Late one June afternoon in the Year of Our Lord 1995 I checked into the Lake Placid Econo Lodge with my brother, spent a comfortable night and left in the morning. I have not been back since (through no fault of Econo Lodge). It’s just as well – if Econo Lodge has any sort of institutional memory I will never again get another room.
In the summer of 1995 I took a long –and long awaited – backpacking trip with my nephew Michael. Michael and I are roughly the same age and we are close, so “brother” serves us as a more proper salutation. By the mid 1990’s I was an experienced backpacker but Michael was a novice. Like me he had been going to the Adirondacks all his life and adored them, but he was relatively new to the High Peaks region and its glories. We planned a six day trip in order to really take it in.
Michael remembers the details for the trip much better than I do, so I will liberally quote from the reminiscences he recently shared with me.
“I remember it was my first real hike into the High Peaks and my first real taste of back country adventure. I quit smoking in preparation… …It was a sign of how seriously I took it, for whatever waited for me out there. It was the most focused I had ever been… …we were going to get to know one another again. So, off we went. I felt very inept at the start and very out of my league, still with real enthusiasm though.”
We started at Upper Works, with a planned loop through the Great and Lesser Range. The first night we camped at Lake Colden.
“Day two: I remember the Opalescent trail was mystical. It was raining and it was incredible. Raining, then misty, then patches of sunlight, then a view, then fog and the smells oh my god. Pine and soil and earth… …I kept slipping on the roots because my boots sucked. We hit Lake Tear and munched on Hershey bars in the rain. I think we caught a faint smell of campfire. Lake Tear was an iconic scene with mist peeling off the lake into the shore as if the vegetation was slowing drinking it. The sky broke and fractured light illuminated the north eastern edge of the lake. After about ten minutes the clouds peeled away to reveal Marcy’s peak. It was a Holy Cow moment.”
“After we rested we felt re energized enough to tackle Marcy. We climbed it’s face, a steady ‘Bully tramp’ upwards. We found cigarette butts and remarked how we would abandon any forsworn allegiance to the principles of pacifism if some fool were to toss his cig in our presence. I celebrated my first peak by disrobing and letting the wind caress me. I put my clothes back on and was aware immediately at how cold I really was and how much cold can deplete you.”
“Day three: We trudged past Little Haystack and down the trail to Johns Brook Loj. It was a perfect day. No rain, but lots of moisture. Lot’s of slips, falls, muddiness, black flies, cuts. I started to feel like a real bad-ass. We crossed Johns Brook after saying hello to some comparatively clean types, who seemed to be apprehensively interested in our state.”
At this point I need to interject that neither Michael nor I have naturally mild and lovely body odor. We carried no deodorant nor any other such frivolities on the trip and to this point it had been wet, muddy and humid each day. Three days in we were beginning to leave quite a trail… if you know what I mean.
“We set up camp on a slope and switched our hiking boots for running shoes. So much lighter. We hit Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong and Gothics in a blur. We settled in on the slope and made dinner. This was early June and the black fies were exploding. It was really bad that night.”
“Day four: in the morning we hiked out very early. When we started along the East Branch trail of the Ausable we came to a water fall that was like something out Mystical England. We sat and watched it for a while and refilled our jugs, then we proceeded along the river into a big open meadow that ran along it. After so long in the forest it was actually a relief to be out in the open with blue sky and tall grasses.”
“We crossed over to the other side and merged with the road for the Ausable Club. We saw a grounds keeper and said hello. He was going into a garage. It felt wrong to be so close to ‘civilization.’ We took a trail you hadn’t been on before as a short cut to get to Colvin and found ourselves taking a detour for a few hundred feet: Indian Head, one of the most dynamic views in the Adirondacks. The day was perfect, perfect temperature. The light was jagged and fractured and underscored the dimension and depth of the mountains on either side. We spent quite a while up there and entertained the idea of extending our trip by a day.”
As we lingered, taking in the view, Michael remarked to me that this panoramic cathedral of rock would be the perfect place to married. It was that moment that I decided to marry Amy right there, as described in a previous Dispatch.
