As far back as I can remember, I had a love for being outside. I don’t think that happens by accident. I think it comes from somewhere. I can point to the generations that came before me that helped shape my love for the outdoors: my father, his father. Also, I’m pretty sure my parents shoved me into to the outdoors to help tucker me out as I was a ball of unbridled energy, from the moment I was able to pick myself up off the ground and run around like a little (adorable) mischievous madman. I was the kid with a harness and tether. I say that proudly now. At the time, if I had the awareness, I’m sure I would have been a touch more embarrassed. But as an adult, I mean, that’s hilarious. You needed a harness and tether to keep track of me? Who’s in control of who here? Haha! I had the totally unbounded energy (much to the dismay of my parents and every teacher I ever had) to match the unbounded great outdoors.
One of the many attempts to find healthy outlets for me was through the Scouts. It was at an early age my parents got me started. My father was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, like his father before him, and he (my grandfather) went on to become an Eagle Scout. An Eagle Scout is the highest rank you can receive in scouting and is well regarded. He was very active in the Boy Scouts of America throughout his whole adult life as well, serving on various review boards. He was a generational inspiration and an impressive man in many respects. Unfortunately, I never knew my mother’s father as he passed away when she was in college. But for a quarter century, I got to know and observe my father’s father, until his passing in 2008, which was mere days after my 25th birthday. At the time, I was in the Marines in my final desert training in the Mohave Desert in Southern California, about to leave on my second combat deployment to Iraq when I got the news.
An excerpt from David William Gathman’s obituary (my grandfather):
“He was an Eagle Scout and a former Boy Scout leader. David also served on the Advancement Committee of the former West Branch Council, Boy Scouts of America, and on the Eagle Scout Board of Review. He was a member of the National Eagle Scout Association. He was a World War II veteran and a Lieutenant, United States Naval Reserve (Retired) on active duty 1942-1945. During the war he served as a Naval Ordnance Officer on advance bases in the South Pacific from 1943-1945 and was awarded the American Area Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one battle star, and the World War II Victory Medal.”
So not only was he highly active and accomplished in the Scouts, but also a World War II Veteran. He was my closest and most direct connection to a relative or any person of consequence in my life that was in the military. And as an adult, as I was still trying to determine productive and positive ways to channel my energy, this left its mark on me.
There finally came a time when I was seemingly at the end of my proverbial rope—at the age of 22—when I made the decision to give myself to something bigger than myself. I decided to join the military. We were at war in the Middle East and all I knew at the time was that I was physically capable, and I figured that I could help. I knew that, if I survived it, I would come out a better person on the other side. A more mature man. Someone with discipline. Hopefully, someone proud of their accomplishments, who’s family would also be proud of those accomplishments.
It’s natural to seek the approval from those we love. We all want to make our families proud of us, don’t we? And although I knew my family loved me, I felt I hadn’t yet accomplished many tangible things that I could point to, as the sort of pride and approval I was seeking, or that I felt I should be living up to. These were self-imposed feelings. My family never pressured me into being something or somebody that I wasn’t. Which I think has been crucial in the maturation of who I have grown into being since then.
Going back to that moment when I heard of my Grandfather’s passing, I was in pre-deployment desert training in Southern California when I got the news from my father. I had to lobby extremely hard to my Battalion Commander to get permission to leave that vital training so I could attend his funeral—something that was no small task. You have to go through several chain of commands to get the approval of your Battalion Commander for something like this. I wouldn’t have done it if family, and more directly, my grandfather didn’t mean so much to me. He was, after all, part of the reason I chose to join. I was able to make it back in time for the funeral after getting permission. I was granted JUST enough leave time to be able to fly back to Pennsylvania to be there for the ceremony and spend the rest of that day with my family before I had to fly back for the rest of the month-long training in the Mohave Dessert.
You may be wondering where I’m going with this at this point, but I think the historical context is important here for where this is going to end up. So, you’re just going to have to strap in.
Another excerpt from my grandfather’s obituary:
“He was a member of the Appalachian Trail Conference. An outdoor enthusiast, he had hiked more than 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail in eight states, and climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire numerous times. He enjoyed back-packing, wilderness camping, and cross-country skiing, much of it on frequent trips to Northern Maine.”
So now we’re getting closer to where this is going. At an early age I was made aware of the Appalachian Trail from seeing AT bumper stickers on my grandfather’s car and reading articles in his basement about the trail. While it wasn’t until much later in life that I would come to learn exactly what the Appalachian Trail was all about, it was those early years that were instilled in me by my grandfather and father, that led to an innate love for the outdoors, backpacking and camping.
