I might consider putting together a journal of adventures with a focus on hiking; Hiking Your Way Through A Mountainous Mind. Hike And Purge. Hike To Purge. Nature’s Bounty For The Faint Of Heart. Hike Your Psyche Clear. Mindless Mountain Meanderings. Maybe not.
The thing about hiking is, it’s so serene. Solitude all around. Meditative Silence. Deafening screaming silence so that all you have to do is watch your footing with extreme caution for a ½ hour or so between an hour or two here and there left to think all the weird, strange, and random things one might be thinking at any given time. Sometimes the formula is reversed, and in between the hour long treacherous, high concentration and focused attention needed for jockeying upwards, or downward, you are briefly walking through beautiful green verdant paths (you just have to say green verdant paths like that whenever you can). Here in the Adirondacks, these are the very paths traversed by James Fennimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. And my God, did they capture the meditative solitude of these places, or what?
We can never have enough of nature…….
the wilderness with it’s living and decaying trees….
We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
- Henry David Thoreau.
I’ll put these great writings in historical perspective for you. We were at that time a young country. All that green, expansive “free”, not yet forever wild landscape was just there for the exploring. Incredible. Well if you were a man, with time on your hands and either a trust fund or a penchant for poverty. In the 1800’s, the cities that bore, or housed, or educated, even temporarily, such great writers, and presented opportunities for them to form and share their cultured and revered viewpoints, were toxic, filthy landscapes resulting from an industrial revolution, frenetic commerce and the contamination of overcrowded immigrant ghettos. Finding nature and spending time in it was quite daring, and quite unheard of. It was also an adventurous leisure activity afforded to very few. And so they wrote about it as though they were touching the hand of God. And so it is when you hike in the serene and green forests of this world.
Thoreau might consider me a foolish woman, if he were to read what follows, but he wouldn’t be the only one that considers me so. There are times when the mountains provide opportunity for me to consider thoughts deep and troubling, or to simply appreciate the surrounding grandeur, and there are times when nature is simply a backdrop to consider random, small thoughts and follow them on their short, trailless paths to places that unfold before me.
In deciding to go wilderness camping as part of my most recent hike, I must pack for it. I attempt not to overpack. But of course I do.
Contents of pack:
· Sleeping bag, lightweight (and not very warm)
· Fresh undies
· Extra socks
· Flashlight(s) 1 headlight, 1 clamp-on, and 1 mini high beam (yes 3, because last time I didn’t pack 1)
· Assorted and random first aid supplies; band-aids, bacitracin ointment, 2 ace bandages, 3 soft ankle braces, alcohol wipes, tweezers
· (2) Long sleeve shirts, (1) tank top, string bikini (yes, that should scare you, but it has life saving qualities, string, and it packs much lighter than the tankini with maximum coverage. I’m alone in the woods for heavens sake? Who’s going to see me? and in a pinch it can serve as a sling shot!)
· Portable single burner stove with gas assembly
· Tin cup (or whatever other California safety standard approved material is now used)
· Swiss army knife (that I can’t open because my fingernails start out broken, or break while trying to pull out the assorted knives, scissors, back-scratcher, crochet needles, corkscrew, zipper-pull or whittling tool)
· Kindle Fire (yes, I know)
· 2 Maps
· Compass (that I don’t really know how to use to be able to walk from one peak to another but I can tell you which way is southeast or northwest)
· Altimeter (that I forgot to set at the start of the trailhead, so it is now useless, except for the barometer, which I don’t remember how to read the numbers that warn of rain)
· Extra sneakers (an indulgence I allow this time)
· Camel-pack filled with water
· Extra water
· Food (suffice to say it’s a diverse assortment)
· Water proof case
· Cell phone
· Extra batteries
· 6 Pages from a hiking book (which leads to my first random thoughts)
For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my hikes of late are not greatly planned out. Which is sort of OK, I think. I use to plan ad nauseum, and end up just as unprepared, or over-prepared for the wrong set of events. One theme that has not changed, however, resonates in Thoreau’s words; We need to witness our own limits transgressed. Hiking continues to be a place that I challenge my self-imposed limits and push myself further. And as a result, I often figure out something that is troubling my soul, or learn how to let go of the weight of some such other trouble. It is a place to visit and let go of life’s trivialities. It is a place I get to pull up fond memories and smile gently recalling where and with whom I have journeyed. It is a place that I am able to push myself physically without measuring myself up against anyone else. The conflict of my story is ever present: woman against self, woman against nature, woman against others…..or more so, woman with self, in nature, supported by others.
