Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Saturday, May 1, 1999
For over four and a half years, this day had been a dream – sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes, like last Thanksgiving, in danger of being washed out entirely. The dream had been hatched in a campground on the largest island in the largest lake in the world, it had been nurtured in any number of bull sessions, any number of pages read, any number of other thoughts and preparations. At times it had seemed like a pipe dream that could never come true. But now, nearly a thousand miles to the east of where the dream had first been voiced, it finally, a little surprisingly, turned to reality.
The vehicle of the reality seemed rather strange – a simple sheet of printer paper, listing sign-out and sign-in times along with names. But where it was had been a place of dreams as well, so it was hardly possible to believe they were standing on the enclosed porch of Katahdin Spring Campground ranger station – and outside that door stood Mt. Katahdin, the north end of the Appalachian Trail.
Signing their names took only a moment in the thin light of early morning, the low sun filtering through the Maine woods. “You ready, Dad?” Duane said laconically as he finished signing the paper for both of them.
“The question,” Jason smiled, “is really, ‘You ready, son?’”
“If I’m not now, I never will be,” the younger MacRae smiled, and turned toward the door to begin what he expected would be the biggest adventure of his lifetime – certainly so far, maybe forever. The thought stuck with him for a moment. “You know, I wonder what I’ll be doing a year from now,” he said as he went out the door. “It probably won’t be anything like this.”
“You’ll probably be working someplace and thinking about where you were a year ago,” his father smiled.
“Yeah, probably emptying garbage cans in some cannonball park down south,” Duane shook his head, and looked toward the mountain. “But you never know.”
Katahdin is the most striking mountain on the Appalachian Trail, and its stature, though not high by western standards, makes it a touchstone for the whole experience. Springer Mountain, 2100 trail miles to the south in Georgia, is nowhere near as striking, just a high spot on a long ridge. It’s generally agreed among Appalachian Trail hikers that northbounders get a slightly better deal, if for no more reason than they have the shining goal of Katahdin awaiting them at the end of the trail. Southbounders like Duane really only have a hole in the woods, a bronze plaque, and a long hike down to Amicalola Falls State Park. Given a choice, Duane would have gone northbound, but the relatively late start required by finishing college meant there were advantages to going southbound.
Although there had still been some back in the woods and in the shade of buildings, the snow had mostly gone from the ground back in Marquette two days before. When he’d finally finished his last exam, he’d walked out to the already packed Jeep and driven off campus, all the graduation he wanted and all he would get – except for this day and the weeks that followed. Presumably his diploma would show up in the mail in Bradford in a week or two, to be tossed in a collection in his old bedroom back home. Things were little different here – there were still remnants of snow back in the woods, and the mountain had notable patches of it, although there too, it was largely gone.
It was only a short walk across the parking lot to the Appalachian Trail, heading up the side of the mountain. Duane would walk the first miles of the trail backward, going up to the top, and back at Christmas, when it had become clear that Cory wasn’t going to be along, he’d asked Jason to join him for good wishes or whatever, and he accepted, of course. It would be about all of his son’s great adventure that he’d be able to share, and he wasn’t going to pass up the chance. Now, with a light daypack on his back – it was actually an old book bag Duane had used at college – he turned to follow his son, who also had on a light daypack. There was no point in lugging his heavy trail pack to the top of the mountain when they’d be back here in a few hours – but when they got back, he would be on his way. The packs didn’t contain a lot – lunches and water and cameras, a few odds and ends. Without comment, they walked onto the trail that Jason uneasily realized would be a point of separation for them from here on. But, for one last time, they were together, heading into the wild.
As they picked up a slow pace – there was no point in killing themselves now, this day would be tough enough – they didn’t talk much, and each kept their own thoughts. Jason wondered if Duane realized just how big a separating point this hike would be between them, or if maybe he was just feeling his age a little. Duane had been having adventures on his own for years, things like college, rafting in North Carolina, the long hike through Michigan with Cory four years before. They really hadn’t seen much of each other in that time, this hike would build more of a wall between them, of Duane having done something else his father would never do. On the other hand, Jason sighed, he’d done plenty of things Duane would never do, some he hoped Duane would never even think about doing. They really were different people and would soon be leading increasingly different lives unless something went very wrong.
