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Intimations of Mortality

By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

Susan Wilson
Susan Wilson
(credit: Mark Alan Lovewell)

Sometimes you just sense that something is a bad idea but you do it anyway. I'm not talking about taking that second piece of cake, or buying that pair of too-high heels that will never break-in. I'm talking about heading off on a hike in the pouring rain, up a mountain. With the dog. 

Let me explain. Twenty-five years ago we were much younger. Somehow, my husband and I had forgotten that it had been so long since our last hike up to the summit of Mt. Lafayette in Franconia Notch (NH), that we were no longer, ahem, young. "We did it before." How was it possible that, in the worst weather circumstances, we believed that it was just a walk in the park? But, we did. And off we went. On a rainy, cold, October Saturday, backpacks in place, with nothing more survivalist packed than granola bars and a bottle of water, our sense of self-preservation apparently left behind in the car.

"It's going to clear!"

"We'll be back before lunch."

"We're physically fit."

"The dog will love it!"

We are idiots.

You see, we have always prided ourselves on our fitness. We're very active people. I ride, he bikes, we both walk, swim, do our own yard work. Hiking has always been something that we do, in state parks, on the many friendly trails of the Land Bank, Trustees of Reservations and Audubon properties. We'd even hiked Mt. Lafayette two or three times over the past four decades. 

One of the things we had failed to realize was that the once well-defined trail had suffered a great deal of destruction from Hurricane Irene, which had hit the area in August of that year. Northern New England, especially Vermont and New Hampshire, had suffered floods and catastrophic damage, including this area. So the normally hiker-friendly trails were littered with downed limbs and rock fall that made every other step a challenge. Oh, and we had gone up the wrong trail, choosing the harder, longer one quite by accident of lousy orienteering. By the time we reached the first of the nearly impassable places, I was breathless and wondering if we shouldn't just quit. And yet, somehow, we kept going.

Through stubbornness rather than skill, we eventually got to the summit, grateful to achieve the ridge and thinking how much easier the walk to the Appalachian Trail hut, with its promise of hot chocolate and companionship, was going to be without the downed trees and rock-filled paths. However, we finally met the obstacle we couldn't go up, over, or around. Sheer rock. The trail we had inadvertently chosen ended at a rock-face. If it had just been the two of us, we might have managed, but there was no way we could get the dog over. She, being an intelligent creature, kept hiding under low brush to get out of the rain. To add insult to injury, we were standing in cloud, so we didn't even have a view to justify the effort it took to reach the summit. 

It was time to declare defeat and go back the way we'd come. A little known fact to the uninitiated, going down is a lot harder than going up. Thigh muscles, already screaming from the climb up, buckle at the abuse, ankles hurt. Despite our optimistic hope that the drizzle we started off in would moderate, it didn't, and with increasingly heavy rain, the brook, which we had easily crossed in the morning, had become a raging torrent in the afternoon. Any pretense as to keeping our feet dry, despite the best promises of LL Bean, was over. We were soaked, cold, and I, at least, admitted to being on the verge of panic. David had to carry the dog in his arms, stone by slippery stone across the stream; any misstep would have sent them both on a white water ride sans boat. I was so knackered that he also had the extra weight of my knapsack on his back. Somewhere between scrambling down and over boulders and fording the same swift brook half a dozen times as the trail repeatedly switch-backed, I pretty much figured out that we were going to die. I felt at one with Ernest Shackleton. 

In my mind, all I could see was the little sign at the closed ranger's cabin way waaay back at the parking lot. The sign that read, and I paraphrase: There is no rescue, so don't think you'll be found if you're in trouble. Abandon all hope ye who dare climb this hill. Did I mention there's no cell service?

Now, there were other people out there. A few. All dressed in the high tech gear of the trained, or at least qualified, hiker. Outfitted in head-to-toe Gore-Tex, brandishing hiking poles, carrying lots of bottled water, energy bars. These weren't casual hikers, but folks with miles of Appalachian Trail under their belts. A pair of young men helped us get the dog down off the worst ridge, then waved us on. I couldn't help but see the dismay in their faces at the sight of these two middle-aged crazy people and a dog working their slow way down the trail. I bet to this day that they wonder if we ever made it off the mountain. Sometimes I wonder if we ever did make it off the mountain. 

That day we faced our own mortality. When you hit middle age and are preoccupied with aging parents and planning for retirement, enjoying the grandchildren, it's a wakeup call to find out that you can be as foolish as callow youth. Anything could have happened, a sprained ankle, a broken bone, hypothermia. We could have become a statistic, a three-paragraph mention in the Franconia newspaper, another tragic, preventable death from overestimating one's experience and stamina.

Finally, after hours of arduous climbing up and then down the mountain, we were at the trailhead. I might not have kissed the ground literally, but I felt like it. Never in my life have I been so happy to see pavement. Back in the van, we peeled off our soaked clothing, fired up the heater, and said nothing. What words could express the fact that we might all too easily have died? 

Eventually, of course, we made a funny story out of it, took the ration of high-minded we're-never-letting-you-camp-again lectures from our adult children, and let the incident go. Surely we weren't in as much danger as we thought. We exaggerated the whole thing in our minds. How dangerous could it really have been?

Three months later, my husband had a heart attack; a blockage I learned later is called a Widow Maker. He survived because he was in the best place, got the best care and in less than two days, stent in place, went home. But the closeness of that call put the failed mountain climbing expedition into a whole new perspective. It really could have been fatal.

Now for the upbeat, we didn't die. The dog didn't die. We still camp, but our hiking no longer includes extreme challenges. We have abandoned the hubris of youth for the wisdom of age, because it's never too late to smarten up. When something feels like a bad idea, I'm more likely now to walk away.



Susan Wilson


Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling novelist. Her most recent book is The Dog Who Saved Me.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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