Only 250 miles north of Times Square, New York's highest peak rises in the still Adirondack wilderness. The summit of Mt. Marcy is 5,344 feet above sea level, and the rains that fall on it feed the clean headwaters of the Hudson River that, days later, murky with pollutants, flow by Manhattan to the sea. The river connects two different worlds, but Mountaineer Elmer S. (Mitch) Michaud fears they are slowly becoming one. On a stormy night last summer he huddled in a lean-to near the top of Mt. Marcy. Each time lightning whitened the sky he gazed out on a world of lonely peaks and valleys; between flashes he looked down at the state's highest garbage dump and, gradually, as the storm passed, there was nothing to be seen but the great heap of cans, bottles, cartons and other refuse left behind by previous hikers. For Mitch Michaud it was a vision of the future. That was why he was there. Mt. Marcy was the 30th stop on a nationwide mountain-appreciation course, Last week Michaud reached the summit of No. 50, Oregon's Mt. Hood (elev.: 11,245), and became the first man ever to attain the highest point in all 50 states in one calendar year. That out of the way, he descended and got a kiss from his mother.
"Maybe I'll bring a big bag of trash down from some mountain," he explained last March, "and if a reporter writes about it people will become aware of what's going on. Or suppose I stop at a gas station in Vermont and I tell the owner I've come all the way from Oregon to climb Mt. Mansfield. 'Well,' he might say, 'maybe there's something to this mountain stuff after all.' "
Many were puzzled by his explanations. There must be more to it than that, they said, and Michaud smiled. "It's like when you love someone," he replied rather coyly. "You can list all of the reasons, but does that really explain it?"
It turned out to be that kind of a year for Mitch Michaud. Few really understood, but that was nothing new. Michaud hears different drummers; fittingly, the name rhymes with Thoreau. Always an independent cuss, Michaud, at 40, seems about ready to follow the sage of Concord straight out of this world, a world that strikes him as being altogether too taxed, sprayed, enriched, subsidized and federally funded for his or his family's good. Last year he had the phone removed from his Portland, Ore. home. "If we want to make a call," he says, "we can go to a phone booth." The buzzing of the electric clock is starting to annoy his wife Mary Emma, or "Mem." Michaud's next project is to walk the Continental Divide from Alaska to the tip of South America. Then the Michauds may set out to look for land in the Yukon. There they would build their own house, make their own furniture and clothing, dispose of their own garbage and grow their own food. Organically, of course.
Michaud has been planning his escape for quite a while, and it is easy to see how modern society could get such a man down. Mountain climbing, though, is clearly one antidote. Michaud points out that no man is more independent, or conversely, more dependent on his own wits and skill than one who is dangling from a rope 2,000 feet up on a rock wall. Fortunately, Michaud's pleasure is also his work. He runs a mountaineering school, and his classroom is Mt. Hood, which he can sec from his bedroom window. It was on its slopes, with his students, that the idea for his 50-state expedition took form. It would be his last gift to civilization before he said goodby.
Last Jan. 12, when all the northern peaks were under snow, Michaud flew to Atlanta, where he picked up a car from Avis. Michaud may be an idealist, but he isn't impractical. He had swung a deal: free publicity in exchange for free transportation. He drove to Florida's panhandle for ascent No. 1. Florida isn't exactly the Switzerland of America, and its highest mountain isn't one. At a lofty 345 feet, it is the lowest of the 50 highest. The poor thing doesn't even have a name, but Michaud found it, a hump in the road near Fort Walton. "Don't laugh," he had said earlier. "You can get killed falling 10 feet." But in Fort Walton he got careless and just missed getting hit by a bus.
Alabama and Mississippi were next, peaks of 2,407 and 806 feet respectively, and Michaud was beginning to feel a little ridiculous. Then, in South Carolina, it began to snow—just what he had gone south to avoid. It was that kind of winter; kids were ice skating on Florida ponds. On the ice of North Carolina's 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell, the East's highest peak, Michaud finally had a workout, met other climbers and began handing out little packets of grass seeds. "I want to add something to the environment," he told the recipients, and by doing so he would be keeping his wallet green, too. The U.S.A. 1970 Summits Expedition was sponsored in part by the Oregon Grass Seed Growers Association, and Michaud carried what seemed like a ton of half-ounce grass-seed packets with him. He sprinkled seed on every summit and pressed a handful of packets on anyone who came within 10 feet of him. Wherever he went he sought interviews with local newspapers, and the growers' association paid him $100 for each state in which a story appeared mentioning the seeds.
Sixteen weeks and 17 more climbs passed before Michaud had to dangle from any ropes, but there were other, more mundane hazards. While searching for a route up Virginia's 5,720-foot Mt. Rogers, far back in the Blue Ridge, Michaud came upon a barefoot farm girl sitting on a rickety old porch. He stopped to ask directions. She darted into the house and emerged, wearing a garish coat of lipstick. He spoke; she replied in some weird dialect; he couldn't understand a word. Her father came out, saw them looking at each other and ran back into the house. Before he could return with a shotgun, Michaud took off for the hills.
Louisiana's highest peak is 535-foot Driskill Mountain in Arcadia. On arrival, Michaud went in a grocery store and inquired as to where he could find the mayor.
"Well, Ah don't know as we have a mayor here," the grocer said.