My favorite essayist, E.B. White, would often begin a story with a wandering tale about what he was doing at the moment of his writing: lying in bed sick, listening to the pigeons on the ledge of his New York apartment; lying in bed sick–even though he was a very active man when he was well, he was often sick, having a poor constitution–at his home in Maine, listening to the mourning doves in the tree outside his window, and so on.
I am one-and-a-half days into a two-day reservation at Hamlin Beach State Park, which is in New York State due north of Rochester, on Lake Ontario. I arrived near dark last night, having taken a bit of a tour through my old haunts here in this town of bitter sweetness. Here I did my hellish residency in Pediatrics, got divorced, got my first job as Director of a Pediatric Emergency Department on the merit of my performance as a model prisoner of the hospital known as The Gulag, where residents who were out of favor with the Powers that Were and Are Now In Their Graves–which is too bad, because I would like to give each and every one of them a piece of my mind for punishing me for being sick—were sent.
It was meant to be a punishment, and for some it was.
As for me—I was right at home.
The Gulag’s other moniker was the Knife and Gun Club. It sat right in the heart of violent gang land. Crips ‘n’ Bloods. Each with their own highly honed style of maiming and/or killing members of the opposing gang, if they could; and they did.
It felt just like Chicago to me. Many nights in my Upper Clark St. apartment, lovely and cheap, we would have to creep around on the floor lest we meet the fate of those who are struck by stray bullets during yet another gang war taking place in the park across the street.
I had been banished to the Gulag’s Emergency Department for seven months, so I simply moved in when the existing director bailed out. The Gulag was just my kind of place. I stayed and played for another two years.
The campground—we’re back to Hamlin Beach now—is at least a half-mile from the actual beach. That is just fine with me, because several weeks ago I camped at an absolutely dreadful campground on the Jersey Shore (New Jersey, not Jersey in England). The place had all of the unpleasantness of Eastern beaches, except the beach itself—for that, you had to drive twenty miles.
But no need. The campground featured plenty of coarse and painful sand that blew into everything, causing normally decent food to become dangerous to the teeth. Sand fleas, sand flies, fire ants, and, I discovered in a most unpleasant way, a medium-sized member of the spider clan that is perfectly camouflaged to look like the sand it dwells in. Well, not all of them dwell in the sand; some have moved into my camper, and now it is a game of “I squash you if I can catch you before you bite me, you little bastards.” I have no idea how to get rid of them without poisoning all of my tiny premises.
Anyhow. We return to New York State. The Lake Ontario beach is at least a half-mile from the campground, as I have already mentioned. Today I set out on foot, with my big sun hat and heavy multipurpose walking stick (the one my father, of blessed memory, cut from a rhododendron branch that had been climbed by a vine, causing the stick to be shaped in a mesmerizing spiral).
I found some pretty trails winding around toward the beach, only some of which were carpeted with poison ivy. The rest were nice dirt trails covered with pine needles. [After-note: did you know that eucalyptus oil is very effective at quelling the itch from poison ivy? Good thing I happen to have some.]
After a delightful meander, I found myself on the strand of Lake Ontario. I mused on the fact that even though I left Rochester in 1992, Lake Ontario still lay sloshing in its glacier-carved bowl in the Earth’s crust, same as if I had never left. Fancy.
I watched the early evening swallows swooping and scree-ing together, something I have always loved to see. The gulls stood fat on the water line, gobbling the bounty of lake mussels–a bad creature imported on the hulls of the great ships that make their way from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes by way of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which have wreaked havoc on the lakes’ ecology by way of competition for nutrients. But the gulls love them. I was struck by how many more of them—mussels, not gulls—there seemed to be, judging from the mess of them on the beach, than there were the last time I was here, so many years ago.
My eyes kept straying to the water, and every time they did, I felt the familiar nothingness come over me. Actually I didn’t feel anything. Only in retrospect do I realize what must have happened.
The breeze picked up as the shadows lengthened, and as the chill ran down my spine I turned to walk back to the campground.
I walked and I walked and I walked, and at some point realized that I had become disoriented in the process of trail-meandering, and had wandered too far to either the East or the West, I wasn’t sure. So I kept on walking straight, figuring that since I was on the road that bisected the park, I was sure to come upon a sign eventually.
Only problem was, my legs were tuckering out. Nowadays when I walk too far my legs start feeling stiff and weird, and they hurt. Well, they were hurting, all right, and I really did not want to keep on, and was thinking of sitting down in the grass on the side of the road; but since it kept on getting dark, that did not seem like such a good idea. It is better to be lost in the daytime than at night, don’t you think?
Not one single vehicle came down that road the whole time I was dragging myself along, grateful for my walking stick, which was by now doing yeoman’s duty by way of holding me up. I prayed and prayed for a park ranger, but unlike taxis in Jerusalem, which arrive if one prays sincerely, no park ranger responded to The Call.
At last the answer to my real-time prayers came along in the form of a Border Patrol Officer in a Jeep. I flagged him down and told him that I was looking for the campground. He grinned and pointed–the entrance, which was only a quarter mile away, in the very direction in which I was hobbling, appeared out of nowhere. Perhaps he was a wizard or a saint, and he either conjured it or performed a miracle.
Or, perhaps, had I simply kept on, I would have arrived at it in a few more minutes of agony and confusion, but Heaven sent this uniformed angel to relieve my mind.
(Still, I would have taken that Jerusalem taxi. At least I wouldn’t have had to walk any more.)
I still had a mile or so to negotiate until I arrived at my campsite, so I continued to put one foot in front of the other, trying to ignore the mounting pain and stiffness, until I finally reached my little motorhome and collapsed on the bed. My legs felt as wooden as my walking stick, although not nearly as useful.
