Summer is drawing to a close and, looking back, this was a great big one personally. I shifted from hiking during the June, July & August for the most part in favor of going car camping and meeting up with old and new friends. There were a couple of exceptions however but those were mostly at higher elevations in the mountains with some hiking friends of mine. Sum total though, it’s been a mix of both solitude and camaraderie.
Toward the end, however, I decided to burn about 30 some years of personal journals that I’ve been lugging around with me for a long time now. Well, I should mention that I’ve been on a minimalism track at home while amping up my reading habit as well. When you have a bookcase full of volumes, stuff reduction goals can sort of collide. I was looking for more space on my shelves one day for, yup, more books when my gaze turned toward a whole block of personal journals. I had read an article by a woman who burned hers in an attempt to keep her private thoughts from her kid as she was facing the curious years. I liked how she thought about this and presented her mental goodbye, however. Mine was not about hiding information though. I’m not that private. If I were I would not have bared all, so to speak, in places like social media for so many years, written my personal thoughts on this blog for nearly ten years, or share so openly on the AHA Support Network the way I do. While I try to be as proper as I can, privacy is no longer in my nature I suppose.
I chose to take my box of journals out mid-August this year on my last car camping trip of the summer. It was under the full moon of August 15, thinking about all the versions of myself that got me to where I am now, standing beside a roaring campfire in the heat of the summer night under the stars that were beginning to peek out tossing notebook by notebook into the fire. Honoring the younger men I used to be, in the process, for the struggles they faced, the trouble they caused and a life lived.
One of the other campers asked what I was doing, “why are you burning books?!?!” I told him the nutshell version of what was up and, of course, his response was something like, “well, that must be cathartic.” It was not. Not the intention at all. There was only appreciation and gratitude for the messes I’ve stumbled through on my mind in front of the fire under the moonlight that evening. Hell, at a certain point, I went out for a night swim to cool off, skinny dipping, of course, enjoying the feel of the water while floating and looking up at the night sky. I returned back to my fire ring and continued to bank the fire higher which dried my naked form in short order giving me more than a few moments to think about, not just myself but, all of the friends whom I wrote about in these pages as the caught flame and burned brightly for a few moments. More than a few of my friends are now dead. Alive only in my memories. Relationships. First times. I’m adventurous so there have been a few of those. Problematic epochs in my life. Disasters. Triumphs. Explorations. Failures. More than my share of fun.
If anything, I felt reminded of life. The man I have become and the ones I have no idea about as of yet. All I know is that it was a perfect way to close out an incredible summer. I feel, more than anything, stronger and more centered as a result of not just this collection of experiences but an overall course of direction that I hope to follow now through 2020. If anything rings true, there will be a ton of changes for sure, but at the core, I think there will always be gratitude for both what has passed and what I have today.
I can only hope that
everyone out there in the world at large experiences something
similar in whatever way they find it.
This post is about how I’ve managed my CAD, the information I have taken in from my Dr’s, trial and error, plus a status of where I’m at four and a half years later.
So, I had my annual cardiologist visit today. I was late to this because of a lot of things going on during the year. It was meant to be my four-year checkpoint but ended up being my four-and-a-half-year visit. As most of you know I am not anti “pharma” and I trust my Dr’s. I view medications like tools and medical professionals like my coaches, and I am happy to have both.
So today, my cardiologist said that I would be able to cut my statin dose in half since my numbers are very low. Less than 100 mg in total. The guideline he provided was that if my HDL remains under 70 then I could downsize to 40 mg per day dose instead of the current 80 mg dose. I plan to go in for bloodwork to check progress three months after I throttle down. I will remain on beta-blockers. Was hoping to explore alternatives but he’s happy with this protocol so that’s where I am staying. Aspirin, CoQ10 (which was my own addition – not a Dr recommendation) and a multi-vitamin remain as well.
My heart attack was precipitated by a blockage in my LAD, but all other areas were clear according to my Dr. So, while my stent is now over 4 years old, things seem to be going along well.
To combat some of the belly weight that both being newly 50 and the beta-blockers may be contributing to, I’m at 23% body fat fat ratio right now, dad-bod for sure, I will be switching to an 18-hour fasting regimen. With the help of a personal trainer I plan to see every other week I hope to push that number down as much as I can. My weight sits in at 175 lbs., I want to hit 162 lbs. within a 10-month period. All this is to support my 2020 goals of hiking both the Wonderland and the John Muir Trails. Strength and endurance improvements are the main goal here, not swimsuit readiness.
Diet-wise I am eating chicken, fish, turkey, bison, lots of fruits/veggies/grains. I also have been having, and plan to continue, having an occasional cheat meal (not cheat day) and treat myself to pizza, French Fries, cheeseburgers, and ice cream. I quit drinking, however, I will have a glass of wine now and then when the occasion calls for it. Like morel mushrooms. I think it’s a crime not to eat morels without a really great glass of Oregon Pinot Noir.
I let my numbers guide me. I share all my info and patterns with my medical professionals who serve as a sounding board helping me to make informed decisions. They are not responsible for me. I am. Though I am grateful for their help.
