Labyrinth 9: Food

Labyrinth 9: 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 off the 211 miles. But my newfound strength was offset by hunger.
After the mess that landed Rick and me in Fresno for a night, there wasn’t time to buy food before heading back to the mountains. Besides, we couldn’t return to the store we’d robbed. And when Rick left me 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 two days worth of food. So I simply rationed what I had and hoped for the best. I ate three pancakes each morning. For the first couple of nights, I enjoyed a dinner of ramen. But once the ramen packets were gone, it was morning pancakes only. And because they were but 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 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 lots of time spent hanging lures in the water, I succeeded only once. By the time I killed and cleaned my two 6-inch trout, their lives gave me only a few bites of protein.
I grew ever more obsessed with thoughts of burgers, fries, and shakes. 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 precious 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 JMT 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 hesitated. 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?
This brings me back to Della, the stepmother who figures so prominently in these stories. 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 good money on me, like by sending me away to camp. But unless it served her interests, she viewed every dollar spent on me as a dollar wasted.
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 commune, and it was supposedly organic. It was dry, chunky 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 peanut butter sandwich from the stuff in that tub. And, of course, there was no jelly between the slices of cheap, spongy bread Della bought me.
The tub was stored in the garage, next to the pool chemicals. Before going to school each day I made a sandwich with goo harvested from that tub. I placed it in a paper sac along with a dark green Granny Smith apples, the only type Della would buy. This 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. These were oily and salty enough to be tasty, but they weren’t filling. On nights when my dad and Della stayed home, the fare was low calorie and vegetarian. My father grumbled about the lack of meat and potatoes, but I knew better than to complain.
It wasn’t all bad. I am thankful Della raised me on meatless meals. It made it easier for me to adopt a vegetarian diet in later life. She mustered a lot of creativity to cook without meat in that era before to plant-based imitations. 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. Despite memories of growing sick of that fare, thoughts of bulbous purple vegetables now make me smile. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but I find it touching to remember how hard Della worked to make home-cooked vegetarian meals.
My diet at home left me hungry at school, but I couldn’t stomach my sack lunch. So 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 often earned me a treat. 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 shame, but I needed to eat.
After school, hunger added to the discomfort of wandering the streets of Pacific Palisades, waiting for the hour I was allowed to return home. I dug through trash cans scavenging glass soda bottles I could turn in for deposits, often finding enough to buy a packet of Fritos or chemically-preserved pastry at the liquor store. I must have been a strange sight on those well-groomed streets: a skinny white school boy with his head buried in a decorative waste bin. On rare occasions, I’d break down and ask passersby for spare change. But that required a lie about needing bus fare or money to call home. I surely couldn’t tell anyone the truth about my home situation; Della had frightened that impulse out of me. And since I was in the same neighborhoods every day, begging wasn’t something that felt safe to do often. I couldn’t risk an adult getting concerned and calling my parents (Child Protective Services didn’t exist until 1974). It didn’t help that I’ve always had trouble recognizing people, so it was hard to be sure whom I’d already approached. Given my anxieties, trash cans were safer.
No wonder I was cast in the title role of an Oliver Twist production when I was ten. I was more-or-less living the part and more than capable of acting it.
These memories seemed distant when I was on the JMT. I’d been happy to stay away from home ever since starting high school two years earlier. But they lurked in my psyche, and despite intense hunger, begging for food was a humiliation I did not—could not—stomach. So I held off until my body made it impossible to resist.
The fact that hunger was familiar made backpacking with so little food easier than it sounds. It may have even helped me experience the mountains in the mystical way I began to, feeling myself merge with them. That sense of oneness began before the calorie deprivation, but hunger heightened it. In recent years, I’ve participated in many fasting quests in the desert. As aboriginal people the world over understand, lack of food and alone time in nature evoke mystical states. As an adolescent I stumbled upon the power of wilderness fasting through selfishness, stupidity, and luck. But I found it just the same.
At this stage, the experience of fasting feels to me like a karmic pattern. I am agnostic about whether or not our actions lead to consequences across multiple lifetimes. I’m agnostic about multiple lives. But potent themes have recurred in my life, and one of them is hunger. It’s taught me a lot, and that seems significant.
Not only did I deal with needless hunger in childhood and nearly drop from calorie depletion on the JMT, there was a time in my early fifties when my body quit digesting food.
The cause was an internal hemorrhage that obstructed my intestines just below my stomach. The cause was another karmic pattern I’ll get to later. But the effect was food deprivation. For the first two weeks in the hospital, no calories entered my body. For another three—mostly spent 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 daily life left me surrounded by food but excluded from dining, and beset by constant hunger. Everyone around me went on preparing, eating, and talking about meals. Ads and scenes of food in the media struck me as nearly pornographic, they so grabbed my attention. I was overwhelmed by how often food was in my face, as if taunting me.
As a man with many ‘issues’ around sexuality, I am all-too-familiar with the power of sex as a biological drive. But hunger amidst plenty has shown me that food has even greater power to upend consciousness. This truth is easy to overlook if one never nears starvation.
As I’ve mentioned, I spent a good part of my upbringing in wealthy suburb of LA. I did not inherit my father’s estate, but I just looked up the house he owned: it’s now worth about 5 million dollars. Few white boys who grow up in such houses experience intense hunger. The pattern is hard to ignore. I can’t explain it, but I find meaning in it. My bouts of food deprivation help me empathize with people who face food insecurity, and they inform my biology-based spirituality. Beyond that, they foster a sense of vulnerability that—when I let it—helps me surrender to the power of Life.
I’d be embarrassed to compare my experiences of hunger to what those who suffer true food scarcity endure. Still, they have taught me something, so I mention them.
Hungry on the JMT, I wasn’t thinking about karma or meaning. With a sense of urgency, I hiked toward the end of the trail and the meals that waited beyond it. Yet, fatigued and hypoglycemic as I was, walking in solitude, I felt the dizzying landscape crack all sense of solidity. Sure, my thoughts obsessed about burgers, but the rest of me became granite, meadow, lake, and sky.