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A writer by predilection, an aunt by blessing and a friend by choice, Shelley has spent many years journaling before sitting down to draft her first novel. She has a B.A. in English discourse and is currently working on her third romantic-suspense, the title of which will be announced soon pending publication. Shelley is a member of the Romance Writers of America as well as her RWA state chapter of the Maryland Romance Writers.
"I love story-telling. It's a way to live an experience through the eyes of a character." - Shelley N. Greene

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Summit

Traveling alone is a never a good idea.

Admittedly, I did it because my idea of fun is sometimes considered boring to my friends and I’m of the obstinate mindset that if I want to do something, I don’t let being single stop me.  One time I wanted to see a Norman Rockwell painting up close, so I did it.  Another time I wanted to see the sun set on the Pacific ocean - well, that time I had company.  This year I wanted to see the changing leaves in the Adirondack Mountains.  I’d read about the scenery in books, owned the PBS special on DVD, and had to see the multi-hued glory for myself.  And so the wheels of fate were put in motion…

While out to dinner with my best friend one night before leaving on my trip, I gushed to her about my plans.  I went into a long description of the trees and why I was so eager to see them.  “From what I hear, they’re incredible in the fall. The colors…they say you can find your soul in the trees,” I said rather dreamily.

It must have been the faraway expression on my face because my friend smiled like she was humoring me. “’Soul in the trees.’ Okay, no more wine for you,” she said as she moved the glass away from me.

Laughing at her joke, I doggedly returned to my explanation.  “It’s true. The nature is amazing, people go up there to find themselves.  And when I come back I will have a picture called ‘Soul in the Trees,’ watch me.”

“You do that,” she challenged.

So I grabbed my camera, and with the remainder of my vacation leave, I set off.  I tried to get someone to go with me, but there were no takers at the time.  My best friend had family obligations and my sister would’ve gone, but she couldn't spend too many consecutive days out in the woods, so I let her off the hook and made arrangements to go by myself.  When informing others about my trip, everyone looked at me like I was off my rocker.  I had three people offer me mace and two imply that I was going to be eaten by a bear.  And, granted, the comments did reinforce the instinct that I was acting impulsively, but it also fueled my determination to go. 

The trip was something I had to do, something spontaneous, even if it marked me a fool.

I left early on that Friday and played it safe the whole way:  I called, checked in, made sure to only stop in well-lit, well populated areas and only when necessary.     

Baltimore at dawn.  (Photos by Shelley Greene)

            I arrived at my little cabin on Friday night. 

Early in the vacation planning I’d devised the codename Camp IAmWhatIAm (the real name an extension of the nickname) for the place I stayed.  With a fireplace, bedroom, flat screen TV and washer/dryer, it was cozy.  The lady who rented it to me even left me fancy toiletries (lavender soap) and a range of food to eat.  The first night I settled in, making myself at home, only to find I couldn’t sleep.  For some reason I hadn’t left my restlessness back in Maryland, and it seemed like all my current problems were haunting me. I sat awake worrying about work, my writing, and feeling this heavy weight sitting on my chest.  In the quiet, the internal voices became loud, saying things like I hadn’t accomplished enough, or that I hadn’t done things the right way. Strange feelings that were a personified anvil on my chest, pinning me down. 

The fresh pine smell of the cabin walls reminded me that I wasn’t in my own bed, and for the first time since I was little, I had to fall asleep with the TV on.  I found a cool movie to watch, however. 

     I was up early the next day, ready to get my pictures.  Pulling out my file folder with my agenda and Xerox copies from travel books, I noticed that there was still this underlying drive to accomplish something.  I felt punchy, and I couldn’t shake the feeling.  On a budget, and keeping in mind safety tactics, there was this odd sensation of being caged.  At this I reminded myself that taking steps to be careful was to ensure I didn’t fall down a mountain, drown in a lake or—in fact—get mauled by a bear.

Yes, those were the sunny thoughts that jumpstarted my morning.  You go on vacation to escape, and I’d traveled over 490 miles to get away, relax and to take pictures of the trees.  I wasn’t about to go home empty-handed. 

Mirror Lake

Determined to get good pictures, I took an incredible boat tour of Mirror Lake and found out from one of the guides that the leaves were at their peak of color change a few miles south, near Whiteface Mountain.  Pulling out my folder, there was an “easy” trail near that, a bit south of Lake Placid.  The article stated that the hike was two miles, one way, but that the hiker was rewarded with “views of waterfalls at the summit.”

            I’m going to pause to mention that my voice of reason did go off at this point.  My subconscious very succinctly rattled off all the common sense laws to me:  

You never go hiking alone – what if you fall?  The chance of you having a cell phone signal is slim, especially when you’re unconscious and bleeding!

