Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - The Weird Season: Part 2

The Good

The Bubbles from Jordan Pond
(photo by Melanie Hall)
I waved good-bye to my four-year-old niece and my mom as they pulled out of the parking lot and headed to the airport and back to California. It had been a nice week with filled with lobster cookouts, skipping rocks, ice cream on the Village Green, gossip, and the laughter that comes after old ghosts are drawn out of closets long left open by families who know such things don't matter. An "accident" across the bay that left one lobsterman dead left the town abuzz about motives and the quiet "war" going on over there, while the tourists and locals alike still marvelled that such a small town as Bar Harbor could have as great of a fireworks display as what had been seen on the Fourth of July. I had drinks with "BEC" and "Wonderwoman" the night before they left town, and when we parted, after taking a gentle stroll down a blustery, chilly, dark, and peaceful Shore Path (my favorite place in the whole world), I looked forward to the climbing weekend ahead of me.

"Blow" and "Caboose" were coming up for a four-day jaunt to Acadia National Park the weekend after my mom had left. I've always enjoyed climbing with them. They're good people, fun to climb with, and, maybe most of all, they put up with my shit. When I had heard they were going to be up, I convinced my aunt and uncle to let me stay a few extra days, which was no small matter. My uncle, before he married my aunt, used to invite me over to play when I was a ferocious four-year-old as a way to convince her that kids were a very, very bad idea. My aunt, however, was smitten by my antics for some reason, and we've always had a rock-solid relationship as a result. Of course, I have a strong relationship with my uncle, too, but he's the typical skittish, I-need-my-space lobsterman who isn't afraid to tell you where you stand. At about five feet four inches tall and weighing no more than 135 pounds, even after having been weakened by several illnesses in his life that all could have damn-near killed him, even into his fifties, he's still the last person on earth I'd want to fuck with.

"You're doin' what now?" he asked when he realized I wasn't going home right away.

"My friends will be here Thursday, I'm going to climb with them over the weekend," I said knowing that I was already two weeks longer in his presence than what seemed necessary to him.

"Whe're ya friends stayin' at?"

"Blackwoods. I might go camp with them while they're here."

"Ayuh," he said as he let that linger in the air. "OK. You goin' out to camp in the mean-time?"


"Don't go gettin' on the jet ski then. The're's somethin' wrong with it. It don't idle well and I don't want you fuckin' it up any mo're than it is."

The Ocean Drive
(photo by Melanie Hall)
He left the house and I went out to camp where my aunt was hosting her parents for the week. My uncle showed up two hour's later with my cousin's husband (yes, they not only had a kid, but she's the smart one at Brown Med School), the husband's friends, and a team of lifejackets that lent us the appropriate permission to refresh ourselves with the previously prohibited water sports. Things were good. I was in my element, and happy that I loved my family so much.

But life on the water ended when I met "Blow" and "Caboose" at Otter Cliffs Thursday morning. To say that I was giddy was an understatement; I wanted to touch rock on my home turf for the first time in a year, and only rather bizarrely, the third time ever in my life. My uncle was a lobsterman. My dad was, too, before he turned into an electrician with a sailboat, which is also essentially what my grandfather had become except he preferred converted lobster boats to sailboats. I didn't come home to explore the sea-chaffed cliffs; there was too much salt in my blood for that. Climbing in Acadia was reserved for my climbing friends, those who probably never realized that a clove hitch is the standard knot for tying a boat off to a dock. "Blow" and "Caboose" had also brought along a friend who I had been looking forward to climbing with for a while: "Gullie", a bright-eyed sparkle I had met a few months before at "Caboose"'s birthday party. We exchanged greetings, gathered our gear, and headed across the street to the cliffs.

Fog over the Porcupines
It was frustrating that day, and oddly the entire weekend, too, that we could see blue sky over Bar Harbor a mere five miles to the north while we were socked in with fog so thick that Old Soaker, that ledge of granite less than a hundred feet off shore and only a few feet underwater at high tide, was only visible to me as a result of hearing the green can that clanged with every wave that rolled under it. We only did two climbs at Otter Cliffs before we packed up and joined the rest of the group over at the Precipice at the base out Mt. Champlain. That mountain, funny enough, is named after Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who, upon seeing Otter Cliffs for the first time in 1604 was so amazed at the surrounding beauty that he ran his boat aground on, you guessed it, Old Soaker.

