A Young Man’s Backpack

“To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.”

–Tenzing Norgay

[The Kelty Pack. Photo is mine.]

Stuff has to go. Lots of stuff has to go. When you relocate from a 3-bedroom lakeside house to a 1-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive in New York, you soon realize how easy it was to gather stuff. And now, much of the stuff has to go.

Over the last few months, I’ve given away books that are precious to me, books I have had on my shelves for decades. These were important books that I must now live without. A great deal of other stuff has walked out of our door. Lots of furniture, clothes, kayaks, a piano, two telescopes and several posters to mention only a few. I hope the new owners of these objects will treat them with care…and love them as I did.

One item (that I had lost track of) surfaced in the attic. It was a packframe. But it was more than that, really.

When I first began hiking in the Adirondacks, back in the dark ages of the late 1950’s, I used an Army surplus packframe. It was wooden and probably issued during the Korean War. I used it for years. I hated it. I may as well have been carrying my gear in my hands. The frame hurt my back and made enjoyable hiking adventures much less so.

What to do? I was offered a summer job with the U. S. Geological Survey to be a field assistant on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. The wooden frame was never going to cut the mustard as they say. So, I began saving my nickels and saving my dimes. I was going to have happier times. Soon I was able to purchase a Kelty Pack. I gazed at it. It wasn’t much to look at. It was crumply and stained. I hiked for several days in Alaska carrying at least sixty pounds. It squeaked and creaked every time I hefted it onto my back.

A little backstory:

It was the early days of the hiking craze (that is still with us). Not much really good equipment was available to the average backpacker. These days, one would have to mortgage the farm to afford the best stuff. Walmart sells very serviceable goods for the hiker. However, if you happen to be an Everest or El Capitan Big Wall Climber, then be nice to your wife because you will be needing a lot of $$$ to afford the latest technology.

There were better packs than the Kelty, but not many. It’s not the Ferrari of packs, but it was miles ahead of the rest.

It is my hope that, whomever ends up with my Kelty will treat it with respect and love. I also hope that they have as many adventures that I did with it. I can only hope.

One afternoon in the future:

I happened to feel the need for a beer. I know it was late, nearly time for the “Time Gentleman” bell. As I pushed open the screen door to the Red Dog Saloon I brushed against the person leaving. I stopped to apologize. It was my old friend, Kelty. He looked liked he had seen better times.

“It’s you,” I said.

“Yeah, and it’s you,” said Kelty.

“How have you been? It’s been quite a few years.”

“I’m fine. Not that you really care.”

“Whatever do you mean?” I asked with trepidation.

“You left me for a newer model. How can I ever trust you again?”

“But…”

“No buts here bud. We’re through.”

“Let me buy you a drink, pal,” I said with little hope.

“No thanks. I’ve got places to go. People to meet.”

Kelty moved out into the street.

“Don’t bother looking for me. Don’t ruin my life. I’m being carried around by someone who has a much better back than you, my ex-friend.”

“Is it over between us?” I asked.

“I’m afraid so, buddy. This good-bye is our last good-bye. Don’t shed a tear. We had our day in the sun and the rain. I guess I really don’t blame you. I was getting a bit creaky lately.”

“I guess it’s so-long then.”

“Yeah. Maybe we’ll pass on some trail someday in the future. But, do me a favor. Don’t mention our life together. Let’s keep it our little secret.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m seeing this hot little rucksack I met on the Appalachian Trail. If she knew we had a past, it might ruin everything. I want to take her to a Youth Hostel and, you know…get a little private room and then perhaps, in the future, we can start our own little family of Fanny Packs.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “I won’t give us away.”

“You always said the right things.”

Dan & Daughter At Rest

My father is hidden behind everything I am.

