My steps had been measured. The trail had turned to bare rocks, mostly smooth and steep, while the wind seemed determined to blow me back. I was careful to plant my boot firmly and completely on the rock, to walk any cracks I could find and traverse when possible. The trail was marked with yellow paint blazes but I worked more from cairn to cairn, forcing my mind to focus on the next small task and not the ache in my legs or the rumbling in my stomach.
I stopped at a cairn to survey where I was headed next. Tracy came up beside me.
“See that plaque, Mo?” she asked, pointing to an historical maker embedded in the rock. “That’s your summit.”
For all intents and purposes I sprinted to that plaque. I went right up to the rock, placed my hands on its cool, smooth face, bent in and kissed it.
It was a spontaneous move. I didn’t know how I would feel once I reached the summit of Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. I had no grand gesture planned. I had no expectations. I had respect for the mountain and for the Adirondacks. I knew it would be hard and challenging. But I didn’t go in with a metaphysical plan.
Hiking Mount Marcy had long been on my bucket list and I can’t quite explain why. Lake Placid is my happy place, but I was drawn to Mount Marcy before I ever set foot in the town. It’s the place where Teddy Roosevelt intended to go the day he was summoned back to Buffalo to take the presidential oath of office after William McKinley died (for real this time). When history and nature collide, it becomes a natural curiosity for me.
Plus there’s the difficulty. Mount Marcy isn’t the most difficult climb among the 46 High Peaks in New York State, but it’s the tallest and one of the longest. The roundtrip is 15 miles. The trail is not terribly technical but erosion and foot traffic have worn it down so it’s full of rocks, roots and muck. We had the added bonus of encountering three miles worth of ice on the trail which we weren’t anticipating. It’s not an easy day hike and part of me certainly wanted the challenge.
It may be cliche to hike Mount Marcy, but something about it called to me. And I learned long ago that when I listen to my gut, good things happen.
By luck of timing, I was able to hike it with my friend Tracy and her dad, Tough Guy Tom. Both are 46ers, meaning they have hiked all 46 High Peaks in New York State. In fact, they did 40 of them in a month last summer. I could not have been in better hands to tackle my first Adirondack hike, not just in terms of their experience and Tom’s vast knowledge of the woods and backcountry hiking but also from their positivity, zest for life and complete patience.
I’m halfway through the book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed where she takes to this enormous summer-long quest along the PCT in order to heal some profound personal wounds and reset her life.
I had no such expectations for Mount Marcy. I did not expect the mountain to change me. Or save me. Or give me meaning.
I didn’t so much as want to be seen on the mountain as I wanted to see the mountain.
I wanted to experience the steep sections and rocks and roots and varying degrees of difficulty. Clearly the challenge was physical but I wanted to challenge myself mentally, too, to work on staying present and working to the best of my abilities instead of comparing myself to others. (This is how I got myself in trouble when I felt the pressure of the group of college stewards hiking behind me on the descent of the mountain. Instead of pulling over and letting them pass, I tried to keep their pace. And I wiped out. Hard. It was the only time on the trail when I couldn’t save myself from my stumbling feet.)
I wanted the experience only the mountain can provide, one which seemingly changes with the whims of the gods. My only wish was that the summit was clear. And it was. As the wind tried to blow me off the top, I created my own sturdy base and looked around, drank in the view of New York State from its highest spot.
Once I got to the top, I kissed the mountain in gratitude, not so much for surviving my climb but thankful that mountain was part of my life’s journey. Or maybe for a few hours I was part of its journey. You never really know which way the impact will go. Epiphanies are wonderful, but perhaps real change comes with more subtle tones. More wisdom is born from enjoying the moment then in searching for answers. It’s certainly more enjoyable.
When I finally parted ways with Tracy and her dad, Tough Guy Tom had some words for me.
“You’re a good hiker,” he said, and I was immediately proud. “There’s just one thing. You had about 4,000 near misses. Try to make it closer to 1,000.”