Cabin Fever 101

 

[A view from the front door.  Photo is unfortunately mine.]

 

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

[Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!]

–Francois Villon

I can tell you where the snows of yesteryear are.  I can also tell you where the snows of today are…and I can tell you where the snows of tomorrow, next week or two months from now are going to be.  They’re on my front deck, my back deck and three feet deep in our tiny yard.

I wonder why the oceans of the world still contain water.  Most of the moisture of our blue planet seems to be covering the 1.3 acres that surround our home.  In the last week, I’ve shoveled enough of the solid form of water to fill the Erie Canal.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.  Cabin fever.

In legend and lore, in story and in song, the subject of cabin fever is quite common.  It is a well-known condition that affects those in the North Country.  From the gold miners of the Yukon to the fur trappers of Manitoba, grizzled men with beards and red suspenders have been known to lose their minds when confined to a lonely cabin…while the snow falls relentlessly.  Some simply open the door and walk out into the frigid swirling blizzard and are never seen again.  Some crawl under their Hudson Bay point blankets and fall asleep while their wood stove burns low and then turns to embers and then goes out.  Someone will find the body in the Spring time. Others have been known to take their own lives, once the bottle of hooch is empty.  And, others have turned to their fairest friends and best buddies and put a bullet into an unsuspecting brain pan.

I, myself, was driven by near insanity to simply walk out the front door and into the Adirondack forest.  But, the screen door wouldn’t open because of the snow accumulation.  Besides, it wasn’t nearly cold enough…it was only -18 F.

I have been driven to violence.  Two days ago I took a Macy’s carving knife (with a serrated blade) and hacked at a leftover breakfast burrito from the local health food store.

My misery knew no limits.  It puzzled me because, well, we don’t live in a cabin, we live in a house with a number of rooms and a fair library in my den.  There’s always cable television (something the gold seekers of ’49 didn’t have).  No, we have Spectrum with 200+ channels but nothing worth watching.  We have the internet, but how many anti-Trump postings can one person click “like” on?  And, one gets weary of playing Spider solitaire 377 times a day.

So, what to do?  Go out and shovel?  No, we’re expecting 6-9″ this afternoon.  Go to Whiteface and ski?  The lift tickets are too pricey.  Pay $90+ for a chance to get frostbite and/or a compound fracture of my left leg?  Don’t think so.

I think I’ll find a comfortable position on the sofa by the picture window and begin to count the snowflakes as they fall, minute by minute and day by day for the next three months.

 

 

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Adirondack Angst

[After the shovel and before the car door incident.  Photo is mine.]

Once upon a time not so very long ago, there was a man who lived in a house, with his faithful and patient wife, in the Great Wilderness known as the Adirondack Mountains.  These mountains are located in the far reaches of upstate New York.

This man was sore of back and gray of hair.  He had recently spent five weeks in the high desert of California.  He went there looking for solitude and warmth, but instead he found himself surround by neighbors with strange cars and small barking Chihuahuas.  He also wore fleece nearly every day, until it was time to leave…of course.

The man’s eyes stung from the smoke of distant fires and he went through five and a half boxes of tissues, so frightful were his allergies.

Upon returning to his home in the North Country, there was a January thaw that put his limbs at risk with the ice and constant dripping of masses of snow that had recently befallen the countryside.  Then two days ago, his weather app on his iPhone bespoke of a new storm that promised a foot of snow followed by thumb-numbing cold.

When this man awoke this morning, he put off looking out of the bedroom window for fear of what he would behold.  But, he also had another app on his iPhone that told him how much daylight was left in the day.  He checked the temperature.  It was 4 F.  He saw that 75% of the day had passed.  He decided he should get out of bed and shovel a path to the car and clean the snow from the car and try to start the car.

The first two tasks were accomplished with sweat, frost on his mustache and a lower back that had pleaded with him to stop the punishment.

Now to start the car.  But, alas, he found all four doors frozen shut.  Not to worry, he thought.  I have a can of de-icer in the garage.  He pushed the button and the garage door creaked open.  He found the de-icer and pushed the button to close the door.  It didn’t move.  He tried to spray the little button but nothing but a faint hiss came from the spray hole. He shook the can and determined it was full, but not a molecule of de-icer was to be found.

[The frozen car. Photo is unfortunately mine.]

He returned to the house with the spray can, but he was broken of heart and frustration welled up in his soul like a backed-up toilet.

