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 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. So I simply rationed what I had and hoped for the best. I ate three pancakes each morning. For the first three 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 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 obsessed with thoughts of burgers, fries, and shakes.
In desperation, 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 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?
These 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 unless it served her interests, she viewed money spent on me as 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 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’ 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 peanut butter harvested from it and placed it in a paper sac along with a dark green Granny Smith apples. 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 not very 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 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. Despite memories of hunger and frustration, 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 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 as I waited until I could go home. Most days I dug through trash cans scavenging glass soda bottles I could turn in for deposits, and sometimes I found enough to buy a cinnamon roll. It must have been a sight on those well-groomed streets, a little 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 I had to tell some 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 during a production of Oliver Twist when I was ten. I was more-or-less living the part and was more than capable of acting it.
These memories seemed in my distant past when I was on the JMT. I’d been fine with staying away from home ever since starting high school two years earlier. But they lurked in the background, 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 to me made backpacking with so little food easier than it sounds. It may have even helped me experience the mountains in the mystical way I described in the last entry, feeling myself merge with them. That experience started before the calorie deprivation, but hunger heightened it. During the past ten years, I’ve participated in many fasting quests in the desert. As aboriginal people the world over understand, lack of food and abundance of nature evoke mystical feelings of oneness. As an adolescent I stumbled upon the power of wilderness fasting by…selfishness and 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 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, which I’ll talk about later. For now, I’ll just say that it obstructed my intestines just below my stomach. For the first two weeks in the hospital, no calories entered my body. For another three—mostly spent 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, surrounded by food and excluded from eating, but beset by constant hunger. Everyone around me went on 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 that 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 experiences food deprivation.
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 males 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 Mindful Biology. Beyond that, they foster a sense of vulnerability that—when I let it—helps me surrender to the power of Life.
My experience with calorie deprivation hardly qualifies as starvation, and I’d be embarrassed to mention it to anyone who’d suffered true food scarcity. Still, it taught me something, so I mention it.
Back in 1975, I wasn’t thinking about karma or meaning. As I hiked toward the end of the trail and the meals that waited beyond it, the dizzying landscape and hypoglycemia cracked my sense of solidity. My thoughts obsessed about burgers while the rest of me merged with the granite, meadows, lakes, and sky.