Going home after years away is a strange wrestling match between familiarity and self-growth. So frequently (with small towns especially) it seems as if nothing has changed- except for you. This can be equal parts soothing and unnerving. What was once the norm now takes some grappling to recall. For me, this was my experience hiking in the Adirondacks.
I grew up in Keene Valley in the heart of the High Peaks region. In my gym class, I learned how to read a topographic map and use a compass. We practiced wilderness survival skills. When I was twelve I went to summer camp and learned how to make a weatherproof shelter out of only what was around me in the forest in under 45 minutes. It was second nature to feel at home and comfortable navigating the woods that make up the 6 million acre state park.
Since leaving several years ago now, I have traveled to many a foreign city and slowly grown accustomed to the little urban luxuries such as public transportation, having a plethora of grocery stores and gas stations at my disposable, and having my electricity fixed within the same day when a storm blows it out. Though I still feel the most comfortable around trees, I know I have gotten softer- out of practice with the skills that once were so natural. This was apparent on my last trek to knock off some more of the 46ers.
I had an eight-hour window for hiking, to ensure that I had a ride to and from the trailhead at the end. To fit this timeslot, I edited my original plan of hiking four 46ers and just do two. Nineteen miles of some steep sometimes scrambling hiking had me worried about cutting it too close. My first few mistakes were not checking the snow and mud conditions on the daily print out tacked outside of the local mountaineering store, as well as leaving my map in a storage facility a little over 2000 miles away. I had studied the map, read thorough descriptions of the trail and even saved some photos on my phone. This soon proved to be arrogance, of sorts, believing that I could step right back into my old wilderness skills without a second thought.
My day started at 5 am packing everything before grabbing a ride into town. I reached the trailhead by 8 am. Furthering the recurring theme of unfounded confidence, I added in an extra mountain that I knew had a great view but would cause me to add unnecessary time and have to backtrack on to get to the ridgeline I desired. The misty morning rain had cleared by the first summit, but the winds quickly proved to me that they were set on being my arch nemesis for the day. The Loki to my Thor, they pushed me around and seemed to enjoy playing tricks on me. I retreated back to the tree line for shelter and rushed to the trailhead for my ridgeline.
I can’t say why exactly I had not stopped to put two and two together for the snow. Even though it was late May already, the Adirondacks seem to run on their own schedule for seasons keeping the snow and ice for much later than that- despite the relatively low altitude there. I would often tell stories to my friends out west of my childhood swimming in my underwear in frozen rivers in June with ice chunks floating by- as my body numbed out but I stayed in for as long as I could. Even as I arrived in the Adirondacks, I had been able to see the storms toward the tops of the peaks and had awed over the snow that seemed to dust the tops. One of the peaks I had on my list for the day was the sixth highest, giving me no excuse for not anticipating all the snow that awaited me at the top.
There was a distinct moment as I was climbing some of the steeper terrains that the snow line became evident. At the time it seemed like a wonderful winter oasis greeting me with frosted evergreens. This lulled me into a false sense of security. I paused to take a photo, laying my gloves carefully across my thigh, only to have the wind right at my back blowing them off and directly into a puddle. Thoroughly drenched, they were no longer useful to me- leaving my hands exposed to the snow and winds and all of my main mountains left to summit.
The next problem was that the snow was significantly less welcoming than I had expected. The snow covered the path up to three feet deep creating bridges of sorts over rocks and gaps. In the winter it can make the hiking easier with the proper equipment but in late spring it was the bane of my existence. Unless I was cautiously testing out each step before me several times before committing (which seemed like a huge time waster) I risked falling through and having to dig myself out of the snow. After trying the slow technique for a while I would gain enough confidence to take some faster steps and quickly fall through again. I reached the summit properly drenched with red skin from the wind chill. It was time to abort.
The next five hours were spent as I tried desperately to just get off of the ridgeline and back to the trailhead. I was not prepared enough for the conditions, was already wet and cold, and could not trail run to make up for lost time if the trail was full of collapsing snow bridges and temporary streams from the snow melt when reaching lower altitudes. The occasional signs pointing the direction of the main trail to the parking lot seemed to never lead me any closer to my destination, causing me to question making a wrong turn but not having enough time to retrace my steps and have them turn out to be potentially unnecessary.
Without meaning to, I submitted the second high peak that I had originally desired to do, but at this point was trying to avoid. After that came another mountain that continued to break my spirits as I encountered more vertical gain after thinking myself lowered off finally. The snow was finally giving way to impromptu creeks, bogs, and deep mud in the few areas that I was lucky. I must have missed the trail sign to take me off the ridge and back to the parking lot somewhere in creating new ways to cross unintended streams and ponds. The mileage seemed to increase with each new sign I encountered, taking me deeper and more out of the way from where I wanted to go. The frustration that was consuming my mind was blinding me to what normally would have been obvious observations. I lost the trail on a vantage point on another mountain that I had to go over, causing me to run in circles around the rock face before finding the trail again. The wind followed me throughout this journey, whistling softly at first to make me think that I was finally nearing the roaring brook by the base of the trail or even by the roadside, before picking up in force and blowing through the trees with such force as if to mock me.
In my last descent, the trail finally disappeared, dissolving into the normally beautiful chaos of untouched fallen leaves that litter the forest floor, clearly freshly unearthed from underneath a season of snow. No one had been on the trail since the snow melted; that much was clear from the lack of any footprints or disturbance to the branches or leaves. I was lost, and I was late. The wind came crashing through one last time as I finally broke my silence to scream and curse at it. It didn’t seem fair. I was in what felt like it had been my own backyard growing up but now the once friendly forest seemed to be a fierce foe. I had changed, grown, and no longer belonged it felt. It was like leaving Neverland, and I was heartbroken.
I retraced the last 100 yards three times looking for any trail marker or sign of life, coming to the same conclusion each time. The trail just vanished. Standing still for the first time in hours, I slowly recalled and convinced myself that I was trained for wilderness survival and would be fine. The cities had made me softer- out of focus- but my core had remained constant. Looking up, I was able to spot a solitary building in the distance. It had to be the club where the trail started at. Using my compass, I took off trail running in the general direction.
What had been a failure of a hike became a win for trail running. I no longer remembered that I was wet, mud-covered, and chilled to the bone. I stopped thinking entirely as instinct took over finding a solid spot for my foot to fall step after step. In this system of strategically falling down the mountain, the trail became visible. It was covered in leaves still, but it made sense. Whenever I paused to consider walking it, all signs would vanish. It was just instinct that made the path seen. The next three miles seemed to fly by as euphoria replaced my exhaustion. Even when my feet finally hit the dirt road that would lead me to the club, I didn’t stop running. I only paused slightly to flip off the sign for the trail as I continued in my mad dash for the end of the road fueled by the desire for hot chocolate.
I must have missed the trail signs, or they had fallen in the harsh winter and the trail crews had not done any restoration yet. I added an extra six miles easily to my original plan and an extra eight miles to what I had wanted to do once I saw the conditions. It was a longer, harsher journey than I had wanted, but at the end, the woman who signed out of the trail log had her eyes glowing with pixie dust and views of Neverland again.