I notice after parking, I have developed, or by now really honed this touching quirk I have. Not touching, as in tender, or moving, but touching as in feeling, moving, rifling through, and fidgeting with materials I may carry. I do this with my purse before I leave my car, while in a restaurant, or at the grocery store, usually to find my debit card with the growing fear of not being able to pay for whatever provisions are needed. I always find it. I always pay my way but I seem to need or enjoy building up this tense, sweat-filled angst that I can create instantly by frantically searching. I find myself doing it with my pack before heading to the trailhead to sign in. It functions as a way to stall, perhaps, in the hopes that I come to my senses and head home, or to a sauna for a massage, or to a lovely restaurant serving local seasonal foods and home brewed beers. It also functions as a way to worry out or in, all my fears, in the event this is the time I misstep and fall to my death, or trip on a twisted root and fall onto a jagged rock and bleed to death, alone. But happy, I always imagine. “She died in the woods on a hike. She was happiest there.” I picture someone saying, and others nodding knowingly, comforted by this thought. But today I think, well, I will be happy to have been hiking, but I don’t think I will feel happy enduring such unimagined pain knowing if I hadn’t wasted all that time fidgeting around, I would have been better equipped and much more alert to avoid the dangers that lead to my imagined death. This time, as I’m touching everything around my car, and making sure I have everything I need, I decide to rip 6 pages out of the hiking book and leave the 8 pound book behind. Progress, I tell myself, and a slightly lighter pack. It might even save my life. I sign in and begin.
As much as I question of late, why I continue to put my aging knees and ankles through this, each hike offers different views, and different experiences, and a great sense of achievement. The hike I have planned loosely for today includes four more high peaks; Seymour, Seward, Donaldson and Emmons and starts in Franklin County. It is my first High Peak hike outside of Essex County. I have not spent much time in and around Saranac Lake and I enjoy the ride through. The economy seems to be booming. New shopping plazas, road construction, and crowded roads surprise me. The views of the mountains from my car window are beautiful and they reassure me.
Since I decided to spend the night, I treat myself to a later start. As I am touching everything earlier, I decide to forego the tent and just take the hammock. It will be my first time using a hammock on a wilderness trek and my back is happy in knowing I won’t be sleeping on a rocky, unmoving patch of ground. My pack is heavy but not unbearably so. Off I go, my back now feeling a bit stronger, a little cocky even, and straighter in spite of the weight of the pack.
The trail for the first 5 or 6 miles is fairly moderate. Leafy, soft paths, some mud, a few rocks jutting through. I pass a pond, and a lean-to site before reaching the cairn that marks the way up. These mountain peaks are reached by what is known as “trailless peaks”, the term reminds me of another expression, but I can’t quite remember it just now. As I start hiking, with very little challenge, I start to think about the sacrilege that transpired earlier at my car. I ripped pages from a book. This is not an act I do often. Ever? (I have ripped a recipe from a magazine in a waiting room once, maybe even twice.) Stranger still, I am one of those crackpots that buy books from yard sales, book fairs, and library book sales, with the intent that I will use the pages for some art project or another and then can’t bring myself to destroy the contents. Books I purchase to read, are done so because I have a very tenuous relationship with libraries. Thus begins the limits revealed in today’s contemplative reflection and my journey toward transgressive healing.
Why do I have such a devout and righteous relationship with books I wonder. I remember the beginnings of my deep veneration toward books. There was a time, not very long ago when most people did not buy so many books. They frequented the library. Of course many still do, but many more frequent Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or the few and far between local bookstores to purchase books which eventually get donated, and/or resold in a variety of venues to those of us that don’t go to libraries or have big dreams of repurposing pages from books.
Growing up with modest means, did not allow for the frivolities of book purchasing. And if I had to decide on buying a book as a young one, or some sweet gooey confection from Walter’s Bakery, or Rainbow Bakery, or any other shop or supermarket with gooey confections, that’s where I could be found supporting the local economy. Had I known my metabolism was secretly building up a tolerance before aggressively unleashing it’s disturbing menopausal midriff redistribution plans, perfect for supporting a book or two, I might have bought books instead. Anyway, I went to the library for books, not the bookstore. You may not rip pages from library books. You may not fold down the edges, drool chocolate on the pages of, or otherwise damage library books. Or you are fined and must pay. It is one of your first lessons in responsibility, if you go to the library as a child and get a library card. In your name. What a wonderful thing to have! (A name, as well as a library card.)
