Snowy Woods

I can’t remember why we decided to do it. If a good reason ever existed, it died in the snowy Shenandoah Mountains that January night. Two young, stoner generation-Xers dreamed an adventure of camping in a winter blizzard. We were an adventurous, if smoke-addled, lot.

My hazy memory holds a scene of warm camaraderie, in a living room with heat and weed, a few days before. My friend Tom and I might have been playing chess. Tom and I share the same fall birthday, though he is a few years older than me. Back then he might have been in his late twenties. It was college times for me, or some vague idea of college times. Our only real responsibilities were making sure there was money each month for rent and that aforementioned weed.

I remember days being longer then, even when most often I didn’t wake until noon. Tom had a job managing a Pizza Hut, maybe he was somewhere else by then. We either lived in a house with four other guys, or recently had. If I was working at all, it was as a cook at some chain restaurant that served up shit like broccoli bites and fucking Monte Cristos, which were ham and cheese sandwiches dipped in batter and deep fried. The head line cook would call out “Heart Attack” when one came in. But beyond those jobs there was only hanging out and smoking weed.

One night the conversation turned to camping, even though it was January and the forecast called for a snowstorm.

“Snow camping,” Tom said, as not really a question, but more a non sequitur.

“Yeah, why not,” was my likely reply.

“We could go up to the Shenandoah and hike in, stay the weekend.”

Knowing me, it seems like I would have been hesitant. A plan of sorts, however, came together, and the next day we hit up REI for packets of freeze dried dinners and rentals of below-freezing rated sleeping bags. We had a shitty tent and some backpacks already. Tom also bought a collapsible shovel–good for digging out deep snow, he said–and that was the extent of our planning. I vaguely remember reading an article in Backpacker magazine on the subject the day before we left.

The day of, light snow fell in the DC area, and we headed out early. We planned to leave even earlier, but overslept. Well, I did anyway, Tom was probably waiting for me to get my shit together. It could have been eleven before we hit the road. We smoked a few bowls on the way, because we always smoked a few bowls on the way.

The Shenandoah had gotten over two feet of snow, with more coming. Crews had done a good job keeping the roads clear though, and we pulled into a ranger station around three in the afternoon.

Ranger stations are particularly strange when you’re high. For me it had a Yogi Bear cartoon aura to it. The ranger, in her tidy greenish suit and hat, was nice enough. Letter sized posters covered the walls. One about bear safety struck me, mainly for the hand drawn image of a brown bear standing on hind legs, it’s angry maw spread for munching. Another showed a bright, red title: Hypothermia.

“Great, you’ll just need to register,” the ranger said. “You’ll have to park in Lot C and hike the rest of the way to the trail head. Roads up there haven’t been cleared.”

“That’s fine,” Tom said and signed a form.

The ranger told us another group of kids had just left for the same place. We’d likely run across them.

“You all have snowshoes, right,” she asked.

Normal people would have stopped right there. We did not have snowshoes. I have never even seen a snowshoe up close, then or since. Tom and I eyed each other and looked down at our hiking boots.

“Are they required,” I asked.

The ranger raised her eyes and gave us the once over.

“You all realize the snow will likely get waist deep,” he asked, “You’ve been snow camping before, right?”

I nodded yes before Tom, because I am the bigger knucklehead. Maybe she believed or didn’t care. Either way, she slid Tom the finished paperwork.

“Make sure and update us when you leave. Don’t want to send out a search party for nothing,” she said in parting.

The drive up to Lot C got slippery, the tires of Tom’s sedan whining against the ice. Snow still fell and had even picked up since we first entered the station. When we pulled in the lot and circled around a ten foot high mound of pushed snow, the other group of kids were standing with their gear, taken from the back of a now empty, rusted Bronco. There were three guys and two girls.

I don’t think we spoke to them. They talked loudly and laughed as they slipped into their snowshoes and then backpacks. Tom and I took our time to let them go on ahead. By the time we hit the trail head, they were far in the distance, lost to shadows and heavy snow.

