Category Archives: coping with aging

chain letter …

I received an internet “chain letter” tonight via Facebook. At first glance I cringed … then I sighed heavily and cringed again. But, since I was sitting on the pot’, I read through it.

It is important to note that this was sent to me by someone who I suspect never sends superfluous things like this to others. I questioned for a moment whether or not her account was hacked, or maybe she was feeling glum or blue, and I was intrigued. So … I read it.

While reading the message, I was flooded with memories of my youth. Memories of opening the squeaky lid to our mailbox on Antonio Lane and reaching in to find an envelope addressed to me. It reminded me of that important and giddy feeling I had on the inside while carefully carrying it to the roll-top desk in my bedroom. Not seeing a return address, I would inspect the cancellation stamp.

“Ooo! From Arizona? Who is this from?”

It could be from Colorado, or somewhere else in California, or somewhere nearby like Cupertino or Campbell. It didn’t matter; it was a mystery that needed to be solved. I slowly would break the envelope’s seal and remove and unfold the letter.

And there it was — a message.

Letters like this always included directions about how many letters the receiver needed to send and by when. Some even contained a list of addresses to send it to. The frantic feeling of having to do what was required within the deadline would build. I would have to do this! Otherwise, the unspeakable could happen — bad luck, sadness, or something else to avoid. If I were to send them in time following the exact directions outlined, something magical could happen. Something like good luck, granted wishes, or some other mystical occurrence.

It was exciting. It was mysterious. It was entertaining. The wonder of it all. IT WAS FUN!

I could see my towheaded-self open the second drawer down on the right side of my roll-top desk to retrieve fresh and clean ruled paper, carefully counting out the number of sheets I needed to complete the task at hand. God forbid I didn’t have enough! I’d search my school binder (a Star Wars Trapper-Keeper) and other drawers in the house until my supply needs were met. I would grab a pencil, sharpen it into a point, and start the task of carefully copying the directions.

If I used a pen, I would be quickly reminded that pencil was a better option, especially considering how I deemed mistakes as a definite reversal of fortune if left uncorrected; or worse, scratched out. If my Eraser-Mate had a good eraser on it, I might use it. But, pencil was safer … it was good decision making.

If all went well, I would be able to complete the letters, fold them neatly in thirds, insert them into envelopes, carefully address them, and seal them – an act that seemed like I was sealing my fate inside each and every envelope. The sealing gum tasted like the misery and doom that would overcome me if I didn’t get them in the mailbox by the deadline.

Then, the hardest task of all had to happen … asking Mom for stamps.

“What on earth do you need twenty-two stamps for?”

She would ask this while at the kitchen counter cutting carrots, or while sitting at her sewing machine, or while unloading groceries.

“For a chain letter.”

“For what?! A chain letter? Do you know how much stamps cost?”

She would be clearly irritated and then follow up with:

“I don’t even know if I have that many stamps. Go get my purse.”

It was a good sign if the stamps were in there; or if some were found in her purse, and some in the catch-all cupboard, or some in the wall basket by the kitchen phone that held mail, address books, and coupons.

Once the stamps were adhered, and the squeaky mailbox lid was closed over the letters that were dropped in, there was a sense of relief. Then a sense of dread. Over the next few days, knowing the letters were out among the thousands of other letters floating through the US Postal Service, there was this sense of expectation.

“I sent them three days ago. That means there are seven more days until I can ask for three wishes. So then, that means that in twenty days, I will get those wishes granted. Wait! No…. Twenty minus three is …”

I count on fingers. Math never was my strong suit.

“… seventeen, so in seventeen days I will get those wishes granted. Awesome!”

Then it gets blurry. Time goes by. The letters would be forgotten along with the anticipation and the hope for whatever the chain letter promised. It would be replaced by other childhood antics, or rehearsals, or playing with friends, or reading, or anything and everything else.

Only to be remembered when, surprisingly, some random day as the squeaky lid to our mailbox on Antonio Lane would be opened to reveal an envelope addressed to me, and that important and giddy feeling would fill my insides while I carried it carefully to the roll-top desk in my bedroom.

So … I thought about it for a minute. And then I did it. I held down my finger on the text bubble in the Facebook message, selected copy, started a new message, held my finger down again, and pasted the message in it. I chose fourteen people as directed (with a sound methodology in an attempt to ensure those who receive it wouldn’t be targets by others in my list), and I clicked send.

As far as the wishes and promises it made, I highly doubt those will ever come to fruition. But I must acknowledge this: if I hadn’t received that cringe and heavy-sigh inducing chain letter, I wouldn’t have had those lovely memories, and I wouldn’t have been inspired to put them into  words that others may read – something I love and enjoy, and something I have deprived myself of.

To those who received my chain letter: my hope is that it inspires you to do something you love. Just for you.

i am doing my best …

I admire my fiancé’s relationship with his father. Simply put, Kirk and his father have a relationship, one that from my perspective seems ideal. It is completely unlike my relationship with my father.

He and I don’t have a relationship and haven’t for years. I usually describe ours as “strained.” Recently, and with the help of my therapist, I have come to terms with the way our relationship works. But I sometimes wish that it was a strong as Kirk’s is with his father; you can see the influence he has had on Kirk.

When I look back on my childhood, I can honestly say that my dad was a good dad. We did fun family things together, like camping trips to Mount Shasta, or exploring the Bodie Ghost Town. Christmas morning’s would bring presents with riddles written on tags that hinted to its contents. My sisters and I would read the riddles to try and figure out what was inside. There were family dinners around the table, where we would pass the Wol Taf Klim (low fat milk) and soccer games for the teams we played on, usually coached by him.

Once, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was in the front yard playing a game I invented called “Dorothy Gale from Kansas.” I would fill a bucket with water and pretend to be heading to slop the pigs or to be coming from the barn with a bucket of fresh milk. Then … all of sudden … without warning … I would be caught in the middle of a horrific twister! I would scream and spin around in circles holding the bucket in both hands. The centrifugal force would keep me spinning faster and faster, my arms stretching. I would spin until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand any longer. The twister would rip the bucket from my hands and I would tumble down to the ground and find myself laying in the green grass of a far off land.

During one very rousing game, my dad came out of the garage with a football.

“Scott, let’s go in the street and toss the football,” he said cheerfully.

I looked at him, completely puzzled.

“Why?” I asked, with all the snark that a pre-pubescent child can muster.

He looked at me blankly.

 “Oh forget it,” he said as he walked back into the garage.

He and I went to a local amusement park together, I assume at the insistence of my mom, which I am sure was meant to be “bonding time.” All I remember from that adventure, was feeling completely out of place with him, sitting on rides alone while he watched, and walking around embarrassed to be with him. The only sense of connection I got that day, was through keeping secret that he got a speeding ticket on the way there.

As I grew older, nearing and clearing puberty, our relationship became different. I see it now for what it was: my father was not equipped to have a gay son. He didn’t know what to do with me. He didn’t know how to talk to me. He didn’t know how to be the father of a gay boy. He did the best he could.

