3 Days in October

My brother Luis and his friend Jerry decided to go on a camping trip in late 1997.  Luis had been camping several times and could be considered somewhat experienced, especially among the non-hardcore outdoorsy types (and especially for a New Yorker).  He and Jerry planned it all through September leading up to October.  I wouldn’t have really remembered or cared about all this except for the fact that Luis really wanted me to go with them.

He’d asked me to accompany him on trips before but I always refused.  This time was different, our mom had died earlier that year and I think he sensed that we needed it; some time to get away and bond as brothers.  I didn’t think about any of this at the time, I just knew he was badgering me to do this thing.  As such, those 3 days in October would represent the longest stretch of unbroken time I had ever spent with him.  Musing over this decision I thought we’d probably just kill each other.

Luis was older than me, enough so that he had already moved out by the time I started making memories that could actually stick with me later.  Figure in our parents’ (my dad but Luis’ stepdad) messy divorce and a sudden move to California and we didn’t really know each other growing up.  That changed when I was 20 and moved to New York.  We got along as friends, Luis tried the older brother paradigm and I naturally resisted, having never really had an older brother.  However I still found myself playing the younger brother, asking for advice (which I rarely took) and trying blindly to make up for lost time.  Luis gladly accepted that, but it was not easy, finding a role that was new in a sibling relationship.  It was like suddenly getting a new brother.

By ’97, after 10 years in New York, Luis and I knew each other pretty well; his new wife and I loved to gang up on him and tease him about what he called his ‘little peccadillos.’   I lived in Brooklyn, they in Queens, and I’d take the N Train up and hang out, never a third wheel.  However, this camping trip, which I finally agreed to go on, was, by design, a ‘male bonding’ thing, a men only affair.  As October got later and a little colder I think Luis’ wife Kathleen was really OK with that.

I had never, nor do I still have any interest in camping.  When I agreed to go with Luis and Jerry it was under the implicit understanding that I had never done that before.  I’ve always considered campers to be “evolutionary tourists,” displaying an irrational desire to roll back thousands of years of social advancement so they could stay out in the woods like fleece-clad proto-hunters.  Don’t get me wrong, I love nature, I love being outdoors, but I need things like cars and buildings and street signs, all at least within the radius of a day-long foot hike.

The plan was we were going all the way up I-87 to Sentinel Range Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks for 3 solid days!  Wilderness.  I really didn’t like the sound of it.  And “Area,” a place so undefined it didn’t evidently qualify for a more specific moniker. I resisted my decision to go by not preparing in the slightest.  I did what everyone did in the late 90’s, I watched “X-Files” and bided my time for the approaching Millennium.

Finally we 3 intrepid outdoorsmen got our days off from work synced up and settled on Oct. 24-26th, Friday to Sunday.  We would take Thursday off too for travel, for it was a more than four hour drive.  Kathleen told us it was already too cold up there and asked why we didn’t leave earlier in the season.  Her statement and question amounted to the only preparation advice I should have acted on.  I didn’t ask Luis what to wear or bring because I didn’t want to look so uninformed.  That ironically guaranteed I would be just that.

Thursday the 23rd I donned my slim legged Levis over flannel underwear and wore my Vietnam Era issue jump combat boots.  I figured that with that and a couple of sweaters I would be good to go.  I started to anticipate it excitedly, thinking something unexpected might happen, something that would really break me out of my “birth-school-work-death” routine.  Maybe I would starve or get a weird bacterial infection or become wildlife food.  I grabbed a bag of Maruchan Ramen and stepped out into the unknown.  When I got to our “rally point” at Luis’ apartment in Queens Jerry was there too.  This is when I met him for the first time.  Either I was feeling insecure or he was pretty wary about having a new guy along who would have to be schooled 24-7.  We got into Jerry’s car on that 45 degree day and hit the road.

Passing Poughkeepsie I realized I’d left my coat in the apartment.  Luis was pissed, and I think a little embarrassed.  Jerry was silent but I’m sure the word “typical” was running through his head.  It was too late to turn back, Luis finally told me the layering was the important thing and that I’d be OK.  He was right, only because other things would cause bigger problems than just being cold; for everybody was going to be cold.

