One day when I was 46, I decided to hike all 46 of The High Peaks of the Adirondacks. I tend to live out my life in headlines, always proclaiming a new interest with passion and bursts of wild enthusiasm. So 46 at 46! The coincidence had a certain mystical quality to it and I was convinced that it was a personal thumbs up from Mother Nature herself.
My odyssey skyward started slowly. Having been recently divorced and with my two children away at college, I suddenly had time for myself and took up walking. It was good exercise and a way to manage my weight, But most of all I loved the freedom to finally be a self-contained unit moving forward in the the direction of my choice under my own power. I found peace in the rhythm of my steps and breathes. I enjoyed the smells, the green flutter of trees, and the ever changing perennial garden of wild flowers along the sides of my quiet country road.
I walked and walked, some days listening to music. But many days ruminating about the past and pondering the future. Soon walking was not enough and when my neighbor jokingly told me I was making a rut in the asphalt in front of his house, I decided to upgrade to hiking The Adirondacks, a six million acre protected and “forever wild”park near my home.
I carefully prepared for my ascent: New hiking boots carefully fitted by the staff at an outdoors store to prevent the dreaded toe jam, wool socks to ward off blisters, liner socks to wick moisture, A Gore-Tex jacket to keep out the rain while at the same time allowing the body to breathe, and a day pack well supplied for survival. The High Peaks are mountains over 4000 feet tall, some having very intimidating names like Big Slide and Giant. But I was equipped for the challenge and so I climbed.
But it wasn’t quite what I expected. I found that during the first few minutes of the first few hikes, I was immediately out of breath. I realized it was the mountain’s cruel initiation. I needed to establish a stride and when my pulse started to conform to the life of the mountain, things got better. I was also required to be a constant mental problem solver. The Adirondack Park is a dome of volcanic rock worn down by thousand of years of weather. The trails are littered with tens of thousands of rocks. Each footfall had to be carefully planned as I moved from step to step. Sometimes I came off the trail covered with mud. I slipped once and left some skin from my elbow on a mountain called Gothics. And one evening, I cried alone in the woods during a group hike when our leader told us, yes indeed, we would be hiking one more mountain the next day.
But there was joy, too. I saw peregrine falcons diving toward earth at tremendous speeds and I heard for the first time their distinctive whistle. I met other other hikers, people who,as Thoreau pointed out, lived life a deliberately as nature. They told stories of other mountains and at night identified the constellations for all who hadn’t looked up at the stars in awhile. I was a part of the first all women trail maintenance weekend. Our group picture was included in a regional magazine and as a result I became part of the history of The Adirondacks.
It turns out that I didn’t reach the mystical goal I though the universe had assigned me. I only did eight of the 46 peaks. On the eighth hike, I sat on a rock summit in total surrender, the blue pure sky above me and the dark green earth beneath. I was wearing a warm jacket in the middle of a hot summer but I only felt the wind and coolness of a mountain top afternoon. I observed the smallness of the vegetation around me. The trees were miniature versions of the trees that were lucky enough to grow further down the mountain. The sum of their lives had been spent in the harshness of many cruel seasons that offered them no encouragement to grow..
I understood the mathematics of their existence and had myself experienced the strong influence of both sunny days and damaging storms. I remembered all the bonsai tree constraints of my own life; the wrong choices and regrets that sometimes pushed my soul below zero. But I also took a moment to remember all the joy I had in my heart, too. And it was at that moment that I realized life is all about the math, about constantly striving to put more pluses in our lives than minuses.
I thanked the mountain and the little trees for their wisdom. Eight out of 46 isn’t bad, I told myself. It was time to get out of the wind and cold and go down the mountain. It was time to start growing again.
Twenty-five years later, I still remember my conquest of mountains. And to this day, I shudder at the sight of bonsai trees, poor little plants that have been wired, clipped, and forced to live lives in a small bowls. During this pandemic, I have become constrained and I’m angry because it is wrong to prevented any living thing from growing. I’m reminded of those stunted plants struggling on the windy Adirondack summits. “And it was at that moment that I realized life is all about the math, about constantly striving to put more pluses in our lives than minuses” I am part of the struggle now. My survival is up to me. Please let me have enough strength to keep growing. Free the bonsai, free me.
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