A Forced March in the Woods. Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

We continued hiking toward Sampson Lake, figuring we’d get there with enough time to rest a bit, gather some firewood and decide what we were going to have for dinner. We didn’t have a ton of choices. We’d been shoveling homemade granola into our faces like squirrels all day, courtesy of Greg’s wife, but we were getting ready for more substantial fare.

When we finally reached the lean-to we were pretty beat. We dumped our packs and went down to check out the water. It’s a weird feeling when you take that 40 pounds of lumpy misery off your back -- you feel simultaneously off balance and like you don’t weigh anything. It makes you run around like a toddler for few minutes until you get used to it. The lake was small but pristine. And we were the only ones on it. It was glorious. I could have been sitting ten feet away from the body of a footless hiker and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but we had made it to our first waypoint. I activated my spot and sent the “all good” message to our wives and started getting some firewood together, and in the meantime I collected some lake water and started it filtering so we’d have it ready to boil when we were done gathering wood. I was looking forward to a hot meal and some relaxation.

I was pretty well stocked up with Mountain House freeze dried “Gourmet” meals, however they are gourmet only when compared to other large scale, commercially produced freeze dried meals which means that on a practical level, they suck slightly less than the competition. On the plus side, since they are freeze dried, they are very light, and cooking them basically means you only need to boil water, dump it into the envelope, let it sit for twelve minutes then shovel a giant sodium bomb into your pie hole. Seriously, they are so salty that they’d probably stop your heart if you had to eat them for more than a week. If you look at the ingredients, there’s anywhere from 880 to 1600 grams of sodium in each serving. The kicker -- each meal is 2.5 servings. Taste-wise, some of them aren’t too bad, and if you stick to the basics you’ll be OK for a few days. You probably won’t shit for a week after you get home, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen when you’re deep in the woods with a single hot spare pair of underwear.

The Beef Stroganoff is pretty good, and the spaghetti and meatballs isn’t horrible if you don’t mind “meatballs” the size of peas that have the texture of rubber pellets. I’m not sure if they’re actually meat, but they do add some texture. Frankly, it all tastes pretty good by the time you’ve hiked a bunch of miles and had nothing to eat but a few handfuls of granola and a power bar. Some of them are spectacularly bad, however. Scrambled eggs and bacon, for instance. When you first open the package, it looks like squares of yellow styrofoam and dirt -- and after you cook it, it looks like wet squares of yellow styrofoam and dirt. I had it for the first and last time when I went camping with my brother and my six-year-old nephew. My nephew took two bites of it and said that it “tasted like a recycled fart.”  I’m not sure I want to know the arcane and probably disgusting process involved in recycling a six-year-old’s fart, so I’ll just have to take his word for it.

The lean-to was nice, except that it had a stream. Normally that would be a feature and not a bug, but the problem was that the stream in question ran directly under the lean-to. It wasn’t much, a trickle of water really, but the ramifications were that if you sat on the edge of the lean-to, your boots were in the muck. It was perfectly positioned to get mud all over everything, including the floor of the lean-to. If you moved the lean-to three feet in either direction, you would have missed the water completely. It was almost as if it had been designed that way on purp-- Chad! You bastard!

Dinner for Greg was Spaghetti and Meatballs. Dinner for me was the infamous Chicken and Rice. You’d think there wouldn’t be much they could screw up with chicken and rice, but you’d be wrong. This was the first time I had it, and it sucks. It’s deceiving, because it smells pretty good when you’re cooking it. It has kind of a "Ramen noodles in a college dorm" kind of smell to it. It continues to fool you as you take the first few spoonfuls. After about the fifth spoonful, however, you realize that it tastes like buttered armpits on a hot summer day, and all you can think of is how horrible it would taste coming back up. Unfortunately for me, I had packed more than one of these horrible meals. I thought about trying to pawn one off on Greg, maybe trade him for a chili mac, but it was too late. Instead of giving him the old Tom Sawyer routine like I should have, I instead told him how gag-inducing it was, and after that he wanted nothing to do with it. I finished it, because it was our first night and I didn’t want to waste food, but it was painful.

After dinner, we hung out a bit then walked down to the water to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful still night and so peaceful, it already made the whole trip worth it. I wished I sucked it up and brought a good camera, but all we had was a couple of crappy point and shoots that couldn’t do it justice.

Sampson Lake Sunset
I thought we’d stay up a bit after we walked back to the lean-to but we were both so beat we decided to turn in pretty early because we wanted to get an early start in the morning.  We unrolled our sleeping pads and bags, and Greg discovered his pad wouldn't hold air.  It was surprising because it was a Thermarest and those things are generally indestructible. So much so, they have a lifetime warranty.  I've owned the same two for over 20 years and never had an issue. Unfortunately, when you are 20 miles from nowhere, a lifetime warranty isn't worth a recycled fart.  He was going to have a few rough nights ahead of him. The bummer of it was he had to carry that useless POS the rest of the way or he couldn't send it back for replacement.

