Well...it happened. I am back at work after 5 weeks of a sabbatical filled with hiking, writing, and reading. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I also learned a great deal about interacting with the natural world which, of course, was the point. I find it is good to have goals even in an ostensibly less-structured time. I like being able to look back and see what I did. Among other things, I hiked 35 of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers and 18 of New Hampshire's "52 With a View" mountains. I have written about many of them here. Not bad.
This is my third sabbatical. After every sabbatical at least one person will use the term "rested and refreshed" to describe my state upon returning. I don't get the "rested" part. I never really rested. I worked--and played--pretty hard actually and now I am tired around the edges. However, in one sense--perhaps that of restarting a computer, for example--I could be refreshed. Sabbatical is a reboot. It involves getting rid of old programming and updating systems. I am not done yet. There is more sabbatical to come. Still, I am in the reboot process and that is...interesting.
I had a number of goals for myself at this point in that process. One of them was simply an act of definition. I wanted to answer the question of what a "Sabbath Walk" actually is. I named this weblog after the concept, which did not originate with me. What sort of "walk" helps us to connect to the Great Whatever? How do we find ways to act in the world that will expand our horizons? In an earlier post I talked about what the implications might be for the institutional church. Here, I want to lift up some aspects of what I learned.
Now for this project my sabbath walks have been actual walks. That is what works for me. Of course they could really comprise any number of activities. Some people's sabbath walk is more of a sit or a read. There are people who explore through music or math or science. I kept it simple by making this metaphor for life somewhat literal. There are, of course, other ways to connection. Here I am talking about hiking, but there may be something in it for you even if that is not your bag.
I learned pretty quickly that not every hike fit into the category of sabbath. Some of them were too challenging. Some were too easy. There were distractions along the way. Like Goldilocks I found that there was an element of "just rightness" that I needed to get into a prayerful or meditative mood. I have hinted at this realization in a number of other posts. Just as in formal worship--where through the elements of the ritual we attempt to elevate our minds and hearts--there are conditions that help or hinder the spiritual exercise of walking in the woods.
Of course there are infinite variations to these conditions. However, for the sake of simplicity I have begun to use four broad categories that need to be present in relatively equal measure for a true sabbath walk. If they are not there the adventure can still be worthwhile, of course. It is just that the conditions make the spiritual connection--the meditative aspect--harder to find. There was much to say about ,my climb up Mount Washington and Mount Monroe, for example, but either my own state or the state of the hike itself (or both) made meaningful reflection difficult
Anyway, here they are. All four of these aspects are recognizable to most hikers as being par for the course. Which is to say that they are part of any climb or walk. When we are mindful of them, we have a better time. In fact, these are often the specific reasons we went for a walk in the first place!
1) Physical Challenge and Discipline:
It is hard to miss this one. I mark my own discipline of sabbath walking from right after my back surgery. There was rehab involved. I had to get out and get moving! Hiking was more interesting than going to the gym, where I injured myself in the first place. It was also something I was familiar with from a lifetime of getting outdoors. Most people--hikers and non-hikers alike--recognize that there is a physical challenge involved when we intentionally take a long walk. Even strolling around the neighborhood indicates that we are somehow pushing ourselves. The challenge is part of why we do it. We are "getting in shape" but we are also getting to know our bodies, their likes and dislikes. Knowing ourselves and the vessel that carries us is essential to a well-grounded life.
Now, this can often be the primary motivation for some hikers. It is a legitimate door into a sabbath discipline. Getting stronger and feeling better physically is important in and of itself. So too is the pride and joy of achieving a difficult goal. When I climbed Mount Adams and Mount Madison a couple weeks ago, I was chuffed to have done so. The trip was very much about dealing with the 5,000-plus feet of total elevation gain and staying hydrated. We were coping with the discomfort and the risk around wet trails and the slippery rocks. My brother waited at the end for us and became worried something bad had happened! We were just slow. We all high-fived each other in the parking lot at the end. That said, the physical challenges out-weighed some of the other aspects so it was hard for me to make it a "sabbath."
What I can say, though, is that one's physical presence brought about by addressing a physical challenge with intention and discipline is essential to the walk. It's just that too much physical challenge makes it hard to concentrate on other things. We must push ourselves and engage our bodies. Yet it can be--and should be--at the level of the walker. That is part of our practice of self-awareness, after all. It also needs to balance with a few other things.
2) Mental Challenge and Discipline:
Now, it may be easy to conflate this with the physical challenge. Many athletes, for example, talk about getting the right mindset for their respective competitions. I am a big basketball fan and--if this were a different kind of blog--I would tell you about the many times in the NBA and WNBA where a less-talented team beat a more talented one because their heads were in the right place.
We see this in a good walk, as well. Lets say we are climbing a physically challenging mountain and we need to find the courage and fortitude to keep going. In that moment we must push through the pain or despair to the other side. It matters that we do this. However, it also matters how we do this. For some it is a case of baring down, finding hidden reserves of power, and soldiering through. Others--and I would put myself in this category--do better through a discipline of openness. When I hike I try to cast my eyes and my heart outward into the landscape and toward other hikers, using the power of the world around me to drive me forward.
