Sunday, June 9, 2013

Holding Back

While I ran toward the marker of my last mile today, I saw something white and shiny up ahead, and the following dialogue went through my head: White and shiny stranger: "Ahoy there, are you running the road today?" Me: "Yes, I made a loop with Rudsboro and Old Dana." Stranger: "Nice, that's an easy one, we just finished running up the mountain. You should try it sometime."

I actually created people waiting to judge me up ahead, and I thought about how satisfying it would be to wish them a good day and call them Judge Judy or something clever like that. When the shine came into focus as a Chrysler SUV, and there was no one to voice what I do judge myself for, that I have never run up the mountain I live next to, I was disappointed. The opportunity or me to say the right thing at the right time presents itself infrequently. Because I'm nice. And slow with the comebacks. But this was different: imagined judgment and the succeeding sorrow for the disappearance of my Judge Judy all occurred in my head. As it had many times before.

Then it came to me. This dialogue was me talking to the mean little voice that's inside all of us: you know, the one who says 'Why try?' Many writers have named this voice, and many books have been written on the subject of silencing or harnessing the voice for good. It's called the Gremlin, or the Demon, the Inner Critic, or just negative thinking. I imagined a dialogue because it created an arena where I could tell off the mean voice.

I'm writing a book, so this voice has become a frequent visitor to my writing desk. The first time I recall giving it a sentence, I was hiking the Appalachian Trail. "This is too hard; you'll never make it." Which was funny to echo around in my manic brain because I was high on endorphins and already certain that I would, indeed, make it. But there was that message. A little Gremlin. Condemnation from my own anima. Judgment. When everyone hiked faster, I gave it volume enough to voice "You aren't strong enough." Never once did I believe the saboteur, but I didn't think to silence it either. How could I, if it were me?

Now that I sit and type and choose words to share my story, I was lucky enough to learn some exercises that silence and dilute the power of the Gremlin. My favorite is early in the process, while creating content, which is the whole fruit.

I am not allowed to delete.

I type and type and overshare, describe to my heart's content, lay down the thick skin of my exposition, write background for every scene and setting, and juicy stuff the pith bleeds onto the page, when the tension and my vulnerability weave into my scene like a brilliant scar, I am not allowed to omit for fear of retribution or judgment. Maybe it won't make the final cut, but that isn't coming for months. When the content gets revised, edited, peeled to the pith, then I'll employ a different exercise. Because the Gremlin will change again to hold me back.

My friend, the life coach and my teacher, the writing coach inspired the other exercise, which is to listen to your body. At every moment with any experience our body is reacting. If we can read our body language, we can discern the creative voice from the negative one. It is well named as exercise. It requires presentness. So if I struggle to choose the perfect word rather than using five common ones, finding myself at the dictionary and thesaurus more than at a new page; if I sit and struggle to choose a topic; or write about tension without thinking about my reader and my expression of tension; most likely the Gremlin is urging me to hold back.

The message is in my shoulders or jaw or my fingers not moving. If it weren't silent, it would be saying "You're not a good enough writer to pull this off" or "This subject isn't interesting after all, maybe do something different" or "Don't share that feeling, they will think you are weak." My reaction is to tense up, or freeze the flow of words, or do something else altogether. If I can remember to be present, and listen to my body, I can hear those sentences, I can loosen the tight hold on the fount of my creativity.

The creative voice, my writing coach reminds us, only opens doors. She likes to emphasize that to write a book, you are not safe. So what purpose does this Gremlin serve? It protects me from defeat or embarrassment and judgment while preventing triumph and accomplishment. Write it a letter, she tells us, and propose a treaty. Acknowledge its service while prohibiting its meddling in this endeavor. Thank it for keeping us alive as children and helping us to avoid trauma, and then dismiss it as a trusted advisor in adulthood.

So as I finish this post, thinking about the difficulty of the chapter I'm about to write, how vulnerable I must be to accurately write it, and how it will welcome judgment upon me, it occurs to me that this post has been my unfriendly treaty letter. And that the only judgment I have ever been sure of is my own.

Stop holding back now.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Day 1 and Changing Mindsets

Monday is usually my Sunday, so it hasn’t hit me yet. Tomorrow, I would have driven to work. Although it would have been nearing the end, the day would have felt normal. The routine comforted me in its consistency, while the apprehension of an end remained distant, like the expectation of a full moon, or the onset of spring. Inevitably, there was an end, and it would be unfamiliar. When it came, like a microburst lifting buildings from their foundations, we adapted. I swallowed a new reality and it numbed my insides.

 Today is Tuesday, and it is my firsday unemployed. I crave being occupied, but not in the employer sense of occupation. My struggle with being present can be explained with a visual concept of time that the Aymara people of South America utilize. In their visualization of their world, as time passes, we create memories of the past, and yet the future remains dark. The movement of bodies through time in the Aymara visualization is backwards, with the future behind us, and the past vivid in front, fading from view as we continue backwards into the future.

When I used to imagine my self in time, there is the sprawling epic of my past behind me, and in front is an empty path, and an open future, which clears of fog as I approach and fill it with new memories. And today it occurs to me that this visualization is as asinine as it is narcissistic. The better image would be Times Square, where I shoulder check my way through a world that carries on with or without me, where my path is only there if I walk it. Not that a busy tourist attraction is relevant to my choice of path in life. The point is that the Aymara have invented a palpable perspective on our life through the lens of time. Because the open road cliché is entirely disappointing, which brings me to my current test of presentness.

 For me to be present, to be undistracted by future plans, comfortable in current circumstances, and rapt in the moment of my surroundings, I must be able to take a long lunch. Simple as that. The opportunity to gab on with friends or keep on reading a book, to enjoy another round or course or both and linger, luxuriously in that afternoon, would be taken if I were present. Which is why my test is clueing me in to what is wrong with my lifestyle that has prevented so many long lunches (the exception most recently being The Parish Café on Boylston with Kristen last summer): too much. If I took my next week and queued up all my plans (and remember that I am unemployed as of today) so that they filled the path I was walking backwards on, I would bump into people and places and obligations so often that I would have to slow down (another lesson that should be learned) and step carefully so that each plan is a welcome addition, and in between I can enjoy the gap.

 So let’s recap: we are all walking backwards into the future, which appears before us as we enter it, which is not blank or waiting to be filled by our internal locus of control and imagination, but a symphony of billions of players seeking their own long lunches. When I imagine a mood or mindset that settles me in to the moment and sits down for that lunch, it must be surrounded by fewer plans and expectations, so that there is room to linger, and not so many tourists to shoulder check my way through.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 25, 2013 or The Closing of the Goat

It occurred to me today that I’m in a bit of a crisis. In one week, I’m going to lose my job. For over two years this job has come before everything else that is important to me, with a few triumphant exceptions. During this tenure I have gotten my first gray hairs, constricted to the bowels of a nonagenarian, unlearned how to relax, adapted to so much daily stress that I avoid adventure. Boring! So now, it’s going to end. This is something I want.

The next months are the third time in the last ten years that I have quit and leapt into the big blank future. The first time was the end of a bad relationship and I hadn’t really grown up yet so that had to happen fast, which led to the most memorable year of montage material. The second time was after I realized that living in Boston required a meaner disposition and an indelible belief that I was not skinny enough, so I quit, moved my stuff into my parents’ garage and hiked over two thousand miles in almost 6 months. That turned out to erase the belief that I needed a 9-5 job. While my pride waned and my relationships blossomed, there was a year in there, living in my parents’ basement (they told me they liked having me there), when I was getting a lot of it right. But I wasn’t writing, and I had decided that was the most important thing, in the long run. Right then, of course, it was too much fun to spend all my money on visiting my friends who had moved to many interesting places.