Finally we got off 87 and onto Route 9N.  We went along a ways there and then stopped at a trail head.  Jerry told us we were going to make a big loop over a 3 day period, some of it along a lakeside.  We got out of the car and stretched our legs, Luis was excited, and I remember him telling me I was going to “Just Love It!”  It was cold, it seemed too cold to be doing this but what could I do, as I needed to rely completely on these guys to guide me along.

We had big backpacks with our tent gear and food (MRE’s and ramen) and a pan for cooking and basically everything that Luis and Jerry thought we might need.  We passed the trail head, leaving our car (the only one in the parking area) behind for what already felt to me like forever.  This was for keeps, we were in a really remote area and had to watch ourselves.  However, my default feeling, which could be called “Discouragement in the Face of New Experiences” (or, DiFoNE if you will) gave way to something that was almost like open-hearted excitement.

Our first test a half an hour into the trip was a sloping boulder scrabble.  It had rained the night before and things were a little muddy and slippery.  I had already noticed the jeans I chose was probably a bad choice, they felt too tight.  I didn’t mention this to the guys.  One lunging step later and “Ri-i-i-ip!,” there they went.  The jeans ripped right at the crotch, mostly along the backside, leaving only one thermal layer between my giblets and the outside world.  DiFoNE made its first real appearance then and would stay close by the whole trip….

Luis and Jerry, though pissed and disappointed, at least also had something to laugh at.  Luis lectured me on camping etiquette as Jerry hurried us along deeper into the forest.  It was about 4pm, still light out and Jerry had checkpoints for us to be at all times.  We had to be “somewhere” to camp.  The best thing I got out of that first day was the thrilling feeling of true exhaustion.  I’m not being sarcastic here, that feeling took me a little out of my head and made me feel both present and aware.

Later we stopped and “made camp.”  The guys set up the tents, I realized one good thing about my inexperience was that I sometimes had less to do.  They asked me to pay attention though.  I was too busy worrying about bears, I’d seen a few signs alerting us to not only their presence but also for their love of campers’ rations.  Other signs advised us to suspend high our “pic-a-nic baskets” for any roving Yogi the Bears.

It got dark, really dark, and that happened fast.  We had the tents close to each other and a fire going and we were really beat.  Jerry had a tent to himself and I would share a lightly larger one with Luis.  I then remembered Luis advising me the previous month to go out and buy a ton of expensive camping equipment but I just didn’t have the money nor the interest.

We were so tired we left our food on the ground close by, I remember this because I got very freaked out and angry, the more I reminded/complained; the more I was sure I came off like a whiny little kid (these guys were over 10 years older than me).  I bottled my sentiments back up, fuming all night.  I slept, even with my brother’s snoring, which sounded like giant hands tearing acres of corrugated sheet metal slowly in half.  I was so tired I didn’t really care.

The next morning, with the sunrise, I noticed beauty for the first time.  Seeing me, the guys could tell and they smiled.  Jerry said, “This is why we camp.”  It was cold the night before but not too bad, just over freezing, I felt rested and ready.  Walk walk, hike hike.  The boots I wore was another bad decision.  They had no tread to speak of and I slipped with almost every step I took.  I learned to take much shorter steps.  My feet were getting way too sore too, apparently these boots were not made for anything other than jumping out of Huey helicopters.

There was not a lot of talking this day, it was tiring and I wondered how I’d make it to Sunday.  It got dark again and we made a fire.  As we sat there Luis broke the silence and said “Mom wasn’t really a camper, she would’ve hated this but she would have loved the fire.”  We then talked about mom for almost the first time since she’d died in February.  We talked about the good good and the uncomfortable bad.  It was at that moment that Jerry kind of receded into the background, for he knew what this trip was really about.  Not the freezing nor the complaining, the ripped jeans, the cyclonic snoring.  Not even the fear of bears (BTW every night after the first, Luis suspended our food out of reach).  We had to close ranks, brother-style and remember our mom and what it all meant.  It was not easy for either of us, not only the losing her, but honestly just what it was like living with her.   Luis helped me acknowledge that and I was relieved to realize I still missed her no less.  Growing up our experiences were different, but we found again we had some things in common.  Maybe it was finally time for me to pick up the big-brother paradigm Luis was laying down.  Probably right around that time was when I did just that.

