A Weekend Unplugged

Just before the new school year began I took my boys on a trip that I had taken at their age with one of my uncles. We rented a canoe and travelled 15 miles of the Saco River in Maine over Labor Day Weekend.

The boys and I have been canoeing before, but only for sixty to ninety minutes at a time, and only locally, utilizing a rental facility on the Charles River in Cambridge.

This time, we were going all in and planning for two nights/three days of paddling and camping, just as I had done in my youth.

I was talking recently with someone and saying that I’m not necessarily an outdoorsman, per se. I like the outdoors, love to go to the beach and listen to the waves hit the shore. It sounds to me like the vast, powerful ocean is beckoning us, taunting us, and reminding us of its presence and could swallow us whole at any time. I enjoy walks in the woods (sounds like a disingenuous dating website profile line, I know) where the sounds of the cars and motorcycles and the hustle and bustle all disappear under the swell of nature’s symphony.  Certainly you can simulate those sounds with devices and apps if you don’t want to leave it behind completely, but I prefer the more pure variation where there’s little more than the waving branches of trees and the hum of summer insects. I like the soft ground under my feet and the tickle of the grass on my ankles, and the crunch and crackle of fallen leaves as I walk through them and over them. There’s nothing like it in any cityscape or urban setting that you can compare it to.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sportsman. My exposure to sports in my childhood is limited to an ill-fated season with Little League baseball where I proudly thrust my glove up in the air in center field to catch a pop fly and it came down from the sky above and landed squarely in my face, after which I removed my glove, threw it on the ground and quit the team part-way into the season, never to return. I did attempt joining a basketball team as well, but that lasted even less time than my foray into baseball did. I don’t ski, I don’t golf, I don’t hunt (a.k.a. murdering wildlife), I don’t rock climb, snow shoe, practice archery, skeet shoot, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

That said; I love to canoe, love hiking, love camping, and would still climb a tree if the spirit moved me to do so. I am considering the purchase of a kayak for next year, to mix two of my loves together – being on the water and isolation. I am, for all the wonderful friends and acquaintances I have, a relatively solitary person. I crave time alone to reflect and recharge. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the woods when I am far removed from society. I occasionally indulge in reality shows where people are left to their own devices in remote locations and have to fend for themselves, only the ever-present camera crew is always a reminder that these folks are not truly ‘alone’ at any point in time.

A few months ago I pitched the idea to the boys of going canoeing, as we have for the past few summers, but to augment the experience and add camping to the mix as well – to make it a multi-day adventure. They eagerly agreed to the notion, even when I added the codicil that their ‘devices’, while they could bring them for the 2+ hour car ride to get to where I was thinking of taking them, would not be brought on the trip, because once the batteries died there was no way to recharge them in the woods. They shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Who cares?’.

To interject here – both my boys are diagnosed with ADHD. Both my boys have challenges with focusing, and with staying on any one topic or activity, if it’s not of particular interest to them, for very long. They love t.v., they love video games (like most kids) and they need constant distracting and redirecting at times to navigate their days. This was, as I knew, going to be a true test for all of us – for their focus and for my patience (something I often find myself in short supply of when the boys are both running amok).

Nevertheless, after weeks of waiting, the weekend of our trip arrived. We packed up our camping gear, a change of clothes, some non-perishable food (shelf-stable milk included) and hit the road to Center Conway, New Hampshire – which, coincidentally, is where my mother lived in her childhood before moving to Maine. That was our put-in point, where the canoe rental facility would drive us and our gear and rented canoe to, where we would then travel fifteen miles to a bridge in Brownfield, Maine – which, coincidentally, was where my father lived in his childhood – where we would exit the river and place a call to the rental facility to pick us up two days later.

Truth be told, we were never all that far away from help and civilization if we needed it in an emergency, and the particular river we were going to is famed for being crowded on summer weekends with other similar enthusiasts, but it was just far enough to give the boys an outdoor experience like they had never had before.