So when a job that sounded like a real grown-up position became available in another state, I excitedly applied after considering it for exactly three hours, and planned to work full time running a store that was losing money, using all my spare time to write a book. The futility of that plan took a while to settle in. Confession: I still haven’t swallowed the futility of getting the store to solvency. In the mean time, I was settling in to a sweet little town and the apartment of my dreams. It’s tacky to say, and in a blink two years were gone, but somehow there was a lot of blinking, and a lot of not memorable months. I want to edit what I wrote before, about settling into the sweet little town, because that didn’t happen until over a year in. I always loved my apartment, and the little mountain in my backyard, and my landlords, who as deaf farming seniors, were the ideal combination of generous and oblivious, but it wasn’t until I dated a local womanizer who claimed to know everyone that the town actually seemed like an interesting place to explore. I can admit dating a womanizer because I didn’t really believe in them before he stopped calling. I thought it was a character type screenwriters use to advance the plot. So there we have it.

Seven years would be more accurate than the ten I wrote above. And this weekend my store closes for good. When I am at work that inevitability causes me stress, but here at my computer I am free. I spend most of my time at the store, however, and in the last two weeks noticed that when I’m not at the store, I am pacing my apartment eating cake and watching countless episodes of the two sitcoms that make me laugh out loud. Some books fit in there, too, I’m on a Nora Ephron binge at the moment, if you couldn’t tell, but what I recall, because I am mean to myself, is mostly the television shows. So when I absolutely could not motivate myself to go on a run, or even a hike, which is right out my back door, today, the anniversary of the day, four years ago, when I started hiking the Appalachian Trail (and it still thrills me to think about how I started walking, wearing an old raincoat that was no longer waterproof, in the pouring rain, in Georgia all by myself, and I thought, I will not stop walking until I’m in Maine. All I have to do to get to Maine is to keep walking every day), because nobody can make me do something I don’t want to do, I am really that stubborn, I wondered whether all my out of character couch potato behavior has to do with being in crisis. It makes sense, doesn’t it? In a week I will have no job, no health insurance, but a great apartment and a car. In a week I will be where most citizens consider a bad place, a place to try to get out of, a place that is not as good as a job that gives you stress exzema or gray hairs when you’re 30, but a place that I surely crave.

What it comes down to, every two or so years when I get into this transitional period again, is that I really have no desire to do anything but be a friend and a daughter and a sister, and hopefully a writer. I get that this is America, and we have capitalism, and I can’t keep my apartment by being really nice and clean. So what now? I really believe that what has kept me on the couch for two days is this impending toss up of all my order. Do you know I crave it? I can’t wait for the new stress of being unemployed, letting go of the other stress. I dream about sleeping until 9 and running an impressive number of miles and then typing the rest of the day and then deciding to make beer on a Tuesday. Money shmoney. So this is a crisis. I am in crisis mode and my medicine is Parks and Recreation. In one week everything changes. I can’t wait to be unemployed. But this must be a crisis. Or maybe mercury is in retrograde. I heard that’s a thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


When the orange coals of sunset settle on the horizon, I look east. The winds tickle the apple tree, revealing the bright undersides of the leaves, impressing the illusion of sunlight. The clouds are so low they appear painted. Purplish grays waft like stretched dough into the dull sky, just perceptibly blue. Above the coals a crescent moon dazzles like a glinting needle. There is a raucous of spring peepers adding cries to the winds' whispers. A gust lifts the iron siding of the sugar shack, and it rattles, heavy, slow, and thin. A horse snorts in answer to each breeze that circles the farm. The air still smells like new life, the breath of infant plants. It smells like ozone, today's rain, the lilac blooming across the lawn, and electricity. The wind reminds me of time passing. I can make out pink, one stroke of color fading into the colorless cloud to the north. The pink will not last. And suddenly I am awake, and among it all. Tonight the clouds are not moving. It is calm, despite the approaching storm.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Walking in Waterfalls, and a Whale's Back

Brigid and I set out around 1 to drop her car at Lincoln Woods on a Friday. I listened to Robert Randolph and the Family Band to get pumped up. Just as her car turned into the massive parking lot, two text messages shot from somewhere in Massachusetts to my phone, and in a finger snap the service was gone. When she parked I glanced down to read the messages. A personal note from a good woman I should call more often, who became a friend as I was leaving another place, remembered the ripple effect during our short time enjoying one another's company. She told me that her dedication to quitting smoking was directly inspired by my thru-hike. If I can decide to hike 2,200 miles one spring, she can choose to overcome an addiction. Then she thanked me, some two years to the day since she'd had a cigarette.

My eyes brimmed over with pride and happiness and guilt. Brigid was throwing her stuff into my car and we were headed for the mountains. The sky was all blue and the air clung to the late summer sun, commingling with the brisk September breeze. I told Brigid about the message, moved to share the generosity of my friend's words, surprised as I was for receiving credit for this remarkable accomplishment that I was fully aware was all hers. We marveled at dedication and the drive that moves us to do grand and difficult things. And I wondered if maybe that is a part of our great bond, that we can say we have accomplished grand and difficult things.

I turned off the highway, onto Gale River Loop Road, which exists for parking lots at trailheads. The road was dirt in perfect New Hampshire condition, like a swept hearth. There were four cars in the first lot. We shared a little disappointment. We repacked our packs and took off. It took a quarter mile for two things to happen: the disruption of fear that I forgot to lock my car, and that little voice to warble messages of my inevitable failure. The trail followed a rising ridge populated by birches, oaks, and certainly ashes, for the familiar jagged leaves settled across the entire forest floor. We conversed easily over heavy breaths, sucking in air to balance the strain on our legs, unaccustomed to our heavy packs. I think about my muscles at the beginning of a hike, twisting and fibrous, tightening and flexing to maintain movement. When they are sore, it feels like cords wrapping my body securely, and I appreciate when they first talk to me, as though the strain and sweat from the backpack grant them voices so that we converse with our work, marveling at the stretches and contractions that walk me through the forest.

Brigid and I packed a tent each, just in case, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, dinner, snacks, breakfast, lunch, extra water bottles, warm clothes, extra clothes, treatment for water, gloves and a hat, a map, a book, toiletries, a stove, a pot, a spork, a pack cover or garbage bag, rain coat, and camp shoes. Our bags weighed over twenty pounds. It was the end of September. We were leaving the lowlands and did not know what sort of weather would blow in at our backs.

For the walk up Garfield, the air was calm and cool. Our favorite topics are friendships and relationships; we can spend hours revisiting memories to make sense of them, to celebrate them. I remember little waterfalls, stepping over streams, and counting the people we met along the mountain: two groups heading north, which accounted for two cars in the lot. One set of women we had seen just a few weeks previous hiking Chocorua, but they didn't make the connection. At the top of Garfield a rock garden settled around the granite pate, punctuated by raggedy firs just below the peak. A manmade structure sits on top of the bare granite. All that is left is the square foundation in concrete. The wind up there above treeline is intense. We are the wind's only obstacles, and we are a poor match. A storm was inching ever northward. I became cold, fearful, interpreting the clouds as settling darkness. Brigid reveled in the gray. She seemed to see through the clouds, staring out at the Pemigewasset woodlands and their untouched topography. Still, I urged us onward, and we descended to our packs, and to camp.

The first clue I saw for camp was a small rocky outcrop, where the granite stood straight up to form a ledge at the trail, and to the left a small bench marked a memorial. If we had the cooperation of the autumn sun that afternoon, I've been told the view would have been arresting. Instead we walked to the water source, where two men were surprised to see us. The gentle expression I interpreted from the older man's eyes suggested Lucy from the Wardrobe, upon seeing Mr. Tumnus. They did not return our greeting; when we passed and returned them their solitude perhaps their tongues loosened again.

