Sunday, August 29, 2010

Basin & Saddleback

If it looks like Meredith and I are at the edge of a cliff on Saddleback Mountain, it's because we are. And why are we giddy with joy? Because we survived the climb up the cliff and lived to see the top! Picture a 300' wall at a 70 degree angle, and we have to go up it with no rock climbing gear or boulder experience. I'm serious. This was the scariest, most death-defying hour of our lives. Sure, we look composed here, but our knees were still shaking.

I had read about the "ledge" on Saddleback and that some people (especially women under 5'10" according to two websites) freaked out a little,...oh, and also that one false move could mean a fall to certain death. Nobody said this ledge was a straight-up wall. And here's the real kicker--I had done this before. As a teenager, my father and I had hiked from Basin to Saddleback with full loaded backpacking gear. All I remembered was that it was really hard and that I said at the time that I would never to do it again. Now that Meredith "needed" Basin and Saddleback for her 46 peaks, I figured it couldn't be all that bad.

When I read the blogs and online advice, I rationalized: my father had taken me there--would he have jeopardized the life of his teenage daughter and "hikin' buddy?"; also, having hiked 36 of the high peaks, I decided that Meredith and I had experience enough to handle doing these; 46er friends of mine agreed that online information can be extra-cautionary because people with no knowledge or experience are reading them; and finally, wouldn't I remember if I had been scared out of my skin when I hiked this previously? Well, talk about selective memory!

Meredith and I backpacked in 3.5 miles and camped near Johns Brook Lodge on Friday. Saturday morning, I felt great beginning the day with temperatures in the 40s, a clear atmosphere and predictions of 70 degrees by mid-day. Just my kind of hiking weather. The hike up Basin was predictably difficult where we hauled on tree roots to get up innumerable rock scrambles. Views at the top were breathtaking. The entire great range and beyond stood out crisp in the late-morning sun. As we descended Basin and headed toward Saddleback, I determined that the upcoming ledge was nothing to worry about. From the Basin trail, we could see the rocks on Saddleback with a few people at the top.

Our first clue that the ledge was really a slab of straight-up rock came as we stood at its base. A woman, near tears, had only a short descent remaining, and cried out for her husband to catch her. Next a couple of very nimble 30-something men came down, saw us studying how to get started up, and offered to give us a hand for the first couple of ledges. Although grateful for their help, now we were 20 feet off the ground on precipitous footing, knowing we had to go up and unable to go back down if we had chosen to.

The man who had helped us pointed to a group of half a dozen men on their way down who, he said, would give us another hand. We turned and saw them, on all fours, faces tense, one man with his backpack on his chest to keep it from bumping him forward in a roll down the rock. One man coached the others, all of whom had fear written across their faces. They would not be helping us go up--it took all their concentration just to take care of themselves. We stood, our eyes glued to their progress. When one of the men passed us, he tried to give us tips, but we could tell that he really hoped that he wouldn't, moments later, watch us tumble from higher up into a bundle of broken bones.

All of a sudden everyone was gone. Meredith and I stood alone on a thin edge of rock. It is hard to describe how we made it to the top. Sometimes there was the smallest notch in the rock that became a hand-hold, or the slightest indentation that had to keep a boot in place as we hauled ourselves up. If the boot slipped, or the hand lost its strength, we knew we would hurl hundreds of feet. And where there was a crack in the rock, we wedged a boot and tried to find a notch for our hands.

One spot, the size of a chair seat pad, allowed me to rest a minute turned forward. Like the man before, I put my backpack on my chest and was able to go a few feet up on my bottom, but then how to turn around, and get the backpack back on my back without its weight throwing off my balance and sending me to the base, no longer visible beneath the rock? And was each step the right one? What if we made it up one section, only to come to another that was insurmountable from that location? Each decision literally held do-or-die significance. We could not lose focus for a second.

Meredith and I stayed a distance apart. At one point, I said to her, "I can't believe that I am one of the people freaking out." She agreed. My legs began to shake. I couldn't watch her. What if my precious daughter fell to her death?

Finally, somehow, I reached the final stretch, and saw rocks that began to level out. I shouted to Meredith. When I could, I turned around. She was not visible below the sheer cliff edge. I thought about watching to see her head appear, but couldn't. She might still fall. Instead I kept going. At last, she was on the level ground too. At the top, a young couple that we had met on Basin said that this was the scariest and hardest thing they had ever done. The young man took our picture and understood our giddy relief.

