Baldpate is in Grafton Notch, right on the Maine Border, the first leg of the Grafton Loop hike I’d planned. The west peak is 3,680 and the east is 3,812. No big thing after taking the 5K Presidentials. Well, numbers don’t mean anything. I toiled up the ten thousand steps to the top of West Baldpate. An exercise in endurance, sure, but much better than scrambling over roots and boulders like on some trails. No, the challenge came when we crossed the saddle between the peaks and started up the ledges of East Baldpate.
At first it was grand. We were totally blanketed with clouds as we came over the top of West Peak and down into the saddle in between. And then came one of those glorious moments when the wind blows the curtains aside and the magnificence of the mountains is revealed. A grand panorama looking across Grafton Notch towards the Whites, their slopes turning brilliant with autumn color. Looking north, Dixville Notch with its line of wind turbines (which I have decidedly mixed feelings about). And dominating the scene before us, the rough, bare dome of East Baldpate. The ascent looked simple, all ledge, terraced and marked clearly with cairns. Ah, but to the right, the valley boiled with clouds which churned up to cover all the peaks and landscape to the southeast with dark, scowling, opaque turbulence.
We started the ascent, an easy climb over open ledges. The wind was furious, but it wasn’t all that cold and it wasn’t raining. Should have been a piece of cake. So why, partway up, did anxiety take over and freeze me with indecision? Maybe the menacing, roiling clouds close by and the scramble up stone triggered a memory of (shudder) Mt. Jefferson. I don’t know. Point is, I backed down. Couldn’t do it.
Nick was cool about it, readily calling it off and following me down to a ledge out of the worst of the wind, where I shrugged off my pack, sat and ate a Cliff bar. A chorus of familiar voices began chittering like monkeys in my head.
“You failed. You couldn’t cut it. Chickened out. You’re not going to be able to do the Loop hike, either. You aren’t strong enough and you haven’t got the grit. And you’re getting old. Face it. Old bag. Muscles going, stamina giving out. Rotting from the inside out. You aren’t good enough.”
Oh, the rush of emotion. Depression leaping in, eager to help with its arsenal of weapons, hastening to point out that I always let everyone down. My parents, my sister, my uncle and cousins, my friends, my husband, my kids, and especially myself. Lousy at everything. Third-rate writer, nobody takes seriously. Disappointment to my family, mediocre at everything if not outright incompetent. A joke. A disaster. And here we go again. Can’t even do this simple climb. Give up, go home and get drunk.
Either Nick doesn’t notice the tears, or attributes it to the wind, or is just polite enough not to say anything. Inside, I’m scrambling to remember what I’ve been practicing, the mental defenses against this poisonous litany.
Right, I know you. The whole “not good enough” thing. You aren’t me, and you aren’t reality. You’re just a melodramatic recitation composed of solidly linked synapses in my brain. Well, okay, you’re here now, go ahead and say your piece, seeing as you’re going to anyway. I’m not going to stop you. I’m not going to waste my energy arguing with you or trying to reason with you, or trying to placate you. Not going to engage with you at all. Just say what you have to say, and I’ll sit here, breathing, separate, a bored, disinterested audience. And when you’re done, you can get up and go. The next moment will come. I’ll keep breathing, keep moving on into the next moment. A moment that won’t include you.
“Hey Nick, how about if I ditch my pack here and try it again?”
By now those clouds had boiled over. The wind was driving them across the peak. The view was gone. The Demonic Repertory Theater seized its opportunity for another performance. Because of my dithering around, wasting time, we’ve lost the opportunity. Won’t be able to see a thing, it’s starting to rain, and it’s all my fault. I’ve ruined the hike with my stupid weakness.
No, it’s just what it is, and I accept it, as it is. Keep moving, keep breathing, keep focusing, until the chorus gives up and goes away. Because it does. If I don’t engage it, if I don’t feed the troll, if I don’t let it grip me and tear into me, eventually its energy is spent. The mind is a busy place. New thoughts are always rushing in, like the next wave at the seashore. Like the weather in the mountains. Always changing. This moment is thick with biting winds and clouds. Next moment, the clouds could all blow away.
Well, they didn’t, and it was completely socked in at the summit. We followed the path through the mist to the signs at the top, where the AT diverges from the Loop trail, heading on up to Katahdin, the ultimate goal of the thru-hikers. Nick took my picture. I’m smiling, but inside, all I want to do is lay down and cry. This business of battling demons is more exhausting than climbing any mountain.
On the way home, we noticed the colors of the trees were much richer than when we’d left in the morning. We thought it was our imaginations, or a trick of the light. Turns out it was quite real. Somehow conditions had been just right with the recent frost and all, and the chlorophyll drained from the trees in an afternoon. A big change in a short time.
The crippling ache in my legs the next day was confirmation. I wasn’t in any shape to do a 40 mile hike. This was a huge disappointment. I’d thought I’d kept in shape, all the walking I’d done over the summer. But the steep ascent and descent of a long mountain trail uses very different muscles. And I hadn’t done a lot of serious mountains since Mary and I finished bagging our 48 last year. I was devastated. It had such significance to me, and I’d prepared so well for it, at least as far as equipment and provisions. But physically, I wasn’t up to it.
Oh, no. Here comes the “Not good enough!” troupe. Do I really have to listen to you again? Okay, get it over with.
Yesterday, I took a walkabout with Mary around the area where they live, through the woods and by the cabins of summer folk, empty at the moment. Since last year, Mary has suffered a terrible turn of events. Her knees have given out and she can’t hike anymore. Talk about a crushing blow. She can manage short walks with the aid of poles, taking it slowly. But no mountains. She swims and rides a bicycle to keep up her muscle tone, and is looking into an operation for knee replacement that could get her back on the trails. She’s not a woman who gives up easily. But she also knows how to accept what is and work with it.
“Hey Mary,” I said as we sat in the sun on the porch of one of the little empty summer houses, admiring the view. “What do you think of this? How about if I just do the western half of the Loop? 18 miles instead of the full 40?”
Mary loves to talk about hikes, and we began discussing it. My legs were still a bit sore, but recovering nicely after Baldpate. I could try doing a couple small climbs in the meantime, to keep building up my strength. I still had over a week. It could work. I could take it slow, go at a gentle pace. The campsites are spread out along the trail at good intervals, plenty of reliable water sources, no need to worry about hustling. I’d get my solitude, my time in the woods, my sense of strength, self-reliance and independence.
Not what I had planned, not in line with my expectations. And if the weather turns foul, my plans could well fall through again.
Just have to accept it.