This is part inside story and part full disclosure, and while I’m at it, I should say that in 20 years of journalism, I have never looked to personally benefit from a story.
But that all changed Monday when Dave Jackson of Massapequa, N.Y., offered me a bratwurst sandwich.
To report the story of the Baxter Line, something I first witnessed 11 years ago, I considered camping in a frozen parking lot. Because, certainly, if the Occupy folks can do it, I can.
But in short order I couldn’t put my hands on a winter tent. And let’s just say, with a history of hypothermia, I didn’t want to end up a frozen corpse.
A 10-degree sleeping bag and several wool blankets were packed in the Subaru anyway, because 12 years of outdoor reporting has taught me that adventures do arise. But it wasn’t until I walked up to Baxter State Park headquarters, and toward a half dozen tents secured to frozen concrete, that I knew what was in store.
A few of the campers corralled me toward the camp stove, where Jackson was busily cooking my bratwurst sandwich. And when he offered it to me by way of introduction, it was clear there was no turning back.
“You need to keep the fire burning,” he said as he dressed it with sauerkraut.
And after introducing myself, I tried to explain I would be staying in the area, but not the parking lot.
“That’s cheating,” Jackson said, as his teenage daughter looked on and laughed. “To be in the Line, you have to camp out. I have an extra tent.”
All around me, his line mates nodded, so I accepted the tent and Army blankets offered by Bernie Chadbourne of Ripley. Then, very quickly, my fellow campers began asking where I was going to make my reservation, a question I had not considered.
To these devoted dozen, however, it was the only question. So I asked their advice.
Cabin Three at Daicey Pond has the best view of Mount Katahdin, said Ray Tremblay of South Portland with a definitive smile. But Sarah and Dave Jackson claimed it was Cabin One. And Chadbourne preferred to be in Katahdin’s shadow in the last cabin at Kidney Pond.
Then there was the back country — with its lakeside lean-tos and cliff diving opportunities — that also provides a great view of the August meteor shower, Tremblay promised.
Clearly, these folks knew exactly when and where they wanted to be in Baxter, and they knew how to be sure they’d get there. For the unwritten laws governing the Baxter Line were made by some of these very campers. The Baxter Line governs itself.
It wasn’t until the next morning, after a frozen slumber, that this came clear, when I moved around in the darkness snapping photos and Peter Smith of Durham, N.H., stepped toward me.
“Who are you representing?” he asked.
“Well,” I explained, “I work for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media.”
And as I answered him, I considered my place in line, the fact that nobody saved it for me, and nobody was paying for my reservation. And I decided in that hour before dawn — and for the first time in 20 years of journalism — that in this moment, I was going to be a camper, too.
So I told him with a nod toward Dave’s yellow tent: “But during the 10 hours I slept in the parking lot, I was representing myself.”
Then I found the others at the front of the Line to see what they had to say. Since, in the end, it was a matter for the Line to decide.
“You deserve your place. You camped out,” Jackson said. “You earned it.”
And so it was that I secured Cabin One at Daicey Pond on a weekend in August, as well as a fuller appreciation for these strange but inspiring Baxter devotees. They are rabid about their retreat, even a bit crazy in their adoration. But a world of love comes together in a frozen parking lot in Millinocket each January.
“Will we see you next year?” Sarah Jackson asked before she and her father started the 10-hour drive back to New York.
There was but one answer to give by way of thanks: Quite possibly.
“Thought so,” she said.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: