Hiking: My Summer Ritual
It’s the heart of the afternoon, with the summer sun bouncing off green ridges and peaks, and the only cool spots deep beneath pine trees. I swing my pack on my back, adjust the straps, pick up my walking stick, and lock the car. Then I turn toward Little Crow Mountain. Ahead is the foot of the trail, one that I have climbed every summer since I was 14.
It’s the heart of the afternoon, with the summer sun bouncing off green ridges and peaks, and the only cool spots deep beneath pine trees.
The mountain lies only a mile up the road from the country house my parents bought back in 1956 in Keene, New York, a village in the Adirondack High Peaks region. With a short but steep trail that ascends 1,090 feet, Little Crow (elevation 2,569 feet) has been a beginner’s hike since paths first were cut on these mountains in the 1800s. Curiously, I find the mountain no easier—or harder—than when I first climbed it. Hiking it has become a ritual, a benchmark in the year, an opportunity to look back or ahead—my own New Year’s Eve. Rituals mark time, none more so than personal ones we make and keep just for ourselves. Carving out space to reflect and observe, we glimpse something underneath our daily routine that can tease out the meaning of our lives.
With compromise writ large on the landscape, the Adirondack Park makes a good place for reflection. Created in 1892, the 6-million-acre park dwarfs any other in the lower 48 states. Guidebooks like to point out that it’s bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. But when you climb its peaks, walk along its brooks, and canoe its lakes, you realize the park represents an unusual détente between man and nature. Less than half the land belongs to New York State. The rest remains in private hands, the bulk split between local residents, descendants of the hardscrabble farmers who first settled there in the 19th century, and lumber companies. There are over 100 towns and villages within the park. Across the valley on a clear day from the top of Little Crow I can see Mount Marcy (5,344 feet), the highest peak in New York State. But if I look down, poking through the carpet of green below are roofs and meadows, signs of habitation in the midst of one of the loveliest panoramas in the northeast.
Development in the park falls under the jurisdiction of the Adirondack Park Agency, created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1971 during a spate of real estate speculation. The agency remains a source of controversy among the park’s 130,000 residents, since it regulates the size of the parcels in which land can be sold within the park boundaries. When the agency first began weighing in on local enterprise, bumper stickers appeared on cars and pickups that read, “APA, another name for tyranny.”
Yet today, you sometimes hear of locals leaving their land to the park, or find town boards invoking the agency’s regulators to turn back a scheme to drain wetlands. After several generations, most residents have accepted that some of the policies they once bitterly resisted have kept the park an appealing destination for tourists—a major factor in local economies.
With the park a patchwork of wilderness and development, many trails begin right at roadside. This year my hike starts on a freshly cut path that steers around a new house built on a strip of hitherto undeveloped private land at Little Crow’s base.The trailhead marker has been moved a few hundred feet up the blacktop so hikers won’t trespass on private property. It’s strange at first to navigate an unknown section. I feel uneasy, and dimly angry at the family that has moved into the new house. Then a breeze rustles, and ahead I see the path rejoins the original trail. A dog barks below me, perhaps from the new porch. It’s a reassuringly domestic sound as I head into the woods and leave the road and its houses far behind.
This year my hike starts on a freshly cut path that steers around a new house built on a strip of hitherto undeveloped private land at Little Crow’s base.
A 14-Year-Old’s Panic
I start to look for the familiar signs that mark the trail’s stages. Soon I see the eerie outline of a massive rotting elm trunk, still straddling the trail despite crumbling branches and countless woodpecker bores. The very first time I took this hike, the tree’s looming silhouette frightened me, as though it were a bewitched thing that might seize me in its decaying limbs and imprison me forever in the woods. On the way up, I’d skirted it as I kept an eye out for trail markers, but coming down in the lingering twilight, my fear got the better of me. I still remember my 14-year-old’s panic as I plunged off the trail to avoid the tree, then unable to find the path again, bushwhacked my way frantically back to the road and safety.