–Adrienne Egan “Danny Boy” (From a high school essay)

[Long Pond with Long Pond Mountain in the distance. Photo Courtesy of Terri Mendelson]

I have long dreaded what was about to take place. As I approached the shore of Long Pond, the memories began to weigh heavy on my heart. How often had I stood in the sand since the early 1980’s when my older brother, Chris, discovered the St. Regis Wilderness Canoe Area? A group of friends followed me to the beach. My son, Brian, carried a backpack that held a black box. I was about to say a final goodbye to my brother, Dan. He was the last of my brothers…the last Egan from Owego…except me. I was alone now. I thought of a phone call in 2019.

Mariam and I were in a pub in Dorset, England. The establishment was closed except for several dozen locals. It was Christmas Day. The dinner was for those who had nowhere else to go for the holiday. Mariam had located the small square in the pub where cell phone reception was weak but present. She punched in the number. It was a phone call I wish didn’t have to happen.

I spoke (or tried to with a broken signal) to my brother, Dan. He was in a hospice bed and he had about forty hours or so to live. I managed to say “I love you” but I don’t think he could make out the words.

Two days later, while we were settling in for dinner at the White Lion Inn, Mariam’s cell rang. The message was simple. The message was clear…and final. Dan had passed away.

I signed a paper to allow for Dan’s cremation.

Years later, in early August, 2022 I sat up in bed and realized that I was the one responsible for the cremains. I chose August 27 for the day to fulfill Dan’s will and have his ashes left in Long Pond.

~ ~ ~

Many years ago, back in 1991, just after I arrived in New York City to take a new teaching job, my phone rang. It was my father. What he told me sent shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes. Dan, who had been badly injured in Viet Nam, was told by the doctors that a) he would never walk again and b) he would never father a child. He proved the good doctors wrong. He walked with a limp…but he walked. And, he had a daughter by a young woman named Diana. The child’s name was Adrienne.

All was well until it wasn’t.

Adrienne and other college mates were having a party event on the roof of Adrienne’s dormitory. The facts are vague in my mind. The others left the roof…left the roof for Adrienne. She fell asleep. She rolled to the roof edge. She fell. She died.

Something died in my brother that day. His personality darkened. But he pushed through much of the grief…as much as one can…and he began to age. We all aged. But Adrienne was destined to be the teenager that lived in Dan’s memory. For the rest of his days.

Dan has been reunited with his daughter in the urn.

They both will enjoy the sunsets and storms that roll over Long Pond. The ice of winter. The buzz of mosquitos and black flies will fill their ears. The wind will howl in the dark nights of winter. The burning sun of summer. The meteor showers and the Aurora. The rainbows and the woodsmoke. These are all the things that Long Pond will offer them as it welcomes the new arrivals.

[For the Memorial Service. Photo courtesy of Bart Durkin]

The Troll Who Cried

[Heading off to the Barnum Brook Bridge]

I began my walk to the Barnum Brook Bridge carrying an emotional load that nearly broke my already painful back. It was a warm and very muggy afternoon. There were grey clouds in the hazy sky. There were grey clouds in my mind, my soul and my heart. I was not dreading the Bridge like I once did. In fact, I was looking forward to visiting an old friend…sort of. I walked slowly because I needed the extra minutes to think. At the same time, I was formulating my words. It’s not every day that one has to say farewell to a friend. For me, now was that time. I must make this my finest hour.

I walked on, pausing to photograph a wildflower for a later post on Facebook.

[The Trail to the Barnum Brook Bridge]

I had arrived. I put my foot down hard on the first plank, making more noise than usual. Sure enough, out pops The Troll. He looked about and disappeared beneath the bridge when he spotted me.

“Who is passing over my bridge?” he asked.

“I am passing over your bridge,” I said. “Let’s get this over with. I need to sit down.

He emerged from under the wooden planks and said: “I know you. Listen up. Keep your distance.”

“Why?”

“The Covid thing, remember. Are you still in lock-down mode?”

“Not really,” I said. “Things aren’t as bad as they were when I last came this way. Now it’s the Monkey Pox.”

“Just in case, don’t come any closer. I’m packing a can of Mace.”

“Let’s get the riddle thing over, shall we. I need to have a talk with you.”