Anxious to secure a site to rest, I accelerated. The caretaker emerged from his canvas tent, a student honed from a summer with his books among the trees, and he directed us to the campsites available. As we followed his recommendations for sites 6 or 7, we passed the new shelter. This palace smelled of hand-sanded hardwood and stood, freshly erected that day, as the most beautiful shelter in the Whites. I do not exaggerate: the donor called for a new shelter for aesthetics alone, as the original one lacked functional flaws. Two Y shaped trunk segments were built into a front corner of the structure and halfway across the opening, giving the shelter three and a half walls. Brigid and I drooled as we passed it. When we dropped our packs at site 7, the quiet gentleman and his companion, perhaps a son, appeared and chose the adjacent tent platform. Their awkward presence tipped my decision: we would sleep in the shelter.

We devised a plan to bribe the caretaker while changing into warmer layers. After a protein bar we gathered the goods for water. With arms full of bladders and empty bottles, my Katadyn filter hanging from my right index finger, and cookies safely stored in the right pocket of my Micropuff, we walked up the path toward the water source. Ahead of us the caretaker appeared, lanky and comfortable. He greeted us politely and offered to postpone our paying him once again. I pincered inside of my left pocket with two of my free fingers for the folded ten, five, and one to pay him for our night in his territory, and he thanked us for exact change before generously telling us an entertaining story about the other campers paying with large bills and the difficulty of making change on top of Mt. Garfield. This was obviously the right moment, with us in his favor.

"We were wondering, can we could bribe you so we can sleep in the shelter tonight? We have cookies." I fished out the broken treats from the other pocket with my pincer fingers. Like a kid in charge of his parents' hot tub he smirked,
"You don't have to bribe me, you are welcome to stay in there tonight." He accepted some cookies. As we passed by him he turned and added,
"You don't have to filter the water you know. Here and Guyot have the cleanest water in the Whites. I never treat."

Brigid knew I was a tent fan, but there was something about that shelter. I went from not caring about sleeping in it to writing off the night as a bust if we had to pitch tents. The storm approaching from the west probably played a role, too. So we did a little victory dance. While I plodded along in crocs to the water source - a beautiful clear stream shooting out of brilliant moss, a great sign for direct, naturally filtered, mineral-rich water - memories of the terrible cramps of parasites making a home in my guts conflicted with the caretaker's suggestion. There are two reasons for not filtering water: lethargy and trust.

Over the course of the last 24 hours, the forecast went from sun to storm, first unlikely to inevitable. I foolishly believed inevitable would turn around again, but by then hope was futility. A third and bad reason is impatience. Also, the first day with a pack on is a hard day.

Back at the shelter, I was possessive. I didn't want anyone else to be the first to stay in the new shelter, so I suggested we bring all of our gear in behind the front wall, so that anyone passing would not think to stop and stay in the brand new shelter. This plan went very well until the rain started and we were sitting on the floor, legs dangling over the edge, eating our tuna and Pasta Sides casseroles, when a light began bouncing along on the south side of the trail. The hiker who asked us nicely whether there was any room left in the shelter, to whom we responded that we were the only two inside, but the very first to sleep in it, was polite and conversational. While I brushed my teeth, rain spitting onto my shell from under the eaves, we discovered that we had met on the Appalachian Trail two years ago, probably in Virginia. He remembered my trail name, but we had only passed once, and not stopped to chat. The world seemed very small and it was comfortable.

In the morning we tried to wake up early and it didn't work. When the caretaker had heard our plans for the next day he had warned us that a trek of that length would take us most of the day and maybe part of the night. The only way to be safe was to start by 7 at the latest. We had a very nice breakfast with our shelter companion, in which he cooked and I ate too many Pro Bars and Brigid boiled water for oatmeal to become superhuman, and then hit the trail around 8.

The light mist was tolerable, but within three miles the trail, Garfield Ridge approaching Galehead Hut, becomes a river in the best of times. The night before contained a great burst of a storm. The thunder seemed to shake everything outside save the shelter, and the lightning continued unabated for hours. It rained a lot. It rained new rivers. The trail is a waterfall at times, and it was nerveracking. During those first miles, the rain started to spit a little more so I put on my pack cover and helped Brigid with a garbage bag for the same purpose. When we spied the first waterfall, it conjured the memory of falling down one two years prior, when Ewok caught me tumbling over the slick rocks. There was nothing for it this morning, we were going to get soaked or fall. This is scary stuff. You know the moment at the top of the roller coaster, when you're about to rush down the slope, and the ride pauses just long enough with a little shudder of a jolt to make you question why you've chosen to get that high up? The queasy adrenaline of uncertain ground pulls at my gut and unsteadied my confidence- 'you can die at any time.'

We descended a very steep rock wall carpeted in rushing water wearing twenty pound packs. Again I cursed the AMC for never moving the trail, as dangerous as it is. And not only dangerous, but terribly not fun. It's always wet. The trees and roots lining the trail are heavily used, exposing bare twisted wood beneath bark, pulled out of the well-watered earth. My shoes filled up. I stopped to ring out my socks. Then we went on ahead, unsure of our pace.

The clouds overtook the mountains and it was really raining now. The few people we saw were on their way from the hut to the car, or caretakers at the sites. We skipped the peak side trails, because bagging without a view seemed a waste, and we were worried about losing daylight. At 11:30 we were at the intersection of Bondcliff and Garfield Ridge, with many miles to go. We hadn't eaten since breakfast. We weren't drinking much water. The wind was cold and everything was damp. Egressing the forest cover onto the alpine zone, we were exposed and exhilarated. The wind was whipping and we were actually in the clouds, so that our path was still and the rest of our world was moving.

The climb took on a sharper pitch, which warmed our damp legs. Like ocean waves breaking the clouds split against a slope just a few hundred feet away. These are the Bonds, muddled brown and slate in our dull light, grand shoulders flexing out of the gray clouds. Then it disappeared. Farther south another shoulder broke through, and so it continued, a peep show of West Bond. Ahead of us the trail followed the apex ridge of Bondcliff. We marveled at the dropoffs on our sides, and the brief glimpses of brilliant green forest below. Out of the storm just ahead, an awesome rocky spine sliced white, and the gigantic whaleback rose and shrank us. It appeared like a serpent surfacing, offering its back for our safe journey. I think we laughed then.

The trail south to the car meanders an easy grade for about ten miles. I wanted to be the hiker who dilly-dallies and absorbs every moment to make sensual memories. But I went as fast as I could instead. We dipped back below treeline and hurried, racing the clock we didn't have. "It was one of those days," Brigid recalled recently, "when the light was so weak because of the weather, that it could have been 1 in the afternoon or it could have been dusk, and we wouldn't have known until it got dark or didn't." Well it didn't. The dayhikers coming toward us to see the new bridge and the old bridge destroyed by Irene stared at our soaked finery. I don't think we greeted them really. They carried umbrellas. We were speedwalking by then. The last hours, who knows how many, were spent discussing how we will feast and the alien concept of warm and dry. Warm and dry is not always possible. At the car, we changed into the extra layers left behind. Brigid turned the key: 4:45.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Long Trail, long overdue.

August 29, 2010 (Journey’s End Camp)

Welcome home to me. LT day 1 (or T minus 1). Met great guys, with good people, ready to kick some mountain ass!

August 30, 2010 (Jay Camp)

And what a welcome it was! I’m so sore. Energy is good, except during the huge climbs, when I can only count on my endurance. My back is sore, my feet started to raw, I stink. Overall, I dove in head first to a new trail and it couldn’t be going any better, unless there was more water. So that challenges my planning. Camaraderie is good: three is a great number for independent long distance hikers, because there’s usually someone to talk to if you want that, and no one to get their feelings hurt when you want to be alone. MudD is the common thread, and he handles that with ease, and ever so slowly Derek and I understand each other. I know my brain is still scattered and I’m still impatient. Soon, the woods will slow my mind, ease my step, and simplify everything else.