Yet in one of life’s many reversals, the monster has become an ally, a marker of how far I’ve come on my way up, of what’s left to go on my way home. This time as I pass it, I pause to examine the myriad life that swarms and nests and digs in the hollow trunk. Fungus grows at the base, colonies of beetles and termites are feasting on the moldy wood, and moss covers the shady side. It’s a virtual city of activity, more alive than when the tree itself was dying.
A Beloved Valley
Now the trail gets steeper, and outcroppings of rock appear between the birches and poplars. Occasionally it dips around a huge boulder, chipped away 10,000 or 15,000 years ago by receding glaciers. These glacial erratics are a constant feature on Adirondack trails, while the rock itself dates back 1.3 billion years, to a time when the sediment that formed it lay under shallow seas. The Adirondacks precede the more familiar Appalachian chain by many eons, and the rocks’ ancient history seems a part of their character, the peaks more worn than newer mountains.
Above, visible through the thinning birches and poplars, the granite shelf of the first lookout tempts me to a quick break. As I ease off my pack and sit with my legs dangling over the edge, I remember a recent summer when I got no farther than this spot. It had been a wet August, and weeks of rain turned trails slippery and dangerous. My last afternoon, a brief break in the clouds led me to a Little Crow attempt that ended on this spot as the clouds rolled back in. The valley was a wall of white below me that day, with the mountains only blurry outlines. The weather seemed a reflection of the long shadow that visit has cast. It was then I first recognized my parents’ growing frailty and realized that one day I would climb Little Crow and look down on a valley that no longer contained them.
The valley was a wall of white below me that day, with the mountains only blurry outlines.
Today the deep blue sky has barely a wisp of cloud. There’s always a breeze on the mountain, and I lean back and let it blow over me. Time is going by, I know, but not for this hour, as the afternoon becomes golden and the mountains turn from green to blue in the slanting light.
The Summer After College
Reluctantly, I get up and set out toward the summit. The last stretch has only alpine growth, a profusion of stunted pine trees, lichen, pearly everlasting, and dwarf junipers. With no trees of any size to act as a break, the wind can sweep over you as the trail climbs increasingly bare rock. Soon I’m scrambling up the fissures, pulling myself through the steepest stretches with the help of handy branches.
The summer after college it was a windy day when I hiked this section, and I often ducked into a crevice as I made my way, or clung to a skinny pine branch when the trail edged along a precipice. I remember thinking that the trail seemed like a harbinger of what my work as a magazine editor would bring me—a steep, windy climb toward the top, but with a bit of shelter from rocks and a handy tree or two, I’d be able to make it.
I look back on that hike with wonder now. My naiveté seems equaled only by my arrogance, but though my climb has not led me exactly where I imagined, I love my work enough to look forward to every day, and in that way, the mountain trail and my once-imagined goal have truly become one.
As I reach the top, I scramble to the cairn that marks the highest point. Below lies the valley, now half in shadow, and around me range the High Peaks—Cascade and Porter, beyond them Marcy, Wolfjaws, and on and on. My father and sister can name every peak in sight. In deference to family tradition, I walk past the cairn to the far side of the summit, where a flat stretch of rock ends in a cliff looking down on our own hill—the picnic rock. I have some water and a plum, and try to pick out our meadow now far below.
There’s a clarity that comes with late afternoon light. Edges seem crisp and definite. There will never be a moment exactly like this one. You could photograph it, but the sensations would elude you. The mountains may be timeless, as enduring as the metamorphic bedrock beneath them, yet this afternoon’s beauty lies in its transience. As William Wordsworth wrote, “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind.”
There’s a clarity that comes with late afternoon light.
As the shadows get longer and the air begins to cool, I know it’s time to go down. I will take the back way and descend by a precipitous little path to the first lookout. It’s another family tradition that has become so ingrained, I discovered one year I no longer knew another way off the mountaintop. My father showed me this path, and I look carefully around as I zigzag over the steepest parts, hoping to spot something new to tell him—a fresh cairn, a weirdly shaped pine tree, a hawk circling for dinner.
No time I have climbed Little Crow has ever been like another. The light is always different. The colors are always different. And I am different too. After many hikes, many summers, my yearly ritual has taught me that. Unchanging change—that is the mountain’s gift.