July 15, Tuesday
A much better rest and my eyes are open to watch the sunrise. The peaks obscure any view of the orb, but the pink hits the clouds as the mist disperses, and there’s a quadrant of pastels on the surface of the lake.
This is the last day for all of us. The Maryland crew rise early, groaning and stretching, sticking to a cold breakfast of candy bars and nuts. They have a seven-hour drive ahead of them.
I hang back, watching them pack. I offer to take a picture of them, and when they’re suited up (complete with machete) I borrow one guy’s Nikon and snap a few shots of the lake and Mount Colden behind.
I shake their hands as they pass. “Thanks. Take it easy. Thanks for the stuff.”
They smile and wave and I can hear them joking and laughing as the trail rounds the lake, then that is gone as well.
I linger, writing in my journal, till around ten o’clock when a young guy comes by, inquiring about the lean-to. I let him know it’s available; I’m just slow to get a move on.
I finally pack up and head out around 10:30, heading north around the lake through Avalanche Pass, and the Loj, roughly six miles away.
The day quickly grows warm, even more perfect than the last. Sunny, with the deepest blue skies.
Avalanche Lake sits between the rocky shoulders of Algonquin and Colden, steep faces of exposed rock on the walls. The trail hugs close to the rock, in places jutting out over the water with constructed wooden planking bolted in to the very cliff side. The steeper traverses also include ladders and planks, and the entire stretch resembles some sort of backcountry obstacle course, or as Hank (one of the Marylanders) said – Eliminator challenge from American Gladiators. It’s fun and picturesque but straining.
At the far side of the lake a pile of dead wood looms above the trail in an enormous, misshapen pile. This is how the pass gets its name – an entire section (acres) of forest shorn from the slopes of Colden, ravaged by a wave of relentless snow. (I find out later it was actually rain during a Hurricane).
I can see the line of trees, the bare cliff side that was swept clean. And even in the heat of July, I can imagine the late winter day when the cornice on the ridge breaks and the thousands of tons come roiling down, the sound of a thousand cracking tree boughs, the entire white crackling mess moving down the mountainside. I can imagine the resounding boom, the settling of the ice crystals, screeching of winter avians as the mass settles into the cleft of the valley.
And I recall again the life cycle of mountains – and this too part of that chain. On a scale much larger than the cycle of seasons or rainstorms, but just as vital.
The exposed rock will be worn by the wind and rain, perhaps decay, reshaping the contours of the mountain. And the detritus of leaves and underbrush will fill in those cut chambers and topsoil will accumulate, and eventually, a hundred or two years, the slope will once again be covered in forest.
Beyond Avalanche Pas the trail flattens out, wide and smooth, devoid of jutting rocks. There are makeshift stairs up steep slopes and bridges over dips. Pretty much a highway.
I follow a meandering creek, wide and gurgling slow in the sun, and there are many lean-tos, roofs thatched with greening moss, overgrown fields with pure views to the summits.
Not far is old wooden Marcy Dam, hemming in a small man-made lake with pristine views of the ridgeline, the scar of Avalanche.
There are children here, old couples, pregnant ladies, teenagers in flip-flops and fishing poles. One of them exults as a catfish flops from his line, laughing at the thing no bigger than his hand. The scene is nearly stunning in all its collected beauty, the clarity of nature under the illumination of direct light, and I nearly tear up taking it in, and I must continue on into the forest.
Only a few miles left to go, and I lean into my pack straps, tromping the highway of sandy trail. The clean and beaming families I pass gawk at my dirty, unshaven face, raw, scarred shins, the bulk of my gear. I greet all with a courteous hello. Only a handful return it.
Less than a mile from the trailhead, I take off my pack, swig water and finish the remainder of a Snickers. The forest is wide and shaded, but the sun still splotches the brown of the earth. There are no sounds but birdsong.
I pause for a long moment, committing the scene to memory, the entire long trip off it. This is it.
This was it.
And then around the bend a clomping line of backpackers, fresh faced, their gear shiny and clean. I nod and bid them well – and then it is time to move on – move on out.
I drive into Lake Placid, hoping for a burger and a beer. The town looks like it’s on holiday, crowds on main street, the prime tourist stretch of lakeside restaurants and trinket shops. I continue on to a public beach and boat launch – where a small cluster of kids splash in the water, cannonball off a floating dock, the adults sunbathing.
Lake Placid pub and brewery is across the street, and I settle into a seat at the bar – order a Smokin’ Blonde Ale from the bartender, pretend to watch Sportscenter, but mostly just marvel at the wonders of civilization.
An hour later, two beers and a burger, I shuffle out to the car. The sun is still beaming, the most perfectly imaginable summer day.
I stop twice to take pictures, buzzing. A private soybean patch, lined with rows of wildflowers and overgrown grasses, the green of the high peaks beyond.
And then, later on, a red barn out in the sea of grasses and flowers. There’s a framing tree and hints of mountains beyond, but it is that red barn, its sunken roof and dusty empty windows that draw me in.
I step out of the car, out into the field. I sink to my hips in long amber grasses, the tops gone to wheat, surging in a breath of air. I squint, trying to find the perfect angle of the barn. Sundrunk, I blink away tears, and the cool wet joins the sweat on my cheeks and I am overwhelmed with joy.
The stresses of tomorrow will indeed come, but there has been a respite in this place, a return to the empty set, the place where the spirit can grow, and I can live with conscious purpose again.