It is raining this July morning: a deep, penetrating rain after many days of 100+ degree heat and humidity. The rain forces me to stay indoors, addressing mess and chaos born of many weekends in a row of long days in the mountains. The rain feels healing, as it so often does for me. I over-identify with the parched earth and the worried farmers. The rain anchors me here, in this house without internet service, without wood to split, without cell phone access. It is a gift: laundry is in the washer and I am writing. Thank you, rain.
The homestead is in shambles in part because I have been out. I have been out in part because I am having trouble facing the homestead and all its needs. But at a deeper level, I am out in the woods every chance I get because I can be out there like this. I remember over hearing a runner, after winning the Dutchess County Classic 5k race for the umpteenth time, telling a reporter how it felt. She was about 45 years old and she was winning, year after year, with times that would make a competitive college student drool. She said “I am just grateful to be out here competing at this level.” Her words became engraved in my competitive psyche. As I gobble up miles and earn sore feet, I hear them echoing in my head. I am grateful to be out here discovering what I can do. I am grateful for the intimacy I keep developing with the forest and the earth and sky. There are all kinds of hikers – I am a peakbagger, but I am one who craves intimacy and I’m willing to put in the work necessary to achieve it.
In yoga class this morning, I struggled with asana after asana, my leg muscles so tight they basically locked everything else (back, hips, ribs, etc) into place. I used to be “better” at this, I thought. But by the time I was driving home, I found myself breathing in rhythm to a new mantra: learn more. Grow more. Breathe more. That’s all. Not better, not right, not wrong, just grow more. Wherever I find myself: struggling into an asana or navigating a ledge, I realize there is no correct or incorrect but just an opportunity to grow more. If I can learn more, experience more, feel more than I did yesterday or last time, then I’m developing the intimacy I crave.
I have described myself as a Type A hiker. I like to go. I like to keep moving and I like to cover ground. I also have a list of household chores awaiting me at home and quite literally: I don’t have all day. I tend to be a get-in-and-get-out type peakbagger. People shake their heads at me and think I’m missing out because I don’t stop to smell the bear scat. More than once friends have admitted that they don’t want to hike with me. Words like “race” and “death march” come up in their explanations.
True confession time: sometimes I don’t know if I find it enjoyable either. Lately, as I bear down on my Catskill 35 solo round, I keep thinking about the guy Bill Bryceson talks about in A Walk in the Woods – the one who runs the whole AT, but doesn’t know why, and spends much of his time crying as he runs. I’m not crying and hiking, not at all, but I’m definitely struggling with existential questions on the trail and off, and find myself wondering, as I slog up another hill, “Do I like doing this?”
The answer is very rarely a resounding “No!” Black flies + nettles + prickers + humidity = get me out of here. Blackflies can make a hiker lose their mind. Little else is that clear. The answer is equally rarely a resounding yes. There are moments that are so sweet, so blissful, so pure that my throat aches to conjure their memory. They are the moments when I’m in the National Geographic special, living in real life the intimacy with wildness that makes my breath catch and my heart lurch. But those moments are fleeting. Much of the time, this hiking/peakbagging is just what I do.
There are parts that I like a lot. I love looking at maps and being creative, and a few years of bushwacking in the Catskills has given me the confidence to consider trails optional. Looking at vast expanses of trailless wilderness on the map, I find myself wondering what it’s like in there. Being fit enough to bushwack for miles also gives me options and I love that feeling. I can look at something that a few years ago I would have turned down as too difficult, too long, too complex and say yeah – I can do that. In fact, there isn’t much in this Catskill Park that I wouldn’t take on. That is a great feeling.
Adding to my wildflower life list is also a fantastic feeling. (yeah, blushblush – I do keep a “life list” of sorts). Seeing a cedar waxwing land in the top of a balsam spruce, the yellow tail band illuminated by morning sun so that it is a blinding flash: yep, that’s a fabulous feeling. Finding a purple fringed orchid just off the trail in Devil’s Kitchen – also awesome. Sometimes it is scat or a dead body that is worth stopping to ooh and ahh over, the remains of a Luna moth last weekend being worth several photographs and much admiration.
But large amounts of it is just walking in the woods. It gets hot, tiring, buggy, and annoying in all kinds of ways that only another peakbagger can really appreciate: the slippery stones that, after several miles of dancing, falling, and gripping, make your feet ache in new and profound ways. Blurs of greengreengreen. Green up high, green at eye level, green at knee level, green at your feet. Green and brown and gray, but mostly green everywhere. Bryceson calls it monotonous and boring. He complains about all the trees. We hiker-readers laugh and wonder why he’s out there if he isn’t charmed by it all. And yet, there I am, slogging up another hill, pissed off at all the vegetation in my way.
I have reached that point where I do it so much I no longer know why I do it. I do it because now I’m good at it because I’ve done it so much. Part of me can taste that and wants more: I want to turn it into a competition and win. I want to be the best at it. I want to gain recognition and be Good At Something, because in the rest of my life, I feel kind of average. Not a colossal failure (well… hm: I’ve been divorced, have lost 3 jobs due to budget constraints and may well lose number 4 within the year. Isn’t it Freud who says that the tasks of adulthood are mastering love and work?) but I ain’t no smashing success neither.
And then the lightbulb turns on over my head. I know that this is why I do it – because out there alone with my dogs, none of this matters. I can bemoan my fate, worry, or tick off accomplishments and gloat, or anything in between. It doesn’t matter. I’ll still get up to the top of the mountain one way or another, one step at a time.