My mom and dad got divorced, he moved to Santa Cruz, and when I was twenty I went to live with him and his wife. I had already been through my rebellious high school years, and was now in the workforce. They lived in Aptos, California two streets up from the beach. The location was amazing, but our relationship was very surface. We would talk about work, the weather, and general topics, but nothing deep and meaningful. And definitely never about dating or relationships. He was starting to get back into his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, which I feel caused more strain on our relationship, being that the flames of hell were licking at my heels for being a heathen homo.

I’d like to think he is proud of my accomplishments. I’d like to think that he knows I am a good person and have tried to be a good son. I just don’t know for certain that he does and I doubt I ever will. We have a sort of “don’t ask/don’t tell” communication policy. I share updates with him mainly via emails sent to my entire my family. I have never received a response. I have sent links to my blog posts, but I have never received a response.

We’ve always been cordial, don’t get me wrong. When I do see him at family functions, once or twice a year, we hug hello and goodbye, we discuss work or no work, or we talk about the weather. He has met past boyfriends, but has never attempted to get to know them, and he doesn’t really seem comfortable acknowledging any of my relationships. Again, I think he doesn’t know how.
When Kirk and I were in California for my niece’s high school graduation, he showed the most compassion I have seen in years. As we were leaving, he actually hugged Kirk and told him it was very nice to meet him. I’d like to think that he saw how happy I am, how happy Kirk makes me, and that he can see how I am changed person, a grown man.

All of this, to some, might sound sad, which it is sometimes. But I look at it as both of us are trying our best. I have to believe that he tried to do his best when I was young, and that what he does today is him trying his best. I have to feel confident that I am doing my best in my actions. If I send emails to keep him in the loop, I must see that as me doing my best. If I remind him of our plans to be married next October, and get nothing but a nod and blank stare, I need to see that as me doing my best in keeping him informed. If he hugs me hello and good bye the few times that I see him each year, then I need to see that as him doing his best to demonstrate paternal love. I don’t blame him for any of my issues. He was only doing his best.

But I do think about the inevitable day when he passes away and how I might feel. I will have to gather the strength to truly feel that I had done my best. I don’t want regrets or feelings of what could have been “if only I did something different.” I can’t expect him to respond to email messages, to discuss how my relationship with Kirk is progressing, to ask questions about my sobriety or the challenges I face as a gay man in a straight man’s world. I can’t expect him to change, otherwise I am setting myself up for major disappointment.

All I can do is tell myself that I am doing my best. Every day, every interaction, every un-replied to email, every “how’s the weather conversation,” every so often I see him.

I am doing my best.

re-entry’s a bitch !

Our last day on the Appalachian Trail was easy breezy … at first. We passed the Derrick Knob shelter where we supposed to sleep the night before. Instead, we stayed at a shelter before it, since Kirk and I were both feeling our age from the hike through our knees and hips.

Our original plan for this day was to hike to Clingmans Dome, double back, and hike down the Double Spring Gap trail to a campsite. We would then tent camp over night for three days, making our total hike time seven days. We abandoned this idea, feeling completely proud of what we accomplished in five days. We now headed to Clingmans Dome where we would leave the Appalachian Trail behind us and hitch a ride to our car in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Today we would cover almost five miles. Everyone we talked to said it was a “straight shot” and an “easy hike,” phrases we had heard before. Of course, the trail was hard, filled with switchbacks, had very steep inclines and declines, and required us to take several rest breaks for our failing knees and hips. However, we were at ease with the day’s trek. We were chatty and happy. Partly because we knew the hike was ending, and partly because we were walking through an amazing part of the mountains.

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At one point, we thought we were close to Clingmans Dome, but realized that we had about three more miles to go. Now, three miles is nothing as the crow flies, but “as the hikers hike,” it was hell. We had to descend one mountain, hike up another one, descend it, and then hike up one that was even higher than the first. Straight shot my ass. Easy hike my ass.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After wandering through some dense trees, snapping pictures of the foliage and the greenery, we reached a plateau on the trail. It was a nice, but narrow, straightaway that had thick and tall foliage on either side. It started to clear out and we were level with the tops of the trees. The mountainside sloped down on either side of us. It was like walking a four-foot thick dirt tight rope.

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Off in the distance, we could see the Logan’s Run-esque observation structure at the top of Clingmans Dome. It seemed so close yet so far away. The desire to “just get there” was great. The desire to throw my damn backpack over the edge and run to it, arms outstretched, lips pursed ready to kiss it, was nearly overwhelming.

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We reached this crest in the high heat of the afternoon. The fog that gave the Smoky Mountains their name had cleared long ago. There was no canopy to shade us; there was no escape from the heat. There was no breeze on this day. There were thousands of flies and gnats; an intrusion that Kirk and I thought was odd for being at this high elevation. They were relentless. We were constantly swatting at them, spitting them out of our mouths, slapping them off our arms, cheeks, necks, and legs.

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We stopped on some rocks to rest and wipe on our bug repellent. Resting was a great idea, but the bug repellent wasn’t. It mixed with the sweat that dipped from our pores. It did not repel the gnats or flies; it attracted them. And they stuck to us. To our legs, to our arms, to our necks, to our faces. Anywhere there was repellent and sweat there was gnats and flies. We’d walk through a swarm and be dotted with the little buggers. Wiping them off became a futile exercise because the minute you’d be nearly clear of them, you’d walk into another swarm. Finally, we just stopped wiping them and let them dot us. 

Soon, we smelled an unmistakable scent. It was sweet – too sweet – almost acidic, and its pungency made our noses curl.

“Do you smell that?” I asked Kirk.

“Perfume,” he replied.

“Oh my God! Does that mean we were almost there?!” I gleefully asked.

We soon encountered a couple as they walked into the woods. They had no backpacks and no walking sticks. They were clean and shiny. The woman wore white – bright white – short-shorts. He wore a short-sleeved Tommy Bahama shirt. They caught our gaze as we walked towards them. We moved to the side to let them pass.

 “Y’all smell good,” Kirk smiled as they walked by.

The woman barely looked at us, averting her gaze, as if looking into our eyes would ignite the some kind of cannibalistic feeding frenzy. Mmmmmm! Fresh meat! Ugh! Ugha! Thor like fresh meat! They continued on and we continued on.

Kirk and I looked at each other and wondered the same thing. We asked ourselves if we really looked that horrible. Did we reek? Did we look like crazy mountain men? Here we were, in hiking gear and huge backpacks, tree-branch walking sticks, covered in sweat and bugs coming out of the woods. We must have looked foreign.

We came across a clearing where a family was sitting eating a simple picnic lunch. They asked how long we were in the there. How long we were in there. As if “there” was another planet. We told them we were in there for five days and they seemed impressed and happy for us. They were hiking to the Derrick Knob shelter to stay the night. They asked about the trail getting to the shelter. We responded the same way others had when we asked that question: “It’s not that bad. Pretty much a straight shot. Not that far.” When in Rome, right?

