Sometimes, in order to be able to keep living with the knowledge of it all –the emaciated children, the chaotic climate, the debt ceiling, the S&P, the downed helicopters, the endless fighting, the everythingness of it and the almost-nothing you can do about it except write checks and write your Congresspeople and try to be a good person– you have to chuck it all and head to the mountains.
Go commando, which in this case means no t.v., no NPR, no newspaper, no wireless. Make your vow: a mountain a day.
Hope that at the end of the four days you will be better able to wade back into the fray. Hope that a small, still place inside will be able to stay small and still.
Begin at the beginning, at the base of the mountain. Old mountains. You should climb some new ones, you tell yourself. But you don’t want to. You just want these mountains, the ones you’ve scrambled up and down many times before. You want the same views you’ve known for years and years.
Snake Mountain, for example. Snake is a long, undulating mountain, an easy hike where you know you’re climbing but it’s a slow climb on a former logging road turned wide trail. You’ve hiked this mountain for many years, beginning when you were eighteen.
You used to hike it with a friend who always ran down at top speed. He was, and is, more mountain goat than human,which meant that he could not not run down that mountain.
You’ve hiked Snake Mountain in the late night with friends, a few of you carrying flashlights, the rest of you intent on keeping your footing in the faint, zagging lines of light.
Once, in January a few years ago, you were teaching nearby for two weeks. You had an unexpected six-hour break and you jumped in your car and drove over to Snake. It was late afternoon and the sun would set soon. You tromped up the boot-beaten trail as fast as you could, the last rays of the sun turning the snow to diamonds. You couldn’t make it to the top, though; it turned so dark, and you were alone, and you headed back down while you could still make out the trail.
Once, years ago, you and a friend headed up Snake in the late morning. At the first bend in the trail you encountered another hiker, a man wearing only hiking boots and known to you both now as Naked Man.
Once you and another friend climbed Snake at dawn in the late spring. This friend had climbed it and run it and skied it so many times that in his presence it felt like a different mountain, full of trails you’d never known about. He led, you followed. You had no idea where you were, but that didn’t matter. Once in a while he stopped and squinted and you knew he was figuring something out and after a minute he would point and then you were moving again.
Now it’s a summer day, hot and sticky, and you stand at the trailhead. Your phone has one bar. Despite the easiness of this hike, you text your sister where you are and that you should be back within a few hours. This is a routine you began many years ago, after you hiked up Mt. Washington on a gorgeous fall day. You were wearing a t-shirt and shorts and you had a sweatshirt and a water bottle and a granola bar and you were sweating. At the top a sudden blizzard started. Yes, that is what happens on Mt. Washington, and yes, you were that stupid person who thought it wouldn’t happen to you.
You almost always hike alone because not many of your friends like to hike, or are free to hike, or have the flexible schedule that you do, or can take their work with them on the road the way you can.
Your youthful companions deeply dislike hiking, to the extent that they have mutinied on several mountains in the past. If a bear comes along, don’t back away, you remember telling them once. Don’t run. Talk, sing, wave your arms. You assumed that this bear advice would scare them into staying with you –it was your big gun of a threat– but no. Given the choice between a possible bear and the effort required to reach the summit, they would take the bear.
About half an hour into a hike, that feeling you crave begins to spread inside you. It’s a kind of calm exhilaration. It’s the same feeling you get when you run, but it’s more intense. You’re climbing. You’re leaving the world behind. The sound of the road recedes. The sound of the birds intensifies. The wind is blowing the leaves of the trees and the higher you go, the stronger it blows.
Be fearless, you tell yourself. From now on, be fearless.
You don’t know why this word comes to you. You start to ask yourself what you mean by it and you instantly decide that instead of thinking, you will just listen.
Long ago you were afraid to run down this mountain. You used to watch your friend’s red head disappear below you on the trail. He ran fast, and he used to laugh as he ran. You hiked down like most people do, bracing your knees a little bit with each step.
There’s a lot to fear in the world. Pick your poison: Bears. Mountain lions. Avalanches. Snakes. Car crashes. Bridge collapses. Tunnel cave-ins. Tornadoes. Sickness. Failure. Financial ruin. Loss. Violence. Heartbreak.
