by Nancy King
It was a gorgeous day for a hike--sunny, blue skies, comfortable temperature-perfect hiking weather. F suggested we hike up to the summit of the 12,000’ peak, taking our time, enjoying the profusion of wildflowers that had suddenly emerged after the night’s rain. She was used to hiking at lower altitudes, so we stopped whenever she needed to catch her breath or eat a snack. We climbed in companionable silence, finding the meandering path up to the top with no trouble.
Photo by John Fowler via Flickr CCL
When we reached the top, both of us feeling triumphant, she high-fived me and we stood, enjoying the panoramic view. When we noticed that the gray clouds were turning dark, we decided to have lunch lower down, where we had a great view of a mountain lake.
Almost as soon as we started eating, it began to rain. We put on our rain gear, packed up our food, and started hiking down the mountain. The temperature dropped. Balls of hail mixed with the rain. Rivulets of water poured down what we thought was the trail.
Suddenly she screamed at me. “I’m not doing this anymore. Why do you always have to hike? Why can’t we ride bikes? This is dangerous!”
I told her, “I look at it as an adventure.”
“It’s not an adventure, it’s dangerous.”
Habitually, when someone is angry at me, blaming me, I “check out,” go deep inside myself and wait for the assault to be over. Since I was so stunned by her anger, by her irrational accusations, by her acting as if I were to blame for the weather, I shut down and focused on finding the way down. I wasn’t sure what was a trail and what was water running down the steep slope, but I figured if we kept to the right and kept going down, we’d be okay. As I hiked, I tried to avoid the water gushing down the path. She followed me.
We passed a man with two children who was helping them put on their raincoats. I asked if he was going up and he said, “Sure, this kind of weather never lasts long.” His relaxed demeanor was comforting.
As we approached an outcropping of rocks where there was no obvious trail, I suddenly saw a man and woman ahead of me who looked like they knew where they were going. I followed them, relieved that I wouldn’t have to scramble to find my way.
The man disappeared and from behind, the woman looked like F. I wondered how she got ahead of me and figured she had found an easier trail to the side of the rocks. I followed her and when I got off the rocks I asked,” How did you get ahead of me?” When she turned around, I saw that it wasn’t F.
Discombobulated, I looked up at the rocks and heard screaming. “Nancy. Nancy. Where are you?” The man reappeared and shouted up to F who was now visible, halfway down the rocks, “You’re fine. You’re fine.”
When F came down she yelled that I had walked too fast, that I had abandoned her, that I was irresponsible. I tried to tell her that I thought she had gotten in front of me but she cut me off and snarled, “How could I get in front of you, I was behind you.” She started in on me again.
Although I have never said this to anyone in my life, something in me snapped. “I’m not taking your anger. It isn’t mine.” When she began to repeat her accusations I cut her off. “I’m not taking your anger.” With that she took off down the trail as fast as she could hike in the mud and roiling water. I watched her go, wondering how to deal with the situation. I hiked at my own pace, letting her disappear, not willing to walk faster than a comfortable pace.
I caught up with her. She was sitting on a log at a trail crossing, putting on dry socks. When she saw me she started attacking me again, accusing me of irresponsibility. I stopped her. She was too angry to even consider my experience, which was different from hers and therefore, in her opinion, not true. “I’m not taking your anger,” I repeated for the third time.
“You don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
“I’m willing to hear anything you want to say but you have to say it in a normal voice. But I’m not taking your anger. It isn’t mine.” With that, she pointed for me to start down the last bit of trail. I did, waiting for her when I couldn’t see her.
We rode down the mountain road in silence for about twenty minutes. She broke the silence by informing me she wouldn’t house sit for me while I was away, even though she had volunteered.
More silence. We arrived at my house. “I’m sorry it ended this way,” she said.
“I am too.” I got my poles and pack from the back of her car and walked away.
I haven’t heard from her since. Ironically, she had previously loaned me a book about a man and his dog who did 96 hikes in one winter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in snow and wind and ice and sleet and fog and hail—recounting their adventures with a sense of joy and pride.
The contrast between our going up the mountain where she was all smiles, frequently commenting on what a great hike we were having, and how she behaved toward me coming down, left me thinking about the difference between saying what she was feeling and blaming me for the sudden change in weather and hiking conditions. Had she told me she was scared or talked about what she was feeling, I would have reacted with compassion rather than self-protection. The experience was a breakthrough for me. I refused to accept her anger. I stayed centered and calm. I stood up for myself.
Nancy King is the author of the new book, Changing Spaces, coincidentally about a woman who wakes up one morning with her husband in the life she knew, and by the end of the day, she is alone, on her own, and in a different life.