It wasn't always this way. I remember hiking Mount Moosilauke early on in this project. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have. I was still in pretty bad shape both physically and mentally. I used the "dig deep, push through" method and it got me to the top of the mountain. About halfway down, however, those reserves ran out. I "crashed" emotionally and had trouble getting myself back to the car while in full hot mess mode. This was the state of things on many hikes for a while. However, I started turning the corner while climbing the Tripyramids and by the time I hit the Osceolas--where I actually took a major fall--I at least had the sense of what I needed to do going forward. All that stuff in my posts about noticing the colors, the views, the little plants, and the people began as part of that exercise of openness. It was a very practical adaptation to help me survive.
The world/creation/the universe etc has more energy than we have on our own. It is good to find ways to use it.
3) Receptivity to the Moment:
This one logically follows from the previous ones, doesn't it? It is in some way about aesthetics. Most folks who go for walks have a view in mind. That is why we climb mountains or circle lakes. It is why we try for the most "natural" places in our lives. We are trying to be called up and out from the concerns that tie us down and reduce our humanity. An experience that points to the vastness around us helps with that.
Human constructs often demand more from us than we are able to healthily give. There are societal and economic demands on us. In order to maintain our selfhood in this environment, we naturally pull ourselves inward. We stay in our lane as much as possible. We also travel as fast as that lane allows.
Maybe we manage to live in the moment while we are drinking our first cup of coffee in the morning. After that, though, for most of us life is a series of next moments. There are things we are expected to--or want to--achieve so we going about doing those things.
This is what draws us to our sanctuaries. We are not products of our constructed world. We are products of the world before we built those things. You might want to go back and read the two previous sentences again. The solid foundation of a house of worship, or the quiet of an art museum, or the chaos of a concert, or the primal energy of the trail, are all sanctuaries for our souls where we can be present in the space we are occupying at that very moment. Our challenge is to find those places where we are receptive. There are many, many directions in which to go to seek them.
If you have read my posts here then you know that I have developed a practice of receptiveness while hiking. Particularly when I am alone, I make a point of sitting, feeling the rock beneath me, listening to the wind and the animals in the bushes. If there is a view I try to enjoy that, too. It isn't entirely necessary though. This practice has helped to save many a hike that I would otherwise deem a bust. Most recently it helped me through a soggy hike up Mount Israel.
The sabbath walk needs time to make connections to the right now, and sometimes it isn't that easy.
4) Contributing Creativity
Worship is a dialogue. Yes, in many formal settings it may not feel that way. Folks who get their information about worship life third-hand may not be aware that in pretty much every tradition there are ways that everyone participates and adds to the moment. In my church there are hymns and responsive readings. There are announcements that are sometimes longer than the sermon. There is coffee and conversation afterward that frequently lasts longer than worship, itself. A sabbath walk requires these elements as well. Our conversation--broadly conceived--creates a new thing and adds to the whole of creation.
Creativity can be intimidating. People think of painting, writing, and preaching, for example. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Do you sing along to the radio in the car? That is part of a dialogue. You are changing the original document--the song--and making it your own at least for that place and time. I sing hymns on the trail these days, particularly when things are getting rough. I picked this practice back up from my distant past on a solo hike up Tecumseh and have continued to do so when the spirit moves.
I also take pictures and, yes, I write. That is extra, though. As this project has gone on I have found it harder to post something new for each walk but I still form sentences in my heart as I go along, even though you may never read them. I also usually manage an Instagram post. Pictures don't feel as repetitive to me.
A sabbath walk doesn't just involve being in the moment and witnessing what is before us. It involves making that moment more meaningful and beautiful. This doesn't always happen. There is so much going on as we walk that we may be too distracted. There may be too much going on before and after our walk. We may not be in the right space to make something new.
However sabbath is about practice and we do get better at being creative over time. We get better at talking back to--and building--creation. We need to forgive ourselves when things don't go right. There will always be another sabbath-day.
So--once again--not all walks are reflective. That is fine and good. Sometimes we need to get something else out of an experience. That said, I do believe that there is a place for worshipful walking when we can. These four aspects in some sort of balance are--for me at least--what makes the difference between a good hike and a sabbath walk. If you are curious which ones made it for me, I have an "Actual Sabbath Walks" section which will give you a sense of what I am talking about. They can be a challenging as Mount Katahdin or as easy as Mount Norwottuck. On my list, for whatever reason, things aligned in such a way as to create an attitude of worship and of connection to something greater than myself.
I hope your walks--or your "walks"--are also satisfying. If you feel like sharing, please do! Communities--congregations in whatever form--make everything more meaningful.
When love is felt or fear is known, when holidays and holy days and such times come, when anniversaries arrive by calendars or consciousness, when seasons come as seasons do, old and known but somehow new...mark the time. Let nothing living slip between the fingers of the mind. --Max Coots
It is a beautiful fall day but I am at home. I took my usual walk--just to get my steps in--and have my coffee before me. When I sat down I thought I was going to write up another hike. However, right now I am looking toward what is to come. There will be time, I assume, to look back on some of my more recent climbs. My heart is not in those reflections, though. I return to work on Monday and thoughts of that eventuality have invaded my brain space.