A lot had happened in the six months since it had become clear that Cory wasn’t going to be making the hike and Duane’s decision to do it solo. Most of Duane’s Christmas vacation had been spent with his hiking gear, reconditioning some, replacing other pieces, ordering new things – maps and guides and food packages – and evolving the logistical plan that would be needed for the next few months. Two months ago, Duane had driven back from college on spring break with the Jeep just absolutely packed to the canvas roof with stuff accumulated in his dorm room over four years in Marquette; snowboard, surfboard and skis had been tied on top. He’d reported he threw out a lot, as well. Once most of it had been hauled up to his room, to the garage, or wherever it went, he turned to packing nearly two dozen boxes that would be mailed to him at pre-arranged mail drops along the trail.
Given the relatively cold conditions – nothing like a couple months ago, of course – he was going to be loaded fairly heavily, prepared for winter camping, or at least off-season camping, with things like a winter down sleeping bag, warm clothing, and a small but honest tent. In a little over a month, with spring rapidly approaching, he’d exchange much of the heavier gear for much lighter weight summer gear – a thinner sleeping bag, lighter clothes, a nylon bivy sack to replace the tent. If he really busted his ass and tried for a four-month trip, that would probably be all he would need, but the decision had been made early on to take his time and enjoy the sights. He’d need the heavier gear back along toward the end of August, by which time he expected to still have the Smokies in front of him.
He’d headed back to Northern Michigan University at the end of his spring break with the Jeep lightly loaded, intending to more or less camp out in his room with minimal stuff for the last weeks of school. As finals approached, only what was absolutely necessary hadn’t been packed, and the evening before his last final – which he didn’t expect to be difficult – he’d hauled most everything down to the Jeep except for a change of underwear. It had been 11:30 in the morning when he hit the road; after a fast drive that included only one pit stop, the Jeep was parked in the driveway in Bradford while there was still some light in the day. Jason, Joe, Mignon, and Vicky had helped him unload the Jeep and haul stuff up to his room. Joe and Mignon had already headed back home, and Duane may have not noticed when later, Jason and Vicky had a brief kiss that really wasn’t very brief; they’d be gone when she got up in the morning.
Before dawn the next day father and son were headed eastbound and down in the cab of Jason’s Ford F-150 pickup; behind the seat was a fully packed backpack headed for the trail, a suitcase for his father, and some odds and ends. It’s over a thousand miles from Bradford to Katahdin Spring, in the northern part of Maine, and they didn’t waste time. By virtue of changing off driving and only stopping occasionally to fill the big saddle tanks of the Ford, at one in the morning they pulled into the ranger station. There they unrolled their sleeping bags under the cap of the pickup – Jason didn’t bring the camper this time, since it would have slowed them down and added to the gas expenses more than he would spend on motel rooms. It probably wouldn’t have killed them to take an extra day, but there was something symbolic about Duane starting his hike on May Day that seemed to make it worth the effort. So now, with a breakfast of granola bars and coffee from a thermos that had been filled in Millinocket late the night before, they were on their way.
It was still cold – Jason could see his breath as they hiked up the trail through the early morning frost – but the sky was clear and there was promise of it being a nice day. The first part of the trail was level, but it soon began to wind upward toward the summit. Jason had tried to get out and do some walking to prepare himself for this day, and sometimes Vicky had joined him for the exercise, but really, there wasn’t much that could be done to prepare for a hike like this day on the flatlands around Bradford. He expected that he’d drive home loaded with a maximum dose of ibuprofen to reduce the aches and pains he’d likely generate today.
Duane was clearly in better shape – his youth had lots to do with that, after all – but he took his time and didn’t hurry his father. Soon, Jason knew he’d been climbing a hill; his legs felt like lead, and he had to stop every few minutes just to let the pain abate a little. Usually, it was just for a breather; he didn’t want to sit down because that meant he’d have to get up again, but several times they stopped for a good sit-down break, a drink of water, and a couple times for a candy bar. Usually it was stand-up walking for the climb, but there were a few places the uphill turned into a four-handed rock scramble.
Both Jason and Duane knew it was supposed to take two to three hours to make the four thousand foot climb, and it took them every bit of all three hours. The sun was well up in the sky before they came out onto the barren, rocky summit plain, and headed toward the rude marker that was the official end of the Appalachian Trail. The marker is placed on a pile of rocks, and right then Jason thought it made a damn good place to sit down, and Duane wasn’t about to pass up the idea either. “Damn glad this thing ain’t five hundred feet higher,” Jason puffed as he pulled off his daypack and found a relatively comfortable place in the rocks. “I ain’t sure I could have made it.”
