The Ghost Path Hunters of Mount Desert Island



The morning after I met with Matt Marchon, I drove to another unmarked trailhead to meet Tom St. Germain, the undisputed preeminent chronicler of Mount Desert Island’s trails, phantom or otherwise. His deeply researched 1993 book, Trails of History, has fetched prices upward of $500 on used-book websites, a fact that we found mutually astonishing. A restaurateur by trade, the 54-year-old St. Germain wore a close-cropped military-style haircut and rectangular glasses. He looked distressingly fit. We were scheduled to hike a mere five miles of abandoned trail that day, but the following morning, he told me, he planned on tackling a 31-mile run through the park, entailing 11,550 feet of elevation gain and traversing 25 different mountain peaks.

By the time I met him, St. Germain had become a minor celebrity to me. During my time on Mount Desert Island, his hiking guide A Walk in the Park (I couldn’t afford Trails of History) had served as a kind of sacred text, leading me along many of my own favorite marked and maintained paths. Trails of History, however, broke genuinely new ground. Building on the efforts of “trail bandits”—the 1980s epithet for those who sought to find and restore old trails—Trails of History was the first historical account of how Mount Desert Island’s path network was constructed. St. Germain and his coauthor, Jay Saunders, spent years in archives up and down the East Coast, poring over old maps and guides. St. Germain read every Bar Harbor newspaper published over a seven-decade period. By the time the pair finished writing, they had spent some $28,000 over the course of their research. Sales from the first edition amounted to $27,000.

Given his intimate relationship with the island—St. Germain is on the Bar Harbor Planning Board, as well as the board of the Bar Harbor Historical Society—I expected him to be particularly sensitive to local concerns. But for St. Germain, the question of secrecy had long been moot. “There’s no such thing as a secret place anymore. There simply isn’t. The evolution of trail maps has taken a completely different turn than I ever anticipated 20 or 30 years ago.”

The widespread use of open-source GIS software and other map-building tools, he argued, had created a cartographic environment in which “maps create themselves.” He cited the example of Strava, which, in addition to ranking users according to performance, tracks their GPS data as they walk, run, or cycle. If he were to record himself hiking an unmarked route in Acadia, that data would then be uploaded to Strava’s database, in effect sketching a map as he travels. (As it happens, he holds trail-running records for hundreds of different routes on Mount Desert Island.)

“There’s no such thing as a secret place anymore. There simply isn’t.”

St. Germain took me on an old, unmarked route leading up the eastern face of Cadillac Mountain’s south ridge, a granite trail riddled with eroded, baseball-sized depressions, and told me about an aborted book project. It was to be called Hidden in Plain Sight and would have finally laid out in print the full extent of Mount Desert Island’s abandoned paths. The problem was, according to St. Germain, that the project would have already been rendered superfluous by the time he completed it, the trails no longer hidden.

“People who are reading about something on some social media and say, ‘I have to do this lost trail in Acadia,’ they go out and find it, because it’s not that hard,” he said. “There are a hundred different descriptions on how to find starting points and ending points, and then, once you get out there, the more it gets used, the easier it gets to follow someone else’s footprints.” Once the secret is out, in other words, there’s a kind of snowball effect—use begets use on an app like Strava, of course, but also in the very dirt of the trail itself.

As he spoke, I began considering how much of our hike I wanted to divulge when I sat down to write this article. How would I eventually go about describing this trail? What clues would I give—even unintentionally—about its course? Would I provide the trail’s name? What did I owe to the local community, if anything? What did I owe to the park and its history? What did I owe to the trail itself? 

I was still mulling these questions when we returned to the trailhead. There was now a third car parked beside our vehicles, on an otherwise nondescript stretch of undeveloped road. Its license plate was labeled “New Hampshire.”

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