I was an early reader but I had a relationship with books that ran hot and cold. I loved children’s books consistently however, and into my middle school years for the comfort, the illustrations and occasionally, the stories. It was the illustrations that I pored over across many summer nights. I examined or delighted in every detail of picture book illustrations. I might have also used them to serve as an attempt to slow down the passage of time, or come to terms with growing up, and older. I recall walking to the library in my once hometown of Copiague, Long Island and moving between the children’s room, the YA section and the music collection, leaving with Stephen Bishop’s Greatest Hits, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You by Joan Walsh Anglund and Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Next time, perhaps, Neil Diamond or Boz Scaggs, Babar and Father Christmas, or maybe any and all things Sendak, how I loved Maurice Sendak!, and My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel. I tried Walden at this time too, but I was not ready. The passage of time would be necessary to attempt such a literary masterpiece. I had started to accumulate poetry books from sales or the discard piles at school or library sale tables. Edna, Emily, Robert. Classics. I would pretend the children’s books were for someone I was babysitting for…if asked… ever. I was not. And I hoped my sister, my roommate, would not notice or remark on my still being “such a baby”…she did not….ever. But in life, as in hiking, it is best to be prepared.
I go on walking and thinking, and finding my way around, or over, or knee deep in the mud. Occasionally, I can let out a solitary, “Fuck!” in the middle of the woods, where I see no one for hours or sometimes a day. And I imagine, between contemplative, admirable and reflective thoughts, Emerson and Thoreau might have come unexpectantly across a briar patch, an angry yellowjacket or a well disguised sinkhole and needed to release some such expletive that in no way minimized or broke their love of nature. What with all that reflective thought making and dreamy observations being had… It is best in hiking, as well in life, not to keep unpleasantries inside to fester and cloud your vision or spoil your afternoon. It was a rookie move. Footprints on the top of the mud could have been made in much cooler and drier days, and preserved perfectly for weeks or months. It is best to step lightly to ensure the ground beneath is firm enough to hold you, to avoid entering a mud pit that might be knee, or two or three feet deep, the same for mossy patches at the edges of shady ridges. Rot has a way of leaving behind only the top most layer that might appear quite solid but is actually waiting for a snails sneeze to reveal erosion before a spider can say “Gesundheit!” Isn’t that the way it works in life at times? All that outward seeming perfection might be delicately and feebly covering all types of instability and uncertainty. Ah, thoughts for another time, or to simply let go of.
My sporty little trail shoes manage quite nicely, surprisingly, through the mud. All that breathable, brightly colored mesh! A quick and purposeful splashing around the next brook washes off the mud and muck and my socks and shoes are sure to be dry within an hour. I continue, revisiting my act of destruction with my hiking book this morning. Or really my great trepidation, and guilt surrounding it.
I currently live next door to a library. A gem of a place. Two of the all time best librarian’s are employed here. They are the ambassadors of welcome for those of us fortunate enough to land in this little gem of a hamlet on the Hudson. And I use the term “land” with great serendipitous spirit. Many a wonderful person has landed here, perplexed and shell shocked only to find this is the very place they always belonged. When the stork drops you off at birth, Winkin, Blinkin and some dude named Nod carries you in some transitory cloud of puffy white comfort and offers you all swaddled in comfort. When that same stork picks you up at some other turning point in your life and drops you off somewhere for your second, or third, next act, it’s up to you to create some level of comfort, to see the magic and welcome the smiles and enjoy the well-placed snark and spirited aplomb of these very library muses or some such folk put in your path. And so I did. One such library sprite, is well aware of my deeply felt unsavory library past. I think she loves me anyway, or kindly tolerates me at least.
It started like this:
The Copiague Memorial Library lent me many a book, for a summer or two. And one or two or maybe in total 4 or 5 of these books failed to accompany me on my way back. They were not lost, as much as treasured. And then suddenly they were unforgivably “late”. At this point in my story, the path comes to a fork and you can get to the summit either way but the view is different and the demands of the trails vary. I will offer both.
