A COVID-19 FANTASY IN THE RED RIVER GORGE
Instant Quaker gonna get you, better join the human race
By Mark Neikirk
In the ignorant, innocent early days, when we thought the pandemic was a Chinese problem perhaps shared by the crazy Italians, Americans were still making plans as if this, too, shall pass.
Instead, our plans passed. They faded into memory alongside other presumptions, like working in offices, visiting family and friends, or attending things. Dance recitals. City council meetings. Sunday services.
We don’t go to the gym or barber or dentist or, weirdly, even funerals. We fear the grocery store, where a sheet of Plexiglas is between us and the check-out clerk and where a burly man guards the toilet paper. Elective surgery? Reschedule it. You might need the Botox and eyelifts more after this is over than now anyway. Until then, don't set your Zoom camera on high def.
The Patio Boys were planning our annual spring hike, although per usual, the word planning would be an exaggeration. Planning, for us, means endless discussion of options and variables. An actual decision is not made until the rubber hits the road. Even then, Plan A’s merits are still being weighed against Plan B’s. Or Plan Z’s. But we got far enough along in the planning to agree we’d be going to the Red River Gorge – always a good destination in spring, when the hepatica and morels pop up out of the forest floor as if fertilized by a magical midnight dew.
COVID-19 has its own magical, or rather, diabolical powers.
The people who live in communities around the Gorge have asked everyone to stay away, and we are respecting theit wishes. Their hamlets, there on the westernmost face of the great Appalachian mountain range, lack a modern health care infrastructure. The nearest hospitals arent near at all. First responders need to attend to local needs, not search-and-rescue in remote ravines.
Since we are not going, I’ve decided to pretend. So this trip account will be a work of fiction. A flight of fantasy. In this story, COVID-19 never happened. In this story, a decision has been made. We are headed to the Red River Gorge for three nights, arriving mid-afternoon on a Friday in late March and camping through Monday morning in this wondrous place where water and time have carved an ancient and unspoiled municipality of sandstone cathedrals.
We have yet to decide where we’ll go in the Gorge. The choices are like opening a book of poetry written in mountain dialect. Adderhead Arch. Cloud Splitter. Noah’s Spout. Half Moon. Dog Fork Falls. Ohm Doom. Moonshiners Arch. And, charmingly, the Trail to Nowhere, which goes somewhere. According to a gypsy guide to the Gorge, Nowhere is 2.6 easy miles with the last stretch uphill until “you reach a flat spot. This is called Nowhere.” Only in a place where everything else is steep would a place called Nowhere be flat.
In another century, loggers feasted on the massive hardwoods, then left the Gorge for dead. It was anything but. This outer edge of the Pottsville Escarpment, as geologists know it, is a sort of protectorate, empowered by the Creator to guard a grand diversity of plants and animals. The parting by the forces of progress was an advantage to the aforementioned wildflowers and mushrooms.
And then, one day, those old forces returned, giddy over how easy it would be to build a dam in this deep gorge. They began spreading the lie that nothing significant would be obliterated were the Red River Gorge to become the Red River Lake. In their stupor, they imagined docks jam-packed with Sea Rays. The three counties that cradle the Gorge – Powell, Menifee and Wolfe – would be transformed from poor to wealthy.
Though the Red River Gorge Dam was never built, Menifee County would have a chance to test the vision of an economic Eden. The Licking River was dammed even as the Red River project was being discussed. The Licking River dam produced an 8,270 square foot impoundment, Cave Run Lake. Yet annual median family income in Menifee County is $26,000, which is well below the national average of $62,000. Meanwhile, Brunswick, the international corporation that manufacturers and sells Sea Rays, is doing just fine – or was until COVID-19 reset Wall Street’s table. When the mountains’ resources are exploited, it seems the wealth always goes somewhere else.
So let us stipulate that a Red River Gorge Dam was an bad idea and those farmers who, in the early 1970s, painted “STOP THE DAM” in big red letters on the corrugated roofs of their tobacco barns along the Mountain Parkway had a point.
