It was a beautiful Adirondack morning, the kind where your breath is visible in little plumes, and each road is ringed with fiery-colored trees. Yellow, orange, and red they peaked, intermingling with tall green pine on the steep dips of mountain. My boyfriend and I had driven a few hundred miles to meet my parents in the High Peaks, where the four of us were to make a hike that had long been anticipated, a 10.5 mile clamber between two mountains. The trail was called Indian Pass.
On the drive into town for breakfast, a bald eagle swooped slowly over us. We pulled into one of the two intersections that make up the town of Long Lake, and got out of the car. The restaurant was a nice little room, with maps under glass for tabletops and wallpaper that featured pine trees. In the back of the restaurant, however, was a bar where smoke still hung in the air from the night before. On the walls hung pictures of men with dead things: with big fish, or gigantic antlered deer, and in one picture, a man gazed coldly at the camera with his gun in his hand and a large dead bear propped up in front of him. I sat down at the table and ate breakfast: two poached eggs, hash browns, rye toast.
Walking back to my car, I noticed a bumper sticker that read, “Hug a Logger! You’ll never go back to trees.” We pulled out and drove fast, leaving my car at one end of the trail and then speeding up in my parent’s car to Lake Placid. The plan was to walk from one car to the other, so that we’d never have to backtrack on the trail. For all the speeding, we still couldn’t get there fast enough. We had about 90 miles to go on small road, and we had to get gas and sandwiches. By the time we made it to the trailhead and got out of the car, it was noon.
The parking lot we’d planned to ditch the car in was full, so we ended up leaving it in a ditch instead, on a sandy little road about a mile away. This added a little bit of walking to our hike, but I never imagined that it would later seem significant. Though it worried me that none of us had a flashlight, I was pretty confident that we could easily walk Indian Pass. My dad had hiked the trail about fifteen years earlier, and my parents had made this territory familiar to me during many summers of camping. The trail starts out by circling halfway around Heart Lake, a cold mountain pond where I passed summer afternoons when I was little. Very few places seemed so safe and docile as Heart Lake, with its cheerful hardcore hikers coming in and out of the Adirondack Loj and surrounding campgrounds. I used to sit on the beach with my feet in the water and catch newts with my hands and unwrap 50-cent Hershey bars and wave to the hikers coming in off the path. Once, in the communal basin-style bathroom sink, a hiker showed me how to brush one’s teeth with gusto: “Like this,” she said as she energetically slammed her toothbrush up and down her front teeth. I stared at my reflection and scrubbed until my gums bled. All that day, I ran my tongue over the polished adult teeth that had grown where my baby teeth once were. They felt new again.
After about 45 minutes of hiking, we came to an overflowing creek, and began to attempt the first of many wet crossings. Hurricane Isidore had edged its way up the East Coast the night before, dumping rain on the mountains, and the water in the creeks was clear and fast and cold. Much time was spent trying to cross on rocks and logs over the rushing water, and we made a great deal of importance over not getting our feet wet, but eventually everyone is going to slip a sneakered foot into the water. I’d borrowed Dan’s waterproofing sealant the night before and sprayed down everyone’s shoes, not realizing that a shoe with sealant will also hold water inside the shoe. Eventually, walking in my shoes would become much like standing in a cold, sloshing lake. For hours.
By midafternoon, everyone was starting to get hungry. I’d brought about ten fresh-picked apples, a pound and a half of fancy trail mix, a couple of packs of Peanut M’n’Ms, and some rice cakes. My parents, I slowly realized, had only brought a handful of cashews. We had a portable water purifier, so when they drained their water bottles I wasn’t worried, but I did wish we had more food. After a grueling hike into Costa Rican rainforest with my boyfriend six months prior, I had internalized the critical role of fuel in a physical challenge. In Indian Pass, we were huffing and puffing, climbing over boulders, hand over hand on muddy roots, hopping around waterlogged sections of the path, trying not to think about twisting an ankle. We needed the calories as much as we needed the water.
At about 3:30, we reached a signpost. We’d only gone four miles. That left six and half miles to go, with what (I hoped) was about 4 hours of daylight. Suddenly, our careful, meandering river crossings seemed like an absurd waste of time. In fact, we had made plenty of stops: to look at a village of ancient beaver dams, to eat and drink, and once to catch a salamander hiding under a mammoth mushroom. All fun and games until someone loses an eye, as they say.