 We left them behind and continued on our way to Clingmans Dome. It was getting closer, but the observations deck was still a distant structure. We could hear the sounds of motorcycle engines in the distance. They must have been coming up the highway to the visitor’s center.

“Two-wheeled turds,” Kirk said, recalling what Jeff, our shuttle ride driver, called them five days earlier.

It seemed like ages ago that we walked across Fontana Dam and into the woods, walking alongside the Lakeshore Trail. We were fresh and clean, excited and scared, unsure of what to expect, but ready to tackle this adventure. Looking back, our personal growth in those five days made the hike feel like it began ages ago. We both grew tremendously, as individuals and as a couple. We set out on this hike to push ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. Those three objectives were met, and then some.

Physically, I had not anticipated the level of exertion it would take to complete this hike, and I had not expected my body to sabotage me. I was put on notice that I am no longer twenty-three. From a mental perspective, (most people thought going on this hike was mental), this hike helped me re‑evaluate my self-perception. Entering the woods, I felt like a weak, sad, lonely, sober (how fun!), uninteresting forty something who hadn’t really done much with his life except work. Sort of like Scrooge, except not stingy. Would the epitaph on my gravestone be “He Worked Hard”? Gross. Leaving the woods, I felt like I had fulfilled a huge challenge, one that made me realize I am capable, I can do something out of my comfort zone, I can push myself and actually enjoy it, no matter how hard. I can persevere. I can be a good team player. I can ask for help. I can take help. I can give help. Spiritually, I realized that I am not alone. There is something watching over me. Being sober made this concept a topic to ponder, after all, Step Three is all about turning ones will and life over to the care of God as we understood him. I was beginning to understand my Higher Power. This hike made that a conscious understanding. I have always loved nature, but to be immersed in it, live in it, struggle through it, come to terms with it, listen to it, be one with it, made me feel larger than life and humble simultaneously.

 We came across another couple. A man and a woman, again. We stepped aside again. I self-consciously looked away from them, thinking we must disgust them.

“Hey guys! How you doing?” the man exclaimed.

I looked over at them. They were fresh and clean and in cargo shorts and hiking boots. They were both smiling and their eyes were gleaming.

“Tired. Sore. Great! Covered in bugs.” we responded.

“How long have you been on the trail?”

“Five days,” Kirk responded.

“Five days! That’s amazing!” They both looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief.

They asked more about our experience and we responded. We told them where we started and the trails that we went on.

“Man, that is great. You started at Fontana Dam and hiked up here?” the man gushed. “That is totally awesome. Congratulations! What an accomplishment! I really admire you guys.”

He reached out to shake our hands. We bid them farewell and continued walking for a little bit.

I stopped. I was overwhelmed with emotion. The tears flowed from my eyes and my shoulders shook. Kirk came over and asked if I was OK. I shook my head. I was not OK … snot dripped from nose and drool fell from my mouth … I was an emotional wreck. Once again. Everything came to a head: the pressure, the stress, the fun, the teamwork, the fear, the excitement, the dirt, the bugs, the accomplishment. Shaking that man’s hand was like shaking the hand of the President. Being recognized for our hard work and accomplishment, the trek and our growth, was an amazing feeling. I was overwhelmed with a sense of satisfaction and joy.

Once I got my wits about me, we continued on. We smelled more perfume and passed more clean day-hikers. We came to a fork in the trail and followed it to the left. Soon we passed an elevation marker, climbed a few rocky steps, and then nearly walked into a signpost pointing us in the direction of Clingmans Dome. We could hear voices. We were almost there. A few more steps, a push through some brush, a widening of the trail and then … tarmac.

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We were there.

People. Hundreds of them coming to see the view of the Smoky Mountains from Clingmans Dome – their idea of a wilderness adventure.

We were there.

Families complaining about the heat. Crying children in strollers. Women complaining about the flies. The smell of perfume, the smell of cologne, the smell of baby wipes. It was as if all of sudden we left Eden and entered Disneyland’s Main Street.

We were there.

It was as if we were aliens and had just landed on Earth. People stared at us and walked widely around us. Did we just land from Mars? Did we forget to transform fully into humanoids? Did we look as alien and foreign to them as they did to us?

They were horrible. Ungrateful. Loud. Pushy. Loud. Complaining. Loud. Obnoxious. Loud. Entitled. Loud. Horrible. Disgusting.

 “Oh my God. I can’t.” Kirk said. “We have to go back in. I can’t do this.”

Re-entry was not a pleasant experience. At first we decided to drop our backpacks and walk to the top of the observation deck. Instead, we just wanted to get to the top and get out. We hurried up to the deck. A little girl cried and screamed while pulling on her mom’s arm. She was complaining about the bugs and the heat and how she was tired and wanted to go home.

“Shut up little girl. You don’t know the half of it.” I muttered under my breath, although loud enough for her to hear.

We asked some German tourists to take a picture of us and then hurried down to our backpacks and started walking down the sloped cement path to the parking lot.

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The sounds of all the people were near deafening. After spending five days in the mountains, in the sounds of the wind and birds and crunching leaves; the sounds of backpacks squeaking to the left and squishing to right; the sounds of our own breath and boots; the sounds of silence, we were overcome by how loud the world was. We stopped and rested on a stone bench.

Another hiking couple chatted us up and congratulated us on our adventure. They said it would be easy to hitch a ride back to Gatlinburg. We lay there a bit longer.

“Did you see those girls? They just totally checked you out. Maybe we should hitch a ride with them,” Kirk said.

“What girls? Nope, didn’t see them.”

We continued to the bustling parking lot. We threw out our trash baggies and our homemade Pack It Out Poo Concealor. Finally! Five days of yuck was gone for good!

“You have to ask for a ride,” I said to Kirk.

“Why do I have to ask? Why don’t you ask?”

“I’m not gonna ask,” I said, “Let’s get Mikey! He’ll ask!”

We both laughed.

“There go the girls.” Kirk said and nodded in the direction of two very muscular men.

Hell yes! We need to hitch a ride with them.

We asked. They said yes. We put our backpacks in the trunk and climbed into the back seat of their car. They were army guys heading to river raft for the afternoon. They asked about our hike and we gave them details. They were brothers from Hungary. One worked in the Pentagon and the other was stationed at Fort Bragg. About twenty minutes into the drive, I asked if we smelled. They said we didn’t and the guy in the passenger seat said we actually looked pretty good for being in the mountains for five days. That was a relief.

The chitchat continued until we were finally at our car in Gatlinburg. It was glorious to behold – a golden chariot waiting to carry us to bowls of wet and delicious ambrosia. I tried to give them money when they dropped us off, but the driver would not accept it. He felt it was his duty to help and it was his pleasure to do it. We thanked them both for their service and they drove off.

Kirk and I wiped ourselves down and changed into normal shorts and clean tee shirts. We loaded our backpacks into the back of our car and crawled into the front seats. Comfortable and cool leather seats. He turned on the car and the air-conditioning started to blow cold on our hot skin.

