I’m convinced that if not for walking and photography I would live in a perpetual state of dysphoria leading to addiction, disease and, ultimately, a premature, unceremonious death. It is under these circumstances that I found myself walking across Mount Desert Island in Maine.
A month before my 21st birthday while working as a hut caretaker on Pikes Peak in Colorado, I met a man who had just run his age in miles on his birthday. This, had he been a young man, may not have been noteworthy. But this man had just turned 50. Deeply inspired by his feat, I resolved, at that moment, to adopt the ritual of running my age in miles on my birthday. My first celebratory run, for my 21st, was up and down Pikes Peak from my doorstep in Colorado Springs. I was hooked. The movement was a celebration of life, commemorating the milestone of yet another lap around the sun. Although I quit running ten years ago, the birthday tradition has endured. Now, with walking feet.
15 years later, on the eve of my 36th birthday, I stepped onto the rungs of the Precipice Trail, the eastern most path in Acadia National Park. The glow of my headlamp illuminated the iron rungs embedded into the granite face of Champlain Mountain. I followed the impossibly steep trail directly up the east face via the rungs, ladders and ledges. Lest the mountain’s manmade modifications lull you into a sense of safety, you are never more than a few rungs away from a broken rung, where, you imagine, some unfortunate soul, trusting too much in the permanence of things, met their untimely ending. I carried on, for the moment, trusting in the permanence of things.
The predawn climb up the Precipice Trail was a delight. Linds and I had been up it a few days prior at day’s end, just in time to watch the sun set from the top of Champlain Mountain. That day had ended in joy, just as this one was beginning with it.
The sun rose as I reached the summit marker of Champlain Mountain. Atop the easternmost mountain on Mount Desert Island, I was the closest to the sun as one could be in that place, at that time. A light breeze perfectly complemented clear skies on what was a crisp fall morning. I paused for a moment on the summit to contemplate the scope of what lie ahead. To this point, I had walked - climbed really - a little under a mile and ascended a mere 900 feet. By my very rough estimates, I had anywhere from 27-35 miles remaining and 7-8,000 feet more of ascent to reach Seal Cove via the island’s 8-11 highest peaks. What was the point of this? What was I trying to prove? These questions, in my early-20s, existed nameless in the background. Ego drove nearly all I did. I wanted to be the best (photographer) and the fastest (runner). Now, in my mid-30s, these questions accompany nearly everything I do. Where is my ego? And how do I move beyond it? Over the past several years, these birthday outings have morphed from exercises in chasing superlatives - fastest, furthest, best - into meditations on interpersonal and ecological connections. What used to be about fastest known times is now simply about time. Time, the ultimate gift, in places that I love.
Mount Desert Island, Birthday RouteThe route described in this post is indicated here by the continuous black sharpie line.
If there is a single thread that connects the outings of my early-20s with the outings of today, it is this: the desire to tap into a primal sense of movement. By primal, I mean, as our most ancient ancestors did and as the animals do. Instinctual, unthinking, movement. What a psychologist might call a flow state. I’ve found no purer way to connect with this instinctual movement than foot travel through nature. My best memories, most significant insights and richest joys have been realized in this mode. It is the healthiest addiction I’ve found. Modern life is not intuitive. Rote jobs, paying bills and taxes, managing interpersonal relationships via layers of technology, all of it is complex, and, at times, thoroughly demoralizing. Walking in the woods, to me, is the opposite. It's simple and pure in the way that simple and pure things are best.
I, of course, try to walk in nature as often as possible, not just on my birthday. It is just a special sort of walk given gravitas by the weight of tradition. These birthday walks have become celebrations of life. They are my great untethering and reset, honoring the past through full engagement with the present.
I share these pontifications, because, without them, this blog post would be very thin. It was at that point on top of Champlain Mountain that everything accelerated into a swift and primal modality. It was there that my animal brain kicked in and movement became life.
Down the west ridge of Champlain to The Tarn.
Up the Kurt Dierdrich’s climb to Dorr Mountain.
Down to west face of Dorr. Up the east ridge of Cadillac Mountain.
Down the west face of Cadillac to Bubble Pond. Up the north ridge of Pemetic Mountain.
Down the northwest ridge of Pemetic up and over Bubble Divide and down to the north shore of Jordan Pond.
Up the Jordan Cliffs Trail to Penobscot Mountain. Up the south ridge to Sargent Mountain.
Down and up to Gilmore Peak, Parkman Mountain and Bald Mountain. Then, down and down and down Giant’s Slide.
Then, Highway 3.
I arrived on the shoulder of Mount Desert Island’s main road bewildered and bedraggled around Noon. The nine mountains of the island’s east side had engaged all of my senses. 16 miles of rock hopping, rung climbing and sensational cliff scrambling had utterly possessed me. I felt like a wild animal emerging from the woods. I was a wild animal emerging from the woods. It was there, on the shoulder of Highway 3 that the struggle began. I was only halfway done(ish) with my proposed route. Somes Sound, an extensive bay, effectively bifurcates the island, splitting Maine’s largest offshore landmass into two distinct halves. It would require 6-8 miles of highway walking to get around the half-mile wide waterway to return into the woods of the west side, The Quiet Side, of the island.
Stepping off the trail onto the road sparked an instant attitude shift. I had, while route-planning, been looking forward to the highway section. I had assumed that, at this point, after all of the rock hopping, my legs would be craving easy walking. In my mind, this section was to serve as an intermission of sorts, a place to disengage from the tedium of carefully scripting every step. I had somehow romanticized this leg of the journey as a popcorn break.
