Thursday, July 30, 2015

Now. Here. This.

There it was. That certain, nagging, ineffable, questioning.  That sense of frustration because this wasn’t going the way I had imagined, the way I wanted.  Why am I doing this? This is not running.  This is not what I wanted.  What if I get hurt?

I was less than a mile from the summit of Hunger Mountain, following the Skyline Trail in Waterbury and Stowe, Vermont. For nearly twenty years I have hiked and run this mountain, but only once, years before, had I ventured any distance along the Skyline Trail, following the spine of the Worcester Range.  Then it was only about one hundred yards before the thought “this is a bad idea” popped into my head and turned me around.

On this day, many years after that first, tentative foray beyond the standard up/down on Hunger, I had decided to complete a fairly logical (and aesthetic) loop: summit Hunger from the parking lot (~2 miles, ~2,200 feet of gain), run the Skyline Trail to the Stowe Pinnacle via Hogback Mountain, 3.6 miles from Hunger’s summit, descend the Pinnacle, and run the ~3 miles of dirt roads back to the car.   It seemed like an ideal morning run/adventure, one that I could do and get home quickly enough to take care of my two boys and mother, who just one week before had had a total knee replacement.  Responsibility at home was real, but the mountains beckoned.  I wanted to be a good father, a good son.  But my ego really wanted to feel like a tough mountain runner.

If I slip on these rocks or roots . . . I should be moving so much faster than this . . . Why am I doing this?

Progress on the Skyline Trail began to feel maddeningly slow.  While looking down at the trail I could see all the scars on my legs from painful falls on terrain much more benign than this.  One step squished through mud up to my knee, coating my left leg and shoe in thick, wet earth.  Two images kept alternating through my conscious imagination: catching a toe on a rock and smashing my (beautiful) face on the rocks or slipping on a wet rock and fracturing my arm.  I remember thinking, repeatedly, “I’d have a broken wing for the rest of the summer.” The idea of pain and suffering further slowed my progress.  Fear and doubt. Insidious companions for a mountain run.  I looked at nothing except the immediate trail in front of me, obsessively focused on each rock, each root, unconsciously tensing my body against that imminent fall.  I was a mere three miles from my car.  But that last mile had taken me over twenty minutes. And it was mostly flat.  And downhill.  I wondered what it would feel like to be run over by a moose . . . or break an ankle.

I’ve felt it creep into my mind countless times – that sense of anger and frustration with a pace slower than desired.  I was mad at myself for moving so slowly.  I wasn't that picture of self-reliant wonder-runner I wanted to be this morning.  I was disappointed in myself.  Now. Here. This.  Doubt made me question my abilities.  Am I really a “good” runner?  What does that even mean?  Now. Here. This.  Fear made me overly cautious: I walked like Bambi on the ice across rocks and roots at another time I would have floated over.  Now. Here. This. Anxiety made me imagine the logistics involved in a rescue from this area.  It would be hours before anyone could reach me, and it was unlikely anyone else would be using this trail today.  I just wanted to be done.  Why was I doing this?  All I saw was the trail under my feet.  Nothing else.

Now. Here. This.

I came across this mantra courtesy of a good friend and TARCer, Alyssa Adreani.  She had pointed me to a Podcast featuring Father Greg Boyle, and among the many insightful philosophies and ideas he spoke of, these three words have stuck with me.  I could do nothing to quell my fears other than being present on that trail, in that moment, doing what I was doing.  I was scared.  That was the reality.  And that was okay.  I was also moving.  In a place I had never been, despite being minutes from my childhood home.  And that was okay too.  Now. Here. This.

I had never seen the summit of Hunger like this.  It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Early in the morning, it was deserted.  Usually I spend less than a minute there, but today, it was closer to ten.  I sat, bathing in the beauty.  And weighing the prudence of continuing on my selected route.  

The valleys below were blanketed in a thick fog, which from below had made the day dark and ominous, but from the summit, looked like a comfortable blanket, wrapping the bucolic scenes I knew lay beneath, in a blissful summer repose.  Even as the day’s heat built, there were still clear views across to the Greens and Whites.  I caught my shadow stretching toward Camel’s Hump, the mountain where I grew up, not far away.  I snapped a photo and sent it to my mother, hoping the scene would inspire her for another day of PT and recovery.  Not much more than a year before I was facing a similar road to recovery that she is now on.  Now. Here. This.

As I began to shift my fear of injury into a focus on fluid movement, on paying attention to each step, on being open to the entire experience I was having, it was impossible to miss the wild beauty of the Skyline Trail.  Sinewy single track.  At times an achingly beautiful path, that, given it’s proximity to town, feels remote, wild.  Undulating up and down hills, between short, nearly carpeted stretches and vaguely impassible parts.  That sense of isolation, of remoteness fed the fears, but heightened the adventure.  My ultimate goal was to return safely to my family, but my primary goal was to be present to each sound, scent, and sight.  Now. Here. This.  The wisps of fog, rising from the valleys, creating an ethereal robe through the skeletal trees.  To the greens that displayed before me with an almost unnatural glow and sharpness, glossy from the previous night’s storm and the day’s creeping humidity. 

Now. HEAR. This. Turning left toward the Stowe Pinnacle, there was a different feeling, a different sound, to the trail.  The ridge had been ensconced in the woods, often packed tight on both sides with stout evergreens, but the first steps on the Pinnacle Trail were different.  There hadn’t seemed to be any sound on the ridge beyond my breathing, but here, the bigger trees seemed to swallow the sounds I had clearly been hearing.  The air felt heavier, the light just a shade darker.  It was strange, but palpable.  

"View on top of Stowe Pinnacle at 8:20.  Probably about an hour from now I’ll be back.  Hope the boys are okay."

It’s fascinating that, even while feeling remotely isolated in a wild place, I can text the above message and image to my family, sharing the experience (and, honestly, assuaging some of my fear that my wrecked body would be left, unfound, on the trail).  I was heading home.  The adventure over.  But not without it having left an indelible mark on my spirit and psyche.  All from a mere ten miles, practically in the backyard.  Now. Here. This. 


  1. Nice piece! I just found this while looking for info about the skyline trail -- headed out to connect Hunger & the pinnacle for the first time tomorrow. I really identified with a few of the moments you captured here: the serenity of an empty, early peak; creeping fear and anxiety on an unfamiliar, tightly bounded trail; the "ache" of a beautiful trail. Thanks for sharing, and happy trails!

    1. Glad you found it and are linking Hunger and the Pinnacle. How'd it go? Would love to hear about your experience (and would love to get back out there now that I "know" it. Reckon it would be a totally different experience.