Well, this is unexpected. Texas first for the Texas resident, sure. Louisiana, a natural progression therefrom.
Massachusetts. Excuse me? One of these things is not like the others.
There’s no grand explanation, other than that there are many benefits to having a corporate day job based on the East Coast. (Many benefits.) I flew out to Boston for work for half the week in late March, and staying an extra few days to knock out the third on the list seemed a reasonable, providential endeavor.
After all, why shouldn’t I? That has been the practice of my last year, after all. To conceive in my heart a desire, and then simply stretch out my hand and take it, letting the wanting be reason enough. So, I did.
A brief primer on Mount Greylock
Located on Mount Greylock State Reservation, Mount Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts. At 3,491 feet, it’s a reasonably-sized peak for the area, but on the shorter side of the list when it comes to the full 50. During the summer, you can just drive to the top—but I would be going in March, when the roads would still be impassable. (Skiing is popular in the winter in the Berkshires, which surprised my very Southern sensibilities. There’s snow up on them there hills?)
Now, despite the road closures, hiking remains an option all year round. Great! There’s just one catch—you’ll need spikes, or snowshoes. And the best trail for making the summit, Bellows Pipe Trail, is 6.5 miles and considered “a challenging route”.
Navigating the logistics? Hard. Climbing tall stuff? Easy.
I spend a couple paragraphs every time I do one of these trip recaps talking about the logistics of arriving, lodging, transportation, company, and related sundries. It’s much less exciting than, “Hey look, here’s me on a tall thing,” which begs the question of why include it at all.
The answer is that I want to acknowledge what has, historically, been the hardest part of these things for me: Getting there. Talking someone into going with me, affording plane tickets, driving a car that won’t run out of battery in the middle of nowhere, having a work schedule that allows travel in the first place—those are the difficult parts. Climbing tall stuff? Easy.
That said, I’ve gotten a lot better at solo travel in the last year. From the conception of the desire to do so, to the planning (which invariably expresses itself as, “Haha wouldn’t it be funny if I just left the country for a week? Haha, wouldn’t that be a great joke? Haha, I’m buying plane tickets…”), to the execution. I can just do stuff I want to do, without waiting for anyone’s permission. And that’s cool as hell.
Hozier’s latest EP and a spirit of recklessness
For Greylock, I was already in Boston for work, and the entirety of the hiking portion of this trip involved renting a car and driving three hours to a private mountain Airbnb. In a walkable town, no less. Relatively uncomplicated, in the grand scheme of things. The hardest part of that endeavor would be driving out of Boston without murdering any of the fearless pedestrians or ambitious truck drivers that throng the streets. (And to that I say: YOLO.)
So, hopped up on a cocktail of positive post-event emotions, I hit the streets of Boston early on a Thursday, armed with Hozier’s latest EP and a spirit of recklessness. The next three days would be almost entirely spent in solitude—and after the recent rush of socialization, I found myself looking forward to it.
The three hours to the Airbnb passed quickly, after the teeth-clenching stress of exiting the city. Countryside spread out quickly past the city limits, concrete fading away to sprawling trees and winter pastures. I drove winding roads through forests, snowfields, and mist-covered glens, with an odd, growing feeling of realizing that the world does, in fact, look like this. The photographs on the cover of Country magazine at my grandparent’s house as a kid captured real places—like the red barns and fog-covered fields just out my windows.
I reached my Airbnb with time to spare, and had just enough time to walk to the grocery store before dark—another strange, purple occurrence. People live like this, too. Walking places, not spread thin across the world like butter sliding haphazardly across a skillet.
The Texan had much to reflect on.
Snowshoes or spikes? Choose your fighter!
The morning of my climb was simple, straightforward. Alone, I had little to do but eat and dress, take a moment to have coffee by the window on my own sweet time. My hike waited for me, only 15 short minutes away, predicted to only run around four hours, round trip. And I wasn’t in a hurry.
I packed slow, drove slower. No one to rush me. The sun hid behind powdered clouds on the drive, mist weaving in gusts over the winding highway. I passed very few cars. Even just a weekend up here in these wide hills was ghostly, intimately silent.
When I arrived, the trailhead was muddy. Not snow-covered. I immediately had a choice to make: Snowshoes or spikes? I’d used neither before, but packed both in an abundance of caution—and this was unfamiliar terrain. Looking around, there wasn’t much snow on the ground, most melted. Who knew what it would look like higher up, though.
I rolled the dice, and picked up the spikes, leaving the snowshoes in their bag in the car. For better or worse, I almost always choose to travel light.
Imagine Boulevard of Broken Dreams playing loudly in the background
The first mile or so passed simply, a quiet wind upwards on a slick, muddy trail. I was immediately glad that I’d chosen spikes over snowshoes, since hiking involved mostly dragging my boots through slick, slightly-vertical mush. No snow on the trail thicker than an inch or two at most.