I assumed I would fall asleep almost instantly, but Greg had other ideas. Or I should say that a certain part of Greg’s anatomy had other ideas. Get your mind out of the gutter.  I’m talking about his freakishly long uvula. And now I realize that probably doesn’t make it any better.

To make a long story longer, Greg fell asleep the second his head hit the sleeping bag, and he snores. With Gusto. And I mean "capital G" Gusto. And I had forgotten my earplugs. When I first closed my eyes and he drove that freight train directly through the lean-to, I thought, Holy shit, that’s loud. It’s like there’s a hibernating bear ten feet from me. Then as it got exponentially worse, I actually started laughing. I was so deliriously tired. It was like a Foghorn Leghorn snore wrapped in Three Stooges snore, then marinated, wrapped in drunken Shrek snore and cooked for an hour at 375 degrees. It was the Turducken of snores.

There was no way I was going to be able to sleep through that. Not without NyQuil or Yukon Jack, anyway. Since Greg doesn’t drink, and I didn’t have a head cold, neither of those two solutions was at hand. It was like having a 454 big block with a radical cam idling next to your head, with the driver goosing the throttle every once in awhile, just to keep you on your toes. I turned on my headlamp and dug around in my pack until I found my toilet paper, and I rolled a couple of pieces up and shoved them in my ears. Then I had more than his snore to worry about, because I had made one of the damned things too small and it went in my ear to the point where I couldn’t reach it. I grabbed my ear and wiggled it, I poked in there with my thumb and index finger and tried to grab it, but all I did was push it deeper in. It was just beyond my reach. Right about the time I started to panic a little, and give serious thought to waking Greg up to assist, I remembered that I had a pair of tweezers in my pack in case either of us picked up a tick. I grabbed them and gently dug around in my ear until I was able to grab a bit of the TP  and pull it out. I tossed them both and grabbed more toilet paper and made two more, probably twice the size as the originals. Unfortunately, they did no good at all -- It was like they weren’t there. I thought briefly about dunking them in water to increase their sound blocking capabilities, but then I figured that (a) I’d get one stuck again, only this time for good, and (b) I’d spend the next two days hiking down the trail feeling like my ear was being fucked by a monkey.

As I lay there wide awake, I tried all of the same tricks I use on my wife when she starts snoring. I knew from experience that if I could get him to wake up, and if I could fall asleep before him, chances are that I’d be able to stay asleep, given the amount of tired I was. The first thing I did was cough a few times. Nothing. I tried clearing my throat really loud. Nada. I yawned and made a sound like Chewbacca after he hit his shin on the coffee table, and that also had no effect. I was beginning to think he was deaf. I tried thumping my feet, which is easier to do on a mattress than a wooden floor, but it made a satisfying thump that didn’t even slow him down. I thrashed around like I just took a taser to the nuts, and when that didn’t work either, I gave up. I thought about maybe grabbing my tent and heading down to one of the nearby tent sites, but it was late, and cold, and I was already in my bag with my boots off. Short of getting out of my bag and kicking him, I was out of brilliant ideas. Then right when I was resigned to just staying up all night, I thought of one more thing to try. I fished my 2 watt LED flashlight out of my pack, and shined it directly into his face. It lit up the entire lean-to in a bright white light. He stopped snoring almost immediately, thrashed around a bit, mumbled something that sounded like "No...no...not again" and then rolled over into the fetal position. It's also possible that I had been watching too many X-files episodes and what he really said was, "Get that fucking light out of my face" but I guess we'll never know for sure. I said something about hearing an animal, and turned the light off.

I learned a couple of important things. One, when someone’s sense of hearing is overloaded with whatever internal circuits make it possible for them to simultaneously snore like a chainsaw and not wake themselves up, the sense of sight is still working, even through closed eyelids. Two, Greg mostly only snores when he is on his back. So now I have a plan for our next trip, and it involves making him a mandatory sleeping shirt. It has pockets on the back which I will fill with these to keep him sleeping on his side. Or maybe these. I haven’t decided yet. I know he felt bad about it, so I hope he’s not pissed when he reads this, but it’s all in fun. I just need to go to sleep first is all. Barring that, if it’s not raining, I am going to sleep about 100 yards away, and "guard the camp perimeter" with my earplugs.

