Friday, September 29, 2023

Two Old Coots and the Tow-headed kid


I was sleeping that great way you can when it's cold out and the only way to stay warm is to keep the sleeping bag pulled up the way up over your head. You know it's dark outside and getting out of that bag merely means the pain of the upcoming day is about to begin. Sure, there will be wonderful sunrises and sunsets. The sky will be clear and blue, and the leaves will be in the midst of changing to the vibrant colors that happen in the fall. will be seeing and feeling all of that while carrying a large pack with tent, sleeping bag, and all of the supplies for 5 days on your back while marching uphill with small breaks to eat some food that tastes like something from a vending machine that hasn't been serviced in five years. Yes, there are times when it seems like the best part of the day is right before you crawl out of that sleeping bag.

At some point, I looked at my watch and marveled that it still seemed dark at 7am, and thought, if we don't get going, the uphill marching will continue farther into the night than I might prefer. I pulled on enough clothes to make it worth venturing out to attempt a decent cup of coffee.  I had the tent half unzipped when this head floated into view, saying "I have a great deal for you!". It took me a minute to register where I was, who I was, and I had to hold my hand up, while I realized that it was Levi, my grand nephew, the only 12 year-old I'd ever met that wanted to go backpacking with a couple of old guys. Levi kind of reminded me of myself at 12 years old, except that I remember me as being a shy bookworm, that loved science fiction, and books in general, much more than any physical activity. If this kid had any of my DNA, it was polished up, and refocused in a totally different direction. He was tall, thin, with a shock of blonde hair, and a personality that knew no enemies, just prospective friends. He was smart and could talk a mile a minute, and that's what was happening now. We had arrived on this trip with me in a solo tent and Levi and his grandfather sharing a two-man tent. The idea was that Levi might be scared sleeping alone in the woods and having his PopPop nearby might offer some comfort. This was our first morning after sleeping under the stars and Levi already decided the sleeping arrangements could be improved. 

    "So, I could sleep in your tent tonight and you and PopPop could sleep in the other tent together!" My guess was Levi was thinking I might enjoy Paul's snoring, and Paul might enjoy mine. I almost felt sorry for the kid for a hot moment and then replied, "You're on your own, kid. I got my tent and that's where I'm sleeping!"


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Traveling The Potomac River The Hard Way: Part 2


It sounded great on paper. An epic journey beginning with riding the Amtrak train from Winter Park, FL to Washington DC and then riding bikes from there to Cumberland, MD on the historic C&O trail, stopping at hotels in small towns and sampling the food and culture along the way. It was to be an escape from the incessant Sunshine and heat of Central Florida. The talk of this trip began way before the whole Covid Pandemic and much of the discussion was, could we even pull this off? What kind of bikes would we need to make the trip. In the beginning, we were riding lowslung Catrikes and were told they couldn't go on the train, nor would they work very well on the rough conditions of the forward to 2023 and we were on lightweight e-bikes that weighed less than the 50 pound limit of Amtrak and had enough range to last a day. We started attempting long distance trips close to home, loaded down with saddlebags, seeing if we could really do 60 mile a day for multiple days. 

We booked pretty far in advance, as the space for bikes is limited on Amtrak, and what started getting a little spooky as the trip was getting closer...the weather forecast...

It was hot, but not that kind of hot where you can smell the asphalt melting under your feet. Steve and I were standing alongside the railroad track in downtown Winter Park, FL. A quaint little place in central Florida, populated by  the very rich and those who serve them. It was one of those places where the phrase "the wrong side of the tracks" came from. On one side was Park Ave and the blocks of shops that sold things that didn't have price tags on them...the kind where if you had to ask, you could not afford them.On the other side of the tracks was Hannibal square. The place where black folks used to live, and is now populated with hipsters that paid lots of money to have a small old house on a tiny lot, with a new Tesla parked out front. 

