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Owl's Head... That which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger.

                Finally, things seemed to be moving forward in my life. I had a career prospect developing that could potentially bring me more stability and at least alleviate my financial stress. I was excited that this particular clinic was so impressed with me and not the least bit worried that I would not live up to the expectation. I knew that I was good at what I do for a living. It just seemed that sometimes, when life got a little tough, I forgot to believe in myself. The same can be said about other aspects of my life. Those other aspects were wearing on me and while it was wearing me down, I somehow found the strength to keep fighting. For what, I was not really sure. I just knew that I believed in something and I believed in myself. I owed a lot of this strength to climbing the mountains and stretching my comfort zone to its limit. Something about what I was doing made me better able to focus on issues and to find solutions without completely losing my mind first. I was truly a different person than when I started this almost a year ago and I was happy with me. I was at peace with who I was… Finally.

                It had been about a month since I went up Jefferson. It was a month of ups and downs that did not involve peaks to be counted and I was unable to set foot in the woods. I was truly craving a good hike and a considerable part of me was craving this hike on my own. I was down to four peaks, Wild Cat D, Isolation, Carrigain (which is already reserved for my big finish at 48), and Owl’s Head. Two of my choices were rather long and strenuous hikes and one was rather simple. As the fog was clearing out in my world at sea level, and it looked like I might be able to take a hike on that first weekend in July, I figured I would take the easy one out to give me that sense of strength and accomplishment that I really needed. Not that a large trek would not do that. I just felt that I wanted an easy win for a change. A hike with no real thought process to it. Just hit the trail and go. I was all set for Wild cat D since I didn’t really know if my partner wanted to hike with me and then, plans changed.

                My partner brought up doing Owl’s Head as a weekend camp out. It would be our weekend together and it seemed like a great idea to me even though once again, we had been set on a rollercoaster that never seemed to stop. I was actually eager to climb Owl’s Head and experience this mountain for all it had to offer. After all, in the hiking community, I had heard some stories about this mountain that had it both loved and hated. I wanted to see in the end which group I landed in… Part of me was not sure I was ready for a camp out and I became nervous. Not because it was a camp out in the back country but because of the company given our last few hikes. I funneled that nervous energy into making sure my gear was packed well as it always came under scrutiny before we left for the mountains. I didn’t have a real compact sleeping bag and the one that I had was rather large and awkward. I had managed to find the hand strength to compact it down and get it in my pack I also made myself responsible for the tent and the camp stove. I found the gluten free camp food that I wanted to eat for the weekend and a few snacks too. My gear was ready and I made sure that my partner knew that he would be responsible for his own gear when he arrived home from work.  

                We were on our way later than usual and we were both in a good mood. We talked about the trails and about Owl’s Head in general. I tried to convey all that I had heard about the peak so that he knew it was an 18 mile trip with no view at the top as a reward. He seemed as eager as I was to get out in the woods.  We made a stop for dinner first and then it was off to Lincoln Woods trail head.

                When we hit the trail, it was almost 9pm and still light enough to walk without a headlamp. I loved this time of year almost as much as I loved the winter days that were warm in the sun but cold enough to keep the snow pack. We crossed the bridge and hit the Lincoln Woods trail on our way to find a camp site for the night. I was remembering my time on the Bonds as we walked the flat straight bike path. That hike will forever be a highlight of my experience. Before long, on our way in, we put on the headlamps and continued to walk. I like the feel of the dark surrounding me and could hear all the sounds of the woods around me. We crossed the first bridge in no time and we approached the Wilderness Boundary when I heard this screech from the woods. I was tired at this point and looking to settle for the night. I was not really interested in whatever was in the woods coming out. We made our way back across the bridge from the boundary and began bushwhacking for a place to sleep. We found a nice place by the stream that provided enough cover and yet was close to the trail.

                Setting up the tent in the dark was a challenge since I had never set it up before and neither had my partner. We struggled to communicate about how to set it up and after a tense moment, there it was by the stream. We put what we needed in the tent with us and then kept the packs outside under the rain flaps. I should add that I had always imagined a camp out with a partner as a romantic adventure. There would be a camp fire (we had none), there would be one sleeping bag for two (we each had our own), and there would be snuggling (well, he almost pushed me out of the tent while sleeping). I woke up feeling drained and disappointed. I not only craved a hike. I craved romance and closeness. We each packed up our gear and I had trouble compressing my sleeping back. My hands were not able to grip it tight enough to pack it down and I became frustrated with my own weakness and asking for help from my partner was met with… Nothing. So I did my best and got the sleeping bag packed away and he ended up taking over any way.  I took the stove out and decided that I would try and heat the water for coffee and breakfast. Except, I could not set up the stove properly in order to heat the water and I did not want to hear about my newest failure. I just wanted to get on the trail and get to the summit because in the trail, I was strong and felt a little more in control.

