Thursday, July 10, 2014

Go Big, or Go Tell it on a Mountain

I really like to hike.  Well sometimes I love to hike. And there are times when hiking and I wrestle our way toward some possible understanding of a beautiful symbiotic bond, which is really just a choke-hold, in an effort to avoid figuring out if I really have more of a love-hate relationship with hiking.   And I realized just after writing that statement there are a great many connections that we form with one another that might be choke-holds or loose, limp handshakes.  And at any given moment any one of us is puffing up and decorating and proclaiming symbiosis as we toast triumphantly at the suggestion, until we believe it to be true.  Ah yes, symbiotic relationships, something to strive for!  We ignore the fact that symbiotic relationships can be colored with the vibrant shades of mutualism, the paler shades of commensalism, and the muddy, dark shades of parasitism.  Hiking.  And me.

I decided to go for a hike on the 4th of July.  This was at one time a family tradition, when I was part of a family intact.  Continuing traditions is tricky business when you de-tact a family.  Several years out, it surprises me that I am still faced with trying to figure out which traditions to observe and honor. Some get released with ease and nary an after thought.  Others get held tightly to, the ones you carried in large brightly colored packages to share, the ones the children brought with wanderlust or humor, or the ones you offered from the fragile feathered wings of your own childhood memories; the making of silly turkey apples for Thanksgiving, opening the stockings first on Christmas morning, getting a new Easter outfit, no matter what, celebrating happiness, passing a hug through hands held at the dinner table…and honoring nature through hiking.

The 4th of July family hike tradition began after relocating to the Hudson Valley.  Not yet establishing barbecue buddies or having built that ever longed for tribe, the second family, the help-yourself-to anything best friends and neighbors, we needed to do something to celebrate July 4th.   It was evident there was a great deal to discover in the beautiful region known as “upstate” New York, where state and county parks are in abundance.   There was a great variety of hiking adventures easily available for a young family to explore, and so we did. 

Over the years more time was spent in the Adirondacks, and hiking took on a different role in my life.  It became a personal quest for me, and a saving grace.  I started hiking the High Peaks after finding myself fearful and anxious about a great many things.  I knew I needed to come to terms with my growing fears or boldly conquer them and quick.   I was surrounded by beautiful trails in the largest National Park system in the United States, but did not have the confidence or the stamina needed to hike worth a hill of beans, let alone attempt a hike that scaled 4000 plus feet.  In spite of my fears, or because of them, when I put my mind to something, I tend to live by the mantra “Go Big, or Go Home”.   I decided to take on the High Peaks and work towards becoming a 46er.   And so it is that I now have 23 High Peaks under my belt, and across my back, and on my shoulders…

Hiking these mountains has brought great pain and insurmountable amounts of giddy pride and pleasure.  I have gone to the mountains to enjoy the quiet solitude of nature.  I have gone other times with a heaviness of spirit and I have often come off the mountains with a lightened load. There have been times the mountains have reminded me that sometimes we choose what breaks us, and sometimes we are powerless to what gets in our way, but we need to continue on, one step at a time.  I have gone to the mountains to learn we can be made whole again.   I have talked to these mountains and begged for answers that would not come.  And I have been surprised to find out I had the answers all along, I simply needed to listen to the sound of quiet and hear the sound of my own strength.  At times I have retreated from the mountains after a successful climb, feeling beat and broken and lucky to be alive. Success is not always easily recognized, or measured, or celebrated.  But slowly after those hikes, as the mountain retreated from my sore muscles, my sweat soaked skin, my fatigued and hungry center, it left behind the reward of knowing I achieved something once thought too large for me to face.  My fears.  My worries. Gone.  Or carefully contained to guide, not stifle.

