This week has been a collection of a series of unfortunate events.
I’ve sat despondent in one office wondering what I was doing anymore. Doubtful that anything I’d contributed to the cause was relevant, remembered, or on the farthest horizons of possibilities – appreciated. Michael Douglas ‘Falling Down’ stuff.
I’ve sat despondent in a second office, wondering where all my online customers went. Having shown them software that forecast where major markets would go the next day – having shown them 12 hours later that they did in fact magically go the way the software said they would go with systematic precision.
Both circumstances oppressively reminding me that most times people don’t want, or recognize, the life buoys floating in front of them. Both circumstances reminding me that sometimes, people treasure drama and self power over regularity and profitability.
I’ve weighed myself all week, having gone through an unusually vicious stomach bug virus. The kind of virus where you’re sure you’ve lost weight. And I gained. Three days in a row. A pound at a time up, up, up. Exactly what happened at this weight 10 years ago.
More self doubt. More wondering.
I went on a backpacking trip that I’ve been looking forward to for a month now. A singularity of joy, and escape. Having packed a week before I’d ever leave, my friend and I ascended the hills of Grayson Highlands state park headed towards Mt. Rogers in Virginia.
We’d gotten a late start, and were at a bit of a disadvantage arriving at dark and attempting to meet up with the first party who’d arrived several hours prior.
We all knew that there would be snow up there, in place of the rain that had fallen at lower elevations all week. We were not prepared, however, for what was waiting for us a thousand feed or so up.
The snow was several feet deep in some places, and the trail was thick with ice in others. The wind that had blown the clouds away hours before, now roared with a fierce primal passion down the hills and brought walls of skin biting and blinding frozen snow barreling down with it.
We moved forward, with the reassurance that we’d find shelter and friendly faces soon. That we’d hunker down for the evening, and awake to glorious natural splendor the following morning. Just as soon as we caught up with the first party.
I attempted to raise the first group of guys on my Motorola Talkie.
“Houston…this is Tranquility. Do you read us Houston?”
The radio crackled back with disturbing news.
My friend informed me that they were not at the agreed upon meeting point. That the conditions up where they were at were precariously icy, and they had settled down for the time being off of the main trail. This immediately disheartened me, as there would be no way to easily find them in the darkness, without the GPS coordinates of their new camp.
Flash forward about 1 hour, and a mile and a half farther up our hike. My friend and I are up top, convinced that we are close enough to the first party to stop and find shelter. Close enough to be within earshot when everyone woke up the next morning. However, now the winds are close to 45 mph. The temperature is 15-18 degrees. And we are very, very alone in a very, very dark and inhospitable place.
As we stomp down and shovel away enough snow to setup the tent, we began to shiver as the heat from our once vigorously moving bodies dissipated into the night air. I began to realize that we had a very short window of time – to unpack our sleeping gear, get into drier clothes, zip anything that can be zipped down, and rip open all of our chemical heating packets.
But the window was much shorter than I’d estimated. I realized this as I looked down at the laces of my boots – three times thicker than normal and frozen solid. I confirmed my findings on inspecting everything fluid I had brought with me was frozen block solid with ice. And finally when my down sleeping bag would not uncompress to full loft in time, as the normal day to day humidity on each feather of the bag had also frozen into little feather fists in my bag.
I made the call out loud that I knew in my head to be correct – that we should get our 1/2 frozen boots back on our feet as soon as possible, throw everything back into our packs – and get our asses down off of this mountain while we still could. I had a bad feeling.
And then things got really hairy.
My partners headlamp batteries, died.
The wind began to blow harder. The trail with our once fresh footsteps, had virtually disappeared. The trail markers we were following on the Appalachian trail – are white by the way.
Then, there was no response to my hails on the Motorola. No voices crackling on the other side. It was a true Apollo 13 moment, without Tom Hanks unusually calm demeanor.
As hard as it had been to hike up to that point, it was minimally ten times harder to descend…especially with a 91 pound Alaskan Malamute puppy pulling me with the zeal of knowing we were headed down…back to the truck. Some of the steps down were eighteen or more inches high…with a 30 pound pack on my back and a championship weight puller dog out in front and ice underneath, it was the perfect oh my God storm.
And then, the worst part of my week happened. What I thought was the climax of my depression.
I lost the trail. Completely.
Nothing looked familiar. Not a rock. Not a tree. Nothing. We might as well have been standing on the surface of Mars. I understood what it meant to continue walking in the wrong direction…the implications of that decision….and I froze (figuratively).
