Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Florida Keys and Traveling Uncle Matt

So, I think I owe you an explanation about the Florida Keys. It is a part of our trip that I completely skipped over. I purposely skipped over it because I don't like to write about things that are a drag, but after discussing it with my wife I decided to put it out there. When I started this blog I told myself I was going to tell an honest story from my point of view. The problem is, sometimes my point of view can be jaded and downright depressing. I needed to let some time pass before I wrote about it in order to gain a fresh perspective on the whole thing.

But first, a bit about our time in the Keys...

We spent a good portion of the month of March in the Keys. Originally, we had planned to spend 10 days there at a REALLY expensive RV resort but as luck would have it a non-reservable site opened up at Long Key State Park. For those of you that don't know, the State Parks in the Florida Keys are among the MOST DIFFICULT to get a site at in the entire country. They fill up 11 months in advance and they are sold out within SECONDS of the sites becoming available. So when the chance presented itself we took the site and extended our stay in the Keys for two weeks. 
Secluded, Oceanfront lodging in the Keys. 

We took several trips to Key West to do some shopping and dining but most of our time was spent at our beautiful oceanfront site or in the nearby town of Marathon, which does NOT have a single bad place to eat. Since there are so many options, I will just throw two names out there as my top recommendations:

Castaway Waterfront and Sushi Bar: The beer selection is amazing and they will sell you a flight of your choice of 5 beers for $10. The honey buns they bring you before your meal are ridiculously good. You just poke a hole in the middle and drizzle honey inside and whoof it down. I ate sushi here twice and had a burger once. The burger was fantastic and the sushi was the best I have ever eaten. 
Get the sushi boat and eat it ALL!

Lu Lu's Garden Grille: They have 1/2 off drafts until 9 p.m., which brought the price of our Yeunglings down to $1.50 a pint. And who doesn't love Yuengling? The four of us all really enjoyed our food. I had some Mahi Mahi that was cooked in an amazing sauce and I was left wanting to eat another plate. The real star of this restaurant is the seating. You sit in a beautiful garden and the tables are semi-private. It's very tastefully done and it's a truly refreshing place to dine.  

In between dining and fun, we hiked some of the short trails in the park and handled our usual business like groceries, laundry and post office. It's really strange how completely average the Keys are in regards to what they offer outside of Key West. Fast food restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, banks and convenience stores line the available space along Highway 1. If it weren't for the abundant sunshine and soft ocean breeze, you might forget you are in paradise. 
Everyone who comes to the Keys takes a picture in front of this stupid thing. It's the Southernmost point in the United States. I am doing you a solid by showing you this picture of the HUGE line you have to wait in to get a pic in front of it. Skip the line, it's lame. And, it's not even the real southernmost point in the United States. It's just a stupid gimmick. 

Back at our campsite, we had full signal on our cell phones which allowed me to stay connected with the business and social media. One afternoon I was reading the news feed on Facebook and one of my old friends had written a supportive post for another close friend of mine. It said something to the effect of, "We are rooting and praying for you Matt. You can make it through this..."

When I heard this I immediately thought 'typical Matt,' so I sent him a text message that read: "Hey asshole, why is Chris praying for you?"

I know, not exactly the most encouraging words, but it's just the kind of relationship I have with Matt. We call names and talk shit as a way of showing love for each other. If you are one of my Michigan friends or family members, you understand this type of relationship. It is how Detroiters do things. Matt had since moved to Chicago where he immersed himself in the music scene but, he is still VERY MUCH a Detroiter.

I met Matt in high school. We hung out with the same after-school crowd and we often played guitars together. But it wasn't until the last decade that we really became close.

His car died when he was living in Colorado in 2004, and he needed someone to deliver a new set of wheels from his parents' house in Michigan. Somehow, I was chosen for the job and I took a road trip with my future wife to bring Matt a car. It turned out to be an awesome trip and it was the moment that Jessica says she fell in love with me. I was already head over heels for her but I am a helpless romantic.

Matt again popped into my life in 2008 after my wife had a miscarriage. We were both devastated and decided to take a trip to Chicago, where Matt had recently moved. He was working for a take-n-bake pizza delivery place and he brought us lots of pizzas and took us out a couple of times. I remember him asking honest questions about the miscarriage. He wasn't afraid to strike that chord in us and you could tell he was willing to ride it out if his probing caused us grief, which it never did. 

After texting Matt, I waited for a few hours but heard nothing. I decided I had better do some investigating to make sure everything was okay. I thought he had just gotten himself into a goofy situation, like the time he was tackled and detained by the secret service while riding his bike near a presidential motorcade in New York City.

After several messages to mutual friends I learned that he was in the hospital, in a coma, fighting for his life. That was all I knew. No explanation of how he ended up there or what the prognosis was, just that he was in really bad shape. 

I don't deal well with crisis and these types of near-death situations. I also don't deal well with the 'unknown'. I try to keep a positive outlook in all things and I have a knack for spreading laughter. So when something like this happens I don't have a reaction. There is no play in my book that I can run.