The next morning, I felt pretty good for having gotten about three hours of sleep. I must have dozed off at some point, because I actually woke up, which is generally a good indicator that you have, in fact, gone to sleep. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and immediately regretted it, but not as much as I thought I was going to. Sure, my legs and feet were a bit sore, but other than the normal “sleeping on the ground” stiffness in my back, I was ready to roll. I put my boots on and got ready to face another day of hiking. For breakfast, I opted for oatmeal and some mountain house “granola and milk” which looked like dried nuts and berries in a bag of cocaine. You were supposed to add water and shake it up, then pretend it was milk. I think it needed more water than the directions called for, because the milk had the consistency of latex paint, but I ate it anyway. Greg opted for another couple handfuls of homemade granola, and I think he probably got the better of the deal. Luckily, his knee didn’t feel any worse than it had the day before, so we were able to postpone the “point of no return” decision until later that morning. We were still a few miles away from the actual halfway point in our hike. We figured we’d take a break right between West Lake and South Lake and decide what to do. At that point, we could either turn around and hike back the same distance over trails we knew the condition of, or we could continue on into the unknown. The plan was to take stock of the knee situation, and as long as it didn’t feel like it was getting worse, we’d press on.

All my thoughts about how good I felt disappeared the second I shrugged into my pack and had the full weight of 40 pounds plus water pulling down on my bruised collar bone and hips. I felt like an astronaut coming back to earth after a month in the international space station. Every step sucked, and because the main trail was back UP from lake level, it was a shitty way to start the morning. But after the first mile or so, the kinks were worked out and we felt pretty good.

The first day was filled with insightful and entertaining conversation, but by the second day most of our sentences were comprised of two words or less, and usually one of them was some sort of profanity. A typical conversation went something like:

Greg (looking at map): Ugh.
Me: What?
Greg: Hill.
Me: Bad?
Greg: eh.
Me: Far?
Greg: 1000 feet.
Me: Shit.
Me: Knee?
Greg: Good.
Me: Good.

It wasn’t just our language we lost. We lost most of our humanity. It hadn’t even been a full two days and we were already blowing our noses directly into our hands and trail farting without remorse. At first we’d do the decent thing and give the guy hiking in the back some kind of warning, but by the end of the second day it was every man for himself. You had to recognize the signs, or you only had yourself to blame. The good thing about being in front was that you didn’t have to deal with the crop dusting. The bad thing was that you were the one who got to do the I-just-got-a-spider-web-across-the-face-dance. It was probably a fair trade.

We got to the halfway point pretty early, and Greg said his knees didn’t feel much worse. That was good, but there was no guarantee they’d stay that way, so we gave it some thought while we rested. It would be a shame to go back, but the devil you know and all that. I told him it was up to him; I was good to go if he was. I then said that I only paid for the airlift rescue insurance for myself, and that if I had to hit the little red SOS button on the SPOT! tracker because he couldn’t walk, I couldn’t guarantee that they’d take him along. I also told him that I thought I read in the fine print that they just shoot the lame ones, but he decided to chance it and we continued on with our original plan. We’d try to make the lean-to on the south shore of Cedar Lakes by late afternoon. Failing that, if it got dark before we reached the lake, we figured we’d camp off the trail somewhere along the way. Either way, that would leave the last hard part (Cobble Hill) and a short hike to the north side of Cedar Lakes to the other lean-to for day three, and spend the last night there. We’d wake up in the morning, take our time, and hike the four short miles back to the car. We knew the next day called for rain, and we figured a short hike from the south side lean-to to the north side lean-to might be just what the doctor ordered. Besides, we wanted to see some of the cool bridges that we had heard about.

Since this loop is pretty far out in the wilderness, most of the bridges haven’t been repaired in quite some time. A lot of the bridges over certain streams had been washed out, so you were forced to rock hop across. Sometimes that could be tricky with a pack on, but it wasn't too bad because the water level was low. Now I know why people use trekking poles - those extra balance points while rock-hopping across water can come in handy. Also, you can bet your ass I’m going to have at least one strapped to the back of my pack going forward. Luckily, none of it was deep enough that we had to take our boots off and wade across. My favorite bridge had to be this one - it was a bitch to cross, since it was slippery and at a 40 degree angle in some places:

Here’s another longer one that took us over some wetlands:

And this one probably won’t be there next year. Also a little iffy to cross:

We got to the South end lean-to around 4 pm, and while it was in good shape, there was quite a bit of left behind old junk. There was a table for cooking nailed/tied to a tree, and a good-sized fire pit. There was also a dock that was high and dry, because apparently an old dam had collapsed and the Cedar Lakes are in the process of becoming the Cedar River again. It’s a slow process, but it’s happening.

 Apparently it’s due to the state’s rule about not repairing structures on land that has a wilderness designation. I’m wondering if they have a similar rule about their outhouses. I made the mistake of going to check the state-sanctioned pooper. It was completely full of shit. It wasn’t at Michael Moore levels quite yet, but it was close. Put it this way -- you could see the pile inside the hole while still standing outside. For those of you who don't camp where there's no indoor plumbing, that’s not normal in an outhouse. That’s not even normal in Guanabara Bay. I closed the door and walked back to the lean-to.

