A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With A Thousand Missteps
By Allison Snyder
I gazed at the crane perched fifty-some stories above the muted muddle of lower Manhattan. I swiveled back to scrutinize the rugged, snow-glazed peak that sliced through a circle of clouds. Then back to the concrete wilderness looming on the other side of the windowpane. And again, to the image that had taunted me all morning. Between swigs of coffee and conference calls, it whispered, “You won’t do it.”
And what business did I have thinking that I would do it? Or, that I could do it?
The last seven months had hummed by like a subway train at high speed—I stood on the platform and was slapped by a sour breeze as I watched days skid by in rapid succession. And I had no reason to believe that the coming months would be any different. Where did I think that climbing the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States fit into that?
Not to mention that I’d climbed exactly one mountain in the last decade and knew nothing about glacial travel. But something inside me stirred when I looked at Mount Rainier with its glacial arms stretched across my computer screen, as if beckoning me to step into their embrace. It was, in part, the lingering memories from the seven days I’d spent meandering my way around and then up Mount Kilimanjaro the prior year. That trip had been the first time since my childhood that I’d spent nights blanketed in stars, and days wrapped in wild horizons. And on the summit, I vowed to find my way back to such horizons more often. But then, I returned to New York City, and eight months slipped away.
As I swiveled with one hand on the mouse, I remembered that vow.
I had a date with Rainier in four months.
But March and April skidded by just like that subway train, and by mid-May, I’d all but forgotten about the date. It wasn’t just the blur of my life that kept me from preparing, it was also fear of the unknown—I had no idea how to even begin training for such an endeavor. So I ignored it. Until, Delta nudged me with an email: forty-five days until departure to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Forty-five days! Holy crap! Less than two months!
The climb was no longer a speck on some distant horizon.
I Googled: “How do you train to climb a high glacial peak while living at sea level?”
Google answered: “Hike uphill with a heavy pack.”
I Googled: “Places to hike near Manhattan.”
Google answered: “Breakneck Ridge.”
Three days later, I woke at 5 a.m., laced up my dust-covered hiking boots and heaved a sixty-liter pack weighted with water bottles onto my back. In dawn’s eerie light, I traipsed across midtown as the occasional glittered woman and tousled man meandered homeward after their Friday night had melted into Saturday morning. When I arrived at Grand Central Station, I picked up a coffee and took a seat on the commuter rail. In just over an hour, I disembarked along the Hudson River at Breakneck Ridge.
It was the steepest climb accessible by public transportation. And though I had no map, given its proximity to a major metropolitan area, I assumed the route would be easy to navigate. And it was.
Aside from a sloshing pack—turns out water was not the best thing to weight it with—the day unfolded without a hitch.
I returned the following weekend, with two modifications: I weighted my pack with a twenty-pound bag of Epsom salt (a tip I picked up from a hiker I’d met the prior weekend)—no more sloshing. And I ventured for a longer hike.
I hadn’t planned to go on the longer hike, but when I reached the summit of Breakneck Ridge, I fell into conversation with a man who’d climbed Rainier the prior year. He urged me to explore another trail and assured me that navigation was easy. So on I went, carrying a free informational pamphlet that masqueraded as a map.
My first missed turn was insignificant though it sent me straight into a large bug that I inadvertently swallowed. This just added a small dose of protein and anxiety to my day.
The second missed turn, however, sent me tramping down a steep hillside, through a maze of overgrowth, for a second dose of anxiety that shot through my veins and prickled every nerve along the way.
What was I doing?
Had my navigational instincts been so dulled by years of urban-dwelling that I couldn’t even navigate a well-maintained, well-marked trail?
I looked at the pamphlet. It was useless.
I knew I was going in the wrong direction, but I saw a clearing ahead and hoped that would help me reset. I forged on.
I soon tumbled onto the grounds of a not-yet-opened summer camp. As it turned out, I’d followed the blue blazes directing campers, instead of the blue trail markers directing hikers. I traversed the grassy meadow and came upon two women reclined in Adirondack chairs.
“You lost?” One of them gave me an understanding gaze.
“I am. Do you know how to get back to town?” I pulled on the straps of my backpack and leaned forward to take some of the weight off my shoulders.
“Yeah, the trail’s that way.” She pointed down a dirt road. “But I can give you a ride.”
“Oh no, I have to finish this.” I laughed and looked at my watch to confirm there was still ample daylight.
“I get it. How ‘bout I give you a ride back to the trail? You’re a solid mile away.” She stood up from the chair, anticipating my answer.
“It’s a deal.”
For the next three hours, I second-guessed every turn. Though I soon traveled terrain that I had traveled before, the doubt from earlier missteps clouded my judgment, and confidence. This is how those hours unfolded: I’d succumb to the trail’s beauty, pause on the realization that it’d been some time since I’d seen anyone, worry that I’d taken the wrong trail at the last fork, return to the intersection, realize I hadn’t gone awry, and then retrace my steps until the next intersection.
Dusk was settling in by the time I reached the trailhead.
It hadn’t been graceful, but I had done it. I had found my way out.
On the train bound for Manhattan, I pressed my head against the window and smiled in anticipation of next weekend’s hike. I still didn’t know if I had any business attempting a mountain of Rainier’s stature, but I was pretty sure that I’d find my way out of the wrong turns, doubts, and missteps that were ahead.
AUTHOR: ALLISON SNYDER
In 2016, Allison traded Prada heels, a Manhattan high-rise, and a decade-long pursuit of law firm partnership for running shoes, a used car, and an adventure in the American West. During her travels, she fell in love with Colorado's San Juan Mountains, where she now writes, runs and explores.