This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

My divorce sent me spinning. But not necessarily in a bad way.

Before January of this year, I harbored the illusion that the life I was living was a life I would basically live until the day I died. I would be married to the woman who mothered my children, I would write novels, and I would participate yearly in some sort of male demon-exorcising ritual—I’d run a marathon, or climb Mt. Hood, or spend a week at Cycle Oregon with my brothers. The stability made me happy, even if the marriage was quarrelsome and the novels a financial sinkhole. I was a respectable American citizen.

LOS ANGELES – This morning started out like any other morning. Or maybe not. When your houseguest is not only on East Coast time but also in the middle of a nasty bout of bronchial distress, the chances are slim to none that you will be asleep past 6:30 am PST. Which proved true early, so early, this fine Tuesday morning. The hacking and honking reached a crescendo somewhere around 6:37 am but my lovely out-of-towner, considerate as she is, decided that instead of torturing us both with her frequent lung-rattles, she would just take a quick shot of the Delsym cough suppressant in the cheerful orange box sitting on the bathroom counter.

Bad idea.

Very, very bad idea.

Now it should be stated that my petite guest is not only a narcotics-newbie, but also that her cold drug of choice – which was purchased by yours truly – caused the checkout lady at Target to card me. And scan my ID. And now I’m on some potential government Watch List for Meth Lab Cooks/Cold Medicine Entrepreneurs. I wonder if they have a Union.

All of this adds up to some very serious relief-in-a-bottle. My pal had previously taken a shot of the juice before bed, but taking it in the morning was a whole different experience. When she came back into the bedroom I was too awake to fall back asleep. I was awake and annoyed that I was already thinking about him. Ugh. Had he really called me “mean” as I handed him a Trader Joe’s bag full of his socks (snuck into my laundry yet again), bootleg DVDs, and sweat-stained baseball cap? Mean? Me?

More importantly, was I?

I could feel the phantom pressure of an evil hand wrapping itself around my heart, but quickly forced it aside. My fun, cheerful Houseguest was here. We had plans to hike up a beautiful mountain. The world was not ending. I could relax…right? I hoped so. I closed my eyes.

For three seconds.

When I opened them, I was walking to my computer. Sitting down at said computer. And immersing myself into the very maze of paperwork and online drama I was trying so desperately to avoid. When did it all get so complicated? Houseguest, however, stayed in bed and checked her Facebook on my laptop. And then started to get very, very loopy.

“Hey!” came the cry from the bedroom as I was tackling the meaning of the Department of Water and Power sending me a check for $82.78. There had to be some sort of catch, right? Was it a trick to see if I’d cash it and then they’d laugh uproariously while they flicked some mystical switch that caused not only my apartment to go dark but my data to be erased from all of my computers? Hmm, file this check away for a rainy, flashlight-filled day.

“Heyyyyyyy!” the repeated cry echoed from the bedroom. Whoops, I hadn’t answered.

“What’s up?” I called back.

“I feel sorta….dizzzzzzzzy…” Her voice warbled a bit, then became muffled as she shoved her head under what I could only assume were my flannel sheets and blue comforter. “I think I’m gonna…”

The sentence was never finished but an IM or some other interwebular distraction on my screen caught my eye and I was sucked back into cyber world. For the next five hours. Five. Hours. When I glanced at the time in the corner of my screen, I was extremely surprised to discover that it was already 11:46 am. So that’s why all of my office-bound friends were now online and IMing their way through the boring day.

I, on the other hand, had powered through all of my bills, a bunch of customer orders, notes on an online video edit, and had even paid my company’s city tax (PS if your company makes under $300,000 a year the city of Los Angeles cuts you a break. Do any small businesses make OVER that amount? Just wondering…). It had been a productive five hours. Surely it was time to reward myself (and Houseguest) with a caffeinated beverage and a hike to the top of Griffith Park. Right?

And then I entered the bedroom.

When I had last left her, Houseguest was cozily ensconced on one side of the queen bed, covers pulled up snugly just under her chin. Not so anymore. Somewhere in the middle of her cough-syrup haze, she had not only turned all the way upside-down in the bed, but also taken off one sock. Just one. Her half-clad feet now rested on my pillow. The covers were crumpled and shoved to the foot of the bed. Her head and shoulders, I could only assume, were somewhere underneath them.

“Um…Houseguest?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I should nudge her or set off a few fireworks. I went for the leg nudge. Nothing. A little more aggressive this time. Still nothing. I started peeling back the covers until the shrillest scream ever to emanate from a human pierced the room.

“Noooooooooo!!!!!” Houseguest screeched and pulled the covers back over her head, returning to the darkness like a recalcitrant vampire.

“Come on,” I nudged again. “Let’s go get some-” I was interrupted by the sound of an early-90’s TV show theme song blasting from the living room. It was my phone, obviously. I grabbed it, not recognizing the 973 area code.

“Hello?”

“Hello dear, it’s [Houseguest’s Mom]. What are you and my daughter up to?” The Brooklyn-accented matriarch had been an inner city Vice Principal for many years, so even her innocent-seeming questions were really demands.

“Um…” I walked back into the bedroom and was part-dismayed and part-amazed to find Houseguest had- in the 16 seconds I had been gone- mostly emerged from under the covers but was now mysteriously sprawled sideways across the bed, feet hanging off one end and one arm oddly splayed off the other. She was most definitely face down.

