I wake up in the middle of the night again with my pajama top twisted uncomfortably around my body. Each time I struggle to free it I scream out in pain at the slight shift of my body. In the morning, I can’t turn over. I try to move myself to one side or the other, but can’t do it. I can’t get myself out of bed.
Slowly I figure out just the right angle, push the bed with my hands and manage to contort myself up on one side. Carefully I slide my feet out under me and reach tentatively for the floor. While holding on the dresser I use all of my arm strength as I grunt and groan, hoisting my body up to a hunched-over standing. Carefully I place one foot in front of the other on the too soft rug which makes me feel like I’m going to fall. Searing pain stabs my side.
I hobble into the bathroom, hold onto the doorknob and lower myself onto the toilet seat. To stand, I bring myself up with one hand on the knob and the other on the sink. I hold onto the sink to bend and wash my face. While squeezing the tube of toothpaste I inadvertantly drop it on the floor, but leave it there – I just can’t bed down that far. I dress sitting on the toilet seat because lifting my legs while standing is too painful and I might fall over. Dressed, I carefully place my dogs collar over her face as to not excite her – if she leaps off of the couch she will knock me over. I feel afraid to put my foot to step outside over the 3” drop from my front door onto the porch.
This is my usual morning.
Thanks to my “Little Z,” my now massive Great Dane, I’m “forced” to take daily hikes to provide her with proper exercise. The “Little” part of her name was given when she was a wee pup …
and it just stuck, despite her growing ½ a pound a day to her now 133 pounds of solid muscle.
As we go for a short morning “poop & pee” walk downhill on my street, I wobble and walk haltingly, but with each step my muscles start to relax and the pain decreases. The tourists have started coming back to their trailers which now line Lake Champlain’s beachfront, so Z and I can’t go there for our “daily constitutional” like we did this past winter. It’s Saturday and I’m in the mood for a new vistas anyway, so I look on a map to find the closest hiking trail. It’s Cheney Mt. Trail, just a few miles from my newly adopted home in Port Henry in the Adirondack Mountains of NY.
I ask for directions and consult the map because the strange sounding “Pelfershire Road” isn’t showing up on my GPS and maybe because of my dyslexia I can literally manage to get lost walking around the block.
I park my white car near the trailhead and with as little in my backpack as possible to keep it light: water, a snack, a book, my iPhone – Z and I begin our hike.
We walk around a fence and enter the first section of the trail, a big open meadow – good news for my aching back! As we start our ascent up the mountain I feel a bit scared; what if I slip or twist my back? But I’m careful and I figure I can always turn around if it’s too much. My thoughts turn from concern for my health to the pleasant weather, watching Z prance in the field, the beauty of the newly green forest engulfing us, and the birds calling out their songs.
Up and up and up we climbed on the soft pine covered ground,
over fallen logs surrounded by sweet young maple and birch trees.
My chubby body causes me to pant and sweat, but I endeavor on. I have no idea how long or high the trail, there was no information in the little “sign in” box at the trail head where I printed my name and Z’s – I wondered, should I put “one” or “two” in the box that asks how many were hiking – does Z “count”?
Z gallops ahead gleefully, I rest a few times on the way up and once the steep incline relaxes, I observe the vibrant life around me.
I discover tiny mushrooms poking out of a huge fallen tree.
Tiny purple flowers happily soaking up the sun.
Translucent itty-bitty yellow flowers.
Dark, leaf-like mushrooms growing on a massive gray boulder.
I love discovering the tiniest flowers, getting down to their level my face to their bright faces and intimate parts. Seeing these delicate lovelies reminds me of my ex-girlfriend Beth. She and I were together for 9 years back in the 80’s. She taught me a lot in that decade.
Beth would point at a particular part of the sky and say something like “do you see how the color changes right there from a blue-gray to a purple-grey, and then on the bottom to burnt orange?” With Beth’s guidance I began to pay attention to the nuances of color, the shades, the gradations.
Beth raised orchids in our home, the extremely delicate kind that hang on small pieces of wood and live on air. She’d frequently examine each plant carefully, making sure it was healthy and strong. She’d spray them with a soft water-mist and even gathered their pollen in a tiny glass tube pollinating them herself like a human bee. Beth taught me how to see the subtleties and how to care for tenderly. At the time I thought only she had those abilities, but after we separated I realize that I too had “sight” and tenderness. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit for our qualities until we are all alone able to ourselves in our own reflection.
I’ll be 64 years old on May 25th – that hardly seems possible – I still feel like a 7 year old inside! As I hike, I feel lonely. I know so few people here in my new town so I’ll probably be celebrating my birthday all by myself this year. I also think about how I’ve been truly blessed when it comes to lovers and how there have been several wonderful women in my life after Beth – but I’ve been single for years now and that makes me feel sad.