“Look what I found…” Kirk said.

He held up my sunglasses. They were in the car the whole time! We decided that we would not go to the hotel, but go to his family’s timeshare, Tree Tops, instead. We would eventually stay there, but thought it silly to unpack at one place, just to pack up and move in two days. We were tired and wanted to be comfortable. We deserved to just chill out.

“We did it!” Kirk sighed.

“Holy crap … we did. And to think of all those people who thought we were crazy to do this?” I said.

“Amazing experience! Amazing.”

“Agreed. And the best is that we did it together.”

We pulled out of the parking lot and headed to Tree Tops. We talked about what we would eat for dinner. Steak? Pasta? Pizza? Yes! Pizza! No more freeze-dried meals for us! We were heading to a bath and shower, real food, clean sheets, and a comfortable bed.

Driving felt strange and fast. Everything around us was strange and fast. We wanted to be back in the woods, excited and scared. We wanted to be in a clean bed with full tummies. We were changed. We were different. We wanted this feeling to continue forever.

*      *     *     *     *

john-grant cannot tell a joke …

The fourth day of our hike started when the military man and his friends woke us up a little before sunrise. They were up early, clanging and stomping about. They headed off on the trail before the sun was fully up. While dawn was still breaking, the church group boys got to the bear hangs, lowered their backpacks, and broke the silence with the piercing squeaks of the rusty pulleys. They started loudly talking about what they wanted to eat for breakfast. By this time, the Crazy Lady and Walking Man were up and starting their morning coffees.

All I wanted was a little more sleep and a little more quiet. I did not want to wake up yet. Soon the others’ voices became more relaxed, jovial and loud. Kirk and I caved in and crawled out of our sleeping bags. Kirk got our backpacks off the bear hang and started preparing breakfast while I rolled up our sleeping mats and bags.

Walking Man disappeared. He may have crawled back into his sleeping bag. The kids were loud and laughing and we all talked about how the rats and mice kept us awake.

“One of them crawled on my face!” a boy squealed.

“One crawled into my sleeping bag!” another boasted. Each boy then started talking about their so-called brush with the rodents.

*      *     *     *     *

Two of these boys were twins; one of whom was named John-Grant. John-Grant was a talker and the clown of the group. His brother was more subdued. John-Grant ate the breakfast burrito that he prepared. He stood at the edge of the shelter and literally wolfed down a full burrito in four consecutive bites. As he chomped at the tortilla, egg spilled out and onto the top of his flip-flopped foot. He did not notice, or did not care, and proceeded to walk around with egg on his foot for the rest of the morning.

The boys were now riled up and being goofy. They were packing up their backpacks and cleaning up. Kirk and I ate our oatmeal and made casual conversation with them about what grade they were in, what they liked about school, where they were from, etc. Their group leader quietly organized and packed his belongings, not paying attention to the boys or us.

The Crazy Lady interjected bits into the conversation, but no one really paid attention or noticed. She finished packing and headed off on the trail saying goodbye and talking to herself as she left.

John-Grant pushed sticks into the fire, sending embers up into the morning air. He was talking and laughing, and being silly. The egg was still on his foot. His brother and the other boys were talking and getting ready, but John-Grant was lolly-gagging. Every so often, one of the boys would shout, ‘John-Grant! C’mon! Stop it!’ or ‘John-Grant! Get ready,’ or ‘John-Grant! We are leaving in twenty minutes!’ or just plain old ‘John-Grant!’

His brother was definitely getting frustrated with John-Grant’s procrastination. After much badgering, John-Grant started to pack up his backpack and put on his hiking socks and boots, the egg still stuck to his foot.

“I have a good joke,” John-Grant said to whole group. “You want to hear it?”

“NO!” shouted his twin. “No, John-Grant! You can’t tell jokes.”

“Yes I can,” he replied, “I tell jokes all the time.”

“But you never get them right,” his brother sighed, “You always tell them wrong and get confused.”

“I won’t this time,” John-Grant said.

“No John-Grant, you always screw up,” his brother insisted. He looked at us. “John-Grant cannot tell jokes. He thinks he’s funny, but he always screws up the punch line.”

The boys concurred. John-Grant could not tell jokes.

“I want to hear it,” I said. “What is your joke, John-Grant?”

The boys groaned and giggled. I did want to hear John-Grant’s joke. These boys were funny. John-Grant was an oddball. I wanted to see if he could tell a joke, and wanted to say his name aloud just for the heck of it. John-Grant. Saying his name with a touch of Southern twang made it even more fun.

“He can’t tell jokes,” his brother chided, shaking his head, his face almost inside his backpack. “This oughta be good.”

John-Grant started telling the joke. The premise and story line escapes me, but what lingers in my memory is the moment when he got to the punch line and paused.

“Um. Wait a minute. I don’t think that’s right.”

“John-Grant! I told you! You can’t tell jokes!” his brother yelled.

John-Grant finished his joke, poorly. His brother then retold the joke so that everyone knew the correct version. John-Grant seemed un-phased by this incident and continued to be happy as could be.

*      *     *     *     *

Soon after, the boys and their leader were off on their way. Kirk and I were left with Walking Man, who emerged when the cabin was empty. We asked him about the trail to the next shelter. He said it would be a decent hike, but not too intense. We asked him about hitching rides from Clingmans Dome and he said it was easy and he had done it before. Kirk and I were undecided on what we would do. We reviewed our map and came up with our plans.

Plan A included hiking to the shelter we reserved, Double Spring Gap. In this plan, we would cover a little over six miles and should take us about eight hours, considering we would have to hike slowly and take several breaks. Along this trail and to that shelter, we would pass the Silers Bald Shelter. We would continue to Clingmans Dome the following day and decide if we wanted to hitch a ride. If not, we back track the AT trail and descend to Campsite 23, where we would be able to pitch a tent and camp.

Plan B included hiking to the Silers Bald Shelter and staying the night, instead of heading to Double Spring Gap. We would then hike to Clingmans Dome and hitchhike to Gatlinburg the following day. We would decide along the way.

Mentally, we were both fine either way. We were prepared to improvise and listen to our bodies and to each other. We agreed that we would decide in the moment. If one of us wanted “out,” the other would agree. There would be no negotiating, no attempts to convince the other to continue. We would cut short our seven-day hike, if necessary. Either way, we felt accomplished. We could get off the mountain tomorrow and still feel a sense of completion, not failure. After all, how could any aspect of this hike be a failure? We learned so much!

Walking Man organized his stuff quickly and was off. We told him that we should him at the Double Spring Gap Shelter. Again, it would be nice to see a familiar face. Oddly, the more time spent with him, the more normal he became.

We focused on packing. Kirk reorganized our backpacks to ensure even weight distribution and ease of grabbing snacks. He took everything out, spread it out and reorganized it. He ensures that all of our garbage was collected from the shelter and placed in our garbage pouch. I filled our water bottles and taped new Lidocane patches to Kirk’s knees. We were silent most of this time. We were mentally preparing for the hike, personally psyching ourselves up with affirmations of strength and endurance.

