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It was May. A glorious, tulip-bound May and trees in Boston were turning on their lime greens. The breeze carried just enough heat to make me forget all about the long winter. Cold leaves an imprint when you’re in your early 20s and so broke you pile on blankets inside because you can’t afford to turn on the heat. It was May and the robins had returned and what I needed, maybe more than heating oil, was to get outside.
I packed the gear I had, hoping it’d be enough: Moonstone synthetic 35°F bag, abused Z-Rest shorty I bought for a long section on the Appalachian Trail, Capilene long undies I’d had for a decade, a fleece vest handed down from my dad, and a rain suit, just in case. It was a summer kit—and old at that—but in my rush to meet spring, I didn’t even consider that staying home might be the right answer.
On the shadowy side of a mountain in the Berkshires, I climbed through clouds of my own breath—it was much cooler here than the city. The footing was the same jumble of roots and rocks common to the AT, and my feet were remembering how to move over them. I felt something inside me waking up, while something else let go. The views extended far over dun-colored rollers. Things were opening. My heart rate climbed with the trail, the sweat began soon enough.
Little patches of snow hiding in the shade passed under my feet, now rubbed with blisters on the heels—they’d gone soft without the discipline of hiking boots. But how could I care when I followed bear tracks that had frozen into the spring mud like plaster casts? They looked fresh enough to keep me scanning over my shoulder. Fear, sharp and heavy, replaced the slow grind of worry. That, too, I hadn’t felt in too long.
I aimed for the Hemlocks Lean-to—one of two shelters within .1 mile of each other—and found it empty this early in shoulder season. In a month, it’d be packed most every night, and in a few months, the trickle of AT northbounders would fill this shelter and spill into the woods nearby in one big, stinky party. But tonight, there was no one. I emptied my pack onto the wooden platform, unstuffed my sleeping bag, and laid it out to loft. It looked like an empty newspaper bag, but I’d spent so many summer nights sweating in the thing that I thought—hoped—it would be enough.
Dusk had swept the hint of the warmth out of the day and real cold was coming. I put on my last layer with the knowledge that this was as warm as I could get, and made a fire. Its heat seeped through my raincoat, the fleece, baselayers, and right down to my skin. I poked at the coals, warm and happy with my flask of $12 whiskey. I climbed into my sleeping bag. Thus began the coldest night of my life.
I woke a one-hour eternity later, the shelter’s interior so dark I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open. My ribs were seized in a shiver. I got up, did pushups and jumping jacks, and used my headlamp to scan the ground for tiny burnable bits I could use to perk up the fire. I clung to its fantasy warmth and went back to sleep.
Morning didn’t come. An hour later, I shivered myself awake and repeated the process. My voice was all gruff and smoke as I talked to myself, as if talking would keep me warm. But it was action and action only that would comfort me. I wasn’t worried about freezing to death, just realizing that misery cuts deepest when it’s self-inflicted.
Wilderness, unlike most any other venue, reflects what we bring to it. You want it to be harsh and unwelcoming, something to be fought and beaten, fine, but that’s your thing. Me? I needed it to be austere and simple, to reduce cause and effect to the smallest loop possible. My feet hurt because they’re soft. I’m scared because there are bears nearby. I’m cold because I didn’t pack right. No nuance, no questions, just beautiful, uncomplicated reality.
Before or since, I’ve never been happier to see the dawn. Colors came back, the chill migrated from my core back into my arms and legs and finally fingers and toes, but at least I could now get moving. Besides, something beyond the sun had dawned on me. I knew, just as robins were singing in the branches, that I’d gotten a jump on the season, and that this was just the beginning.