[The Bridge. If you look closely for a long enough time, you may see a bit of Troll’s head peeping out]

“Okay. Okay. Here’s the first riddle:

What is dirty when it’s white?”

I pondered the question for about forty-five seconds when it came to me. “A Blackboard.”

“One down and two biggies to go, Patrick.

What goes from Z to A?”

Another new one. Where did he get these riddles? I thought. This time I was really puzzled…for about a minute. “Zebra”, I almost shouted.

“Whoa. Who’s on a roll today?”

“I am. Let me have the third one, Sir Troll.”

“Don’t get cheeky, my friend. You know what fate awaits you if you miss one. I cringe to even contemplate…”

“Spill it,” I demanded.

He looked smug. He thought he was going to get me on the last one.

He spoke with a twinkle in his large eyes: “What is the saddest fruit?”

Now I was worried. I had no idea. This wasn’t in the Big Book of Riddles I study before every trip to the VIC. And no mention of any of these new puzzles in the Ultimate Book of Norse Mythology. The newer edition that has a new forward by the author, Dr. Sven Sunquist.

“The clock is ticking, Patrick.”

“Go ahead, grind my bones or whatever you do when someone misses a riddle. I give up.”

He stared long and hard at me: “You look like a beaten donkey. I see damage in your eyes. I’m going to give you a pass. The answer, appropriately, is Blueberries. You can pass, but you owe me one.”

“I owe you a riddle?”

“Figure of speech,” he said. “Don’t get anal on me.”

I sat down on the wooden bench near the bridge: “I’ve got something to tell you, Troll.”

“You won the Mega Millions.”

“Don’t I wish. No, it’s…it’s that we’re going away. We’re moving. We’re going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough woods and winter and slush and bugs.”

He looked deep into my eyes again. No words came to his lips. He just looked at me. His eyes were moist. He sighed.

“How long are you gonna be gone?” he asked slowly while trying to swallow. “When can I expect to visit with my favorite human again?”

[A rare image of The Troll]

I chocked at my following words: “That’s just it, Troll. We’re moving away for good. It’s possible that we may never see each other again. Don’t think for a moment that I won’t miss you because I will. You see Troll, these last few months have been very hard on me. I lost my closest friend. I wish he had just moved somewhere, but he didn’t. He passed away. I have only a few real friends. You could count them on two of your three fingers. I’m lonely up here in the North Country. You, Troll, are the only real friend I have left…besides my wife, of course.”

He had one hand in his pocket and the other one rested on the planks of the bridge. He was drumming his fingers on the dried wood. He said: “Funny thing. I don’t have many real and true friends either. We’re both the same here, are we not?”

He turned away and began to cry. He didn’t just cry, he sobbed and wailed. I’d never seen him like this before.

“Please Troll, don’t make this any harder. It’s not you, it’s me. You have your little place under the bridge. I’m a restless guy. I need a change. I need something new. I don’t know how many years I have left.”

“Hah, I can see right through you. You’re leaving me for some Big City Troll, right? I knew it. Those Big City Trolls are different than ones like me. They wear the traditional outfits. They look like they just got off a photo shoot with National Geographic Magazine.”

“No, there’s nobody else, in New York or anywhere. Come here. Let me shake your hand and wish you farewell.”

“Oh, but that’s against the Rules. You can’t touch me. Strange things might happen.”

“There are no such Rules out here, Troll. Here, give me your hand.”

As he placed his very large hand in mine I felt a jolt. I swear a bolt of lightening hit my arm. I closed my eyes. I had visions. Troll standing in the rain and waving at me, or standing in a foot of snow and grinning up with those big cow-like eyes. Or wiping away the sweat on days like this. I remember how he played the Pan Flute and made me see the different Adirondack seasons squeezed into one short vision. He was a treasure trove of wisdom and I’d be crazy to let him go out of my life for good. No. I would return someday…some sunny day. I will be older, more feeble, more pained and maybe just a little bit wiser. But Troll, he will never age. He has all the time in the world. I don’t.

I withdrew my hand: “I have to go now. Be good, my friend. It’s not forever, it’s just for awhile. I’ll be back.”