Around 11:00 AM, Kirk and I put on our backpacks. We left the clearing and the shelter behind. We left self-doubt behind, too. The defeating moments of yesterday became empowering moments today. We tackled so much on this hike in three days. We faced physical and emotional challenges. We confronted personal shortcomings and had emotional epiphanies. We worked together through crisis, including a lack of matches, a lost boot, bears, bad hips, bad knees, and a narrow escape from a falling tree.

We had handled all of that with grace and humor. We felt good. We felt that this day would be lighter – not that our backpacks would be lighter but that our hearts and heads would be lighter. Our heads were clear … we had an agreed upon “out” in case either of us was unable to go on.

We were as clear as the sky and as warm as the mid-morning sun that shone on our backs. We were ready to take on this day. We were off again on another day’s adventure.

*      *     *     *     *

… and home before dark …

As we continued walking, the effects of nature began to calm our nerves. It was as if the symphony had started and the music was washing over us. Our breathing and footsteps were the rhythm; the songbirds were the melody; the breeze that whistled through the trees provided the harmony; and the faraway thunder was the tympani. Our backpacks swayed as if mimicking the movement and syncopation of a metronome.

We continued with our interjections of conversation. We wondered what time we would be at camp. When would we stop to eat lunch? Were we even hungry? Did we think it was going to rain? What time was sunset? Isn’t the air amazing? Did you see that flower?

We looked for good walking sticks. One that I picked up seemed perfect until I found my hand crawling with ants that had made that stick home. It wasn’t too long after that when another branch presented itself on the trailside. It had a slight curve at the top for the perfect handle and was just the right height to provide balance.

Finding this stick provided the opportunity to take a little break, something that I looked forward to doing often during the hike. When at rest, we’d lean forward to reduce the pressure of the pack on our backs.

“When we get to camp, I want to whittle this stick,” I mentioned between breaths. “I have never done that before, but I think it might be fun.”

I looked for a stick for Kirk, which gave me the chance to rest again. It took a little longer to find him one, but eventually the perfect one just popped up on the side of the trail. So now, we felt “mountain man” complete and continued walking.

We stumbled upon a rusted and abandoned car resting in a ditch. It had no roof, interior, or motor. It was just a shell of a car circa the 1930s. We gawked in awe as we wondered how it got there, way up in the woods. We took a closer look, snapped a few photos, adjusted our packs, and moved on. We were soon dumbfounded when we came across another abandoned car.

At this point, we were deep into the woods, although, the feeling of being “deep into the woods” was based on our perspective at that moment. We felt we were deep into the woods, but we were in the foothills of the mountains, not even two miles into the trees. We were walking a trail called the Lakeshore Trail. This trail ran along the edge of Fontana Lake. Sometimes it ran very near it, up on the ridges that bordered it, or in the brush and trees that are adjacent to it.

We had stopped to look at the second abandoned car when an older male hiker ambled toward us. When we were dropped off at Fontana Dam, he had just arrived. I watched him remove his pack from the trunk of his car. He was nowhere near us when we entered the woods, but now he quickly approached. He wore shorts and an open white cotton button-front shirt. His grey-hair-covered belly protruded from it. He looked like an avid hiker. He didn’t have a large backpack, and he looked “seasoned”.

We greeted each other and made quick, trail small talk (where are you headed, how long are you planning to be out here, etc.). We started to move on, thinking that we could out walk the old man, but he kept pace and wanted to chat. He explained that the cars were probably abandoned in the 1940s and that there used to be a town or a village “up in them woods.” He pointed out a larger and wider path that could have been the road. He assumed the cars were abandoned due to blown tires when rubber was rationed during the war or that they may have been abandoned once the dam was complete in the 1930s.

He was a bit too chatty for Kirk and me. We had not yet fine-tuned our “trail etiquette” or manners and we wanted a quiet and personal hike. We stopped to have a snack and the old man pressed on. We hadn’t been on the trail three hours and already our shoulders were feeling the effects of the weight of our packs. I was amazed at how quickly this old man disappeared down the trail and was out of sight.
We took off our packs and sat on a log to eat a quick snack of meat sticks and Clif Bars. We finished our snack, stowed our trash in our trash pouch, put on our packs and adjusted the belt and laughed about how this was what the next seven days would be like; walking and walking, taking off our packs, putting on our packs, and then walking some more. So … started walking again.
*     *     *     *     *
The trail led us up the foothill and took us deeper into the trees and quiet. We focused mainly on keeping a solid and steady pace. We started hiking at 12:30 PM and anticipated being at our campsite at 6:00 PM. We had our map and when we wanted to check up on how much further we had to go, I’d examine the map, review the turns and the straight-aways, and try to pinpoint our location.

“Did we make a left turn and then a right turn,” I’d ask.

“Ok … I figured it out. We will go up about 200 feet and then we’ll turn to the left. After that, it looks like we’ll be level and then we turn right and climb another 100 feet,” I’d add, making myself feel useful in this situation that was so foreign. I hoped I was reading the map correctly.

The lake and our proximity to it were an important touchstone in this process. We had a few streams to cross, too, so seeing if we were on its left or its right, and assessing our distance from it, helped with navigation and guessing the distance we had travel or the distance we needed to.
It was warm and humid. We were both sweating. The “no see ums” and gnats were out and annoying us. I stopped to put on DEET insect repellent, which were wipes that came in a little foil packet. One provided enough coverage for my arms, legs, neck, and face. When I wiped it on my face, it felt cool – at first. An instant later, a burning sensation shocked every cell of my face. It was on fire and my eyes were watering. This was probably a reaction of the DEET and the glycolic face cream slathered on my face that morning. Once the burning turned to a moderate warming, and once I could open my eyes, we continued walking.
*     *     *     *     *
By now, it seemed that I was getting the hang of this thing called hiking. The pack was still heavy, and it was hard to keep walking, but I was no longer in “freak out” mode over what we were doing. Everything was new and exciting. We were climbing in elevation. We were looking at flowers in bloom. We were seeing the lake in the distance. We were panting. We saw moss, ferns, trees, and wild azaleas. The air was fresh and smelled of green and dirt. Birds chirped. We marveled. We walked. We got tired.
Several times, when climbing up inclines, I needed to stop and take a break. I started to worry that my legs wouldn’t be up for this task. They were already getting sore and it was only 3:00 PM or so. At one point, I stopped to rest when Kirk was ahead of me. He turned to face me and said in a horrified voice, “Scott! Walk towards me right now!”
My heart stopped and then leapt into my throat. I froze. Was a bear behind me? Thoughts raced through my mind. I need to make myself bigger than I am … I need to find that damn bear bell! … Why isn’t Kirk barking?
I took a few quick steps and caught up with Kirk. It wasn’t a bear, but a far easier critter for my emotions to handle — a sunning copper head snake. I didn’t see it, but Kirk did. From that point on, I paid better attention to what was on the trail, instead of watching my feet navigate rocks and sticks.
We started walking again and practiced our dog barks just in case we encountered a bear. Thunder rumbled loudly in the distance.

