There are some momentous occurrences that just happen as if they are fated to be. These are moments of divine clarity where our brains go from thinking one way to starting to think of other things that it seems that we are meant to be placed in the understanding of. As it happens, it’s not clear why we are pondering what we are until that something we are meant to experience happens, and then… BAM!
We’re smack dab in the middle of it.
But yes, these fatalistic experiences are derived from the things that we think, and as we ponder those thoughts, things that are meant for us to experience start to happen, and when these situations begin to roll into motion, larger events start to occur.
I know this because I was driving home from a day of hiking in the woods of north central Pennsylvania on the Standing Stone Trail in May of 2014. The day was my own. My wife H was going to be spending the morning shopping with my mom, and when she was done, she was going to be spending the night at her brother’s house to be with his daughter for a sleepover party. This was going to be a special night for her niece since H’s brother had finally won overnight custody of the daughter for every other weekend and guaranteed nights during the week.
It’s important to state that this event was nothing that I would have much to add to. As a middle-aged man, I know very little of the comings and goings of 3-year olds, and with that, my ability to be entertaining to said children of this age group is limited to quick bursts of fun and prolonged experiences of sitting around contemplating what I can really add to the equation mixed with what else could I have been doing. As a result of these deficiencies in myself, I got permission to go hiking, so I took advantage of it by ascending the back of the mountain to the top of the Throne Room.
As it is the best vista in Pennsylvania, the views from the Throne Room soared out majestically from the 270° view that was gained from the almost completely open sides and the unobstructed front view. The side views from the other spots of the mountain provided other views of the surrounding farmland of Big Valley. Hall of the Mountain King… the King’s Chambers… Butler Knob… The leaves of spring had arrived, and with them, the color of the season had decorated a nearly 10 mile walk to and from the back end of Jack’s Mountain Road, which is the dirt road that led into it from Barneytown.
The road that day wasn’t pleasant. The rain had eroded some serious gullies into the road, and it seemed to be all about navigating the Macho Dude in such a way that one of the ditches was between the tires. This meant driving slowly and cautiously, but my Yaris responded well to the difficulty of the terrain, and I made it in and out unscathed.
I had done the hike in from the Jack’s Mountain Road before. Going from that direction was meant to be a more pleasant version of Jack’s Tower Road, which is the worst road in America. Now, there are other “bad” roads, but that’s just the absolute worst road. For example, I hate the winding road into my parents’ house because of how it twists and turns and dips and climbs and because of how it’s not that uncommon for someone to be walking on it, whether in the extreme heat of day or the rapidly darkening moments of dusk. That said, it’s not like I’m going to hit anyone on this road; instead, it’s more about the swerving motion of the road that plays havoc on my brain in that motion sickness kind of way.
However, there wasn’t much reprieve that day on Jack’s Mountain. In fact, by going that winter-affected way, I also had to scale the un-manicured mountain that led up to the top of the hill instead of walking a 2-mile trek of flat out and back hiking. Now, I was contending with many trees that had fallen over and were blocking the path. Baby trees and shrubs were scattered everywhere on what should have been the trail. Nevertheless, for the rugged conditions that they had left the trail in, I moved around them and the puddled up roadside “pond” as well as all of the other obstacles, and I got my view on.
I didn’t stay long, but I stayed long enough to breathe it all in for another couple months until I would find it in me to get the time to go back again. As I left, I pushed out through the other vistas and took them all in, too. Originally, as I passed Butler Knob on the other side of the mountain, I thought I would go look for the Standing Stone Trail Club’s shelter, but I decided not to because I didn’t want to push back up any mountain that I didn’t need to ascend on that day, so instead, I went back the way I came, spooked a couple deer, and made my way to the car.
By this time, it was a long day in, and I still had a long ride home. Leaving at about 5pm meant getting home at about 8. I thought of things that I could do for the rest of the night while driving home, but really, I wasn’t interested in any of them. Instead, I wanted to see my pictures and to crash out hard in my bedroom that night after getting rehydrated and fed.