I start to consider, after recalling my sense of the “unforgiveable” lateness of library membership responsibility and my path changes. Now my thoughts are traveling through the sinful acts of children. I think how odd to have felt the weight of this or any “sin” at such an early age. And I know, this might seem a little dramatic, but I was a child at the time these thoughts were formed and so a child-like weight was attached to them. Here’s the thing, ready? I know this is not considered one of the 7 deadly sins. And I don’t imagine a photo of me at nine or ten imprinted, or stamped, with the words Library Sinner exists in the archives in the damp and dusty backrooms or inner sanctum of the Copiague Memorial Library or Our Lady of Annunciation Church for that matter, which has no direct affiliation with the library, but that they are both places to worship one book or many in the seaside town of Copiague. But then I start wondering about sins and children and the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, because well, I have the time, and the path is pretty easy still.
Sinning and childhood typically consists of very few options. Most little ones are not doing much killing at seven or eight when we first go to confession before receiving our first communion. We aren’t too interested in interacting physically with anyone else unless it involves a hug from our parents or hitting someone and yelling, “You’re It” before running fast. So the long, detailed list of anything related to sins of the skin, or anything sexually associated is fairly irrelevant at seven or eight when we begin to go to confession. The Sabbath day observation is still part of our weekly routine and we aren’t yet aware that we may one day become separate, independent thinkers that can choose to test the validity of whether we will have a time share in purgatory that we sell AND profit from, or if the market might crash and we are stuck with that condo in the second coming of Detroit for the long haul. (Sorry, did I explain this is a 28 mile trek and I’m only now at 1. 4 miles in? Go get a handful of goop and relax…what else is there to do in the middle of all this green verdant vibrancy?) So we go to church, do we love every moment of it? Is it something we sin about? I think I did love every minute. But not so much for pious and saintly reasons. I liked counting the hats, and the bald men. Sometimes I liked poking or nudging either one of my brothers or gently but annoyingly pushing my bony knee into my sister, knowing they couldn’t yell out or tell on me so I would be feeling pretty darn getting away with murderish….Oh I guess that probably was a sin. But it was a tacit understanding, and we all bothered each other just enough to not illicit great bolts of lightening and thunder from an angry God, parent, or parishioner. On second thought, I don’t think that was much of a sin after all. It was a focused use of our time, and we couldn’t see the priest from over the heads of those in front of us, or make much sense of the words we could understand. Blessed are the children for being inventive and productive users of time.
I confessed of lying about eating the last cookie, maybe half a cake, once, or being mean to my two brothers and my sister, and to my mother. My father, had that penetrating look, and he also came bearing Hershey bars on occasion, but mostly he was at work and not within proximity to bother. I went on about my week cleansed with a few Hail Mary’s and the attention span of a gnat fueled with Coca-Cola, gooey sweet confections and all things sugar. My sins did not much change or otherwise deepen in darkness or intent. And so I journeyed until I reached the beginning stages of autonomy and responsibility. The Library. Changed. All That.
Suddenly, I was a coveting, gluttonous, sloth over night. Three deadly sins in one fell swoop. I looked at those picture books and couldn’t get enough. Gluttony. I would lie in my bed, many a summer night, falling asleep with the rhyming cadence of Joan Walsh Anglund or just before reaching the lyrical punch of Maurice Sendak. Unmoving, sleeping, sloth. And I could not part with these books at times. Coveting my libraries limited resources. By now I was anywhere between 10 and 13. And I am quite certain these books and this library kept me from having to deny my not yet sexual blooming. My late blooming self and that library saved me from potential for all manner of sins that would otherwise be manifesting in my suddenly developing hips. It turns out reading Catcher in the Rye, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, My Darling My Hamburger, or Zooey and Franny does not, in itself, lead to sin of a sexual nature.
So now, let’s try the other path of this thought process.
I start to wonder what if sins and sinning were not introduced as something to refrain from at such an early age? If the Catholic Church spent more time teaching about sexual education from an educational perspective I think it could inform and direct behavior more so than the belief that worrying that the teaching of sex will open the flood gates of sexual sin making. At this very early age I was taught about sinning and expected to confess. I was taught to believe I was a sinner and I possessed some very fertile grounds for sinning. If children believed instead, that their burgeoning autonomy could be the fertile grounds for world peace, or humanistic service, and understood that their bodies were sacred and needed to be respected and cared for I just kinda think it might create a world less bent on assuring pain and suffering. I don’t know, it just seems like a better approach, that’s all.
