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.

Paying It Forward: More Late Night Thoughts on Greg

“And when I come to the dim trail-end,

I who have been Life’s rover,

This is all I would ask, my friend,

Over and over and over:

//

Stars that gleam on a moss-grey stone

Graven by those who love me–

There would I lie alone, alone,

With a single pine above me;

Pine that the north wind whinnys through–

Oh, I have been Life’s lover!

But there I’d lie and listen to

Eternity passing over.”

–Robert Service Heart O’ The North

[Greg just outside Owego. February, 1960]

A Labatts Blue in his right hand, a left hand on my shoulder. We were arguing in an Owego tavern that if I would just give him fifteen minutes he would prove to me how cell phones were going to ruin my life. I deftly avoided the conversation. Greg was set in his ways. Not only was he mistaken, but without cell phones, I would never have to take his call and tell him how to get to our Adirondack home so many times in the early days of 2011.

I was privileged to be given the opportunity to delivery his eulogy. I regret nothing of what I said. My major failure was what I had left out.

So, gather the grandchildren, the aunts, sisters, brothers, a wife, and his sons. Gather his friends alongside his family. We are now the Flame Keepers, the storytellers and the sources of one man’s history. It must live on and on. Say it all loud and with conviction. Make no apologizes for a flawed human. Tell his life like it was. Hold nothing back. Don’t leave the painting half-finished. Future generation not yet born will thank you.

[Greg on Avalanche Lake at the base of Mt. Colden]

The day will come when the younger generations will be asking those who lived back in those days: “I wonder what Grandpa would say about that?”

If only he were still by my side. I knew him well but still have as many questions as the stars in the sky.

Yesterday morning I was walking a wooded path. The trail headed east so I had to squint and shade my eyes against the sun. I saw him. I’m sure it was him. He was standing on a mountaintop with the rising sun ahead of him. The morning mist was slowly being burned away by the sun.

[Greg on the summit of Mt. Colden. Temperature was about -10° F. Year was 1960-61]

Was he waiting for me? He beckoned. To me? He pointed to the east. Did he want me? Did he need me?

Then, somehow I was near him. His eyes were filled with tears of contentment. There was a hint of sadness for those he left behind. But he seemed filled with joy that he had at last reached his final destination. His final summit.

I heard his voice clearly in my mind: “There is no end to this, Pat. There are more trailheads and beginnings than I ever thought existed.”

He took a step away…distancing himself. “Don’t be long. I don’t like waiting.” These were his last audible words to me. “Let’s have one more cup of coffee till we go to the valley below.”

Thanks again, Greg. This time for teaching me how to enjoy ‘nuclear’ wings at Rattigan’s and how to savor a Lupo’s Spiedie.

We each learned from the other. But I doubt he ever fully understood what an Emoji was. Then again, maybe he did.

[Me in an alpine valley, Alaska. 1967]

Greg’s Solar Powered Gift To Me

When you read this title, don’t think that my greatly missed friend had bought me a next generation Tesla. Or a new GPS with the capacity to accurately locate me and help me find my destination. Or a drone to provide me with a high definition photo of the top of my Honda Fit. No. This is not where I’m going with this post.

I’m here to celebrate Greg’s generosity about many things. Perhaps the most important is the differences between the Irish and Italian flags. It’s really a small difference but handled by someone (me) not in the flag waving mood lately, can lead to trouble. Both flags consist of three colors…and this where things can get ugly.

The Italian flag is shown below:

[The Italian Flag]

They look similar don’t they? For the uninformed geographer, a comment might be:

“Golly Gee. How can two countries have the same flag? What if they go to war against each other? The answer to that is really quite simple. A conflict between Italy and Ireland is extremely remote. Oh, they might bicker at one of the many pubs inside the European Parliament Building over who gets the aisle seat in the assembly hall. And of course Ireland will always have a need for various pastas, not to mention the number of “Irish Pubs” in Verona.

But I digress.

Let’s get back to the flag business. Unless you suffer from Achromatopsia you will see that both banners are composed of three colors: Green, White and…Red. There’s the rub. The Italian flag is distinctly red on it’s end panel. The Irish flag is not red, but a version of orange. Both pennants have green on the pole side and white in the middle. A discerning eyes is needed to see the orange tinge on the Irish flag. All of this is rather patriotic but not troublesome, unless one happens to be carrying the Italian flag down Fifth Avenue in New York City on March 17. This may, just may cause some issues with all the NYPD that have strong roots in Donegal. Although you may elicit a cheer from the six people in the crowd that have deep roots in Solerno. Even I never made that mistake.

[The Irish Flag]

But I digress again.

This post is really not about flags. I went into it only because I found it interesting. And if you think my fascination with banner colors id odd, well, I do have a life. Trying to unpack our house and have potential buyers and agents stopping by…well, it’s not easy.

