A few nights ago, I was in bed reading a James Salter novel when Karen FaceTimed me all the way from the other side of the house.
“We hike tomorrow,” she said, but it was more like she whispered it, like one international spy to another on a burner phone. For some reason, I imagined her in a black turtleneck and leather gloves. Sleek hair, dark eye makeup. “You’re in, right?” I sensed an urgency from her, as though the fate of the planet rested on whether or not we accomplished this hot, dusty, uphill walk.
“I’m in,” I said, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic as Karen would have liked, so she reverted to her normal tone of voice.
“Aw, come on,” she said. “It will be good for Will to get out in nature.”
My wife knows that if she wants me to do anything outdoorsy these days, she need only imply that my failure to hike or mountain bike or kitesurf will have long-term detrimental effects on our son’s emotional development. And because I’m naturally wired for guilt and worry, it doesn’t take much for me to crumble. The last thing I need to live with is the idea of my son subsisting on potted meat in a trailer because I failed to go on a hike one July morning when he was twelve. (For the record, my eighteen-year-old twins, Caroline and Katherine, love to hike, which clearly means they are mature, emotionally adjusted adult humans who need no further support from us.)
Because Karen is nearly without fault (she does have this tiny, hardly-worth-mentioning issue with profanity when startled), it has gone without saying for years that any issues our children have with resentment, pessimism, or an unhealthy affinity to indoor spaces are compliments of yours truly, while all things good in our children–generosity, respect, a love for creatures great and small–are the result of having Karen as their mother. This is an unimpeachable, incontrovertible fact. Just ask my mother-in-law.
“So you’re in, right?” Karen said.
“I already said I was,” I said, mildly annoyed now. “You didn’t believe me the first time?”
“That’s the spirit,” Karen said, but I could tell she didn’t mean it because detecting sarcasm has always been one of my signature strengths, along with self-reliance, perceived inadequacy, and conflict-avoidance. Since I wanted to keep reading James Salter, I didn’t try to apologize or convince Karen that I really did want to go hiking, sort of. Instead, I just rolled my eyes at my phone, but only after I was certain Karen had ended the call, which aligned quite nicely with the whole conflict-avoidance thing.
In the film version of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, there’s a scene where Johnny Depp brings Juliette Lewis home to meet his morbidly obese mother, played by Darlene Cates. In the initial, memorable exchange, Lewis and Cates shake hands before Cates–who hasn’t left the house since her husband committed suicide in the basement–says sheepishly, “I haven’t always been like this.” In fact, Momma Grape was once quite a beauty, as evidenced by pictures on the walls of the younger, thinner version of herself. Lewis’s response is as effortless as it is brilliant: “I haven’t always been like this,” she says. At the same time, Lewis shrugs as if to say, Obviously. The core of the message is in that telltale shrug: None of us are what we used to be. Over time, we morph into other versions of ourselves, sometimes better, oftentimes not. Thanks to autophagy, which is kind of like our body’s cellular recycling bin (it clears out dysfunctional cells and regenerates healthier ones), we are not the same people we were even a few minutes ago. We are in a constant state of shapeshifting, degradation, and self-repair.
These days, though, I feel like I’m degrading more than self-repairing. I’m weeks away from turning fifty-two and in the last year or so, everything about me has grown proportionally larger, with the bulk of it collecting in my neck and face. The added weight has softened both features, with my neck taking the brunt of the damage as it has been smothered by a second chin. My cheeks have lost their taper and they now appear to be storing marbles for a really cool magic trick I’d like to learn.
The swelling wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t accompanied by pain. I wake up sore most mornings for no good reason, as if I slept on a cold tree limb all night. I struggle with balance, and my transit–at times–is shaky. As a result, I am more acutely aware of handrails than I ever have been in my life, which creates a unique conundrum for me in this pandemic when those same handrails, very likely, are spangled with a deadly virus. Since I worry about what I might contract and how that will impact my family later, both the present and the future are exhausting to me.
But I haven’t always been like this.