As I got home, I did all of this, and eventually, I came back downstairs from the computer and plopped out in front of the television with the thoughts that, “I should sleep downstairs tonight.” I decided better of it, and so I went up to the big empty bed and fell asleep.
At about 2am, I woke up out of my sleep and felt wide awake. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up, but it’s not like I wake up alert at that time of night. Most times, I just wander down the hallway in a near sleepwalk daze, go to the bathroom, and then fall back asleep until it’s time to wake up in the morning. However, this night, I was more alert than normal. This seemed illogical, so I decided to fall back to sleep.
Twenty minutes later, I woke up again. This time, I went to the bathroom, and while doing this, I decided for some unknown reason that I would go downstairs and sleep after I got a drink. There was no rhyme or reason in the moment’s decision. It was just something I was going to do.
After I did all of this, I fell asleep again on the sofa despite the light of the streetlights poking through the window.
Twenty minutes later, my cellphone rang. It was H. She was on her way back from her brother’s house, and she was heading to the emergency room because she was having mystery pains in her gall bladder area. I quickly got dressed and went to meet her there.
Had I been in my bed, I would have never heard the call. I’ve absorbed too much loud rock music throughout the years of my life to hear general things directed at me from other rooms, and being that far asleep, I would have never heard the phone down the hallway, around the corner, down the stairs, and into the living room.
It was as if something was telling me to be where I was so that I could get her call and to be able to be there for her, which I was able to do – because I was sort of asleep on the sofa at that minute that the call came in.
The time in the hospital seemed to go quickly. When she got there, I sat with her and kept her company between her being awake and wanting to sleep until they released her with minimal problems and invasiveness. It was the middle of the night, so the small town Lancaster County emergency room was fairly empty when we got there. The medical staff was playing music to keep themselves alert and awake. From a computer in a faraway corner, Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” was playing. Somehow, hearing this song seemed to make sense even if not being able to process what her mother’s name was didn’t make sense to the average person who wouldn’t get why I couldn’t answer that question (in my defense, her mother passed away before we ever got together, so it’s not like I knew her).
When asked about the choice of songs for the evening, we were told by the attendant that “it’s a greatest hits of the 1980s mix.”
The rest of the songs fit that definition, but as for that one, it may have been a song of my youth growing up in the 1980s, but I don’t see it as spreading out to the same places that songs like “Purple Rain,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” “Come on Eileen,” “Jessie’s Girl,” and “Take on Me” have been able to do with their mass appeal and ability to be played in group settings without raising eyebrows about hanging out at Satanic rituals in the middle of English fields.
With regard to H’s eventual diagnosis, it wasn’t the gall bladder problems she thought that it was, at least that was what they told her and we are happy to believe since they require surgery and time spent recovering. Instead, she was directed to more dietary related potential things that she could have going on.
But in the end, it wasn’t even the diagnosis or the problems that were associated with them, which dissipated pretty quickly. Instead, I was left with a feeling of symbiosis between us. There was a sense that where we were 2 completely different and unrelated people when we met back in late 2007, we had come to grow together and individually, and with that, we learned that we can depend on one another so much throughout the years that it seemed that even the events of the future were now subject to being “felt” by one another before they happened.
This was more than a sense of just caring about the other person being safe, happy, or fulfilled. Instead, it was a sense of saftey and obligation through love. After almost 6½ years together, this sense had grown to the point where this was the new level of commitment and dedication that we had between us.
But there were other times, too, when we had to be there for one another, none more so than H having to rescue me from my blisters and myself on some other unknown back road of the Standing Stone Trail after I conked out after 20 miles of hiking over 2 days.