Coming up P2 of Story of O (5.6)
"Caboose" and "Blow" went up to the left to try a couple of routes they had not been on yet, and that left "Gullie" and I to climb together. We chose Story of O (5.6), which is a three-pitch classic climb that I had been on before, but not in the past ten years. While I knew she had been climbing for a while and had good climbing partners back in Boston, I wanted to get on something I knew I could handle before I put her belay skills to any more use than simply feeding out the rope. What I had forgotten, however, was that Story of O is sort of a crack climb, and as most of you know, I really don't like crack. I struggled on each pitch, but something happened to me that has not happened before. I don't know, maybe it was a late-in-life shot of testosterone, but I refused to show any weakness, I refused to fall, and mostly I refused to let her see me as a whiner who cried his way through life. Yeah, yeah, yeah, some of you who simply don't understand the way I work are jumping out of your skin right now, probably because of my report on Epinephrine (5.9 IV). Look, you can suck it: I don't care what you think. The point of the matter was that I was somehow being driven by pride more than I was by the climb itself. And I'll admit, it felt damn sexy when we finally got to the top. I was mostly happy that she had had a good time, the climb itself be damned.

It was late at this point and a lobster bake was in the works back at the campsite. "Caboose", "Blow", and "Gullie" headed back there while I drove back to my Uncle's house with the news that I was offered a spot in a tent at Blackwoods and would be staying there for the weekend.

"So you're campin' then," my uncle said.

"Ayuh, but I'd like to stay Sundee night if I can so I don't hafta ba'ttle the week-end traffic headin' off island."

"That's fine, Greg," my aunt said. "Have fun and be safe."

On Pemetic Mountain
I gathered only the clothes I wanted to take with me, told them I would be safe, and drove to Group Site #3 on the B-loop off to the right when entering the campground. The lobster bake was in full swing when I arrived, and I was eager to help "Gullie" learn how to eat a Maine lobster, as this was her first time in Bar Harbor. However, that turned out to be completely unnecessary because not only had she eaten lobster before (it was silly of me to assume she hadn't considering she was from Massachusetts - still, Mass lobsters are not the same as Maine lobsters and yes, I can tell the difference), but she was damn impressive with her precision in identifying and cleaning the best meat...and she had a hardshell lobster (everyone else had softshell) without the luxury of crackers. My ego was appeased by the help I was able to give to a few other people who weren't as experienced, and the conversation, the laughter, the darkening sky, the caramelized marshmallows mushed with graham and chocolate, the fireflies, the beer, and the bold talks of getting up to see the first sunrise in America took us all to bed late and drunk with anticipation of the next day.
V12, maybe?
Friday was a hiking day for us. Our goal was Pemetic Mountain (1,234 feet) on the south side of Bubble Pond, and my hope was that the fog would have lifted off the backside of the island enough to see Swan's Island and the two Cranberry Isles, which is just as impressive of a view as Frenchman's Bay is on the northeast side of the island. The early going was steep, but "Blow" made it easy to rest on the way up because he stopped every twenty feet or so to pillage the blueberry bushes. We eventually summitted to blue sky and raging winds so strong that anyone standing ten feet to the north had to shout so that the person standing to the south could hear what was being said. That's the thing about Mt. Desert Island (pronounced like the food, spelt like the land): the mountains are laughably small to anyone west of the Mississippi, but they're the tallest on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and they're wildly exposed to the Atlantic winds such that one often must lean into the wind just to keep from being blown back. We took pictures on the pink, barren summit, and headed down toward the Jordan Pond House for popovers for lunch.

Caught in the crack
With food and rest stored nicely in our bellies and legs, we hiked north on the east side of Jordan Pond over the next hour. Our goal was the car, but our pace was slow and relaxed. "Gullie" and I were ahead of the other two because our faithful chipmunk chaser, "Milsap", had eaten something unsettling and needed to be brought along the easy path slowly. My nerves had unsettled my stomach, too. Unlike the day before when my courage had roared me up the cliff, on this day it gathered in sporadic pieces and never came together in a way that allowed me to let "Gullie" know how much I was enjoying our walk. Fifteen years earlier I would have just come out and said it, out of the blue, randomly, to strangers I had no business stopping on the dance floor. Now in my mid-thirties, divorced three years, and still trying to muster the courage to tell the world I know what I'm doing, I was letting every moment pass as if there would be another one, knowing full well how finite the weekend was.

