It sounds a little too New Age-y for my liking, but the woods have things to say if you’re willing to listen. Just writing that made me throw up a little bit, but I think it’s true. Out here in the Adirondacks, where ice drools from cracks like mouths in the Anorthosite walls I walk between, I hear things, I start to feel like a person again. Nature as healer clichés aside, everything is not okay all the time and I’d heard the mountains could help. So I spend a good deal of this January, my last month as a college student, outside, thinking and trying to learn how not to think so much.
I go to the Dacks. Why the Dacks? I dunno. As my good friend Eyal says, “Because the Dacks are the shit.” They have this whole raw beauty, sort of massive-in-miniature thing going on. These mountains are like a compressed, age-rounded version of the Rockies. Their age lends them something that feels akin to wisdom. It’s a strange place that attracts strange people, and strange things happen there. I go to the Dacks with Eyal.
The small Israeli man walks to meet me outside of the English department’s building with his almost bow legged strut, wide-eyed, “Such nice flakes. So nice.” Nice is one of his favorite words, and he uses it liberally. He’s read some of my preliminary thoughts for this piece— “Nature is a healer, dude, look at this shit.” And he’s right, the snowflakes are particularly beautiful, and they catch on my sleeves. You can see the fractals. He is someone I deeply admire for his contagiously childlike ability to see the innate strangeness of things. He is also one of those rare people who at times exudes what seems like a spiritual force.
Despite his flowing hair and characteristic beard, Eyal is not a prophet, though I risk making him sound like one. It might be more accurate to say he has a sort of cult leader charisma— he’s the kind of person who attracts others, attracts coincidence, to whom things happen, the kind of person people ask to act as a shaman for them when they first take psychedelic drugs.
I am not this kind of person. I am very much trapped in my skull. My resting face is one of unintentional disdain. Eyal engages people with the type of eye contact that makes you feel like you’re there. I walk around with the glazed look of someone who’s not entirely sure he isn’t looking at a computer simulation. Unfortunately for you, I am going to write mostly about myself.
Thoughts: He sits outside, blowing into hands that have turned a few shades closer to caution-tape yellow than he’d like. Comes out here with his director’s chair in the snow and tries to write. Sometimes he thinks can see glitches at the corners of the world. Sometimes he thinks he’s an idiot. He’s probably right.
Writing this is hard, because it isn’t really about the trip, even though it’s about the trip, you know? Jesus, I’m starting to sound like Eyal now. It’s the truth though. In retrospect, the details of the trip, of my times outside this January seem less important than the things I thought, felt.
So many fast and big things run through my head as I walk through the Dacks that I feel like I can only make a vague sketch with these words. But the thoughts feel healthy out here, clean. Back at Middlebury, the voices in my head gnash at each other like weasels in a bag, thoughts like things scrawled in a bathroom stall.
Voices in my head makes me sound crazy. It’s not like they tell me to burn things. I think you know what I’m talking about. These voices never go away, but we can turn them down, I learned this in meditation class so it’s probably true.
Do you hate the sound of your voice? I hate the sound of my voice— kind of a strange thing—and I become painfully aware of this as Eyal insists on filming everything I do with his phone, because “this is all part of the adventure.” He tells me this as we watch some of the day’s clips later on. Some semblance of a plan comes into place, as much as one can have a plan with Eyal, and on January 16th we’ll go to explore the Dacks together.
Though we discuss climbing Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York, this idea is somewhat predictably scrapped once we’re in the woods. Eyal likes looking at things, appreciating, saying wow. I’ve never gone on a hike without a goal-oriented approach, so this was difficult for me at first. I’m used to seeing trees as things you walk between.
Years ago, when he finds out that the heartbeat he feels in their interlocked grip was always his alone, he goes to the woods. He is back here now. Now that he has relearned that the girl who has you forgetting to take your antidepressants is the same one who will put you right back on that schedule.
Though I’ve had a very privileged upbringing—something I’m still working on not being ashamed of— and have been able to spend long stretches of time in nature, away from New York City (summer camp, my family’s country house), I am still very much a creature of the city. Four years in Vermont have done little to change this. The trapped bubbles in the frozen lake I will snowshoe across are still more foreign to me than the sidewalk’s blackened gum flecks they recall. I’m used to air that tastes like coins, not air that tastes like air. Eyal, too. He’s from New Jersey, just across the Hudson. The river that divides us finds its source in these mountains, at Lake Tear of the Clouds on the slopes of Marcy, a few miles from where we’ll camp.
At the entrance to the Dacks that we take, by the Adirondack Loj, I get worried. In the past, I’ve entered by the far less popular Garden outside Keene Valley. The parking lot is packed and the trails are groomed and I start to feel like I’m on a conveyor belt. Trailheads and seemingly overly happy cross-country skiers surround us, and I struggle to shake the feeling that I’m at Disney World.
