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Introduction: Two Kinds of Disappointment

I arrived at the trailhead of Mt. Abraham, in western Maine, on an afternoon in early October. I planned to backpack the mountain for two days and a night. I’d never climbed Abraham. A guide book informed me that the mountain’s 4,000-foot-high summit was above treeline and rocky, so my plan was to make camp just below treeline, for privacy and a comfortable tent foundation, and explore the summit from there. The following day, I would descend to my truck and return to my home in Gorham, Maine, where my wife and I had been living for a year and a half.

Prior to Maine, we had made homes in various places in the Southwest for over two decades. During that time, I had backpacked regularly in New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado, and southeast Utah. In addition to regular day hikes, I needed the tonic of several annual overnighters in the Southwestern wildlands to maintain my mental, physical, and metaphysical health. My backpack on Abraham was to be my first east of the Mississippi, and I was looking forward to it.

Fall in New England was unfolding when I hit the trail. Thus, there were still some vivid greens among the brilliant reds and yellows. Not surprisingly, the trail began in a place dense with hardwoods, pine, and brush. In the Southwest, I nearly always sought a campsite with a view. I liked the shelter of trees at my back, yet also room in front for the eyes, thoughts, and imagination to wander. I had now lived in Maine long enough to understand that vistas anywhere beyond the state’s coastline were rare; that forests in the state grew thick, tall, and seemingly without end. Still, I imagined a modest clearing with a view surely existed somewhere just below Abraham’s treeline.

Three things brought us to New England: my wife’s furthering of her formal education; the fact that I had some family there; and, for my part at least, a great nostalgia. My love of nature began when I was a New Jersey kid in the fifties and sixties, during which time, over a sequence of summer vacations, I explored the verdant hill-and-mountain country of northwestern Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts. I loved the adventure, mystery, solace, and shelter offered by the region’s woods, lakes, and fields. Years later, I would express this passion fully in the deserts, forests, and plateaus of the Southwest. On Abraham’s slopes and summit, I planned to re-experience that original delight; to thank again and again the land that had planted the seed in me. I was expecting Abraham to be the first of many backpacks in that part of the world.

As usual, I had some 45 pounds on my back, five pounds of which were water from our tap in Gorham. I knew Maine was saturated with natural water available for my portable filtering device, yet I had no idea if a water source existed on or anywhere near Abraham’s summit. No matter: I was used to water weight. I always carried water when packing in the Southwest, for I always camped where water in sufficient quantity was non-existent.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the strenuousness of the climb. Granted, my guide book indicated that the ascent would be “moderate to difficult,” but prior to Maine I had lived for a decade at an elevation of 7,500 feet, in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado―two-thirds of a mile higher than Abraham’s summit. I thus had this notion, admittedly unsupported by science, that my body had been well-hardened by the thin air of Colorado, and therefore more oxygen-rich Maine would make my climb of Abraham a breeze. Whatever the reason―perhaps my 60 years; or the relentlessly uphill climb; or the fact I had not backpacked for two years―such was not the case. I was pausing at length every 30 yards to catch my breath.

At one point, my heart galloping, I sat upon a fallen log that crossed the trail. I noticed a large patch of sweat, where elements of my pack met my back, that was starting to chill, with the chill then beginning to penetrate my flesh. Which got me to wondering if Maine’s substantial base humidity would affect my comfort level during the long, chilly night ahead of me.

And then I recalled another mountain upon which I had to pause, gasping and sweating, 18 years earlier.

                                                                     *

That mountain was Sierra Ladrones―Spanish for Thieves Mountain―an isolated, primarily desert range in central New Mexico, 45 miles south of Albuquerque, my home at the time. I sat in the shade of an old juniper tree in a dry wash in a canyon on the mountain’s south slope. It was a very warm day in April. I was roughly at the 7,000-foot elevation of this range that rose to 9,200 feet. The wash, choked with rocks, trees, and brush, was my route to the mountain’s summit. I had failed to uncover any literature indicating developed trails, if any, up the mountain, and this was before the explosion of the information-awash Internet. So my rather slapdash reconnoitering concluded that the canyon was the swiftest and safest way up.

