The Opposite of Thru-Hiking

We were heading home from the Berkshires today, but we wanted to do some hiking before we had to say goodbye.  We chose a piece of the Appalachian Trail that would take us to a secluded lake and a cabin in the woods.   I’ve always admired those thru-hikers who could endure a marathon journey like the Georgia-to-Maine trek on the AT.   I like to camp, and I like to hike, but the prospect of hiking and camping for six months straight, well that’s daunting.  I can come up with so many reasons not to do it:  the planning, the weather, the bugs, the blisters, the danger, the bears, the roots, the routes, the food, the effort, the loneliness.  With all that, it’s still awfully tempting to the adventurous side of my brain.  Today, though, I discovered a new reason not to go “thru” with it.

Nancy and I headed out along Route 20 for the first stretch.  It felt odd to be walking next to a guard rail for a quarter mile.  It felt even more odd a quarter mile later when we came out of the woods and crossed over two bridges that spanned Interstate 90.  Soon enough the sounds of the tires and engines faded, and we trudged deeper into the forest.  The trail showed the wear from thousands of pairs of boots.  Mostly roots and rocks with a dash of dirt sprinkled between.  The trail was a steady uphill, not too steep, but enough that I noticed my own breathing.  We knew this was a short hike, so we didn’t make any stops, except to examine a newt or sniff a toad (the latter was Farley’s idea, not mine).  

I wondered if we’d meet any thru hikers heading north.  It seemed unlikely, since they’d be well behind the usual timetable if they wanted to arrive in Maine before conditions got really cold.  Sure enough, the only other hiker we saw was a woman who said she was “section-hiking.”  I didn’t know that term, but I got the gist.  She wasn’t day-hiking like we were.  She was camping, but only doing a section of the trail.  We talked for a bit, but let her get back to her trek.

After another mile, we crested a ridge and the trail sloped down, again not too steeply.  Farley was a bit more eager today, pulling on his leash as though he had an inkling of where we were headed.  Knowing this was a brief hike, I tried to take in the scenery, the giant boulder off to the right, the mountain laurel that lined the trail, the way the trees filtered the sunlight, speckling the ground.  I wasn’t expecting much from the cabin.  I imagined a primitive shelter, thinking even that probably felt luxurious to a weary thru-hiker.  We passed a set of tent platforms in a small clearing.  Basically saggy floors six inches off the ground, they would keep your tent or sleeping bag out of the mud, but that was about it.  We followed the trail as it curved to the left and then bent back to the right.  “Oh, I think I see the cabin,” Nancy announced, pointing toward a patch of red between branches up ahead.  After a few hundred feet, we reached a clearing and saw the cabin.  It was nothing like I’d expected.  First, there was the size.  It was a big structure, two stories tall with a peaked roof.  Then there were the features,  a stone chimney signaling an impressive fireplace, a large porch, complete with rocking chairs, looking out toward a pond.  A sign on the side said, “Welcome, hikers.  Occupancy 14.” 

“Okay, I could stay at a place like this,” I thought to myself.  Then we spotted the sign saying, “Beach,” with an arrow pointing down the hill.  We followed a narrow trail down the hill.  At the bottom, we saw two canoes with the AT symbol on their bows, and then a small dock reaching into the clear waters of a sky-mirror pond. 

“Hmm,”  I thought, “Reason number 357, not to be a thru-hiker:  Why would you ever want to leave?”

What I Wasn’t Seeing 

My cousin Amy was driving, and my mom was riding shotgun.  Sitting in the backseat with my sister was something I probably hadn’t experienced in at least 40 years.  We didn’t fight.

We drove for about two hours, through small towns, on the backroads that Apple Maps likes so much.  We passed the picturesque and the honky-tonk, gorgeous views of Long Lake and an ice cream shack named Custard’s Last Stand.  I wondered if you could get a Little Big Cone, but we didn’t stop.

We had another reason for this expedition.

In 1955, my parents had honeymooned on Blue Mountain Lake.  They weren’t just tourists, though.   They stayed in the cottage next to the big house that my great grandparents owned on the lake.  My mom and her brother had spent every summer there when they were growing up.  Their parents would spend some of the time there, but mostly they stayed in the city.  It was grandparent time.  They canoed and swam, wandered the woods, played tennis, and breathed the Adirondack air.  

I’ve grown up hearing stories about Blue Mountain, always accompanied by a sigh from my mom.  The house burned down a year after my parents’ honeymoon, and my great grandparents never rebuilt.  They sold the land and never came back.

Now my mom is 92.  This year my nephew bought a house in another part of the Adirondacks.  We were able to lure my mom up from Maryland, even though it meant many hours in the car.  At first, she declined, saying she wasn’t mobile enough to do any hiking on the uneven terrain of the region.  We tempted her, though, with the promise of a screen porch, mountain views, and time with my nephew’s 18-month-old son, her first great grandchild. It worked.

We’d been there a few days when the prospect of a trek to Blue Mountain was broached.  At first I wasn’t sure, and neither was my mom.  The house was gone.  We didn’t really know what we’d be aiming to see, but my cousin persisted.  Her father (my mom’s brother) had visited some years before, stayed at a lodge on the lake, and proclaimed it a most satisfying trip.  My mom scoffed at the lodge idea, noting that in their day, that lodge didn’t even allow Jewish visitors.  We guessed that time had corrected that, but we certainly didn’t push an overnight visit.  Finally my mom relented.  

As we got closer to the town, I remained unsure about the visit.  It wasn’t much of a town (sorry, Blue Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce), and there wasn’t a beautiful old house with that wraparound porch.  Or the dock or the grandfather clock.  We rolled through the main part of town and hung a right onto a small private road.  “Of course this road wasn’t here back then,” my mom said. 

I had hoped this road would bend around the western end of the lake and curve toward the northern shore, where the old house had been.  Unfortunately, the little road became significantly more private before that, and we decided it wasn’t worth it to trespass.   I was a bit disappointed, but Amy pulled over, and we all spilled out.  “Oh, this is where the big lake meets Eagle Lake,” my mom said, pointing to the smaller body of water to our left.  We used to carry our canoes over this part right here and canoe on Eagle Lake.”   Then, moving slowly behind her walker, she shifted her gaze to Blue Mountain Lake.  She pointed again.  “Ooh.  Those three little islands were right across from our house.  We used to swim out to them.”  Then she pointed further up that northern shore.  “And that part up there, sticking out, that’s Popple Point.  Michael used to swim up to that.  I think I did once, at least.  That was a pretty long swim.”  She paused and inhaled.  She closed her eyes.  “Mmm.  I love that smell.”

I began to see the fault in my doubts.  I had assumed that with nothing left of the house, there would be nothing for us to see.  I had imagined a let down.  What I didn’t realize was that my mom could see it all.  It didn’t matter that we didn’t reach the site of the old house.  There probably would have been some mansion in its place anyway, confounding the memories.  This was better, just the lake, the islands, the trees, the smell, and the images in her mind.  

As she looked out over the ruffled surface of the lake, Mom didn’t look sad at all.  She was seeing into her past…clearly.

Mom with her two kids at Blue Mountain Lake.