untying the knot

Tom and I are empty nesters now, so Saturdays typically mean some sort of epic all day adventure in the woods. Sometimes it means literally walking out our front door and into the Green Mountain National Forest and returning many hours later. Other times it means getting in the car and driving to some other part of the state or over to the Adirondacks to explore something a little bit outside of our fire district.


Yesterday we made yet another attempt at bagging Mt. Mansfield. Two hours after leaving the house we were still, maddeningly, in the car. Damn google maps. The original plan to ascend the western slope from the trailhead on Stevensville Rd in Underhill was scrapped as we found ourselves passing Bolton Valley and well on our way to Waterbury. There is a country store in Waterbury that has a wall full of maps outside on the porch. Free. We now own a map of Vermont. In case you are a millennial or younger, I’ll explain:  a map is a large piece of paper marked with roads and towns and other useful information. It folds handily into a pocket or glove compartment. It’s something people of my generation would — twenty years ago — occasionally use to figure out how to get from point A to point B. Smart phones and Siri had not yet been invented. And some of us are hold-outs. (My flip phone cost me $9 and I use it to make an occasional phone call. Tom does not have a cell phone.) You could argue that this is idiotic. We spent half a day needlessly making wrong turns Siri could have saved us from. Then again, getting lost can make things more interesting if you keep your sense of humor about it. For example, we never would have seen the person in the Easter Bunny suit dancing and waving to us if we had gone the way we intended. But I digress. I haven’t even mentioned the knot in my stomach yet, so here’s that part.


As we were just about to walk out the door, the phone rang. Normally I’d dodge the call and just close the door behind me, not wanting anything to delay our adventure. But this time I answered. It was Hannah, telling me she was on her way home to visit for the weekend. I explained we were heading out and would be gone all day. She was disappointed but not adequately prepared to meet us for the hike, so we agreed she’d just delay coming home and we’d see her tonight. Sounds benign and friendly enough, yes? But if you’re me, this exchange sits in the pit of the stomach, leaking guilt and self-doubt. Did I really just selfishly stick to the plan of hiking all day instead of spending the day with my kid who I only see once a month or so? Yes. I did.


The acorn sized knot of guilt spent the next 2 hours (thanks to us getting lost because of my bad directions) growing to the size of a softball while I sit in the passenger seat and count the myriad ways I have already fallen short today. At one point I ask Tom, what’s it like not to be riddled with guilt about everything all the time?  Because I’ve now added to the list that not only did I pick exercise over seeing my kid, I have also done exactly zero things to prepare for Easter which admittedly is a holiday that means nothing to me except dying eggs and hunting for them as a child, and then continuing that tradition with our own kids when they were little. But now that they are out of the house I think I am done with that and didn’t purchase a single chocolate anything or even think about having things to hide or baskets to give to my grandchildren. It seems absolutely without a doubt clear to me that this is someone else’s responsibility now, not mine. Until we get within 24 hours of the holiday and now I am filled with regret and self-doubt. Tom says Well, people like you a lot more than they like me. Which is a sweet and clever response, is probably not even remotely true, and only just makes me wish I could just decide one way or the other — I either do the holidays, or I don’t. Pick one, commit to it, and get on with things. Sometimes being me is kind of a train wreck. Tom describes me as “complicated.”


It is 66 degrees and sunny as we stand at the tailgate of the truck and prepare to head out. Almost 1:00 and we’re departing on a hike of unknown duration, a two-hour drive from home. The guy emerging from the woods is wearing shorts and we can see that his legs are covered in bloody scrapes. He's drenched in sweat. We nod hello. He glances at the snowshoes in our hands and comments that we'll be glad we have those. All the way up the mountain we see where he's postholed knee and sometimes hip deep. 


I am determined to make the most of the adventure in spite of that sizable knot in my belly which has been tightening with each passing wrong turn and unnecessary traveled mile. I hate inefficiency. I abhor being stuck inside on a beautiful day. I can’t stand the feeling of letting anyone down.  But I put these things behind me because we are packed up and trudging up the road toward the Long Trail. We have our snowshoes. We have snacks. The sun is shining. Things are looking up. 


The route we’ve chosen as our Plan B is shorter but my oh my, is it steep. Described as a 40% grade for about a mile and a half, it’s like hiking just the very steepest part of Mt. Abe for a couple of hours. Straight up the side of the mountain, on top of so much pack that sometimes the white blazes are just a few inches above the snow. And I am noticing that when the legs get pumping and the heart starts beating harder and the blood is flowing all of these things work together to begin untying the knot. My focus shifts to feeling that I’m not the world’s worst mom and Nonie (my grandkids’ name for me) and that everything is going to be okay.


As we climb up and out of the tree line we can look down on the village of Stowe, the surrounding peaks, over to Lake Champlain and beyond to the towering Adirondacks and acres and acres of uninhabited forests over the three states and two countries we can see from this spot. Zooming in on the closer view, the exposed rock on Mt. Mansfield’s Adam’s apple and Chin are covered with startlingly beautiful alpine lichen which, incredibly, has been growing for hundreds (thousands? millions?) of years at the rate of a couple of millimeters a year. The knot loosens some more.

To complete the task of fully untying the knot, I find myself in a position requiring 100% of my focus for the task at hand: not sliding off the alarmingly narrow spiny ascent of The Chin. Hand over hand, jamming the toe of my snowshoe into the snow, inch by terrifying inch. Out of the corner of my left eye I see the tops of tiny alpine trees peeking out of the snow and an impossibly long open slope. Out of the corner of my right eye just a few feet of snow and then the edge. I almost made it, but raw mortal fear and a desire to live for one more day won out. On my hands and knees, I tagged a lichen-covered boulder just 50 yards from the summit with my heart clanging so hard in my chest I thought I might cry. Some other day maybe.