With COVID-19 bringing a different kind of inundation, the locals were making a point again — this time on the 21st Century version of a barn roof shouting out to strangers passing on the freeway. On Facebook and Twitter, they beseeched those of us who would seek COVID-19 refuge by coming to the Gorge to stay home. Fearful, they were hunkering down to take care of themselves and their neighbors in the manner of the Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” The Irish, being a provincial people, did not mean shelter providefd by strangers from hither and yon.
• • • •
COVID-19 has bred internet memes almost as rapidly as it has bred itself. One shows a single lit match a safe distance from a row of matches. Below it, the same lit match is, well, strikingly closer to the row of matches, which is about to light up in one big, destructive blaze.
Nothing quite explained to me so well why social distancing works. Maybe FOX’s Tucker Carlson showed this meme to President Trump on or about the first week of March, when he flew to Mar-a-Lago with an urgent message: Mr. President, I cannot be a convincing sycophant unless you start to take COVID-19 seriously. Next thing you know, Trump was back to calling Democrats a hoax instead of the virus. He instead called our virulent visitor the Gina Virus, which I think was geographic not anatomical.
Whether or not the meme made an impression on the president, it (and the science) did on me. It was time to shelter in place, cart a bottle of isopropyl to the grocery store and gas station, Facetime Mom, put a stuffed bear in the window, upgrade my home office, and buy more pajamas for office meetings on Zoom.
The Patio Boys began to seek out virtual alternatives to our spring hike. One suggestion was that we each load a backpack, strap it on, hike around the neighborhood, and take video selfies. We would then send the clips to Bill Ankenbauer to make a movie. His day job involves operating a video camera on a news set, so he has some abilitie. He would add an appropriate soundtrack, including the Traveling Wilbury’s “End of the Line,” our theme song, which, by the way, takes on a new meaning in the COVID-19 age: “Well, it’s alright, doing the best you can, well it’s alright as long as you lend a hand… sometimes you gotta be strong.”
We might yet make a movie. For now, our hike is on paper only. It exists solely as the fiction that you are now reading. Nothing in this account happened. I can hear Bob Pauly, the Patio Boys’ founder and, when he wants to be (which is not always), our leader, say: “What’s different? Every time your write about one of our hikes I think: Good story. Bears no resemblance to the hike as I remember it.”
Those of you who know Bob, I leave it to you to judge whether his memory is superior to mine. Those of you who don’t know Bob, trust me. Not Bob. This is not disparaging to Bob, who loves his wife, his children, his Mom, his siblings, his friends, his cheap bourbon, his fire pit, his fire pit with bourbon and his friends, his Chuck Taylors, my chili, his profession (nursing), any home improvement project completed at his home by his in-laws, CovCath football, UK basketball, his fish pond, and drinking out of his fish pond from a LifeStraw if for no other reason than to gross people out.
But Bob’s idea of an account goes like this: We drove there, hiked, had fun except when it rained, and came home, buying a cheeseburger on the way. I like a little more flesh on the bone.
Bob, this one’s for you. It is fake news through and through.
• • • •
We left on Friday, March 20, 2020. We had planned to leave at 6:35 a.m. from Bob’s house in Fort Mitchell. Everyone agreed to be on time. Bob was. The rest of us got there when we got there, sometimes saying, “Oh, I thought the plan was 7:15.”
By 7:30, Bob’s driveway looked like an REI garage sale, with packs and boots and trekking poles and water bottles strewn about. Eventually, it was all loaded into the hatchback of Bill Ankenbauer’s Honda CR-V, John Curtin’s Ford Expedition, and Mark Goetz’s Prius, which he drove because he was going to need to come home a day or two early because he is retired now. I cannot explain this but Mr. Goetz is a busy man with multiple obligations, most of them grounded in some unspoken act of kindness. It’s also possible that he can only take two nights of the collective company.
We assumed that both Steve Haughey and Paul Guenthner were not on the trip but it later turned out both were in John’s Expedition, which is so vacuous that two grown men can be lost in its confines.