Anyway, within a half an hour, we’d lost the trail. We assumed it would follow a river, so we scaled the river wall along the side, but eventually we just came to sheer rockface that descended into the water. Everyone hunted for the trail for a while, and I felt the slightest bit of panic. Why was this trail hard to find? Eventually, I could see the sun hitting a clearing deep in the woods on the opposite riverbank. I ran across on rocks and fought my way through the underbrush until I came to a trail. Running back along it to the river, I noticed a trail marker and called to Dan to bring my parents over. Slowly, everyone crossed the river and rejoined the trail.
Within minutes, the trail ended at another turn in the river. We groaned at the thought of yet another crossing. Directly across from us was a stack of rocks signaling the continuation of the trail. Dan and I hopped across, and we were followed by my dad. My mom, however, was convinced we were going the wrong direction. She turned around to backtrack briefly, and came back swearing that there was a fork in the trail that we’d missed. Later, we discovered that what she had seen had simply been the trail we were already on. It seems hard to understand how this could happen, until you see nothing but woods for a few hours, get turned around, and don’t have enough food in your system. Then it makes sense. While Dan and my dad re-crossed the river to find out what she was saying, I took the water purifier out of our backpack and refilled the water bottles. One of them tasted bad, and I poured it out before re-crossing to join them. I cleared the hand pump and packed back up. By the time I reached the other bank, my feet were wet, I only had one bottle of water, and it was 5:00. The group met me on the other side with the news that Mom’s theory couldn’t be proven, and that we were going to cross YET AGAIN and keep going up the path. So we did, and Dan scrambled ahead to scout the trail, up steep and muddy climbs, while I stayed with my parents, coaching them up the slippery pass.
But the trail was elusive again. We ran out of markers. We stood there, scanning tree trunks for the little red metal circles that had been so faithfully pinned to trees during the first part of the hike. I saw nothing. How could this be? Once again, I began scrambling through brush to find the trail. My heart was pounding. I could see the light receding over the mountain, the edges of sun reaching upwards through the branches. I couldn’t see patches of sunlight on the ground anymore. The trail was not simple; it was filled with boulders, muddy streams, river crossings, and short, steep climbs. I could not imagine doing it in the dark.
I knelt by the side of the creek with the water purifier again, and filled the empty bottle. It tasted better this time; must have been the location. Calling to the group, I was met with silence. I yelled again. “Hang on, hon!” called my boyfriend. “We’re looking at a map!” They had a map. A map from where? I wondered. I began to feel as though I was going insane.
After several helpless minutes of watching the sun slip out of the valley, and pondering, for the first time, the fact that it gets darker and colder faster in between mountains than it does on flat ground, I began to get scared. Dan ran up to me, out of breath. I gazed at him. I thought about how much I loved him. I thought about sleeping in the woods. I didn’t know we had a map. Dan explains that there are forks in the path. Maybe we’re on the wrong trail, he says. We rejoin my parents. My mom mentions the other path she’s seen. My dad tries to locate us using the surrounding mountains. I look at the map, and all I can see is disappearing light. We have to double back. Going forward, being uncertain, trying to cover new ground, will lead us into trouble.
The group doesn’t agree at first. We go off trail in search of the “right” trail. We are running over moss and mud, pushing aside low pine tree branches. We see nothing. “Oh god,” says my boyfriend. We have been looking at each other, sharing the same panic. “I don’t want to lead your parents the wrong way.” Dan and I see a trail, which naturally, being a trail, requires us to cross the river. We leave my parents to explore it. We climb higher and higher. Is it the same trail? Or is it a new trail? We can’t tell. Finally, we agree that it is definitely a new trail. We return to tell my parents.
When we get to the place where the trail meets the river, we see the same stack of rocks we saw at the beginning of the other trail. This means that we were just retracing our steps, but we didn’t know it. In fact, we had been sure that we weren’t. My head feels as though it is shattering apart, tearing through the air. We have to get out of this place. I tear upstream, running through the water, searching for my parents. I fall on a boulder. Dan calls out to me. “I’m fine,” I say, which is not true. I have stopped trusting myself. I don’t know which trail is right. The woods all look the same now, and in an hour’s time, they will just look black. We are 5 miles from either car, there are no other hikers, and we don’t have a flashlight. Tonight is forecasted to be the first frost, and already I am colder. I don’t want to sleep in the woods.
