Leo and Damian are off to climb Mt. Katahdin this weekend. It's the highest mountain in Maine,
and I've climbed it with family three times: once on Rhianon's ninth birthday, once when the twins were ten, and once when Damian was ten. It's a tough climb, especially for me, with my lungs compromised by years and years of asthma. The five thousand foot climb starts off nicely enough among the trees, but then gets ever rockier and steeper until you're clambering over boulders or hauling yourself up among iron handholds.
Still, at the treeless top, it's beautiful. Crossing the high plateau the first time , walking among blueberries and mountain cranberries, I experienced a moment of pure elation, mixed of pride and fatigue and joy at the fresh, fresh air.
Two summer ago, along with our good friend and fearless woodsman Eric Harrington, we climbed the Hunt Trail on an August day that was predicted to be sunny and in the seventies. We set off in the early sunshine, but we hadn't gone the first mile before the rain began to sputter on and off. By the time we emerged from the trees, the rain had grown cold, and the boulders were slippery. On the plateau, sleet was blowing sideways, and the wind was gusting so hard I worried about Damian and his friend Lian, the two youngest and lightest of our party. Despite the cold and the falling visibility, we decided to cross the mile and a half of plateau to the elevation sign at the peak. The picture we took at the peak is grayed out and blurry: we look as if we're caught in a winter storm.
At that point our only concern was to get down before dark. We selected a more direct route down the mountain. It led down a steep slope of scree. All I could think about was one of us slipping and turning an ankle. Leo stayed close to Damian, and Owen came back to stick by me and give me a hand over the worst parts. We managed to get down out of the wind, and at 4 pm, standing in the pouring rain and the partial shelter of two leaning rocks, we tore into our lunch: packets of tuna crumbled by hand over pieces of pita bread. Then we kept walking.
Eventually we reached a bunkhouse, rested a few minutes, and set off again along the shallower, wooded trail, now soft underfoot. The rain finally petered out, and we meandered through the woods, among the ponds, and eventually down to the parking lot, where we borrowed a friendly couple's car to get back to our own campsite.
That was my last trip to Katahdin. Not necessarily my final trip - I didn't say that - just my most recent. Still, this weekend Leo and Damian are going without me.