In 2012, a friend of mine challenged me to start running. This was in January. “Run a 5K by March,” she said, and I did. Over the course of seven years, the 5Ks turned into 10Ks, a couple dozen half-marathons, and in the midst of it–on my forty-fifth birthday–the Full Monty. It took me four hours and six minutes to run from Ventura to Oxnard and back. I ran alongside a wastewater treatment facility and all manner of roadkill both ways, which was disappointing since the race promoters promised a course with an ocean view, something I would recognize later as a clever advertising gimmick. There was a small patch of sand and ocean visible at the thirteen-mile turnaround, then again at the finish line, where a well-meaning volunteer hung a medal around my neck. “Congratulations!” she said. “Do you see the ocean?” She urged me to look at it, seemingly worried that it might disappear, like a hummingbird. This must have been part of her job description: “Make sure no runner leaves without seeing the ocean view we PROMISED them.”
Last week, I stood at the Lewis Creek trailhead a little north of Oakhurst, Ca., and felt a long way from that marathon in Ventura. Karen’s hiking app All Trails described Lewis Creek as “Good for Kids,” so this was in my wheelhouse, even though I was winded within the first quarter-mile. At some point, I sighed audibly, and Karen took the bait.
“We’ll go real slow,” she said, and Will, who through no fault of his own got me into this mess, said, “Did you know a flea’s legs are so strong, it can jump FIFTY TIMES the weight of its body?” This would have sounded much more adorable six months ago, before his voice changed.
Katherine made it a point to mention that this was no big deal since the organism in question was “just a flea.”
I could see the wheels in Will’s brain churning. “No!” he said. “Look at Dad,” at which point Karen, Caroline, and Katherine did, in fact, look at me. “If Dad’s legs were that strong,” Will said, “he’d be able to jump … TWELVE THOUSAND feet!”
I stood there and did the math. Will, who knew my weight, was exactly right. Two-forty times fifty put me right at twelve-thousand feet, which is about two-hundred bowling lanes or what you’d get if you laid Danny DeVito down head-to-toe twenty-five hundred times. With that kind of leg strength, I thought, this hike would be over in no time.
I marched up the trail wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a mask, which made me feel a little like a Stormtrooper. Lewis Creek is a crowded trail, kind of like the soft drink aisle at WalMart, and because it’s kid-friendly, there were lots of young families out there, which is also like the soft drink aisle at WalMart. Most of the hikers wore masks too, some under their chins like little feedbags, only covering their mouths once they got within six feet. I thought this was a nice gesture. I figured that hikers on mountain trails are generally polite, except for the ones who kidnap people, so there was this general spirit of goodwill even as we avoided one another.
The trail was narrow, so we walked single-file as a family, the kids sprinting out ahead. Since the future stretches endlessly before them, full of possibilities, sprinting ahead is to be expected. Karen and I, on the other hand, trailed behind. I was tired and felt defeated already, and Karen knew it. “Let them go,” she said.
“My legs are heavy.”
Karen pointed to her forehead. “It’s all mental,” she said, which was true. I had been crabby and anxious since the night before, and I wore those feelings on the trail like weighted shoes. As Karen moved ahead, I scuffled, neglecting at times to pick up my feet, which at one point caused me to stumble over a tree root, burnished by years of boots and sneakers.
There was a clatter and Karen turned around. “You okay?” she said.
I waved her on, but she stopped walking. Just beyond her, so did my kids. We were on an uphill portion of the trail, one that would require a spurt of energy. I took long strides and my daughters encouraged me, sensing my effort: “C’mon, Dad,” they said. To my left, standing graciously, was a family of five, who’d moved aside to let me by. Unlike some of the other hikers, they were without masks. There was a young mother and father, two kids, and a woman who looked older than me, maybe Grandma. I nodded my thanks to them and they smiled back, all except Grandma who unburdened, inches from my face, a phlegmy cough. Ahead, my children looked horrified, which is how I have conditioned them, consciously or otherwise, to regard unmasked public coughers: as feckless ingrates on a mission to destroy the world, one neurotic victim at a time.
When I got to the top of the slope, Will whispered to me from the side of his mouth: “Dad, that woman got Covid on you.”
One week later, we were vacationing in a borrowed condo at Huntington Lake in the Sierra National Forest. It’s a lovely forest with lots of tall green pine trees and chirping songbirds and chattering squirrels. At various times during our stay, we saw several frolicking deer (they were actually frolicking, like puppies), a covey of quail, a stoic marmot, and one night a very large, very menacing brown bear, creatures that in these parts have an appetite for public trash bins.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Will and I arrived on Monday for a “Dudes’ Day,” during which we unpacked our provisions for the week, sorted out the WiFi connection, and browsed the AppleTV. Because we are Renaissance men, we also got out our books. Situated as we were in the bosom of Nature, we retired to the condo’s sundeck for a time, where I continued to read James Salter while Will dove into A Separate Peace. Against the backdrop of the aforementioned chirping songbirds and chattering squirrels, this quiet time with my son was a bit of pine-scented heaven that damn near brought a tear to my eye.
