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Reflections on Being at Baxter State Park and Recognizing Limits

I recently returned from my annual trip to Baxter State Park. And as always, the visit gives me an opportunity to confront my limits – and, if I wish, to push past them.

On my first visit, at age 10, Mom was the one who pushed me, getting me up the Abol Trail to the top of Mt. Katahdin when I didn’t think I could do it.

I subsisted mainly on peanut M&M’s and grapes on that hike. I’m sure I ate more than that, but I definitely wasn’t carrying much food or water. (I might not have been carrying any of my own.) Plus, my 10-year-old body had the resiliency of youth. I don’t think I suffered any bad side effects from that hike. I was left only with a feeling of pride in my accomplishment.

This kind of pushing can be a good thing for that very reason. It helps you realize you’re capable of more than you knew. And that’s the intent of a lot of wilderness and adventure trips.

The problem, though, is that it’s all too easy to take this too far. Especially if you’re not being mindful of what your body is telling you.

I thought about this a lot on my recent trip, because I had to make the decision about whether or not to push for Baxter Peak. And again, I was on the Abol Trail, for the first time since that hike with Mom.

Except this time, Mom was only with me in memory. And I was hiking in a non-resilient 42-year-old body, carrying lots of water and food extra clothes, 15-20 pounds all told. Because it’s not possible for me to go on a hike and not be overly prepared these days.

This time, too, I had the memory of two experiences of what can happen when you over-extend yourself past your true limits.

The first time was in 1997 when I was 21. I had seen photos of Chimney Pond, and I was bound and determined to get there and see the beauty for myself.

It’s a 3.3 mile hike, fairly mild by the standards of Katahdin. A fit person can do it in a couple of hours.

But I was nota fit person. I did plenty of walking around Northeastern University’s campus and Boston in general, but at 240 pounds, a single flight of stairs could get me out of breath.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why I thought I could do the hike. More likely, I didn’t make it an option. I had something to prove to myself, after 10 years of barely being able to do any hiking.

Here’s the good news. I did actually make it, after 4 painful hours and numerous breaks where I told myself again how much I hated my body, how useless and horrible it was.

I even made it back down. Barely. But the damage was pretty bad. I had horrendous bruises from multiple falls. And I had strained my legs so badly that I literally could not climb stairs for two weeks.

Was it worth it? I don’t know. Chimney Pond is absolutely gorgeous, but the memory of it was greatly dimmed by the pain of descent.

The other hike was in 2002, just 2 years after Mom died. I was down to 150 by then, but I hadn’t done anything to prepare for the hike. That was the year I got to Chimney Pond in a couple of hours, without needing beaks. And it made me over-confident.

I agreed to try the Cathedral Trail with my friends. It’s not quite straight up, but it’s close – you gain 2,353 feet in 1.7 miles. Compare that to Chimney Pond, which is an elevation gain of 1,460 feet in 3.3 miles.

Going up Cathedral is a scramble up a boulder field where I needed help to get over many of the rocks, due to limited upper body strength and simply being short.

I am in this photo, just very small amongst the rocks.

And I hated it. I was so miserable and dehydrated and bitterly envious of others in my party who didn’t seem fazed by it.

The only good thing I can say is that it convinced me I did need to prepare the following summer. After a lot of prep, I hiked to the top in 2003 via the Saddle Trail, which is less intense, and I even enjoyed it. (Well, until the way down when I started having stabbing pains in my knees. Pain that took years to recover from.)

All this ran through my head when we started hiking Abol. My goals were simple: don’t get any serious injuries, and have fun.

The first part of the trail was fine. We had a perfect day, the official start of summer, in the 60’s, sunny, and with a breeze. And thanks to the rain the night before, the humidity was low.

But as we started getting higher, with some steeper sections, I couldn’t help noticing muscle fatigue. My thighs and glutes were definitely not excited about this. Lifting my legs was becoming more of an effort. And I was all too aware that I had to get back down again, however high I went.

So I decided to turn back after the viewpoint. That was 2.4 miles up, and about 1,800 feet, and it did offer amazing views. It seemed like a good point to quit while I was ahead.

My friends continued on, but as soon as I headed back, I knew it was the right decision based on how my legs felt. I made it back down safely, with no injuries, and having enjoyed myself.

I had also had a good insight on my way down, since I had plenty of time for reflection. Most people go to Baxter to hike Katahdin, but it’s different for me. I spent so many years sitting at the base, unable to climb, looking at it with longing and affection.

But – I also found inspiration and solace in its beauty. It always inspires me to write, to open the doors of my heart and pour words onto paper.

And that is what I still need when I visit. Not simply to hike, although I enjoy that, but also to reflect, to find that source of beauty and renewed spark of wonder. It fills me up, helps carry me through the next year before I return. And because I went back early, I was able to get that.

So in the end, it was a success, even if – or maybe because – I didn’t push myself to the utmost. And it makes me even more grateful that I can listen to my body enough now to recognize my limits, and to honor them.

Note: If you want to read more about my experiences with Katahdin, and its impact on me, check out my memoir, Winning the Losing Battle: A True Story of Weight Loss and Transformation.

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