With Steve and Paul along, we had the whole gang: Bob, Bill, John C., Mark G., John Hennessey, Mark McGinnis, Jim Ankenbauer, Brandon Zembrodt, Dave Heidrich, Eric Krosnes, Mac Riley, Collin Jennings, Mark Dexter, and, as long as we are making this up, Sean Hudson, who died but is always with us – carrying his giant pack, farting, laughing, cooking something from Trader Joe’s, looking for love online, and trying to find a signal so he can call his parole officer at the appointed time to report that he is clean tonight and successfully fighting past addiction one more day.
Hey, hey, the gang’s all here! We may need the whole Gorge. This is why the locals want the invaders to stay home. Leave the Gorge to the newts and bats and hoot owls.
But we’re going. Fictionally.
We stop at the I-75/I-64 split in Lexington for gas and snacks. Mr. Goetz buys three Diet Mountain Dews, two of which he’ll pack in because he doesn’t drink coffee but will want the morning caffeine kick. Someone buys a bag of chili-flavored Fritos to share. John Hennessey buys a gallon of distilled water for 99 cents to split with anyone who wants to fill a Nalgene bottle at the trailhead. Paul G. and Dave buy the gas for everyone. Sean farts. My gracious, the dead can fart terribly.
Resupplied, we get back on the road.
Someone makes the mistake of bringing up politics. That goes south quickly. Soon enough, we’ve all agreed to write-in John Curtin because we know he won’t burn the furniture to heat the house (with apologies to Paul Krugman), won’t be unkind to children or immigrants, won’t lead us into needless wars, won’t shortchange teachers, and won’t dam the Red River. Sean reminds us that politics is a temporal concern and that we should turn our attention to other matters. Spiritual matters.
Somehow, his dog, Bilbo or Baggins or both, is now in the Expedition, too. Like Sean, it too is spectral but still colossal and smelly and all over everyone. BB, as I shall call him since I’m not remembering which B it is, is a bullmastiff. To look at him, BB is about as menacing of a canine as has ever been bred. But BB is a big baby, his Jell-O jowls drooling slobber on one of us while his big doggy balls are swinging profanely but without malice into the retreating face of another. BB then turns around. The offended people are offended by the opposite end of what was offending them moments before. Whoever is in between is getting his not so big, not so doggy testicles painfully flattened by four giant paws each time BB reverses himself.
In this fashion, we proceed southeast along the Mountain Parkway to Slade and the Shell Station, where we buy some final supplies. Did anyone bring a Bic? Do we need ice? We don’t. We buy permits that let us park overnight in the Gorge, a comparatively recent and modest regulatory requirement that ameliorates weekend invasions, if only a little.
Were we as a society serious about the threat to the Gorge posed by an onslaught such as us, we would all raise our voices in favor of a permitting system that would allow only a few people into this sacred ecosystem each day and fewer still into its most delicate places. Otherwise, no trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted. As for those who carve their initials into the soft stone of an arch or a bald, they will be exchanging places with Sean, who will be given a second chance on Earth, which he deserves, while the offender will find himself in the Afterlife’s warmer reaches rather than in Sean’s tent on the outskirts of the Pearly Gates. Sean assures us the Big Guy has approved this new system of limiting access to the Gorge but will not be coming out publicly to say so. Not his style. He expects us to step up.
Our caravan of fools moved on to our agreed upon trailhead, a relatively unknown place in the lower Gorge. I’m not going to say exactly where because I don’t want you, dear reader, to go there. I don’t trust you to leave it untouched. Keep your social distance. Fertilize your lawn or trim your hedges. Purify some tap water and fire up the Char•Broil.
• • • •
Before we started walking, Dave Heidrich organized a photo shoot with each of us putting a boot into a circle, which Dex and Bobby reminded us is what college co-eds do on spring break beaches, their lithe legs unworn by age much less by the ugly mishmash of male hair that make our legs about as pleasant to see as a blown piston. Heidrich seemed deaf to this incongruity. The iPhones came out. Click. Click. Click.
A couple of us, me being one, were busy repacking, trying to get another pound or so out of our packs and trying to guess the weather for the next three days. Would another layer be required? How many Clif Bars will I actually eat? Do I need all this water since the trail follows a stream? Will I eat one Instant Quaker oatmeal each morning or two – or maybe none?
