The pile in our living room grew. It was initially seeded with a lump of bedding; a new grey plaid comforter, and complimentary grey sheets made of Jersey. Soon other items appeared, a steamer style trunk from Target, new pillows from Walmart, a modern desk lamp from Amazon. In a matter of days, the pile dominated the northeast corner of the room. My neatness tendencies had me restacking the collection, but I remained calm despite its ungainly appearance. I knew that its life in my living room was short-lived.
Wednesday evening, I pressed the automatic seat retraction button on my Ford Flex. An unseen motor whirred, and magically, the car’s rear seats disappeared.
“Will, I need your help,” I called. A grumble emerged from the family room, “Alright,” Will growled. Our job was to load the Flex in preparation for move-in day.
Will is our fourth child to go to college and our only boy. There is a difference in what boys bring to college vs. girls. We followed the recommended list given to us by his university, but there wasn’t a lot of energy expended finding the perfectly colored comforter or matching wall art. Will had gone shopping with his girlfriend, Lauren and purchased some old vinyl records with the plan that their covers would inject personality to his corner of his dorm room. That was the extent of his decorating project.
He was late to the gate when it came to securing housing, and because of this, he was relegated to a “quad,” an oddly shaped room that housed three other roommates. I hoped that his place wouldn’t turn into an “animal house.”
Thursday morning Julie, Will, and I pile into our Ford, and I plug in his residence hall’s address into the car’s navigation system. After two hours of driving, we take the exit to the university.
It is now past 1 PM, and we are all hungry. “Do you want to stop for lunch before we unload?” I ask. “Yes!” Will responds. “Will, this is your day, where do you want to eat?” I inquire. After a short pause, Will responds, “How about that, Chick-Fil-A?” I scan the street in front of me and spot it on the right and pull in.
It is hard to describe what I’m feeling. In some ways, it seems like we are on vacation and stopping for a bite. However, the atmosphere of the restaurant clearly has the vibe of a college town. I’m still in automatic mode, and I have entirely blocked any sadness. Instead, I’m feeling a subtle undertone of anxiety as I anticipate the actual move-in process.
With lunch over, we pile back into the car for the remaining mile to campus. Apparently, we were given written directions to ease the move-in process, but they never made it to the car. I drive around aimlessly as I encounter one street closed, and then another. Eventually, I make the right turn, and I’m guided to his dorm’s drop-off zone by a legion of police, each officer separated by about sixty feet.
Will’s dorm is 27 stories high and gigantic. Its architecture has a 1970’s vibe, and its awkward appendages remind of “big hair” a typical fashion from that decade. I am surprised at how small the parking lot is. An officer guides us into a parking slot with clear instructions, “Unload your items to the curb. One person stays with the items, and another goes in to register. Sir, you need to drive to the overflow lot to park.” I nod in obedience.
I glance over to move-in piles from other students and see everything from couches to massive boxes filled with clothes and room decorations. I’m grateful that Will pile is considerably smaller. His dorm has a unique elevator system that only stops on every 5th floor. In Will’s case, we will need to travel two levels above his floor, and we will have to carry everything down two floors to his room.
I drive off and follow the signs to the overflow parking lot; the mile distance seems far away. I exit the lot and start the walk back to campus. My “excellent” direction sense points me in the opposite direction extending my 1-mile walk by 50%. “My exercise for the day,” I mutter to myself.
On my walk back, Julie sends me a text telling me Will’s room number and informing me that they are off the curb and in the building. I arrive at the dorm, enter, and take the elevator two floors past Will’s. “Excuse me, can you tell me where this room is.” I show my text message to a student move-in volunteer. “Take the stairs two floors down and then go to the left.” I’m informed.
Will’s room has oddly shaped dimensions. It is “L” shaped, long with stubby alcove. Originally envisioned as a room for three, it is now designated for four. In its standard configurations, it contains two bunk beds, 4 dressers, 4 small desks, two open closet areas, and a little freestanding wardrobe to give the 4th roommate a place to hang his coat. Along the long end of the “L” is a large picture style window overlooking a parking garage and other random structures.
I enter the room to find Riley, a freshman from Darien, and his dad, Joe. Both are friendly and engaging. They inform me that Julie and Will had gone down to the main level to secure a “loft kit,” which is a set of metal bars that changes a single bunk bed into two lofts (a mattress on top with space below for a desk and dresser). Eventually, Julie and Will return carrying a set of metal tubes. I’m grateful that Joe, a general contractor, is there to guide me in the conversion from bunk bed to loft unit.
The room is starting to come together, and in the process, it becomes clear that we need a few more items. A pencil holder for the desk, a few more school supplies, a microwaveable bowl. Will puts the kibosh on Julie’s idea of getting an area rug.
Joe’s wife arrives and informs us that there is a CVS within walking distance, but just as we start to depart the dorm’s fire alarm kicks in, forcing the entire building to be evacuated. Every one marches in unison and slowly moves down the stairs to the street below.
Will’s dorm is alcohol-free, but I spy at least 4 stores advertising alcohol sales within walking distance. I think to myself, “Not much has changed since I have gone to college.” I stifle an urge to give Will my “act responsibly” talk. I know that at some point I’ll say it despite my understanding that it will have little impact. Will’s behavior will be determined by years of parenting, and his own constitution, not by some cheesy two-minute speech from me.
The CVS is inadequate for Will’s needs, and we exit only with a few cold sodas. A random person calls out, “Will, hey Will!.” It is a fellow Naperville North student who wants to exchange SnapChat information with him. I feel comforted knowing that Will has excellent social skills, and people like him.
We hike to overflow parking, get into the Flex, and drive off to Target. There he runs into another familiar face, his good friend, James who is dorming in the same residence hall. Up and down the Target aisles we go, a desk caddy here, a pencil sharpener there. We head back to his dorm, which has given the “all clear.” The fire alarm was a prank.
The line to the elevators is at least a block long, and I suggest that we take the stairs. Twelve floors later, I regret my decision. Task complete it is time to go back down to the car to hug and say goodbye. Julie gets misty-eyed, and I’m surprised that she doesn’t break down sobbing. I drag myself into the front passenger seat, and we drive off, one child lighter. In the next 11 days, we will lose two more as they travel on their life journeys.
