Adirondacks

It was love at first sight. When it happened, I was too young to have ever had been in a serious relationship before, but I knew it was the real thing. When we were apart, I thought about nothing else. When we were together, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I would anxiously count down the days until our next reunion, my heart rate accelerated and my eyes filled will happy tears whenever I caught that first glimpse after time spent apart.

I don’t know exactly when first sight was (I couldn’t have been older than two years old). But like most of us who desperately follow this blog from busy offices or cluttered houses with our camping gear piled in the garage collecting dust, I am hopelessly in love with the Adirondacks, and my life would be on a very different path if we had never met.

Adirondacks High PeaksThey say distance makes the heart grow fonder… perhaps that is why I continuously find myself creating more distance. I had finally moved to the Adirondacks halfway through college to work for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and live in a tent at the Heart Lake Program Center. At the end of the season, I realized that someone who found such pure happiness in the outdoors would be miserable in one of the largest cities in the world, so I cancelled my study abroad semester in London and hurriedly changed the destination to New Zealand. When I returned to work my second season with ADK, the High Peaks that were a mere third of the size of the mountains I had spent the previous months on were more spectacular than ever.

Two years later, I continue to maintain our relationship from a distance, returning for short spurts of bliss when possible. I fled to the High Peaks the very second after turning in my last undergraduate paper, and before driving my small car across the country to work as an interpreter in the vast desert of Arches National Park. When I drove back east, I stopped in my parents’ town long enough to take a GRE exam, and hoped right back in the car after clicking “submit” for five more hours to the High Peaks. My second-to-last day on the east coast before moving to Kodiak, Alaska, in the fall of 2013, I climbed Mt. Jo for my last look at Heart Lake to reflect on all the places that landscape has inspired me to explore.

Now as a graduate student in northern Utah with thesis work that will keep me bouncing between the powder-filled mountains of the west and the lush, jagged peaks of Kodiak for the next two years, my apartment holds a highlighted map of the High Peaks, a few empty imported bottles of Ubu Ale, and a framed personal photo of Marcy Dam two weeks after Hurricane Irene. The people I encounter in the new, incredible places that pull me away from my first true home often question my ongoing relationship with the Adirondacks. “High” peaks that don’t even get close to 6,000 feet? Only a handful of summits that put you above tree line? What’s so great about that?

It’s not their fault, they haven’t been to our favorite place. They don’t know the way the wind feels on the exposed summit of Wright, the way the breeze sounds rushing through the balsam firs surrounding Heart Lake, the way slipping into that lake during a rain storm allows one to witness water from the heavens merging at eye-level in a misty pitter-patter with the depths bellow, or how the deep chains of lakes and rivers hold stories beyond our imaginations. They don’t understand the full sense of deprivation. Missing the Adirondacks is not just an emotional sensation; I believe it is fully possible to have physical chemistry with a place. As soon as I cross the blue line, I breathe differently, my senses are more alert, my limbs tingle with excitement and I am able to run faster and hike further than I can anywhere else. I find my body yearning for the Adirondacks when I’m away. The peaks, as most of us know, are no stroll up a western switchback or clamber across an open Alaskan ridgeline. The boulder fields and rock slides of the High Peaks demand our entire bodies and minds, asking us to have faith in rocks and roots as we scramble through the trees and trust our feet to navigate obstacles on the way back down.

There is one more aspect of the Adirondacks that I begin to understand more fully each time I leave. The wild west is vast and often uninhabitable, leaving us with semblances of open space. The ocean surrounding Kodiak Island is unforgiving and harsh, leaving an island filled with authentic, hard-working people. The Adirondacks on the other hand, could have easily been plowed flat, harvested for timber until none remained, and transformed into the world of chain restaurants and suburbia that is taking over other parts of the state. But in an act of grace, we didn’t do it. We consciously decided to maintain a world where you can climb to the top of a peak and see few impacts of humans. In doing that, we consciously decided to facilitate moments where we return to an ancient human condition, remembering where we came from, who we are, what our place is in the world. We didn’t fill our mountains with ski resorts and developments because we kept them forever wild. That decision alone is more spectacular than desert and ocean and 14,000 foot mountains combined.

So if it is true love, why leave? When the time is right to settle for good, I’ll know. But for now, the strength in my relationship with the Adirondacks is the new places it inspires me to explore, and knowing that upon our reunions, nothing will have changed. I have faith in this stability because I am not the only one in love with this place. In addition to those of us who have to plan timed visits home to the mountains, there are people who work every day to protect the Adirondacks for us, for our future generations, for our wildlife, for humanity. Here we find the importance of supporting organizations like ADK, or voting in New York elections, or signing petitions to protect our wilderness.

The Adirondacks taught me to stay calm in chaos, to keep hiking when my legs feel that they have nothing left, to treat bears with respect, to fight for the world as it should be. Some dream of living there in retirement or aspiring to be a modern day Anne LaBastielle writing from a remote cabin, others rely on their weeks of summer vacation to regenerate in this space, and others still may rarely get to cross into the blue line, but sleep more soundly just knowing that it’s there. We return because the Adirondacks absorb our anxious footsteps, they lull us to sleep with North Country breezes, they allow us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves. In today’s transient world we have the ability to love and grow in a lot of places, but home, my friends, is where the heart [lake] is. Here’s hoping that the upcoming holidays, in one way or another, brings us all home.

Jacqueline Keating

Jacqueline Keating worked for the Adirondack Mountain Club in the High Peaks Information Center during the summer seasons of 2011 and 2012.  Jacqueline has worked for the Student Conservation Association in Arches National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Kodiak Island, AK. the past two years.  She is now working on her graduate degree in Logan, Utah.   Jacqueline enjoys running, hiking, cross-country skiing, writing and photography.