And while the parking lot below had held a handful of cars, I didn’t see anyone else on the trail—and wouldn’t for hours.
As I walked, slow and careful up the steep grade upwards, I felt the silence settle over me. The last three days of meetings, airports, and even the joy of other people I’d met peeled away from me, a shed skin sloughed off. People, especially people you immediately share so much with, provide such a fountain of delight. It’s a good thing, community, connection. A dear friend once called it sacred.
But there’s this, too: Walking in slow-piled snow, alone, for what felt like formless hours. Jacketed against 40-degree weather, taking a long slow trail upwards at my own pace. It’s just me, here, in the sweeping wind between naked trees, stripped to the bark for winter. I can hear the streams, thawed for spring, flush with snowmelt, as easy as the beat of my own heart. The gasp of my own breath is just another half-wild sound in the wild around me.
I am so completely, utterly alone. And I’m… happy?
Which is such a powerful thing to become aware of, as a change in one’s self. I’ve spent enough of my life waiting for someone else to do what I want to do. Sure, I still catch myself turning to my side, reflexively looking for someone to share the moment with, finding nothing, no one.
But this is the fact of it: No one else will follow all the places I want to go. Sometimes, these roads are just for me. And being a little lonely on a trail is nothing compared to waiting; and watching your dreams drip away from you.
Coming to you live from the Appalachian trail (briefly)
An hour or so passed without incident, marked only by a distinct increase in snow depth and the clouds collecting in the distance. I passed a small shelter, covered in graffiti, crossed a series of small snowmelt streams. As I got higher on the mountain, the nature of some of these trails as ski trails began to evidence itself—the drifts got deeper, and some sharp bends had me scrambling upwards on my hands and knees through snow piled several feet high.
The Bellows pipe trail is several smaller trails smashed together—and, briefly, includes a section of the Appalachian trail. About two-thirds of the way up, maybe slightly less, you spend a couple bends on the actual Appalachian trail before the summit trail breaks off again.
It felt like foreshadowing, that moment, seeing the sign mundanely directing towards the trail, up and down. One of my big dreams is hiking the whole thing start to finish—and I did think, briefly, of simply heading down that trail and never coming back. Catch ya later, suckers, I return to my people.
But I had to come back and write this essay, at the very least, and continued. One day, trail. One day. I’ll be back.
The clouds, also, continued to pile up overhead, and I did some light mental math about what to do if it rained. Thunder and lightning meant turning around, but rain by itself was tolerable, in my waterproof gear. Nothing on this trail so far had promised anything close to a steep edge or drop-off, so, I’d risk it.
But no rain was forthcoming.
On the last stretch upwards—just as I could see the concrete tower that market the summit looming in the distance, I ran into my first other person of the day. A skier, in short sleeves, waterproof pants, and well-loved skis, slogging upwards to the peak of the slopes. (I assumed a local, based on the attire, and instantly felt overdressed.) I wondered about the feasibility of skiing through the close turns and melting snow below, but he seemed to be having a good time.
We greeted each other, and I quickly passed him in my trek upwards. I noted, as always, the rarity of being a woman alone outside. I often meet men alone, and see women with partners semi-regularly. Women hiking by themselves are few and far between. A fact which saddens me more than I have language to express.
Alone again, as I neared the top, light snow began to fall.
The summit: It’s mostly flat?
Greylock’s summit is a somewhat deceptive thing. You don’t reach a peak, so much as you break out of the trees onto a road. In the summer, you can drive to the top, but here in March, it’s still covered in snow.
Above that road, there’s a short path past an empty lodge and some picnic tables so deep in snow you can barely see the top, and then, finally, a break in the trees reveals the memorial tower.
I waded through the drifted snow, and broke out of the sparse evergreen trees to a large, flat, grassy summit.
The top of Greylock is large, more of a plateau than a peak. From one side, you can see the valley below, and the surrounding mountains spread out in a ring ranging out to the grey-clouded horizon. The sky meets the hills with much the same uniformity as the sky meets the ocean—both are dark grey and lightly menacing, here.
On the other side, Greylock’s 92-ft tall WWI memorial tower scrapes the sky.
This monument, the Veterans War Memorial Tower, resembles a lighthouse, and marks the service of all servicemen and servicewomen from the Commonwealth. In the summer, it’s open to the public, but winter has snow piled a foot in front of the (locked, ask me how I know) door.
I made a loop around the top of the summit, as snow powdered my hair and wind—stronger here than it’d been below the tree line, but not unbearable—bit at my cheeks. The view, blue-ridged and whatever the most complimentary way you can say dreary is, stretched out gorgeous from every angle. Grey, distant, and utterly beautiful.
That’s Greylock, baby.
After about fifteen minutes of trying to take comprehensive pictures of the view for friends, family, and myself—it was time to brave the descent.
