Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And isn't it ironic -- don't you think?

He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down, he thought "Well isn't this nice?"
And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

-- The only passage from Alanis Morrisette's song Ironic that actually resembles irony, and one that kept playing itself over and over in my head early Saturday morning.

I had picked out a fifteen mile trail on the very southern edge of Indiana in the Hoosier National Forest, and I intended to take two full days to do it. Friday was clear and full of sunshine, but the forecast late that afternoon revealed that isolated thunderstorms were expected Saturday afternoon. "And it just gets worse from there," T advised. So I decided to go as far as I could on Friday, get up at the crack on Saturday, hustle it out and be home Saturday night. I briefly considered bagging the entire trip in light of the forecast, because these things are unpredictable. But I held myself to it, largely because I knew it would be an excuse.

I lugged my pack out of the back of my Toyota at the trailhead. It kept falling over from the weight, but I hoisted it and got going. The pack was groaningly heavy, the day was steamy and hot, and as a result the trail was more physically demanding than usual. First days of hiking trips are always the worst anyway. But I trudged on, as if toting a sofa on my back. About 4.5 miles in, I stopped, for two reasons. First, because in the event I awoke to rain, there was a connector trail that bisected the loop a short distance away, which would allow me to cut the trail distance in half. And second, because the trail had just exited the dense forest on a plateau overlooking a remote finger of a large lake.

This was clearly the best place to camp.

I dropped the leaden pack and stretched, and then happened to glance down at my legs. The trail had taken us through several patches of knee-high vegetation, and my legs appeared to be sprinkled with some sort of seed. I squinted and looked again. One of the seeds was crawling across my leg.

I snatched a bottle of insect repellent from the top of my pack, and set about drowning the tiny things on my legs. Then I took the edge of my knife and painstakingly scraped the bodies off my skin. Dirt, dead bugs and repellent ran off my legs in a disgusting gray slurry. I have no idea whether this did any good, because five days later, I look, as my guy helpfully observed the other day, like I have smallpox. The tiny moving seeds were actually chiggers. I'm just grateful they weren't ticks, and so I take my antihistamine every morning and grit my teeth, waiting for the itching to subside.

It had been steamy in the forest, but it was at least ten degrees hotter under the open sun in the clearing on the lake. I had no intention of doing the work to set up the tent in the blazing sunlight, preferring to wait until the heat subsided a bit. Instead, I stretched out my sleeping pad and gnawed on jerky, which I washed down with warmish water. Thomas found a place in the reeds by the water to cool off and pant. We sat quietly this way until the sun moved lower in the sky. When the light began to wane, I pulled the tent from the pack.

Once we got the tent set up, I relaxed a bit. There was a big, full moon suspended over the lake, against a clear sky. We opened up the tent flaps and let the breeze flow through the tent. Thomas was content, even when coyotes began howling in the distance. I read for awhile, then flipped off my light and dozed. I slept poorly most of the night -- I kept imagining chiggers migrating across my skin. But I fell into a passable sleep at some point -- until I was awakened by a loud crack and a series of flashes overhead.

I reached groggily for my phone and saw that it was 5:18 a.m. and pitch dark. It was far too early to pack up and hike out. The thunder cracked again, this time louder, and closer. As the storm gathered, the lightning flashes became more and more frequent.

This sucked. Thomas started to quiver.

Here is what the National Weather Service has to say about being in a tent in a thunderstorm:
Remember, there is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can't get to safety, this section may help you slightly lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Don't kid yourself--you are NOT safe outside.

Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or building, follow these last resort tips. They will not prevent you from being struck by lightning, but may slightly lessen the odds.

And then, a few paragraphs above this:

Click here to read a story of a person killed while seeking shelter in a tent.

No, thanks, maybe later.

And I was in the worst possible spot -- in a clearing, on a lake. The one fortunate aspect of my predicament was that I was in a lower-lying spot, but that was about it. The rain had started pounding relentlessly, abusing the rain fly. Flash, flash, bang.

I frantically started packing my things. It was at least an hour before daylight. I looked around. I had a flashlight. I could just leave the tent and head for the woods, I thought. Only a few miles back to the car.

