For some, hiking’s biggest reward is not at the summit.
By Virginia M. Wright
It’s shortly before 8 a.m. when I pull into the small, unpaved parking area tucked just off the narrow, forested road. Only two other cars are here, and I wonder idly whether the owners are backcountry campers still slumbering in lean-tos somewhere in the woods high above me. I scan the wall of trees and take note of the opening, marked by a hand-carved wooden sign, and then I quickly survey the contents of my daypack: Water? Check. Map? Check. Tuna-with-apples-and-walnuts sandwich (my summit reward)? Check. I turn off the ringer on my smartphone and slip it into the front pouch. Shrugging the pack onto my shoulders, I step onto the trail and into the woods.
Photographed by Michael Wilson
My feet are on this shaded path, but my mind is stuck at the office, some 100 miles and 15 hours ago. I am brooding over a stalled project whose deadline is looming. She warned me this would be difficult . . . Did I remember to send that email? . . . Why isn’t anyone returning my calls? . . . The mental chatter is incessant. I am not always my best companion.
Nor am I an athlete — but I can walk up mountains. I have hiked since I was in my 20s. Hiking alone, however, is relatively new. Five years ago, when I found myself suddenly single and uprooted to an unfamiliar community where I knew no kindred spirits, I began venturing solo into the hills around my new home. It was lonely at first. But in time, the solitary walks would prove to be a balm for my restless mind.
What if this project fails? . . . What’s the backup plan? The path is rising now, and a familiar ache in my quadriceps distracts me. This is the you-don’t-really-want-to-hike ache, the you-can-still-turn-around-now-and-go-have-lunch-in-town ache. I disregard it. I know the discomfort will pass as soon as my muscles warm up.
Just off the trail, a massive tree straddles a boulder, its thick roots probing web-like over the mossy granite and disappearing into the ground. I take a moment to get my camera from my backpack. Photographing details is a recent addition to my hiking ritual, a way to help me appreciate the moment. The trick is not to let it take over, not to get so focused on pictures that peering into a viewfinder becomes my experience. The camera is not why I am here.
For the next two hours, I tread determinedly upward. Somewhere high in the treetops, a wood thrush warbles liquidly. Red squirrels chase each other over logs and up trunks. Now and then, I stop to take a photograph — light filtering through the branches of a pine, maybe, or a boulder draped in a flaky coat of lettuce lichen.
Mostly, though, I climb steadily, pleased by my strength, yet grateful for the occasional level switchbacks that make me feel light and swift. Up ahead, the tree canopy is thinning, revealing patches of blue sky. A sense of anticipation begins to build: I am about to enter the final stretch.
It begins abruptly, the trail angling sharply upward, steep as a staircase. Just half a mile to go. My eyes are trained on the ground, one step ahead of my feet. My breath quickens. Don’t stop. I step up and up and up. Don’t stop.
I exit the trees, leaving them behind as I scramble up a granite outcropping into the great wide open, where, finally, I pause and breathe deeply, a sense of elation rising in my chest. The summit is still a few minutes away, but it’s just a formality. Right now, I am here only, rendered silent by the limitless sky and the tapestry of green mountains and glinting lakes rolling all the way to the horizon.
Bigelow Preserve Public Reserved Land
Created in 1976 as the result of an effort to stop a massive ski resort development, the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve encompasses Flagstaff Lake, dozens of small ponds and streams, and the entire Bigelow Range. A 16.3-mile ridge walk — part of the Appalachian Trail — traverses all six of the range’s major summits, the highest of which is 4,150-foot West Peak on Bigelow Mountain. Besides hiking, the preserve is a popular destination for paddling, fishing, and camping. Located about 40 miles north of Farmington, the preserve may be accessed from gravel roads off Route 27 in Carrabassett Valley and by the Long Falls Dam Road in North New Portland. More information and a trail map can be found at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation website: maine.gov/bigelowpreserve