“That’s what the little girl said in Poltergeist.”

I turned and began the walk back to my car.

“I see your son was in Iceland for a few days. He loved it, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but how did you know?”

“My Icelandic cousin. And, oh, I see your daughter, her husband and your grandson came for a visit. I bet you loved that.”

“I did.”

“Oh, by the way. I know you used a photo of Fluffy to hawk your books. That’s shameful.”

“Little Lambs Eat Ivy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re the Riddle King. Figure it out.”

The trail curved to the left. I looked back for one more wave. I saw him blowing his large nose with a red bandana.

[Note: All photos are mine with the exception of the Troll image. That was a result of a Google search.]


Out Of The Woods

Goodbye’s too good a word, babe

So I’ll just say “Fare thee well”

–Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

[Our front yard on July 10, 2022. Photo is mine.]

Look close. It’s hard to see. If you’re reading this post on a laptop, you’re out of luck. On a mobile device you can use your fingers to enlarge the photo. See the sign in the background? The one that reads: Tir Na Nog. It refers to a very old Irish legend. Tir Na Nog is (was) the Land of Eternal Youth. If you lived there, you would never grow old. If you left that place, and touched the ground in the ‘outside’ world…you could never return. And you would grow old and eventually die. This was the name of our camp in the Adirondacks. The whole spell worked for a time, and then it didn’t. I grew old.

The sign in the foreground speaks for itself.

A small bit of backstory here.

I have been coming to these mountains since I was five years old. Seventy years of family camping, canoeing, hiking, climbing and building sand castles became part of my DNA. As a teenager I first had the feeling that living in these glorious hills was a dream to be wished. Time passes. Hiking partners, several dear friends and a brother or two…fellows who shared a cramped lean-to, built campfires, swam and sweated together began to move on (a sweet euphemism for death), leaving me alone without the motivation to climb just one more summit or paddle to just one more lake.

Did I mention that I have a deep fear of being alone? Loneliness most often brings me to tears.

A hiatus set in for several years. Then I met the woman who would be my wife. Even though she was born and raised in Queens, she took to camping like a bird takes to the clouds. She loved it. She often said that the Adirondacks were “soul satisfying”. So we bought a house in the woods where deer and bears roam, by a lake with a dozen loons, under skies that rang out with thunder and the rain fell by the pailful. We moved from our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Rainbow Lake in November, 2011. We decorated with gusto, bought a wood stove, hung Adirondack posters, bought several kayaks and a new pair of hiking boots. We were happy…until we weren’t.

[Our house is nearly hidden by the trees. Photo is mine.]

Those of you who have followed me on WordPress have read my many posts highlighting my many complaints about the harsh weather, the length of winter and the incessant presence of mosquitoes, gnats and black flies. A winter or two ago we had a week of frigid arctic air. The high temperature for that week never rose above -9° F. But make no mistake. I have also celebrated the quiet snowfalls, the early summer wildflowers and the jaw-dropping autumn colors.

So, I’m turning another page in the book of my life. Pending any financial issues, we have found a buyer. Boxes are already filled and labelled: BOOKS FROM PAT’S OFFICE. TO NYC. Eleven years of memories are going with us…but just as many are staying…for the new owners and for a few friends.

Not an hour ago I said a tearful farewell to my daughter, Erin, her husband, Bob and to my precious grandson. Elias got to see where grandpa has spent the last decade. I’m so thankful for that. The next time he visits, I’ll be taking him to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

I will be trading the tall pines that surround our house with skyscrapers of glass and steel. Some of my friends don’t care for urban life but I thrive on the buzz, the convenience and the lack of isolation. As I wrote a few lines ago, the wilderness (the Adirondacks have lost the real sense of wilderness experience to the masses of hikers seeking this very isolation…ironic, but true), breeds loneliness in my soul. Where I once found solace and quiet, I now find sadness. The ghosts of my brothers and close friends lurk around alder thickets and shadowy forests. I can not escape them.