“She’s sorta still asleep,” I offered into the phone. “Maybe I can answer whatever ques-”

“I had to take her stepfather to the dentist- he broke a crown, don’t ask me how- and we’re all going to breakfast at the hotel and you’re meeting us here so put her on so I can- ” Houseguest’s Mom was still barking orders at me as I pulled the phone away from my ear and placed it near Sleeping Beauty’s. She sort of snarfled into the mattress and then used her closest arm to slap me. Hard.

“Ow!” I cried. “Here. It’s your mom. Talk to her.” I gently set the phone down and then backed away like the guy at the zoo who has to feed the hungry lions.

Her answer was to brush my Crackberry off the bed, sending it slamming into the wooden floor. Its awesome red case burst off it into a few different pieces and the call from 973 was most definitely lost. Houseguest made some sort of vague moaning sound and then rolled over onto her back, squinting up at me.

“Time to go hiking!” I tried. “Up and at ‘em!”

She blinked as if I had just spoken to her in whatever made-up language the blue people in AVATAR speak. I tried again.

“Coffee?”

That got her. Sort of: “I’m nagh-huash for my to eghhh…”

And then she rolled over, causing her face to smash back into the mattress. I decided to leave the room and finish my last bit of work online. As I marched back into the living room, I barked: “Get dressed! I’m ready! Let’s hit the trail!”

“Noooooooo!” came the wail from the bedroom. “I cannnnnnnn’t!”

“Yes, you can! The sun is shining! The dog needs to take a crap! Let’s go!” I sounded like my mother…except for the dog needing to crap part. I decided maybe practical advice was the way to go.

“First thing you need to do,” I called out as I resumed my position at my desk. “Is sit up!”

I heard some sort of vague shuffling, thrashing sound and then:

“Oh noooooo!”

What did she break?

“I can’t feel my feeeeeeet!” If there is a humanly possible way to slur the word “feet,” Houseguest did it.

I got up out of my desk chair and ambled back to the bedroom, standing in the doorway, staring at the puddle of Houseguest in the middle of my bed.

“What’s that, darling?” I asked, none-too-sweetly.

“My…I…I can’t hike…” she started, building to near-hysteria. “Because I can’t feel my feeeeeeeeeeeet!”

Note: as she was saying this, she was wiggling the toes of her left foot. Rapidly.

“Come on, you’re fine. Let’s go!” I got a scowl and a weak attempt at Death By Pillow-Tossing. But then, miraculously, Houseguest started to pull herself to sitting. Halfway there, though, her elbow buckled as she groaned and flopped back onto the bed.

“Oh nooooo,” she cried. “My head! My head is underwater!”

“That is impossible,” I said flatly. “You’re just hazy because of the medicine. As soon as you get some fresh-”

“Ohhhh my goddddddd,” she interrupted, hands firmly clasped over her ears as she slowly sat up again. “I…I’m dying. I think I’m dead. Everything is wobbly. I can’t….no….” And she was back down.

Fifteen minutes of convincing and cajoling later, Houseguest had somehow managed to not only pull herself to standing, but also to slap on some sweatpants and tie a pink bandana around her head. Sort of. It actually sat more sideways so that the triangle flap part dangled over one eye. It was like a muddled, vaguely dangerous pirate inhabiting the body of a witty, loquacious New Yorker. And this pirate was hungry.

“I need…” she gasped as she wove her way into the living room, grabbing onto the couch for support. “a sammich. I need….need food. Sammich.”

I stood up and stretched my back. Things popped. “Do you want me to make you a PBJ?” I asked. “Fuel for the hike?”

With a surprising burst of energy, Houseguest closed the distance between us by scurrying over to me, slamming both hands down on my shoulders.

“I…am…underwater,” she intoned, locking eyes with me. Deadly serious. “Something is WRONG with….me. I may….yes, I may be…” Her voice lowered to a whisper: “…dying.”

“I highly doubt that.” I shrugged her hands off me and turned to go to the kitchen. She flopped down into my office chair, forgetting it was on wheels.

“My brainnnnnn! I think it’s…it’s on inside-out!!!” she wailed as she rolled across the hardwood floor, not noticing the movement. Until her head met my bookshelf. “Owwww!!!!” She melted down into the chair, sliding off the seat and crumpling onto the floor in a heap. I walked over to the pile of limbs, gingerly poking at it with my toe.

“Come on,” I said, frustrated. “You took cough syrup. You’re not dying. Get up.”

A hand shot up and grabbed my leg with surprising strength. The person attached to that hand raised her head and looked at me with big, shiny eyes.

“Something is wrong with me!” Her bottom lip quivered a little. “I really think my brain is on inside-out!”

“No it’s NOT,” I exhaled, annoyed. I started walking away. “You know what? Maybe I’ll just go on a hike by myself. I’ve been trying to get you up for-”

“You’re being so meannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!” she wailed.

The word made me freeze. Mean. Me. I could see his back as he walked down the street, carrying that bag, shoulders slumped. The sun was setting and he vacillated out of shadow and light as he made his way past the burned-out buildings and away from me. I didn’t cry. And I hadn’t cried since.

Until a tear slipped off my bottom lid and down my cheek. My hand flew up to my face, surprised. Houseguest, cough syrup crazed spidermonkey that she was, had stopped moaning and was staring at my watery eyes, concerned. It was like that moment when an Alzheimer’s-ravaged relative returns to their senses, if only for a second.

“You’re not,” she said gently. “You’re not mean.”

I couldn’t speak. There was still a hand around my heart, squeezing. Hard.

“Hey,” she said, lucid. “It wasn’t your fault.”

