Over the past five months I’ve been going to yoga class regularly, plus become intimately acquainted with the elliptical machine at the YMCA and hiked around the area state parks. In the process, I’ve dropped about 40 pounds. I still have a ways to go — but given all this, when my cousin E. suggested we hike Mount Monadnock this weekend I thought to myself, “I got this”. She borrowed a tent, I packed my car with every extra blanket I owned, and after work on Friday we set off for the great outdoors.
Let me pause here and say that I am the former debate geek who loathed gym class and always got picked last for any group athletic endeavors. The very idea of me sleeping in a tent, let alone spending a whole day outside wandering up a mountain, is pretty funny if you’ve known me more than five minutes. Also, while I have a good sense of direction and a fair amount of common sense, I am wildly accident prone and terrified of heights. In my new-found confidence I had forgotten these things, but as we discussed trail options with the 22-year old Americorps kids Friday evening around a campfire I began to have my doubts. Serious doubts.
Saturday morning was a beautiful fall day, and we left the Gilson campground on the Birchtoft trail. This was fairly easy hiking – a few rocky places to navigate, a few inclines that were taxing. We made our way to the Red Dot trail, and spent the next few hours basically rock climbing. I honestly have utterly no idea how I got myself up the side of that mountain, other than E.’s encouragement.
Steeper than it appears!
One does not “hike” up Monadnock. One climbs up Monadnock, one rock at a time. Honestly, it was crazy-pants stuff for me. I completely sympathized with the young Boy Scout who shuffled by us sputtering, “Why is it all uphill?!” It’s not technical rock climbing, in the sense that you don’t need any special equipment, but there is a lot of rock scrambling that needs to be done. I was filthy by the end of the trip, and today my knees look like I was beaten with a hammer from all the times I wound up crawling up over the rocks. At one really tricky point there was a patch of quartz rock that was insanely slippery; it took me several attempts to get past it.
Thank all that is high and holy that I had bought hiking shoes earlier in the summer and had them well-broken in, because otherwise I’m quite sure I would have landed in a big heap. Also, E. and I both felt like our yoga classes had helped us a great deal. In addition to balance and flexibility, I found that I had just enough upper body strength from all those Downward Dogs and planks to pull myself up when I needed to, not to mention carry my water-laden backpack. Also thankfully, I had spent the weekend before at Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, MA, which gave me a little bit of experience navigating rocks. I honestly think that had I not done Purgatory before Monadnock, I would have taken one look at the steep rock trails and just burst into tears.
View from about halfway up
The Red Dot trail leads directly to the short Summit trail. I made it about three quarters up the Summit before giving up. It’s sort of ridiculous I quit so close, and I know how lame that probably sounds, but honestly? Six months ago I wouldn’t have made it through the Birchtoft trail. By the time we got within reach of the Summit my legs were burning and I thought I was going to be sick. And I was terrified we would not get down off the mountain before dark. The route we chose was supposed to take the average hiker 6 hours, and we were well into that time frame. Also, I was pretty sure the only way I was getting down that mountain was falling off from it. I was surprised that my fear of heights didn’t paralyze me, but I think I was just so terrified of getting off the mountain that the fear of heights was temporarily displaced. E. continued on the additional 10 minutes or so to get to the summit while I tried to take photos, but the wind was pretty intense and it was hard to stop the camera from shaking. A man walked by and asked, “Is this your summit?” I replied with gusto, “WHY YES IT IS!!!” He said, “That’s okay. You’re at the top anyway.” And I was, dammit. Never let perfect be the enemy of good.
Views from “my” summit
I found the descent easier in some respects – it uses different muscles than going up, and there were several spots where I could just sit down and slide. But about halfway down serious exhaustion set in, and it became harder and harder to take another step. At one point we were sure we were almost back to the campground when we hit a trail marker telling us we still had another mile to go. Oh. My. God. Only my fear of bears and the promise of a big dinner kept me moving.
It took us about 8 full hours – I’m guessing about 5 to get up and 3 to get down. Neither of us wear watches and our cell phones were dead (cell service is very spotty there anyway), so this is an approximation. All I know is it was 6 pm exactly when we got back to camp. We did take frequent breaks on the way up, and I am definitely a s-l-o-w hiker even in the best of circumstances. Coming back down, we were afraid if we stopped too long our legs would seize up; as it was, mine were shaking like jello for the last two miles. Shortly after we got back to camp a ranger came by in his golf cart, making sure we got back in one piece. It’s a small campground and I was grateful that they were keeping an eye out for us. E. and I were pretty well prepared; we could have survived a night on the mountain if we had to, but it wouldn’t have been pretty. (Especially since we had a huge rainstorm come through in the middle of the night.)
Despite how difficult it was, I’m psyched I made it up and down the mountain. It truly was an amazing experience, and I gained a newfound appreciation for what my body can do. It’s beautiful at the top, and well worth the journey. Throughout this adventure I had that Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide” stuck in my head, specifically one verse: “I climbed a mountain and I turned around”. Towards the end, Stevie Nicks was singing that in my head on repeat, every ten steps or so. In my exhaustion I couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics, which is sort of absurd as this song doesn’t have many. Driving back home yesterday I finally remembered some more:
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life
Well I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too
Now really. I don’t know what would be a more appropriate soundtrack to a 41-year old making her first mountain climb on the first day of Fall, even if it was just in my head. It’s almost a cliché it’s so obvious. But there’s lots of ways to interpret this song, of course. In my case, the “you” I’ve built my life around isn’t someone else, but the perceptions of myself that I’ve carried around for the first 40 years of my life. As in, if you’d told me 20 years ago (or, y’know, six months ago….) that I’d climb a mountain at any point in my life I would have laughed out loud and given you a handful of Hershey kisses. However, time does make us bolder, if only because it reminds us that it is running out. For some of us it runs faster than it does for others, but it is most decidedly slipping away from all of us. And I’m thinking that one of the best parts of being middle-aged (oh, what an awful term…) is that we can let go of all the silly things we’ve been telling ourselves all these years and get down to the business of really living in the time that we have left. At least, that’s what I’m determined to do.