We waited patiently, wondering what was ahead, when we started feeling the train coming from the vibrations at our feet. Moments later, our bikes were handed up to the gentleman in the baggage car and we were welcomed up and into our roomette on the sleeper car. It was calm and exciting at the same time. Nothing much like an airplane terminal in Orlando. We had our own concierge and he took us to our room and explained how everything worked. My first impression was that it was a long time ago that this train was new, and it must have been built for smaller people. Neither Steve nor I are small and we were jammed in, facing each other...for the next 17 hours. The seats folded together to make a single bed and there was some kind of contraption that pulled down from the ceiling and made a top bunk. Steve took one look at that and said, "You are sleeping up there!" By this time, the train was rolling down the track and I was looking at a familiar landscape from a totally different perspective. I was thinking this was going to be much better than backpacking. I mean I had a really good bike, some electrical motor help if I needed it and it wasn't going to be hot like Florida...the only thing was, I was still getting over a really bad cold I had picked up a week before. I was gulping Steroids, Anti-biotics and cough medicine. It was going to be epic, I just knew it. Our Concierge came by and request our dinner desires and things were really looking up. A few hours later, we lurched our way up to the dining car, just like in the movies and picked up our trays. There was plenty of food. It wasn't awesome, but it was way better than some things I've had before and since. We sat together in silence in the dining car, munching on steak while looking at the industrial landscape rolling by us...that part was nothing like the movies. Apparently, where they put the railroad tracks in Florida is the equivalent of looking out behind a restaurant....they must figure nobody is ever going to look at that. We started seeing rain, and kept telling each other that it was just sprinkles and that will just cool stuff off a bit..then I started noticing how deep the mud puddles were in the fields...and it was raining harder..


Saturday, May 6, 2023

Traveling the Potomac River the Hard Way: part 1


I’m having this well-known feeling of dread. In spite of being prepared six-ways from Sunday for every possibility, here I am. It’s starting to get dark, traffic is rushing all around me, and I’m pushing my fully loaded bike up yet one more hill. I’m in Bethesda, Maryland. I don’t know why, and I don’t where exactly where my hotel room is and my waterproof phone inside a waterproof case is acting very much like water is winning the war. I’m down to a couple bars of battery and I have no idea of what happened to my battery-backup brick. I’ve been pushing for hours and ahead of me is one more steep hill. Steve calls me from the hotel to say he is following me on the locator app and that I’m heading in the wrong direction. I’d like to stop and discuss this, but I’m also noticing a guy across the street waving his arms and yelling at the passing cars. He sees me, and decides to cross the crowded six lane highway to come over and help me with the bike. I’m tired, medicated, soaked to the bone, and almost ready to hand this $4000 bike over to anybody that would like it. Of course, any would-be robber might notice that one of the crank arms and pedals is missing. Yes, even expensive bicycles can break, and when this kind of failure occurs, pushing is the only option.

I know, you are already thinking, me? I’d just call Uber! I did that, and the Uber guy pulled up, looked at me and drove away fast….yeah that was a one star review, and then I got really unhappy when Uber told me I got charged $8 for the guy to come look at me and drive off. Before that point, I was even smarter (my brain cells were dying off at a rapid rate). I had pushed the bike to a Home Depot, and rented a truck to carry it to the hotel, somewhere off in a distant place, that seemed so much closer when I had two functioning pedals. I ran inside Home Depot, waited patiently, while dripping everywhere, and people staring at me and my muddy, loaded-up bike. Got the keys to truck, ran out to Steve and rolled up the back door and turned to see Steve’s face. It wasn’t good. I turned back to the truck and it was loaded to the ceiling with used drywall material. The Home Depot crew came out, tsk-tsked, took photos and mumbled about how somebody was in big trouble…but there were no more trucks, and nobody wanted to unload the drywall….if I had known how the day would proceed after that….I would have unloaded the truck by myself…Meanwhile, Steve decided he needed to pedal on to the hotel to make sure the bed was made correctly…

Sunday, July 31, 2022

A Black Night On The Trail





I was sitting on the step of a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, doing what I normally do while on the hike, pulling everything out of my backpack, looking for the one thing I need that always seems to be on the bottom. I think I need a special pack that opens on the bottom and that might be my one big contribution to the backpacking community. While I'm examining the contents of my pack and marveling at how many things I've brought along that I have yet to use, I'm listening to brother Paul tell his famous stories to a young couple that we met at the shelter. They were quite an oddity. Both were in their early 20's at most and both were fair-skinned red-heads. My kids are redheads and I'm often told by my daughter that red-heads do not go together. I'm not sure if that is some genetic thing, or just that two wildcard personalities don't usually match. But, this time it did and the second thing I realized about them is they were really scared. They were sitting  very close, knees touching and holding hands while they told the story of their last few days to Paul. I was trying not to listen, but did anyway and soon I was getting goosebumps and wondering if I could make it all the way back to the car without stopping....and that would have been an incredible feat, because it was getting late in the day and the car was an 8 hour hike ahead of us.