“How is it?” Greg asked.

“Put it this way,” I said. “Be careful of where your junk swings if you decide to sit down,” I replied.

He laughed. I think he thought I was kidding.

“I think you think I am kidding," I said. "I'm not."

“I might have to suck it up and make a visit,” he replied. “That granola has been trying to get back out of me for the last hour.”

“Good luck,” I said. “Hope for shrinkage.”

He was gone for a bit, and in the meantime, I got the stove set up and starting looking around for some firewood for later. When he got back, he had a haunted look on his face. I think being told about it and experiencing it directly were two very different things. I asked him how it went and he shuddered a little and said, “I just...hovered...and..added to the pile.”

We were pretty gross and sweaty from the hike and Greg decided he wanted to go swimming and get cleaned up a little. It was a good idea, but the water was damned cold, and I wasn't sure I was up for it.  I figured I'd let him go first.  I was glad I did because he didn't last long.  I tested the water and immediately came up with a different plan, and fired up my camp stove.  I mixed a liter of boiling water with a liter of lake water and put it in an MSR dromedary bag, and hung it on a tree. There's a little flip valve on it that let out a stream of water, and I used that to take a nice, warm backwoods shower.  It felt like I was getting pissed on by an angry god, and it was probably the best shower I've ever had.

After we were cleaned up and in fresh clothes, we scavenged some wood for the camp fire and I scoped out a place for the bear hang while it was still light.  It's always easier to find the perfect spot and get it set up before you need it. I've done it in the dark many times, and it's a pain in the ass every single time. After dinner, we made some coffee (Thank you, Starbucks, for your ridiculously overpriced instant coffee packets that are perfect for backpacking and taste almost like real brewed coffee) and hung around the fire talking.  It was night time, so we were back to full sentences. After the fire burned down, we headed toward our bags, and mercifully, I was able to fall asleep before Greg and he must have slept mostly on his side because I only woke up a few times during the night, once because what sounded like a 300 pound chipmunk was rifling through the camp looking for something to eat.

The next day was a bit colder and a lot more dreary, and looked like it was going to rain.
We got a pretty early start figuring that we'd beat the rain to the next lean-to.  I had my rain gear packed in an outside pocket for quick access, and I had given Greg an old surplus military poncho that I had used to cover my pack on previous trips.  According to the map, it looked like we had the highest bit of elevation ahead of us, Cobble Hill, and neither of us was looking forward to it.

It turned out to be not too bad, but it did start pouring buckets about half way to the last lean-to.  It was pretty much an uneventful put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other slog in the rain, looking at not much else but our own feet because of all the rain in our faces. We made pretty good time regardless, although the hardest part was not slipping on the leaf-covered rocks and roots that littered the trail.  When we came around the corner and saw the lean-to, it was just about lunch time. The rain was starting to let up, so we checked out the lake, and got some water filtering for a hot meal.

View from the North-End Cedar Lakes Lean-To.

The lean-to was well-provisioned.  Someone had left behind a brand new foam sleeping pad, the latest issue of Penthouse, and an unopened bottle of Gentleman Jack.  It was enough to make us wish we had hiked the loop counter-clockwise instead, because then Greg would have been sleeping on something softer than pine boards, and I would have had a bottle of Jack to help me ignore the snores.  As for the Penthouse, well. We're above that sort of thing. Also, I already had that issue.

As we sat there in the rain eating our lunches, we took stock of the weather.  The next day wasn't going to be much better, and spending a wet night in a lean-to with no fire didn't really sound too appealing to either one of us.  So we looked at the sky, looked at each other and decided to hike the rest of the way out to the truck.  When we finally got back to the crowded parking lot, this is what we saw:

Luckily, The World's Loneliest Comedian wasn't sleeping in the back. We made it back to my house in record time.   Greg helped me get my gear into the basement since there was no way my wife was letting us in the front door with our muddy boots and soaking wet clothes.  While he wasn't looking, I stuck my last chicken and rice meal into his pack.

A few days later, I got this picture in an email from Greg.  It's a guy who does drawings in the shape of animals by hiking or riding his bike while tracking on his GPS.  The subject of the email was:  "I don't think our hike was ambitious enough."

I sent him this back, with the subject of "I don't know. I think we did OK."

A few minutes later, I got his reply.  It simply said:  "Damn, that hike was a lot harder than I remember it."

And that's why I love my friends.  They can all stoop to my level with such effortless grace. 


