Labyrinth 3: Still

Labyrinth 3: Still

Before summer camp and Yosemite banned me, the Boy Scouts also sent me packing.
Della had signed me up when I was two grades younger than the official minimum. The scoutmaster had been happy to oblige the pretty, buxom flirt who claimed to want the best for her stepson.
I liked Mr. Wendt. He didn’t care if we wore uniforms or not. When we gathered with other troops for the annual Jamboree, he told us to have fun and not stress about winning. So we goofed around during the semaphore competition, sending nonsensical messages. In a contest about lashing poles together, we built a wobbly, purposeless sculpture while other troops built bridges and watchtowers.
Then a new Scoutmaster replaced him. He inspected our uniforms and taught us to march in formation. “Left! Right! Left!” I didn’t take any of that—or him—very seriously. One time, a friend and I found the controls for the PA system in the YMCA gymnasium where the troop met. Moaning into the microphone, we filled the space with funhouse noises, interrupting a lesson in knot-tying. Other pranks followed. Soon came the ultimatum: earn a Citizenship Merit Badge or be expelled.
By then I’d gotten what I needed from scouting. I’d gone on monthly outings with them for years, mostly to drive-in campgrounds, but sometimes backpacking. The troop would leave on Saturday morning and reach a trailhead by noon. We’d hike some miles through one of the mountainous areas near LA, pitch camp, and spend the evening around a campfire. After cooking breakfast the next day and running around a bit, we’d pack up and head home. I’d felt blessed to be free of Della and living outdoors, if only for a weekend.
But now I knew enough to camp on my own. I was only fourteen, which might have prevented me from getting to the backcountry, but my new friend Brad was old enough to drive.
My dad cheered when I told off the oppressive scoutmaster. But we both knew Della demanded breaks from my presence. By this age, I wanted to get away from her as much as she wanted me gone. So Brad and I began planning monthly trips together. Just like the Scouts, we went car camping and backpacking. Unlike them, we loaded up with pot, booze, quaaludes, and mescaline.
My first day on the JMT reminded me of a weekend trek with the Scouts or Brad. Sure, there were minor differences: my bear of a pack, the 3000’ climb, nearly dying. But it felt familiar to hike a handful ofmiles and sit around a campfire with boys.
That was days ago. Since then, I’d lugged my gear forty miles and over three 10,000 foot passes. Blisters had formed on my heels, then broken into open sores. My toes jammed into each other as they battled for space in my too-small boots.
Worse, my backpack was hurting my shoulders and spine. One of the earliest full-sized internal frame packs, it was ahead of its time. The store had displayed it under a glossy poster, too sleek and futuristic to resist. It was also too conspicuous to steal, so I paid for it. But now the thing sagged heavily, so I had to lean forward to stay upright. It felt like an over-loaded duffel bag edged with aluminum bars, which is a fair description of its design. The hip belt lifted some of the mass off my shoulders, but it slipped often.
There were better-designed backpacks, but all camping gear was heavy in those days. Empty, my JMT pack probably weighed six pounds. My sleeping bag weighed nearly the same, and the tent even more. Nowadays, I go out with a fully loaded pack barely heavier than the combined weight of those three items. But in 1975 I also carried a steel stove the size of a brick, an entire gallon of white gasoline (a quart would have sufficed), a 25’ of coil of thick rope I never used, a fishing pole, an 8” knife in a large leather sheath, and a pile of other gear, much of it useless. The total came close sixty pounds. Food pushed it beyond that.
I even packed a bible. Della had enrolled me in Sunday school for years, as part of her program to keep me out of her house. The local church gave each of its charges a paperbound copy of the Old and New Testaments. Volunteer teachers guided us through scripture readings, hymns, and bible-themed craft projects. They even wrote scripts we used to act out gospel stories. (Hollywood was just a short drive up Sunset Boulevard.) The teachers did their best to inspire me, but my father outgunned them with his atheism, Marxism, and sarcasm. Still, while packing for the JMT, I’d tucked that bible in with my gear.
Now I was camped by a lake beyond imagination. The inspiration of scripture wouldn’t have added anything to my awe. From our site on a bluff above it, I gazed across a large alpine lake that had been snow and ice just weeks before. Rocks peppered its surface. Some were round, the size of basketballs; some were huge and flat, like a giant’s stepping stones; others were oblong and big as buses. Patchworks of bright green grass and broad, gray stone decorated the shore. To my left I heard the rumble of the creek that drained the lake, a familiar sound by this point, after so many trail segments next to mountain streams. Beyond the lake’s far bank, a peak shaped like a dog’s molar yawned toward a cloud-streaked sky. As the sun moved behind it, a halo of golden-white light fringed its silhouette. In the glassy water around the scattershot islands, the lake’s surface mirrored this hallucinatory view.
My body fluttered with joy, wilted with exhaustion, and breathed deeply in the thin atmosphere. My back groaned and my feet felt wrecked, but my thighs were growing muscle and my soul was gaining strength. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed us, but I barely cared. They were as common as sunsets at summer camp, and I’d learned to ignore them. Rick wanted to pack up and escape their bites. I needed a rest.
I stayed three days. Rick stuck with me, grumbling often.
Thousand Island Lake, broad and reflective, awakened a wiser part of myself, a part that wasn’t proud of getting banned from summer camp and Yosemite.
Even the Boy Scout rejection troubled it. Deep down, I’d enjoyed wearing a tidy uniform. A part of me had felt comforted marching in unison with others. As the landscape melted into me, with its soaring granite and fragile grass, it inspired me to expect more from life than a march toward ruin. I didn’t know it yet, but I was feeling weary of my baggage and disarray.
The mountain rivers sang to me, especially as they ran over rapids. I recognized the experience. I’d been in whitewater since birth. My memories of my parents before the divorce are memories of conflict. When I was four, their raging relationship hit a rock and split into two streams. Soon after the separation, I contracted pneumonia and spent weeks in a hospital, submerged under an oxygen tent. Eventually I returned to a home where my mother struggled to keep her head above surges of grief. Too often my swirling, boyish energy seemed to exhaust her.
A year passed, and then another as she slipped further and further underwater. Stays with my grandparents grew commonplace as she sought harbor in psychiatric wards. She left and returned, left and returned, a little more lost each cycle, as if caught in a whirlpool. Then depression’s cold waters claimed her, and she sank out of reach.
Two weeks after her death, I was shunted to my dad, who dropped me into the care of the woman he’d married after the divorce. Ever since, I’d been losing bits of myself to Della’s glacial resentment. I was like the mountains of Yosemite, carved and broken by ice. Jan, my older sister, fared no better. At age eleven I’d nursed her through the torrents of psychosis.
Every summer since my mom died, I’d been flushed across the continent to live at camp and with relatives. I enjoyed the trip to places and people who treated me well, but always the return trip loomed at the end of summer, like a plunge off a cliff.
Whitewater felt familiar, yet something inside craved stillness.
Earlier in the day I’d stood on the narrow ledge of a trail that dynamite had blasted out of solid granite. Below dropped a near-vertical slope that ended in a moraine. Burdened by ill-designed gear and pains in my neck, back, and feet, I’d looked down and tried to trace the path ahead. After the first few switchbacks, it disappeared into a moonscape of gray rock. The way forward wasn’t obvious, yet I knew it was there.