Emily Lord's Forest Journal: Don't let frustration keep you off the trail

By EMILY LORD June 29. 2018 6:15PM
From her starting point at the Katahdin Stream Campground, Emily Lord gained 4,162 feet in just 5.2 miles when she tackled Maine's Mount Katahdin on her first hike. It took her a while to appreciate the accomplishment. (EMILY LORD/FOREST SOCIETY)

Fortunately, there wasn't a soul around to witness my first mental breakdown on a trail. It happened on my first hike, when I was a college freshman at the University of Maine in Orono. On a cool, sunny day in early October, I broke in my trail legs on the highest mountain in my home state, Mount Katahdin.

After hiking for a few hours, my muscles ached and my mind started mulling over increasingly anxious questions, like "Why did I get myself into this?" and "Am I going to die today?"

I had just reached the "false summit," which is a mountaineering term for a peak that looks deceivingly like the pinnacle of a mountain during your approach. As it turned out, the summit for Katahdin was still a mile away. My heart sank and the tears flowed. While I contemplated collapsing on the mountain, my feet somehow kept moving. To motivate myself, I chanted "left" as I stepped with my left foot. I didn't even have enough energy for the "left, right, left" mantra, but I still made it to the top.

Nearly 14 years later, I'm in New Hampshire, and I still get this feeling - albeit to a lesser degree. Most recently, I went hiking to see the views from Mount Crosby and Bald Knob in Groton. While I planned my route with an estimated hiking time of 3 to 3.5 hours, visions of rolling mountains and blue lakes danced across my imagination.

I arrived at the trailhead for Cockermouth Forest, one of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests' more than 185 reservations, and made my way along the woods roads leading to Crosby Mountain State Forest. I didn't panic this time, but I did get frustrated. I second-guessed a junction and followed a wildlife trail through a field, getting my feet wet from the morning dew and picking up a few ticks on the way.

The sheep laurel in bloom on Bald Knob in Groton could be as impressive as the view from the peak. (EMILY LORD/FOREST SOCIETY)

Later, I groaned at my choice to approach the first summit from a trail called the "Beeline Trail." There are many fall-line trails like this in New England. People created them a long time ago when they only cared about one thing: getting to the top as directly as possible, no matter how difficult the climb.

My hiking frustrations were not enough to dissuade me from continuing, however. Once a woman stopped me on my return hike to ask, "Is it worth it?" It was a relatively short trail to an alpine lake - in other words, an introvert's nightmare. I had arrived to a packed parking lot earlier in the day and passed many people on the popular trail. I wondered, weren't all those people evidence that the view would be "worth it?"

I think I simply gave her an enthusiastic "yes," but I might have said, "Have you ever walked somewhere without noticing how you got there?"

That question was on my mind during my hike at Cockermouth Forest. I've been listening to a meditation called "mindful walking" using a smartphone app that has helped me in the same way my own instincts helped me back on Mount Katahdin years ago. It works like this: pay attention to each step and use all your senses to observe the world around you. That doesn't mean my thoughts about the day ahead vanish or my ruminations about the annoying bugs disappear. Instead, I acknowledge whatever is distracting me, allow it to pass, and then focus back on the rise and fall of my feet. It brings me back to the here and now.

This practice helped me appreciate more about my hike at Cockermouth Forest and Mount Crosby. I tasted the sweetness of wild strawberries along the woods road. As the trail climbed over rocky ledges, I picked up the smell of the spruce-fir trees, a pleasant, Christmas-y scent. On the way back to my car, I heard to the ethereal call of a hermit thrush echo through the forest.

The summits of Mount Crosby and Bald Knob were still my end goal, and I made it to both. You might ask, was it worth it? Well, I don't peak bag and tell anymore. You'll have to decide for yourself.

- - - - -

This summer, the Forest Society is leading a series of hikes to destinations from the White Mountains to the Seacoast that feature "fabulous views." 

Each hike, guided by Forest Society staff and volunteers, will help you discover places you can return to on your own.

Pre-registration for the walks is required, and more information can be found at ForestSociety.org.

Emily Lord manages the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests' online and social media presence. Contact her at elord@forestsociety.org or on Instagram/Facebook @forestsociety. Forest Journal appears biweekly.

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