I was only doing a day hike, so I had a minimum of weight, almost entirely water, in the little pack on my back. Yet I wasn’t prepared for the canyon’s steepness. I still had a little under a half-mile to climb, and already I was wondering if I had the heart and lungs to do it. Meanwhile, the rocks were punishing my legs and ankles, and the sharp and brittle limbs and branches of dead junipers were clawing at my flesh, threatening blood. I tried to push all these concerns from my mind as I removed my daypack to access a bottle of water.

In desert New Mexico, one, of course, sweats with exertion; however, sweat struggles to manifest itself due to the aridity, and when it does, to linger on the body. So I was a little surprised to sense a patch of sweat on my back where my daypack had rested. Then I noticed the patch had become a welcome chill in the heat. When I removed my sweaty cap, an identical and equally-pleasant chill enveloped my scalp. And I thought: Of course: evaporative cooling, the very principle that keeps our house in Albuquerque comfortable in the fiery central New Mexico summertime. It was a small but significant realization for someone relatively new to the desert Southwest. I gulped some water and, refreshed and determined, resumed my climb.

                                                                      *

As forecast, the autumn day in Maine was gorgeous―that “great symphony in the woodlands,” in the words of New England nature writer Hal Borland. The previous day, rain had drenched much of Maine. Thus, I was not surprised that a stream I had to awkwardly cross without the benefit of a bridge was abundant with runoff. However, as I gained elevation, I wasn’t prepared for the frequent puddles―or, in places, actual running water―upon the trail. I was accustomed to the arid, absorbent forests of the Southwest. Furthermore, I thought the trails in these New England woods would drain quickly, even after a heavy rain. Fortunately, I had thoroughly waterproofed my boots the previous day, although I was in no mood, as I frequently sidestepped the watery trail, to test the thoroughness of this effort. Unfortunately, such sidestepping forced me stare at the uncertain terrain of the trail’s shoulders far more than at the kaleidoscope of sun-washed colors in the tree canopies above.

                                                                      *

The steepness of the canyon of the Sierra Ladrones had only increased as I paused at length once again at the 8,000-foot elevation. Was that my uvula rattling to the beat of my thundering heart? I was still fighting rocks and vegetation. Something had superficially cut the flesh of one leg, drawing blood that had dried quickly. Gazing up, I saw no hint of either of the mountain’s twin pinnacles, just more broad, depressing slope. Then I noticed that a patch of my right palm was furred with the finest of cactus spines, obviously a result of a blind handhold during my increasingly dazed struggle upward. Yet, either because the spines were so fine or because I was so exhausted, I barely felt them. Foolishly, I tried to remove the spines by rubbing the palm, freeing some, but driving others deeper. I wondered how my palm would feel that night.

Still waiting to gather the energy to continue upward, I decided to contemplate the dry wash in which I once again sat.  Ever since arriving in New Mexico, I’d been fascinated by these ubiquitous, luminous avenues of arid sand and soil that web the low and high deserts of the Southwest; fascinated by their queer lives: static, bone-dry wrinkles on the vast land for weeks, months, or even years, then seething, foaming torrents for one hour, often loaded by a storm dozens of miles distant.  The possibility of this sudden change in temperament filled them with a delicious tension whenever I hiked them―the deeper the arroyo, the tastier the tension.  I was fascinated, too, by the visual echoes of their surprising hydrological violence, frequently where their bends were sharp: the stacked limbs and logs plastered with mud, grasses, human trash, and the occasional animal carcass.  “The arroyo seco,” I scribbled in the notebook I carried with me whenever walking in the wilds, “a ‘creek’ that insists upon its legitimacy though waterless month after month, its bed a mess of hoofprints, footprints, and tire tracks until the next flushing.” 

Then I gazed up into a massive feeder canyon to the east―and was startled to see, on this parched range, a slender forest of aspen and ponderosa pine. Obviously, this tiny section of the range had just the right relief, configuration, and location to regularly wring enough water from the desert sky to cultivate a little Babylon. I imagined the delight of camping overnight in this cool, remote Eden―until I envisioned the hell of hauling 45 pounds on my back to get there. I resumed my climb.

