Tree Eaters

Sarah at Marcy Dam

Sarah at Marcy Dam
In his memoir Life Itself, Roger Ebert wrote about places he’d return to, year after year. He’d sit at the same table, order the same food, walk the same roads, perform the same rituals every time. Ebert said this provided the “illusion of continuity,” meaning that as he grew older, those touchstones encompassed not only his memories but a promise of the future: “I was here before, I am here now, I will return again.”

We all have places like that, sacred to our own continuity. I first walked the dirt and rocky trails of New York’s Adirondack Park in the early 1980s, just before I became a teenager. The entire park comprises 6.1 million acres, 10,000+ lakes, 30,000+ miles of rivers and streams, but my spirit rests in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, 300,000 acres including 33 mountains over 4000’.

Adirondack high peaks are occasionally scorned by those for whom size matters – the highest peak in New York State, Mount Marcy, is just over 5,300 feet. Still, these are my mountains. They aren’t as tall as the Rockies but they’re both older and younger – the bedrock on the Adirondack peaks is over a billion years old (among the oldest rock on earth), exposed in its present configuration by an uplift that began 5 to 10 million years ago. (The Rockies are 55-80 million years old, Creation myths notwithstanding.)

Last week, I returned again to the forest amidst the high peaks, and walked the paths I’ve been walking for the past thirty years. It’s a short three-hour drive from my house (if there’s a reason I’m still a resident of New York State, it’s because I don’t want to leave the foothills of the Adirondacks.) I stepped out of the car, into the cool pine air. The ground crunched underfoot, a combination of dirt, stones, tree roots and leaves. What I’d missed most of all: the unhurried silence. My heartbeat slowed, I breathed deeply, I was home.

It’s wonderful to return to pre-electric existence, ordered by the sun. I woke when the dawn light filtered through the tree canopy to illuminate the ceiling of my tent. My only concerns for the day were a leisurely breakfast and where to hike later. Plenty of time to sit and read. In my experience, people in the woods are easygoing, more willing to make eye contact and smile. As humans, we are small in the woods, more vulnerable than usual. We’re exposed to weather and creatures bigger than us, promoting a serene humility in those of right mind.

This year, I finally introduced Susan and Sarah to the trailhead at the ADK Loj, only a few hundred steps from our campsite. Some kids visit Times Square and fall in love with NYC; this trailhead is my own Times Square in the mountains. I’ve hiked the two miles into Marcy Dam more than any other trail. From there, the possibilities include dozens of journeys. I usually pass through, but this time Marcy Dam itself was our destination, and we stayed longer than I usually do.

I met Mark, who’d earlier turned around a few hundred feet shy of the summit on Marcy, because the rain had chilled his family and made footing treacherous. Like me, Mark has climbed Algonquin, the second-highest peak in NYS, more than a dozen times; we decided we’d be 46-ers already if we didn’t keep climbing the same mountains over and again.

On the way out, Mark’s kids zipped past my family, reminding me of the times I used to bound over the rocks and down the trails. The kids looked about the age I’d been when I started hiking, and I imagined them returning in thirty years with their own families, probably moving about my current speed because bounding is reserved for those with elastic limbs and limitless energy.

The word Adirondacks is thought to have derived from a Mohawk Indian expression, atirú:taks, which literally means “tree eaters.” The earliest known written use of the name, spelled Rontaks, was in 1724 by French missionary Joseph-François Lafitau, who defined it the same way. A 1761 map labels the forest “Deer Hunting Country;” Ebenezer Emmons seems to have been the first to call the mountains Adirondacks in 1837. J. Dyneley Prince wrote that the Mohawk word ratirontaks (“they eat trees”) was still used derisively about Algonquin Indians in the early 1900’s.

Linguists argue about whether the legends can be trusted, with some suggesting that the St. Lawrence Indian word meaning “rock people” is a better bet for derivation. Personally, I like “tree eaters.” Trees dapple the sunlight and deflect the rain. The sound of the gentlest breeze becomes a rustling symphony. I long to be among the trees; my spirit is fed by them.

During our trip, we ventured to the top of the Lake Placid ski jumps, and looked down on the ubiquitous treetop canopy. The trees invited us to jump, promising a soft landing and gentle shade on the ground. From their midst, the ancient rock continued its youthful rise all around, a few millimeters each year. My ratirontaks: I’ll return again in a millimeter or two.