Measuring The Final Miles

LastMilesMap

[Divider antique tool provided by D’Arcy Havill. Used with permission}

“Why”  That seems to be the operative word rolling around in my mind as I sit and write this post, this nearly final post of our Epic Trip of 2015-1016.

We’re at our friend’s house in Camp Dennison, Ohio.  I’ve written of D’Arcy and Judy on several occasions.  They have a summer-house on our road at Rainbow Lake.  We stopped here in the last days of our first trip to Orting, WA., in 2013.  If you’ve been following me, faithfully following my blogs, this is the place where I helped to win an election and the place where a yellow house (across the street and apparently still haunted) is where we park our RV.  Their house has big rooms and wide driveways–unlike all the other places we’ve stayed since mid-October of 2015.  We’re more than grateful for their friendship and hospitality on both trips.

This afternoon I stood in the showroom of Road Rivers and Trails, an outdoor/gear/clothing shop in nearby Milford.  I was drawn to a wall mural map (by the National Geographic Society) of the U.S.A.  My eye drifted to the NYC area and, naturally, began, on its own, to trace our six month road trip.

Why?  What would prompt me to undergo such a major undertaking, at our age, in an r-pod that was too small for two…for that long?  What was I thinking?

A distant memory came to mind.  The more I gave the recollection some mental fertilizer, my desire to be on the road and discover new places…the more the memory became clear.

It was September of 1960.  I was  beginning my eighth and final year at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, New York.  But our classroom had one empty seat that fall.  It belonged to my childhood friend, Peter.  He wasn’t present for the first attendance call.  And there was a very good reason.

His father was, probably one of the last, I might add, of the generation of family doctors who actually made house calls.  Dr. G., (we eighth graders were told) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He chose to close his practice and take his rather large family on a cross-country road trip–to see America–to show his children the Grand Canyon and all the sights that Americans should see in this unbelievable country of ours.

So, was that why I was on the road?  I think that a little bit of that memory of Peter and his family, drove me to make a grand loop through the amazing landscapes.  For sure, I wanted to see these places for myself, and to share the experiences with my wife, Mariam, but Peter’s childhood adventure–with its sad ending–was deeply buried in my psyche all the time.

We’re sitting on the Havell’s patio.  D’Arcy is burning brush and a rotting Adirondack Chair (here in Ohio…Ironic?).  I’m reclining on a chaise ( I had to blow away the ashes that had drifted down from the small bonfire).  I dozed.  It was warm.  I had unzipped my fleece vest and I dozed.  The last things I heard were the cardinals, taking the seeds at the feeder.

I dozed and began to see maps in my dreamy visions–maps–I had maps, more maps than the law allows.  I had studied the details of the maps for months…I had maps that had imbedded their images into my brain like the word food embeds into a dog’s brain.

I began to see routes, roads, byways, highways, scenic byways and unscenic thruways.  I began to recall the towns, the cities, the rest stops and the tourist traps I had seen and stopped at along the way…

There was the beginning:

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The two months in Floridia, where I learned to sail and Mariam lost ten pounds from sweating in the heat and humidity in the first two months:

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And, the points west, first in Natchez, Mississippi, where we attended a Baptist service on a Sunday morning and still get mailings from the members of the congregation.  Then, Vicksburg, where I met the wonderful Malory, at the Tomato Place…and toured the Battlefield, wondering why the deaths in those clay hills had to happen–onto Monroe, Louisiana, where I laid a flower on the grave of my very good friend–who died too young and too close to me:

MonroeMap

Then driving west and south to Dallas, Austin–where we spent time with Madeline and William and where I bought a pair of cowboy boots just to take lessons in the Texas 2-Step:

ElPasoMap

Then to El Paso, and further west:

YermoMap

And, further into the Great Desert:

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Then, the turn-around–eastward:

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CincinnatiMap

Finally, the last leg–the ending of an adventure that I may never have the chance to do again.  Oh, the places I’ve seen! Oh, the places where I could call home…

I regret missing the Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, hiking the Vermillion Cliffs, getting lost in the Superstition Mountains and finding destinations I haven’t even seen on the map yet.  Do I have time left to do all these things?

I know the country was there for Peter and his family to explore in 1960.  Fifty-six years later, it’s still there…but so many grey-haired guys like me are there too.  Where is the solitude?  Where is the real wilderness?

It’s all there, it’s all still there.  It’s just harder to find.  It’s so much much harder to find the kind of desolation and isolation I crave at this time in my life.  The quiet and unpeopled places are out there.  One just has to hike that four miles beyond the last signpost…that place beyond the last ATV track…that place where the old grey-haired guys like me are still looking for.

This post is loaded with maps and I hope you enjoyed them.  But, even as I say I love maps, I understand they are of limited use.  They show me where the roads are and where the paths end…but they don’t show where my own trail leads and where it will end.  Sometimes there are no maps where you need to be…where you should be and where you want to be.

I just hope I have the time and quality of life to go and discover.

[Map photos are taken from the National Geographic Mural Map of the U.S.A.]

 

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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.

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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

 

Sunday Rock

It was raining as I drove along the western edge of the Adirondack Park recently.  It was around the time when my thoughts turned to how much weight the Yankee pitcher, C. C. Sabathia, had lost during the off-season.  Or, perhaps I was reflecting on Colbert replacing Letterman on the Late Show.  More than likely, however, I was keeping an eye out for a public restroom (or a nicely protected tree).  I had just finished a large coffee purchased in Tupper Lake.  Let’s just say that my mind was covering a lot of ground that afternoon, like Kudzu in Virginia.

That’s when I was jolted back to real-time by the sight of an unusually large rock, standing upright beside the road.  The remains of the Earth Science teacher in me kicked in.  I made an about turn in a muddy driveway and went back.  Mariam snapped a photo of the rock at my request.  I read the historical sign.  Not all large rocks warrant a historical marker.  I was hoping there would be some significant story to this rock.  I was hoping the sign wouldn’t say “Large Rock”.  It didn’t.  instead, I found out that I had stumbled across a landmark that dates back hundreds of years.

Actually, the rock itself dates back thousands of years.  It’s a glacial erratic…a remnant of the Ice Age.  The rock had gotten a free ride from somewhere to the north and was left behind when the Great Thaw came and the ice receded.  That would be approximately 15,000 years ago (or, about six years ago if you’re a Creationist and don’t quite get on with the “Long View” of things).

The rock was used by the First People, the Native Americans, as a marker in their travels.  Later, when roads replaced footpaths, the rock also served as a landmark for the settlers, loggers, miners and woodsmen approaching the North Woods.

It became known as “Sunday Rock”.  Why, you may ask, was that name given to a stone?  No one, it seems, has the final answer.  But, in general, it was said that beyond the rock, in the woods, there were “No Sundays” and, by extension, no holidays (and very little law).

Life past the rock was carefree and few actions and pursuits were restricted.  Camps flourished and the freedom of the trails, brooks, mountains and fields reigned.  One could compare it to the life beyond the Mississippi River in the early 1880’s.  The law took time to catch up to the real pioneers and backwoodsmen.

I believe that in everyone’s life, there is a Sunday Rock.  Something we see in our view that beckons and reminds us of our goal.  A lake,  cabin, mountain, tree or a bend in the trail we are walking.

Or a rock.

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[Winter photo source: Town of Colton]

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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