North to Katahdin
By Eric Pinder. Milkweed Editions, 2005, 178 pp.
Katahdin—a name derived from the Abenaki Indian words kette adene, which is said to mean “greatest mountain”—is the highest point in Maine. It is also one end—for most thru-hikers, the endpoint—of the Appalachian Trail which extends 2160 miles to Georgia. In North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder rambles throughout the Katahdin region, ruminating on the mountain’s history and symbolism, and meditating on America’s relationship with wilderness.
Pinder takes as his starting point Henry David Thoreau’s 1846 visit to Katahdin, which he intended to climb but decided to abandon instead. Throughout the book, the author returns to this naturalist-philosopher, as he reflects on the popularity of mountain hiking today—an activity rare in Thoreau’s day—and wonders about the draw. “What is it—philosophically, aesthetically, and biologically—that attracts us to nature in the first place?” he asks. “Can the natural world still satisfy crowds in search of solitude?”
Having hiked Mt. Katahdin as a boy and worked for seven years as a weather watcher on Mt. Washington, Pinder is a good guide to the region, intimately familiar with its wildlife, topography, and climate.
He is entertaining, as well as informative, about the hikers on the Appalachian Trail, who over time form a community; about the myths the old rangers tell about the Indian god Pamola, whose home is Mt. Katahdin; and about historical figures like Percival P. Baxter, who established the great Baxter State Park, which surrounds the mountain. And he writes with insight about wilderness, its definition, its rewards, and the problems it raises for a growing population that wants nature to fulfill its needs in contradictory ways: We love our pristine forests; we also need paper and the jobs that paper mills provide.
Unlike the mountain climber, says Pinder, toward the end of this ramble of a book, “the writer has no easy trail, no fixed direction, no footprints to follow. Writing is an exercise in bushwhacking.” I felt he could have whacked out some of the descriptions and repetitions, but the book is filled with memorable stories and it succeeds in getting the reader and potential hiker to think: Just why have I come to this mountain anyway: what was I looking for, what have I found?
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North to Katahdin