The condo itself is also quite lovely. Its owners and our dear friends updated the place after they bought it, transforming the vibe from a seventies chic to something more modern and woodsy. The carpet, countertops, and kitchen appliances are all new. There are also lots of shiny wood cabinets and pine-panelled walls and ceilings, and just off the kitchen, a farmhouse dining table over which hangs a stained glass light fixture that features an Old West street scene: saloon, hotel, jail, and livery, which is the place you would have hitched your horse while you drank whiskey in the saloon and slept it off in either the hotel or the jail. There is a general store, too, which I suppose is where you bought your coffee beans and molasses before tipping your hat to the local U.S. Marshall (who also has a building in the light fixture) on your way to the next watering hole.
Everywhere you look in this condo are photographs, either hanging on the walls or in various tabletop frames, mostly of the family children smiling back at you from mountaintops; on wakeboards, on kneeboards; in sailboats, in canoes, in backpacks, in lifejackets; holding rifles. In other words, not one single person in this lovely family suffers from Nature Deficit Disorder, which is Karen’s biggest concern for Will, whose favorite activity at the moment is rendering modern indoor living spaces using an open-source 3D computer graphics software called Blender. It is worth noting, however, that on the other side of the picture window in Will’s current scene is a lake, and some trees, and a mountain. Nature, for Will, is apparently best appreciated from a respectable, comfortable distance.
The girls arrived on Monday night. Karen drove our daughters up after they finished their shifts, Katherine at a local shoe store and Caroline at a sandwich shop. They are now useful, contributing members of society, who wake each day by eleven and head straight to the kitchen for a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats or a blended acai smoothie, depending on their ambition and the contents of our cupboards. On occasion, they trundle down the staircase with a yoga mat tucked under their arm.
The condo is tall and narrow, like a big city walkup, so it has been designed with a keen eye toward vertical integrity. There are four levels and three staircases, and the exquisite railings throughout are made of hand-crafted pine poles designed and installed by a local artisan. This really ramps-up the woodsy aesthetic, as does the stone fireplace and the sanded, half-log mantle, which at present features seven framed photographs of happy people, outdoors.
There’s also a real communal feel to the condo, which I noticed when sitting on the deck. A kind woman with gray hair appeared on the deck next door, and we had a lovely chat about the weather and barking dogs and the pandemic, at which point I took a mental note that the space between the deck rails appeared to be exactly six feet. This kind, gray-haired woman told me she worked in town for a community bank and that she was splitting time telecommuting between her home in Fresno, the mountain condo, and a beach house. “We own another home in Santa Cruz,” was what she said, and because I’m a whiz with math, I figured out pretty quickly that based on the evidence, this woman and the other half of her plural pronoun owned three homes, at least, which made me wonder if I heard her correctly: did she work in town for a community bank or did she rob community banks in town? I further wondered if maybe I had gotten into the wrong line of work, but I saw that kind of comparison-thinking driving me into the Wallows, which is no place to visit when you’re drinking red wine on a sunny deck reading James Salter and, for the moment, all is right with the world.
At some point when we were all together in the condo, either during or after a spirited conflict between two of our three children (Will, Caroline) on who got to sleep in the Big Bed, I fell down a staircase. Earlier in the day–and twice more in the days to come–our seventeen-year-old blind poodle-mix Perry also fell down the stairs. Because Perry is a dog we must now carry outside to do his business, we should have been more aware of his limited perception in a condo with multiple staircases. At one point, I actually saw him fall, and wouldn’t you know it but his short legs moved just fast enough into the downward gravitational pull to keep him upright. Once he reached bottom, he simply shook it off, like a boxer grazed by a blow. Imagine his surprise as he tumbled.
Unlike Perry, I did not end up on my feet. The staircase that wiped me out was the very last, the one that takes you from level three to level four as you move to the lower bedrooms. Ironically, it is the only staircase that does not feature a hand-crafted pine-pole rail. The rail instead is a much simpler, more functional design, not all that attractive, which is probably why I ignored it. It only caught my eye when I was sitting right next to it after bouncing down three stairs on my tailbone. This followed the moment my feet came out from under me and my arms flailed in backward circles. The last time I fell like this, I was on ice skates.
