Of Clouds and Mountains and Friends

“Spirit in the Sky” – Norman Greenbaum

Dark and Stormy

2 oz Dark Rum

5 oz Ginger Beer

Lime Wedge

My toenail fell off today. A toenail that has been alternately throbbing and blood-filled, then drained of blood, then black and blue and ugly, and now, finally, gone. It is Thanksgiving morning and as I emerged from the shower – clean, refreshed, my almost-waist long wet hair dripping water down my back – reaching for a towel I noticed that my big toenail, on my right foot was just hanging there like a sad old friend saying goodbye. I sighed and pulled it off. I’m not ordinarily so melancholy about losing a toenail, but it has been four months since me and five friends hiked Mt. Mansfield in Vermont and I want to go back. Winter has arrived in Bethlehem and I want to return to summer breezes and warm rains and sunny days and hiking and decadent cheese plates and delicious craft beers and crazy, alcohol-induced conversations and, freedom.

It is certainly not what but whom you know in this life that ultimately makes it worth the journey. I climbed Mt. Washington, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, in the summer of 2013 with two individuals who I quite easily today claim as family; two of the most wonderful, thoughtful, and beautiful people I have befriended here in my adopted hometown of Bethlehem. I met them on a mild, seventy-degree St. Patrick’s Day at the local bar around the corner from where I live where we all just happened to be celebrating, outside, merrily, and me, with a person whom I no longer call a friend. Friendship is tentative. Shit happens.

St. Patrick’s Day breeds a familiarity with anyone wearing green, drinking green beer, doing shots of Jameson, donning necklaces and beads and shamrock stickers and strange headwear and Irish flags. On St. Patrick’s Day the entire country is Irish and quite happy to claim to be so even if your last name ends with a “ski” or sounds quite Germanic or even Asian. My name happens to be Irish so I get a pass on wearing green and all the rest of it.

Our gleeful, intoxicated selves came together on that unexpectedly sunny and warm March day and we spent some time together rejoicing in all things Irish only to part hours later, unsure if we would ever see each other again. And yet, Bethlehem, much like my beloved New Orleans, is a festival-loving place, so in May, when the town holds free outdoor concerts on Thursday evenings and everyone and their dogs, children, grandparents, friends, and loved ones converge on the Sun Inn courtyard, there we were once again, making merry on a warm spring day. We found each other in that open courtyard, amidst wall to wall people, with music playing and drinks flowing and we have been friends ever since.

We are like souls this group that I now call my own. We all appreciate music, of almost any genre, and we spend an inordinate amount of money to see musicians live. We also appreciate a well-made craft beer, fine wine, and, at times, a nice, smooth bourbon. We yearn to have fun in that unblemished, almost naïve way that children do and we are all of a certain age where that fun generally doesn’t spill over into something ugly and regrettable. We try to meet once a week to check in, have a few drinks, rehash the weeks events, bitch about our jobs, exes, life in general, and then we return to why we have come together in the first place – to enjoy the company of like-minded, hard working, similarly aged and seasoned, well-thinking-about-the-world individuals who always wish we had more money, time, energy, but appreciate what we do have in the moment and, mostly, to appreciate each other.

Two and a half years ago I began seeing a therapist to try and come to terms with a life that felt increasingly heavy and riddled with pain and disappointment. In the immediacy of that first session, I was dealing with the end of yet another failed relationship in what seemed like an endless stream of failed relationships. The fact that I’m a loner doesn’t seem to mesh well with coupling. Two and a half years later I’ve become less introspective and contemplative, less insular in my daily life and, as a result, healthier both mentally and physically. Hiking became a way for me to channel my anger and negative energy, a way for me to engage in the world alone, peacefully and spiritually. Hiking, much like writing, has become my religion.

It had been almost a year since I met Bobby and Kim. It was a chilly Tuesday evening in early February 2013. We were sitting in hazy, smoke-filled bar, a very testosterone-laden cigar and craft beer joint where we had begun meeting every Tuesday. The conversation turned to our mutual love of hiking and the challenge of conquering Tuckerman’s Ravine. The mere thought of hiking Mt. Washington seemed far enough away that ultimately we really wouldn’t have to commit to it, perhaps a well-intentioned trip that we “might” do if we found the time and the money. Commitment is not something I’m particularly good at, in relationships or my daily life. I embrace spontaneity. I tell people, and myself, that is important to me to experience life as it unfolds, without planning, as an adventure in the waiting. In reality I want to live my life devoid of responsibility, beholden to anyone or anything. Within a month of having our first conversation about Mt. Washington, I had committed to the hike, embracing the moment as a step towards achieving the ever-elusive adulthood I have yet to fully embody.

