Thoreau-ing it All Away

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” – Henry David Thoreau

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Many, many years ago my dad piled our family into our bright green VW Rabbit and headed north to go camping in Maine.  I was pretty young at the time so I don’t remember much about the trip aside from our family’s first attempt at eating a lobster: we shared one amongst the four of us, staring at it on the picnic table at the campsite like it was some sort of alien creature which, if you think about it, it kinda is.  As a family we were never much into seafood when I was younger, let alone consuming something as complex to dissect as a lobster.  It wasn’t until 15 years later that I finally figured out how to efficiently eat one of those suckers.

During that trip I also recall my dad driving up to the gate at Baxter State park and being convinced by the ranger on duty that we would be bored if we were just planning on driving our car through the park.  The ranger might’ve also said something about bears being very active in the area and having a propensity for breaking into tiny little VW Rabbits packed with people, but no matter what he specifically said he did everything possible to discourage us from entering the park.  Not that my Dad is the type to give up easily, but this time the ranger’s strategy worked.  We turned around and drove south.  Ever since that day Baxter State Park has been a forbidden fruit of sorts for me.  Despite having spent almost a decade living in Maine I made but one day-hiking trip to the top of Mt Katahdin (the highest point in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail).  So many wasted years that I could have been exploring… I kick myself now for not having taken advantage of this area.

Baxter is a different type of state “park” (read here for my quick and dirty blog post from a few months back to see what the place is all about) that holds many wonders for those that choose to travel within its borders.  Actually, now that I’ve lived for many years outside of the state I can also say that Mainers, on the whole, are “different” than other people… and I certainly don’t mean that in a bad way.  Mainers are nice people, but they don’t necessarily seem that way at first glance.

Of course I’m stereotyping here a little bit, but from outside the state looking in Mainers can be gruff.  They don’t immediately try to be your best friend and they don’t necessarily care what you think.  Maybe it’s an independent streak borne from having to face harsh winters and not always having a mini-mall located within easy walking distance, but the place has a different feel from the rest of New England.  Northern Maine (where Baxter State Park is located) especially so.  Maybe Baxter Park’s notoriously gruff rangers are not as out of place as they seem?  They’re products of their environment.

Truth is, any park that goes out of its way to discourage people that might “be bored” traveling through endless miles of trees and rivers is fine by me.  After all, many people probably would feel that way.  Fine. Stay out of the woods if you’re looking for Disneyland around every corner, that’s not what it’s all about.  After all, I’ve seen the crowds that can overrun popular places in a populous state like California.  It can (and does at times) ruin the experience.  There’s a reason I’ve never been to Yosemite Valley in the summertime.  Oh, and get out of your car and ride a bike or go for a hike or ski if you want to experience what a place is all about.

Hmmm, maybe I’m more like a Mainer than I realize.

So when last summer I rolled up to the ranger’s station at the southern gate on my bike I was fully prepared for “the talk” from the ranger.  True to form, she tried to discourage me from riding the park’s tote road and when I stated my intention of riding all the way to the North Gate and back she looked at me skeptically: she dealt with me like a Mainer.  Obviously she was not prepared for who she was dealing with though as I was a man on a quest and wasn’t going to be discouraged!  After a slight pause she gave me a day-use receipt with a sigh and then turned her back dismissively.  At least as a nod to my use of a bicycle, she didn’t charge me an entry fee.

About a mile into the ride I questioned the “nothing to see here”  argument.  Later that day after 90 miles of gravel with little traffic the myth was completely dispelled. There’s everything to see in Baxter State Park, and confined to the sparse road network by my choice of transportation I’ve merely scratched the surface of this gem.  I can’t wait to go back.

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Of course this display of greenery in Maine’s North Woods has now been replaced by the browns and shades of grey that are late Autumn.  The season has passed and I look back almost fondly on all of the mosquito, black fly and deer fly bites that I was on the business end of during the course of my ride.  The glory that is Fall in northern New England has waned and the moose now cross frosty morning sedges in misty morning treks through bogs that will soon be sealed shut and frozen until springtime.  The first snow has fallen, the park road has been shut and all but a handful of hardy recreationalists will visit during the winter.  The forest silently awaits the sun to return from its low winter arc across the horizon to its high seat upon the throne of summer.

I’m sure there’s still nothing to see in Baxter State Park, absolutely nothing at all.

“Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all it’s glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” – Percival Baxter

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