Dear reader, you may have noticed that I didn’t talk much about my feelings during this transition. The reality is that I’m uncertain what I’m feeling. Of course, I love my son. Of course, I miss my son. However, I’m not really allowing myself to dig into my psyche at the moment. This act is not deliberate, it is automatic. I am not ready to face the reality of having my last three kids transition from home to “other,” and because of this, I’m keeping my feelings at bay. Instead, I find myself getting involved with projects, and creating little experiments, and cleaning the house. I do these acts not only as a way to symbolize that life goes on, but also to recognize that even sad events can have a positive side. Rooms will be shuffled, and Julie will finally have a study again. We will have additional flexibility in traveling. My electricity and grocery bills will be reduced.
I don’t feel that I’m in denial. Instead, I think that I’m exploring this change in its entirety. Life doesn’t stop when significant events happen, it goes on. We can decide how we deal with a given situation. Are we victims of our fate, or can we be an active force in our own lives? Today, I choose the latter. I will celebrate my children’s independence, but also relish the time that we do get to spend together. I will investigate the positives that any change brings, and I will attempt to mitigate any negatives. I won’t waste a day thinking about what I have lost; instead, I’ll focus on what I have gained.
I spied at least 4 liquor stores within walking distance from his dorm. Moving crew. Will posing, and me fixing something.
Freddie Nietzsche has referenced the impact of life’s difficulties in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but with that said I do have the ability to turn something negative into something positive.
I have mentioned my dyslexia in the past, but I think it deserves re-referencing here. As some of you know, I was unable to read in second grade. My teacher told my parents that she thought I was very bright and attributed this inability to poor vision. My parents took me to an optometrist who prescribed a very weak eyeglass prescription. I guess optometrists have to make a living.
My 7-year-old expectations were dashed when I put on the specs only to discover that I was as illiterate as before. The fear that my parents would be angry at me pushed me towards a solution; I created my own method to make sense out of the jumble of random symbols that my mind was seeing. I feel that my alternative way of reading has given me an advantage. I may read slower than many, but I have superior comprehension. Beyond comprehension, I appear to have an excellent ability to understand the subtext and sub-connections in a written piece. My reading difficulty turned into a reading advantage for me.
I apply this concept to other aspects of my life; most recently to the subject of backpacking.In a past post, I wrote about my trip to Glacier National Park, and how it had a life-altering impact on me. A subplot in this post centered around backpacking.
I enjoy day hiking, but I declined an offer from my friend, Tom to backpack with him. Tom is an inexperienced backpacker who challenged himself to hike in the backcountry armed only with knowledge from YouTube videos, and a healthy cash donation to REI.
His 4 day/3 night trip turned into a 6 day/5 night experience due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical exhaustion. Despite these barriers, Tom succeeded in his quest and enjoyed the experience. Further, he feels that he bonded even closer to his son, as they had to work together to accomplish their goal.
I am happy for Tom’s accomplishment, but I am also grateful that he brought me a wealth of information on this topic. I had thought a lot about backpacking and read extensively on it, but third-hand data can only yield so much real-world details. Through Tom’s narrative, I was able to get an up-close understanding of the experience. What were the primitive campsites like? How did he go to the bathroom? What would he change in future hikes? What were the positive things about the experience? What gear did he wish he brought? What equipment that he brought was unnecessary? It is one thing to watch a YouTube video from an athletic 25-year-old backpacker, it is another thing to listen to a 52-year-old guy’s first time out. Tom’s story gave real context that allowed me to visualize myself in his situations.
My personality is such that I get enjoyment from learning information and skills. As a new area of interest, the topic backpacking offers both opportunities. Additionally, my solo day hiking trips revealed something about myself that surprised me. Despite being a loner, I very much wanted to share my experiences with someone else, and I wanted to do that sharing in the first person.
I already had a sleeping bag, and I decided to buy an inexpensive lighter weight tent. Other small purchases followed: a blowup pillow, Smartwool socks, a better headlamp.
My next phase was to try out new behaviors in a controlled environment. I set up my little tent in the living room, unrolled my sleeping bag, and climbed in for a nap. Success!
Setting up my backpacking tent in my living room. Making sure my sleeping bag fits (and taking a little nap).
When Tom came off the trail he gifted me all of his Mountain House freeze-dried food with the statement, “I’ll never eat that stuff again!” I have eaten MH on occasion and found it reasonably palatable. However, Tom ate Mountain House for all of his meals, and quickly became sick of his soft and lukewarm diet. I would likely have a similar reaction, and so I have been exploring other simple backpacking meals. In fact, I have created a few homemade “freezer bag” meals that my official tester (my daughter, Gracie) said tastes better than the commercial stuff.
Trying to rehydrate pasta and my own dehydrated veggies. Rehydrating commercial freeze dried veggies. Making my own freezer bag meals that will be compared with a MH meal.Thanksgiving dinner in a freezer bag. Just add hot water and wait 10 minutes! My meal rehydrated.
The next phase of my experiment will be to attempt a backyard sleepout. I’m curious if I’ll be able to stand up straight after sleeping on the hard ground all night. Pending the weather forecast, I will likely do this in the next few days.
So, will I backpack? Unfortunately, I have run into some pitfalls in advancing this process. My goal was to do a three-night hike with Tom next summer when he travels to Yellowstone National Park. When I mentioned this to him, he was receptive but informed me that he was thinking about a 5-6 night adventure rather than a 3-night trip. This long trip would not be wise for me based on several factors. Tom is younger than me but in similar physical shape. Despite drinking a lot of water, he became dehydrated, and due to the sequelae of electrolyte loss simple movement became difficult for him. It is also clear that he became physically depleted after day three of his hike; this was his energy limit based on his level of physical conditioning. Any additional days became ordeals for him to conquer rather than enjoy. I would likely have a similar experience. Lastly, the way that he coped with this exhaustion was to lengthen his trip, advancing his adventure from 4 days to 6 days. This expansion would be multiplied with a more extended trip. For instance, a 6-day trip could turn into 9 or 10 days. Based on all of this, it would be foolish for me to consider such a long hike. I did suggest to him that we go on a few short local overnighters, which would allow me to check out my ability in situ, but as of this moment, he isn’t too interested.
