed to the treat. I was pretty sure he would remember.

On Avery Peak, I encountered a celebrity, maybe not a celebrity to anyone else but a celebrity to me. At the location of the old fire tower, I met the Bigelow preserve manager!

Of course, I fell into starstruck mode, the what-do-you-say-to-someone-whose-music-you-have-listened-to-on-the-repeat-button mode.

“Do you want a whoopie pie?” Turns out, I can think of lots of dumb things to say. I also offered one to the environmental educator, and the peak-bagger at the top, and all three happily accepted. That left one for me that I planned to eat after my sandwich.

I would have eaten it after my sandwich, but it started to rain. I lost my appetite for eating a whoopie pie in the rain. I was ready to make a run down to the bottom.

The preserve manager and environmental educator were digging in the remains of the fire tower. “That has not been exposed in 40 years!” the preserve manager exclaimed.

I paused from packing my bag. I was too intrigued. “What has not been exposed?”

“The geological survey marker that was underneath the fire tower that I burned down last year.”

Never mind the rain, I whipped out my iPhone and asked if I could get my picture next to it, a picture to match my most recent Katahdin photo of course. I jumped over the fire tower wall, and bent forward so my 207 tattoo was next to the survey marker. It was an instinct. I do not think anything will become of these 207 photos. They just tickle my funny bone like the tramp stamp itself.

I ended up hiking down most of the way with the environmental educator. I remembered how much I prefer hiking when I have someone to talk to and listen to.

We ran into two southbound thru-hikers, and I had to give them the last whoopie pie that I did not eat at lunch. They were also happy to take 4 PBRs off my hands.

I still had some PBR leftover at the bottom for my next trail magic adventure.

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Katahdin

All I wanted for my 27th birthday was to climb Katahdin via the Cathedral, Knife Edge, and Helon Taylor trails. Never mind that last fall my friend and I arrived past 7am and lost our Day Use Parking Reservation when we last attempted to do this route.  We had learned our lesson. In fact, we had learned several lessons.

Lesson 1: Do not go Columbus day weekend, or any day considered part of the weekend. Baxter is similar to Las Vegas in the sense that it is a hub of activity amidst the Maine woods. It is one of the biggest attractions in the state.  Especially on the weekends, people can become as cranky waiting in line at the gate as they would be waiting in line at a Disney World ride. Luckily my friend and I could take a Wednesday and Thursday off from work.

Lesson 2: Get a parking pass in advance to secure a spot at your preferred lot. The hassle of calling the Baxter State Park headquarters is worth it to ensure you will have a space at the trailhead where you want to start your climb.  This is especially true if you want to leave from one of the trails at Roaring Brook, the most popular lot. Do not get me wrong.  My parents raised me to love waking up at 3:45am and cooking oatmeal while waiting in line. That being said, it is much less stressful to wake up at 5 and know you have a space.

Lesson 3: Wake up at a campsite inside the park. The Roaring Brook campground was full when we called headquarters. My friend and I booked a space at Nesowadehunk, a campground inside the park that is quite a haul to Roaring Brook, but worth it to be securely inside the gate.

Lesson 4: Let your goofiest friend come along. My friend and I had planned my Katahdin birthday hike as a no-penises sort of affair, but we were unable to turn down one of our best friends when he asked if he could come.  He tends to be entertaining beyond words.  He ate all the marshmallows and hot dogs that fall into the fire and are covered in coals. Only once did I need to shriek, “don’t pour your ramen juice on my marshmallow!”

Lesson 5: Once you thru-hike, ascending Katahdin never feels the same way again. For me, it lights a fire under my ass every time I climb it. When I started my southbound thru-hike, I ran up the mountain. Never mind that I was exhausted the day before, the Hunt trail gave me crazy adrenaline, and I felt that same adrenaline as we headed up to chimney pond this time around.