A Forced March in the Woods, Part I

It's 11:55 pm on Friday, and I am officially turning over a new leaf.  I've just removed the Book of Faces and Twitter apps from my phone, and my plan is that I'm only going to check them once a day, and then eventually wean myself off of doing even that.  The way I figure it, infinity apps are the devil, and they sap your productivity and do nothing but waste your time.  So this is a grand experiment.  My goal is to spend less time dicking around reading various political rants and trying to interpret the meaning behind cryptically posted memes and quotes and more time on the important things in life, like television and finishing up the work-at-home portion of the curriculum required to graduate from Scary Clown School.

So what have I been up to?  I know nobody asked, but it's my blog so I'm going to tell you.  Ye Olde Photography, mostly.  I know I've mentioned my photography jones before, but I keep going backwards in time.  I started out with a Crown Graphic and a Bronica S2 from the mid-50's and 60's respectively, but lately I've been shooting film using big old wooden cameras like these, which date from the early 1900's:

For some reason, I'm drawn to alternative processes that were used before the final black and white process as we know it was ironed out. These techniques are from the mid 1800's -- basically from the advent of photography. One of my future goals is to learn how to do wet plate collodion, which is just about the coolest thing in the photographic universe.  It's a little dangerous and a little poisonous, but you know, so is life.

I've been doing Cyanotypes, Vandyke Browns, and regular old silver gelatin prints mostly.  You know, normal stuff that normal people do in modern times.  I still want to try Bromoil, which is a very neat medium that combines various printer's ink and bleached gelatin prints.  Here's a cool example by my friend Mark.

Why am I doing this?  Mostly because I got tired of shooting a thousand digital shots to get one good one just because I could (the 'spray and pray' method of photography), and then never doing anything with them.  I started to become disenchanted with all of the pictures I saw that were clearly stillframes from 4K slow-motion video, or HDR'd within an inch of their lives so the photo ended up looking like a shitty Thomas Kinkade painting, which is not to imply that there exists on this planet a non-shitty one.  Some people love that stuff, but I hate it. Everything looks like CGI from a video game.  I wanted to do something that was a little more artistic -- something that required skills I would have to learn and continue to hone over time.  I wanted to produce something that was one-of-a-kind -- something that could be completely wrecked at any point in the multi-step process if I didn't pay attention to what I was doing.*

Let me leave you with a couple of prints.  The first one is a cyanotype of an abandoned church in the Bahamas printed on some watercolor paper:

And this one is a regular old silver gelatin print of an abandoned truck that I just found in the woods.  It was taken with that 5x7 camera and lens in the picture above:

Well, I'm not really leaving you, per se, I'm just leaving that particular subject for now because I know I probably lost half my audience to boredom already.  If anyone is interested in seeing more of my photos, email me and I'll send you a link to my Flickr account.  No nudes. To clarify, by that I mean I don't have any to show you. Of me or anyone else. To clarify further, I don't care if you're naked when you email me, just don't tell me about it because that would be weird.  And also probably unsanitary.

For the three of you who are left, the real reason for this post (other than the fact that my wife is on a girl's weekend with her friends and I have the house to myself) is that I just finished watching "A Walk in the Woods." It's a movie based on a book by Bill Bryson, and I know it's a cliche to say this, but it really sucked compared to the book. Vast chunks of the book were left out - and from what I could tell, it was most of the funny chunks.  I think Robert Redford was a little bit mis-cast, and Nicke Nolte was a lot mis-cast.  Also, he sounded like he was gargling kangaroo nuts the entire time.  I did laugh once or twice, but mostly at the slapstick and mostly because I'm a cheap date.

At any rate, it reminded me that I still have to write about my own "Walk in the Woods" last fall -- a 27-ish mile loop around the West Canada lakes that I did with my friend Greg, who shall remain nameless. DAMMIT.  I did that wrong.  OK, so now you know his name, it's time for me to pimp him out.  He makes custom furniture, does antique restoration work, and best of all, makes custom electric guitars from scratch.

Our trip began like so many things today do, via a dick pic sent over snapchat. No, no, I'm kidding.  I barely know what snapchat is, and besides, nobody wants to see that.  It really started with that most archaic of all technology - email. I got an email from Greg in July with a subject of "Bucket List Hike" and the details of a three day loop around a series of small lakes in the West Canada Lakes wilderness.  He said, "It's in the wilderness area behind that log cabin we stayed in many years ago. I used to spend hours poring over the topo maps. I've been intrigued by it for years."

