5,267 Feet of Rock
I can't say my two older brothers were exactly ecstatic when I suggested the three of us hike Katahdin together. "I'm not sure that I can babysit the two of you kids up and down the mountain," replied Jeffrey, the eldest, to my email request. "Who wants to read about three old dorks huffing up a mountain? All right, two old and one odd," added the middle child, Jim.
The fact is, it took some convincing, even though I, the baby of the family at forty-five and the only girl, wasn't even really sure why I wanted to do it.It's not that my brothers and I needed a "I want to get to know you" bonding moment. We're a close family and see each other all the time; their mates are like sisters to me. Jim and Jeff have always been there for me - from the countless moves and homecomings, to the holidays and milestones. They provided the firm arm around my shoulder when our beloved dad passed away twenty years ago. They were the ones who took his stead and walked me down the aisle when I married. It was with them I took my last trip to the Bath dump when our mom moved out of the family home after fifty-three years.
But my brothers are seven and ten years older than I. Jeffrey was married when I was eleven, and a father a couple years thereafter. Jim was in college by the time I was in seventh grade. As the one left behind, I found the idea of being alone with my brothers something of an ideal. The only thing I could ever remember doing, just the three of us, was taking our sixteen-year-old dog, Duchess, whose hip was broken, to be put to sleep when I was in high school. I thought it was time to put one Peavey-sibling memory into the plus column.
Miraculously, they agreed.
Katahdin seemed the perfect choice. The ultimate adventure. I had climbed it only once, back in college. My brother Jeff and his wife had tried recently but never made it to the summit because of rain. Jim had done it a bunch of times but not for years. We Peaveys are blessed with health and strength. Jeff is the leader with his near-twenty-year, five-miles-per-day running regimen, augmented by long-distance bike rides (he clocked over 2,000 miles in 2004). Brother Jim is equally fit and a natural athlete - the kind of person who can play golf once a year and finish under par or pick up a tennis racquet and ace his first serve. I'm in shape, too, but only because I started going to the gym to keep myself from sleeping till noon when I launched my freelance career ten years ago. I guess I wanted to show my brothers that their little sister could keep up.
PLANNING is no small affair. I tell them that aside from their own personal gear, all the provisioning, packing, and prep will be up to me. Forgetting something on a camping trip is irksome, but doing it in front of your big brothers is utter, little-sisters-can't-do-anything-right failure.
The week prior, I fret over everything. The menu. The weather. The gear. My boots. My crazy hiking outfit (purple propylene long johns and stretchy yellow skirt). Oddly enough, the one thing I don't worry about is how I am going to get my forty-five-year-old, baby-sister carcass up and down the 5,267 feet of rock that is Katahdin.
The morning of our departure, I meet up with my brothers at their office in Bath. Jim will drive. Jeff, by birthright, takes the shotgun seat and I, by habit, climb into the back. It's a bit after noon, and we're off.
We make it to Katahdin Stream Campground in Baxter State Park just as dusk is starting to descend. Jeff fetches wood, Jim unloads gear, while I set up the stove and lantern and get supper going. We Peaveys know how to get a job done, and we work with swift efficiency. With dinner completed (nothing burned!) and dishes done, we set about organizing our packs. Between us we have Gor-Tex anoraks, rain pants, space blanket, first-aid kit, digital camera, cell phone, sunglasses, jackknives, map, compass, mirror, sun hat, sun block, lip goo, warm hat, gloves, spare socks, PB&J sandwiches, gorp, power bars, energy snacks, fruit, and 2.5 liters of water each. We are Peaveys, and we are prepared.
Right before sleep we walk up to a clearing and look at the stars. The Big Dipper is giant and perched atop the tree line. The Milky Way is thick and soupy. Two dark clouds, like dirty smudges, are the only things that interrupt all that light. For a moment I want to say, "You know, we'll remember this for the rest of our lives," but for once I know enough to keep my mouth shut.
Pre-dawn means action central at the base of Katahdin. We are up, coffeed, and on the trail by 6:45, but there is already a crowd gathered. A couple of dozen people have signed in before us, the earliest hiker having set out at 4:30. We've been told the Hunt Trail takes about ten hours, and I know we all think to ourselves we are going to kick some Hunt Trail butt. Rangers report they can do it in five hours. The unofficial record is four by someone who claimed he ran up and down. I'm thinking seven or eight hours - depending on breaks - should do us.
It's not that the trailhead resembles the start of the Boston Marathon, but, dang, there sure are a lot of people. The Hunt Trail is especially popular because it's the final leg of the Appalachian Trail, and we are in high through-hiker season. It's also easier than the other side of the mountain, with the Knife Edge and Cathedral Trail (where people die, no thank you). Plus, it has a bit of everything: tree cover, scenic waterfalls, moderately difficult bouldering, iron-rung climbing, and a tableland - a cool, tundralike plateau that gives hikers a breather before the last ascent to the summit.