            I heard every word, but I sat in my car near the mouth of the trail watching the parking lot overflow with hikers, families, little kids—all on their way down the path.  Seeing the people, gauging the time of day and the fact that the travel book rated the trail “easy,” I was swayed.

And two hours later I was sweating profusely, breathing erratically and clinging to the side of rock.

            Wearing skinny jeans and basic running sneakers, a heavy camera in tow, the 75 degree heat felt like 90-plus as I hoofed my way up the rocky, muddy terrain.  I'd followed a pair of women onto the trail as large groups with children as young as seven years-old passed us, the little ones bounding up the rocks like the little goats they’re named after.

            Pushing myself forward, an hour-and-a-half in, I’d fallen far behind the two ladies I'd been tailing. The trail, from my perspective was far from easy, but I'd attributed that to my inexperience.  It seemed precarious; every advance forward requiring a hand-hold on to tree and the careful positioning of your feet to ensure you stepped on the rocks correctly; any wrong move had the potential of you taking the express way back down.  My heart was pounding, my jeans stifling hot, and I only had half a pint of water on me. Exhausted, I was torn between seeing the waterfalls and giving up. I felt like I’d come so far that the idea of turning around was not an option.  

             I didn’t want to fail.

            Catching the attention of a hiking couple who were coming down, I asked the man if they’d made it all the way to the top and I how much further it was.  The guy turned out to be an experienced hiker and told me that it was another hour at least, especially at the pace I was going (which was snail slow). Looking around, he tried to identify my hiking party and began asking me questions.

            “Did you come up here alone?” 

            I nodded, and to his everlasting credit he did not look at me like I was an idiot or like I’d be the first person to go out Darwin if this were Survivor.

            “How much water do you have?  Did you bring food with you?” he asked.

            “Some water, no food,” I answered honestly, feeling unprepared and foolish.

            “It’s pretty far still and it gets muddier as you go,” the lady added empathetically.

            With a sheepish shake of my head, I looked back down the distance I’d come and frowned. 

It was clear that I was ready to go back but I couldn’t give up.  The guy then opened his backpack, pulling out a liter bottle of water and a ziplock bag full of Chex mix.  Handing the lot to me I just stared at him, dumbfounded.

            “Oh, I can’t-” I started.  But he insisted.    

“I don’t need it, but you will if you’re going to make it to the summit.  And just a word of advice for next time—never wear jeans hiking. Short-sleeved shirts, shorts and layers,” he instructed.

            They both wished me luck and I continued to follow other groups up the mountain. Small children and dogs of every shape and size began to trot past me as I steadily navigated the boulders and peaty areas. The mud got deeper, slopping up my pants and seeping through my sneakers.  I grew even more tired as the air got colder, the wind picking up.  Slumping down on another boulder, I guzzled some water and pulled out the Chex mix. On the bag was a label with the name Greg written on it in sharpie marker.  So that was his name. 

  Picking out the pretzels, I stopped to look up at the trees. Golds, reds and emerald greens shone like stained glass above me and I exhaled.  There is soul in the trees, I thought.  For that one moment, I felt my body relax, a calm coming over me, and I realized: this is what the journey is about.  

This, right here. 

After the rest, I gauged the air temperature. It was cooler, so I was close, maybe another thirty minutes.  I ran into another couple on their way down; a gentleman covered in mud up to his bare knees, carrying one Corgi while another bounded over rocks on short legs; his wife following them.

            I asked again how far away I was, and they confirmed that it was another half-hour, moving about as fast as I was.  Gesturing to his pet, he, too “[had] an extra 30 lbs to carry,” because the poor dog was worn out, his little mud-strewn paws dangling over his owner's arm.  

            Pooped was the popular consensus.

 Considering what photos I had already and what resources I had left, I decided to let it go.  I may have been only twenty minutes away from the summit by then, but I decided not to push it.  I’d gotten what I'd came for, and it was time that I turned around and headed back down.

            The trip back used different muscles than going up; more toning than cardio.  My heart took less of a beating as my legs picked up the slack.  Stepping on the right stones made for a lithe, hopping dance that picked up in tempo as I descended.  Pausing only to snap more pictures of the red trees while I talked to hikers passing by, two twelve-year-old boys soon jumped past me, their father straggling behind them with less exuberance. 

            “Have they hiked all their lives?” I asked.

            “No, first time,” the dad replied.

            “Impressive, but the book I read labeled this trail as ‘easy’ so maybe it’s just me.”

            The dad gave me a confused look and then went on to say that the trail was most likely marked “easy” in comparison to other trails in the area, not on its own. It dawned on me that every hike around the area was advanced, what we’d just climbed was a small mountain, one of many in the entire Adirondack park.  And the trail didn't end with waterfalls, he affirmed.  He’d ventured the hike many times before and was certain.