I must have been drinking pretty heavily at the time, because in a fit of bad judgement,  I immediately shot him a response that said, "Let's do it. We're not getting any younger."  I don't think he expected that because it took him a while to respond. Either that, or Wheel of Fortune was over, and he was already in bed.  His initial reply indicated that he'd need to start doing daily hikes and buy some gear, and finally, after a few more back and forth messages in which we both partook of much hemming and a not insignificant amount of hawing, we agreed that we would start considering this as something that we were going to do.  Granted, it's not like through-hiking the AT, but even so, I think we were both sort of amazed that we had just decided that yes, we were going to hike approximately 20-30 miles into the woods without any good reason (like, for instance, a pressing need to avoid the law.)

We then decided on an early October time frame, discussed our various outstanding physical ailments, talked about the best ways to get in shape for this, and finally decided that there was no way we could get in shape for this, so we decided to do it in three nights and four days instead of two nights and three days. Doing it in three days would be almost ten miles per day, and that seemed a little ambitious, given the fact that we both work from home and take about a thousand steps a day circumnavigating a rough triangle that consists of  (1) where we work, (2) where we eat and (3) where we go to the bathroom.  Sometimes you can even cut that down by two thirds with a slice of cold pizza and an empty Snapple bottle. Add to that the fact that we'd be carrying packs that would weigh in the neighborhood of 40 pounds each, and the extra day seemed like a fantastic idea.  We told each other that it was so we'd have an extra day to "enjoy the hike," when we both knew it was really code for having an extra day to "not throw up our own testicles."

Once we decided where we were going, we wanted to get maps -- the problem with this location is that in order to map the entire loop, you'd need four different quadrangles.  Luckily, we found a place on line that prints custom topo maps for cheap and on waterproof paper no less. So I was able to order this on a single map:

And a few days later, this showed up in my mailbox:

It was a thing of beauty.  Waterproof, folded, and it had a matte finish so you could write on it.  Except for the unfortunate placement of the UTM grid that makes it look like we'd be passing Butthead Pond, it was perfect.

We had a map, a compass, a GPS, four days off, and a dream.  Due to circumstances beyond our control (wives) we weren't able to leave when we had planned, (wives) so the trip got pushed to October, which meant we had to worry about two things:  Hunting season and cold, wet weather.  It was touch and go for a while as to whether we'd even be able to do it (wives), but at the last minute things worked out and we headed off early one mid-October Sunday morning.  I told Greg not to wear his brown suede coat and white gloves, and luckily he took my advice.  The good thing about doing this during the week is that we'd pretty much be the only people in the woods.  The bad thing, of course, was *also* that we'd be the only people in the woods.

To that end, I purchased a SPOT! tracker, which is a GPS device that allows you to contact search and rescue if things go to shit and you are stuck 20 miles from the nearest road and have, for instance, a random bone poking out of your meat suit.  It also allowed our respective wives to know we were ok, and track our progress.  I'd read that the transmission can be hit or miss depending upon how open it is to the sky, so I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that at some point during our trip, one of us would be perched at the top of a tree screaming obscenities at the uncaring gods and waiting for a little red light to turn green and still not knowing if we were about to get rescued or if the blinking green light just meant the batteries were still good.  It's safe to say the UI on these units is a little lacking.

Interestingly, for being a Sunday, when we got to the parking lot, it was so crowded there was barely any place to park.  We squeezed into the last spot and got out of the truck.  There had to be 20 cars there, and the people milling about the parking area ran the gamut from redneck hunter types to college students to moms and dads trying to pretend their lives haven't changed even though dad has a comatose one-year-old strapped to his back like a sixteen pound spiral ham that has the poops. We locked up the truck, strapped on our packs, and headed out.  Lucky for us, most of the people there were day hikers headed for the summit of Pillsbury mountain, so nobody was following us on the trail.  A few hundred yards in, a group of 20-year-olds passed us in the opposite direction, heading back to the parking lot. I assume they had done the hike counter-clockwise.  They barely looked winded, and were moving fast. They nodded to us as they went by, probably thinking about the all-night party they were going to be attending after they hit the gym and showered up because they don't need to do stupid olds stuff like sleep or rest.

We decided to do the hike clockwise, which meant that our first day goal was to hit Sampson lake before night fall. Pillsbury lake was too close, and Sampson lake was about eight miles out.  In between was Whitney Lake, but that one had a really long detour around the lake to get to the lean-to, and it would have added a couple of miles to our hike. Turns out our decision was a good one, because apparently they removed the lean-to about five years ago. Neither one of us had hiked more than five miles with a pack on in a couple of years, so making Sampson lake was a challenge for our first day.  We looked at it as sort of a test.  Greg's knee had been bothering him on and off, and he had no idea how he was going to do.  We figured we'd play it by ear -- If we made it to Sampson lake and his knee was still OK, we'd continue on.  If, on the other hand, it felt like a hot water bottle full of broken glass, we'd stay there for a day or two then head back the way we came.  In our favor, the map showed the entire hike to be pretty level, with just small uphills and downhills the entire way, so we had a good feeling that we could do it.

