June 21, 2018
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‘We’ll see’: A father’s gift of a single day on Katahdin

Courtesy of Robert Kelley
Courtesy of Robert Kelley
Jack Kelley (left) with his son, Robert, on top of Katahdin in 2004.
By Robert Kelley, Special to the BDN

Pragmatist Jack Kelley just doesn’t see himself as particularly noteworthy. I saw this firsthand in 2005 at the Christmas party of Nickerson & O’Day, the Brewer-based construction company he helmed for 27 years. His successor-in-waiting, Karl Ward, staged a stealthy presentation honoring him for his long service to the company. In Karl’s defense, this wouldn’t have happened any other way but through stealth.

As the festivities carried on, and with each successive speaker extolling Jack, there he sat, grim-faced, yearning for the Tums. The humble fellow that he is, and I suspect this is true for most fathers, his best stories will never see the light of day unless other people tell them.

What follows is my special tribute for Father’s Day to the guy most people he worked with in the Bangor area did not get to see, the guy I call “Dad.”

In early September 2004, I hiked the Appalachian Trail’s most arduous, breathtaking, and rewarding portion: 435 miles from Hanover, New Hampshire, to Baxter peak. I was 30 years old, about to embark on a new career path, and I resolved that this would be the time to make good on dreams deferred. Somewhere in the planning stage that summer I got it in my head that this particular dream should end with a flourish, accompanied by someone special.

I called up Dad and pitched the idea. And in his risk-averse way, he committed — to possibly joining me.

Dad was 61, a bit hobbled as builders usually are, but also at the height of his professional success. As an executive within his national trade association, he was also traveling a lot. At the start of my five-week journey, I was mildly pleased Dad expressed his most direct non-commitment yet: “Tell you what, Rob, keep checking in with me about it, and as we get closer, we’ll see.”

“We’ll see.” The ultimate Dad deflection. See? See what?

As I hiked my way across New Hampshire, he kept me guessing with that familiar refrain of “we’ll see.” I enlisted my wife to gather intelligence; he didn’t budge. She lunged for a raw fatherly nerve, “What do you think of him, out there on the trail by himself?”

“Well, I think of him when I take a hot shower, when I get into my nice warm bed,” he joked.

By the time I’d reached Rangeley, I noticed Dad’s enthusiasm with the idea starting to wane, and with only two weeks to go until Katahdin, the realities of his busy life intervened. I learned that Dad would be traveling to Phoenix for a meeting that would fatally coincide with the highly contingent, possibly-maybe plan of taking on Katahdin together.

“We’ll see?”Perhaps we have just seen it, I thought: the dream’s end. I should have been disappointed, but by now this was common. Dad’s relentless work habit did in fact come with a price: less time together. For nearly every week of his 27 years at Nickerson and O’Day, Dad spent an average of two days with his family in Winthrop. The other five days he spent 82 miles away in his Brewer office, and his nights in a nearby apartment across the river on Hancock Street. Put simply, our family did not see nearly enough of Dad.

But for whatever reason, this time he did not outright say no. While I ventured northeast through Carrabassett Valley through Caratunk, knees and feet increasingly sore, I compiled a list of things that could go wrong in my effort to bring Dad from Phoenix to the unincorporated townships of the Maine woods. This was a long list. Even under the most auspicious conditions, one factor loomed large above the others: cell phone service.

Over a big breakfast in Monson, the last outpost before the 100-Mile Wilderness, I learned that the conservation-minded stewards of Baxter State Park had prohibited cell towers within its space. Under any other circumstances, I would regard this as a great move. It was also sure to scuttle my plan, and this meant any last ditch effort to save it had to take place beforehand, and it had to be done in the 100-Mile Wilderness.

We’ll see nothing, I feared. But to my surprise, coming down from the top of Chairback Mountain, I did in fact see something — a weak signal on my prehistoric Nokia handset. I hurriedly placed a call to Phoenix.

“Rob!” said the low voice on the other end, line crackling.

“Dad! Can you — can you hear me?”

“Hey Rob! Listen, I’m leaving the hotel now and getting into a car …”

“OK, Dad! Getting down to the wire now, so here it goes. You there?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“I’m going to be at Katahdin Stream Campground on Monday. I’ll look for you between 8 and 9 in the morning. If you’re not there by 9, I’m going up.’

“Nine o’clock, OK.”

“I’ll see you there, Pop! OK? Dad?”

Connection lost.

The following Monday was gorgeous. Katahdin Stream rushed past the campground’s grassy picnic area, which is where I situated myself at precisely 8 a.m. I sorted through the remains of gear and supplies from my five-week trek; I had almost nothing left. With aching knees and thickly calloused feet came the understanding of why most people give up on hiking the Appalachian Trail, even long sections as I had done. I learned how resilient people can be.

8:15.Never in my life had I wanted Dad to show up more than I did that morning. 8:30. I ate the last of my pasty instant oatmeal while pacing around a picnic table.

It came quickly at 8:50 — an evergreen Saab station wagon, going faster than it should in a state park, with my Dad at the wheel. And then all my tension was released in one gigantic leap, my fists raised, my voice calling out, and all of the pain vanished. He’d made it.

Dad stepped out of the car wearing a baseball cap, a polo shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. We shared a subdued embrace. It was all I could do to form the words, “I’m so glad you made it,” my voice breaking with quiet excitement. He shut the door, smiled and said, “Yep.”

In workmanlike fashion, we prepared for the eight-hour round trip. Despite his business acumen, he came horribly unprepared to take on Katahdin: two Snickers bars, two 12-ounce bottles of water, a windbreaker. Given the authority, I am certain a park official would have denied him the opportunity.

Four times in my life I have summited Katahdin, each time an excruciating test of endurance. But I felt my feet did not touch the ground that day. It was probably for the best, as I helped dehydrated and jet-lagged Dad clamber over the large boulders on Abol Slide. His feet soon cramped, and we stopped frequently to give them rest, but by nightfall we’d made it to the top and back down to the car.

Within the hour we’d toast the accomplishment over pizza and pasta in Millinocket, and then another hour to Bangor to retire to the Hancock Street apartment well after 2 a.m. When I awoke the next morning, he was already off to work. If not for the pictures we took on the climb, the sight of him laughing during a rest, the sight of us together on Katahdin at the end of my long hike, it could have been mistaken for a dream. But the evidence is all there: We did see spectacular, unforgettable things that day.


Robert Kelley is assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Winthrop, Maine.


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