I was on top of a mountain and starting to doubt.
The mountain was Avery Peak (4,088 feet) in Maine’s Bigelow Range. That morning, early this month, I had left the buggy shore of Flagstaff Lake and climbed, sometimes gradually, sometimes very steeply, through hardwood forest to pine forest and finally out onto the bare alpine summit. After knee trouble last year, I was a backpacker for the first time in 20 months, carrying my home on my back like a snail.
There was nothing about the scene from Avery Peak to make me question the hours of sweat taken to reach it. The day was sunny and – out of the summit wind – warm. I sat looking north, over the lake way below to endless forested mountains, some in Maine and others surely in Quebec. There was joy in this, but also something unsettling. The doubt was about my readiness, mental and physical, for these empty, harsh mountains that seemed to fall away into thin air in front of you.
When I looked west I could see where I planned to go in the afternoon. It had looked straightforward on the map, a 3.5-mile jog over the next peaks to a backcountry campsite beside a tarn. It looked different in the real world. The next peak – West Peak – was less than a trail-mile away, but it looked much farther; and between me and it lay a notch whose bottom I could not see. Beyond West Peak – far beyond! – stood South Horn, and only atop South Horn would I be near my campsite. And tomorrow, I was thinking, would come the whole 8-mile trek again, in reverse, to get back to my car.
But I pushed on, telling myself there was a nearer campsite at the bottom of the notch. I could always camp there instead of at the tarn. In the bottom of the notch, I pushed on some more, saying this time that I should at least see the views from West Peak (4,145 feet). On the peak, the saddle between it and South Horn looked long but reasonably shallow. “You can do it, Rob,” I said, committing myself to belief and to the tarn.
Hiking is not always – not often? – a carefree saunter, a calm soaking-up of the landscape through freed-up senses. Backpacking especially can be a grind sweetened with only occasional rewards. It was like that in the viewless saddle, a head-down pursuit of making yards and miles, fully rewarded only when I emerged from stunted, wind-warped pines onto the little ledge of South Horn’s summit. But doubt and unease had been fading as my objective neared. And from South Horn I could see my goal, both the cliff-flanked tarn and the roofs of campsite shelters. They lay 750 feet below – straight below, it seemed, like you could jump.
The biggest difference between backpacking and day-hiking is surely that the backpacker’s outing does not end at dusk. There is no air-conditioned ride back to civilization’s many comforts. So the sort of place you find to camp makes all the difference to your spirits. It might be a dreary hole in the woods or a bright spot with premium views and maybe a little company. Horns Pond Campsite was much nearer the bright end of the spectrum, especially regarding company. There was Erin, the young Maine Appalachian Trail Club caretaker, and there was Alain from Quebec. I had chatted with Alain on South Horn. Though older than me, he had then hopped down the cliff as surefooted as a bighorn sheep. He was already setting himself up in a shelter when my more uncertain steps brought me to the campsite. There were mosquitos for company too, so I pitched my tent rather than use the open-sided shelters. Over dinner, Alain and I chatted beneath South Horn’s bulk, scenery now, not challenge. (Photos of the hike scenery can be found at McWilliams Takes a Hike on Facebook.)
The next day, I retraced my steps, feeling immensely stronger and more at ease. Why? Was it just a good sleep? Or that my injured knee had borne up? Was it that I was heading out of the mountains, not in? Whatever it was, the mountains that yesterday felt like opponents, today felt like friends. After a couple of hours of carefree hiking in the early morning, I made breakfast-with-a-view below West Peak. Then, on the peak, the weather began to put on a show across the notch. A stiff wind condensed as it climbed Avery Peak, driving garlands of mist over and around the summit, and tumbling down the other side toward Flagstaff Lake. I went that way too.
|BIGELOW PRESERVE – IF YOU GO …|
|LOCATION||Just east of Stratton, Me, about 400 mi NE of Ridgefield.|
|SIZE||36,000 acres, about as big as the Bronx.|
|MY HIKE||Safford Brook Trail from Round Barn Campsite to Appalachian Trail west as far as Horns Pond. Reverse to return.|
|DISTANCE & DURATION||About 8 miles each way. I averaged only a little over one mile per hour counting breaks.|