Anyway, I hope this perspective aids someone out there. It’s not prescriptive, I’m not a medical or diet professional. I’m just a guy navigating his way through living with CAD (and bouts of depression and anxiety), turning 50 recently while striking a balance between what I love and what I can realistically do.
I meditate daily and perform breathing exercises. I try not to turn down the opportunity for intimacy when it chooses to show up. I work on being open and transparent more than I used to with my feelings. I even spent the last 6 months walking and hiking as workouts. Stopped running for a time in fact. And, much to my surprise, everything was fine. However, I am now preparing to get back into lifting weights, one of my post-heart attack goblins there, and have a string of really challenging hikes with my 25 lbs. backpack on my back for the entire Fall and Winter seasons ahead of 2020.
I guess what I learned through all this is that it’s OK to choose to not be afraid. Or at least, in my case, stop reacting to the fear in my head. Choose your own path based on what you enjoy. Always keep in touch with your Dr’s but don’t self-monitor yourself into hysteria over numbers that always fluctuate. As I walked to my appointment this morning, in fact, I meditated on all of the hikes and good times I’ve had over the last four years. Fear was doing it’s best to present itself. I’m happy to say that, what I once thought might be a foolish attempt to make memories, pursuing all the things I have, to bring more enjoyment into my life, well… it actually worked. I went into the appointment and was ready to accept good or bad news.
Chances are, if you’ve survived a heart event, you get all this. It’s the day to day with heart disease. It’s just nice to finally be in a place where, yeah, it’s still there, but I feel much more like myself than I have in a long long time. Life can be like floating down a river. You have to paddle with the current, sometimes against, to get where you are going. But ultimately, we all arrive.
So, you want to document your professional journey? Maybe you feel like giving back and want to share some of what you learned on a project while consulting for a client or what you and your team did on a corporate project? Perhaps you want to make a quarterly goal for work and show your progress? Or simply share how you perfected an irresistible dog food recipe? Well, you’re in luck, there are a few great ways to start building your story and showcasing your efforts while, possibly, helping like-minded folks out there in the world at large.
The first thing I would start with is the idea. What problem
are you trying to solve? I use the following template.
I usually start with my problem statement. Think of this like your High School essay. Where you have an opening where you introduce your thesis statement. From there you can start to draft a title. Then again, you may already have a title that encompasses your meaning. Some people are gifted like that.
For the outline, create placeholders for your introduction, body, and conclusion. The body is composed of your supporting information, arguments, research, proofs, recipe, experiments and so on. Your conclusion wraps up all your ideas. Tying things up like lace in a shoe pulling the eyeholes of the introduction, points of your body and then the flow of the conclusion acts as the pulling motion that pulls the lace through all the eyeholes.
Think about the kinds of stories you like to hear. Me? I
like conversations. Hence, that is typically the voice I strive to write.
Everyone is different. For that matter, I read somewhere that there are two
types of communicators. Those who convey meaning by talking and those who do it
by writing. That’s OK, while this post focuses on blogging, you could easily
apply the same principals to creating a talk and submitting an abstract to
local or national conferences. There is however a set of editing practices that
are unique to both.
While none of this is easy. You have the idea, the work and then the sharing that you want to do. Maybe to build a brand. Or to just fulfill a desire to improve the world around you. Or simply to participate in a larger conversation. Whatever the motivation, it’s all attainable in small bite-sized blocks.
Here are a few things to consider as you shape your creation.
Find your voice. Mine is conversational. Yours’s may be purely technical or academic and research-heavy. Whatever it is, really listen to yourself as if you were a reader. Ask yourself questions. Try to separate yourself from your experience and come at your work from the angle of someone who knows nothing about what you are talking about. What kind of piece is going to capture, and hold their attention? Also, there was a lot of Ted Talk influenced garbage about introducing yourself “as the expert.” Whenever I hear someone start with those kinds of talking points, I immediately switch it off. They just sound like self-promoters to me. Which you may be doing. Hell, I may do that now and then, but I try to write from the angle that I am simply a guy sharing my experiences freely and without shame. You will never hear me open a post like “HI my name is Jeff and I have been hiking for 4 years, have most of a forestry degree and enjoy the celebrity of being a You Tube hiking and outdoor warrior ninja star.” Nawh, I’m gonna talk about falling in the river, forgetting my knife, getting hopelessly lost. All that is true for sure in most of my writing, but I will also try to message on what I learned from all those experiences. Failures and all. It’s funny, I spoke about a technical stack I used to work with at a local tech conference a few years back, The Dog Food Conference, and one of my commenters told me that it sounded like a collection of war stories. Yeah, that’s exactly what I go for. I’d rather share the locations of the steep inclines, tree roots, gravel roads and areas with no water that I fumbled through for others to benefit from and skip the pompous “I am an expert speak.”
Another thing to consider is the keywords. If you intend to write a series about a topic then you may want to tie them all together by some set of keywords. Hashtags if you are on social media like LinkedIn or Twitter. For instance, I use #Hiking, #DotNet, #HeartHealth, #Local and so on. Also, if you can, incorporate a keyword in your title for findability sake. Don’t go overboard and hashtag the heck out of everything. Use these strategically.
