BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine – I knew I’d reached the exposed saddle only because the wind now was whipping and snapping a pack strap on my cheek.
Blue dashes painted onto the rock and periodic cairns marked the trail, and at times I paused to look ahead in the mist and find the next.
A couple thousand vertical feet below, the nearly uninhabited forests and lakes of northern Maine sprawled for hundreds of miles. I knew this only intuitively. My world had shrunk to a 50-foot diameter. After that, it was thick clouds on a dark and eerie summit ridge.
Not the best day to climb Mount Katahdin.
But it was my only chance to scale Maine’s most stately peak. Therefore, through morning rain, ridiculously low visibility and lack of sleep, I forged onward through the fog.
Plus, I had a couple of tributes to make.
This is Bud Chapman’s early-life stomping ground. He grew up in nearby Millinocket and took summertime jobs in Baxter State Park in the late 1940s, building trails and outhouses and keeping watch on a fire tower. Bud later became the father to my good friend and best man, Steve Chapman.
Bud could be crotchety, but he went out of his way to bring me pizza on top of Kenosha Pass in 1993 when I was hiking the Colorado Trail. I miss Bud. In April 2000, he died at home in his comfy chair at age 70. Seemed like a good way to go.
The reason for my other tribute had created a pit in my stomach, an unpleasant disturbance in my soul.
Tom Grams was one of my dentists for more than a decade. He filled a cavity or two, and told me about his trips overseas. In 2002, he introduced me to Ateeq Ghani, an Afghani who’d lost several teeth during beatings by the Taliban. Grams fixed him up in his Durango office. In 2007, he explained in an interview why he was leaving private practice to work for nothing in places such as Burma, Nepal, India and Afghanistan.
“For me emotionally, it’s more fulfilling to be helping people I know can’t get dental care,” he said. “And then having seen the progress in some of the places I’ve worked. It’s rewarding.”
Aug. 8, the day before my scheduled climb of Katahdin, I learned that Grams had died, apparently murdered by the Taliban in a remote area of Afghanistan.
For several reasons, I did not sleep well that night: Rain slapping the uninsulated metal roof of my bunkhouse. The unknowns of the climb ahead. And the thought that Tom Grams, a guy I knew, whom I guess I can call a friend, had to stare death in the face for what must have seemed forever as the Taliban marched him and nine others into the forest for execution.
The latter were unpleasant but inescapable thoughts. I can only hope the end came quickly, mercifully, but I have doubts about that. And I am sorry I could not be with my fellow Durangoans on Sunday for his memorial.
So, from this perspective, climbing for four hours through the fog to reach the summit of 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin seemed like no burden. I did not complain about the lack of view, but instead laughed at the ridiculousness of the day. Was I shooting photos of Katahdin, or a Hollywood set? Who could tell?
After a steep, rocky climb to reach the saddle on what’s called the Saddle Trail, I’d done the hard part. The last mile was relatively easy, and soon, there I was, on top of Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the 2,160-mile-long Appalachian Trail.
After a few minutes alone, I was surprised to see an apparition forming out of the mist. A Connecticut man, I’ll call him Joe although I’ve forgotten his real name, had come up to spread a vial of ashes – those of his father, who had died a year ago. When he was young, Joe tired before reaching the top of Katahdin and his father turned around for him. Later, when Joe was an adult, his father wore out before the summit, and Joe turned around with him. His father never got to the peak, so Joe promised to spread some of his ashes there.
After Joe left, I took a few more photos, still chuckling to myself, or maybe at myself for doing this on such a sorry day.
Then I started down. After half a minute I stopped, and turned around for one more look.
But the summit was gone, enveloped by a misty veil. That’s how it goes. Like many things in life, it came and went too quickly.
johnp@ durangoherald.com For more photos and blog entries, visit www.summerdetour.com.