Submitted by Nancy

Mountains: Mts. Field (4,340) and Willey (4,285)
Date: December 30, 2011
Time: 6 hours
Weather: Cloudy, light wind, snow showers, 9 - 18 degrees
Miles: 8.62
Elevation Gain: 3,115
Trail: Avalon Trail, Willey Ridge Trail and back

This is a story of connection. It is the thing I want more than anything else in the world, yet it is also the one thing I protect myself from, holding everyone at arm's length so I won't have to feel the very connection I yearn for. This is the story of strangers who were able to melt away my protective walls and warm my heart.


There is a woman in the audience sitting in the back on the left hand side of the Webster room near the big windows, now dark with night. I keep looking at her face, most of it taken up by a huge smile and bright white teeth, so genuine as she peeks out at me from behind a man sitting in the row in front of her. Her expression is filled with the joy and love that I feel hiking.

Pat and I are giving our It's Not About the Hike presentation to an audience of about 25 people at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch, NH. This is our 52nd and last presentation of the year. I start out on automatic pilot. I know the words, and they just flow out of my mouth. Then I notice the woman with the engaging smile who seems to be with me on the journey and I start connecting with my own words. Before I know it, I am back in the joy of hiking.

"That was great -- I loved it! Thank you," she says to us after the presentation. As she leaves, I say, "Thank you for being such a great face in the audience." It is my way of thanking her for warming me up. Her smile helped me see the audience as safe, not hostile like my family growing up. I know it's been years since I lived in that volatile setting, but it's my default. I still start out life that way. Not only was the woman's expression open and friendly, but I could see from the way she moved in her seat to keep me in her view that she was engaged in our stories. She made me feel safe and seen, and as a result I came out of my cold protective hiding place and into the warmth of my heart, where I could feel my connection with the audience.

For me, the connection I make with another person is the most rewarding moment of life, so why do I fight it so?


The next morning at 8:30 we walk out the Highland Center doors and onto the Avalon Trail to bag Mt. Willey, our 22nd winter 4,000 footer. In between us and Mt Willey, stands Mt. Field, another 4,000-footer, both mountains connected by the Willey Ridge Trail.

I got an iPhone for Christmas, and bought an app called Run Meter (thanks Molly!). I set it up for a hike and push start. As an afterthought I ask my phone what the temperature is. The new iPhones have Siri, a woman who lives in the phone and answers your questions, like a genie in a lamp except she doesn't come out. Siri thinks for only a second and tells me it is 9 degrees outside. I start out the hike cold, inside and out.

Not more than a quarter mile up the trail we see a small adorable snowman sitting on an overlook next to the brook. Apple pieces for the eyes, sticks for arms, a snow-nose and no mouth. I love it when people find a way to share themselves on the trail. We've found prayer flags draped on snow-covered trees, a heart drawn in the snow, and now a snowman.

As we continue up what I remember from previous hikes as a very steep trail, it occurs to me that I am feeling a bit like the snowman -- alone and cold. I feel walled-off and not open to connection, and therefore alone. I am with Pat, so if I am feeling alone, it is because I am isolating myself. Perhaps the beginning of a hike mirrors the beginning of a presentation, when I am on automatic pilot, in protective mode, doing what I know without engaging my heart, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting for the warm-up.

The trail gets steeper and steeper, but incredibly I don't complain. I am doing fine. Well, I'm doing fine until we get to the top of Mt. Field and start down the ridge toward Mt. Willey. It's a steep down that seems to go on forever and all I can think about is that I'm going to have to come back up this sucker. I start complaining, talking to the mountain as if she had designed this steep downward ridge in error. "Really?" I say. "What were you thinking? Holy shit!" Then I let it go and just hike, leaving my anxiety on the trail. It's easier hiking when I just stay in the moment and experience what is happening now, instead of worrying about what is to come.

We meet a man coming down the mountain. He greets us kindly, shares his route with us and then wishes us a happy new year before continuing on. I find myself softening, thinking about his friendliness.

I recognize the summit of Mt. Willey when we get there, having reached the summit in summer. We don't linger because it is very cold and I am soaked through with sweat.

