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Reflections on a Traverse Through Acadia National Park

Pat Gregory, a member of the Tracksmith Boston Racing Team who typically finds his element in middle distance races, reflects on stepping out of his comfort zone during a 16 mile traverse through Arcadia National Park

By Pat Gregory

When Louis Serafini first texted me to ask if I had any interest in attempting the Acadia Traverse with him and his girlfriend, Gabi, I didn’t even have to think before I answered that I would love to give it a shot. Having virtually no trail running experience and lacking even a basic understanding of what the terrain at Acadia is like, I committed myself to the endeavor because it sounded physically demanding and because it was something that during a normal summer of track and road races, I’d never seriously consider trying. However, the circumstances surrounding Covid-19 have produced a world that is far from capable of hosting normal track meets and road races.

For me, quarantine has been like one long and great stupor. The further I proceed into this unpredictable future stretching out before me, shrouded in some bleak and endless fog, the more it seems that there is something uncanny and disquieting about my process of living, tinged with the tragedy of some great halting stand still. Life happens beyond the confines of time, without care or hope, as a stagnating bustle of empty consumption - binging YouTube videos or Netflix series or TikToks. My only obligation is to find some time every day to go running, and as those runs turn into the de-facto means for filling up my bounteous time, even they start to lose the luster of excitement. Every day becomes indistinguishable from the last, and 90 minutes of running a day becomes as rote and without note as sleeping without dreaming. 

In light of these unsettling days, I have been drawn more towards undertaking challenging runs that require a large chunk of time to complete. For practical reasons, like having the time to do so, and also for the more mystical sentiments about being out on a trail that I would never have considered attempting before and summiting mountain peaks on foot that usually I’d consider a detriment to my general training patterns. Once it got in my head that I could traverse Acadia Park in a morning, I felt like it was the only way to really experience what the park had to offer.

At 7 a.m. on July 4th, Louis, Gabi and I set off on the Gorham Mountain trailhead into a low hanging fog with our packs full of food and hydration (squeezable applesauce, granola bars and Gatorade was my fuel of choice). The park was empty and quiet, with only a few other visitors out on the park road before us at such an early hour. The morning was serene and the prospect of a day in the mountains seemed like it had all been a really swell idea after all.

The granite mountains and pine tree forests we moved through were beautiful. Not in the gentle or benign way of a Turner landscape but like a wild, tameless sea. While we were on the trails, there was only the clonking of our footsteps and the jingle of our packs. When we stopped at the first fogged in peaks early in the morning, there was nothing but silence as we looked out on a gray blanket of fog that kept views of the ocean and Acadia’s mountain lakes hidden. The lack of visibility had an air of abyssal vastness that awakened a sense of awe in me, and there was a primal kind of solitude that I found myself experiencing with mouth agape, head tilted to one side, trying to soak up the moment and the feeling of summiting yet another peak.

After a couple of hours, it became clear that “precious little runnable terrain” (the current FKT holder’s famous summary of the course) actually meant exactly what it sounded like, something I did not actually consider to be true at the outset of the day. I figured, if I want to run, I can probably find a way to make that happen with the right combination of will and recklessness. The reality that we were hiking hard and not trail running at all began to set in about halfway up the trail to Cadillac Mountain - the biggest mountain on the island - and really solidified as we made our way slowly down the backside of the mountain over stretches of sheer granite slabs. 

The day beat slowly on, and at each trailhead, I found myself hoping in vain for some smooth dirt or a runnable grade, and I was instead relentlessly met with granite slabs of rock at 30% grades or steps cut into the side of a mountain. As our spirits began to waver on our way up the Deer Brook Trail toward the Penobscot Mountain Summit, I found my mental resolve to finish out the day mounting. The feeling of being burdened with the desire to complete the task began to overtake me as I climbed through the pine forest next to a mountain stream. 

We were heading toward the summit of Sargent Mountain when Louis scared me by tripping and falling on a tricky section of trail. Despite getting his bell rung by some feldspar granite and acquiring a bloody ear and shoulder, he was determined to finish the final three peaks of the route, and each consecutive peak felt like a small victory in the face of all of the day’s mishaps.

On our way down the final mountain trail, I tried to look out into the ancient forest and ground myself in the presence of such a beautiful place. The connection to some natural space and state of being is, after all, what I think implored me to spend hours on foot in the mountains, to get away from the world of television and strip malls and cell phones. With a little imagination, thousands of years seemed to condense into the flash of an eye, and I somehow felt very intimate with the ancient Wabanaki, who traversed these paths and submitted these peaks and called this mountain range “Pemetic” long before any Rockefeller laid financial claim to the wilderness and erected decadent summer mansions upon it.