I am walking down a trail in the ancient Adirondack Forest.
I pull my wide-brimmed hat to better cover my eyes against the sudden spring rain. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swat at the blackflies. I shuffle the rotting crimson and yellow leaves to one side. I monitor my steps carefully because of the six inches of fresh snow.
I am walking with one of my two loves I met in my youth. I first enjoyed the Adirondacks as a child of five. Family camping trips slowly gave way to long and impossible hikes in the High Peaks. This led to the canoe routes of the St. Regis Wilderness Area and solitary paddling on the Saranacs. I am still with this lover of mine; these trails, ponds and bogs. I live among them now. I have gray hair.
My other lover is not someone that I feel comfortable using mere language to describe. She was and still is part illusion, part myth and wholly real. She is made of flesh and blood like any other woman.
You see, as an adolescent, I encountered a Mountain Nymph. I did not, truthfully, actually “meet” her but only saw her half hidden in a midnight shadow while she slept against the wall of a State Forest Ranger cabin. I was standing in the dark with my brother, whispering to the ranger about the nearest empty lean-to. He played his flashlight beam onto a pair of bare and mud covered feet.
“That’s Monica,” was all he said. Beside her was a full Kelty pack and a pack basket strapped across the top.
I was up early but when I walked over to the cabin, Monica was gone. She had continued on to an even more remote cabin. The ranger said she left about two hours earlier, just at the breaking of the dawn.
This young woman who hiked alone, barefoot and carried a load that I would find impossible to manage, intrigued me.
As I climbed the High Peaks and hiked the myriad of trails around and over Marcy, I would, on occasion, hear the name of Monica. Years went by and I kept learning about the epic exploits of Monica. Then, in the early 1970’s, I stopped hearing her name mentioned in trailside conversations or spoken of around campfires.
My friend and hiking companion through those years and I began to build up our own mythology of Monica. She became our Mountain Nymph. We would imagine her waiting for us beside a small mountain pond with a cup of cold water, sitting on a rock beside a roaring flume. She always would promise us comfort. She would offer us succor, a lap, a hand, a shoulder and most of all, love. And escape, of course, for isn’t that what Nymphs do, offer escape from the ordinary to take us up to the lofty peaks of the extraordinary? Wasn’t it her role to lead us to the Land of Dreams and offer a glimpse of what was possible for our poor hearts to attain?
For many years I stopped visiting the Adirondacks. My companion and I went in separate directions. We grew into middle age…and then beyond. We lost our dreams somewhere along the way. I came to realize that an alluring goddess, lying on the heather of a summit or sitting on a bed of moss, was not responsible for when and how my heart and head needed to grow. I internalized Monica. I grew up. For many years I thought how wrong I was in trusting my spiritual growth to someone who only existed as an amalgam of realism and myth-making. I became acutely aware of my own role I must play.
But these realities were becoming sterile to me. Something was missing. I had found a golden ball in my youth and I lost it. I began spending precious time trying to find it again. The magic of the summits paled and the sky became merely something over my head, something to keep an eye on in order to stay dry. Rocks of the peaks and stream banks became burdensome and annoying. The magic was gone. I had learned to take my spirit into my own hands and mists became only water vapor. To be really cold was a matter of survival and to be really hot was exactly the same, you just took different medicines.
Now, I regret my losses. In the end, what is really wrong about needing a spirit guide, a kindred soul, and a belief, a Nymph? Throughout human history, something or someone extraordinary walked beside a man, guiding and comforting.
This journey we are all part of can be unbearable lonely at times. Maybe I need a Monica again?
I am walking along a trail in the ancient Adirondack Mountains. I am sitting on a rocky summit. What is that I just saw dash between the scrub pines? What just touched my elbow as I struggle to rise again and continue my hike? Who was that making a shadow among the old cedars in the dark part of the forest where there are already shadows plenty? Whose bare shoulders do I see at the water’s edge as I survey the shore from my kayak? You can’t convince me that the song I hear is the wind in the fir trees.
I know its Monica.