What about other options? It would be great to hike with my son, Will, but he has no interest. Julie has never expressed a desire to go backpacking. My other kids are busy with their lives, friends, and activities.
I am starting to explore the option of an organized club or Meet Up group, but I wonder if the cohorts would be too advanced for me. I have even pondered finding someone on Craigslist, or some other public forum. What would I say in an ad? “Wanted a middle-aged or older guy who has never backpacked who would like to go backpacking with someone equally inept.” For some reason, I don’t think I would get a lot of takers.
At this point, I am enjoying learning about a new topic and testing out new skills. If this hobby advances further, all the better. With that said, I believe that learning new things is always useful, even when the knowledge doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose. Seemingly specific information can often be generalized. For instance, my ability to develop decent freezer bag meals is directly related to the many years of hotel room cooking that I did when I worked 2 days a week in Rockford.
My goal is to enjoy the journey and not negate the process by only focusing on the end game.
Today I told you about my backpacking transformation, but the same techniques can be used when dealing with much more difficult problems. In fact, these rules also apply to other issues, even trauma. There are several factors necessary to turn an unwanted experience (a negative) into one that is desired (a positive).
1. Understand the process.
2. Explore the pitfalls.
3. Practice the behaviors.
4. Evaluate if the overall outlay of time and energy are justified.
This methodology works, and so I thought I would pass the tips on to you.
A $50 Sunbeam microwave oven sits on my basement floor. The device is positioned haphazardly, and it partially obstructs the path to our basement fridge. A Target build-it-yourself cube bookcase looks awkward in our living room. Caddy-corner to the cube is a pile of unopened bedding: a masculine grey plaid comforter, mattress liner, grey sheets, and pillowcases. On the second floor of our home resides a collection of random objects: a folding solar panel, a Kiato worldband radio, a universal AC plug adapter, and a brand new teal blue Hydro Flask.
The microwave and storage unit belongs to my daughter, Grace, who will be returning for her second year of university where she is studying Psychology and Pre-Medicine. The plaid comforter is my son William’s, who will be starting university majoring in Biology and Chemistry. The random items on the second floor are owned by my daughter, Kathryn, a recent graduate who will be spending the next 2 and ½ years in Africa teaching math as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I have been an active parent for the last 36 years, and with the departure of my youngest children, I will become an empty nester. In less than four weeks, my life will change in the most radical of ways.
I can already see the stress that this change is causing Julie, my wife. She has become quieter, and I can feel her distancing herself from me. I’m not taking offense to her actions, as I know that she is defending against her loss feelings with everything that she can. Past experiences predict that her former self will return soon after our last child is safely in their new environment.
But how are these changes impacting me? That is a more difficult question as I tend to deal with negative feelings more obtusely. I do feel anxious. Am I really anxious?
I remember worrying as a child. My mother was chronically ill with a severe form of diabetes, and it was not uncommon for her to be near death. I recall countless times when my father would wake me up in the middle of the night during one of her insulin reactions. I would find her sitting on a kitchen chair drenched in sweat. Her head would be lying limply on the kitchen table, and she would be moaning.
In most instances, she would revive with a large glass of orange juice laced with sugar, and life would return to normal. However, there were other times when her blood sugar was too high instead of too low. Those times an ambulance would be called, and she would be whisked off to the hospital. During these episodes, my dad would wake everyone in the house. After my mother was taken by ambulance (which could be at two or three in the morning), my father would send me to bed with the expectation that I would go to school the next day. Now isolated from the rest of the family, I would feel hopeless, alone, and very anxious. I would pray for my mother’s health during these times. Unfortunately, my obsessive nature would also kick in, and I would believe that I had to say a series of prayers entirely, or my mother would be in mortal danger. It was common for me to fall asleep mid-prayers only to wake up to start the whole block of prayers again (if you are Catholic, think rosary). This staring to pray and then falling asleep could go on for the remainder of the night The next day the rest of the family would take the day off from work to sleep and to console each other, I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t included. Perhaps it was felt that kids don’t worry, or maybe it was just easier not to have to deal with me. With that said, those post-ambulance school days were miserable for me.
My prayer behavior suggests that I had a lot of anxiety, which I tried to silence with compulsive actions. But was that anxiety another mask to help cope with my feelings of isolation and sadness? I think the latter may be more accurate as (in this example) prayer helped my anxiety as I could turn my request over to God. However, in those days, I had no strategies to deal with isolation and sadness.
Now at 66, I believe that I’m once again using anxiety to mask my sad and lonely feelings. However, with years of life experience, I now have tools to deal with these emotions.
I can explore if I have any control over a situation. For instance, I do have concerns over Kathryn going to Africa, but I have no control over her actions as she is an independent adult.
I can ask myself if my concerns are valid. I worry about my college kid’s safety, but their new environments are likely as safe as their current one.
I can assess if I am reading my feelings correctly. In this case, I’m feeling sad and dealing with loss and not anxiety.
Why am I sad? I’m sad because I’ll miss my kids, who are an integral part of my life.
What is the reality of that loss? They will be physically away from me, but I can still have regular contact with them.
What is the likely outcome of this change? They will become self-sufficient adults. I will not lose them and this separation is temporary.
What else can I do to reduce my sadness? I can explore the benefits of being an empty nester. I can travel without burdening Julie with additional responsibilities. I can also travel with Julie more spontaneously and less expensively. I can explore other interests. I can learn new things. And so on.
Naturally, I can still (and do) pray, just not as obsessively or magically.
Do these techniques eliminate my feelings? Of course not. However, when I start to feel myself sliding downward, it is easy to revisit these skills and feel better. Dear reader, it is OK to feel sad; I don’t want it to be my dominant feeling at a time when I should also be experiencing happiness. The reality is that my kids are all doing incredible things that will help them become more competent adults. I need to recognize and celebrate these positive changes and not focus exclusively on my loss.
