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Keeping Time

Life slows when focus goes beyond the familiar

Seven hundred seventy-seven is how many times retired High Peaks forest ranger Peter Fish has summitted Mount Marcy. It’s been 25 springs that guidebook writers Jeffrey and Donna Case have trekked the 132-mile Northville-Placid Trail (NPT), end to end. Inlet summer resident Pam Monk aims to lead her family up Algonquin Peak 46 times. And 81-year-old Dick John­drow has completed 32 annual Whiteface Uphill Footraces to the top of the mountain’s Veterans Memorial Highway.

Peter Fish, the Cases, Pam Monk, Dick Johndrow—they’ve all been chronicled in these pages. Regardless of the reasons for their pursuits—for work, togetherness, even bragging rights—repetition resonates. It signals a dedication and devotion that de­mands attention.

Routine, according to anthropologist and Colgate University professor Anthony Aveni, is “an automatic set of reactions done without thinking. Ritual is an or­ganized activity … most often with the aim of seeking or re­envisioning one’s relationship with a higher power.” During a ritual, writes Aveni, you’re “fo­cused on and attentive to every step of what you’re doing, lest that relationship be violated. When you lose focus on the meaning of what you’re doing, your ritual be­comes routine.”

In my life there’s plenty of routine. There’s comfort and ease in structure, in predictablility: each week has its respective days for sitting at a desk, for taking my kids to the library or market or on a hike. It’s often the same hike, too—the one we’ve done in all seasons that’s just right for little legs, that fits nicely be­tween breakfast and naptime. While signing out at the trailhead I get a sense of accomplishment that comes with scratching something off a list. But as we climb into the car and I buckle the children into their seats, something else stirs.

I regret not exposing them to the endless treks in our backyard—to Adi­rondack adventures that bring uncertainty and offer fresh scenes. That in­stinct, I now realize, makes sense.

In recent years neuroscientists have introduced the theory that doing the same thing over and over gives a person the perception of time moving forward. Studies show that neurons be­come less responsive to something after repeated exposure. Throw an an­omaly in there—a different route to the office, a new activity, unfamiliar faces—and the brain focuses more in­tensely. Time seems to slow down.

Peter Fish, who says he has no plans to revisit Marcy, has turned his attention to Baxter Mountain and the Crows, hiking them alternately, every other day. He’s done them more than 600 times each, but still relishes every step, taken as slowly as he’d like, noting the wild­flowers and the views that allow him to “enjoy [the mountains] tremendously.” The Cases meticulously record trail conditions, weather and other de­tails during their two weeks on the NPT, from Up­per Benson to Lake Plac­id. But it’s not just for their guidebook: Jeffrey says he and Donna—married 36 years—work together to plan and over­come challenges on the epic route, be­cause “it draws us closer to­gether in our relationship.” Out there, he says, “you don’t have all these other things trying to clutter your lives. It’s almost like we’re frozen in time.”

If mindfulness is a way to ritualize routine, then on my family hikes we’ll do more marveling at mosses, more listening to territorial squirrels, more ap­preciating of this landscape that frames our lives. And we’ll go all sorts of other places. What I want the most is to be with the ones I love, to not rush these moments away.

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