When they left, we went to higher more secure ground to have our lunch. We were still shaking. Meredith's hands trembled as she held her peanut butter sandwich. A few young men came up from behind us, arriving at the summit from the trail that we would descend. They looked over the edge of the cliff and decided to go back the way they had come.

The view was stupendous. We could see nearly all of the peaks we had hiked over the years. A few lakes and marshes glimmered in the valleys below. We stayed at the top for a while, regaining our composure, glad for our safety, and wondering that most people do actually summit Saddleback this way. After a while, we started down the opposite side to Johns Brook.

Meredith and I had made the wonderful decision to spend our second night at Johns Brook Lodge, rather than in our tent. Evening discussions at the lodge always center on where everyone had hiked that day. A quartet of 30-something men, all fairly tall which athletic builds had done Basin and Saddleback. There were unanimous as they said, "I have never been so afraid in my life; I love to hike, but I hated that; I don't know how I did it; One false move and I would have been dead; It's the scariest thing I have ever done; I'm mentally and physically exhausted." When we discussed hand-holds and footing, they nodded and regaled us with similar predicaments. Hearing these strong young guys admit to abject terror certainly validated our experience!

At breakfast the next morning, they were still talking about it. We all felt like we had come back from a test of survival. Sure, there are those men and women, like the two nice guys who helped us up the first rock, who are like Spiderman, or who have rock-climbing skills, but for the rest of us caught between going up and going down, the risk of dire injury is too high. I may have forgotten this from when I hiked Saddleback as a 16 year-old, (or, as one friend told me, 16 year-olds are fearless, and I trusted my very capable father), but the memory is with me this time, along with a surprisingly few scratches, bruises, and a couple of tender muscles.

Basin and Saddleback are always billed as a pair, like Algonquin and Wright, Skylight and Gray, Street and Nye. If done separately, as two different trips, hikers could avoid going directly from Basin to Saddleback, yet I know of only one person who did them this way. And he separated them based on what other trails he wanted to hike, not out of any particular knowledge of the terrain. If aspiring 46ers ask me, I will tell them how to bag Basin and Saddleback on safer trails. Meredith now has 32 peaks to my 36.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Maggie's Community

My friend, Maggie, and I rode in her SUV on a one-lane dirt road like Thelma & Louise, murmuring sounds of near ecstasy as we sampled the chocolates we had just bought at a local Amish farm. Okay, not quite Thelma & Louise, we were two 50-something women licking our chocolaty fingers on a warm summer day.

I had gone to visit Maggie at her western Schenectady County property where she and Joe were building their dream house. "It's a construction site, you know," Maggie had told me on the phone. "I know," I had replied, but I admit that I was unprepared for just how much was left to be done. Long ago Maggie had explained that Joe was building the house himself, and did not take out loans to do it. He worked, saved money, bought building materials, worked on the house until he needed more money, worked, saved money....

Now after a number of years, here Maggie sat in her wheeled walker, while I pulled up a plastic outdoor chair, amidst buckets and boards in what would someday be a kitchen. The house had fabulous potential--the beginnings of a great room with fireplace were taking shape, the back of the house went into the hillside for storage and energy efficiency, and all the building materials had been chosen with environmentalism in mind.

"But it's not a dream anymore," Maggie explained after I arrived. "I can't live here. Look at me, I can't walk around outside. And for Joe, the ongoing work here has become a burden."

I remembered the first time that I had come here, Maggie and I had walked the property, crossed the road to the waterfall, and expected days ahead in the woods and meadow. Lipidema had taken over her health; now she looked towards retirement and moving to a dryer climate.

"Anyway," Maggie said after we had spent an hour catching up from our last visit, "what should we do? Do you want to go eat at the diner? Or should we visit the Amish farms? Take a ride?"

We drove down her wooded lane, framed in lush green, and into the adjacent rolling farmland of Montgomery County. In minutes we saw signs by the main road advertising fresh produce, homes and barns free-standing without connecting power lines, and buggies next to the barns. Maggie pulled into the Yoder's farm, where a sign said "fresh corn." "We'll wait a minute," she said. "They know my car and pretty soon a group of children will come out of the house."

In fact, one teenage daughter came out in her plain navy blue dress and lace bonnet, and leaned in when I rolled down my window. "What do you have, today, Laura?" Maggie asked. "Do you have bread?" Maggie turned to me and said, "they make the best whole wheat bread."

"Aw, no," Laura responded in a sing-song voice with an accent part European and part Southern twang. "It's too hot. We can only make what we need. It's too hot to make bread to sell." After more discussion of what was available from the garden, I decided that I would take some beets. Laura tramped off and pulled up four beets for me. Fresh produce, for sure! I got out of the car and walked to a picnic table, covered with tomatoes, and brought a few back for Maggie. A child's face peeked out between the curtains of the house window and I waved to her.

