As spring began in 2013, I weighed in at somewhere around 250 pounds. If I were a strapping ripped weight trainer that doubled as an NFL running back, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but instead, I was about 5 foot 8 and a 41-year old teacher in charge of whatever college classrooms that I was assigned to. In addition, it wasn’t like I was a strapping ripped weight trainer that was pushing iron in order to keep himself in mental shape to deal with the day to day stresses of life, which could have been alleviated had he worked out like a fiend or even like someone who was dedicated to something more than getting through the day and onto the next day.
Instead of doing something productive like that, I was caught somewhere between the exhaustion of my days and the lack of energy I was expelling for my spare time fun. Sure, there were good times and things that I was seeing and doing, but it wasn’t like I was forcing myself to get outdoors to enjoy the wildness of the things that the world had to offer me. Rather, I was sitting around watching TV and trolling aimlessly through social network emptiness.
As a result of this non-life, for about five years, I had gradually weaned myself of any and all winter exercise after the final hiking trip to the frozen waterfalls of Ricketts Glen, which took place in early 1998. This relatively annual trip was culminated with a decision that this was going to be the last time that I would see the 10 to 94-foot waterfalls brought to a halt with the ice of winter. Of course, there was a rhyme and reason to this, which saw a young girl from Bloomsburg get really messed up after an accident that nearly turned her into a Popsicle. Fortunately, she was rescued after a long, arduous process that made her chances of survival as tough for her as it was to her rescuers, but it was a scary thing to think about happening in the name of a simple day out and about in the winter woods looking for the best possible pictures.
Now, it wasn’t like that was the last time I was out in winter. I did do the winter waterfalls of the Poconos with and without snow over the next two years, but it wasn’t like it was the same thing as going into the gorge at Ricketts. Ricketts Glen was a primitive place – even with trails and steps cut into the sides. Nevertheless, Tumbling Waters from the top was a long trail to a frozen and snowed-in ice blob. Hitting the same waterfall from the bottom without snow showed only the start of icicles on the sides and a tinge of what might be if it were colder and more wintery in northeastern Pennsylvania. Raymondskill, Dingman’s Falls, Silverthread Falls, Indian Ladders, and Hornbeck’s Creek were equally unaffected by the full on thrust of the season. In short, it was a day out, but it wasn’t the same full on beauty that Rickett’s Glen offered.
As time went by, I also recognized that the act of monetarily insuring myself against accidental and untimely death meant that I had worth as a husband, son, friend, nephew, teacher, uncle, and whatever else I was to those people around me. I couldn’t be risking myself for some damn-fool idealistic crusade. As a result, the memories were there, but the thrill was gone.
At those times that I first felt like that, I clearly and fully decided that it made sense to not solo hike up from the bottom through to the waterfalls of Ganoga Glen and Glen Leigh. All of these years later, I still agree with that sentiment; however, somewhere between then and now, I hit what could be construed as my Personal Scum Line, which truly has affected my thoughts on this matter, but those can’t be understood until everything else is fully expressed first.
Writer Laurence Gonzales coined the term Personal Scum Line in order to explain the level that we can’t go beneath or we permanently lose everything that we are to the ultimate failure that life has brought us to. For me, that Personal Scum Line came from stress attributed to weight gain, stress, and lack of exercise. These things had affected me in almost any single physical and mental way possible. It wasn’t just flights of steps that winded me. It was many of the simple pleasures of life that I should have and needed to be doing, but I just felt unable to push myself to do them. Without listing them all by name, let’s just say that most anything you can imagine and some you can’t were happening to me from early 2011 into 2013.
And that was the truth that it wasn’t one thing that had brought me to this place. From 1990 when I went into the Air Force as a scrawny 120-pound kid, I rode the transitions of early – twenty-something life that had me at a healthy 150-pound frame to 180 pounds in the winter after I returned from England in 1996. Over the following years, my weight went up and up. Much of this was late night restaurant trips with friends and falling asleep on a full stomach of chicken fingers, fries, and beer. These things tasted good, but alas, they weren’t helping me physically in any way. In addition, I was drinking my calories with a really bad 6 to 8 can a day Coca Cola habit that I finally kicked in 2004 after my doctor told me that some of my digestive system problems could be attributed to that. I stopped caffeine all but cold turkey after that. After drinking the remnants of the last little jug of iced tea and taking a few Tylenol, I never looked back. People talk about how caffeine headaches are what keeps them ingesting soda or coffee, but that wasn’t the truth for me. I knew when I hadn’t had my first soda or second soda soon enough, but the first 2 days of Tylenol were enough to get me over the hump when the chips were on the line.