The next morning I did complain a little more, I told Luis that Kathleen had been right, it was just too cold to do this.  When Luis pointed out that we were fine, that it was not too cold, I reminded him of the frost I’d showed him on the inside of the tent when we woke up, a patch above Luis and one above me.  Our breath had frozen.  He pretended to not remember any of that.  I just smiled, usually that would annoy me but I had no choice but to accept it and just love my brother.  Hungry and cold (especially me) as we were, our backs were up against the proverbial wall, there was no way to go, especially emotionally, but forward.

I think my big brother had taken me on a camping metaphor.

The next night (what day was it anyway?) I peeled off my boots to reveal big blisters.  Jerry told me to leave them as is, to deal with them when I got back to Brooklyn.  Walk walk, hike hike.  I felt by Day 3 I was getting good at this, hell, I was still alive wasn’t I?!  We’d camped for days, passed a beautiful isolated lakeside (the name I never picked up), and seen maybe 3 other people total.  We walked through a beautiful field of late autumn flowers, the aroma of it foreshadowed an hour before we got there.

Trudge trudge, hike hike.  The trip wound down, we broke camp for the last time and had our last cups of instant coffee, made from Luis’ water purifier gizmo he was so proud of.  We stubbed out the fire, gathered our gear and scrabbled down those same hateful jeans-tearing boulders we’d hiked up several years before.  Luis and I had annoyed the crap out of each other but I felt closer to him somehow, like we’d survived something (else) harrowing together.  But I was never so glad to see a car as when Jerry’s hove into view.  Thank god it was still there, as a Brooklyn resident I just assumed it might have been stolen by the time we got back.  We were out of food and with 3-day beards and no showers we smelled like John Wayne Gacy’s sock drawer.

It was comical how long it took to pack the supplies back in the car, we were that tired.  We motored along for a while and stopped at a McDonald’s, all of us full of excitement.  As I made little baby steps into the restaurant (the better to hide my crotch-less jeans and go easy on my blisters) I noticed the menu was half English, half French, I realized then how close we were to Quebec.  We were, of course, a stinkily ravenous trio.  Later that day as I arrived home and stripped off my mortally injured jeans (tearing them giddily the rest of the way in two) I felt immediate nostalgia for my trip, for the whole experience.  It was scary to meand I was largely in pain and freezing but it was an important life event for me, and I think for Luis too.

To this day he brings it up when we visit each other, laughing at my newbie foibles.  Kathleen and I even try to guess the exact time when he will do so and are nothing short of amazed if it takes more than two days.  He does it not only to reminisce, but to embarrass me, though good-naturedly.  He likes to elicit uncomfortable groans from me, but the secret is, it never bothers me as much as he thinks it does.  I mean, I couldn’t help it, what the hell did I know then?  I may have not been taking much brotherly advice then but I started to a little more after the experience.  For instance, if I’d listened to him before I probably wouldn’t have dressed for the trip like a hipster commando. With all I learned I knew I’d be a much better camper if we did it again.  But in the years that followed we never did.  I mean, he’d ask me, but not the way he did that October of 1997, when he alone knew how important it would be for us.

3 replies
  1. kathcom
    kathcom says:

    “…like giant hands tearing acres of corrugated sheet metal slowly in half”–exactly!!! And you guys definitely smelled like John Wayne Gacy’s sock drawer…with a bit of crawlspace thrown in for good measure. Hearing Luis bring it up at every opportunity made me groan, too. I told him, “Stop it! This will never be funny to him!” The other day, after 17 years, Luis brought up the trip without trying to rib you, as an experience you shared. I feel privileged that you have now shared it with me. And, for the record, evolutionary tourism is highly overrated. As Luis will remind me ’til death do us part, my idea of roughing it is a hotel with no room service.

    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      Thanks Kathleen, I’m glad you liked it, especially the sock drawer, which I just imagined had to smell terrible. But the crawlspace would always win.


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