Labyrinth 7: Food

Labyrinth 7: Food

My last ten days on the John Muir Trail were the easiest to hike and the hardest to endure. My legs and lungs had grown strong from carrying the heavy pack over high passes, while ticking toward 211 miles. But my newfound strength was offset by hunger.
After a hiccup that landed Rick and me in Fresno for a night, there wasn’t time to buy food before heading back to the mountains. And when Rick turned back soon after, he took a big share of our supplies with him.
Using the leisurely pace I’d settled into, I figured it would take me about ten days to cover the remaining 100 miles. I had trouble grasping what that would be like on less than three days worth of food. I couldn’t imagine turning back, so I came up with a schedule that would stretch my supplies to the end of the trail. For the rest of the trip I ate three pancakes each morning. For the first three nights, I also enjoyed a packet of ramen in the evening. After that, it was pancakes only. And because they were only the size of silver dollars, my hunger grew fierce.
Just now, I looked up the calorie count of a full-sized pancake: estimates range from 60 to 180. What are the calorie needs of an active teenage boy? 3,000 - 4,000. A sixteen-year-old boy hiking in the mountains with a 50-60 pound pack may use more calories still. So toward the end of my trip, I was—in effect—fasting.
I carried a fishing pole, and many of the alpine lakes were stocked with trout. But despite many attempts, only two 6-inch fish swallowed my lures. By the time I cleaned the little creatures, their lives gave me only a few bites of protein. I grew ever more desperate. I looked hungrily at the abundant Marmots. So I set a trap. I tied a string to a stick, then used it to prop my largest cook pot above a chunk of pancake. I stretched out the string and waited, partially concealed by a boulder. Can you guess how many marmots were dumb enough to fall for that?
The trail wasn’t as busy then as it is now, but other people weren’t rare. Most kids would have told a passing adult they needed help, but I resisted. Only on the next to last day did I give in to my body’s howl for food. I told a group of boys my age and the dad who was leading them that I’d run out of food. They gave me a freeze-dried dinner. Why did I wait so long?
These Labyrinth entries have mentioned Della, my stepmother. If you’ve read about her, you won’t be surprised to learn she wasn’t generous toward me. My dad earned the household income, but she controlled it. Sometimes she’d spend money on me, like by sending me away to camp. But she wouldn’t when it did not serve her interests.
Shortly after we settled in LA, she and my father returned from a trip to Eureka with a five-gallon bucket of peanut butter. They’d bought it at a hippie farm, and it was supposedly organic. It was dry, granular stuff that couldn’t be eaten without plenty of liquid to wash it down. Nearly every day for the next several years, my lunch was a PB sandwich from the stuff in that tub. And no, there isn’t a typo in the last sentence. There was no ‘J’ to sweeten the deal.
The tub was stored in the garage, next to the pool chemicals. Before going to school each day I made a bag lunch with peanut butter harvested from it, plus two slices of spongy bread and a Granny Smith apple, the only kind Della would buy. It was a lunch I learned to hate. The bread had no flavor, the peanut butter caused me to gag, and the sour apple puckered my lips.
I wasn’t otherwise well fed. Della struggled to keep her weight under control, which meant she didn’t like to keep food in the house. There were never any sweets, and I wasn’t allowed to eat much of what she kept in the refrigerator. Her cheese and orange juice were off-limits, for instance. Most evenings I ate a TV dinner—tasty enough but not filling—because most evenings I ate alone while my Dad and Della went out to eat. On nights they stayed home, the fare was low calorie and vegetarian. My father grumbled about the lack of meat and potatoes, but I knew better to complain.
It wasn’t all bad. I am thankful Della raised me on meatless meals. She mustered a lot of creativity to pull that off prior to plant-based imitation meat. Her substitute for animal flesh was eggplant. She cut it into rounds to make burgers, into strips for fritters, and into cubes to mix with tomato sauce and pour over spaghetti. Her ratatouille and eggplant lasagna were delicious, but the other recipes were merely edible. Yet to this day, thoughts of bulbous purple vegetables make me smile. Maybe that’s Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s a fond memory. In spite of everything, I was touched by how hard Della tried.
My diet at home left me hungry at school, but I couldn’t stomach my sack lunch. I began trading with other kids. No one wanted my sandwich, but sometimes the apple worked in barter, even though the sourness made it a tough sell. Often I simply begged. On my more outgoing days, I’d make a show of clenching the sandwich in my fist and squishing it to the size of a golf ball, then dunking it into a trashcan, basketball style. The performance earned me food. Some girl or boy would hand me half of an actual PBJ sandwich, or some string cheese, or maybe even a Twinkie. Inside I squirmed with shameful feelings, but I needed to eat.
That memory from years earlier was with me on the JMT. Begging for food was a humiliation I did not—could not—repeat. So I held off until my body made it impossible to resist.
The fact that hunger was such a familiar feeling made the calorie deprivation easier than it sounds. In the last entry, I described how my insides merged with the mountains outside. That mystical experience started before the calorie deprivation, but the hunger heightened it. I’ve often gone on fasting quests in the desert. Alone for three days, the lack of food and abundance of nature evoke mystical feelings of oneness, as aboriginal peoples have known since prehistoric times. I stumbled upon the power of wilderness fasting by…adolescent stupidity. But that’s a story for next time.
Before closing this one, I’d like to riff on what seems like a karmic pattern. I am agnostic about the idea of good karma and bad karma stored in a cosmic account. But potent themes have recurred in my life, and one of them is hunger. Not only did I deal with it in childhood and nearly drop from calorie depletion on the JMT, there was a time in my early fifties when my digestive system shut down.
For two weeks in the hospital, no calories entered my body. For another three—back at home—a white liquid trickled into my veins at night but I took no food by mouth. Intravenous feedings don’t leave one sated, especially after two weeks without nourishment. So there I was in daily life, excluded from eating but still hungry. It was a powerful lesson in how much time we devote to buying, preparing, consuming, cleaning up after, and talking about meals. The countless images of food in ads and shows seemed almost pornographic, they so grabbed my attention. Intense hunger gave me insight into how much Life’s imperatives control us.
I came from an upper middle class suburb of LA. My father’s house stood on a hill above the beach, with big windows looking out on the panoramic view. I did not inherit my father’s estate, but as of today it’s worth about 5 million dollars. At least in the US, few who grow up as white heterosexual males in such surroundings experience so many episodes of food deprivation.
But I wasn’t pondering karmic patterns on the JMT. My mind served up nothing but images of food. The rest of my system marched—hungrily—toward the end of the trail and the meals that waited beyond it.
And as I marched, I melted. The dizzying landscape combined with lightheadedness, until I lost my sense of solidity. One part of me obsessed about food while the rest merged with soaring spires, wavering meadows, and the rarefied sky.