Maine author traces Thoreau’s steps in new hiking guide

Mount Katahdin reflects in a pond by the Abol Stream Trail in Baxter State Park on June 20, 2013.
Aislinn Sarnacki
Mount Katahdin reflects in a pond by the Abol Stream Trail in Baxter State Park on June 20, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted July 03, 2013, at 12:35 p.m.
&quotIn High Places with Henry David Thoreau: The New Hiker's Guide to Thoreau's Mountain Travels," by John Gibson, published June 2013.
Courtesy of John Gibson
"In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: The New Hiker's Guide to Thoreau's Mountain Travels," by John Gibson, published June 2013.

“I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in the mid 1800s.

Thoreau, a Massachusetts man, was many things — an author, philosopher, naturalist, historian, transcendentalist — but perhaps more importantly, he was a walker. And if Thoreau hadn’t learned “the art of walking,” his life and legacy would have been far different.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” Thoreau wrote.

This sentiment struck a chord with John Gibson, a seasoned hiker from Hallowell and the author of “In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: The New Hiker’s Guide to Thoreau’s Mountain Travels,” published in June by Countryman Press.

Divided into sections, the book covers 12 treks Thoreau took in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, including Mount Kineo and Katahdin.

“The book provides insight into how [Thoreau] traveled and appreciated the woods and the mountains, which he found absolutely essential to psychological health,” said Gibson in a recent interview. “There’s a lesson in the book that you’ve got to get out there, that this sort of staying indoors and playing video games is not a life.”

In each chapter, Gibson first writes about Thoreau’s experience of the mountain, then guides readers on the present-day trails that lead to many of the places Thoreau hiked.

“If you follow the directions for the hikes, you will indeed be walking the same ground that [Thoreau] walked, or very close to it,” Gibson said. “That’s the opportunity the book provides.”

The author of several hiking guidebooks, including “50 Hikes in Coastal and Southern Maine” and “Weekend Walks along the New England Coast,” Gibson is well-versed on what information people need to know when embarking on a hiking adventure.

The wilderness became an integral part of Gibson’s life when he was just a young boy and his father, then working for the Maine Forest Service, would take him to the places he patrolled, such as Cupsuptic and Mooselookmeguntic lakes and Saddleback Mountain.

“If you turn to the woods and the hills, it’s what you need,” Gibson said. “You soon come to the point where you can’t live without it. It makes life more meaningful. You get out there on the trail, and you start thinking about stuff you don’t think about while sitting in front of the television. It changes you. And [Thoreau] wrote about it so well and so simply.”

Gibson was interested in Thoreau for many years before deciding to follow his footsteps into the mountains.

“I think, if you read Thoreau generally, you experience in his writing a sense of rightness,” Gibson said. “He was someone who was very good at seeing what was essential — that you don’t have to spend your whole life getting and spending. You don’t have to accumulate. And the world — if you will leave it alone and just go and look at it — is beautiful, is restoring. Any hiker knows that, I think.

“Whether you like Thoreau or read much of him or not,” he continued. “If you read a little, he hits home.”

The more Gibson read about Thoreau’s travels, the more he was drawn to Thoreau’s role as a pioneering mountaineer in New England.

To hike Maine’s mighty Katahdin, Thoreau started at the base of Abol Slide.

“But then, and he did this consistently, he would just make a beeline for the summit and cut across the country,” Gibson said. “Instead of using the primitive but real trail up the slide, he took a bearing on what he thought was the highest summit, Baxter Peak, and he bushwhacked over an arm of the mountain.”

The people in Thoreau’s party, likely burdened by gear, often couldn’t keep up with him.

“What has changed today, of course, is the ethic of people staying on trail,” Gibson said. “Thoreau went where he wanted to go, irrespective of whether there were trails or not.”

When Thoreau reached the Tableland of Katahdin — an open, gradually sloping plain that rises to Baxter Peak — clouds engulfed the mountain. He was forced to retreat and bushwhack back to his group.

While writing “In High Places,” Gibson visited and hiked every mountain in the book to compile photographs and learn about the current trails firsthand. As he expected, many things have changed in the past century and a half.

“Wachusett [Mountain] has a new tower on it; Greylock [Mountain] has a stone tower and lodge on the top,” he said. “On Monadnock, on one of [Thoreau’s] early trips, it was mountain pasture … and now it has all gone back to dense woods. So some of the changes are actually where mountains have reverted to a wilder state.”

Nevertheless, hikers continue to be drawn to these high places — the dramatic ledges of Mount Kineo and lichen-encrusted ridge of Katahdin — and through their writing, Thoreau and Gibson are introducing still more people to this “art of walking.”

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