On the topic of SEO practices, mind your title length. Try
to limit it to 60 characters. And if your platform offers a description text
box for your post, try to limit that to 160 characters to be search engine
As I was leaving Nationwide Insurance, my boss at the time,
who was awesome, talked a lot about how the face you present in the form of the
collection of all your actions and work become your brand when it reaches other
people’s ears. They called that personal branding in the corporate context.
While this piece talks more organically about sharing our stories, some of
those principals apply. The only social media outlet that I use these days is
LinkedIn. You may have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any number of other
technologies where you have friends, acquaintances, contacts or followers. Use
those. Share your thoughts with your hashtags and well thought out titles. You
will be surprised at the number of people who find your post(s) and end up
thanking you for the knowledge. I get that every now and then on the heart
health and hiking front. All these things, depending on what your topic is, may
help you land a new gig or simply check off a goal of yours.
Another good practice? Always have someone proofread your
work. But buy that person a beer or something because that takes a little bit
of effort. If you have a friend who can do this for you, it’s a huge gift and
well worth the ask as it can only improve your work. If you don’t have someone,
then look into some writing tools like Grammarly
and The Hemingway App. They can at
least propose some canned suggestions. Anything helps.
Lastly, where the Hell do you post this stuff? Well, the simple answer would be to go the route I initially went. I started my own blog. My mom is my biggest fan though. But I own the content and I am free to write what I want. I also use LinkedIn articles to post things that I want to share professionally. There have been times though when I got published on the American Heart Association or our local farm co-op blogs in addition to Readers Digest or the Columbus Dispatch in interview format on topics I was qualified to speak about. If you don’t have any of those things, then simply create a Word document and post that to a team channel. It might be Slack, Microsoft Teams or even Reddit.
Be creative. Find your home base, think of your idea, spend
some time formalizing and whittling it down. Less is more when it comes to words,
use pictures, tag things strategically, spend some time on searchability, be
approachable and avoid putting yourself (or your idea) on a pedestal. Keep
writing. Embrace failure but let each one give you the gift of a lesson.
Finished my Thoreau research last night. Well, really, it was comprised of reading some of his works again along with a critical biography of the man, his times and the people who knew him. I really enjoyed how the biographer wrapped up many complex themes by actually walking to Walden Pond. Of course, gone were the paths from Concord to the Pond. Replaced by highways and roads that were, as his story went, treacherous enough that it worried both his son and wife.
He painted a picture
of a man I would very much have liked to have known. Someone whom I’d
be proud to have a piece of his thinking printed on my body as a
reminder to myself that life is both complicated and simple at the
Anyway, this is the
page I dog eared and the block I underlined with the intent of
sharing. As a city man who likes to go hiking and backpacking, it
sort of pulls everything into focus in a nice tidy package. I think
Brené Brown also talks about something like this in closing one of
her books saying something like we are the wilderness ourselves.
“I was getting the feeling more and more that in the city I might find nature in a lot more places than I might have looked before, that the wildness was more important than wilderness, that wildness was everywhere, if I looked for it, the search being part of what makes wild wild.”
I woke up this morning, made coffee, fed the beasts and read an article about a guy from Knoxville who died of a heart attack while hiking in the smokies. That’s a thought that is always with me now just four years after my own heart attack. But, oddly enough, it’s also become one of my guiding principals. Like a double-edged blade, however, it can act as both a negative and a positive force. Without it, however, I would not have achieved all that I have or changed in ways that I could not even begin to imagine before my event. For instance, the main reason I started hiking, with a backpack, on multi-day treks, well, honestly it was to get a handle on panic attacks and depression. What happened as a result of those efforts is what this post is about. Really, it’s about three specific things that I sort of realized as a result of this slow tidal movement in my head over the past four years. Plus one that came to me while finishing a book on Thoreau last night. But for now, it’s summer in Ohio. The last full month in fact. And this is where the story begins.
There’s something magical about mid-August. It’s still, usually, hot as blazes. The sunny season here in the midwest. I live in a State which is typically shrouded by grey clouds most of the year with only 175 days of full sun annually. It’s the last full summer month which, even as the outdoor fun is going full tilt, makes one think about the season as it gives way to September and the fall harvest to come. It’s been a full couple seasons for me to boot. I just finished up work on my first client since I decided to go back into tech consulting on the cloud side of things this time. Completed some tattoo research on Henry David Thoreau. Hiked the Smokies and Big South Fork. Performed several alcohol fasts (two and four-week intervals – post to follow sometime in the future). Hired a personal trainer in an effort to make the transition from pure cardio workouts to some strength training with a goal of doing the Wonderland Trail next year. (That would be a singularly impressive feat for me if I can swing it). Car camped during the buggy, spider-web covered and abnormally wet summer season, all which make backpacking not so much fun unless you are 6000+ feet above sea level that is. But yeah, I returned to two campgrounds where I have a good number of buddies here in Ohio and one in Indiana as many times as I possibly could, sometimes upwards of three weekends a month, while making some fantastic new connections and enjoyable times had. All told, it’s been a summer I won’t soon forget.