August 31, 2010 (Tillotson Camp)

Great hiking day. Hard. But rewarding. Lots of peaks, including Haystack, in under 12 miles. My mind wanders while I hike, tumbling and exploring at great speed over many subjects and concepts, admiring friends and pondering trysts, examining how once inside the green wild I never seem to connect to anyone outside of it. On the days to come, I hope my mind wanders into better catchy songs (I had “Fancy” by Reba McEntire, or actually, two lines from “Fancy” stuck in my head on replay for hours today “I might have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name / She said ‘here’s your once chance Fancy, don’t let me down’”). Charlie Brown is at the shelter- just hearing him harshed my mellow- I knew from his voice he was lonely, talkative, and not interesting. I decided that that assumption shouldn’t have such power, so I gave him a chance. Let me play it out for you.

With a few remaining miles to the day, and for all of us, barely any water, we took a long break at the first stream in hours. A serene babbling brook in the lush col between two mountains, there was plenty of good seating and a deep enough stream for all of us to pump at separate pools. After filling my camelbak I pumped a liter into my nalgene and added a nuun electrolyte tablet. I chugged the cool mountain water, the best water on the planet (I swear, it’s all about the water, that faraway look backpackers get when you talk about one of their trails, they may say it’s the memories of the people or the views or the exertion, but it’s triggering the trace memory of drinking water filtered out of the land, pure and clean, exquisite), while we talked about our sore muscles and the heat. I know the power of the heat by hydration best: on a day like today, when you sweat so much you smell the liquid fat excreted through your pores, when my eyes fill with sweat if I blink too slow, and then drip drips off of my chin, when I drink a liter of water in under five minutes, hoist a 25 pound pack onto bruised shoulders, and start walking without getting a cramp, that’s when I make a mental note to chug another liter once in camp and again after dinner. That is heat. With that heat comes immense gratitude for the dependable water source at a shelter. Expecting that water was ahead very simply determined that we could continue to live out here. Rumors of water scarcity met us via Northbounders. I dissected the rumors and examined them like a detective. A hiker could lose all credibility for false water information.

And so, full of water but most comfortably so, I was dawdling into camp, with a happy spring in my step, singing “Fancy,” surprised to see the privy first and the shelter roof next, I thought ‘oh joy of joy I’m done for the day! And what a glorious day it was! Tonight my friends and I will dine with a view over the northwoods landscape, and discuss our highlights, our frustrations, and rest easy on tired bones.’ Then I hear the voice.

“You guys must have just started, eh? Yeah, I did the whole trail myself, the wife is picking me up on Wednesday, I’ll be taking my time to finish, you know, might as well make it last, am I right? See, guys my age, we aren’t out here for the exercise. No sir, we’re here to get out of the house…” And I stopped listening because I knew the boys were there, they were ahead of me, and they would be smiling for someone else to be doing the talking, but I was not interested in this man. I heard in his voice, his tone and his easy sentences the hum of a recorded tape, a worn repetition for a lonely man with little to say. These guys are all the same, I practically said out loud, instead let escape a loud sigh, just feet from camp. He waits for company, the captive audience of tired hikers, to pontificate all his predetermined sentences and stories, jumbled together without form or connection, using us for our ears but never really caring about our parallels, our shared footsteps or histories. They’ll ask you a question, sure, but they’re waiting to give you their favorite answer. And then I paused. I walked in and greeted my friends and coolly introduced myself to the man who had not yet ceased to speak. An older adult, he was wearing shorts and crocs, and his eyes were full of me. He had the hair of a snorer, so I pulled out my tent and looked for a flat area in the piney clearing on the other side of the trail. The courage and confidence that comes from pitching my tent is hard to describe. Like these gentlemen who miss something long gone, I am guilty of nostalgia, when the reenactment of my routine mitigated my tension and reminded me of one great lesson of the woods: not all people are as they seem. And so, when Charlie Brown walked over to watch me pitch my tent and talk to me, I listened.

“So you’re hiking with those guys, eh?”
“Yeah, I did the whole trail myself, the wife is picking me up on Wednesday.”
“That’s exciting.”
“Yup, I started the 6th of August, and let me tell you, it’s been a hell of a trip. You think you’ve been working hard, the miles to come are, heh, well, because you’re a lady I’ll watch my tongue, but you’re looking at pretty bad trail.”
“You didn’t enjoy your hike?”
“Of course I enjoyed my hike! What are you thinking? I’ve been thinking of what I’m going to do next year. See, out here I haven’t met many people. There’s my buddy Andy, he should be getting here soon because we were in town together two days ago and I lost him in town and so I’ve been waiting for him to catch up, he’s a younger guy, you know and so it should be no problem for him but I haven’t seen him yet and figure it’ll be tonight that he catches up, but anyway, lots of people going your direction, from time to time I get a shelter to myself of course, but that’s why you go out here, right? To be alone. They say it’s hard and it is, now, I also carry a lot more than you young kids but let me tell you something you should know: Don’t go to the grocery store hungry. That’s something to remember. I did that in Johnson, had to unload all this extra food outside of town, see, because I bought too much. So don’t do that. That ground doesn’t look too flat right there. What did you say your name was again?”

Well, maybe he has some good stories at least. Stay positive.

And eventually he walked away. At dinnertime he gave us the gift of a fire. Then he started talking about doing the PCT.

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about doing that next year.”
“Do you go off on a long-distance hike every year?” I asked.
“No, not every year. I did the AT in 2003, and I’m finishing the LT now, so, no, this has been it. My wife doesn’t really understand, she’s supportive you know, let’s me go from time to time.”
“But I think for next year what I’ll do is go out there and my wife can follow me in an RV. I can hike and she can meet me at all the roads and have water and food ready.”
“Wow, that would be really nice of her.”
“Well, that’s why you get a bride.”
I scoff. MudD and Derek are both suddenly consumed by their food.
Charlie Brown laughs at his reflection, his fortune, and leans a little closer to the fire and myself. The low flames danced and cast a shadow into his smile lines.
“That’s why you get a bride!”
“Oh, is that it?” I finally manage, an attempt to freeze over the fire between us.
“She doesn’t really understand why I do this, you know? She doesn’t like this sort of thing, ‘why do you want to live in the woods?’ she asks me.”
So maybe I was right after all.

We also met some very nice older ladies, and I found myself cutting them off with my own observations. I need to slow everything down.

September 2, 2010 (Bear Hollow Shelter)

I totally forgot to write last night! It was a big day, 15 miles, which I felt pretty good for most of. And we went swimming in Belvidere Pond, which was my highlight. At Corliss Camp, we ate and swatted mosquitoes, then looked into the woods until Derek’s friends Shelly and Anastasia met us with cokes, snickers, and energy.

Today was terrific! Almost 3 miles per hour! And Laraway Mountain was so beautiful, a steady climb, I felt terrific, and it has a lookout that was a great rock outcrop, hazy but good view, where we took Backpacker cover shots. The name of the mountain is beautiful to my ears, I exclaimed to the boys, with the emphasis on the first syllable, the word floats off your lips like a soft breeze: laraway. They were very polite.

We were in town by noonish, resupplied wicked efficiently, then hung out at the library, where I got the shits and spiraled into a deranged headspace. Is something wrong with me? Did I contract giardia? How? That could take me off the trail if it persists. Just like Hellbender and Stud the Dud in Colorado. Then we went out for pizza and beer with Shelly and Jamie and Alyssa, Biscuits’ (Derek has a name!) friends.

At the restaurant, I happily guzzled a pint of local brew and ordered far too much food. Oh how the prideful fall, when I expected to eat not only my deep dish heavily cheesed vegetable pizza but help my friends with their doughy charges, we were all left with the heavy leftovers to carry, on account of our shamefully small bellies. The light lost its warmth and a rain shower scuttled over town. Then it was time for a return to our trail. How foreign! The thought of leaving this quiet town, filled with happy pizza chefs and inquisitive camp counselors, grocer and post office down the road, for the winding corridor of protected woods, exposed lean-tos and rugged mountain passes. Then to be dropped off on an old logging road, sure we were in the right place but unsure of the condition ahead, rekindled a bold fear, the discomfort of intrepid travelers, who are at the mercy of more elements than most, with more than enough stubbornness.

