Uh oh. There’s that look again. I’m double-timing it up a hill, breathing hard, when I round a bend to see Tom waiting for me at the top of the notch. He’s leaning against a tree, looking defeated, looking murderous. I check my watch. Did I fall that far behind? I thought I was going all out. Yes, I’m right. We’ve been on the trail for only 90 minutes and, already, we’re at the turnoff for Plateau Mountain, which usually takes two hours. We’re really hauling ass! But the look on Tom’s face says otherwise. The look says I’m dragging. The look says I’m doing it on purpose!
Sometimes Tom doesn’t mind waiting for me. Like the time he drifted into a romantic reverie at Reconnoiter Rock, near the top of Peekamoose Mountain, where hikers often stop to wait for their friends to catch up. It’s a comfy, pillow-shaped rock balanced naturally on a kind of fulcrum, so that when you sit on it, you can tip it back and forth. I don’t know how long Tom waited for me at Reconnoiter Rock that day — it’s a matter of dispute — but it seemed to him like such a long time that, as he sat and rocked, listening for footsteps that never seemed to come, he wondered if our whole life together was just a dream. He began to imagine that we were never married, that I never really existed, and that he was waiting for no one. When I finally caught up, I was surprised by how happy he was to see me.
It usually doesn’t work out that way though. Fast-moving people like Tom are maddened when forced to move at a slower pace than is natural for them. So when I catch up he’ll coach me on the fine points of walking, in an effort to make me more efficient. He’ll suggest that I bend more at the knee, or put more of my weight on this or that part of my foot, or set my hiking poles down at this or that angle. He’s baffled at the hesitant way I approach hairy sections of trail, which comes from a fear of falling I’ve never managed to get over. Tom believes it’s better to take a spill every now and again than to spend one’s life mincing around like a wuss, or creeping along like a slug. He doesn’t approve of the way I ease myself down steep pitches on my butt. He’ll look away, pretending he’s not with me. “Just walk!” he’ll hiss.
Even so, I’m a much better hiker now than I was 25 years ago. I get up mountains way quicker than I did when I was just starting out, when everybody and his mother passed me on the trail. Little kids passed me. Hikers with strained ankles passed me. Bruderhof women wearing Keds and dragging long dresses passed me. Not many hikers get by me now. But the problem is, Tom has been getting better too. So he still has to wait.
Indian Head Mountain in the Catskills always brings us together. It’s long been our favorite mountain because of the symphonic way it unfolds, over a high loop trail where the balsams grow thickly and three spectacular views open up when you least expect them. Because of its complexity, it never seems really familiar. For some reason, I can keep up pretty well on Indian Head. It’s a tough trail that slows Tom down a bit and plays to my strengths.
One of the most difficult climbs comes after lunch, when, on other mountains, we’re usually just coasting on down. On top is the final view. The Zen monastery near Woodstock appears on one side, and the Hudson River on the other. A slimy tree root snaking along a sheer rock face is the only way up. The hand and foot holds are almost too far apart, the rock almost too slick. Even Tom is wary. He gets downright courtly, pointing out the best handholds and footholds, and extending a hand to hoist me up the final pitch to the flat ledge on top.
As I get my feet back under me, he gives me his warmest smile.
“That’s my girl,” he says.