En route to affirmation
Collecting thoughts on the trail to Dial and Nippletop mountains
ST. HUBERTS — I’m writing this story while hiking the trail up Bear Den Mountain en route to Dial and Nippletop.
Well, not actually. I’m typing it up on my work computer, sitting in a comfortable office chair and digging the dirt out of my fingernails with a paperclip. But when I started writing this story, in my head, I was sweating my way up the Leach Trail with two friends from high school.
Jon DiCrasto and John Pappano have been coming up to the Adirondacks to hike the High Peaks regularly since I moved here a little more than two years ago, and we’re all now over halfway to attaining that oh-so-coveted and life-affirming 46er status.
I didn’t move up to the Adirondacks to hike. I moved here to write. The Enterprise was the first job I landed out of college. The job is great, let me be clear, but it’s hard.
They don’t teach you in J-school how to write a message to the family of a man who just died.
I need this hike to collect my thoughts. I need this hike to clear my head. I need this hike to mean something. I need this hike to mean nothing.
Gifts and a bit of vomit
It’s just been a couple of minutes since we turned off the asphalt Lake Road Way. I’m now kicking up copper leaves that are growing thick on the ground. I’m finally putting the new boots my parents bought me last weekend onto a trail. My parents care about my feet.
I was told it’s a bad idea to break in new boots on a long hike, but my feet feel fine.
My legs, though.
I rarely stretch before a hike, which I rarely find is a good idea. I can already tell my legs are unprepared. They’re stiff, and when they’re not stiff, they’re wobbly. Six in the morning is not my peak get-out-and-climb time.
My stomach is upset, too. I drank a cup of coffee and had no food on the drive this morning, and I’ve been eating irresponsibly for a lifetime.
I’m a bit downbeat.
This hike is supposed to turn into a story. My original Section-B article fell through on Friday, and I need to pull together some photos and 1,400 words to fulfill my monthly duty.
I’m in the mood for sour thoughts.
“Is this what I wanted to do?”
“Well, I’m doing it, aren’t I?”
“Then why am I not happy?”
I pose a question like this to the Jo(h)ns, inquiring about their happiness.
It’s comforting to hike with childhood friends. I love hiking with new friends — getting to know them better — but old friends are special. It’s easy to discuss hard things. Maybe too easy. I don’t get a satisfactory answer.
I zip off my pant legs to convert them into shorts. I’m overheating. I’m lightheaded. I feel a bit queasy. I throw up. No one notices.
I’ve been anxious. I want to get enough content for a story. Maybe we’d encounter adventure and I’d have an amazing story of survival and perseverance to tell. Maybe I’d return with nothing more than a few foggy photos of a mountaintop, indistinguishable from thousands of others on Instagram.
I want to fill up my notebook with Trail Thoughts to ensure I have enough, but I have hardly written down anything so far. I write down my fear that I won’t have anything written down, and that makes me feel a little better. Now I have something. Diving into my fear, I found calm. Curious.
We are expecting rain, so for the hike I broke out my waterproof notebook, a nifty gift my brother gave me as a Christmas present several years ago. I’m writing on it now, but there is no rain in sight yet. I hate that. Feels like a waste.
A lot of my gear comes from other people. I’m lucky. Inside my pack is a pack of hiking olives, from my cousins; a knife, smithed by a former Enterprise reporter; and the pants I unzipped come from my grandparents.
I’ve been very blessed. I have been given lots of things. I wish I used them more. On many occasions my impervious waterproof notebook has sat in my car while my pervious notepad got soaked. I’ve lost hiking boots after only a couple months of hikes, and the joy of unzipping (or re-zipping) my pants is usually only felt during the change of seasons.
I feel sorry for not doing more with what I’m given. I feel this in my work, too.
In daily news there’s always a need to do more. There’s very little time to be satisfied with a job well done before it’s back to feeling like I’m not doing enough.
I complain, but this is a good thing. Better to always be moving than to sit back and become comfortable with past work. But yet, it’s not a good feeling, so I complain.
I complain about the things that make me better, like clay fighting the hands that mold it.
Food and giving up
We’re stopping for lunch on the summit of Dial. This is more than just granola in a bag. It’s a parade of food: meats and cheeses, crackers and fruit. It’s probably our biggest flaw when it comes to pack weight.
“Snacking is one of the best parts of the hike,” Jon muses.
A mountaintop is just a nice place for a snack.
When I dig into the olives, a sour and satisfying snack, I’m met with resistance. The Jo(h)ns decry olives as a hiking food and refuse to partake. More for me.
We head on to Nippletop, and we’re starting to tire. We had entertained possibly tackling Colvin and Blake, too, but those dreams were fading with our post-snack energy high.
Trekking upward, John brings up a “weird and comforting thought” that every step up means we are closer to the peak than each previous step. It’s slow, but it’s going somewhere. It has to end sometime.
Jon points out that every step up will eventually require a step down, and John finds downhill more exhausting. The end is only the beginning.
This exchange is about everything you need to know about their personalities.
However unsettling they may be, these words are relief, like a cool breeze across my sweaty brow.
The idea rings true to me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ve committed to the hike. I’m here, aren’t I? Stop trying to fight it.
Several weeks ago I visited my Aunt Laura in Massachusetts, and while she drove around looking for a parking spot she described her “Boston theory of parking.”
“You need to sincerely look for a spot, then say out loud, ‘OK. I give up. I’ll pay the price for a parking garage.’ Then presto! A spot on the street opens up.”
At the point of giving up, you find what is needed. If it can work with parking, it can work with hiking. And if it can work with hiking, it can work with life.
It’s amazing how fast the agony of cramped legs fades away once we reach the summit. What felt like it would never end feels like a distant memory the moment the trees start to break and I hear a hoot from Jon — who always reaches the peak first.
We break out the parade of food again, but this time it rains on our parade.
The hike continues
Looking back at the photos after the hike, I see only the smiles. The moment of joy we felt walking out on a rock to feel the wind whip around us, or a conversation heard only by the trees.
Retrospect is so rosy.
Conversation is the balm on our aching legs. Descending now, down the steep rocks of Elk Pass, we talk about relationships, movies, economics, politics, society. If we hike long enough we could solve all the world’s problems.
The conversation always revolves around and circles back to hiking — if not the currently trod trail, then talks of hikes past and future. And there will be hikes in the future, until life is affirmed.