Last weekend, my boyfriend Brennen and I went on a mini vacation to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. On our to do list was to get in some hiking. Not because I have any particular love of hiking (although Brennen does) but because we were going to be in the Lake Saranac/ Lake Placid region and they have this challenge. It’s called the 6er challenge where you get a patch if you hike all six mountains in the area. Better yet there is a challenge called the ultimate 6er challenge where you climb all six in one day. Current me is laughing at naive me who thought we might actually climb all six mountains in one day. Basically I wanted to hike the mountains because getting a patch to show off how cool we were sounded awesome.
Brennen, being slightly more practical, recognized that we were not going to climb all six mountains in one day and instead set to work googling to see which one or two we might want to tackle. He found a blog that recommended Mt. McKenzie. The blog claimed that it was an easy-moderate hike and perfectly do-able for families with children above the age of 8. It was also right next to another mountain called Haystack, and the blog claimed it was possible to do both mountains in about 6 hours.
I trusted Brennen’s judgement because I had A) never climbed anything bigger than a large anthill, and B) was not really focused on the hiking aspect but on how we could take cute couple photos of us hiking and looking like we had stepped out of a fall Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger ad. I had even purchased a new jacket and everything.
After all, hiking was just walking tree lined, sunlit paths that had a slight incline until you reached the top of the mountain. I used the elliptical at the gym. I could handle this.
I should have known something was up when I reached to pull on my cashmere sweater over my button down shirt and Brennen asked if that was really what I was going to wear hiking. After changing into a cute flannel shirt instead, and being asked if I was sure I didn’t want to wear a sports bra (why would I wear a sports bra? They’re for sports where I will get sweaty not for frolicking up beautiful mountains hand in hand with my boyfriend), we got on our way.
We parked our car with high hopes, and Brennen kindly said nothing while I stuffed his backpack full of layers I was certain I was going to need because I get cold. We signed our names on the hiker log so if we got lost they would know which mountain we were on. Then we were off!
Even from the start, the path was a little thinner than I expected. Plus there were a lot more rocks and tree roots. But hey, optimism was still high! The trail was only 6 miles to the summit. I could handle this. I even took some cute selfies of the two of us.
Ah, still so naive, no idea what’s to come.
Admittedly the path was a little less of a path than I expected. There were some large rocks that needed to be stepped over. There were times when the way got a little muddy. And we kept walking. And walking. Surely we had to be getting a good way up the mountain by now, we had been hiking for over an hour. According to the blogger, if we were doing both mountains it would only take us six hours. If we were an hour in we had to be at least like a third of the way up right?
After a while of hiking, we reached the trail head where the trail split to head toward Mt. McKenzie and Haystack. I momentarily panicked, asking Brennen if we had six hours more on top of what we had just hiked. He assured me that what we had hiked had to count, after all the blogger had said you could do both mountains in under six hours. Mollified, we continued.
The trail began to get a little harder. There were more rocks and tree roots and I had to keep my eyes on my feet to avoid stumbling. Brennen was in his zone and very excited. We crossed a couple of streams. Nature was everywhere. I was little tired, but we had been hiking for a while. As the path began to rise sharply up, I knew we had to be getting closer to the top. Hiking wasn’t so bad, and Brennen was having such a good time. I began to describe how I wanted to eat pasta after all this was done, as I always crave pasta after exercise. Or any time really. But specifically after exercise. Brennen agreed we could get pasta when we were done. We reached a sign. I was excited. Surely this sign told us how much further to the top (aka NOT FAR NOW!). It did not. Instead it told us how far it was back to the trailhead and the parking lot. Undeterred we took a picture with the sign. As you can see, I’m still smiling but there is the slightest tinge of tiredness creeping into my eyes.
After the sign, the trail started to get a little harder. It was steeper, there were more obstacles, and sometimes the trail got harder to identify. Totally still fine though, we were hiking, all was good. If this was the Hunger Games I could totally handle it. I had already won the Hunger Games once. This was just like a more real Hunger Games forest adventure.
Then the trail started to get… harder. There were large rocks to scramble up. Sometimes there were lots of large rocks to scramble up on top of each other. Brennen had read that there were some large rocks to scramble up near the top of the mountain though, so I saw this as a good sign. We were getting closer! Which was good because I was getting tired.
We were going the wrong way when we heard our first human voices. Turning around, we backtracked a little and crossed a muddy rock to get back on the trail. Or that is Brennen crossed the rock and I skidded and sat down hard in a patch of mud. The two hikers we had heard stood watching as we realized we were on the wrong trail and saw my fall into the mud.
“Is it bad?” I asked Brennen, trying to see how much mud had gotten onto my pants.
“Yes,” Brennen said. I glared at him as he asked the hikers about how much further we had until the summit.
“About an hour,” they told us. An hour? That was great news! Despite my unfortunate mud incident, I had a new spring in my step. Which was needed because the trail was getting progressively more and more difficult. I developed a strategy for making my way up the path that involved gently holding onto trees for balance.
Brennen regaled me with stories of summers spent hiking in the Alps. I was glad he could talk because I needed all my energy for hiking. I rallied when I heard that one summer on a hiking trip he had touched Juliet’s boob.
