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Down the Road

Mountain memories
By Milton M. Gross
Sep 9, 2012 - 7:00:21 AM

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Imagine climbing any mountain in Maine -- or anywhere else -- in leather-soled street shoes.

Just imagine.

I did that way back when I was about 18 or so. I'm thinking about that and other long-past Maine mountain adventures, because I'm reviewing a book this week called Mountains of Maine.

Reading this book has informed me of a number of changes on the trails and mountains of the Pine Tree State that have somehow missed my not-always-attentive attention over the years.

No, the writer doesn't mention climbing Katahdin in leather-soled street shoes. But his description of the Hunt Trail (Appalachian Trail, if you want to use its other name) reminded me of changes to that trail even he missed in his research.

For awhile, the Hunt Trail was relocated to allow the original and present route, to "heal" from the wear and tear of hiking boots. The rerouted section wound up through the woods and connected above the bridge over Katahdin Stream with the original and current AT.

These changes take me back. No, I ain't a old geezer, but they still take me back.

My first trip up Katahdin was also my first trip up any mountain, except for the time years before my parents took me on the Cog Railroad up Mt. Washington. See, I'm not that old, I didn't say on Green Mountain on Mount Desert Island nor Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton, both of which had cog railways -- way before my time -- nor to the hotel atop Mount Battie in Camden.

My first Katahdin climb began with my mother, who also had never climbed a mountain, and my father, who not only had never climbed a mountain but grew dizzy on open high places.

I take back part of what I just wrote. I had "climbed" the paths on Mount Misery and Mount Joy (maybe, Mt. Joy, if my memory hasn't totally gone about that part of my ancient past) at Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania. Yup, then it was a state park before it became national parkized. Those 15-minute uphill walks were my sum and total of mountain climbing before Katahdin.

Except for the time I was leading my first wife, then fiancee, down a steep trail on one of those two Valley Forge "mountains." It was fall, and I warned her to not slip on the leaves. Which is when I slipped, and she rescued me from falling by grabbing my arm.

I've written before about how my father and I, while vacationing on a farm in Belgrade, had noticed the Baxter State Park on the map. Mom, Dad, Great Aunt Amy, and I had then packed our non-camping camping essentials, such as heavy bedspreads, metal frying pans, and more and driven up there.

The road was then a one-lane woods track, which a few years ago a park ranger assured me had never existed (it had existed before she had existed) with turn out spots for when you met another car. There were pickups in those days but no SUVs and very few RVs. You were also supposed to blow your horn on those sharp woodsy curves, which I still think may have given pause or alarm to any woodsy critters hanging out in those woods near the so-called road. The horn was to warn the other driver not scare the critters.

They later improved that road into a gravel road wide enough for two cars. I remember driving out that road and wondering how many accidents the new "high-speed" gravel road would help cause. At about that moment, a high-speed car with a Connecticut license plate on the front came sliding around a gravel-covered curve and nearly took us out -- not to dinner but to the after life.

This is a typical part of the Appalachian Trail, here being a portion of the AT up the small mountain just west of Surplus Pond. My memories of this section include my oldest son's finding a moose antler while he accompanied me on a volunteer Maine Appalachian Trail Club corridor-monitoring trek through the underbrush and forest. Note the white AT blaze on a tree just up the trail. Milt Gross photo.

On that first Katahdin climb, I caught up with a family the head of which was a cartoonist. He taught me the basics, such as if you have a stone in your leather-soled (or any other kind) of shoe, stop and remove it or you will have a very sore foot. Also, take small steps up that steep hill, sort of like a SUV in low gear. They accompanied the youngster with the leather-soled shoes the rest of the way up, leaving behind my father and mother who thought I'd be back to Katahdin Stream Campground for lunch and so were headed down to prepare lunch. (One of the few meals I've missed during my growing-up and moving-along days.)

Way back in the day, the era of our family vacations to Maine, I remember my first cup of coffee. Do you remember yours? See I'm not totally senile.

Mine was at the foot of Little Jackson, after my parents and I had walked up and over that lower-than-the-surrounding-summits summit and down to the pond on top. (That whole Tumbledown Mountain range is now a Maine Public Reserve Land -- then it was in private ownership.) It was about dark, and my mother and father built a fire and we ate our canned Spam and beans there before heading back to my great aunt's farm.

And they served me my first hot cup of coffee in an equally hot metal cup. I remember that cup of java well. It was hot!

I used to climb Pleasant Mountain way down on Gazatteer Map 4 in Denmark from the east. I didn't know until I read the book that there were any other trails. I also didn't know "they" had later -- after my numerous walks up the eastern trail -- had built a shelter on top. And removed the old fire tower.

Change keeps happening whether I keep up or not. That never changes.

I never knew until the book about the old brick house in Evans Notch. I just knew some trail started behind it.

I never knew until the book that "they" had closed the east spur trail on Old Speck, effectively removing one of my favorite sitting and not-thinking spots in Maine's higher places.

I also never knew that it was the building of a trail on 3,654-foot White Cap Mountain by Broadway actor Walter Greene in the early 1930s which caused the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to route the AT that direction instead of from the farther-north Greenville area.

This makes me wonder if the old, worn-looking shelter atop Speckled Mountain -- unless it was Haystack Mountain -- in the White Mountain National Forest that I once came upon during a ramble up one of those two mountains is still there.

I do know that at the foot of Old Speck Mountain, the fourth highest mountain in Maine at 4,170 feet above the level of the sea a fair number of miles distant, the old wooden outhouse at the foot of the original Appalachian Trail up the mountain is no longer standing and providing a needed service. In fact, that original AT, which began near that outhouse, followed a gully and then a very steep path up to a fire warden's cabin, was the longest, steepest section of AT from Georgia to Katahdin.

There is now a large parking area in Grafton Notch at the foot of the new AT section, just before the AT crosses Route 26 heading north.

One memory, which the book's author didn't know about, unless he was the one, was of the man my father and I met one day as we were about to tackle the old AT up Old Speck. As we were stepping into the woods, he was stumbling out.

"You remember what they say about a man conquering a mountain?" he asked us. "Well, this mountain just conquered this man."

He stumbled on out to the road.

We slow-footed it up the old AT.

Which is, while these old memories remain in place not as long as the mountains themselves will, how I these days hike the much easier paths Dolores allows me to "conquer."

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column

Milt Gross Book Reviews


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