This post is really about food. You see that my friend Greg never was shy about sharing his favorite Italian dishes whenever he and Patti came for a visit. With glee he would prepare (or have Patti prepare) a mouth-watering dish of sorrento spinach and semolina. Or perhaps a meatless Italian sausage roasted with mushrooms, onions, potatoes and peas. But one recipe he guarded with an iron hand. He would never reveal the secrets of finocchio and cotechino with sides of fieri di zucchini finishing with la zupp inglese as dessert. Maybe it was me. Zucchini is the only ingredient I recognized.

But all of the above is really a side issue. His ultimate gift to me, more or less in the culinary mode, was the making of Sun Tea.

We all enjoy a tasty glass of zero calorie iced tea. I know I do. On a very warm day, it goes down better that a Double Lime Rickey (whatever that is). But since we have only seven warms days each year in the Adirondacks…I really would’t know.

So be like Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg…think green. Turn off your GE, your Kenmore your Bosch your Kitchen Aide and your Amana. Go in haste to your nearest Walmart, Costco, Lowes or Macy’s (there’s a few left) and purchase a glass liter container. No Plastic!. Fill with clean tap water (not Poland Springs…too much plastic again) and head to your favorite health food store. Ours is Nori’s in Saranac Lake but you don’t have to drive all the way up here to visit Nori’s. Just go to the Whore of Babylon, Amazon and order away. And never, never leave a Walmart without checking out the specials on knitted toilet paper covers.

Back to the tea. Buy a box of a good flavorful iced tea. I usually prefer Celestial Seasonings Wild Berry Zinger. Wild Berry Zinger sounds like a drink with a tiny umbrella that you buy at a beach bar in Aruba, but it’s Caffeine Free. As the box says: “It’s a luscious Berry blend with the distinctive ‘zing’ of tart and tangy hibiscus.” And who doesn’t love a zingy tart? I knew one in Paris, back in the day, but that’s another blog for another time. Find a place in the sun and leave unattended for a few hours. There you have it. Solar Powered Iced Tea.

For those of you who are visual learners like me, here’s a few photos to help you:

[Rasberry Zinger is nearly as good as Wild Berry Zinger]

Step 1–Place glass container in full sun. Temperatures are not too important. This one was put on the deck railing when it was 48.9° F.

[Oh, use two teabags]

Step 2–Go away and find something useful to do for about three hours (like reading a few of my earlier blogs.)

[In the next few minutes it will be done]

So, there you have it. I’ve taken you through a story about flags, food and iced tea. What more do you want from me? I have a life you know.

Thanks Greg ! Missing you a lot…

[In the interest of full disclosure: I really don’t think Greg knew how to cook the exotic Italian dishes described above. Maybe he did. I’ll never know. I am indebted to Elaine Natalicchi, a dear friend from NYC in helping me come up with those tasty Italian names.]

[All photos are mine with the exception of the flags. They are from Google search. Where else?]

I know the whole thing was a bit long, but hey, think of it as having read a short novel for free.

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 No-Name Motel

[The motel with no name]

Most of the time I can erect a fence to contain the images and imaginations from escaping my brain.  Sometimes a little white picket fence with pink daisies in purple pots are enough to hold back the most innocent and decent imagery that my mind can create.  Then, there are times when a more sturdy wooden enclosure is necessary.  My thoughts have gotten a little darker and far-fetched.  At the end of the line, I need to put up a stockade of lichen-covered stone, dusty bricks or cement blocks…topped by razor wire.  These keep in the real demons; the ideas, thoughts, dreams, musings and nightmares that one finds along a dark path in the dark woods, deep ravines and foggy patches in misty churchyards.  These fences hold my odd thoughts where they belong…in my brain.  It works.

Most of the time.

I’m on Route 11, the main highway that crosses the North Country.  I’ve been on this road many times heading either west or east out of Malone.  This isn’t the first time I’ve spotted the old motel.  I pull over.  The weeds in the old lawn are chest high.  The welcome sign is getting loose around the hinges and bolts.  I don’t know how long this place will exist.  Perhaps the next time I drive this way, the whole structure may be replaced by a Tractor Supply, a Bowling Alley or a Car Wash.

To me, that would be a shame.  It’s obvious it will never again function as a motel…and that is why it attracts and charms me.  Here, in what may have been the driveway, I sit in my Honda and survey the old buildings.

The style of the buildings could be 1960’s, but I’m going to place it in the mid-1950’s.  It suits my narrative style better.

Then I close my eyes.  I can see the phantoms that once stayed here.  I can imagine their stories.  I can feel their history.  It’s happy and sad, tragic and fortunate.  The lives that passed through these rooms, pass through me now.

I see the shadows move about.

The traveling salesman, with his valise full of brushes and combs, slips into Room 2.  Once inside, he hangs his seersucker jacket on the door hook, kicks off his worn wing-tipped shoes and stretches out on the lumpy bed.  He unscrews the bottle of bourbon and takes a long pull.  He doesn’t want to go home.

