Mount Norwottuck

Five and a half years ago, my friend Ted led me on a hike up Norwottuck, a small mountain in Massachusetts’s Holyoke Range. I had climbed Norwottuck many times before — the trailhead was across the street from my college dorm — but with Ted I experienced the mountain in a different way. I was accustomed to climbing during the daytime, but Ted and I began our hike at 10 pm.

It was a warm night in May, a moonlit, starry night. We were both about to graduate from college, and while Ted had elaborate plans for the months to come — hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, going to work for the National Outdoor Leadership School — I had no idea of what I would do next.

After four years of college, I was exhausted. I’ve always been a directed and motivated person, always working toward a goal, but I had been so intent on finishing my schoolwork that I’d neglected to make any plans beyond graduation. Having poured all of my energy into my work, I could not conceive of what lay beyond it.

Growing up, the decisions always seemed to be made for me: I went to grade school, then high school, then college. I did what was expected of me — by my family, by society — and didn’t consider doing anything else. But once I earned my bachelor’s degree, for the first time in my life I had a choice of what my future would be. I could choose where I wanted to live, I could choose what I wanted to do for work. Countless roads and countless opportunities spread out before me: too many roads, too many opportunities. I didn’t know in which direction I wanted to go.

Ted was my closest friend at college. Both from Marshfield, we’d known each other since high school, where we’d dated for the better part of a year. Our romance didn’t last, but the friendship that grew out of it was strong, and had endured more than a few ups and downs. Even when I’m floundering, I tend to appear confident, so Ted was surprised when, in discussing our future plans, I admitted how lost and afraid I felt. Knowing me well, Ted insisted that we not sit and dwell on the details, but rather get some fresh air and see where the conversation might lead us.

I didn’t realize it until many years later, but a mountain climb in the dark of night was the perfect metaphor for what I was going through at the time. The sky was bright, but as we headed into the woods, the trees obscured most of its light. At first I could barely see the trail, but after a while my eyes adjusted.

I usually walk at a good clip, but with all the roots and rocks in my path, I had to move slowly, feeling out every step, placing each foot down carefully. At first the process was maddeningly slow, but as I got used to it, I was able to walk faster, and before long we were making our way up the trail at a fairly swift pace. We spent most of the 90 minute climb talking about the things that were on my mind: all the fears and anxieties associated finishing school, finding a job and beginning my life as an adult.

By the time we reached the summit, I’d said all that I wanted to say. We fell silent. Climbing alone to the top of the fire tower, I paused to look out over the valley and listen to the wind blowing through the trees.

On past hikes, upon reaching the summit, I would sit down, have a snack, and take some time to admire the view before starting down the other side of the mountain. But night made the top of Norwottuck a different place. There wasn’t much to see — only darkness spreading out for miles around. Anticipating the tricky, rock-strewn trail I’d have to negotiate on the way down, I could hardly stand still. We started back almost immediately.

On the way down, Ted told me about an experience he had while hiking in the Andes. He was traveling with a small group of people, and somewhere out in the Chilean wilderness, three weeks into a month-long trek, someone began to tell a story about the guerrilla warfare that went on in those mountains — the skirmishes between government troops and rebel forces, the political prisoners, the torture camps . . . and the American hikers who made a wrong turn, wandered innocently onto the scene, and paid the price of their lives.

For days, the momentum of the story grew . . . to the point where Ted and his fellow hikers wondered whether the noises they heard in the woods were in fact the natural sounds of the forest, and not distant guns or plotting terrorists. Even though they had grown accustomed to life on the trail, even though they were prepared for just about any emergency, they began to question their safety. They began to question themselves.

In the end, the story turned out to be fictional. The hikers were relieved, but they knew that they had learned some valuable lessons. And the point of the story, the reason why Ted went through the trouble to repeat it to me as we made our way down the dark, twisting midnight trails of Mt. Norwottuck, was the understanding that he and his companions reached that night in the Andean wilderness: there are plenty of things out there that we will certainly be afraid of — things unsettled, things unknown. But in our anxiety, our constant What-If?-ing, we make the thing feared into something much larger than it is.

We returned from our hike without incident. Within the next two weeks, college ended and Ted and I went our separate ways — he to explore the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, and me back to Marshfield to begin piecing together a life of my own. Although I went back to Amherst frequently to visit friends, I never returned to Norwottuck.

Now, more than five years later, I am half way up the same steep trail on Norwottuck, wondering if the lay of the land is different or if my memories have just grown hazy. I’m in much better shape now, and although my legs are no longer used to mountain climbing, I find the hike easier than ever before. It’s daylight, mid-November, my 27th birthday. So much has changed.

The fire tower is gone now, so when I reach the summit, I walk out on a ledge to admire the view. The valley below seems both foreign and familiar to me.

Birthdays are always a time of reflection for me — looking back on the year that’s passed, looking forward to what lies ahead. Moutaintops offer perspective and I feel like I’ve gained quite a bit of it in the last half decade. Like the roads and trails below, the patterns of which are so much more evident from the top of Norwottuck, it’s as if I can see much more clearly now how it all came together — the process by which I arrived at the place I am today.

I feel good about how much I have learned and grown. I feel grateful for the people who have helped me along the way. I know now the path I am on, and although there is still plenty to figure out, I am no longer climbing a mountain in the dark. The sun has risen; it climbs slowly into the sky. I have not yet reached my destination, but I have certainly found my way.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
November 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.