As I have already established, I have of late become a larger man with an extra chin, so the fall stirred quite a loud, concussive ruckus. Caroline, from the bedroom she had wrestled from Will, shouted, “Did you feel that?” Karen popped her head from the other bedroom door and looked lovingly upon me.
“Honey!” she said. “What is wrong with you?” There were worry lines spidering from her eyes.
“I fell,” I said. I was examining the rug burn on the back of my forearm when Karen asked why I fell, and I answered with the only reason I knew for why people fall: I lost my balance. “My body,” I said, “is out of rhythm.” This is how I have felt my relationship to be with the current state of affairs in our world. I am out-of-synch, in general. I am un-synch-able. Given what a circus this year has been, maybe this just makes me normal.
Katherine is our planner. At least once a day, she will ask me or Karen what we are having for dinner that night. She keeps scheduled activities in a paper journal and records all of her biorhythms on her Apple watch. She thrives on predictability and pattern, which explains why her first question once we had all settled in for the evening was, “What’s on the agenda for the week?”
“Reading and writing,” I said. I had this idyllic vision of finishing my James Salter novel and polishing some pieces recently rejected for publication before putting them back out there. On the Lewis Creek Trail the previous week, in a place I should not have had cell phone reception, I received a rejection notice from Boulevard in which the editors wished me luck placing my story about a WWII veteran in a nursing home with another magazine.
Will said his plan was to chill, which sounded great to me.
“I thought we could all take a hike,” Karen said, and this did not sound so great, but I love my wife and I know she gets teary-eyed over family togetherness in the mountains, so after Will finished groaning, I pulled him aside and told him we could suffer through it together. I told him I needed him out there on the trail because it was quite likely he would have to be the one to run out of the woods to the volunteer fire station and call for a helicopter rescue after my collapse.
After some further discussion on the matter, it was decided we would hike a trail to Kaiser Peak, which towers at an altitude of 10,320 feet. From the condo, it’s a 10.8-mile hike that All Trails rates as “difficult.” I was instantly sick to my stomach, and from the other side of the living room, Will rolled his eyes. “Are you joking?” he said. Katherine was, in her own words, “hype” for the hike, which is something young people say a lot these days, as in “I’m so hype for my Nike Airs to get here.” Gen Z lingo is at its best an exercise in truncation.
Two days later, and having done nothing to influence the plan, Kaiser Peak got downgraded to an All Trails “moderate” hike, Lower Twin Lake, which felt like a victory to me. “Aw,” I said. “That’s too bad. I was really looking forward to Kaiser.”
“We can still do…” Karen began, but I never let her finish.
I said that Lower Twin sounded awesome. It was, apparently, a shorter hike with fewer hills, something we could do in a matter of hours, out and back. There was a planned power outage at the condo anyway, so a moderate hike seemed the perfect way to spend the afternoon. We’d snack on granola, take it slow, and inhale the fresh mountain air that Caroline swears is an antidote for Covid. Since she wants to be a nurse one day, she is now the medical expert in the family. At the end of the hike was the promise of a pristine, natural mountain lake at the base of a charming peak, like an oil painting of the Swiss countryside.
Karen was hype.
As we started out the next day, Karen said she was proud of me.
“I’m suffering for my art,” I said, because I knew I would be writing about it.
“Or your family,” she said, and there was that sarcasm I am so gifted at detecting.
“Of course,” I said.
Because I am a man and a dad, I wanted to be sure I did and said man and dad things on the trail. I carried the family backpack, for example, because that’s what dads do on hikes. They say things like “a hundred years ago, lumberjacks cut down trees like these with a two-man bucksaw,” and “the more berries and grass a bear eats, the looser her poop is.” The truth is I did not say either of these things, and within the first half mile of the hike, which was all uphill, I surrendered the backpack and my dad-manlihood to Karen, who thought it best I conserve my energy when she saw how sweat-damp my t-shirt had gotten beneath my second chin.
Katherine, who wants to be a teacher, encouraged me in song from the top of the first hill. She said, “Do you want me to cheer you on, or do you want me to just be quiet?” I told her I loved her, but it might be best if she were quiet. I prefer to struggle in silence.
Will, who was hiking in Vans, made popping sounds with his mouth. He sang a Subway jingle. He sang “Neverending Story,” which he would never know were it not for Stranger Things. He sang, “I’ve got a home, waiting in the heavenly kingdom, where the streets are paved with gold.” This, he said, he learned in choir. Will’s mouth is an active, productive instrument.
