Eggplant Parmesan, pro-rock climbers & books

Made a decent dinner tonight from a Mediterranean cookbook. A smoky/spicy eggplant parmesan with a couple eggplants Eddie picked up from the local farmers market tonight. It was a great way to end a complicated day. I’m preparing to travel to Microsoft Ignite next week and the demands of the office in advance of this are a little more immediate right now. It’s hard, at times, to get people to see beyond a simple need for an application to “rule them all.” I usually see this when a various organization has a tool that they want to drive enterprise-wide adoption. One of the folks I work with commented that every tool seems to be competing against the other to some degree with this misguided notion as the rationalization. There is a better path. One that gives proper weight and space to a variety of tools. All while setting up any single tool in a way that gives the best value to the entire organization. I’ve never believed that control is better than a purpose-driven offering. AS I argued though, it’s the value we build into our platform that makes a tool stand out. Not forced adoption guardrails… or in this case, noise. Ah well, another day awaits and with it more opportunities to try again.

It’s funny also that I just finished “The Longest Mile” by Jeremy Jones tonight. Short trail log kind of book about three guys who walked about 60 miles through the Smokies together over 6 days. It’s hard to tell actually how long they made it as the record and account seemed to change throughout the book. If I do sit down and write my account of this past year of hiking and camping my way to face fear, this is not the kind of book I intend to write. It was enjoyable. Made me laugh and think about my own mistakes and inexperience. The fact that this was his first hammock experience? Well, that was me earlier this year at my favorite gay campground Freedom Valley where the guys all decked up with 8 person tents for 1 (or hopefully 2) thought of me as an oddity. I loved Jeremy’s struggle with knots. I definitely share that in common with him as well.

Next on the reading list are “Zen in the Age of Anxiety” by Tim Burket and “These Truths” by Jill Lepore. Reading is an escape for me. Makes me think. I love reading cookbooks too. And yet, after having a moment of panic earlier today where I had to go find a room to myself and work through some breathing exercises. Probably because of my own internal reaction to challenging someone who was challenging me back. Confrontation is not my favorite thing. But sometimes it’s part of the work. Always calm, cool and professional. That’s the goal anyway. But it comes with a cost. For some of us, it’s moments where there’s a physiological cascade of baseless anxiety.

While I was waiting for the peach cobbler to bake off before starting the eggplant dish I picked up the copy of Esquire Magazine that came yesterday. I read an Alex Honnold interview by Brandy Langmann titled “On How Not To Be Afraid of Fear” (this is in a full series of feature interviews, so do a page search for it by his name if so inclined to find it). The idea that we, more specifically myself, place ourselves in situations that are intended to face our fears… when in reality we are simply maneuvering through them blew my mind. It was the key to my whole entire year so far in less than 500 words. Boom! Mind blown. This guy is evidently a Rockstar climber who is often times in situations that can end his life by a simple change in the wind and an easy mistake. What he closes with though is gold. That it’s better to face fear in increments. To learn the difference between actual fear that is worthy of our attention… and fucking anxiety. I am definitely going to explore this more. It’s exactly what I wanted my hike through the Olympics, Burr Oak, and Lake Vesuvius to be about. Being away from an easy call out to 911 if I have another heart attack. Forcing myself to find joy again and stop worrying about every damn day about the next. It’s crippling. But I’m working through it slowly. I can definitely say, Alex, is absolutely right.

 

Posted in food, personal, professional

On the edge of autumn

There is still a smell of my first fall meal in the air of my home tonight. I found a recipe for titled “Sheet-Pan Chicken with Sweet Potatoes and Peppers” in the New York times today. It was this beautiful combination of flavours that had a little bit in common with jerk seasoning but more floral-aromatic-sweet yet earthy and hearty at the same time.

I think I am still physically recovering from my Olympic Mountain hike now too. My left knee has been talking to me along with my left thigh which probably used all of its force to propel my frame and my 50-pound pack weight up the mountains and back down last week. My run at the YMCA at lunch today was my first since leaving Portland. Not painful but felt like stretching, cracking the spine of a book and liberating at the same time.

Today was one of those days where I am simply left feeling grateful for the totality of everything. I am missing a camping trip this weekend I had planned, which seriously bums me out, but I plan to use that time to go visit Nick for the first time in a long while. Spend time with Eddie. Maybe start a writing project and get ready for Microsoft Ignite the following weekend for the coming week. I guess, maybe, for the moment anyway, it’s time to retreat and be thankful for a few days. I just had one of the best summers of my life. Yeah, there were challenges and demons, but damn, this stretch of hot summer months have been so good to me. I feel full of warmth and possibility again.

