How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Spent a week within the Russian Wilderness Area, in far Northern California. Six friends, six backpacks, and 12,000 acres to play in. We call ourselves the Beefaloes. Fairly obvious why.
We set up base camp at Paynes Lake, which sits in a granite basin at about 6,500 feet in elevation. Day hikes were optional. As was the swimming, fishing and playing music. Mostly, we stared at the granite, the lake, the campfire and dared to dream.

Here's a few shots:



Scrub Brush for the Soul

(I originally wrote this as a newspaper column in 2005. I’ve edited it a bit. Please enjoy this in the interim, when The Tension will be silent as I vacation in the Russian Wilderness Area this week.)

A walk into the woods is a scrub brush for the soul. 

Thoreau knew that, as did Whitman, Muir and certainly Leopold. Drawn by respect and awe, they all ventured into the woods and used their words to paint broad strokes of wonder and wisdom that now are used in motivational posters pinned to cubical walls. 

“Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” Thoreau wrote in “The Maine Woods, Ktaadn.”

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,’ Muir wrote in “John of the Mountains.”

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” Leopold wrote in “A Sand County Almanac.”

I side with cannot. This is where I'm supposed to be, for right now, right here. Surrounded by the wilds of Northern California and enough gear and time off to explore. A walk into the woods, a chance to repair the mental weight of modern life. 

With all the fortitude of Atlas, you heft the pack and of giddy heart, start up a dusty trail that splits tall pine. A sweat begins to rise at the small of your back and on your brow. You notice that for the first time in too long a time, it seems the only thing you hear is the beat of your own heart, the breath through your lungs and the rush of air though the pines. 

A scrub brush for the soul. Nothing matters but that next step, the next switchback, the next creek crossing. 

Simpler times for men like Thoreau and Muir led to an all-consuming awe of the natural world. If it was that easy now. Four miles up the trail and the mind begins to wander ... 

I just quit my job. I’m moving to New York. What?

And then you enter a meadow that's split by a cool-running stream, with old-growth pines that stand watch like Centurions. The scent of pine, grass and clean water washes over you and instantly you're snapped back into a clarity of thought and senses. You stop to lie in the cool grass in the shade of a pine ... 

and ... just ... stare ... into ... a ... sky ... so ... blue. 

But the trail beckons, another few miles to another campsite, another lake. 

Curse the modern man, whose problems weigh the mind down as to cause a stoop. 

You swear you can't help it. 

How am I going to get my stuff to the storage place? What do I do with my truck? Do I really need this, or can it just go to the Salvation Army?

At the end of the trail, there is fellowship and cold beer at the Etna Brewery. We recount trail tales that won't make it to wives and girlfriends. We plot our next walk into the woods with the innocence of children. 

Unfortunately, the stress we left behind begins to creep back. Projects to complete. Family issues. Work, politics, mortgages, traffic, road rage. 

And then, a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker walks in the door. The weight of his pack makes a sweaty "H" on his grimy shirt. He's gaunt later he tells us he's lost 30 pounds and has the stare of a man who has had lots of time to think. The PCT is 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada; from the PCT, it's a 13.8-mile trek into downtown Etna. 

He wolfs a burger and three beers, tells us he quit his job, just for the chance to walk into the woods. We pay his tab for PCT hikers, it's called Trail Magic and he's more than grateful. Handshakes all around, and a look of pleasure from a man who has miles to go, which for today is another 10 miles before bedding down for the evening. 

He'll average 20 miles a day, every day, for six months. But he says it's where he needs to be. 

And I think back to my problems, my life. What lies ahead. Luckily, I’ve made decisions that have set me on a path that will lead to enlightenment and growth this next 14 months. Soon, I will slip off life and slip on a backpack and walk into the woods with friends, all who I haven’t seen for a few years. We’ll settle into a pace, we’ll needle one-another, we’ll fish and eat and talk and drink whiskey and be silly.

A scrub brush for the soul. 

“We need the tonic of wilderness ... We can never have enough nature,” Thoreau wrote. 

And I know this is where I'm supposed to be.

(For this week, anyway.)