“Wait who is Juliet? You’ve never mentioned a Juliet before. How old were you?”
“No, like the statue in Verona. People rub it for good luck”
“Oh yeah. I’ve been there.”
Huffing and puffing like a wolf in a fairy tale, I kept an eye on my watch. A little over an hour later we passed some more hikers. I asked them how much further it was to the top, expecting that they would say we were minutes away.
“Probably about an hour.”
“How can it be an hour away? It was an hour away an hour ago!” I hissed to Brennen. He shrugged and pulled me into another hug to tell me how much fun he was having. I rolled my eyes and we kept crawling our way up through the wild scrub, sometimes relying only on the trail markers to know that we were on the right path. I was glad that Brennen had hiking experience because I certainly couldn’t tell if we were going the right way.
We passed a woman with a medium sized dog. The dog was in better shape than I was. I watched it head downhill with envy. “How can a dog do this??” “The blogger said the trail was okay for kids, a dog isn’t that different.”
I had tried to keep my complaining to a minimum because I knew Brennen was having a good time, but we were over four hours in already and the top was nowhere in sight. “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to do both peaks.” Brennen was fine with this. That should have been my first warning that Mt. McKenzie was not what Brennen had been expecting. Instead I thought about how wonderful and understanding my boyfriend was.
After what felt like forever, we reached an opening. We had done it! “This is the first false summit!” “The first..?” False summit had to be a good sign though right? False summits had to be near the real summit right?
Some kind gentlemen took our picture. Brennen talked about how gorgeous the scenery was and how this was what made it all worth it. I made some vaguely unhappy sounds that showed I didn’t agree but that weren’t reallyyyy complaints. I suggested we pretend this was the real summit and call it a day. Everyone laughed like I had told a funny joke so I laughed along like I hadn’t been kind of serious.
We kept climbing. The trail split. One path went upward and one path went down. The sign saying trail pointed back the one we had come. Clearly up had to be the right way so we took that path. After several minutes it was clear we were wrong. We hiked back down and took the path that went down. I felt cheated. We had spent so much time walking up, why were we walking down now?
We passed another couple. They marveled at how clean and mud free I was. Brennen kindly did not mention how ridiculous I had looked finding paths up that avoided touching mud. How far to the top? About an hour. Brennen dragged me onward, as I muttered under my breath.
The trail turned upward again soon enough, and eventually we came to the second false summit. There were to be three. Brennen talked about how beautiful it was. I talked about how if we stopped walking I was never going to be able to start again.
Somewhere we found the third false summit. I don’t even remember it. What I do remember is that we were five hours into hiking one mountain when we had been promised that it would take 6 to climb two, and that everything hurt. We looked out from the false summit and I saw how nearby, across a small valley, there was a peak. Maybe that was the other mountain. Wrong. That was our peak. We had to go down again in order to go up.
Not just down, we had to go down rocks at almost a 90 degree angle. And they were covered in mud! Carefully we made our way down to where we found a man with his two daughters. How far to the top? Fifteen minutes. I had no concept of what time meant any more. It was all a lie. All that mattered was the summit which had to be moving further away there was no possible other explanation.
The path temporarily leveled out, just in time to get really steep and muddy again. My hands were raw from grabbing at rocks and tree branches to pull myself up boulders. I was pretty sure my heels were bleeding but that if I took off my shoes that was the end so I ignored it. My butt was still covered in mud.
We carefully passed over a large boulder with a bad drop below it. I casually pondered how if I fell down I would probably be dead but certainly would not have to keep hiking this damn mountain. I stepped in deep mud as we shimmied between large rocks and much to my displeasure got a little mud on my knee.
We reached some large stone blocks. Although Brennen had said the blog said there were large blocks toward the top, we had scrambled over many large rocks. I glared at the rocks because rocks were dumb and there were too many rocks. Brennen chose a path up, getting muddy in the process. I looked at an alternate route. Brennen said his was safer. I weighed my priorities and went up my path anyway. We stopped on top of one of the rocks for a break.
“This is not an easy to moderate mountain,” I growled. “And anyone who takes children hiking this wants their children to die.”
Brennen was smart enough not to respond, but did say that despite having hiked in the Alps that this was probably the most challenging hike he had ever done. This made me feel marginally better.
We started up again. We stopped for a pretty view. We crossed the path and found another pretty view and a couple eating lunch. “Did you guys see the sign?” What sign?
Around the corner was a small wooden sign nailed to a tree. We had made it to the summit of Mt. McKenzie. I was annoyed with the world because the sign was in a tiny clearing surrounded by trees so it wasn’t even like we could see a view. Someone could have driven me around blindfolded for five hours and then let me out into a clearing and claimed I was at the top of the mountain and it would have looked the same. I almost cried thinking about how we had made it up the mountain but now had to make it down the exact same path to get back to the car.
We sat to eat a few powdered doughnuts for lunch. As we prepared to leave, a perky Canadian couple arrived. They were taller and thinner than us and looked like they had gone for a leisurely stroll in the park rather than just climbed the same mountain that we had. I glared at them as the pranced past us.
