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.