And then the inanity of that adrenaline-stricken thought occurred to me, and I recognized that I was getting a case of Panic Brain. As the NWS so astutely observes, you're really not safe anywhere outside in a storm, and I was going to add wandering around in the dark to my list of problems? No. So I did the only thing I could do -- I huddled up next to the dog and waited it out. I passed the time by cursing my decisions -- specifically, heading out in the first place when there were thunderstorms anywhere in the forecast. When we were in Utah, T and I had almost backpacked up to and camped out on the peaks behind his parents' yurt, but decided that we wanted to kayak that day since storms were forecast for the next day. Which was a very good thing for us, because the storms arrived that night instead, and were shockingly intense on the exposed peaks we would have been camped on. It was a fortunate decision.

No such luck this time. I continued to wait it out. One wave of storms passed over, but another one followed shortly thereafter. My impeccably pitched tent and rain fly began to take on water.

I waited.

The birds seem to know before anyone else when a storm is over. The spaces between thunderclaps and flashes began to get longer, and longer still, and although the driving rain and wind continued, I started to hear chirping in the lulls between ever-more distant thunder. Black had become gray, and at a little past seven, I looked at Thomas.

"Let's get the hell out of here," I said.

I swear he knew exactly what I was saying, because he got up, stretched his legs, and nosed the door of the tent. We broke the tent down in the rain. The dangerous part of the storm had clearly passed. A group of ducks was gliding placidly across the choppy surface of the lake.

I had that weak, wasted feeling you get after a long period of tension and fear has ended. The adrenaline dump had mostly subsided, but I was eager to move. I shouldered the pack, which was slightly lighter since I had consumed a couple of quarts of my water. The storm had lowered the temperature by about ten degrees, and the rain also helped keep me cool.

I was energized, moving, and feeling very lucky that my most pressing problem was the need for caffeine. I hadn't lingered to fire up the stove for coffee, and I wanted my fix. Thomas and I covered the miles very quickly. The rain continued, and water was flowing off my forehead into my eyes.

Hikes like this are slogs. You put your head down, withdraw into yourself, and do what needs to be done. Thomas managed to enjoy himself, chasing after a rabbit here and a squirrel there, but I was getting my satisfaction from covering ground. With a little over a half a mile to go, the trail crossed the road. I dropped my pack except for the dry bag containing my keys and a bottle of water, on the theory that no one would be in the business of stealing packs from road crossings on a day like this, and Thomas and I nearly ran the remainder of the trail.

It was truly a mighty clusterfuck of a trip, but deeply worthwhile nonetheless. I learned a few things about myself, perhaps most importantly that I can handle the fear on my own. I find that the times I grow the most are when I am forced to sit with overwhelming feelings and manage them.

The fear or pain comes, it works on me, and it goes. I did not get struck by lightning. Here I am, safely in my bed, typing this out. Someday, I may get struck by lightning. But I won't know it, because I'll be dead.

But before then, at least I will have lived.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Going in

I've seen a lot of sunshine, slept out in the rain
Spent a night or two all on my own

-- John Denver, Poems, Prayers and Promises

I have hiked and backpacked all over. I've set foot to both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. I've climbed mountains in the northwest and gazed at volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean in the same 360 degree view. I've followed elk through the snow in Colorado and buffalo through the hills of South Dakota.

But until recently, I had never spent a single night in the backcountry alone. There are several reasons for this odd gap in my outdoor experience. I am a natural extrovert, and though I'm the type who requires small spells of aloneness, I don't seek solitude in my outdoor activities. I like the company. I like the presence of a companion, another pair of feet hitting the path near mine and another set of eyes and ears to share the sense of being in nature. And aside from that, having a trip partner lightens your pack weight considerably.

But most important reason I never actively sought to head into the backcountry alone was fear. The only time I've ever truly worried for my life was on a backpacking trip (interestingly, my first one). The two times I've encountered people at close range who truly terrified me were on hiking trips (including the one I just mentioned). And, depending on where you are, there are also all manner of non-human animals to watch for. The hazards aren't insignificant.

Bill Bryson tackled the complications of backpacking without a partner in A Walk in the Woods:
Then there were all the problems and particular dangers of solitude. I still have my appendix, and any number of other organs that might burst or sputter in the empty wilds. What would I do then? What if I fell from a ledge and broke my back? What if I lost the trail in blizzard or fog, or was nipped by a venomous snake, or lost my footing on moss-slickened rocks crossing a stream and cracked my head in a concussive blow? You could drown in three inches of water on your own. You could die from a twisted ankle. No, I didn't like the feel of this at all.
Indeed. There are innumerable things that can go wrong when you're alone in the wilderness. But they can also go wrong when you are not alone. When I wrestled it down, what I feared most was the fear itself -- or at least, handling the fear by myself. Humans are communal beings; the feelings of security that arise from solidarity in the face of danger or challenge have a very real basis, and are deeply etched. What I feared was not so much an actual event, but the mental agony of being terrifyingly alone upon hearing the dreaded sound outside the tent, encountering the weirdo, and dealing with the ambiguity of a frightening situation. Aggravating that set of problems is my femaleness. I have a whole additional set of fears that have been drummed into my psyche.

