I broke tradition again a couple of weeks ago and brought a friend to tag along on one of my weekend excursions. This time, we ventured to Saddleback Mountain, one of Maine’s fourteen 4,000-foot peaks.
Located fifteen minutes from the small town of Rangeley, the mountain doesn’t have much near it. The winding highway up to the ski lodge reminds me of the kinked roads I’m familiar with in backcountry Connecticut. A little slice of home deep in western Maine. What a thought.
Saddleback is a steep hill. With roughly 2,000 feet of elevation gain over just two miles, it definitely gets your heart pumping. However, the views are truly stunning the whole way up. The clear-cut ski trails make it so that you can see the many Rangeley lakes during the whole climb. Total awesomeness.
We started up the mountain with beautiful weather complementing our climb. It was one of those weekends when it was a little too warm for October. Despite this great weather, we had the trail to ourselves. Sweating and determined, we powered up the skinny trail, swatting away the last remaining flies, a reminder that summer had stuck around longer than it should have.
There’s a reason people make the trek all the way out to Rangeley just to ski or snowboard. The small town has only about 1,500 year-round residents, giving it an intimate feel unlike many other ski towns nowadays. Saddleback takes this value of community to heart with its mission to keep the mountain small and communal.
The mountain first opened in December 1960, boasting only a single T-bar lift. Though they’ve expanded with new lifts and a redone lodge, the mountain’s mission to know its patrons and create a family of customers stays true and is obvious to anyone who visits. Saddleback is definitely the place for anyone looking to escape the gentrification of small ski towns that is sweeping the American West.
I knew from hiking this mountain previously that the Appalachian Trail crossed over the ridge of Saddleback Mountain and its neighbor, the Horn. I had never seen thru-hikers before but hoped that this time we would be lucky and get to meet some. As my friend and I sat to have lunch at the summit, a man approached us and asked for a photo. It wasn’t until after nearly an hour of conversation that I actually took the photo.
The hiker was sixty-two years old and from Saratoga Springs, New York. He had driven six hours that morning to tick Saddleback and the Horn off the list of 115 New England peaks he was attempting (these were numbers 102 and 103). He told me about all the thru-hikers he’d met along the way and their wacky trail names (“Stitches” stuck out to me – no idea where that one came from). He hasn’t had cable television in years. He told me to drop out of college and hike the Pacific Coast Trail (don’t know if we’re at that point, yet). Of course, I’ve heard the long-standing “stranger danger” every parent ingrains in their kids’ heads from day one. Screw that.
There’s a statistic I’m sure we all heard around middle school that we pass between thirty and thirty-six serial killers in our lifetime just walking on the street. That scares a lot of people. So much so that they close themselves off to any and all casual interactions out in “the wild.” This is such a shame because I’ve actually had some of the most interesting and substance-filled conversations of my life with plain strangers.
Of course, I can’t tell you to go up to every person you see and try to strike up a conversation; my mom lived in New York City for twenty-five years and instilled the fear of God into me about strangers approaching me, but I will say that not all strangers are bad. I do keep my wits about me when talking to people I don’t know, and of course I won’t go walking down a dark alley or anything like that, but if I’m on a trail or in a new place and the vibes are good, I strike up a conversation. It’s easy, free, and interesting (quite possibly the only activity that ticks all those boxes these days).
You’ll meet people from all over the country and world, from all walks of life. Sometimes their little nuggets of wisdom can really help you get through whatever you’re thinking about at the moment or inspire you to take a step forward you didn’t even know existed. When I started talking to the dude by the summit, it started just as simply as him asking for a nice picture.
Keep your wits about you but talk to the stranger. It’s always worth it.
~ Liz Cutting `26