Nearly a decade later, I’m without the need for Coke though I do still drink iced tea from time to time. Nevertheless, I don’t routinely drink my calories anymore if I can help it – unless there’s a good reason for it. Sometimes, there just is.
Time saw me getting more and more out of opportunities to be physically active. Being a teacher took a serious toll on my entire state of being, and all too many times after a school day, be it a good or bad day, I was left drained and wanting to do nothing of consequence. Instead, I would drift into the TV or computer, and just waste the moments that I could have been doing something, anything.
It’s important to add that despite being a writer, I find the performance aspect of teaching to be taxing. Being center stage in front of adults and young adults (or any age group for that matter) means being on all the time. It means keeping people awake and tuned in. It means having the audacity to believe that what I’m saying, whether to teach grammar, essay writing, or life wisdom is something that needs to be listed to – even if that’s more far-fetched than the alien conspiracy shows on television. It means that there needs to be purpose and order to it – whether they can see it or not. I’d like to believe there always is, but I’m sure I have my doubters.
In addition, like many comedians, I have come to find it easier to talk to excessively large groups than individuals due to my shyness. Nevertheless, it isn’t always easy to talk to groups either. I learned the hard way to not be wary of the opinions of others. I took the barbs and attacks of Air Force training instructors sitting in the snake pit while I walked up to them as a chow runner. This was my punishment for being a smart-assed and fearful night one trainee, but I did what I needed to do until someone else needed to learn it more. And while there are still faces out there that would do me harm in a minute, I do what I have to do to keep getting through, to keep getting paid. It’s what Jackie Robinson did, and let’s be honest; his detractors were a hell of a lot worse than mine.
What else is there to do? The alternative is curled up like a ball in some corner, pushing through the prison walls and no longer wanting to be. This is not a place I want to be.
However, since I have chosen to be in this profession, it means that I have to acknowledge the nature of the beast that serves my bread and butter. I must close myself off. I must open myself up. I must grow thick skin to protect myself from the rants and comments. I must be accurate and fair in looking at how things are to be assessed. I must give everything and more. I must reach to find their greatness. I must stoop to find the lowest common denominator. I must work to get better. I must find new ways to do the things that didn’t work the last time.
And I must know what it takes to always find a way to get back in the ring after taking my hits. This is how it works.
And for the longest time, this is what I did. Days passed and time went by, and my weight increased and my frustrations grew and I became the person I was, but I got through those days to the next days, which were pretty much either the same or more than the days that had gone by.
Through those years, it wasn’t a total period of not hiking or not working out. In 2006, I did pushups and gym visits for the first half of the year, and I was up to a set of 60 with several other sets near that level throughout the day. Granted, it wasn’t NavySEAL fit, but it was something considering I had never pushed weight like that before. However, as with many things in life, the local floods of the summer and girl and job problems wiped out much of my desire to keep working out, and well… that was that. Just as I started exercising on a whim, I stopped on a whim, too.
Any time that I could get out and about and hike locally or far away, I still would, but it wasn’t like I was living to hike; I was living and hiking, and that worked. Climbing up above my apartment to look down on the city beneath the hill, I often wondered when it would capsize on itself. I wondered what the final straw would be. All of the filth and crime and loss of hope and meaningless existential non-wonder of the day to day life just filled the world below, but up here it was somewhere else, somewhere higher above it all. Thinking about that now makes more sense than it did then. Back then, hiking upthere and taking pictures while looking out on the world around me was just a way to get away from it all. When it comes down to it, that’s all that really matters in life.
The years of the same passed by, and somehow, magically, at the end of the rope and in the darkness of a pre-winter tunnel, I met my wife Heather. Promise and positivity were there, but I never really knew how much damage those years prior to it did to me until I started looking back on it all from a position of examining the snow that they were still accumulating. It took many years of life happening to realize what I had been made into by life and the choices that I had made. For the support that she gave me through it all and the support that I gave to her, my wife and I both traveled to new heights, but when things got tough, it made us both go to our separate solitary corners. These are things that we work through as couples do in all marriages, and because of it, these are things that we and all couples everywhere learn from. We wear their effects on our brows. Be it the joy of saying, “I do,” or the sadness or anger or frustration or confusion that life offers, these things make us who we are. In the end, there is good and bad in everything. A marriage works to make each day as good as possible and to make sure that true love overcomes all things. Romantic love only goes so far. Openness, forgiveness, and commitment mixed with understanding and empathy and enhanced with the memories of all of the good things past and the dreams that can be made real for tomorrow are what carries things through to better tomorrows and true love, which will conquer all.
