Down East 2013 ©
Magnificent Obsession, the title of Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 novel, has become part of our language, a phrase applied to quests ranging from addiction recovery to identifying soloists on old jazz records. Still, a trace of the original meaning remains: “One man’s search to find personal redemption through service to others.”
It’s no stretch to call former Governor Percival Baxter’s creation of a park surrounding Maine’s tallest mountain a magnificent obsession. But Wilderness Partners: Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park, (Tilbury House, Gardiner, Maine; paperback; 586 pages; $20) takes the idea a step further, showing in meticulous detail how one obsession can inspire another.
Phyllis Austin, a long-time reporter for Maine Times, begins with the day Caverly, who retired as park director in 2005, first visited Baxter at his Portland office in 1961. Caverly, then a twenty-one-year-old park ranger, was “light-headed from excitement, mesmerized by the time alone with the man he considered a hero because of his gift to the people of Maine and the nation.”
Austin’s book chronicles Caverly’s years of service to “the grand old man” and his vision. Since Baxter died in 1969, everything he wrote, said, or included in his “Deeds of Trust” has been studied and debated to determine his wishes for the park. Caverly’s view of his hero’s state of mind often prevailed, earning him both admirers and enemies. If Baxter State Park were a religion — and to some, it is very close — Caverly would be its high priest.
To Austin, Caverly is “a rare kind of wilderness hero . . . He will be remembered for the sweep of his achievements, his guiding principles, and his guardianship of Percival Baxter’s legacy.”
How much a reader enjoys this book will depend greatly on how much he or she shares the obsession, which begins with Katahdin. One anonymous nineteenth-century writer called the mountain the “finest sight in America . . . I could not keep my eyes from it. It fascinated me as nothing else ever did. There is something about it and its surroundings that rivets the attention, awakening a feeling of reverence and awe, causing a man to shrink within himself and cower before the silent demonstration of the power of Jehovah.”
Baxter felt Katahdin’s power in 1920. He was forty-five and had just been re-elected to the Maine Senate when he joined an expedition to boost support for the creation of a park. Climbing Katahdin was “the hardest thing I ever undertook,” but it inspired him to devote his considerable energy, fortune, and political skills to creating the park. When he couldn’t accomplish it as senate president or governor, he bought land bit by bit, accumulating more than two hundred thousand acres.
“While I was there that day,” he wrote, “I said to myself, ‘This shall belong to Maine if I live.’ I have never lost sight of it.”
Baxter’s story has been told and retold, including two official park history books. But Austin claims a unique perspective because her book is “independent,” and benefits from her thirty-five years as a Maine journalist, at the Times, the Associated Press, magazines, and newspapers. “Throughout the book, I have called on my own knowledge and experience as a witness to the evolution of the park and its important controversies,” she writes.
She spent seven years on this book, speaking with Caverly at length, interviewing 180 people in all, and researching park documents. That’s both her accomplishment and her problem. After researching so long and so hard, it’s very difficult to leave things out.
The book, part biography, part reference, is even longer than its 586 numbered pages. Austin writes a preface, introduction, and “prelude” before even beginning Caverly’s early years in Cornville. She recounts interesting anecdotes and follows fascinating themes, such as the changing idea of wilderness. But it can be hard slogging through the personalities and politics.
Caverly’s adventures in the park are more entertaining, but still the level of detail can be over the top. Like the time Caverly stopped on a hike to Russell Pond to “empty himself of a heavy meal he had eaten in Millinocket” and realized a bear was squatting down nearby to do much the same. We even learn the bear scat consisted of “steaming berries.”
Yet you have to respect Austin’s dedication, just as you have to respect Baxter’s vision or Caverly’s devotion. For those who love Baxter State Park, every detail matters, and the contagious obsession that preserved this special part of Maine is truly magnificent.
If you ever went to camp in Maine, Mindy Schneider’s comedic tale of her experience in the summer of 1974 might conjure up some dusty memories (or damp, as the case may have been). In Not a Happy Camper (Grove Press, New York, New York; paperback; 256 pages; $14) Schneider, a former television writer, recalls being a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl from suburban New Jersey who spent eight weeks at Camp Kin-a-Hurra in Canaan, Maine. Advertised as a sunny Eden, the camp turns out to be “a dump where it rained every day.” Not unexpectedly, adolescent adventures abound undeterred.