OneWord, Understood

A little nanfiction for you, brought forth by OneWord, a dandy prompt site that gives you a word a day - and 60 seconds to say something.
The word today is understood.

He felt like, if they’d just read the fucking report he’d prepared - that was right in front of them in the packed conference room - everything would be OK.
He would be understood.
Maybe for the first time in the whole his miserable fucking existence.
They weren’t reading. Hell, they weren’t even listening.
Meyerson, the big baby, was drooling all over himself with tears and snot from all his wailing.
He took finger off the trigger guard, ran a thumb across his brow.
“The sooner you read, the sooner this will be all over,” he said, just above a whisper.

Wednesday's Three Word Wednesday

The words over at Three Word Wednesday are grimace, phase and stumble. This got dark.

One Cold Dish

Submerged as he was, he could hear his heartbeat, which had slowed considerably, and a distant rumble of the creek as it flowed over river stones smoothed by time and current.

The tub, sculpted out of quick-set concrete and river rock, was wide enough that his outstretched fingers of his outstretched arms touched the rough, candle-wax-drenched sides. It was long enough to settle his entire 6-foot, 2-inch frame within, deep enough submerge a full foot underwater.

A natural hot spring, hot, sulphurous water, gloriously soothing.
 He broke the surface and time became real again; frogs croaked their evening song, as did crickets. The stream grew bolder.

Wind rattled the cottonwood leaves like a backup singer’s tambourine.
 Even in the sketchy moonlight, he could catch the swirl of blood, like smoke caught in resin, in the warm water. His blood, where he was slowly bleeding out from the 9 mm bullet the had pierced his lower back at an angle – when the report came, he instinctively turned away from the blast, or the slug would have caught him mid-chest – traveled upward through the end of his liver and disintegrated against a rib, a blossom of death.

He sunk his head underwater again, just hearing the sound of his heart was a comfort, and a smile replaced the grimace as he pondered how something so simple could have gotten so fucked up.

Tommy, the wildcard. Tommy the impetuous one.

He’d wished that she’d not told them her secret at the bar, in front of Tommy, who was more bluster than anything else. She’d wanted to tell him of course, since everyone said he was One Cold-Hearted Bastard. But they'd all been wrong, so much so as to confuse cold-hearted feelings with fearlessness. He possessed a singular mental purposefulness that came in handy in certain situations.

She’d told them about the blind date with that Burroughs kid, the rape, although she’d never said the word. “The incident,” she kept saying, like she’s borrowed it from the cops, rolled it around on her tongue and decided that it sounded so clinically cold as to forget the welts, the bites and bruises, the brutish stickiness of him against her back and thighs, the stinking beer breath hot on her neck as he held her throat tight in his big, greasy hand.

He smiled again, remembering that she said she’d told them she soaked for hours in her tub, straining the little apartment’s electric water heater to exhaustion as she kept filling and refilling the tub with water that kept her skin a constant shade of angry pink. And here he was, he thought, soaking away his sins as well, like hot water could heal all – wounds, sins, indiscretions.

When the arrest didn’t materialize - Burroughs was too connected, the details of the night too sketchy, the hometown cops said - she’d come to them in the bar and said she wanted closure. That’s what she’d call it, “closure.” Revenge, plain and simple. Right a wrong; make just the injustice.

He’d not said a word while Tommy spouted off about shotgun castrations and caps and asses and two in the heart and one in the head mentalities; he’d spoken up just the once and said no, this would best be handled the old-fashioned way.

A beating, tire irons, a shallow grave.


Tommy insisted on coming along and after a time, he had agreed, reluctantly. Tommy would drink his courage, which he counted on when the actual time came to square things up with Burroughs.

Weeks passed with Tommy pestering him that things needed to made right. Tommy, man, he was like one of those little yappy dogs that goes through a phase, barking at the wind or a leaf blowing across a lawn, just to hear itself.

“We gotta do this thing, man,” Tommy said. “We promised.”

Saturday night, full bar. He caught up with Burroughs at the pool tables, called for a game. Rounds were exchanged, confidence gained.

They drank all night (Jimmy fill his highball with tea from a bar-bottle under the counter), played pool, made crude male-talk about women, men, jobs, life. At closing , he suggested they go to a roadhouse where he was known, cruise some pussy, maybe get lucky.