That I’m writing about it now means that it did, in fact, happen although two years later it seems like a mirage of a day that may or may not have actually transpired. I know we did it. We hiked that mountain and landed at 6,288 feet at the summit where it was 52 degrees with winds of 25 miles per hour. We emerged over a cloudy ridge and saw cars and people, civilization, which seemed almost hysterically ridiculous after climbing rocks and boulders and being immersed in woods and trees and nature for hours. We collapsed, literally and figuratively, in the welcome center where Hasidic Jews and children and dogs and tourists from other lands and hikers, like ourselves, all converged for warmth.

Most people, I suspect, drive their cars up Mt. Washington, which in hindsight seems like the completely rational thing to do when there is four thousand feet to conquer and your body is telling you that there is no fucking way you are going to go any further if it has anything to do with it. But, we did it. We climbed that mountain; we defeated that which seemed undefeatable. And from this, I learned many things about myself and about life. Standing at the top of a mountain brings you perspective, literally and figuratively. The view from the top is awesome (how this word should be used). It clears your mind and it forces you to be present (so you don’t fall) and, it makes you reevaluate the hardships that we all inevitably endure.

It was the last half-mile that seemed unbearable. We began the hike early that morning, in 70-something degree weather, initially simply walking through the woods, taking in our beautiful natural surroundings, enjoying the sweet smells of the trees and foliage. We hiked for hours like this, moving upwards, slowly encountering more rock-laden trails that were becoming progressively more difficult to traverse. I found myself focusing on my foot-placement, using my legs to push up and over the tougher terrain until we finally emerged over a ridge, finding ourselves in the midst of what appeared to be a sea of boulders the size of small islands. We would have to negotiate these boulders, placing our tired and sore feet strategically on markers where others had gone before us. At this point we were so tired that it felt as if the trail and the boulders and the hikers coming down the mountain proclaiming cheerfully that we were “Almost there!” would never end. It seemed as if we would never reach the summit; that our bodies simply would not cooperate. Yet, going back was not an option. “No” was not an option. And this is the second lesson learned and, if I can continue to be poetic and trite, a metaphor for life. We had to keep climbing up. There was no turning back. We were more tired than we had ever been in our lives, physically and emotionally so drained that it seemed at one point impossible to fathom that we would actually complete this hike. But, when there is no option to turn back, you have to keep going up, pushing through, telling yourself that you can, in fact, do the thing that you most don’t want to do and that, in the end, it will be worth the extra effort you exerted because you bravely fought against everything your mind was telling you was impossible. In retrospect, it seems that I was out of body and, perhaps, we all were that day, silent and pushing through.

Tuckerman’s Ravine. Four thousand plus feet, 4.2 miles straight up the mountain, over rocks, a headwall, and ultimately, body numbing boulders that stretched my ideas of what my yoga fit body could, and would, actually do. I’m not going to lie to you; it was brutal. The height (of which I have grown deathly afraid as I age); a seemingly endless labyrinth of boulders that were relentless, particularly that last half mile; and the altitude, which turned out to be the easiest part of the experience to take. By the end of a five and a half hour exhausting and exhilarating experience we felt quite accomplished. And at the top of that mountain, immersed in the clouds and the mist and what would have been a breathtaking panorama had it been another day, there with my friends, I witnessed a bit of who I am when presented with a challenge, a conversation I’ve had with my therapist on numerous occasions, but one I only owned at the top of that mountain.

Much like writing, hiking is most often a lonely endeavor. Even when hiking with friends or surrounded by other hikers, in the midst of the solemnity of nature, it is an experience cherished by the thoughtful mind. I find the most creative part of myself emerging when I’m in the woods, pondering my next step forward or the next word. I am aided in the fact that being alone in the world does not frighten or mystify me. Rather, I believe, hiking, like writing, is the corrective to what is often a difficult world to take. Like a balm hiking soothes my spirit and allows me to fully appreciate my life and my place in the world. And this is what I discovered that day at the top of Mt. Washington that two and a half years of therapy could not give me. A sense of myself that I did not know existed prior to emerging through the clouds.