The snow came up over knees, often to our hips. This was even though we followed in the other group’s wake, their snowshoes having tamped down a depressed line. If you’ve never walked in waist deep snow, you wouldn’t know how each step strains at your thigh muscles. You wouldn’t know that your lungs start to burst and retain that feeling for the duration of your hike, or that your eyes take on the look of a lunatic. I saw it Tom’s eyes, and I’m sure he saw it in mine. We rushed through the first pangs of doubt straight into encompassing, though unspoken, regret.

We had a few hours of daylight left. Our plan had been to hike a few miles in, then setup a campsite and maybe go farther in on Saturday. All I could think about was how we were going to have to hike back out of this fuckness. There is an immediacy to life when you are trudging through these kinds of tasks, though the singular focus is often accompanied by gritty irritability.

“We should stop,” I said around five o’clock, “and get camp setup before it gets dark.”

We cordially split the chores of setting up camp and forging for firewood. I took the firewood part of it, thinking Tom was more keen to use the shovel he had bought. We picked a spot about twenty feet off the trail, or what we thought was the trail. We had been following it for two hours, it damn sure better be as obvious on the way back. Tom took to digging out a ten foot clearing, going three feet deep. By the time I had dragged a pile of kindling and five or six larger pieces over, he was done and had flopped the tent into the middle of that hole.

Our camp wasn’t half bad. We had some odd, fold-up chairs placed in front of the tent, and a tall fire sprung up after some initial struggle getting it smoking. The dark and cold snuck up on us though as we rested. The bleakness of it hit me when we poured hot water into our metal tins of packaged meals–chili I think–and by the time I took my first spoonful, the outer edges had already begun to freeze. I maybe got three hot bites before all of it was like that. Our after-dinner coffee, which I had looked forward to since stopping to make camp, suffered the same fate.

We sat in our hole, the wind whipping up at times. Brittle animal calls echoed across the white landscape. These animals were, I thought, of unknown size, and god knows what level of hunger.  There was some conversation between us, but not much. From our vantage point, by raising our heads slightly, the surrounding snow was at eye level. A ridge from the snow Tom had dug out, now smoothed down by the wind, lined the diameter of the hole. It had the feel of Eskimos, almost pleasant in a rhetorical sort of way.

We smoked a bowl.

When you are suffering, no thoughts are good ones. I tried to tell myself that this place was beautiful, that better men than me, maybe Thoreau, would think elegant words. But my body said, “Hey, you need to take a crap. Good luck with that, snow man.”

To his credit, Tom seemed to be enjoying himself more than I was. If I remember correctly I broached the subject of how shitty this was, and he seemed to not want to dwell on it. He was right, but I couldn’t let it go. This was the most miserable situation I had ever been in. (This is not actually true, but those are stories for another day.)

“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said after we finished one more bowl.

Before I relate the next part, I’ll remind you that I had read that Backpacker article the night before, and I swear to this day it recommended my next decision. The sleeping bags we had rented from REI were rated -10 degrees and seemed to be perfect for the occasion. As Tom climbed into his and tugged the zipper tight against the opening, I started taking off my clothes.

“What are you doing,” he asked.

“You’re supposed to sleep without clothes so the sleeping bag will warm up from your body heat,” I said.

Tom has a way of looking dubious that is quite obvious: eyes squinted down, lips curled. “I don’t think it works that way.”

“No, really,” I said. “Clothing blocks your body’s heat from creating an oven-like effect in these types of bags.”

I have a way of being confident, nearly belligerent, when I’m full of shit. I was also high. I stripped down to my underwear and slid into the sleeping bag. The underside was chill and so uncomfortable I had to shift every few minutes or the skin touching it became near frozen. Tom turned off the lantern. We both went silent, though for my part I went back to obsessing. Tom fell asleep after a while, leaving me alone to those creepy, night sounds and my own self-fed misery.