This July 4th hike almost did not occur for the very reason I started hiking.  I was feeling afraid, again, for reasons real and reasons recently built up in the at-times too fertile grounds of anxiety or uncertainty.  I broke my ankle and fibula at the end of December.  A do it yourself mix of physical therapy, grit and determination and the most beautiful chuckle of my orthopedic surgeon got me up and walking and mobile much faster than the prescribed 6 months that I was initially given to begin a modified exercise routine.  Considering a High Peak at that 6 month mark was, shall we say Going BIG.  Going Home, or, staying home was the fear that I was facing more each day.   I was not only going home a lot these days, I was staying home and ill at ease there. I have been spending too much time building up a sadness and loss that had suddenly revealed itself to be inevitable, that could not be altered easily, and that had no hope of landing me anywhere else but in a state of ill at ease.  It was time for acceptance and healing and moving on.  (And for you dedicated readers, it was, in great bounds of reality, time for sharpening back up my spurs and kicking up my heels and rounding up the next part of my journey with my lasso and a light hearted twirl, but you know, sometimes us cowgirls get a liking to someone and bunker down a little too easily on the ranch.)

I have decided to stay in the Adirondacks this summer.  The beauty of this land and the business of renovating my sweet little vacation home does not mask the reality of the often burgeoning isolation that comes with being here.   Though I have been coming to this area for a week or two here and there, and a great many more weekends over the past 20 years, I have always brought my own small community of family and friends with me and not established a local tribe.    I am starting to make efforts towards being a part of “place” wherever that place may be.  Slowly.  Which made going on a hike alone seem counterproductive.  And so I started adding a few more reasons why I shouldn’t go.  And then suddenly I could smell the familiar fragrance of that great big fear stew that I was slow cooking over the course of five or so pre-divorce years.   And that’s when I knew I absolutely needed to hit the trail, BIG. 

I packed lightly, which is not at all my style.  A few bottles of water.  Adirondack Extra Sharp cheese, naturally, salted pita chips, granola, dried fruit, a small journal, and my camera.  I typically carry a pack filled with enough water to survive an apocalypse, at least until the zombies find me. I tend to carry at least one strangely ethnic and exotic dehydrated pouch of food, Katmandu Curry, Caribbean Rice and beans, my mini-stove, flashlights, back-up flashlights, altimeter, mylar poncho, an extra shirt, assorted first aid items, a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and always regrettably, some 500 page book about hiking adventures and trails, or another that I have not once read on the trail, on the peak, or in a tent.  Yet somehow I never come down from the mountain lighter and fitter with my over-weighted bag.  Instead I come out with a shoulder strap burn lanced onto my neck, and muscle aches for a day or two following on muscle groups that I did not know existed prior to the hike.  I’m not even sure if those body parts with those new muscle pains do exist, or if the mountains aren’t choke holding parts of themselves onto me.  On this particular July 4th hike, as I set out, I flippantly decide to pack for a day trip, not as a survival hoarder prepping for Armageddon. 

According to one or two of the 500 page hiking books, Rocky Peak Ridge is the 20th highest mountain in New York State.  The route I took from US 9 is 13.4 miles round trip.  I added another mile just for kicks, or maybe, just maybe it was because I started back and got a little mixed up and found myself heading halfway up another peak before turning back.  I started with such joy as soon as I signed in at the trailhead.  Immediately, I remembered that other feeling related to being alone. Solitude.  I breathed it in deeply.  And I started exhaling, loss and doubt, fear and why me all over that mountain. And the two other peaks and paths along the way.  When I made it to the top of Blueberry Cobbles…(I know doesn’t that sound ducky? Charming and bucolic? Don't let it fool you, it's a tough climb, that’s how the mountains draw you in and smack you down.) I stopped and smiled widely.  The views were incredible.  I was excited and motivated to get to the top of Rocky Peak Ridge.  I wrote a message on a small flat rock and added it to a cairn.  I was marking off a year and releasing the pain and sadness associated with it, while also honoring the joy and truth of it. I walked on. If not lighter, more at ease.