From there we went into town and met up with the rest of the group, those who had gone kayaking instead of hiking, for dinner. It was a fun dinner, again awash with the random chatterings that a group dinner is known for. Conversations flew from one section to other like a wave in a tilted box of water, and it shot diagonally across the table when the box was left still, as if the box were a transformer and the electric coils inside were constantly changing their charge. We walked around town after that, and then we rested our heads on the ground at the campsite. Tomorrow was another climbing day.

Popovers and Friends at Jordan Pond
(photo by the waitress)
We started the morning at Otter Cliffs again, and I was promptly shit on by a passing seagull. Laughter ensued, of course, but I was struck by "Blow"'s insistence that it was supposed to bring me good luck. I needed all I could get, I figured, as my courage simply wasn't bubbling up through my personality as it normally did. Somehow I was coming across as a complete bore with nothing to bring to the table. It seemed I was more the fool than the jester.

Bird's eye view
"Caboose" and "Blow" had projects at the Precipice that they wanted to get on, so they left us early and went there. "Gullie" was showing an interest in anchor-building and I was more than happy to oblige, since this gave me a chance to express myself a bit more. But still, my nerves quieted me to the point that I felt I had done nothing interesting in my life at all.

We climbed a little while longer before heading back over to the Precipice. It was easy to find our partners in crime because "Blow" was struggling up an awkward 5.7 that I had thrashed on 10 years earlier. We talked for a bit when he down-climbed and they pointed us up the stairs behind them to a series of high-quality climbs, the first of which was a 5.5 that sounded like fun.

Wafer Step (5.5) is a fantastic crack and flake system that had me giggling all the way up, and it left me with excellent picture opportunities of "Gullie", too. This was also a route that "Caboose" was thinking of leading, which had me excited because she doesn't lead much trad these days and I've always encouraged her to do more without any luck, which, with my luck was probably a good thing. For some reason, I just don't have a good feel for what is doable for other people. In short, if I tell you to lead something and you think it's at your level, think twice.

Coming up Wafer Step (5.5)

This didn't stop me from encouraging "Gullie", though. She seemed very hesitant, and I probably should have backed off, but she had taken a strong interest in gear placements and anchor set-ups all day. I was looking for a little success in the day, and if "Blow"'s prediction about me having good luck was any true, then I couldn't go wrong with pushing the envelop a little on an easy 5.5 with good gear and a climber who was clearly strong enough at this grade. She passed the decision until later, and we moved on to Recollections of Pacifica (5.9), which was a beautiful crack (yeah, I said that) just to the left of Wafer Step.

By the time we finished with that, "Blow" and "Caboose" had come over to climb Bartlesby (5.8), which is one of the classic climbs of the area. "Blow" felt that it looked a little stiff for him, however, so he wanted me to run up it and let him know how it was. I obliged and hoped that "Caboose" was going to lead Wafer Step. She wanted to practice placing gear on TR first, however, so they took the toprope that we had left on the 5.9 crack and played on that while "Gullie" and I went over to Bartlesby.

Bartlesby (5.8)
I looked up at it and was a little nervous. It was a pumpy-looking overhanging crack that led to an arete above. I couldn't tell if there were good holds on the arete and if there was anything to grab after that. Everything looked slopey above the crack, but if it was only 5.8 then it seemed doable to me. In fact, if I had learned anything about my climbing trip just a few weeks ago to the 'Gunks it was that climbing fun and relaxed had made routes like this easier for me. There was no question as to whether I was going to head up there or not, so why would there be any question if I could do it?

I climbed to the crux, which was the overhanging crack. From below, it looks much shorter than it is. The problem is that the crack itself isn't that long, and gaining the arete isn't that hard either, but pulling one's feet above the arete seemed another challenge altogether. I climbed up several times only to back off at the sight of a lack of feet as well as a complete lack of knowledge of what was above me. It didn't matter how high I climbed, I couldn't see what was above me until I was completely committed to heel-hooking the arete above my head and pulling, pulling, thrashing myself upward. I thought long and hard about this commitment until it dawned on me that I simply did not want to fail.