And the hand relaxed. Stopped squeezing entirely. I could breathe again. I looked down at Houseguest, wondering of how to properly verbalize the relief and welcome weightlessness of realizing that it really wasn’t all my fault. That there could be wholeness in solitude. And that one day, I’d be ready to try it all over again.

She grinned at me and as I was about to speak, she said: “You’re meat! Baby meat food!” she erupted into giggles. “You are baaaaaaby meat food!” She had returned to Delsym land. The pink bandana was now around her neck and I noticed that she still had only one sock on.

I walked into the kitchen and started making her sandwich, enjoying the new freedom in my chest cavity. As I spread chunky peanut butter on the bread, I heard Houseguest sniggering and singing a song about “Baby Meat Food” to herself. I smiled. There was a giggling, wiggling pile of Houseguest on my living room floor. But man did I love her.

Even if she was cracked out on cough syrup.


The trip was my roommate Jason’s idea. Six days and five nights hiking around the John Muir wilderness reserve of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his old high school friend Jared, making camp at a different lake every evening. The summer was winding down like a Victorian clock, and with only two weeks left until school started up again I’d yet to do anything remarkable other than fill my bottom desk drawer with increasingly mediocre short story drafts. I was between girlfriends, out of ideas, and bored. So I said sure.

I hadn’t been camping in years, but all the gear from my days as a Boy Scout was still in serviceable shape, so within two days we were cruising north on the 395, the three of us and our packs wedged into Jason’s tiny Geo Metro. The drive took hours, and as we climbed from the southern chaparral into the alpine slopes we passed through towns with names like Lone Pine and Independence, their welcome signs advertising populations measuring in the hundreds and the last cold Coca-Cola for X amount of miles.

It was early evening by the time we arrived, so we slept at a campsite near the trail head. In the morning Jason and I went over to the closest ranger station to check in his car and give them our itinerary. The ranger handed us a copy of the various camping rules, then asked if we wanted to rent a bear canister. “We recommend it for everyone this time of year,” she said. “The bears are going to be hibernating soon, so they’re getting pretty aggressive about food, and they don’t have a problem going into your tent to get it.” She pointed to a corkboard on the wall festooned with photographs of just such damage: shredded tents, torn-open backpacks and cars that had been ripped into. Jason and I took one look and agreed without argument to paying a week’s rental fee on a canister.

*****

Our first two days were calm and quiet. After an initial bit of effort we found our mountain legs and settled in to a light, easy pace. We chatted a bit from time to time, but were mostly content to hike in silence, stopping every now and then for a snack or a photograph or to pass water behind a tree. There had been some pre-seasonal snow earlier in the week, and small patches of it were visible on the peaks and hills around us as we followed the trail through thickets of lodgepole pine forest and small subalpine meadows. In the evenings we made camp next to lakes like sheets of glass; I would assemble the fire while Jason and Jared erected the tent, and we’d cook our dinners and make small talk.

Once the sun went down it was so cold we could feel it even through the double layers of long johns and flannel under our jackets, so we kept the fire burning as long as we could. I’d brought a copy of Call of the Wild with me to read and a notebook to jot down any observations and story ideas in. Jason had a harmonica, but he didn’t play much; though no one ever openly said it, we wanted to be able to hear if anything came upon us out of the night.

While the California grizzly is sadly extinct, there are still plenty of American Black Bears calling the mountainous areas of the state home. Despite being smaller than the grizzly, the black bear is still strong enough to kill a full-grown elk with a single paw swipe, though people I knew who’d grown up around them described them as shy trash can-raiding nuisances that generally avoided direct contact with people. I’d never seen a bear in the wild, and unlike my cohorts, I desperately wanted to.

City-boy Jared, less experienced with the wilderness than Jason or myself, listened with a certain quiet dread as Jason and I went over the common wisdom for dealing with a bear encounter. Don’t run, because they’ll think you’re prey and chase you. Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample. Don’t try to climb a tree, because the smaller bears are pretty good climbers in their own right, and the bigger ones might just push the whole tree over—assuming you managed to climb out of paw reach to begin with. In the light of the campfire there was a peculiar gray shade to Jared’s face. “I’m sure as shit not going to just stand there,” he said.

“I heard that you’re supposed to throw rocks,” Jason told him. “Wave your hands in the air, jump up and down, scream and shout. Makes you seem bigger and more dangerous.”

“You made that up.”

“No, he’s right,” I said. “They taught us that in Scouts.”

Jared looked back and forth between the two of us. “Tell you what,” he said, “while you two distract the bear by jumping around like a couple of crazy people, I’m going to run. No hard feelings however it turns out, all right?”

Fortunately for Jared there were no bears to be seen, but there was plenty of bear sign, mostly in the form of claw marks scratched into trees around our campsites. None of them looked fresh, but we weren’t taking any chances in getting raided. After dinner we’d seal all of the food into the bear canister, then suspend it as high as possible in a tree a good thirty feet or so from camp; to get it down, one of us had to be hoisted up on the shoulders of the other two. One morning we found an adventurous raccoon perched on it, trying his damndest to get inside. When Jared stuck his head out of the tent and shouted “Hey!” it shimmied up the rope like a chubby trapeze artist and disappeared into the branches. There were dirty little paw prints on our packs where he’d tried to get into them, too.

There were plenty of other animals about as well, always floating around the edges of the environment like a shadow in the corner of your eye: deer grazing at the far end of a small meadow; golden eagles soaring high overhead, diving occasionally to snatch up some unseen rabbit or pika; brave fat-cheeked squirrels that ran right up to us during our meal breaks, hoping to score a nibble of trail mix. While crossing through a rocky pass between two peaks one afternoon a large male Bighorn Sheep wandered out into the trail in front of us, his horns full and curved and his coat already showing signs of winter shagginess. He eyed us with wary curiosity for a moment before scampering up the granite-encrusted hillside.

