Blissful Illusion vs. Stark Reality

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – The collision between blissful illusion and stark reality is almost always a shock to the system: as when an unsinkable ocean liner runs at high speed into an iceberg; or the unforgettable day I showed up for practice with the Syracuse University cross-country team, ready to go, and just ten minutes later was gone. My favorite is the sportswriter Paul Gallico’s brief sortie into the ring with then-heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. Reality has a bad habit of handing us our hats.

Over the past few years, as my physical abilities have diminished, the producers of our outdoor-oriented television show, “Windows to the Wild,” have done their best to tailor their ideas to what’s left of me. We’ve driven to Cape May to film migratory birds and an inmate – a lifer, for a grisly murder – at a nearby state penitentiary who claimed to be a birder. That was a piece of cake. We’ve taken short hikes with the author Tom Ryan and his dogs, hikes that were heavier on conversation than mileage, and thus right up my alley. We’ve climbed Mount Katahdin, but that was years ago. In the offing, as I write, are a two-mile saltwater paddle near Kittery and a day on a Maine-based schooner with a bunch of schoolkids. Pretty soft life.

So when I learned that we’d be hiking, over in Maine, with an “elderly woman” (elderly, my foot! She was only 72) who’s been doing the entire Appalachian Trail in bits and pieces, with guides, I was confident. We’d walk the trail only 1.8 miles to a campground, set up camp, and spend the evening filming our conversations. Next day, they’d continue on the trail and we’d return. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. The exercises I’d been doing somewhat fitfully around the house during the pandemic, coupled with the almost daily walks in Hubbard Park, were no match for the ups and downs, rocks, and roots of a trail designed to, as the old song goes, climb every mountain, ford every stream. It was embarrassing to realize that my confidence, though measured, had been pure hubris. The elderly woman hiked behind me, the sound of her confident footsteps haunting in my ears.

There’s no point in rehearsing all the missteps, the proffered strong hands from ahead or shoulders from below, the woman’s guide’s offer of electrolyte solution, the growing sense that somewhere in my quadriceps a revolution was brewing. We got to the campsite at last, where we had tents to sleep in if we wished. But I knew what I was in for during the night, so I laid out my stuff in the empty lean-to.

You don’t get ready for sleeping on a board floor by luxuriating on a mattress at home. The late Sir Francis Chichester, as a new boy at an English public school, had to sleep on a mat farthest from the fire and nearest the windows in winter. He showed his mettle by eschewing his blanket until he was tough enough to take it in pajamas.

The need to get up occasionally during the night is inverse to the ability to do so. With Kiki, who shared my sleeping bag, occasionally firing out like a rocket after some rustling in the lean-to, and my desperate attempts to avoid hamstring cramps at the most delicate moments, I had what Macbeth calls “a rough night.” With the dawn came a resolution: I stopped at the gym on the way home, hobbled in, and rejoined.