I was baffled by this. There were countless moments when I cried my way off a lead only to have "Ratherbe" take over and clean up my mess. That didn't mean I didn't try, and that didn't mean I didn't try several times over the course of probably an hour before I had given up. I certainly gave my all several times, but I never willed myself up a route out of pride before. I never wanted someone to not see me fail as much as at that moment. So I went. And I thrashed and I listened to her cheer me on and I sweat and swore and gritted my teeth all the way up until I was sitting on the arete, exhausted, and looking up at about ten feet of crack above me. "Shit," I said to myself, "this is isn't over yet."

A good rest helped my confidence a fair amount through this section, however, which I found to be easier than expected. Still, I was relieved to get to the anchor. I lowered and put "Gullie" on belay from the bottom. She cruised the route while cleaning it, and that gave me time to collect my thoughts a bit more. "Caboose" didn't feel comfortable enough to lead Wafer Step, but I managed to convince "Gullie" to do it. She still wasn't sure, but I just felt that today was my lucky day. "Someone is going to have a good day because of my encouragement," I thought. Unfortunately, that wasn't "Blow".

On the crux of Wafer Step
He was very reluctant to lead Bartlesby, but I thought that with his height he'd be able to both pull the overhanging crack and the crack above more easily than me. To me, it seemed that if the jugs were easier to reach and the cracks easier to protect higher up then he'd mostly be on toprope. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case. He struggled mightily on the overhanging crack section and, when he finally got to the upper crack, he set a piece and decided to rest. That didn't go so well either. While I didn't see him on the climb, I heard the monologue that went something like this: "Ok, take...what the?...get ready!...whoa!" Fatigue had prevented him from placing a good piece. He told me later that he had placed it just to get one in, and it didn't go in well enough. He rested on it and, well, you know the rest.

I felt badly for sure. I mean, I was glad he gotten on the climb, but I still felt as if my streak of poor advice had continued, and this worried me because "Gullie" was now just about at the only somewhat run-out spot on lead on Wafer Step. But I was confused about what was going on. "Blow" had just proven that I still sucked at encouraging people to climb certain climbs, but "Gullie" was a strong and smooth as anyone. The crux was at the run-out section, though. I had seen her to do it easily earlier in the day, but that was on toprope and she hesitated now on lead. I held my breath and let her think things through. She took all of a minute to collect herself before committing. Then she was up to the next placement, then the anchor, and before long I was at the top with her and congratulating her on a successful ascent.

The Bad

We retreated after that back to an empty campsite and had dinner, cooked s'mores, drank beer, and decided that we were going to do a small hike the next morning before they left town. I tossed and turned all night, and that left me sluggish when we all arose from our tents. It was raining, so instead of a hike we decided to walk around town. Some folks had some shopping to do, so that seemed a better alternative to playing in the rain and mud.

I got soaked, however. My raincoat was as useless as a paper towel, and by the time we had lunch and after that when I was hugging my friends good-bye, there wasn't a dry thread of cloth on me. I was tired, sore, and wet, but the worst feeling inside of me was still knowing that I hadn't asked "Gullie" out. I didn't know what to do, when I hugged her good-bye I told her that I had a good time and wanted to see her again. It was quick, awkward, and then they took off. I watched them go and wondered how it had all gone, but I couldn't wonder for too long. Despite my miserable body, I still had my grandmother's birthday party to go to.

Resting after a successful climb
Unfortunately that party was being held out at my aunt and uncle's camp, which is an hour off-island. I hurried back to their house in town where I had left clean clothes and changed. Then I went out to the party and had a fun time, but on the way back, with my grandmother in the car beside me, I yawned and mentioned how sleepy I was.

"That's odd," she said. "A young man like you so ti'red at fou'r o'clock in the afte'rnoon."

"Not much sleep last night," I said. "I'm getting sick, too. I can feel it in my bones. This is what happens to me. I don't get any sleep and I get sick."

"You bette'r get some rest then," she said. "It's good to know you'r body so well."

