Lost so close to home…

I’m a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions; of making them, if not completing them.  But this year I’ve taken one on that I feel really good about: cover 1000 miles and climb 250 mountains in Acadia National Park across the 365 days of 2014 and keep a diary of the journeys.  That’s an average of 20 peaks and 83 miles a month; 4.8 peaks and 19.2 miles a week.  Neither of those goals are physically daunting — covering mileage on Acadian hills that range from 400 to 1500 feet above sea level in what is arguably the most day-hiker-friendly National Park in the whole US National Park System is anything but extreme.  It’s the time management that is the real challenge.  The idea is to complete these challenges while becoming a better college president and better husband and father – no easy fete.  To that greater end, I’m trying to involve family in many of these walks and, on my solo sojourns, meditate on several key questions we should be considering as a College.

I’m about three weeks in and just logged my 14th peak and 35th mile.  Mileage in the winter will be much more slow going.  I find I’m doing plenty of meditating, but I’m pleasantly surprised that on solo walks my mind empties rather than focuses.  That’s probably just as well for my wife, the kids, and the college, quite frankly.

The time management concern is a reasonable one.  Being a president, husband, and father (friend, reader, writer, student of dynamical systems, poker player, angler, Breaking Bad enthusiast, etc.) is anything but a part time gig, but there’s actually quite lot of time in the day and one can cover a lot of terrain and scale many peaks in just 90 minutes or so.  Last week, for instance, I completed a four mile, three peak jaunt over Gilmore, Bald, and Parkman Mountain in 100 minutes door-to-door.  But there have been and will certainly be more days where I’ll have 30 and .  Such a day occurred last night and for such occasions there is nearby Great Hill.

Great Hill is appropriately named.  At about 480 feet above sea level it can hardly be considered a mountain or even a peak.  But it is great in that it looms and feels bigger than it is and changes remarkably as one circumambulates its small granite dome.  It forms the backdrop behind Bar Harbor’s Clefstone Road and is thus a mountain of the town.  But once you leave it to your north heading west out of town it acquires a different, although still looming presence.  It feels of a Persepoline column marking the entrance to Acadia.  It is great.  And it’s three quarters of a mile from my front door.

Halftime of a late NFL playoff game — about dusk at this latitude.  I take off with my dog Lucy, throw on the ice cleats, jacket, hat and all, make the quick jaunt to the Cadillac Mtn entrance at the foot of Great Hill, wait for my watch to find satellites and briskly hop and skip to the top of the southwestern knob on Great Hill.  I snap a picture and then look to the NE where a distinct and obviously higher knob stands out.  Although the light has faded and it is just a hair before solid darkness, Lucy and I do what we feel is necessary.


Last Light on Great Hill

I should be clear: I’ve walked both knobs half a dozen times in the last year and have both what I feel to be a lot of experience walking in the woods and an average “sense of direction.” But all that seemed to fail me this time on Great Hill.  Darkness erased my tracks and shadows obscured the obvious way home.  I could see the gentle curves of Cadillac’s north ridge and the neighboring blackened blobs of Dorr and Champlain, but the angles were all wrong to me.

Knowing that I was less than a mile from home and that I could walk in any direction and would come upon a paved road in under a mile, my heart raced as if lost in an Alaskan endless wilderness.  Lucy bounded on unaffected.  In five minutes I exhibited all of the panic-ridden traits you read about in your typical “lost in the woods” stories: confusion, heart palpitation, time warp.  I reached for my cell phone to call home — not to share my panic, but just to tell Karen and the kids I’d be a bit late and not to worry.  The cold had zapped my iPhone batteries, which pushed me to worry double time, for me and for Karen and the kids.  After circling around and recognizing that I’d made a few idiotic odd loops to nowhere, I picked what seemed to be a logical point in the horizon and walked straight.  Sure enough, I was on the park loop road in under five minutes.

Like I said, the whole endeavor of found to lost to found took all of ten minutes, but seemed like hours.  My watch tells the most hysterical tale.  It’s worth jumping on Garmin Connect and using the play feature to follow my ridiculous path:


With it you can walk with me and see where I’m scratching my head, wandering aimlessly, panicking and eventually returning to some degree of found.  Friends have actually laughed out loud watching it.

It was the perfect, safest place in the world to get lost.  But I can also see how — even in such a place — confusion can lead to desperation which can lead to irrational decisions and even fatality.  Even on little ole’ Great Hill.  Does such a lesson call for an end to solo journeys?  Absolutely not.  But it does call for always having at the bare minimum a compass, a headlamp, and charged batteries.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect, I suppose that getting lost, panicking, regaining composure, and then finding your way again — all on a small hill you think you’re completely familiar with —  is great practice for a college president.


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