In August of 2012, my boyfriend and I went hiking in the mountains of New Hampshire. We had only been together for about four months, but things were going really well, and we’d really enjoyed the few hikes we’d done before. It was time to up the ante.
We stayed at a bed and breakfast in nearby Woodstock, where our room on the second night would be the Italian suite – a full three-room suite with a plush queen bed, a glassed-in sunroom, and a Jacuzzi tub. Let me add that up for you: a bottle of the best wine from a local restaurant (that they make themselves) + long day of hiking in the beautiful mountains + Jacuzzi tub = bliss! Our gracious host suggested we do the Franconia Ridge Loop that spanned the peaks of Little Haystack Mountain, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette. The loop is 8.9 miles with an approximate travel time of 6 ½ hours, featuring lots of waterfalls and one of the highest peaks in the state. It was everything we wanted.
The real story here is not in the beautiful hike itself, but in what happened to me between Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette.
Between the two peaks is the “knife edge” path that at times forces hikers to walk single file on its craggy face at an elevation of over 5,000 feet. There was one group in front of us and another behind us as we descended a steep little portion. I watched the first group falter a little bit but make it through. My boyfriend went first, then I went down — hard.
I lost my footing, fell on the ground a few feet below, and landed on the aptly-named knife edge of my foot. My ankle rolled underneath me, and I crumpled. My boyfriend flew to my side. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” I replied quickly, embarrassed and flustered about the other hikers. I crawled aside and let them pass. When I tried to stand, my right ankle took on the properties of a worn-out Slinky. It was was clearly sprained. At first it didn’t seem so bad, just wobbly and weak, but I told myself that I could make it through the ascent. And I did, until the peak.
The views from the rocky summit of Mount Lafayette are incredible. If you have ever been in an airplane and passed the clouds so closely that you swear you could touch them — I touched them. The sky seemed to roll right over us, through us. We were well above treeline at this point, but we didn’t need the protection of the forest; we were inches from flying away and turning into stars.
And then it hit me that I was still there, in my injured mortal body, and we had to get down.
Getting down required a diabolical combination of strategies that wouldn’t put any undue pressure on my ankle. There were large, flat rocks that I slid down on my behind. There were rocks like stairs where I led with my good foot and dragged the other one lamely after it. There were times when my boyfriend carried me on his back. There were times I didn’t know what the heck to do. We stopped at a cabin on the way down so they could give us headlamps and wrap my ankle, which didn’t do much good. I briefly deliberated staying there for the night to rest, but it was cramped with many other people — and we had our Italian suite, a Jacuzzi tub, and wine waiting for us! We were convinced we could make it back before sundown. We pressed on.
At some point in the slow blur of the hours, my ankle began to swell and hurt. A lot. I was getting frustrated with my own speed, which now perfectly mirrored that of the worn-out Slinky. The shadows of the trees around us were growing longer, and it was becoming clear that we were wrong. We’d need to continue past sundown, and there was no helping it. Regardless, I started to whine in anger and cry in pain.
We talked to each other to get my mind off of the journey. We played word games, but whenever I stopped to think, I was thinking about my sprained ankle. My boyfriend wouldn’t let me off the hook or let me lapse back into misery. Once it was truly dark, and we were plodding down the path with him wearing a headlamp, it was easy to see how much time had passed, and difficult to tell how much farther we had to go. He kept saying, “I think we’re almost there,” but eventually I stopped believing him — until I saw and heard the highway below us.
At 10 PM, a full 12 hours after we had left, we broke free from the boreal forest. I tilted my head back in exhaustion, and I found that having my eyes wide open and mouth agape was a perfect pose for me.
Forget the Italian suite with the Jacuzzi, and maybe even forget the wine. Our true reward was right above us. We were greeted by a tapestry of night sky, dark as velvet, woven with threads of the most numerous and luminous stars I have ever seen in my entire life. They seemed to form celestial rivers frozen in time.
We opened the sunroof as we drove back so that I could gawk at the sky some more. I don’t think that anything else has matched that view since, no matter where we’ve gone. But I know that I learned a valuable lesson that day:
Nothing is impossible. Even if it feels impossible, and even if it hurts, it isn’t. Your mind is the only thing standing in your way. When you are faced with tough odds, sometimes you want to sit aside and hope for things to get better — to stay in that cabin, in limbo, where you might not be happy but you’re safe. Happiness is not safe. Happiness is risk, trial, perseverance. Happiness is pushing through a sprained ankle, or your doubts and fears. Even if you are hurt, you can. And the broad sky will beam to congratulate you.
Also in Voices: What I Learned from Swimming with Sharks
Photo: Jen Lowinger