||August 1, 2005
What do hikers seek on the trail? Follow Thoreau in 1846, then visit today's Appalachian Trail to see how much has changed.
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North to Katahdin: What Hikers Seek on the Trail
Why do we like to hike? Why do we walk through the tick-infested woods? Why do we endure cold rain, aching knees, mosquito bites and weeks without a shower on the Appalachian Trail? North to Katahdin is Eric Pinder's nearly 200-page attempt to find an answer.
Are the urbanites who are now trekking the trails with cell phones, high-tech synthetic fabrics, and GPS units having remotely the same experience that Thoreau did in 1846, when he ventured into the Maine woods for the mere sake of seeing what was there? Are they even trying to? And if wilderness means “an absence of humanity,” what do we call it when it’s crowded with people?
The late mountaineer and Everest mapmaker Bradford Washburn had this and more to say about North to Katahdin: "So many fascinating aspects to this book...I scarcely dare to try to summarize them, for fear that I'll omit something very important."
Donn Fendler also praises the book: "An exciting and colorful description of the beauty, glories and ruggedness of Baxter State Park and Mt. Katahdin."
"Pinder's prose is lucid and luminous, clear and simple as a mountain stream, and he writes of Katahdin with humor, love and respect." Read the full review at Bookslut.com.
For some, Mount Katahdin is a symbol of accomplishment: the end of the 2,160-mile long Appalachian Trail, stretching from Georgia to Maine. For others, Maine’s highest peak and the mountains surrounding it in Baxter State Park are the closest they can come to wilderness. Pinder tells stories—at times hilarious, reflective, and terrifying—of this place and the people who flock to it every summer. Stories of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, of conflicts between wilderness devotees and their detractors, and the story of a mountain itself—its history, geology, mythology, and Thoreau’s long obsession with its clouded slopes—come together to shed light on the beginnings of the American wilderness obsession and its persistence today.
In "Ktaadn," Thoreau evokes suspense by scurrying past several “dark and cavernous” regions on the mountain and then remarking, “These holes were bears’ dens, and the bears were even then at home.” But no bears chased him. Thoreau says nothing more about them, except to call the boulder-strewn region in which they live “the most treacherous and porous country I ever traveled.”
Bears will invigorate any hiking story. In Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, fear of bears remains a palpable, page-turning lure for over two hundred pages, even though the bears themselves stay conveniently offstage.
North to Katahdin review from bookslut.com
In 1846, during his second summer at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau hiked Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The round trip took him two weeks, and in The Maine Woods he wrote, “It will be a long time before the tide of fashionable travel sets that way.” In North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder retraces his steps. He still finds the severe beauty that drew Thoreau to Katahdin, but today “the tide of fashionable travel” has changed. Katahdin, whose name means “greatest mountain” in the language of the Abenaki Indians, is New England’s seventh-highest mountain, and the end of what of hikers now know as the Appalachian Trail. Approximately three thousand hikers do “the A.T.” yearly, and hiking Katahdin has become a very social experience.
North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder’s third book, is part of Milkweed’s “World As Home” booklist, a list “dedicated to exploring our natural world.” Pinder is at home in this world — for many years he worked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as a weather observer for the Mount Washington Observatory, and coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The book is a delight-filled, moving series of essays —contemplative, hilarious, sad, and hair-raising — on the mountain, its folklore, its history, and its travelers.
At times, North to Katahdin reminds one of Thoreau’s own Walden:
“The trail has found me again; I trudge uphill…A waterfall slaps at the rocks in the distance. High in the trees, a sparrow whistles three sharp notes, then falls to silence…I see the deer’s white tail as a flicker, a flit of motion amid the sluggish crawl of tree shadows…”
But North to Katahdin isn’t just vistas and tree-shadows. Many stories are peppered with riotous humor — a man doing a hilarious striptease for a bear, hoping his cast-off clothes will distract the animal (They don’t. The camper, naked and screaming, finally chases the terrified bear away). Pinder recounts some of the mountain’s myths, folk tales of the cloud-maker Pamola, a Native American mountain ghost. Every month he creeps out of his cave to roll the full moon across the crags of Knife Peak so it doesn’t get stuck.
Pinder’s most memorable stories are of the people he meets on the trail — and he meets a lot of them. One hiker says, “The A.T. is different from the Pacific Coast Trail. It’s more of social event. It’s like a roving party. One guy I hiked with termed it the world’s longest, thinnest community.” In one story, Pinder meets a blind man, Bill Irwin, hiking the A.T. with his seeing-eye dog, Orient. He figures he’s fallen down over 5,000 times and calls the trail “the Orient Express.” Unfortunately, the large numbers of hikers on the trails now has a downside. On the mountain’s summit, resting in a bootprint, Pinder finds “a cigarette butt: brown, squat, dirty…” Someone “exerted himself to litter in this place.”
“Why do it,” Pinder asks. “Why go to the mountains at all? What draws people to the lands above the trees?” Several times he gives us an experience of the transcendance that perhaps people seek on the top of mountains:
“Time stops…I no longer remember where I started…Whether this is Katahdin or Mount Washington or neither, I cannot tell the difference and do not care. Until I choose to climb back down, to return to the land below where the wind is a gentle breeze, the name of this mountain means nothing…”
“People are mortal, and it is the brevity of our stay on earth that makes mountains seem old. Stony and aloof, mountains endure while human generations rise and pass away in endless repetition…”
“The question is not where did the traveler go? What places did he see? But who was the traveler? How did he travel? How genuine an experience did he get?”
Our experiences reading North to Katahdin are genuine. Pinder’s prose is lucid and luminous, clear and simple as a mountain stream, and he writes of Katahdin with humor, love and respect. Reading North to Katahdin is a delight, almost as refreshing as putting on your backpack and hiking the mountain yourself.
Tom Bernard, www.bookslut.com
New Hampshire Writers' Project
North to Katahdin, by Eric Pinder
reviewed by Marion E. Cason
Living at Walden Pond about a hundred fifty years ago, David Thoreau wrote in his diaries questions about travelers and how they traveled, who they were and what they saw. Thoreau often hiked Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail and the beginning of the North Woods, the untouched land in northern-most Maine. Pinder wonders just how much have the trails changed. He follows Thoreau's route and senses the invasion of human life, forest cutting, logging roads, and towns springing up within sight of Katahdin. Pinder has hiked the trails many times as a young boy staying at his grandmothers in Millinocket, Maine. Now Baxter State Park surrounds Katahdin to keep progress at bay.
Pinder does a beautiful job of describing Mount Katahdin and the changes taken place from the forming of the mountain to the time of Thoreau's trips and today. Pinder refers to the early Abanaki Indians and tells how that area of Maine was sacred for them. Katahdin was their hunting grounds and they used it for council meetings. The Abanakis tolerated the early settlers who also hunted for food in the mountains. When it became too crowded for their comfort, all the Indians left except for Pamola. an Abanaki Indian god, now ghost, who wreaks havoc with the weather causing snow, ice, and wind, and changes the slopes of the mountain itself. Pamola haunts the mountain by putting the peak of Katahdin in dense fog and confusing many hikers who quickly abandon the trails.
North to Katahdin is both informative and relaxing. You can feel the quiet and see the beauty of the woods. There is a sense of civilization creeping in with new highways and villages. With the advancing civilization, Pinder senses future generations will not have this natural world to view. This is a well-written travel log through history and the invasion of humans disturbing Mother Nature's havens for wild life.
Milkweed Editions, 2005. $15.95. (review posted 7/23/06)
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