At that time, I was hell bent and determined to get out on the mountains that week after summer 2013 classes ended. I had done a fair bit of hiking over the months from April to July, and I figured that I could move myself and what ended up being a way too heavy backpack from Point A in Cowan’s Gap State Park to Point Z in Greenwood Furnace State Park. Never mind that I had never done back to back hikes with a backpack, and never mind that I had never done hikes after an overnight hike in the woods (let alone repeated hikes). No, I was going to push myself to do this, and fortunately, for all of the voices of logic that I heard, I had one supporter: H.
First and foremost, I love you more than anything in the world. You are my wife, my life, and you are the good things. You make me happy, and I can’t wait to finish this trail and to see you again.
Nevertheless, as I write this I think about how I am going to be hiking 72 miles on Friday, and with that, there is a feeling that a major undertaking in my life is about to begin. I can’t say that I’m scared; I’m not. But that said, I know that things can happen, and with that, things could happen and I’d like to think that I’ve thought about them all ahead of time. I’ve got my suntan lotion, bug spray, bear spray, Clif Shots, Clif Bars, extra containers of water, other assorted food, credit card, quotes, and mantras. I do intend to use all of them except the bear spray. I’d rather not use that.
I know there are things that I don’t have. I don’t think that I’ve got all 10,000 of Malcolm Gladwell’s hours, but I’ve got enough of them, and I’ve seen enough of the trail to understand what’s at the points in between. Besides, at some point, the only way to get ready for the trail is to be out on the trail continuously. The strength to do will come. That’s what Bill Bryson seemed to imply in A Walk in the Woods, and if it worked for Katz and him, then it can work for me, too. I’m ready for that now. I’ve been ready. The last thing I needed to know was if I could carry my bag full. I can. Now, it’s time to go.
In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless said, “I read somewhere... how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong... to measure yourself at least once.” I want to think that I’m doing that. I’ve been other places to challenge myself – Basic Training comes to mind – but I don’t feel that I took that as a challenge to overcome. Instead, I looked to survive it, which was the wrong attitude. The feeling that if I was still standing after X weeks, then I had made it isn’t the same as to come through with style and pride. Bear Grylls expresses that well in his book A Survival Guide for Life, and that’s what I’d like to think that walking 72 miles gives me the opportunity to do.
In hiking, there is no guess work. Either I make it or I don’t. There’s no well sort of. I used to feel that way when I was lifting weights in 2006. I could either push the weight up or I couldn’t. Even if I was shaking, if I got the arms up and straight, I got it. Don’t touch me while I’m pushing! I’ve got this! I want to go back to that place this fall as well, I just want to lose some weight before I put on muscle weight.
As far as the attitude of do or don’t and objective success in hiking, Lakeland mentioned how a girl on the National Geographic Pacific Crest video that he was also on was all excited because she did the trail, but he then added that she skipped Oregon, so really, she didn’t do it. She just did 2 states of the trail. He had a lot of contempt for her “success,” which makes a lot of sense. She didn’t succeed. He did. There’s an exclusivity in that, and that’s part of any hike. Anyone can quit. Those two kids quit the Thousand Steps. We pushed on to Clark’s View. We succeeded. They failed. It’s simple math.
In life, there is an opportunity to go and do, and that’s what this is about: going and doing. I appreciate the warnings, but that said, my opportunity is about going and doing this. If I do it in 6 days, fine. If I do it quicker, that’s fine, too. I’d like to hope that at the end, when the Rock finally comes back to Greenwood Furnace, he can say that he laid the smack down on that jibroni trail! At the end of his matches, he could be battered and bruised, but when he emerged victorious, there was enough strength for a Rock Bottom into a People’s Elbow so that the crowd could go wild. That’s kind of what I want to do… if you smell what the Rock is cooking…
In a similar way, Sammy Haynes, a former Negro League player, was being asked by Ken Burns about Jackie Robinson, and in describing Jackie’s attitude, Haynes said that all Robinson wanted was to be given a chance. Give me "a fair shot to make it fine. If I don't make it, that's still fine." You’ve given that to me, and for that I am eternally grateful, and I love you so much. With that, I hope to live up to my inner feelings that say that I will push myself as hard as I can and keep pushing until the finish line appears. I’m not in this to fail. As Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.” In that, if I were a cheerleader, I’d be “in it to win it.”
