A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

Into The Woods

[The Adirondack Forest. Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”

–Carl Jung

In the rearview mirror of the last three weeks of my life, I see I’ve left behind many things and added many memories. I’ve left behind the heat and sand of Florida, the peaches and boiled peanuts of Georgia, a friend and his wife in North Carolina, the breathtaking vistas and overlooks of the Blue Ridge Parkway and later, Skyline Drive. Mariam and I sat in a restaurant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and played music bingo. We passed Carlisle where my daughter went to college so many years ago. We drove apace with the trucks and cars across New Jersey and plunged straight into the Holland Tunnel.

The Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Once we were settled in a generous friend’s apartment, we began to search for a place of our own. Both of us want to come back to New York City to live. But it’s proving to be harder than we expected. One place is too small, another lacks outdoor space. One might be a walk-up. I can’t do four floors as well as I once could. No, not now.

Why move? you might ask. You have waterfront, kayaks, canoes, snowshoes and bikes. The answer is simple and complex at the same time. We love the quiet woods. We love the sound of our paddles as we glide along on Rainbow Lake. But, so much of what the ‘dacks provides are activities that are fit for a younger man (I speak here for myself). We miss people. The quiet can be overwhelming sometimes and brings with it the loneliness of the North Woods. As a person who has struggled with insomnia since childhood, I dread the dark nights, those dark nights when the wind shifts in strange ways and the moon struggles to peek out from behind a dark cloud.

I don’t want to shovel another millimeter of snow. I don’t want to get into my car just to get our mail. I want something of a social life. I want to be able to order in Mexican or Chinese food. I want company.

Bob Dylan: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea. Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, at times it’s only me.”

With the exception of my mother (she never took to the camping), my entire family had strong ties to the Adirondacks. They made Eighth Lake, Raquette Lake and Long Lake special places. But these people have passed on. Around every corner I turn, behind every tree, on any lake, along any trail…there are ghosts lurking…not to harm me, but to remind me of the many great times I had among the mountains. One spirit, however, follows me. He was a good friend. I took him on his first trip to the High Peaks. On a chilly November night…I remember the gibbous moon…this friend died, not in my arms but very nearly so. I’ve told this story before. His presence, his souI and his life have followed me for forty-eight years. My memories of the night he died are dark and are the stuff of my nightmares.

Gordon Lightfoot: “Like brave mountaineers, we aren’t bothered much by time.”

I’m heading headlong toward a milestone birthday…and I am fearful. There are so many years behind me and not very many left to me. I accept that. But I don’t have to like it.

I’m not done yet.

I can only hope.

But, in the end, I will never totally forget my love of the mountains, even though they are now beyond my grasp.

‘There is beauty in everything. Even in silence and darkness.”

–Helen Keller

The Migratory Habits of Cockle Shells, Birds & Yankees

[Recent snow storm near Owego, NY. Photo courtesy of my friend Mark Mendelson]

[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this humble blog to my friends and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, were caught up in a Late-Spring Snowstorm. No wonder many of my classmates from high school moved to the south or mid-south after graduation. After a winter in Fort Myers, Florida, I totally get it.] Now the blog:

All Things Must Pass–A George Harrison album name.

[A palm frond. Down and out at winter’s end. Photo is mine]

We are taking our late afternoon walk down Cuarto Lane. One must wait until after 6:30 pm for such a stroll. Otherwise, it’s so barking hot the sun will melt your polyester toupee, it’ll bleach your already grey hair and sear your retina unless your wearing Ray Bans. I’m not wearing Ray Bans. I’m wearing cheap Walgreen’s sunglasses. I can feel the plastic rims get soft. That’s why 6:30 is our cut-off time.

But I digress.

