I have loved the Adirondacks from the first time I experienced them almost three decades ago, thanks to my sister, Susan, who showed them off to me when she lived in Montreal. I love the smell of balsam in the air when you enter the small town where we stay and take Susan’s cue to roll down the window and stick my head out like a Labrador retriever — taking it all in, one inhale at a time. I love that most of the businesses that line the main street in town have not changed and the waitresses at the Noonmark Diner are still not friendly and the pies are still good.
On my most recent visit, Susan and I stayed at the same inn where I had stayed during one of my first visits to Keene Valley— The Trail’s End Inn, a 1902 Adirondack lodge that sits at the end of a long dirt road with views of mountains and trailheads within walking distance. Iconic, picturesque, and once you’ve stayed there a few times, you get to add “home” to that list. There are several other lodging options and another favorite is the Dartbrook Lodge, where I’ve stayed a few times. It has a grouping of log cabins with large front porches and interiors that look like Ralph Lauren had his hand in the decorating decisions. Not one detail of the interior, or exterior for that matter, had been overlooked. It was my idea of absolute decor perfection, Adirondack style. As beautiful as the cabins were in their rustic, aged, distressed, bent-willow style, I prefer the creaking floors and lumpy mattresses to the Navajo inspired rugs, large stone fireplaces and beds with down comforters. Maybe because it holds so many memories for me and as much as I love walking into a hand-hewn log cabin whose decor I’ve tried to emulate in places I’ve lived, give me mismatched quilts, bad water pressure and lumpy mattresses. Especially when those lumpy mattresses are in a screened in sleeping porch that is so devine that not sleeping in it is simply not an option, even if that means going to bed in your coat.
When Susan and I started making plans for the Adirondacks portion of my visit to see her in Massachusetts, my only request, besides our lodging, was to hike Rooster Comb. I wanted to revisit the trail that had challenged me every time I’ve been on it, even though Susan insists it is not a hard hike. Out of the many hikes I’ve been on in the Adirondacks, I have the most history with Rooster Comb. Actually, my family has the most history with Rooster Comb. My son-in-law proposed to my daughter at the top of Rooster Comb, I earned a 3 inch scar just below my left knee when I slipped on a mossy piece of granite on the way down once and my family has all done the hike and probably more than once.
And so we did just that. After the rain had cleared, kind of, we made our way up the trail, a gradual climb that one local guide book refers to as a “relentless uphill hike.” After almost four years of hiking a few times a week, I now have a better grasp of the assent of a trail’s relationship to distance to determine difficult and with 1,900 feet of assent and only 4.7 miles to cover that assent, I now understand my years of whining about the difficulty of the trail. There’s only one tiny stretch that is level and every inch of that level feels welcoming. Susan said I’d feel differently about Rooster Comb after hiking as many miles as I have in Colorado, and with altitude, which is why I needed the revisit. I needed to know if what my memory had been telling me all these years (probably 10 since I last hiked it), was accurate.
The weather was perfect—cloudy, with a few sporadic raindrops and neither hot nor buggy. I remember doing the hike one August several years ago with bandanas that we had tied onto our faces from our necks to just below our eyes because of the annoying swarms of black flies. But on this journey up Rooster Comb, the black flies stayed away. They’d make their appearance later in the summer.
When we got to the huge rock with the tree growing up and around it, Susan told me we were half way. Already? The guidebook was right that it was an uphill hike, but relentless? Hardly. When we got to the top, we didn’t even bother to get comfortable and start fishing snacks out of our packs because the gnats were thick. Better than black flies, but not great. We did linger long enough though to take in the incredible views — softer and gentler than the rocky views I’m used to but just as spectacular and grand in their beauty. The revisit felt good and my return as a seasoned hiker became a measure of not only the strength I’ve gained in my last few years of hiking, but my patience as well. We only passed a few other hikers and Susan hiked ahead of me, as she always does as her pace is faster than mine. We’d stop periodically to share something we had thought of (or so I could catch up), but most of the conversations that morning were with myself, inside my head as I tried to absorb what every mountain trail tries hard to tell me and that is to slow down, have a closer look and enjoy the incredible gifts that nature is offering up that so often go unnoticed. That morning I noticed.
I was mindful of my steps as we neared the end of the trail, when legs tend to get wobbly and sharp mossy rocks are tripped over, leaving scars as memories. When I fell on one of those mossy rocks, 15 years ago, I was wearing shorts and my leg was bleeding so badly that I took the bandana off of my head and tied it on my leg like a tourniquet, although I knew nothing about tying tourniquets, but it kept the blood out of my socks. I remember both of us laughing, I mean really laughing, with Susan taking her cue from me that it was OK to laugh after seeing I was OK, because for some reason, falling is funny, whether on a slick floor or a mossy rock. We patched the cut up when we got back to our room and I made the hasty and probably unwise decision to not go to an emergency room for stitches, given the scar I have today. But as Chris Cleave says in his book “Little Bee,” scars are reminders that we survived. My reminder is front and center for me, where I see it so often that I no longer see it, short of a random reminder to slow down around wet, mossy rocks.
It rained all night and we slept in twin beds, with our beds pushed up against the screens — a familiar sleeping arrangement for us that dates back to our childhood. There was a roof overhang, so we didn’t get rained on, but I don’t think even the rain would have stopped us. We probably would have just pushed our beds away from the window and stayed on the porch. The bed in the room on the other side of the sleeping porch, remained unused. It was two of the best night’s sleeps I’ve gotten in a long time. According to my fit bit, 10 hours of good sleep. Susan thinks they should use the room for sleep deprived people — a sleep clinic that would offer guarantees of a good night’s sleep, especially if there was rain in the forecast.
There are some places that just get under your skin and crawl their way right into your soul. They find their way into your happiest day dreams and become the backdrop to so many scenes where stories are told both out to others and silently to yourself. Keene Valley, New York and the Trail’s End Inn are two of those places for me. This most recent visit felt different though, almost like an itch that was finally getting scratched. I started thinking about solo writing retreats and tucking myself into the sleeping porch with a notebook and a pen and a steaming cup of tea on the night stand with the coziness of a Rosamunde Pilcher novel. I’m not sure why I haven’t done it before. Maybe because I have had so much fun with Susan on our Keene Valley trips, a place she knows well having rented a cottage there for weekends of hiking when she lived in Montreal. I have no doubt that my itch of my own pieced together writing retreat will get scratched and the views, the sounds of the early morning birds and the gentle breeze that holds the scent of balsam will be my fodder for words on the page. If I’m lucky, it will rain every night because getting to sleep in a screened-in sleeping porch with the background sounds of a gentle rain, is just about as good as life gets.