You used to be afraid of things you’re not afraid of anymore. You remember one morning in particular, when you glanced out the window and saw a big black bird on the lawn, staring at you. You knew this meant that someone you loved was in great danger. All day you stalked around, trying to convince yourself that the omen wasn’t real. You had tiny children then and you didn’t know if you should take them out or if you should stay in. Was the danger outside the house, or was the danger inside, maybe down in a hidden, coiled pipe in the basement, a pipe that could explode?
That long-ago day passed without incident. No one, in the end, was hurt.
But you were, you think now, as you make your way up and up, through the green and shining trees. You were hurt. All that worry hurt you, and all that fear. All that wondering how you could possibly stop whatever was going to happen from happening, when you didn’t even know what was going to happen.
It’s better to let go. Think of your friend who knew Snake so well, all the hidden trails, and how you didn’t think at all. You just trusted, and followed.
Here are the final yards of the hike, where the loam turns to grass. You’re almost at the summit. You’re still in trees, but you know from all the years you’ve hiked this mountain that only a few feet away is a view that will take your breath away. A group of men stands just ahead of you, gazing out at that view that you still can’t see.
There is so much to be afraid of, if you let yourself be afraid. Take these men, this bunch of silent men standing on top of the mountain. Hikers, like you, right? Of course. But if you let yourself be afraid, you could tell yourself that you’re alone, a woman, and they’re a bunch of men, and there’s no one else around. If you go down that dark path in your mind, you could start imagining all kinds of things, things that would make you freeze where you stand.
If you let yourself be afraid like that, walk through the world in fear, you might turn around right now, before you even step out onto the rock of the summit, before you even shade your eyes and look west. You would hope they hadn’t noticed you. You would tell yourself that you could hide in the woods if you had to, climb a tree if you had to.
Be fearless. You push on through the last few feet and emerge into the open sunlight. The men turn, and you say hello, and they say hello, and then all of you turn back to look at the view.
That view. The Champlain valley spreads out below. To the west, across the river, are the Adirondacks where you grew up. Here, in the Green Mountains, they rise in the distance, a smoky blue-green.
You hold out your phone to the closest man.
“Take my picture?” you ask him.
On the way back down you think of your redhaired mountain goat friend, running. What were you afraid of? Falling? Why didn’t you even try? How hard could it be?
Not at all, as it turns out.
The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away. . .
Despite the fact that I would never hike a mountain, never force myself to examine why, and am more likely to use my six hour breaks to rush to the beach, I read this and thought: she and I are exactly the same. I wonder how you do that.
Phew! What a joyous climb. I was with you every stepof the way!
Quite possibly just what I needed to read today–this resonated in more ways than I can say. I’m so glad you ran down in the end!
oh, how often fear has stood between me and the top of the mountain — but with age, I’ve found there is so much less fear and so much more joy than ever before. Now if I don’t get to the top, it is more likely because I dawdled along the way, looking at things close at hand which are equally compelling to what my sister and I always called “The BTV”*. Thanks for a wonderful post.
*=breath taking view
As we were driving through the Shenandoah mountains the other day, we picked up an older couple hitching a ride into town to get new boots and food as they hiked the Appalachian trail, an endeavor which was taking half a year of their retired lives. I was so jealous! When I said I would still love to do at least part of it someday, the male half of their marital team said it’s doable at that age as long as you maintain a basic level of fitness throughout life. I think he gave me a skeptical look, which I chose to ignore. I don’t know if I’ll ever do the whole Appalachian trail (methinks the male half of my marital team would object heartily, not to mention my knees), but Snake Mtn seems a doable goal and I shall now place it upon my list.
I refuse to believe that my youthful companion will not enjoy walking as much as his mother, and am in fact about to start training him on hills (aka goofing around in the woods) so that he’s ready when we hit the mountains. He seems to have mountain-love in his blood already (the excitement of seeing a wild bear didn’t hurt), so I don’t think it will be much of a problem.
And I shall work on training myself to be more fearless.
this post took me back to so many hikes I have taken myself, and the beauty of them.
Beautiful written, I felt like I was right with you on this Snake Mountain hike… and Naked Man – hahaha too funny! So wonderful that you’ve got so many lovely memories from this spot.
You are lovely, so glad you got them to take your picture. And how beautifully it goes with the poem before too.
Thanks for these responses, you lovely people you. So good to know you’re out there.