Beyond Trailmaps: New Friends on Mt. Marcy

Atop Mount Marcy with new friend John Vebber

I’m not a particularly speedy hiker, or a particularly adventurous one. Growing up in Texas, I had to venture pretty far to find mountains. I was lucky enough to spend significant time in the both the Colorado Rockies and Vermont’s Green Mountains as a child. I loved the two vastly different ranges for their wildness, for the departure they provided from my then-suburban life, for the enormous stimulation of the mind and body that comes with walking outside. This past weekend, a venture up Mount Marcy provided me with precisely those things—and a little bit more.

My first-time visit to the Adirondack Park took place in truly unusual company. Four Saint Lawrence University international students (count: 1 Maldivian, 2 Kenyans, 1 Zimbabwean) and I (native-Texan-with-New-England-ancestry-now-residing-in-the-North-Country) trundled into the car at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Lake Placid and embark on our adventure. Three of us had never hiked in the park. We approached the task with a charming—and positively stupid—naiveté. Short on equipment, less-than-mindful of the weather, and in good spirits, we found ourselves at Marcy Dam with (ha!) no idea of where to go. It was there that we ran into John Vebber and his dog, Bella.

John is a North Country native. He grew up in Colton, spent 4 years in the Marines, and now lives in Massena. When he isn’t working or spending time with his children, he heads to the hills. The Adirondacks are a really special place for him—it’s apparent in the way he bounds joyfully up mountains, in the smile that crinkles across his face when he recounts past climbs. What John really embodied, however, was the sort of astounding camaraderie that one finds on the trail. He went out of his way to help us find our route, completely forgoing his plan to climb Phelps. Instead, he joined us on our way to Marcy, sharing anecdotes about the history and biology of the Adirondacks while setting a brisk pace and offering positive encouragement.

In Zimbabwe, I learned this weekend, legend has it that if you utter a negative word while climbing the country’s tallest mountain, you’re liable to either disappear or turn into an insect. Good thing we met John. On what proved to be a pretty grueling hike for we green outsiders, John’s expertise and company kept us from, well, too much grumbling. For me, it was also a prime example of what makes the North Country and the Adirondacks so special. In other parts of the country and world, people aren’t always kind to outsiders. They don’t take well to strangers hiking in their woods or sharing their iodine pills and lunch. In the North Country, it seems to be the opposite. I’m a newcomer here, and I’ve been welcomed time and again by warm people willing to slow down, talk about this place, and learn about new people. This exchange takes on particular resonance on the trail. There’s nothing like getting to know people on a strenuous hike—and sharing a beer with them afterward.

So thank you, John. Thanks for helping a motley crew of non-native North Country dwellers through what turned out to be a pretty extraordinary (and certainly unforgettable) day. Thanks for teaching us about this place that you’re from, this place that you love. We’re certainly learning a lot. And beginning to love it, too.

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