How to Be With Others
by Libby Leonard
The night before I nearly fell to my death off Breakneck Ridge in upstate New York, I was on the phone with a Wells Fargo representative trading stories about outdoor adventure debacles, which started after I changed my account’s username to my old AOL handle skydive12180.
It was a handle that I joked would sound infinitely more impressive had I not done it only once fifteen years ago, and with an Irishman named Spotty strapped to my back. I told him how Spotty refused to let me indulge in the spiritual silence that occurs while gliding 13,000 feet off the ground, and instead made me practice multiple times how we’d land, which involved him screaming “LIFT!” and me pulling up my legs tight to my chest.
I was wearing shorts that day, and we practiced so much that the strap that kept me attached to his body chafed my thighs raw, and when we came barreling towards the earth and it was actually showtime, I couldn’t muster the energy to LIFT!, and got dragged along the ground for about twenty feet in between his legs, until my right knee became pulp.
This led to more stories involving shifted vertebrae, bruises like supernovas spanning the entire backs of my legs, broken limbs, noses, a split frenulum; all results of too-much-too-soons, clumsiness, not listening, and not doing enough research, and how I realized in my 30s, I was over the periodic rush I got from the adventures that led to these kinds of injuries. However, while the representative told me his kayaking stories, which involved a lot more blood, I wondered to myself if I was signing up to have another one of these anecdotes the following day.
My particular trip choice came about after a frenetic Google search earlier that afternoon. Life had gotten noisy, and I needed to untangle my brain alone in nature, away from the city. Breakneck Ridge was one of the first places that came up. It had a train that led directly to the trail, and while it mentioned something about it being strenuous, I figured that just meant a steeper incline that would work my thigh muscles a little more than usual.
The next day, I rolled out of bed with enough time to quickly pack some food, and rush a bodega water run, then hopped on MetroNorth. I texted my Mother, so somebody knew where I was, then shoved my phone deep into my backpack, so I could let the static between my ears disperse, once the train whizzed past all the high rises, exposing the expanse of the Hudson.
About an hour and a half later, I was on a tiny dirt path with a bunch of others, walking out single file to the main road leading to the trail. I was basking in both the clean air, and the beautiful silence until an old man who was quite a few feet ahead of me, turned around and asked if I knew what I was doing.
I didn’t think I had the look of someone so unprepared, but tried to brush him off with an angsty teenage version of “not really,” that both conveyed the truth, and that I was bad ass enough to figure things out myself.
He told me he was 70 years old and does the hike to stay in shape.
“Where are you headed?”
“Cold Springs,” I told him.
“What you want to do,” he said, “is take the white trail to the blue trail to the white trail. Just follow the dots on the trees.”
He added that I would need to use all three points of contact while I was climbing the rocks, and that I needed to stay centered, otherwise I would slip up and make a mess of myself, to which I thought, of course he’s going to tell me that, he’s old and obviously extra cautious.
He continued on with small talk, as I was taking pictures with my phone, worrying that I was going to be stuck with this small talk the rest of my trip.
We eventually came up on two men from Parks and Rec at a table that contained maps. He asked if I wanted to grab one, and while I thought briefly how that was a good idea, my bravado kicked in and I said no. I was terrible at reading maps anyway, and he’d already told me what I needed to know about the dots.
When we finally reached the trail head, I looked up, eyes wide.
“Twelve-hundred feet of near-vertical rock scramble,” he said, smiling.
People had already begun spidering up the side.
I had never climbed rocks before. Not to this extent. Nor was I an avid outdoors person. Nor was I someone who regularly went to the gym at this point. The old man patted me on the shoulder, and told me that maybe we’ll see each other again on the trail, but maybe we won’t. There was no way I was turning back, so I started to climb and he proceeded to disappear ahead of me not too long after.
Like the old man said, I had to use every part of my body to climb. He was also right about staying centered. Once I got into a bit of a groove, my brain started drifting to one of my problems back in the city — a man who had apparently kept me along with several others behind another woman’s back. I seethed about a young blonde who posted on his Facebook wall the day prior wondering if she was part of his cache. My hand slipped. I almost fell.