Sleep did come, in a way, though it was fitful and hardly deep. Much later in the night, though, I woke to the sound of grunting and the crunch of heavy footsteps. I thought of that bear on the ranger station poster. The sounds passed in terrifying slowness until all was (mostly) quiet again. But I was awake enough now to realize I was freezing to death. My body shook as if in a seizure. The ground underneath me felt like solid ice. My skin was cold to the touch.

“Tom, you awake,” I asked.

He didn’t stir. I nudged him, reaching out sharply twice, the cold on my bare arm like a burn.

“You awake,” I asked again.

His head, facing away from me, turned. “I guess, sort of. What’s up?”

“Let’s go,” I said.

He made no response. I realized it was a dickish request, but didn’t care. At that moment I was prepared to ask for the keys and hike back myself.

“I could probably make out alright staying, but I could easily leave too,” he said.

“Cool,” I said and started to get dressed.

It was two o’clock in the morning. While packing up we realized we only had one flashlight but did have that lantern. It was heavy and hard to hold, and since this was my idea, I got to carry it. We packed up in about thirty minutes. A brittle wind came steadily into our faces. Tom pulled a scarf up to just under his eyes. I had nothing to cover mine, only a wool cap pulled over my ears. I yanked it down as far as I could and still see. We trudged off with Tom in lead.

Nearly every step I took was off balance. I lurched through that snow, which was even deeper now, lantern clutched in hand, each step exaggerated, awkward and halting. like a coward that had been dared to walk through a nighttime cemetery. I had to constantly ask Tom to wait up, as he had bolted ahead toward the car, where we would find real shelter and heat. Twenty minutes in we walked through a spot that in my lantern light looked awash in animal footprints. There was a dark heap just off our trail line.

“Tom,” I yelled, “this looks like bear shit!”

Tom hiked back to me and looked down. “Yeah, maybe. It could be something that fell from a tree.”

He turned and kept moving, and I scrambled to keep up. The lantern light cast a dull glow into the trees, causing all sorts of eyes and mouths to appear. The wind drummed up just enough hint of moans to make me spin around and make sure nothing crept up behind me. I was convinced we were off course. Tom insisted that he had seen trail markers, and though the wind had covered our earlier footsteps, he saw an indented line in the snow. My feet were numb; the idea of frostbite occurred to me. I switched the lantern from one hand to the other, its weight a heavy strain on my upper arm. Step, teeter, balance, step again. Snow became packed down into my socks.

Around five am I saw Tom start to walk in regular steps. We had reached Lot C. I stumbled out of the snow after him. At the car, we dumped everything in the trunk not minding much how organized (or not organized) it was. Once inside, Tom revved the engine up and cranked the heat on high. The stereo blared: “For long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide, and balanced on the biggest wave, you race towards an early grave.” If I ever meet Roger Waters, I’ll thank him for that perfect moment.

“Sorry,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Tom said, “it’s over now.”

The roads were snowy, but not dangerous if we took our time. We did not leave a note at the ranger station, and did not, in fact, think of it until days later. I’ve always wondered if they ever sent out a search party for us.

As we drove home though, none of that mattered to us. Outside the window, the woods looked beautiful again. Light snow fell. Another bowl was smoked. We had miles to go before we slept.


That Time in the Sweat Lodge

I was sulking about in a lull between girlfriends, when a friend called me about going to some neo hippy communion in the mountains of Pennsylvania. I won’t share the specific details out of respect to the people who go there, but suffice to say the big deal was dragging a huge slab of stone from one craggy spot to a more sedate spot a mile or so away. The rest of the weekend was shared showers, nakedness, drugs, and for the most part generally nice people converging together.

My friend, let’s call her Toni, a woman I had gone to high school with and occasionally did other adult things with, drove us onto the property late on Friday and circled around the campgrounds in that late night, spooky headlight way until we found a bare, though sloped, spot to set up. The tent staking and gear unloading went quickly. We headed to the showers. There was a green, wooden fence of sorts around the whole thing, then a concrete wall with four shower spigots on each side, about three feet apart, and nothing but a big open space to get wet in. There was, of course, no roof.