****

Day three was the roughest of the trip. A mountain stood between us and the location of our next campsite, and to get there we had to climb it. At 10, 800 feet above sea level it was both the highest point charted out on our expedition, and the halfway point of our course. For two days we’d been heading southwest, and the plan was to make camp after descending the far side and then take another path northeast, forming a circuit back to our original trail head.

Even with a sunrise start it took us about seven hours to make the ascent, following a hardscrabble trail of gravel and dust up an unending series of switchbacks. It was earth that had never felt the touch of machine, only hoof, paw, and boot. Our path was so narrow we had no choice but to hike in a single-file line, and we were forced to off it onto the rocks when a rider with a mule train rounded the corner higher up on the trail.  He could’ve ridden right out of my Jack London book, with his sun-weathered face and the gear strapped to the backs of his pack animals. As he passed he gave us a tip of his hat and a “Much obliged.”

We were exhausted and blistered by the time we reached the pass near the summit, but is was worth it. The view from the top remains simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, all the valleys and forests painted out on the mountains below. The lake we’d spent the previous night at, so large and deep and cool, looked like a pond.

We took our time enjoying it, eating lunch and tending to our sore feet before heading back down the southern slope on legs made of rubber. Fortunately, our descent was nowhere near as steep or as long, and we made camp well before nightfall.

We were all pretty beat at that point, and after some time consulting the map we arrived at a conclusion: instead of pressing on the next morning we would stay in camp for the day so to rest and recover, maybe explore the woods a bit. At a decent pace we could still keep to our original schedule, and if not, we had enough food between the three of us and could stand to be out in the wild for an extra day or so.

It was windy and cold in that little gully between the mountains, and we didn’t have the energy to gather enough wood to keep the fire burning beyond our dinner needs, so it was barely past sundown before we were zipped up in our sleeping bags, watching our breath curlicue about the air inside the tent.

The wind only got worse in the night, and I woke up several times to the rustle of tarp and tent fabric. The trees creaked and groaned, and the occasional wayward pine cone dive-bombed onto the tent’s roof. I woke up at one point in pitch darkness, vaguely certain in my semi-fugue state that something was moving through the camp. Probably just the damn raccoons again, I remember thinking. I rolled back over, trying to get back to sleep.

There was a noise from just outside the tent, mere inches from my head, clear enough even to be heard over the bustling wind: chuff-SNORT

And again: chuff-chuff-SNORT

I was suddenly wide awake. There was a viewing flap sewn into the wall of the tent above me, but I did not want to move enough to look out. I did not want to move at all.

Next to me I felt Jason stir in his bag. “Is that–” he started to say, and I cut him off with a “shhhh!” hissed out between clenched teeth. My mind was jackrabbiting, trying to think if there was a pouch of jerky or an apple or some other bit of food inside the tent we’d forgotten to seal in the canister, something that might be attracting animal attention. We hadn’t bathed or really bothered with much personal hygiene for three days; maybe we smelled like prey.

I wanted to see a wild bear, but not while it was ripping its way into my tent.

For what seemed like hours I listened to whatever was outside shuffling around our camp. As a child I’d once seen a huge stuffed black bear large enough to rival a grizzly in a museum, mounted in a standing position, snout perpetually pulled back in the bloody rictus of a snarl. In my mind it was this animal knocking around our packs and cooking gear, looking for leftovers. I was rigid with tension, ready to bolt the moment claw or fang penetrated nylon.

I considered my few options if it did discover us, and came up with a plan: my knife, compass, and matches were in pouches on my belt, and my belt was coiled in one of the boots placed at the foot of my sleeping bag. Our camp was maybe thirty feet from the water’s edge. If the bear came into the tent, I would grab my boots and dash for the lake. A bear might be able to outrun me on land, but I’ve been in and around large bodies of water since I was an infant, and was willing to bet it couldn’t outswim me. Even in their depreciated state my wilderness survival skills could probably keep me alive until I could make my way to a ranger station along the trail. Also, a potential death by hypothermia seemed favorable to being eaten. While it would have sucked to abandon the guys, as Jared said, no hard feelings, however it turns out.

Next to me, Jason was wide awake, his body held too still to be asleep–though Jared, it turned out, slept blissfully through the entire night.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I did—though I don’t think “sleep” is really the accurate term; more likely my body could no longer stand the constant adrenaline stimulus and just shut down. It was daylight, well into morning, and both Jason and Jared were snoring. All I could see out of our tent flap was our bear canister, still dangling from the branches. But I didn’t get up and leave the tent until the others were awake.

Because of the wind there were no discernable paw prints around our campsite. Our packs had been knocked around a little bit but were otherwise unmolested. The same with the canteens left hanging on a tree branch and the mess kits fireside. I mentioned my plan to Jason. “Funny,” he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

We started to wonder if maybe it hadn’t been raccoons after all, or perhaps even the result of the wind. It wasn’t until we went to retrieve our food that we saw the three claw marks gouged head-level into the tree where we’d hung it.

They hadn’t been there the previous day.

Without any discussion we decided to break camp after breakfast and push on up the trail.

*****

Quick note: Aside from the image of the bear (courtesy of the Internet) all photographs were taken by myself and my traveling companions. I would also finally see a live bear years later in the swamps of Louisiana.

