Note: The events described here happened exactly ten years ago, when I was a much younger man with a healthier liver and better dance moves. It previously appeared in the March, 2004 issue of The Inner Swine.
PIGS, personally I believe that exercise is probably stunting our race’s evolution. Only a few decades ago it was easy to imagine that in a few thousand years the human race would transform into ugly, huge-brained beings with scrawny, useless bodies and huge, pulsing craniums trembling on narrow chicken-necks. The combination of increased automation and developing psionic powers looked likely to make any kind of physical effort unnecessary, and the slow, rubbing fingers of evolution would take over and mold us into the Superbeings we were destined to be. We’d use our immense brains to move mountains with a thought, to communicate instantly via thoughtwave, and repel invasions by the hideous Apes from Planet of the Apes by joining hands and concentrating our immense mental powers.
And then, this glorious future got ruined. By exercise.
Suddenly, people somehow didn’t want their muscles to atrophy, their limbs to wither, their heads to swell up horribly. Suddenly, people wanted to live longer, and in better health, than ever before. A wave of terrible fitness swept over the world, a sort of global inanity wherein people did crazy things like running when there was no need to run (like, say, because a hungry bear was chasing you) and lifting heavy things over and over again despite the fact that there were no jealous Greek gods forcing them to do so. It was madness, and I was born right at its beginning, so by the time I reached maturity many of the people I knew had been swept up in the chaos. My own wife, The Duchess, quite cruelly partakes in this healthful exercise on a constant basis, tormenting me with her marathon running and ability to cross the room without getting out of breath. Do you see? I’ve been betrayed by my own wife.
All this physical exercise has undoubtedly ruined any chances we had of evolving into hideous brain creatures. Our DNA’s been keeping track, and as our collective muscles get used more and more, more and more evolutionary grease is sent their way, trust me. Now, instead of being able to float things through the air with brain power, our descendants will merely be able to run longer and faster. This depresses me, and causes me to drink, which in turn causes me to wander out into the rain, shouting things, pass out, and wake up in a gutter without my pants. Blame evolution, dammit.
So, when The Duchess suggested that what was missing from our relationship was a good old fashioned hiking trip, I was dubious. Personally, I’m all for staying home and trying to make my own psychic powers manifest all on their own, through a demanding regimen of trying to float beers from the kitchen into the living room. So far, no success, but I am fully confident.
Of course, when hiking was first suggested, I didn’t think much of it. I was a Boy Scout, you see, back in the day, and I knew what hiking was all about. If The Duchess wanted to go walk around the woods for a few hours, I was up for it. As is customary with plans like these—which is to say, any plans whatsoever—I left everything to The Duchess. She corralled Jeof and Misty Vita into accompanying us, booked a room in one the Appalachian Mountain Club’s huts in New Hampshire, and forced me to purchase several items of outdoor clothing I doubt I would have purchased on my own. We took a few days off from work, filled the car with foodstuffs and more luggage than was seemly, and drove the seven hours to New Hampshire in good spirits.
At first, everything went according to plan. The AMC Hut was great, completed just two months earlier and still minty fresh. We got a four-bunk room with public bath, plus two meals a day (breakfast and dinner) and information about the paths around us. A good deal. We arrived in plenty of time for dinner on Friday, got unpacked, stuffed ourselves full of food, and then played games in our room until sleep forced us to go to bed. We were reasonably sure that our hiking trip was going to be a success, and even the sudden appearance of a large group of rowdy college kids on our floor, making noise deep into the night, didn’t blunt our enthusiasm. Although I’ll admit our enthusiasm became re-focused on murdering the drunk bastards.
Looking out the window the next morning, however, did.
Despite every weather report telling us that it would be clear and cold, we awoke to a full blown snowstorm the next morning. Not a particularly violent snowstorm, but certainly the sort of weather that would cause sane people to roll back into bed after one glance. Your four intrepid adventurers, however, having packed warm clothes and lots of snacks, laughed at the snow outside much in the same way, no doubt, that the Donner Party laughed at the distances stretching before them. It’s easy to be scornful of nature, of course, when you’re getting your third cup of coffee and shoveling down eggs and bacon in the dining room.
The trip up was fairly uneventful. We picked another hut nearby as our destination because it was a reasonable distance (2.6 miles each way) and because it was marked ‘moderate’, as opposed to ‘grueling’. We knew that this particular hut was closed, but we figure there had to be something there, and at any rate all you need on a hike is a destination. We geared up and stepped out into the snow, and the only thing which slowed us down on our trip up to the hut was: Me. I have the physical prowess of a nine-year-old girl who’s been locked in a basement for some time with only mold to eat. Those 2.6 miles were, no one bothered to tell me, largely uphill, and combine uphill with icy and cold and you have me stopping every ten minutes to gasp for breath, feebly waving everyone else forward. I suppose there’s no pretty way to say it: I’m out of shape.