When we planned out the sabbatical year we thought it would make sense to break it up into three parts. My project of experiencing the Divine through nature and creativity will benefit from a cycle through the seasons. The church, too, will benefit from have me in the saddle for the peak holiday times. Those holidays start at my church on my first Sunday back. October 30 is "Halloween Eve" and we will observe it with a concert and then our annual Jack-O-Lantern competition. There will be a service in the morning, too. I have no idea what I will talk about. I am looking past that moment for now. Instead I am musing on the many ways this rapidly approaching period of celebration aids us in our quest for spiritual connection.
There is plenty written about the domestication of Christmas, for example. It is a holiday steeped in its pagan roots that has consistently warred against its more "acceptable" Victorian trappings. Anyone who has had to plan carols for the traditional, hushed, Christmas Eve service with the candles knows this tension well. So many of the songs are meant to be sung loudly and drunkenly in streets, bars, and living rooms. A worship leader can lose the also-desired thread of that mute Holy Family with their cozy animals and non-smelly barn pretty easily.
Of course domestication--of holidays, of nature, and of other things--is frequently a goal of the powerful. Why won't everybody stay in their lane? The "Holiday Season" is made up of moments with an abundance of meaning well beyond the limits official arbiters place on them. Halloween is about fear, Thanksgiving is about gratitude. These are vast subjects we struggle to understand. Then the sprawling mass of winter festivals arrive making noise, breaking out in silence, and bringing light into the darkness. In each case there is a story or a set of rituals but...really...they take a back seat to more primal understandings. This season resists control because it touches the deep places of our hearts and souls. These are places many of us don't reach any other time of the year except...maybe...during the battery of spring holidays..
The meaning of specific holy days overlap as our "folk" elements outstrip the official ones. I know of many people who will have three Thanksgivings. There is the official one that happens on a Thursday. Then there is another one on the weekend for people who couldn't make the official one. Then there is "Friendsgiving" whenever it can be fit in. In my profession the parties really get going between Boxing Day (December 26) and Epiphany (January 6) when the secular world exhausts itself. Then, with our many gigs over, we can sing the loud carols to each other.
I am looking forward to this time; both the approach when I will be busy and the retreat when I will celebrate. There will be plenty of walks in there, too. Some will involve getting away on my sabbath to put on heavy gear and hike. That, however, won't be all. In fact for we humans have the tradition of taking walks together post-feast. This is usually a casual thing when we stroll around the neighborhood to get some air and a change of dynamic.
Occasionally, though, the walk is intentionally religious. For a few years church members would meet around midnight on the Winter Solstice to walk a labyrinth. That was deemed a bit hard core. Now we climb Pegan Hill and sing. It is good--in a time when the circle the sun makes is so noticeably different--to recognize the natural world. It is good to see each other in it.
Nature invades in other ways as well. Spooky gourds kick us off. Then there are the general fall decorations that stick around as Thanksgiving retains a touch of the harvest festival about it. Then we are bringing pine trees into the living room and putting wreaths on the door ensuring some life in the stark dead-time of early winter. We violate our own norms to do this. Even though it is now culturally acceptable, there is still some trapping of transgression in our act. It is as inconvenient as it is pretty to bring the forest indoors. After all, we think of the wild as being "out there" and compare it against our own--hopefully but not really fully--ordered existence in our human spaces.
Anyway, that is where my mind is today. I am heading back to work and the big question is how or when we can integrate this unruly nature spirit into our expectations for the next few months. The urge is to tamp it down, to follow the set passages--to stay in those lanes--to survive this time. So much is distressing and uncontrollable. Still, we can see the Holy in action, appearing under its own power and on its own time.
What can we do to celebrate it? What can we do to live into the Divine Chaos? I don't know the answers to these questions. I hope it will be fun to find them.
The glory of the mountains is color. A great many people think that they see all that there is to be seen of the White Hills in one visit...but what if you could go into a gallery where the various sculpture took different attitudes every day? ...Would one season be sufficient to drain the interest of it? Thus the mountains are ever changing. They are never two days the same. --Thomas Starr King
Hiked On October 12, 2022
Many years ago my mother-in-law came across a Walter Launt Palmer painting in a thrift shop in New Jersey. That painting eventually got her an appearance on the Antiques Roadshow. Back then this name was new to me. Palmer worked mostly in New Hampshire in the White Mountains and his work was heavily influenced by the Hudson River school that began about a generation earlier. Since that time I have seen his work in many American museums. I remember, too, an exhibit of "New Hampshire school" painting at Fruitlands where the emphasis was on the use of light, how it falls, and how it changes a scene. Light and color are both evident in his work. Somehow his paintings seem both over-the-top and true-to-life at the same time. He creates spaces the viewer can recognize and inhabit, while also understanding that the perfection of these works makes them somewhat other-worldly.
It turns out Palmer is a big deal. Looking at his paintings--easily available for viewing online--you can experience some of the dynamism of the natural world. They draw us in. They compel us with their familiarity. We inhabit the scene because it is magical, too.