On our walk yesterday I snapped a photo of a palm frond, on the grass, beside the Lane waiting to be picked up by the Resort maintenance crew. I saw it as a symbol of a season’s completion. Just like the leaves in Autumn in the mountains of the Adirondacks or all of New England. The frond spoke to me. It was lamenting the fact that it was done with contributing any and all Oxygen to the atmosphere. No more photosynthesis, it said. I stopped to answer back but my wife, Mariam tugged at my arm.

“Don’t! The neighbors are watching.”

But I got the point. All things must pass, even palm fronds. And even Snowbirds like us. Soon we leave this little bit of paradise and go north. Back to our home on Rainbow Lake and the very real possibility of a freak mid-June snowstorm. Think I’m kidding? We once sat at the bar of Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. It was May 31, my birthday, and we were have a quick glass of wine before a lovely steak dinner at the Adirondack Steak & Seafood. I spun around in my bar stool to look out at Mirror Lake, but it was snowing…no, it was blizzarding. I saw the fronds as a metaphor for our eventual departure. But, there’s more:

This blog is about travel, migration and departing. Here is something of interest:

[A Bar-tailed godwit (L. lapponica. Photo: Google search]

The bird shown above happens to hold the record for longest migratory flight yet discovered. The Godwit has been found to have the ability to fly 6,800 miles without any layovers. (Think of it as Jet Blue with feathers). Now, I don’t know what impresses you, my reader, but 6,800 miles is one badass flight. In doing the research necessary to bring you this post I also found out that some long-term migratory birds can do awesome things on their journey. One species has the ability to eat, fly, sleep and mate while on the wing. My brain short circuits when I think of humans doing these sorts of things. Myself? I can barely drive along a country road for a country mile while eating a cheeseburger.

Well, so much for the avians. Time to discuss Cockle shells.

[This is a Cockle shell. I found it and a zillion others on the beach this very afternoon. Photo is mine]

The Cockle shells litter the edges of the beach…where the waves wash up and then back into the sea. Whole shells, bits of shells…shells of all kinds are found in the sands of Sanibel Island. I find pleasure in picking one from the knee deep water and holding it for the iPhone camera. But, like everything else along a shoreline, the waves and currents are constantly moving the shells along only to replace them with newer ones. If I were to stand at the exact same spot on the exact same beach at the exact same time next year, I will reach into the sand beneath my feet and find another Cockle shell…exactly like the one I found today. I’m not sure what the point is about all this, but it does remind one of moving along, going away, traveling and replacing one environment (the beach) with another (the Adirondack lake shores). Some of my readers will say:

“A place in the Adirondacks? You have waterfront? Kayaks? Canoes? A screened-in porch? A quiet place in the playground of New York State? And you’re not satisfied? Are you playing with a full hand?” The truth is that I enjoy the Adirondacks very much, but not like I used to. As a little boy I played in sands of many of the most popular beaches in the ‘dacks. But I’m not a boy. I’m not a healthy fit young teenager who would climb any peak at the mere suggestion of doing it. Two of my three brothers were Adirondack oriented men. Both are no longer with us. I have found that around every bend in a trail, every curve in the road and every paddle stroke I make to round an island, I see the ghosts of my brothers. I’m tired of seeing ghosts, both figurative and real.

I love the night sky and the Adirondack air is fairly free of light pollution. The stars tumble out in numbers that are not humanly countable. I’ve slept on mountain peaks and counted the stars. I gave up after reaching 3,000 points of light. But our house is surrounded by trees and my patch of sky above our house can be covered with one open hand.

I want to see for miles while standing at sea level.

Which brings us to Yankees. Sorry, but this is not about the Bronx Bombers. This is about snowbirds who flock to Florida for the winter. I’m one of them. A yankee? In one sense, that is the definition of anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But what about my one-time sailing partner here in Fort Myers? He was from Toronto. Well he’s a yankee too, by my definition.

I’m lonely and I’m restless. How many years do I have left to see the world? Only a seer can answer that kind of question.

[This not my car. Mine is cobalt blue. Photo: Google search]

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

–Bob Dylan “Boots of Spanish Leather”