Soon enough we’re in the real woods, and I get it. I see how unfounded my worries are. We feel so good. Like purer versions of ourselves. Look at the shit-eating grins on our faces.
Traveling in nature with a friend seems to me to be objectively good for the soul. Sorry if that sounds like some Eat Pray Love bullshit or whatever, but these are the kind of ideas around which my conversations with Eyal revolve. I wonder if my future self will mock the stoner psycho-spiritualism that governs our talks.
He can be a real bummer sometimes. Sorry about that. He’s starting to think that people don’t change, and that he’s changing for the worse. He can’t even look at a sunset without feeling the urge to apologize. Am I bumming you out with this stuff? Does using italics make this sound even more pretentious? Forgive me. Everything is OK Ha Ha.
“Dude, but it’s like, if I’m in some computer program or a dream or whatever, then good shit to whoever designed it. So beautiful.”
Eyal says this. Or maybe it’s me. We are thinking about nature and technology, about reality, about The Matrix. The night before we left to go Dackin’ we saw a one man show in the college’s Wright Theater, Mike Daisey’s Faster Better Social, a sort of unscripted rant on technology and social media and how they are shrinking our minds and souls. Eyal and I hear Daisey laboring behind us as we head toward Avalanche Lake— he is a presence on our trip.
Both of us say this, frequently. The sun glints through the trees and off crystals in the snow like shards of glass, the sky is as blue as the snow is white. Several hours earlier, I was sitting in my cave of an apartment in town, staring at my reflection in the TV’s black screen, trying to get myself excited about anything other than the idea of going back to sleep. Now we stand between boulders black with panes of ice, under a massive sky, the only sounds are the wind through the pines and our heavy breathing. It is hard to believe this is the same day, that we are the same people, that we are awake.
But we are awake, more so than we’ve been in a long time. Still talking about technology, and Daisey’s comment that it is “the metaphor through which we view our whole lives,” we discuss how fucking weird Facebook and smartphones and other things whose names would mean nothing to anyone twenty years ago seem to us now that we’re in the Dacks.
“I’ve got four bars right now, dude!” Eyal laughs. Spiritually speaking. We lost cell-phone service shortly after we crossed Crown Point Bridge into New York.
Out here, we’re feeling full reception.
“Can you hear me now?” he asks.
“You’re coming through just fine” I smile.
Eyal comes up with shit like this all the time, I’ve come to expect it. He’s like a walking self-help book. I know he is sad too, like me, like the rest of us. But he embraces it with a smile that I don’t think is a mask. Because it’s OK. What are you gonna do?
Know this too: there will be people who will rain on your parade.
At Marcy Dam, Jim the ranger, a man who would probably be better off as an NYPD officer, yells at us to put our snowshoes on. At first, I don’t see the FOREST RANGER patch on his arm and think he’s just some self-righteous dick. Eyal smiles and tells him we just took them off “because they’re too noisy.” Jim tells us we better get used to that sound, because there’s at least eight inches of snow on the ground and that’s the regulation.
Jim is slower than most to warm up to Eyal’s charm, but it happens. He gives us some friendly advice and tells us we had no shot of finding a spot in any of the lean-tos and that a winter storm is coming in, bringing 5-8 inches tonight. He’s basically just talking to Eyal at this point, as I can’t stop looking at the gat strapped to his hip, and I start to think he considers himself a big man because he carries a big gun. I assume it’s for bears.
Jim still speaks to us with the sort of gruff condescension that tells me we look out of place, a couple of city boy tenderfoots. He wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though Eyal and I both have a decent amount of experience in the backcountry. He’s really not too bad, though, and we try not to let him pop our balloon.
We look up and see the serrated edge of a cloud system eating away at the pure blue dome of the sky. We smile at each other and put back on our snowshoes, “We’re gonna wake up in a fucking winter wonderland dude,” I say. Eyal’s thinking the same thing.
“I can well understand why children love sand”
He can too. He reads this quote by some Austrian philosopher somewhere and appreciates its depth without being able to put words to it. He writes it at the top of one of the pages of his journal. There is truth in there. Maybe he’ll reach it if he looks at it long enough.
It is quiet now, you know, the kind of quiet that can only be when there is snow on the ground. The skeletal trees around him reach up from the ground like hands. It’s not grim though, it’s nice.
Despite the ranger’s warnings, Eyal and I find numerous empty lean-tos along the path. We choose the one with the best vibes and wind cover, Kagel, which sits a good way from the path and faces a tree-obscured view of a frozen creek. We drop our packs and check out the creek. We dack across it, a technique Eyal developed on his last trip to these mountains, with his friend Jerome. Dacking is the act of walking on your knees in the snow, specifically in these old Dack mountains. Like Mike Daisey, Jerome, who I vaguely know through Eyal, is definitely a presence on the trip.