On day one, after arriving at the rental facility and being transported to our starting point, we loaded up our gear and set forth on the river. The water can be a bit shallow in places (while deep enough for swimming in others) but we made our way into the meandering current of the Saco River, and began the first leg of our journey. On that day we travelled seven miles of the fifteen total, my reasoning being that the next day some rain was predicted in the afternoon. More on that later. As the light began to fade a bit at dusk, we selected a beach to camp upon, set up our tents, gathered some fire wood, and set up camp for the night. We feasted on warmed up canned ravioli and s’mores, and with full bellies and tired limbs we climbed into our sleeping bags for a good night’s sleep – only I replayed every Friday the 13th film synopsis in my head over and over and listened for the cracking of branches and treading of heavy feet to announce the impending arrival of a masked serial killer to my tent. That, of course, didn’t happen, but it did show me that I’ve seen WAY too many horror films in my time.

I did, eventually, nod off – serenaded by the night bugs and the occasional splash in the nearby river as they lulled me to sleep for the night.

Day two began with a light breakfast of oatmeal and fruit before we broke camp and got back on the river. One thing we had found in relatively short supply the night before was available firewood. I had opted to not purchase any to bring with us, reasoning that we were surrounded by firewood on both sides of the river – but for future reference, if you go late in the season the likelihood is that other campers will have snapped up the supply before you arrive on the scene. And so I kept an eye out as we paddled for a good stockpile of wood to take with us to our second camp, just in case. Lo and behold, about two miles into our trip we found a pile of cut firewood left behind on a beach by a departing camping party next to a still slightly smoking campfire. We beached the canoe and the boys each grabbed up two arms full of wood apiece and loaded it into the canoe. We sailed off down the river talking about how amazing our campfire that night was going to be, me keeping in the recesses of my mind that we’d need to keep it dry in the afternoon when the predicted rain fell, or there wouldn’t be a campfire that night. But (at least at that point) the sun was shining and the birds were singing, and we made our way another four and a half miles down the river until we found another unoccupied beach alongside the river, and decided to make camp there for the night, at roughly 12:30 in the afternoon, at which times the clouds had completely removed the sun from our view and I knew the predicted rain would soon begin to fall. We got our gear out of the canoe, flipped it over for the night on the sand, and set up our tents for the night.

Just in time for the downpour to start.

I quickly covered the wood as best I could, and we sequestered ourselves in our tent to wait out the rain for ‘a few hours’. I had consulted the weather forecast before we left, but out on the river for more than 24 hours since, with no access to the app on my phone (which I brought along to take photos and use as a clock if nothing else), I didn’t realize that this downpour was now predicted to last through the night.

There are two sayings that I’ve known for most of my life. Forewarned is forearmed (hence gathering and keeping dry wood for a campfire) and ignorance is bliss (had I realized it was going to rain all night I wouldn’t have kept holding out hope, during the afternoon, that it would stop ‘soon’ and we’d be good for the night).  In this process I learned several things:

  1. One of my tents didn’t have a rain fly to cover it with.
  2. Neither tent was particularly waterproof.
  3. Pre-packaged tuna salad (shelf stable) and dry cereal are a blessing when you have no means to cook anything because it’s pouring buckets outside.
  4. I don’t like the rain coming when I’m camping.

During the storm, because I have arthritis in one of my hips and needed to stretch my legs once in a while and get off the ground (fortunately we had an umbrella with us, though I can’t remember packing it) I stepped outside the tent a few times and stood in the rain, silently willing it to end ‘soon’, before the boys’ patience with it ran out and they deemed the trip ‘ruined’. On one leg-stretching I saw three canoes making haste for a take-out point and simultaneously mocked and envied them (silently) for leaving, for giving up, and for getting out. On another trip outside the tent, I saw one poor soul walking down the middle of the river (again, there are some very shallow points) in his underwear, carrying his clothes with him that were just as sopping wet as the rest of him. He looked over at me, standing on the shore under an umbrella, and loudly declared, ‘F*CK THIS, I’M GETING OUT OF HERE!!!’. I tipped my umbrella to him and said, ‘Good luck!’ before going back inside the tent to my increasingly waterlogged refuge with the boys.

Supper that night was a mixture of pre-packaged snacks, making sure to reserve enough to eat ‘something’ in the morning before we left – a morning that could not come soon enough for me. We all three were wet…cold….and not particularly in love with the woods or the river at that moment. We all three drifted in and out of sleep that night, trying to shift to a non-existent dry spot in the sleeping bag, sharing our own warmth with each other, and taking turns wondering, out loud, when the rain was going to stop. We had been away from the creature comforts of television and radio and video games and wifi connections for more than 24 hours. The boys had fared well, and I had, more than once, apologized for the rain being much more than I had realized it would be. There was, once only, a declaration of ‘I’m bored’, and yet it was more of a statement than a complaint. I was truly amazed at their stamina.