The appearance of our lived landscapes alters with the season and the time of day. We experience this in all its glory when we leave our homes to journey farther into the wild. However, we are familiar with it from our own more mundane lives as well. Looking at the trees outside my window I can see them cycle through the seasons; from brown, to green, to yellow and red, then back to brown. When it rains they look different from when they are in the sun or the snow. We are used to this phenomenon. Still, for most people it remains fascinating.
The Universalist and Unitarian minister, Thomas Starr King also saw this aspect of light and color. He is most associated these days with California, where he ministered and where a seminary is named in his honor. However, Starr King was a New Yorker and a New Englander before that. In fact, he wrote a book in the 19th Century style about what he called the "White Hills." Now one of those "hills" is named after him and resides on the 52 With-a-View List. The quote at the top of this post refers to something that many people who visit regularly have observed. The light changes constantly. So, too, does the color...and not just in the fall.
The mountains "are never two days the same." This is why we go out into the natural world more than once a year. When we return to the same place at a different time, we are reminded that this thing called life is dynamic and ever-moving. We are all these things as well.
I climbed up Hedgehog on my own about 30 seconds after peak foliage. The weekend before--when we did the Carter Loop in the snow--was the busiest the Whites had ever been...or, at least, had been since the previous Indigenous People's Day weekend. Our drive home after that hike was a bit of a nightmare, actually. As I mentioned in my previous post, most peaks were crawling with people.
This past week it was still crowded. However--just as with the Carters--one can find hikes where the more casual tourist doesn't go. They are looking for either the easy view or the famous mountain. I don't really blame them and have done so occasionally myself. Driving down the Kancamagus Highway on my way to the trailhead for Hedgehog, I saw overflow parking--cars along the road--at all the major trails and viewpoints. Random pedestrians popped out into my path to get a better angle on pictures of the Saco River and God knows what else. It was a bit chaotic even for the tail end of foliage season.
Since I was in New Hampshire for a few days this time, I had planned at least a couple of more obscure hikes. This was the first of them. Pulling in the trailhead parking there was only one other car. The little mountain was pretty much neglected in favor of the more famous ones. That, of course, was my gain.
After a quick conference with the couple in the car next to me, we chose different routes. My new acquaintances had a steeper climb straight to the peak. I decided to go counter-clockwise. I wanted to start with a clear view from a series of ledges over the Oliverian Brook valley toward Chocorua, Paugus, and then--most strikingly--to Passaconaway only two miles away. Passaconaway is a massive mountain I would rather look at than climb a second time. I knew that the direction I was going would put it front-and-center as I walked along.
The early ledges were pretty much all that I expected them to be. Colorful hardwoods crawled up the slopes from their lower vantage point, attempting, maybe, to pull the dark, massive, pines back down toward them. I had to concentrate a bit on the early ledges that ended abruptly in a steep drop toward the valley floor, but that was not too much of a challenge. Also, having to focus on the ground gave me the opportunity to look at some of the reddish alpine communities growing in the cracks and crevices near my feet.
Eventually those ledges ended, followed by a dip and then a steep climb toward the top. Somewhere before that final climb, I encountered the couple from the parking lot who told me that we no longer had the place to ourselves. Still, I only saw a few more groups over the course of the day. Some encounters were welcome. Resting at the peak, in fact, I had a conversation with a young person from Germany. She had rented a van and was spending a month or so hiking on the east coast. We got maps out, identified some peaks, and compared notes on our respective future and past hikes.
She was also concerned about some older folks she had passed on her way up. They were moving quite slow to her mind. As a somewhat older person myself who is known to hike slowly, I told her I would check on them. They were fine. They had chosen to move steadily toward the seat we had recently vacated, careful to monitor their progress and their condition. This wasn't their first rodeo. They knew what they wanted from the climb. One can accomplish a great deal with an awareness of one's own strengths and limitations. The people I worry about are more confident--or overconfident--ignorant, and ill-prepared.
After the peak I started down. With a little gas left in my metaphorical tank, I decided to take the diversion out to Allen's Ledge. Here, again, I could look over the Oliverian Brook valley. These ledges were off the main trail. There was no one else around. I spent about 40 minutes admiring the silence and the colorful display. It was easy to imagine being up there in other seasons. Probably winter, in particular, would be delightful on the ledges here. Maybe I will go see it then.
The change of seasons that we witness in this way--just by looking out our windows every month or week of the year--can reflect our own personal seasons. Spring and fall have their easy, spectacular demonstrations of life and death. However, we also live through the pulsating heat and drought of summer. We survive the freezing cold of our winters. It is important to understand that there is beauty in times of desperate survival as well. Otherwise we will not get through the journey as well, will we?
The next day--after a climb of Mount Israel that will be the subject of another post--I hiked along the Oliverian Brook. I was curious what the space between the mountains looked like from below the ledges. While I was there, the ferocious rain stripped many of the trees clean. The leaves gathered in muddy puddles along the trail, becoming soil in real time. Peak foliage is over for another year, but this new landscape had its own beauty to observe.
I sat under the roots of an old tree along the brook and watched the current, the rain, and this year's bright color turn to the browns and grays that the snow will later outline like a Palmer painting. The cycle of life continues. Creation never ceases. We are blessed to participate and witness.
