I haven’t finished my solo round of the Catskills 35 yet, and the longer I wait to finish it, the larger it gets. I’ve actually tried my hand at creating a slideshow with a sound track – the next step up from the beloved “mix tape” of old – chronicling the journey. In my head, this was to be a 1980s era MTV style music video of epic proportions, but in fact it’s a cheesy 2D travelogue with Cat Stevens caterwauling in the background. And that’s just fine.
Originally I wanted to use Paula Cole’s song “Me” for the soundtrack. The chorus really expresses the essence of what climbing these 35 (ok, 34 as of this writing) mountains has been like for me: “it’s me who is my enemy/ me who beats me up/ me who makes the monsters/ me who strips my confidence.” The problem was that because I was alone the whole time, there are no photos that capture that aspect of the hikes. You, the viewer, only get to see through my eyes, and it has been pretty enlightening for me to step back and realize that through my eyes it looks downright lovely. Smiling dogs, gorgeous rocks and flowers, wildlife and views… it’s a totally sanitized version! It’s a commercial. It’s shot full of omissions – there’s no blood, no sweat, no tears.
I decided that I could have used the Paula Cole song if I had appropriate images to go with it: maybe some pictures of me sitting in the middle of the woods, soaking wet, with my head in my hands. Or a couple of close ups of the cross-hatched and swelling mess my arms became after busting through a nettle-pricker party I had the audacity (and stupidity) to crash. No still photo could have done justice to some of the falls I took, and I think not even video would have adequately captured what climbing up Wittenberg’s backside was like. Much of the hiking wasn’t particularly pretty. Long stretches offered no views, no dramatic rock formations, no wildlife, and not a whole lot going on. That’s not a complaint – not in the least. But it is the truth.
As pretty as I made it look, beauty is a half truth. The Paula Cole song would have been a great choice. In the first verse she says “I am not the person who is singing/ I am the silent one inside/ …I am not my house, my car, my songs/ they are only stops along my way.” I am not my hikes, my triumphs, my completions, or my achievements. I am the silent (!) one, the insecure, striving, driven one inside, hiding behind the wide grin and the positive word. The other half of the truth is that the full range of emotion/experience, not just opposites like beauty or ugliness, but everything in between as well are what make up the experience. There were times when I was bored, distracted, tired, or just wanted it to be over so that I could go home and vacuum the living room. And the breathtaking, postcard perfect moments too – they are just as real. Out in the woods, I find it easier to embrace all of me, and give voice to the silent parts since the dogs are my only audience. I find my confidence even as I challenge it.
Second verse? “I am walking on the bridge / I am over the water / And I’m scared as hell / But I know there’s something better.” What the photos are missing is that I was scared. Driving to every trailhead to start every hike, I got butterflies in my stomach and had thoughts of just turning around. Every mountain, every hike intimidated me in some way or another. “I don’t have to do this,” I kept telling myself. But I did have to. Something in me insisted. Stubbornness might be courage’s understudy. “I don’t have to find the can,” I bargained. “I’m up here, and I know I’m up here. That’s good enough, right?” WRONG. I lost my favorite fleece hoodie, my compass, a nylon anorak, a shoe (yep, a shoe), my car key… these woods take something from you in a most literal sense.
But they do give something back. I walk a little taller knowing I have climbed 35 mountains alone. I have leg muscles like tree trunks. My dogs are in magnificent shape. I have been cold, wet, lost and terribly disoriented, and I’ve gotten myself out of that mess, all alone. That leaves a mark, an indelible mark, on my soul. I’ve lifted my 60 lb dog up over my head with one hand. When it was just me and the chore of making it, I made it. That has meaning.
My ego is serenaded by the sweetness of being referred to as a rope-muscled ballgown-wearing superhero, and although that’s another story altogether, I would not feel confident “leading” the ballgown hikes if I hadn’t managed to do the 35 all by myself. Ok, 34.