My pace slowed with the extra burdens I carried. The woods around us were green and lush, a dense undergrowth covering the forest floor below towering birches and oak, maybe? As though aware of their flourish in the purpling sunlight, ferns extended perfect fronds among cabbages and shrubbery. My pace seemed to tug at the hands of time, warping how far I thought I’d gone. The shelter was so far, so high up, beyond me ever beyond. Any restless joys from a luxurious day were imminent and due at the sight of a sign. Along the rolling green trail, restlessness resembled discomfort until that destination.


Tonight we’re at Bear Hollow Shelter. My shirt smells so bad. Bolt is here, his two companions just quit the trail. But he’s really cool. Looking forward to hiking tomorrow! I’m so strong!

September 3, 2010 (Taft Lodge)

Probably the hardest day, but I feel great now! I go back and forth, feeling strong and able, or fantasizing about a slight enough injury to take me off with pride intact. I think about my trip to California and regular life- things I crave and what I don’t. That means, I suppose, that the trail is getting inside me. Which is good. Just north of here the trail decided to take on a most impressive angle, requiring trail crews to build almost a mile of rock steps taking these dainty and impressive switchbacks up the beginning of Mansfield. We were in no hurry, and I could hear the boys sweating enthusiastically above me on the stairs. Every quarter mile or so they would sit, and open their ziplocks of skittles and munch. I did the same and gladly, as we have accepted the candy as our most favorite crutch. Like Pavlov's dog I salivate at the sound of opening ziplocks, with that little question mark bubble "skittles?" materializing above my raised eyebrows.
Tourists with daypacks passed us and my pride sunk.

Kevin, the caretaker here, is really nice. He passed around the whisky, yum! I’m loving everyone I meet. All good news!

September 4, 2010 (Buchanon Lodge)

14.2 today, got the shelter all to ourselves. Ups are still so hard for me- I can’t go fast, I can barely go, and my muscles burn in protest. It’s been 6 days living in the woods, we’ve gone 80 miles, and tomorrow we’ll be a third done with the trail. I had a realization today, that I will finish the book, that I have the will (as this trail must prove!) to get it published. I should look into the website Biscuits told me about for a part time job. Looking at the trail book, at first thinking about how tired I am, thinking about being done, I almost started to cry- for mourning this trail. The miles we covered today included the famous Mansfield bust, from forehead to neck. Because we woke up at dawn, and on the scalp, waiting for clear skies was vetoed two to one. The mountain was covered in wispy fog and opaque, too, hanging heavy against the wind that blew an illusion at the summit: for all its blowing, the clouds still hung like paintings on the curves of our irises, these ethereal strands of milky gas. But did they whip! We had no view and didn’t miss it. The slick volcanic rock on the forehead demanded all of our attention. We traversed a rock garden lost in time or place. For all we knew the wardrobe had been the lodge, and we set out into Narnia, a landscape more fairy than modern.

This is going to be interesting: over before I know it, I can tell.

September 5, 2010 (Bamforth Ridge Shelter)

I would have shit my pants today if the Richmond town park didn’t have a public restroom. Camping tonight, a little under 4 miles from the summit of Camel’s Hump. Today I lost track of the boys, they took a scenic view I didn’t notice, and just flew into town. Then they weren’t there. I’d asked some guys at the shelter 2 miles back if they’d seen them, who said no, and I knew that must mean I’d passed them but I couldn’t believe it. So I texted MudD and moseyed along, found a spot to sit and sat. Then he called.
“Where are you??”
“I’m at the road, didn’t you see my message? Where are you?”
“At the road? We went by the road!”
“You went into town?”
“No, we checked the road and went back to camp.”
“You went back to the shelter?!”
“Yes. We were so worried. I thought that guy with the stupid dog killed you. I was sure.”

So they were 5 miles back. He sounded pissed and relieved. They ran to where I was waiting, and we went into town, where I purchased enough food for 5 days, which turns out to be what I need, in addition to a quart of fruit puree. I ate an apple and drank the green goodness while we packed our bags. Then we went to the Bridge St Café, and I ate a bacon cheeseburger with two eggs and toast. Then we walked to the park and I talked to my parents for a while, until I realized I needed to, as Snarl would say, make boom boom. Panic seized hold, nearly, as I walked past families with small children playing in the playground, laughing on the swings, running across the open green field, the stone building looming towards me, a storage facility, or maybe, just maybe, a public restroom that could maybe, just maybe, be unlocked. I walked up to the building, aware of my exposure, planning an embarrassing and disastrous plan b. The cattails at the edge of mowed park? The café there, no it’s not open! One house after another on the same street? It must have a restroom. But! Would it be locked? No! Hooray! I said that out loud: ‘Hooray!’

The hike to here was beautiful and steep in parts and ambling in others. My pack is heavy with high protein food, but I’ll manage, and regardless of my shameful pace, I sang and made excellent time. I really like this life, when it all comes down to it, but I’m excited to channel the goodness that comes from living simply- my calmness, lack of rushed speech, eye contact, confidence, assuredness, presentness (I was totally in the hiker zone today. The trio hiking pack we are allows hiking alone every single day. I treasure this time, and wish I’d had more of it on the AT)- excited to channel it into my life back in Mass, imbue my routine with these efficiencies, simplify my life with these lessons. Because this backpacking must be the thing in between things. It cannot be the main thing. I look forward to making my other lifestyle better. Now I have to get an LT AT tattoo.

100 miles tomorrow!
It just occurred to me, getting into my tent, that as an adult, since I was 18, this tent is the only shelter I’ve considered home- loved as my own, looked forward to for privacy, slept well in, whatever home means to me, this is it. Whatever am I going to do about that?

For now, sleep in my home.

September 6, 2010 (Birch Glen)

Hard day. I struggle to find reason in these miles. Maybe today was grueling for all of us, but I worry our morale is in trouble. MudD was tired today, which doesn’t help- I’m concerned about Biscuits because he’s quiet (is he a quiet guy or upset into silence?) and I’m expending my energy in making the miles. My brain as leader is suffering. I’m in the odd limbo between presentness and mania. Or maybe not mania, but hyperactivity. The minute after I stop moving I’m smiling and joking and can form sentences. But not the minute before. My mind is slowing, slowly. There’s a powerful nagging that wants to be done already. I don’t care about the miles after the Long Trail Inn (except thinking about telling someone whether I did the whole thing or quit). MudD and I talk about the Inn whenever we talk. We certainly need a day off. Maybe after a zero we’ll be refreshed. Yes, that must be. Refreshed and ready to do the easier miles. Hooray! Oh, Camels Hump today. Gorgeous.

We got to the top before 9 am, before the tourists, after the clouds had undressed the summit, leaving a hard wind and a gorgeous view. I made a bagel, cheese, and sausage sandwich sitting behind a large rock for cover. We took some pictures, looking cool against the wind, standing tall with the gray spine of the Green Mountain Range winding behind us.

September 7, 2010 (Battell Shelter)

Much better day. Went only 12 miles over the Lincoln Ridge, morning was raining. Tomorrow is our biggest day yet, over 16. Then Thursday we’re going 20. I’m thinking of calling Bob to see if he wants to do Trail magic Thursday. I’m hungry. The family who’s staying here at Battell is eating tons of food in front of us, my stomach is going to start rumbling. What’s better about being supported? I would feel ashamed with all that assistance and smelling of Tide. Anyway, these new plans will put us at the Inn by the early afternoon, which will be the beginning to a much-deserved day and a half off. Sunday starts biggish days, just 17 or so after a big Patrick breakfast. I’m counting on the last days to fly, because the most interesting section may be done. Or, I can hope for a little heatwave, to make all the ponds more attractive.