And one final video. This one is not about peak color--quite the opposite--but I did do a longer video about Hedgehog...
Hiked on October 9, 2022
Snow changes everything. Obviously there are actual physical changes. Climbing in the snow--even a little bit--can alter one's approach. The rocks get slippery, for instance. Footing gets weird. If it snows early in the season there can be personal thermostat challenges, with layers going on and off in rapid succession. However, there are also aesthetic and spiritual changes. The white flakes create sharp outlines where previously there were none. The fall of snow, itself, helps us remember previous snows for better or for worse. The sound is altered, too. Even a little snow has the ability to muffle the incidental noises of the forest. Also, many creatures--human and otherwise--become silent, hiding away until the squall passes on.
An early October snowfall starting somewhere above 3,000 feet changed this hike across South Carter, Middle Carter, and oft-forgotten Mount Lethe. We had climbed Carter Dome a couple weeks before. Two weeks--and the snow--made all the difference. When we were on the Carter-Moriah Trail (also part of the AT) in September the place was a seething mass of humanity. Thru-hikers were hustling along their way in hopes of making it to Baxter State Park before it closed for the season. Day hikers were everywhere. On the top of Carter Dome--as I mentioned before--a group had decided to have a picnic and blast their tunes for the rest of us to hear. On this trip it was all silence. It is too late for all that rushing about and too cold for picnics. From now until May there is a seriousness to this endeavor that doesn't empty the big mountains of people so much as put more space between them.
To get to the Carter-Moriah trail--the one that takes us over the peaks--we opted for a steep climb up 19 Mile Brook Trail. The pitch became steeper as went along. When we approached Carter Dome we were on the other side of the ridge. We stopped at Carter Notch and climbed to the peak from there. In this case--on the "front" side--the trail split, with 19-Mile Brook heading toward the hut. The other path--called the Carter Dome Trail though we departed it before the Dome--veers left and heads up toward South Carter. The plans of the few people we saw seemed to involve the hut. Once we turned we had the trail even more to ourselves.
Shortly after this was when the snow started. I am not fond of winter or winter hiking. Snow, however, I like if it is ridiculously early in the season. It reminds me of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also, it doesn't get deep enough to be a problem--other than the slickness--for our footing. We had the micro spikes in our bag just in case, but we didn't need them. I stayed in a T-shirt for quite a while, waiting for the snow to pick up. I heat up quickly and was mindful of what the drop in temperature could do if I soaked through too many outer layers.
It was a strange feeling with the colored leaves still on the trees, but it wasn't an unpleasant one. The wind had died down, which helped a great deal as well. All the weather activity gave us something to think about as we moved higher and higher.
In a previous post I made reference to a phenomenon that occurs sometimes on mountain hikes where the trail begins to feel safe and secure, like a comfortable room in a house or a welcoming hallway connecting two points. At least that is how I experience it sometimes. This hike had a great deal of this sort of action, particularly after the climb up. When we emerged onto the relatively broad intersection of our trail with Carter-Moriah, the room effect was very much in force. Again, two weeks earlier this spot would have been insane with hikers. Now Al and I were alone in the quiet with the snow gently settling around us.
We may not have been in a true winter wonderland, but it was a wonderland nonetheless. That feeling stuck with us for the long walk along the ridge. We had selected this loop to get away from the crowds. Now on the main trail, we did see a few people enjoying the strangeness of the day. That said, the population was very manageable.
We weren't sure it would be that way. The weekend of Indigenous People's Day is one of the busiest in the Whites. The foliage is usually full throttle. You cannot find a place to stay. Many of the best-known trails and mountains are packed with muggles looking for a fabulous view. We were under the impression that there wasn't much in the view department on the Carters. This was why we picked it. We wanted to hike. The snow had made the forest even more beautiful so we didn't mind terribly anyway.
Funny thing, though. We were wrong about the views. After a long, long, time in the forest the snow started to abate. Through the trees and on various outlooks we were all able to cast our eyes on the fall landscape from our wintry perches. The juxtaposition of our landscape with the one far below was the sort of thing we hope for after putting in so much effort. It felt like a gift.
At this point the temperatures had dropped substantially. Bundled up in our winter jackets we took a moment for snacks and water before heading just below the peak of Mount Lethe. Then we turned on the North Carter Trail toward the Imp Trail for our descent.
The rest of the hike was less interesting. We had a few more brilliant views before dropping under the canopy of trees. We had been talking about heading over the Imp Face--one of the 52 WAV mountains--but we were really done. I was especially finished. I had decided to wear my "backup" hiking boots that I used on the Great Glen Way. This was a mistake. I was trying to save money by nursing along my favorite pair, saving them for other hikes. I paid for my cheapness with pain. I don't think I can do that much longer. It is worth it to use the right gear for the right job. The best boots one can get are the best boots to have, it turns out. Limping down to the bottom of the North Carter/Imp trails I welcomed the short road walk back to our car to complete the loop.
Sometimes there is no great theme to a walk. On days like this it is best not to look too hard for meaning. Instead we favor the day we have been given with our attention. The snow, the pretty trail, the surprise views, and even the sore feet contributed to the experience. We were open to the wonder and were rewarded for it.