The beloved "Milsap"
We got home and I dropped her off, but I couldn't go home just yet. My other aunt needed help uploading a picture onto her facebook page, and since I had promised that I'd help her, I did. It was at six o'clock when I stumbled in to the house and saw my aunt and uncle watching the news. All I wanted to do was go to bed. At this point I was miserable. I could feel a fever coming on, but I wanted to know what the weather was going to be like on the drive home the next day, so I waited for what turned out to be a B-R-U-T-A-L seventeen minutes for the forecast. When it was over, I stood up, said my good-byes and thanks to my aunt and uncle in advance (because they'd be at work when I finally got up and left), and went to bed much to their collective surprise. I took a couple of Tylenol PM to ensure I'd sleep through the night without a fever, and I crashed. The weekend's good luck hadn't revealed itself: I was still single and as a sick as I had ever been before.

Climbers at the Precipice
(photo by Melanie Hall)
Unfortunately I was up at five thirty in the morning. My uncle was up, too, but since I knew his immune system was weak I let him leave for work before I crawled out of bed. I went to the bathroom, popped a bunch of ibuprofen, and stumbled back to sleep for a few more hours. It was ten o'clock when I finally awoke and got up, and I felt like utter shit. I didn't have a thermometer but I swear my temperature would have been well over 100. The number 103 kept coming to mind, but that was probably just me being a baby. It took me about five minutes to get out of bed and get dressed. All I could think of was eating breakfast and getting home. I wanted the day to end then. I simply couldn't wait for this fever to be over.

My day was just getting started, however. All I really wanted at that point was to walk to my grandmother's inn so that I could snag a waffle and blueberry muffin for breakfast, figuring that food would help to make me feel better. I never made it there, though. Just as I was coming down the stairs, my uncle surprised me and walked from the kitchen to the front door.

"You're just in time."

"What fo'r?" I asked.

"I gotta truck load'a new traps comin' and I need'a help unloading'em."

"Shit," I said to myself. "Fuck man, I don't know if I can do this." I was hurting. He never noticed, but I was barely able to walk down the stairs. But what was I going to do? I had just spent two weeks at his house and a week before that at his camp. I couldn't say no. Besides, he'd felt ten times worse than me before and still put in a full day's work on the boat. There was nothing I could do, so I went out into the scorching sun, and waited with him and his stern-lady for the traps to arrive. Of course they were late, and of course, when they arrived, and when I'd asked if they were long ones or the short ones, my uncle replied: "Chrise Greg, the long ones. Does it matta'?"

A happier Greg on
Story of O (5.6)
It mattered alright. Even though I was probably bigger than both my uncle and his stern-lady combined, they each had twice the toughness in them than what I hoped I had. Those long traps are probably only a foot longer and a few pounds heavier than the short ones, but they felt six feet more awkward to carry and a hundred pounds heavier than anything I wanted to lug around. This fever wasn't going away. I had get to some food in me.

It was forty traps later when we finally finished. My uncle relieved me of my duty and off I went in search of food. The hot air was weighing me down, and the humidity was putting so much pressure against my temples that I thought my head was going get crushed like a stomped aluminum can. The waffle didn't help, and the talkative cook at my grandmother's inn made things worse. Of course I couldn't feel sorry for myself because one of my grandmother's best employee's husband had died from cancer only two days before that. I gave her a hug and said I was sorry. It was the only thing I could do before I left to pay my other grandmother a visit before leaving.

I didn't stay there very long either. I couldn't and I felt bad, so I left after only being there for a few minutes and went back to my uncle's to pack up and head home. But even then all I could do was flop down on the bed and go to sleep. I started feeling dizzy. I just couldn't drive home like this.

The Ugly

I was in bed by five o'clock that evening after the drive home, but I didn't sleep well at all. The Tylenol PM had only allowed me five hours of sleep before the shivers came back. I took some more and went back to sleep, only to wake up again at four o'clock the next morning with the same fright of freezing air. The windows were open, so I got up and closed them. Then I took some more Tylenol and went back to sleep, only to wake up again at about nine-thirty shaking like a leaf in the wind. I checked the temperature outside and it was 88 degrees. It as 94 inside.

Smiling at Otter Cliffs
This went on like this all day, except I stayed with ibuprofen during the waking hours...400mg every two hours. Shiver like crazy. Pop the pills. Sleep for two hours. Sweat my clothes and bed as if I was opening a hose on me. Shiver like crazy. Pop the pills. You get the picture.

