One Down, Two to Go

Recorded Journal: I’m out of breath, my heart’s pounding, I’m pouring sweat. I’m only 50 yards into this and I know I’m going to die. I don’t know what it’s going to be, my heart’s going to blow out, or someone’s going to shoot me. I know I’m going to die, what the fuck am I doing this for? I’m 50 yards in at the beginning of my walk, this day, August 12th, the anniversary of my mother’s suicide. And I knew I was going to hit this torment. There’s only one thing I can do in response to it and that can be summed up in two words: keep going.

And so began yesterday’s successful climb of the 3,655-foot Kaaterskill High Peak in the Catskill Mountains. One down, two to go. I’ve decided to climb three Catskill Mountains in specific dates this month. Yesterday marked 17 years since my mother, Virginia, ended her life. The 24th marks 25 years since I was held-up and shot in the head and the 16th marks the 40th anniversary of the biggest hit I’ve ever taken in life, the death of my father at age 55. I was 15.

I knew all hell would break loose in the early going. Fears and anxieties swirling around me and in me like whirling dervishes. You have two choices when they saturate your being like this, wait them out, or disengage from your task and, in yesterday’s case, go home. I would be lying to you if I said there were not moments when my grip on the challenge of summiting was as tenuous as a tightrope walker trying to regain his balance. There were moments when giving in almost won the day. But not yesterday.

Fortunately I had Charley with me. Just over two years old and bursting with life and joy Charley. Sleek black with a hint of chocolate in his coloring, he walked beside me and was great company. Believe me, we did quite a bit of talking. And if you are one of those sadly misguided folks who think dogs don’t dog, think again. They may not use words, but believe me, they can talk up a storm. Charley can.

Speaking of storms. I began the climb from a trailhead on Platte Cove Road at 10:30 a.m. on the nose. By 11:30 the experience was beginning to improve.

Recorded journal: The fear has begun to ebb and the sweat is now pouring from the climb and I always feel better when the sweat’s pouring. Somehow it lets me know I’m wedded to the world I’m living in.

By 12 noon all of me is emotionally, spiritually and physically underway. At 12:10 there is thunder, then light rain, then not so light rain, then buckets of rain, and I didn’t give a rat’s ass because at this point it was me, Charley and the mountain all rolled into one and I am loving every minute of my experience and all the world is alive and rich with magic and beauty. The forest in the pouring rain contains ineffable forms of wonder in sights, sounds and scents and if you let yourself go, you indelibly and gloriously connected to the world you are in.

It was nearly 3:30 when I summited. It was still raining, but the sun was shining in my life.

Summiting the Sacred Days of August

The three sacred days of August for me are the 12th, 16th and 24th.

The 12th marks 17 years since my mother, Virginia, ended her life. The 24th marks 25 years since I was held-up and shot in the head. The 16th marks the 40th anniversary of the biggest hit I’ve ever taken in life, the death of my father at age 55. I was 15.

Now, if you think this essay is steeped in sadness and heartbreak, then you don’t know me. It’s not. The sacred days of August are days I plan honor. They are days etched in pristine unblemished memories. They are days I intend to celebrate in an uplifting way.

On the 12th I will celebrate and honor my mother’s  life; on the 24th I will celebrate  the blessing of keeping my life; on the 16th, I will celebrate the greatest gift life has ever given me: my father.  While my father left the world far too soon, his presence in my life has kept me going during some of the darkest times and allowed me to share some of the best of times with him.

And how, you may be wondering, will I celebrate these days? I plan to climb a Catskill Mountain on each of these days and, as my custom has it, leave a twig on the summit. A twig you ask? Yes, a twig.

Some years back I was visiting my father’s grave in New Jersey. It was more than 20 years after his death. It dawned on me that by this time his body had begun to decompose and so had become part of the soil.Realizing this it dawned on me that his body was now part of the soil that was feeding the oak tree the grew right next to his grave which meant that my father was present in this beautiful tree!  Trees shed small branches from time to time. And so I gathered some up to take with me. By having these twigs with me, my heart knows I have part of my father with me.

And so, when I reach the summit of the mountain on these three days, I will leave one of the twigs there.  My father deserves to reach the summit. After all, he is now, always and forever the summit of my life.

Breaking Mountains

It is time to come alive again and break me some mountains.

It has been my history to take on what for me are formidable physical challenges in response to life’s meaner blows.