“Oh shit. It better not rain,” I said.

“What was it Jeff said to do in thunder storms?” Kirk asked.

“We’re supposed to take off our packs and leave them, squat on the balls of our feet and cover our heads,” I remembered.

“Do you think we need to do that now?”

“Maybe we should just put on our rain coats. It sounds like it’s getting closer.”

“It’s so hot out. I don’t want to put mine on.”

The thunder rumbled again noticeably closer. We contemplated again putting on our raincoats. We were already so hot and sweaty that the thought of putting them on was unthinkable. If rain came, it would be welcome.

“I swear to God. If it rains and we have to set up camp in the mud I am going to be pissed,” I said.

It started to sprinkle. You could hear it on the leaves of the trees and what drops did make it down to the forest floor was nothing noticeable on our skin or around us. It was nothing to be concerned about so we kept walking. A few minutes later, the clouds passed and the sun was out in full force.
Now that our concern of rain was behind us, we could focus on what was truly important: how much further? With each passing hour, it seemed like we should be about an hour away.

“I think we’re close,” one of us would say. “It can’t be that much longer.”

We really had no idea. The only thing we knew was that we needed to be at our campsite before dark. Neither of us wanted to try to set up camp in the dark.
*     *     *     *     *
So far, the only person we had seen on the trail was the old man. And so far, we had not caught up to him or passed him. Either he was walking fast or we were walking slowly. The latter was closer to the truth. I kept telling myself that if he could do this, then I certainly could do this. I mean, really, did you see his gut?
We just kept walking and walking. The incline would increase and we hike up. Then, the trail would level off for a few yards and we’d descend, only to hike up again.

“Where the hell is camp?”

“How much longer?”

We stopped for lunch. We laughed about our initial lunch plan was to cook macaroni and cheese. We giggled about how we thought we’d break out the stove and cook at this time. What were we thinking? At this point, I wasn’t all that hungry, but Kirk was. We ate Clif bars, meat sticks, and some dried fruit. For some reason, I had no appetite. Maybe it was nerves. Water was the most needed thing in my belly.
We finished eating lunch and hiked for a few more hours. I was beat. My legs were really starting to burn.

“Kirk, I am really out of shape. I don’t know if I can do this.” I would say, but quickly follow up with, “But I will.”

In my head, I sang about putting “One Foot In Front of the Other” in order to keep my mind off the heat, sweat, and exhaustion that was coming over me. Kirk seemed to take it in stride. My thought was that since he was a dancer, he used his legs more often. I cursed having not used my gym membership more often.
At this point it was clear – it didn’t matter. No matter what kind of shape I felt I was in, it just didn’t matter. I had to keep walking. “Left. Left. Left, Right, Left.” was another ditty that swam through my brain. It was getting darker and I wanted to get to our campsite before dark.
Eventually, after several stops to enjoy the smell of the air, the wind in the trees, or to listen to the thunder in the distance, we hiked into Campsite #93. We needed to pass through this site to get to ours. We were both very excited to see this site. This was the first major recognizable landmark that we could definitively point out on the map.
This site was bustling with activity. There was a church group of twelve or so teens and the group’s leader, a couple with a very sparse campsite, and the old man, who clearly had been there awhile and had his site completely set up. We asked how much further to the next site and how to get there.

“About thirty minutes. Walk through those trees and then cross the footbridge.”

Elation! Thirty minutes! That’s nothing! And it was getting darker, so we needed to press on and get to camp before sunset. We needed to hurry as quickly as we could.
We reached the footbridge, a simple railing and a skinny plank that crossed over a creek. This seemed like a huge stream and like a daunting task to accomplish with this pack on my back. We crossed the creek and continued walking. Soon the trail led us to another bridge that was made of steel and crossed a larger river. The sun shone bright in this area. It wasn’t as late as we had thought. We took a bit of rest and some pictures.

We walked on. Thirty minutes passed. Mossy trees, ferns, and mushrooms were all around the trail. The trail twisted and turned. Where the hell was our campsite? We hiked on for about another hour. Where the bloody hell was the campsite? My calves were on fire, my shoulders were sore, and my back was really starting to ache. The trail continued to twist and turn and run adjacent to this river. At least it was more level. I don’t think my legs could have taken any more inclines or declines.

Finally, the trees thinned out and we came upon a clearing. We made it! Our campsite! There were three campsite areas noticeable by their makeshift stone fire rings. We looked at all three and then chose the one with the best flat spot for our tent. The river was about 25 yards away. We took off our packs and I sat on a log that sat in front of the fire ring.

“Yeah! We’re here! We made it! I am so exhausted,” Kirk said. He was still looking around the site and surveying our surroundings.

I was quiet. I was tired and hungry.

“Are you ok?” he asked as he sat down beside me.

I started to cry. And it wasn’t like a tear spilled over my eyelid and rolled gently down my cheek. I cried … sobbed … a snot-dripping, coughing, red-faced, mouth and face contorting boo-hoo-hoo fest.
Kirk must have thought I was crazy. But I was so elated and filled with joy, I just had to let it out. The only way my body could cleanse itself from the panic, fear, nervousness, unease with not knowing why the hell I said that I would do this hike, was by crying like a little kid that just got kicked in the gut. I blubbered something as Kirk rubbed my back.

“Look what we just did … our first day out … these fucking packs. My legs … sore … God this sucks … I didn’t … think we’d make it. The river is close … good thing … dirty … the DEET on my face … so tired … my God … we made it …. So happy. I am so happy.”

I had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I was so proud of living life in that moment. I was filled with joy, pure joy. That was something I have not felt in years. We laughed and Kirk hugged me. I hate when I cry, because I am not a “pretty cryer.” I calmed down and we sat in silence for a moment.
Kirk gave me a kiss. Now that my emotional breakdown was complete, we knew what we needed to do, set up camp. We unpacked the tent, stove, and water filter. We worked together to quickly assemble the tent and then I went to get water while Kirk went to gathered wood for a fire.
I walked to the stream to fill up on water filter and returned to camp to hang it on a tree. I organized the inside of the tent with our sleeping mats, sleeping bags, and other things that we would need that night, like our journals and pens. Inside the tent, there was a little “loft” that attached to the ceiling. I put our permit, my iphone, Kirk’s camera, and an overhead light in that. Our rain coats, and our down sweaters were stowed in the pouches at the head and fott of the tent’s interior. The Pack It Out Poo Concealer and baggies were placed at the foot of the tent.
The sun was setting and it was getting dark. We put on our lighted headlamps and the work to set up camp continued. Kirk was working hard to start a fire. While I set up the cook stove and looked for that night’s dinner.
*     *     *     *     *
Before we left New York, we had organized all of the meals – breakfasts, lunches, and dinners – into daily pouches. The idea being that all we would have to do would be to find the pouch labeled Day 1 and we could quickly prepare the needed meal.
During this preparation phase, we eliminated most of the large lunches that needed cooking and we beefed up our snack pouch instead. I had ordered several Condiment Kits that included salt and pepper packets, napkins, coffee and tea pouches, several books of matches, ketchup, mayo, and relish packets, coffee creamer, and hand wipes. We had so much of these things, that we weeded out stuff that we didn’t think we would need.