Love is the way. Love is the answer. All you need is love. Love, love, love. Love and only love. Real love. To make you feel my love. Love is all around. Love will keep us together. Love her madly. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. I love the living you. Axis bold as love. I’ve got my love to keep me warm. The one I love. Bigger than love. Love and sex and magic. The book of love. Your love is my drug. Love game. D.J. got us falling in love. Crazy in love. Love and mercy. I’m always in love.
But all of these words above are interspersed here in the paragraphs of story that is told in a non-chronological order. In the rest of these words, there is still other truth, but there is also concealment. I hide behind half-stated ideas and implied memories. This glimpse inside of my mind is just the beginning of something more. It’s an exercise in shedding demons and kicking them out, but it’s also an exercise in kicking back against all of the other something elses that don’t move and getting over on them. It’s about finding my mountain and “chopping it down with the edge of my hand.” Thus, for all that this sheds light on, it is necessary to back inside some semblance of order to tell the rest of this tale that needs to be stated.
During the early days with my wife, we went out to as many of the waterfalls as we could possibly go to. Scott Brown’s Pennsylvania Waterfalls book served us well. We traveled all over the state and into the surrounding states on all sides, and life was good. We continued on, getting married a little over a year and a half after our first date, and we bought our first house and turned it into a home just about 3 months after the wedding. We continued doing and seeing the world as the time would allow, but then it all seemed to stop after I attained my Masters of Education degree since gaining the degree meant giving up my grad assistantship. Hence, I lost a solid and substantial source of income that was fueling the car for all of those trips. The result meant that I needed to get frugal quickly. We had money in the bank, but I didn’t want to touch it unless we had to. As a result, instead of burning money I wasn’t sure I could replace, I spent a lot of 2011 not pursuing the things that I loved to do. Instead of replacing them with life-affirming things like push-ups, sit-ups, and running, I filled my time with worry and sadness and wondering whether I would ever get back to normal again. It was a very dark time when I hit some of the lowest points that I’ve ever reached. I don’t ever want to go back there again.
And then suddenly, it was over. The moment that I couldn’t ever see coming came and happened, but things weren’t really better. They just weren’t spiraling into some level of worse than they were. And in this moment, I learned that there never really is a bottom. If you want to keep falling or you don’t do anything to make yourself stop falling, you can go on forever and ever and ever. If you don’t recognize the Personal Scum Line, the freefall will continue and suck you into the vortex of your own personal self-destruction. And for this realization, even when things got better in the fall, things didn’t really change in what I was and wasn’t doing and what my body was creating for me.
As a result, the depression and frustration of not working enough combined with the weight that I was gaining and the stress that I was building, a pair of scars of sorts that kept multiplying around my middle and wracking at my brain. Secretly, I knew that it would until they put me in a corner that I would have to work myself out of, but even I wasn’t willing to admit it to myself since I wasn’t there yet. More floors would have to be passed as I kept freefalling into wherever. Along the way, opportunities would come and opportunities would go. They would present themselves as hope, but hope is only temporary and fleeting unless it’s built into something. Parachutes make the landing softer. Solid ground gives people something to stand on. I found a little bit of solid ground in all of this, and I found a parachute to guide me through, but until I confronted myself, none of this would truly be able to be applied to the greater goal of a future better me. As a result, there were going to be more dark journeys and conflicts in my woods.
And that time would come fairly quickly as it built through the end of another summer into the seasonal affective disorder of the cold setting in during another autumn, and with it, toward the end of 2012, I went to a doctor to discuss things that I was feeling. After discussing stress and worry removal options with a doctor, I was informed that I could go with the one standby that seemed to be the most immediate (medication). I opened up in sadness and worry over my sadness, worry, frustration, and the physical ailments I was creating for myself as well as the circling spirals of my mind when I thought that only that option could help. The doctor listened attentively and scribbled many things, but for all of his professionalism, I sit here today and know that he didn’t get it right since in looking back, the solution was less pharmaceutical than one of “tough love:”
“Lose some weight and get some exercise, fat boy.”
Nobody told me that or any politically correct combination of words, but that’s what I needed to hear. I’m sure doctors don’t often dispense advice that way, but sometimes, that’s how it needs to be said. Thus, I went with the pharmaceutical wonder solution for over half of a week before I started feeling dizzy for no real good reason. As a result, I stopped the late 20th century wonder medication pronto Tonto. The next time back at the doctor, I was chastised for going off said medicine, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel, and it’s my body, my choice, and if truth be told, I didn’t need it. I needed a plan, but plans aren’t always therapeutic sitting in a doctor’s office. They can be other things too, which this blog will detail throughout its existence. If you choose to use said choices, that’s your decision, but for me, it wasn’t and it isn’t the answer.
