When I was 12 years old, my dad took my best friend and me camping for the first time in the wild Adirondacks.
He started preparing us weeks in advance. We needed everything, beginning with footwear. It was spring and the mountains would be muddy. Our white, unlaced Keds would not be “fine,” as we tried to insist. We were going to hike up an actual mountain and needed actual boots. Hiking boots were, according to my dad, absolutely necessary.
We refused. Hiking boots were ugly, and therefore embarrassing. My dad pointed out that the only folks we’d encounter on this trip – even if they happened to be teenage boys – would also be wearing hiking boots. We didn’t care. We compromised on high top basketball sneakers.
Of course my dad already had boots, and a good backpack, and gear aplenty. He’d been hiking since he was a young boy. He’s an Eagle Scout, a triathlete, a mountain climber. He’s always been “that guy.” But I was not “that kid.” I was a ballet dancer, prone to dramatics, and not a fan of getting dirty. Getting me to the outdoor gear store, let alone into the car to and out to the woods, was an uphill battle.
While my father tried patiently to explain what we needed in our packs, and how to organize it, we whined, yawned, bitched, and complained. We fooled around and laughed. We should have listened. Adirondack hiking is no joke. The terrain is widely varied, often steep and tough, and it changes rapidly, just like the weather.
But at 12 years old we cared not at all for any of my dad’s vast knowledge on the subject.We assumed he was going to do everything for us, and we’d be left to our giggly and moody tween ways. We wanted to zip ourselves into a tent in the dark and talk about boys. Fuck the rest.
Twenty-seven years later, the story of that first trip has become a family legend, told and retold so many times, that I often wonder how the details have changed over the years.
On that first trip, it rained relentlessly. It rained so hard, and so long, that our gear failed – the tents leaked and we woke up before dawn on hike day in three inches of water. My dad let Theresa and me sit in the car with the motor running, heat blasting, while he worked on the tent in the dark to get the situation under control.
Our complaining knew no bounds.
We set off on the big hike in our sneakers and layers of cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts. We deemed all traditional gear too ugly and too dorky for consideration, in spite of my dad’s explanations of the practical purposes of wool, quick-dry fabric, and sturdy footwear.
“I hope you’ve got your rain gear!” my dad said, smiling at us.
Theresa snorted and shot back, “You’re looking at it.”
I’m still not sure if we ever actually made it to the top of Mt. Jo, our first ascent. I believe my dad may have given up on us three-quarters of the way up, told us we were done, and turned us around. There is, after all, only so much abuse one can take from two preteen girls in the name of outdoor pursuits.
We went home. Unpacking wet, smelly clothes from my backpack and digging mud from underneath my fingernails, I vowed never to hike again. My dad let it go.
I love my dad. My parents were divorced when I was nine. My brother and I split our time between them, and he’s always been there for me. Like my mom, he came to every ballet recital, every chorus concert, and patiently watched every living room performance I staged from my very first pirouette (there were many).
He chaperoned sleepovers, drove my friends and me to and from school dances, basketball games, and parties. He once drove us two hours away on a school night so we could go to an INXS concert, and waited in the parking lot until it was over, before driving us home.
He saw me through my turbulent teenage years, executing feats of parenting heroism I could never truly appreciate or understand until I had kids of my own. He was always encouraging, and always pushed me to do my best, even when I was making questionable choices. Even when I told him to leave me alone.
Watching kids grow into adolescents is painful enough for parents, even when the process goes smoothly. My dad, while always supportive of my various forms of self expression, had nonetheless hoped I’d work on the high school yearbook and take to wearing plaid skirts with penny loafers.
Instead, I saw myself as a rebel ballerina. I washed dishes in an Italian restaurant for spending money. I wore steel-toed Doc Marten boots, dyed my hair inky black, dated troublemakers, and smoked cigarettes.
He loved me anyway.
Seven years after that first hike, I was 19 and home for the summer from college, shell-shocked after having lived on my own in New York City for a school year. With a window between school ending and my summer job starting, I had a little time on my hands. My dad suggested a hike, and I surprised myself by accepting.
I’d just spent a year learning that I wasn’t good enough at anything. I was used to being good at things. School, like ballet, had come easy to me. I assumed college would bring more success. But during my senior year I’d abruptly decided it was my destiny to become a famous actress. So instead of a finding a dance program, like I’d always planned, I auditioned for a spot in a theatre program at a small school in NYC. I got in. Easy breezy, I thought.
I arrived at my new school in the fall to discover that there were at least a hundred girls smarter and more talented than me right in my dorm, to say nothing of New York City. And they knew what they were getting into. They had head shots, and resumes. I did not.
My hope of becoming a performer suddenly looked a lot less like a potentially attainable dream and more like a harsh reality that I wasn’t sure I wanted. I couldn’t bring myself to say this out loud to anyone, but I needed to regroup, and rebuild my confidence.
My dad was there. We drove North.
I don’t remember a lot of details about that trip, but I know that I relented and wore Timberland work boots instead of sneakers, but still insisted on my red cotton sweatshirt. And I remember that it was a turning point in my life. I was out of shape, having abandoned ballet, and sad. I climbed the peak anyway, and then down again.
In the car on the way home I was dirty, sweat-soaked, and exhausted. Every one of my muscles ached. But I was happy for the first time in months. When we got home I went out and bought a pair of real hiking boots – brown Vasque Sundowners. I started going on regular weekend trips with my dad.
Slowly, I began to understand how important the mountains were to him. Hiking had always been just one of the things that made my dad, my dad. I’d never given any thought to why he did the things he did.
But I was learning that hiking meant something to him, something big. And little by little – driving, camping, climbing, talking, breathing in the high elevation air with him – it started to mean something to me, too.
There were so many hikes, and there as many good stories.