“Let’s not take the coffee. It dehydrates and is a diuretic,” Kirk said. Out came the coffee.

“We don’t need Katchup. Gross.” I said. Out came the ketchup.

“We don’t need all this salt. Those freeze-dried meals have enough sodium as it is.” Kirk said, pointing to the daily pouches that lay all over my living room. Out they came, except for a few.

“We don’t need twenty-four books of matches, either. Geeze. That’s gonna take up a lot of room. Besides we have those water and windproof matches,” I said. Out they came, except for one book.

*     *     *     *      *
Now that we were at camp, we felt our planning was coming to life perfectly. We worked together to create our little home away from home. And rather quickly. We didn’t have any fuss over who was supposed to do what, or what needed to be done. We just did it together. No fuss. No arguments. No issues.
Well, there was one issue. The wood was a little damp and we quickly went through the book of matches. The fire would not light. We could not find good kindling, or even dried pine needles to act as kindling. Kirk tried to use the waterproof matches, which were hard to light and either broke or burned quickly.

“Opps. I guess we should have packed all those matches after all….” I said sheepishly.

Kirk was visible annoyed as this was a big mistake on my part. We didn’t have a lighter. We were almost out of matches. We did not have enough fire power for seven days, so we’d have to get some from other hikers. Maybe trade food for one.

Kirk tore pages from the back of his journal to use as kindling. We worked together to stoke the flames and soon we had a fire roaring. We were so happy when it finally caught that we both cheered and clapped. We accomplished something else … we started a fire together!

We ate our chili, mashed potatoes, and green beans in front of the fire while the darkness closed in our campsite. We realized that no one else was coming to this site that night. We were alone in the woods.
The clearing was adjacent to an incline into the woods. As dusk turned to dark, thoughts of what might lurk in the woods came to us. Every once in awhile, we would turn on our headlamps to the brightest setting and we would aim them into the trees. Was anything out there? What was that noise? Did you hear that crunching?
We stoked the fire a little longer and then began to prepare for bed. We heated water to use to clean our cooking pot and utensils. We heated another pot of water and used a rag to wash our faces, arms, and pits. That warm water and rag felt so good! We brushed our teeth and hung all of our belongings on the bear hang.

We sat in front of the fire and chatted about our day. We talked about the day and our accomplishments, congratulated each other on our success, and talked about where we were sore. My calves and thighs felt very worked-out, Kirk’s shoulders were hurting from the pack.

*     *     *      *     *

Soon, we decided to crawl into the tent and sleep. I put Bio-Freeze on Kirk’s back and on my legs. It cooled and provided some relief from the heat and soreness. We crawled into our sleeping bags and lay there in silence. At first, the sound of river was all you could hear.

Inside the tent, we were comfortable and cozy, but also nervous and scared. It was warm and we only needed to sleep in underwear. Our clothes and our boots were placed at the feet of our sleeping bags. I knew I would have to get up in the middle of night and pee. This thought didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want to have to go out into the dark.
I closed my eyes briefly, but the thought of where we were, fueled by over-exhaustion, kept my head running. I barely slept a wink, but when. The whole scenario was a little too “Blair Witch,” something that neither Kirk nor I would say aloud until days after leaving the woods. The splendor of the woods in daytime turned spooky in the night. The thought of being alone in that secluded area brought up all childish fears and imaginary thoughts.
It also brought up very real sounds and very adult fears. As the night progressed, we heard footsteps and the sound of crunching leaves. There were critters outside – lord knows what kind – but they were out and about and exploring. After awhile, the sound of rain was clearly audible in the trees. Soon it was falling in quiet drips on the tent. I thought about how muddy it would be tomorrow and how I hoped the waterproof claims of our tent were accurate. I thought about how our packs could be soaked through. I had to pee, but decided to hold it.
At one point, I bolted up and froze. I nudged Krik in the shoulder and mouthed to him:

“Do you hear that?”

He lay stiff and silent and nodded his head. We both held our breath as a loud sniffing sound explored the corner of the tent. We didn’t move a muscle. We lay there, holding hands, frozen. It crunched away and I either passed out from fear or lay awake unaware of it stopping. I remember it being dark as dark can be inside the tent.
My post-adrenaline rush helped me fall asleep for what felt like an hour and a half. I woke up and wondered how much rain fell. I had to pee very badly now. Not going would mean I would be awake he rest of the night and I was not going to go outside to piss. The mud, the animals, the sniffing sound. No way!
I knew I could not hold it any longer. I really had to go. I told Kirk I had to pee and that I needed his help. I knew now why my dad always had a coffee can in our tent on those family camping trips.
He aimed a light, I held a zip-lock bag, peed into it, and zipped it closed. I placed it in the Pack it Out Poo Concealer, which already had its inaugural baggies inside. We turned off our headlamps and lay back down in our sleeping bags. A fit full and half-sleep state was the order for the night. Every sound echoed in the trees. Every sound was a threat. Every sound was the Blair Witch coming to bang on our tent.

*     *     *     *     *

We woke up about 8:30 AM. The sun was up and the sound of the stream was the only audible sound. I opened the tent flap to see how wet and soggy it was. To my surprise, it was as dry as a bone. It hadn’t rained at all that night. Why had I thought it did? What was it that was causing that sound? Was it just wind blowing leaves and needles off the trees? I had no idea, but was pleased to know that we wouldn’t be hiking in mud all day.

We both got dressed and talked about how scary that was last night. We started going about our morning business and Kirk said he would cook breakfast. We were having oatmeal.

“You know what I can’t wait to have?” he asked while he was searching for the Day 2 food pouch. “Coffee.”

“We didn’t pack coffee,” I glared. We both rolled our eyes and chuckled at our packing mishaps.

I wondered if other glaring mistakes would surface on this hike. We started a list of things we would do differently for the next hike. So … the good part was that we both thought there was potential for a next time. We talked about the day before and what we expected from our new day and we ate our oatmeal.
We cleaned up, took down the tent, rolled our sleeping bags, and re-organized every item we were carrying. Now that we had one day under our belt, we had a better idea of how to pack our backpacks. We divided things differently and prepared our packs.
In looking back at our first day, we covered 9 miles in 5.5. hours. We had three river crossings and we gained 1000 feet in elevation. The terrain was relatively level with some climbs and descents. It was hard, but we persevered and we were ready to face our second day. We were a little more tired than we thought we would be, but we felt refreshed by the cool air and smell of the woods that surrounded us. We were ready to start our second day. We donned our packs and started walking. We said goodbye to our little campsite and we prepared to hike up to the Appalachian Trail.