I stand at the top of a waterfall, all trussed and tightened up in a rope harness, the most crude of corsets, ensuring that I do not plummet to an untidy death on the jagged rocks and in the choppy water far, far below, 120 feet below, to be precise. You are one tough bitch, I tell myself. You are so freaking badass. Hardcore as Murphy’s Law. I stare up at the people above me, some of whom look over the side dubiously, clearly terrified out of their minds. But I am fearless. Yes. I am fearless and I’m gonna rappel down this goddamned waterfall like I have been doing it since I could walk.

Yeah.

OhmygodohmygodwhatthefuckamIdoinghere, I ask myself, an internal agonizing scream, my mantra that day, after jumping off various cliffs, slipping on many a rock and hiking down impossible paths filled with fauna and horror on an empty stomach and perhaps two hours of sleep after being wakened this morning at 5 by wailing monkeys in the rain forest. There is not a bathroom in sight, of course there isn’t, so I don’t dare take a sip of water. I realize hours ago that I am better suited to jaywalking across 6th Avenue than I am to peeing in the woods. And here I am, about to go through with this charade all in the name of fun. And adventure. And proving…something.

How did I get into this mess? Well, this is a year and a half ago and I am in Costa Rica on vacation with my friend, Vanessa.

Even before getting there, I had these grandiose ideas of doing a zip line, so upon arrival, we immediately signed up for that, and lo and behold, there was a package where you could do the zip line and go canyoning on two separate days. You need to know, the photos in the tourist office did not do justice to what these two activities entailed. I saw children, for God’s sake, with peaceful looks on their faces, joyous even, as they were hooked up to a pulley, hard hats cockily placed on heads. “Beginners welcome!” the sign proclaimed. We were beginners! We were welcome! How could we pass that up?

The zip line, oh the zip line. Now, that I immediately chickened out of, due to the apparent lack of control I’d have over my own fate. All the zip line involved was being hooked up at the waist on this endless steel cable attaching two cliffs, with oh, I don’t know, hundreds of feet between them. So, no skill involved, hence the beginner being welcomed. Apparently, I’d be zip zip zipping along, a haphazard little psychotic zipper with a death wish, full speed ahead to the platform which seemed to be a mile away. As I hesitated on the platform looking death in the maw, I was told, “just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!” Right. No, thank you, y’all go on ahead. I’ll pass.

I waited an hour on that bloody platform for the group of zippers (most of them optimistic med students) to return. I was the only one who chickened out, but I think I was also the only one who knew there were twenty-odd more platforms to zip between (I asked). This is fun? Hell, there was no apparent skill, strength or sportsmanship involved. I figured I couldn’t let my fate be decided by a clip at my waist and a steel rope. I could only think of how people about to attend their own hanging must feel. I just wish I would have done my research before gleefully plunking down 60 bucks. Or Googled zip line deaths.

Feeling like a travel brochure failure, I decided I would be brave and try the canyoning. I wasn’t any closer to a computer so that I could Google canyoning deaths, but then, I don’t think I would have thought to do that anyway. The waterfall part sounded tropical and practically serene, and there was mention of swimming in pools under the waterfalls. It sounded like a Club Med commercial. The only thing you needed was the ability to swim (I can!) and have an open mind (suuuure). Plus, I reasoned, I’d be in full control of what I was doing and my feet would always be planted on something, even if that something was the side of a mountain.

Here is a photo of Vanessa and I unawares. See how excited we look to be doing this? We were open-minded at the start of this adventure.



In a strange twist of fate, Vanessa and I turned out to be on a tour with five other folks from New York City. Queens, in fact. Well, awright, we were gonna kick some canyoning ass, I was sure. Not really. What we were going to do was bounce our neuroses back and forth between us, whilst alternately playing a game of one-upmanship in our heads. None of us were the outdoors type.

I, personally, was glad there were no Europeans, or heaven forbid, Australians, on the trip because it seems like every single one I’ve ever met has been accomplishing major feats of prowess in the great outdoors since toddlerhood. Nothing to make you feel even more inept in the jungle than a plucky Australian wearing hiking sandals.

I don’t do nature very well. There was this time that I was walking through Central Park, from the west side to the east side, only it was on a winding path. Within 15 minutes, I was panicking, lost and wondering when they had transplanted an actual forest into Central Park. I lost sense of space and time and any sort of cell phone signal. I started to look for berries to hunt, just in case. I kept walking, babbling in tongues, when suddenly I saw them, the precious buildings, in my sight line. “Oh, thank God, the city!” I recall thinking. THEN I realized that I had, in fact, wandered right back to where I had started, virtually one block away, but still on the west side of the park. This is kind of funny, right? Kind of.

“Joi’s afraid of heights,” Vanessa had said to our guide earlier, before we even got out of the jeep. He positively hooted with laughter in response. “I mean, she couldn’t do the zip line,” she continued worriedly, meanwhile I felt like pinching her. The guide was a tanned Lothario. The last thing I wanted to appear as was a wimp with a debilitating fear of heights. He winked at her and told her not to worry.

So, getting back to the adventure through the stream full of rocks more slippery and deceptive than black ice. My body was so banged and bruised by that point, and my head was half filled with water because we had to jump off of all of these ledges. Hours of this. Swimming in the choppy stream was fun, but the trekking was endless, not to mention treacherous (the next day I’d resemble Hedda Nussbaum). Also, it was especially fun to do this when dodging fucking bees, trying not to step on poisonous frogs, and god knows what other pernicious insects that surrounded us. For all I knew, there were schools of piranhas in that body of water where we were hiking and swimming.