Something happened to morale today. It was exactly what we needed. Today we laughed and made jokes and giggled and played games and smiled to each other. Maybe it’s all changing. Maybe it was too hard- because we all fell or hurt ourselves today, and it was the best day in a week. Or maybe we’ll be miserable with our huge miles forever. We’ll see.

September 8, 2010 (Sucker Brook Shelter)

Gah. 23.6 miles today, because it was cold. Originally, at 16.2 it was going to be our longest day yet. Then it was 12:30 and we’d gone 12 miles. And it was so cold. The temperature couldn’t have been higher than 60 with strong winds from Hurricane Earl, so taking a break wasn’t really an option. We knew that we had to keep going to stay warm, and when we were done we’d be ready for bed in our sleeping bags. Or, rather, ready for nothing but bed. So someone, can’t imagine who, haha, suggested we go another 7.7 miles. No matter how little I wanted to hike over 20, I knew he had a good point. The day was chilly enough that we wouldn’t get dehydrated (there was literally one spring after 5 miles) so we went. And it was smart, because the original plan was for Boyce Shelter, where the water was dry. So we descended into Middlebury Gap and my knees ached, then we climbed Mt. Worth, which I was done with long before it was done with me.

A mountain meandering along an abandoned ski resort, the trail took us over wooded ridges and tops that felt like peaks every time, rustic and brown like a hermit’s neglected back yard. Following another mile of ridge-walking over densely packed pine forest we observed another rise, and then another. Somehow the trail seemed haunted, the firs were so close on either side the path was shrinking, fighting against the shade and the isolation of old Mt. Worth. When the descent began, we still didn’t know if another rise would appear, but all I could think about were my screaming feet. My feet trembled and ached and throbbed with the impact of thousands of steps. I knew I was lucky nothing else bothered me, that tomorrow my feet would be fine, if a little angry. The irrational fear of a thru-hiker is that they have lost the trail. Where intersections are poorly marked, confusion is possible. However for most hikers, when you think you’ve gone far enough, and there’s no sign of an expected landmark, you imagine ghost trails that trick you into following a ridge walk with no shelter, or an old logging road without water, and sometimes you turn around to check whether you missed an intersection the map just happens to leave out, and at the very least you worry and check the map obsessively.

Pulling the elevation profile out of my pocket, delicately unfolding the sweat-logged paper, I checked how far we had going down. It looked like a few jagged miles. This could not be right. Worrying for Biscuits, who must be quite concerned at how long this is taking, I would call every ten minutes or so, ‘we’re knocking on the door, getting closer, I can feel it.’ The path kept going, like there was no shelter to mark, like it had disappeared or the book was lying and I realized I was half-crazed and quite loopy. And starving. My water was running out. I could tell by the lightening of my pack. And then he called up to me ‘sign!’ and my body burst with relief and began to pump the tiredness through my veins. Down a short side trail to a small shelter, and I ‘caw-caw’-ed to greet MudD, who was pumping water. Water. I had rationed tiny sips every 5 minutes for the last 8 miles. ‘How’s the source?’ I managed. ‘It’s gorgeous!’ He smiled back.

Relief. Going through the motions: unpacking the bag, changing into warmer layers, eating a protein bar, setting up a bed, gathering bladder and nalgene and platypus, pumping water, preparing to cook dinner; these were interrupted with giggles and strange comments that I have no recollection of speaking or whether they were at all funny. MudD made some comment about me being weird. Whatever dregs of caloric energy were keeping my limbs moving and brain completing complex tasks were not familiar vapors. These were the death rattles of exhaustion merging with heavily processed protein supplements. And a body in starvation mode inviting a liter of cold mountain water. I felt strange all night. My feet screamed until the wee hours of the morning. I laid silently in my sleeping bag, aware only of the pain and that I was not asleep. But of course, I nearly was.

The boys compared their blisters that night and I passed around the iodine. The plan for tomorrow is 20.6, and a morning hike into Killington. Wow.

September 9, 2010 (Rolsten Rest)

1 year anniversary of finishing the AT- and it’s bittersweet. Not because of the time, or that I’m missing something out here (in fact, I’m happy to be acquainted again with this ‘otherness’ which gives perspective on my life back home). I just miss it. If I were done with the book it might be different.

Anyway, it rained all day. The only vista that stops my near-run (fighting the good fight to prevent hyperthermia) is that brilliant green of a moss bed drinking the rain and creating its own light source of color. Otherwise I just go. And fast. I’m filthy with mud. Yesterday I saw a fisher! I was wet and cold for most of the day. Then after lunch I put on my tunes and flew! Listening to Yeasayer made me happy, and gave me new energy. We did over 23 yesterday, almost 21 today. I was so tired when I got to the shelter, but the terrain got so much easier that my feet aren’t screaming at me. Tomorrow is the Inn at Long Trail. Can’t fucking wait.

September 10, 2010 (Inn at Long Trail)

Laying in a bed under covers. It’s not ‘til you get close to the way things were that you realize how far out you had been. I love being on my own. I’ve made a new friend, Roxy (what a kickass name), and befriended two sisters who are here grieving their mother and reconnecting. They bought me and MudD and Biscuits a round and I talked to them about hiking and gave some advice about a hike tomorrow. These women carry themselves with the comfort of a favorite couch with perfect ass-grooves. They can settle themselves into new territory with the assurance of vulnerable kindness- a quality from which few people react recoil. I admire their open demeanors and ass-groove confidence.

Even the guys here at the Inn remembered me and called me a celebrity. I’m near tears swelling with happiness. I just don’t get into these kinds of situations when I’m home- like I’m not proud enough of what I do to put myself out there alone. Maybe. Which is why I think I’ll call AJ tomorrow and tell him that I’ve been thinking on the trail, and have decided to try the adult world again, and if I had a choice, it would be working for him again. I’ll do Hanover, whatever; I’m ready for change. Wow. I can’t believe this might happen. Might. With my luck he’ll have already offered it to someone else.
Sleep time.

September 11, 2010 (Inn at Long Trail)

What a day. Talked to Natalie, Erin, Bob, and AJ and Ash. Natalie helped me with my resolve to accept a job from AJ and AJ told me there is no job for now. But, there will be a job, and we’re going to talk about it when I get home. I was disappointed because I got so pumped up about moving and a job and my own place and being close to Brigid and having friends visit me. But this will be a good exercise in patience because if I can get the job it is worth waiting for. It would be a hell of an opportunity for me and it’s likely a place I could make my own. It’s lucky this happened while I’m on trail. I’m so much bolder and more confident. 6 days left in the woods. 106 miles. I have so much to look forward to.

September12, 2010 (Clarendon)

You just can’t beat being back on trail! Got a stomach full of noodles, a brain full of plans (tag sale, building cabinets and a new kitchen table, seeing Anju, etc) and a body fresh and strong. I felt terrific today. We’re going to finish early. The rest of the time at the Inn was splendid, besides losing my underwear. Tom O’Carroll sang such luvly songs, ones I must buy once home: Long Black Veil, Caledonia, Dirty Old Town; and find other music with the ten penny and that amazing goat-skin drum: bodhran. The Seymour sisters are wonderful- they just loved me, happy smiling women off to have a good time, boisterous, friendly.

Then today I proposed we change the last week around and the boys were willing, God love ‘em. I’m so in charge, and I’m good at it. Looking forward to everything!!

September 13, 2010 (Lost Pond)

19.4 miles today, felt great except the climbs. Started in the rain, saw a deer, had a good hiking day, not much to report. Into Manchester tomorrow!

