Almost a week has passed and my body is still tired. We had thought, and read trail descriptions that supported our thinking, that climbing Mt. Katahdin on the Hunt Trail, which is the end of the Appalachian Trail, would be a reasonable hike. Not so.
We started up the trail at 8:00 last Sunday morning, leap frogging with crowds of hikers, some thru-hikers finishing the AT, some families, some people who were cockily underdressed for the cold and wind. We’d spent the night camping at 30 degrees, got up to make coffee in the cold and ate breakfast in the running car, seat heaters humming.
It was a beautiful trail, passing the roar and thrash of Katahdin Falls, then breaking out into sun on a long slope of granite ridge, fringed with blueberries bushes gone red. We could see a jumbled pile of granite blocks peaking into the sky above us, but it would be hours before we got to the top of it and realized there was still another mile and a half to go to Baxter Peak, the summit of Katahdin.
Still hiking up through the birch and spruce forest, hikers started to pass us going down. “Did you get to the summit?” I asked them all, even though it was still early in the day. “No, it’s harsh up there, way too windy above tree line, we turned around,” was the essence of everyone’s answer. Even given all that feedback, we were not prepared for what we encountered above tree line.
Almost immediately, we were hauling ourselves up and over rock ledges, using the iron bars and hooks hammered into the granite in particularly tough spots, while bracing ourselves against toppling winds. Blinding sun in his eyes, wind whipping every backpack strap into his face and hanging off a climbing bar, David said, “I think I want to turn around. This is too much.” Just then a hiker came back down from in front of us, retrieving the poles he’d left behind thinking a friend was going to bring them up. “It’s not as bad around the next corner,” he said, “it’s more sheltered.” So David hoisted himself over the lip of ledge and we kept going.
After a half mile of scrambling and bouldering, we reached an overlook behind a face of rock blocking the wind, where groups of hikers were sitting in the sun eating and looking out over miles and miles of Maine forest and lakes and mountains. We stopped too, looking up over and over at the steep pitch of jumbled rock slabs we’d seen from the open ledge miles below.
“Let’s do it,” David finally said, and we hoisted our packs back on, our poles collapsed and stuffed in my pack. Poles were only in the way crawling on all fours across the open rocks, calculating each hand and foot hold, keeping low out of the wind. When we got to the top of the pitch, we could see Baxter Peak over a mile in the distance, across the flat table lands of the Katahdin Ridge. The peak was bathed in white — frost and ice and snow — and dotted with the small figures of AT hikers, finally at the summit, taking in the glory of their accomplishment.
We decided to hike a bit further, already knowing we wouldn’t reach the peak, but not wanting to leave that expanse of open alpine land yet. We reached the junction of the Abol and Thoreau Springs trail after walking on ice for half a mile. This was as far as Thoreau got trying to summit Katahdin, and he’d gotten lost in the fog and sprained his ankle falling out of a tree, which he’d climbed to get a view.
There was no fog for us, just the hard clarity of a wind whipped day, carpets of yellow and orange trees below us, wave after wave of green spruce, and the frosted summit of Baxter Peak ahead.
We turned back, already plotting our return.
I wake to gun shots, hard smacking blasts again and again. Just barely dawn, the clouds are tufted grey in the eastern sky when I pull up the window shade. Walking into the study, I hear birds calling. I go out on the porch to drink my cappuccino and hear more gun shots, this time from the west. Waterfowl hunting season opened this morning. Black ducks, mallards, wood ducks and mergansers. Canada geese and snow geese. Harlequin ducks appear to be off-limits, according to the Fish and Game website. My house is surrounded by ponds, brooks and a lake, all within a mile, so this is familiar, waking early in the fall, just before sunrise, to gunshots. A goose honks as it flies over the house.
