On Friday, at 4am, our adventure begins.
For the past 30 plus years, myself and a group of industrious outdoorsmen, venture forth on Memorial Day Weekend, to re-connect with nature in a way that most Americans never get the chance to…
Ok, yeah… That’s bullshit…
So back in 1981, my friends and I jumped into the car of the only person with a license and drove to the Pocono’s to meet up with our buddy who spent his summers at his family’s summer house. We then proceeded to camp out in the woods and get piss drunk for the next 3 days. I don’t remember much. I know that I was scared of the dark, and we had only one flashlight. I think I might have slept in the car one of the nights.
We kept going back to the Pocono’s a couple of times each summer. Usually it was just to party all weekend without the worry of cops or parents, or large-lunged bogarts. Eventually I began to spend more and more time alone on these trips, still partying mind you, but always wandering off to explore and contemplate the mysteries of life.
As time marched on, we moved from PA, to Harriman park, to Sterling Forest, and eventually the Catskills. We used to camp in a place called Denning that was growing in popularity each year. We would often have to get up to the trailhead early on Friday to try and make sure that no one else stole our prime spot. Once back in the early 90’s, I arrived at the parking lot in the dark of night. I was the first one there. I was fixing up my gear, waiting for my friends to arrive, when another car arrived in the lot. It wasn’t my crew. They were interlopers with a lot of professional gear. Terrified that they might grab the spot that we felt was our birthright, I grabbed my pack and hastily headed up the trail. About 1/4 of a mile in, it dawned on me…
I was still afraid of the dark…
When two fears confront each other, the bigger fear wins… I was more terrified of explaining to my friends why we didn’t get the spot than I was of the ravenous were-wolves lurking in the darkness.
I arrived at the spot 15 minutes ahead of the Swiss hiking team… My tiny campfire let them know in no uncertain terms, that this spot was taken. I heard their grumbling as they wandered off in search of new digs, and I sat with a satisfied grin on my face as my friends wandered into camp asking the obvious question…
“You came up by yourself?”
I haven’t been afraid of the night since.
A few years later I managed to find the courage to go two days early and camp by myself before my friends arrived. I’ll write an entire story about that sometime. But first let me make two clarifications about my fear of the night…
A. I still jump when I hear a twig snap under the cover of darkness.
B. I’ve walked every dark street and alley in this city at all hours of the night and never batted an eye. And yet there is far more danger in the city, than there is out in the woods. I guess it’s just has to do with where you are raised.
Anyway… Over the years, these outings have evolved from drunken teenage excursions, to serious hiking/camping weekends, to what now can best be described as middle-aged weekend escapes. Yes, we still sleep in tents, but now we are assisted by air mattresses and lounge chairs and porterhouse steaks. The days of dehydrated stews are long since over. To some, it would still be considered roughing it. The Swiss Hiking team would call us pathetic. To me, it’s just the best way to re-charge my batteries.
My buddy Steve and I picked up my brother in the city and headed north shortly after 5am. Four hours later, we were in Milford NY. After dropping off our gear and making our way through the local shop-rite, we made a stop at the local woodsmith, DRS Woodshed. This is the kind of place that would have fit right in Mayberry. Everything is handmade, you can have anything you want custom made, and they don’t take credit cards. Cash or check only. I’m there to check out the picnic table and benches that I ordered. They look amazing. If you bought them in the city, it would go for $1500 bucks. He charges me $266, plus tax. He asks me where to deliver it. I explain that I don’t have an address, just a piece of land. He doesn’t bat an eye. “Where is it?” I give him directions. He nods his head a few times. He never writes anything down. He never asks me to repeat myself. “Ok, see you there,” He says.
Twently minutes later he shows up like he’s been there 25 times before. “Where do you want it?” I explain that my camp is 1/4 mile in the woods, on the other side of a running creek. He nods and says, “I’ve got 4-wheel drive.”
30 seconds later we’re unloading the table at the site. I hand him $25 bucks for his troubles, but he tries to wave me off. I insist. In the city, if you tried to hand a guy $25 bucks for driving a 1/4 mile, he’d probably spit at you.
The day goes quickly after that. We set up camp, gather wood and water, head back to town to gather the last minute supplies. After a dinner of pork chops, boiled potatoes and creamed corn, consumed at my brand new table, we’re all exhausted. I’ve been up since 3am, my brother even longer. At 10 pm, I crawl into my sleeping bag.
10 minutes later, it begins to rain.
I sleep soundly, but when I get up at 5:30, it’s still raining. I put on my slicker and head off into the silence of the rainy morning. Pretty soon, I’m hungry. In the past, the rain would not have deterred me, and I’d be shredding twigs and toilet paper in order to get a fire started. But now I’m 48, and I no longer possess the need to prove myself at every turn. I wake my compatriots and inform them that I’m heading to Friendly’s for breakfast. When it becomes evident that I’m not bringing them back breakfast-in-tent, they join me. After breakfast, I head to Lowe’s to pick-up some items that I need for the weekend. When we get back, the rain has stopped (for now) and I spend the rest of the day clearing brush and taking out some unwanted dead trees.
