I was sitting with my middle son Zach the other day, talking about Adirondack memories. Zach is twenty, in college and interested in writing and film. He is tall, thin and quiet. He knows a lot about the current culture and one would find him perfectly modern but he also knows his way around the woods in the most primitive conditions. I think of our three children Zach has the strongest connection to these mountains: they tug at his gut just as they do mine.
Zach is sensitive, bright and earnest. He is, as he was from the time he was learning to talk, an incredibly conscientious, wise old soul. He has always seen and felt the depths and breadths of ugliness and pain in the world and he has pushed back against it. Not surprisingly he has a quintessential story from his childhood, a time when he defended a picked-on middle-school classmate who was developmentally disabled and took it all the way to the Principal, wanting to know why the school did not protect him. Zach brooks no falseness in anything. He has great empathy and he offers it reflexively without even a millisecond of delay to consider any cost to himself.
Zach will converse here and there but small talk and idle chit-chat is not his way. Given his sensitive intelligence and integrity, when he talks about a subject you can be sure of two things: one, that he has something to say; and two, that you will want to hear it. We love going to movies with Zach just to hear his reviews afterward. They are unfailingly well-stated, wry and spot-on; as he has high standards for substance and form he often eviscerates whatever mediocre Hollywood product we just saw, to our delight.
Zach has his ups and downs, but he is resilient. In fact all three of our boys are resilient. Like any growing children they have had their fits and starts, their failures, detours and struggles. Some have been of their making and many have not. But to look at the long arc is to see unmistakably that they have staying power.
As Zach and I talked about our Adirondack adventures that resilience came to mind and it had me thinking of their experiences in the woods as a source. Yet while I am sure that there is a correlation, it is tricky to sort through. There were many times when our journeys in the mountains certainly demanded resilience but I really don’t remember that we lived them that way. We just did things. We took on challenges without a big production about it because they were what we knew, they were what all three boys knew. Alex’s first backpacking trip was at eight months, Zach’s at five months and Adam’s at eighteen months. They have always been in the wilderness. We have had our adventures and together we have experienced the full spectrum of joy, pain, toil, exhilaration, sun, rain and wind that the Adirondacks offer.
Reflecting over these trips with Zach gave me to realize with more certainty than ever what I have long believed: that resilience is not born of trials by fire, by some sort of macho trope of hardening and forging of steel; rather resilience is a disposition, grown and shaped by the experience of just being, of enduring because that is what one has known, that is how certain things are lived. I think our explorations in the Adirondacks gave our children those kinds of experiences and left them in a natural state where their staying power was not some condition that required force of will but instead a way of being that was no more difficult than choosing to quit or avoid difficulty. Everything about my conversation with Zach reinforced this belief.
I asked Zach about his strongest memories and highlights. The epic trip that had our encounter with Tractor, lightning strikes that left us numb and the great climb in Indian Pass came immediately to mind. Our bushwhack to the edge of Wallface was a top experience, we sitting there with our legs dangling over an eight-hundred foot drop, the McIntyre Range towering over us across the chasm. Zach made passing references to most of our canonical family favorites such as exploring the ghost town of Adirondac, jumping off Rock Island at Blue Mountain Lake and enjoying post-trip blowouts in Lake Placid, gorging ourselves at Ere’s Pizza (which by the way is the best pizza in the Adirondacks) and reviewing the highlights and lowlights.
Three of Zach’s memories were particularly thoughtful and led me to think about the themes of this Dispatch. The first was his clear memory of the last time we all stayed in the cabin we used to rent at Blue Mountain Lake. The occasion was a family reunion of sorts, an exception to the usual camping we had come to prefer. We all had a wonderful time in the old place, connecting to forty years of tradition. The day came to go home and right before leaving Zach went out on the dock by himself to say goodbye to the lake. He says it was first time he really appreciated the magic of Adirondacks, when, as he said, “the deep stuff hit”.
The other two memories are the ones that got me thinking about the nature of resilience. Zach recalled his first ascent of Giant via the Ridge trail. I don’t remember his age but I would guess he was maybe six years old and he did almost the entire climb by himself. He remembered being “upset” on the ascent, never having experienced any comparable effort, but in the end that feeling was supplanted. It was not supplanted merely by the exhilaration of the views or the pride in making the summit. No, Zach said he came to “appreciate” it. That word was no accident. Knowing Zach I’m sure it meant that he appreciated all of it: the toil, the cost, the dignity of climbing and working, the payoff of a truly wild and humbling vista.
Zach’s third memory was of a four-mile ridge ascent to a high summit that sits largely by its self. I often forget this trip which is odd because it happens to have been on the very same trail we now take towards Lost Brook Tract and its earlier significance feels almost like a premonition.
This climb took place in the heaviest downpour I remember ever hiking through, just wicked wet. The entire route up felt as though it was against a raging stream including the extensive portions that traversed bare rock, for even there water washed down over the surface with a full inch or two of depth. Zach remembers being able to see some views; all I remember is the torrent. Zach’s comment was that it was all wonderful. “I don’t remember being tired once. I just scampered up, crossing rapids,” he remarked. I remember Alex in particular ascending with enthusiasm and bravado, dancing and skipping and swirling and kicking puddles and mud. Alex never just walked when he was a boy, he always danced. But that is how we all felt, more thrilled and energetic than any other hike we ever did together, scrambling upward in the gloom and wind and cascading rain.