“You know it,” Burroughs said as he told the lot that he’d drive and Tommy called out shotgun and the asshole accepted bitch in his Silverado without so much as an argument.

Dipshit, he thought, driven to his untimely death without a care in the world, straddling the shifter for miles and then beaten to death.

“Hey, there’s no roadhouse out here,” Burroughs said after the first 30 miles and he punched him square in the ear, breaking the drum and telling him to shut the fuck up right then and there. More protest, one more punch and he’d simply slumped against Tommy’s jacketed shoulder.

“This is about that little bitch from the bar, isn’t it?”

“Shuddup.”

“Isn’t it? She was fucking asking for it.”

“Shuddup.”

“Dude, she was asking for it.”

Tommy burped as the truck went into the skid on the hard-packed dirt of a narrow fire road, his body impacted by the sudden inertia and weight of another body into his, all slammed against the door.

“Out, now,” he roared.

And the three of them stumbled into the amber glow of the parking lights, the tire iron shouldered, cocked, ready.

“You can’t do this,” Burroughs pleaded, a warm piss stain widening across the crotch of his expensive jeans.

“Shuddup.”

“Bitch asked for it.”

And Tommy pulled the Glock and fired wildly, nine shots, emptied the entire plastic clip into the night in a blaze of white-hot muzzle percussions.

He’d caught Burroughs twice in the chest, spun him into the hood, where he slumped into a pile on the ground. The smell of loosened bowels mixed with pine. Tommy puked, began to sob.


“Tommy, go get help,” he said.

“Ohman, ohman, ohman ohman, shit, ohman, sorry, shit.”

He leaned into the tree trunk, the blood splatters a Jackson Pollock painting against the untucked white cotton T-shirt.

“Tommy, get in my truck and get Jimmy. No one else, you hear. Do it now. Let me get the shovel.”

The brake lights faded and there he was, alone with Burroughs and he stuck the steel blade of the shovel into the dirt and sighed.

“You couldn’t have left well enough alone, could you?”

The corpse did not answer.

The hot spring was a mile-and-a-half down a well-worn trail and he’d shed his clothing as he walked; blackberry brambles raised ugly welts on his shins and forearms and his feet were a bloodied mess by the time he’d slipped into the water.

He surfaced again, knowing that Tommy was at the sheriff substation, spilling his guts and placing blame anywhere but toward himself. Soon, the dirt road would become a major crime scene, complete with yellow tape and little paper teepees to mark where the shell casings landed.

He clenched his teeth, relaxed. He listened to the crickets, the frogs, the tiny tambourine sounds of the cottonwoods.

He slipped underwater and checked the sound of his own slowing heart.

He exhaled the last air in his lungs.

Unrepentant.

OneWord, Delight

OneWord is a prompt about quickness, about description. See how much of a story you can tell in 60 seconds. Granted, I write for the full 60; yes, I do edit after.
Today's word? Delight.

She delights in teasing the young men, all those suitors who stare at her in the subway after giving them a slight look up her thigh, or bending seductively in a department store to check the strap on her high heels.
It’s a game for her, one she propagates with creamy white business cards, embossed with 10 numbers when the bravest of the young men get up the nerve to ask.
She tosses her raven hair, takes out the solid silver case, hands over a card between two elegant fingers, the nails painted in what looks like dried blood.
The number rings her ex-husband, and she delights again in thinking of the surprise on the young men's faces, the anger in her ex’s.

Wednesday's Three Word Wednesday

The words over at Three Word Wednesday are joke, leverage and remedy.