Not far from the summit we meet a couple on their way up. The man has a long white beard and they greet us with warm smiles. They tell us they have a bet about how many people they will see on the hike. She says 7, he says 20. I laugh as we turn our separate ways, saying, "I think she is going to win!" I hear them chuckling as we part.

Not much time passes and we meet a man who stops to greet us. "Nancy and Pat! So good to see you on the trail!" "How do you know us?" I ask. "I met you at the 4,000-footer dinner last year. You guys did that slideshow that was so great. It was very emotional and inspiring and it really just made the event. I am so glad you are doing it again this year."

All I can do is say thank you. As we part, I notice that I feel the cold less, that I am more buoyant; my steps are lighter and my legs less tired. I am so touched by this man's sentiments that I forget to ask his name. I realize this a few minutes later when we reach two women.

"Hey, I know you guys," one of the women says as she eats a bagel with cream cheese. She focuses on Pat and starts listing various places their paths might have crossed but none of them register. We can't seem to find the connection so we start moving along. But the woman continues to yell out possible places and activities, still trying to figure out where she has seen us. Pat turns back towards them and says, "We do a presentation called It's Not About the Hike."

"Oh that's it! That is how I know you," she says excitedly. "Wait, come back up here and tell my friend who you are!"

As we head back up towards them, I hear her say, "These two women were not hikers when they met and now they've climbed the 67 4,000-footers together. They have this website and they post about their hikes. They hiked in the Grand Canyon, and had to turn around."

She continues reciting facts from our hike reports. I feel a moving energy in my chest that reminds me of being 7 years old coming down the stairs to see a pile of Christmas presents in my place on the couch. I am no longer keenly aware of the cold. Most of all, I feel an opening in my heart that aches as I let her words in. I think this is the feeling of melting open.

"Wow, you have made my day!" I say to her. "So glad we met you in the trail. Thank you!"

The string of connections does not stop. We soon come across a man and woman heading up. He starts talking to us right away. I am not even sure what he is saying at first, only that he is talking to us like friends.

"Did you stay at the Highland Center last night and see our presentation?" I ask him, trying to figure out how he knows us.

"No," he says. "I saw your presentation some time ago. I actually recommended you as speakers for my long distance hiking group."

I feel a jolt of warmth run through me and realize I am all me, in my heart, no protection, fully engaged, connected.

"What have you done for long distance hiking?" I ask him.

"Well, the longest I've done was the Appalachian Trail," he says.

"Woohooooo!" I whoop and give him a high-five.

The trail down the mountain is steep and I am amazed that I hiked up it without dying. As we let gravity take our boots down the mountain, I feel an incredible sense of connection with the people we met today. I remember when we first started hiking how out of place I felt. I didn't want anyone to know I didn't know what I was doing, that I was a newbie and didn't really fit in. Today I feel like I belong.

Almost back to the trailhead we meet a young couple hiking towards us. "Happy new year!" he says smiling.

"Happy new year," we both respond.

"It's going to be a great year." I say.

The young woman looks at me with a beautiful winning smile, stretches her arms out toward the world and says, "May it be the best year!"

"We have said it. It will be so!" I say, filled with her enthusiasm for life.

We finally get back to our friend the snowman. She looks exactly the same; she has not melted at all. But I have. I no longer feel like the snowman, cold and alone. I've warmed up over the hike by letting in the warmth of the world around me. I am now more like the person who I imagine built the snowman -- a person so full of life that he or she felt the urge to pass it on by rolling the snow into balls, putting one on top of the other, and adding some fruit and sticks. That's love in the making. And it would soften any heart.

We get back to the car and I check my iPhone for the hike stats. Hike time: 5:51:16, distance: 8.62 miles, ascent: 3115 feet, calories: 1134. I ask Siri what the temperature is. "Burrrrr!" she says. On the screen pops up the current weather. It is 18 degrees. It may be cold outside but I'm warm as can be on the inside.


Maybe, someday, I will trust the world enough to actually start off each presentation and every hike in my heart. Until then, I am grateful for the warm-up.

22 out of the Winter 48