As I hike along I wish I could share these incredible surroundings with an intimate human companion who could actually talk, and at the same time I feel strong, fulfilled in a new way – and I realize that I’m loving being just with my doggie Z, sharing the unique quality of silent understanding that exists between human and canine companion. I like being alone with her in the forest – I move forward when I wanted to, stop when I want to look or rest – no questions asked, no response needed.
When we reached the summit and look over Lake Champlain even thought it’s not a big mountain, I feel proud of myself for making it to the top, amazed that I am the same woman who just a few hours before screamed as she painfully got out of bed.
Lake Champlain from the top of Cheney Mountain
I take off my backpack and sit on a big flat gray rock taking crunchy sweet bites from an apple purchased by the bushel at a local orchard. I do my darndest to relax in the pleasant weather as all manner of flying bugs swarm around me inspecting and penetrating my skin for their lunch.
I can’t take the bugs any more so I try to get up – and can’t. Once again, the arthritis in my spine sets in. 10 minutes of stillness and I’m back to square one – an old crotchety lady barely able to move.
But what can I do? I can’t stay at the top of the mountain – I have to get up!
I roll over slowly, manage to hoist myself onto my hands and knees, do a few “dog and cat” stretches to grease up the joints in my backbone, get my feet underneath myself, and eventually, while shouting out in pain, bring my body to standing. Disabilities aren’t fun – but I’m not giving up!
Once again, carefully, Z and I walk along the well-marked train in the other direction across the top of the small mountain to the mountainside overlook – a stunning vista. We gaze at layers and layers of greens and shadows, softly sloping mountains lush with trees sprouting new leaves. It’s hard to imagine that just two weeks ago all except for the evergreens would have been bare, dark trunks and branches. I survey the area …
Mountainside view from Cheney Mountain
and lo … a bench!
Mountainside view from Cheney Mountain.
Z races around trying to dodge the flying bugs, while I sit gratefully down on the wooden bench. I pull out my book Teachings From The American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy, “… the first conspectus of the variety of American Indian religious experiences and philosophic beliefs, largely from the Native American point of view.”
As I alternately read and gaze over the mountains, I focus on each section. It dawns on me that the big bald peak in the middle is strip-mined. At first I think I’m looking at a sandy-colored stone mountain, but now I see the big rusty-red machines resting on the slopes like kids toys abandoned in a sand box. I feel shocked, sad, angry – confused as my eyes roam from the vibrant life all around to the stale life-less area in the middle. I wonder about all the animals that lived on that mountain.
Strip mined mountain, center/right. Mountainside view from Cheney Mountain.
I recall my conversation with a birder last week while he was in the park catching and banding. He told me about a bird that nests in the local fields amid the growing crops. He said that because of global warming those crops are ripening more quickly nowadays and ready for harvest sooner. Somehow I naively thought that global warming was affecting the coastal areas, but not up here in the mountains. Sadly that’s not true. It turns out that because those crops have to be harvested at a certain time in their cycle, which is before those baby birds can grow old enough to fly and leave the nests, the farmers are using their reaping machines – and literally chopping the tiny birds up into pieces.
Sometimes I feel ashamed to be human.
I start reading again. Some of the essays address the linguistic structure of some Native American languages and what that structure reveals about the people’s worldview. In “Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought” Dorothy Lee writes:
“Our attitude toward nature is colored by a desire to control and exploit. The Wintu relationship with nature is one of intimacy and mutual courtesy. He kills a deer only when he needs it for his livelihood, and utilizes every part of it, hoofs and marrow and hide and sinew and flesh. Waste is abhorrent to him, not because he believes in the intrinsic value of thrift, but because the deer had died for him. “
“… Because the dear had died for him.”
He honors the spirit of the deer.
Imagine if we thought that way.
Not to disparage Christians in any way, but I think about how they talk about Jesus “dying for me” – but who among us truly honors the animals, the giver of food for our tables? Do we make sure they lived and died in an honorable way? Do we use every part and not waste? Who among us has a daily practice, a way of life that honors in this Native manner?
I can’t help but feel a sense of disgust when I look at that raped mountain. Shame. Anger. Even my dog knows not to shit in her own bed!
The clouds are starting to gather and darken, and I decide I’d better head back down the mountain just in case of a storm – and with my dwindling energy it seems like the wise thing to do.