“Instant Ouaker.” Now that’s a funny pairing of words, isn’t it? Quakers seem to be the paragons of virtue, restraint, justice. Maybe the next time President Trump feels pressured by his narcistic need for love and admiration, he can just reconstitute some Instant Quakers to assuage and assure him. The nation would be helped. Instant Quaker gonna get ya! Gonna knock you off your feet. Better recognize your brothers, everyone you meet. Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live and pain and fear.
Sorry, John Lennon. Go caught up in the moment.
• • • •
By now, our group was spread out. Bob left first, almost mysteriously. Johnny C called out, “Wait a second, Bob.” He knew it was to no avail. Bob was gone. He would later accuse all of us of lollygagging. Bill Ankenbauer was with Bob. He always is. Has been since childhood.
We hike in groups of two or three. McGinnis and Jim Ankenbauer were together and catching up. Jim had driven up from Florida a couple of days ago and camped alone at Koomer Ridge Campground, where he met Hugh and Jackie Cowdery from Davenport, Iowa, who read Wendell Berry’s book about the Gorge, The Unforeseen Wilderness, 20 years ago and always wanted to come. Jim shared his bourbon with the Cowderys, who, it turned out were descendants of Samuel Franklin Cowdery, the once famous wild west showman and aerial stuntman. A bit more bourbon and the stories came forth from the unwritten archives of the Cowdery family, like the time Grandpa Samuel jumped from the wing of one biplane to the wing of another and back. He was barefoot. Look closely as the photograph and you’ll notice he had failed to clip his toenails in some time.
Dex hung back with John Curtin, who considers him a lost son. Or his own personal court jester. Or both. Dex, the former body builder turned motivational speaker and Florida real estate investor, is still eating tuna packets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, an all-protein diet designed to erase any trace of body fat. Johnny listens, laughs and tells him, “Maybe I’ll start eating that crap, Dex.”
He asks Dex to retell the story of the backward crab walk, and Dex promises to do so around the campfire tonight. Having spent my career writing for a family newspaper, I cannot bring myself to tell you anything more about the backward crab walk except that in the story Dex is a hero and the apple of his eye is having “a Meg Ryan at the diner” moment.
About then, Gimli – oh, right, that was the dog’s name, after the Lord of the Rings’ dwarf warrior – comes trotting up the trail. He had found something foul to eat. Who knew that spectral dogs even ate? But if Sean could still fart, as he certainly could, then I suppose Gimli could still eat the maggot-infested rot of some previously living mammal.
Sean was further behind, walking with Brandon. They go way back to the days before our drinking club with a hiking problem even had a name. They were reminiscing about the trip to the Land Between the Lakes, which violated a Patio Boy rule that had not yet been made. The rule is simple: No misery. Mark Goetz made the rule and lives by it, which may explain why he brings the Prius should there be some misery from which he must flee. The Land Between the Lakes trip was buggy and hot as hell. For the record, Sean’s site at Camp Eternity is neither.
In due time, Sean caught up to McGinnis and Jim – Jim, whose trail name is The Guru.
The name has two origins. One stems from the fact that before the rest of us met Jim, his brother Bill would tell us of his mythical older brother who had a cabin in Colorado and would go off hiking in the mountains for days or weeks at a time, like a modern-day Jerimiah Johnson. Jim, by Bill’s account, always had the latest thing. Once Bill brought a SteriPEN, which purifies water using a AAA battery and ultraviolet light. “Jim has one of these and he says it works great,” Bill told us. Santa knew just what to bring a Patio Boy that year. By the next trip, there were five or six SteriPENs among us. Jim, meanwhile, has moved on to the next thing, a high-volume MSR pump with explosive power. Had the Gorge been dammed, Jim could now purify the whole lake.
Jim also became the Guru because he started out as a young man in seminary and still has a priest-like countenance. When he tells you something, his very tone makes it seem wise and right. His seminary history made Jim intrigued by Sean. What’s God like, Jim asked. “He’s alright,” Sean answered. “Beyond that, I’d rather you find out for yourself. But look around you. He made this place. Let’s not fuck it up.”
