At 5,267 toes, Katahdin is Maine’s tallest peak. Shaped like a giant bent horseshoe, the granite massif straddles the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River and rises above Maine’s North Woods. By the requirements of Utah, my home kingdom, Katahdin, seems small. But ask all people who have climbed it, and they will attest to its steep, punishing trails. What Katahdin lacks in absolute elevation, it claims in cultural prominence. Named for a Wabanaki term for “biggest or most eminent mountain,” it stands on indigenous Penobscot land. The peak’s importance also comes from its affiliation with Percival Proctor Baxter, Class of 1898,
who bequeathed the height and surrounding lands to the nation of Maine. In his initial 1931 present, he directed that his donation “for all time be left within the natural wild kingdom.” Baxter’s injunction has become a mantra for his eponymous park: for all-time wild. Yet, like every desert, Katahdin turned into not a lot blanketed and preserved as created and managed. As my former student, Luke McKay ’07, argued in his honors thesis, the history of “the wilderness concept in Maine” increases important questions about Maine’s finest mountain and other wild areas.
The path closer to “all the time wild” began with Henry David Thoreau, who visited Katahdin in the autumn of 1846. When he left for Maine, Thoreau, shy of thirty, became an obscure Harvard graduate working part-time in his circle of relatives’ pencil manufacturing facility. He was halfway through his two-year life at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, wherein his test of simple living would restorrestorein the sky of environmental concept. Yet Thoreau becomes no hardened outdoors person—as he admitted in Walden, he robotically took journeys into town, where his mother did the laundry. Maine becomes an exceptional affair. In The Maine Woods, Thoreau imagined himself going into “a primitive timber;” however, his own words belied the hyperbole. He traveled from Concord to Bangor by rail and steamer, then employed Penobscots and loggers as guides.