Lesson 6: Follow the favorite trail of the aforementioned goofiest friend. Goofy is certainly an outdoor enthusiast, but he has a discerning palate. He has picked his favorite runs and trails, and Cathedral is his favorite trail up Katahdin. So much so that last fall he would not shut up about it, and I felt like I had to try it. Well, we tried it this trip, and it was as much delightful pulling ourselves up boulders as promised. I have a new favorite trail: quick, the most fun, unquestionably challenging. Thanks for the suggestion, Goofy.

Lesson 7: Katahdin is a special occasion, so dress like it. In our case, we could not hike Cathedral in traditional hiking garb.  Goofy wore a sombrero and Mexican peasant shirt, my friend wore the most stylish dress ever to be bought from Marden’s, and I wore a red dress I intended to wear on the summit last fall, a dress from the loaner clothes at the Lakeshore House in Monson. It is becoming a tradition that we look ridiculous, just like northbound thru-hikers look ridiculous when they finish. Why let the thru-hikers have all the fun?

Lesson 8: Have a photo shoot to end all photo shoots at the top. Sure, you have to wait your turn, but make it worth it and get your money’s worth when it is your turn. We were already spectacles at the top, but I had to take it up a notch and get a picture of her 207 tramp stamp next to the sign.

Lesson 9: If you are hoping for a thru-hiker sighting, you best shake your booty up there at the crack of dawn. A couple from North Carolina asked us if we had seen any northbounders finishing. Clearly they did not understand the thru-hiker mentality. When you have hiked 2000 miles, you not only want it to be over, you want the top to yourself. You fly up the mountain at 5am with your friends. You may linger on top for five hours, but anyone who wants to stalk the elusive thru-hiker needs to have an early start.

Lesson 10: Hike your own hike on the knife edge. True confessions: my friends are a little more daring than me, more fearless, more tough. They hiked the knife edge like they were walking on the beach. At the prospect of 45 mph winds and the shear drop-off I could not avoid seeing, I spider crawled it. That’s right, I dragged my booty over every rock, my thighs leaned into every rock, and the next day my upper body was as sore as my lower. My friends and I have a mutual understanding, a respect for each other’s pace. Every once in a while, Goofy would wait and guide me over the hard parts. I felt comfort in calling his name, that name that I have called out on many rivers and trails, in tricky spots and darkness.  I felt glad he had come along after all.

Lesson 11: Fight off your hunger until dysart’s. This is the lesson that my friends and I have not yet mastered. You get off Katahdin and all you want is the nearest pizza/beer/whoopie pie joint. It would be idto hold off for Mary Hart’s home-cooked beans and pie, but that has yet to happen.

Of course, that means there is room for it to be even better next time.

Bagging the Ten Highest Peaks in Acadia National Park in One Day!

One late night, as teenagers, my friend and I talked about climbing the ten highest peaks in Acadia in one day. Already 1am, we estimated that we would have to wake up at 4am to cover them all. I remained unsure if my legs had the strength and endurance to handle a full day of ascents and descents, especially on three hours of sleep. The Precipice still scared me then, and I did not know my way around Acadia without a map.

Fast forward eight years. Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, I also felt well-acquainted with the routes in Acadia. By then, I had sought out every trail, and ventured up all of them in every season, and saved myself after becoming lost, and picked favorites.

I ran into that same friend at a Maine backyard wedding, my favorite kind, one of those eating-lobster-and-drinking-around-the-pig-trough affairs.

We started talking about our travels and adventures. I had to ask. “Hey, man, did you ever climb the ten highest on the island?”

“No, do you want to do it tomorrow?” I must have laughed, thrown off to hear my impulsive spontaneity in another person’s voice.

“Sure!” We started to plan our route right then and there. We did not use a detailed map with each trail and its mileage labelled, but one of the vague park-issued maps pulled out of a glove compartment. Never mind that the map imparted little information. To my own embarassment, like the island junkie that I am, I had memorized much of the mileage. I could pencil out the steepest, most direct route. We would each drive a car. We would park and start at the easternmost peak on the east side of the island, hike to the other car, and then drive to the west side of the island.

