Ever since I moved to Maine a year and a half ago I’d wanted to follow in my father’s and sister’s footsteps and climb Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. And so I was delighted when I was invited by friends in town to join them for a climb last week.
We hiked into Chimney Pond on Thursday morning, took long afternoon naps in our lean-to to the tapping of afternoon rain showers, rose Friday morning to a beautiful warm day. A decision made to climb the new Dudley trail to the top of Pamola and over the Knife Edge to the top of Baxter Peak.
I’d heard about the Knife Edge from my Dad but I really didn’t get what it was until sitting there on the top of Pamola waiting for the other members of our group to arrive. Before me a mile long stretch of jagged boulders, a steep precipice on either side of the narrow trail.
Suddenly I wasn’t sitting here on the mountaintop, but standing there on the peak of the house that day on the slanted roof, paint cans in hand. Looked down at the driveway three stories below. Froze. A cold grip of terror in my shoulders and hands. Reached out, grabbing with finger nails at roof tiles, knowing I had to get down and no idea if I could move. The cold sweat in my hands like I was feeling now.
I had to get out of here.
As I stood up, there I was again at the top of that steep bluff on the coast of Scotland looking down as the green grass gave way to air, the rocky cliffs and roaring surf below. Felt the grip in my throat, like I was feeling now. Remembered how I called out for help to show me the way down. Knew today that no help was coming to rescue me.
I had to find my way. I couldn’t freeze. Couldn’t let myself be overcome by anxiety. Needed to move. Now.
Down I went off the peak to the edge of the cliff below, turned to face it, hands grabbing for anything to grip when I heard the crash. The hikers on the cliff on the other side of the ravine had panicked when they got off the trail and thrown their backpacks. The packs bounced off the cliff, spun in the air, broke open on the next ledge, spewed water bottles and hiking poles clamoring over the rocks below.
I watched it all, gripping the cliff, mesmerized, horrified. I had to move, keep moving. Wanted to be anywhere but here. Knew there was no way back. No way I could go back the steep trail we’d come. The only way through was through.
I lowered my foot to the next cut in the rock, grabbed for the next narrow lip, made my way down, slowly, slowly. One foothold, one hand at a time.
Up the other cliff past the hikers who were gathering the scattered debris from their packs.
At the top of the cliff, looked up quickly at the long narrow rocky trail before me, the sharp drop on either side. Breathe, breathe, I willed myself. Set out bear crawling hand to rock, rock to hand following the blue blazes across the boulders. Eyes on the ground, breathing, breathing. Knowing I could not, must not look up, look out.
Suddenly in front of me a pair of boots.
“Oh, people,” I thought.
“Good morning”, I called.
“Good morning,” the boots said.
“A beautiful day”, I said.
“Yes it is,” the boots said.
Met other boots who offered to step out of my way.
“Oh no, I’m fine, I’ll crawl right over you,” I said.
Sometimes it’s the only way. One handhold at a time. One foot at a time. One blue marker at a time. One breath at a time.
One thought at a time…I am breathing. I am reaching. I am stepping. I am making it.
A familiar voice comes up behind me. “Are you doing okay?” Jen asks.
“Fine,” I say, “just fine.”
Hears in my tone that indeed I need to do this practice of presence alone.
Many sets of scrambling feet before me.
“You’re doing an awesome job,” the young shoes say to me.
Breathe that in.
Treasure the encouragement.
Every part of the trail becomes in my imagination that particularly narrow portion that Dad told me about.
“It’s only a few steps,” he said, “and you’ll be over it before you know it.”
This has to be it, this must be it, I think. This very boulder I’m climbing over. Don’t look down. I must not look down.
Centuries ago, Brother Lawrence called it “the practice of the presence of God.” This way of prayer that is paying attention – one handhold, one breath, one movement of one foot forward. What prayer comes down to at times like this when you can’t see how you’ll make it through. No dreaming ahead to an elusive ending you’re not sure exists. A time that cuts through all the other ways you’ve tried before of feverish promises or cries of pleading, “if only I make it through I will….” Nothing but giving yourself to this very place you do not want to be, this very breath, where faith says all we call God is. God with me, God with us, as the psalmist says, in darkness and in light, in this moment and this, one step at a time, finding our way.
Today, scraped knees and scarred shins, hands stiff from gripping, I sit here on the porch tired and happy. All which suggests that it was a journey significant to take and well worth taking. Cuts and scabs, evidence of what it takes sometimes to make your way through to the other side of a crippling fear, a breathless anxiety, a story that is keeping you too small that you at last need to put down and aren’t sure you could.
Yes, crawled my way once again last week into a new story.
Know something more now of what it takes to step into fear and not be overwhelmed, to practice presence when my imagination and fear could have run wild. What it takes to make a way out of no way, one breath, one handhold, one knee at a time.
4 thoughts on “Knife Edge”
Peter, Thanks for another harrowing but insightful story. So glad you are willing to risk to do these adventurous things and then write about them.
Peter, Your story in words and pictures brought to life what it means to literally be living and breathing on Katahdin’s edge, and at the edge of the moment, each moment. Thoreau’s experience of ‘Ktaadn’ — as he spelled it — was, like yours, powerful and on-edge, in hard contact with the earth.
“Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! are we? are we?
He returned to his little house on Walden Pond in 1846, transformed by this experience of the ‘wild’ as he called it, and ready to move on to whatever came next in his life.
[See Laura Walls in her recent biography of Thoreau, pp. 223-228.]
And thanks for earlier sharing your wild reading of Moby Dick! (I’m on my 4th wild Nantucket ride, reading it through.)
Your story linking fear with wonder brings me to that place in memory where I felt the same, on Mt Rainier , climbing it for the first time, up Fuhrer’s Finger and a forced overnight bivouac on the summit. Those fearful places and fearful times, on the edge, are I believe the true touchstones of reality. They often lie hidden, and surface again with reading or hearing of harrowing times. Thank you for your faithful witness to the meaning of Katahdin.
You have also reminded me of something I was reading years ago about Thoreau’s first excursion to Maine, in 1846, which came from Laura Walls in her recent biography, where she quotes his experience: “Think of our life in nature,– daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,– rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Who are we? where are we?” (p. 227) [Italics on several key words, including “Contact!”]
Dr. Walls sees this “Ktaadn” experience (Thoreau’s spelling) as a turning point in his life– as a brother, poet, and sojourner on this earth– which she gracefully expresses in the pages leading up to the Ktaadn ecstatic moment (pp. 223-228). I hope you can find a copy of Thoreau: A Life (2017) and enjoy.
And a note: Thoreau returned from the mountain and Maine to his small house on Walden Pond, and wrote what he saw, felt, heard, touched… Not long after, he left the pond shore and set out anew on his life’s journey.
PS And I loved your Moby Dick posting, earlier!
Thank you Dennis! I loved Thoreau: A Life – read it last winter!