Down East 2013 ©
In The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
Gazing down Hunt Spur, across the Boulder Field that guards the southwest corner of Mount Katahdin, I’m not sure I feel daring or insolent. I do, however, feel wet. I have volunteered to guide my two nephews Sebastian and Maxim, ages ten and twelve, up the mountain for the first time. And the rain clouds that are blowing past us on twenty-five mile-per-hour winds seem very much like punishments sent from surly gods.
Thoreau first climbed Katahdin (or Ktaadn, as he spelled it) in September, 1846. By the time of his death, he had journeyed many hundreds of miles through the Maine North Woods from his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He had ridden Penobscot River rapids, ascended Kineo, and gazed out across the majestic waters of Moosehead Lake, and he’d come to understand how easily beautiful things can be lost. In his introduction to Thoreau’s MaineWoods, Bernd Heinrich imagines how Thoreau might view his beloved woods today: “He was then already fearing that they might become, like his native Concord and the rest of New England, degraded by commercial enterprise . . . What would he think of international collectives connected by commercial interests only, who erect housing developments in the middle of the wilderness, and who would violate the sanctity of mountains and lakes so they can make a buck?”
Sebastian and Maxim are moving to Europe for a year with my brother and his family (the boys are half Belgian), and this trip to Katahdin is my farewell gift to them. Neither has been this far north in Maine before or climbed a mountain anywhere near this tall. The next time I see them, they will be only a year older, but at their ages a year is a long time. Watching my nephews clamber over rain-slick rocks to heights they never imagined ascending, I feel both joyous and melancholy. I am grateful that nearly 165 years after Thoreau first scaled these same slopes, the Mountain of the People of Maine remains a place of discovery. But mostly I am wistful for a moment that has not yet even passed.