The first 12-foot waterfall, you can see I handled pretty easily, but that was just the practice before hitting the massive waterfall.



See? Isn’t that inspiring?

And then, a mere few feet away, we heard it. The Niagara Falls of the rain forest.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to rappel down the waterfall. Apparently there was a path down the side of the mountain. Vanessa wisely chose that option, but stayed to provide her moral support. I was determined, though, to kick ass and so I moved bravely ahead.

And this brings us back to the beginning. Me, the intrepid rappeller, at the cusp of breaking boundaries and blowing minds.

Not believing that I am actually going through with this insanity, I take a deep breath and begin to rappel down, graceful and flowing, like the water, rappelling like Rapunzel’s hair, envisioning myself to look like an extreme sports rock star ala this. Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking of this. I push aside all thoughts of a cave dwelling, brain sucking troll waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon.

I am determined to do this. Of course I can do this! I am a New Yorker, born and raised to handle just about anything (ah, what a myth about to be destroyed for now and for ever more). I’ve got street smarts! Wait. What good are street smarts going to do me in the rain forest, pray tell, when they couldn’t get me through Central Park? Pushing aside my panic attack, I descend. I descend a bit more. Baby steps. Wait, I’m better than this! Giant step. I’m making progress! I’m almost past the first shelf, but then I look down. Bad idea. I am 12 stories about the earth. Why, if this were the Empire State Building, I’d be…on the twelfth floor! This is no time for epiphanies, Joi. There I go, already referring to myself in the third person as if I were dead.

I want to jump from here, maybe. They say fear of heights comes from an impulse to jump. I have in fact experienced this when riding, ok, you better not laugh, Splash Mountain at Disney World, the one and only time I rode it. I hadn’t known that when I got to the top of what seemed to be a complete vertical drop 8 stories down, I would stand up in the log next to my mother right as we went down the flume. It was an insuppressible urge. I would have rather jumped than be helpless, gone for the ride to an undignified death below. A Disney Disaster. After the ride was over, my mother had angrily informed me that I wasn’t supposed to stand up, that it was dangerous, what was I thinking? What was I thinking?

What am I ever thinking? I sure wasn’t thinking when I plopped down 100 bucks to engage in these shenanigans.

Now I realize I am a full 4 stories higher than Splash Mountain at Disney World and really start to panic.

Have I mentioned that I am barefoot? “It’s the only way,” the guide had said, “you must go barefoot if you don’t have the right footwear.” He always rappels barefoot, in fact. This way, you feel the elements under your feet. It’s true. I am rappelling down this thing barefoot thanks to thinking steel toe Doc Martins are suitable hiking shoes. They are not, I assure you. Especially when you have to jump off increasingly higher cliffs into the streams below. They, in fact, pull you down right into the mud. It’s all part of the canyoning experience, my darlings. And now, now I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go but down. But.

There are no more shelves in the rocks! It’s all straight down from here! I can’t feel my feet! Help!

“Just try and feel the next indentation in the rock,” our handsome, virile guide tells me in broken English. He is smoking a cigarette and swigging from a beer. This is no big deal to him, of course. In that instant, I despise him.

“I can’t!” I insist. “I can’t feel anything.”

I am reduced to a complete mess. It feels like hours, but I remain in place, losing all feeling my feet, grabbing on to the rope for dear life, my wrists aching and burning. I need to be rescued. The guide sighs and effortlessly lowers himself down next to me. I have to be hooked onto his harness like a baby bird with a broken wing and ride on his coattails the rest of the way down the waterfall. It is also unavoidable: I have to-gasp-embrace him! Let it be know that I have serious touch issues when it comes to strangers.

I keep apologizing to him, not that he speaks much English at all, but he sure understands the language of hysteria and I feel like a teenage soldier holding on to his guts as they explode out of his body, begging for Momma. More than slightly humiliated, I make it to the bottom and like a coyote, chew my arm free from Lothario’s harness. He quickly disappears up the aforementioned mountain path back up to the top so he can help the others down. Didn’t he want to take a moment to appreciate what we had shared together?

One guy who comes down the waterfall after me, lets go of his rope and ends up knocking his face into rocks before the guide comes and rescues him. I am not the only one rescued! A small triumph. He is really banged up and then gets stung by a bee later. I’m not the only failure on this expedition!

I am told by the others we have to all “hike” back up the mountain, I think, to get back in the jeep home. Where is that damn jeep, anyway? I thought it was down here? (I refer you back to the mention above where I got lost in Central Park). The jeep is not, of course, up at the top of the waterfall.

I put “hike” in quotes because I’ve been hiking before on a variety of trails, but I have no idea that this trail consists of a 12-inch wide muddy, rocky path where if you slip the wrong way, off the side of the cliff you go. I am faced with an extremely precarious climb where there is NO LEDGE and my fear of heights is just crippling and despite being motionless with terror for a good five minutes, I make it back up and then I hear the news.

It’s lunchtime, boys and girls! Like I could eat?! The 70-year-old Jewish woman who is always lurking deep inside of me suddenly makes a cameo today just when I need her.

AND, brace yourselves for this one, the even bigger news is, after lunch we’ll be rappelling down the other half of the waterfall!!!!! And…there is no choice because that is where the blessed jeep is parked, in fact! Yes, down below, where I had just come from. Are you laughing and crying, perhaps slitting your wrists, with me at this point? I start to fume. I’ve been tricked! I don’t like being tricked, it’s been a sore spot since my father promised me a pet elephant in my backyard and placed a stuffed Dumbo on the patio furniture.

