Tag Archive 'adversity'

May 28 2012

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A Crazed Bushwhack

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At first I was only looking for a place to go for an easy day hike, but when I saw Bone Mountain on the map, I felt an old, familiar urge to push myself to the limit again. So I grabbed my rucksack, loaded my dog Matika into the car and headed for that rugged high ground.

There are no trails to Bone but a brook tumbles from a notch between that peak and Woodward. I tagged the brook and followed it until I was a mile or so away from the road.

As I recalled from a bushwhack many years earlier, the notch between Bone and Woodward is so cluttered with rocks and fallen trees that one can’t actually touch the ground while traversing it. Not good for my dog, so I left the brook long before reaching the notch. I started moving uphill through the trackless forest, following a compass bearing east southeast, towards a shoulder of the mountain.

Hobbled by hobblebush, sweating profusely, and stopping frequently to catch my breath, the climb was as hard as any climb can be. More than once I dropped onto all fours to negotiate steep pitches. Matika did better than me as a rule, but it took my eye to find a route up through cliff walls. When finally we reached the summit, we were both played out and running low on water. That’s when I caught a glimpse through the trees of another peak half a mile away – one that looked more like Bone than the summit I was standing on.

Bone Mountain has taken on religious significance for me over the years precisely because it’s so damned hard to reach. I’ve only been on top of it a few times, having missed it more often than not. As I sat on that false summit, stewing in humility, I realized that I’d missed it again.

The descent was long, steep, and hard on the knees. Once I had to rescue my dog from a cliff’s edge where she got stuck. After that it was a tiring slog down to the brook that took us out.  I was happy to see the car again, but just as happy to have done the bushwhack. After all, I got what I was after.


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Aug 05 2009

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Taking Chances

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Over dinner last night, Judy used the “f” word.  She asked me point blank how I intended to ford the bigger streams during my upcoming trek, considering all the rain that has fallen this summer.  I was hoping to avoid this conversation but there it landed in my lap, between a bite of hamburger and two swigs of beer.  My wife recently googled “100 Mile Wilderness,” so there was no point trying to make light of the matter.  The sin of omission: I was caught in the lie that I didn’t tell.

Fording and dread.  That’s the name of a great essay by Jim Harrison, which is more about steeling oneself for action than the actual mechanics of river crossing.  “Where is the best place in a river to get across?” Harrison asks, and here we have the perfect metaphor for all the obstacles that we face in life – perfect because it underscores risk and good judgment as well as resolve.  And yes, fording does involve risk.  Anyone can see that.

I like to hike alone, deep in the forest.  I’m getting older, more brittle, less sure on my feet.  I fell down a month ago and my side still aches from it.  My physician recently gave me a clean bill of health, but all bets are off when one is trekking a muddy, rock-strewn path with a sixty-pound pack.  I’ll be taking chances when I hike the 100 Mile Wilderness.  It may be a foolish undertaking, but I’d be even more of a fool if I denied the risks involved.

The other day, when I picked up my patched hiking pants, the tailor asked me if I was worried about bears.  I laughed at that.  The chances of being attacked by a bear are roughly the same as being struck by lightning.  But hikers slip and fall in the mud all the time.  Broken bones are common on the trail.  Gaining wisdom isn’t about avoiding risk, but knowing where the risks are.

I use trekking poles nowadays, whenever I hike more than twenty miles.  I carry a large first aid kit, food, water and enough gear to get by for days wherever I land, in whatever weather.  I know my limits when it comes to climbing mountains or fording streams, and am not too proud to abort.  More importantly, I know how to assess risk.  “Just do it” is a credo for children and fools.

Judy knows what I’m up against, and I don’t insult her intelligence by denying it.  Yes, it has been a very wet summer and those streams will be running high.  Maybe I’ll get across them, maybe I won’t.  According to my map, there’s a logging road running parallel to the trail for the last 15 miles.  I’ll drop down to that if I have to.  One must be prepared to fail.  In real life, contrary to the movies, it happens all the time.  The trick is to not let it defeat you.

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Jun 15 2009

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The Passage of Time

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Last week I hiked up Bamforth Ridge.  Stretching six miles from the Winooski River to the top of Camel’s Hump, this ridge is the longest, hardest base-to-summit climb in Vermont.  I figured it would be a good place to train for my upcoming Maine trek – a good place to test my limits, that is.  On that count I wasn’t disappointed.

I puffed halfway up the ridge before the hike became difficult.  Then I pushed myself another mile uphill, overcoming gravity by sheer force of will until reaching an exposed knob with a nearly 360-degree view.  Good enough.  I broke for lunch with the summit still looming large in front of me.  Then I turned back.

Going uphill was relatively easy – just a matter of will.  Going downhill was another matter.  Knees don’t lie.  With each step they reminded me that my strongest hiking days have passed.  A walking stick helped, but there’s no getting around the physical reality of a half century of wear and tear, as much as a forever-young Baby Boomer like me wants to deny it.

Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lester Brown called Eco-Economy.  It’s a rehash of his somewhat Malthusian notions concerning the limits of growth – concepts that I first encountered back in college in the 70s.  Industrialization and population are outpacing food production and other natural resources.  No big news there.  But what bothered me is just how little progress we’ve made during the past thirty-odd years.  Well into the 21st Century now, we’re still having the same eco-arguments.  Meanwhile, the math worsens and collective human misery keeps rising.  Being that I belong to the sixth of humanity that’s on top of the heap, I probably shouldn’t worry about it.  But I do.

