The first sign of trouble was the guitar.
It was a stupefyingly humid weekend in Baxter State Park — my hiking companion, c and I had driven there to climb Mount Katahdin and offer our blood to the black flies for a few days. Perspiration dripped from our bodies as we pitched our tents, wolfed down a pot of rice and beans, and settled in for a night of essential rest before waking up early to climb Maine’s toughest mountain.
That’s when we heard it: the jangling of bright, harshly strummed guitar chords that ripped through the nocturnal forest.
This wasn’t the kind of lull-you-to-sleep acoustic melody that Neil Young would play. It was a simple chord sequence that they teach beginners in guitar school, and it carried on relentlessly. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling. After two hours of this, I heard Woody unzip his tent and clomp through the brush — presumably to locate the guitar player and hit him over the head with a log. The music stopped, at last, Woody returned to camp, and both of us drifted into a sweaty slumber that was soon disrupted by a torrential thunderstorms that flooded our campsite at around 2 a.m.
We emerged from our sodden tents at dawn in a disheveled and severely sleep-deprived state. Our communication was a series of grunts and nods. The rain had tapered off, but the humidity was unbearable. Local meteorologists were predicting that by midday, the temperatures on the summits could exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Between our rotten night of rest, and the conditions, it was too dangerous to climb Katahdin.
So instead, Woody and I decided to schlepp our way up South Turner Mountain — a modest peak on the east side of Baxter State Park. We felt obligated to climb something after driving for six hours to reach this wild, forebodingly beautiful place.
Our energy and conversational skills returned as we rumbled through Baxter on a meandering dirt road to the trailhead. By the time we set off into the boggy woods — which were positively buzzing with flies — I felt as spritely and capable as I had during the summers when I worked as a hut croo member for the Appalachian Mountain Club. That job had entailed carrying more than 80 pounds of food on a packboard up and down some of the hardest trails in New England. Surely South Turner would be a breeze.
Halfway up the cone of the mountain, something weird happened — my heartrate quickened, and I found it impossible to catch my breath. By the time Woody and I reached a stone staircase that broke through the treeline, I was doubled over as though I had just finished a half-marathon. (In fact, I had run a half-marathon less than a year prior.) Something in my stomach bubbled. I could taste last night’s dinner. My clothes were absurdly drenched with sweat, but the humidity rendered it useless as a cooling mechanism.
In all my years of hiking, I had never experienced this before. Was I dehydrated? Overexerted? Or was it something more severe? Woody and I didn’t want to take any chances. We concluded the hike at a viewpoint beneath the summit, took a rest on a rock, and made our way back down at a gentle pace. I had a large bottle of Gatorade waiting for me back in the car — for electrolyte replenishment — and I chugged the whole thing as soon as Woody unlocked the vehicle.
Twenty minutes later, I was on my hands and knees in the bushes, vomiting more than I ever had in my life — simultaneously agonized and amazed at the apparent volume of my stomach.
We headed straight for the nearest motel: a family-run joint called the Big Moose Inn. As I lay in the passenger seat of Woody’s car, too wasted to speak and still nauseous, Woody went inside and explained my condition to the Big Moose owner, Laura. Within minutes, I was resting in an air-conditioned room at the inn, taking tiny sips of diluted Gatorade as Woody discussed more holistic remedies with the resident cook, Joanie, who also worked part-time as an EMT. In this respect, the Big Moose Inn truly redefined the term “full service.”
By evening, my condition hadn’t improved. Worse yet, I couldn’t recall the symptomatic differences between heat exhaustion and the far deadlier heatstroke. So at 6 p.m. — the hour at which Woody and I had planned to have a celebratory post-Katahdin dinner — we were at the regional hospital in Millinocket. Instead of having a cold beer, I had a chilled bag of saline hooked up to my brachial artery. And rather than revel in our outdoor escapades, Woody and I sat rapt with attention as the physician’s assistant regaled us with tales of his own canoe voyages into the Debsconeag wilderness area. Before I was discharged, he pulled us into his office and showed us satellite images of his favorite glacial lake. We promised to keep it a secret.
What happened to me up in Baxter was a series of small misfortunes that added up and extracted a harsh toll: Sleep deprivation had left me vulnerable, heat exhaustion literally drained me, and hydrating too hastily with pure Gatorade triggered my unfortunate Linda Blair moment. And yet, I was also the beneficiary of immense kindness from Woody, the team at Big Moose Inn, and the staff at Millinocket Regional Hospital, all of whom took care of me in their own ways. When things go south, you can only pray that you’ll be surrounded by people who are capable of practicing such natural empathy. And when Woody and I return to attempt Katahdin in cooler conditions, my first priority will be thanking every generous soul with whom our path crossed.
Even the guitar player, if we can find him.