With her gift of always finding a level for friendly conversation, Maggie asked, "Hey, do you still have that dog I gave you?" In animated discussion Laura told the entire saga of how the dog did not like girls and women but was doing well with a man and his son who lived nearby, finally ending her story with, "but do you know an English woman came here, and the dog liked her!"

We drove a few miles to another Yoder farm. In the cellar entryway, a half dozen children in plain clothes, bonnets or straw hats, ages about 2 to 13 were playing. All but two boys, one about 7, the other about 13, scattered as we pulled up. Very businesslike, the older boy approached the car and asked what we would like. I got out and picked up two cucumbers. Maggie requested 3 green peppers which the little boy promptly picked from the garden, and a dozen eggs that the older boy brought straight from the hen house.

In her usual easy manner, Maggie asked the younger boy, "Isn't this a hot summer? Is this the hottest summer you've ever seen?" The little boy responded, "no." "Really? This isn't the hottest summer? It sure is the hottest summer I've ever seen." He remained quiet and serious. Maggie began to tease the boys that the cow sounds we heard had to be one of the boys bellowing. Neither one played along. Finally, in the car, Maggie pulled out her wallet to pay, and said, "oops I don't have any money!" At this, the older boy caught her joke, and exclaimed with a broad smile, "Well, then we can't let you have any food!" We all shared a laugh, Maggie gave him her money, and we drove away. "You wait," she said, "the next time they get together, they will all be talking about the English that came to their houses!"

Our third stop was Yoder's Woodworking. A 30-something young man, Bennie, with full red beard, hurried to the car and offered a hearty welcome. After some pleasantries, Maggie discussed business with him, telling how Joe would be over to get the wood he had requested, but not until he had earned more money. Bennie, in suspendered pants and straw hat, smiled, laughed easily, and chatted about business, about what crops and animals he had, about growing spelt this year as something new, and how they ate their main meal in the middle of the day and then could work well into the evening.

"They like me," Maggie said. "Bennie probably saw me drive by on the way to the farm, and was hoping I would stop back through. You saw how he came right over as soon as he saw my car. Bennie likes to talk and he likes us to understand how they live." She hesitated a moment and added, "and so many of them are hot!" In fact, all of the Amish children were adorable and the adults reflected the good looks of their German heritage, clear white skin and pink cheeks, blond, red, or black hair, and bright eyes.

As we continued through the pastoral countryside, Maggie said, "I love this. The farms and rolling hills. This is my favorite kind of terrain." Her dissheveled home seemed far away.

Our last stop was new to Maggie. The roadside sign read, "baked goods and candy." We drove about half a mile on a dirt driveway to the farm. Evidence of horses and cartwheel tracks confirmed that this was an Amish farm. As we approached the house and barn, it occurred to me that all of the houses we had seen needed work. These were not the calendar-photo homesteads, with freshly painted white clapboard and lilies by the foundation, of the Amish farms in Pennsylvania where tourists gawked every day. These farmers lived quiet lives under the radar, and clearly the barns held priority over the houses.

A shop built in fresh wood stood next to the barn. We opened the door and were greeted by a matronly middle-aged woman, in plain dress showing wisps of white hair at the edge of her bonnet and whose soft creamy skin and plump figure seemed the perfect image of a storybook grandmother. She had the same musical gentle voice that we had come to expect as she described the items she had for sale today. Maggie quizzed her about fruit pies that would be available on the weekend and how early she would have to arrive to get one.

I perused the chocolates and the homemade linguine-style pasta. I bought "barbecue" pasta, which the woman told me should be cooked and served with just a little butter. I also bought a bag of chocolate-covered peanut butter balls. Maggie got chocolate-covered cashews, and cherry "million dollar" fudge. "A bit steep for me," she said. The woman laughed and agreed. In fact, everything was two dollars or less.

Having tried both kinds of candy in the car, we headed back to Maggie's house with our remaining chocolates, our produce from all of the farms, and a feeling of satisfaction. Satisfaction that comes from visiting good down-home folks who responded with friendship to Maggie's comfortable way of bringing out the warmth in people. A satisfaction from buying whole foods fresh from the garden and appeasing all of our senses in rural countryside that had no rough edges or ruggedness, along with the satisfaction of having time together laughing, visiting, catching up on each other's news, and sharing an adventure.

