It’s that time again. Here’s my ramblings for another season. Delivered on time, for a change.
It was Josh who gave me my first Nalgene bottle. Part of a care package he gave me before leaving for upstate New York and the Night’s Watch about one point five decades ago. I covered it with stickers and drank water from it. Fifteen or so years went by. Then I went camping.
Jack's Webelos den leader had planned a cold weather camping trip up in the Boston Mountains in early December. Weather originally looked to dip slightly below freezing, which we'd done before with no trouble.
The trees had gone to the bone weeks before we made camp. The wind was a gossip. We were down in a hollow and out of the worst of the breeze, but the sun left us to heap on clothes and hug the fire. We watched the night scratch and rattle its way down toward 20°, well below what we’d camped in before.
The boy and I'd planned to string ourselves up in fancy hammock tents, but insulation is always a concern when you're dangling above ground. He asked if maybe he could go sleep in Alex's tent instead? Yes, of course, buddy. If you can't find me in the morning, go check the bench by the showers in the bathroom, okay?
Later that night I got him down and eventually debated myself away from the fire and over to my tent. I had a bunch of blankets, a sub-freezing sleeping bag, a fire-engine-red union suit and a whole lot of worry. Then some random neuron fired and I recalled Josh's Nalgene.
He'd extolled its many features and benefits in the attached note. "Once I was camping in cold weather," he wrote. "Before bed, I boiled some water, poured it in my bottle, wrapped a shirt around it and stuffed it in the bottom of my sleeping bag."
Friends, I am here to spread the good news. My toes warmed instantly. I lay there, cozy as could be, and recited a very long gratitude list as I listened to the coyotes summon the moon.
I am grateful for my mummy bag.
I am grateful for my blankets.
I am grateful for my hat.
I am grateful for the lee side of the mountain.
I am grateful for the woman I watched playing with wolves yesterday.
I am grateful for the pot of veggie chili I had for supper.
I am grateful that I am packed into this nylon tube and suspended amid nature's annual death rattle, Dutch-ovening myself because of the chili, with no cell service.
I am grateful for a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle that has warmed me three times: Once when it was given, once when I recalled the gift and its attached advice, once with my toes nestled up against it.
I woke not long after dawn to a well-frosted tent. I made coffee. I dried and packed my gear. I came home. I kissed my wife and daughter and dog. I showered and shaved my head and eased myself back into civilization clothing and civilization eating and civilization life.
Checking out like this is a sheer luxury, I know that. But it helped. It helped with my fear and worry and frustration. But it wasn’t checking out that did it. It was yet again being dragged into the world of others.
Watching the kids pointedly not swearing while rassling tent poles. Letting my boy show me every natural shelter outcropping he'd scouted out (three of them in total). Gathering with four other men and our children around a fire and sharing our stories. We communed in the death that is December, we passed candy and cocoa and opinions, and our species again seemed possible. Certainly worth fighting for.
I am grateful for this boy. For these friends. For this life. This life in which I got so damn lucky that I almost feel ashamed.
It's been too long since we’ve gathered around you. We need to get together. We need to remind each other. Maybe we'll cast our stories out into the cold, see what thaws.
My coat still smells of fire. I haven't washed it. I know I have to. But not yet.