Jim seemed encouraged that you could be dead and visiting from heaven, drop an F-bomb, and still expect to return to the Afterlife in good stead. He told Sean as much. Sean replied, “God already knew what he was getting with me. He told me I was a good father and that was enough for Him. I didn’t know what to say. He said I didn’t have to say anything. And then he said, ‘Thank you, Sean, for being such a good Dad.’ I’ve seen Him around a few times since. He likes to walk in the woods where I live. We don’t talk too much though once we talked for two years about dogs. It went by like that (he snaps his fingers). He’s very fond of Gimli, and always brings him treats. Not bones. He has a thing about bones. Prefers to leave them undisturbed.”
Sean, ever the talker, went on and on like this for the rest of the day until everyone was in camp. He set his tent up meticulously, climbed inside, could be heard saying, “Checking in, Peter. I’m clean” and then snoring and farting in alternation for the next two hours nonstop. Sleeping, he was no longer talking incessantly, but he was never a quiet man.
Never, that is, except at those moments along the trail when he came to some especially lovely spot. It might be the smallest trickle of water from under a small overhang. Or a very tall and thick tree, which by Sean’s measure of time these days was not old, but he had a nostalgia for his time on Earth when he measured time differently. Hence, a tree that was an eon or so in age was something he respected and wanted to ponder. At these moments, Sean would step to the side of the trail and go catatonic. His body faded as if seen through gauze or a fog. What was left of Sean produced a different smell. Something pleasant. Like honey and coffee and cherries with, oddly, a slight hint of Skyline Chili. It was, if I do say so, heavenly. On one such stop, he was joined by Murph and Pots and Pansy, the two other dearly departed Patio Boys. The three of them seemed to have much to discuss. There were lots of knowing nods.
• • • •
Eric and I were nearly last to camp. We found a promising trout stream and got out our fly rods for a couple of hours. We both used little nymphs that I had tied. He caught ten brook trout and I caught one. He took a picture of all of them, complimenting me in one breath and then reminding me of the count with the next – all with good cheer. I’m accustomed to the fact that he is the better fisherman but I’m better at leading the horse to water if you will. Might I point out that only one us has a world record northern pike on light tackle and the one of us is not Eric.
I say Eric and I were nearly the last to camp because Mac and Colin had not been heard from for hours. Cell service is spotty and once they found three bars they were down for the count, sequestering themselves in a bubble of worldwide access and keeping The Enterprise, whatever exactly it is, on track. They would get to camp well after dark, ready for me to cook for them and so chock full of good humor that Sean wondered if he was back upstairs. Colin went over to set up the tent with Eric’s help. It was up in about 10 seconds or so it seemed. Mac was prepping, as he does, for a ceremony. “Colin, where’s our special bag?” he called.
Mac, who will probably one day be knighted with all the fanfare that entails, had brought with him little whistles made of deer antlers to hand out as he swore each of us into the Order of the Red, and then swore us to secrecy though none of us was sure what secrets we had to share other than spending time with dead Sean. Mac, however, has a way of making his ceremonies seem significant, like becoming a Webelo, a sommelier, or a certified BMW mechanic.
• • • •
With JetBoils boiling, an inordinate amount of Mountain House Chili Mac was about to be consumed. Dead, dry wood had been gathered and sawed to fit into the fire ring. The legendary Ankenbauer brothers were present and prepped to exhibit their pyroperfectation. Yes, I am aware that is not a word but give me another word for what they do? They maximize the beauties of the flame.
What isn’t well-known about the Ankenbauer brothers is that for all their skills once the fire is started, they are not all that great at starting a fire. For that, you need One Match. Eric Krosnes. No matter the conditions, give him one match and he will get a fire going. He’ll select his twigs and bits of bark (birch is like lighter fluid) and practically whisper into the smallest column of smoke until it explodes in to flame.
So who’s got a match? Or a Bic? No one it turns out. “Thought you bought one At the Shell.” “Thought you did.” “Thought he did. Didn’t think we needed two.”