At roughly 1 in the morning we were all awake once again with the rain beating down on the tent roof. We lay there listening to the beating of the rain drops over our heads (some coming through the roof and dripping on our faces). One of the boys piped up in the darkness.

‘You know, Dad, this is a great trip, except for the rain that’s making us cold, wet, and miserable.’

The other boy added his two cents here.

‘Yeah, because at least we’re all cold, wet, and miserable TOGETHER!’

In the darkness I smiled, unseen, because while I awaited the breaking of the morning, and the welcomed light and warmth it would bring, something else ‘dawned’ on me. A realization that, despite their attention and focus challenges, despite their sometimes constant bickering and vying for attention, they ‘get it’. They get what we were doing, and why, and what the value and meaning of it was. Time to relax and refresh and stretch our minds and our abilities – time to learn things we didn’t know about ourselves and each other – and most importantly, time together. Eventually we all drifted off again, awaking at intervals through the remainder of the night. But from 1am on, the cold was a little less cold, the water a little less wet, the discomfort a bit less discomforting, at least for me.

Morning finally came and I managed a very modest fire – enough to warm us up a bit before we broke camp and headed out. The sun reappeared, the birds again chirped overhead, and the woods came alive for the day after the deluge of the night before. We folded up our wet, sandy gear – realized we had no dry clothes to change into (note to self – keep one change of clothes waterproofed…always) and we had roughly three miles to go before exiting the river. We set off, the water a little higher beneath us, the current a bit stronger, a final parting gift of the rains the night before. We easily glided downstream, only spotting two other parties who had toughed it out, waving to each other from canoe and from shore, no words spoken, a silent cry of ‘Solidarity!’ passing between us and no need to discuss what had passed the night before.

Eventually we reached the take out point at the Brownfield Bridge and pulled our boat from the river. I used the phone in the campground that abuts this spot on the river to call the canoe rental facility, and they said they’d be there shortly to pick us up. I then, aided by the boys, hauled all our gear and the canoe up to the edge of the parking lot to await our chariot. We were all dirty, still wet, and not particularly warmed up. We sat and waited for the van and the boys munched on a snack I had purchased at the camp store to, in a small way, thank them for the use of their phone. I awaited the commentary from the boys now that we were idle for the first time since getting up that morning.

‘Dad, can we do this again?’

‘Yeah, like next year? Can we make this an annual trip, please?’

They couldn’t have pleased me more if they given the trip two enthusiastic thumbs up, called it good fun family fare, and declared it to be better than the musical Cats.

‘Yes, we can. We can do this at least once a year if you like, until you no longer want to, or until I’m too old to lift a paddle, whichever comes first.’

I deemed the trip, rain and all, a complete success. We all worked together, we all ‘suffered’ together, and we all emerged unscathed and perhaps a bit stronger. We learned a lot that weekend, about ourselves and each other.

But the most important thing I learned from our weekend away from home is as described below.

There is a place inside every child that even the brightest, most colorful and action packed video game cannot penetrate to. There is a place inside every child that no television show can entertain and hold the attention of. It’s somewhere that defies and condemns pop music and sound bytes and text messages. It’s a place that some lose sight of and some struggle to find in vain day in and day out. There is a place that is so unplugged, so remote, so deeply embedded in a child’s heart that only one thing can possibly pervade. That thing is not expensive, not complicated, not unobtainable, not rare or delicate, nor ever really out of stock. It’s something that can be given time and time again. It’s something, no matter how they might resist it at times, no matter how they might not listen, might fight and complain, that children want….and crave…more than most anything in the world.

That thing is, quite simply, you.



The Song Of The Open Road

In April of 2005 I  was in the midst of rehearsals for a production of La Cage Aux Folles and we were nearing opening night. I had one of the two male leads in the production. On a rare night off, considering how close we were to opening night, I received a call from my grandmother letting me know that my stepmother, Doris, had passed away. Doris had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone treatment for it, but in the end it was not the cancer that took her.