Clipped

Christ, it feels like I should wear one of those nametags they give you at some 12 Step meeting, along with the shitty cup of lukewarm coffee in Styrofoam cups and the day-old donuts, the cake ones, with fingerprints tattooed into the icing.
“Hi, My Name Is” with a baby-blue border and you scrawled your name in colored ink and tried not to be self-conscious. Because share time is here, and you’ll stand up and point at the fucking tag when you introduce yourself and blurt out your whole sordid life story:
Hi, my name is Bodie.
I’m 45 years old.
And I’m sterile (such a chilling medical term).
I’m clipped.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The vasectomy.
Mid-30s, beautiful woman. We’d met at the gym, where I sullenly tried the elliptical machine as a remedy to the loss of a budding career as an adventure racer – blow out the ACL and MCL in your knee and have it replaced with tendons from a corpse (cadaver, whatever) and see where your mood goes – and she half-heartedly stepped through a workout on the Stair Master. Mostly, she looked to see who might be looking at her.
Tight black yoga pants, white Lycra top (built-in bra) that accentuated the unlimited tanning package and freckles (which she thought were ugly and I found sensual and erotic) across her back. Rich blond hair pulled into a carefully drawn pony. Full makeup. Manicure, French I think they call the style.
The courtship was whirlwind. The plans for our future bright.

I come from a large family; three boys, four girls (I am fourth of seven). Each of my siblings have three children. Various degrees of age, some about to leave college, some who will enter kindergarten.

They all teased and joked; they made it painfully obvious that it was high time I start breeding, pop out a family.
I had never found the time. Too many workouts and plane trips and races and exotic locals. Now, wrecked knee and a slowed pace, I had the time.
It stretched, unending.
She had two children from a live-in relationship when she was 18; a boy and a girl who were very much part of this package deal.
I thought about it. The family stuff. Have a child of our own. One, big happy family.
She had thought about it, too.
She talked about a vasectomy.
After the civil ceremony that proclaimed us man and wife, she brought it up, constantly. Over dinner. Along with a glass of wine at our favorite café.
After making love, when her leverage was at its apex.
“I never had my 20s,” she said. “I never got to travel, like you did. I was too busy raising children. It’s so much an easier surgery for you.”

Two small incisions into my nutsack, something the doctors do now in their suburban offices, under nothing more than a couple of Valium and male bravado. Two snips of the vasa deferentia, and two pieces of white tubing come out – shit, they looked a helluva lot bigger in the jaws of the forceps - a stitch, then a cauterizer.
I stepped gingerly to the car an hour after I walked in.
Two weeks, no sex. Plenty of bags of frozen peas melting into my crotch. Tremendous bruising they don’t show you in the brochures. Your nuts swell.
The basic caveman in you asks, “What the fuck did you just do?”
Then she winked and said the doctor needed a sample to do a sperm count, see if I have any more boys swimming down there. And she planned a quickie at lunch; hot, sweaty carnal sex in the kitchen, scattering refrigerator art and magnets. And in the end, I came in a little plastic cup, screwed on the lid, put it in the brown paper lunch bag Dr. Davidson provided and I drove to his office to drop it off. The nurse put a little nametag on it...
“Hi My Name Is…”
And the call came, two days later.
No more need for her to be on The Pill; no more remembering to buy condoms to restock the leatherette box under the nightstand where we stashed an assortment of pleasurable things.

No more swimmers. I was sterile.
Clipped.
Over dinner – roast chicken, garlic mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli - she brought it up.
Adoption.
We’d settled into lives and careers, jobs and companies – and family for me, losing myself in brown-bag lunches and bickering and homework - but there was something lacking between us. A detachment.
Perhaps a child would close the gap, she reasoned.
So why did I get clipped?
Wouldn’t a biological child make more sense?
“I don’t want to carry another child, silly,” she said. “I don’t want to ruin my figure. But you’d be such a good father.”

This is not the first time I have heard this.
Alone on Easter – another conference for her, the children off with friends – I was invited to a friend’s ranch for his family gathering. And I’m on a hay bale eating chocolate chip cookies – with pecans instead of walnuts – when a toddler toddled over and sat. Face covered in chocolate smears, his diaper loaded. He was one happy kid.
“I like the cookies,” he says. “Is it good, you like?”
“I love them,” I respond. “Can’t get enough of them. What do you think, a couple more? I can go get them.”
And he shrieked and clapped.
“He’s usually so shy around men,” his mother said. “And you’re so good with him. Do you have kids?”
Yes. And no.
No. Not anymore.
(And nevermore).
“I know I’ll never find another man who loves me more than you do, but I’m not emotionally connected to you,” she reasoned on the night it was over. “It just happened. We started hanging out and texting.
 I know I’ve hurt you, and you’re very angry with me.”