So, as everyone else ate lunch, I obsess over the two evils: 1. rappelling down the waterfall again or 2. hiking back down that hazardous mountain path which was potentially even more dangerous because of the lack of any kind of ledge or anything to hold on to, with the exception of plant roots. I am NOT KIDDING. I held on to plant roots to brace myself on the way up and hiking down a steep path is always harder.

Suddenly I notice that the group has turned to me as I pace back and forth past the flimsy rope protecting us from accidentally getting too close to the edge (there are no accidents where I’m concerned, I’ll have you know). They are. Laughing at me. And leading the pack is my savior, that horrible Lothario, the smoking, beer swigging tanned god, I mean, guide. And here I thought he loved me for making him feel the big guy, the hero, but he is making fun of me in Spanish to a few of the people in the group who are fluent and they in turn translate his wicked words to the others. You bastard. Did you not get the memo that I am hardcore?

I toss my head the way I do and brood on a rock, trying to ignore the puddle (are those fire ants?) at my feet.

“What’s wrong?” asks Vanessa.

“I want drugs,” I all but wail. Fuck this nature shit. I am done.

“Um, you don’t do drugs,” she points out, laughing.

“Yeah, well, at this point I’m yearning for a crack pipe or hell, even a dirty needle would suffice. Either would be preferable to this suicidal sure shot.” I get this way when I’m faced with certain, tragic death. One has to have one’s vices, even if they are only in one’s head. At this rate, I might as well be engaging in an indiscriminate sex act with that dork who had to be rescued, too. Oh Christ, what the fuck is the point of life, after all?

Why am I pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica?

Hello, brain, this is a life or death situation, of course you should be pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica. If you’re about to die, what else should you be thinking about? I might be thinking instead about how my last meal could have been a nasty ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Regardless, it’s much more dignified to die on an empty stomach.

Considering the rope corset again, I think about how I can whittle my 28-inch waist down to a wasp-like 23 in mere seconds without any help. And I think about the first time I saw the Pixies in 1988, the night before Thanksgiving and when the concert was over, I had walked through a foot of snow on the quiet Greenwich Village streets. And when I was 7, I saw the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and going back further than that, I see my Aunt Jay holding me up as my mother waved out of a hospital window after she gave birth to my brother. I was 2. And now, gee this blankie is so so fuzzy and soft…goo goo ga ga…and I let out a scream as I enter the harsh bright light.

In the end, only two of the group of 7 decide to rappel back down the waterfall while the rest of us choose the hiking down the death strip option.

And guess who has to be rescued on that path too?

Yours, truly, first summons up some atavistic trait, going back to Cro-Magnon Man that is, and crawls on all fours. Then I slide down on my ass, only it gets to be so narrow that I can’t even do that (my ass won’t cooperate), and our benevolent guide has to make yet another divine intervention. Yes, I cry. Again. This is a petite mort of the worst possible kind.

We make it back to the jeep, water logged, bruised in body and spirit, and one of the folks from Queens points out, “That was worse than getting mugged at gunpoint.”

Moral of the story: New Yorkers are badass only when in their comfort zone. Sure we can crack wise with the best of them, throw around f-bombs like they are rose petals, make our way through a 6-lane traffic jam on foot, push you tourist bitches out of our way as we desperately rush somewhere, anywhere more important than you’ll ever have to go, mace a mugger without blinking an eye, but bring us to the bosom of Mother Nature, and we are a helpless, pathetic lot.

Or, maybe that is just me.


I think I’m dying. Okay, maybe not dying exactly, but definitely in need of an oxygen tank. Meanwhile, these guys are standing around in their short shorts and florescent mesh tank tops looking like they could go another three miles.

In what could only be described as a historic effort, I just completed a 5K. I say historic because it’s the first time in history that a Bloom not only signed up for an athletic competition but actually paid to do so. See, prior to today, I happily subscribed to the age-old Bloom philosophy (circa 1946, Brooklyn) of “why run unless you’re being chased?” You have to admit it’s a good point. I mean, this is supposed to feel good?

The backstory: my wife Julie and I booked a trip to the Grand Canyon. The trip is a few months away but we thought it’d be fun to buy a guidebook and learn what one can expect from a visit to the giant hole. After flipping through a few photos, it became perfectly clear what we could expect: sweating.

The people in these photos were nothing like us. For one thing, they were all about 6 feet tall and incredibly tan. What’s more, they genuinely seemed to love the outdoors (NOTE: My beef isn’t with the outdoors itself. Just bug spray, the way your skin smells after you put on bug spray, and the lack of TiVo access). Anyway, there they were in their flannel shirts and hiking boots, exploring one of our nation’s greatest treasures (no offense to Bea Arthur), and all together looking very, very fit. It soon became clear to Julie and me that if we were going to make the most out of the Canyon, we needed to:

a) get in better shape.
b) invest in self-tanner.

And so our quest to get in shape began (not to be confused with previous quests of the same name, which incidentally date back to the last millennium). We started by asking each other “what’s our first move?”—a reasonable question we could’ve answered had our mouths not been filled with pizza. The next morning however, we got serious. And that’s when, in a moment that could only be classified as pure insanity, we signed up for a 5K that was only two weeks away.

It takes guts to jump into something like that. It takes stupidity to do it when the race is part of the Bryn Mawr Running Club, a local group who runs, get this, for the fun of it. We had two weeks to prepare. Julie did this by running on a treadmill five days a week. I took the less conventional, albeit more creative, route of humming the score from “Rocky,” hoping that I could somehow conjure some of Rock’s fighting spirit without having to do, well, anything that resulted in sweating.

