We pull up to the trailhead at 6:30 a.m. The parking lot is already packed, with only a few spots open. Two men sip coffee at their pickup. The sky is gray, and ours are the only voices in the crisp air. We tie our boots in silence.
Our 10-mile loop will take us to the top of Big Slide by way of the Brothers, a series of three ascending summits. From Big Slide, we’ll follow Slide Mountain Brook back down to the valley. There, we plan to cross Johns Brook and hook up with the Southside Trail – where I’m told we’ll find several choice swimming holes. Chris and I often hike in Vermont, but had become increasingly curious about the Adirondacks; their looming presence is practically a part of the Vermont landscape, their peaks impossible to ignore. Are they really wilder than the Green Mountains?
I sign the register, and we make our way into the vast woods, the trail soft as carpet in places, gnarled roots dug in like fingers. After a half-hour, the path spills onto a stone outcropping – and our first view of the Great Range. We stop and watch the sun rise, a bright white fist unclenching behind a row of toothy peaks. Chris reties her boots, and we slip back into the woods. Even at this early stage, my hands are already kept busy on the steep, twisting paths – grasping branches, gripping rocks, climbing over fallen trees. The Adirondacks are quickly under my fingernails.
When we reach the summits of the Three Brothers, the views are stupefying – a ring of jagged peaks like points in a crown, the carpeted swell of valley heaving in every direction, a distant hamlet the only sign of civilization. We rest against the rock, our shadows draped across the rocks like laundry. The distant buzz of a chainsaw reaches our ears. Trail maintenance? A logger? Someone shoring up for winter? Then it stops, and we’re alone again.
An hour later, we reach the base of Big Slide. The final ascent is a steep scramble, involving a series of log ladders. A crooked lane of brush then guides us onto the small summit. We have the peak to ourselves. And the valley. And all those mountains.
I wriggle out of my pack and take off my boots and socks, flattening my feet against the cold stone. On the horizon beyond the shark-toothed range, I can make out the Green Mountains – a slightly crooked line, hardly registering from this distance. I think about our hikes up Mount Abraham, Vermont’s third-tallest mountain. From the peak you can see most of the Champlain Valley – squiggles of road, the quilt of farm fields, the mighty wall of Adirondacks rising above Lake Champlain. And beyond those majestic peaks, who knows – promise, hope, the rest of America, and now me, staring back. But from Big Slide all I see is open sky and a roiling ocean of mountains, nothing to orient the modern eye. I’m blissfully without bearings.
It isn’t long before others stumble up – a group of college kids and a couple chasing all 46 High Peaks. Cameras click, cellophane crinkles, and a single-engine Cessna buzzes across the range.
“That’s cheating,” a man quips between bites of a sandwich.
We still have a ways to go, so we don’t linger. On our descent to Johns Brook valley, the trail hopscotches back and forth across a stream. Once in the valley, we stop at Johns Brook Lodge, the backcountry outpost operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club. We refill water bottles and snack on cornbread from a table on the wooden porch. Drop a buck in a jar and you can choose from cakes or muffins, tea or coffee – a welcome break in this tough wilderness.
At the forest ranger’s interior cabin-nearby, we learn the bridge across Johns Brook is closed. So we clamber down to the rocks to see if we can ford it. It looks about 30 feet across, but separating us from the other bank is a boulder-studded tumble of water rushing at a decidedly downward pitch. One slip will cost in flesh. Johns Raging River is more like it, Chris says
I try a combination of rocks that leads to a gap about three feet wide. The water is high and makes me dizzy. I sway back and forth, wondering whether to toss my pack first. Falling in would be a disaster. The more I think about it, the harder my heart beats. Fear dispels all pretenses and quickly teaches you the true language of your environment. I listen for a moment, then jump.
After landing, I turn and hold my hand out to Chris. We grip and regrip, leaning back and forth, debating the right moment (“not yet, not yet, not yet!”). Before I know it she’s in the air, and I’m pulling her toward me. She lands perfectly. I smile, telling myself that in that brief moment our relationship just got a little stronger. We bushwhack a short distance and pick up the Southside Trail.
The path is mostly flat, and all ours. Before long, we come to a smooth slab of bedrock dented with potholes, water swirling into several pools. A waterfall just upstream completes the sublime setting. I strip off my sweaty clothes and dive in. The cold is painful, the kind you don’t get used to, numbing my teeth, my eyeballs. I clamber out and find a sunny patch of rock, marveling at the ways the Adirondacks can get inside you.
To get back to the parking lot, we have to ford the brook again. The slope of the water has evened out, but the crossing looks twice as wide. I test several sequences with no luck. Then I spot Chris halfway across, body arched over the water, feet on one stone, hands on another. She pushes off gently, boots joining her palms, then easily hops the rest of the way.
I follow her route, gripping the same cold rock, stretching over the water – a bridge of bone and flesh. The brook and I grip each other like wrestlers, and then I push off.
Standing at the register 30 minutes later, it’s hard to believe we’ve already come full circle, the hours gone by with little notice. I grip the stub of pencil and flip pages, wanting to write down that Chris and I had tapped into something today, that we’d got behind the bruising sunsets, behind those muscled silhouettes. But when I finally find our names, I sign us out with a simple check mark. It seems the most fitting comment I can make.
From NY 73 in the center of Keene Valley, drive west on Adirondack Street. At 0.3 miles, continue straight onto Johns Brook Lane. The road takes a sharp right turn at 0.6 miles to cross Johns Brook and then climbs to the Garden parking lot at 1.6 miles. Bear left at junctions with other roads en route to the lot. There is a $5 parking fee from early May through late October.