After sending off last week’s letter, I raced around the house to finish packing for the climb up Cold Mountain. If you missed the first letter about the trip, the short version is: In addition to being the title of a book by Charles Frazier that was later made into a movie, Cold Mountain is an actual mountain located an hour’s drive from Asheville. It’s a little over ten miles to hike to the summit and back. I went with my friend Z. I’ve written a little about our friendship before (I call her by her first name, Angela, in that essay but when we’re together I almost always call her Z., the initial of her last name). She’s originally from Brockton, Massachusetts, and played on the girls high-school basketball team there back in the day, and she still walks a little like someone who was on the basketball team in Brockton, Massachusetts, in a period when the team was really good. Springy and resilient and fast. Z. and I used to work together at an ad agency, and she’s now a nurse working in a high-intensity unit at the hospital. She is exactly who you’d want to see swinging into your hospital room if you were stuck there—and she’s the sort of friend you can ask to climb Cold Mountain with you if you decided for some reason one summer that that was something you really wanted to do. When we got in the car together last Thursday, she said, “I have everything except a knife. Do you think we’ll need a knife—to skin a deer or something?”
Spoiler 1. We didn’t need a knife! Spoiler 2. We didn’t make it to the top of Cold Mountain. We made it 4/5s of the way up, we later figured out. What we knew then was: we’d been winding around a rim of the mountain for what felt like a very long time and the summit still seemed a long way off. We kept debating. Was the summit just around the corner? It’d be terrible to climb for that long, turn around, and later find out it’d been around the next bend. I had pictured the hike going a certain way—it’d be hard but amazing; we’d get to the top; we’d take some pictures and have a picnic there, sitting at the top looking out over the other mountains. Then we’d hop back down the trail and go home. That was how it was supposed to go.
Meanwhile, it was getting later and later in the afternoon. There was no cell service and so no way to call and tell people we’d be late. The trail was easy to follow, but it was steep and rocky enough in spots that we didn’t want to have to descend any of it in the dark. And while Z. was still springing along, Brockton High style, my legs were cooked. So cooked! 100% spaghetti legs. There’d been so much scrambling up hill and over rocks, they were no longer taking direction. In one section, Z. was up ahead, and I was following behind, all noodle legged and raspy breathed, and I saw something moving in the trees and thought “Is that a bear?” and in that shimmering moment I REALLY DIDN’T CARE IF THE ANSWER WAS YES. Not a single bit. (Lions tigers and bears, I’m too out of breath to care.)
So we turned around. It was disappointing and, in the moment, I had a terrible death knell feeling that turning around meant that I will never finish my book. The two goals—getting up Cold Mountain and finishing the book—felt deeply intertwined; because I’ve been writing and reading so much about Arctic expeditions, journeys and writing are all bound together in my head. That morning before I’d left the house, my husband had said something like, “Don’t do that thing that people on Everest do where they keep going when they should turn back.” I knew what he meant and that it was good advice (“Hey, don’t end up in a Jon Krakauer book, okay?”). I also didn’t want to follow it—it feels narratively messy to turn around. You’re supposed to finish. Or maybe what I mean is, it feels narratively revealing. The part in the account that shows you lack something important in your character, some piece of inner grit or mettle, and that you are going to fail to be a hero in your own story. Not just today, but ultimately.
Five minutes after we turned back, it started to rain. Then to rain harder and harder. Lots of thunder too. Z. pulled two ponchos out of her daypack (she had packed everything!). We put them on. It kept raining. I stepped too close to the edge of the trail and sort of slip-skidded down the side of the mountain. Scrambled back up to the trail. Walked along some more. Stepped too close to the edge again. Slid down the side of the mountain. Scrambled back up. (Z.: “You’re going to give me a heart attack.”) We kept walking. It kept raining. The trail was no shorter and no less slippery-rocked on the way down than it’d been on the way up. My fancy waterproof boots filled with water and began making squelching fart sounds, which made me think of the Dorothy Parker line, “I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.” Me too, except unhappily in my own farty, horrible boots. Although, when I thought about it, I wasn’t unhappy. I realized as we were tromping along that stretch that I was, in some ways, very happy, if tired and muddy and a little wary of sliding off the side of the mountain again. It was beautiful out there, with no one around. I liked all the trees which were the kinds you only see when you get way up, and all the green, green rhododendron (so much rhododendron on Cold Mountain!), and the snail we saw when we were going up and coming down that I named Bert. I liked how we looked like PacMan ghosts in our clear plastic ponchos. I liked sitting on a rock when the rain finally stopped to eat a late lunch of warm Brie and Pringles. I liked bellowing jokes back and forth with Z. and making each other laugh.
So that’s the Cold Mountain report. I tried. I didn’t make it. It took two showers to get all the mud off. I banged up a knee and have a few surprising bruises. I had a great time. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I’m ready to keep going in my own horrible sneakers.
The dispatch about “The Summer People” of Shirley Jackson and Kelly Link is now up over at Longreads! (Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin was good enough to answer some fact-checking questions and so what’s up there reflects more accurate information about when Jackson wrote “The Lottery” and “The Summer People.”)
Also at Longreads, and related to this week’s letter, Emily Perper has assembled a reading list of seven excellent hiking stories. She writes in her introduction of wanting to get into hiking to show herself that she can “rise to the occasion of living”—which, yes! That’s exactly it. And finally—and spectacularly—if you haven’t already been following along on Twitter with writer Rahawa Halle’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, you can catch up here. (One favorite thread: The pictures of books by “brilliant black authors” she’s left at various trail shelters.) As of yesterday, she had made it to Manchester, Vermont!
Until next week,
if you see Bert tell him I say hey,
p.s. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter and would like to, go here.
Black Cardigan Edit