Many things have been affecting me these days. I can’t explain all of what has been filling my mind. I wish I could, but a lot of it needs to be made sense of. With that being said, some of it is the standard midlife crisis stuff. Other stuff comes from the heart attack workup in December. Telling you that’s what was going on was one of the hardest things in my life. Fortunately, it wasn’t, but it was stress, and stress is a path to the dark side. Having my arm go numb on me in 2011 should have been a wakeup, but when the stressors are still there, things can still return in new and bizarre ways. I think back on that now, and it still scares me.
In addition, seeing how much my weight had gone up to the point where I was at almost 250 pounds made me very scared. I don’t ever want to be 120 pounds again, but I don’t want to think of going up and up and up. The sedentary life that I had entered into after grad school finished and money vanished and I sat around waiting for some opportunity or thing to come and save me had led me to health issues and the magic feeling that I could be rescued by a pill when I knew that’s never what I wanted. I’m not here to say pills don’t help, but purpose and health make a difference. The crushing sense of what my physical shape had done and was doing to us was apparent. It was time to make a difference for me. I can’t say if I’ll ever be 170, but I’d like to think that I can keep working on it and maybe this time next year…
So many parts of my body aren’t what they used to be. I’d like to think I can still take control of some of it. I realize that there’s some that will need a different strategy, and the time will come to make peace with some of that. In the meantime, I needed to get out in the sunlight and on the trail again to push myself to somewhere good again.
As Mark Twight, an extreme climber said, “Eventually, I sickened of people, myself included, who didn’t think enough of themselves to make something of themselves- people who did only what they had to do and never what they could have done. I learned from them the infected loneliness that comes at the end of every misspent day. I knew I could do better.”
Thanks for pushing me to apply for the job at Brethren. If I get an interview, fine. If I don’t, that’s still fine. If it weren’t for you, I might still be prioritizing other things first, and there wouldn’t be an opportunity for anything but a “no” answer. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. However, with a dedicated wife, an object in motion remains in motion. Whatever is to come in the future with you and me will be a good thing. There will also be more job searches and the like. There will be more traveling, snuggling, happiness, family, dreams, and Christmases! There will be laughs and smiles, and while there will be sadness and frustrations, we’ll get through them. We always do. Whatever is to come, I can’t wait to be there, but that said, I want to really feel like I like the now that I’m living in, too – as opposed to just waiting for future greatness somewhere down the road.
In this, I’ve really liked hiking and doing things that we’ve done over this last year. Money is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing. Having fun together is a good thing. Letting go of all of our baggage and pain is a good thing. I look forward to more of it in the future. I look forward to Sandals St. Lucia (or Grenada), and I look forward to Hocking Hills, Ithaca, and the many things that we will do this winter and fall. In addition, I look forward to everything that is coming. Be it trying for a family or climbing waterfalls in Sullivan Run or sitting in the Siesta Zone or ascending to the Throne Room in the dead of winter, “the future,” in the words of Tom Petty, “was wide open.”
However, for all of the garbage and angst that I want to discard, I don’t want to stop pushing myself to get through whatever comes my way. I don’t ever want to give up on me again. I realize some obstacles aren’t safe to go around, but where I can control it, I want to. Here, I do want to follow the advice of Ed Viesturs who stated that, “getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory.” I want to be safe. I want to survive, but I want to take the hard way. Here, a part of me still wants to follow the philosophy of Edward Abbey:
“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American.”