This leads to the first thing that kind of stands out in my head which marks a shift in personal process. My growing dissatisfaction in being an online customer. Well, online ordering in general. I’ve been having an increasingly lackluster experience with online retailers over the past year. Admittedly, I don’t have a finger on the pulse of the industry. My superficial discomfort, I suspect, is related to how our reliance on these outlets has grown. Keeps growing, and how the delivery and customer service models are changing. All those trucks we see on the road. Delivering things, or in my case, mis-delivering things like cat litter, every week. I mean, who has cat litter shipped to them in giant cardboard boxes right? Oh, wait, that used to be me.
I am left thinking about a colleague of mine. He told me recently that “I am taking a time out from [un-named] online store.” Presumably for many of the same reasons. Of course, he went cold turkey. That’s who he is. Me? I am sort re-calibrating and trying to divert more of my dollars locally, where I can, for the things I need. Online ordering is fine for what it is, but we all have choices as consumers. It’s funny though, truth be told, there is no fault with the retailers, it’s really my own problem to solve. The never-ending pursuit of stuff and the means by which we come by it. Perhaps my discomfort all along has been a nagging suspicion that I really don’t need some of this stuff after all?
Without much thought, I was feeling the same way food-wise. Our grocery chains are solid and serve a great many people extremely well. At least for those of us who are lucky enough not to live in rural food deserts in the wake of movements like Mega-Super-Giant Stores and the insidious Dollar Store industry. Yet I wanted something different. Something that was outside the bounds of the awesome but self-contained farmers markets here in Columbus. Available only during the bountiful months. In fact, we used to belong to a food co-op in Dallas and I missed that experience. That’s where our affiliation with Yellow Bird began. Pretty much as an experiment. We decided to become members. Reducing our reliance upon big-box grocery chains. Instead, we turned toward a family run distributor, who are themselves farmers as well. They source locally raised/grown Ohio farm products. Initially, it was for the challenge of not knowing what was coming in our box, we like to cook and to have a culinary puzzle to solve every week. Food should be fun. Like what the Hell do we do with Kohlrabi? Or in the winter months when we have cabbage coming out of our weekly shares with regularity, as we hate cabbage. Yet we learned to enjoy it in things like stir fry. While it was about eating locally at first, it became about eating by the calendar and learning to adapt to a simpler way of thinking. Asparagus in the spring. Blueberries and strawberries at the beginning of summer. Watermelon, corn, and summer squash mid-summer and so on as the year rolls on ahead of us like a big wheel.
The second realization that presented itself, a lesson previously learned but one which represented itself through a simple act of sharing. It came when I sent a book to a very close friend of mine, named Mike, this week on minimalism. He’s in the process of re-architecting his life with his partner. They are long-distance at the moment. He is a car camping buddy of mine who lives here in Columbus while his boyfriend lives in Kansas. Their goal is to move closer to Chicago if not actually to Chicago. When I first met him, his house presented a problem for me. I am an order guy. A recovering Type-A. I have a bullet list for fucking everything. I like low key spaces where all things have a place and there are never too many objects anywhere. All my workspaces are like that too. Nothing but the very bare essentials anywhere at any time. Spartan. Mike, however, has pile after pile of objects. Everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a hoarder. Just a guy living like a guy by himself. Living well in fact. But, as he is facing a move across the country, he’s got some challenges. Pair down or remain stuck under the weight of those possessions. The truth is, however, as I opened my closet bursting with camping, hiking, backpacking gear, and all my clothes… I had to wonder, again, how is it that we “need” so much stuff? I suppose we all have our areas f focus to work on at any given time.
Again, I have to think about my aunt Lora decrying our human habit of acquiring stuff for the sake of stuff. Having moved across the country myself, twice, I know what it’s like to pair down. Sometimes while in transit, embarrassingly enough. I know I have another purge coming. Things to box up for donation. Stuff has a way of landing in everyone’s houses. Ridding ourselves of things is an iterative process. On a related note, my husband sent me an excellent article from GQ recently, “The Sound of Silence: Here’s What Happened When I Did a Month-Long Sound Fast,” Joel Pavelski. Which brings the whole idea of clutter full circle. Perhaps it’s mental, emotional and physical “stuff” that we need to pair down on in an effort to dig ourselves out of the mess that piles up around us as we move along through life? (It’s why I plan to burn about 30 years worth of my own journals in the near future – post to follow).
The third idea that presented itself this summer was discovered while doing some tattoo research for a full hind leg tattoo. Ankle to ass. In a big heavy font. My first literary piece in fact.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”
Henry David Thoreau
All these trains of thought are leading somewhere. I may not have the ability to plot the course on a magic map, but I feel the pull. One of the books I picked up on Thoreau this summer, “The Thoreau You Don’t Know, What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant,” By Robert Sullivan, makes me wonder about something he said, “the only remedy for love is to love more.” It makes me wonder if there is a corollary in there somewhere about life? Maybe something like “The remedy for life is to live more?” Therein lies the deepest of all questions.
