Last week I visited my parents in Canada. I was there to help after my father had hip replacement surgery. I opened a closet and found the hat pictured above. I am Shucky. It’s a nickname I got for a one-weekend road trip nearly 30 years ago (30!). I went with three friends: Slo-Lane, Stinky and Moneybags. My name is misspelled on the hat, but we weren’t perfect. I still keep in touch with Slo-Lane and Stinky, though I lost touch with Moneybags decades ago.
On that trip we drove from Toronto to the woods of Pennsylvania on an un-scripted adventure. Our memories include a toothless local warning us of bears in the woods—“Watch out, dares bears!”—and a freak show at a local fair featuring a half woman, half spider. I refused to go in because the dollar entry was too steep, but I think I was probably a bit scared.
Moneybags (of course) and Stinky paid their dollar and came out wide-eyed saying they thought the whole thing fake. They were lead into a darkened room with a glass box in its center and a velvet pillow in the box. Everyone stood around the box and it suddenly filled with smoke. Then from the middle of the pillow rose a woman’s head surrounded by eight thick black hairy animated spider legs. My friends were laughing, but there was no humor in it.
I took about a dozen similar road trips in my late teens and early 20s. All of them hold cherished memories. Hardly Kerouacian in scale, but we had fun.
Nowadays my idea of adventure is staying at the Marriott instead of the Hilton. When did I get so boring? Every year it seems I get more boring.
Is that bad?
I put on the hat and tried to imagine the view from under its brim in 1988. I couldn’t. The Sharpie we used to write my name was faded and the adjustable strap was broken.
Instead, I took my parent’s dachshund Maisie and went on one of my favorite hikes. It was the kind of day when pessimism is impossible—cornflower blue sky dotted with The Simpsons clouds, temperatures in the high 60s and dry. The dirt path was pleasantly soft from rains the previous week and was the color of milk chocolate. After the first steep climb I wondered what made me go hiking when I could’ve stayed home, eaten my mom’s cookies and read the paper. I pressed on.
The leaves were only a few weeks old and so green they seemed lit from within. The forest floor had not yet fully sprouted and last year’s fallen leaves still lay in a crisp blanket. Where the sun did penetrate the fresh canopy there were blue wildflowers blooming. The air was alive with bird call and the brilliant flashes of their jeweled bodies. A chipmunk bound through the dead leaves with a sound like crumpling newspaper.
Maisie is 10 and grey around the muzzle. A chipmunk used to make her bananas. Now she looked at it with as much interest as she would a banana. Maisie is even more boring than I. Of course in human years she is 70.
A little farther along I rolled a dead log and found a redback salamander, bright and shiny as polished stone. The black earth was cold under the log and the salamander was slow moving. A fat earthworm sharing the same space tried to pull from the light, its body oozing from sight. I smelled the rich loam of fresh earth—mossy, moist and sharp. The warmth of my palm revived the salamander. It squirmed and writhed. I put it down and it stuck its head under a leaf to hide, its body still exposed. I replaced the log carefully.
There are three waterfalls on the hike. All of them are classified by whoever names these things as terraced ribbon cascades. I love the poetry of that. The largest is about 60 feet high, the middle one 30 feet, and the smallest 15 feet high. I stood atop the middle one. The stream feeding it is an offshoot of Sulphur Creek. It meanders through the woods like a thin silver snake before tumbling over the edge of the cliff’s shaley face to the valley below. The sound of the water is musical and I could feel its coolness on my face.
I got lost for a while and was startled by a loud noise behind me, the scrape of rubber on rock. Flight or fight. I jerked around to see two mountain bikers hurtling along the path, both riders in their 20s and deadly serious about conquering the earth. Their knobby tires made popping noises over the bone-like exposed roots.
I stepped out of the way, pulling the dog with me, my heart racing a little. Turning back to the falls, I let the adrenaline ooze away. A small cloud of bugs rose up from the valley and instead of swatting and fighting with them I began the walk back to the car.
In a semi-shady place I noticed small purple orchid-like blooms growing on the edge of the path. The sun dappled their leaves as though they were under the surface of a shallow stream.
The biggest waterfall, Spenser Falls, is near where I parked the car and I was saving it for last. Other than one pair of hikers and the manic bikers, I saw no one else and I looked forward to enjoying Spenser Falls alone. At 60 feet it’s quite impressive and a total surprise in the woods. I had used it more than once to impress a date, including my wife Catherine.
As I approached the falls the thunder of cascading water drowned out all noise. A few octaves higher was also the sound of voices. I turned the corner to see a class of middle-schoolers crowded around the fall’s base, posing for selfies and shrieking in the mist.
I suppose I could have tried to celebrate the exuberance of youth but I was too disappointed that I wouldn’t have the falls to myself.
I put Maisie in the car and drove to Canadian Tire (for American readers, Canadian Tire is like the best parts of Auto Zone, Dick’s, Ace Hardware and Target under one roof). My parents needed a new shower head in the guest bath and I offered to buy and install it. All Canadian Tire stores smell the same–a combination of rubber, fertilizer and cleaning supplies. I wandered around the store for a while. I wanted to see the hockey equipment but most of it was put away for the season to make way for fishing gear.
There is a very good bakery near the Canadian Tire, but I avoided it on account of my pants being too tight. Instead, I drove back and installed the shower head. When I was done I had a shower and there was some satisfaction in that.