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Deepest Daks

Journey through America's most accessible wilderness in search of untouched places, and you might just find peace of mind to match the lakes and hills.

On our final morning, we’re standing at the edge of Little Squaw Brook. The map shows the trail continuing, but neck-high grass disagrees.
“Good a place as any,” I say to Adam. We start off-trail, uphill and east, toward Snowy’s long southern ridge, which we’ll follow to the summit. The leaves crunch under our feet in the wide-open forest dotted with suitcase-size boulders and crossed by thin drainage brooks still gurgling with fresh rainfall.
 
White pines thread in with the hardwoods the higher we climb, closing off the cross-valley view to Buck Mountain until we reach a 30-foot-tall cliff band near the top. Just short enough to hide between topo lines.
It’d be easy for Adam and me to turn back here, give in to doubt, re-ford the chest-deep Cedar River like we did yesterday afternoon, take the NPT back to the Colvin Brook Trail, and blame it on something besides ourselves.
 
But that’s not what we’re going to do.
 
After a few minutes of grunting and scraping fingernails, Adam joins me on a ridge so crowded by white pines that light barely penetrates. In their race for open air, these 40-foot-tall, Nalgene-skinny trees let the bottom branches die to feed the crown. The tight, two-foot space between trunks is now barbed with hundreds of skewers. They poke our arms and legs and whip our faces.
 
Mossy logs flatten to mush when we step on them. Cliff bands on both sides keep us on the ridge. We take turns breaking branches. We don’t talk much. Hours pass. Frustration gives in to doubt. Doubt collapses into exhaustion.
 
The sun is on its way down by the time we stand below the last 200-foot broken rock face on the backside of Snowy. I take the inventory: both water bottles missing, right leg of shorts ripped off, bleeding from both forearms, scratched and swollen left eye. I look like a kid fresh from a hiding spot in the prickers, or a man returned from clearing them away. Then I realize: I am both. I can hold fast to my teenaged taste for risk, but inform it with the things I’ve learned; I can convert my ideas into adventures better than ever before. Growing up doesn’t mean getting soft. There’s nowhere to go from here but forward.
 
Testing each step, Adam leads up the steep, tree-filled seam between sheer rocks. We shift boulders and uproot tiny saplings. We never look back or down. Adam smells something familiar. “Campfire,” he says. “We’re close.”
 
And then, leading to the cliff we’ve just scaled, we see a faint trail that delivers us to the base of an 80-foot fire tower. We scale it in seconds; it’s like being born into the sky. The southern Daks stretch out before us. To the east, Indian Lake shines like a sword below rolling hills splotched with yellows, oranges, and forest-greens. To the north, the High Peaks chip the horizon.
 
Far away on those slopes, the ant paths deliver dayhikers—teenagers and seniors alike—to popular summits with finer views than the one here. But we’re the ones who gained perspective.
 
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