I figured I'd lose weight because by Tuesday afternoon the only things I had eaten were the waffles and muffin Monday morning and half of an English Muffin Tuesday morning, but I had gained five pounds instead. Fever, aches, pains, soreness all over that hurt so bad it took me five minutes to walk down the stairs and another two minutes to walk to the kitchen. Then I had to go back upstairs, and none of that was pretty.

By Wednesday I finally felt nauseous for the first time, but I couldn't vomit. Instead I rested my upper body over the bowl and waited for nothing to happen until I found myself on the bathroom floor shivering after having passed out there hours before. No food since Tuesday morning and I had lost six pounds.

Climbing by the sea
I asked my dad to buy me some vitamin C drops. "It's time to bring out the big guns," I said. He brought them to me and I popped them like candy until the bag was gone Thursday afternoon. That's 50 drops eaten in about seven waking hours. Nothing. I had nothing. It took me twenty minutes to write an e-mail to a friend, and it only had three lines. I simply couldn't think.

Finally it hit me: "Blow" sent me an e-mail and asked if I had been bitten anywhere. I looked and saw a giant red rash behind my left knee. I got my stepmom to look at it and she thought the same thing "Blow" was thinking. My dad took pictures and I e-mailed them to my doctor in Boston. His response: "get to a doctor urgently."

While the spinal tap proved nothing (there were no white blood cells in my fluid) more than that I didn't have meningitis, EEE, or West Nile, the speculation was centered like a bulls eye around Lyme Disease. I shivered in the ER for hours until they hooked up an IV drip with the first dose of the antibiotic I'd be on for two weeks. Then they sent me home, and I wondered when the arthritis would begin...and then I wondered when the climbing would end.

The view from the Precipice
(photo by Melanie Hall)
For days afterward I battled headaches and dizziness that my dad insisted stemmed from the spinal tap. I couldn't help but wonder if it was a sign, however, that whenever I looked up I fell down while the sky above me spun like a circus wheel. Look down, nothing. Look up, on the floor. Just how lucky was that seagull shit on my arm a week earlier? I was down ten pounds now, and somehow all I could think about was e-mailing "Gullie" to ask her on a date. I did, and unfortunately for me she was in full apartment search mode, which of course meant not only searching, but packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in. Suddenly my hopeful November departure date to Chile was nervously too near.

Of course everything I had read suggested symptoms could be mitigated if treated early enough. Was I early enough? When had the tick bit me? What if I wasn't in time? What had I done to myself by being so sure and confident that all I had was the flu stemming from a lack of sleep and a little bit of rain? Had I done more damage by waiting it out?

"You waited too long," my doctor said when I finally visited him in his office a week later. "Five days with that fever...that's a long time considering you probably had the bacteria in your for a few weeks before that."

That was a bust to my confidence. I had lost 15 pounds. My appetite had shrunk for good, it seemed. I wondered where my strength was.

Slowly the fever passed, and I found myself able to walk around without holding on to the railings, walls, and nearby furniture. My dad said that my body language was better. He could tell I wasn't so sick any more, but I still felt weak. I wondered if I should send another e-mail to her just to see if next week was better. I didn't. Nothing is worse than a pest when you're busy.

My doctor finally told me that he didn't think November was a realistic departure month.

"Honestly, I'd wait until the start of the new year," he said. "I can't help you if you get symptoms down there, and I've seen this disease stay nasty for months after the initial treatments."

This helped relieve the stress in my chest a little bit, but I still had so many questions and yet only one that I really wanted to know the answer to. I'm sure I'll figure things out at some point; I always do. It isn't always to my liking, but I still have good friends, and that's what matters most. The headaches and the dizziness be damned. The seagull shit be damned. The testosterone and the pride be damned. It was only just a little fever: Just a little fever that kept me down for a week, not for a lifetime. I can't wait to get back out again, and hopefully next time I'll have even more courage than the last time.
Good friends


James said...

Wow -- what a story, bro. Hope you feel better.

Greg said...

Thanks James. I am feeling better, but I'm really low energy these days. The doc said that would be the case for a couple of months. I'm just glad I don't have any more fevers.