I left Maggie in her rolling chair at the house. She had a couple of hours to mull over ideas for her next book, and to enjoy the respite from her full-time job as a Methodist minister in Saranac Lake, before her family would arrive. They would build a fire outside in the cool of the evening and roast the fresh vegetables on it. I pictured Maggie with her back turned to the unfinished dream house as she faced the meadow of Queen Anne's lace and the woods beyond, joking with her granddaughter in the firelight, and arranging a meal with her daughter and husband.

"I'll be back in the fall to go to the Amish farms again," I called, and she waved me off.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Here I sit at the computer--no headache this morning, no headache at bedtime last night, no headache during the day or during the night, no shoulder pain waking me up at night or bugging me during the day. The truth is that I am an extremely healthy person except that I get headaches and have shoulder tendinitis. The shoulders have bothered me off and on over the years, and headaches came and went, more often in the hot weather. I've had physical therapy and a cortisone shot for the shoulders which worked for a while, and I have various medications for the headaches. Thanks to the Honest Weight Food Co-op, I've also had the opportunity to try a free session of both healing touch and reflexology, besides regularly using essential oils.

This year I have been plagued by these two issues since March. Daily headaches in cold weather? I was not happy about this. Intense violin rehearsals for many concerts all Spring that irritated the shoulders?--not fair to be suffering for something I love to do! During the month of May, I had only nine days without a headache, along with fairly continuous shoulder pain. Should I go back to the orthopedist to get a prescription for more physical therapy? Should I go back to the neurologist for new (stronger) headache meds?

I didn't want more drugs, and I was convinced that my shoulder issues and headaches were related. Since medical specialists who had treated me in the past focused on their specific areas, I wanted to try something new. When all of the Excedrin I was taking began to bother my stomach, I said enough was enough. My friend, Linda, recommended The Acupuncture Office in Latham, and I made an appointment with Judy Kodela.

My first impression upon entering Judy's examination room was the relaxed pace with which she questioned me, her easy conversation, and her quiet moments thinking about my situation. Her entire approach was completely different from my usual doctors visits. Within the first fifteen minutes of the hour-long appointment she said, "I'm sure the shoulder issues and headaches are related." I felt instant confidence that she could help me. She studied my tongue twice, took my pulse from both wrists, and pushed pressure points behind my neck, upper back, hands, and feet. At each pressure point she found a tender spot and a corresponding release point, allowing tight areas of my shoulders to relax.

Judy played relaxation music as she inserted fine, painless, needles into my hands, feet, knees, stomach, and one in the forehead. None went into my shoulders, or the nose and eye area of my head where my headaches always begin. Then she left me to lie flat, listening to the music for about ten minutes. When she returned and took out the needles, she asked, "Now, how do you feel?" No shoulder pain, no headache.

I was very excited the first week when four days went by and I had not had a headache. I was crushed on the fifth day when I felt the familiar pain begin on the side of my nose and intensify as it went behind my eye. The first week my shoulders were no better. The second week, I had three headaches, but the shoulders felt great about half the time. I was on a roller coaster--one day thrilled, disappointed the next.

Judy responded to my weekly reports by adding or subtracting pressure points and needles. She wanted better results, too. By the fourth appointment, progress was significant. I determined that I was having half the usual number of headaches, despite the 90-plus degree weather, and that my shoulders were 80% better. To give me a sense of control, Judy showed me how to find the push and release points so that I could decrease my shoulder pain myself. She also pointed out a few pressure spots on my nose and eye area that I could use if I felt a headache coming on.

At the fifth appointment, I told Judy that I had budgeted for six appointments. She nodded that she understood, but still wanted to beat those remaining headaches. At the final appointment, she inserted many more needles than she had during the past few appointments and left me alone with the music for a longer period.

Today, I would say that my shoulders are 90% better and my headaches are 60% fewer. Now I make a note of the days when I have a headache because they are comparatively rare. Usually two Excedrin will knock them out, and I only have to go for heavy-duty drugs about once a week. Having had six appointments in five weeks, I consider this a dramatic improvement, and I expect even better results as the weather cools. I feel more empowered and encouraged. As I left my final appointment, Judy said, "If you have any health problems in the future, come here first."

Would I go to the Acupuncture Office first if something else comes up? Well, I might try my doctor with her $15 co-pay first. But second, yes, I would definitely visit Judy again, mostly because I am determined not to get into chronic use of medications. The initial fee was $100. Each hour-long appointment thereafter was $70. I would encourage others to try this as a holistic, drug-free, alternative to conventional medications and procedures.