I’ve been disconnected from computers and the internet for two weeks, which I spent in the mountains, hiking, worrying about vegan food and then saying fuck it I’ll be mostly vegan and throw in some eggs from pasture-raised chickens and some cheese from pasture-fed cows, sleeping, reading, and consuming a fair amount of wine. I finished two books and started a third (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Let’s Speak English by Mary Cagle, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, respectively), and found out my favorite time to wake up is actually 9am, not 5:15.
It has been a very wet spring and summer here in New York State, and in the Adirondacks that means mosquitoes. Devout and fanatical and swarming. Any venture out of doors, for even the smallest amount of time, drew an instant posse of bloodsucking vectors, which meant that I had a choice: either become their feast or submit to DEET. I did try the non-DEET, “natural” stuff, which smells almost as bad, but I had to spray it every hour or so, and there was always the feeling of being watched…they fly near enough for you to hear ’em, letting you know it’s only a matter of time before they land again.
So I am out in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, hiking miles and miles through mud and over stones and up steep inclines smelling like Deep Woods OFF and sweating through all my clothes and backpack too. More than once it occurred to me that many people would question why I want to do these things. What is the draw? In the midst of these hikes, I dreamed about showering and settling in for wine and a good read. I stumbled on tree roots and worried about getting caught out there, no phone reception and a broken ankle and one ibuprofen and a decent amount of water but not that decent….and I wondered why I do this. Why I keep coming back for more. And other than the beauty, and the peace I feel in the woods–the sense that my little self, with my little story and my little worries are, well, little in the grand scheme of things–I didn’t have an answer.
Then I took a hike–not a very long hike, not even ten miles–and I found out why.
When I opened the register to sign in (it might save your life!), two pictures of timber rattlesnakes greeted me: the yellow phase and the black phase. Timber rattlers are present in these here woods–stay on the trails and be careful when approaching rock ledges where they might be sunning themselves. I’m thinking, This is cool. Second time this summer I’ve been in a place where timber rattlers are supposed to reside. I’m thinking I’d like to see one. I sign in and Lucy, my intrepid Black Labrador, leads the way into the woods.
And we are merrily trotting along in the fullness of our early-hike energy. There is a grass that looks like bamboo, except it’s only a foot high. Curious. A long plank bridge takes us over a marsh, opening up a view of blue sky and massive cumulus clouds. Lucy manages to step through the cracks between the planks only a couple times. We walk alongside a large stand of white pines planted by the CCC back in the 1930s, when the American president gave a shit about the American people. The trail swings to the left and becomes darker, more foresty, and we dig in to our hike in earnest.
I get in a bit of a trance when I hike sometimes–one foot in front of the other, over and over, does that to me. I was falling into this trance as I pushed my legs to carry me up a hill when suddenly I heard, live for the first time, the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. It took me a fraction of a second to focus where it was coming from and there is my Lucy, nose to nose with a big, coiled rattler. She had obviously not seen it until that moment, and luckily had no Lucylike ideas about chasing it or barking at it–for once, for, I swear, the only time in our relationship, she let me slowly pull her back, drawing her in like an empty fishing lure on her leash, until she stood next to me. Still clueless. We stood there together for about two minutes looking at it. It was in yellow phase, but dark and very well camouflaged, and it was right on the trail. It was coiled, its triangle head held high, and as big as my forearm in the middle. It never stopped rattling, and this was spooking me, a lot, so I looked around for a way to continue onward. Because yes I thought about turning right around and heading back to the car, but that isn’t why I was here. Why was I here? To go hiking, dammit. So we picked our way carefully through deep leaf litter off trail, looking for more rattlesnakes the whole time, and came back to the trail a safe distance on the other side. I looked back once, still amazed and filled with adrenaline, then we went quickly on our way.
This has been a very difficult year. I don’t need to say this, really, because it has been a difficult year for a lot of people. But other than the massive dying off that occurred among the keepers of our culture during 2016, other than the gobsmacking political circus and the hope that flamed bright for Bernie and the defenders of our waters only to be doused by the same old bullshit: business as usual, power and money over life and love and all that really matters. Other than all that, and the ever-increasing evidence that yes, climate change is not only real, it is happening right now–other than these very big things, in my own little life, in my own little story, I have been having a difficult year. In fact, this vacation was deeply needed and looked-forward to for this reason. I needed a complete break from everything.