Knees are god’s curse to mankind
It is at this point in the journey that I must be honest with y’all—I was doing something very stupid here, with this hike. Two weeks prior to my trip to Boston, I tweaked my bad knee in a jiujitsu round, caught in a heel hook that I didn’t tap to quickly enough. All that week in Boston, I’d been uncharacteristically sedentary, as walking for more than about fifteen minutes at a time sent excruciating pain up that leg. Once irritated, I’d generally have to stay off my feet for a few hours until it subsided… A fantastic injury for one of the most walkable cities in America.
Naturally, at the end of the week, I decided to hike six miles as previously planned.
The good news was that inclines seemed to be better than declines, so getting to the top of Greylock wasn’t an issue. Twenty minutes or so into the decent, however, I became very aware of my poor decision-making. The knee made itself known, compression sleeve or not, loudly. It’s the getting up the mountain that matters, getting down is way less relevant. Right?
After about half an hour into the descent, I stopped for ten minutes to sit in the snow and take painkillers. Snow still drifted down from the sky, and I tilted my head back and closed my eyes. I wasn’t in a hurry, I reminded myself. I had time. I could take it.
I picked up again after a few minutes, resolving to slow my pace, and lean on my poles more. The trail wasn’t going anywhere.
Mission status: SICK
This resolution lasted exactly as long as it took for a metric fuckton of naproxen to kick in—and for the downhill section of ski slopes to appear, unsupervised.
When you have an injury, naturally, you look to minimize stress to that area. Going downhill properly, step by step, would cause strain. Hurling myself bodily down the slope—face-first or primly like a schoolteacher descending a playground slide—would cause less strain to the aforementioned knee. Also, it would be sick.
So, I did. I slipped and slid, thanking the thick waterproof material of my heavy pants for enabling the seal-like gracelessness with which I sent myself downhill. After the first slope, I was deeply grateful for the solitude on the mountain—mostly because no one else was around to hear me cackling with laughter. Yeah, I slid down on my ass. What about it?
That was fun. Just truly, ridiculously fun. It was freeing, that wide-open dearth of company. And that’s so strange.
In the open space beside me where no one walks—I can toss myself downhill without reprimand. I can slide on my ass over snowdrifts and gleefully push the limits of my body with no one to caution me otherwise. It’s a deep inhale, this space to know my own knowledge of my own physical limits. I know what I can take. No one else gets to determine that for me, and no one else truly knows. I get to find and push that ceiling. That’s a gift.
I was on a mountainside, ice-pick deep in snow, and being just so stupid. And having a fabulous time with it.
Back in mud territory
The last hour was defined primarily by two experiences: The constant companionship of stabbing knee pain, and the sudden realization that I started accidentally freestyling my way down the mountain instead of staying on trail. (That happens, when your method of locomotion becomes rolling.) Sorry, signs warning to stay on the trail. I also didn’t want me to be doing that.
When I reached a crossroads I didn’t recognize, I returned to the serious business of getting back alive. A quick check of the map got me back on a route back to the car, with just under half an hour left in the hike. A good thing, too—I was now at “don’t bend it and hope for the best” with my right leg.
I walked, back in mud territory now, so no danger of sliding, the last mile or so back to the trailhead. The snow had stopped, but the sky hadn’t cleared, and the overcast sun felt a long, long way away. I walked quietly at this point, not worn out so much as peaceful. Content that I had done what I came to do.
Silence held, and the wind blew chill. The spirit of play quieted back to reflection.
I’ve felt a lot of strange joys in the last year—and found a lot of strange disappointments, too. In this quest to find what brings joy, what makes the heart beat, there is too an experience of the opposite kind. This does not bring joy, this does not delight. The highs are high, and so too are the lows. This, not that. That, not this.
The feeling in the last leg of that journey was none of those. I felt so little, honestly, I was a little concerned. What’s wrong? Does this not please you, I said to the little gremlin that lives in my brain and makes more decisions than I would like to admit.
But no. This wasn’t discontent I felt—just a quiet, pleasant happiness. No insane joy, no wild high, just the comfortable happiness of doing something I wanted to do.
Alone is enough
It was a quiet, easy thing to get back to my Airbnb on the hill before dark. I showered, made a sandwich, started to upload pictures and shared them with dear friends and family. Their support and enthusiasm rolled in immediately, so precious and palpable. (I laughed at myself a little, seeing it—how could I think I was really alone, even all the way out here, when so much love went with me everywhere?)
Settled on an orange divan under a knitted blanket so sapphire you could cut and mount it, I read and scrolled until the sun went down in a pleasant silence. Sounds filled the twilight: the ache of the radiator a few feet away, the ghost of the wind against the eaves, the creak of the floorboards. So many quiet noises, and my own breath.
Alone, I could hear everything. Alone, I wondered, if I did not fill that moment more fully than I ever might have otherwise.
And in that quiet evening: Alone was enough.