And there will always be danger, but sometimes, it’s about the knowing and understanding and controlling and confronting danger that makes sense of it. For instance, any time that we enter into a system with a potential for injury, injury could happen. Cars, trains, planes, grain elevators, schools… you name it. Are there more dangers between Cowan’s Gap and Greenwood Furnace than elsewhere? Maybe so, maybe not. Personally, I feel more afraid walking from RACC to the Sovereign Center, but alas… some things can be controlled and prepared for. Others will just happen when the fates decide for them to happen. Nevertheless, as Lakeland said, “If you spend your whole life thinking and worrying about what could be out there, you’ll never go.” Frankly, I have a lot of places that I want to go. I don’t need any more of my defeatism before I get started going. That’s what these 25-30,000 steps are about.
With that, I thank you very much for the love and support that you have shown me in the past few months of planning for and now leaving for this “crazy” adventure because that’s what it is: crazy. “Normal” people don’t decide to walk 72 miles in 6 days, but that’s what I decided to do. At least you can make sense of my kind of crazy. I guess we’re meant to be together. (-:
Nevertheless, if you want someone to fault for this trip, blame Lakeland. Something in me clicked when he spoke of what he accomplished on those trails for those 5,500 miles, and I started to think about all of the things that I haven’t done, all of the things that had physically gone wrong in my body and my mind, and all of the things that I wanted to do.
Blame Jon Krakauer who wrote Into the Wild. Blame Edward Abbey for Desert Solitaire. Blame National Geographic Adventure, Backpacker Magazine, and the Internet. Blame Scott Brown for waterfall books and vista guides. Blame Michael Kelsey for getting me hooked on canyons in the Southwest. Blame Aron Ralston for surviving in that canyon. Blame genetics for making it so that I couldn’t sit still to enjoy hiking and fishing when those were “sensible” pursuits that would give me enough thrills in the great outdoors. Blame Jeff Mitchell for writing guidebooks to these mountain trails of Pennsylvania. Blame Neil Young for summing it all up in the song “Thrasher.” Blame this gal named Kat that I used to be friends with when she asked me, “What is America?” all those years ago in 1996 when we sat on the bridge in Bury St. Edmunds as I was getting ready to leave Trudy and England and she was getting ready to spend a summer in Dublin before returning to her boyfriend in San Francisco. Blame Simon and Garfunkel for talking about looking for this country and its real meanings in the song “America.” Blame Talking Heads for writing “Once in a Lifetime.” Blame Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons for making me want to write like them. Blame the Polyphonic Spree for just about everything that they ever wrote. Blame Pete for getting me into them. Blame Laurence Gonzalez and Victor Frankl for showing me how to overcome adversity and to survive.
Blame John Dos Passos for going on about how that “USA is a slice of the continent. USA is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theaters, a column of stock-quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dog-eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. USA is the world’s greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills, USA is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. USA is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. USA is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly USA is the speech of the people.”
Actually, there’s only one person to blame. Blame me for believing it all. Blame me for having read and read all of Whitman’s Song of the Open Road over and over and over again…
AFOOT and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road. The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know they are very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to them. (Still here I carry my old delicious burdens, I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go, I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return.)…
(Drifts into the rest of Song of the Open Road)
Blame the things that don’t make sense and that do. The universe made me who I am. It took me to England and brought me home again, and it gave me many lessons that broke me down, raised me up, and twisted me around to a point where the person that I once was didn’t make sense anymore. The universe made me watch a 501-foot home run by Mark McGwire 3 days after having some grand satori vision in the woods of the Toiyabe Mountain after nearly being overwhelmed by a field full of Mormon crickets. It took me through 4.5 years of school and brought me to teach in a Catholic school. It made me get lost amongst the mountains, valleys, canyons, and cities of this country to lose sense and make sense at a place called the Wave so that I could come home and get myself mentally ready to meet you and fall in love and put behind so much of the missing years while finishing up grad school and continuing on with this teaching thing that 12.5 years later, I still can’t believe that I’m a part of.
“How did I get here?” What does it all mean?
“Did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?” I do already.