Life is full of transitions, and many of them are bittersweet. Kids going off to college, the loss of an elderly but suffering parent, transitioning from work life to a retired one; humans feel. However, it is pointless to sink into an abyss of despair. It is important to acknowledge feelings, understand them, and appropriately act on them. However, it makes no sense to be so consumed by feelings that you lose the joy of daily life… and as in all things, one foot in front of the other is sometimes the best way to get out of a negative place.
Dear reader, have you had to deal with anxiety, sadness, or the stress of life transitions? I hope that some of my techniques will be useful to you. Or perhaps you can explore your techniques using the above model as a template.
When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.
The offer was made in 2017, but I had to decline. My friend, Tom had asked me if I wanted to go backpacking with him and his son, Charlie. He had just come back from the remote Glacier National Park located in the west corner of Montana, and he wished to return in 2018 for a backpacking adventure. The trip would be a father/son experience as I would bring along my son, Will.
The idea sounded exciting and appeared to be a great way to bond with Will, but he wasn’t interested in going, and the idea of spending a fortune on backpacking equipment without him didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me. As luck would have it, Tom had to postpone the trip until this year, and during that interim, some things in my life had changed.
The main change being the purchase of an empty cargo van in the spring of 2018, and its eventual transformation into “Violet” my campervan. Violet’s design was the culmination of over twenty years of owning different campers. I knew what I needed, and more importantly, I knew what I didn’t need to make a van conversion work for me. That conversion process started in the fall of 2018 when I had Wayfarer Vans insert a prefabricated interior into her. That project added a bed, ceiling, walls, floor, and a kitchen counter to her interior. After that work was done, Tom and I spent several months customizing her further. We added three-hundred watts of roof solar panels, a vent fan, swivel front seats, LED ceiling lights, a custom storage compartment under her bed, a 12 volt Dometic refrigerator, and other refinements that turned a generic campervan into a travel companion with a personality. She was christened with the name Violet as her interior cushions had a cheerful purple/violet color.
I had already taken her on a variety of short trips to Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Also, I traveled to Arizona to gather my graduating daughter’s possessions from the U of A. During that trip, I sampled four national parks along the way, turning an ordeal drive into an enjoyable event. Those trips confirmed that my planning had paid off. Violet was not only roadworthy; she was very liveable.
Tom and Charlie would travel to Glacier in Tom’s Ford Flex whose cavernous interior could easily be converted into sleeping quarters for the two of them. I would follow them in Violet. In the ensuing two years, I decided that I didn’t want to spend days in the backcountry. While Tom and Charlie were backpacking, I would do day hikes where I could ponder and take photos. It seemed like a plan.
I approached Julie about this idea months earlier, and on the surface, she was supportive. However, I could sense an undertone of more ambivalent feelings. I convinced myself that clairvoyance was not in my job description and moved forward with my plans.
There wasn’t a lot to do to get Violet ready. I did have her oil changed, and I gave her a good bath. However, most of my camping gear was still in her storage bins from my Arizona trip. I even kept some of the shelf-stable food in her cupboards, as it made no sense to unpack them only to repack them a few weeks later.
Everything was going according to plan until my aspirations were interrupted by, of all things, YouTube. YouTube’s algorithms are a closely guarded secret, but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to predict a viewer’s interest. I wasn’t explicitly looking up National Parks or hiking trips, but I started to get video suggestions on both. More concerning was the fact that I was also getting a multitude of “killer bear” videos. These videos chronicled the terrible dangers of being in bear country, what to do if attacked by a bear, and the number of people in national parks who disappear never to be seen again.
Each ensuing video seemed to be more dramatic and made me more frantic. There was the video of the trained “movie” bear who killed an actor with one bite. There was the video of the happy hikers confronted by a mountain lion. And there was a video of a bear peeling a door off a sedan to obtain the food treats inside. One video advised:
“If a bear attacks, lie on your stomach and play dead. Don’t let him flip you over as he will eviscerate you. If he is starting to eat you, no longer play dead and fight him with any method at your disposal.”
Fight back if he starts to eat you? I ordered the largest can of bear spray that I could find. More importantly, I began to develop a real concern that I was about to travel to a dangerous place, as Glacier has a healthy population of both black and Grizzly bears.
A few days before the trip, I pulled out a large plastic storage bin that I keep under Violet’s bed. That box contained some packing cubes in which I would stuff my clothing, one for socks, one for underwear, one for pants, etc. It was warm in Illinois, and I was only going to bring shorts, but at the last minute, I tossed in a pair of jeans to be on the safe side.
I needed to buy some snacks as well as some fresh food, and so I shopped for a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a packet of Oscar Mayer turkey cold cuts, a block of cheddar cheese, a case of water, and some chips and nuts. I also bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. I usually don’t drink hard liquor, but I did have a drink in the evenings when I was traveling to Arizona, and I enjoyed it. Having a whiskey drink had a “manly/Indiana Jones” quality about it. I thought about buying some cigars, but I can only be so manly, and to be honest with you, the smell of cigar smoke makes me sick.
The night before the trip I powered up my Dometic chest-style fridge so it would be cold when I transferred my groceries from the house fridge into it the next morning. I returned my now filled clothing box, and I loaded a case of water into Violet’s “garage” area along with my Kloss carbon fiber travel guitar. Our plan was to leave Monday afternoon after Charlie’s guitar lesson. I had taken trips with Tom, where we traveled in the same car, and we did well together; I was hopeful for a pleasant trip to Glacier.
Decades before I had “caravaned” with my sister Nancy and my brother-in-law Mike. During those trips, we had CB radios in both vehicles, and we were in constant communication. I found it fun to travel in tandem with them. Traveling in this manner was different with Tom. There was little car to car communication, which left me in an alert mode so I could anticipate Tom’s next driving action. Also, he is a more aggressive driver than I am. Lastly, Tom likes to wait until the low gas warning light goes on before he looks for a gas station. I want to top off my tank before the gauge registers one-quarter. This later habit of mine was amplified in the wilderness of North Dakota and Montana where one could drive 100 miles before finding the next gas station.