I love the lumberjack life, for about 15 minutes, then I have to take a break. If I had to do this for a living, I’d die in less than a week.I’m no Paul Bunyan, but I look great in a flannel and boots. Our buddy Craig shows up on his bike around 3pm. He says that he was stuck under an overpass for 20 minutes in a rainstorm. Sure enough, 30 minutes later, it begins to rain again.
Rather than be discouraged, I decide to take a nap. When I emerge from my slumber a few hours later, Craig and Steve are like wolves. They want to kill me. I hear Keith snoring in his own tent. Craig and Steve make some comments about Pizza Hut for dinner. I overrule them and wake my brother immediately. I need him as backup. The boys have managed to keep a fire going throughout the rain. Taking advantage of this, I begin to prepare dinner. They relent, and an hour later, we have gorged on the steaks and rice. As we top off the meal with devil dogs and chocolate miniatures, I am struck by the desire to smoke cigarettes. I’m almost three years from quitting, I’ve been breathing in fresh mountain air for two days, and all I can think of is how wonderful it would be to pollute my lungs. Thankfully, the other three don’t smoke either, so there is no real danger. Everything is still wet and damp. I’ve changed socks 5 times, but my feet are still like chopmeat. I dont lay down until almost midnite, but sleeps comes quickly.
I rise at 5:30, the sun is barely up, but it’s up. For the first time in two days, it’s shining. I head out into the woods and wander aimlessly with just my camera and my imagination to keep me company. My property is surrounded on three sides by fairly large pieces of property, so I can walk for a while without running into anything or anyone. This is my favorite part of the day. It hasn’t rained in a while, but the ground is still soaked. Once I pass through the high weeds, I’m drenched again. I think of an old Native American proverb –
“I am not bothered by rain, or snow, or wind or cold… because they are real.”
After walking through the woods for a while, I start to climb an enormous hill.
Ok, it wasn’t that enormous, but humor me.
I emerge into a sun drenched field, gasping for air. (That part is true.)
Lost in thought, I’m not paying attention to my surroundings and I’m caught unaware when a whitetail bounds away and heads into the woods. I don’t even have time to lift my camera. I wander through the high grass for a while, feeling as alone in the world as a person can be. It’s a great moment. I can be anyone. I can be Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon, or John Cabot landing at St. John’s. I can be an Indian scout out in search for the buffalo herd, but what I am is a middle-aged man standing in a open field, dancing with his imagination. It’s a dance of love. One with no outward movement.
I venture back down the hill, but I avoid my camp and head up to the road. It’s real name is Dutch Hill Road, but I named it Split Rock, and much like Young Larry, I love the sound of gravel under my boots. I proably should have gone back and changed into dry footgear, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked the road.
And I walked.
And walked some more.
I passed several houses along the way. I imagine who lives there and what their lives are like. I imagine laying in a big, old overstuffed country bed, in a room with no A/C, just a small fan to chase away the stillness of the summer heat. I can see an old desk with an old Underwood typewriter waiting for me to commune with her.
I continue walking.
I come upon a young rabbit, sitting at the side of the road, nervously chewing on the green shoots of grass that extend from the edge. He doesn’t have to worry about his job, or his 401k, or the state of the country. He has but one worry in the world; the shadow of the hawk’s wings. I watch him for a while before he senses me and bounds away to the safety of the briars. I can still see his nose twitching as he hides in the bush when I pass him.
Beware the Hawk, young hare.
I wander past an old farm. It’s mostly abandoned, with dilapidated buildings collapsing under their own weight. I can see some movement halfway up the hill. A young deer is watching me, and I in turn watch him. We gaze at each other for a while. I feel like I’m being rewarded for a pure heart and a patient mind. He gets bored of me after a while and heads off across the field without any worries. I watch until he disappears, then I head back to camp.
The rest of the time flies by after that. We laugh through dinner talking about past camping trips and old friends and the things and events that make up our lives. On the last day, I discard my outer shell and head into the deep part of the creek with just my modesty. I wash away the sweat and grime of the weekend, as well as the last of the tension that accompanies my world at home. The water chills my skin, but warms my soul. I feel so alive at this moment. You can have the Caribbean or the French Riviera. I’ll take this; a tiny creek in upstate New York.
Despite the bug bites, and thorn cuts and muscle cramps and blistered feet, I love this. I know that we are facing a torturous drive home on a holiday weekend. We bicker on the ride home, as we always do, and I really don’t want to see these guys for a while. When we say goodbye, we shake hands and vow to do it again next year.
I can’t wait.