Tomorrow’s plans start at 5 am with decaf coffee and a walk up to the YMCA with Eddie to go workout together. Weights are on the agenda for me for the first time in a while now that the 90 mile hike is over. I guess the seasons have officially changed for me at last. Who knows, I may actually sign up for the 15k race in November called the Hot Chocolate, just to nod at the last three and a half years with a smile and a warm heart.

Time for bed. But I wanted to take a stab at putting thoughts to words to leave a record of what I think being lucky feels like.

Posted in food, personal

Life and patterns

One of my history professors used to say “history never repeats itself… but it is very fond of patterns.”

Having spent the afternoon with my parents talking through the trip I just took and catching up on various life and family matters in the Breece clan I discovered something that made me think of the previous statement. I got my book on the Smoky Mountains recently and am starting to plan some hikes for next year already. When I saw the sections of Clingmans Dome, I said to myself, I am going to hike a small section of the AT to go out to that spot and back again in 2019 if I can.

This is where history and its fondness for patterns comes into play. Evidently, my dad, grandparents, and a couple of my uncles did the same thing decades ago. This is when my dad still had his eyesight. It made that bell go off inside me that said this is exactly one of those moments that was meant to happen. Like life itself was steering me toward some design pattern.

It made me feel even more grateful for the lessons and patience that my parents have showered upon me while growing up as a boy and even more so as a man. I have a great deal of admiration for them both.

Next up? Hunkering down for the upcoming Fall season, getting back out on the running trail and swimming pool, and, of course, planning more outdoor adventures.

Posted in outdoors, personal

End of the road

Safe and sound back in Portland Oregon with my buddy Doug. Once we got back to his home from a hearty pasta lunch and a trip to Zupan’s he got straight down to the business of resuming his life and the things that bring him joy. This included making a wonderful dinner for the three of us. It’s one of my last nights here at the tail end of nothing short of a transformational journey. One that started, for me, last year. Well really, it started three years ago last April actually. Regardless, his husband asked a question of Doug, “do you think you could have done this without doing all the preparation work you did? Carrying your pack six miles a day across the bridge and working out?” The answer was of course yes. But what I held back to myself was a counter. I think that all the work that we both did in advance of the single hardest physical challenges he and I have ever faced could not have been done without each other for one. But mostly, without the mental preparedness for the harshness of the backcountry. While beautiful, and worth every hardship, it’s a lot like running a long distance race. Like the 20 mile race I did a couple years ago. That one taught me that I am a tough son-of-a-bitch. I just didn’t know it at the time. There are challenges that we face where we, sometimes, find ourselves. This trip? This journey? Well, it was definitely one of those for the both of us.

I used the word “transformational” earlier. I set out on this trek with the goal of putting fear in my path, setting my sight on it and then, walking by it. That’s exactly what happened too. I am already planning a trip in my head to see Fall colors in a place called Dolly Sods in West Virginia on a solo 20+ mile backpacking trip. A trip to the Smokies, 30 miles in and out to see Clingmans Dome and do a small portion of the Appalachian Trail. And, possibly, some more of the National Park systems through regions that my mom and dad introduced me to as a kid on our cross country treks to California while I was growing up. That’s another thing. Through all this, I realized I owe them a huge debt for fostering a sense of enjoying the outdoors in me as a kid. Yeah, I hated it at the time. But damn if I don’t think back to both of them every time I am sleeping outside and saying “thank you.”

The text below was a note I sent out to my own husband, family and friends back home before the last day of our trek. Before we’d face the toughest challenge on the trail before us. One that brought my friend Doug to tears at the summit of his mountain some 5700 feet above sea level shoulder to shoulder with an entire range of mountains lined up like jewels in a crown before us. To be honest though, I had my moment of tears when I collapsed on the ground after I unfurled my bedroll in the dirt on top of another mountain where we reached Hoh Lake after the most extreme climb I ever summited in my life. That is until, of course, the last and final ascent to Hurricane Hill – which turned everything inside me upside down and inside out.

Lastly, I want to thank my best friend Doug for going on this journey with me. I could not have done it without his planning, preparation, and enthusiasm. You truly are my brother in every sense of that word and I love you. To Char and Gary for their hospitality and the pink spork. My husband for letting me go and pushing me toward the many and varied doors that my crazy life purpose frenetically points toward. Eddie, my heart starts and ends with you. Always.