No Bic. No matches. Brandon, however, had a flint and steel, which is enough for One Match. Later, we learned, Sean could have just snapped his fingers but he was not forthcoming about such powers as he was under strict instructions from Heaven’s middle management to avoid showy displays of the supernatural. He was prepared were the situation dire but it was not. Rather, this was a time for those among the living to share their gifts. One Match has a gift.
With the fire going, Bob, whose trail name is Mooch for obvious reasons, is cobbling his dinner by taking bites of what others have prepared. This is one reason his pack is lighter than everyone else's, something he's given to bragging about in this manner:
Bob: "You guys bring too much stuff. Your packs are too heavy. Feel mine."
Someone: "Right, Bob, that's because you don't bring food or a stove."
He does bring a fork.
Tthe Ankenbauer brothers set up the music, played from an iPhone over a Blue Tooth speaker. Johnny C, or Silver Pops if called by his trail name, is our senior member. As such, he gets first pick on the playlist. That means we are going to hear “the greatest song of all time” (i.e., “Galveston” by Glenn Campbell) and the greatest singer of all time (i.e., Johnny Cash) and, probably and unfortunately, some Eagles, a band made up of mean men and pushed upon America by a manipulative “pack of money mad pirates” (I borrowed that from Citizen Kane, which happens to be on as a write). Together, they raided and debased the legacy of the great Gram Parsons for profit – although, granted, “Lyin Eyes” is passable as it gigs the pack of money mad pirates for thinking they could buy love.
The bourbon is out by now. Knob Creek. Woodford. Maker’s. Four Roses. Maybe a little Weller 12. Bob’s brought his bottom shelf fav, Kentucky Tavern, which he mixes with the Coca Cola he packed in. With the bourbon comes the conversation. This being the time that it is, COVID-19 comes up. Our questions bombard Paul G, i.e., Doc – so named because he is one. He must tire of our questions. We’re relentless, trying to go through four years of medical school in one night. Patio Boys, M.D., coming to Netflix next fall. Binge it.
For now, Doc says, “The more isolated the better. The CDC guidelines are pretty good. Keep your friends and your enemies six feet away.”
That’s real advice, by the way even though this story is fiction. In this story, people aren’t dying by the thousands in crowded hospitals. John Prine is not in ICU in critical condition, intubated. New York and New Orleans are not a petri dishes of death. Our president is not clueless about how to solve something indifferent to bullies. Our children and grandchildren are not terrified.
In this fantasy, I step away from the campfire and stand in the night’s chill. It is a still, dark night. The stars are clear and abundant. A little of the Milky Way can be seen just as it could be when I was a boy before our overly lit cities drowned out the millennial light of the night sky.
I can hear the stream’s water dance gently over the rocks. An owl hoots. Otherwise, it is so quiet that I hear a cricket hop. The laurels are nearby but unlike the daytime, when they are a thicket of gnarled limbs awaiting their spring foliage, they are right now just shadows. Against the sky, I can see the grand cliffs that surround us, etching a wilderness skyline. Tomorrow, we will hike up, over and around those places and their beauty will be bright and overwhelming. But tonight is something different, something more intimate, something that requires you to sharpen your senses to see whereas tomorrow you may need to dampen those same senses.
I find myself thinking of how the natural world works, and how it preserves itself. Our time is counted in decades. This place counts in eons. Humanity is a temporal inhabitant, new to the planet and not assured of continuance. If we don’t blow ourselves up or warm the planet toward its death and ours, the natural world might unleash a thing like COVID-19 to protect itself from its abusers. Is this String Theory or routine apocalyptic analysis? Sean is standing next to me now, and I get the sense he’s reading my mind. “Come back to camp, man,” he instructs – and I feel no inclination to rebel against the instruction. Gimli is with him, and unusually calm.
The fire is perfect, its coals glowering a color of red that Crayola would name Menace. There is a play-by-play being recounted from a 1971 CovCath football game. The commentary is offered in excited tones, as if the play being discussed had happened only minutes ago. I know it is time for bed, and others follow. The tale of the backward crab walk will have to wait for another trip. Eric. Colin. David. Mac. One by one they file into their tents at different intervals over the next few hours until the last man standing, Bob, heads to his. He left the fly off so he can watch the stars through the netting. No rain tonight.