Even now, hours later, if I try to move around much my feet go into painful scrunched-up spasms. One of these days I will get around to going to some doctor about this, if I can find one who is not a dimwit. if you are a fellow doctor who is not a dimwit, then a) this does not apply to you and b) please be in touch immediately.
Two Days Later
I think I must have had a bit of a hypomanic episode the morning I left Lake Ontario and headed straight south on Rt. 15 to pick up I-86 West. At 4:30 am my eyes popped open. I wasn’t sleepy. Odd, even though I had passed out at 8:30 the previous night after the unplanned hike. My biological clock usually has me waking up between 8 and 9.
I have managed to wean myself off the dreaded Zolpidem (Ambien), and now instead of being forced to sleep for 12 hours at a stretch, my body seems to be tentatively investigating what her normal sleep pattern actually is. It’s delightful, really, to lie in bed with the lights off, listening to whatever is around me, whether it be tree frogs and whippoorwills, or semi trailer trucks roaring in and out of the truck stops I like to lay over in, like this one, two-thirds of the way toward the Western boarder of Indiana; and drift gently off to sleep, rather than literally passing out from drugs. Takes some getting used to, though.
Day before yesterday, I drove 400 miles, and enjoyed every bit of it. Blue skies, gorgeous mountains, farmland, Amish settlements, elaborate barns, simple houses.
Bivouacked at a truck stop, and was dismayed to find that unlike most of its kind, this Flying J did not have a special overnight parking section for RVs. Even the trucks were stacked up two to a space.
There were a few “regular car” spots over in a corner by the entrance of the truck lot. One space open there, better grab it. I pulled as far in as I possibly could, because my position was just beside one of the fuel lanes.
Yeah, OK, it sucked, but I was so tired from my hike and my long drive, I was grateful for the privilege of parking overnight without the dreaded 3 am knock on the door, lights flashing in the windows–fairly predictable if you park overnight just anywhere…so I’ll put up with a noisy, stinky truck stop where my sleep is unlikely to be rudely interrupted.
All evening I drifted in and out of sleep, frequently jarred awake by the ka-BAM, ka-BAM of the trucks running over a piece of broken pavement 5 feet from my van. I had to do some emergency self-NLP in order to abort the full-fledged panic attack I felt coming on.
Fortunately, the noise settled down and finally stopped at about 11. I learned something new about trucking: there are two kinds of drivers, the day ones and the night ones, and they change shifts at about 11 pm.
I marveled at the connection.
Before I had diagnoses and meds and sleep, I used to like to do my long distance driving at night, especially if the trip involved crossing deserts or long stretches of the Mysterious Midwest flatlands. One cornfield looks about the same as another to me, friends.
At night, the highways belong to the trucks. So many trucks come out at night: in places they’re bumper to bumper at 85 mph.
In a regular car that’s terrifying. It feels as if they don’t even see you–that they will just run right over you.
When I got my big Dodge truck and 33 foot horse trailer (with full living quarters) I got started with CB radio. Suddenly the highway exploded into a whole new dimension.
“Hey J.B. (J.B. Hunt is a trucking company), keep an eye on that four-wheeler (regular car) on your left lane. Looks like he wants to pass you.”
“Thanks, good buddy. You got anything good to listen to?”
“Wellll, just a couple o’ them Jeff Foxworthy tapes. He cracks me up!”
“Yeah buddy, he do! Hey, if I see you at the Flyin’ J you want to look through my tapes and see if you wanna trade for somethin’?”
“Sure thing, good buddy. Ten-four.”
It never crossed my mind that there might be an entire subculture hidden from those of us who drive around oblivious in our four-wheelers. And then there is the overlay of a subculture of land-bound humans who sit up all night with their CB radios talking to the truckers. They have colorful “handles,” or nicknames, and each of them has a persona—and an agenda. Luckily, CB radios have lots of frequencies, some public and some that can be rendezvou’d upon by mutual agreement. Dialing my way up the channels in order to chat privately with a friend, I’ve also come across some highly illegal activities right there in traffic.
I did merit some special treatment from the truckers when I was pulling my horse-hauler. Since I always made sure to politely introduce myself, I was graciously received by the pack of whining 18 wheelers hurtling along around me.
“Hey, good buddy, OK if I slide in in front of you? I got to get off at this exit.”
“Ten-four, little lady, you go right on ahead.”
He flashes his lights when I’m far enough ahead to safely change lanes. I flash mine twice: Thank You.
I haven’t got a CB in this little rig yet. I feel kind of funny about it, being only 22 feet long, as opposed to the 120 foot length of your average tractor-trailer combo. I’m going to have to swallow my pride, though, especially if I keep on getting up while it’s still dark.
Today I felt like crap all day long. Maybe that’s because it rained so fucking hard yesterday that I had to bail out at the first truck stop I came to in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I had wanted to travel another couple hundred miles to an actual campground, get a really good shower—my rig has a tiny shower in it, but there’s nothing like standing under a stream of hot running water for as long as you want.
I saw a couple of little baby tornadoes forming in the clouds, and the barometric pressure was bouncing all over the place. What else could make one’s ears pop on solid flat land? But I had the SiriusXM Radio pegged on Classic Vinyl, and if The Big One had dropped down out of the sky and swooped me up–well, I guess that would have changed my channel, all right. But it didn’t, and here I am, still.
The only place I could find to park turned out to be right over a sewer drain, which was flooding a bit because of the rain, so I spent the night inhaling noxious fumes.
Maybe that’s why I feel like crap today.
Didn’t even make 200 miles. Didn’t even get out of fucking Indiana.
I’m on U.S. Highway 24, Westbound. Flying J again.
Oh well. Isn’t that what this journey is all about?
Roll with the punches.