The town of Millinocket, Maine evokes the spirits. It is America, scarified. The vacancy goes beyond the abandoned storefronts, it pervades, like a left over chemical cloud from the shut down paper mill that used to justify its need. If you follow along the Penobscot River long enough you will reach this town that plays sentry to the Baxter State Wilderness and the Appalachian Trail finale. You will see the red signs that gasp, “National Park, NOW.” You will see the stripped mill. You will catch a glimpse of the mountains. Millinocket is kept on life support by its location – roughly 25 miles southeast of Mount Katahdin – a lucky break that keeps the town churning just north of a death rattle. It is a place that has become normalized to the idea of precariousness. It is no place for a stage, for attention grabbing, it is passerby paradise and as the gallonage of the Penobscot ebbs, the A.T. thru-hikers flow with it, but not before dropping some change in the jar.
Brother bear Ben Breger and I made our own ascent of the fabled peak this September as the first part of our farewell tour of Maine. We knew that being there in September meant that we’d see our share of people finish the trail and that prospect meant little to me. I suppose I’ve always considered the feat to be wildly personal. Many finish the A.T. and to them I tip my hat – anyone who is willing to bring that variety of suffering and discomfort into their life willingly deserves as much. But anything more than that I am unwilling to give. When a middle-aged cat, let’s call him Phil, approached Ben and I on that day, his collection jar was empty. “I just finished the A.T.,” he interrupted, as he must have with everyone else he had met on the descent. I believe Ben was able to stammer a congratulation with that big grin of his. I stayed quiet. There was something clumsy about the exchange, like a contract was being bungled – him having completed the hike and expecting something more afterwards. Us congratulating, but not providing the adulation he so desired. I pitied him then. For having gone on a wilderness adventure only to feel the need to tell strangers about all that he had accomplished. It’s a bad look, and he came off sounding like a wheezing balloon.
Hiking and narcissism don’t mix as Scott Jurek learned on July 12th, 2015. Two months before our hike, Jurek completed his harrowing and successful speed attempt of the Appalachian Trail atop Mount Katahdin. He ran from Northern Georgia to Northern Maine – a span of 2,180 miles – in 46 days, 8 hours, and 8 minutes. The occasion also marked the possibility of Katahdin being removed from the Trail. After deliberately summiting the peak with a group larger than the park limit of 12 people – consisting mainly of cameramen put on by Jurek’s corporate sponsors – and covering the peak with a champagne shower, Scott was slapped with a hefty fine and a court appearance. Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park Director, was less than pleased. Bemoaning Jurek’s decision to turn Mount Katahdin into a cyst of corporate commercialization, Bissell wrote, “The Authority is currently considering the increasing pressures, impacts and conflicts that the Appalachian Trail brings to the Park and if a continued relationship is in the best interests of Baxter State Park.” Oof. Here’s your medal Mr. Jurek, it’s the one you win when you lock your hands around the throat of a struggling town and don’t stop squeezing. Better keep wearing that headband over your eyes and keep running faster, faster now.
To read Bissell’s entire concise and eloquent take on the ordeal look here: https://www.facebook.com/baxterstatepark/posts/1682502611969384
As I always do when I begin to research a topic, my search fields become long and sprawling. To be pithy, Jurek’s actions are a siren for a wider problem. The drive to undertake the hike came from a place of bereavement after a family death and acted as a form of cleansing as he careened towards his goal. And what a clean comparison it is, to equate personal tragedy to the pain and solitude experienced on the trail. But when the focus becomes too much on the self – the exposure that comes with a ‘speed attempt,’ corporate sponsorship, and a film crew from Malibu, California – we basically have Phil, from the prior stanza, with a louder microphone on top of a mountain screaming over and over again, “Look at me! NO. Look over here, at me. Forget that stupid view.”
I turn, on this occasion, to the wisdom of Krakauer.
“I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.”
We have turned the forests into a receptacle. And the worst part of us dumping our semen into the “woods will fix you, you broken wretch” motif is that we have turned the camera on ourselves. That brand of narcissism does little else than reinforce in us the magnitude of our insignificant problems and manifest them in bad LNT practices. How many will take on the A.T. out of novelty after Jurek’s hike? How many will leave poop flowers (the disgusting practice of not digging a hole for your shit and topping your pile with toilet paper) between checkpoints. How many will leave campsites trashed because the tragedy they were dealing with that day dictated that cleaning up hurt too much. How many will race through the hike, cut corners, just to shave off a couple minutes? The woods should bring out the complete opposite in us, to make us feel small and humbled. The woods aren’t the wizard sleeve that you hump until all your problems are excreted, deeming you champion of the wild.
I give you the Mammut Matterhorn speed attempt…
No, let’s take the helicopter on another pass. We need more circling perspective shots of Dani swinging his ice axe. Yeah, zoom in on him more, we’ll put that move in slow motion…
I must admit that it takes waves of self-control to stop laughing at the cheese of that ad and focus on its ramifications. The more we turn our wild places into a logo, the more we forget that being in the woods involves more than going as fast as we can, the more we welcome imbalance into our relationship with the woods.
And yet the people of Millinocket may spit on my claims. The churn of their community has become a creaky carnival of bearded travellers with empty eyes. They have become so dependent on these transients that there are many that feel no remorse at flipping Percival Baxter and his vision of a state park the long finger and making Baxter a national attraction. Can any of us truly identify with the desperation that is involved with that desire? To pray for ugly America to descend on your small town with their campers in tow, hedonistic children, and poorly placed gazebo novelty shops so you can keep the heat running? The answer is no.