Trembling from both losing physical control, and rage that I’d been caught up in something so abhorrently cliche, I realized I needed a plan to focus, so decided that singing might help. Though I’m not religious, I’ve found myself occasionally touring with a gospel choir the last fifteen years, and since the music has always buoyed me out of insanity, I chose a song from our repertoire, the aptly titled “Jesus is a Rock,” and sang it on repeat.
At no point did I start feeling confident, but the singing somehow worked, because my thoughts went nowhere else, until a group of loud strangers and their dog named Brooklyn, closed in behind me and destroyed my concentration. Why they brought their dog, and how it managed to get up the same rocks, was beyond my ken, but I watched it climb, all while being loudly goaded by its owners.
I perched myself on the side of a cliff to escape, and sat for thirty minutes, hoping that would be a reasonable amount of time to lose them, but they decided to stop too. So I started up again, to try to get past them.
Twenty minutes later, I got stuck on a tricky rock face, then heard their shrill voices approaching as they were going around another path that I didn’t see. After stubbornly debating whether or not to ask for help, I finally relented, and they called out a way from where I was to get to where they were. I had to struggle around another large boulder to get there, and found myself behind two others, one who asked how I was doing, and the other who just reached her hand out without question to help me, when she saw I was having trouble getting around.
Once I was in an easier portion of the climb, the world finally started to feel larger than my head again, and I started to understand that I was meant to learn how to be with others that day, not alone.
After a few more stretches of rock, I reached the summit. A pole was staked in the ground and a large American flag flowed in the wind, with a beautiful view of West Point and Storm King Mountain behind it. I rewarded myself by drinking almost all of my water, then sat down on a boulder, and watched a colorful array of kayaks several feet below scattered along the Hudson like fluorescent grains of rice. I got emotional and posted a photo to Facebook of the view with the caption “The things you learn climbing 1200 feet by yourself. #yourenotbyyourself.”
Then I realized something.
I was not at the top.
From where I was, I couldn’t actually see the top, only the people walking toward another path that didn’t go downward. I asked a girl who was lying supine, dazed, and sweaty on an adjacent boulder, if this were true, that this wasn’t the summit. She shook her head no, wide-eyed, panting.
Moments later, I found myself in front of some more scramble that led up to a steep flat rock face. The people ahead of me had just disappeared over the top after shimmying up the side, ascending along the crack between it and another flat rock that jutted out next to it. I climbed up the scramble, then tried to do the same, and made it most of the way, but the tread on my well-worn sneakers wasn’t good enough. I slipped, then slid about fourteen feet on my stomach, and managed to jam part of my foot into a small space at the base of the rock before I would have flipped off and fell several more feet straight into another part of the scramble.
My breath caught in my throat, and my brain started to race. I was afraid to move. How was I going to get over or down or around, and if I couldn’t, how would I get home? Call 911? Helicopter? I imagined myself clinging to the rock well into the night. I tried to call for the people ahead of me but they were long gone, then heard someone behind me.
I craned my head to see a young man in a floppy hat, grinning. He asked if I needed help, and when he spoke, he had the same easy-going cadence of speech as my brother who lives in Montana, and the familiarity of it made me feel a little more relaxed. He guided me over to and alternate path, then pulled me up the remainder, and proceeded to stay with me the next hour of climbing.
His name was Adam, and he worked for the railroad. He stopped when I needed to stop, and offered me sunscreen when the sun was blazing overhead with no hope of cloud cover for miles. He asked me what I did for a living. At the time, I was writing weird fantasy stories for a game app, which piqued his interest and sent him on a tangent about his love for Lord of the Rings, all said while nimbly bouncing from rock to rock, like Spiderman.
Following him, I was using my body in ways I’d never used it before, maneuvering my way over rocks, on my back, on my side, not caring how cut up I was getting. A couple of times I was jumping toward the side of one rock, then quickly using it as a springboard to another, hoping I was using the right amount of precision that wouldn’t end in my death. I would stand before some of these obstacles, having problems trying to locate my nerve, but Adam, always perched like a ninja above me, leaned down and shouted militant style pep talks until I made it through every time.