We undressed and took to the shower, some mild, intimate washing ensuing. Shortly two other people arrived. One was Toni’s recent ex-boyfriend and the other was his attractive new girlfriend. Awkward hellos and introductions followed, and then they were both naked with us. I wondered why they simply didn’t use the showers on the other side of the wall. I didn’t know if we were about to have a sloppy orgy or a naked, heated, post-romance confrontation. In the end, neither occurred. Everyone washed, left, and went back to each others tents to fuck. C’est la vie, right?

The next day we walked to the central village, of sorts, and mingled with an assortment of appealing, happy, open travelers. The smells of sweet, salty bacon and maple syrup wafted among us. More children than I expected ran around the open field by the main pavilion, where picnic tables stood row after row.

Later we went down to the river where people swam and stood in chatty circles in the early fall water. Everyone, including the children, were naked. So off came our clothes again and into the cold water we went, and I shivered for the next hour trying to engage in small talk. One woman, in her fifties, complained that tax laws were going to put her crystals and energy creams shop out of business. Another, a man in his sixties with a ponytail touching his ass, said it was getting harder and harder to get to this event, what with his arthritic hands and heroin addiction. One of the young boys swimming about fifty feet out, in the deeper part, clamored for help and his father came running from shore, swam out, and pulled the boy back coughing. It startled all of us and that pretty much ended “hanging out” time.

In the afternoon I went for a walk deep into the property, campsites spread out along barely drive-able dirt roads, at least a mile back. I talked to a few people, got stories about the property owner, a monk they said, a facilitator of this spiritual gathering. I never got the extent of it and sort of marveled at how a community could spring up over the course of a few days with such singular focus and, to my surprise, lack of tension or conflict.

I am likely romanticizing this in my memory, or was just naive to all the more subtle interactions that went on. But a good mix of young and old were present, and warm hugs occurred with both authenticity and frequency, and fires birthed dancing, gray smoke in large numbers, and crisp laughter was constant.

I eventually came to a clearing at the river’s edge, where two men and a woman stood around a scorching, high fire. A mound covered in what looked like horse blankets was behind them, close to the riverbank.

“What’s going on,” I asked in the coolest way I could.

“Sweat lodge,” one of the dudes said. “Interested? You should come by later. We have a shaman coming in.”

The three of them were younger than me, maybe their early thirties. The girl gave me a seductive eye, or so my ego convinced me. It would happen around six, come on back, they said. I promised I would.

After dinner, I did go back. The shaman was late, but eventually arrived riding shotgun in a VW bug on its last cylinder. He was not an Indian, as I had expected, but a drugged out looking, long-haired white guy. I got the distinct impression that someone had to go wake him from a bender and drive him out here. He staggered around the fire a few times, put his hand near one of the many large stones resting at the edge of the flames, and said they needed a few more minutes. Those stones had likely been in that fire all day and had to be nearly molten hot. A few more degrees couldn’t make much difference, I thought.

Eventually the shaman was satisfied and motioned to the three from earlier to start putting the stones inside the lodge. They trudged the twenty or so feet with heavy, rusted shovels, those glowing stones almost demonic. The shaman spoke to us.

“Tonight we will enter the sacred sweat lodge. I was first trained in Arizona by native shamans in my early twenties, and then in Colorado in my thirties. We will allow the spirit world to enter us tonight, and I want you to trust in me as we purge together.”

My first thought was that I might actually be in danger. I had read about how some of these sweat lodges had gone bad, people had died, and dip shits who didn’t know what they were doing had allowed people to sweat to death. Despite his kind words, I had the distinct impression that our shaman was one of those dip shits.