On to the synopsis.

Note; The use of “today” below refers to Sunday August 2nd before we headed back out for the final and most grueling/rewarding day of the trip.

So, as planned, we hiked out of the Elwha dam (webcam from what is left of the dam facing outward) territory yesterday and got picked up by Doug’s friend Char for a night of comfort before we tackle the last hike of the trip today. One of the motivators all week was the idea of having a good meal at a local restaurant called Nourish. Gluten free, but on par with a popular place in a larger City that Sequim, small that it is, has a quality and flavor that denotes a marriage between the simple and sublime. All in one awesome little waterfront town. Of course, true to myself, I criticized them for several points of service quietly, for once, to Doug… you can take the boy out of the restaurant but you can’t take the restaurant out of the boy. Anyway, I will write up all of my notes and share some of Doug’s photos in the coming weeks. But for now, here are some highlights.

We walked through a real rainforest, with massive trees covered in dense mossy vegetation that looked as if it were dripping from the enormous branches reaching far higher than anything I have ever seen in person. Made friends with the elk, along the trail, at a distance. Filtered water from the beautiful Hoh River nestled between the mountain peaks we were about to climb in the coming days. My one regret is that I cut my audio recorder in favor of saving on pack weight as the sound of this place was absolutely wonderful. I would love to have brought that home to my dad who is blind not to mention capturing a moment that even a photo can’t hope to frame.

We faced a massive climb from there up to Hoh Lake. Serious. This day was probably the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life. 33 switchbacks, according to one guide, up 4500 feet above sea level in just 5 miles. It nearly killed us. But we had these views of not so far off peaks like the glacier-covered Olympic Mountain and it’s sisters all around. Clouds were literally touching our heads as they rolled over the heavily forested summit we were walking across.

At that elevation, we started to encounter clusters of black bears who were 100% focused on eating as much of the loganberries which were all over the mountainside, ripe and sweet, as they could in order to fatten up for winter. We walked from Hoh Lake down 3000 feet through this nearly J.R.R. Tolkien forest which was lit by golden light falling through the distant treetops tinting the sunbeams with a greenish yellow hue as it hit the reddish forest floor with a shimmer of summer promise along our path. There were so many streams and rivulets that it was almost like walking through some forest orchestra playing soft movements of sound and life to entertain us. Or at least give pause to think about how a forest system works like a single organism.

We had to trek back up 4000+ feet to Heart Lake, part of the Seven Lakes Basin, the “jewels of the Olympics” as Doug described it, where we broke camp in a hurry as it was raining, cold, densely foggy and our spirits were low. This was our short day where we were at camp early so we could try to continue to recover from the Tuesday hike which left us both decimated. Anyway, it was still raining and so I rolled the tent cover into my bedroll which hung off the back of my pack and we headed off to a place called Appleton Pass. It included walking between two peaks of two mountains with a huge climb up to 5200 feet. The maps said we were in for about 11 miles. Wrong. We tracked about 20 miles on foot that day to arrive at a place called Boulder Creek. This was our last night of camping in the Olympic National Park.

Our trek out the next morning was a walk through the closed Elwha dam network. The dam had been destroyed in 2012 to help promote salmon habitats. We walked down a now unused and blocked off paved road the whole 3400 feet to an elevation of a mere 100 feet of elevation where we walked to a parking lot where Doug’s friend Char picked us up. She’s this amazingly warm and wonderful being who truly reminds me of Ruth Gordon’s character from the film “Harold & Maude.”

We are shedding our 45+ pound backpacks, mine full to capacity with two bear cans, the big one and a smaller one for trash, his with a four-person tent and a whole lot of other bare minimum essentials for a trek like this. Both flirting with 50 lbs thresholds and heavier than anything we’ve done to date. Our packs today are just day packs with a water bladder, lunch, and some small supplies. Like maybe 7 pounds with any luck with trek poles as our climb today is back up 5800 feet up Hurricane Hill. A link to something that may not be exact but looks like our hike today.

It’s been an incredible effort but totally worth the time in planning, expense in equipment procurement, time away from home and the people I love given that I feel privileged to see something that won’t exist for much longer as climate change and lawmakers continue to erode habitats like the varied and unique ones I have walked in, over ~80/90+ miles, through this week.

