Knife’s Edge, the trail I took and didn’t take on the way down Katahdin
white mountain lodge & hostel, 8 october 2013
This isn’t exactly a trail narrative, but, then again, very few things about me at this precise moment are unrelated to that hike. After all, if it was just an ordinary walk in the woods, about doing some big miles over rough terrain and capricious weather conditions, it would have been over the moment I reached out and touched that venerable sign post weathering away atop Katahdin.
Of course it didn’t. In fact, the hike ended for me, I think, about quarter a mile away from the summit, just past a somewhat uninspired trudge through Thoreau Spring. Having studied literature—though admittedly I’ve yet to read any of Thoreau’s work in its entirety—I thought perhaps I’d be awed walking past that point of the mountain where Thoreau himself had trekked past decades earlier. I didn’t. Only, I felt a vague sense of deflation, as if shedding a layer. True, I am reconstructing what I felt here and admittedly, at the time, I hadn’t articulated for me precisely what it is that gave me that sense of deflation. I won’t pretend that I somehow have gotten a handle on things, gained some perspective after the proverbial ‘decompression’ at the ‘halfway’ house in New Hampshire: the lovely White Mountain lodge. I tend to think a lot. I live in a rich if frustrating mental world. I have been for a very long time. Yet, I do my best thinking when I write. After all, that’s what this is. Quite selfish really, but thanks for indulging, I do hope that I haven’t lost my audience. What is a performance after all, if the only one observing it is well within the proscenium?
So the hike ended for me well before it really ended. I wasn’t awed as I might have expected by the ethereal presence of Thoreau becoming us to roam free through and beyond some dead, albeit beautifully composed, words. What is language if not a commentary for decomposing metaphors made vivid through subjective interpretation. But this is neither here nor there…
Katahdin is majestic. Some even say that it is the most perfect peak on the entire Appalachian Trail. This maybe, like Thoreau’s ghostly aura around that mountain, just another instance of trail romance that is so cheap and abundant, particularly during post hike euphoria. Yet, there is some truth in that, I think: Katahdin is perfect. I don’t simply mean a perfection in terms of the difficulty of the climb (if you aren’t careful, Katahdin will teach you a harsh lesson), nor the majesty of the views (my goodness, you have to be there to experience that panoramic overlay, as the cliché often goes). It is perfect because, I think, it holds a fractured mirror to you to reflect. As an endpoint, it is as arbitrary as it is geographically convenient: one big majestic peak just before the rest of the Appalachia dwindles and stretches into Canada to assume different identities. But, it is most definitely a physical end point to on odious, exhilarating, life-refining, selfish, indulgent, sadistic, empowering [insert more adjectives as you see fit, you get the point] walk through some incredible landscape that was never boring, even when it was, [Pennsylvania much!]
As the Buddhist saying goes I was trying to live the moment when I got to the final mile of the AT: focusing on my breath, slow down my footsteps, taking the time to feel the hard granite beneath my feet. I wanted to empty my thoughts as best I could; feel barren as the mountain side itself with its thin alpine vegetation, scratching a living out of merciless rock. But the wind was too strong, it kept me distracted. So did the day hikers. As nice as they were, congratulating me on my accomplishment I couldn’t be free of my judgment of them. I mean, was I really any different than those people who had driven to Baxter state just because I had donned on a pack and walked some 2000+ miles? Of course the compounded length of time and distance traveled certainly adds to the experience but really, what was the difference that gave me that false sense of superiority and entitlement? Why did I really feel like I deserved the mountain peak for myself? What was really the accomplishment? That I had time, money, physical, and mental commitment to stick it out?