My grandson, Mason, came to me the other day wearing a green bush hat and said with a great big smile:  “I’m just like you, Grandpa!”  I nodded my head, acknowledging that he is.  Mason loves being outdoors.  When he was three, he cried when his Mommy made him go back inside.  At five, he’s ready to plunge deep into the woods, to take on the world.  Soon he’ll be on the trail with me.

I still have work to do.  I don’t know how but somehow I have to help break the deadlock that exists in human affairs.  Old arguments, polarized stances and antiquated worldviews must be abandoned in favor of something that actually works – something that will make the world a better place for all the Masons out there.  The time has come to be pragmatic, meet enemies halfway, and get things done.  Thirty years of the same old eco-arguments, for chrissakes.  Talk is cheap.

Bamforth Ridge kicked my ass, but I’m ready to do it all over again.  I’m ready for another big hike.  I’m still moving despite the passage of time.  Hard to say whether my kind and I will ever get anywhere, but we’re moving all the same.  No sense stopping.  And when we’re done, Mason and his generation will carry on.  Why shouldn’t they?  Time passes, but it’s never too late to take on the world.

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Apr 22 2009

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A Dry Wind

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I went into the mountains earlier this week to spend the night – just me and my dog, Matika.  I hiked a logging road uphill for a half hour, then followed a small stream a quarter mile to a favorite camp spot.  At 1500 feet, a few patches of snow still lingered in the woods.  Although some furled leaves pushed through the forest floor, no flowers bloomed at that elevation.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to botanize.

In early spring, I don’t expect much.  But I do expect to enjoy a long, meditative evening feeding sticks into a campfire.  With that in mind, I gathered wood shortly after setting up camp.  But it was still too early in the day to start a fire, so I went fishing for a while.

I broke out my fly rod and retraced my steps back to where I’d seen a brand new beaver pond.  Figured that would be a good place to start.  I flipped my line into the pond and every quiet run or deep pool I could find while working my way upstream, but no trout rose to my offerings.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to fish.  Not really.

By the time I returned to camp, I was ready to start a fire.  I crumpled a little birch bark and built a small tipi of sticks around it.  But a dry wind blew down the mountain, kicking up leaves all around me.  Hmm…  My wood pile, the leaves, the surrounding forest – everything was very dry.  As I put a match to the tipi, I told myself to be very careful.  I had a couple liters of water close at hand just in case.

The parched tinder burst into flames and every stick I added to it burned hot and fast.  I kept the fire small, but had to put out an ignited stray leaf more than once.  Stressful.  I burned just enough wood to boil up a pot of water for dinner, then immediately snuffed out the flames.  So much for campfire meditation.  I donned a sweater as I sat in the chilly woods at twilight, while brooding over this unexpected turn of events.

A gust of wind blew down the mountain with enough force to rattle my tarp.  I fretted about the impending storm as I tied down the tarp edges with more guylines.  Then Matika and I crawled under it.  The wind roared in the distance.  The temperature dropped as the forest grew dark.  I nodded off but awoke around midnight to the sound of sleet hitting the tarp.  Matika groaned.  Several times through course of the night, the wind tugged at the tarp, threatening to pull it from its moorings.  But we awoke at dawn still dry and under cover.  The forest calm at that time seemed rather peculiar.

With very little wind blowing and leaves subdued by dampness, I enjoyed a breakfast campfire well into the morning.  It wasn’t what I had planned, but when you’re in the wild, it’s best just to go with the flow.  During the past 24 hours, Mother Nature had shown me a face I’d never seen before.  I pondered that while sipping coffee and poking at quiet embers.  Twenty-seven years in Vermont woods, you’d think I would have seen it all by now.  But the wild, by definition, can always surprise.

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Jan 29 2009

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Yankee Blue Skies

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While slogging along a snowmobile trail the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the sun smiling overhead.  It shined brightly in the middle of a deep blue sky – the kind we see here in Vermont when dry, arctic air blows our way.  Yankee blue, I call it.  There’s no equivalent in the Midwest where I grew up.  Skies so blue that it’s hard to believe that they’ll ever turn gray again.

Sometimes the snow is so bright white that you can’t help but love it.  Enough warmth radiates from the sun to make you believe that the worst of winter has passed.  And as long as you have your back to the wind, life is good.

Yesterday it snowed all day long.  I went out and shoveled it for a while, drank hot chocolate indoors at lunchtime, then went out and shoveled again.  My dog, Matika, romped in the snow piles undoing some of my work.  I didn’t care.  Neither did my octogenarian neighbor, Scout, who was happy to shovel away most of the day.  Vermonters like to brag about how cold it is in early morning when they go out to start their cars, and how high their snow piles are.  No sense fighting it.  After a while, the cold and snow simply become a way of life.

Is the cup half empty or half full?  That’s an age-old question whose answer reveals more about the person answering than what’s actually in the cup.  At first we respond to the weather, the seasons, and everything else by passing judgment on it.  Then, if we have any sense at all, we let go of that judgment and learn to live with what has been cast our way, maybe even finding joy in it.  Few circumstances in life are truly tragic: war, famine, pestilence, and that other dark horseman.  The rest is merely challenging, like the frigid wind icing over your face or the foot of snow that has to be pushed from your driveway.

I am one of those people who usually takes a dark view of things, who looks at the cup and sees what’s missing, not what’s there.  But every once in a while, I find myself enjoying my labors, even when chilled by my own sweat and running the risk of frostbite. The best part of my walk the other day occurred when I turned towards the wind, my face freezing all the way back to the car.  The best part of shoveling snow is the ache in my lower back afterward.  How can I explain this?  I can’t really.  All I can say is that sometimes adversity is good for the soul.  And when on occasion there are Yankee blue skies overhead, it all seems worthwhile.

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