The three big questions. How do you want to live? What gives you purpose. Where do you find joy?
When I read that guy’s headline this morning, “man dies while hiking in the Smokies,” I thought of my own drive to get out on the path, way outside of cell service, 911, medics and such in an effort to force myself to choose between anxiety and grueling effort of climbing up a mountainside while surrounded by natural beauty. He was where I was not four weeks ago. Doing the same thing. Which serves as a stark reminder of the deadly real consequences of my choice, as a heart attack survivor, in taking off to the backcountry for long-distance hiking and camping either solo or with friends. Yet, as my proposed corollary states, while life is finite, we can choose to live as dead men or we can choose to live like living men. Yes, I might indeed die up on some mountain, crossing some stream, in a lake or out on a wooded trail somewhere – just as easily as being “hit by a bus” as so many well-intended folks, unfortunately, tell people who have suffered a catastrophic event only to fall short of empathy in the end. I think the emotional freedom we fight for is freedom from our fear of mortality and the dogma we build up all around us like walls. Keeping us from actually living well.
It may take Herculian efforts, and more emotional/mental gymnastics than we ever thought possible, but I’ve also found a fourth, and possibly the most important axiom over the past four years of searching. It’s the people you let your guard down around and allow yourself to form friendships with that give us the most joy and meaning in life. I think the best human energy that we are capable of is love. While I may not be the most articulate writer, or thinker, I suspect we have a better chance of accomplishing what I suggest as answers to the Big Three Questions, listed below, when we strive to see more clearly. That is, by freeing ourselves from attachments and debris. Both physical and emotional. Seeking experiences and friendships that move us closer to our core, showing us just how profound our short lives are.
My big three answers. Love of self. Love of life? Love of others.
Having just arrived back home from, most of the week in Cleveland on-site at our client and a quick camping overnight from Friday to Saturday on the way back to Columbus, I was in the mood to cook something homey. Being gone for most of the week meant I had some greens to use from our previous and current Yellow Bird shipments. These included a bunch of purple kale, a beautiful batch of Swiss Chard, some Daikon Radishes and yellow onion. As usual, all locally grown here in Ohio.
It was Sunday morning so I spent some lazy time in bed with fresh coffee I had made Captain Underpants style. It’s Sunday. No schedules, so hey! I had my copy of The New American Heart Association Cookbook in hand and came across a gratin idea. I like this cook book as it has all sorts of creative ways to cook without the usual amounts of fat, salt, and sugar you normally see in traditional collections. Like using non-fat ricotta, fat-free milk, applesauce in place of sugar or fats (at times) and any number of seasonings to bump up the flavor since salt is a luxury. But you also have flavor punches allowed from things like low-fat cheddar and full fledged Parmesan cheese, in lesser amounts but just as powerful flavor wise, in the mix.
I came across a recipe for Collard Greens and Artichoke Gratin this morning. I used this as a template substituting the Collards for the Kale and Swiss Chard that I had, however. Also, using this recipe and it’s technique for precooking Daikon Radishes before making a totally decadent gratin out of them, I pre-boiled the sliced Daikons for 15 minutes then proceeded to layer as the Heart Association recipe called for.
I grabbed my copy of The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody then flipped to the section on gratins. They call these things “enduring, unpretentious dishes that are a boon for any cook.” Citing that they are versatile enough for both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike in that they can either play center stage or ride shotgun and serve as a side dish. They also state that presentation wise, they are well suited for shallow round cooking dishes with as much surface area as possible to give the diners a chance to enjoy the crisp of the breadcrumbs and cheese mixture on the top of an otherwise soft and savory center.
As a finishing touch, I layered some panko and Parmesan on the top and baked covered for 15 minutes then removed the cover to allow browning and crisping of the top for about 20 minutes.
In the end, it was a good way to get my greens for the day, make some lunches ahead for the week that is about to begin and enjoy learning more about how versatile gratins are in the meantime. Also, the flavor of the Daikons sort of shone in contrast to the hearty greens. The balance of flavors and textures was pretty great actually.
This week’s goals include ditching breakfast and trying out the whole 12 hour fast thing. Bringing my own coffee to work instead of going to Starbucks and packing a healthy lunch and set of snacks to munch on through the day. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally get on the overnight oats bandwagon finally. Diet and lifestyle are both a process. Things ebb and flow but it should always be fun and satisfying.
I had a chance to go camping last weekend in Indiana with a group of guys I know, some whom I met for the first time. Funny though, I’m on a work trip now and I just got back from my first trek out to Cuyahoga National Park here in Cleveland Ohio tonight. I invited a couple co-workers but they bowed out. Opting for a comfy booth somewhere at an overpriced restaurant.