I already had a fear of bears, and I was now dealing with the concern that I would run out of gas on some desolate highway in the middle of nowhere. The only solution was to come clean to Tom about my fears, and with my confession, he agreed to stop for gas more frequently. Strike one on my tough and manly persona.
It is over 1500 miles to Glacier National Park or almost 24 hours of driving. My wife Julie and my daughter Kathryn helped me load audiobooks from the library on my phone, which I could then play via Bluetooth on Violets sound system. Also, I could use my trucker style “Blue Parrot” headset to take and make phone calls. Lastly, I did have a cell signal on most of the highways, which allowed me to use Spotify. Despite all of this connectivity, I spent the majority of my time thinking, and I tried to use some of this unstructured space to quell my bear-phobia.
Since 1967 there have only been ten deaths due to bear attacks at Glacier, and there are typically only two incidents of aggressive bear events (maulings) per year at the park. The chances of me being killed by a bear were tiny. I used these statistics in an attempt to appease my concerns, but I was still unsettled. I further analyzed my feelings, and I discovered that my “bear anxiety” was in part masking other feelings, principally my guilt for going on a fun adventure while my family remained at home.
The first two travel nights, Tom, Charlie, and I boondocked. In other words, we camped in unauthorized and unimproved places. The first night at a beautiful rest area in Minnesota. The second night in a gravel parking lot in Sand Springs, Montana, a town that consisted of a single building that contained a little store, restaurant, two gas pumps, and post office.
Sand Springs is about 360 miles, or about 6 hours away from St. Mary, which was our port of entry to the park. When we left Sand Springs, I knew that we would be at Glacier by mid-afternoon that day.
Bored, I decided to troll for local radio stations. I switched on the radio and pressed the scan button. Within seconds a voice crackled through:
“Glacier National Park officials say a man who disappeared on July 8 is still missing, and the trail he’s believed to have hiked on is now closed due to aggressive grizzly activity.”
Mark Sinclair, age 66, left his car at Logan Pass unlocked, and with his dog inside. He never returned, and it is speculated that he was taken down by a Grizzly. At 66 he was exactly my age, was this a warning? My bear fears flooded in.
As we drove further north towards the Canadian border, the temperature got progressively colder, and it started to rain. It was a freezing, miserable rain, and I was grateful that I had packed a pair of long pants.
We arrived at St. Mary, which was less of a town and more of a small conglomerate of buildings. A place whose only purpose was to serve the needs of park goers. Two gas stations, a tiny grocery store, a couple of restaurants, and a few motels comprised the entire town. We turned left off Highway 89 and onto the Going-To-The-Sun road, and we entered the park.
Despite the cold and the rain, the initial views were spectacular and inspiring. Although I was tired, I was awestruck, and my bear fears subdued. Glacier National Park has almost no cell coverage. However, there is limited Verizon coverage for a few miles in from St Mary. I adjusted my T-Mobile phone so that it could make calls over wi-fi, and I switched on my prepaid Verizon hotspot. I would be able to communicate with Tom, who was in the car in front of me, for at least a few more miles as we tried to locate a camping spot.
We bypassed the visitor’s center and went directly to the Rising Sun campground, about 5 miles west. Tom noted, “Last time I was here there were campsites open in the hard-sided (no tents) portion of this campground.” Unfortunately, when we went to check that the entire section was closed due to aggressive bear activity. My bear concerns were on the rise.
“Mike, go to the visitor center, and I’ll check out some of the other campgrounds,” Tom said. Tom drove off and traveled beyond the little Verizon bubble around St. Mary. I busied my time watching the park’s introductory video, and talking to one of the park rangers. “How serious do I have to be about bears?” I asked. “We have had a lot of bear activity this season. I would advise hiking with others and making lots of noise. Don’t forget to carry bear spray.” Her comments didn’t reassure me. I looked at a notice on the center’s bulletin board which warned not only of bear activity but also mountain lions. Next to it was a flyer with Mr. Sinclair’s photo. “MISSING Mark Alan Sinclair. Last seen Monday, July 8 at 2:30 PM on the Highline Trail.” “Crap,” I thought, this is not helping.
I reconnected with Tom who excitedly told me that there were open campsites at the Many Glaciers campground, about an hour away from St Mary. An available campsite was fantastic luck, and we started the trek to Many Glaciers. We turned left out of the park on highway 89 and headed north. We then took another left onto Many Glaciers Road for the long drive to the campground. The Many Glaciers Road was in terrible shape, riddled with huge potholes, and at times it seemed to dissolve into the gigantic Lake Sherburne below. After we entered the campground, it became apparent why there were campsites available. A large red sign read:
No tents, tent trailers, or sleeping on the ground allowed in this campground. High Bear Frequency.
There had been two separate bear incidents in July at the campground, the last one requiring the rangers to “haze” two bears who refused to leave. This caused park officials to ask all tenters to depart, which opened up their campsites. “Crap again,” I thought. But at least we had a campsite.
I talked to the camp host, Rae, who found us a spot, and then I went to the campgrounds kiosk to fill out paperwork and to pay my fee. I have a National Parks Lifetime Pass, and so the nightly rate was only $11 for a beautiful site. We were staying for 8 days, but Tom was paying for half of the bill. $44 for eight days of camping, perhaps my luck was changing.
“Are you sure that we can camp here for eight days?” I asked Tom. “Sure,” he replied. We parked our vehicles, and I went to place the receipt on the campsite’s post. I looked down at the post and saw the word “reserved,” and my heart sank. Just at that moment, Rae came by doing her rounds. “Can we have this site for eight nights?” She rose a single finger to indicate that it was for one night only. We explained our situation and the fact that Tom and Charlie were going backpacking in the wilderness. Rae nodded and said she would see what she could do, but there was no certainty.
That night I could barely sleep. It was raining outside, and something or someone kept bumping up against Violet. My GI system was going hyperactive, but I didn’t remember where the bathrooms were, and there was no way that I was going to leave the safety of Violet and enter the black void of the night. I started to feel responsible not only for myself but also for Tom and Charlie, as if I had to solve the camping problem on my own. Where could we leave Tom’s car? Could I camp outside the park? How much did the motels cost? Did they have rooms available? I had many questions, but no internet access to explore solutions.
