November 2005

Tom Bernard

nonfiction

North to Katahdin by Eric Pinder

In 1846, during his second summer at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau hiked Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The round trip took him two weeks, and in The Maine Woods he wrote, “It will be a long time before the tide of fashionable travel sets that way.” In North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder retraces his steps. He still finds the severe beauty that drew Thoreau to Katahdin, but today “the tide of fashionable travel” has changed. Katahdin, whose name means “greatest mountain” in the language of the Abenaki Indians, is New England’s seventh-highest mountain, and the end of what of hikers now know as the Appalachian Trail. Approximately three thousand hikers do “the A.T.” yearly, and hiking Katahdin has become a very social experience.

North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder’s third book, is part of Milkweed’s “World As Home” booklist, a list “dedicated to exploring our natural world.” Pinder is at home in this world — for many years he worked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as a weather observer for the Mount Washington Observatory, and coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The book is a delight-filled, moving series of essays —contemplative, hilarious, sad, and hair-raising — on the mountain, its folklore, its history, and its travelers.

At times, North to Katahdin reminds one of Thoreau’s own Walden:

“The trail has found me again; I trudge uphill…A waterfall slaps at the rocks in the distance. High in the trees, a sparrow whistles three sharp notes, then falls to silence…I see the deer’s white tail as a flicker, a flit of motion amid the sluggish crawl of tree shadows…”

But North to Katahdin isn’t just vistas and tree-shadows. Many stories are peppered with riotous humor — a man doing a hilarious striptease for a bear, hoping his cast-off clothes will distract the animal (They don’t. The camper, naked and screaming, finally chases the terrified bear away). Pinder recounts some of the mountain’s myths, folk tales of the cloud-maker Pamola, a Native American mountain ghost. Every month he creeps out of his cave to roll the full moon across the crags of Knife Peak so it doesn’t get stuck.

Pinder’s most memorable stories are of the people he meets on the trail — and he meets a lot of them. One hiker says, “The A.T. is different from the Pacific Coast Trail. It’s more of social event. It’s like a roving party. One guy I hiked with termed it the world’s longest, thinnest community.” In one story, Pinder meets a blind man, Bill Irwin, hiking the A.T. with his seeing-eye dog, Orient. He figures he’s fallen down over 5,000 times and calls the trail “the Orient Express.” Unfortunately, the large numbers of hikers on the trails now has a downside. On the mountain’s summit, resting in a bootprint, Pinder finds “a cigarette butt: brown, squat, dirty…” Someone “exerted himself to litter in this place.”
“Why do it,” Pinder asks. “Why go to the mountains at all? What draws people to the lands above the trees?” Several times he gives us an experience of the transcendance that perhaps people seek on the top of mountains:

“Time stops…I no longer remember where I started…Whether this is Katahdin or Mount Washington or neither, I cannot tell the difference and do not care. Until I choose to climb back down, to return to the land below where the wind is a gentle breeze, the name of this mountain means nothing…”

And:

“People are mortal, and it is the brevity of our stay on earth that makes mountains seem old. Stony and aloof, mountains endure while human generations rise and pass away in endless repetition…”

Thoreau writes:

“The question is not where did the traveler go? What places did he see? But who was the traveler? How did he travel? How genuine an experience did he get?”

Our experiences reading North to Katahdin are genuine. Pinder’s prose is lucid and luminous, clear and simple as a mountain stream, and he writes of Katahdin with humor, love and respect. Reading North to Katahdin is a delight, almost as refreshing as putting on your backpack and hiking the mountain yourself.

North to Katahdin by Eric Pinder
Milkweed Books
ISBN: 1571312808
178 pages