But now… now it’s time to go.
I love you so very much, Pookie Bear.
Dan your man. Now and for always.
And in those next 2 days, a contingency that I never thought would come smacked my sorry self quite viciously: wet boots that were ill-fitting rubbed my feet to the point where I developed vicious blisters that hurt more and more with every step I took. This combined with a poor night of sleep after a day of not eating pretty much at all. I was also drinking far more of the water that I brought (300 ounces – over half of it the first day). The morning was wet from drizzling rains the first night, and I woke up pretty much feeling like I had been kicked down a flight of stairs. Still, I pushed on about 7-8 miles that day over the ridge and up through to Monument Rock, where I stood 25 yards from the view, and I never bothered to walk the rest of the way thinking only about finding a way to get out. Instead, all I saw was haze and a poor early opening to the window that would have been a little further on had I attempted to walk out to it.
It was at that time that I left a message for H that I was calling it a day. I was giving up on the dream, but first, I had to find my way to a place that she could extract me from. The next dirt road appeared to be 5 miles up the road. That was the longest 5 miles I ever walked. The woods all seemed the same. It was just mountain path and rocks, up and over, repeat, and push on. I still wasn’t able to eat much, and I was conserving what I could of the water as my hydration reserves vanished more and more quickly.
When I did get in touch with H, the reception was spotty. I had no idea where I was. It all seemed futile. I had no Run Keeper to tell me how far I had gone. Instead, the only place that I could truly realize that I was “somewhere” was when I went across a power line. Eventually, I did, but more spotty communication and a map that didn’t have a name for the dirt road led me to try to describe it as best as I could.
“It’s the last road on the right before Meadow Gap.”
“You’ll just need to find it.”
The frustration seeped through on both ends to the tune of my frustration in stating that, “I don’t even know where I am. I thought I did, but all I know is that I’m somewhere, several hours between Monument Rock and the power lines.”
And somehow, with every fiber of my body drained and aching, beaten down in that early evening sunlight, I pushed on. When I didn’t think that I could push on, I pushed on more, and eventually, I pushed on down that dirt road, hoping that soon I would see a red Mini Cooper pushing up that hill. It was nowhere to be found, but then I saw a guy training for elk season by hiking up that road with his own backpack. He was far happier than me, but he was pushing, and I asked him the only question I could think of:
“How far to the end of the road?”
“Not far at all.”
I talked about some other stuff for a few minutes, and then I pushed on. If H were trying to find the entrance to the road, at least a sweaty, beaten-down dude on the side of the road would give her a clue that here was the man who she married in his Van Heusen suit 4 years earlier, much more well-kept and handsome than this grizzled, stinky, and abused guy who was now looking to get a ride back to Cowan’s Gap to get his car to drive for food and to just go home to a shower and a bed.
And eventually, that was the man she saw standing there, his staff Arachnophobia in his hand as he was covered with sweat, dirt, grime, cobwebs, and various other dead bug remnants, looking pitiful as here was the car sweet car of deliverance that would take him back to civilization to be cleaned up and at the very least, off of his feet and safe (though it would take stopping to eat something to get rid of that shivering feeling of having run the engine too long without fuel).
And this is what love was… driving out several hours on a night to rescue someone from themselves and the elements and to reflect back on the long mountain path that was accomplished and how long the remainder of the past must have been, which wasn’t accomplished. So many things… and the times and things that seem so important… it’s not necessarily true because the next weekend’s meteor shower viewed from a cabin in Benezette was just as beautiful as those mountain passes, if not more so because it was a shared moment… which is what all of our moments are… either in being together or wishing the other was there.
And there are dreams and times of things to come… mountains, rivers, waterfalls, redwoods trees, and ocean vistas to be journeyed to in the next month as the first 5 years of marriage come to a close and lead us into the next years of marriage.
Time flies and people change, but the more they change for the individual, the more they grow together for the couple. I wouldn’t want it any other way.