As I emerged above tree line and was climbing alone along a boulder-strewn, windy, cloudy ridge of Mt. Katahdin, which was, quite frankly, a bit daunting, a dark form suddenly materialized to my right, and I saw the broad black wingspread of a raven. I was moved by a sense of the raven as a kindred spirit in this lonely and (what even Thoreau acknowledged as an) inhospitable place. I watched as the raven rode the wind and landed a hundred feet beyond me on—of all places—a trail sign. I pulled out my camera but was only able to get off one shot before the raven dropped to the ground. I waited with the camera, eager to see what it would do next. And then—oh, heavens!—the raven spread its wings and flew straight towards me. My heart raced to see it land twenty feet away. Click, click, click went my camera. The raven flew again—this time just ten feet away from me. It looked at me and then looked away. And then—astonishingly—it flew again to within four feet of me! I could have reached out my hand and stroked it, it was that close. It perched on a rock and began to croak. It crowed, and it squawked in a low-throated, gravelly way. It looked at me and then it looked away and then croaked anew, then peered at me again, bending its head sideways. All I could say, while adjusting the camera, was, “Oh my God!” And then, “Oh my brother!” The raven stayed for an entire minute and then finally flew away, moments before a fellow hiker appeared down the trail.
Now, one might argue that the raven was merely a slick panhandler begging for handouts from a naïve tourist, and doubtless one can never discount such a merely naturalistic explanation. But in my heart, I feel that it was something more, perhaps in part because throughout this trip—indeed, for years now—I have wondered what my totemic animal is, and how I would recognize it when it comes. I honor Native American spirituality, and I believe that animals can indeed guide us. It is only in the past three years that my affinity to birds has even been revealed to me as such—why else would I have been driven to photograph them so obsessively? (FYI, my Appalachian Trail name is “Birdman.”) However, a bit more history is required here for you, dear reader, to appreciate the full significance of this event for me. Go back in time with me about seven years when I had just finished hiking the Range Trail in the Adirondacks, which is generally an all-day hike that consists of about seven or eight peaks in a row, and I decided late in the afternoon to summit Mt. Haystack and then, finally, Mt. Marcy as well, which was, shall we say, a challenge—and a risky one at that. The Ridge Runner was already descending from Mt. Marcy, and she was reluctant to let me go up, until I assured her that I was a runner and could get down quickly in a pinch.
It was a cloudy and windy day, and just a half mile from the summit, I was approached for the (then) first and only time in my life by a raven, which landed about twenty feet away from me. I watched it with interest but eventually had to move on because it was getting late. Yet, the raven followed, landing about twelve feet away from me. Again I watched it, and again I had to force myself to keep hiking. Like a dancer, the raven followed me in turn, landing just ten feet way. To say I was blown away is an understatement, but it pales in describing my subsequent feelings as I turned to leave and the raven followed suit, flying to within just five feet of me. It was on that day that I felt called to finally hike the AT—something that I have indeed wanted to do all of my life but had delayed for one reason or another for over forty years. The knowledge that it was time to do the trail was somehow triggered by the raven, which I took to be a sign. (When I got back to John’s Brook Lodge later that night and recounted the incident, my cousin Cindy’s response was, “That was your mother!”—for my mother had been a birder, a nature lover, and an avid hiker, and she had died of cancer just the year before. Indeed, she had accompanied me up Mt. Marcy on the very first time I climbed it, when I was six years old.)
So for a raven both to, as it were, inaugurate my journey and then to preside over its very end, on two cloudy, windy days on, respectively, the highest mountains in New York and in Maine—and for those two events to be the only time in my entire life that I have ever been approached--or more aptly, stalked--by a raven, well, it beggars explanation! Sometimes one has to go with one’s gut instinct. The raven’s my bird! Don’t try to talk me out of it!
Shall this dark bird ever be lifted from my spirit? Quoth the Birdman, “Nevermore!” But the narrator in Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven,” got it wrong. He sought to turn the raven into a demon that would fulfill his own perverse need for self-torture. (You can read all about this in Poe’s famous essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.”) As for me, I find it strangely comforting to embrace an Other that is dark and seemingly ugly, for it represents my own dark side as well, and ravens are, of course, highly intelligent and embody an ancient kind of wisdom, from which I have much to learn. That is to say, I am honored to acknowledge the raven as my totemic guide! And if today, ravens behave like hucksters on mountaintops, well, so, in a way, is every storyteller on the AT, and so is every English professor. We’re all selling (or, in my case, “professing”) something, and we all croak our communication to the world in the hopes of getting something in exchange—even if only an appreciative audience. As Walt Whitman observed, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.”
So when I reached the very summit of Katahdin a few minutes later, it was with a light heart indeed. And I was somehow not surprised to discover trail magic at the very end of my journey, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: a hiker announced that he had extra space in his car and would be happy to take two people back to Bangor with him. (I had no way out of Baxter State Park except by hitching a ride, and in this case, I didn’t even have to stick out my thumb!)
I want to affirm that almost anyone can hike the AT if they devote sufficient time and energy to the undertaking. All you have to do is be a deadbeat dad (or mom or son or brother, etc.) for about four to six months (unless, of course, your family accompanies you); ignore your class preparation or other respective work duties (as one hiker wryly indicated, though, “a Birdman can just wing it”); relax your hygienic standards (aka get used to trail stench); make your peace with the bugs and the rain; accustom yourself to feeling continuously ravenous (does the word “ravenous” come from “raven,” I wonder?); and have the time of your life—communing with the wilderness in its extraordinary diversity and beauty; meeting the most wonderful people; experiencing the most amazing trail magic; and feeling a great sense of joy and fulfillment. And don't forget your camera!