I sometimes give my students a quote such as this and ask them for a personal response. It takes anywhere from instants to hours for them to decipher the language. Some appear studious and look up words in a dictionary. Others, fall asleep with perfect vertical posture.
I never simply explain a quote. That's dictatorial, like a dictionary. A quote is born out of a story, a lesson, a pain. Put flesh on the words, and they might just walk around with you.
It was raining. Again. I thought I knew how to stay dry in the woods, reeducation ensued. You see I go into the wilderness with the expectation that I will survive.Yet in each foray, Nature has devised increasingly more complex schemes to redefine my idea of "comfort."
Back to the rain. It wasn't so much the rain as it was the constant state of damp. We woke up in the clouds. Osmosis nipped at every dry strand of cloth, crumb of food, and scratch of skin. Dryness evaded us between states of gray and falling cats and dogs. For two weeks, if the sun came out for more than an hour it was nice.
My clothes gained weight. My body withered. My boots became sloggy squish bricks and my knees (particularly the left one) bore the brunt. Walking downhill became excruciating. It was impossible to control my momentum on wet roots and slick stones. I could not feel the bottoms of my feet. In each step the grind and tear of my knees exploded into shrieks I could not suppress.
I stopped and stood in the rain on the side of a mountain and contemplated tears. I threw down my pack and got angry. Why the hell did I think a trash bag would keep my things dry? What kind of idiot walks 20 miles into the wilderness and cries because his knees hurt? Who complains about walking down hill?
I was being hard on myself. I decided to go for a snack distraction from my collapsing morale. My little pick me up was a crushed jumbo sized chocolate rice crispy treat and a semi-dry pair of socks to change into. It was kind of nice to trudge around for 15 minutes or so in cozy socks before the boots soaked in. And, the carbo-sugar rush from a jumbo sized chocolate rice crispy treat is truly unparalleled.
I stood up, swilled down some unpurified creek water, and expected an ambulatory response. With the weight on, the best I could manage was a hop-skip-slide before I was back on my ass again with shards of glass for knees.
I got real creative at avoiding the pain. I walked sideways like a demented mountain crab. I even walked backwards down hill when the crab walk's magic wore off. It worked great, just made me look suspicious. I walked backwards until I came by luck across a good section of uphill trail climbing. "Up hill!" I screamed, "Glorious up hill!"
I rotated 180 degrees and maintained course. I craved up hill. There was no pain up hill. I could get in a sweet pace chugging up hill. It was all fun and games until the summit. And as most things that go up tend to do, the trail of course nose dived down several miles of steep irregularly carved slippery stone steps.
I peered over the edge as if peeking into a stranger's refrigerator. It chilled me. There was no way I could do those steps backwards. I was unbalanced. My hiking machine was sending me the signals, and I was ignoring them. I could not walk unaided in a normal fashion down those steps in my condition.
Some people say that when God locks you in a burning room, he at least has the common courtesy to open a window, (Whether or not it is in the same room's up to him) and you use your own imagination from there. Right before my eyes a window opened. I saw it in a weird hybrid delusion of memory and the wilderness in front of me.
I saw Tiny Tim from the old Scrooge cartoon. He was hobbling around on his cartoon crutch looking pathetic and in need of sympathy. All he had for dinner was that tiny little chicken spread across the whole family. Oddly enough I imagined myself as that cooked chicken in the vision. Its stupid little chicken legs taunted me in their delicious flexible way.
The crook of tiny Tim's crutch smeared into the fog and a fallen tree branch of almost the exact same cartoon like structure remained in its place. I threw down my pack and walked to it incredulously.
It was perfect. It fit right up into my arms. I put my weight on it. It flexed but didn't crack or break. I took some time to carefully snap off extraneous twigs and smooth out rough patches. It needed a little bit of padding so that the next couple miles wouldn't blister me to shreds. I cut off my sleeves and stretched them around the top of the organically and ethically harvested crutch.
It worked. I could move forward facing forward with my weigh over the stick and not on my knee. I managed a reasonable enough pace to not have to hike in the dark. The pain persisted. My little crutch carried me another three days until I left the trail defeated. As we returned to civilization Joshua Niven broke it in half on a whim. "It's just a stick" he said. But to me, it was a little bit more.
- Joel Dallas