I frequently marvel how worry and fear can consume me, yet many things I do all the time don't bother me much at all. If my brain can find some kind of math that makes me feel good, I'm fine. For example, surfing. Many people worry about shark attacks, and I live in a place where that is more likely than others, but what I know is that I am way more likely to die of drowning while surfing than from a shark attack, so I spend my energy making sure I'm safe from least until I see a big shark fin heading towards me, then everything changes. Fear on the trail is a different thing. I've learned that the small sounds you hear in the night are not bears, no, even medium sounds are probably raccoons, A bear would sound like a dinosaur plodding in the dark. What IS scary is footsteps, careful, deliberate footsteps.

The young couple was asking if we minded stopping here at this shelter and spending the night with them. That was something I had never heard before. Usually hikers want solitude and hope that you are moving on. These two were hoping we could lend some protection from this ominous person they had met several times and thought he might be stalking them. They described him as an older homeless-looking guy with wild eyes that loved telling horror stories. The girl relayed one that I cannot forget to this day. The man said he had been hiking all day and was running low on food and came to an opening in the woods where somebody had placed some trail magic. Trail magic is a hiker term for presents people leave in the woods for fellow hikers, usually it is food, sometimes, it is something you can't usually get in the woods like a cold beer in an ice chest, but it is always something that brightens up your day in a large way. This time, he did find a large ice chest, and ran for it, hoping for some cold drink and something to eat. He opened chest and found it full of raccoon heads. Somebody had gone to all of the trouble to kill a dozen raccoons and leave their grizzly remains behind for a terrible joke on a hiker.

His wild eyes gleamed at the young girl as he reached that part of the story and she slowly realized that he was the one that had placed the dead raccoons in the ice chest. They left him soon after that, but he was calling after them, asking if they were planning on staying at the next shelter and to save him a place to bunk. They ran as fast as young folks can with full backpacks, and knew that they were now deep in the woods with a crazy person. Their hope was Paul and I. 

This is where my low-level reptilian self takes over...there is no way I'm sleeping in the woods, waiting for crazy guy to show up. "We hike all night until we make the car. I'd rather die from exhaustion than getting chopped up by a serial killer!" Paul wanted to make a stand, find a big stick, make booby-traps, surround the guy, tie him up and take him into the cops.

While this discussion was going on, my brain was also flashing how this would be a great story if i survived, and if I didn't, perhaps that "found diary" would be my "black Travis McGee story". That certainly needs explaining. A part of our society has wanted to clean up our literature, in an effort to show that we are better than we used to be. John D. MacDonald's books may someday fit into that category. He was an old guy, writing that kind of stuff we still get today, where tough detective guy solves the problem while disposing of the bad guy and getting all the chicks...except that in John's day, the female characters weren't too well fleshed out, and the black folks they got even less. Me? I think we need to remember how people were and we read that stuff and didn't complain. I'd like to think we've moved to a higher plane, but I'm not so sure. John did one particular thing with all of his Travis McGee stories: they all used a color in the title. There was a large rumor in the literary community that when John died, he left behind a manuscript that was the "Black Travis McGee Story", the one in which Travis died. No one ever found such a story, but that particular night it occurred to me that this might be the Black Ed Perkins story.

We pushed on, using headlamps and eating whatever we could while walking. All the while listening for footsteps behind us, and that my friend, was the fear feeling I carried with me for a whole night.

We got home, laughed about it, then read in the news that a homeless man that had been traveling up and down the Trail had killed two people with a machete. The description was that two young men had tried to restrain the man while the woman with them ran ahead...Those two young men died. The woman ran the trail for 6 miles......running 6 miles in the woods and knowing your friends were getting murdered behind you....that is a real fear....








