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Grueling Hike Ends With Question: What Do You Have to Prove?

One tough woman learns there's more to life than surviving

headlands on Lake Ontario

Susan Lina Ruggles/Getty Images

The end of the road for me was not an actual road or even a path but a rocky slope on the northern shore of Lake Superior, 100 miles northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and a good 12 miles from the nearest thoroughfare.

"This is not the hill I want to die on,” I said to my friend Connie, and I took off my pack to sit down.

It wasn't a hill, for that matter. It was a clifftop, higher than the many boulder fields and rocky balds we'd already scrambled over in three days of backpacking. It will be an adventure, I told myself as we planned the trip, when I read online about the “rugged,” “challenging” trail. I'm tough; I can push myself.

It didn't occur to me then to question whether pushing myself was a laudable goal. It was simply what I did.

Connie and I are good friends. Her wife has a bad knee and can't backpack; my husband would rather use his rare time off to ski. So once a year, Connie and I and her two yellow Labradors go for a multiday hike.

The first day began pleasantly, with a long walk through groves of beech and fir, pin oak and white pine. We could hear the pounding of the waves of the lake through the forest and smell the sweet, sharp scent of balsam. In parts the trail grew steep, and we had to remove our packs and hoist them up, then help the dogs scramble up the slope. It was hard, but we managed. Then we came to the boulders.

Most of the trail onward from there was cove after cove of huge boulders. We took off our packs and squeezed between boulders, we threaded our way downhill across boulders, and we climbed over boulders. We sat down and slid on steep rocks, tearing holes in the tents buckled to our packs. Connie's legs were bloodied; I had a baseball-sized lump on my shin. We covered just 5 miles in nine hours. When we straggled out of the woods into a pebbled cove, I was so tired I could barely nod at the lone kayaker who came out to point us toward a campsite down the beach.

The next day we awoke to gray skies. The bruise on my shin stretched from knee to ankle. I walked down the beach to ask the kayaker what he knew about the next stretch of trail.

"It's tough,” he said. Then, “It's going to rain. I'm going to get out of here before the wind picks up.”

And I can't tell you why, knowing it was going to rain, we made a fire and ate breakfast and stitched up our tents until almost 2 p.m., setting off just as a light drizzle began.

Hikers Kathleen McCleary, left, and Connie Juntunen in Canada

Courtesy of Kathleen McCleary

Hikers Kathleen McCleary, left, and Connie Juntunen in Canada

Day 2: ‘I'm a survivor'

We walked over a long, flat slab of pink and black rhyolite, beautiful volcanic stone that glistened in the rain. We entered the forest and hiked through hemlock and pine, in woods carpeted with white lichen and glossy bunchberry. When we came to the next cove, a field of more boulders, the rain increased. I put on my rain jacket. The rocks were slippery, and I had to focus hard each time I planted my pole, stepped onto a rock, tried to balance. At one point we waded through the lake, because it was the only way around a large boulder. Sometimes we crawled. I'm a survivor, I thought. I can do this.

My father's greatest praise was to call someone a survivor, meaning they had the ability to face any challenge, handle it and move on. He was big-hearted, smart and omni-competent, and sometimes he drank too much and gave in to terrible bursts of temper. I learned early to keep my head down, be omni-competent and push through. I excelled in school, then at work, got married, gave birth without drugs, worked as a journalist and a teacher, wrote novels, took in my elderly mother after my father died. “Yes, I can do that” was my mantra, one I repeated each time I was asked to take on a task.

The rain came harder, and the wind from the Great Lake blew the rain in bone-chilling horizontal gusts. I couldn't stop shivering.

"We've got to get you into dry clothes,” Connie said.

But where? The lake roiled to our right, storm-tossed and angry. To our left, cliffs thrust up toward the sky. There was no shelter, no place to pitch a tent or wrap up in a sleeping bag.

"We have to keep going,” I said.

The shivering grew so violent I couldn't plant my poles. We stopped under a skinny tree with a trunk the thickness of my arm. Connie rummaged through my pack for dry clothes, stripped me naked and dressed me, put me into my rain jacket and rain pants. She squeezed peanut butter onto a protein bar and made me eat it, followed by a sip of whiskey. The shaking eased, and we picked up our packs and walked on.

The rain continued. We slipped and fell; the dogs slipped and fell. We covered 2 miles in six hours and stopped at the first campsite we came to. It was 8 p.m.

Day 3: ‘What have I got to prove?’

The next day was sunny and brilliant blue. “We've gotten through the worst of it,” Connie said.

But as we crossed another rocky beach and clambered up more steep, rooted trail and navigated another boulder field, my body ached, and I was tired and more than a little scared. I am 59 years old, I thought. What am I trying to prove? And to who?

The answer came back with a startling clarity: Nothing. I've got nothing to prove to anyone. I don't have to do this.

We came out of the woods on top of a cliff; I took off my pack and sat down.

I've had plenty of therapy. I don't know why it took an impossible hike over an impossible trail to finally show me that the answer I'd been looking for all my life was to sit down and rest. I'd had my share of Me Too experiences; I'd learned how to stand up for myself at work, in my friendships, in my marriage, with my kids. I marched at the 2017 Women's March. I taught my daughters to say no without explanation or apology. I knew Mary Oliver's poem “Wild Geese” by heart, and I knew I did not have to be good, or walk on my knees for a hundred miles, repenting. I had only to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

Only my body was a hard animal, honed through hours of exercise boot camps and long hikes. And I had never paid attention to learning to assert myself in what was the most difficult and meaningful relationship of my life: the one I had with myself.

I told Connie I was done, and I started to cry. It was primal, part exhaustion, part fear, but more — a deep, unutterable relief that I could finally let go. I had pushed myself until I found the absolute limit of what I could do, and I was tired, and I wanted to go to the cabin and take a long, hot shower and rest. And then I wanted to go home and rest some more.

“We're not injured,” Connie said. “A rescue will cost money."

"I think my family would rather pay for my rescue than my funeral.”

"The best way to get over your fear of something is to do it,” she said. “You can do this."

"I don't want to,” I said. They're the truest words I've ever spoken.

We collected our packs and the dogs and hiked back to where we'd camped the night before. I sent our GPS coordinates and a message on our satellite communication device to our friend Sarah. The next day the Ontario Provincial Police came in a small boat. We waded out into the cold, rocky lake and loaded our gear and dogs and ourselves onto the boat, where two kind officers gave us big, warm coats and steered us on a choppy ride 25 miles down the lake, to the quiet turquoise bay where they'd launched, where a road awaited.

The rescue was free; all in a day's work for the OPP. I'm home; Connie and I are still friends. I think often of a line from a Derek Walcott poem that reads, “The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other's welcome.” I wish I'd smiled at that woman a long time ago. I smile at her now every day.

Kathleen McCleary is a journalist and author of Leaving Haven (2013), A Simple Thing (2012), and House & Home (2008). Her work has appeared in Parade, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. Her last hike was a sedate seven miles in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.

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