I had been looking forward to closing the first day of our “go live” trip while on site at our client all day. Well, really since I learned we were coming up and I decided to get my own car just in case this situation of people bailing on me happened. The drive down toward Akron was great. I’m such a pedestrian and urban biker these days that I often times forget how relaxing and freeing it is just to hit the highway and go. The National Park was beautiful though I only saw a small fraction of it. There is a path called the Salt Run Trail that only spans between 3 and 4 miles so that fit within my limited amount of time. Still, it was enough to hear the forest life at dusk, catch the last rays of the sun dancing on the lake where some guys were fishing, get some deep breaths of pine scented air in my lungs and re-calibrate after looking at a computer screen all day trouble shooting with my colleagues.
It’s funny. One of my clients was deriding a fellow co-worker of his today who was aiming at retiring at the age of 30 and living on a fixed income of $1800 a month. making fun of his minimalist ideals. Golf, expensive cars and being a landlord are more this guys style. This always reminds me of my aunt. She always felt sorry for people who amassed stuff for the sake of stuff. I personally think she was right. There are huge swaths of life-time I have spent that I will never get back but other people’s objectives were met. Me? Well, I tried to tell my client that, had I structured my own life-path differently, given some impossible event of foresight looking backwards, I’d be living out of a van and traveling living off of a tiny income doing freelance work off the grid. I admire that lifestyle more and more as the years pass. I love the city, but, for me, home can be a prison.
And back to the past weekend. There was a lot of Tom-Foolery going on as it was handkerchief code weekend. So the men with all the fetishes were out in force among friends all having a good time. It was however, as everyone took a break from the party, that I had lit my campfire ring along with three of my neighbors. Me and my campsite buddy Tiger had set out a ton of chairs in order to create an atmosphere conducive to an honest to goodness campfire circle. Luck was on my side as eight of us ended up sitting around the fires talking and drinking beers, sangria and cocktails through the late hours of the night while the little bears, mice, were scampering around in anticipation of scraps of food later.
I had a moment of inspiration though when it just felt right to open up a topic to the group. Almost like someone invisible whispered into my ear. While I can’t share the actual conversation for sake of privacy and propriety here, it was an origins question. Roughly “what got you into X?” It was an amazing 20 minutes for me that felt nothing short of true connectedness between men who felt comfortable enough to let our guards down and share openly as if we were brothers. I suppose that’s why I brought up Rob in my story. He and I used to joke about being extended family brother types. His acceptance and courage was one of the things that set me on my own path. And while it’s been solo a lot of my life, it is for so many of us who are into X, Y or Z. I always did know, but this weekends campfire ring conversation drove home, very much, that I am not alone.
This summer, both work and extracurricular wise, has been one for the books. I’m gonna be sad to see it go in a couple months. But damn. The memories are gonna be great to hold on to for as long as I can. I feel incredibly lucky to have been here for all that I’ve experienced this year. Failures? Yeah, there have been loads. But there have also been some incredibly rare and beautiful moments. Like tonight by myself in the woods for a quick hike and last Saturday night in Indiana with my extended “brothers” sharing some big magic. If I have learned anything it’s do what feels right and good, then share that with others and, as Three Dog Night said it best, “Joy to the World.”
We got some really great beets in our Yellow Bird box last week. A medium-sized red one and a giant golden beet. I had a couple bunches of kale and some fresh onions handy so I set to carmelize one of the yellow onions, I love how savory that smells when you cook up a pan of those until golden brown and sweet-smelling. I had baked off the beets earlier so they were already pretty cool. I then chopped up the kale and added that to the onions. Seasoned with a bit of Kosher salt and some ground black pepper. Waited until the greens were properly cooked then added the chopped up beets to the mix for a quick toss then added the white beans. Cooked for about 5 more minutes then removed from the heat and doused with the juice of half a fresh lemon. I find that the acid from the lemon offsets the earthiness of the beets making the dish light but flavor-forward and healthy way to celebrate both local produce and, well, summer!
Well, that might have been Andy’s take. I don’t know. It was one of my buddies thoughts immediately when I showed him. But when Andy, the artist, told me about the idea I was like damn dude, yes! We are in the process of working on my left arm piece right now. I wanted patterns roughly related to the kind of work I’ve done all my life. And, true to form, my artist is making that happen.
The heart today. Well, that, like the tree on my right arm tells an ancillary, and originally unintended, story. More of a correlation. One of life’s “coincidences.” The base of the tree I have on my right arm is where the stent went in that saved my life over four years ago now. The heart on my left arm, to me anyway, represents the fact that I had a widowmaker heart attack. Centered on the left side of a person’s heart. Yeah, I also wear my heart on my sleeve for sure so that metaphor also applies, but I can’t deny the patterns that life repeats back at us in unexpected ways at times. At times, through other peoples eyes.
I give my tattoo artist ideas & stories only. I’m not gifted with visual design. Thankfully, he is. I’m also not looking for something so specific as an Ohio tattoo or a Tazmanian Devil. Not that those are bad, it’s just not what I want. I’d much rather have work on my body that might be inspired by a flowing conversation between two people. Hence my appreciation for the heart I now have in my left tricep, near my armpit. Which, in a potentially weird man-smelly way that he purportedly shared with me, also reminds me of Henry David Thoreau. He’s been on my mind all summer. Possibly on my calf forever in the near future. Someone whom I believe embraced counter-culture from within the urban culture of Concord itself. pulling everyone around him along the axis of his amazing family’s efforts, not just his own, in the process. Just like my aunt Lora said that we can’t change the world, but we can talk with and appreciate our neighbors as equals. That’s the change we all have the power to affect.