So why did I feel the need to throw all that off? As my friend Jeannie says -- and I partially agree with her on this -- stepping outside your comfort zone is highly overrated. (The Onion makes this point with humor.)

Well, again, there are several reasons. For one thing, I don't like being too dependent on the schedule, availability or desires of another. I need the outdoors. If I'm inside too long, I start to get itchy and uncomfortable. While I'm lucky that my partner feels the same way, our available time doesn't always match. If I can occasionally indulge my need to be outside without reference to someone else, I'm better off, and more pleasant generally.

But that's not the only reason. I'd gotten into a mini-rut recently. Those ruts make me nervous. I got into one in my early 30s and didn't come out for more than five years. And if I look back over my life, the only thing that ever gets me over the lip of a rut is doing hard things. Doing things that seem surpassingly difficult cracks open the landscape. There's a certain curiosity about what might happen when you embark on a difficult task. It's a roll of the dice, a deliberate introduction of the random into the routine.

That, and I derive my self-esteem from achievement, and so I'm willing to run certain risks to obtain that. After you've given something difficult a real, solid shot, you can't help but feel a rush of confidence and pride. It doesn't really matter whether you succeed or fail, as long as you've held yourself to the bargain and demanded of yourself what you're capable of instead of what is merely comfortable.

I determined that my first night alone in the backcountry would be in Indiana -- quite possibly the mildest place on earth in which to spend a night alone. There is no fauna worth fearing here. The worst thing I was likely to face was a demanding raccoon or an angry field mouse. There are no mountains here, trails are generally easy to follow and if they are not, you will hit a road eventually. The biggest threats here are people and weather. And I had Thomas.

No big deal.

I expected the trip to be reassuring. I expected it to be a peaceful, centering journey that laid bare the irrationality of my primitive-brain fears. Instead, I got something much more valuable: I got a VIP tour of the geography of my own fear response -- exactly what I had hoped to avoid in the first place, but infinitely more interesting and electric.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Have you ever seen any real movies?

I giggled when I read this piece of silliness tonight, and giggled so hard I was forced to read it aloud to T. Note this passage in particular:
Because of the feminist movement, boys aren’t allowed to be boys - society has fenced them in, corralled their adventurous enthusiasm in the name of sexual equality. The end product is pantywaist pushovers who will cry during “Steel Magnolias” and urinate sitting down.
And this one:
If a woman hangs out with this kind of girly-man routinely, it’s only because she wants to share his wardrobe and his non-fat caramel macchiato.
And finally:
When did men in America go from being masculine steak-eating, plaid shirt wearing, Old Spice smelling, cigar smoking cowboys who like football, hunting, and Clint Eastwood movies to skinny jean wearing, satchel carrying, pierced ear metrosexuals who like chick flicks, “The View,” and Bath & Bodyworks?
Actual conversation:

T: Huh. Well, I hate my cappuccino, loathe Bath & Bodyworks and have never cried in a film in my life and you know what a huge pantywaist I am.

Jen: You hate Bath & Bodyworks?

T: No, dork. I love Bath & Bodyworks. I was kidding.

Jen: Duh, I know. I was flicking you shit. But it's a real shame she equates having feelings with being a girly-man. Wait. What films have you ever cried in?

T: Rambo II.

Jen [incredulous stare]: Try again.

T: But it was really, really sad when she died!

Jen: Try again.

T: Well, I teared up during Rocky III when Mickey died.

Jen: You're not helping.

T: Okay. Where the Red Fern Grows.

Jen: That's better. Pantywaist.*

*Okay, I didn't say that. I wished I had after, though.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Here comes the sun

Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, remember to let the sun catch your wings.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Getting to know the hummingbirds

We're getting acquainted, Trochilidae and I.

I've taken to just sitting a few feet away from the feeders, camera mounted on the tripod in front of me. These birds are not stealthy. Their arrival is marked by the chittering sounds they make at each other. You don't hear the hum of the beating wings until they're close, but it's quite obvious when you do.