But all these people were not what I had in mind. A few minutes in, we need to stop to make some clothing and gear adjustments. Hikers file by. I'd like to say I feel a jolly sense of trail bonhomie, but all I really want to do is growl and shoo them away. Once we get into the hike, however, some of these concerns fade. There's that delicious air - filled with spruce and pine and bayberry, with just a hint of the ensuing fall crispness - and the gentle roar of Katahdin Stream, which parallels the trail for a time. To my surprise, I am keeping up pretty well - even though I'm sure the Brothers Peavey are holding back for me. Jim has taken the lead, Jeff is in the sweep position, and I'm nestled betwixt the two, just as content as can be.
When we hit the boulders and the rungs, no one's rushing. This part is Work, with a capital W. I haul myself up over the huge rocks using my arms as much as my legs. The rough rock face grinds into my palms. I scrape my legs. A couple of times I think I'm not going to have the strength or footing to get myself up and over, but then I feel a steady hand guiding my boot into a foothold from behind me or see an outstretched hand in front of my nose. Never before have I so nakedly worn my need on my sleeve - not when we took Duchess, not when we buried Dad, not when we moved Mom. I have brought my brothers here to prove I am capable, strong, fit, that I can do it on my own - but I fall into them like a ball into a glove.
THE day is brilliant, cloudless, dazzling. A miracle and a gift, really, from this oft-inclement Maine mountain. The surrounding peaks, which when we started stared us down, are now below us. As we cross the tableland, we hear thin cheers go up each time another through-hiker makes it to the summit.
Although we knew there'd be people at the top, nothing could have prepared us for the moment we crest. It's like a cocktail party, for crying out loud. In fact, some of the through-hikers are drinking champagne and smoking cigars. There must be a hundred people here. There's no place to sit. Hikers are sprawled over almost every flat surface. I recognize one of my former students. There's a line to have your picture taken by the Baxter Peak sign, so we scoot over to one side and take a couple of photos by a large rock pile facing the Knife Edge. The view is, indeed, worth the work, but we do not linger. This hubbub is not for us.
On the descent, I discover I may have pushed a little too hard to keep up with the boys. At one point back below tree line, I lose my footing and drive my knee into a rock. It's one of those dammit moments. We had just been let through by two older women, and I am bringing up the rear. Jim has disappeared around a bend. My knee smarts, but I don't know if it just stings or if it's a you've-really-done-it-this-time injury. I could call out, but I don't. I feel the women pressing behind me, so I don't slow. I look down. There's blood, but not a lot. I have skinned my knee, I tell myself. I have skinned my knee, and that is all.
EXCEPT that it hurts. I finally get close enough to Jim to tell him I'm going to need to have a break pretty soon, and he calls back okay, but the trail is close and there's really nowhere to stop. I don't mention I've hurt myself. We plod on.
My knee is now starting to stiffen up. I feel footsteps on my heels. I lean into the impenetrable spruce to let a young couple pass. I can't see either of my brothers now. More people want to pass. I stop again. Where are my brothers? Wait up wait up wait up. I've skinned my knee. I've skinned my knee, and I can't keep up. I've been left behind. And I am six years old all over again.
And that's when it starts. One fat tear bobbles and plops on my thigh. Another slides down my cheek. Et puis, le deluge. I am crying and hobbling like a child, because I am a child. My nose is running and I am wiping it on my sleeve because my bandanna is in my pack, and there's no one there to fish it out for me, and that makes me cry even harder. Because this has nothing to do with my skinned or smashed or whatever I've done to it knee. This is about always being a baby sister. A forty-five-year-old, boo-hoo-hoo, I-can't-keep-up, crybaby baby sister. And all the planning and packing and preparation, and all those miles and years on the StairClimber, and all the growing up you do is never going to change that.
Eventually, I catch up with my brothers, who, it turns out, are waiting for me. I've not been left behind. But that doesn't make me feel any better. I tell them I've hurt my knee and need to stop and clean it up. My face is still wet, and I know this embarrasses them. Nobody really knows what to do. There's nowhere to pull off the trail where we've stopped, and hikers continue to file by. I just want to crawl off into the woods and be alone and have a proper cry (and I think my brothers probably wish I would), but, instead, we stand there, all wanting this not to have happened. We move on, though, and finally find a large boulder to haul ourselves up onto. I dress my knee, and my brothers avert their eyes, as though I were prancing around in my dainties - largely because I can't stop crying. This is not like me. I cry maybe once, twice a year - and even then, the tears are stubborn man-tears - not this girly leaking all over the place I'm doing.
When we finally rise to go, I take the lead and charge ahead. I am thudding and stomping, propelled forward by the pull of Katahdin's base. There are no tears now. I am mad. Mad that I hurt my knee. Mad that I couldn't keep up. Mad that I ruined this perfect day. I ruined the day. I ruined the day. I ruined the day.
Well, of course I did not. My knee, it turns out, is nothing more than a bit dinged up. A handful of Motrin, an ice pack, and a cold beer take care of it. It will be stiff for a few days, and I will actually be irked when it heals quickly and barely leaves a scar.
We have another successful dinner and then coffee by the fire. Before bed, we return to our open field to take in that big sea of stars. And as I gaze up, I hope our dad is on one of them, watching over the three of us, my big brothers and me.