A blushing teenage couple from Watertown just bluffed their way intro Room 9.  He has a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon that is slowly getting warm.  He uses his church key to open two.  They sit awkwardly on the sofa before moving to the bed.  In exactly ten months, she’ll give birth to a baby boy who will grow up to own his own auto repair shop outside of Burlington, VT.  His parents will each die in separate car accidents in 1974.

A cheap thug who just robbed a liquor store in Plattsburgh takes Room 5.  His girl has a bruise on her cheek, her arm and her thigh.  They will stay one night and then drive non-stop to Chicago. There she will leave him for a chiropractor.

A family is on their way into the heart of the Adirondacks.  They have driven south from Quebec City and will spend the next two weeks swimming at Golden Beach on Raquette Lake.  One child  will become an astronomer and the other will become a teacher.  Room 10 is their final night under a roof.  Tomorrow night the tent comes out.

A troubled couple from Binghamton will argue well into the night about in-law problems.  The wife will turn up the radio when Billie Holiday comes on.  Maybe the volume will drown out the threats from Room 14.

An insurance salesman from Buffalo will quickly enter Room 7.  He knows this motel well.  Room 7 is hidden from the office.  Following him through the door is his secretary, Helen.  He promised her many things during the long drive.  Anything, he thinks, as long as she gives me a night of pleasure that he can’t find at home with his lawful wife.

Two young men in their twenties passing themselves off as brothers on their way to visit family in Lake George walk boldly into Room 11.  Here they can be themselves and love each other like they have wished for the past three years.

Yes, the lawn is chest-high with Timothy grass, Ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.  Butterflies and black flies flit from flower to flower.  No more cars will be stopping here, ever.  The motel once had a name, but even the sign is gone.  A little VACANCY sign is visible.  Those who passed through this office, slept on creaky mattresses and used the stained toilet are long gone.  Some of the stories had happy endings while others ended with a broken heart or a bleeding nose.  These travelers have moved on.  Many are still alive, most are buried in some local cemetery or a burying ground a thousand miles away.  A few who laughed, drank, sinned and prayed in these rooms are possibly being sedated by an RN in a nursing home…somewhere.

I go back to my car after taking a few photos and I notice something that may seem ironic.

The empty motel with no name is directly across the road from a hospice.

Another flood of imaginings come rushing from my brain.

[All the lonely people.  All the empty rooms.]

 

 

The Robin’s Nest

[The nest after being moved from the lamp]

[American Robin: Turdus migratorius.]

I’m sure it was a Robin’s nest.  Every time Mariam or I would use the front deck entrance (with a screen door that slammed louder than the front gate of Alcatraz), a bird with a rusty breast would scold us from a nearby branch of a long-needle pine.

When we arrived home after our late winter trip overseas, neither of us noticed anything.  But one afternoon something caught my eye.  It was atop our outdoor light.  At first it looked like Rip van Winkle’s hat…leafy, twiggy and crusted with mud.  I chanced to pull out our kitchen stool and peaked inside…it was a birds nest, constructed with such engineering skill, it made a beaver dam look like a 6th graders science experiment.  I touched nothing, knowing the rules about birds and nests.

Nothing much happened for a few days.  No sign of any action.  Then on another afternoon, I was in the guest bedroom trying to find a clean flannel shirt for the day (It’s late May, so I get to level down from wool to fleece to flannel.)  I looked out at the lamp.  A mother Robin was tending the nest!  I moved the window shade ever so slightly and she took off to a nearby branch.

We had a family living above our lamp.  Life was about to begin on our front porch.  For several weeks we watched as the mother sat as still as a dead parrot in a cage.  We began to use the back deck for our commerce, avoiding the disturbance of the slamming screen door.  Mariam began to take a special interest in the birds welfare…she watched it from afar like a trained ornithologist…which was great to watch…since she, Mariam not the bird, is from Queens.

A few days ago, I was sitting in our living room reading David Copperfield.  (I’m on page 260…I have only 469 pages left…that’s good for me, I’ve only been at it for four years) when Mariam walked in and announced that she believed the mother bird abandoned the nest.  I thought about it for a few minutes and told her that I thought that the hatchlings had already taken wing.  She didn’t think so.

Today, she asked me to take down the nest as it was obviously empty, but she didn’t want to see inside.  So I went out and actually had to struggle to move the nest.  It was so firmly attached to the lamp that even the stormy weather we’ve had couldn’t possible have budged it.

[The original nest site…pretty good choice I think.]

It was a marvel of…well, nest-making.  But I found no signs of egg shells bits.

I believe the family is gone and the fledglings are fine in the parents care.  Soon, they too will be fully adult by summers end…and will migrate when the time comes…that time when their internal chemistry tells them it’s time to fly south, something I can relate to.

Watching nature’s cycles unfold from a window is a privilege.  This is what living in the North Country offers.

The next major event is black-fly season.  I’ll be watching that play out from the screened-in porch, thank you.  There are some things in nature I just don’t do…getting my blood sucked by anything with wings is not on my to-do list.