Many years ago for example I joined and went to the McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues in New York City almost daily as a way of breaking free of a year’s seclusion. A seclusion I’d gone into after being shot up and held-up at gunpoint in a matter of months.

Years later I would run two marathons in two weeks as a response to my mother’s 1992 suicide. I am a slow poke and with six marathons under my belt I’ve never run one under five hours.

And then there was the 175-mile bicycle ride in 2003 and the 1,000-mile bicycle ride in 2004 to strike back at my own brain injury and give hope to any and all who’ve sustained brain injuries or been beaten-down in any way by life. I did those rides while working for the Belvedere Brain Injury Program based in Albany, New York. I am not linked to Belvedere anymore for reasons I won’t go into – for now – bit I can tell you I wouldn’t recommend the program to a cadaver, much less a living being.

The year 2008 was in many way one of the most brutal I’ve been through in a life that by any standard has had its fair share of brutal years. As I’m sure you, my dear reader know, when life knocks you down you find out quick and certain who your friends are and who are, well, full of shit.

For me 2008 and some of 2009 was cement-thick with depression. A kind of physical immobility took place, I had been frozen still by life, largely as a result of treatment inflicted on me by the above mentioned Belvedere, more specifically, its owner, John Mccooey. My days would consist of staying tucked under blankets, sitting at the computer trying to write, reading, watching movie after movie, and, other than a weekly workshop I would facilitate with some extraordinary people, and attendance at meetings linked to a 12-step program I belong to, that was a out it. The all of me had grown still.

Like a slave breaking free of chains and shackles, I have begun to break free in the past few months, so much so I plan on breaking mountains. Let me explain. Back when I was getting into the intense bicycle riding I named the task of reaching the top of a steep climb, breaking hills. I’d see a steep climb coming up and say, I’m breaking that hill.

And so it is with mountains. There is the 3500 Club in the Catskills, a club you become a member of when you climb all 35 of the 3,500 foot or more mountains in the Catskills. Four of them you have to climb twice, once in warm weather, once in winter. I began this quest a few years ago and plan on resuming it in three weeks.

Next, or maybe even along with, I will take a run at being a 46er, someone who has climbed the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondack Mountains.

I will call the task of reach summits, breaking mountains. Like I said, it is time to come alive again, and break me some mountains.

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On the Walk: Stanchions of My Heart

I am back to my body now. With every stride I am knowing it. The leg muscles know it too. The all of my body knows it now. Something deep, inexplicable has been uncovered and released. The willingness to breathe rediscovered perhaps.



My powered legs striding have always done me proud. From dancing to sports to getting me back to my feet after I was shot in the head.



Now, at 55, they are again striding again. To my right I can see the summits of the Catskills and they pull at me, challenges that they are. And I think of the Adirondacks and beyond, and I keep striding.



Remember to live, I think. It is what I remind others and so I must remind myself as well. I am 55, I think, and as of March 28 I pass my father in time in this world. And then I am here for the both of us; the stanchions of my heart will have no problem arrying our joined “weight”. I can carry my father forever, and if there is eternity, I will carry him there again.



On the ground bleeding to death it was my father who entered my heart and soul and legs and powered me into standing up; there is no doubt in my mind.



I know now, striding, breaking hills, a phrase I coined for reaching the summit of all inclines, that I cannot wait any longer. Let the stanchions of my heart turn loose and the wonder of the human spirit carry me, as long as possible.



Stride on my boy, my father says, Stride on.



And I break another hill.



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DEAR BLOG READER AND THEN SOME

Dear Blog Readers:

I have been moving my pen across pages unseen by others for some time now and must offer an apology to you. There are several reasons for my blog silence: the recent health scare mentioned in an earlier blog essay, a general sense of sadness mixed with anger at my country’s leadership, presidential and congressional alike, the end of a relationship and, I suppose, a quiet internal desire to regroup.

Believe me; things are not as depressing as they might sound. I have determined to respond to the health scare by climbing all the 3500-plus foot peaks in the Catskill Mountains (I’ve climbed four since we last talked) and have set my sights on becoming what is called a 46er; someone who has climbed all 46 of the highest peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. On top of all this, I’ve recently welcomed a new member to my family. His name is Charley.