Posted in outdoors

Final night, final pack

Final day before the hike and we made it to Sequim where Doug’s friend has graciously opened her home to us for the night. That in addition to her and her boyfriend driving us to the trailhead tomorrow. At 6 am.

 

We stopped for coffee near a beautiful beach called Potlach. When we finally got there, we drove to the Olympic Mountain visitor center and checked in for our hike the next day. I learned that there is no history of bear attacks in the Olympics, which is good, but there are documented cases of Billy goat and cougar attacks. Oh great. I guess we will see what we see when we see it.

Lunch was at a Thai place off the beach. Small portions which were awesome. I think it gave us both a much-needed lift. Once we got the car unpacked and the contents of our packs unloaded and then reloaded I discovered that I could fit both the large bear canister and the smaller one inside my 44 L pack. That in addition to the Jet Boil, the water filter pump, my clothes, and the miscellaneous gear like first aid kit, personal items and so on and so forth. My base weight is now roughly 35 lbs. which means I will have to be really careful to make sure the balance is right and it’s fitting as good as it can.

Dinner plans have changed and we will be having Mexican (which is cool by me because I have a hankering for a burrito).

The last update until the trip comes to a close here. Time to take our first steps and enjoy a week in the backcountry.

Posted in outdoors

Departure

In the words of Rosemary Woodhouse, “this is no dream, this is really happening.”

I slept well last night and everything we have is now staged by the door. We plan to head out in 30 minutes, stop for spare batteries and coffee then make the 4-hour trek to Sequim to stay overnight with our gracious hosts and shuttle drivers. Dinner reservations set for Nourish tonight which will mark our last non-dehydrated meal for the better part of a week.

Here’s where courage carries you on the shoulders of friendship.

Posted in outdoors

A day of edits

Day two and full of prep work.

We head up to Washington tomorrow to lodge overnight with my buddy’s friends who are generously taking us to our drop off point and then picking us up on day four where we plan to go back and stay the night with them one more time before heading out to Hurricane Ridge on day five with lighter day packs. I gather the last day has similar inclines as day two so we will definitely be working our asses off both those days.

Today, however, started with some quiet time as I continued to adjust to the time change between here and Ohio. I slept like a rock and racked up just under 8 hours which is really good by my normal 5 to 6 hour good standards. We had brunch at this Scandinavian restaurant called Broder. It was phenomenal. Friendly staff. Interesting décor. And food accented by Dijon everything. Loved it. The talk turned to my buddy and his husband working through some pre-trip anxiety on both parts. It was pretty adorable to watch them communicate how special they were to one another. It made me think of Eddie back home a great deal and how lucky I am to have someone who supports me no matter where my crazy train brain chooses to point my head toward. I miss him a lot already on this trip. Watching Doug and Byrd only made it more poignant.

Doug and I spent the afternoon going through the pack editing process. Fully loaded, we were dangerously heavy. Like 40 lbs. territory. By the time we were done we were back into the 33 lbs. range. Only 5 lbs. more than I am accustomed to so that made me feel good even though I sacrificed a few of my favorites during the editing process. Things like my camp sandals, secondary cook system in case Doug’s encounters an issue, a few other items near and dear to my heart. But, I’ve got the onus of carrying the big ass bear canister in my pack. That sucker is huge. Fully loaded and super important to our survival. I may also end up carrying a secondary, smaller, bear canister in the event that the ranger tells us that more than food has to go into canisters. That could push me into the range of 35 lbs., I just keep telling myself that we will be eating ourselves lighter as the trail goes on. That, and while I still consider myself a beginner, I know my body can handle the weight if it’s packed right and the straps are set correctly.

It was fun to stop back in at Zupan’s though. A grocery store that reminds me of my absolute favorite grocery store of all time. Central Market Lovers Lane in Dallas Texas. I spent so many nights there shopping for experience meals that Eddie and I would share during our lonely disconnected Texas years. Dinner was this amazing Tapas place called Mediterranean Exploration Company. Again, the four of us had these great unabashed excited conversations. All winding and weaving patterns of connection, sharing, openness, and love. I feel really lucky to have made such a random friendship connection with Doug on an old outdated internet system back in the early ages of the Internet called Gaydar. Yup, that’s where we met along some primitive search algorithm with keywords probably including “Columbus, Ohio.” We’ve known one another for, well, probably closing in on 20 years now.