But yeah, tonight. I have one more piece of work that is already reminding me of why I am doing all this in the first place. Finding my story and a way to tell it over time.
Heaving, sweat saturating the entire surface area of my body, boots, socks, underwear, pants, shirt, and hat, with a sheen on my arms, neck, and face I was struggling with the whole Yoda thing. “Try not, only do.” I was with a group of guys, whom I am lucky enough to have as hiking buddies this past weekend as we were summiting the mountain of Spence Field in the Smoky Mountains on the first day of a three-day hike. Toward the end of the day, I was faced with the fact that I had let my cardio shape lapse into a normal human realm. It was more than enough to meet the demands of the Olympic Mountains in 2018 but I was running half marathons at the time. I’ve only been walking, hiking and riding my bike short distances for work lately. Friday, on the way up the mountainside for an elevation gain of more than 5000 feet truly humbled me. A seed of doubt had been planted as to whether or not I would have to bail on this trip and just go hang out at Elkmont campground while the guys finished the hike by themselves.
Myles, the main organizer for the Central Kentucky Backpackers Group, had reached out saying that his Buddy Aaron had an idea of hiking three days on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies for a July getaway before he left for a two week trip in Alaska. I reached out to our mutual friend Paul and it all just sort of synced up. First off, I am not even an intermediate hiker at this point. I’m probably, an advanced beginner with four years under my belt now and some really great challenges met, but there is still so much for me to learn. That’s why I like hiking with these guys. I learn something new every time I go out with them.
Day 1: Jakes Creek Trail to Spence Field Shelter
Day 2: Spence Field Shelter to Double Spring Shelter
Day 3: Double Spring Shelter, along the Little River, to Elkmont Campgrounds
On the way up we encountered a couple of rattlesnakes who were, thankfully, relaxed enough to just remain balled up slightly off to the side of the trail without becoming agitated. Wild turkeys, deer and, oddly enough, some super bold rabbits who just sort of hung out with us. Aaron however encountered a momma bear and her two cubs while the rest of us only saw fresh paw prints in the soft parts of the trail. After many breaks, I caught up with Aaron and the other guys. They never left me too far behind though, some of whom were struggling with either knee or foot issues. My struggle was mainly cardiovascular and muscular conditioning in nature, not joints or pain. Things I can control over time with training. But the thing that hit me hard was the lack of self-confidence I felt. That and the post heart attack reality I live day to day. The Yoda thing does not apply to me anymore. I have limits. We all do really but it takes something like an artery exploding to begin to fully embrace them. I have to prepare over weeks of training to achieve something like this, not just safely, but to build confidence in my ability. I can’t risk myself or others because of my circumstance. That’s the harsh light I was standing in, or rather, doubled over by heaving air sweating like a rain cloud dispensing sprinkles, on the path up to Spence the first day. Part of me knew I would make it that day. Slow and steady. And I did. But the next day? Well, that remained the question.
We made it to Spence shelter just before a night long thunderstorm hit. It just opened up, poured down and boomed all night on top of our mountain retreat. We were in the company of four other guys. Two of whom were in their late 60’s early 70’s. Old friends or brothers. We never found out. But the gear they carried was totally old school. Heavy as hell. I was impressed regardless. I want to be them in a decade or so. Still doing what I love even if my knees ache, my heart blows up again, and my VO2 max lags along with my muscles strength as I age. Slow is still movement toward experiencing life.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Paul using his water bag to collect rainwater from the drainage spout from the AT Shelter roof. Part of me was like no no no no no no… but I trust this guy’s experience completely and if it was good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me. Well, that and it meant I didn’t have to hike down to the water source in the rain to fill up. Sparing my legs. Myles joined in on that and filled his up as well. Aaron just drank directly from the source as he does not filter his water at all. Being a former AT through hiker, and long term outdoorsman, he knows more than I ever will about life outdoors. And yet, with all that experience, he’s one of the most humble, energetic and open guys I’ve met so far on the trail. Laidback but sharp. Just there doing exactly what he loves and, I think, laser cutting every moment into his brain because he really lives for this kind of thing. I walked away with a lot of admiration for this guy.
We all made our various dinners. Mine was one of those Packit Gourmet Dottie’s Chicken & Biscuits jobs which always reminds me of dinner with my best friend Doug back at Heart Lake the night we arrived. Cold and wet on day three of our trip through the Olympics last year. It just sort of tastes like that moment of comfort I guess.
I slept off and on that night in the top bunk level listening to the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof above all night and through the morning. The shelter was a wooden structure with three walls. Carvings from previous hikers everywhere and a guest book I should have read but was too tired to thumb through. The old guys were up at the crack of dawn and we eventually followed suit. We did around 8 miles the day before and had a 14-mile agenda for Saturday. Breakfast was quick. I neglected to bring coffee which was fine because I was still drinking a ton of water to re-hydrate from all the sweat I produced the day before. I was fine but just thirsty all the time for a bit.