Anyone whose hiked before will most likely tell you that they’ve had the feeling that I had, in the center of my chest just then, at one point in their lives. A feeling that my friend and I would quietly talk about later and describe in hauntingly similar detail to one and other. A primal ‘put there to keep your ass alive breaker switch’ that lets you know it’s time to get serious and not lose your mind. That the consequences of your very next decision were becoming critical.
My friend, to his credit is an unusually calm and straight forward man. He is extremely logical and straight forward. Not quite Spock – because he’s funny and has an awesome sense of humor as well. But this was his first trip with a backpack on. I could tell from his voice at the time that he was thinking what I was thinking.
I took out the GPS again, and tried to find our location relative to our starting point. The Motorola Droid X informed me that we had 5% battery life left, and I knew that meant about 15 minutes max worth of life before I had to pull out the backup batteries in Tonka’s pack and hoped they still worked. As I realized this, I noticed that the glove I’d taken off to use the touch screen was no longer tucked under my arm…and 2 of my fingers were becoming numb to the point of mildly burning. More bad news, as we scrambled back to try to find the glove…
“Lord, this is Michael. I’m about at the bottom here. That whole, “strongest at my weakest” thing had better start kicking in sometime soon.”
And then, time stood still.
I didn’t panic. I didn’t hyperventilate, shouting into the night for assistance.
I pulled up Plan A, andPlan B, in my mind’s eye.
Plan A…backtrack to the last place where we knew where we were. The last place we remember seeing a white blaze. Move in small radius search circles to find the next marker.
Plan B…descend down into the cover of a pine thicket some 200 yards below us. Unpack our sleeping bags. Cover ourselves with the tent. Put our camp stove together and begin filling ourselves with warm liquids. I had enough fuel to last us most of the remaining morning (it was midnight at this point) until it was light enough to move again.
We moved one antagonizing step at a time. We were scared, but we kept moving. Plan A in full effect.
And then we found the first white blaze.
And then the second….
…….and the third.
Two hours later, we sat in the green Nissan Pathfinder with the JZUSSAVZ license plate, having fully realized the fullness of it’s vanity plate encoded meaning. Having fully appreciated that feeling of and magnitude of fear that neither of us had felt for quite some time. The understanding that things could have gone very, very wrong.
Flash forward to Saturday afternoon. Having put all my gear away, and been called by some friends to meet up with them for Pizza at “the Mellow Mushroom” in Winston on 4th street…my spirits had been lifted and some of the week’s funk and dread had peeled away.
Walk with me down to the garden before leaving for pizza, with my wife to inspect the bulbs and the buds that are bursting. Good times, right?
Walk with us into the shed, to discover that our $2,500 lawn tractor that once took up 85% of said shed, was completely gone in David Copperfield fashion. Like “tiger was here and not it’s not” magic gone.
Big empty space, gone.
Stolen. 100 yards from my sleeping wife and children, in the middle of the night. ‘ “Your homeowners should cover this” says the Deputy Sheriff who came later’, stolen. Thinking how many hours it took to save to buy that tractor, stolen. Should I sit by the window tonight with my rifle and a flashlight, stolen.
Something inside of me snapped right then. A hairline fracture to my soul, I guess.
I ate two slices of pizza that night. I drank all of my Coca-Cola, and 4 sips of my wife’s soda, as well. I ate 2/3rds of a Wolfie’s Southern Sundae and enjoyed every ounce of the maple syrup, vanilla bean, whipped creme pecans and cherries. I decided in that moment, that Michael would not be weighing Michael the next morning. Enough was freakin enough, already.
And so, I sit here – in a sort of compliant malaise. I woke up to find that my favorite backup battery – having been dropped in the water and snow up on the mountain – is not working anymore.
Turning it on just now, was a test case. I have been drying it out with rice all night – to determine of the cycle of angst was in fact over, yet. To dip my toe in the universe’s water and determine if the string of Job calamities was starting, or stopping.
Only to find one last straw on this scoliosis laden camel’s back. Blink….blink……blink…..(no workie).
Both office are waiting for me, tomorrow. The same responsibilities are in the hopper, ready for their cue to start dancing.
The scale will be there, beckoning around 7:30 in the morning to be fed with gravity, once more.
But this Monday, I’ll leave my house and drive down with a folder filled with tax stuff to a new accountant in Thomasville…all the time wondering if the cycle is over – or if it’s only just beginning when the “clickety clack” of some CPA’s calculator stops.
But today…right now, I am alive. And I am warm. And I am surrounded by the people that I love. 36 hours ago, that was all that I wanted in the universe. I’m realizing the gift of that moment – and the perspective that it brought me up there.
Tractors, taxes, 1/2 pounds, fancy electronics, and job satisfaction were the last thing on my mind up there.
They should be a distant second, down here.
In my weakness, You are strongest. Let’s see what happens next…