The paths join together here, and I recall trying to determine how to remedy the sins associated with botching up my library card responsibility and how I was to avoid facing the wrath of some vengeful God or pursed-lipped librarian. So I do what most of us do when faced with turmoil. Nothing. I did nothing. I kept the books safe at home. I probably stop enjoying them because they are “wrong” to have. Weeks turn into months, maybe reaching just beyond the year mark. One day I am riding my bike and a sign at the library catches my attention. Library Amnesty Day. I circle the block. Go back, ride passed slowly. What could this mean for me? I am convinced by now, I will have to be an indentured servant at the library to pay my growing fees. This doesn’t actually bother me I am heartily sorry to say. It will permit me access to inner sanctums. The adult section. The children’s room without shame or my prepared story of feigned altruism to help the young children I may babysit. But Amnesty?
This was big. Monumental. It was after all 1972 or 1973. Amnesty. That was something you heard about on the news. To grant pardons. Amnesty was being greatly debated regarding pardoning draft dodgers, conscientious objectors to a war that was by then unsupported and hard to justify. Perhaps one of the librarians or a board member decided to apply the term to those library members that were book return dodgers in an effort to safely welcome home those books that did not otherwise know how to make their way back. I didn’t really object to returning the books conscientiously, I just didn’t know how to face my irresponsible behavior. After being entirely certain, even asking in that third person way, “So if someone had books that were late….. they could return them without fees?” I asked. I went on to ask, “Does it matter how late?” Yes and No was answered, in that order and confirmed it for me. That same afternoon I proudly returned those books as though I was clearing the conscience of all book lovers that stay too long at the book borrowing party.
I was redeemed, but not reformed. I spent many more days in other communities awaiting amnesty days that never came. I have paid a couple of fees that were more expensive than the value of the price of a first edition signed copy. And then I began avoiding libraries for the most part the way a recovering alcoholic avoids bars and liquor stores. When I buy a book I don’t fold down the pages or mistreat it, but I don’t worry about it either. Invariably a favorite book might have signs of use that make me feel the weight of all sins, occasional chocolate drool, maybe a coffee ring on the cover…but pages are not ever torn out.
So there I was heading out and attempting to pack lightly and there was that Adirondack Journal in my trunk that is well worn. It has been on several hikes, regretfully, because now the edges of the pages are stained from a campsite coffee spill in an attempt to cook an ambitious meal of Caribbean Jerk Chicken on a single burner stove balanced on a small stone near a freshly brewed cup of coffee. That was a trip that was greatly and successfully planned out, and so I had no reason to bring that book all that way, through the trails of the Great Range, except I imagined after walking 16 miles with a pack, setting up camp, finding water to filter through my filter gizmo, and cooking, I would need something to read to help me fall asleep, ha-ha-hummmmmm..zzzzzzz. The next day an unexpected rain storm caused flash flooding and we found ourselves walking chin deep through the brook that was barely ankle deep the morning before. The book was soaked through and dried out over several days. The pages are indeed warped, and coffee stained.
There it sat in my car, still warped and coffee stained 4 years and 18 peaks later and it was difficult to rip out the pages I needed, only six of them, to make my pack less cumbersome. But rip them out I did. I brought my kindle, thinking it was light weight and could meet a few needs. I could write down my thoughts and even read one of my books that evening in my hammock. If I had planned better, I could have downloaded a GPS app, and the entire book that now sat in my trunk six pages fewer. It felt a sin to rip those pages out just the same. This hike will redeem me, but I’m not sure if I will be reformed.
I signed up for a card at the Essex Library last November. I thought I could start over. Library Grace. I took out a few books. Then I was injured and temporarily immobilized and my trips North stopped. A call from the librarian reminding me of the terms of borrowing, highlighted this new wisdom: in life, and in libraries, you can’t always be prepared. The librarian then asked, sweetly without judgment or indignation, “Would you like to renew?”. Wow, that’s even better than Amnesty! It has been offered as well by my neighbors, the best librarians in the world.
Hiking is like that. Renewal. An offering of varied viewpoints throughout. No late fees or fines for staying an extra day or two. And like that rare favorite book, you can sometimes come across something that you have seen before and suddenly see it new. I will repurchase a copy of the hiking journal, Exploring the 46 Adirondack High Peaks by James R. Burnside and grant myself amnesty for ripping out the pages. I will hike more and read when I have the time. I will visit the library, and enjoy the possibility of grace, redemption and renewal. So please, support your local library and enjoy the adventures of a good book, and get outside and create some adventures of your own in nature.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
(You don't suppose he would think I was a nut, do you?)