As we packed up and left our campsite I was hearing the guys talk about how the trail ahead of us was not entirely easy. It ended up being a little more elevation gain than the day before actually. More on that later though. After a few miles of trail, I turned to Myles privately and in a nervous voice, shared with him my anxiety that I may not be able to do this trip and might bail. The other guys caught up to us, not far behind, probably taking pictures, and joined in the conversation. The problem with bailing for me meant that I’d have to go solo and my navigation skills are still underdeveloped. That and I hadn’t downloaded the GPS maps to my phone as the route was hard for me to conceptualize. Learning a lot here, but still, a novice.
What impressed me was that the guys did everything they could to accommodate me. Make me feel at ease and work through the options. Never once leaving me on my own. Just the opposite. I felt like I had three people who rallied around me. That gave me the strength I needed to make the choice to go on once we had reviewed the options. They even made me lead. Which meant going at the same painfully slow pace I was going at on inclines as we went up and down all day. Summiting Thunderhead and Rocky Top along the way. After we got to the point where we were 8 miles in and sort of in the clear and I was obviously able to handle myself, Paul and Aaron went on ahead while Myles lagged behind seemingly for his knee but I suspect, in part, to make sure I made it safely. It’s that kind of hiker empathy that makes me glad in my heart that I have a love for this form of experience. You get to see the very best part of human nature while enjoying the outdoors together. Completely different experiences and motivations but the same outcomes and moments of pure freedom that you can’t find anywhere else. Period.
We arrived at Double Spring Shelter at around 7 pm. Having started that morning just after 7 am, that made for a long day of hiking, climbing, contemplation and talking. Something that I won’t soon forget either. We were all pretty beat so we changed into our shelter clothes (except for Aaron who didn’t seem to sweat much at all). I had a pair of running shorts, my Columbus half marathon shirt and a pair of Zero sandals that I love. Again, Dottie’s for dinner. More water. I gave my overly heavy metal flask with whiskey in it to Paul and Myles to split. I figured I was still working on replacing water too aggressively to risk dehydration that night anyway.
Our shelter mates were four college seniors from Dayton Ohio that night. The contrast between that and the previous night was not lost on me either. In my group, I am the oldest at 51. The youngest in our troop is 35. Running into the seniors from last night and the younger folks on Saturday night was kind of a full-circle thing in my head. It made me think of the true draw of being outdoors has for people across so many different walks of life. The search for ourselves. A chance to leave day to day life behind and walk outside of the shelter in the middle of the night bare-chested in the mist as the moonlight beams down on you with so many stars peppering the sky that every tree around you just shines in this silvery light that seems to promise perspective itself. Those moments are the gems I am currently collecting. And, novice or not, I have already collected a large stock which makes me grateful for my ability to do the things I do. Yeah, it was hard, I could be in better shape, but I chose to go on with the benefit of the support of my friends. I learned that, even now, I can walk 35 really hard miles over three days. Do a 14,000+ foot elevation gain. Hike through some pretty brutally hot conditions (day one) as the country was in a heatwave at the time. Not so much as we gained elevation. It gave me a chance to step outside of myself again and just, well, breath.
Day three came too soon. We huffed it down the mountain pretty much for the first third of the hike toward the Little River Trail and then ultimately back out to Elkmont. I learned about this synchronous lightning bug light show from the guys. It happens in Elkmont every year for two weeks. When I got home I looked it up and found a video about it. Never heard of that before and after watching the footage, well it reminds me of when Myles told us about the Moonbow at Cumberland Falls. It’s those moments where nature is pretty fucking magical. So much more so that looking at a screen. Combine that and time with people who enjoy what you do? Well, damn, that’s the whole point of life I think.
The river was beautiful as we hiked along it on Sunday. We talked about the phrase hikers use “embrace the suck” that speaks to the torture you put yourself through to accomplish something more incredible than you knew before you started.
It ended all too soon for me. Even though it was challenging and I lost faith in myself momentarily, I found my center out there once again. Buried among all my internal noise. Yet, the suck stripped all that away and left me in the field surrounded by mist, moonlight, and stars. Grateful for my life. Grateful for my friends. Grateful to just be here in this moment making the choice to keep moving on.
I am going car camping again this weekend for a scheduled trip with some buddies out in Indiana but I plan to start holding myself along an axis of getting back in climbing shape with a training plan again. I want to complete the year out with the Dolly Sods, The Virginia Triple Crown, Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the Smokies and only 3 miles from where we were Saturday night but I was too exhausted to attempt it) among other places through the fall and winter. If anything, this trip, and the very real moments of doubt that reached up and grabbed me by the neck taught me something about who I am. Maybe, who I am continually striving to become?
At the end of this trail, I can say I was on the Appalachian Trail and walked through a part of the Smokies in the company of friends. A mantra I use all the time has been [breathing in] “I am” [Breathing out] “Enough.” That proved true this weekend.