“It’s supposed to be the worst climb on the trail, so I’m glad I have it behind me,” Duane agreed, not really out of breath but glad of the break.
“Nice view,” Jason wheezed, after taking a long pull from a water bottle.
“Yeah, they say this is the best view of Katahdin,” Duane said conversationally. He sat silently for a moment, then added, “I sure wish Mom had lived to be able to share it with us.”
“I do, too,” Jason replied, knowing as always his son was referring to Christine, dead over ten years now. “She’d have been proud of you, a college grad, a taste for adventure, a strong young man with a good future. She missed some good times, some of the best ones.”
“I missed her a lot,” he said quietly. “I still do, but I guess I don’t think about it very often. God, that wasn’t fair, to you, me, her, all of us.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Jason replied. “She tried to do her best by you. She did what she could, and I think she did all right.”
“You know, it never seemed fair to me,” he said. “I kind of got dumped in her lap, and you two never had any kids together. I would have liked having a younger brother or sister.”
“She knew what she was getting into,” Jason said. “You were part of the package and she knew it. Then, well, after a while we realized we weren’t going to be having any kids of our own, she’d never be able to, and that made you something like a gift to her. She didn’t have long to be a mother, but I think she did pretty well as long as she could.”
“You never heard anything from Jody, did you?” Duane asked softly, even now not able to use the term “mother” to describe the woman who gave him birth.
“Nothing directly,” he sighed. “Not a word. The last time I talked to her parents, and that was a long, long time ago, I got the impression they had some idea she was still alive but weren’t real clear on where she was or what she was doing.”
“Why did she leave?” he asked. It was not the first time he’d asked the question, but it had been a long, long time there, too. Perhaps he was looking for a more adult answer than he would have gotten as a preteen.
“I honestly don’t know what pushed her over the edge. It could have been something as simple as just one too many dirty diapers to change,” Jason shrugged. He’d pretty much told the truth about this, even when Duane had been young. “She just didn’t have what it takes to do what she had to do.”
“In comparison to Mom, who had what it took to make the best of things and do a good job, even in the face of a hell of a lot more difficulties than Jody faced, right?”
“Couldn’t have said it better,” Jason nodded, realizing now the thrust of this conversation – Duane was feeling instinctively that this place was a separation point in their lives, just like he was. Presumably, he wanted to clear his mind of some old issues before that separation occurred. “Jody had some good qualities, and you have some of them, like a desire to see what’s on the far side of the hill. But as it worked out, you’re Christine’s son; I think she taught you the will to carry on. That’s why I think you’re going to make it on this trail unless something really unforeseen happens, like breaking a leg or something. You’re not going to give up because it’s too hard. Sitting here where we are, I think it may have worked out for the best.”
“I know I’ve asked you before,” Duane said, “But how come you never got married again?”
“That’s not a simple question to answer,” Jason said, resolving to try to answer it honestly. “After Christine died, well, it hurt. Don’t get me wrong; while there were some good times with Christine, it was pretty hard there toward the end. You know it as well as I do.” He stopped to think. “I don’t know how to say this, because it sounds like I’m disgracing Christine’s memory, and I’m really not, but in a sense it was a failure between us as much as it had been a failure between me and Jody. Entirely different things, of course, but the bottom line is that when it was over with I had been left alone and unhappy twice, with you to care for both times. When it was clear Christine was dying, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to risk you having to endure another failure, at least not until you were older, and that I needed to concentrate on finishing the job of raising you and doing it right. Now, you have to add to that the fact I never ran across anyone I felt like marrying, but then, I wasn’t looking very hard, either.”
“I think I understood that,” Duane replied. “But now, things aren’t what they were ten years ago.”
“True, but you get in a rut. Or, at least, I got used to being single and not having a woman around.”
“Dad,” Jason said thoughtfully, “I saw you kissing Vicky the night before last. That was no goodbye peck on the cheek. Is there something brewing between the two of you?”
“I can’t answer that, because I don’t know,” he replied. “Vicky and I have been friends for a long time, but most of it has been good neighbor-type friends, ever since she was a little girl. The last few months, well, we’ve been a little closer, spent some time together, just being friends, nothing romantic. It’s been good for her, I think. She had some problems with college, with her ex, and she’s been a while throwing them off. If I can offer her some encouragement, well, we’ve been friends long enough that I don’t mind. On the other hand, I’ve slowly been coming to realize I might not mind all that much if something were to brew up there.”