Ha! Wasting no time reminding me that a highway is no place for pedestrians, the first car zoomed past within a second of the road march. Two seconds later, another. And another, at the same interval. And another. The shoulder was narrower than it had looked, having zoomed by myself in a giant steel box, several days earlier. Damn. I had planned several miles back on top of Gilmore Peak to take a snack break at the start of the road section. Now, all I wanted to do was get it over with. The traffic noise had broken the sanguine spell the mountains had cast. I proceeded like Elf through the Holland Tunnel. I marched on with hastened steps knowing that in the travel equation of distance and time, I could only control the latter.
On top of Gilmore Peak, SkepticalPointing at Bernard Mountain, my final mountain of the day, skeptical if I will ever make it there.
Three miles later, I wearily strolled into Somesville, a quaint village on the north side of Somes Sound. I checked the day’s odometer: 19.5 miles. Time for a break. A convenience store! Fishing through all of my pockets - kicking myself for not bringing my wallet - I turned up four dollars. Drooling my way past breakfast burritos, salty snacks and the candy aisle, I beelined it to the iced coffee fridge. Bingo. I had just enough cash to buy a highly caffeinated sugar bomb. Returning to the smell of gasoline and exhaust outside the convenience store, I felt wasted. I was done. The short highway walk had gotten to me. I’ve walked many roads, much busier and longer than this one, over the years, but on this day, it had zapped my spirit. It made me feel harried, rushed, anxious. Standing outside the store, with several more miles of highway walking ahead of me, I called it. I had walked the meat of the route, through the heart of Acadia, and I reasoned that I had been blessed to have had such an experience. The walk would end here.
Well, I tried to call it. No service. Amazingly, shockingly, bafflingly, a place that had cell service several days before was now signalless. I tried to call Linds several times. No connection. Damn. In search of a signal, I headed further into Somesville.
Coffee in hand, I walked down to a bench at the library overlooking the sound. I gently closed my eyes while the midday sun warmed my face. For a few moments I disconnected from the enterprise at hand, the long walk, and the ‘tail-between-my-legs’ conclusion of the outing. I checked my phone: still no signal. Somehow, sitting on that bench, the ocean before me and mountains around, it seemed less important to make the call. I was in no longer in a hurry.
I was no longer in a hurry. It clicked. Practically speaking, we didn’t have any commitments until Thanksgiving, nearly a month away. Surely I could walk the remaining 10-12 miles of the route in a month. Headlamp, layers, a couple of cliff bars, water filter and snicker’s bar, I could live out here! I decided, at that moment, on the bench overlooking Somes Sound, that I would finish the route. I was happy to do so. With the last sip of the Starbucks DoubleShot Vanilla energy drink, I walked out of Somesville, en route to The Quiet Side.
The route from Somesville quickly departed from the highway onto the relatively quiet Beech Hill Road. The three miles of rolling road was the key to reentry into Acadia. Dead-ending at Beech Mountain Trailhead and the access to the final three mountains of the day, the road casually strolled through a patchwork of farmland and woods. It was wholly and perfectly pastoral. I walked past an occasional farmstead wishing I hadn’t blown my four dollars on Starbucks.
The walk up Beech Hill Road resuscitated me. My slow quivering steps out of Somesville had given way to a long, confident, purposeful gait. If I could whistle, I’d have whistled a happy tune. And then, all too quickly, I reached the end of this idyllic road and the start of the day's final leg. Stepping onto the Valley View Trail, and the western unit of Acadia, all was primal again.
Valley View Trail to Long Pond.
Up the south ridge trail to Mansell Mountain.
Down to the Great Notch. Up to Knight’s Nubble.
Down to the Little Notch.
Up to Bernard Mountain.
Bernard Mountain was the first mountain I walked, upon arriving on Mount Desert Island two weeks prior. Then, an Acadia virgin, the mountain was my introduction to the splendor of the place. 1,000-feet above and a mere mile from the ocean, the mountain initiated me into Acadia’s autumnal magic. Cotton candy colored forests interspersed with massive granite slabs, tapering down to rocky headlands, expansive bays, countless islands and an infinite ocean.
It was, now, to be the last mountain. We’d be leaving Acadia for Portland early the next day. I slowed my steps as I approached the summit marker of Bernard Mountain. I didn’t want the day to end. I wanted to walk these mountains forever. I sidled up to the summit marker and pulled out my snicker’s bar. In a blissful, sugar-filled stupor, I rested. Linds was planning to meet me on the summit between 4-4:30PM. It was 3:56. After 10 minutes of lingering on the summit, a bit chilled and with stiffness creeping in, I decided to begin the walk down knowing that I would intercept Linds on her way up. A few minutes into the descent I heard the distinct ping of graphite and granite: trekking poles. Linds. I stood in an opening on the trail, bathed in golden-hour light, and waited for her to come around the corner.
“Whoa! You look like the statue of Saint Mary in Butte!” she exclaimed.
Stumbling upon my best friend in the middle of the woods, I too, felt that I was bearing witness to something sacred.
We chatted for a bit, before she went off to visit the summit and I continued down the granite slabs to a perch affording unobstructed views west. I found a spot to lay out on the rocks while I waited for Linds. My camera remained in its bag - indeed, it had remained there all day - as the sun met the western horizon. This one was for me. Linds joined. For us. Cloudless, the sun sank behind the edge of the spinning Earth without fanfare. Another day older. We watched in silence.
Inevitably, and all too soon, it was time to go. We proceeded down the mountain under dusky light before switching on our headlamps a half mile shy of the trailhead. At the trailhead, Linds hopped in the van and I continued my walk down to Seal Cove. A couple of miles later, I arrived at the water’s edge.I felt a strange impulse to touch the water. It felt like some token gesture of connection to the ocean was required to properly conclude the walk. I ran my hand through the cold North Atlantic water. I felt it, the end. Looking back in the direction of Bernard Mountain, I smiled: the beginning.
Thank you, Acadia.