My relationship with my dad was still a ‘tentative’ one. We’d gone for many years without speaking. I had only reconciled with him, and made my peace with Doris as well, the prior November. We’d spoken a few times, but hadn’t seen each other for many months as they lived more than three hours north of me.

Nevertheless I made plans to attend the funeral primarily to support my dad. I felt badly for Doris, of course, but I had a lot of years of bitterness toward her that were still percolating in my mind and that I had yet to reconcile. Our last real ‘conversation’ was to tell her that despite the turn our own interaction had taken many years before I recognized that she had made Dad very happy for more than twenty years, and for that I was grateful.

Doris was introduced to me (and my siblings) as Dad’s ‘housekeeper’. Dad and Mom had not finalized their divorce as yet (despite it having been more than three years since they’d separated) and Dad had done his best to provide meals and such for the three of us on visiting days which where Friday nights and Sundays. I ate a lot of deer meat back then as Dad excelled at cooking spare ribs, but didn’t have a huge repertoire of meals to prepare.

Then along came Doris. She was a few years older than Dad, and already had an existing connection to the family. Her former daughter in law was married to one of Dad’s brothers. Over time the ‘housekeeper’ and Dad were living together, both at his place and at her place until that was sold and they retained only one residence. Shortly after Mom and Dad’s divorce was final, after five years of delays and postponements, Dad called one afternoon to tell us that he and Doris had gotten married, quietly and without any pomp and circumstance about it, and more importantly (at least to me) without telling his children or inviting them to attend the wedding.

It took me a very long time to get beyond that – but eventually I did, and even spoke to my father about it, about the feelings I had experienced back then, before Dad passed away last year himself, ten years after his wife died.

The total years of Dad and Doris’s marriage (before her death) was a lesser amount of time than he and my mother were married, the five years of separation prior to their divorce notwithstanding. That said; I believe they had more happy years together than my parents did.

When Doris passed, Dad was left to his own devices. He found himself adrift with the day to day tasks of keeping a house and making meals and paying bills – all things that Doris had done for many years. He had friends in the area, certainly, but at the end of the day he was alone. I spent a weekend with him shortly after Doris passed, to try to break up the silence a bit, at least for a few days, and we talked at length about how he was faring on his own.

There was talk amongst family members and well-wishers that perhaps the hunting rifle that Dad kept in the house should be removed. There were concerns that Dad would not manage well without Doris, and might be tempted to speed up their ‘reunion’ (if you believe in such things) by means of that rifle.

In the end, Dad surprised us all with how well he did manage up until a stroke made it necessary to transition him into assisted living where he remained for the rest of his life.

I experienced a number of feelings when Doris passed. Empathy and compassion, some regret, and a great deal of concern (for my dad). Doris’s death marked the beginning of many changes for him. Yet while I find myself reflecting upon this, eleven years since Doris’s death and just about a month shy of the first anniversary of Dad’s passing – I have realized that her passing gave me, in watching how Dad navigated the days after her passing, despite the concerns of others, the opportunity to feel something toward my dad that I never had before in nearly 40 years.

I felt proud of him – proud of his strength and resilience. Proud of his courage to go on and not succumb to grief and sorrow and let it make him bitter and angry and wallow in that for the rest of his days. For the remainder of his life he missed Doris, certainly, but he still smiled, still laughed, and spoke of her fondly.

When Dad passed last year we had seen one another a couple of days before he died. We’d gone to Doris’s grave to put flowers down. After leaving the cemetery Dad and I stopped at a local ice cream stand and I bought him a dish of grape-nut ice cream, which was his favorite.

As we ate our ice cream, we sat and talked about his overall health and condition and his decision to not seek any further medical treatment for the series of heart attacks he’d had – knowing the likely outcome of that and if he was prepared for the end – which he told me he was ready for – ready to go.

He also told me that if he could have any wish it would be to be ‘out there driving truck again – just driving and driving – without any particular destination’. Those were some of the final words he spoke with me just two days before his passing – how his last wish after eighty three years of life would be to once again sing the song of the open road.

In eulogizing my father, I spoke of his love for the back roads of Maine, and my wish that he was, in death, finally free to travel them once again.

More importantly, I hope that somewhere along the way Doris joined him for the ride.