I have related this climb to relatives and friends and the usual response has been incredulity. “How could that be fun?” they ask. Thinking about their attitudes as Zach gave his own impressions got me wondering about what resilience really is. It brought to mind another trip made years before, a week in the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness when Adam was not even three and Alex was six. Our boys had been backpacking plenty already by then but I have always felt that this trip was especially important.
We commenced in iffy weather, having loaded our skinny Jensen canoe with two adults, three kids, a dog and a week’s worth of gear. To suggest our freeboard was low would be an understatement. I have been a canoeist all my life and have had to contend many times with the distinctive propensity of an overloaded canoe to roll but this was really pushing the limit; to this day I’m not sure how we avoided flipping. You may be very certain that the dog was made to present as low and quiet a center of gravity as possible.
Our plan was to push as far back into the network of lakes and ponds as we wished, freely following our will and whimsy. We had a lovely mix of paddles and carries in overcast skies, but by afternoon we found ourselves in one of those rainfalls that feels eternal. If there had been other paddlers the rain had cleared them out for the water became utterly forlorn, an unbroken sheet of glass peppered with a continuous veil of droplets.
We made our way to the tip of an island which appeared to be clear of undergrowth and discovered a camping spot. I pitched camp in a downpour and we settled in.
As I worked on the tent Amy sorted out our supplies and made an unfortunate discovery. We had a motley collection of clothing for our kids, largely composed of miscellaneous finds from Goodwill or from one relative or another. We had grabbed whatever little rain jackets we had in the closet but now Amy realized we only had two, one that would fit Alex and one that was about right for Zach. Here was Adam, two years old, standing in his little sandals and sweatshirt, wet through and through and we had no waterproof coat for him.
Something had to be done, so as was often the case we improvised. I always line my backpacks with super-heavy-duty garbage bags whenever I go in the back country. I sacrificed one, Amy carefully cut holes in the right spots and we made Adam an impromptu rain shell.
Now like any youngest child Adam was always looking to his older brothers. He wanted to emulate them and moreover he wanted to be afforded equal status, to do whatever they did. Like any youngest child he would sometimes be disappointed and angry when his tender age or lesser physical skills precluded such parity. But nothing I have ever seen before or since can compare to his reaction when Amy put that homemade shell on him. He may have been only two but he knew exactly what was going on. His brothers had coats on like normal kids. He was being forced to wear a garbage bag.
When Amy stepped away Adam had an expression on his face I cannot describe to this day. It certainly was the most incredible look I have ever seen. It was some combination of humiliation, hopelessness and absolute, utter disgust and it said to better effect than any words he could have spoken “You are making me wear a Hefty bag; I loathe you and the bag and this cursed day and some day I will have my revenge upon you, even if it takes all eternity.” A hundred times I have rued that we did not have a camera at the ready at that moment.
Of course, within five minutes all thoughts of clothing were forgotten in favor of whatever stick and rock engineering project Alex had commenced and the existential crisis was averted.
For two days we hung out in a rain that never once lightened. We had arrived already long past dry but by that point it felt as though we were beginning to mildew. I decided to make a fire, proudly showing off my ability to do so with only the waterlogged woods as a fuel resource. We always loved fires and we made a game of trying to make the fire so hot that it wouldn’t smoke despite the ongoing deluge. Later we let the fire burn down in the darkness and were treated a spectacular symphony of loon calls of every variety, as though a half-dozen were crying at once.
After another day of rain the skies cleared and we pushed on, then wound our way back to the car, our time for our trip running out. I can still remember the smell of the car when we arrived home in Madison.
The picture I posted with this Dispatch is from that canoe trip and it is my favorite photograph of all time. At the moment it is taken we have been situated on our lonely, windswept point for three days. The woods are flooded, the lake is high and everything we have is wet. The boys are muddy and stinky. The temperature has been dropping during the entire trip and by this afternoon it is quite cold. Two hand-me-down rain jackets and a garbage bag are providing little insulation and certainly no dryness any longer so their life vests have been put on for additional warmth, like little straightjackets. The closest thing to non-essential gear that we have with us is the hammock visible in the background. The boys have no toys along to speak of. We eat out of backpack food pouches which we share with one spoon and we have only water to drink. We are crowded into a single, damp, smelly four-person dome tent equipped with a single, damp, smelly golden retriever.
Look at those faces. Each reflects that boy’s character to perfection. I have no doubt that you can decide who is who based on nothing more than the descriptions I have given in this Dispatch: Zach on the left, thoughtful and sensitive, a little mercurial; Alex in the middle, always dancing and prancing and dreaming and thinking; Adam on the right, wrapped in his Hefty bag, ever wanting to be included and willing to go along, ever optimistic that something good is coming next. Not only are these three boys better equipped than any adult to endure the discomforts and challenges of the woods – as are all children -but they are having the time of their lives, effortlessly, their obvious radiance proof against the standards and norms that others would impose upon them.
Just like the present day.