Hiked On October 4, 2022 (via Cross Rivendell Trail)
It is the first hike of October and the foliage situation is improving. Right now--at least on Mount Cube--it is all about orange and yellow with a few touches of red. When it isn't raining, the temperature is just about perfect. I am going to have to switch out from my summer pack to my regular pack this week. The number of layers I use in a day out is increasing. There is a gentle smell in the air of wetness and rot. It is a beautiful time for a sabbath walk.
Also, there are fewer people out on the trails. Vacation is over and the peak season of outdoor activity is behind us now. In fact, it turns out that if you hike this mountain early in the morning on a Tuesday in October, you can have the place to yourself. I have never been so alone on a mountain. There were no cars at the trailhead. I saw nobody at the intersections with other trails. That was fine by me.
Still, it felt a bit strange. When I hike by myself I am rarely alone. There are people around even if I don't see them or talk to them. On the days with rain and fog at the top--most recently Katahdin and Black (Benton)--there are still some hardy types. On Black it was just a couple people. On Katahdin there were plenty. I chose the mountain and the day with isolation in mind. In fact, I considered the Webster-Jackson loop--which would have been populated even on a weekday--and rejected the idea. Cube guaranteed silent-time with nature. I just didn't realize how much silent-time...
For people who hike a great deal, seeking isolation is frequently part (or all) of the goal. It isn't all fun outings. We want to be anonymous for our own reasons. The trauma of the plague, at least, has given many folks the drive to get away. Each individual, though, has a motivation unique to them. They can be dark reasons or not, but they are still present in our hearts somewhere, possibly not yet fully realized.
The mountains don't care who you are, after all. They can be good spots to work things out. There is positive power in sitting with only the vastness for company. Many times, no one will even bother you.
I seem to be drawn to isolation myself, lately. There are times in one's life when a person wants to change things even if they are pretty social during everyday life. During this sabbatical season the fall in the air has prompted a desire to fade from view a bit. Anonymity is appealing. When someone is unknown, they can change how they dress, look, and act if that is what is desired. Time away helps with that.
Time in a relatively undisturbed ecosystem--which is constantly emerging and reinventing itself--helps, too. For a moment we can slip into creation's rhythms and see ourselves as non-static beings. We are able to escape Society's wish to cast us permanently in our current outward role. In the wild we do not have to play the part of good or bad, strong or weak, foolish or wise that has been our assignment through the passing of years. We are observed, judged, and graded in life. These pressures strive to mold us. Sometimes they do so in inauthentic ways.
Many of the people I meet out in the forest are seeking out the liminal space in offers. On the trail we are reminded that all is in flux; that there is death, life, and possibility in every new step. We do not have to be who we have become. We do not need to carry those burdens.
That said, I didn't meet any of those adventurous changing people on Mount Cube. I was that alone.
Now practically speaking, on this particular walk, there were disadvantages to this isolation. First, I hadn't counted on being so tired at the beginning. My knees remembered the Katahdin hike differently from how my mind remembered it. It wasn't all about the beauty of the day or the companionship of the AT hikers. It was mostly pain, apparently. This creakiness came in part from having so few distractions. It takes a while to ease out of drive-mode into walk-mode. I could have used a person or two to facilitate the transition. Also, it isn't always great to be alone with your thoughts. One can have trouble settling down and putting aside whatever negative emotions have built up just from being alive and around people.
The advantages, though, outweighed the burdens. The day was postcard-worthy. There was a mild breeze by mountain standards and the views were back. I encountered a couple view points on the way up; places where the rock ledges had overwhelmed any attempt the trees made to expand there. Then--as often happens--there was a scramble over exposed rock to the first of two peaks.
The Cube's south peak is on the 52 With-A-View list. A wide valley can be seen with Smarts Mountain--only 4 miles away--dominating the landscape. The site of at least two plane crashes, it, too is on my list.
After spending some time there I progressed along a few hundred yards of the AT, which passed just below the peak, itself. This led to a side trail that brought me, eventually, to the north peak. The course here was relatively flat and narrow. The trees pressed close in in a way that made this part of the journey feel like exploring a room or a hallway. I don't know how else to describe the phenomenon. It happens occasionally close to the top of a mountain or along a ridge where the contours of the terrain and the tight network of plants break the wind. In those places it feels like all you would need is a roof to live there forever.
The north peak had its own views. Moosilauke, Black (Benton), and Blueberry mountain were easy to identify. The first was noticeable for its size and the others for their ledges. Again, a valley stretched out between them and me. In this case the trees had given it an orange tint that was mesmerizing. I sat at the viewpoint for a while and then started back.
One of the problems with hiking alone is that there is only one brain to rely on when you get turned around. For this reason I took a bearing from the trailhead to make sure I could stumble down to the logging road where I left my car if need be. In this case it was more about retracing my steps along broad ledges that resist signs of foot traffic.
Eventually I made back to the entrance of the tight corridor of trees and returned to South Peak. There I sat for a while. If you read my Watatic post you know I am trying to do more of that. My companion in this instance was a smallish tree situated near the same sort of 19th and early 20th century graffiti that graces many popular mountains in Massachusetts; old names of visitors carved deeply into ledge rock. At this point it was easy to remember that aloneness is not the same as loneliness, that we aren't really alone anyway, and that our thoughts--or non-thoughts--can be good companions.