                We began our hike after a quiet breakfast. The pack was already heavy on my back but I was determined to carry the weight. My hands and my legs were shaking from a lack of sleep and decent food for breakfast and I was determined to make it to the summit and back to the car. My mind was stuck on the night and how distant I felt (not for lack of trying). I wanted one hike to feel like we were hiking together rather than two people just hiking. I was stuck at a wall most of the time, unable to say the right words to get over it. The woods were thick and green for early July. I loved walking the trail when the trees made it feel like a blanket was cast over the path. I was enjoying just walking in the woods and I was lagging behind slightly lost in my own thoughts. I would catch up to my partner who seeded to hike some distance a head of me as he was naturally faster and we’d talk for a while but the talk was quick and curt between us . The talk seemed to center around my shaking hands and the fact that I needed to eat something. In truth, my hands always shake and eating was not going to make it go away and I was becoming frustrated because I could not make him understand that my illness was just a part of me that I live with now. It’s managed the best way it can be and there is no cure. It didn’t mean that I was unable to function or that I needed to turn back. Maybe I took a few more breaks and walked a little slower and I so wanted him to walk with me. Instead, what I got was a guy who blew up the trail and left me alone because in his eyes, my attitude was not what he liked.

                So we kept going like this for a while, I would catch up and we would chat for a while, then he’d take off again. I let him partly because this morning I could not keep up and partly because I wanted to experience the trail in the way that I always do when I am alone. I took the trail into my soul, deeply and I rested in the pace and the space between us. He had gotten so far ahead of me that I began to worry and wonder if I was going to catch up this time. To my luck, I hit a water crossing that he had already crossed and was talking to another group of hikers. I began to make my cross in the high water and became flustered because I had not seen any good places to put my feet. Normally, I follow the person in front of me and that person was already across and waiting… Impatiently. I called for his help but got a disagreement right in the middle of the crossing. I was horrified and now unsure if I wanted to do this. My heart sank. We got ourselves verbally untangled and I got to the other side of the water crossing. I figured we would push on.

                As we separated once again, I began to think that maybe he was right. Maybe I’m not capable of taking others advise. Maybe I’m not capable of having a good time on the trail. Maybe it was just about getting the peak and getting back. And then I remembered the Bonds and how I broke down after going above tree line and I realized that it’s not just about the mountains for me. It’s about what I take to the trail and what I leave behind on the trail as much as the trees and beauty that surrounds me.  It’s about those little things that I see on the trail and cherish as a gift. I kept walking and around noon, we came to the start of the slide trail.

                It was such a pleasant looking entrance. Two cairns and the trail lined with branches as if welcoming us somewhere. That somewhere for some was some place unpleasant and for others it was like an amusement park. What would I find on the slide trail for myself? Still carrying that heavy pack, we began our ascent and suddenly, we were working as a team. The slide trail is all loose rock and sand and one behind the other meant that we needed to call out if a rock was sent down to those below. This side of the mountain was exposed and the sun was very hot for this July day and I was running low on water but I dared not say a word. I took a deep breath and kept moving forward. It took us about an hour to get back into the trees and right at the edge was another gift to me… Tiny pink flowers that I had only seen in pictures until now. I smiled and snapped a picture and kept the moment to myself. In the trees, we began climbing over blow downs and branches. We continued to work together and reached the first summit (not the counted summit) which was a rather unimpressive small cairn. At the second countable summit, we sat for a while and ate. Packets of tuna and granola bars were on the menu and I dumped the last of my water from my bottle in to my bladder.

                Another group of hikers joined us and they were full of stories from their adventures in all season. I always enjoyed summit conversations and was always amused at how much my partner spoke of my journey to others. Maybe he really was proud of me. Maybe he would be there at my final summit. The other group offered to take our picture and to my surprise, he also wanted it (and he smiled). Knowing that we had a long walk back ahead of us, we began or descent. I was once again greeted with a visual gift of a rotted out tree that still held its shape around the knotholes exposing the formation of the branches from the inside.  Heading down the slide was a lot different than going up. Footings changed and it seemed tiring to me. We had some minor disagreements as to how to go down (facing forward as I did or with your back to the sun as he did). I calmly stated that I needed to hike in my comfort zone and that meant facing forward so I could see where my feet were going. We kept walking and calling out as rocks let loose under our feet. There were quite a few people on the trail at this point. One particular group was stopped on a ledge due to their dog having cut up its paws and looking rather tired. They were fun to talk with and seemed to be just embarking on their journey for the 48 peaks.  Owl’s head was a noble pursuit this early in their journey.  With a snap of the camera capturing Franconia Ridge behind us, we were off again.

                We had conquered the slide but not before my partner had slid and filled his shoes with sand and gravel.  Once back at the entrance, my partner gave me a high five, a chocolate, and a kiss. I was again taken by this back and forth between us and I took it for what it was, his way of showing affection. The trail was then full of talk between us about the slide and the journey out to Owl’s Head. We passed the time on the trail well and before we knew it, we were back at that first water crossing where we stood in the middle fighting. I cringed as we went across and again, he was helpful and supportive. We made it across with no issues and the rest of the hike out was pleasant between us. Once back to the flat area of Lincoln Woods, trouble once again found my partner. His feet were blistering from the sand and gravel he had in his shoes and as we walked out, I imagined that each step was painful and difficult for him. We made it to the bridge by our campsite from the previous night and he did his best to clean out his shoes and insoles (the holes in the insoles were full of gravel). Once moving again, the damage was evident as he walked and groaned in pain. I slowed my pace to walk with him and encourage him to keep going. We needed to just get back to the car and then maybe I would drive home so he could rest. A couple of times it seemed that he was not going to make it but together, we walked triumphantly back to the car. My 45th peak was completed. Three more to go. My partner was just happy to be off his severely blistered feet.  We drove home exhausted for different reasons but happy about the trip.

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