Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
My friend Tom has taught me the fine art of hiking. An avid naturalist since the age of fifteen, he is as comfortable spending a few days in the high peaks of the Adirondacks as he is in his own home. In the time that I have known him, Tom has taken me on three hikes through those peaks that I would never have done myself. By now a “46er,” a climber who has reached the summits of all forty six Adirondack high peaks, Tom takes me along partly for company and partly because he knows how much I enjoy hiking. He is a sure footed guide through rough and inspiring terrain whose challenges I love.
Understand that hiking with Tom is no piece of cake. He is incredibly strong and well conditioned, and keeping up with him is challenging. Our first high peaks together were Mount Algonquin and Mount Iroquois, two of the tallest peaks in the state that are separated by a rough and unmarked trail over a ridge called, simply, Boundary. We completed our ascent of Iroquois without incident, and feeling strong, I eagerly agreed when Tom proposed that we not backtrack over Algonquin, but rather, take the trail to Lake Colden and return to Marcy Dam, making a loop. It was a decision that my legs would regret, for as I found out later, the trail that we were descending is one of the steepest descents in the high peaks.
Overestimating my own strength, I was incredibly unprepared for the physical difficulties of the all day trek. My leg and thigh muscles took a beating, and with five of the fifteen miles left to go on the hike, I was desperate for a drink of water, having failed to conserve what I had brought with me. As Tom was showing me how to climb down a rock wall ten or fifteen feet high, my thigh muscles suddenly locked and I froze. In a panic, I yelled to him that I could not move, and for a few moments I vaguely understood what it feels like to be paralyzed. Tom helped me off the wall, and I hobbled along behind him down a difficult descent of huge boulders, stopping frequently to knead my sore calves and thighs. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Give me your backpack.” “Tom, you shouldn’t have to carry my stuff for me. I’ll be fine,” I replied. Staring at me with polite frustration, he answered, “You don’t understand. I can carry three times as much as I am now and still move at the same speed. You’re slowing us down, now give me your backpack!” In the middle of the high peaks with the sky growing darker and reports of black bears in the area, you don’t argue with your guide. He carried my backpack the rest of the way.
Last summer I was better prepared for our hike up Giant Mountain and across Rocky Peak Ridge. In preparation, I exercised regularly and conditioned my legs. I also decided well in advance that I would drink water only after long intervals when I really needed it. I was proud of myself for doing so much better on the trail, though Tom amazed me yet again. The day of the hike, his wife was out of town with their son, and he had no babysitter for their three year old daughter. What to do? Like any good 46er educating his children in the ways of the trail, he took her along and she had a blast being carried gracefully up and down by her dad who never missed a beat, and who once again moved faster than me at all times.
The day that Tom and I hiked Algonquin, we stopped briefly to chat with an assistant park ranger trained in trail guidance, who informed us that the Adirondacks are about a billion years old. Walking around the Adirondacks exhibit in the State Museum some time later, I discovered that, to be much more precise, their origins go back nearly a billion and a half years, and a geologist I know tells me that some rocks there are probably closer to two and a half billion years old, corresponding to the Precambrian era in geologic time. They were formed when the only living things around were the simplest bacteria and maybe some fish. Life in all of its complexity continuously evolves, with whole species rising and becoming extinct. Yet it is humbling to realize that these mountains under our feet have been silent, unyielding witnesses to all of this within the vast embrace of time and nature for a good part of the earth’s history. Even more humbling is the great paradox that these mountains present to the hiker. Their majesty is a song of glory to the beauty and variety of life. Yet one false move off of a boulder, and the mountains can send you to your death, as they remain where they are, implacable and oblivious to your suffering. Most humbling of all, the mountains themselves shrink one half inch per year, the victims of the even larger forces of erosion by wind, rain, snow, and ice.
Like Tom, the mountains are my teachers. I am drawn to the mountains whether I am climbing in the Adirondacks, hiking on the California coast, or descending into ravines near the Dead Sea. Admittedly, their appeal to me is not always about my humbly putting my life in perspective as I stand dwarfed before them. When I hike I come alive with a deep sense of the raw power that still pulses through my generally sedentary and slowly aging body. I feel the strain of leg muscles, the fierce pounding of my heart and the rush of air into my lungs as I conquer a summit and survey the vast world high above street level. Yet even these experiences gently force me to prevent myself from swelling with too much pride at my own strength. My energy is merely one small rivulet that flows out from and back into the ocean that is life itself. The mountains and I are separate entities, but we are also one with each other in the project of creation shaped gently by God’s fingers at the beginning of time. Huffing and puffing along a trail, I dance a waltz with them that will continue well after they and I have returned to the earth.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.