Thus, in that half a year between said doctor’s visit and the spring of 2013, I was still experiencing mystery chest pains. In hindsight, these pains were from stress, which is what many of the previous problems I went through were, but when I went to the same day doctor, I was sent to the hospital to see if I had a heart attack. I don’t fault them for doing this. The EKG presented evidence to them that they had to act on. If they didn’t, worse things could occur, so in this, I thank them for directing me to the proper resources. That said, worse things hadn’t and didn’t happen, but that day in the hospital was an eye opener, though it wasn’t the immediate jolt into overcoming the Personal Scum Line that I had crossed now on multiple occasions. Instead, I had to face the reality of the pain and worry I had caused to my wife in having to tell her that we were going to be in the hospital to figure out if something really tragic had or was occurring to me. That’s never a pleasant conversation.
It was a very horrible moment being there in the sterile air of the hospital, but it was a very real place that came to drive me to a very real acknowledgement that something had to change, but that moment of change wasn’t quite there yet. Christmas had to come. The semester had to end. We had to have our magic getaway to Jamaica. The New Year had to cast this year off for good without any hard work… yeah, just the change of a calendar.
But here’s the thing… nothing was going to change unless it was acted on.
The limitations of physical activities that I wasn’t able to do also weren’t going to change things unless I worked to change things. Instead, there was only more sadness and the feelings of failure as the nagging feeling of weight gain and lack of exercise were really starting to weigh on me in more ways than just back strain.
Winter came and went, and with it, the motions of going through the days happened, and isn’t that what so much of adult life really is? Mindless drifting away from meaning is modern society’s answer for all too many things, and I was embracing its call in all of the things that I was and wasn’t doing.
Finally, in spring of 2013, I had one of those typical flu days, and for some reason, my appetite didn’t return after it. I didn’t force it to either. I just went with lesser portions, and ran with it. At the same time, I had the opportunity to get out and go hiking again. It was a simple hike up through the woods of SullivanCounty to go and see Angel Falls, which is one of Pennsylvania’s bigger falls. With its fellow falls, Gipson Falls, it stands at 82 feet according to the aforementioned book Pennsylvania Waterfalls (I consider this to be the definitive work on waterfalls in the state of Pennsylvania).
For that one afternoon, I wandered through the Wyoming State Forest in search of this waterfall. Not having Run Keeper available to me at the time, I had only my own approximation of how far I had traveled the trail to the creek that led up to the falls. As a result, I leaped the tiny creek that couldn’t possibly be carved out from a waterfall’s erosive forces, and I headed down the forest to a fence that seemed like it was placed before me to keep me from the waterfall. It didn’t, but instead, it provided an opportunity for me to search for this mega falls, aimlessly, until I went down the hill and walked barefoot through a creek to get back to the road. After a couple hours, it seemed the search was futile, so I went back to the car dejected. I started to drive away, but instead, I couldn’t bear leaving the waterfall unfound, so I went back to find it by traveling the trails in search of said waterfall. There was a rerouting of the Loyalsock Trail, so I followed that, but in realizing it was just going to be going up the mountain, I knew it wasn’t leading me to the base of this fall, so I wandered back down to the creek that just couldn’t lead to Angel Falls; thus after looking at Brown’s directions one last time, I saw how he walked over Falls Run at the point where it joined Brunnerdale Run.
I looked right, and I saw a sign that stated no camping beyond this point. It was then that I realized that I had wasted an afternoon trying to knock out a simple waterfall in a way that could have been viewed had I paid more attention to the surroundings. Nevertheless, I will say in my own defense that from where I stood and how the leaves camouflaged it, it was hidden in last winter’s dead leaves. That said, the trail was there all along, waiting for me.
Thus, I moved up the creek, jumping over the stream where I could, balancing on rocks where I had to, and ascending all the while to get up to the Kodak Picture Spot that surely afforded the best picture. I took my pictures, none of which were very memorable, and that was the day.
Over the following weeks and months, I kept going out, kept seeing things, and I proceeded to start “training.” I still don’t get out as much as I want to, but little things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator have allowed my heart and lungs to feel much better than they ever have since I ran my 2.5 mile run on the final day of Basic Training.
I’m sure that at this point, 30 pounds lighter than I was and able to endure 1,600-foot hikes up the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, I could get myself into Basic Training running shape in short time. This and strength training are my next goals, which will go with my long distance hiking goals. That being said, I also look to continue my writing and photography dreams because these are my skill sets as a person who is trained as an English teacher. For years, I have helped other people with their writing, and for years, I have worked on my own writing, but now, I look to make that writing into something that truly reflects my abilities. As I do, I look to reflect on who I was, who I am, and who I am trying to be. I write this as an inspiration to my Great American Novel (registered trademark), and in it, I am choosing to include songs of inspiration and meaning as well the things that I reflect on while hiking. Sure, there are politics to everything we do, but I am choosing to avoid the partisan nature of one party versus the other politics. Instead, I am choosing to only reflect on that which is worth carrying into the woods with me.