 

If helping my friend Nick through his stroke recovery and our very long-term friendship has taught me anything, it’s the value of those precious moments of being bonded to someone through a mutual attraction, admiration, respect with the freedom to be as messy, scared, anxiety filled and confused as he and I have shared together over our years of friendship stemming from a random prehistoric Gaydar search. I have learned that life is short. But, right now anyway, I believe there is meaning to be found in hiking with a friend through the Olympic Mountain wilderness.

We leave tomorrow to stay overnight with his friends. Do a final pack edit with one of his other friends who is more experienced than either of us. Go to dinner at another great place which sounds fantastic. Sleep. Then head out to five days in the wild.

I guess now is a good moment to feel grateful for everything that has brought me here. Yes, I sorely miss Eddie. Yet I feel his love always in the support and guidance he has provided me all through our years together. It’s the same with my friendships with Doug, Nick, and a very rare few others. I would not be who I am today; or have the ability to hold things together the way I do, without these people as my family beside me.

Tonight we move from “onward” to motion.

Posted in food, outdoors, personal

First day log (CMH to PDX)

Got off to the airport without a hitch. The backpack duffle I picked up Friday night, Trump traffic be damned, worked out very well. It even had space to spare for my trekking poles, foam bedroll and my still muddy hiking boots from Burr Oak State Park. I over packed with the intent of editing it down once I get a feel for the overlaps between Doug’s and my gear.

Hanging out in the DFW airport now for a couple hours. Chatting with Eddie & Doug. Sent Nick, Lori and Marsha a picture from the Hurricane Ridge webcam to give them an idea of the ending area of our journey. Treated myself to an extremely rare lunch at Chick-Fil-A. I loved this place when I lived in Dallas. It reminds me of a woman whom I used to work with named Rechelle. She got me through a lot of tough times and I always loved her indomitable spirit and her room-filling laughter. There’s just something good about a piece of fried chicken in a soft white bun accented by pickles. It’s cardiac poison of course, but damn if it does not remind me of some really incredible tiny moments when I used to live here in Dallas.

Spent a good chunk of the layover reading from Anthony Skura’s hiking guide and people watching of course. The reading was specifically about bears. So, evidently, my Ursack is great for mini bears… but since I’d have to hang it, if the land manager even allowed them, it seems like I will be leaving that behind at Doug’s house instead because of the following piece of data. Anthony cites that bear hangs do not work at all with bears. Which differs from my naïve research on YouTube about the PCT method and ways “guaranteed” to protect your food from bears. I’m hoping he is right that as long as you let them know where you are, then they are mostly afraid of you and don’t see you as food. Also, reading a humorous article on bear bells, from the bear’s perspective, the jury seems to be out on the effectiveness of those. I think I will be taking that with me but not being too complacent about not clapping or yelling out to the bears on a regular basis. I just wish I knew what kinds of spots they frequent. To me, and this could be true as I don’t know, they could be everywhere. On another note, I have heard of the Leave No Trace guidelines before but, as I had time to spare, I read them for the first time and really like the ideas they tout.

Tonight is a huge treat. Dinner at Farm Spirit with my best friend and hiking partner, his husband, and his husband’s boyfriend. It should be an interesting evening. Note to self. Please please please don’t dominate it with talk of heart disease or camping. Talk about, maybe, dealing with anxiety? Work? Eddie? The hike? But mostly them. What are they doing? What’s going on? Movies? Pool? Food? If all else fails, cats.

While on the flight from DFW to Portland, after watching a movie on my Kindle, listening to some relaxing nature sounds, and trying not focus too much on the screaming kids directly in front of me or their parents who were doing a great job at consoling them and each other, I stumbled across a podcast I had saved. It was an interview where the topic evolved into the idea of placing fear directly square in the center of our paths. It made me think of the fear I was sitting on today. The fear of our upcoming hike. Fear of the unknown. Bears. Getting lost in the real wilderness. Hiking up 6000 feet with a 28 lbs. backpack on my back. My cranky right knee. Heart disease. Money. Career. Being out here without Eddie and missing him already. Being tired from only sleeping 4 hours the night before didn’t really help matters I suppose. My mind sort of took that fear thing and ran with it. “Observe, don’t react.” One of my mantras that is in heavy rotation right now.

Still, I plan to use memories of previous hikes and camping experiences. Of running half marathons and feeling like I would need to stop. A good lesson there. Because when you feel that way, that’s exactly what you need to do. Stop. Walk. Catch your breath. Reframe your perspective. I suppose that’s what sort of broke me out of that cycle. All while realizing I was already doing what the interviewee was talking about. Putting fear directly ahead of myself. Or, more accurately, putting myself in the way of fear (to turn a Cheryl Strayed phrase a little inside out).