We were about three or four miles in, well past Pillsbury lake and  on our way to Whitney when we saw our first backpacker.  I am hesitant to use that term, because he wasn't actually wearing a backpack.  He looked to be in pretty rough shape.  His T-shirt was soaked through with sweat, and his pants were so crusty that they looked like he got them out of the dumpster after a homeless guy threw them out.  He was dragging a backpack in the dirt, holding it in his right hand by one shoulder strap.  In his left hand, also dragging in the dirt, was a black, heavy-duty Hefty bag.  He staggered up to us, and when he was about 15 feet away, he said, "Am I glad to see you guys! Can you help me out?"

Oh Christ, here we go, I thought.

Greg and I stopped at a comfortable distance from him, and waited for more information. Unfortunately, a comfortable distance wasn't something he was fond of. He was a close-talker, so he kept drifting into our personal space, and we kept edging back, not knowing what to expect.  Meeting deranged people on the trail isn't something we have experience with, having never hiked the AT.  We didn't immediately answer his question, because neither one of us was going to say a word before we knew what sort of random asshattery saying "Sure! We'd be glad to!" would entail.

My bet was on some scam involving money, but Greg, as I found out later, had envisioned him asking us to carry his shit back to the parking lot for him.  Luckily for both of us, neither of our theories proved true.  Instead, he asked, "Uhhh....can you tell me if there's a lake around here somewhere?"

At first I I thought he was kidding, but when he didn't laugh, I realized he was serious.  We were in the West Canada Lakes wilderness region -- emphasis on the word "Lakes." You couldn't spin around in a circle while taking a piss without hitting a fucking lake.

"Um, you should have just passed Whitney Lake," Greg said.

"No, I don't think that's the one I'm looking for," he replied.

"Pillsbury Lake?" I asked, hopefully. "That's the only other one on this trail in the direction you're headed."

He dropped his stuff in the dirt.  "Yeah, that could be it."  He paused for a second, then added, "Maybe."

"Just keep going straight, you can't miss it," I said, and rested one hand on the can of bear spray attached to a holster on my hip.

"I'm Tim...," he said suddenly, then stuck out his hand to shake mine.  A little side-note here:  When someone sticks out their hand like that, some kind of automatic corporate reflex kicks in, and I will automatically reach out in kind to shake it.  You could be a zombie, sticking out the severed hand of another zombie and I would probably still shake it.  I was halfway there by the time I realized that no, I actually did *not* want to shake his hand. Not in the least. But at that point, I was committed.  He said something else, but I wasn't sure I heard him correctly because I was concentrating on how I was going to surreptitiously wipe my hand.  What I thought he said was, "...also known as The World's Loneliest Comedian."  I am a bit of a germaphobe when it comes to other people, and I have a vivid imagination.  I could easily picture him adjusting his sweaty nuts with that same hand right before he ran into us on the trail.  I mean, who hasn't done that while camping?  Guilty as charged.  Then he gave Greg the same rigorous, yet damply limp handshake.  I could tell by the look on Greg's face that yes, that was exactly what he had said.  Hi, I'm Tim, also known as The World's Loneliest Comedian.  Alrighty then.

Neither one of us knew how to respond to that statement.  So far, he hadn't been particularly funny.  Personally, I really didn't care what he wanted to call himself.  I just wanted to make sure that reason for his self-described loneliness wasn't because he had recently killed the people at the last lean-to he had passed and was now dragging a bag of severed feet back to the parking lot.

Before we could decide what the polite thing to say would be, he continued.  "Where are you guys from? Where are you going? Where are you camping tonight?" he asked. "I'm pretty beat," he told us, changing the subject without waiting for an answer. "I've  been out here for a while."

He swabbed his face with his soaked t-shirt. For someone who looked absolutely dead on his feet, he was pretty hyperactive.

"I do this a lot. Hike. Get out on the trail.  Helps keep me in shape." He jiggled his belly for emphasis.  "I don't have a car, so I'm hoping I can hitch a ride south to The City with someone," he added.  "That's how I got here.  Before this I was down in Georgia on the AT."

Aha!  That made sense.  From everything I've read, he'd fit right in on the AT.  We nodded at everything he said, not really adding a lot to the conversation.  While he made small talk at us, we just sort of milled around.  We wanted to be on our way but didn't want to just rudely walk away while he was in mid-sentence.  We wished him luck, looked at our watches, anything to basically force the conversation into the direction of being over.  But it wasn't.  "Oh! Let me give you my card," he said, then started digging around in his pants for his wallet. He finally found it, and pulled out a couple of business cards and handed them to us. You know how you sometimes get wet dollar bills for change when you buy a drink at a beachside concession stand?  It doesn't surprise you when it happens, because you're at the beach.  The business card felt kind of like that, except it was probably closer to getting wet money for change in a Walmart at 2 am.  Also not exactly a surprise, but you know, deep in your heart, that's not saltwater you're feeling, and there's no way to convince yourself that it is.