Z jumps to attention the moment I stand, ready and waiting for my next step. She’s great – she always stays nearby, venturing just a little ahead or behind, always checking to make sure I’m within sight. I’m sure this is partly a hyper-awareness due to the fact that she is totally deaf – but whatever the cause, we stick together like peanut butter and jelly and it makes me feel safe and loved.
We head down the mountain as we came, following the well-marked trail, forgetting about the bald mountain and everything wrong with humanity and just appreciating the leaves and flowers and bird song. Also I’d better not let my mind drift off because I need to pay special attention to my footing to make sure I don’t slip on a leaf or trip on the true roots that crisscross the path. One false move and I’m on my ass – and, I remind myself as I twist my ankle slightly, I’m here alone without cell phone reception … I don’t even want to think about what that might do to my ability to descend safely.
Eventually we’re back at the wooden sign-in box. I unhook the latch and pull out the binder and write a “thank you” to the trail makers for hanging such clear trail markers. I think about how I usually get lost and how grateful I feel that they put up those clear markers so close together so this time I didn’t. I’m feeling good – I made it up and down in one piece and now I’m on to the homestretch.
Z and I head down and as it becomes less steep and …
Hmmmm … somehow the terrain seems slightly different – I don’t seem to remember needing to step so carefully on tall grass. So I reverse myself and go back up to check the trail marker. There it is. I must be going out correctly. I turn around again and we continue back down, and down … and I see a big fence …
but, uh-oh, it’s not the same fence I encountered going in. “Oh well,” I think, “there’s an easy way around the fence so the road must be close and it can’t be too far to the place where I parked my car.” I put Z on a leash and we walk to the street.
No car in sight.
My phone beeps: 20% power left.
I realize I’m LOST.
I turn off my phone to conserve what juice I have left.
I go into the middle of the long, windy, deserted street. I look up and down. No parking area. No white car.
We start walking down the deserted street. I “feel” that I must have overshot my mark and should go downhill towards where I think I parked the car. Z and I walk and walk and walk and walk down a long steep hill. No car. No cars on the road.
By this time Z is panting and tired and in need of water, and I, having anticipated the end of the journey, feel exhausted too. But what can we do? We turn around and head back UP that hill.
At least Z doesn’t argue with me as a lover probably would. There was no “see, I told you it was this way,” (with attitude), or “why didn’t you look at the compass on your phone when we started so we would no how to get out?” Z just turns around and walks with me, no questions asked, and does what I do – climb back up the long steep winding hill.
My mind starts to race. I moved here only 6 months ago and I don’t know that many people. I think about turning my phone on and calling the one friend I think will be home and will help. What do I say? I am on some road, walking with Z – lost. I can’t remember the name of the road, it starts with a “P” and I’m losing juice on my phone.
A car comes towards us. I try to flag it down, but it speeds ahead avoiding us. I think “This is the ‘country’ for G-d’s sake, what does he think I’m going to do, rob him?” I wonder, “why didn’t the driver stop?” “Was I ‘threatening’?”
“A older woman walking her dog?”
We continue hiking, up and up and up. As I force myself to move forward with vigor, I worry that maybe I should have walked downhill even farther and maybe I’ll be walking back and forth for hours and never find the darn car. But the thought of needing to find my car before the sun starts to set encourages me to walk with great purpose because I know if I let me fear get the best of me – well, that will not be good. And as I stride forward I notice my back starts to feel stronger. The harder and faster I walk, the better I feel. Well what do you know about that!
Wait … another car! I flag him down gesturing with my hand and placing my fingers to my mouth like, “hey, I want to talk to you!” Thankfully this time the driver stops and he tells me that my car is up the hill ahead. Oh what a relief!
Finally around a bend, the back end of my 1991 White Chrysler LeBaron comes into view – Oh, I want to kiss that car! We arrive, I open the trunk and get out Z’s water and travel bowl as she collapse on the ground in exhaustion to lap it up.
We climb in the car; I ravage the banana I’ve been saving in my backpack all this time in case we got stranded and take a long drink of water from the dwindling ration in my canteen, then I throw Z a treat into the back seat and head towards home.
When we get home all safe and sound I look up information about the trail. The guide says:
“Cheney Mt. Trail: 1.5 miles round trip, easy/moderate. Trailhead on Pelfershite Road. Walk across field, enter woods for a short uphill hike to summit with three scenic overlooks.”
“1.5 miles”! Easy/moderate … short uphill hike.” Are they kidding me?
OK maybe 1.5 miles isn’t very far – but it seemed far as I was panting up that steep hill. But hey, as someone who could barely get out of bed this morning, I still feel like I climbed Mount Everest – and survived!
Plus … those trail people don’t count getting LOST – so I think I should get a few extra points – Don’t you?