My first overnight backpacking trip was on the Loyalsock Trail, just up the road from my grandfather’s house. Just a couple of nights and a mere 20 miles with my brother, sister and a childhood friend, back when I was 16 years old. We had a memory-filled adventure, mostly because it was the dead of summer in a heat wave and we ran out of water at one point. But also, because we all got blisters and my sister ended up carrying all of our backpacks the remaining distance to camp on our last night, haha. She is one tough mother. Literally. She would later in life birth four children.
I remember stopping at our grandfather’s house on our way home, once we got back to civilization. Our grandmother, Mildred (Millie, as Dave would call her) had a sweets cupboard filled with Little Debbie’s that we would often ransack while visiting. And we definitely did a number on it when we came out of the woods, all stinky and beat up. My first dive down the hiker hunger rabbit hole. Many, many more instances of hiker gluttony would later follow, unbeknownst to me.
I’ll never forget that first backpacking trip. You never forget your first time. If you had told me back then what I would be doing now, I wouldn’t have believed you. And probably neither would my grandfather then. He lived to see me become a Marine. But never lived long enough to see me live out my later-realized true passion in life.
So, with all that generational context to where my enjoyment of the great outdoors stems from, let’s fast forward to the present.
As The Real Hiking Viking, I have thru hiked/backpacked well over 20,000 miles since hiking my first long trail back in 2013, my first hike of the Appalachian Trail. Since then I have hiked all the major trails and some obscure ones as well. But it was on my second hike of the Appalachian Trail, which was a southbound winter thru hike starting in Maine in December of 2015, that my nephew Juan Carlos took notice of his uncle’s exploits. My brother’s oldest child (adopted from Guatemala at birth) has taken to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts over the years. When he was starting out in Middle School, he saw his Uncle Tom backpacking the Appalachian Trail, along with summiting Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus and Maine’s highest and most stunning peak, a sacred place to many. It has held significance in our family for generations now, especially since some of my grandfather’s ashes are now scattered atop. They were paced there with care by his sons some time after his funeral. Upon seeing me climb that peak, Juan Carlos set a goal for himself. He decided that he wanted to summit Mount Katahdin before starting high school.
Fast forward to summer 2019 when the opportunity presented itself. The idea was forged in the early part of the year between my brother Andy and I, as a way to get the boys together to hike Baxter Peak (as it is often called) up in Baxter State Park. We decided to recruit our father to make the pilgrimage, to pay respects to his father, the patriarch of the family. It would be an attempt to have four generations of Gathman’s standing on top of the world in Maine together. Such was the plan. But as we know, not all plans play out as we dream them up.
The week prior to our trip to Maine, the whole family (18 of us between my parents, brother and sisters, their significant others, and nieces and nephews) was at our annual vacation rental in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. While we were there, my father came down with a crippling illness, as well as sciatica. He would later recover, but he, unfortunately, was unable to join in on the long drive to Maine and summit bid up Katahdin. He would be there with us in spirit, much like his father. But the show had to go on without him. This opportunity doesn’t come around every year. And who knows what the future holds.
As a Christmas gift, I gave Juan a Mountainsmith youth backpacking pack to use on his scouting adventures. He had been using it hard all year but had yet to get out and use it on any multi-day backpacking trips separate from the Scouts. And, minus Juan and Andy joining me for a short leg of my AT winter thru hike a few years earlier, when I hit the halfway point on the trail in Pennsylvania, I hadn’t done any hiking or backpacking with Juan. My brother and I hadn’t hiked together since that very first backpacking trip on the Loyalsock Trail, back when I was 16! So, this was a really awesome opportunity to share a special place, both for me personally, as well as in the family’s history, while continuing to pass down this tradition to the next generation. The stoke level was very high for this one!
We mapped out a beautiful little three-day, two-night backpacking plan with all the appropriate permits for Baxter State Park. We would begin our hike from Roaring Brook on the other side of the mountain, where the Appalachian Trail approaches, from the southeast. I had done the typical approach from Katahdin Stream Campground twice before in years past, when doing the Appalachian Trail, and was ready to check out some other trails in the park to show Andy and Juan the less heavily trafficked parts of the mountain. We would hike up to Chimney Pond and set up basecamp in a lean-to for the next two nights. This would be Juan’s first experience with hiking anywhere in New England, let alone up any big mountains with any sort of alpine region. Parts of Baxter State Park, and most notably parts of Mount Katahdin, have flora that you can’t find anywhere else in the lower forty-eight of the United States. So, it would be a totally foreign experience for him, and I couldn’t have been more excited to be the one to experience it with him. Being able to share experiences with people that hold significance in your own life, as well as to your family’s generational history, is truly an honor in and of itself.