The lake held the memory of the afternoon’s hard wind, waves chopping the water with a few caps still curling into white, as we crossed to Five Mile Island to watch the sun set. Earlier when we paddled out of the lee of Bear Island to try kayaking straight into the north wind, the entire surface of the lake was wild, two and three foot waves slapping our boats up and down, spray blowing back at us. We could hardly move against the wind, but the kayaks handled well and we turned and paddled back along the shore of the Island, into protected coves, skirting rocks and docks, letting the late summer sun warm us.
Now this morning there is no wind, but the water is still moving. I’ve missed being next to water, experiencing the changing face of the lake, yesterday’s dark, ripping waves, the softening flow as the wind died in the evening, this morning’s flicker of the cloudy morning light on the rippled surface. After dinner last night, we watched the moon rise, first like a half-circle orange cap on the opposite shore making me wonder what unknown neon casino had opened there. The moon rose into a bank of clouds and disappeared, then come out again like a big yellow egg, making a wider and wider path across the water as it got higher. The path of moonlight came straight across the water to us, sitting on the camp’s deck 20 feet from the shore.
“It looks like a slow, sensuous flash of lightning,” David said, and it did, snaking and shifting in the moving water, zig-zagging into a smaller and smaller line of light until it was just a random flash here and there at the water’s edge.
This has been a brief and welcome retreat. It was an initial treat when David and I first came out to this island camp for three days in July of 2008. We’d only known each other four months, and those three days were magical. We were away from all the complications surrounding our emerging relationship, like orange traffic cones we had to navigate — the need for discretion among David’s family and friends, my family and friends’ thoughtful wariness, the difficulty of finding time to be together in the face of the usual work and family demands on time. Here on Bear Island we were alone, on the water, letting what was happening between us unfold and sweep along with the constant shift of the lake. We talked and wrote and read poetry. David made a pastel painting that is still tacked to one of the cabin’s walls.
We haven’t been back in the over two years since, and we were barely able to squeeze this visit in among our fall commitments, but we did it. Yesterday morning we packed the car, stopping to admire the morning glories climbing their string through the blossoms of hydrangea as we carried gear and kayaks from the barn. Driving north, we talked about the rise and fall of intellectual and artistic communities, the human need to connect and stretch individual thinking and creation by reaching beyond ourselves. And we talked, as we always do, about the need to retreat, to have unconnected time to create. Kayaking out to the camp was a bit tricky, with loaded boats and a hard wind, but once we rounded the north end of the island we had the wind at our backs and reached the sandy beach in front of the cabin easily.
Now we’re having our usual coffee on the deck, but we have a field of lake in front of us, instead of pasture or yard. The sun is drawing shifting paths of sparkle as it moves across the cloudy sky and lights on the undulating surface of the water.
The wind is picking up again, this time from the south. It’s time to pack up and kayak back to the car, drive home and, for me, get ready to leave. I’ll be in Chicago tonight, but I’ll have this window of waterfront time to take with me. Retreat.
Like green beans and tomatoes this summer, my pee wee (panicle) hydrangea tree has produced in abundance. Many years the blossoms don’t take on their rose blush until some of the flower petals have already turned brown. Not this year. The tree is hanging ripe with pink blossoms like a fruit tree. Drying the blossoms is simple enough that it’s a garden task I get done every year. Snip the stems at whatever length I want, put them in a vase, or hang them from a rack, and the blossoms dry in whatever shade of cream and pink they held when cut. Eventually the flowers turn brown, but it takes until the next summer, when the world is full of color again, before I notice that the blush has faded into a uniform drabness. Still, the conical shape of the flowers holds and makes a bouquet.
As I went out yesterday to pick the last bouquet, I heard a familiar clatter and chug of machinery from the field across the street. Looking up, I couldn’t see the baler, but the mounded rows of cut hay lay across the field in parallel strips, curving with the slopes of the field, a swirl of dried grasses ready to be packed into blocks. More summer being saved, to feed horses or cows over the winter. It was getting late in the day, but the sun was still strong and hot, soaking into blossoms and grass, dried by the clear wind and ready to be harvested for seasons to come.