And she packed our life up into cardboard boxes and left. The children never did get to say their proper goodbyes.
My home is empty. Devoid of the chaos and noise of the past three years. The past life (a half-life, like radiation, where memories slowly dissipate into the air).
She left for another man. Younger, more disposable income, more shiny, flashy toys.
The divorce is final in two weeks.
I have accepted what has happened, and I am philosophical. No 12 Steps, but plenty of teary sessions with a therapist.
“Go live your life,” she advised.
I move through new circles of friends, I’ve purchased a sea kayak and road bike, and my knee no longer takes several painkillers to get it to behave.
I date. I smile more. Again.
Until I think about my nuts. About the vasectomy.
About being sterile (such a cold medical term).
Clipped.
My sister visited recently. She and her three boys, age 6 to 9, drove up to check on their favorite brother, their favorite uncle. They created a chaos the house hasn’t known in months.
The screen door slammed for the umteenth time and sis warned the boys again not to bang the damn door. I looked at her and reminded her about our childhood, and kidded that she sounded just like our mother on steamy August afternoons where you couldn’t decide to be in or out.
She laughed and asked if I needed another beer.
“Hell, yes,” I said as a cool Delta breeze kicked up the scent of honeysuckle on the back patio.
Jack, the oldest, passed his mother at the door with a slam. She looked back, stern-faced and I laughed.
Jack, his skin as dark as mahogany, his hair bleached blond from so much time out-of-doors, stood next to my Adirondack chair and began to twist the hairs on my arm.
“Uncle Bodie, can I bring Whiskey out to play?” he asked about my Lab. “I’m going to teach him to fetch.”
“Sure, buddy.”
And the screen door slammed, Whiskey howled with joy of a dog that had boys at his beckon call.
And for an instant, there’s an odd absence of sound. Of sensation.
And it hits, like a rogue wave over rocky escarpments.
I wear Ray-Ban Wayfarers, thick, black plastic frames, polarized lenses.
Better to hide the tears.

Why I Just Quit My Day Job

There are things you do for love and things you do because an authority figure tells you to do so.
And every once and again, you get to do something selfish; a moment that makes all the other moments bearable.
On Aug. 6, 2010, I quit my day job.
And am moving to New York.
The idea is to spend a year writing, without the daily grind of working for a metro newspaper. Friends have asked if that book inside me finally comes out of this. Let’s be hopeful, but what I’m really looking to do is write a couple of decent short stories that find publication.
This is one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done. Quitting a good job in a great newsroom is no small task. Especially when the nation’s unemployment rate is stuck at 9.5 percent and there are people clamoring for jobs.
I need to do this for myself. But it’s also part of a promise I made my dad before he died of cancer last September.
“Go do something with some of my money,” he said.
I’m 47 years old. I have no wife, no children, no mortgage, no debt. The lease on my loft is up in September. My dog, Trinity? She will travel with me and will become an urban dog.
In arguably the greatest city on the planet.
Soon, I will pack up my stuff, pare my life down again, and put most of it in storage. I’ll wait for my friend and future roommate, Q, to come pick me up in a yellow Ryder truck.
And I’ll be in New York, probably Brooklyn, by Oct. 1.
There are two questions I get most often: “Aren’t you scared?” and “Do you have a job?”
I feel…invigorated.
With pop’s generosity, I have enough money to live in the city for a year, I’ve made a sensible budget. But yes, I will have to work. This isn’t a case of blowing pop’s entire inheritance, being the playboy of Manhattan. My parents taught me to be my own person; they also taught me to be frugal. In fact, later this month, I’ll be writing Edward D. Jones a rather large check for my retirement.
I have set up a couple of freelance agreements, handshakes at this point, and have a couple of nonprofits that need my help. And whether I become a nanny or a dog walker – or most likely a handyman, as I’ve already have contacts to do just that – I will get to donate several hours to sitting at the laptop writing and being out in New York observing, picking through sparks of inspiration that the city brings out naturally.
Admittedly, this decision isn’t for everyone. I get blank stares. I overhear conversations.
When I proposed my plans to my siblings, I braced for impact.
They got it.
“I’m really glad you’re going to go follow your dreams,” my brother wrote in an email. “Mom and dad would be so proud of you.”
“I am so excited for you,” Third Sister said. “It’s totally something you would do.”
Over sushi recently, I laid out my plans to First Sister, with whom I have a very close bond. I talked with my hands, chopsticks pointing here and there, and she stopped my and lifted her glass of wine.
“You’re going to be just fine in New York,” she said. “You’re going to be a success.”
That’s yet to be seen.
But I’ve got a whole year to be selfish.
And figure it out.