Why have the gods of the North Country forsaken him?  Why did he feel as alone as a Democrat in Mississippi or a Quaker at a Microsoft convention?

Why didn’t he stay in California and buy more tissue boxes?  What had he done in this life or any other life to deserve such anguish?

He checked the weather app on his iPhone and saw that the forecast predicted a low of -22 F for the overnight hours.

The old man poured a cold beer and sat waiting for the bathtub to fill.  He had added about two cups of blue crystals that promised muscle relaxation.  (It never worked before, but tonight would be different).

But this man had a plan.  He would build a fire in the downstairs stove and he and his wife would have a dinner of hot soup.

All will be well tomorrow, he thought.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

He sipped his beer and considered how existentially alone one is in the Universe.  Or, at least in the North Country.

56 Years Along The Blue Trail: Then And Now

TrailMarker

Like brave mountaineers, we weren’t bothered much by time.

–Gordon Lightfoot

It’s late August in the North Country.  The green of the leaves and shrubs are looking tired.  Some hints of the colors of autumn are emerging from the maples and oaks.  Late summer flowers like Black-Eyed Susans and Ragweed are everywhere.  The quarter moon rises after dark for a brief time before setting in the west.  The recent heat wave has broken, leaving the nights cool and breezy for sleeping.

In the Adirondack Park there is a region a few miles out from Lake Placid that is designated by the DEC as the “High Peaks Wilderness Area”.  I first hefted a pack and took to the trails as a twelve-year-old in 1959.  I’m still hiking these paths today…my pack is newer and my boots are better.  In those days, one could walk for hours and never see anyone else.  Now, the trails are crowded with climbers and people just out for a short time in the forest.

I owned a Sierra Club cup.  It’s wire loop handle of aluminum allowed you to carry it on your belt.  At every stream I’d cross, in those early years of hiking, I would stop and fill the cup with cold clear mountain water.  Soon my urine would change from deep yellow to a clear fluid.  Then, I felt, I was less filled with the toxic substances of normal life.  I was cleansing my body.

Now, I would never do such a thing without fear of getting the dreaded Giardia, resulting in extreme gastric pain, vomiting and diarrhea.  I carry bottled water from the Price Chopper supermarket in Lake Placid.  Price: $1.15 for 16 ounces.

TrailSigns

I am on the Van Hovenburg Trail, the main highway to the summit of Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.  I’m not intending to go to the top today, I would have had to be on the trail at 6:00 am.  That was a climb I’ve made perhaps twenty-five times.  No, not today.  Today, I was only hiking with my wife and another couple to Marcy Dam.  It’s a 2.3 mile walk that I’ve done in the heat of summer, the chill of autumn with dazzling colors of the leaves against a sky so blue it hurts your eyes.  I’ve been on this trail in the dark, with friends, alone, and on snowshoes in -5° F weather.

This is the Blue Trail.  I’ve been on nearly all the trails of the High Peaks.  The trail markers show you the way.  The Red Trail goes up this mountain.  The Yellow Trail goes up that mountain, and the Blue Trail is now what I follow.

When I was a teenager, I would often be found hiking in these hills.  I was fifteen…sixteen, full of vigor and carried a full Kelty packframe on my strong back.  Usually, I would prefer to let my brother, Chris or my friends hike ahead of me so I could walk in solitude.  I would often sing to myself, only to myself, the popular songs of the day.  Sometimes it was Moody River, sometimes it was Running Bear.  My songs led me to think about our return to Owego.  Hopefully, there would be a dance on the night we arrived home.  I thought of my girlfriend.  I would sing Teen Angel and think the dark thoughts of death and youth.

I don’t remember being tired.

Today, I’m not expecting a high school dance or my girlfriend.  I’m thinking of very different things now.  I think of my older brother, Chris, who first showed me the way to the top of the mountain.  His ashes were scattered in the forest only a few miles from where I’m walking.

In 1962, my legs were strong and the days would never end.  Now, my legs are that of a man who has had back surgery, leg surgery and foot surgery.  I’ll not be dancing tonight.  I’ll be home and sitting with a book on my lap…but, not without irony, still thinking dark thoughts…this time not of youth but of age.

I am carrying my load on 68 year-old legs.  I can feel how the years and miles have damaged my bones, my ankles and my lower back.

Roots

But, still I walk, stumbling over the same crazy pattern of tree roots that I tripped on fifty-six years ago.  I’ll cross the same streams, but on different wooden bridges.  Those old planks have long since rotted away.