Little did we know that we were about to experience a day like no other in this journey.
*     *     *     *     *

return from the wild …

I recently went on an extended backpacking excursion with Kirk. I began posting about it when we were in the planning phase, in two different posts: “writer’s block … or maybe not” and “lions, tigers, and bears … oh my!”

Now that I have returned I am ready to regale you with stories of our challenge; the fun, the overcome fears, the laughs, the tears, the pitfalls, the aches and pains, the teamwork, the effort, the mileage, the scenery, and the intricacies of taking an extended “walk in the woods.” It was an amazing journey and an awesome vacation, unlike any I have had. Not only did I get to experience some of the most beautiful aspects of nature, but I was also able to meet the three objectives that I set out to accomplish: push myself physically, mentally, and spiritually. And the hike help me and Kirk do exactly that. We set a goal – a lofty one at that – and we accomplished it. We also had several different mini-vacation moments within our vacation.

A most interesting aspect of this trip was seeing how our planning efforts played out in action. Did we pack enough or too much? Could we actually achieve the daily mileage objectives? Could we carry those backpacks for eight hours a day for seven days? Would we use up all of our cooking fuel before our end date? Would we keep our wits about us if we encountered bears or snakes? Would we end up hating each other by the end of the trip?

Although this hike was definitely a defining point in my life, it was great to come home to New York City yesterday. I was able to hug and squeeze my pooch Victor, sleep in my own bed, and wake up in my own apartment. But … the hiking bug has bitten me and I am already thinking about the next trip. I miss the sounds of rushing water, the free and gentle bird songs filling the air, the wind that whispers through the leaves, and the smell of the earth in all its glory.

Details will be revealed in upcoming posts, with lots of great photos of the journey, too.

beauty day …

I especially like Sundays when they are considered “Beauty Day.” It’s the day that I like to be restful, calm, relaxed, and take care of myself.

Beauty Day started when I was a young twenty-something who moved into a house with four gay men. Beauty Day was the day after hell broke loose and it was a definite need after the weekend of fun we all had.

I lived in a three-bedroom house with three other guys: Tim, Marshall, and Mike. Tim and I shared a bedroom and my rent was $125 a month. My roommate, Tim, and I looked very much alike, so I used to use his ID to get into Club St. John in downtown San Jose.

260 Richfield was a “known address” in the San Jose bar scene, by the gays and the cops. We were the hosts of many after hour’s parties. I was only 20, but that didn’t stop me from the fun of being young, cute, and gay!

We’d go to the bar, dance and drink, and soon you’d hear other people say, “260 Richfield After Hours!” Tim had started spreading the word. There were times when I would be home in bed when the phone would ring. I would sleepily answer it knowing it would be Tim calling from the bar’s payphone to tell me that we were having an afterhour’s party. I’d get up, clean up the kitchen and bathroom, vacuum the living room, and hide things that could easily be stolen.

Guys would pour into the house as easily as vodka poured into glasses. There was music, there was laughter, there was lots of drinking, and there was always a hook up opportunity. If I had to work my retail store job the next morning, I wouldn’t join the fun. I would go back to bed. Many times, I’d be beckoned awake by Tim, who would sit beside my twin bed and tell me about how fun the bar was, how many cute guys were at the house, and hand me a drink. Naturally, I would sit up, hear the stories, and sip the drink until I was feeling warm, buzzed, and ready to hit the living room.

Eventually, I would end up back in my bed. Either alone, or with someone else (I mean, c’mon, I was 20 after all). Sometimes, Tim and I would spoon and talk afterward and tell stories and laugh about the evening’s antics. A few times, we’d have sex. It was a “roommate with benefits” relationship.

One time, I got so stoned and paranoid that I thought I was going to die. I imagined that people were at my bedroom window telling me how much they would miss me, what a good friend I was, how they would always remember me. I called my boyfriend, John, and he understandably freaked out. He drove his scooter all the way from San Francisco to San Jose in the middle of the night to “rescue” me. By the time he got there, my paranoia had faded into giggles. What a mess!

Most times, these afterhours’ parties would go until the wee hours of the morning. Bars in California close at 2:00am, and we go until 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. If I weren’t working, I would sleep until 11:00 or noon the next day, at which point we’d all get up and clean the house. Gather bottles, deep clean the bathroom, mop the stick off the kitchen floor, take out the trash, change sheets, etc. And all this with some of the worst hangovers ever!

That’s when Beauty Day started. Head pounding, house clean and KKSF on the radio. A long, hot shower and many different kinds of hair and skin products to use. A house of gay men in the early nineties was like living in the Clinique and Halston counters at Macy’s. There were always new soaps, shampoos, creams, toners, or elixirs to try. And when I say “try” I mean try to cover the bags, the hangover skin, the smell of booze emanating from pores, the bloodshot and weary eyes, the beard burn (if it was a lucky night).

Fast forward to today, and most parts of Beauty Day remain intact. Many elements are long gone, kind of like my virginity. First, the hangovers no longer exist since I don’t drink or drug anymore. I am typically awake no later than 8:30am on a weekend day, and I can barely stay awake to watch Saturday Night Live, let alone be out dancing or fucking until 6:00am.

Now Beauty Day is time to regroup and take care of myself. I always have clean sheets on the bed on Beauty Day, and I prefer that my dog be clean and bathed either on or before Beauty Day. I like the house to be clean and the rugs to be vacuumed.

I take a long, hot bath. Bubbles, Epsom salts, sometimes dried lavender crushed in. I soak for at least an hour and keep filling the tub with hot water once it starts draining on its own. I pumice my feet within an inch of their life. I dunk my head under the sudsy water. I shampoo my hair and dip into the water to rinse it. I loofah my entire body. I wash my face with my glycolic face scrub at least twice to exfoliate and open my pores. I manscape when needed, which entails shaving off the five or six hairs that grow on my chest. Sometimes, I get a little more “industrious,” if you know what I mean….

Then, I drain the tub and take a shower. I rinse any residue off and re-wash my entire body. I dry off and Beauty Day continues. I towel dry my hair and leave it clean and natural, no product. I clip my fingernails and toenails. I trim my nose hair, pluck errant hairs growing from my ears, trim my eyebrows and facial hair. I slather lotion on my feet, my legs, my torso, my ass, my arms, and my hands. I layer on glycolic face cream in a vain attempt to rid myself of the fine lines that appear around my eyes. I floss hard and deep and enjoy brushing my teeth for a longer-than-normal time. I brush them twice in row on Beauty Day, “once for clean and once for polish.” I apply a generous amount of lip balm, because without it, I feel completely naked.

I put on boxers and a t-shirt, crawl into the clean sheets of my bed and heave a sigh of relief.

It’s my treat for me. It’s my time for me. I am clean. I am refreshed. I am relaxed. I am beautiful. And, while the errant hairs on my ears increase, the fine lines deepen, and Madonna’s hands sometimes appear at the end of my wrists, Beauty Day always makes me feel better inside and out, even if it can’t make me 20 again.