We eventually reached a point where he was going eight miles north in another direction and I didn’t want to follow, so I asked various people resting at the summit if they were going to Cold Springs, but nobody was.
He tried to show me the way on his map, but my blood sugar was too low to concentrate, and I couldn’t eat what I packed to change that, because all I had was a turkey sandwich, which was too salty an option for someone almost entirely out of water. I tried to truly listen the third time, but after realizing how flustered I was, just pointed to a group of people in the distance and said to hurry and follow them, even though a few minutes earlier, they told me they weren’t going where I wanted to end up. I got his last name, then gave him a quick sweaty hug and ran to catch up to the others.
Then I lost them.
Then I got lost.
I was surrounded by dead leaves and felled trees. No one was around. All the heaviness in my life descended, on top of the fact that I had no idea where I was in reference to anything. I tried to give myself an Adam-style pep talk, but dissolved into tears instead. Within seconds, I heard these voices behind me. They belonged to a group of four friends from lower Manhattan. They were going exactly where I needed to go and said I could tag along. I took a deep breath and whispered “thank you” toward the sky.
I tried to trail behind them, so I wouldn’t ruin their day with my undone seams, but I had to stop often, because my heart kept palpitating from the dehydration and low blood sugar, so they stopped too. After about the fifth stop, I told them to go off without me, so I wouldn’t hold them back, but they refused, wanting to make sure I got to Cold Springs safely. They gave me an apple and some Smart Water after learning about my food and drink situation, and that turned me into a completely different person, with a clear enough head to then be seriously annoyed at my lack of self-care going into the day.
I was with them for another three hours. We didn’t trade much conversation, navigating the terrain in our own worlds, mainly because while the descent wasn’t anywhere near as harrowing, you still had to pay close attention to what you were stepping on occasionally, and whether or not it was sturdy.
At one point 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days” randomly popped into my head after years of not hearing it, so I rolled with that on loop for the rest of the hike. My brain/intuition/spirit guides will occasionally do that to make sense of a situation for me. I’m sure whatever force is in charge of this wanted me to hear the lyrics “you’ll know it’s true, that you are blessed and lucky.”
Towards the end, one of the girls turned to me to point out the comforting noise of traffic. “We’re almost there,” she said smiling, knowing it was what I wanted to hear, and then we were there.
Three people from Parks and Recreation sat at a booth, laughing at a story one of the others was telling them. They had ice water waiting. I filled up my bottle, and drank most of it immediately, then filled it again. I thanked the four friends who helped me and watched them disappear down the road that led into town, then sat on the ground and once again broke down sobbing.
At first I wasn’t sure why, if it was just the release of all the soft terrorism I unleashed on myself for the day, or that I was grateful for making it out unscathed, but I eventually realized it was from deep gratitude towards the universe. Every time I needed help, it showed up. Even when I thought I was lost, I was actually just being guided to the right hands to get me where I needed to go.
When I calmed down, I set off down the main road thirty minutes into town. All I wanted was a beer and the first place I saw was Whistling Willies, which advertised “Beer, Burgers, and Live Music” in huge letters on the awning. I had to ask if it was okay to eat there, because I was covered in dirt and cuts and bruises, but they let me in. A little while after I sat down, I perked up to the music on the speakers. It was Mick Jagger singing: “You can’t always get what you want, you get what you need.” I lifted my beer toward the ceiling.
After I paid the bill, I walked down to the water, and asked an elderly couple where I could find the train. They gave me some complicated directions, which got me lost again, but I eventually ran into someone else who led me back to where I belonged just in time.
I was then on my way home, the setting sun reflecting off the Hudson most of the ride, where a week later several more things unraveled in my life, but instead of panicking, I decided to lean on the lessons I learned that day: to walk in faith knowing that I would get the help I needed if I was brave enough to keep going.
Libby Leonard is a freelance writer in many different mediums, based in NYC. She can be found on twitter at @howhighijump.