“We have to double back,” I tell the group. They agree immediately. I tell them that we can do the easier parts as fast as we can, wade right through the creeks, and be careful on the climbs. We begin running. I figure if we can get near enough to Heart Lake, the trail will even out, and we’ll be able to walk it. We just have to use every bit of light.
For a while things are fine. We’re keeping up a light jog. I’ve taken my mom’s pack, and we’re getting through the difficult parts of the path, streaming through the water with wet shoes, making jokes, and encouraging each other. As the light turns from silver to blue, the fallen leaves on the forest floor take on a startling glow, illuminating the path. I can ignore my hunger, my fear, and the waves of water in my shoes if I can just focus on getting there.
We hear voices, and come across a camp of college-age backpackers. I ask (beg?) them for an extra flashlight, and to my great relief, one of them obliges, handing us a pink Mini Maglite with extra batteries and telling us to leave it under the tire of his van in the parking lot of the Adirondack Loj. When darkness finally falls, it is total, and we can’t rely on our night vision. I can tell that my parents are struggling to see the ground, but they are tripping nonetheless. I feel awful for them. They must get someplace comfortable. Dan wants to push on as long as we can, but eventually we turn on the flashlight, and sit down on some boulders in the middle of the trail. I am worried about our water supply, since we have finally stopped following the creek and I’d rather not try to work the hand pump in the dark. When people get thirsty from the rice cakes and trailmix and M’n’Ms, I hand them apples instead of water. The apples taste good, “better and better,” as my dad says. My dad says he keeps thinking he sees lights, like headlights, on the tops of the trees, but when he looks up, nothing is there.
When we get back up, everyone’s joints are beginning to stiffen, and we are getting colder. We try to move quickly, but it’s impossible. I am holding the one small flashlight above our heads, pointing it at the forest floor, and Dan and I walk directly in front of my parents. If we speed up, then they begin to stumble. “I guess you know right away if you’re going too fast,” says my mom, and we all laugh. So we walk slowly, in a pack, with Dan and I pointing out obstacles: “Rock.” “Root.” “Small bridge.” Dan tells a story about the breakdown of a swamp buggy he was in while living in the Everglades, and I tell the story of a torrential rainstorm we were caught in while hiking in between sugar cane fields in Costa Rica, and the subsequent hitchhiking experience. My dad tells us a couple of wonderful Zen stories, and I tell one too, a different version of his.
So it goes on this way, the four of us walking and talking and trying to ignore the cold. We can see nothing in the woods around us but blackness. At one point, my dad and I both hear something off to our left and we stop and turn. I am sure that in the light I see the bright shine of an animal’s eyes, but then it is gone. Later, we notice the amazing density of stars above us and turn off the light to stand, gazing, through the dark outlines of leaves at the gorgeous, sparkling sky. Such silence and beauty seems unreal.
We rejoice when we finally near Heart Lake, though my mom worries aloud that she can actually hear her knees creaking. The cold and adrenaline has finally gotten to me, and at one point I trip over a rock and fall onto some boulders. Strangely, I feel nothing. Dan helps me up, but I just want to lie down.
We do finally make it back to the Loj, just before 10:00pm. The Loj is closing up, and Dan and I leave my parents to walk the last mile down the road to the car. Dan has thought it out, consulted the map, and realized that we were on the right path after all, but we got confused. I tell him I’m glad we backtracked; if we’d lost unfamiliar trail in the dark we would have spent the night in the woods for sure. For most of the way down the road, I just stare upwards at the amazing sky. A woman stops her car and offers us a ride, but we decline; we’re soaked with mud and almost at the car. We get there and I can barely take my shoes off because of the swelling in my feet.
During the hour-long ride back to the hotel, I drive barefoot and struggle to stay awake. I am blasting the heat, but we’re all shaking anyway. Dan says that our bodies have lost the ability to thermo-regulate, and someone says that we’re especially fortunate to be out of the woods by the time that has happened. To the hum of the engine, my parents nap in the backseat, and in the front, we eat food from a convenience store: bananas, cereal bars, bagels.
Nothing sounds better than the key in the hotel room door. I hug my parents good night before heading into our room, where we crawl grateful into bed.
By Cedar Pruitt