"I love giving out my card. I get a big kick out of it. You can check me out on YouTube.  Just search under The World's Loneliest Comedian." He pointed to the card I was still holding out in front of me.  "Like it says on the card there," he added. I decided right then and there to call him TWLC.

In my head.

"Where'd you guys say you were from?" TWLC asked us again, his record finally skipping back to the original groove.  (Back in the day, we had these flat vinyl discs that we would spin with a machine, and a tiny sapphire on a post would ride around in a groove and make music, and sometimes if the disc got a scratch in it, the needle would make a popping sound and jump out of its groove and start a section of the song over, and...I'm obviously horrible at explaining things.  Vinyl is popular again in certain circles, so my suggestion is to find someone with a man-bun who is wearing skinny jeans and thick-framed glasses and they'll explain it to you.)  We told him where we were from, and without being too specific, where we were going. Finally, I think he either ran out of things to talk about, or realized that he was keeping us from our hike, and he abruptly decided to get back on the trail.  He wished us luck, picked up his backpack and his bag of feet, and continued shuffling toward the parking lot, or presumably, if it could be found, Pillsbury Lake.

Greg and I hiked for a few minutes, glancing behind us every once in a while to make sure TWLC wasn't doubling back to add to his collection.  Finally, Greg broke the silence. "Well, that was pretty weird," he said.

"Yeah, what are the odds?" I replied.  "We're out here in the middle of nowhere and we run into The World's Loneliest Comedian."

Greg said, "How do we know he's telling the truth?  Maybe he's not the world's loneliest.  Maybe he's only the 3rd or 4th loneliest. He could have been lying."

"That's true," I said. "We may never know.  Unless he's been vetted by a sanctioned authority on relative levels of loneliness, it's just one sweaty man's subjective opinion."

We continued on.  We didn't know it, but that was the last human being we'd see for the next three days.

"You realize that he'll be sleeping in the back of your pickup tonight, right?" I said.

"Yep." Greg replied.

We continued to hike.  A lot. Or it felt like a lot, anyway.  We hiked slowly, and complained frequently as old guys are wont to do.  Nobody says that anymore.  Are wont to do. I'm going to bring it back - like I did for Fetch. I complained at every uphill, and Greg complained at every downhill, because that's what put the most stress on his knee.  So it was pretty much non-stop complaining.  At least at first.  At certain points, it appeared as if the trail had been cut by a sadist. Once, we hiked up a big hill away from the lake to a lean-to, and then the trail immediately turned and went back down to the lake.  Completely unnecessary.  It could have been a straight path with an intersecting trail to the lean-to, but no.  We blamed it on some mythical 25 year old bastard of a trail designer who thought it would be funny to route the trail that way.  We could picture him.  He was one of those guys who was in great shape and had expensive ultra-light equipment and hiked in shorts, even in the winter.  He had a GoPro and slept in a fancy hammock.  His name was Chad. We hated Chad.

Eventually, though, we got into a rhythm, and started talking.  About the hike, about mortality, about woodworking and politics.  That last can be interesting because I lean libertarian and he leans more progressive, whatever that means these days.  Basically, we agree on some topics and not on others, but we never let it get in the way of a good friendship.  And I really enjoy the back and forth of it.  Most of the time, when people talk  politics with other people who have different views than they do, nobody changes their minds about anything and everyone ends up pissed off.  Welcome to America.  In my case at least, when talking with Greg, he's sometimes made me see things from a different perspective, and I've actually changed my mind about some issues as a result.  I mean, I'm not voting for Bernie or anything, but still.

We've known each other since he was stuck directly in front of me in our high school physics class -- he was an egghead so he was in my class even though he was a year younger than I was.  We bonded over music, homemade cassette tapes and his older brother's expensive stereo.  When his brother wasn't home, we'd sneak into his room and make cassette tapes of our records, so we didn't wear them out.  I still have some of the tapes we made.  We had and still have a similar sense of humor, which I think is part of what kept us in touch all these years.  Even when he was living in Boston and we'd only talk once in a while, it was always immediately as if no time at all had gone by.  So it was like that this time as well.  We still live about an hour and a half away from each other, so we don't get to hang as often as we'd like to, so this was a welcome trip.

Thus endeth Part I, which is way too long already, and not nearly funny enough.  But you guys shamed me into posting something, damn you.  So it's your own fault, really.

See you in few!  (Days? Months? Who can tell?)

(Continue to Part II)

*kind of like sex, except I'm alone in the dark in the basement, and you know what? Bad example.