One sure sign of September in Maine is the appearance of Mt. Katahdin in the news. It is the time when many thru-hikers complete their 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail journey on top of Katahdin with champagne, cigars and stories to tell. This year, I heard a new kind of Katahdin story, not on top of Baxter Peak but in the basement of Temple Beth Israel.
Katahdin was the centerpiece at the September lunch meeting of Temple Beth Israel’s Friendship Club, a 46-year-old social organization for senior citizens of all faiths. Although I don’t quite make the Club’s age minimum of 55, I was welcomed as a guest of Norman Stern, whose original paintings of Katahdin were displayed at the front of the room.
You might think Katahdin is a strange subject for a group where the average age, I’m guessing, is about 78. But Beth Israel’s new rabbi, Justin Goldstein, gave a talk that brought Kathdin’s inspiration into the meeting hall.
I have heard a lot of Katahdin stories: people who have tackled the mountain dozens of times; 80-year-olds who summit the mountain and say, “That’s my last time,” for the 14th year in a row; traumatic accident survivors who ascend Katahdin as the final triumph in their recovery. Nevertheless, 30-year-old Rabbi Goldstein’s account of his very first Katahdin ascent left an indelible impression.
“I’m a pretty experienced hiker,” he said. “But I’ve never experienced anything like Mt. Katahdin.”
With eloquence, Goldstein described both the beauty of the setting — “unlike anything I’ve seen on the planet” — and the “spiritual sense of solitude” on the trails of Katahdin. “You have the sense that you’re standing on top of the world.”
But the Katahdin experience is much more complicated, he explained. Goldstein went on to talk about his heart-pounding crossing of Knife Edge, an account that drew laughter as he described traversing the precipitous ridge of rock “mostly on my hands and knees or on my tuchus.”
“I will climb Mt. Katahdin again, maybe many more times, but I will never, never do [Knife Edge] again.”
Rabbi Goldstein recounted an old Jewish story that I had not heard before. It dovetails beautifully with his story of Katahdin. The anecdote is credited to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shiskha, who suggested that each person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. They are both important reminders we should never be without.
One paper says, “The world was created for me.” The other says, “I am but dust and ashes.” We all need to reach into one pocket or the other from time to time, depending on the need.
A climb up Katahdin is like looking at both pieces of paper at the same time. We are elevated, on top of the world, and we are humbled by our insignificance. It is a timeless lesson from a mile-high mountain of granite, relevant to all ages.
Each time I have climbed Katahdin and suffered the painful aftermath, I’ve said to myself, “There. I’ve done it. That was the last time.” Then I return again. There are so many mountains. What is it about this one that keeps pulling people back? Perhaps Rabbi Goldstein put his finger on it. On the summit or in the basement, Katahdin has something to teach that never gets old.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at email@example.com.