We have three that hang around, zooming and zinging all over the place, chasing each other off the feeders, hovering noisily in front of me as if wondering what is that.

Thomas hasn't figured them out yet, although one of their feeders is stationed on the window against which his throne is positioned. He knows there is something interesting going on out there, but he's not sure what.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gathering no moss

We have hummingbirds. This has made me happier than it should make any normal person. (But perhaps the less said about my relative normality, the better.)

When I checked my phone at 9:30 this morning and saw both a missed call and a voice mail from my mother, I knew it was not good news. She doesn't call on Saturday mornings unless we are meeting for breakfast, and this was not one of those mornings. I sat for a moment before I called her back. I knew it was about my grandmother; I just didn't know how bad it was. When I listened to the voice mail, and I heard her tone, and it was just a request to return her call, my predictions were confirmed.

In the end, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. But my grandmother did get up to go to the bathroom at about midnight last night, and did so without her walker. Grandma has rebelled against the walker ever since she got it. I can't blame her. Unfortunately, when you're bleary from sleep isn't the best time to do that, and she fell and busted the ball of her hip joint.


She just got out of a successful surgery about 90 minutes ago and is sporting a brand-spanking new hip joint. It won't be an easy recovery.

For a variety of reasons, I was struggling hard with some very intense feelings this afternoon. I came right out and admitted this to T, who could tell anyway.

"I can't get a handle on it. I'm trying to figure out what to do."

"Hmm," he said. "You've already mowed the whole lawn," he noted, referring to one of my favorite relaxers -- roaming the lawn on a summer day on my boxy green riding lawnmower.

Then a hummingbird zoomed past the window. Aha. I took my camera and tripod out and sat. And waited.

And then the tiny creature zipped over to me, hovering a few feet away, probably observing my bright red shirt and wondering if I were a giant flower it could drink from. Wisely, the compact bird disregarded me after a few seconds of intent observation and lit out for the feeder instead.

And so I sat, calming down and relaxing, and considering the vanishing smallness of a hummingbird's brain. Such a tiny, tiny mass of material that yet contains sufficient complexity to allow its owner to zoom and zing and swoop with startling accuracy and speed.

And they appear to be visiting for awhile.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Casual dating for the 90-something

Today was my grandmother's 90th birthday, and my mom, sister and I went to have lunch with her at the assisted living facility.* My sister is recently engaged and planning her wedding for October. My grandmother had been badgering her for some time before her engagement about *when* this was going to happen.

Grandma's sort of well known for that kind of thing, and has really made something of an art of it over the years. I was mostly exempt from it because I got married when I was 23 and stayed that way till I was 38. But now that I've committed the unpardonable sin of being single for a little more than two years, I'm getting a taste of it. This habit seems to have accelerated since my Pop died a year or so ago, leaving her with nothing to do but harass other people about their marital status. Fortunately, she's charming about it. She started in on me this afternoon when my sister left the table to return to work after regaling us with tales of their honeymoon destination.

Grandma: I really like *your* intended, too, you know.

Me: Grandma, he's not actually my intended. We're not engaged. I'm not getting married.

Grandma: Well, why not?

Me: Grandma, I haven't been divorced that long. I'm going slow. I'm still a little scared.

Grandma: Well, I can understand that after what you've been through.

Me: Yeah. I love T a lot, but we're just taking it slow and doing things right. We're fine the way we are for now.

Grandma (undeterred): Well, I hope you put a wedding together before I die.

Me: What if I just decide to live in sin for the rest of my life? Would that be okay?

Grandma: Oh, I suppose. I might do that myself, you know. I'm lonely.

Me: I can understand that. It's hard to go from being around someone all the time to being alone most of the time.

Grandma: Yes, it is. I never thought I'd want another man, but I'm lonely.

Me: Well, maybe you should date casually instead of shacking up. That way you wouldn't have to give up your space, and yet you could have some companionship.

Grandma: Now that's an idea.

Me: You look great in that sweater, by the way.

Grandma: It'd look better if I had bigger boobs.

Me: I think you look fine with what you have, Grandma.

Grandma: Well bless your heart.

I told my mom I think this would be a good time in Grandma's life to slut it up a bit. She's unattached, and it's not like she needs to worry about an STD. It's time to enjoy herself. Mom looked horrified for the first three seconds, and then appeared to consider the idea favorably.

I mean really. Why not? Go for it, Grandma. And by the way, have another piece of cake.

You're 90. Live a little.

*I made her my milk chocolate cake, which is yummy.