Revisiting the mountain I didn’t climb

Memory can be
an unreliable narrator. I realized this as I started on the trail up Hadley Mountain, where I found, instead of the wild, intimidating landscape I recalled from my last visit, 12 years earlier, somewhere welcoming and benign.

My first impression of this place, in the summer of 2005, was colored by its utter unfamiliarity to me—not just the trail itself, 20 miles from Lake George, but the entire Adirondack Park, whose existence I had only discovered a few months before.

That spring, as I sat at a laptop in my student apartment in Manhattan looking for my first journalism job, one listing for a paid summer internship—at a newspaper “in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains”—sounded appealing. I applied and, after an interview in Glens Falls, was hired.

Before moving to New York City for grad school, I had spent most of my life in Southern California. I thought of myself an outdoorsy person—I went on camping trips among the giant redwoods and on frequent hikes in the coastal mountains. At least, hiking was what I considered it then. After years of climbing the Adirondacks’ muddy, slick and obstacle-strewn trails, I now think of traversing L.A.’s smooth dirt paths more as cardio with a view.

My first few weeks in Glens Falls, I had a vague sense of unease. Having lived in crowded metropolises, this city of 14,000 felt like a ghost town. Outside of the charming but tiny downtown—where there stood an eight-story building named, to my amusement, the Cronin High-Rise—there was little foot traffic, and I sometimes found store parking lots deserted during business hours. My apartment was a shoebox-size room in a sliced-up Victorian mansion, with an enormous bay window that made me feel like I was living in a fishbowl.

A few weeks into my internship, I decided to go for an outing before my shift that afternoon. I picked up a book on Adirondack day hikes, and chose one that was relatively nearby and labelled “easy”: Hadley Mountain.

After a drive that took me through the towns of Lake Luzerne and Hadley and several miles down a secluded dirt road, I reached a parking area. There was one other car there. Nowadays, I would consider this good luck, but at the time I was wary. I hadn’t expected to be so far from civilization with so little company. My imagination conjured every image I had seen in movies of the terrible things that could befall a person alone in the woods.

I didn’t make it far before I began talking myself out of continuing. Are my sneakers really sufficient for this rocky trail? The drive had taken longer than I had expected. I probably don’t have enough time, do I?

Then I heard rustling in the trees. In hindsight, it was probably a squirrel, but it was all I needed to be thoroughly spooked. I turned around and hurried back to my car, feeling a mixture of embarrassment—the guidebook had talked up this trail as a great one for kids—and relief.

Since then I’ve hiked dozens of Adirondack peaks, many of them far more challenging than Hadley. The summer internship turned into a full-time job, which led to my meeting and falling in love with a local guy, which contributed to my deciding to stick around despite my initial intention to return to the city. I eventually found work as an editor at Adirondack Life, my beau and I moved to the High Peaks, and it became my job to become deeply acquainted with this place that had once felt so foreign.

Last October I decided to return to Hadley and finish the hike. This time there were a half-dozen cars in the parking lot, and I brought my six-year-old mutt, Ollie. But the company wasn’t the only reason it felt different. Even though the trail was still unfamiliar to me, much about it was not: I could identify the trees, knew what animals might lurk behind them, had seen countless similar mossy boulders and curled strips of birch bark and wet leaves pasted to the ground like autumnal découpage—all the trappings of the place I now consider home. 

At the trailhead was a pocket for interpretive pamphlets, but it was empty. Along the trail were numbered markers, but I didn’t know what they referred to or how many more there would be.

I have a five-year-old son, so hikes, especially solo, are one of the few times I’m alone with my thoughts. On this day my mind turned to the past. So much had happened since my comically failed first hike attempt—marriages and births, divorces and deaths. So many turning points that, like those numbered markers along the trail, I didn’t know the significance of at the time.

I reached the summit in about an hour—truly, it was an easy hike. As I sat below the fire tower and looked out over Great Sacandaga Lake, I thought about a friend and former coworker at the newspaper who had recently died. We had often joked about how our backgrounds were so different—hers in rural Vermont, mine in the L.A. suburbs—yet we had so much in common. After she relocated to D.C. and I moved north, it was as if we’d traded places. She had once hiked Hadley and told me she enjoyed the view. Being on the same trail she had once walked, seeing what she had seen, made me feel close to her in a comforting way.

It reminded me of a passage I love from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby: “I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others’ paths … as though walking was sewing and sewing was telling a story and that story was your life.”

If I could retrace my own steps, they would eventually lead me back to the place where these mountains were unfamiliar terrain. But, though the memories may grow hazy, there is no unraveling the thread that ties me to this place.  

A version of this article originally appeared in the 2018 Guide to the Great OutdoorsSubscribe now to receive eight issues per year.

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