Outhiking your demons

| 05 Jan 2018 | 02:58

The scariest part about hiking isn’t the bears or the snakes. It’s being alone with your thoughts. Unlike other menaces you may encounter on the trail, you can’t escape them.

In my early hiking days, this was a huge concern. What if unpleasant thoughts just started attacking, like a swarm of angry bees? Worse, what if I can’t come up with anything to think about at all? What will I fill my head with, mile after mile?

I tried carrying with me an index card on which I’d jotted “thinking points,” just in case I got stuck. That didn’t work very well. More successful was a trick a polyglot friend taught me while I was teaching myself Italian: lead an imaginary tour. “On the left is a very big and very old tree. My husband is under the tree. My husband is wearing green,” I’d say in what I’d hoped was flawless Italian, to no one in particular, as I flourished my hiking pole like a pointer.

My thoughts-on-the-trail problem resolved itself when I stopped trying. I might come up with the perfect solution to a problem that’s been plaguing me, or I might spend an entire six-hour hike contemplating one dopey thing, like the color scheme for my next knitting project. Either way, I’m absolutely fine with it.

I became a super-hiker while my brother was dying of AIDS. During that time, my thoughts were like the retroviruses colonizing Nick’s blood, waxing and waning, attacking and receding. Fortunately, I’d discovered that by walking faster, I could outpace my worries a bit. Setting my heart and lungs on fire gave my frontal lobe a break. Soon I found myself flying over the steepest, most difficult terrain. This is now a popular technique known as interval training, in which short bursts of intense effort alternate with an easier pace. But I wasn’t doing it for fitness. I was trying to create a space into which I could insert my sanity for safe keeping, along with all the other parts of myself I’d still need when the ordeal was over.

Now, 28 years after Nick’s death, I no longer want to drive away my thoughts of him. The life we lived together is long over. It had a beginning and a middle, not just an end. The reel of our shared life unspools through my head as I hike along, reinforcing my memories of him, and the myths too. In one familiar reel, I’m watching another, a home movie of my Godmother’s spectacular wipeout on our favorite sledding hill. Nick loved to reverse the tape, so that the spray of snow composed itself back into smoothness, my Godmother fell back onto the sled, and sled zipped back uphill in defiance of gravity. He’d do it over and over until my laughter, bottled up out of loyalty to my Godmother, exploded forth.

Another reel he liked to show was of a party from the early 1960s. It features some women, including our mom, modeling clothes in a sort of fashion show. It shows our dad mock-playing the guitar. Everyone looks like they’re having a good time. Until we get to the woman at the sink.

There she is, bent over a pile of party dishes, her dark head down, scrubbing away. A man enters the frame from the left. His lips are twisted into a cruel snarl. He says something to the woman that makes her flinch. Then he swings. He lobs the flat of his hand into the soft mound of her rear so hard, she pitches forward. The camera turns away.

Nick always stopped there to rewind. You see that? he’d say at each replay. Don’t ever let anyone do that to you.

What a teacher he was. As a gay man, he understood men pretty well, as subject and object, and he was so good as to fill me in. On a recent hike I filled him too, on everything he’s missed since he’s been gone, as if just he’d taken a break from eternity for an on-trail debriefing. The internet, the AIDS cure, 9/11, same sex marriage, Trump. He gasps at each telling.

Then I ask him to recall the woman at the sink, as the archetype she had become to us.

I tell him, “She just might have her day.”

Sneak peek

The Iris Trail (red blazed) in Sussex County, N.J., passes by Lake Rutherford and forms a 6.5-mile loop with the Appalachian Trail (white blazed), which features several sweeping viewpoints of the hills of Vernon, N.J. The trailhead is on Route 23 in High Point State Park. A half-mile spur off the AT leads to the Rutherford lean-to, a nice shelter for winter day hikers.