September 14, 2010 (Green Mountain House, Manchester)

Exhausted. Because it’s almost 11. Beth and Bob came into town for dinner and they’re slackpacking us tomorrow. They seemed excited, hoping for the same magic as last year. I dominate the group because MudD and Biscuits are so quiet, and the energy never elevates the way it could with a big group of folks like ‘Sota and Fly-By and Ahab. Not that I wanted to recreate the magic. But I think they miss that flavor that they got as angels to Joker’s Merry Men. Anyway, done Friday, into Boston Wednesday morning. There’s plenty to look forward to! I’m ready to be done with the trail, even though there aren’t any other ways of spending a day I can think of that I like more than hiking all day. That may be significant.

September 15, 2010 (Story Spring)

Interesting day. Ate 2 donuts and a muffin after a slice of pizza for breakfast, hiked way too fast in the beginning of the slackpack, so my left foot screams now all day. Had a blonde moment at a yellow left turn sign and went a half mile out of my way, then backtracked to keep up. Felt much better climbing Stratton. I love going up and over mountains. That’s my favorite. Then Beth met us after 17.5 with Gatorade, chips, cheetos and beer. I ate too much junk and felt terrible- after 3 miles or so I vomited orangey goop. Gross. Then I felt terrific! Old section hikers were at the shelter, just 3 but they took up the whole place with their shit. I made a full meal despite the junk food binge/purge, and ate while the light faded to nothing. Time for sleep. I’m ready to be done I guess, I was in a pretty terrible mood for most of today. Hopefully a full night of sleep here (it can’t be much past 8) will restore my smiles.

September 16, 2010 (Melville Nauheim)

Changes noticed and absent:
-instinct to multitask remains
-ability to multitask gone
-calm in public settings
-eye contact easy across board
-lots more patience, aided by better attention span
-as I read Comfort Me With Apples, it occurs to me that writing, the outdoors, and food are my three great loves (not including people).. And, if I can help it, I would like to backpack at least 3 weeks a year, not split up, to stay in shape and challenge my body and restore my mind.
p.s. I hiked my own pace today, found it to be happiness-inducing, and tonight I’m positively gleeful in the woods.

Having a hard time- well, fighting the urge to go to sleep. Want night to last.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mount Cardigan - March 20, 2011

When we made the final turn onto the road that led up to the Lodge, the top of the rise was so washed out that a line of hoodoos seemed to block our way. Driving over the crest, they gained a dimension and stretched into rows of ruts, dug out from the backcountry ski season. The car tires found valleys of milk chocolate frozen mud, and onward we jostled slowly and with much bumping around. At the top of the hill, as far as the road would go, parked trucks and Subarus appeared along a field. So, there are a lot of people hiking Cardigan today. I looked up at the bluebird sky, the expanse of glacial blues interrupted by a few wisps of edelweiss white. The snow gleamed in the early afternoon sunshine. Ahead, bare trees and evergreens filtered the glare in the old woods. There was still a chill in the air, but the sun warmed our skins to feel like upper 40s.

The Lodge was open. An older gentleman walked with a dog in the front yard of the property; he watched as I talked to myself about snowshoes. The number of cars in the lot on the first day of spring, the rutted road, an AMC Lodge erected smack-dab at the trailhead, indicated a packed trail. As I decided, possibly out loud, on wearing the Microspikes, the man with the dog was glaring into the sunlight, possibly looking away to the mountain or quickly away from me. “Hello!” I called. He gave a greeting with a certain finality about it, and turned. When Brigid returned from the Lodge she saw my choice of traction and agreed. “The trails are probably pretty packed. The Lodge was nice inside, with pretty new windows.”

Brigid had scribbled a quick map of the few trails up to the mountain. “My friends around here say it’s a rite of passage, your first climb up Mt. Cardigan.” The beginning of our approach was a singular trail. Then a Y introduced options. One route, Cathedral Forest, took a meandering 3ish miles to the top. The other trail, Holt, jumped to the top in a surprising 0.8 miles. “We can take our time up Cathedral Forest and then scoot down the Holt Trail. There was a sign inside the lodge that Holt is pretty steep and iced over.” Thinking about the thick spring air through the forest and a rocky top full of tourists, I agreed. The trailhead began an easy sweep along a stream, ascending slightly with the natural rise of the mountain base. We chatted about easy things, friends and family. We met one couple at a stream crossing, smiling from an accomplished summit. I’m liking this state- a date during the day is a hike. We proudly agreed that snowshoes would have been a burden over this icy white road. Then the sign at the Y. Holt Trail is Icy and Steep. “Brigid, if the trail is really steep, I would rather go up it than down. Cuz if you’re gonna fall, it’s better to fall onto the mountainside, than off of it. Then we can go down the nice easy trail. We’ll have plenty of time. But if there’s an icy section, it’s really better to go up.”
“Ok. That makes sense.”

After we turned onto the Holt Trail, the conditions changed suddenly. This route obviously got less traffic. We hiked on softer snow, sometimes postholing a couple feet. Hooray! As usual, the mile we had hiked had awoken the, I don’t know what to call it, reserve power, hardwired habit, woodsy spirit, which makes hiking supremely calming. The mere act of walking in the woods releases the stories of the AT, the memory of power and strength and ability, which my muscles revert to- it’s the corny version of muscle memory. When I’m hiking, my body is happy, simple as that. “I’m so happy!” I told Brigid. It was true. I was happy.

Almost a half mile later, I was wondering when the trail was going to get steep. With not much more than a quarter mile remaining, as far as I could tell, we had most of the elevation to go. The rocky pate of the summit rose above the trees like a balloon held out in front of us. The trees ahead appeared darker, and as the trail rose ever slightly, we could see an abrupt change in pitch. Scrawled in the snow was a message, an arrow pointing ahead to three squiggly lines, stacked atop each other.
“What does that mean?”
“I have no idea.”
“Didn’t you guys have code and stuff you wrote to each other on the trail?”
“Not really code, nothing more than an arrow. But we didn’t have enough snow.”
“Oh, yeah.”
“It’s probably telling us this is where is gets icy and steep.”
“We’re going to find out.”

And just like that, we were scrambling up a very different trail. The ice stuck like glass leeches to the pitted rock face, pointing their slick foreheads to the heavens. The slope of the mountain had taken on an expeditious grade. The final 0.4 miles of the Holt Trail account for 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but we didn’t know what was coming. The snow seemed to grow out of the ice like a fungus, and hikers before us had settled footholds into the mushy bits. While the trees lasted, the refrozen steps carried us up, as rungs on a ladder.
“I am so glad we’re going up this” was about the least expository statement I uttered. A discussion of footholds over the varying thickness and softness of ice eclipsed the easy conversations during the ambling section of the approach trail. We could pull on the thin conifers growing out of the nooks for extra leverage. Climbing steep terrain is like doing long lunges with acrobat arms: our stride was steady until it wasn’t. The few times I postholed, near the base of a larger tree or in a patch of sunlight, the snow swallowed my entire leg. But that only happened a couple times before I learned better. Then we had a conversation about tree holes and that skier who just died out west. Bring a Buddy was more broadly apt in winter than we had previously considered. I had broken a sweat. Our words were scarce and important. After a couple hundred feet, the trees opened up to the final climb- a sort of forehead. The mountaintop ahead of us was rock patchworked with snow and alpine mosses. We were getting beyond steep- the snow and ice covered the natural rock stairsteps, leaving a smooth silhouette at an angle I would never want to descend. Footholds required handholds for stability.

“I guess we know what those squiggly lines mean now.”
“Yeah, future reference: squiggly lines on top of each other mean slick ice.”
“Must be.”
We learned quickly- avoiding the sunny spots and big trees after my adventures in leg-swallowing snow, watching for exposed rock where the snow and ice couldn’t stick, using the established footholds until, sadly, we spotted deep handprints dotting the edges of thigh-deep postholes. The route was compromised. So we zigzagged across to shade, then back to bare rock. About fifty feet up two figures were scooting down the sunned ice. We had left the trees and they were among the sparse alpine shrubbery. I wondered whether they were having any fun. The climb ahead struck me as needing some ropes and anchors. The warning bell of ‘we might want to turn around now’ rung dully in my hyperactive brain and ceased. My brain in the middle of a climb wants to solve puzzles: safety was a priority, sure, but the challenge was surmountable. We stayed to the side of their line of descent. I thought, gosh they could get some serious momentum going down that way. When the two, who were a man and a woman, likely on a disastrous date, reached their first tree higher than his head, they ceased to scoot, sat down, and tried to smile.

