Illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel

Rediscovering peace and kindness in the wilderness

he shiny, clean
Subaru pulled over and a friendly voice from behind a surgical mask asked, “Everything OK? You need a ride to the next stop?”

Was it the fact that everything in my too-heavy backpack was strewn along the berm lining the side of the road? Was it the panicked look on my friend’s face as she double-checked my mini–stuff sacks full of first-aid items and toothpaste? Was it the despair on my face as the reality set in—after a successful three-day, 35-mile first backpacking trip in 40 years—my car keys were gone.

Last summer, the pandemic surging, my friend Lori called and suggested a modest backpack trip in the Adirondacks. What? Forty years ago, I had been an avid hiker, but not a single trek since then. The pandemic had upended all of the year’s travel plans, of course, and the stay-at-home orders, the worry, and the divisiveness among neighbors had taken a heavy toll on the spirit. A socially distant, off-the-grid, COVID-free, all-nature getaway with a good friend sounded like just the ticket.

But was I too old? Too out of shape? Did I have too many aches and creaks? I had just gone through the humbling experience of learning I was in the “elderly” coronavirus category—well into my 60s. Ouch. But my youngest had just graduated from college, my husband and I had retired from our full-time jobs, and it seemed time to reset for a new phase of life. I said yes, tentatively, yes—let’s go.

Preparing for the trip proved to be the perfect pandemic antidote. With stores shuttered, search engines led the way. From, “What age is too old to backpack?” (never) to how to use a satellite SOS device (complicated) to the marvel of current technology—“Are tents really that light, that simple?” (indeed). For weeks I practice-walked in Rock Creek Park near my home in Washington DC. Could I walk 12 miles? Yes. Could I carry 10 pounds? Yes. Twenty pounds? Yes. Thirty pounds? No. Found the boots, learned the water bladder, re­balanced the pack—over and over. Finally, I bought a $15 porta-potty for the nearly 20 hours of driving, loaded the audiobook, and, early on a Monday morning, headed out with trepidation and elation.

Hitting the road felt like heaven.

Lori, who knows the Adirondacks, planned for us to hike the Cold River loop. Once we parked the car at the first Coreys Road parking lot, we headed south on the Raquette River horse trail, continuing south on the Calkins Brook truck trail before reaching the Northville-Placid Trail along Cold River. That’s where we spent our first night. The next day we hiked to Cold River lean-to #1 for the second night. The final day we headed slightly west on the Ward Brook truck trail on our way to the second Coreys Road parking lot. After exiting, we still needed to walk about three miles back to the first parking lot, where we had left our car. About a 35-mile loop, all in all.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. The rivers were glorious, and sleeping next to rushing water with true black night and starry skies replenished urban, pandemic-weary souls. At first it was so quiet, then the forest sounds came alive. Birdsong, arbor-creaking, water running everywhere. Butterflies glided by, filling the air. Beautiful little toads leapt across the path.

But the first day’s hike was a crucible. Following a horse trail up steep ridges and slip-sliding down a trail turned mucky, muddy stream included many dips and stumbles and lurches. It took all day to get used to balancing the extra 26 pounds in the backpack as I stumbled behind Lori.

It was the rough start that led to the glorious final day of hiking. Waking in the lean-to at Cold River, we relished the early morning air, coped with sloshing through bogs and fending off mosquitoes and deerflies, and loved wading through streams and striding along the trails. Being independent, taking care of ourselves, just keeping our needs simple, felt so good. The crescendo was building to a perfect conclusion—we had done it: for me, after a hiatus of 40 years from backpacking, right back to it. We had already walked nine and a half miles and we felt euphoric as we came out into a parking lot and sat by the side of the road ready for that last three-mile stretch. I just wanted to get out the keys, so we would be ready to hit the road.

But the keys were gone—missing. That first day’s hike, lurching, tipping, rolling through the trails, had they slipped out of an imperfectly closed pocket? The keys had a very long, very bright orange lanyard attached. Had someone found them on that first day, three days ago? Had someone taken the car? As had been true throughout the hike, there was no cell service at all as we sat on the berm, so we couldn’t call anyone. But we needed help.

“Is everything all right?” We stood up to prepare to walk the final three miles to the first Coreys Road parking lot. “Would you like a ride down the road?” The masks reminded us that we were heading back to the “civilized” world and we pulled ours out for the first time in days. Driving down the final stretch, Lori told the two good Samaritans our tale of woe. I sat silent. Ashamed, afraid, frozen and unthinking as I held my breath, dreading the sight of an empty parking spot.

Bob, our rescuer, rounded a bend in the road. There was my car perched right where we had left it. 

Hanging jauntily from the trail railing was a long orange lanyard with a fob attached. My keys were waiting for us. Unknown, unnamed people had come through.

There’s even more to backpacking than all the time and effort that leads to being gloriously subsumed by nature—it also brings the reminder of the basic goodness of the many backpackers who share the trail in the Adirondacks. 

And to those kind fellow hikers who found my keys and to those who left the keys there for three days, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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