Monday, May 2, 2022

The Wilderness Of Things That Need Some Explaining: Part 3

 I've had a few times in life when my senses totally let me down. Where this happens the most is on the water. I remember looking across a bay from my kayak and thinking "What is the world is a large cruise ship doing in this bay?" and when it finally gets close, it's a small shrimp boat. I'm pretty aware that my brain is trying to make sense out of something with bad information. 

That was happening to me tonight. There was a pink light floating out there in the woods. This is the same woods where the wild PTSD guy was menacing us earlier in the day. There was also a guy running around somewhere out there with a sock over his head and I was starting to feel like a kid that had been told one too many scary stories around a campfire.

My pulse was racing and I realized that being alone is quite a bit different than sitting around with my two armed brothers that are also karate experts. I was hearing crackling sounds behind me and then to my right and I knew then that there is a distinct amount of worry that I can handle at one time. Then I felt the wet touch of something with a really bad smell. I turned to face the monster alone, still not registering the full amount of fear that was working it's way up my chest and wanting to be born as a full blown scream, when my brain did another one of those tricks. Suddenly, the monster came into view, and it was a huge Pitbull dog with a large pink harness with glowing LED lights all over it. Confusion reigned with knowledge that I was alone in the woods with a wild pitbull dog and the cute pink harness claiming that she was a friendly girl...In the end, the pink harness did define the situation, and once she determined that I was a nice guy, she laid down by the fire, just out of reach.

Not much later, the guys returned from their ride and the pink-alien dog ran off. Nobody believed my story, and many laughs were heard around the campfire as I tried to explain what had happened. 

As wild as the weekend seemed to be in my head, we had a blast getting jeeps stuck in the mud and driving places where it would have taken a tractor to get us out. It was almost perfect until I backed into a tree leaving the campsite....good news...I had not worried about that beforehand at all!

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Wilderness Of Things That Need Some Explaining Pt 2

Wednesday was a day driving of going down endless intersecting dirt roads, and at one point I was 100% sure of where I was going...and I was wrong. Jeeps are just amazing in that they seem to like going places that would have killed other vehicles I've owned. When I first bought the Jeep, I pretty much thought I would be the guy that had fun owning one, but never actually getting in a situation where I needed 4 wheel drive. My brothers made sure that was not the case, and right off the bat there was "Do you think I can make it? Hold my beer!". Then we took out the bikes and rode another trail for hours until we figured we could follow the power lines and somehow end up back near our campsite. Paul was our scout, and the crazy guy had not seen Paul before, so he rode through the area, and saw the guy yelling into his phone that he was being attacked by Jeepers and they need to get a ranger out here now! We decided to spend some more time riding around and perhaps venture back late in the day. I was suggesting that perhaps we should camp in Paul's driveway, while Steve kept pulling out his gun and seeing if there were any bullets in the clip, sort of the way I keep checking my back pocket to make sure I brought my wallet. Meanwhile, Paul is talking about how this is turning into the best trip in recent history, and we haven't even set up tents yet!

We rode until our butts wore out from the bouncing, and finally decided around 3:30 to see if the guy was ever going to leave. He was gone, but now the other sites were full. There were still embers in the campfire, and as a weird sidenote..that fire was going the whole time we were there. I'm not sure about much else with that strange guy, but he was a hell of a fire starter.

We got our stuff set up and sat around the fire discussing meals, politics...nowadays we start with "Not to be political, but...", and what kind of crazies are in these woods. I remembered that my Dad spoke of camping solo in Ocala and the large group of Rainbow people up there. About that time, I started noticing a single character walking around the 3 campsites, as if looking for something. Strange manner of dress for this place. He/it was wearing tight clothes like you might wear for skiing and a headpiece that totally had no features. It looked like a giant black sock with no holes for eyes or mouth. I was more than a little bit freaked out, but Steve said it was probably mosquito netting, while he tightened his grip on his shoulder holster. Me, I was looking for signs of some kind of giant sword or knife. After a while, he was gone and I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing. The guys did not seem worried, and Paul said what we really need is a night ride in the woods! Yeah....I don't know about that, but I had a whole different problem, because as we pulled our bikes out to ride, I realized I had a big flat tire. They rode off while I sat at the campfire, content to work on my bike, none of the worries of real life, and pretty sure that SquidGames boy wasn't coming back in the dark...or at least I wouldn't notice it if he did. 