Brennen was right, the path down was a little easier. But only in that we were going down instead of up. The path was still littered with rocks and tree roots and so much mud.
“Do you want to take a break?” “No. Keep walking.” My cheerful demeanor was gone. I complained openly. Everything hurt. I was too hot. I was too cold. Who thinks hiking is fun what is wrong with people. The blogger who said this was an easy mountain should be forced to climb it again with me Yoda style hanging onto his back.
Even Brennen had stopped talking, and was focusing simply on getting back down the mountain. At one point we had to back over the edge of a small cliff and dangle ourselves by our hands before letting down to drop the remaining half foot. I entertained the fantasy that I would collapse and go unconscious and that someone else would have to deal with getting me back down the mountain.
I could no longer feel my big toes. They were oddly numb. Not in a it’s so cold my toes are numb kind of way, but in a wow it feels like I don’t have big toes anymore kind of way. I supposed this was probably for the better. Had I been able to feel them they would have hurt like everything else.
Finally we made it to relatively flat ground and crossed a stream I recognized. A long while later and we finally reached the sign that mockingly told us we still had miles before we reached the trail head. All my energy went into putting one foot in front of the other. This was all going to be a funny story to tell later – oh yeah that time I hiked Mt. McKenzie.
What if there had been a disaster somewhere? We had been without cellphone signal for what felt like years. I was certain we would emerge out the other end to find that the world had been nuked and inherited by apes and that we were the sole human survivors.
We reached the trail head. I was jubilant. Then I remembered how long it had taken us to get there that morning. My footsteps became less careful. It didn’t matter if I stepped in mud as long as I was moving forward. I could walk around the rock. Or I could just step on it and not have to expend that tiny extra bit of energy.
Brennen started clapping periodically. It sounded too happy. Finally I snapped, “What are you doing?”
“It’s to warn away bears.”
I wanted to say that there were no bears in New York but I had no idea. There probably were bears. A memory of a video where a bear out ran a car came to mind. I glanced at the trees around us. If a bear got us, I wouldn’t have to keep walking. Brennen clapped again and I glared at his back.
The sun had begun to set and with the thick foliage overhead the woods had settled into a dim never ending twilight. There was nothing but the path and the rocks and the roots and the mud and the walking. I would never stop walking. I had entered some strange purgatory for the bad things I had done where I would forever be walking through this forest at twilight. I started composing letters of apology in my head to the people I had wronged.
In high school I had read the book Night by Elie Wiesel. I suddenly had new understanding of the pages he spends describing the endless forced walks. Then I told myself it was insensitive to compare myself to someone being forced to march by Nazis. Then I told my brain to shut up.
We kept walking. And walking. And walking.
Every time we turned around a bend, I told myself that this had to be it. This had to be the end and the cars had to be there. I was wrong.
Somewhere in the distance I sometimes thought I could hear the sounds of the highway. Whether I was genuinely hearing the sound of cars bouncing off the mountain or hallucinating, I was not sure.
And still we kept walking. And walking.
Brennen offered to let me lead to set the pace. I refused because I knew I would slow down and then we would just be doing this for even longer.
I said I was dizzy. Brennen tried to get me to drink water and I grouchily barked at him to keep walking. I hated everything. I hated the rocks. I hated the roots. I hated walking.
Behind us I heard a hiker approaching. I pulled Brennen off the path to let the hiker by. He gave us a friendly wave and then took off jogging down the path. Brennen and I stared at his back in amazement. Jogging? How do??
And still we kept walking.
We passed a pair of hikers walking toward the mountain. Although Brennen and I both wanted to ask them why and what were they doing and no, the best we did was shooting them desperate looking glances as they walked by.
I was reaching a place of calm acceptance. I would be walking forever. This was how life was now. There had only ever been walking and there only ever would be walking.
In the distance we saw a glimmer of white. Both Brennen and I sped up, was it a car??
No. It was a white tree. I hated trees.
And we kept walking.
We came to a stream. Brennen balanced on the wooden plank across it. I slumped through the stream pretty sure my boots were waterproof and a hundred percent sure I didn’t care anymore.
We kept walking.
Finally, finally, I saw the cars. I didn’t say anything. It was possible I was imagining them. I was, after all, now seeing small black spots. Reality was fuzzy.
Brennen stopped to mark in the log that we had made it back down the mountain. I blinked, wondering if seeing spots was bad.
Then Brennen decided he wanted to read the sign about what a hiker should take up the mountain when hiking. I waited for a minute and then I stomped to the car. I was muddy, I had never been so exhausted and sore in my life, and the world was kind of spinning. Leaning against the car I glared as Brennen approached and then stopped to take a picture of me leaning against his car. I wanted to yell at him to hurry up but I did not have the energy.
Finally, realizing that I was in fact seeing spots and was severely dehydrated Brennen force fed me water and more doughnuts. Then he told me how proud he was of me and how he was going to buy me dinner.
The blogger was wrong. We googled the mountain later. The official website rates it as an expert only hike unsuitable for children or anyone not in good physical condition.
As we drove back to our rental apartment, I sent my mum a text saying the only thing I could think of to summarize the experience I had just had: I am dead.
Stay magical readers!