Like the hike when my brother tripped on the trail and fell over a fallen tree that pierced his pants. Our dad, thinking that my brother had impaled his leg and trying to get to the wound, ripped his pant leg right off, leaving my brother half naked for the rest of the hike.
Or the hike my dad convinced me to keep climbing up into a storm cloud instead of backing off, and suddenly we were inside an thunderstorm, at 5,000 ft, leaning back under a tiny rock overhang for shelter. As thunder clapped all around us, I shouted, “DAD! I’m feeling VERY ALONE up here right now!!”
And the hike when I was so busy yelling at my dad for getting us lost in this wilderness and marching me to certain death, that it took me a minute before I realized we’d broken through the trees and arrived at our camping destination – the most incredible mountain lake and view I’d ever seen.
Or the hike when we woke up to find a family of mice peeking out of our drying boots.
These are my most treasured memories of my dad. Walking along, breathing hard in the elevation, watching his feet hit the trail ahead of me to keep myself going, or leading the way and hearing his steps behind me.
When I was hiking, I was on a clear path, even when I felt like I couldn’t find the right one in real life.
And my real life was kind of a mess. After three years of college I moved home from the city, disillusioned about my direction, unsure of my goals. I’d spent the last few semesters going to more clubs than classes, and I hadn’t made a very good actress after all.
The mountains were there. Steady. Same as always. Like my dad.
We teamed up with friends and formed a sort of climbing gang. It wasn’t unusual for me to be the only female on what became epic, weekend-long, multiple-peak expeditions. Eventually, my dad started talking about me finishing the 46 Adirondack high peaks, each over 4000 feet – something he had accomplished years ago. I’d learned so much, and come so far, the idea didn’t seem crazy. In fact, it seemed completely possible.
I enrolled in a social work degree program at the state school in my hometown. I studied, and I hiked. Every weekend the weather permitted, and sometimes when it didn’t, we went hiking.
I learned a lot from my dad on our hikes, and I marveled at his vast and (mostly) unfailing knowledge of the Adirondacks, and how to move through wild spaces. I learned that a positive attitude does truly improve any situation. I learned that on the trail, as in life, when someone is hurt, try to help them. I learned that a few bungee chords and some duct tape can improve, or even fix, nearly any disaster.
I understood that my dad’s life in the woods mirrored his regular every day. What he learned on the trail was applied in life. These were the values and practices that defined him. These were life skills worth having.
I learned that I could work hard, that I could accomplish what didn’t come easily. After years of having my appearance picked apart by ballet teachers and acting coaches, I began to truly internalize the idea that my body was more than an object. My body was me – strong and capable.
I learned that I could live on dried fruit and reconstituted meals in foil packets for days on end. That I could, in fact, dig my own holes and poop at 3700 ft of elevation. I learned that yes, “pack it in/pack it out” includes tampons.
I learned about the peace that comes with wandering out into the woods. I learned that I can see and hear more clearly in the woods, that the air changes the higher you climb, and that a good sweat has a purifying effect. I learned that nature is always right. More than once, I was moved to speechless tears by the raw and soul-shattering beauty of the place.
I chewed the same piece of gum from the bottom to the top of the giant and forboding Mt. Colden. My legs shook and I struggled to keep up with my partners. I did yoga on a rock in the sunshine at the top of Rocky Peak Ridge. I spent many freezing nights wrapped in a sleeping bag in the bed of a pickup truck parked at one trailhead or another.
I stared down a black bear.
I spent 18 hours in a tent with my dad, four miles from civilization at the base of the three-peak Seward Range, while an icy storm blew over us. We had one ancient trail guide between us for entertainment and we took turns reading it all day and night. I managed to tear our campsite down alone, and carry all of our gear four miles out the next morning when my dad woke up with the full-blown flu. It was the only time I ever drove him home from a hiking trip.
Even after the worst break-up of my life, the mountains were still there, still the same. My dad was too. Both waiting patiently for me.
I climbed my 46th peak alone with my dad. I was 23. It was a hot spring day. We started off in silence. A few minutes into the hike, I slipped on a wet log crossing a stream and fell in. My dad stopped and waited while I sat in the murky water, soaked and muddy with the entire last ascent still ahead of me, and cried.
I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling then. Now, 17 years later, I know. I was crying for my failed relationship. For my many mistakes. For not knowing where the path of my life was leading, or if I was even on it at all. I cried for everything I’d accomplished, and everything I hadn’t. And I cried for the final mountain, and for the journey about to end.
He waited a minute, then asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I want to finish this.” I replied.
And so I put one foot in front of the other, on the path in front of me. Just like we had so many times before. We hiked in silence for a while, up and up. We stopped a lot. I felt tired and heavy.
With the summit in sight, we picked up the pace, climbing faster and faster, ahead of my dad. I turned around once to make sure I hadn’t missed a turn and he pointed past me, forward.
And finally, there we were, on the top of the 46th mountain.
“We made it.” I said, catching my breath.
“You made it,” my dad replied, taking a bottle of champagne from his backpack.
On the way down, I felt different, changed. Half a lifetime later, I still do.
I later earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development, but I skipped my graduation. I moved to Vermont and married a great guy. We eloped in the backyard of the Justice of the Peace. We have three beautiful kids. I have a community, and work, that I love. And I found it all through a series of unconventional choices. I love and respect tradition, I’ve just never been very good at following it.
I’m still not an official “46er.” I don’t have the patch, or a finisher number. I never completed the required journal of my hikes. I meant to, but after a few years my original notes were scattered, then mostly lost.
Eventually, I’ll finish the paperwork. For myself. For my dad. So that he truly knows how important those 46 mountains are to me, and to thank him for putting me on the trail, again and again.
But in the meantime, I wrote this.