At 7 AM the next morning, I heard Tom’s engine start-up. He was going back to St. Mary to secure backpacking permits for Charlie and himself. I didn’t go out to wish him goodbye; I was already beat.
After they left I heated some water to make coffee and I cooked some oatmeal to which I added freeze-dried blueberries. My breakfast was OK, but my stomach wasn’t into it. I started to read through the materials that the park gave me. Where were the other campgrounds? If I paid the nearby Swiftcurrent motel a fee could I leave Tom’s car in their parking lot? The questions continued.
I felt tired, dull, and queasy, but I decided to walk around the campground to get a lay-of-the-land. Just as I was opening Violet’s cargo door, I saw Rae approaching with a note in her hand. She saw me and happily told me, “I arranged everything. I placed you in a different campsite for the next seven days. I already put the sticker on the site, and it is yours.” A massive wave of relief came over me, and my queasy feeling was instantly reduced by at least 50%. Through her kindness, we got past a major hurdle. “Rae, you are the queen of the park. I am so grateful for your kindness,” I told her with sincerity.
On Tom’s return, I told him about my sleepless night, my worry, and Rae’s incredible thoughtfulness. “Mike, I never would have left you alone with this problem. We would have figured something out together,” he said. I knew that he was right; I tend to take on all burdens by myself, a habit that I’m am trying to break.
“Do you want to hike to Iceberg Lake?” Tom queried. “I guess so,” I replied. I grabbed some snacks, a dehydrated Mountain House Turkey dinner, and a liter of water, shoved them into my Osprey day pack and headed to the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan trailhead. The temperature was cold, perfect for hiking, and although tired much of my crazy worry had passed. We entered the trail and started our uphill climb to Iceberg Lake, so named as it typically has snow icebergs floating in it even in the summer.
The scenery was spectacular, mountains, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and meadows filled with wildflowers. Everywhere I looked was a postcard picture and I took many photos even though I realized that they would never compare with what I was witnessing in person.
As we continue to walk, it started to rain again, and that rain eventually turned into snow. I dug into my pack and pulled out my hoodie and put it on. We ultimately reached Iceberg Lake and paused to take in its surreal beauty. It was late July, yet that lake had vast slabs of snow in and around it. Tom set up his Jetboil, and we each reconstituted our meals. Me with my dehydrated Turkey Dinner, Charlie with Chicken and Dumplings, and Tom with Teriyaki Chicken. At our feet, fat marmots cajoled us and begged for food, not unlike Mercury, the cat back home. We didn’t feed them as we had been warned too many times that such generosity is harmful to wild animals. Eventually, the marmots wandered off to a family less concerned about following the rules.
Hiking downhill was harder than going uphill as my big toes kept smashing into the front of my Vasque hiking boots. We meandered back towards the trailhead, and I was once again dazzled by the scenery, which included vast stands of flowering bear grass, a prairie lily with towering white blooms. Our 10-mile hike was almost over as we were about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Directly in front of us was an object that was half-way into the path. At first, I thought it was a black boulder, or perhaps the trunk of a burnt tree; neither consideration made a lot of sense. A second look revealed the object’s true identity. Ten feet in front of us and entering our hiking path was a huge black bear! Surprisingly, I didn’t panic; I fell back on my doctor in crisis training. I slowly pulled out my bear spray and snapped off the safety on the trigger. I held the can in my right hand at about hip level as I started to call out, “Hey bear, hey bear,” to let him know that we were humans. Tom and Charlie also had their bear spray at the ready as we stood motionless and tried to appear non-threatening.
The bear paused and looked at us. After about 10 seconds he slowly waddled first parallel to our path, then away from us. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was also aware that it seemed like bears were everywhere at Glacier National Park.
We celebrated our hike with a trip to Kalispell and a stop at “Famous Dave’s” rib joint. I have to confess that every muscle and every joint in my body seemed to be sore, and even getting out of the car was difficult for me. I took a couple of Motrin with the hope that I would be my old self by the next morning.
I wasn’t sure how I felt after the bear encounter. In some ways, it confirmed the fact that there were bears everywhere, and that they were not afraid of humans. However, all of us, including the bear, acted reasonably. I went to bed exhausted and slept like a rock.
On Thursday I woke up to Tom knocking on Violets side window. He was frying up bacon and asked me for the eggs that I brought on the trip. With them, he made a bacon and egg scramble, which I relished along with a hot cup of strong coffee.
Tom was repacking his huge backpack with clothes, food, a medical kit, and other necessities. “Where is your compass?” I asked. “Hmm, can’t find it,” Tom replied. “You can use mine,” I said. “Take my battery pack, and don’t forget your trail map,” I said. “Yes, father,” Tom replied and flashed me a grin.
Tom agreed to purchase an InReach satellite transceiver before the trip, which I programmed to work with his iPhone. The InReach radio transmits directly to the Iridium satellite constellation of 66 active spacecraft, which are about 500 miles above the earth. Since I also had a device, we had to ability to send simple text messages to each other even though we had no cell coverage.
I called on my experience as an amateur radio operator and established a nightly communications net with Tom. I used the visual imagery of the points of a triangle to outline the three daily steps that he needed to do. My litany was as follows:
First Point: At the start of your daily hike turn on the InReach’s navigation function and have it transmit your current position every 30 minutes.
Second Point: When you arrive at camp, turn off navigation to conserve your batteries.
Third Point: Between 7-8 PM contact me via the device,
By using this simple protocol, Tom’s position was tracked (in case of emergency), and as a net controller, I could stay abreast of any particular needs or problems that he was having. Without the satellite radio, none of this would have been possible.
Everything that could be done for the hike was done, so we piled into Violet, and I drove north to the Glacier/Waterloo International Peace Park, which is yards from the Canadian border. Our destination was the Belly River trailhead, which was the starting point of Tom and Charlie’s 45-mile hiking journey. “Why don’t you hike with us a little bit, it can be your hike for the day,” Tom said. Never one to ignore a good idea, I agreed.