Caroline led out, at several points hiking beyond our vision, which irritated Karen because she wanted us all together, hiking as a family. Caroline, though, has big plans; she is a “get there” kind of girl. She used a small, sharp knife to whittle a stick into a shiv, which she planned to thrust into a bear’s eyeball in the event of an ambush.
I told Karen I was a little bit ashamed that I wasn’t in better shape for this thing that meant so much to her.
“Ashamed would be staying home on the couch,” she said. “You are showing your family that you can persevere, so there is nothing to be ashamed about.”
So that is how it went for the next few hours. I labored, stopping every half-mile or so to gather the hem of my cargo shorts in my fists and hunker over to catch my breath. Karen carried the backpack and offered me water. Katherine held the leash for our young, athletic dog Winnie; Caroline whittled; and Will emitted strange, sonorous noises from his mouth. We stopped often for raisins and granola and water, and each time Karen said, “I think we’re almost through the hard part.” She said things like, “We’re almost to the top and then it’s all downhill.” She said things like this for five miles, all the way above the tree-line, to a place called Potter Pass, where the terrain was covered in scrub, where even the dog quit walking and all three kids took turns carrying her.
Along the way, in another place I had no business getting cell reception, I got an alert that Mud Season Review had rejected an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, thanking me for sending it and wishing me luck placing it elsewhere. Because the same thing happened the week before, I briefly associated hiking with rejection. My body was rejecting the hike, or maybe it was the other way around. Halfway up a steep grade, I told myself that I didn’t care if Boulevard or Mud Season Review liked what I wrote. I would write anyway, that publication for publication’s sake is a form of narcissism, that writing for me would be therapeutic, like painting or sculpting or even hiking. I didn’t have to be good at it, I just had to do it. It was also about that time I spoke the following sentence into my phone: I am convinced that Hell is a series of dusty, uphill switchbacks.
Ahead of me, Will carried Winnie like a sack of grain.
We did, all five of us, make it to Lower Twin Lake. As promised, it was glorious. The granite peak beyond the lake was mostly white, which made it look snow-covered. It was punctuated at random spots by tall pines, the same trees packed so densely around the lake itself, which yielded to cool gusts and made its surface shimmer and the grassy reeds on its fringes tremble. Karen and the kids took off their shoes and socks set out on the muddy shoreline, tightroping along fallen logs, wading to their knees. At least for that time, our children had forgotten how to squabble, and no one said much, which tells me that under the eternal blue sky of Lower Twin Lake, words had escaped us all.
I sat on a rock and thought to myself that there is no such thing as a comfortable rock. Still, I removed my sneakers and dusty socks and dropped my feet in the cold water, stirring up whirls of silt when I buried my toes in the muck. Every few minutes brought a mountain breeze, which I heard approaching from a distance as it gained power before passing through then beyond me.
We stayed just forty-five minutes, one of the drawbacks, Karen said, of day hiking versus backpacking, when you can stay the night and appreciate it more. Though we only flirted with Lower Twin, we appreciated it plenty.
We appreciated too–but only later–the hike itself. Long hikes, like marathons, look much better when you have finished them. You can laugh over crippling pain and cramping and the delusion brought about by dehydration after you survive it. All three children, at one point or another, slipped and fell. I managed to stay upright even though my body would have willed otherwise. My mind, apparently, was just a little bit stronger.
I crawled into bed that night feeling fluey. There was nothing that didn’t hurt. Karen called it “good pain,” and I told her there was no such thing.
But, in fact, there is.
Before we went to bed, Katherine reported data from her Apple watch. In five hours, thirty-eight minutes, we climbed 2,554 vertical feet and walked 10.2 miles, which if you’re counting is 511 and 10,771 head-to-toe Danny Devitos, respectively. I felt pretty good about that kind of pain. I felt pretty good about it as I closed my eyes and realized that though I would still have Karen and my children; my old, blind dog and my young, spry one; my James Salter novel and my second chin, I would wake the next day both degraded and regenerated, broken yet repaired, shapeshifted imperceptibly, and in so many other ways I cannot fathom, a much different man, one human body in persistent forward motion.
Chuck Radke’s memoir, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net, is due out in December 2020. from WiDo/E.L. Marker Publishing. Read more about it here.