“Oh, okay” I shouted politely, weighing whether to explain that mountain etiquette gives the right of way to hikers going down. They sat precariously in the sliver of shade, holding the sapling, squinting up at us. Looking the dude over I saw cheap softshell pants and a thin windshirt darkened with moisture, traction no better than Get-a-Grip studs on his sneakers, and fancy sunglasses. The lady was looking into the distance but not at any mountains through her fancy tortoise-lensed sunglasses. Maybe she was traumatized from the terrible adventure, but at least she had on a hardshell jacket and thicker pants. Brigid whispered to me as we dug our toes into grainy stairs, approaching them, “they don’t look local” and when I attempted to describe the trail they were descending into, there was little response. Instead, the guy asked “is that Lake Winnipesaukee?” I looked at Brigid.
“Umm, I think that that’s Newfound Lake. Because the two are both southeast from here, right? Newfound is first and farther, past those hills, you can see Winnipesaukee.”
“Uh, yeah okay, and is that ski mountain over there Whaleback?”
“Well, that’s way southwest, and this one is pretty close and more south, it’s probably Ragged Mountain. Yeah I was thinking it was Ragged Mountain before, it’s pretty close by.”
He lowered his arms, thinking, and raised to point again “Oh, so what about that big mountain right there, is that Mt. Jackson?” I followed his point, which found a lonely mountain speckled with snow like powdered sugar, rising high above the other peaks in the range.
“Oh, well, the presidential range is farther away, and it has a tree covered summit.”
“Could it be Mt. Cube?” Probably not, but it was worth a shot.
“Mt. Cube is farther west,” Brigid corrected.
“Oh, you’re right, when I saw it a few months ago it was pretty substantially covered in snow. I bet it’s Moosilauke. And look at that white range way out there, do you think that’s Mt. Washington?” I asked.
“No, it’s too close to be Washington,”
“Of course, there’s nothing on top, silly me,”
“But it actually might be the Franconia Ridge.”
“Beautiful, look at that.”
The couple seemed to be respectively seething or disinterested in our corrective geography lesson. So we wished them safety and caution, and kept making our stairway to Cardigan.

Within another fifty feet, handholds were necessary again. I would grab edges of refrozen ice lifting off the rock, or pockmarked grooves in the softer ice or palm the curving rock. Then we left the blazed trail. It followed a hump of ice smooth as metal, shaded by its precipitous pitch, where without real crampons and an axe, we would be walking on water. So we stepped laterally into the shade, looking for another route. Brigid took ten extra steps while I attempted to scurry up a nodule with an icy base and sunny top. My first slip pulled my right leg down a few feet on glassy ice to remind me to be careful. Steadying for a moment, I lifted a foot to a flatter node, tested some ice for a right hand grip, and pulled up on an edge. I wished I had an axe just then. My left foot was next. Alpine moss covered the node I chose for it, concealing the reliability of my foot placement. With a crunch I scrabbled the gnarl with the teeth of my Microspikes, and called to Brigid-
“I’m afraid of hurting the Fragile Alpine Zone Species!”
“Our elevation isn’t high enough for the protected species, you’re ok!”
But I wasn’t. Surveying this slippery base, I determined that climbing the nodule would be closer to bouldering and therefore unattemptable.
“Uh, Brig, this way isn’t gonna work. How’s yours?”
“I think I got it, come on back this way.”
I paused. From here I had to pivot my right body left, where I had a tentative foothold on my front leg and a right handhold, so that to step forward would cross my legs and turn my hip into the rock. Briefly, I was nervous: the jump of adrenaline in my gut quickened my inhale, the raw exhilaration of presentness soothed my exhale. Then I looked across to where Brigid was inspecting her climb, and maneuvered my right foot to be perpendicular to the mountain, twisted my front body to face the rock, and holding steady with my two hands swung my left leg into a crunchy spot. Sashaying across I reached Brigid’s nodule, where she nimbly climbed, appearing to almost glide up like a spider.
“I just sort of spidered up, using all my limbs! That was awesome!”
“When we get to the top, we have to high-five!”
But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get up there. Again the nervous surge reminded me I was not on a soft plane but a hard hill, that I should be careful. My fingers were burning from holding the ice and my palms were red. A vision of a swinging axe connecting to ice offered the same false relief as the sleep-deprived imagining a pillow. Then the puzzle mode kicked back in. The handholds were infrequent and rarely bulbous enough for a secure grip. The ice was not soft. How had she done this?

I breathed for a full minute, just leaning against the rock. There is no rush. Then I decided to trust my strength. I took my left foot six inches above the right and chewed into the ice. I felt around the shaded rock, granite-like but fairly even, and cupped a wide ripple. Expecting to lose grip, I pulled, isolating my steady leg, my left hand on snow, and the muscles straining along my right arm from the cup down my side, and pulled my right leg up another six inches from my left. Amazed at the machinery of the movement, my left hand quickly found another hold across the flatter part of the rock and pulled my torso up with that arm, my right now splayed on the leveling surface of the platform, and my right leg, evening out my hip. When I could lean onto the rock and use the weight of my shoulders and chest to anchor my body and raise my legs, my hands felt like epoxy on the Kinsman Quartz Monzonite. The chance to fall was overtaken. We had found a new route. The summit was less than a hundred feet up. It was still too steep for a high-five.

Using our new spidering skills, we scrambled up the remainder. When we could walk, we crunched up to the fire tower. I wanted the first person we saw to say ‘Wow! Did you just go up the Holt Trail?’ but no one was nearby our route. Our own glory had to suffice. There was enough.
“So, I think it’s safe to say that what we just did was called free climbing. Most people would have wanted ropes and an ice axe and all that for what we just did. That was intense, maybe not very safe.”
“Wow, really? That’s pretty crazy. I was thinking that, when I had to shimmy up to find a new route, whether it was actually safe. I trusted my Microspikes, and I felt strong, wow.”
I wondered about all those cars in the parking lot. Where were all the people? Did we miss them on the Forest trail? Look at this 360 degree view! I expected all the traffic of Camel’s Hump up here. But the wind, it carried the frozen edge of the mountain cover, and it came from all directions. On the first flight of stairs to the tower, a shed blocked the whipping wind enough for a sit. We had sweated through our baselayers, so we put on our spare outerlayers. In exultation we passed around twizzlers and cheese and drank water, grinning with our summit.

A young high school couple appeared, and judging by the Vermont Camo flannel/wool jacket, he at least was a local. He pointed to each peak in the distance and named them. We had been right, about Moosilauke and about Franconia ridge. Nothing else that kept a snowpack like that was close enough. The distant ridge looked like bleached teeth, incisors jutting out of the gumline of tree-covered mountains before it.

Brimming with accomplishment, adrenaline, and the bitter taste of knowing that we were lucky as well as strong, we marched down the mountain. Cathedral forest was beautiful, bright, and well-packed. The trees stood apart for lush spring and summer groundcover, and sunlight spread through spaces left by the fallen leaves of autumn. Serious negotiations receded for easy conversations with the regular recurrence of the yellow blaze. At the Y, approaching the balloon’s string on our hiking map, the unhappy couple appeared. They were not jolly. We smiled and greeted them, reported on the mountains he had requested the identification of and failed to inquire about how they made it down the mountain. Slowly, was the answer we didn’t have to ask for, and probably the only one we could have gotten. In an awkward intersection, Brigid and I took the lead and the unhappy couple agreed on a short break. If this was a date, it was probably the last.