I’m ready to go home.
It’s not that my work is done. I feel like I’ve barely started. But I have started.
Hiking the Western side of the Grafton Loop did not begin well. It was chilly and damp, and although it never actually rained, it might as well have. The trail and the campsite where I was headed were within the cloud cover. I hiked six miles in through gloomy, dark forest with mists trailing through the trees. Beards of lichen draped firs beaded with moisture. So I dug out my earbuds and iPod and played Beethoven (The Eroica, to be precise), pretending I was hiking though the Black Forest of Germany. I reached a ledge which my trail description said provided “limited views.” Oh, they were limited, all right. Limited to swirling mists and walls of featureless grey. I reached Sargent Brook Campsite, and in spite of the abundant water in the atmosphere, the brook was dry. Lovely. The three liters of water I’d packed was not going to last me the three days and eighteen miles I had to go. Nothing to be done about it. Just had to hope I could find water up the trail.
Next morning I packed up as well as I could in the dry confines of my little one-man tent, and emerged into the world of wet leaves and eye-level clouds. But part of my MBCT practice was learning to accept with equanimity whatever happens, dealing with it, not crying into my cold breakfast that things were not as I wanted them to be. They are what they are. Pack up and get going.
And lo, when I reached the summit of Sunday River Whitecap, the mists thinned and the sun burned through. Clouds still rolled through the valleys, but the tops of the mountains rose above. It was glorious. I found a sunny ledge, stripped off my wet gear, and laid out my tent to dry. Two hikers coming through going in the opposite direction told me that the brooks were running at the next two campsites, so not to worry. In fact, the next two days were sunny and clear. (The night got pretty chilly, which made it hard to leave the snug warmth of my sleeping bag in the morning.)
The trail between Sunday River Whitecap and my next planned stop was beautiful, easy to moderate grades through golden forests rich with the smells of autumn. My goal was six miles away, which would leave me about another six miles to hike out the last day, including four hard miles down the other side of Old Speck. (FYI for hiking readers: besides the brook being dry, the bear box at Sargent Brook campsite was foul and the outhouse was even more foul. Makes me appreciate campsites with caretakers all the more. Bull Run campsite was smaller but cleaner with a lovely rushing brook full of good water.)
But this hike wasn’t so much about the trail as it was about the Practice, the therapy, if you will. More metaphor than exercise. I traveled slowly not because the terrain was difficult (although in spots it was) but because I was stopping frequently just to mind my breath and pull myself fully into the moment, practicing my awareness of what I was feeling and experiencing. Because of that, something happened that would not have, had I been motoring along at full stride, intent on getting somewhere rather than just being where I was.
As I stood, perfectly still, leaning on my staff, I saw out of the corner of my eye something silently come through the trees and settle on a branch. There was a screen of leaves between, so I couldn’t see what it was. I resisted the urge to move to get a better look. I stayed frozen. After a moment or two, a large bird flew to a branch just above me and perched. A barred owl examined me curiously, and inquired, appropriately, “Who? Who?” I looked back into its large, unsettling black eyes, remaining still and silent. It swooped down to get a better look, moving its head up and down, back and forth, scrutinizing this uncharacteristically motionless intruder in its territory, probably accustomed to seeing critters like me tromping along and chattering away to its fellows. Finally it concluded with a hoot which sounded very much like “Fu-bar!” and took off.
“Who you calling ‘fubar’?” I murmured, grinning from ear to ear.
Getting to the summit of Old Speck on the last day was pretty easy. I climbed up the tower at the top to make the requested calls from my cell phone to assure anxious folks at home that I was fine, had not fallen and broken my neck or been mauled by a bear (or psychotic hiker), and admired the breath-taking 360 degree panorama. Then I climbed down and shared my lunch with the inevitable pair of whiskey jacks (a.k.a. Gray Jays, famous for their trail mooching), and finally hoisted my pack and headed down.
Late afternoon. The wind is getting cold and the sunlight is slanting through the trees, rapid disappearing behind the high hills. The wind has taken many of the leaves off the trees and covered the ground, including the trail. It is hard to see what the terrain is like, easy to step wrong, slip or lose your footing. Loose rocks and roots lurk ready to trip the unwary. I had four miles of it, some of it very steep, much of it wet and slick. I was tired after all the miles I’d covered. A recipe for disaster, and boy, I knew it. I crept and crawled and tested each doubtful foothold with my staff. The light was fading but I knew better than to hurry. It was the longest four miles I’ve ever hiked in my life (except for Jefferson, but let’s not go there). At times I was almost in tears, the pack unbalancing me, the trail disappearing in the fallen leaves and fading light and still a long way to go. At times it was beautiful, emerging onto a ledge to see the moon rising over the peak I’d just come down from. (Now, which way does the damn trail go?)
I made it down, found my car unmolested in the parking lot, and headed home in the purple dusk, my leg muscles so tired I could barely drive.
I’ve done hard work here in Colebrook. Good work. But just a start. If I’m not careful and let myself get distracted, I’ll slip into old mental habits. I’ll fall into depression again. Which is not to say I’m going to be happy all the time now. I won’t. Some days I’ll be sad. Some days it’ll hurt so bad I’ll think I can’t stand it. But I’ll keep going, accepting what I must, letting go of what I have to, doing what I can, the best I can, moment by moment.
Hiking the Trail. Walking the path.