TrailBridge

Even when the bridges are no longer replaced and people stop walking these woods and begin to forget the cloud covered summits, there will always be a way to cross the stream.

I would search for a few large rocks and, taking great care, step from one to another.

Then I would find myself on the other side.  Then I would have to find that old trail again.

 

CarryTrailSlang:LongPond

 

Beaver Lodge Available: No Cable Necessary

 BeaverDish

[You have to look close for the small blue-gray dish. Trust me, it’s there.]

Beavers, as everyone who has studied their natural history can attest, are amazing in a variety of ways.  The first thing that comes to mind is that they are considered “Natures Engineers” because they have the instinct to secure a site, chew down dozens of trees and proceed to construct a clever and efficient dam.  But, it doesn’t stop with the dam.  The water that is impounded behind said dam makes a small pond or bog.

This is where things get interesting.

Somewhere near the middle of the pond, the beaver eagerly builds a “lodge” that is made of mud, twigs and assorted detritus from the surrounding area.  From a distance, this “lodge” appears to be a mound of…well, twigs, mud and assorted detritus.

Here’s yet another feat of engineering that the beaver adds to this already interesting complex of well-engineered structures: The entrance to the “lodge” is below water level but most of the interior is above water level.  I mean they aren’t fish.  They are mammals so they need to breathe air.

Every Natural History Museum in North America has a fake beaver “lodge” inside a giant plexiglass tank and is displayed in cross-section so that we can see the cozy little chambers and cute living areas.

How safe and warm and secure the little beaver family looks (at least the stuffed ones in the museums) as they live and play in their dry “lodge”.

Leave it to the beaver to have the genetic wiring to be able to build these units.  Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of these places in real life, and I can attest to the same style, generally speaking, of these beaver dwellings.

If you watch Animal Planet or any National Geographic special on “amazing animals”, you will also see footage of the beavers at play or just sleeping the cold days away in their middle-of-the-pond home.

So, as I was driving along a forested road north of Lyon Mountain, NY, I was not at all surprised to see a beaver “lodge” complete with a satellite dish mounted on the highest point.

Was I incredulous?  Not at all.  As I’ve said, beavers are something close to “genius” level…in their mammalian world.  Why not have a dish?

After all, what human is going to slog through neck-deep muck to place a dish where it allows them to watch 3,000 TV channels?  Does anyone in the northern Adirondacks really care about Rugby results from Paraguay?  Or, God forbid, Cricket results from Surrey, England?

Have you ever watched a four-day Cricket match from Sussex?  You could build three “lodges” before anyone scores a run.

Travels 26: A Grave Situation and a Cold Grey Sky From Lake Erie

I know, intuitively, that my readers are gathered on street corners, in cafe nooks, penthouses, cabanas, taco trailers, art theater lobbies, bowling alleys, massage parlors and sleazy bars all across America saying:

“The guy must have run out of ideas by now.  Surely, his well of experiences has run dry.  What else can the old man find to blog about?” said Larry.

“Our last GPS fix on his location was something like 42 degrees 10 minutes North and 80 degrees 10 minutes West.  That’s what I had on my cell phone before Rhonda came by and grabbed it so she could talk to her sister, Gladys in Cincinnati,” said Hal.

“Guys, guys…I taught geography for thirty-two years.  I know my stuff.  Let’s see,” said Carl, as he twiddled his fingers in the air.  “That would put him near Erie, PA, somewhere near Presque Isle.”

The exotic landscape is behind me now.  The low hills, fields, farms and forests of western Pennsylvania look like so much of the part of New York State that is in front of us until we make our final lap into the Adirondack Mountains…and home.  The autumn colors are long gone now.  Only the last of the burnt browns and damp yellows can be seen against the near-black of the trees.  The skeletal branches reach up against a sky as grey as wet slate.  The low clouds blow in from Lake Erie and bring tiny flecks of sleet.  It’s 39.9 F outside the R-Pod, but feels much colder.

Unless something quite out-of-the-ordinary happens to us during the final 400+ miles, I feel the need to share an experience that occurred to me a short time ago, before we passed through Ohio.