This article on the HOH TO SOL DUC VIA HIGH DIVIDE TRAIL is pretty much exactly what we are planning on tackling starting Tuesday. It’s going to be a serious challenge but I’m excited about the prospect of seeing what we see. That and a full night’s rest tonight.

Lunch was at this awesome little ramen shop called the Boke Bowl. Totally hit the spot. We went back to Doug’s place from there and I had to take an emergency nap as it was closing in on 7 back home. I was exhausted from the trip, not sleeping well the night before and still processing lunch.

Next up? Dinner at Farm Spirit. A restaurant we went to last year which totally blew my mind and did again tonight. It’s a place where you get assigned seating at a bar. On the other side are the chef and his staff preparing dishes in succession like something you’d see on Top Chef. A narrator describes the dish, the components, and structure and then talks about the farmers who make the products used in the dish Everything sourced within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant. The menu was extensive which I will have to circle back to later but for now, it was nothing short of a perfect experience even though we got shushed by the chef t one point as we were excitedly talking about our lives. I love that it’s truly locally sourced and uses waste nothing practices. Four friends, one night, great conversations and a shared excitement about Doug and my week ahead.

But first, a day full of packing and editing the backpack weights down, just as I did withthe Burr Oak hike recently, with both creature comfort and physical comfort in the balance.

 

Posted in general

Butterflies

Writing this the day before I leave for Portland Oregon as Doug and I make final preparations to start our Olympic Mountain hike on Monday. While packing today, I thought about all the trips I’ve had with this gear. The hiking, campsite cooking, campfires, sleeping in either my tent or my hammock, the sounds of the forest and streams. Crickets and turkey sounds.

Doug and I will be sharing a tent and taking only duplications that are for safety so my pack gear for this trip is a little skewed. I am taking more than I will probably head out with on Monday. I’m on the fence about the extra tarp I am bringing for impromptu rain shelter. My Big Agnes air mattress – I like it but it’s a little heavier than I prefer and I sleep well enough on the bedroll. But things like my solar panel and my battery? Must have. Camp lantern? Skip. Knife? Take.

To be honest. I am nervous about the difficulty of the Hoh Lake Trail. Climbing 33 switchbacks up 6000 feet over 6 miles. That’s going to be extremely challenging. Dealing with my fear of bears and then seeing all sorts of wildlife that is alien to the Midwest. I guess that’s what makes an adventure, an adventure.

Deep breath. Trust my path. Keep moving. Be grateful for every mile.

Posted in outdoors, personal

Onward

I was lumbering along the trail, sweat pouring out of all my pores and dripping from the brim of my hat like a leaking water tower, clothes soaked through to my undershorts, covered in spider webs, bug bites (everywhere), thirsty and exhausted beyond my normal effort range. There was a clearing of trees where I could see two fit guys wearing cutoff technical shirts, in Kayaks gliding along the lake like sunlight over silver. “Why didn’t I fucking choose that hobby?” Is the question that crossed my mind at that exact moment. Answer. Because I didn’t.

Saturday, day two, began at 6 am. Alarm going off right next to my head in my 1 person tent at the Burr Oak State Park campgrounds as the forest night just began to thin. I had hiked in the day before from Wildcat Hollow bursting out of the tree line like a raging bearded, spider-covered, dripping wet, tattooed, trekking pole wielding mess.

There was a funny, yet crass, review of this trail on All Trails about two weeks ago by Corey Andres. The author compared the Burr Oak trail to an “angry grumpy man that crapped himself.” So yeah. This dose of reality, after 8 months of personal research, just before heading out to do this hike. The 22 mile Burr Oak trek was to be my pre-Olympic mountain zenith. A shakedown trek before heading out to the Olympic Mountains with Doug in about a week now. A week.

Burr Oak? He really made me work for it. I’m physically and mentally spent. Yet, with most things in life, if you present, don’t back down unless it’s a bear, he usually returns in kind. I have to mention, and give credit to, Jason Wish for his excellent YouTube video of his hike of the same trail. I’ve watched it like 40 times. He makes it look so effortless. But yeah, back to the grumpy old man.