By the time we parked one car at the Parkman Mountain lot and drove to the Precipice, we were not on the trail until 5:45am.

We decided to start with the most technical trail of the day, the Precipice. Every so often, I would be climbing a ladder, and turn around to see the sun rising over the ocean.  Way better than the sunrise on Cadillac, I thought.

After scoring Champlain, we descended down the Beachcroft Trail, skirted along the Tarn Trail, and ascended Dorr Mountain via the Ladder Trail. We were both out of breath on the Ladder Trail, the Stairmaster of Acadia, the most hardcore quad and glut workout on the island. However, at the top of Dorr, we looked out at Cadillac and agreed that this challenge would be easier than we thought.

We hopped to Cadillac Mountain from Dorr via the Notch Trail. We reached the top, covered in the usual swarms of tourists who drove up the auto road, and headed to the flush toilets and water fountains.

On the summit of Cadillac, we texted another friend to meet us on top of Penobscot Mountain. The rendezvous would be tricky considering that neither party knew what time the other would arrive. Yet both of my friends acted confident that the meeting would work, so I did too.

We descended Cadillac via the West Face Trail. From the Bubble Pond parking lot, we ran to the Bubbles parking lot, thinking we were going to be late for our friend. Once at the Bubbles parking lot, my friend realized that we still needed to climb Pemetic, up the 0.6 West Side Trail. We made a mad dash for it, not yet having snacked or felt hunger for food.  We only hungered for summits.

Returning to the Bubbles parking lot, we crossed the saddle of the Bubbles and headed for the summit of Penobscot. When we arrived on Penobscot, our friend hugged us each in his customary style.

We reached the top of Sargent, the second highest mountain on the island after Cadillac, and took Grandgent to Parkman and Bald. Only before we reached Parkman and Bald, we hit Gilmore Peak, a peak that we were not sure how to count. Gilmore Peak is not on the park-issued map. It is identified on the more detailed National Geographic map, and its elevation qualifies it as one of the ten highest. We decided that in light of this, we could say that we climbed the eleven highest mountains on Acadia.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the Gilmore Peak conundrum, one of my friends asked about the definition of a peak. I said that peak-baggers have denoted a minimum depth of the trough between peaks in order for two to be considered distinct from each other.

My friend had never heard the expression “peak-bagging” before. I said, “Yeah, that’s what hikers trying to climb all the 4000 footers in New Hampshire or the Adirondacks call themselves.” We realized we were peak-bagging at the moment.

We scooted over Parkman and Bald, and back down to the second car in the Parkman lot. Only 3pm, we had finished the eastern side of the island. We only needed to climb two more: Mansell and Bernard, on the West Side of the island. We dashed into Bar Harbor to drop off our friend and grab power burritos from Gringo’s.

Perhaps we lingered too long in Bar Harbor before heading to the Gilley Field parking lot. We reached the wooded-summit of Bernard at dusk. We scrambled up and down the bumps between Bernard and Mansell.

Now that I felt tired and slow, we bantered back and forth in overly-pronounced Maine accents to distract ourselves from the impending darkness. At one point, struggling to see the rocks and losing the strength in my core from laughing, I yelped, “No jokes on the downhill!”

We made it to the last peak, Mansell, at dusk. I wanted to run to touch the summit marker and bolt for the parking lot. Yet my friend said, “I have a surprise!”

He pulled a Whoopie Pie out of his backpack. I called myself Whoopie Pie on the Appalachian Trail, after all, and the surprise ended the day on a perfect note. We finally accomplished a goal that we had initially considered almost a decade prior. Then again, friends expect that of each other.

The Acadia National Park That You Have Not Yet Hiked

For hikers who prefer to have trails and summits to themselves, the peak season in Acadia challenges their solitude.  Here are some recommendations–easy, moderate, and strenuous–to escape the crowds.

