“It’s been awhile since we’ve had newbies,” said my cousin Eve, 20, as she sat beside me in the pickup truck. We were headed back to camp from the Ledges — naturally occurring waterslides in Baxter State Park.
Our group consisted of 30 people — friends and family who had just pitched their tents in Foster Field campground at the base of OJI and Doubletop mountains. Most were veterans of the annual Baxter camping trip, but this year, a family from Pennsylvania, some new friends and my boyfriend, Derek, 25, joined us.
We rolled into camp, hung up our wet bathing suits and sat down at the picnic tables for a dinner of chopped suey, fruit salad, rolls, hot dogs, chicken curry and wild rice. Later, two campers had a dessert cook-off between strawberry rhubarb crumble and peach-mandarin cobbler. Both won.
The buzz of air mattresses being filled signaled bedtime. We ended our Phase 10 card game and crossed the field, flashlights in hand, to the village of tents.
At 5:30 a.m., the hikers rose and stumbled over the dewy grass toward the cooking area for bagels and hard-boiled eggs. Twelve of the 30 campers were planning to hike Mount Katahdin. The rest would spend the day fishing, kayaking, swimming and hiking easier trails.
The route was Abol Trail on the southwest side of Katahdin: the shortest, steepest, quickest way up the mountain — if you could endure the rock slide of angular boulders. I’d traveled Abol three times before, but never in such sun and heat.
By the time I reached the treeless rock slide, 1.3 miles in, I was hiking in a group of six. My mother, Joyce; Aunt Kerry; Janet; Jeff; Susan and her son Nathan had fallen behind.
From that point on, Eve and I were hiking buddies. We were sandwiched between Eli, 15, of Pennsylvania and Derek hiking ahead of us, and Uncle Bruce and his friend Gary hiking below us. We navigated through the boulders in hope of being reunited with the other six at Baxter Peak.
Eli pointed up at the white clouds moving quickly across a sunny sky.
“This is probably the highest you’ve ever been,” said Eve.
“Yeah. It definitely is. We’re almost above the clouds,” said Eli.
Moving at a steady pace, we were pushed to hike even faster to escape a group of chanting high school girls that we had climbed past earlier in the day.
“This thing is a beast,” said Eve as we worked our way over a pile of huge boulders before the edge of the Tablelands. I sucked on the tube of my Camelbak and worried about running out of water in the heat.
By the time we hit the Tablelands, we all had adopted the names of “Lord of the Rings” characters. So, as we rested on a flat rock, Gimli (Derek) munched on beef jerky, Pippin (Eli) swigged water, Legolas (Eve) rubbed on hand sanitizer, Aragorn (me) took notes, and Gandalf (Uncle Bruce) had fallen behind with the movie producer (Gary).
“I think it’s just the six of us,” said Bruce as he and Gary met us at our resting spot. They couldn’t see the second group anywhere farther down on the rock slide and assumed they had turned around.
We decided Eli should lead the group and be the first to reach the top of the mountain. The rest of us had climbed Katahdin before.
“Back over here, mountain goat,” I said as he grew tired and started veering off the trail into the grass.
Eli hiked over the awkward terrain of sharp, lichen-covered rocks and sat down beside the enormous cairn on Baxter Peak at 11:15 a.m. The rock pile marks 1 mile in elevation.
He looked down the northeast side of the mountain to Chimney Pond, 2,338 feet below, and across to Knife Edge, the narrow ridge that bridges from Baxter to Pamola Peak.
Huddled between rocks to escape the wind, we ate PB&J sandwiches. For 35 minutes we waited for the second group, then began our descent.
At noon, we were moving quickly across the Tablelands when I caught sight of my mother’s yellow coat across the flat, grassy terrain. When I reached her, I gave her a long hug and turned around so we could reach the summit together.
Susan and Nathan had turned around before the Tablelands, so a group of 10 descended the mountain on tired legs.
After dinner of hot dogs, BBQ chicken, potato and pasta salads, coleslaw and s’mores, I sat with Eve, Derek and Eli by the campfire. Rain began at 10 p.m., and we retreated on stiff legs to our soft, dry sleeping bags.