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This must be the place: Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved

View from atop Rattlesnake Mountain. (Garret K. Woodward photo) View from atop Rattlesnake Mountain. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Monday afternoon. Plattsburgh, New York. Grabbing a few things for my intended hike up near Tupper Lake, in the depths of the Adirondack Mountains, I walked out the door of my parents’ farmhouse just as my mother asked where I was going.

When I told her, she suggested a different hike in a different mountain town. She did so, seeing as she wanted to join, to at least somewhat head into the woods while I went for a trail run. She wanted to get outside, but my father, now 80, well, his hiking days are long gone, even if he was a hardcore marathon runner for decades.

I relented, seeing as I did want to spend some time with my mom before I hit the road again, another whirlwind expedition of people, places and things that, this time ‘round, will soon take me into Canada and the Midwest, only to circle back to the ancient peaks and valleys of Western North Carolina just as the leaves begin to change and explode with color (the most beautiful time of the year).

So, I moved my hiking gear and such into the backseat of the truck and made room for my co-pilot for the afternoon. Heading down Interstate 87 South into the Adirondacks, it was decided to tackle Rattlesnake Mountain. 

At 2.6 miles roundtrip and just about 700 feet of elevation gain, Rattlesnake is not a terribly difficult hike, in essence, though my mom just wanted to walk the steady first half of the route before it took a straight shot upward to the summit, which was my purpose in lacing up my trail shoes and going for a jog.

I bid adieu to mom at the trailhead and disappeared into Mother Nature on my run. She had her walking stick and was going at her own pace. The plan was for me to summit and circle back to the truck in an hour. Soon, I was alone on the trail, onward to the summit, now covered in dirt and sweat. 

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And it was in this moment where I truly flourish — as a runner, more so a human being — where time slows down and my hearing becomes more acute. I’m listening — to the forest surrounding me, and to the restless thoughts swirling around my mind.

At the top, to the east was the Champlain Valley, Lake Champlain, and the Green Mountains of Vermont on the horizon. To the west? The high peaks of the Adirondacks, a vast remote state park consisting of more than six million acres (to show perspective, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 522,000 acres).

Back at the bottom, I met up with mom and put the truck in drive. Though we had wanted to grab a late lunch in nearby Willsboro, she wanted to motor through the small downtown of nearby Essex, a picturesque spot on Lake Champlain filled with Victorian-era homes. Drifting into Essex, a flood of memories came into focus, as we each reminisced about going there for lunch after hikes when my little sister and I were young, when my father was the fastest of all of us.

And it was in that moment when I noticed a small sign painted in haste on the sidewalk: “The Barn Door Tavern – Open.” I pulled over and parked. Let’s grab a celebratory post-hike drink, eh mom? Walking into the beautiful stone structure (formerly the town firehouse built in 1801), I quickly noticed the shirt on the lone man at the bar counter — “Wedge Brewing Asheville, N.C.”

Immediately, I befriended this person and mentioned where I hail from these days (Waynesville). It was then the bartender added that he used to live in Lenoir for a period and spent many nights at his brother’s in Black Mountain, usually tracking down any and all live music within the Asheville-metro area. 

Small world? Perhaps. But, in my extended travels, I find that’s just the way the universe works if you just get outside of yourself for a moment and make a sincere connection with another kind soul in the grand scheme of things. A cold draft beer hoisted high and in the unison of the serendipitous interaction.

Two sips of my frosty beverage later, an elderly woman came through the door. She was using a walker and had her small lapdog following behind her. “There she is. Hey, Margo,” the bartender smiled. As she stood at the bar awaiting her chilled glass of white wine, I noticed a photo of her (from many years prior) sporting a hat that stated, “Boston Marathon 1984.” 

I approached her and asked about the hat, to which, she grinned, “Why, yes. I ran Boston 46 times. I was the first official woman to ever run it, and one of the first females to ever run a marathon in the world.” At 93 years old, Margo Fish is quite possibly the most interesting person I’ve ever crossed paths with — personally and professionally. 

For instance, Margo was a long-time professor of philosophy and theology at Harvard (her husband taught there, too). She knew Nelson Mandela (they were friends, her father born in South Africa). Her neighbor at Harvard was Julia Child (she used to follow her around the grocery store in Cambridge to see what she was buying). Margo is also an acclaimed artist, writer, Broadway actor, and world traveler. All of this? Just the tip of the iceberg of her extraordinary life. 

And as we sat on the patio of the Barn Door, Margo spoke of the love of her life, her late husband — also a huge runner — who passed away running one day (21 years ago) and Margo finding him deceased in the woods on his usual running route when he didn’t come home. In some surreal, cathartic sense of self, she spoke of that day with reverence.

“Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved,” Margo said with a sigh, gazing out onto the quiet waters of Lake Champlain. “Cheers to you, Margo, for you’ve never lost that childlike wonder of life,” I said, reciprocated smiles emerging from both sides of the conversation.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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1 comment

  • What a refreshing, lovely story to read "Life is a mystery to be lived". I love to read local stories/legends of local mountain people now and before my time. Stories that inspire and leave a positive good feeling in my heart! I am considered "old" by the younger generation, but I have grown to appreciate the life stories of those around me and learn about the grit and determination that it took to get through good times and bad... The things they learned along the way, and how nature played a big part in their lives yesterday and today. These are the stories that I look forward to reading in the Smoky Mountain News!
    If I want to hear political ranting and raving or someone's angry political opinions, I can turn on the national news. I much prefer to read about our local news and about the good, peaceful, hardworking families who have lived or are living in this beautiful place called the Smoky Mountains.

    posted by Kitty Forsyth

    Monday, 09/19/2022

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