"Did everybody take their meds?”
I asked in jest, but behind the joke was the reality that all of us were on medication (and not the fun or illicit kind) in some form. And no, this wasn’t an announcement over the intercom during bingo night at the senior living center, this was said sitting around the morning campfire, waiting for Tim to finish making breakfast, his legendary Man Quiche. (We’re a fairly binary crew.) It was the morning of the second day of our annual pilgrimage to the Adirondacks. For over two decades, our group—most of us now in our 50s—has paddled across Middle Saranac Lake to Weller Pond, a remote body of water with a half-dozen campsites spaced far enough away from each other that you can see the campfires of your neighbors but are spared from hearing their fireside John Denver singalongs. (And vice versa, though I do think my harmony singing on “Rocky Mountain High” is quite masterful.)
Things were much the same this year, and yet things had also notably changed. Familiar sights, sounds, and numbskullery: Me forgetting something—this year it was my air mattress; I plunked down $130 for a replacement in Lake Placid. Loading boxes of wine and cases of beer into the boats. James bashing his foot on an exposed root as we lugged his metal canoe from the car to the water. Stringing up a massive tarp over our campsite as we watched the evening sky go from pink to slate gray. Sitting out the rainstorm underneath the tarp and playing Cribbage. Melissa trying in vain to get cell service. Stephen and Joe making a pact to remind each to brush their teeth. Paddling out on Monday morning into the teeth of the wind, our gear smelling like a wet dog strung out to dry over a very smoky fire.
The rattling of pill bottles in my backpack was new. (I could hear them banging up against the bottle of Old Overholt. And the size of our group was small, just six of us. We’d been as many as 12 or 14 certain years. But Marcus was in Florida. Lee Anne had to work. Jess and Andy never came back after they bought a vacation home in the Catskills. My brother’s wife’s family has a house on the Jersey shore. Shazam didn’t even make it this year. The dog once crowned king of canoe camping is now 13 and doesn’t get around so well, what with the arthritis and all. (If Shazam had come, we would have had to bring his medications—plural—as well.)
Nobody had a blinding hangover; that was novel. We even packed out a bunch of the booze we packed in. (A sign of maturity, surely.)
The big innovation was the motorboat. We’d always paddled out in canoes and kayaks under our own power in the past, but this year, for the first time, we rented a full-on, 20 horsepower motorboat capable of carting almost all the gear and Joe out to the campsite. (Sorry, that’s Captain Joe. Joe went mad with power after he took the helm, barking commands interspersed with cries of: “I’M THE CAPTAIN!”) The boat definitely made the 90-minute trip easier for those of us in the canoes and kayaks as we weren’t loaded down with gear, but it felt a little like cheating to me. That said, it felt necessary, as we wanted to make sure we could get out of the woods quickly in case one of us had a medical emergency, like, say, a pulmonary embolism.
The morning of the day we left, I went out for a little aimless meandering around the pond in a kayak. The water was so still, the boat could have been sliding along a glass floor. I paddled past a few loons and some folks at other campsites as well, bidding each a good morning. And then I just let myself drift for a few moments and tried to take in my surroundings: the green wall of pines, the surrounding water, the infinite sky above. But I couldn’t do it—it’s a lot to take in—so I just closed my eyes. After three days in the woods, far from screens and gadgets and civilization, I felt like the low-hanging cloud of stress and anxiety that hangs over my daily existence like smog had begun to lift. I sat still for as long as I could manage, which, if I’m being charitable, was probably two minutes.
As I headed back to our campsite, I could hear the voices of my friends bouncing out across the water. There were jokes. There was banter. There was inane conversation. It sounded like beautiful music made solely for me. And I thought about everyone who couldn’t be here, Lee Anne and Marcus and Shazam, and everyone else. I was with the people I’ve loved so dearly and for so long—some in body, some in spirit.
Then there was a sharp pain in my chest. Under normal circumstances, I would have thought I was having a cardiac event. But it wasn’t that, it was just my heart cracking open and the intense joy of being alive pouring in. For a moment, it felt like everything was going to be okay, no matter what happened—Trump’s reelection, capsizing on the way out, my own death. And then it ended. I cried for a while and then paddled back to get some Man Quiche.