Duane stared out at the forest below for a long moment, trying to say something but not quite finding the words. Finally, he replied, “Dad, I don’t know how to say it, and I’m probably butting in someplace I really don’t belong, but I wouldn’t mind if something did work out between the two of you. She’s good people; she’d be good for you.”
“I agree,” Jason said philosophically, after he took another pull at his water bottle. “The thing you have to remember is that I’m getting to be an old fart, and my legs are reminding me of that pretty bad right now. Vicky is a lot closer to your age than she is to mine. I’m not sure that saddling a young woman like her with an aching old fart like me would be very fair to her. Or to me, for that matter. After all, I’m getting set to retire here in a few years. It’s going to be a long, long time before she’s going to be able to retire.”
“Dad,” Duane said after a moment. “I’d just like to say one thing, and you can take it for what it’s worth or leave it be, but it’s the big reason why I’m here. If I learned anything from Mom, it’s that you have to do what you want when you can, because the time may come when you can’t, and it can come all too soon.”
“I know Christine felt that,” Jason replied. “Or else we’d never have gotten married in the first place. But you know, I’ve wondered now and then if Jody didn’t think that too, that what she did was worth the price she had to pay. It comes at you both ways; it’s all how you look at it.”
They lolled around on the peak for half an hour or more, eating some lunch, letting some of the fatigue poisons drain from their legs. In the process of hanging around, Duane looked around and found a tiny pebble. He told his father that it was a trail tradition that thru-hikers carried a pebble from Springer to Katahdin, or the other way around, like this hike would be. Jason got out his camera and got a picture of Duane standing by the trail marker, holding the pebble in his hand, and joked that the pebble might have made the trip from Springer in some other hiker’s pack. He wondered if maybe it was homesick and wanted to go back where it had come from.
After that, they donned their packs and started down the mountain – with the difference that Jason was heading toward the end of his hike, but Duane was just starting. Jason didn’t say anything, but thought that was the way things worked in the lives of him and his son, as well.
The trip down was hard in its own way – it’s hard on the hamstrings, on the knees, on the ankles, and Jason was really hurting by the time they finally hit the flat at the bottom of the hill and hiked the last part down to where the Ford waited. He had never been so happy to see his truck in his life. It was getting along in the day now, although there were several hours of sunlight left.
“You know,” Jason said as he threw his daypack onto the seat of the truck, while Duane got his backpack from behind the seat. “The last couple miles, I’ve mostly been thinking that the best thing I could do is get in the truck, set the cruise control, and keep it running until I find a motel with a hot tub where I could soak my aching legs.”
“Probably would be a good idea, Dad,” Jason said. “I wouldn’t want to bet there’s anything like that this side of Bangor, though. There’s enough light left that I think I’ll see if I can shag it over to Daicey Pond, maybe even a little farther before I go down for the night.”
“I suppose,” Jason conceded. He wouldn’t have minded having Duane ride into Millinocket where they could find a motel for the night, but realized that there was a separation between them that there hadn’t been a few hours before. Duane was on the hike now; he had his own fish to fry, his own goals to pursue.
This was it, he realized. “Duane,” he said, “Have a good time, and take care. Keep in touch.” He was talking about more than just the trail, and he knew it.
“I know, Dad,” Duane replied, obviously feeling this was more than just a simple goodbye, too. “I’ll see you in a few months.”
A simple handshake turned into a hug that went on for a while. Finally, they broke apart; Duane slung his backpack onto his shoulders, fastened his waist belt, and said, “Well, I suppose I might as well get going.”
“Yeah,” his father said bravely, trying to drive back the feelings that were rising in him. “You’re burnin’ daylight. See you next time.”
“Take care on the way home, don’t kill yourself driving too hard,” Duane said, then added as he turned toward the trail marker, “See you next time.”
There really wasn’t anything Jason could do but stand there and watch him hike away. While he was sad to know that an important era in his life was coming to an end, he was proud of that young man with the blue pack on his back, hiking off to adventures and experiences they could never share. And as he watched his son turn a corner and walk out of sight, he was a little surprised to find he had a proud sense of satisfaction wash over him. Duane was on his own, not just on the trail but in life. He’d done what he could, and it looked like it was going to turn out all right in spite of everything that had happened, Jody leaving, Christine dying.
Though he couldn’t have put it that way at the time, he could have summed up his feelings in two words: mission accomplished.