This path was completely different from the Iceberg Lake trail. Dark, lush, wet, and very green. It sloped downward making hiking almost effortless. It’s beauty compromised by the legions of mosquitoes that were as big as horse flies and just as aggressive. The hiking was so easy that I got caught up in the moment and I continued past my initial turnaround point; eventually, I bid my farewell to Tom and Charlie, and I turned back the way I came.
Now going uphill, I became aware of just how far I walked. In the stillness, I felt very alone, and a disappointment came over me as I was once again filled with concerns over bears and mountain lions. Every 60 seconds, I called out, “Hey bear,” and snapped my carbon fiber trek poles together to make a cracking noise. At one point I saw a stand of tall shrubs move as I heard loud grunting. “Hey, bear. Just passing through bear,” I said in my most convincing voice.
By now, the temperature had risen, and the canopy of trees acted like a Saran Wrap cover keeping the humidity high on the forest floor. I was sweating bullets. A couple of hikers approached me; I stepped out of the way so they could pass as we exchanged pleasantries. The brief interaction re-grounded and calmed me for the remainder of that journey.
On my way to the campsite, I stopped at the “Two Sisters” cafe for a ridiculously expensive hamburger that was also too salty. I then returned to my campsite and contemplated being alone. I grabbed a cold bottle of Kirkland water and started to sip on it as I ran various options through my head. It couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t explore the park further, so I knew that I had to push forward despite any fears. I reached for the packet of information that I received when I entered the park; my goal was to come up with a list of potential solo hikes. I grabbed the pile of pamphlets, maps, and newsletters; out fell a glossy flyer with a bold headline, “Be Bear Aware!” The second item was:
“Avoid hiking alone. Most bear attacks have occurred with single hikers. If possible hike in a group of 4 or larger.”
I was a solo hiker who was already fearful; I didn’t need to see this. I thought about making myself a whiskey and coke to calm down, but it seemed like too much work. Instead, I fell into deep despair. I had an urge to turn the key on Violet’s ignition and drive home, but I had a responsibility to make sure that Tom and Charlie were safe. Besides, I was in possession of his car. If it had to be moved, I was the only one who could do it as he was literally in the middle of nowhere. Without the internet, I couldn’t check facts and research options. I was mad at myself for being a wimp, but all of the evidence that I had supported my feelings. With no immediate options, I temporarily escaped by falling asleep for almost two hours.
When I woke up I had a new conviction. I would come up with a workable, and hopefully, an enjoyable solution. I was at one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was determined to experience it positively. The question was, how would I do it.
I’m a shy person who was taught at a very early age to believe that if I engaged someone before they engaged with me, I would be an unwanted imposition on them. Intellectually, I knew that was not the case, but in the past, I didn’t possess a model to change this behavior. My friend, Tom is very friendly, and I have been teaching myself the art of successful interaction by watching him and modeling his behavior. I was already walking up to random people and starting a conversation at Glacier, and I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and receptive most folks were to me. However, to turn around my situation at Glacier, I would need to up my game and move from simple interactions to the dreaded task of asking someone for something. If you have read other post from this blog, you will recall that as a child I was typically shamed and humiliated when I asked for help, and my resolution to this angst was to become wholly independent of others. Although I have changed this behavior with people that I trust I certainly have not done so with people who I don’t know. I bit my lip, and I told myself, “Follow the pattern of behavior that you have seen. Accept that rejection and humiliation may occur. Assume that you will have enough successes to offset any negative interactions. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.”
Months before the trip I had purchased a large volume on Glacier National Park, but I never read it. I now pulled it out and studied its contents. I decided that I would go on a significant hike every day, and the determination of that hike would be based on its overall popularity. This statistic would make these paths the ones most traveled by others. I reminded myself that bears maul only a tiny number of hikers, and mountain lions attack less. I convinced myself that being proactive and reasonable would place me in the majority category of happy park goers, rather than the minority group of those attacked by bears. I was not about to let my fears stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My hike the next morning was to the old Ranger station at St Mary, and then on to the Beaver Pond Loop. I walked the mile from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, but by accident, I entered at the exit of the path, not the beginning of the loop. This not only meant that I was hiking mostly uphill, but all other hikers would be walking away from me, not along with me. As I started the path, I was met with a yellow warning sign noting caution due to recent bear activity. I swallowed and moved forward. Much of the forest in the Beaver Pond area had been burnt in a wildfire giving the landscape an exotic look and feel. However, the absence of shade had a pleasantly unexpected consequence; the entire forest floor had become a sea of wildflowers. Pedals of dark yellow, ultramarine blue, deep coral, and pungent pink surrounded me with both their visual beauty and fragrant smell. At one point I saw fresh bear scat on the trail. I couldn’t go back, so I went forward.
That evening I went through my usual routine of making dinner and tidying up the campervan. However, I also incorporated modifications of activities that I usually would enjoy at home. I studied by reading all the printed material at my disposal. My Glacier National Park book, handouts from the park services, and even an instructional manual. I took the time to become better at operating my hiking GPS unit. I turned on my old Grundig 350DL worldband radio and listened in to some international shortwave stations. I then tuned the FM band. The only stations that I could receive on FM were from Canada. I found CBC1 at 101.3 from Lethbridge, Alberta, and felt comforted by its NPR-like programming. I listened to downloaded music and the audiobooks that Julie and Kathryn had kindly set up for me the week before. I was enjoying myself; I was starting to feel like my old self again.
At 7:05 PM, I received a text message from Tom, “The scenery is spectacular. You should have hiked with us.” I responded by wishing him safe travels. I then turned off my transceiver and went back to my other activities.
The next day I hiked to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, the most popular hike in the park. Putting my plan in place, I made a deliberate effort to say hello to everyone that crossed my path. I also asked several people if they would be kind enough to take my picture. This action resulted in smiles and pleasant interchanges. The falls were spectacular, and despite another bear warning sign, I felt comfortable hiking due to the number of people around me. While hiking the path, I found a large flat rock that overlooked a small waterfall. I took off my Osprey pack and pulled out my bottle of water along with a whole wheat and peanut butter sandwich. Sitting on the rock, I savored the beauty of my surroundings and was surprised by a sense of awe and joy. It was a good feeling.