I pointed my feet toward the car. Trails always look a little different heading in the other direction. I noticed small paths to secret campsites along with some glimpses through the trees that I had previously missed. The challenge of the end of the hike is that--in the returning--all the pressures of life return as well. It starts with figuring out a route home and then cascades from there. Mindfulness can keep these worries at bay for a while, but not forever.
About a fifth of a mile from the trailhead I encountered two women heading up. I said hello and kept on moving. It was like a shift change. It was their turn to have Mount Cube to themselves.
From this elevation just on the skirts of the clouds, we could overlook the country west and south for a hundred miles. There it was, the state of Maine, which we had seen on the map, but not much like that,--immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on, that eastern stuff we hear of in Massachusetts. No clearing, no house. It does not look as if a solitary traveler had cut so much of a walking stick there. --HD Thoreau
Hiked (via Hunt Trail/AT) on September 29, 2022
Henry David Thoreau gets a bad rap in some quarters. Specifically it is fashionable to accuse him of hypocrisy. I have done it, but now I relent.
This accusation isn't because of something he did. Instead it is the result of what people in the 1970's and 1980's wanted him to be. Thoreau died in 1862 having spoken out for a changed relationship between human beings and nature. In fact, his position was a bit of a counter-movement. It remains so. Capitalist society wants what it deems "progress" which means--primarily--financial, technological, industrial progress. The natural world, for many people, has developed into a setting for humans to exploit. This could be mining, or it could be forms of eco-tourism like hiking. Either way the question is what it can do to serve us. Actually it isn't even a question of serving all of us...just the ones who can grab those resources.
Thoreau, on the other hand, was interested in nature on its own terms.
We want Thoreau to be some sort of Medieval holy-man living in a cave somewhere. Maybe instead we wish him to be an explorer, denying himself the trappings of a comfortable life. The problem is, he didn't think of himself as an adventurer or a hermit. He was a businessman. He manufactured pencils and worked as a well-respected surveyor. He was an essayist and public lecturer at a time when these were prominent expressions of art. He worked his whole life, actually. He lived that life in Concord Massachusetts.
"I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways." is how he put his observations in Walden. The man was into deeply knowing a place. He liked people and saw their burdens. When he lived in Walden--just a mile or two from downtown Concord--he maintained a regular social schedule with his friends and, yes, had his mother do his laundry. Why wouldn't he? After all, she did everyone's laundry. In a time before washing-machines, it was her job.
I bring this up now because Thoreau was also an adventurer, like many of us. It just wasn't his primary identity. He would plan expeditions around New England to the places that were still wild and relatively untamed. He wanted to see them. He wanted to record them so we would remember what they were like. Maybe, if we experienced nature on its own terms, we might value what it has to tell us.
One of his greatest adventures was a multi-week trek to Mount Katahdin, mostly on foot and by canoe. There were no roads, after all, which is worth remembering. In the end he made it to the mountain, explored the region around it, and hiked to the tableland. That he doesn't seem to have hit one of the six major peaks is occasionally brought up like the laundry story. It is worth noting that peak-bagging wasn't a thing yet. He was there for the journey and he had a long one back to civilization ahead of him.
Another reason to bring it up is that many years after his death he had an ally in Percival Proctor Baxter. Known to generations of Maine schoolchildren as "PP" Baxter, this former Governor of Maine purchased a massive section of land that included Katahdin. Then he donated it to the state on the condition that it remain "forever wild." Human needs were to be secondary to the cycles of the land. People could come to see it; to hike, fish, and sometimes hunt in it. However, it would also be rough by the standards of human parks. It privileges wildness.
In fact, this was a very controversial move. The state had refused to purchase it outright because of the hopes for future development. Baxter forced their hand.
That is plenty of context, I know. It is important, though. This mountain is not climbed like, say, Mount Washington where you park at the bottom after getting off the highway and hike between gift shops. There is no bumper sicker for your car. Just like the rest of the mountains in the park, Katahdin is special. Even on the somewhat over-populated southern section of Baxter there are no amenities. Nature is in your face and that is on purpose. That is the way here. Knowing this and planning accordingly is the difference between a good trip and a bad--possibly deadly--one.
"Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine." --PP Baxter
My own relationship with Baxter Park is a long one. When I was young my father served as a member and then chair of the Baxter Park Authority which functions as a sort of governing board for the park and overseer of its unique mission. Along with the activist Park Director Buzz Caverly, they pushed back human encroachment in an attempt to restore PP Baxter's vision. I got to spend a lot of time there, mostly in the northern section of the park away from Katahdin. My mom--a dedicated hiker herself who is trekking through the Dingle in Ireland as I write this--liked it better on that end. There were fewer people on the trails.
I have climbed Katahdin, though, a number of times. The last time was many years ago. I was in my twenties and my little brothers, Matt and Dan, set off on what they hoped would be a southbound walk to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail.