I was sitting in the campground common room.  Our RV was parked and stabilized.  I needed some warmth so I wandered over to the building that housed the laundry, showers and common room.  There was a pool table, ping-pong board and a TV.  The cable reception at many of the campsites was dicey at best.  Here, I could sit in warmth and give Mariam some time to catch up on email.  And, since I held the remote, I controlled the channel selection.  I had several choices: a rerun of “Duck Dynasty”, a high school football game, and a documentary on Entertainment Tonight on “Vanna White: The Early Years.”  It promised rare footage of Vanna performing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” at the Englebert Humperdinck Mall off Exit 17B outside Toledo.  The reviews said she handled the mega-phone like a true professional and predicted that her talent would carry her to the top in the rarefied world of game shows.  The only other choice was a PBS airing of bloopers from The Charlie Rose Show.  I opted for the Vanna White documentary (I already had the Charlie Rose thing on DVD).

Just as I was settling back in the sofa, which smelled faintly of cat urine, I felt the presence of a guy who had just sat down.  I looked at him.  He was wearing sweats and seemed a little red in the face.  I looked at what little neck he owned and noticed it too was the color of a tomato.  There were drops of sweat rolling off his ear lobes so I figured he had just come from the steam room located in the Motel 6 across the road.  Apparently, the motel and campground had a sweetheart deal going…you could use their gym for $12.00, if you could show your campsite pass.

What a steal, I thought.

“Hey,” he said.  “Name’s Buster.  Buster Nibbins.”

“Evening,” I replied.  “I’m Pat.”

“Hey,” he said.  “Wanna hear a good story?”

I wanted to be alone with Vanna, but the moment had passed.

“Sure,” I said, as I muted the TV.

“I’m a Cemetery Sexton,” he began.  “And I really wanted to tell you about how my friend and I probed in the graveyard yesterday.”

I didn’t like where this was going but I gave Buster the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe there was a story here after all.  I glanced over my shoulder, pretending to scratch my right elbow, to check how close I was to the door.

“Yeah, it was quite a thing,” he said.  “I was checking the cemetery grounds the other day and I came across this woman standing alone and looking down at a headstone.  She saw me coming and noticed my SEXTON badge on my sweatshirt.  I had just picked up a flattened Budweiser can when she stopped me. ‘What’s mama’s gravestone doing here?’  I said that it was there because that’s probably where she was buried.  She objected…strongly objected.  ‘No, she’s not.  We had her disinterred and moved to California so she could…could sleep with the rest of the family.’  No, ma’am, I told her.  I’m the SEXTON, touching my badge.  We haven’t had a pull -up here in years.  I would know.  I’m the SEXTON.  She looked at me with a growing impatience.  ‘Sir SEXTON,’ she said.  ‘I think you’re mistaken.  I have the papers right here.  Mama was disinterred and shipped to the West Coast…San Jose, to be exact.  We own several plots here and I came out to look them over as we plan on selling them.  Now, I’m asking again, why is Mama’s stone still here?’

“Miss,” I said, “Nothing has been dug up here.  See.  No fresh dirt.  There must be some mistake.”  She said: ‘The mistake, mister, is yours.  Your records are clearly not current.’  Miss, I said again, there’s been no digging here except for burials.  Now unless this disinterment was done at night, someone would have noticed a back-hoe, flood lights, workers, a funeral director and me, actually.  And nothing like that has happened here since…well, let’s just say it’s never happened here.  Now, how do you know for sure your mama arrived on the west coast? I asked.  ‘I don’t really, that part of the family doesn’t talk to me.’  Well, there’s your answer, lady.  She still here.  ‘No, she’s not.  I have papers from our lawyer that state that it was all taken care of.  It’s all here in my purse, along with his bill…for $9,000.’  Well, we’ll just have to see about this”, I told her.  We parted after I gave her my SEXTON card.  So yesterday morning, my friend and assistant, Ozzy and I came out here just before dawn and probed to check if the concrete vault was still in place.  If it was, it meant the coffin was still inside, unless they just took the coffin and left the vault, which they’re not supposed to do.  Our probes would touch the top of the vault, it’s only about 8 inches down, if it was still there…but if the vault lid was removed and taken, then we would likely miss something, which means there could be a vault that may or may not contain the coffin.”

I stared at Buster and blinked twice.

He leaned closer and lowered his voice.

“And, guess what?” he whispered.  I could smell his Old Spice body lotion. “We…”

Just then the door to the common room swung open and a woman in a hot pink terry cloth robe stood there.  Her hair was set in rollers the size of Ajax cans.  There was an awful lot of terry cloth covering what could have been a set of triplets.

“Buster, you get your sorry ass back to the trailer…NOW”  Without a word, he was past me and out of the door, somehow squeezing past his wife.

“Sorry, Mister,” she said, looking me up and down.  “He’s been like this since the operation.  Sorry.”