I fixed that tire in record time, pretty good considering I was working with a flashlight and strange noises in the bushes from time to time....Guys? Is that you? No answer...but there was this glowing pink circle floating in the woods, it almost seemed as if it was slowing making it's way towards me. I quickly grabbed a bicycle tire tool in defense...not really sure if that was going to stop an alien...

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Wilderness of Things That Need Some Explaining Part 1


I sat back for a minute in my Walmart campstool and wondered just how many things could go sideways in one short trip. The three brothers in adventure were trying something totally new: Primitive camping in a state forest. Yes, there were designated sites, with a picnic table and a fire ring for campfires. Bathroom facilities? One community Port-o-let, shared by the 5 campsites. Unisex, you might ask? Well, if a woman ever ventured out in these woods, she wouldn't be the kind to stand in line for the ladies room in a bar while the mens room stood empty.

Perhaps I should concentrate on the things that went right. We all have jeeps, and great electric mountain bikes, and weather that any northerner would give their paycheck for right now. It was cold enough to wear a light jacket and sleep easy in a good sleeping bag in a tent, after enjoying a roaring campfire. The Cedar Creek Campground really seemed like a place nobody could ever find, but I did find it with google, after ignoring Siri's constant suggestion that I try the Cedar Creek Campground up in Middleberg....either Siri has a quirky sense of humor or she doesn't know that Middleberg was having some serious non-camping weather.

My first day started off awesome, with little idea of what was ahead. I was rolling down A1A, taking the scenic route with the top off, once it warmed up enough. The tide was high and the waves were big with really clean faces from the light offshore wind. I was sipping on my second cup of coffee when Steve called to let me know that he was on the way as well and soon we could meet at the entrance of the state forest. I pulled off the main highway onto a dirt gravel road, and mere seconds from civilization, I was already missing running water, electricity, and toilet paper, and I hadn't yet reached the campsite. Right off, I ran into a snag. The gate was locked with no attendant, and another guy was letting himself in...I walked over and he made the sign of the cross and said I needed my own code...he drove off before I could even reach Paul on the phone and figure out what the deal was all handled on the internet and somehow he didn't check his email or something and eventually we got a code. Once in, I was driving down two ruts with grass growing what was back here that needed us locked out?

About thirty minutes later, Steve and I met up and found our campsite. The only problem was that somebody was in it. We found a empty site and sat down to soak in the peace and quiet until it was our turn to set up.  It was surprising that so far from anywhere that only one site out of four was unoccupied on a weekday morning..who are these strange people that want nothing but to park somewhere in the woods? That was a question I probably should have asked before now because, a tall, lean man that looked to be in his fifties, came stomping out of site 4, heading towards Steve saying "What are you looking? Why are you looking at me?" I had visions of characters from the movie "Trainspotting". He was as angry as any drunk I've ever seen in a bar, right before a fight. As he strode towards my brother, his hands were clawing at his flannel shirt as if his muscles could no longer be contained within the fabric.  Steve stood his ground calmly, trying to de-escalate the situation, saying soothing things like "No worries, we were just trying to figure out which campsite is the one we are supposed to get". My mind was racing, either the guy had a knife in his waistband and would get Steve before I can even make out the words, or Steve karate's the guy into the hospital, or worse..guns come out. At the minimum, I'm thinking the rest of the week will be spent in the Sheriff's office while they grill us one at a time for our stories. "Yes sir, I would like a cup of coffee with cream...and I'll take one of those cigarettes too, just in case I need something to barter with in the big house".

We decided to drive off and figure a new gameplan. Steve had his gun out, showing me his new clip that holds 30 rounds...I marvel at it while wondering if I would still keep firing at a zombie, or meth-crazed lunatic if the first 8 shots didn't do the job. I was thinking, game-over, dude! Even if we could trust the guy would leave when he was supposed could we be sure that he wouldn't come back at night and do the Easy Rider on us? Steve is discussing shifts, taking turns on guard duty, making sure that each us of had a loaded gun and were ready to take on the enemy...I was thinking how unprepared I was for this and a little bit worried about how prepared Steve was.

Finally Paul showed up and we shared the story with him. Far from thinking we might need to camp somewhere else, his eyes got a little twinkle and he said This trip just got interesting...."