1. The Precipice…at Sunrise.  Let everyone else drive or hike up Cadillac for the sunrise.  Try the Precipice at dawn for a more solitary and equally awe-inspiring experience.  As you climb the ladders and skirt across ledges, you cannot help but steal glances at the sun rising over the ocean.  Difficulty: Strenuous.  Distance: 0.9 miles from Precipice parking lot on Park Loop Road to Champlain Mountain summit.  Closed during Peregrine Falcon nesting season.  Not for those scared of heights.

2.  Pools on the Canon Brook Trail.  At the junction of the A. Murray Young Path and the Canon Brook trails, you can head up Cadillac or Dorr.  That is, if you can pull yourself out of the pools at the stream at that point.  There you will find several spots just deep enough to “fall in”, cool your sweat-wrenched body, and dissuade you from going any further.  It is the most pleasant spot in Acadia to procrastinate for hours, whether at the beginning or end of your hike, and you will probably have it to yourself.  Difficulty: Easy.  Distance: 1.1 miles from the Canon Brook parking lot a third of a mile south of the Tarn on Route 3 to the junction of the A. Murray Young Path and the Canon Brook trail.

3.  A (Lower-Perched) Bird’s Eye View at Conner’s Nubble. Conner’s Nubble allows you to experience the park from a lower peak surrounded by higher peaks.  Usually deserted, you can sit over Eagle Lake, and look at Cadillac in one direction, and Sargent, the second highest peak, in the other.  Difficulty:  Moderate.  Distance:  1.4 miles from Bubbles parking lot on Park Loop Road to summit of Conner’s Nubble via the North Bubble. 

4.  Rock-Scrambling on the Giant Slide Trail.  The Giant Slide Trail is comparable to a mini-Mahoosuc Notch, the boulder field on the Maine-New Hampshire border rumored to be the hardest section on the Appalachian Trail.  Though not the most difficult trail on the island, it is a fun boulder scramble, next to beautiful Sargent Stream.  It is more of a route than a trail, leaving you to decide in some places, “Should I go under it?  Over it?  Around it?”  Channel your five-year old self, dip your toes in the water, conquer each rock, and head up Sargent Mountain.  Difficulty: Strenuous.  Distance: 2.3 miles from the Giant Slide trailhead (wooden sign on east side of the road 0.2 mile north of Sargent Drive) to the summit of Sargent Mountain.

5.  Acadia Mountain Followed by Swimming at the Echo Lake Ledges.  The parking for the Acadia Mountain trail and Echo Lake Ledges swimming area is one in the same, quite convenient to pair a hike and a swim.  The top of Acadia looks out into Somes Sound, the only fjord on the East Coast.  Once you have spent sufficient time sunning yourself on top, head down to jump in Echo Lake at the Ledges and dry off on the rocks lake-side without the crowds of Echo Lake Beach.  Difficulty: moderate.  Distance: 1 mile from Acadia Mountain parking lot on Rt. 102 to Acadia Mountain summit.

6.  The Ledge and Ravine Trails on the West Side of Pemetic.  The marked distances of all the trails in Acadia appear deceptively short.  Nowhere is this more pronounced than the west side of Pemetic.  Six-tenths-of-a-mile?  This should be easy, you may think.  The other surprise on the west side of Pemetic is that at one point, a sign, in a choose-your-own-adventure style, gives you the option of two routes: the ledge or the ravine.  Suggestion: take one way up and the other way down.  The ledge provides the classic Maine rocks-and-roots hiking experience, while the ravine route feels like you have slipped into a wormhole and you are reaching the top via a secret passageway.  Difficulty: strenuous.  Distance: 0.6 miles from the Bubbles parking lot to the Pemetic Mountain summit.

With 45 miles of carriage paths and 120 miles of hiking trails, Acadia offers secluded trails, vistas, and summits, even in July and August.  You only need a little curiosity and adventuresome spirit to find them.

Skowhegan

I have not read any Maine guide books. I suspect that they do not allocate very many pages to the Skowhegan area, where I spent the first eleven years of my life.  Skowhegan is not a premier tourist destination in Maine.  A pit stop for those en route to Sugarloaf or whitewater rafting, it does not attract the same volume of tourists that the coast does, nor will it ever.  That is its charm. Skowhegan and the surrounding area are the Midwest of maine, wholesome Americana at its best.