            I was on one the shorter practice trails, but still...in completely wrong hiking clothes and with no supplies?  Was I nuts?!   Apparently.  And this was labeled easy in print?  I personally vowed to write a letter to the publisher of the travel guide.  Footnotes are needed—footnotes and asterisks!  If only to save idiots like me.

           I wondered what the 46er peaks were like in contrast.  They were no doubt the most challenging, I imagined.  Any one of them would make the Cascade Trail hike look like a warm up.
            I made it back to the parking lot shortly after that, walking along the railing to the entrance of the trail when it hit me.  It turned out okay. I’d made it out—

            The next cognitive thought I'd recall after that smug realization was that my cheek was smushed up against asphalt, my gifted bottle of water drizzling into my hair.  

I’d stepped on an uneven slab of pavement, fallen, twisted my right ankle and scraped my left knee. In a parking lot.  With people all around.  

            The look on the cashier’s face when I hobbled into Rite-Aid was great, too.

            “Can I help…you?” she asked, glancing up from her register, getting an eyeful.

            “Nope, I think I’m beyond help. But thank you,” I replied, tossing the individual contents of a first-aid kit onto the counter, poised like a macabre flamingo.

            As I was able to put weight on my ankle, and the swelling had not expanded to sizes fit for MLB or the NBA, I assumed it was quasi-okay.  The knee, however, stung like the dickens, as any scrape on a bendable joint does, but I stopped whining long enough to deal.  The full force of my idiocy sunk in then.  My lovely little faceplant was public, and my mother—psychic as she is with that handy mom-intuition—texted me right after it happened, checking in.

            There is no need to remind me that I’m destined for someplace hot and fiery for Googling "symptoms of a sprained ankle" while texting my mother (who works in the health field): Everything's great, having a fabulous time!  *smiley face*   

I know, I know...

            Later, while I was deducting the jumbo band-aid expense from my already meager budget, and watching Breakfast at Tiffany's in front of the fireplace, I figured there had to be a lesson inherent in my little misadventure.  Immobility forced upon me, my purple foot propped up under a bag of ice, it was clear the universe wanted my attention.  Pondering what my experience could be compared to, the only analogy I could think of was a writing one.  I’d been so worried about mistakes in my story, in my work.  The fear of not making it or failing pressing down on me. The urge to take action making me brash and impatient. Sitting there, swollen and stinging, it came to me: success in writing is like climbing a mountain.

      And you need to:

1.       Know Your Mountain – Whatever goal you set for yourself, you have to know where it ends, where the peak is.  Ask others or attain more than book knowledge of what you’re going after.

2.      NEVER Go Alone – I wouldn’t have made it as far as I have without help. With my writing, my hiking partner is Sarah, my CP.  She’s there to make the trek with me, to scout out the terrain. She’s always prepared and knows there will be tough moments where the mud and climb will feel like it’s swallowing you whole. Today, I have a guy named Greg and his girlfriend/wife (the lady in the powder blue Yankees baseball cap) to thank for my safety.  If you’re out there, reading this, you gave me knowledge and showed me kindness, and I can’t express how grateful I am for that.

3.      No Path (or Career) is ever “Easy” – Just like the trails, labels like easy or difficult are just meters of comparison. Writing, held up against any other job, may seem easy like the trail was, but in reality it’s work. Being an author may look like fun, like all we do all day is sit around drafting love scenes and I wish it were that simple, but it’s not.  Drafting, editing, working with deadlines all makes the job of a writer a mountain, not some small trail. There will be times when you want to give up, looking up and finding nothing but slippery rocks and mud blocking your path. If you fall, you’ll fall hard. And the moment you want to quit is when you are almost there.

4.      Be Prepared – Bring the appropriate tools for your journey.  There will be obstacles.  You will get tired and feel like it’s insurmountable, but it can it be done with the right equipment (your work, education, research, the feedback of your CP/critique group as well as guides you meet along the way).  Take a writing course or attend a seminar, with the right preparation, you can avoid major pitfalls.

5.      Have the Heart to Go – I felt the soul in the trees (and I have a lovely 8x10 glossy print for my friend, the skeptic. Lol). But only because I was brave enough to go get it.  Jump into your story, live it, chase it—start writing and don’t stop until you type “the end.”

My journey helped me see that.

And as I sit typing these words, nursing a puffy right lateral malleolus (the lump of bone on the side of your ankle), I’m thankful that everything turned out okay. I had a great vacation despite the accident and the doctor says the ankle is sprained, but not broken (thank goodness).  Just mad at me for trying to push it into a range of motion with which it wasn't accustomed.  It will heal and the even though it hurt, I got the message.  And on that note, I’ll tack one final bullet point onto the bottom of our list: Watch where you walk, no matter how beautiful the scenery is around you.  

A nine-hour drive home is so much more enjoyable when you do. 

-          SNG  ;0) 

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