“I would rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” (attributed to John Muir)
I spent the first of August hiking with my parents on a remote island nature preserve off the coast of Maine. We’d been once before years ago when the trails weren’t quite as established and the handful of fellow naturalists and hikers we encountered this time weren’t as numerous. Despite the increase in visitors, the island loop remains at best a narrow deer trail through the thick of the bog, eventually spilling out into a rocky coast where the trail continues, so long as the tides permit passage.
A few wooden planks have been installed to elevate your walk over rocks and brush in the interior sections. Larger boulders and rock faces provide resting points along the way to the shore. All around you are dangling lichens and tropically toned peatmosses. The thick spruce and coastal jack pine underbrush provide an insulating layer of delicate soil where dozens of amanita mushrooms thrive and wild blueberry and cloudberry bushes cling to whatever depth they can manage to root down into. Pitcher plants and other carnivorous fauna dot the acidic soils, evolutionary remnants of retreating glaciers and a testament to the extremity of this environment. The trail is marked with shining blue blazes easily missed if one is not careful, and in a few spots, iron rungs and gnarled tree roots aid you in climbing back up onto your path.
At first we planned to just hike to the shore and probably back the way we’d come already. This feat alone took about two hours.
For most of the journey, I stayed ahead of my parents, even when depending on my cane for balance. There’s just something about wild spaces like this which call to me, which set me into a rhythmic gliding as part of the landscape. I can’t go any slower. I just can’t. Enormous island birds cawed at me, and I cawed back to them. We circled one another and told the trees about the other. The only human apart from one other hiker passing in the opposite direction and my parents a quarter mile or so behind me, I increasingly felt the spine-tingling awareness of wild things all around me.
The island is the kind of wilderness where something always seems to be lurking not far off the trail. For the whole hike to the shore, my mind replayed the truth that in all the hikes I’ve been on, in all the parts of known bear country, never, not once have I crossed paths with a bear. I wondered then if these thoughts might be some sort of premonition that one was about to appear. I’d had that kind of intuition before–where I could almost see the bear just waiting on the path around the next corner–but here it seemed just as likely I might instead pass the next tree to find a stark naked wizard challenging his mind to some sort of mystical experience on a nearby rock. Neither appeared beyond the passing images of my mind.