“You’re a manifester,” a colleague said to me one day, meaning I’m someone who moves ideas into action and reality. She’s also manifester, which is why she seemed to recognize it in me.
Yesterday, my birthday, I manifested an idea of Eric’s. Seven years ago, the summer I was turning 50, Eric and I did a lot of hiking together. I was trying to finish all 48 of the mountains over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire, which gains you entrance into the 4,000 Footer Club. It also makes you a peakbagger. Eric was happy to peakbag with me as I closed in on the last few mountains on my list, most of them requiring long, arduous hikes. We grew closer than ever that summer, even after 28 years together, spending days and days on long trails, talking, walking, just being with each other.
Due to a very rainy summer, I didn’t finish the list before my birthday. But that October, on a fine day, with blue skies and yellow birches dotting the hillsides of spruce, we did a 17 mile hike on the Zealand, Twinway and Bondcliff trails to Mt. Bond and West Bond, my last peak, then back out the way we’d come. On the hike, we met two groups of people hiking the entire Bond ridge, end to end, which also includes Bondcliff (I’d already done that peak, hiking in from the Kancamangus Highway to the south). A 19 mile hike, the Bonds traverse provides unparalleled views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, crossing the wildest part of the state, on a rocky, open ridge. But it also presents a challenge in having a car ready to collapse into at the end of the hike. Spotting a car at the trailhead where you finish, then driving around to the trail where you want to start, is over 50 miles and takes over an hour.
“We need to find some friends who want to do the traverse with us,” Eric said that day. “We’ll start from different ends, pass each other keys when we meet on the trail as we hike, then drive each others cars to a meeting place and have dinner when we’re done.” We both loved the idea, and started talking to hiking buddies about it, but never made it happen before Eric got sick and died. We hadn’t realized we had such a tight deadline. The summer after Eric died, Anne, on of those hiking buddies, made a pact with me that we would do the Bonds traverse as Eric described, in his memory.
So yesterday we started off from the Zealand trailhead to the north, David and Betsy and Cathy and me. Anne, Ellen and Cynthia started from the Kancamangus Highway to the south. This only happened after months of planning, and an already aborted hiking date, due to weather. Being my birthday, Anne was carrying mini-brownie cupcakes, and I had a candle and matches so we could have a mini-party on the trail. Marsie, my psychic friend, who shares my birthday, told me to watch for magic, since I was manifesting Eric’s spirit on earth.
Early in the hike, Betsy took a short side trail to go to the true peak of Zealand Mountain. Cathy and David and I waited on the main trail. Two men, came up the trail from the direction we were heading. They didn’t really look like hikers — they had no pack, were carrying one bottle of water, and didn’t look particularly fit.
“Do you know Eric?” one of them asked me.
Taken aback, I simply answered, “There’s no one named Eric with us.”
“Well there’s an Eric that way on the trail,” the man said, pointing back. “He told us to look for a group of people hiking together and let them know he’s not going to make it, he’s headed back to the Galehead hut.”
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“We stayed at the Galehead hut last night.” At this point, it was about 9:00 a.m., and the Galehead hut was a three-hour hike away.
“Where are your packs?”
“We left them back on the trail,” the other man said. “We’re just here to grab the Zealand peak, then we’re heading back to Galehead and Garfield.” Then they disappeared up the side trail to Zealand.
We never saw their packs as we continued on the trail, and we never saw them again. But we all knew someone named Eric.
Sue met Dennis her first night in Key West. He was captain of a wine tasting, sunset sail tour , they got talking, she got his number, they went for a sail two nights later on his boat. She told me about the sail, I said I love to sail, and last night we both went out on his Catalina 42, sailing out of Key West Harbor, into the Gulf.
I admired his boat. “I sailed her to Venezuela,” he said.
“What did you do in Venezuela?” I asked.
He looked at me with a quizzical smile. “I was on a trip.”
