I’m sitting with two friends on a rock outcropping on top of Black Dome in the Catskill Mountains. It took us three hours to reach the summit, a hefty hike including hand-over-hand steep spots, shaded cols, and endless one foot in front of the other to navigate the rocks and roots. The satisfaction of the mountaintop is palpable. We’ve been rewarded with sunshine, a mild temperature, and an inspiring view of blue skies, spruce forests, and distant ranges.
Equally satisfying: the three of us were able to arrange our schedules and make a day of it.
We hear voices and a moment later two other hikers emerge from the canopied trail and join us on the top. I can see immediately they take this pastime seriously. They’re uniformed in official hiking pants, walking poles, state-of-the-art hydration backpacks, and GPS units.
“You guys doing the thirty-five?”
He’s referring to hiking all of the 35 Catskill peaks that are over 3500 feet in elevation.
“No,” I say. “I thought about that once, but it’s not going to happen.”
“I’ve done them all multiple times. Now I’m working on the grid, which is doing all 35 in every month of the year.”
I do the quick math 35 x 12 = 420 peaks ascended in one year. That’s what I call a commitment. No, more than a commitment—it’s a way of life.
“Where you guys from?” Our hiker friend is full of energy, almost vibrating. Reminds me of an idling engine, waiting for the gas pedal to press. I can see why incessant mountain hiking appeals to him.
“Up near Albany.”
“Then you’ve done the Adirondacks 46?”
This refers to the 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains that are over 4000 feet.
“I did about 25 of them, but I’m not going to get it done,” I say. Not when I was only doing two or three a year.
“So you quit on that too?”
“Um—” I sort of laugh. I think he’s joking. They’re both friendly and when we ask they explain their GPS units and how they lead organized hikes.
The ledge isn’t large and I tell him we’re about to head out and they can have the view for a while, but he says they’re not really stopping. They’ve got a couple of more summits to conquer today.
So we bid them farewell and they’re off and away, their walking sticks clacking over the rocks.
I once wanted to be a card-carrying“46er.” But alas. A number of the high peaks don’t have marked trails, which means I would need expert orienteering skills. Also, I didn’t have a regular hiking partner, and doing some of those hikes alone wouldn’t be wise. Some of the peaks are so far away from parking areas that I couldn’t climb and descend in one day. I’d have to spend a couple of days in the mountains: big backpacks, setting up a base camp, food in bear canisters, then hiking to the top on the second day. I don’t have that kind of equipment, and if I did I wouldn’t want to schlep it for miles on my back, and I definitely don’t want to sleep on the ground after a grueling all-day hike. That era is over for me. Now at the end of my hike, I want a beer, a burger, and a bed.
So I’m not going to be an Adirondack 46er for most of the same reasons I’m not going to be a Catskill 35er. It takes a real passion to set such a goal, get equipped, plan and track your hikes, check off the boxes as each one is completed, schedule the hiking season. I’m not that person.
Since it’s just us again and the day is fine, we hang out a bit more at the top, and we get into this discussion about how people embrace different interests and find purpose and meaning through them.
One of us knows someone who is an obsessed birder that keeps a spreadsheet of every bird they’ve ever seen: species, time, date, location. There’s a term in birding called “lifer” which I thought meant you were in this birding thing for life but actually refers to a bird species that a person has successfully sighted and identified for the first time in their life. You keep track of lifers. You tell tales about them.
Another one of us was hitchhiking (years ago, when people hitched and other people gave them rides and didn’t necessarily murder them), and he got picked up by a guy who was gung-ho on placing a CB radio call from every county in the U.S. (back when there were CB radios). There are over 3,000 counties. That’s like a galaxy quest. His enthusiasm for the quest was overwhelming.
Then there’s the guy we know who has run a marathon in every state. He’s unmarried, no children, so what else is there really to do?
It’s during this discussion that I realize I don’t have any goal-specific interests, where I’m attempting to reach a milestone, check every item on a list, or track progress toward a finish line. I don’t belong to a mission-driven club, I don’t crave to visit every country in the European Union. I’m not determined to visit every state. Owen and I once talked about an epic road trip where we would visit all the national parks, and as much as I’d love to do that, at this point neither of us is in a position to embark on such an odyssey.
Because the truth is you can’t do everything you want to do, and I’m already doing a lot of what I want to do: writing (which takes up a lot of my time), working to help the family, maintaining the house and property, exercise and sports, volunteering here and there, enjoying whatever time I can get with the kids and Harriet, socializing when motivated, and all that other stuff that makes up my so-called life.
I suppose if I really wanted to I could make room for a new passion or embrace a new goal. But I can’t think of one at this moment. I’m too occupied savoring this sunny summit and coveting this view and enjoying this conversation that’s got me thinking about all kinds of things. Because time is getting shorter and heading in one direction only—how do I choose to spend it?
Right now I’ll devote my time to a long descent on achy legs, and then a beer and a burger, and when I get home a bed. That’s a list of goals I’m looking forward to checking off as completed, mission accomplished.