Tomorrow I’m going to go for a hike. It’s as natural as the weather, to borrow a great phrase from Joni Mitchell, for me to go for a hike. I’ve been heading out into the woods, to walk up a mountain just for the sake of seeing what’s there since I was a kid. A little kid. Before I could drive, it was the same mountain every time – the mountain I lived next to and looked at out my living room window. Ever since I turned 16 and received the golden pass to freedom (i.e. my driver’s license), I’ve been hiking in the Catskills.
But this particular hike is special. This time I will hike up a mountain and by doing so will finish another round of the Catskill 35. On this round, I walked every inch of every trail (or lack of trail) alone. It was/will be/is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And as proud of myself as I am, and as eager as I am to proclaim this feat as my own, I am loath to finish. Because then it will be over.
Hiking is essentially walking, a physical pursuit that most humans master by one year of age. It doesn’t have to be particularly athletic, and can be done at any speed. This wasn’t a feat of great strength or speed. It was one of perseverance and commitment as much as anything else. It wasn’t really all that hard to go walk up 35 mountains. They aren’t even very big mountains. Yes, there is some technical know-how involved in navigating up the trailless peaks. What I managed in navigational elegance I countered with delightfully idiotic spazz-outs: putting the car key in an outer mesh pocket springs to mind as a particularly shining example. I got lost, scratched up, cold, and tired on a regular basis, but I never considered (well, never SERIOUSLY considered) not completing the list.
I remember the beginner’s mind I hurried to shed on my first round of the 35, hiking with my husband and experiencing a learning curve that was steeper than Rusk’s southern face. Stupid beginner mistake after stupid beginner mistake: Halcott in July without full body armor, side hilling around North Dome to avoid re-climbing it, running out of water on 6 pack traverses more than once… it was really exhilarating to learn how to avoid those foolish, inexperienced and potentially dangerous mistakes and we learned fast. Gear purchases were made (2 years of every birthday, xmas and parents’ day resulting in another item until we were fully outfitted), forum threads devoured, gurus consulted. We hiked with other people and learned from them, filing away every opinion and shred of advice we could glean.
I remember thinking “I couldn’t ever do these peaks alone.” I remember being truly awed at the thought of bushwacking alone, and wanting that level of skill. I remember talking to other women online that had done either all or most of the peaks alone and feeling that spark get lit: I need to learn more, but then I could do it too. And it is a very short hop to go from wanting to planning.
Tom needed help being convinced. He insisted on a GPS unit and at least 2 large dogs with me at all times. There were lots of behind the scenes discussions – never arguments, but fervent pleas to be careful and be sensible and be prepared. I always carried more than I thought I needed, extra headlamps, extra clothing, extra first aid supplies. Totally unpredictable things happened at the worst moments – the GPS batteries dying the one time I was really relying upon it, car key in the worst possible pocket, lost and the need for a road walk after an 11 mile bushwack, losing my compass on a bushwack before I bought the GPS… these mishaps did nothing to ease Tom’s pain. Or did they? After watching me get into and out of tough situations a few times, I think the problems, close calls, and truly scary moments only served to increase his trust in me. Things happen in the woods. You can’t prevent all of them so you have to know how to deal, how to shift to Plan B, how to repair or do without on the fly. Those are the valuable skills I gained.
But doing the solo round kind of gave me back that beginner’s mind. One of my favorite sayings is “You need to learn the rules in order to break them.” I learned how to be safe, then I put myself in a certain amount of danger. How much? Interesting question – Tom and I could “what if” for hours over broken femurs or hypothermia, while common sense indicated that I was never more than single digit miles away from a road. And then, during the year while I hiked alone, more people died in the Catskills. People die doing this. Is any of my knowledge or skill, nascent and mostly untested, a true protection from that?
There were tough scrapes. There were a couple of minor injuries that I wasn’t sure were really so minor at the time. Lots of internal planning around how to manage the ER visit with three dogs, how to drive with an arm/foot/leg that didn’t function, etc. Fear will make your brain go into a special overdrive. Pain will reduce awareness to each moment, each step. Bangs and bumps freak me out worse than blood; I’ll take a nasty cut over a broken bone any day. I have been lucky to make it through 3 complete rounds so far with no real injuries. Not even a blister, in fact.
So what’s next? The ballgown 35 is underway. Hiking with friends is now a priority. Fall is coming and with it some of my all time favorite hiking weather. Tom has mentioned the Adirondack 46 a few times. I volunteered to become the editor of the 3500 Club’s newsletter. And a wilderness first aid course is definitely on the to do list.
I won’t be any less busy any time soon…