Once we got up to our lean-to, we took the rest of the day to take in the beautiful glacial basin of Chimney Pond. You have an unbelievable view of Katahdin from there. We sat there and watched the clouds roll by in the afternoon sun while drinking the cool water. After the sun began to wane, we retreated to our lean-to and enjoyed ourselves some hearty, energy-filled Good To-Go meals to satiate us for the evening. We would have an early wake up the following morning because we had a very strong day ahead for our summit bid.
We woke up at the crack of dawn to be able to stuff our tummies with nutrient-dense food, coffee (for Andy and I), and plenty of water. Juan and I both brought day packs and my brother went pack-less, as I carried all his food and water for him. I offered to carry the extra weight to alleviate some of his stress, as I was also preparing for a very strenuous hike in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming immediately following this adventure and was using this as a bit of prep work for the hike. He happily obliged.
The day before, while down at the Ranger Station, we mapped out a nice little loop-like route that would take us up Hamlin Ridge and ultimately to Hamlin Peak, before heading over to Katahdin. We thought to ourselves, why not bag more than one peak while we were there and really take advantage of our time. Besides, from the ridge and the peak, you can see not just the Chimney Pond Glacial Basin, but observe a second glacial basin, simultaneously, that sits just to the north of Hamlin Ridge and Peak. We felt like this was a no-brainer. But make no mistake, it made for a VERY strenuous day. The climb up the ridge often required both hands to tackle the massive, rough, and sometimes sharp, boulders that littered the mountain sides.
Upon taking a break, once reaching the first of our summits that day, something occurred to me. I had been in this park twice before. Both times I had summited Mount Katahdin. But I had yet to experience this beautiful park and this beautiful mountain on a clear day. When I first summited, upon completion of the Appalachian Trail in 2013, it was cold, wet, and near zero visibility. That didn’t really get me down. But when it happened for a second time, it bummed me out ever so slightly. I wondered if I would EVER be able to see that mountain in all her glory. When we started our hike on this day, it was PERFECTLY clear. Barely a cloud in the sky. The forecast would remain this way for the entirety the day. What a treat. And not just for me, for Andy and Juan, too. We woke up to the most perfect day imaginable in what was my grandfather’s most special place on earth. We were set to begin our hike over to where part of his spirit resided. I like to think that he had a hand in giving us a blanket of golden, sunny warmth on this day.
All we had to do now, was make our way down to the saddle between the two mountains and begin our final ascent up to summit of Katahdin herself, and we were in no rush to do it. We would stop and catch our breath often to enjoy some water and a snack. On a few of such breaks, I would make them sit through periods of me pontificating of my prior exploits on the Appalachian Trail. I like to think they enjoyed that. But I never asked. Nor did they ask for the stories…
When we finally got to the top of the mountain, we rejoiced together. High-fiving accompanied by bellowing hootin’ n’ hollerin’ from all of us. But we weren’t alone. Which is to be expected in early August on a perfect Saturday on the most iconic mountain in Maine. We shared the summit with dozens of day hikers and plenty of Appalachian Trail thru hikers. It’s always a treat to be a witness to someone completing an adventure like that. 2,190 or so miles of pain and pleasure, some of the finest months that anybody could ever live. We witnessed tears of joy and sadness atop the mountain that day, as those thru hikers accomplished their dreams—old and young alike. I had already hiked it twice and yet, a part of me was still jealous. To go back and experience such a moment again for your first time. There is only one first for everything. One first for me on that mountain, finishing that trail. One first for Andy and Juan atop that mountain. And we did it. Together. With our father and grandfather with us, in spirit.
I can only hope that this place and this trip was as impactful for my nephew, Juan Gathman, as it was for his great grandfather, David Gathman. To be able to continue to pass his legacy and this family tradition down through the generations of our Gathman family has been a joy for me as much as it has been an honor to be able to do so. A special place for special people. The generational adventures on Katahdin continue. I can’t wait to see what the next generation has in store.
Story and photos by: Thomas Gathman aka @therealhikingviking