Later, when we were underway, I said, “The way you looked at me when I asked what you did in Venezuela makes me think we have very different approaches to how we spend out time.” He laughed.
Dennis has been in Key West for 11 years. Before that he “practiced retirement, and was really good at it,” sailing through the Caribbean for a year and a half. Several years as a boat captain in Key West, then the trip to Venezuela, now back to being a ship captain. He owns a house in Key West but rents it. He lives on his boat.
“I’m practicing retirement soon myself,” I’d said and Dennis congratulated me. “I think you’re a good influence on Sue and me. We work too much.”
Later, with the mainsail and jib both full of wind, the turquoise water slipping by, the water slapping rhythmically against the hull, Dennis smiled and said, “This is the way life should be.”
I wanted to say, “This is the way life is, right now,” but I didn’t.
Later, he showed me a map on his GPS gizmo that had tracked every anchorage of his trip to Venezuela. The sweeping line of triangles was enticing, the path of a journey across the water.
In a strange bed last night, which is not strange for me (I travel a lot), I knew almost immediately I would have trouble falling asleep, so I took more medication, and then overslept. That included getting up in the middle of the night to pee, and spending almost a minute banging around in the dark bathroom, unable to find my way out. Door edge, bang!, wall, bang! door jamb, bang!, sink, bang! It’s one of those hotel bathrooms in a bathroom, the toilet and tub off the alcove with the sink, so there were two doorways to manage. I made it back to bed, and woke up to David calling.
As I talked to him, I pulled on some shorts, slipped on my flip-flops, grabbed my purse and headed out for the dock-front coffee shop to get some cappuccino. I’m in Key West for a meeting, it’s miserably hot and humid and I’d planned to get up early to try running before the worst of the heat builds. Not today. I walked down the steps and came out a side door of the Westin and turned towards the water, around the corner of the building and there was a wall of cruise ship taking up all of my horizon. Bang!
Later in the day, after the meeting adjourned, I walked to a state park to swim at what seems to be the only real beach on Key West. Surprising, the lack of swimming here. People come to party, I’m told, not to be on the beach. It was gloriously tropical — palms trees, deep blue sky, sea water streaked emerald and turquoise and aquamarine against the crushed shell white sand. As I swam along the beach towards a breakwater that marked a turn of the shore, I came up for a breath and there was the cruise ship again, coming around the corner of the key where the water turns from ocean to gulf. It’s monstrous white hull was all I could see. Bang!
What’s around the next corner?
When we got up this morning, there was fog rising from the fields around the house. It had rained again overnight, pools of water on the porch floor and the furniture on the deck. By the time our cappuccino was ready and we were out on the porch, the fog had cleared.
“Look at the sun on the horses,” David said. The roof line of the house threw a shadow across the small dirt road into the corner of pasture. The horses stood just past the line, in the sunlight, heads down, eating.
I’m happy they’re back. The pasture was empty for a few weeks, eaten out in this dry summer. There’s been just enough rain from storms in the past week to get some grass up again. Years ago, there was a dairy herd across the street. After the herd was sold, a succession of farmers pastured smaller herds in the field, then the young men who bought the farmland kept a few steer. The cows often clustered in the corner of the pasture right across from the porch in the evenings, when I would get home and sit and watch. Were they greeting me, or catching the last of the sun that hit the small rise on the far eastern edge of the field?
Now we have horses to watch. “Horses are magical,” my friend Marsie told me, and knowing Marsie, I expected what I found when I looked into what she meant. Epona was a Celtic horse goddess, linking the horse, the divine and the feminine at a time when women and horses were sacred, honored, and free.
The horses were grazing in our corner again this evening, when we ate dinner on the porch. Lit by the low sun behind him, one of the horses started to walk towards us, his tan and white body swaying as he planted each of his heavy feet. He looked up at us, his mane ruffling around his face, then dropped his head into the field, continuing to eat.