The Ohio Trail connector from Wild Cat Hollow was foul. Wet, muddy, humid, hot and close. It reminded me of how Tolkien described a fen with dead soldiers from ages long since past at the bottom. Rotting. The word “fester” comes to mind. Then again, and I used this technique through the whole west side of the trail, it was absolutely teeming with life. I was just a visitor. Perspective. The trail, going counterclockwise from Wildcat Hollow, all the way down to the State Park was like this. Easy to miss the beauty because you had to focus on not to losing a boot to the suction of the deeply muddy equestrian trails full of horse shit, water, and toads. On the incline. Hills mind you. It was pretty intense. Something I will watch out for in the future while planning hiking trips. No horses or ATV trails. Ever.

 

Still, the effort was the effort. I hate to look at it like that because it really was pretty damn beautiful country. But this is my shakeout trail. My hike. The one that will help me to mentally brace myself for the alien terrain of the Olympics. But that’s a future story that has not happened yet.

As I mentioned before, my night at the State Campgrounds began with me bursting out of the treeline. Sweat dripping through my shirt and in a regular stream from my running cap brim. Spider webs now woven into my beard along with newly cocooned spider food dangling like bits of falafel that my co-workers would kindly tell me “um, Jeff, you have something in your beard.” Well, Friday? I had a whole spider feast in my beard. I was a smelly mess.

Thankfully, they had a shower and the kind lady at the front desk proffered a free bar of travel sized soap for me to use. I’m not sure if that was there for similar situations or not, but I appreciated it tremendously as I skipped on packing soap in favor of going “light.” I was thinking that “in bear country I won’t want sweet smelling stuff.” Little did I know about the reality of Burr Oak country on a hot August day with intermittent rain.

I got camp setup then showered. After that I got to the business of brewing coffee and making one of my favorite trail meals. Dottie’s Chicken and Dumplings by Pack It Gourmet. So damn good. I had hung my clothes on a para cable line. This was supposed to be for my bear bag exercise, but everything was dripping wet, including my pants, so I decided to pivot. Fortunately I had a Patagonia lightweight climber hoodie and extra underwear for the next day that looked like swim trunks to hang out in as the night fell.

I finished Brené Brown’s new book “Braving the Wilderness” that night. While it has little to do with being outdoors. It has everything to do with it. I made a ton of notes on my Kindle while reading this. Note to self, send aunt Lora a copy because I think they think exactly the same way about people, life and connection. Nothing about what tribe you put yourself into and all about the risks you take with those whom you know and don’t know.  That woman is amazing. Both of them.

My neighbor at Burr Oak State Park was this super-hot, cut, half-naked guy in his early 30’s. The strange thing is that I made that observation, very discreetly, within a 2-minute window on Friday night. After that? He stayed inside his tent. And remained there until after I left the next morning evidently. Cooking sounds. Smoking smells. Screen lights. All inside a synthetic material bubble. No campfire. No conversation. Of course, that’s OK. It’s just not my take on what it means to be outdoors among people. I want to ask questions. Say hello. Be seen. Hear others stories. Share what we have. He made me think about Brené’s closing statement to her readers as I headed out that morning for the second part of my three-day hike.

“You are the wilderness.”

After my heart attack, I turned to running. It was a way for me to set milestones along my path. Something to keep me motivated to take care of myself. I got pretty decent at it for my age. Not great. But I held my own. So it was that I ran a race called the Big Bad Wolfe Run once. The 20-mile race. I meant for it to be my shakeout run for the Columbus Marathon. I finished. I was second to last. Still, I finished and I knew what it was like to feel my feet, calves, knees, quads, glutes, arms and lungs on fire. What it taught me was huge. I learned that Sunday after my shorts got pulled down because of a water belt malfunction. Mooning everyone around me. The lesson? I am not a marathon runner. I might be capable of doing it. But it’s not what drives me. I love running to this day. But I love a little bit of the random more. Taking on something like a marathon takes crystal clear focus and balls of steel.

Burr Oak echoed the same lesson. I will admit, I had illusions of doing a trough hike. After Burr Oak? No fucking way. While I love nature. Camping. Exploring and getting lost. Things would go horribly wrong in my head if I ever did a Cheryl Strayed and left City life behind to trek through seemingly endless trails. In a weird way, it makes me want to return to running again. On familiar City streets that I absolutely love.

These are the thoughts that coalesced in my mind on the second day of the hike, as I conversed, man to man, with the cranky old trail. I had every intention of staying overnight at a camp along the way but it didn’t come to pass. The campsites I had marked to check out on the East side of the Lake going North, counterclockwise, were jam-packed. People who were just coming out to the lake for a night outdoors of drinking, laughing and having all shades of fun.