He weighed in at a sturdy five pounds. He is solid black. Well, almost. There is a sliver of white under his chin. He is, as I set these words down, not more than seven weeks old. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn he is named after the Charley in John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” I adopted him from a rather forlorn family in Dutchess County, New York. When I went to get him the atmosphere was shoddy and unkempt although the family giving him away was perfectly pleasant. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to give up such a beautiful puppy. I couldn’t figure it out, that is, until I noticed a very large Confederate flag hanging on their living room wall. Then their decision to surrender him made perfect sense: as I mentioned earlier, Charley is black.

Over these past weeks I’ve found myself ruminating on the subject of loyalty, or, as I see it, the lack of loyalty between people and between people and nature. I saw a bumper sticker recently that was about as spot on as a bumper sticker can get. It read: “Ignore the environment…..it will disappear”. Truer words were never spoken.

My desire to climb mountains is not without its fear. Fear is a daily presence for me, especially when a day or task calls upon me to leave my home. I am, the large percentage of the time, successful in overpowering the fear. But my first climb on my 3500-plus Catskill endeavor was not easy.

Give a listen:

July 14, 2007

If every decision I made in life was based on how I felt during my first waking hours I would rarely, if ever, participate in life outside my door. This has been the case for me for more than 20 years now.

It is 9:12 a.m. and I am pulling out of my driveway and I’m heading off to Climb Windham Mountain. This is my first step in my quest to climb all 3500 foot or higher mountains in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Hills by some standards, but a formidable challenge for this 53 year old I can tell.

Absolutely scared out of my mind. Quite convinced, I assure you, that something terrible is going to happen and I am going to die there. I am used to this though, I feel this way every time I leave my home.

The more and more I allow myself to be me, the more I realize I am, in fact, the person I always thought I was since I was a little boy.

It is just past 9:30 a.m. when I get my first glimpse of the Catskills. McKenzie (my German Shepherd) is in the back, her ears perked, ready to go. I am now flushed with excitement and joy, the fear is ebbing. Once you get past the early morning fear wall, all the rest is the glory of life. And I don’t give shit how corny that sounds. Sometimes reality can be corny, always reality can be anything.

It is 7 minutes after 10 and I don’t believe we are far from the trail head. I must confess to having stopped and picked up some nature bars for energy on the trail, but that is not really what my confession is about. When I bought the nature bars at the register, I noticed two cinnamon jelly donuts under a lovely plastic dome. I could not resist, and out of sense of fairness, bought them both, knowing they would provide great company to the black coffee I’d purchased.

I think I am close but it turns out I am wrong because someone rearranged the order of the streets last night and my directions have brought me to wonderful T in the road, with no signs and no signs of Route 23, the road that is supposed to take me to the trail head. I spend the next half hour driving around beautiful country roads, past beautiful homes, past horses grazing in well groomed paddocks, with no damned idea where I am. I’ve gotten lost in my search for the trail head.

Finally I decide I’ll go in the opposite direction of that suggested by my directions. I go four miles and, lo and behold, Route 23! I make a right. When in doubt I make a right and I do this on the childish belief that I’d rather do the right thing than the wrong thing. Needless to say, many times I’ve made the right and been, well, wrong.

Now I see the sign and know I’m getting close. I pass the sign announcing that McKenzie and I have entered more than 700,000 acres of the Catskills. Now I know the journey has really begun.

Half way up Windham (I hope!) I encounter a couple in their forties with a Scotty . The woman is from England and calls Kenzie an Alsatian. She apologizes but again calls her an Alsatian. I learn that is another name for GS. She is probably the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever seen, said the woman. I beam with pride.

A couple of miles in I walk through a stretch of tall pines and the forest floor is a hysterical maze of roots of all shapes and size that go in every direction with no apparent rhyme or reason. I sneaking suspicion that Jackson Pollack might have done this from above, from the beyond.

Here the magic of solitude happens. There is the quiet open room without walls in the mind that allows one to roam anywhere, think freely and openly, with no boundaries, no musts and no mores.

Near the summit. We’re not too far from the summit; there are these moments during this climb where there are these little windows of clarity. Where all of a sudden I am so close to me I can feel me – again – rewrite – there are these moments of clarity, little awareness windows open and I am with me fully or so close to me I can almost feel it…I’m almost real.

I reach the summit at 1:38 p.m. McKenzie and I split a bottle of water, eat some granola bars, and head down. I am joyous.

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And so there you have it. I promise the entries in this blog will be more frequent. My very best to you all.

Warmth and respect,

Peter

August 27, 2007