Still, despite having to catch my breath from time to time, and despite The Duchess’s boots proving to be completely inadequate, and despite Misty’s gloves proving to be little more than sponges on her hands, we all enjoyed the hike up pretty much. We were a little dismayed to discover that the hut was not just closed, it was completely abandoned and bolted shut. There was nothing there: No shelter, no comfort. The only thing worth seeing were the birds, beautiful gray and white bird who would land in the palm of your hand to retrieve an offered piece of bread, over and over again, nodding their heads at us as if they were thanking us for the gift. It occurred to me that it would be pretty easy to be eating cooked bird that evening, as a quick grab and a twist and bam! Just like chicken. I think the birds were lucky not to have met The Duchess a few minutes later, actually. We chewed a grim lunch of bread and power bars in the aching cold, feeding the delightful birds, gloves off and the cold seeping in.
And then there was a moment of madness.
We’d been standing suddenly after working up quite a sweat, eating sweet power bars and letting our hands get cold. The Duchess and I found our hands completely numb, painfully so, and I started to feel a little nauseous. Both temporary afflictions brought on by not respecting the cold properly, but at the moment we panicked a little and decided—not unwisely—that the best way to get our hands warmed up was to get moving. Jeof and Misty were still playing with the birds, so we announced we were going to get started, and they could catch up. Not really paying attention, we crashed back into the woods. And, quite naturally under those conditions, got lost almost immediately. We live in Hoboken, New Jersey, for god’s sake, and we manage to get lost there.
I regained my wits after about five minutes march. Looking around, I realized we were on the wrong trail. How did I know? I was an Eagle Scout, shorty. I know things what you’ve never imagined. I’ve got forest skilz. What I don’t have, and probably never will, is any sort of control over my wife. Especially when she is on a rampage.
“Uh, honey,” I wheezed, “I think we’re on the wrong trail.”
“No,” she shouted over her shoulder, stomping down the trail. “Look at all these footprints! This has to be right! My hands are so cold!”
Having learned my lessons years ago, I let that pass and we walked a few more minutes along what was clearly the wrong trail.
“Sweetheart, stop,” I tried again. “We’re going the wrong way.”
“No,” she said. “My hands are cold.”
After another minute or two of walking, during which I tried to overcome my intense fear of being wrong, we stopped, staring at a huge log which crossed the trail. It was ancient, and had clearly been there long before our arrival in New Hampshire, if not this world.
“I don’t remember that log,” The Duchess said slowly.
“That’s because we’re on the wrong trail,” I said, trying not to sound smug.
So we turned around and huffed and puffed our way back up the trail we’d just crashed down. The Duchess was not pleased, but I found myself in the unusual situation of being above reproach on this matter, and she could not vent her anger on me. When we traced our steps back to the spot where we’d taken the wrong turn—obvious now that we weren’t afraid our hands were going to turn black and fall off, and I wasn’t woozy from a sugar rush—I took the lead and chastised The Duchess gently, which she took well. We set out downward again, full of confidence.
Confidence which lasted about twenty minutes, when we found ourselves staring at a trail sign we didn’t remember. The trail itself was the one we’d come up, but the sign merely pointed left and right, with no further indication of which way along the trail we were supposed to go.
“I think we should go left,” I said. I actually had a good reason for deciding this, based on my recollections of our ascent. I explained my reasoning to The Duchess, who had gotten a disturbing wild look in her eye.
“Just so you know,” she said seriously, “if we get stuck out here overnight, I’m more than willing to eat you to survive.”
I told myself that this was just how the wife expressed love under stress, and herded her down the left. My knees, not accustomed to this level of physical exertion—it was about three in the afternoon by then, meaning we’d been hiking in the wilderness for about five or six hours—were really painful, and stomping down those hills, trying to keep up with my insane wife wasn’t easy or enjoyable. Neither was the mounting suspicion that maybe she wasn’t so crazy, and maybe we were on the wrong trail. The thing is, as anyone who’s ever gone deep into the wilderness knows, the woods play tricks on you. Things start to look familiar even though you’ve never been there before. Places you passed just hours before look suddenly different. Especially during winter, when snow will melt, or cover tracks, when cloud cover can obscure sunlight, when the normal features of the woods are covered in frost. Add in my wife, who kept insisting we were completely lost and would be forced to spend the night freezing to death as hungry animals paced impatiently, waiting for us to lose enough strength, and you can see, I think, how I started to lose my mojo.