The door slammed and she was gone.  The Vanna White documentary was nearly over.  I punched the remote and the TV went dark.

As I walked to the door, I noticed something on the floor.  I bent over and picked it up.  It was a laminated, legal and very legitimate license.  A license to be a cemetery SEXTON.

EriePAWoods

The Mountain Nymph

I am walking down a trail in the ancient Adirondack Forest.

I pull my wide-brimmed hat to better cover my eyes against the sudden spring rain.  I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swat at the blackflies.  I shuffle the rotting crimson and yellow leaves to one side.  I monitor my steps carefully because of the six inches of fresh snow.

I am walking with one of my two loves I met in my youth.  I first enjoyed the Adirondacks as a child of five.  Family camping trips slowly gave way to long and impossible hikes in the High Peaks. This led to the canoe routes of the St. Regis Wilderness Area and solitary paddling on the Saranacs.  I am still with this lover of mine; these trails, ponds and bogs.  I live among them now.  I have gray hair.

My other lover is not someone that I feel comfortable using mere language to describe.  She was and still is part illusion, part myth and wholly real.  She is made of flesh and blood like any other woman.

You see, as an adolescent, I encountered a Mountain Nymph.  I did not, truthfully, actually “meet” her but only saw her half hidden in a midnight shadow while she slept against the wall of a State Forest Ranger cabin.  I was standing in the dark with my brother, whispering to the ranger about the nearest empty lean-to.  He played his flashlight beam onto a pair of bare and mud covered feet.

“That’s Monica,” was all he said.  Beside her was a full Kelty pack and a pack basket strapped across the top.

I was up early but when I walked over to the cabin, Monica was gone.  She had continued on to an even more remote cabin.  The ranger said she left about two hours earlier, just at the breaking of the dawn.

This young woman who hiked alone, barefoot and carried a load that I would find impossible to manage, intrigued me.

As I climbed the High Peaks and hiked the myriad of trails around and over Marcy, I would, on occasion, hear the name of Monica.  Years went by and I kept learning about the epic exploits of Monica.  Then, in the early 1970’s, I stopped hearing her name mentioned in trailside conversations or spoken of around campfires.

My friend and hiking companion through those years and I began to build up our own mythology of Monica.  She became our Mountain Nymph.  We would imagine her waiting for us beside a small mountain pond with a cup of cold water, sitting on a rock beside a roaring flume.  She always would promise us comfort.  She would offer us succor, a lap, a hand, a shoulder and most of all, love.  And escape, of course, for isn’t that what Nymphs do, offer escape from the ordinary to take us up to the lofty peaks of the extraordinary?  Wasn’t it her role to lead us to the Land of Dreams and offer a glimpse of what was possible for our poor hearts to attain?

For many years I stopped visiting the Adirondacks.  My companion and I went in separate directions.  We grew into middle age…and then beyond.  We lost our dreams somewhere along the way.  I came to realize that an alluring goddess, lying on the heather of a summit or sitting on a bed of moss, was not responsible for when and how my heart and head needed to grow.  I internalized Monica.  I grew up.  For many years I thought how wrong I was in trusting my spiritual growth to someone who only existed as an amalgam of realism and myth-making.  I became acutely aware of my own role I must play.

But these realities were becoming sterile to me.  Something was missing.  I had found a golden ball in my youth and I lost it.  I began spending precious time trying to find it again.  The magic of the summits paled and the sky became merely something over my head, something to keep an eye on in order to stay dry.  Rocks of the peaks and stream banks became burdensome and annoying.  The magic was gone.  I had learned to take my spirit into my own hands and mists became only water vapor.  To be really cold was a matter of survival and to be really hot was exactly the same, you just took different medicines.

Now, I regret my losses.  In the end, what is really wrong about needing a spirit guide, a kindred soul, and a belief, a Nymph?  Throughout human history, something or someone extraordinary walked beside a man, guiding and comforting.

This journey we are all part of can be unbearable lonely at times.  Maybe I need a Monica again?

I am walking along a trail in the ancient Adirondack Mountains.  I am sitting on a rocky summit.  What is that I just saw dash between the scrub pines?  What just touched my elbow as I struggle to rise again and continue my hike?  Who was that making a shadow among the old cedars in the dark part of the forest where there are already shadows plenty?  Whose bare shoulders do I see at the water’s edge as I survey the shore from my kayak?  You can’t convince me that the song I hear is the wind in the fir trees.

I know its Monica.

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