We have busy day planned for Saturday. McGinnis will be up first. I’ll be next and get the fire going. Hennessey will have coffee in what looks like tea bags. Heidrich will have Starbucks singles in three flavors. Everyone is sharing. Haughey, otherwise known as Frenchie because he travels with hand-cranked grinder, fresh-roasted beans and a French press, will have the best coffee. Brandon may have goetta and eggs. He seems capable of carrying a cast iron skillet just for that purpose. Goetzy will have a Diet Mountain Dew and smile warmly as he observes the scene, bemused. Bob will get up some time. No one is sure when. No one is sure when he went to bed. He will have left himself just enough Coke to restart his engine. He’ll emerge from his tent as he entered it, wearing the rattiest white hiking pants you’ve ever seen with one torn pocket dangling – and a black and green rugby shirt. He’ll acquire new camping clothing when those wear out and, he assures us, they aren’t close to doing so. “I’ll be dead by then,” he says nonchalantly, which is how he would have said it even if Sean had not been there, evidentiary of the veracity of the question, “Oh death, where is thy sting?”
A 15 mile hike is planned. We expect to climb a little, and we’ll take some rope just in case something is too difficult or it rains and the rocks get slippery. For now, the weather promises to be glorious.
All the usual things will happen, beginning with Sean’s intestinal disorders. Can’t they fix that upstairs? Dex will, at some point, find himself behind Heidrich and say, once again, “Dave, your legs have amazing vascularity.” And Dave will say, “Dex, why don’t you hike in front of me. I prefer that compliments of my anatomy come only from Paula.”
Mac and Colin will be left at the highest point, because there they will find four if not five bars. Eric and I will have some fun with the ropes. McGinnis and the Guru will turn back a couple of hours early and be waiting for us in camp, a fire and hot water going. A cloud will show on the horizon and Hennessey will wonder, no worry, if the weather is about to turn. And Bob will ford a stream with his boots on, telling the rest of us we are weak for trying to keep our socks dry. Silver Pops will tell him with authority, “Well, Bob, I don’t care if I am a pussy, I like dry feet.” No one says “pussy” with that emasculating meaning better than Silver Pops. I think he learned it as a boy when he was busy beating Bob up for being Bob. These days, we don’t beat each other up. We just laugh a lot.
Sunday will be a little shorter but also full of new and hidden places in the Gorge. Monday, we’ll get up, drive to Miguel’s Pizza to select from the fifty toppings. We’ll chat with the climbers and wistfully imagine our younger selves doing what they are doing – living in vans and bumming from climbing destination to climbing destination, keeping our bodies like our bank accounts, lean and light, and our fingers like our hearts, strong and searching.
And with the last bite of pizza washed down with the last swallow of an Ale-8 or a West Sixth, the fantasy will end and we’ll get to the vehicles and head back to CNN or FOX or PBS or whatever other doomsday channel we select for the latest reports of reality.
Perhaps we should instead just tune all of that out and instead pick up Openings (Counterpoint, 1968), a book of splendid Wendell Berry poems, including “Dreams,” which begins:
I dream an inescapable dream
in which I take away from the country
the bridges and roads, the fences, the strung wires,
ourselves, all we have built and dug and hollowed out,
our flocks and herds, our droves of machines.
Mr. Berry ends the poem with a reflection on the sleepless guilt born from the fact that man’s imprint is not so easily undone. At least not by man.
Maybe the Earth can undo it, or some of it, while we stay home because of COVID-19. Maybe we can use our time away to think through our return. Should we need more reasons to do so, a guide even, we can all pick up The Unforeseen Wilderness, Mr. Berry’s slender reflection on his visits to the Gorge in the late 1960s as the dam was contemplated and people who opposed it wanted Mr. Berry’s voice activated for the cause of explaining why such places should go untouched or, at least, lightly touched, dam or no dam.