My evenings continued along with my recently developed solution, and my sense of aloneness evaporated away. My pace slowed to meet my more limited demands, and I continued to feel a sense of peace.
My nightly contacts with Tom continued, and over the days he informed me that his three-day hike was becoming a four-day hike, then a five-day adventure. Tom and Charlie were unable to cover the 45 miles in the time that the ranger had given them. They were also altering their plans by taking a somewhat longer, but flatter trail. I was grateful that his movements were tracked and that we could communicate. If I didn’t have those communications, I would have demanded a search and rescue operation when they didn’t return at the designated time. The InReach communicator had made an enormous difference.
The next day I hiked to Redrock Falls and Bullhead Lake. I kept alert and saw what appeared to be a nice family hiking ahead of me. The family consisted of a mom, a dad, and several adult children. I approached them, “Hey guys, I’m a lone hiker, would you mind it if I hiked along with you?” “Sure,” replied the mom. We started walking and entered into an animated conversation. I usually don’t tell people that I’m a doctor, and I certainly don’t tell them that I’m a psychiatrist as I don’t want to intimidate them. However, this mom got that information from me in short order. “What kind of doctor are you?” I called upon one of my other board certifications and told her, “I work with people who have addictions.” At that point, a big smile crossed her face, and she said, “I’m a nurse, and I’m in recovery!” She then noted, “My husband is an addictions counselor, and he is also in recovery.” We continued to talk and had lively conversations on SPECT scans, ACEs, nutritional therapy, and a variety of other exciting topics. She introduced me to her son, who had just been discharged from the Marines. She said, “He is a photographer,” which is another one of my great passions. With him, I talked about image sensors, lenses, and all of the other things that only photographers care about. It was a delightful hike filled with beautiful sights and pleasant conversation.
That evening Tom texted me outside our 7-8 PM time. “This mountain is kicking my ass,” He wrote. Later he sent, “I’m cramping all over.” I wrote him back, “Tom, you are severely dehydrated you need to up your fluid consumption right now.”
The next morning I decided to hike the beautiful Lake Josephine, and then take the path to Lake Grinnell to see the Grinnell Glacier. Sitting at the edge of Lake Grinnell, I pulled out my snack, a peanut butter Clif bar, and I started to much. Another fat marmot approached me, and like the one at Iceberg Lake, he began to beg for a chuck of my bar. “No way marmot. You are supposed to be wild, go find some acorns or something,” I told him. A couple came up to me, laughing. “That guy was after our food too!”
On my return trip and I had a few random conversations with fellow hikers. I came upon a young family with two boys who appears to be around 10 and 12 years old. “Hi there, would you mind if I hiked with you?” I asked. “Sure,” was the reply. The family was from Southern Illinois, and they were heading to Yellowstone after their stay at Glacier. I entered into a long and delightful conversation with the dad. At one point, we hiked up an incline, and I was exhausted. “Hey guys, I need a little break, and I’m going to rest for a couple of minutes. Thank you for walking with me and safe travels” The dad replied, “Well if you are going to stop, then we are going to stop too.” We paused for a bit, and then started our walk and talked again. We exited the trailhead, and I thanked them for their company and bear protection. Smiles and handshakes were exchanged.
Directly to the right of me was a park bench, and on that bench was Victor, a man who was camping next to our site. “Victor, do you mind if I sit with you, I’m exhausted.” Victor nodded, and I sat down and wholly downed my flask of water. Victor was a quiet man, but with a little encouragement, he started to talk. He told me that he had retired early from his job as an overland trucker, and he was now living only on social security. “I need to go back to work. I don’t have enough money. But I need to lose some weight first.” He noted that he was from Great Falls, Montana, which was a few hours southeast of the park. There were no mention kids, and his shy demeanor left me with the impression that he had been single all of his life. We chatted for about 20 minutes, and I then continued my walk back to the campground.
The text message from Tom that evening revealed that he was exhausted.” Initially, he was going to use the park shuttle system to get back to the campsite, but those plans changed with his new exit at Packer’s Roost, which was several miles west of his designated extraction point. I would be picking him up. “Bring four large bottles of Gatorade, preferably lime.” He wrote. I had already had purchased a care package for Charlie and him, two real Cokes were chilling in my fridge, and I had a pack of Oreos for Charlie, and some banana bread for Tom. “You got it,” I replied as I made a mental note to pick up the sports drink on my drive back to the parks main east entrance.
The next morning he contacted me to confirm our plan. I drove the hour from Many Glaciers to the St. Mary Visitor Center, stopping at a gas station to pick up four large bottles of Gatorade. The gas station didn’t have lime. Instead, they had red and blue drinks. Not knowing what the flavors were, I purchased two of each and stuck them under my sleeping bag in an attempt to keep them as cool as possible as my little fridge was already full.
I knew that I would be waiting at St. Mary, but I wanted to pick up Charlie and Tom as quickly as I could as they were clearly at the end of their endurance. Still, it would take me over an hour to travel over the narrow and winding Road-To-The-Sun from St. Mary to their extraction point.
Hours later, Tom messaged me that they were at the trailhead, and I started my drive along one of the most beautiful roads in the US. Eventually, I spotted them waving their hands and looking very bedraggled. Charlie gave a little cheer when I gave him the Oreos. Tom set about drinking three large bottles of Gatorade and a coke; he was very thirsty. Charlie said, “Uncle Mike, we don’t have to go on another hike today, do we?” I replied, “Today is a day of rest.”
Afterward, I asked Tom about his backpacking adventure. “It was very hard at times, but I feel that it was a success. Charlie and I worked as a team, and we got through it.” He said, “When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. I remembered that elephant thing you talked about a long time ago, Mike. You said that handling a big problem is like eating an elephant; you do it one bite at a time.” Tom said he thought about that saying with each step he took up that “ass-kicking” mountain.
I smiled to myself; I worked through my issues using things that Tom taught me, and he worked through his problems with something that I taught him. I guess that is the benefit of a good friendship; you are stronger because of each other.
Some good resides in bad things, and some bad lies in good things. That is the way life is. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. If possible, try to make lemonade out of your lemons; if this is not possible considering tackling your problem, “one bite at a time.”