And that isn’t a lot of things.
My hobbies and interests come with me. The philosophies and theologies of life come with me. My heroes also travel with me. Sadly, this has been a largely solitary pursuit. As Henry Miller once stated in Tropic ofCapricorn, “Once in a great while I came across a being whom I felt I could give myself to completely. Alas, these beings existed only in books. They were worse than dead to me- they had never existed except in imagination. Ah, what dialogues I conducted with kindred, ghostly spirits! Soul searching colloquies, of which not a line has ever been recorded. Indeed these ‘excriminations,’ as I chose to style them, defied recording. They were carried on in a language that does not exist, a language so simple, so direct, so transparent, that words were useless. It was not a silent language either, as is often used in communications with ‘higher beings.’”
Nevertheless, I do have my wife, and sometimes, my wife physically travels with me, but through it all, whether she is there or not, she mentally travels with me. I understand that she may get bored hiking up a long trail to the top of a mountain, and I get that she doesn’t want to do all kinds of crazy trails that kick back like I do, but I appreciate that for destination hiking – within reason – she’s willing to give up her time in pursuit of my dreams.
I also appreciate that she’s working hard to change her life for the better, too, through her own physical gym visitations.
For that, this blog is a story of finding inspiration and momentum to become my own hero, to find more inspirations to look up to, and to conquer the fears that hold me back from being who I want to and should be.
For this, I look to heavy energy songs to push me to greatness that will take me onto the trail to kick back against my obstacles harder than I did the last time. The feeling that I can walk up nearly 1,000 feet of snow and ice over a 4 mile trail to arrive at the top of the Pinnacle in the early days of winter is a fantastic feeling. To know that I can do it without pause, no matter how slowly I do it, this is a great feeling of accomplishment that has moved so far beyond the huff and puff, the stop and go, the doubt and aimless wonder of it all. It has allowed me to arrive somewhere new and so much better.
It’s like my dad said, “Just think about how you couldn’t get up this mountain like this last year at this time.”
And it’s true that neither of us could have done this before the exercise and weight loss. I couldn’t have wandered all over State Game Lands 81 pushing it up and down and over rocks in search of the missing trail that was supposed to lead to Priceless Point. I still had much to learn about what it took to be a true hiker, but the November mountain air felt good on my skin and in my lungs, and it showed me that the direction that I was on was a good one. In addition, the bear’s growl across the hollow didn’t sound as terrifying as the first growl I heard earlier in the fall, but rather, it made the moment something more special than some random walk through the woods. In fact, knowing what it was meant that I was becoming more at home and accustomed to the world of big, wild mountains.
And that’s where I wanted to be.
With it, I was embracing a new philosophy that wasn’t the death philosophy of sadness, frustration, and giving in to the failures and setbacks of life. I was kicking hard for who I was, though not as hard as I knew that I wanted to be. For this, I was following the philosophy of Henry Rollins in his song “Shine.”
“It’s time to align your body with your mind. It’s hero time.”
The choices are endless whether I go that direction or in a completely different direction. Pine GroveState Park, World’s End State Park, Benezette, Jim Thorpe, and the hidden waterfalls of Sullivan County, sitting so close to the over-trafficked RickettsGlen State Park, are all good choices, but then again, so too are the choices that I haven’t thought about.
The dreams of MountWashington and Mount Hood are also good choices that I think about in a future, which also sees me doing the Horseshoe Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and finishing up the Standing Stone Trail in one long trek.
These are all places where the deer and the bear and the squirrels and the coyotes play. They are places where the birds sing and between counted steps on this march through Nature, and these are all the things that my new year, my new life want to embrace, more and more as I continue to tick off the weight and add on the muscle.
“All you got is lifetime go!
It’s time to put on the bright orange Under Armour pull-over hoodie and to slide into my Keen boots complete with chains for extra grip on winter’s trail. I’ve got my Clif Bars, dried meat sticks, dried fruit, and granola thrown into my Camelbak daypack, which serve to keep me fueled until I get back to the car. I’ve got an inferno in my chest that’s ready to ignite as I push on to the top of the trail as I walk the ridge to its edge for that endless vista where I look out at all of the things that I am now king of.
“Get up! It’s time to shine.”
This is where it was all meant to be. Life is good.