To some extent, Skowhegan is frozen in time, and that is the way I like it, especially in the summer. Many of the places of my childhood are not dead yet.  In fact, they create memorable, off-the-beaten path tourist attractions. Skowhegan still has an operating drive-in in the summer. Gifford’s, a Maine ice cream brand based in Skowhegan, still has an ice cream stand and mini-golf operation there, and in several other central Maine towns. The Skowhegan State fair is as alive and kicking as it has been since, well, for a very long time (1819 to be exact, making it the oldest continous running fair in the country)!

Skowhegan Drive-In: My family would only go to the drive-in once or twice a summer, completely unplanned. The suprise of the excursion increased the amount of joy that my sister and I felt. The drive-in always provided an excuse to lay in a sleeping bag, next to my sister, on the hood of my dad’s truck, and fall asleep outside on a warm summer night. I did not usually care about the movie. I could not always hear it since we were sharing the sound with my parents inside the cab. Yet I was never otherwise allowed to climb or sit on the hood of my father’s truck, so trips to the drive-in thrilled me simply because they reversed the rules.

Best that I can tell, Maine has six remaining drive-ins. For more information on the Skowhegan Drive-In, http://www.skowhegandrivein.com/.

Gifford’s ice cream and mini-golf stand: I do not know all the milestones and benchmarks that indicate healthy childhood growth and development. One of them should be the age at which a child is able to lick an entire kiddie cone without a) having the ice cream melt all over the child’s hand and arm up to his or her elbow, or b) having the ball of frozen melted deliciousness roll off the cone onto the pavement. It is a combination of the speed and agility that one may lick, and the balance that one has. Perhaps I am merely disclosing my poor ice cream licking skills, but I felt like a champion the day that I successfully handled an ice cream cone without DISASTER. That milestone most surely happened in the Skowhegan gifford’s parking lot, perhaps on a summer night, shortly before a mini-golf game.

I will always have brand loyalty to Gifford’s. As legend has it, my mother stopped by Gifford’s and bought an ice cream cone every day while she was pregnant with my sister and me (my mother now looks like she has never had an ice cream cone a day in her life). This habit certainly created healthy babies, but it also created babies with a taste for the sweetness of Gifford’s. Yet a summer night at Gifford’s was not simply about ice cream. It was about improving my mini-golf skills, and learning how to hit the ball into the hole in less than twenty tries. Wha-BAM, learning eye-hand coordination (something i struggle with mastering to this day), more childhood growth and development! For everything fabulous about Gifford’s, http://giffordsicecream.com/

The Skowhegan State Fair: Prior to the fair, my sister and I struggled to find 4-H projects that we could enter into the 4-H exhibition halls. It was an adventure of sorts: digging through the christmas ornament boxes, standing in the garden to determine what could possibly be prize-worthy, washing the chickens. Yes, washing the chickens so that they were suitable for the chicken exhibit hall.

Yet once the fair started, it was the most glorious ten days of the entire year in Skowhegan, Maine, and I assume it still is to this day. My sister and I would run around the fair by ourselves, even though we were not tall enough for all the rides. Ride bracelets on our wrists and twenty dollars from our father, we thought we were the luckiest girls in Somerset County. At that time, all we cared about were the rides, yet looking back at it now, the Skowhegan State Fair reeks of classic Maine culture. Want the most authentic Maine cuisine? Check out the Methodist diner!