Hiking does this–it puts you back into your body. And the hiking had been doing its job well. Other than a couple of disturbing dreams, I had let go, for the most part, of everything that had been weighing on me since last October, and immersed myself in physicality, simplicity, and a bit of hedonism. Maybe it was the rattlesnake, or the adrenaline coursing through my body as a result of its appearance, but my mind soon picked up every worry and pain from the past year and worked me up into a full-blown panic attack. I was in the woods, with no possibility of contacting anyone, and I was sure my whole life was imploding at that very moment. That is how it felt.
To give an idea about how it is possible to believe something like this, even in the face of facts that prove otherwise, a little story. My kitty-corner neighbor at work, Alex, popped his head into my office a couple of weeks ago and asked, first, if I was OK (we’d had some hard news a few days earlier that hit me personally very hard), and then whether I am afraid of heights. To this I said yes, but I like to push my boundaries. So he excitedly took me into his classroom, where he and a couple of students had taped a wooden plank to the floor. They were there with another of our coworkers, Aaron (who has the same name as my son Aaron, so he gets mention here). Alex tells me I am to jump off a building in virtual reality. I put on a headset with goggles, which showed me a city street, with a car stopped at a light–I could see across the street to a tree, maybe a park. It was cartoony, like a video game. Alex gave me earbuds, and handed me two paddles to hold in my hands. I could now hear the sounds of the city, and birds. He told me to look down to the right and push the top button. I did this and doors closed on the city scene. Elevator music was playing as I watched light move in the line between the doors for a long time. A long time. When the doors finally opened again, I was on top of the building. A flock of pigeons flew by, giving me vertigo. Alex told me to step out onto the plank and jump off. Whoa. I knew this wasn’t real–I knew it. But it was all I could do to step out on that plank. When I did, wind started blowing (he had one of his students turn a fan on). So I’m standing there in the wind, looking down maybe 30 stories to the city street below, and all of it looks like a video game, but my senses are completely fooled. I edge my way out to the end of the plank, determined to do this because I know it isn’t real. I ask Alex, “Do you die in real life when you die in a dream?” Ha ha. After a few whiny moments, saying I don’t think I can do this, I stepped–not jumped–off the plank, and almost fell when my knees buckled in surprise, finding the floor just where I knew it would be. The scene around me still said I was falling from a building, but my body knew better–the illusion had popped.
On this hike, my mind conjured all the horrible scenarios waiting for me upon my return to normal life, and completely fooled me into believing that they actually were occurring at that very moment. And I was hiking, farther and farther out into the woods. I kept on, to finish what I’d started.
We stopped on the shore of Lake George, where the waves from boats and the rising wind drove Lucy crazy. I heard her make sounds I’d never heard her make–at first I thought she was hurt, but then I realized she had never seen waves and she kept trying to bite them and catch them but they eluded her. The more she tried to get those waves and couldn’t, the more frantically she tried, and it frightened me. Then, on top of everything–the snake, my mind-illusions, and the dog being freaky, those cumulus clouds had turned dark and threatening. Thunder rumbled close, and I knew we had to run for it but I knew we wouldn’t make it.
Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and soon the rain came. I donned a poncho that kept the rain off me but made me sweat through everything twice over. I trudged along, watching Lucy ahead of me and knowing that we would eventually make it back to my car if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And as I clambered through the pouring rain, scared that a tree would fall on us, I clambered through the nightmare program my mind had cooked up for me, lived through scenarios I thought would kill me–mentally kill me and drive me to escape in some permanent way–and found that I could bear up as long as I kept low to the ground.
We kept going, steady and strong. We marked the place where we’d seen the snake–Lucy stopped and told me the exact spot, and I thanked my good girl. We made it across the plank bridge, where we startled a blue heron from its hiding place, past the white pines, and the bamboo grass, and the sign-in station. We walked out of the woods and onto the road, and to my car, and then, as if it were all a dream, I knew that everything I had been imagining wasn’t real. All was well, but if it wasn’t I knew I could handle it, as I had been handling it all these months, all these years, all my life.
Life is an ordeal. Hiking is an ordeal. They both push you to the limits of mental, emotional, and physical endurance, and through this you build in yourself the knowledge of your own strength. I love the beauty of the woods, I love communing with the trees and the wind and the animals. But I hike because it pushes me to know what I can bear. Going out is often joy and discovery, and sometimes difficult choices about whether to continue on a path, but it is the return that makes you burn, and shows you your true mettle. Even if you have no other choice but to keep on walking.