This doesn't mean that I don't become deeply affected by this stuff. On the contrary, I get really beat up inside and I externalize my feelings by being irritable and shutting down communication with the people in my life.

I become distant and treat my family like shit. I remove myself from situations whenever possible and I have little patience with the kids. I say mean things that make my wife cry and I hide out in my bed and make up excuses why I can't join them for a swim or a bike ride.

I asked around and found out that he had unexpectedly gone into full cardiac arrest while at his apartment and was rushed to the hospital. His condition was stable but his brain activity was poor, meaning it was not looking good that he would return to being 100% Matt ever again. This made me feel incredibly sad. Matt is a super talented and insightful guy who has friends and loved ones all over the country. He is spiritual and poetic and his personality is magnetic. He is the type of guy who asks you something about yourself and then patiently listens to your answer. I could go on and on. He really is a special person, and I am not just saying that because of the circumstances. 

After taking this all in, I had to do something to stop myself from weeping. I got on my bike and rode out to the Long Key bridge and watched people fish. All at once, the sunshine and ocean became a bother to me. It felt like I was being taunted. Like I was in this place where people go to have their petty problems baked away in the heat and washed off in the saltwater.

Meanwhile, I was dealing with this crisis that I only knew about via secondhand information and social media. The charm of being on the islands wasn't working for me. As I sat on that bench watching locals pull fish from the ocean, I hit a low point. 

A lot of times, we imagine that if we could just get away, everything will get better. Here I was, in paradise, wishing I could be next to my hospitalized friend. I was on a tropical island and I just needed to get away. I woke up every morning hoping that I would feel better, but the helplessness and depression were still there. So I would stay inside or find a place in the shade to set my chair and bury myself in an electronic device or a glass of beer. 

I developed a negative opinion of the ocean over the next couple of weeks. I found myself comparing it to the lakes in the Midwest. The ocean is hot and salty and you need to rinse off after swimming in it. When the tide goes out you are left with a muddy shoreline that smells like a fart and there are all sorts of unusual creatures crawling around. I started noticing all of the traffic and tourists and college kids on spring break and my resentment for them grew every day. I was in a terrible funk and this beautiful vacation destination had become a full-on nuisance to me. 

Last I heard, Matt was being moved to a hospital in Michigan to be closer to his family. When I get to Michigan, the first thing I plan to do is go see him. He is still barely responsive but I have heard from some mutual friends that he is showing small signs of consciousness. For some reason, when I heard he had been moved to Michigan I felt a great deal of relief. It feels like this is the first step in the new chapter of his life. This is the road to recovery. 

The last time I saw Matt was in his apartment in Chicago, where we played guitars and sang songs. We sat around making noise and drinking until 4 a.m. When it was time for me to leave he asked me to deliver a present for him. He took the guitar that I was playing, flipped it over and wrote a message along with his signature on the back. He handed it to me and asked me to deliver it to the daughter of a friend of ours back in Michigan. He had signed it "Traveling Uncle Matt". 

It was a rainy night, right around dusk, when I dropped the guitar off. My family waited in the car as I walked up to the door. The girl who would receive the signed guitar was having a birthday party. I believe she was turning 10. I ran into her dad outside. We had a quick chat and he directed me to the door. I knocked and she answered with her friends standing behind her. I said, "I have a special delivery from your Traveling Uncle Matt."

Her face lit up and the room fell silent. I lowered the guitar into her arms while her friends watched in awe. A giant smile appeared on her face and she ran off with her new instrument.  

As I walked away from the porch I could hear the faint sounds of plucking and strumming. That guitar made her night. That's the kind of effect Matt has on people.

You can listen to Matt's music HERE

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Smoky Mountain Adventure


It has been a long time since I checked in with my loyal blog readers. If you have been anxiously awaiting the next installment I apologize for making you wait. I decided to take some time off to live in the moment. I had a discussion with a friend of mine when I was in Arizona and he pointed out how there is a trade off when you document your experiences. You have to stop and take a photo or jot something down. You almost have to trade the moment for the benefit of others. Anyhow, that's my excuse and I am sticking to it.

Before I go on I need to say thanks to all of the people I have had the privilege of spending time with over the last month.

Thank you Aunt Dianne and Uncle Bob for taking care of the boys and showing us around The Villages. The boys still talk about the fun they had delivering Easter eggs to all of your friends and neighbors. We love you guys!

Thank you Uncle Dean, Aunt Linda, Brian, Danielle, Sara, James, and Jessica for letting us pile into your minivan with you. We had a great weekend!

Thanks Stephanie and Christiaan for making our Savannah trip so special. Special thanks also to Allyson and Andy for giving me permission to add you to my "little story". Extra extra special thanks to Allyson for being such an amazing tour guide.

Finally, thanks John, Bridget, Natalie and Luke for being such awesome housemates. We couldn't have picked better friends to spend Spring Break with and we already miss you guys. See you next year!