After speaking, he stripped off his clothes and made a motion that implied for all of us to do the same. Though I had spent a good deal of time that weekend naked among strangers, at that moment I felt idiotic standing with these fifteen or so strangers around that fire, dusk well advanced, and the shaman’s withered cock a thing you couldn’t turn away from. An attractive young girl stood next to me, and a very overweight man stood on the other side. This is important as you consider how we walked single file behind the shaman to the opening of the sweat lodge and, after he explained to us what to do, we got down on all fours and crawled into the lodge, with the first people going counter-clockwise  until the circle was filled. I nudged in with that attractive woman’s ass in my nose, and correspondingly my ass in the fat guy’s face. We were the second, third, and fourth in line, so had to crawl almost entirely around the lodge’s diameter. (Years later, when The Human Centipede came out, I took some morbid pride in kind of knowing what that was like.)

The inside of that sweat lodge was the devil’s womb. The shaman entered and closed the flap, and it was pitch black. The stones glowed slightly, but were already losing their thermonuclear levels of heat. A stifling heat did, however, persist. I can’t say how hot it was, but I’ve been in spa heat rooms, and this was the most oppressive place I had ever been. My pores released sweat in a torrent, getting in my eyes, my mouth, somehow even up my nose. There was nothing to wipe my eyes with, no water to wash out my mouth.

My ass and balls rested in a muddy pool of still cold water. My arms were touching the people next to me, now no longer the hot girl and the fat guy, only two bodies linked by wet skin.

The girl next to me actually muttered, “My pussy is full of mud.” I will never forget it.

We sat there in silence, one of those long silences that grows in intensity as it unbearably continues. My mind raced: what the fuck is going on; what are we supposed to be doing; how long is this supposed to last; why isn’t this goddamn shaman saying something. I realized I had asked no questions to prep myself, simply lumbered in from my suburban stupor into what I thought would be a harmless experience. I began to obsess that I might actually die here. The heat stifled, the sweat burned, the three foot ceiling squeezed. The screams in my head were on the verge of becoming actual, vocal rants.

The shaman spoke.

“I once was failing at life. It is through the sweat lodge, hundreds of hours, that I came to understand my fragility and failings. It is here that we come to understand ourselves; it is this place that is the gateway to understand all things. Each of you speak to why you are here, and what you are seeking.”

In the dismal place I was in, the words were a beacon. Near the point of hallucination and cognitive gibberish, the shaman earned the respect that wise men earn when they speak wisely. At once I felt myself transported to a place beyond space, and I reached an epiphany that this was what the sweat lodge was meant to do: to make the universe a clear, perfect pearl. I saw atoms split apart and reveal in its atomic explosion a glowing, accepting love. My body disappeared.

Then, honest to god, something bit me in the balls. I snapped back. One of the others was speaking about having split up with his girlfriend and was kind of searching for answers. In the darkness it was impossible to tell who it was or how many others there were to go before I had to say something. Panic rose up. I had nothing to say. The misery tightened again.

Other people spoke. A girl’s voice talked about her sexual addiction. An older man’s voice talked about how amazing his life was, how his children were successful, and how his wife supported him, yet after twenty years of alcoholism and abuse, and his recent sobriety, he still felt guilt. Then the hot girl next to me spoke; I could tell because I felt her breath on my arm. It came as staggered puff waves with a slight wetness.

“My mom died last week,” she said amid loud sniffles. “I’m struggling.”

It struck me that this sweat lodge was the equivalent of one of those palm reading places, the big sign of the red hand out front. Their only customers were people in distress, naked and vulnerable enough to grasp at fraudulent hope-peddlers. “Oh, I see a dark force in your life, someone has put a negative spirit on you,” they would say, and recommend you put a crystal under your pillow and come back in a few days with a more generous offering to see how this could be cleansed. So there I sat, in the company of forlorn souls, the types of people who hope that mystical powers offer redemption.

As my time to speak rushed toward me, I questioned why I was really here. Sure, I told myself, it was a lark, a bucket list thing to say I had “done a sweat lodge”. But why was I HERE? What had led to this weekend, with this friend, and now in this sweat lodge? Life was not some series of random events, was it? There were reasons for things?

