It’s still dark in Millinocket and the temperature is minus 14. Mount Katahdin looms to the north, but it won’t be visible for another couple of hours.

At 5 a.m. Wednesday the town is quiet. But there’s a stirring behind Baxter State Park headquarters on Balsam Drive. A dozen people mill around in the dark, too cold for much conversation. The hardy ones stayed overnight in tents. Others stayed at nearby motels or, like me, left home in the wee hours of the morning to get a good spot in line.

It’s a yearly ritual that confounds most who hear about it, but those who go to Baxter State Park headquarters the one day a year when the entire park is thrown open for camping reservations know it’s worth it.

You may be thinking, wow, 14 below, that’s cold. Yeah. It is.

But in a few — OK, maybe more than a few — months it’ll be warm; the cold, dark, sleepless morning will be far away; and those who braved it will be standing at the top of Mount Katahdin, drifting in a canoe on Daicey Pond, gazing at the view from the summit of North Traveler or just sitting in a lawn chair at the edge of the woods, enjoying the peace.

Percival Baxter, who created the park and donated its first land, said, “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”

Baxter made sure when the park was created it would remain “forever wild.”

That stipulation — not just for Katahdin, but the entire park — means nature unspoiled. The best Maine has to offer.

Unspoiled, though, comes with a price.

Park restrictions are unforgiving, including how many people can camp there at a time.

The Baxter State Park Authority rolling reservation system allows campers to make reservations for the park’s 10 campgrounds online, by phone, in person at the park or by mail four months before their trip. Not a day earlier. That system starts Thursday

The day before, this one glorious day in January, reservations can be made for any site until the park closes in October.

What’s the catch?

Only 20 percent of each campground for each day the park is open can be reserved on open reservation day. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t.

What it meant for my family this year — hampered by scheduling, health and sheer numbers — was that we needed a specific campground a specific week of the year. If one other person reserved a site at the campground at the same time we wanted it, we were out of luck. There was no wiggle room.

Those arriving for open reservation day sign in on a clipboard, noting the time they arrived. Wednesday’s signup started Monday with those who camped out.

By 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, 25 people had signed up. I was number 23.

The atmosphere is friendly, congenial. But the line is sacrosanct. No cuts, no saves. And you stay in it, no matter how cold it is, until the door opens at 7 a.m.

Wednesday, because it was so cold, the rangers opened the doors a half-hour early, at 6:30. Those walking through the door are handed a number — their rank for when reservations start at 8.

So that guy who arrived 11 p.m. Tuesday, but at 6:30 was sitting in his car to stay warm? That overly cheerful couple who bopped over to McDonald’s for breakfast when it opened at 6? They lost their spots.

I was suddenly number 21.

Open reservation day isn’t a day for fanciness and glamour. Hat hair, worn fleece and flannel-lined pants are the look of choice.

The first question is always, “What time did you get here?” The second is, “What are you trying for?”

The campgrounds closest to Katahdin fill up first. August is the most popular month.

After making their reservations, most of those who got there early enough come out of the inner office grinning, receipt in hand.

“Did you get it?” those waiting ask.

The earlier the arrival, the more likely the answer is yes. Those waiting seem genuinely happy for the success of those before them.

The old-school, no frills, feel-good ritual is pure Baxter.

The park is a throwback: no wi-fi, spotty and mostly non-existent cell service. No electricity, except what generators provide at the rangers’ offices.

No running water, potable water, flush toilets or showers. No garbage cans. Carry it in, carry it out.

No RVs, Jet Skis, motorboats, motorscooters or ATVs. A rules change proposed this year excludes drones.

It takes forever to get there, no matter where you live. Once you’re inside — and don’t try to bring the dog or an extra person — it’s another long drive at 10 mph on rocky dirt roads to the campground.

A neighbor told my parents before our family went for the first time in the early 1970s, “It’s a pain to get there, but once you’re there? Shangri-la!”

Shangri-la wasn’t a real place. It was a made-up paradise where everything was beautiful and harmonious. Baxter is better than Shangri-la, because it’s real. Pure, clear water; sunlight filtering through endless, endless trees; not one mountain, but dozens. Want numbers instead of feelings? More than 40 ridges and peaks, including Katahdin, of course, and 215 miles of hiking trails.

The biggest traffic issue we ever encountered at Baxter was the time a moose stood in front of our car for half an hour, ignoring our honking, yelling and arm-waving.

The whole process from getting the right campsite to getting to that campsite is hard. It should be hard, because if something so fantastic was easy it would be a sin.

What’s easy is being there.

No matter what’s going on in the world that day, most of the conversation on reservation day while campers wait for their number to be called revolves around Baxter: favorite campgrounds, the pros and cons of what month to go, moose encounters, which hikes are the best.

Nearly five hours after I arrived Wednesday my number was called. It took less than five minutes to wrap up the reservation.

“Well?” those waiting outside the outer officer asked as I came out.

I waved the receipt. “I got it!”

It’s now 1 degree outside, but it just doesn’t feel that cold anymore.

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]maine.com. Twitter: mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.