                                                                   *

After a mere mile on Abraham, I gave up, offering myself all kinds of excuses. The slope had not let up. The water on the trail had not thinned. Tunneling endlessly through trees and leaves, the trail offered no relieving vistas and portended no views below treeline at a campsite at the end of the day. The lingering dampness of the previous day’s rain and the fundamental humidity of New England was seeping into my bones, which not even the gay autumn colors could warm. Even with my stove fuel as an accelerant, I doubted a robust campfire would be possible during the night ahead, given the unlikelihood of combustible wood after the heavy rain. Depressed―I had never aborted a backpack, once on the trail, in my life―I staggered back down the mountain.

                                                                   *

I scrambled and then crawled the 20 yards to the 8,700-foot-high saddle between the twin peaks of the Sierra Ladrones. Sprawled upon the ground, luxuriating in its levelness after three hours of relentless slope, I studied the final slope leading to the west peak, the higher of the two. A climb of just 500 additional feet―over ground that was now merely rocky, not crammed with trees and brush―would grant me the summit that I had so coveted.

Yet I knew I hadn’t the strength to do it. I feared my weakened condition could result in a false move that could then cause a badly sprained or broken ankle. Cell phones were hardly common in those days, and my wife had only the vaguest idea of where I would be in this remote, rugged mountain range. Finally, I knew that the descent would be nearly as exhausting as the climb.

So I simply looked. And looked.

The canyon up which I had just struggled was cradled in the branches―desiccated, blackened, gaunt, and elegant―of several dead junipers that stood just below the saddle. I saw the glowing thread of the dirt road that had led me into the canyon’s mouth. At the foot of the range spread the vast basin drained by the Rio Salado―actually, just one more arroyo, albeit a massive one, that is parched most of the year. Scattered mesas guarded the basin: a red and gold sea of sand and rock, the fundamental skin and bones of the high desert, of the Earth itself. On the far northwestern horizon rose Mt. Taylor, snowcapped and blue as if saturated by the astonishing hue of the sky above it. All of this funneled up the canyon and into my grateful lap.

Yes, I had failed the summit. But I was satisfied, reminded of what I loved about my new home in central New Mexico: the equal distribution of peak and plain; mesa and mountain fashioning a buoyant space, and space lending individuality, dignity, and presence to mountain and mesa. Four years later, Christian academic and backpacker Belden Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, would acknowledge this appeal as well, and go deeper. He identified it as the lure of the combination “refuge” and “prospect.” Call it a hideaway with a grand view, and, in Lane’s words, a place to “see without being seen.” During early Christian times in the Judean Desert, he explained, holy men and women established places like this; “hanging caves” on cliff faces, for instance; places where monks offered spiritual guidance, safely and with objectivity, to the yearning masses who would trickle in from the distant cities. To my rather un-holy self, this landscape meant safety, yet room for my thoughts to take flight.

I inched back down the mountain, my legs barely supporting me. But greatly satisfied. 

                                                                     *

Driving back to Gorham through the oily autumn darkness, comforting myself with a Coke and a large bag of potato chips purchased in Waterville, I contemplated the day’s events. I knew the window of opportunity for an overnight camp in Maine was closing rapidly. Snow would soon be on the ground―and I don’t camp in snow. And the window wouldn’t re-open until the fall of the following year. For I knew I’d never camp in Maine in the spring: mud and black flies; or, for that matter, in the summer: heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. (So much for Maine’s slogan of “Vacationland,” in my opinion.) Perhaps I’d never backpack again; never miss the authenticity of tramping four or five miles with a load of my back just to spend a night sleeping on hard ground. Perhaps I’d be content with the “wilderness” experience of sitting on the porch of our house in the woods outside of Gorham. Perhaps.

When we moved to New England, my wife and I planned to spend the rest of our lives there. I couldn’t speak for my wife. However, for myself, I now vaguely but nonetheless uncomfortably wondered:

Did I make a mistake?

P.J.D.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

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