[Manhattan skyline. Photo is mine.]
[Our front yard. Photo is mine.]

But the Adirondacks haven’t seen the last of me. I will surely be back to take care of the items still resting at the bottom of my bucket list. I’ll return on a glacially cold day in a future January and ski the slope on Whiteface Mountain where the Men’s Downhill was held in 1932 and again in 1980. Then I intend to learn the intricate moves of curling and join a pick-up team.

Or maybe I won’t.

I already have a plan. Once we’re settled in an apartment, I’m going to order Chinese take-out. Or perhaps I’ll take a walk in Central Park to experience nature.

I will have the freedom to choose.

Four Impossible Things Before 11:30 am

After every dark night, there is a bright day.

–Anon. [Source: Google search]

[Sunrise in the Prairie/Desert]

The Butterfly Effect

Two mornings ago I woke up with an overwhelming feeling that I was immersed up to my neck in a bad case of The Butterfly Effect. I definitely felt I had a sensitive dependence on the fact that even a small change in one’s state in a deterministic nonlinear system could result in a large difference in a later state. Putting it differently, I had work to do. Of course I had several hours of restless legs and overall ill ease that I was lucky to get a few hours in the arms of Hypnos. But, when I made my last stop at the urinal and another sip of tonic water, I felt like I was the bees knees.

During the night, while waiting for sleep to kiss my fair forehead, I made a TO DO list. I always wanted such a list. All my friends have them. I wanted one, so I wrote one out around 3:17 am. What follows is an illustrated picture show on what owning a house, preparing the said house for sale and cleaning in areas where Swiffers are strangers.

The Tasks

The first thing I decided to attack were the numerous spider/cob webs that show up on the exterior walls. The spiders here seen to have an innate sense of ownership and living. You own the house. The spiders thinks the house belongs to them. A conflict arises out of such a treaty. I looked at the Adirondack chairs. There are so many slots and cracks that needed brooming out with my trusty whisk-broom.

[The whisk broom, a former spider web and me]

[Author’s Aside: Like duct tape, a good whisk-broom is an absolutely necessity for any D.I.Y. kind of guy like myself.]

When I stood closer to the chair, I noticed cobwebs and pollen. I did the same to the wall below our picture window. I stared at the cobwebs and counted an endless number of places they would go. There, on our deck, I stood and looked. I felt as though I had an Albatross tied around my neck. The burden and endless toil of homeownership…I felt I was barking up the wrong tree. My wife glanced at me and said I looked like a deer in the headlights.

My next deck project was relatively easy. My job, as I saw it, was to check the status of the BBQ. I approached with caution. There was no way to know what manner of small furry animals may have chosen to make our BBQ a summer home.

[BBQ checking method]

I moved inside the screened-in-porch, feeling like there was an elephant in the room and I was the elephant. This was the hardest task of all. My plan was to remove two of the plexiglass panels to provide the usually chilly breezes to ventilate the room.

Me: “Mariam I need a large flat-head screwdriver.”

Me: “Mariam I need the orange extension cord put in over there.”

Me: “Mariam, I need a hand!”

I felt exhausted when it was all over.

Feeling like a mutton dresses like a lamb, I made my final stop in the kitchen.

[Removing the interior screen panel from the kitchen. I took it out into the front yard and aimed the JET setting on the nozzle. Boy, did that pollen fly. There’s no way to ‘tag’ pollen so I gather that the pollen had quite a ride.]

So, my tasks for the morning. My back is sore so I think I’ll have a bit of a lie-down. I am deep into another task of completing In Search Of Lost Time by Proust. I began reading the book before Reagan was POTUS. I’m making progress, though. I don’t feel like I’m flogging a dead horse.

Heaven forbid.

[Reading Proust]

[Notes: All photos are mine with the exception of the lead-in picture.]


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 Tragedy of the Commons

[The High Peaks.]

But the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone.

–John Muir

There is irony lurking just below the surface of this blog. Irony, youth, pleasant times and not so pleasant times. There’s quietness and beauty sublime. And, dogs.