I thought we were going in the right direction. I thought I recognized some spots as we marched. The Duchess wanted nothing of that, however; every time I pointed at a tree and said “I think we passed that on the way up.” she would fix me with a withering gaze that communicated, roughly, you really expect me to believe that you recognize a tree?. After a while I started to doubt myself. To regain some sort of control, I forced a halt and broke out my compass and map.
Yes, I know how to use a compass and map. I haven’t actually used one in ten years, however, and the compass I had was a cheap one and the map we had was a cheap one, so I wasn’t able to do much more than read our general direction against the direction we should have been going in. I did this and was disturbed to see we were heading north-easterly, instead of south-westerly. I made my first real mistake of the day by announcing this to The Duchess, who took this as confirmation that she would be bear-dinner by evening. We’d been officially ‘lost’ for about an hour (and, as it turned out, not lost at all) and already she was regressing into a Lord of the Flies sort of mental state. Enraged, she announced that we had to start moving faster because it was going to be dark soon, and whirled away to start marathoning it through the forest while I, gimpy-kneed and winded, limped along behind wailing that she shouldn’t just leave her beloved husband to be eaten by bears.
The trail quickly turned west, and I realized I’d forgotten a basic bit of hiking lore: Trails twist. Just like highways that sometimes turn from north to west even though they are marked north, trails in the woods sometimes can’t just go straight and turn briefly. When I’d taken my compass reading, the trail was heading eastward. About two minutes later it was heading westward, and it stayed that way, the drooping sun directly before us. I combined the two salient facts about our situation—we were heading downhill and in the right direction—and concluded we were most likely headed in the right direction. Even if we didn’t end up exactly where we wanted to be, we couldn’t possibly end up far from home. I tried telling this to The Duchess, but she had already calculated how far ahead of me she would need to be to escape the bears when they pounced on me, and only paused to glance back at me accusingly. He look, translated loosely, said you’ve failed to protect me, loser-man. I was tempted, for a moment, to guide her into a bear’s cave, but released my negative energy into the universe and waited for events to prove me right.
This happened about half an hour later, when we passed a waterfall we’d stopped to take pictures of on the way up. I ripped out the map and jumped around, telling The Duchess that we were definitely on the right trail, because here were Gibbs Falls. I expected her to get happy and apologize for being so spooked, but instead she just glared at me.
“We’re wasting time. We have to keep moving! We’re lost!”
I stared at her. “But, we passed those falls. We’re fine.”
In the face of obvious rightness, she shook her head. “I don’t remember those falls.”
I realized that my wife had contracted a temporary form of Space Madness, and took a gingerly step backwards. People undergoing Space Madness can get violent, sometimes. I took a deep breath. “Sweetheart, we passed these falls. We’re about forty minutes out. There’s no doubt at all.”
“No,” she said determinedly. “We’re going to be eaten by bears.” She squinted at me shrewdly. “Well, you are, anyway.”
I had a very clear image of my wife nimbly climbing a nearby tree to escape marauding bears, and then watching calmly as I struggled to overcome bad knees, flabby gut, and the twenty pound backpack I had on, eventually failing and being eaten. At that point, I thought breathlessly, death would probably be a relief. No more walking, anyway.
We kept walking, because there was nothing else to do, and sure enough, the landmarks started coming fast, and within half an hour we were looking out on the highway that passed our AMC Hut. We were home. The wife grinned sheepishly at me.
“I guess we made it,” she said.
“We were never actually lost,” I pointed out. “Just a little confused. But my superior woodcraft saved us.”
Normally, The Duchess would just roll her eyes at this obvious and obviously incorrect boasting, but we had just crossed over into a magical land known as Apologetica The Duchessica, which featured the rare sight of my wife in a subdued, apologetic mood. She knew she’d overreacted and ignored my good advice, and I knew that for the next few weeks I’d be able to milk this sudden self-doubt into a string of concessions I’d normally have no doubt of getting. I had a renewed bounce in my step as we crawled across the highway and towards a big, hot dinner.
So what did we learn from our experience? Nothing, really. We’re modern-day Americans, we learn nothing. If we burn ourselves on hot coffee, we do not internalize a solemn lesson, we litigate. Convinced that we could easily avoid the situation next time by simply bringing more stuff with us into the woods, we quickly sloughed off the trauma of being lost for, oh, roughly fifty minutes, had a few beers with dinner, and spent the night once again playing games in our room. I did enjoy making a lot of fun of The Duchess over the next few days, a dangerous coin to spend, but when in Vegas you gotta give it a shot, yes?