We hustle each behind the other in single file with bags in tow, our backs hunched against the weight, shoulders and knees aching. We follow a trail that stretches seven and a half miles from Roaring Brook to the Russell Pond site in Baxter. Winding and climbing, we march, fording streams, shoes off, pants rolled high, hopping from slippery rocks hoping a misstep won’t send us tumbling down into the icy water.
Planks have been laid out along certain parts of the trail. They stretch out long and thin above the mud, like balance beams from logs split in half, straight down the center and our feet move, also one behind the other, arms out, wavering.
The path is lined with wild blueberries at times. We stop to fill our hands, biting into the dark skin, sweet, simple. The air too is sweet, a natural perfume to clear the mind, to breathe, to slip inside. We fill our bottles with cold clear water that comes trickling down from Katahdin. It is clean enough to drink, the ranger told us that. We purify it anyway using a UV filter. 90 seconds and we are safe.
We are each in minds of our own as we move; sweating, breathing heavily, chests burning. We are out of shape, aging pitifully. The city has made us soft, in certain respects, hardening us in others. Out here we can confront this, challenge, initiate conflict, internally. We have the space, the air, the breathe, the sweat. And so we comb our brains as we walk, flitting from one thought to the next like the birds above, chirping, announcing our presence to the forest, to ourselves too.
We break frequently. Removing our packs, slapping at mosquitos. Like clouds they descend in spite of the spray, sinking their teeth into our soft flesh. We are soon covered in itchy welts. Time to move along.
Occasionally we notice frogs in the underbrush. Their backs speckled black and green, always leaving, hopping away into obscurity. A flash of yellow. The sun is bright, angled at this late afternoon hour cutting through the trees. It’s late July but the light has already begun to take on the look of autumn. It won’t be long now. We’ve been hiking for hours, the forecast calls for rain. We will take our chances.
That night we sleep hard, in periods, our bodies exhausted but senses heightened. A crash in the forest, we hold our breath, the nylon and aluminum no match for the fury of a bear or moose. We’d hung our food and trash from the bear line on the other side of camp, but now we’re afraid to look out, soothed by a sense of false security within our tents. Aware of our vulnerability, we lie still, tense, unmoving. As prey in the wild, hoping to be invisible to whatever beasts lay wait in the night. A different sort of danger; immediate, present. Resigned to defenselessness, we slowly drift off, deep slumber, bodies worn, to jolt again suddenly, a sniffing this time, a scratch, a crash.
We sleep late, waking to warm tents and morning sun. We assemble around the fire to make our respective breakfasts, instant oatmeal in a pot, pond water boiled, coffee bitter like dirt, sipped from aluminum cups.
A droning fills the air, the sound of birds, insects like white noise. Russell pond is dark blue in the morning light, the mountain rising tall behind it, its reflection green upon the surface. We head out along a trail the ranger described to us the day before. A 6-mile loop, up to the look out and back down around the river. He is certain, robust, reliable. He knows this terrain like the backs of his knotted hands.
We hasten up the incline, our bodies’ stiff, but quickly loosening. Crunch and rustle, dry underbrush against bare legs. Free from packs we feel light, spry. The day is warm and we sweat, sitting atop the rock slab that juts out over the valley. We look out to dense forest, a series of ponds below and up to the peak opposite us, tall, looming. A plane flies overhead, high, soft against the blue sky.
We march downward, following a trail to leads to the river. The water is cool, clear against our skin. It flows over brown boulders like glass, its surface distorted by the objects beneath. Our feet are refracted below, cut from our bodies, the light dancing off the ripples to cast shadow on the rocks, stripes swirling in time.
Large black river flies encroach upon us. We feel the sharp sting of their teeth sinking into skin, a theme. Slap, but it’s too late. The fly is gone and the pain is too but the memory remains, now accompanied by fear of future aggression.
Our skin stands on end, hair perpendicular to sun kissed flesh. Each inch is painful as we wade, balancing on tiptoes to keep out of the water as much as possible. It crawls higher with each step, our waists submerged and now our heads as we dive, breath sucked from lungs, entire bodies shuddering, resurfacing to the warmth of an afternoon sun and the cold melts away.
We climb atop rocks to sit with feet in the current, faces to the sun, eyes closed, enveloped by laughter. It feels good to live. There is no phone service, and so no other reality exists beyond the immediate in any tangible way. Memory is short and we forget things, anxieties as they slip into obscurity. Life is simple. It can be, we remember it then.
The forest then, finally begins to settle down just before dusk. It takes on a lavender green hue. A silence falls. The changing of shifts. Nocturnal creatures begin to awake, assuming their posts to relieve their diurnal counterparts. It is magical, eerie. There are mushrooms everywhere, strange and tumor-like. The white moss seems to glow, adorning the earthy ground, porus, living. Pine trees stand tall, spindly and sharp, as skeletons, the night descending, time passing.
The fire crackles and spits. We sit around warming our bodies, faces glowing orange. We talk, laugh, preparing our dinners. Ramen, beans and rice, chili. We unwind, slowly settling down as the forest comes back to life. We are grown. Conversation lapses into silence, lost in the fire, each with our own thoughts once again. Strange men we were, each of us in our own way. How long would we keep doing these trips? Why did we do them? What had drawn us together but chance? A series of unexpected circumstances over the course of a decade or more. We wait, anxieties gradually creeping back to be reexamined; put to test in the light of the fire. We stare, entranced, hypnotized by the dance and flicker, a peculiar thing, another we cannot understand.
Text - Reggie McCafferty
Drawings - Rich Vessey
Photos - Blair Kemp