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Of course, the attraction of the greatest interest to me is not of interest to anyone else, the farmhouse where I grew up. Some of my happiest childhood memories are set in August, on the few nights when the heat lasted past our bed time, especially in the second floor bedroom that my sister and I shared. Funny that houses in Maine were built with second floors at all: in the summer, they trap all the hot air and you do not want to sleep there, and in the winter they cost too much to heat. Tip-toeing down the stairs to our parents’ bedroom, my sister and I would announce to our parents that we could not sleep and beg them to let us share the pull-out in the front room. Believe it or not, I thought of sleeping on a pull-out as a treat, musty matress and metal frame jammed into my back and all. It was a treat to lay on top of a sleeping bag, and listen to the peepers on the lilac bush through the screen door, but most of all, it was a treat to be with my sister, my lifelong best friend. My sister and I would talk, and giggle, and eventually she would shush me until we would finally fall asleep.

I cannot go back to that place, that place that I remember more than any other. I must confess that every summer in new england, a place where the majority of frugal residents would never consider investing in air conditioning, I migrate to a couch in the coolest room in the house and claim it for as many nights as I need. I am a creature of habit, a creature still lured by drive-ins and ice cream stands and state fairs. They are the defining experiences of the summer, on vacation or not.

Ellsworth

I am not a shopaholic. In fact, I detest shopping.  I am grateful when a friend hands me a trash bag full of hand-me-downs, because it means that I will not have to navigate through a mall parking lot and stores and dressing rooms.  I have to admit that it is more enjoyable when I have money to spend, like I did in high school (funny, I do not think I have had any since).  I have to admit that every shirt looks the same to me, and they all cost too much.

That is, except for the shirts and all the other items sold at Marden’s.  Marden’s is a Maine department store that sells items only Mainers could love or consider spending any money incorporating into their lives.  They have the same departments that any Walmart would have–clothes, furniture, garden, etc–but the trick is that you never know what will be in each department.  Marden’s receives surplus, damaged, discontinued, and otherwise unwanted goods in the 49 other states.

The company turns around and markets the items to a demographic willing to wear shirts that are no longer in style or never were, willing to buy beef jerky about to expire and requiring a steak knife to cut through it, willing to sit on a couch with the most hideous upholestry or throw a sheet over it.  Marden’s also sells discounted carpeting, flooring, cabinetry, and other home improvement items.  Entire homes have been remodelled and furnished a la marden’s, in such a style worthy of a statewide tour.

As you can imagine, Marden’s is always an entertaining stop, even for those of us who have no money.  With my father visiting this weekend, Marden’s  became an ideal destination for a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Once we arrived, we split in opposite directions.  I began to ooh and ahh over the rest of the universe’s rejects.  I have bought cute workout pants there before, but not today, maybe next time.  I studied a tomato tree, a rack in which three tomatoes could grow upside down.  The ingenuity of this world impresses me, but sometimes I wish it were redirected to be more useful.  I did splurge and spend $1.95 on a new journal, a necessity for someone who likes handwriting thoughts rather than staring at a screen.

Next, my father and I headed to the Chicken Barn, a building of impressive size, with antiques on the first floor and books on the second.  I had not been there in twelve years, long before I developed a taste for antiques.  Strangely, it is an enterprise much like marden’s, lots of one-of-a-kind, now-is-your-only-chance items, except the Chicken Barn items already have a past, a story.

As I admired the old quilts, I wanted to know who had slept under them.  I wanted to know if they were young or old, if they told secrets or read under them with flashlights, or if they used them at all, if they kept them on a wall or in a cedar chest knowing that the handiwork was worth too much.

I gawk at knick-knack after knick-knack.  I wonder which ones may have been bought on a rainy March Sunday because they amused the shopper as much as they amused me in that moment.  We left when the store closed at 4pm, still not having seen all the items.  My father said, “yes, i saw some duperelki in there that my Polish grandmother had in her house.”  That is why I love antiques, I thought.  Antiques hold memories that we will never know, and stir others that we have forgottten.

To end the afternoon, we headed to downtown Ellsworth where my father bought postcards, and we sought a place to sit so he could fill them out.  I suggested John Edward’s, the natural food store with a few tables in the front.  I used to frequent the store as teenager when Ellsworth had no downtown coffee shop.

