A crying girl, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a supermarket parking lot. Not exactly the elements for an epic summit. But having missed the turn-off for our hike, we were now on the wrong side of Lake George in upstate New York, eating the lunches we were supposed to be having on the peak.
By the way, I was the crying girl.
“This is your fault!” I pouted to my then-boyfriend, Chris, even though I had the map. I curled up in the passenger’s seat of his Civic, my tears falling on my bread. “If you hadn’t been speeding…”
“It’s too late now. What do you want to do?” he sighed. He got out of the car and started pacing.
Clearly, I wanted to hike. But more importantly, I wanted a beautiful day in the outdoors with my boyfriend, not driving around lost. As college students going to schools hundreds of miles apart, summers were our only time together. I could already feel the weather starting to grow cooler.
While it was too late in the day to tackle the long trail we had been planning, we still had the 50 Hikes in the Adirondacks guidebook. Breathing deep and flipping through the entries, I found one nearby that was relatively short, albeit steep. At a four mile round trip, it should have been easy to get up and down the mountain before dark.
From the trailhead starting at the parking lot, the path rose through thick deciduous trees, their leaves big and green. Large rocks strewn about by glaciers littered the path next to us. Sunlight filtered down through the branches, illuminating patches of forest floor.
The path was easy to follow, signs and bright blazes of paint marking the way. Relieved that at least we were getting a hike in — any hike — I talked to Chris about whatever topics came to mind. We probably discussed comic books at some point. But we spent much of the walk in quiet, listening to the leaves rustling and insects chirping.
The summit was a typical Adirondack vista, a sweeping view above the tree line with the mountains spreading out into the distance. We rested, sipping water and eating granola bars. Skimming the guidebook, I saw that it mentioned a different route down.
“Want to take this alternate route back?” I said.
Chris, bless him, agreed.
While the path up was steep, the one down was more gradual. It made sense, considering the additional distance. In fact, we didn’t realize anything was out of the ordinary until the dirt path suddenly turned into a gravel road.
“Is that … a tennis court?” I said, squinting at the road up ahead.
There were definitely not any tennis courts where we started. Following the road, we started to see summer cabins. Putting the evidence together, Chris stated what we were both thinking: “We came down the wrong side of the mountain.”
“Oh, shit,” I said, staring into the distance. My knees suddenly felt much more sore. Visions of people stuck on Adirondack mountains in the middle of the night with no gear flitted across my mind. I was pretty sure we didn’t have flashlights, much less tents or sleeping bags.
With four miles ahead of us if we went back over the mountain and sunset approaching too quickly, we needed alternatives. Fast.
“What the hell are we going to do?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“Got me.” Chris shrugged.
Just then, we saw a mom with a little boy and girl leaving their house.
“Maybe they would know?” I volunteered.
“You can go ask,” he said, waving his hand. I think he was more afraid of asking strangers for help than sleeping in the woods.
Walking up to them, I put on my best “I’m totally not a killer” smile.
“Hi! We were hiking and went over the wrong side of the mountain. Do you know if there’s a shorter way back to the trailhead?” Keep smiling, keep smiling.
“No, not really. The road goes around the mountain – it’s about 10 miles back to the state campground,” the mom said, slightly frowning. “But we can take you back in our canoe.”
Startled, I paused a moment.
“Really? That would be amazing. Thank you.” My smile became genuine.
“No problem. We were just going out anyway,” she said with a shrug, as if they ferried lost hikers back to their cars all of the time.
Piling into their canoe, the mom sat in the front, I sat in the middle with the kids, and Chris took the back. Leaving from the launch, we hugged the shore, following the cliffs and beaches of the lake. As the mom and Chris paddled along, the kids pointed out their favorite rock features, sharing their pet names for them. Teddy Bear Rock was my favorite, although I couldn’t see the stuffed animal that they apparently could. Looking up from the lake rather than down from the peak, it was a view and perspective that I had never experienced before.
When we climbed out near the parking lot, we thanked our new hosts with smiles and handshakes. At the beginning of the day, I was crying over a lost adventure. Clearly, we had found it in the end.
This would neither be the first nor last time that Chris and I would get lost on a hike. And it would not be the last time we were saved by the kindness of strangers – separate incidents of unplanned hitchhiking in Ireland and Virginia took that honor.
But it was the first time that we got lost with each other and with the help of others, found our way back home. It set us up for a lifetime of plans gone astray that we would fix together with the people who love us. And it’s a story we’ll be telling our sons when they are old enough to understand it, laughing as we interrupt each other in the process.
Shannon Brescher Shea is a science and environmental writer who spent many hours of her youth mucking around the Adirondack Mountains. She currently lives in the suburbs of Washington D.C. with her husband and two young kids. You can often find her gardening, at the park with her kids, or biking. She writes the parenting blog We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So, about her adventures as a mom just trying to make a difference.