It is a blog that truthfully depicts two divergent paths. My own and that of a geological ancient mountain range. Neither narrative ends well. Unless you are gifted with a perception so delicate and deep, you can feel the moods of mountains. Alternatively, the other track is owned by me. That’s not so difficult to read…for you or me.

The photo shown above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Nestled in the skyline is Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. Now for the irony part…every mountain you can see has been climbed by me, at least once. I’ve summited Marcy at least twenty times. I began my quest to be a 46’er in the fall of 1959. I climbed about half of the required peaks…then decided my efforts were akin to earning a Boy Scout Merit Badge. I simply lost interest in accumulating mountains so that I could wear the coveted patch proving I “knew all about climbing.” I must say that I had unforgettably great times back in the day. My friend, Greg Stella and I once spent the night on Marcy’s summit…illegally. It was great fun to count endless stars and to wake up to an ice storm. Ah, we were young and strong. As Gordon Lightfoot puts it:

We were brave mountaineers we never were bothered by time.

Now for the irony part. Back in the day, we indeed were brave mountaineers…and then, somehow, the years caught up with us. Greg is now battling an illness and I can hardly walk the breath of our living room without pain…low in my spine and spectacularly painful.

One moment we were arguing over whether to climb two or three peaks before the sun set. A few blinks later, I’m reaching for a cane and waiting for a new injection in my L-2 and L-3 section of my spine. Irony. The thing I loved the most is the thing I cannot have.

Jump to the early 1960’s. Two events colluded to make my love of the High Peaks begin to evaporate like a late morning mist.

Lake Placid (and New York State) decided that the joys of hiking would convert to commercial success. That, along with the rapidly growing interest in hiking resulted in several elements (mostly negative). The crowds came and they never stopped arriving. Essex County is now faced with a traffic situation worthy of Manhattan. Permits are being tested. The groups of hikers have no place to camp. And the dogs are more often than not, off leash. It’s a perfect example of The Tragedy of the Commons. A village in the Alps decided to allow the sheep, etc to graze on a common pasture. Within a few years, the overuse of the land and the hungry sheep rendered the commons useless.

I was lucky. Once I hiked the heart of the High Peaks for five days without encountering a soul.

One has to look long and hard to find anyplace in the Park that can deliver a modicum of a true wilderness experience.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a Forest Ranger. Not anymore. I don’t want to spend my precious time rescuing hikers who have no idea about this once-special environment and who don’t have the mind-set to appreciate the quiet times that we all need now and forever.

Adulthood Rising

I have a hard time learning languages. Some people have an ability to pick up German, Portuguese, Farsi or Russian with ease. High School French was the first of my stumbling blocks. I used to “get sick” in the morning to avoid Mrs. Lowe’s first period freshman French class. I tried…I really tried…to understand the conjugation of verbs, but found only limited success. As an adult I can order dinner in Paris and get a hotel room arranged. That’s about it. Then again that’s about all a guy really needs to know.

In the 1980’s I asked the French teacher at the school I was teaching in (I was a possible chaperone for a trip to Paris with the French Club) how to say “Hi Cupcake, can I buy you a drink?” Petite gateau is a far as her suggestion went. I never chaperoned the trip.

But I digress.

I didn’t cut all of Mrs. Lowe’s classes however. Every so often she would abandon her grammar lessons and show us a film about French culture. That was very cool because no one is as cultured as the French. One day she ran a documentary about Maurice Utrillo, the French painter (1883-1955). I was fascinated by his work. He became one of my favorite artists. There was something about his style…

An Utrillo Painting
[Source: Google Search]

Something changed in me that day. I was suddenly alert to nature in a way that was new and fresh. I had grown up a little after that film. I grew up more than I was expected. I took a renewed interest in our backyard. It was in the Spring. I would lay on my stomach in some hidden corner of our yard and would begin to believe I could watch the grass grow and the flowers bloom. All this before any Cannabis was in the picture.