Two weeks later, Julie had run roughly twelve miles. I, on the other hand, had come up with roughly twelve reasons not to run the race (Reason #8: Running Sucks). The day of the race arrived. We pulled up to the running park and I instantly felt like I did in summer camp when I’d be standing on top of the high dive, looking down at the pool waaaaay below, scared out of my mind. The only difference there was that all the other kids were just as terrified as I was. Here, at the scene of the race, I was surrounded by real runners who were, you’ll love this, running a mile just to warm up! I had a bad feeling.

The clock was ticking down. While most used this time to stretch and talk strategy (“I’m gonna weave through the post and then, WHOOSH, I’m gonna find the pocket!”), I had more important thoughts racing through my mind (“Didn’t we pass a Starbucks on the drive over?”). Suddenly, it was time to race. A man with a megaphone assembled the herd to the starting line and, I’ve got to admit, for a brief moment, my feeling of dread had vanished and I was genuinely excited. “Who cares if I’m not a runner,” I thought. “We’re all one big group here!”

A siren sounded and, no kidding, the next thing I remember is seeing a cartoonish blur fly past me. It’s possible that at one point I, quite literally, ate someone’s dust. I can’t really describe what happened next, namely because my brain stopped forming memories after I got lapped by a middle aged guy with a portable oxygen tank. What I do remember, however, is forcing myself to keep going. So did Julie. And eventually, we crossed the finish line together. And while I’d like to end this by saying I learned something from the experience, the honest-to-goodness truth is that it was slightly less fun than undergoing lengthy and unnecessarily invasive dental surgery. Now where’s that guy with the oxygen tank?

I’m going to Burning Man this year.

Ten days in the dust and the wind and the heat and the cold and the chaos. Ten days of thumping base and lunacy and love. Ten days of…. I have no idea what.

Many conflicting words and feelings spring to mind- solitude, isolation, adventure, companionship, evolution, degeneration, transcendence, freedom, inhibition, self-consciousness, self-expression… the list goes on.

I’m a Burning man virgin and (due to a recent compulsion to drive myself completely mad) over the last few weeks my excitement levels have waxed, waned, teetered, tottered, disappeared entirely into a pit of anxious fear and then returned, tentatively, dressed up as clowns and hookers.

Perhaps I need to explain…


Several years ago I had a depression that almost beat me. It’s a long and arduous tale and something I try to make light of as much as possible even if the residue is sometimes sticky and dark. The illness changed me. When the hopelessness receded I was a nicer, more empathetic and gentle person, but I was also more timid, I had become frightened of putting myself in situations that I would once have embraced without caution. Now I sometimes have The Fear. Adventures that I would never have thought twice about have become things I have to consider. Plans have to be made, things have to be clear and understood and there is little room for spontaneity in case I am ill-equipped to cope.

Or so I imagine.

So I let myself believe.

At some point in the last few months my Burning Man adventure turned dark. The Fear crept into me and the over-thinking began. I rationalized my over-thinking as ‘being responsible’ and, as a consequence, thought longer and harder about the myriad possibilities for disaster and became more and more tormented. Should I go? Could I go? Where will I camp? What about this? What about that? But, but, but……..

A few days ago I decided to put a stop to it.

Enough already.

A wise woman I know gave me the gift of a beautiful and clear metaphor “…If you were planning a trip to, say… Thailand… would you spend the whole time worrying about getting home safe? Or would you just go and enjoy the adventure?”

The answer was easy and it applies to everything in my life. My love, my work, my creativity, my soul.

In the last year, despite my worried efforts, locks and bolts (or perhaps because of them) The Fear has crept with insidious stealth through the bedroom window of my heart and left a big steamy poo on the fluffy white flokati rug of my soul.

It’s time to clean it up.

How do you clean up a metaphorical dump on an imaginary carpet?

Why that’s simple, boys and girls, you just… relax.

And so I went to Shmoo’s house.

And together we went hiking up Mount Tam in Marin County… in our Burning Man outfits.

What follows is a pictorial of our adventures. I hope you enjoy.

THE DAY SHMOO AND LADY BANDIT CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN AND LET IT ALL HANG OUT. A NINE STEP PROGRAM WITH GUARANTEED RESULTS-

STEP ONE. Find the perfect hiking outfit. Take your time. Be adventurous.

STEP TWO. Get in the car and put on some thumping beats.

STEP THREE. Get thee to a place with really big trees….

… and beautiful trails.

STEP FOUR. Look at the magic that surrounds you.

Soak it up.

STEP FIVE. After an hour of happy meandering reach the bottom of the trail. Think “that was easy!” and sit down for a minute….

… then start to climb back up.

STEP SIX. Stop a lot to catch your breath. Feel free to use the excuse ‘I’m just looking at the view’, it is, after all, a really nice view. It’s hard to see views if you’re always climbing up and puffing a lot.

STEP SEVEN. Admire yourself along the way. You’re doing good!

(Even if you are feeling like an old lady with lungs the size of pine nuts).

STEP EIGHT. Get to the top. Realize that for all your huffing and puffing and sweating and wondering if you were going to make it…. that you actually did. Celebrate it.

STEP NINE. Keep on walking. One foot in front of the other. Alone or together. On different paths or shared tracks. In bare legs or crotchless fishnet stockings…. just keep on walking.

It’s good for you.

But always remember this cautionary word from your sponsor.

When trees attack…

… just hug them.

THE END. x