Best Foot Forward
Yesterday, thanks to the mildest winter I have ever known, Brian and I were able to enjoy some mid-February hiking in Manchester VT, without being bundled up in multiple layers of clothing allowing only small openings for seeing and breathing and shod in pace-slowing monster boots or snowshoes. We wore light jackets and trail shoes and probably could have gone barefoot without much discomfort. That said, not being familiar with this particular system of trails and not at all good at reading topographical maps, I managed to select one of the most difficult ones, second only to a complete 2840 foot high, 3 mile long ascent of Mount Equinox. Okay, so I still have a lot to learn about the rugged country life! In fact, my following of trails was reminiscent of my approach to urban rail systems, easy to master as long as you know the color of the line that will get you where you want to go and stick with it. My reading of the trail map told me that Blue Summit Trail would proceed up the mountain until it joined up with Red Gate Trail and then provided first the choice of the aqua-colored Trillium Trail, rated as an intermediate trail, and later, the orange Maidenhair Trail, which ran more or less parallel in a level fashion, and had a pretty name, so, could not be much harder, right?
This all looks easy enough on the page, especially if you ignore those faint radiating lines that indicate elevation. Not far along the blue trail I realized exactly how vertical it was. This was the trail leading to the summit. I had hoped Blue and I would part ways long before the true uphill climb began, but Blue had other plans. I plodded on, however, secure in the knowledge that the less vertically demanding Aqua would soon rescue me. But Aqua never showed up, and I soon found myself out of breath at a crossroads where the only choices were more Blue – which would have killed me outright – or the lesser-of-two-evils Orange, which already looked like it meant me no good either.
Nowhere to Run
At this point, I’m sure Brian was wondering why he let me take the lead. Leadership has its disadvantages in that yours is the choice when how and where to forge ahead, taking full responsibility for the experience of your followers. The one advantage is that you are free to sputter and curse and whinge freely to the air in front of you and feel confident that anyone a few feet behind you or more will only catch part of this ongoing aria of ascending suffering. At one point I exclaimed to a tree: this trail is everything I didn’t want to do today! If the tree had a refined sense of irony and appreciation for metaphor, it wasn’t telling. More likely it has been witness to so many such scenes it wished it could uproot itself and run away.
Try Not to Fall
Meantime, I remained so focused on staying on my marked path and oblivious to good map reading, that when I reached a junction of what I thought would be Orange and Some Other Color leading back around in a loop more or less to where we started, I was in for a surprise. Some Other Color didn’t even bother to announce itself with recognizable sequential blazes on trailside trees, but it didn’t need to, as its most salient features were unmistakable – a sheer descent downward through rocks and roots, in distance perhaps half of our earlier vertical ascent, with equal elevation change. There really was no way to go off this trail – any misstep would probably propel you along via gravitational pull. Perhaps that was how the path was carved out in the first place. Perhaps that is why no one ever stopped long enough to paint a directional mark on a tree. There was just one direction : down, and one optimal strategy for hiking: try not to fall.
This afforded me opportunity to gather my breath and a few more metaphors before proceeding. Here I was having begun the day properly attired and lightly packed with bottled water, a granola bar, good intentions and only a few high hopes, only to be met with obstacles perhaps not entirely of my own making, but definitely avoidable had I made a greater effort to foresee them, nevertheless surmounted in good faith. As with so many journeys that don’t go exactly as planned, it remained only for me to stop worrying about how it went wrong and do the only thing left in my power to do – finish it right. So, I took one last vertiginous look at the trail known only as Some Other Color, turned back around on the familiar Orange trail, retraced my steps, attempting not to stumble on the same rocks or slip on the same icy patches as I did the first time, rejoined Blue, and made it back to the trailhead and the parking lot to our waiting car which never looked so welcoming.
Back the Way you Came
In long distance foot races, courses fall into three categories – point-to-point, loop, and out-and-back. There is something to be said for getting to a destination entirely different from where you started. There are also benefits to going around in a circle back to where you began, but having covered ground and experienced new things along every step of the way. Reaching a point of no further progress, turning around, and going back the same way you came may not seem as interesting or as glorious, in fact might appear to some as a defeat. But I can tell you from experience, things do not look or feel the same going back on the road you came forward on. The road has changed you; you have changed the road. As long as you put your best foot forward, nothing will ever be the same again.