I got to the summit of Bald Peak amazed that the views continued to astonish.  Lake Champlain, The Green Mountains of Vermont, Whiteface, The Dix Range…Onward.  Determined.  I was going to get this mountain before going home.  My pace up to this point was steady and on par with what I had read.  I stopped, more frequently than I typically do because the views were spectacular and I wanted to take them in with purpose, as opposed to checking them off as mere guideposts along the way.  The climb following Bald Peak was steep and offered continuous stretches of vertical open rock.  A rock scramble can often be a very liberal way of saying you will need to stick your hand in a small gash or jutted rock and pull your entire weight and that of your pack upwards, while praying hard, or believing wholeheartedly that your foot will fit into the other precariously positioned jutted rock or gashes on the side of the mountain that you are suddenly faced vertically with.  And you will need to do that a few more times, to ensure you don't fall off the side of that rambling old mountain.  Scoot, scramble, plop.

I went forward believing I must be getting close.  I was glad to finally see a couple ahead.  The first people I have seen in 5 hours.  They are panting down the trail slowly.  I say hello and ask, “How close?”  Before they could answer, I had a smug knowing smile that it must be minutes away.  They ask where I am headed, which is not the reply I expect.  Only to find I was now on the peak of Mason Mountain and I had at least another hour or two ahead of me.  I was sure they were delirious.  Daytrippers.  My topo map didn’t list Mason Mountain.  Probably suffering from altitude sickness, I thought as I went on. I have wanted this peak for close to five years now.  I was not going home without it.  I continued and came to the realization that those tired, seasoned experts I had passed earlier, were giving me the facts straight up. 

When I finally reached the peak I had realized my solitude enlightened self-talk had changed from sheer joy and determination to gritty expletives and a full-on telling it to the mountain.  I realized I had also been using a little bitty supply of anger to deal with the long drawn out inevitable ending of the brief and poorly devised relationship.  Sometimes anger can be a working methodology toward moving forward, but it can also slow us down and make us stuck.  On this peak, I could not get stuck.   I did not pack for stuck, I packed for big and home.  And as well, in my quest for joy and occasional stints of solitude with the right amount of abundant loving kisses and twirls in the moonlight, stuck is not going to get me very far on the trail of life that lies before me.

When I hike my goal is to Go Big, get the peaks, and go home accomplished and proud, if not stiff and immobile.  In spite of the grumbles I make coming down the path, the vows to be satisfied with the peaks I have already seen, and a certain amount of resolve to accept that I might in fact be finished.  I always leave happy, if not beat to heck by those solid masses of sheer hell wrapped up in beautiful.  I remind myself the cheering cries that the last runner in a marathon gets are often louder than the cheers the first runner receives.  I don’t mind crawling out of those blazed trails, I am always filled with self-satisfaction that I made it.  This time I am also filled with the right amount of self-recrimination for taking this trip a bit too lightly.  Two young men helped me find my way after missing a path and later on their way down, passing me at my snails pace they stopped to find out if I had enough food and water and a flashlight.  I had water and plenty of granola, but I did not have a light.  They left me one of theirs and reassured me that I still had 2 more hours of daylight.  I used up 1.59 hours of that daylight and crawled into my waiting car at 9:00pm.  Two hours over the expected time, but still not bad based on my decision to stop and leisurely enjoy the views, my still healing ankle and the amount of life shifting letting go and moving forward that had transpired. 

That night I wasn’t sure of my relationship with the mountain.  It was not until the next morning, when I realized, I was in fact still alive, and my legs were stiff but still functioning that I decided I love those mountains.  They don’t give a hoot about my carrying on.  They continue to offer me the chance to struggle and push myself to achieve great heights.  More than anything, they help me to remember my fears can be quieted.  The safety of finding my way home is the best part of the climb.

I've always hated the danger part of climbing, and it's great to come down again because it's safe.
  - Edmund Hillary

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