Maybe it was having lunch at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in downtown Millinocket and seeing all those photographs, drawings, paintings that A-T thru-hikers had donated to decorate its walls.
Maybe it was the sad feelings I had before entering that café, walking down Penobscot Avenue and seeing half the storefronts empty or closed and hardly anyone walking the sidewalks even though it was early afternoon and the whole town was looking a bit like a ghost town, which I knew wasn’t exactly true but it was half way true and that’s the sad truth of a town that had fallen on hard times back in 2008 when its paper mill closed for good and took all those good-paying jobs with it.
Maybe it was just that I’d been feeling like I’d been spending an awful lot of time lately staring at computer screens, researching and writing stories during my day job and working on photographs in the evenings more often than not.
Maybe it was all of the above.
Whatever the reason, when it came time to start the long drive back home — three hours more or less a straight shot down Interstate 95 — I decided on a slight detour. Totally on impulse, when I saw the sign for the road leading to Baxter State Park, I made that turn and headed up-country with but one goal in mind. I wanted to see Katahdin, as close as I could get to it, which I knew given the time and the shorter days of late autumn wouldn’t be that close.
Sometimes close enough is good enough.
The park ranger advised me that taking the tote road to its northern terminus would probably take two-and-a-half hours. I opted, instead, to take a small eight-mile spur the ranger told me would dead-end at the parking lot for Roaring Brook Campground. He said there was a nice short hike from the lot to Sandy Stream Pond, where, if I was lucky, I might see a moose or two.
When I got there it was a little after 3 p.m. The parking lot was empty. The woods were silent, not even a chickadee calling out its name. I knew the sun would be setting behind Katahdin and that darkness would settle in soon enough. A cold wind reminded me I didn’t want to get lost or take a fall, with only a light jacket to keep me warm, no gloves or hat. I set forth on the Sandy Stream Trail, camera and tripod in hand, already jubilant, loving the silence of the woods with most of the hardwoods bare of leaves and the slight wind not enough to make that distant ocean sound going through the pines that’s akin to the sound you hear when you put a seashell up against your ear. In less than half a mile I found myself standing on the pond’s eastern shore, looking across at Katahdin, with the brilliant sun almost resting on its southeastern ridge line.
Ah, Katahdin: A sacred mountain to the people of the white rocks, the Penobscot, who gave it the name “The Greatest Mountain.” I stood on the shore of Sandy Stream Pond, already frozen along its perimeter, and watched in silence as the sun slowly set. No sound, no moose, no people, no worries, no thoughts of doing this or that. Just being there, as present as I could be, to ALL of it, the streams flowing out from the pond, itself formed by streams and rivulets flowing down the mountain, a gathering of waters that would eventually flow via brooks and ponds and streams into the East Branch of the Penobscot River, which would eventually connect with its West Branch and flow down to the sea.
I try to be present to the ALL of it -- as I’m reminded by the Penobscot prayer “All my relations,” meaning not just my human brothers and sisters but all the winged sisters and four-legged brothers, and trees both standing and fallen, and the rocks with lichens and striations from the time of the glaciers, and the rivers and streams and flowing air all around us.
I watch the sun disappear, feel a gathering chill in the air. I give thanks to Katahdin, for calling me to this place and time of feeling at home. To all my relations, I bow, give thanks.