When we do things like this, fun as they are, I get the idea that Eyal is trying to recreate his trip with Jerome. Part of me is uncomfortable with this thought, another part of me hopes I can live up to Jerome, another part of doesn’t care because I feel truly happy. Eyal is definitely the kind of person you want to please, but I think one of the reasons he likes me is because he sees my tendency not to care too much about what other people think. Not that I’m super cool or anything. I’m all right.
Anyway, we dack on the frozen creek, its muted gurgling beneath our knees. I lie on my back and look up into the false snowfall that’s been blown from the trees. I feel like I’m in a snow globe or a screensaver. It’s almost a Seussian landscape— tree branches sagging with the weight of frost, craggy creekside rocks transformed into puffs of collected snow, overhead icicles like tusks. I’m learning to look, really look, and I hope I don’t forget how when I get back into Eyal’s car. Anything can be a lesson if you treat it like one. Anything can be holy if you treat it like it is. Try to remember this.
Here, now: I’m lying on a snowed over creek. Water is holy. I’m on top of a creek of fluid water running under a layer of solid water that’s blanketed by crystalized water. I consider the icicles on the rock wall, how the water has been halted by the cold, how the grip of the cold overpowered the pull of earth.
“Time— time is different when you’re in the woods,” Eyal says.
It is. There are weeks of my time at Middlebury that are gone from my memory, but these days in nature with my friend won’t go anywhere. I am confident of this. On our drive to the Dacks we briefly listen to an audiobook called The Power of Now before deciding the author was mostly full of shit. There’s some truth to it, though, at least to the title of his book. The winds through rocks older than speech, thought carry answers that I try to catch. It tries to teach me how to live in the present, and for a few excruciatingly brief moments out here I think I can.
That night I wake up several times to piss under a night sky so clear and sharp it looks perforated, the full moon shining like a hole to a brighter place. Peeing on this snow feels almost like a sin, so I make sure to sweep some unsullied snow on top of the yellow stuff. The lean-to proves to be a pretty comfortable spot. The two of us fully zip ourselves into our sleeping bags and huddle together against the cold in the corner. As can happen when you have nothing to tell you the time, we both sleep for an embarrassing amount of time. Apparently we needed it. It was a night of deep, vivid dreams for both of us, and we both wake up confused by the lack of snow, but feeling good.
“Dude, we just came to the Dacks to take a nap,” Eyal laughs as he takes a long draft of the dusty water the melted snow yielded.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing with himself, with his life. The sun’s dropping low now, almost fully behind the mountain spine that looms over his family’s second home, in western Massachusetts. A sunset like a bleeding in the sky, like spilt Maraschino cherry syrup. This is what he does these days mostly, sits and waits. Waits for something to happen, something to strike him, like it happens in the movies. In the movies, where there’s always a barge to land on passing beneath the bridge.
He really wants the energy, he wants to do things, not just sleep and look forward to going back to sleep. How does he get himself to care?
But I do care, that’s what makes this thing so hard for me to write. Time is running real low: I graduate in two days. Does the quality of my work reflect my quality as a person? It’s near impossible for me to devote my full attention to any one thing right now, as I am about to be unceremoniously forced out of this artificial habitat and into the rest of my life. I hope you’ll forgive me.
I said earlier that this isn’t really about the trip I take to the Dacks with Eyal, so I’ll go back to keeping the details to a minimum. The winter storm that Jim promised never came and we never figure out why he lied to us, but we guess it was spite. We spend the day walking across frozen lakes—Lake Avalanche and Lake Colden—and eating meals of apples and slices of cheddar that taste as good as anything I’ve eaten in some time. Out here, I develop a sort of Buddhist appreciation for my food, my clothes, my surroundings. It’s a cloudy day, the kind of day that would weighing on my shoulders if I were back on campus, but under this vast sky I feel buoyed by the underfoot powder and the company at my side.
The birch trees among the pines that border these lakes splay from the ground like spider veins, like frayed wires. I am trying to see the trees as trees. I think achieving this would be something like achieving enlightenment. Eyal and I discuss this. How the act of naming things, of metaphorically associating them with other things deprives them of some of their majesty. I try my best to let the pounding string of words that always runs through my head fade away. It’s much easier to do out here, in the mountains.
It’s a funny thing. How the simple act of going to the Dacks with a friend for a couple days can really make you feel better. How two old friends can go into the woods together and come out closer than they’ve been in years. How walking in the snow among the trees between the mountains over the lakes can make you a happier person, can lend you a happiness that lasts longer than the trip itself. Sorry for the sappy conclusion, but I’m graduating. Cut me some slack.
Psalm 98:8 – “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy”
They will clap and sing to you if you let them. I’m trying to learn how.