The air smelled different and clouds took on meanings and shapes I never noticed before. Teenage love permeated every cell in my young body. The whole wide world had crossed the threshold of my early timid feelings of adulthood. Yes, teenage love had its grip on me. But, being me and being full of self-doubt and insecurity I was unsure of everything–even love.

I spotted a daisy. I knew the drill, that age old practice of using a daisy to find out if she loved me. I never gave much thought to the idea of raping a daisy to learn the fate of my love. I see it now as akin to a Native American killing a buffalo or a deer. You apologized to it and thanked it for giving up its life and aiding in your survival. So, there I sat in the grass and plucked the petals…one by one.

“She loves me. She loves me not.”

As I was approaching the final half-dozen petals I could see ahead. It was going to end in a resoundingly quiet “She loves me not”. I had to think fast. I feigned pulling the white petal and continued the countdown.

In the end, she loved me. Ultimately I should have continued my count if you get my subtext.

Now I sit, an old man, musing and missing my early life before I knew real pain. That’s what old men do…they sit and think. My daughter is now riding a heat wave from Hell in distant Seattle. My son will soon be married and will rely less on “Pops” as the years move on.

Yes, I sit and think. I gathered a small bunch of daisies today during a short walk and put them in a pale green vase. I thought of that daisy from my backyard.

And thanks to Mrs. Lowe, I have an abiding love of Maurice Utrillo.

Shadows

[Above the clouds as they cast shadows on the earth below. Source: Google search]

Like the wallpaper sticks to the wall

Like the seashore clings to the sea

Like you’ll never get rid of your shadow

You’ll never get rid of me

–Al Jolson & Billy Rose

Fast. Fast I ran, as fast as my little legs could carry me. I glanced over my shoulder. It was still behind me. I slowed and it slowed. It mimicked me when I jumped to the left and then to my right. I thought I would fool it so I turned around and began running. This time it was in front of me. I had discovered my shadow. I was young and there was much more of life to learn about. It was all ahead of me. Now, there’s still more to learn but time is not on my side.

Yes, I found my shadow and it’s still with me. It even got bigger as I grew to be an adult. I only once lost my shadow but a pretty girl sewed it back onto the bottom of my feet (but that episode belongs to another story.)

Like clouds, I’ve never taken shadows for granted. I do believe that most adults have forgotten the significance of this phenomenon. The sun (I’ll call it the shadow-maker) is sometimes annoying. One cups their hand to block out the sun on a beach while trying to have a simple conversation. A guy named Phil folds and repositions his cap while sitting in the afternoon glare in a seat off first or third base at Yankee Stadium. Alternatively, a young man and his girlfriend walking in a park want to speak of important matters. We all know this can only be done in the shade of an old Sycamore tree…or perhaps an apple tree blooming small white flowers.

But I digress.

I’m taking an on-line water color painting course. (Many of my friends are accomplished artists in that medium. They can skip a few paragraphs here. They can find something more important to do, like taking a few minutes to finish their whittling project or check the suet cage). So the subject of shadows came up. Someone wanted to know what color to make a tree on snow. I shot a photograph, shown below on a frozen pond. I looked and noticed the shadows are bluish…grading to gray. Yet that shadow that still follows me is more or less black.

[The Frozen Pond. My photo]

Shadows. I’ve spent over thirty years as a science teacher and never heard about many aspects of shadows. I won’t tell you about the umbra, penumbra and antumbra, fascinating as they are. I was quite surprised to find out that shadows have three dimensions. But wait. I look down at the ground in front of me and I see only length and width. That’s two dimensions. Where is the third dimension in the dark shape in front of me? It turns out that if you see your shadow when its foggy, you’re looking at the third dimension. The whole concept sounds like the basis of a science fiction story.

It’s 23.2 degrees outside right. It’s cold but I think I’ll put on my L.L Bean down jacket (probably on sale now since the new Spring/Summer line is out) and go out to any part of our front deck that doesn’t have a mountain of snow, and study my life-long friend…my shadow.

[Wonderment for the child. Source: Google search]

[Is she walking toward love…or away. Does she know she’s being followed? Source: Google search]