The girl finished. There were no eyes, essentially, to bore down on me. I let the pause linger too long though, and it became a “thing”: the awkward silence fed on itself. I needed to say something, but my mind was a wreck. The misery and now the existential questioning of “what the fuck am I doing with my life?” turned me to stone.

“I no longer live with my kids,” I blurted, “and can’t see them as much as I want to. I am struggling at being a father. I came here hoping to find some answers at how to be a better man.”

Like most things in life, this was both lies and truth. The things I said about my current situation were true, though I had not thought of it much that weekend. My reasons for being in that sweat lodge were not related. I felt a fraud. I spoke solemn words, truly dredged up from a sincere place, but offered them simply because the moment required those kinds of words. These were the things I said to myself.

“And,” I said quietly, “I’m sorry, but I need to leave.”

“Make way,” the shaman said. He did not hesitate. Dim moonlight rushed in when he threw back the flap. I leaned forward on all fours, both embarrassed that I had to quit and ecstatic that I was getting  the fuck out of there.

“Sorry, but I have to take a knee too,” another man said behind me.

I was overjoyed, redeemed. This entire thing was a joke, some self-induced misery in the name of knowing. But the two of us, rational men, figured out its true nature. I crawled toward the flap, fully aware of the ass to face interactions that ensued, and then was outside, the cool air on my sweat-drenched body. The other man, about my same age but a little pudgier and hairier, appeared behind me. We both stood, naked and stinking of smoke and dirt.

“That sucked,” he said and walked off, stopping quickly to pick up his clothes and wander off naked toward his tent. I did the same. It was a fifteen minute walk at least, and not once did I care when I passed others, my cock and balls swinging with mighty indifference. I was uplifted, with no idea why or interest in knowing.

When I got back to the tent, Toni eyed me from her chair, glass of wine in hand.

“How was it,” she asked.

“Bullshit. I need a shower.”

The next day was the big event, the dragging of the massive stone slab from the quarry to its new, sacred spot where a dozen or more other stones had been erected in a kind of Stonehenge way. Long lines of people on ropes, like Egyptian slaves laboring to erect the pyramids, dragged that damn rock for over an hour.

The roller crew rotated out six-inch diameter wood poles under the slab, and the rest of us strained. I cursed in my head, my hands forming blisters on my length of rope. That fucking stone weighed no less than five tons. I ranted internally. I sensed the universe laughing down at me. I swore, begged for the rock to break into pieces so I could be done with it.

The rock slab splintered into three large, if unequal, pieces about a half mile from the end. All of the people around me came to a sudden, and grieving, stop. Murmurs were replace with shouts, which were replaced with screams, as the angst spread on down the line. Tribal leaders gathered and discussed and fretted. Everyone huddled in whatever shade they could find. After an hour of quandary, the leaders called us all together.

“We cannot continue. The stone has never broken before. We feel it is a sign that there should be no rising this year.”

More was said, but I wasn’t really listening. I was already heading back to our tent, convinced that maybe I had bent the will of the gods with my negativity.

On our drive home, Toni and I stopped at a little greasy spoon diner. It was one of those up-in-the-mountains, out-of-the-way places with metal chairs and tables squeezed together in a big, open room. Our waitress was old and surly, the food a comfortable mix of grandma’s kitchen and a homeless shelter’s slop line.

“What did you think,” she asked me. “Did you enjoy it?”

I sipped at burnt coffee and chewed down fatty bacon. “I think I’m the one that broke the stone.”

She didn’t laugh or grimace. She didn’t even squint her eyes. “You know,” she said, “things will get better.”

Back in her truck, we headed home. Her Grateful Dead CDs played and the sloping valleys of the Alleghany Mountains accompanied us. Crossing into Virginia, nature gave way to strip malls and suburban cluster. Toni put her hand on the back of my neck. As I stared out the window, her palm heat pushed me into a fitful slumber.