A relationship built on a trail to a mountain lake

There's a lake in the heart of the Adirondacks that I think of fondly as the reason for my marriage. It sits just to the north and west of the famous Lake George and goes largely unnoticed due to its proximity to that jewel of King George's crown. It is a four-mile hike up a long, gradual slope. The surrounding forest never fails to be completely infested by the bug of the season, but it's the most beautiful place I've ever been.

Early in my relationship with a law school classmate, he took me "home" for a weekend and drove me to the base of the trail to the lake. His ancient white Saab jerked and jolted over ruts that threatened to engulf the car. Black flies descended on the side-view mirrors like something unleashed from a Hitchcockian nightmare.

When I made it to the trailhead without getting carsick or commenting about the swarm, I became long-term relationship material.

He did not understand that this journey was nothing compared with the roller coaster ride of my soul since we'd met. Or did he? Logic dictates that lovers of the law - with its rigid rules and perfect order - should not fall for each other; but hearts whisper otherwise.

I recall standing outside the Saab and preparing a small backpack with goodies for a leisurely hike - gorp, a bottle of water, bug spray, a camera. Then he said, "Well, I usually just run to the lake and back." He claims I knew about the expected mode of locomotion when we left the house. I beg to differ. Regardless, I left the backpack behind and we ran.

At the time, I was a competitive distance runner, with significant "off road" training mileage. However, in my experience, a trail actually existed somewhere underfoot. "Off" simply distinguished the unpaved path you ran on from the nearby asphalted highways.

At this place, I hadn't seem macadam for miles. Ahead of me, I saw only a long beaver dam snaking across a stagnant swamp. I watched as my guide jumped onto some shaky thatch-covered logs and started bounding across the barrier.

In his defense, at the far side of the dam, there actually was a trail.

Fortunately for me, it soon became apparent that this off-road run, though difficult, was going to be worth the effort. At the beginning, it may have seemed like a path to nowhere, but now new wonder unfolded at every turn. At the top of a rocky natural "stairway," the deciduous forest bowed to rows of stately pines.

Our feet barely whispered on the carpet of aged orange needles, and the strange play of sunlight through the identical conifers made it seem as if we were jogging in place under a strobe.

Only a few landmarks distinguished the trail from the rest of the forest - an old wooden bridge that spanned a cold, lazy stream; a gray hornet's nest stuck to the base of an uprooted tree; about 50 feet of trail littered with mini-boulders. Then, without warning, the sliver of a path opened out into a small meadow that rolled abruptly to the shores of a long, crystalline lake.

On my first trip there, we had barely spent five minutes at the lake before the flies and late spring humidity drove us back under the canopy and down toward the Saab. But that trip became the first of many, as we began a tradition of venturing to the lake once a season.

Over the next several years, we spent a lot of time at that mountain lake in the middle of nowhere. We sat around a campfire there on a frigid night, listening to the Yankees win the World Series on the radio. We brought the family dog and lost him for hours in the vast forest until he appeared in front of us on the trail, looking as though we were the ones who had been missing all along.

We dragged in a Coleman stove and a brand-new tent and tried to set them up without reading the directions in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. We discovered that a school of ravenous sunfish live just under the lip of our shoreline picnic area. We cross-country skied down the rocky stairway that most normal humans are afraid to walk down.

When we had known each other a few years, and had survived all the tests that each could offer, we engaged ourselves to be married. The bustle of the wedding plans seemed to forever change the pace of our lives.

Since that time, we've only made it to the lake once a year, instead of once a season. One year, we strapped our infant daughter into a baby backpack, covered her and the pack with mosquito netting, and introduced her to the lake.

Recently, we celebrated a significant wedding anniversary. We didn't discuss it, but I thought a lot about the lake. Over the years, the path has changed. The dam was removed due to its effect downstream, and a marshy walkway has taken the place of the logs. The trail through the forest has become more evident; mile markers even estimate the distance to the bridge, then to the lake.

Even though it's a clearer path, we haven't run it in years. Certainly, some of the sense of adventure is gone, but it's still a wonderful hike.

Yet, some things haven't changed. Even after the years gone by, when we pop out of the forest and look across the meadow, the first glimpse of that lake still takes my breath away.

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