once more

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Same Adirondack campsite, three different memories.

I

It is the final evening of our summer training hike. The previous night, we were deep in the Upper Works wilderness, camped out at a lean-to where we’d made too much fiesta rice and had to backpack it all out. It had drizzled the whole evening and because of the weather and general lack of interest, we scrapped our plans to climb MacNaughton—known as the unofficial 47th High Peak due to miscalculations of its height—and decided to head back closer to civilization.

So here we are, at a primitive campsite not far from 73. We pitch tents and air out clothes and explore the Bouquet River that burbles constantly behind us. In some ways, it is the end of the beginning. The last day of the training trip, but the beginning of the entire summer. I still have a lot to learn, and I feel a little overwhelmed. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I don’t have the extensive backcountry training that some of my peers do. But I am excited to spend a summer amongst the pines. I try to lean into the discomfort and insecurity I feel about being a trip leader because it means I’m learning, that life is still fresh. Sometimes I worry that if I get too comfortable life will pass me by. So I am always beginning again, trying and failing, struggling against uphill currents. I feel proud of this life I’ve created for myself. I did it. I’m here.

It is morning and almost time to leave. No one is ever motivated to put in effort for breakfast—mostly because no one wants to do the clean up—so we snack on leftover dry goods while people finish up packing. One of our peers disappears into the woods and we wait for her to come back as we snack and linger and listen to the Bouquet. And we wait. And wait. And then our boss asks where she is and we all kind of shrug and say “bathroom,” to which he gives us this look telling us that we’re wrong, and then we realize that this is a training scenario and we’re supposed to do something about it. We answer the basics—where was she last seen, what direction did she head, how long has she been gone—knowing the last question is the lynchpin. We go over the standard search patterns and our boss tells us which ones to use when, and after how much time do you need to call for help. It is mildly horrifying that missing children in the backcountry is something we need to prepare for, that this is our responsibility.

We find her. It doesn’t take long. I thought you guys were never going to come, she says. I was sitting there for a very long time. And then we pack up the van and leave, heading into town to meet the other groups for pie because that is always what you do after a hiking trip in Keene Valley.

II

It is the last backcountry night with our campers. We have this evening, a final night at camp, and then they’re gone. I am counting down the hours. It’s the first two-week trip of the summer, and I tell myself (and once we’re back at camp, my boss) that if the rest of the trips are like this one, I’m out. My co-lead and I are bleary eyed with exhaustion and frustration. We leave the campers by the fire and go talk by the van—a nightly mini-debrief that has become a ritual of ours where we discuss how the day went and check-in on each other’s own mental wellbeing—keeping the teens in sight the whole time. My co tells me he caved and bought cigarettes at the last rest stop even though he quit half a year ago. That’s how this trip is going: cigarette, break-your-sobriety, I-volunteered-to-do-laundry-so-I-got-time-alone worthy. We were trained on missing kids and wilderness emergencies, but not on teenage boys who desperately need therapy and more parental oversight. Our talk is interrupted when we hear a commotion back by the tents. We wordlessly exchange looks and head back to deal with whatever terrible situation the boys have created.

The night culminates in me giving a talk on personal agency and how the choices you make affect your life. It also culminates with one of the boys pouring all of the tomato crystals into that night’s dinner and subsequently puking near the Bouquet. Honestly, I don’t even feel bad. We leave the next morning and we don’t get pie.

III

The pandemic is in full swing, which means that the woods are busier than normal. I’m worried that this camp spot will be taken, but mercifully it isn’t listed on some of the popular free-camping sites and there’s only one van there when I arrive. The guy lets me know that there are plenty of sites for tents near the river, but I tell him I’m just going to sleep in my car. We chat briefly and he tells me that he’s a summit steward and that he’s been living out of his van for the summer—a gnarly, rusted-out affair that looks barely capable of motion. He seems curious about my presence and a bit wary, which is the general attitude men have toward me in the outdoors, unsure of what to make of a woman alone in the woods. I spot him staring at my Escape as I sit by the water and write.

Night unfolds and Steward Guy has a friend arrive. They invite me to hang out at their campfire with them. After internal deliberation on whether or not I want to stop reading and join them, I go over and formally introduce myself. It’s funny how normal it all feels. Sitting with strangers in the woods. Sleeping in my car. I don’t know where home is these days, but I think this is a dimension of it.

The guys are in their early 20s and their conversations are super boring, mostly involving drugs and bad decisions. You never know who you’ll meet in the outdoors. Some people are more interesting than others. I remember sitting in the desert beneath the vast skies of Utah, drinking whiskey with two guys who were parked near me. One of them, a beautiful guy from Texas, told me he was on his way to Vancouver to see the whales, and I thought that was one of the loveliest things I’d ever heard. I think about him sometimes. I wonder if he saw them.

I excuse myself early and head over to the Bouquet. On the banks, the trees obscure the sky, so I rock hop to the middle of the river and lie down on one of the boulders. I’ve gotten very into constellations in the past eight months, and it is strange how the stars now give me the same driftwood feelings of home. But I’ve been in high light pollution all summer and the sky has changed from when I last studied it. From my mid-river view, I see little I recognize. And that’s OK. That’s good. Discomfort. Lean into it. I take out my phone and check my constellation apps, and I find Hercules and Draco and a portion of Hydra. And then I learn a new one because it’s summer and time waits for no one and if I want to feel like I belong to this world I have to embrace it every season, even when it begins anew and I am lost all over again, so I learn Cygnus, the swan, and I lay on that rock and trace its starlight wings, and everything feels right in this slender, perfect moment.

My friend finds me that evening and we get up at 5:00AM to claim a parking spot and hike. Of course, we get pie.

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