“It was hard to peel ourselves away but we finally did. The reward was the trail past the Fish Hawk Cliffs to Colvin. It’s gorgeous, full of ledge walks, cuts, switchbacks, inclines and declines. Then we hit the steep up to Colvin. At this point I went a little whacky. I turned into a mountain climbing, growling madman. You were physically done. I was insane. I climbed Colvin without really looking at anything. I was on a primitive male bear mission. We sat on top of Colvin for only awhile. The day was late and we were behind. We had to get to lower elevations to camp. So hike we did, fast, determined and focused. We made good enough time that you decided we should make it to State land to camp. That decision added another long stretch and we set up in almost total darkness and crashed within minutes.”
I was indeed tapped on the way up Colvin and I paid the price on the way down, stumbling and wrenching my leg as well as putting a gash in my pants that lengthened as the hike continued until it split right through the cuff and left me flapping in the breeze. I limped for the remainder of our journey.
This is the night that defined the trip for me. I had hauled our Eureka Wind River tent the length of the journey, during which it had felt every bit its weight as a big, four-person tent. But that night, with blood and mildewed clothing and filthy body smell inundating us, it felt like the smallest, most airtight structure into which I’d ever been sardined. My eyes and head actually hurt, maybe even more than my throbbing leg.
“Day five: the next morning we got up early and the first thing we did was hit Haystack. It was the most incredible of all because we got there in time to watch the morning clouds dissipate and open up the Adirondack mountains all around little by little. Our sense of depth and dimension was so keen now. It was literally breathtaking. We felt like we were in some huge open canyon.”
“Then we hiked down to glorious Panther Gorge. I wanted us to linger but we hiked through, our bellies beginning to urge us forward. We masochistically started coming up with meals that we would eat if we could suddenly be transported to a table with anything we wanted. Omelets, Mexican, Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip.”
“We hiked out that last day, skipping the fifth night. We went all the way from Panther Gorge past Marcy, down the Opalescent, nearly suffocating a German Shepherd that smelled us and ran away. We hiked out like mad men. You had fallen several times; your trousers were torn on one side all the way from your belt to your ankle.”
“We finally made it out all the way to Upper Works. I think passing hikers gave us a w-i-d-e berth. We threw our gear into your trunk and drove away from Upper Works with Chick Corea blasting. Somewhere on the way to Placid we picked up a pint of Breyers Mint Chocolate Chip and killed it.”
As darkness fell Michael and I pulled into the parking lot of the Econo Lodge. The windows in the car were fogged from a pervasive, moist odor I lack the poetry to describe. We, who had lived with ourselves for days, could hardly stand to breathe at this point. There was a beautiful, voluptuous pause as we sat in the car looking at each other, trying to decide who was least offensive to go into the lobby and ask for a room. I stared at Michael; his hair was stringy and his skin was covered with a dull, viscous sheen not unlike varnish. His clothes were stained in horrible places, cuts adorned his limbs and he was decorated everywhere with muck as though Jackson Pollock had come running through flinging gray-brown acrylic. He looked half-crazed and half-dead. He was a terrible choice to go in.
“I think I should go in,” Michael said. And he was right.
Ironically, this debate was rendered moot because Michael lacked a way to pay for the room. So in I came shortly after, resplendently offensive, blood streaming down my leg, underwear peeking out from my three-foot pants tear, limping, dripping sweat from my slimed and unkempt locks. The poor lady behind the desk was already squinting, her watery eyes glistening from the pleasure of transacting business with Michael. My approach brought on a series of facial tics and a look that indicated an acute desire to call someone official for help.
We got the room, I think by sheer momentum. We disrobed and showered until there was no more hot water. We looked upon our pile of clothing and made a consensus snap decision: we gathered it up, went outside and threw all of it into a dumpster. Then we painfully shuffled off to a well-deserved dinner. Opening the car door to go downtown was an excruciating olfactory experience.
My beloved Eureka survived this week of abuse, though I had to air it out at home for a long time before I dared pack it away. And yes, for those of you following this series, Henry’s footprints somehow survived the ordeal.
Tomorrow Amy and I return to the Adirondacks and later next week we will be driving past the Econo Lodge. I’m increasingly likely to stop and issue a long overdue apology.