Roots

Date: 9/26/17

archaeology: noun | är-kē-‘ä-lə-jē
1 the scientific study of material remains (such as fossil relics, artifacts, and monuments) of past human life and activities

One year and one day ago, I arrived at an unassuming stripe of cleared forest that would never have been identifiable as an international border had it not been for the small silver obelisk marking precisely that. A few feet away, a collection of square wooden posts also declared this the end of a Pacific Crest Trail adventure that had begun 2,650 miles and nearly 5 months earlier at a similarly humble set of posts beside the US/Mexico border.

The time since that day has gone by in the proverbial blur, often punctuated by the tangled emotions that arrive when memories of the past come colliding with the reality of the present. Reconciling that nostalgia with a day job that does not involve hiking for a living has been a challenge that I alternately succeed and fail at.

I wasn’t terribly surprised then, to find myself rummaging around in the dusty corners of our bedroom closet, sidetracking myself from the task of packing for an upcoming flight. A few minutes later, what I had unearthed and lined up on the floor before me looked less like a collection of humble sandals and more like a historical record of the last 13 years of my life.

Memory is a funny thing, and never moreso than when it comes to inanimate objects that only hold meaning to their owners. Case in point: one glance at the photo above, and you’d be forgiven for wondering why any sensible person would have such a ridiculous collection of footwear. But I see something quite different. I see thru-hikes of long trails, thousands of miles of achingly beautiful wilderness, peaks climbed, obstacles overcome, persistence, endurance, and sandwiched among them all, the day of my life when I married my best friend. And just like that, the worn rubber and faded webbing take on an altogether different quality that belongs to those things that have been quietly present for them all. It’s not often you can hold a thing in your hands and catch a glimpse of where you’re from, what you’ve done, and who you are. People often reminisce about their roots; seeing them in the flesh is another thing entirely.

For me, those roots extend far from our home here in Seattle, all the way back to the comparatively modest peaks of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, long shaped by millennia of erosion into the coarse piles of stone they are today, and traversed only by the steep, rough trails that are their trademark. And roots. Lots and lots of roots, not of the figurative kind—the literal ones.

It’s easy to love something when the sun is warm on your back, the views are endless, and the tread is easy beneath your feet. It’s something else to love it when clambering over rock and root, toiling not under a cloudless expanse of sky, but beneath a thick cloak of forest. Suffice it to say, these old mountains will always feel like home, where as a young boy I learned to love not only their beauty but the struggle.

Covering some 6 million acres, the Adirondack Park stretches across nearly the entire northern “lobe” of New York from the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain, an area large enough to fit Grand Canyon, Olympic, Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks…with room to spare. Perched in the northern reaches of the park, just to the south of Lake Placid, lies a crown of peaks known as the “46ers”, named as such for being the 46 peaks originally surveyed to have a summit elevation of at least 4,000 feet. 25 years ago, I summitted my first of the 46ers, never knowing that a quarter century later I’d be rummaging through a closet in preparation for climbing my 46th.

In reality, this story is not merely my own. In 2004, my Mom joined me for a week during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. After persevering through the summer swelter, rough ascents and descents, and some of the worst blisters I’ve ever seen even til this day, she went home having found a new appreciation for and interest in hiking. It wasn’t long before she set her sights on the goal of attempting to climb all of the Adirondack 46ers, and one by one we began to tackle them together in the years that followed, struggling up one rock- and root-choked path after another often to nondescript summits offering little in the way of a view.

Fast forward 13 years and not only had my Mom come to within two peaks of reaching her goal, but I’d fallen behind, so before we could celebrate those final climbs together Emily and I were back in the Adirondacks playing catch-up on the two peaks I had missed out on last year while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Off under an overcast sky, the trail up and over Mt. Colvin and finally to our destination of Blake Peak was silent except for the passing of a single hiker. It was as if we had the whole of the park all to ourselves.

One day later, the clouds had begun to drift away on a freshening fall breeze, exposing the brilliant blue sky we’d been hoping for. The climb to the summit of Rocky Peak Ridge is unique among the 46ers in that it follows a ridge that alternates between young forests and sweeping views from exposed swaths of bedrock, all courtesy of the Great Fire of 1913 that devastated the mountain and its neighbor, Giant Mt. Through quiet thickets of stately birch and over several false summits, we were at last delivered to a broad summit with large rock cairns and the heart of the high peaks laid out before us.

It may only have been the 1st of September, but the icy gale that greeted us on the summit certainly felt more like late fall than the final throes of summer and it made our attempt to light the traditional candle in a Swedish fish for Emily’s Birthday a pretty fruitless effort.

With Rocky Peak Ridge in our rear view mirror, we were off the following morning to meet my Mom and her friend Jane for the first of our final two peaks under what would be the last of the nice weather. With hardly a breath of wind and clear skies overhead, the mercilessly rough climb up to the patch of dirt at the top of the Panther-Santanoni ridge known as Times Square was about as pleasant as it could ever be, assuming the meaning of pleasant could ever be stretched to apply to such a thing. But this was Adirondack hiking at its heart, and it was hard not to appreciate it for the microcosm of the entire 46er experience that it was.

I’ve always thought that the true character of Adirondack hiking was best captured by the state of my Mom’s poor legs when we arrived back at the trailhead. Not the streaks of mud, but the scrapes, cuts, bruises, and occasional punctures with tinges of blood that she wears like temporary tattoos. You’d be forgiven for thinking we just took her out in the middle of the wilderness to beat her with sticks. And yet, she kept coming back for more like the little force of nature she’d slowly become over the last decade. Hiking here can do that to a person, building up something inside of you that you didn’t realize was there before. Watching my Mom give more of herself to achieve this dream than I’ve ever given of myself for anything has been the most incredible thing I’ve ever borne witness to.

And so there she was, 9 hours into the day, still putting one foot in front of the other—or one hand in front of the other as the case may be—when the next step landed her on the unassuming summit of Couchsachraga Peak. An indigenous word for the Adirondacks meaning “dismal wilderness”, Couchsachraga is marked by a large boulder that allows you just enough height to see over the tangles of krummholz fir that cloak its flanks and into that very wilderness.

Under headlamp and a full 15 hours after leaving the trailhead this morning, we had finally arrived back at our tents to settle in for some rest, with number 45 safely behind us. The familiar patter on my tarp told me all I needed to know about what the weather held in store for number 46.

One comment

  1. Jeff, you have an amazing ability to capture the feelings one has when hiking, whether it is the AT, PCT or the Adirondack high peaks. The difficulties are many but the rewards so much greater. I have been so privileged to share pieces of these adventures with you, Emily, Bill and Jane. Thank you for the lovely tribute. I am so proud of you. I couldn’t ask for a better son!

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