OneWord, Cross

Time for a OneWord story. Sixty seconds, one word. That's cross:

His pace is brisk, a New York walk, purposeful in its efficiency. Arms snug at his sides – better to reduce drag, eliminate pedestrian collisions – he looks ahead five feet, scanning the pavement for pitfalls, anything that could slow him down. At the intersections, when he’s missed the light and the masses huddle around him, he crosses himself. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, right before the light turns and he steps off the curb. The first to do so, ahead of the mass of flesh, picking up velocity.

Wednesday's Three Word Wednesday

The words over at Three Word Wednesday are drink, feeble and predict. This is the 200th 3WW prompt; I checked and my first was Jan. 10, 2008 – the 69th prompt. That’s 131 3WW contributions to date, if you’re counting at home.

Night Moves
The house is dark, save for twin flames kicked up from slender Mexican religious votives. There’s a chill in the air; as with nearly everything else, the furnace slumbers through the nexus of night.
Ahmad Jamal pours out into the night, low on the stereo; it’s his 1958 live recording at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel and the drum and piano – slinking and sexy – of “Poinciana” has become the original soundtrack of this particular darkness.
There’s an antiseptic smokiness to his teeth and gums from the bourbon he’s poured; the drink is never far from his grip, the glass, the liquid, another soothing tonic for his troubled soul.
Restless under quilts and comforters, he has since swung his legs from the bed and ambled feeble and naked across wood floors, the chill like spikes on his calloused soles. While his eyes wake and adjust to the darkness, fingertips brush the plastered hallway walls like whiskers, which keeps him on-course.
His pupils’ constrict as the lighter explodes into an orange flame as he lights the votives. He sets the lighter down and scoops up the handful of rocks – beach agates mostly, smoothed by surf and sand – and rolls a particularly milky one between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He shuts his eyes and tries to hear the echoes this particular talisman has to offer.
He breathes deep and the rocks are deposited back into the dusty martini glass. He runs his hands across the vertical stacks of plastic, the multitudes of CDs that he reinvested in when the age of the phonograph came and went; the very collection that was slowly becoming obsolete in the new age of iTunes, downloads, digital music.
Without looking, his fingers find the jewel cases he seeks at times like this: Jamal, Diana Krall, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck.
He slots the music into the player by candlelight, like he’s done thousands of times before, hits shuffle, takes a mouthful of bourbon and closes his eyes as if to will the first random selection. He smiles as the first strains of “Poinciana” begin and he shutters – the muscles in his back ripple – as the déjà vu moment flashes and subsides.
He runs a hand across his face and fingertips reading the Braille that is the stubble of his beard. His fingers trace his nose down across his lips, across his chin and down to where the thick chest hair begins. His hand rests on his heart – the pads detect the two-step, tuh-tump of his beating heart and he sighs, slight. He raises his head to the ceiling and breathes deep once again.
He crosses the living room to the sofa, lands quietly and brings his knees to his chest. He massages the knuckles of scar tissue that run like a zipper across the outer edge of the ruined joint. He smiles again, and takes in the memory of long runs alone - where his mind sometimes found calm.
But not tonight – and for past many nights, for that matter – as his brain has drawn him, once again restless, from flannel sheets to meander through his house in the dark. As if by mission to recall and remember the aura of memories that filled each object – all the treasured knick-knacks - that radiated half-life into the night.
Where the darkness might take him, it’s too muddled to predict.
At times like this, he’s happy to be surrounded by these bits of congealed time – a just-in-case scenario, a gathering of markers - debris, really - of a life lived thus far.
There's comfort, for these are the very things that kept him grounded, secure, here.