I adore the Downeast Maine universe, and I do not want to be anywhere else.  However, when I walk in the back door of John Edward’s, I smell the bulk spices and grains.  I know I have arrived in a place that sells things not sold anywhere else in Hancock County in the same way that Marden’s and the Chicken Barn sell novelty items.

If I am going to shop, I want to feel like I could be in a museum looking at artifacts or a library thumbing through books, not at the end of an assembly line.  I want to picture an inventor, or an artist, or a chef creating the item, with the intention of someone oohing and ahhing over it.

The Maine/New Hampshire Border

During my section-hike of New England, I had dreamed of carrying up whoopie pies and PBR to the Maine/New Hampshire border and handing them out to hikers.  However, I did not know how to pull it off.  I could take a 3-mile side trail up to the spot, but I did not know how I would arrange transportation to the trailhead.  The side trail was steep, my load would be heavy, and when the idea popped into my head, I did not know how to guarantee I would see hikers to surprise.  Since my trail name was Whoopie Pie, I loved the idea of handing out whoopie pies and PBR to welcome whoever-whoever to Maine in style.  It would be trail magic in the least expected location.

By the time I arrived at the hostel in Gorham, the Whites had fatigued me and I wanted to hike the roots and rocks of my home state.  At the hostel, I ran into other hikers I had met in the few weeks that I had been back on the trail.  They would be crossing the Maine/New Hampshire border the next day.  I would have hikers to spoil!

A plan materialized once I announced my idea.  The owner of the hostel had offered to give me a ride to the end of the Success Pond road, and then I would be able to hitch-hike from there.

 Beforehand, I took the shuttle to Walmart, buy whoopie pies and PBR and whatever else i felt like hauling into the woods.  My friend and I enjoyed shopping for trail magic items at Walmart, with no consideration of weight.  Nectarines and cherries looked appealing, what hiker does not want fruit?  We grabbed Pringles and gummy worms.  The most important part was the 30-pack of PBR.

The hostel owner in a hurry, I did not have time to transfer over my bags of groceries into my pack and test how much it weighed before she dropped me off at the dusty side of the road.  A couple of ATVs were pulling out of the dirt road, but we did not see other traffic.  I knew the Mahoosuc range had popular side trails, but I wanted to be reassured that I was not completely on my own should no drivers pick me up.

“Can I call you if i do not get a ride in 6 hours?”

She shook her head, indicating that she had better things to do than drive around hiker girls with half-dozen Walmart bags and a 30-pack of PBR.

“Good luck.”

Watching her drive off in her SUV, I felt doubt and keen awareness of my aloneness.  I fall in love with the poetry, and then this is how the poetry makes me feel.  “One foot in front of the other.  You are continuing with your plan.”

I repacked my backpack, placing the PBR on the bottom, inside my plastic bag liner.  I would learn that was a mistake.  Some of them would crack, and my sleeping bag inevitably smelled like I had slept on a beer pong table.

At that moment, I felt determined to cram all the presents and my gear into a backpack that was not meant to hold that volume.  I wish someone had a video of me rearranging my life on that dusty corner of the universe, already hot by 11am.  I can still picture it, me strapping my sleeping pad to the outside of my backpack and using straps i had never used before.  ATVs would periodically fly past me, wondering what I was doing.  I could barely cinch the top.  Correction: I could not cinch the top, but I had managed to secure it into a bundle.

Then I tried to lift it.  I realized I had made a mistake.  I had thought nothing of how much liquid I was carrying.  Not just the beer, but one-liter of diet moxie and a dozen orange sodas.  I did not know how much it weighed.  I could barely get it onto my shoulders, and I could not imagine moving with that load.  I had to guess the entire pack weighed 70 pounds.  Some hikers start the trail with 70 pound packs.  No wonder they think it is so challenging.  My usual pack weighed around 26 pounds.

I set it down to hitch-hike.  Within ten minutes, a guy from Connecticut came along.  He was heading to the Goose Eye trailhead, the same starting point as Carlos Col.  When we arrived at the trailhead, he took off and I continued to adjust my pack.