Which brings us--finally--to this climb. Once again it had to do with the AT. Astute readers of Sabbath Walks will remember that back in March I accompanied my eldest son to Georgia for his attempt at thru-hiking. Well...he made it.
This trip was the last few miles of that epic journey of over 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin. His uncles are still picking away at the trail themselves. Dan and I had the chance to walk the last few miles with him and his "tramily" so we took it.
That is how I ended up sleeping outdoors in late September. The walk began in a lean-to so we could get an early start. This is not unusual for Baxter hikes. The peaks are hard to reach. Then, after a cold but not horrible night, we began the climb.
There were other thru-hikers around and a couple groups of day hikers as well. Not surprisingly, I was the slowest in our group which was fine. I can hike my own hike, after all, and it was nice to have time in the silence of the park. However, I made sure to start off early with Dan so that I wouldn't slow folks down on the other end. I don't want to inconvenience people and we had a drive south ahead of us. Over the course of the day I would lose track of the others for a while after they passed me. Trust me, though. It was more than good.
The trail starts relatively flat, just like most hikes I have done. The fall foliage was just beginning to make its presence felt. The practice of observation was useful at this point as the trees and undergrowth were putting on a show. So, too, was Katahdin Stream running next to the trail, creating a fabulous soundtrack as we worked our way up.
All this changed in a couple miles. After a while I encountered a big rock with "3 miles" painted on it and an arrow pointing up. Things started to get hairy shortly after that. After about another mile it became super-steep. The group condensed again as we helped each other over numerous rock hazards. The view also vanished (as it did for Thoreau) and we continued to stumble up toward the tableland that would welcome us to the last mile or so before Baxter Peak.
During the climb there was plenty of time to look around at the life that makes its home on the cold, rocky ledge. We were also looking for handholds and sometimes the actual hands of the people in front of us. Still, even in the hardest moments we couldn't help but be transported by what was around us in the clouds. The weather is often bad on Katahdin just as it is on most big mountains in New England. Yet people climb it anyway because it is always beautiful.
Finally, we managed to hit the tableland. At this point the thru-hikers gained some separation on me. They had waited six months for this moment and weren't going to wait another minute more than they had to. I couldn't blame them. Their excitement was infectious. Dan plodded along with me for a while but he slowly got ahead of me, too. Dan hikes in Baxter often. In fact, it was only two weeks since his previous ascent to Baxter Peak.
What that meant was that I had the tableland to what felt like myself. There were people both ahead of and behind me but I could neither see nor hear them. I wondered if this was what it was like when Thoreau was separated from his party. It looked for all the world like the moors in Scotland that I had walked through in August...except on a very hostile day. The ground cover was different, of course. Here the red came from some relative of the blueberry rising just over any number of plant species clinging close to the rocks. I paused a moment to take it in. Then I remembered my mission and started up again.
I was alone for the last twenty minutes of climbing, which was probably for the best. I had started singing in order to maintain a rhythm and keep my spirits up; Ain't No Grave, Voice Still and Small, If I May Speak with Bravest Fire, This Little Light of Mine. I trailed off on my third time through Amazing Grace as I saw (and then heard) the group at the top. The tramily was there and my brother. So, too, were a number of other thru-hikers and a couple muggles like me. It was a low-turnout day because of the weather but everyone was excitedly taking pictures of each other.
I felt like an observer at somebody else's graduation party which--by the way--is a good feeling. I was proud of these humans, most of whom I had never met. I was proud of being human. What an amazing achievement for all of them!
I arrived late and left early of course. I was the slowest and needed to get going again. Back down the peak and across the tableland I went. I encountered some day hikers I had passed and told them they were almost there. The others passed me again and then Dan and I started down the rough part behind them.
The best thing is...we had a view. Just as Thoreau had experienced on his journey, the clouds started to blow away as we descended. They continued to hover at the top of the mountain, of course. It wasn't that the clouds were moving so much as we were. On the way down, though, we caught glimpses of the land around us. It was an excellent backdrop to our labors. Going down a mountain is difficult. It is hard on the knees and the back. Gravity and the mountain conspire to do all sorts of things to your pack and to you so as to twist you into a crevice and a puzzle of their own making. Still, we had made good time and had nowhere to be, so we took as many breaks as we could.
The tramily finally disappeared down into the trees and rocks. Dan and I took a long break to snack at the final viewpoint. From our spot we could see a number of mountains, some of which I have hiked in the past and some that remain for me to explore. Dan has hiked all of them. It is his happy place.
This may have been the toughest hike I have done since surgery. It is hard to tell because I am in much better shape than I was and didn't suffer the way I did on the earliest hikes. Those early ones--like Tripyramids and the Osceolas--felt more arduous than this day. They also felt more arduous than Washington.
After our break Dan sped up and I hiked the last couple miles relatively alone. There were other people out and we leapfrogged a bit, but no one was feeling conversational. For me it had been quite a day. For most of my companions it had been a life-changing one. It was great to be back on the park and on the mountain. I don't think I will wait quite as long for next time.
I don't usually post church stuff here, but this service is about my sabbatical project and includes some background to why. The sermon starts at 40:44. I tried to peg this there but failed. There is some good stuff before that, however, so feel free to skip around!
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.