I kept going North and stopped at the Nature Center to ask questions about the last two campsites ahead. The kind attendant showed me a shortcut using another trail. This was less twisty-turny than the Burr Oak route. I thanked her, filled my water bottles using her garden hose, and headed off to the new trail. At the end? I found myself in a grassy opening with picknick tables, shelters, a makeshift outdoor amphitheater and open hills with what looked like campsites. It was almost “Twilight Zone” perfect. Exhausted, I picked a hill under tree cover but still open. Stopped. Shucked my shirt, horse shit covered boots, socks, and headband. Unrolled my bedroll. Grabbed a water bottle as sweat was still pouring off of me like light from the sun. Only grosser. Thinking that it would be amazing to be here at night. No light. Clear skies full of stars. With absolute privacy. Buck naked if I wanted to. But where was the Buckeye Trail? The shortcut didn’t directly connect back to the main trail I was on. Given that I only had three days and I had no idea what shape my body would be in the next day, I suited back up and decided to attempt the remaining trek back to Wildcat Hollow. And my car. But again, I will get to that in a bit.

From the State Park Campground, it was a short walk over to the access trail. Marked by two wooden posts with yellow blazes. It was an awesome, paved, walkway out to what would become 21 miles of OMFG. I had to work through some pain that I had not experienced since my 20-mile race. Out came all of my coping skills too. The breathing exercises. The mantras. The cussing. Music. Talking to myself. Everything all while my beard collected more and more spider webs and half-digested bugs. My trekking poles were covered in the same as I used them as spider web clearing devices two-thirds of the time.

Still, there were sweeping views of the lake. The dam. The spillway. The rotting picknick table that Jason Wish documented along with the wooden walkways and the metal bridge he captured. It felt as if I had been there before in a way.

Maybe I had. With a couple of my toenails bruised from being in sweaty wool sock encased boots across twenty plus miles Saturday, I can’t help but think about the Big Bad Wolfe Run again. What is it that drives us? Does it teach us something about ourselves or others? My personal answer to that is “I’m working on it.”

I think that is what drove me to take down my armor, to borrow a Brené phrase, and let myself go gay camping at an awesome place called Freedom Valley last year with my husband’s support and encouragement. He’s not a camper. And gay camping? Well, that’s a lot of fancy at times. Big 8 person tents for 2. Titanic-sized air mattresses. Disco lights. Electric fans. But I love the fact that both straight and gay folk are all the same.

But, as with the people around all of the free sites Saturday and the lonely hidden campsites along the trail. There’s something archetypical about spending a night outdoors with other people or by yourself. Burr Oak was a noteworthy companion this weekend. It felt familiar. Not just because of the months of watching Jason’s video, doing research and buying/testing gear then editing and re-editing my kit. I think because I have been here in my life before. Places in time like the Big Bad Wolfe Run. Moving to Dallas with my husband. Going to various art shows Eddie had been in. Traveling with him to places like Chicago and New York City.

Every experience is an opportunity to either learn something about yourself and others or, quite simply, to learn how to be in the moment and let the events happen and just observe and enjoy. Like getting out of my tent at 2:30 am to relieve myself only to look up and see this blinding display of stars through the tree line overhead.

And so, body aching, on Sunday. My thoughts now turn to the journey ahead. Cleaning my backpack, boots, sleeping bag and other gear in odor free and water repellent soaps. Packaging everything up and mailing the stuff that has made it possible for me to spend so many great times outdoors. Thinking ahead to what the next adventure is going to feel like. What in the hell does a bear actually look like? What does it feel like to touch a glacier? Soak naked in a hot spring off the trail? What does a rainforest sound like? All these things are, as of now, possibilities. Just like this exact moment. Yesterday, while crawling back up the asshole of the cranky old trail on my return approach to Wildcat Hollow, toward the end of my hike, I envisioned sitting at my desk, on my laptop writing with a cup of coffee, my cat Monkey sleeping on my bed, Eddie fiddling around up front in the kitchen with a good movie on in the background. Home. As a heart attack survivor, I have learned that you never know what is going to happen from one moment to the next. The space between all of our experiences, however, is sometimes more important than the actual goal itself. There is a magic outdoors that lives in those slivers of consciousness which exist in the most common of places.

Onward.

Posted in outdoors, personal