Then it happened, you know, out of nowhere. The wind suddenly stopped, I heard naught but the distant echo of the tips of my trekking poles striking granite in sync with my heartbeat. There was no jubilation, there was no sense of accomplishment, no laughter nor tears (that was five minutes or so earlier, it may have been the cold wind cutting through my eyeballs, who knows), no fear nor anticipation. I simply knew: my thru hike was over. ‘Congregations, you are five minutes or so away,’ I heard as one of the day hikers passed me by, projecting and reflecting his happiness and sense of accomplishment to me but with sincerity. ‘Thanks’ I said, barely glancing upwards, almost unfeeling, but acknowledging his sense of solidarity. We made it, him and I, and the rest of the multitude (perhaps 30 or so) hikers on that mountain at that time.
The rest of it, the pictures, the celebratory champagne, taking off all my clothes to don a maple leaf I had carried from the base, making a phone call to someone I had cherished during my hike, keep wanting to relive and repeat the whole trail as a single great event in my life, all of it; it was all cursory, going through the motions. I wanted to do them with all my heart and tired limbs, but I was hollow inside. Unsettled thoughts, feelings and scarcely formed ideas were reverberating inside me. It wasn’t clarity that I gained on that mountain top. It was more important that. It was a ripple. The long routine of six months was at an abrupt end. All that was left of my Appalachian Trail Thru Hike North Bound 2013 was the climb down. The uncertainty was exquisite, crystalline. Let’s go.
I climbed down at first by myself and eventually ran into someone I barely spoke to at any length and had only recently met on the trail. We exchanged casual pleasantries as if we were merely passing each along the trail, like any other time on the trail. But for both of us, it seemed, it wasn’t enough. So we braved it: How was your summit, really? Was it bizzare and vague as it is for me?
Yes, said Animal. And we talked, trying to make sense of the hollow ringing inside of us, hoping for some sort of anchorage within ourselves and with each other. But we both knew that at that time there was no point.
We change, we grow, we settle. Walden looked into a pond to reflect; all I got on top of Katahdin was laden circles of thought rippling toward unseen, perhaps even absent, shores. It was one of the truest feelings I’ve had on the trail, an inner ripple so laden and ineffable. I made up my mind to follow the ripples, even if I lost some of them to some convenient sense of certainty, to whither they went…some of them are rippling still.
I’m trying to piece it all together, let some of ripples subside, some to spread out
I didn’t spend time in the woods; I gained it.
I didn’t let go of much in the woods, but held onto things that I wanted, thought I needed; It wasn’t renunciation of creature comforts. My goodness, the trail was in a way pure indulgence; when else would a body consume half gallon of ice cream in less than twenty minutes and go for a cheese burger straight after, that too with a root beer, please.
I followed my heart and got it splintered, but it didn’t break.
I learned a lot about myself, true, but I am also unlearning much about me too.
hike’s over….the trail goes on.
I hope I keep my feet along the ‘razor’s edge’
From Katha Upanishad
The Razor’s Edge
Over their thoughts and far from pure,
Reach not the pure state of immortality
But wander from death to death; while those
Who have discrimination, with a still mind
And a pure heart, reach journey’s end,
Never again to fall into the jaws of death.
With a discriminating intellect
As charioteer, a well-trained mind as reins,
They attain the supreme goal of life
To be united with the Lord of Love.
The senses derive from objects of sense-perception,
Sense-objects from mind, mind from intellect,
And intellect from ego; ego from undifferentiated
Consciousness, and consciousness from Brahman.
Brahman is the first Cause and last refuge.
Brahman, the hidden Self in everyone,
Does not shine forth. He is revealed only
To those who keep their minds one-pointed
On the Lord of Love and thus develop
A superconscious manner of knowing.
Meditation empowers them to go
Deeper and deeper into consciousness,
From the world of words to the world of thought,
Then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.
Get up! Wake up! Seek the guidance of an
Illumined teacher and realize the Self.
Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path,
The sages say, difficult to traverse.
The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end,
Beyond time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable. Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.
The wise, who gain experiential knowledge
Of this timeless tale of Nachiketa
Narrated by Death, attain the glory
Of living in spiritual awareness.
Those who, full of devotion, recite this
Supreme mystery at a spiritual
Gathering, are fit for eternal life.
They are indeed fit for eternal life.