The threads holding the straps of my pack were starting to pull away from the weight of it all.  I must have sung to myself, or thought of a gazillion things that were funny about the situation, or cried my way through it, probably all three.  The trail became especially steep close to the shelter.  I had to stop and take my pack off and feel unsure if I would be able to put it back on.

Yet I made it up the slope, and I arrived at the shelter to find hikers!  Three hikers in fact!  Two of them were section hikers, and I was not sure about the third.  “Do you want a beer or a soda or candy?  Have you ever had a whoopie pie?”

Two of them grabbed beers, and one was so excited about the jellybellies that I gave her all of them.  Early in the day, I felt generous.  The third hiker tried to grab an entire case of whoopie pies and 6 beers.  His greed puzzled me, because that was not the etiquette of the community.  Everyone may be eager for treats, but we all leave some for the next person.

I asked about their trail names, as I wanted to see if I had heard of them.  One of the section hikers had a trail name and he said that we had met before in Lincoln, New Hampshire.  Immediately, I remembered him.  The other section hiker did not have a trail name.  The third hiker said his trail name, and then said, “have you heard of me?”

I had heard of him, that morning, on the van ride to Walmart.  Everyone in the van wondered where he was, and wanted to know so that they did not run into him again.  He had supposedly started in Harper’s Ferry in January, and he had been living on the trail ever since, a bonafide trail bum.

Nothing wrong with being a trail bum, I had met plenty.  I considered them poor, nature-loving free spirits like the rest of us.  I tried to stay clear of them as a single woman.  This trail bum curated a reputation as a thief, and no one wanted to leave their packs unattended or stay in a shelter with him.  I guessed he could not be older than twenty, shaggy blonde hair and a daypack.  I could not believe that he carried everything he needed in that daypack.

He offered to help me carry the beer to the Maine/New Hampshire border, and sit and hang out with me while I waited for hikers.  I had not factored him as part of my poetry, yet I could not see a way out of the situation and I desperately needed the assistance.  I could always drop my pack and run, but that would waste a perfectly good plan.  I accepted his help.

The section between Carlos Col and the Maine/New Hampshire border is the classic pulling yourself up over boulders.  The section would have challenged me if I had not carried any liquid.  An extra body came in handy there.

I had dreamed about how lovely it would be to simply sit in the woods at the border, and hang out, nap, write, read, whatever, even if no one came along.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be sitting in the woods with someone asking for another beer or a few more Pringles, and I would be saying, “No, I am saving it for the other hikers.  You already had some.”

While we waited, he scrounged cigarette butts off the trail, because the smoker hikers stop at the log at the border to have a smoke.  He smoked them down as far as they would go.  I would try to squeeze details of his life out of him, like i would with any other hiker, about where he was from and what he did.  I felt unsatisfied and even more sketched out by the answers.

I asked him what he did for work, and he told me that he “sold stuff he found in the woods”. LIKE THE CONTENTS OF MY BACKPACK? SKETCHBO!  He told me that he planned to stay in Maine, and live out his life as an outlaw.  For the first time in my life, I did not want someone to move to this state.

When the thru-hikers finally came along, they were as excited as I had hoped.  The section before the border is rough, the section after the border is rough, but I wanted the border to be a bright spot.  I wanted to be the little ambassador, who says, “welcome! you’re here!”  Over a decade prior, there used to be a hand-made sign, in addition to the AMC sign, that said, “Maine: the way life should be.”  At that spot, my sister quipped, at the age of 19, “Maine: the way life turned out”.

Whoopie pies and PBR made me more friends than I could ever imagine.  Truthfully, PBR made me more friends than i could ever imagine.  Beer is the reason that hikers pull 30 mile days to get to town, so it is even better when beer mysteriously appears in the woods.

I needed more friends than i could ever imagine that night.  All the tent spots were full at the Carlos Col shelter.  A dozen of us found ourselves sleeping in the shelter with our trail bum friend, and I felt grateful for safety in numbers.

Most of all, I was happy to be home.