I was five when I decided it – decided that I would climb all the mountains in the Adirondacks that were over 4,000 feet (there are 46) before I was fifteen. And so waking up on a windy, gray day nine years later to hike up my final one, I was filled with pride. My legs were strong after a summer of hiking, and so we climbed quickly to the top, hoping it wouldn’t rain. I scrambled up the last part alone, a little bit ahead, willing myself not to look around, not yet, not yet, not until I had touched the little brass USGS disk marking the highest place on the mountain – the true summit. I touched it, and turned around, the wind pulling my hair out of my ponytail and snapping it into my sweaty face. And then I let myself look around, down off the summit of Basin Mountain, let myself look around at all the other mountains, knowing that at some point between when I was five and right now, I had stood at the summit of each of them. From this distance, they looked wild, and beckoning, and familiar – somehow all at the same time. They stretched as far as I could see, and I remembered seeing this view for the first time, half a lifetime earlier, atop my first high peak, Cascade, and thinking that I was seeing the whole world.
I love that world – I think I become a better person when I put on a pack and start walking. It’s simpler in the woods. I don’t have to worry about makeup, or clothes – I don’t care that there’s sweat all over my face (which I probably haven’t washed in days), or that I smell horrible, or that half my tan will wash off in the shower. In the woods, I simply worry about water and food, and whether I’ll find a flat place to put my tent at night. And so when I do put on a pack and start walking, I shed the other pack I usually carry, one that sometimes feels even heavier – full of teenage superficiality, of doubt, of uncertainty. In the woods, you simply can do it, or you can’t. And if you can, you feel as though you can do anything.
I know, now, that the Adirondacks are not the whole world – but standing alone on top of Basin, looking across at the sea of mountains stretching as far as I could see, I was standing on top of the world. On top of a better world.