So, this week we did some exploring in the Smoky Mountains. We spent some time doing touristy things like eating overpriced meals, playing in arcades and treating ourselves to ice cream but the majority of our time was spent on the trails. We come to this area every year and always log TONS of miles hiking. We have been hiking all over the country and there really isn't a better place, in our opinion, to both challenge yourself and immerse yourself in natural beauty.
The Yum kids and the Magel Kids. They keep each other busy while the parents do crosswords. 
In between hikes we spent time upgrading our trekking gear on Amazon. We also frequented NOC, the outdoor store in Gatlinburg. If you are into hiking and backpacking you probably understand our obsession. You go to the store thinking - This is all I need and I will have everything - only to find out a week later that there are, in fact, some other things that would make you a more complete survivalist. Anyhow, we made some pretty cool upgrades including a new water purification system, some new rain gear and a hydration pack for Noah. We also grabbed some dehydrated food and meal bars. We needed to stock up for our upcoming 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip.

The day before our trip we felt confident that we were prepared so we went out with our friends to have some fun. Our friend, Bridget, was dead set on buying a hand carved bear statue for her porch. It is something she obsessed over all week. So, we spotted a bear dealer (something that is quite common 'round these parts) and we pulled over to help Bridget buy her statue. It was my job to help her negotiate a price. She had stressed that she was NOT going to spend more than $100 on a bear. It was apparently my job, along with her husband, John, to make sure  that was all it cost her. Long story short, we failed and she paid $120. I might also add that she is probably a much stronger negotiator than myself or John. She probably realizes this now.
This is what a $120 bear looks like. 

While we were at this place that turns firewood into folk art, I lost track of Jessica who, in typical Jessica fashion, was picking out which bear I was apparently going to have to buy for her. You know, because we need a large chunk of cedar to put in our RV and drive our gas mileage into the toilet. I insisted that we weren't buying one but as she took me on a tour of her favorite bears, something happened to me. After looking into the plastic, beady eyes of these cutely carved logs, I started to fall for these damned things. It was like suddenly we weren't looking at carvings anymore, we were shopping for a new pet. I shook it off and came to my senses and insisted we weren't buying a damned bear log. I told her that if we encountered a bear on our backpacking trip, I would come back and buy her a bear. They were starting to grow on me but, you just can't have shit like that when you live in a travel trailer.

The next morning was sort of a blur. We popped out of bed at 7:30AM and the house was stirring, like the McCallister household whenever they sleep in on the day they are supposed to take an exotic Christmas vacation. We had packed a lot of essentials into our cars the previous night, including the coffee grinder, so we did all of our packing and cleaning without the aid of coffee. Right when we started to get hangry and irritated, we were ready to shove off. We stopped to have a fancy breakfast and bid farewell to our friends and cabin-mates, the Magels, and we headed to the trailhead.

When we arrived on the trail it was busy. The trail up to our camp has a waterfall (Hen Wallow Falls) at the 2 mile mark so it's a popular day hike. Plus, it was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon so everyone was trying to get their fix of the Smokies. Almost immediately after we started the hike, we crossed paths with some other backpackers who were coming down from the site we were headed to. I was relieved to see other campers because, if I am being totally honest, I am still a little bit messed up from our Yellowstone trip. Whenever we go hiking or backpacking there is this mild and ever-present anxiety in the back of my mind that basically boils down to my fear of encountering a wild animal. We stopped to chat with these hikers for a minute and I played it cool.

"Were there any other campers at the site?" I asked

"Oh yeah, but it was still awesome." He replied

These guys were in their early twenties and in good shape. They probably thought I was hoping for solitude at the campground but, quite the contrary, It would have brought me comfort to see a full campsite.

"Any toilets?" I inquired.

"Nope." He answered. I already knew the answer to this question, I was just adding a filler question before asking the question that was really on my mind.

"Did you guys see any bears up there?" I asked. Trying to sound relaxed.

"Nah, just some deer and a lot of wild flowers." He said.

They went on to tell us how beautiful the campsites were. Turns out they did the same trek we were doing but they went in the opposite direction. They told us to have a good hike and we continued on.
Sammy's Serious Face

When we got near the waterfall, we passed a group of tourist hikers with Jersey accents who were amazed that we were heading off to camp in the mountains. Normally, I wouldn't be amused with these type of people but, I have to admit, I am a sucker for folks with Jersey accents. They asked a lot of questions.

"So, do you bring your own food up there or do they have somewhere where you can buy dat stuff?" One of the fellas asked.

I replied, "No, they have a McDonalds up there." and gave him a smile.

"Nah, You know, I was wondering if maybe the rangers or something had a store for yous."

"No" I said, "We bring freeze dried dinners and protein bars and stuff."

"Oh, okay, what about water?" He asked

"We get it from all of these creeks that you have been crossing." I said

"Oh, good, yeah because I was wonderin' 'cause my son was drinking at the waterfall and stuff and these guys was tellin' him not to but it's mountain fresh water, right?"

"Are you being serious?" I asked.

"Yeah. It's safe to drink right?"

"No, you have to treat it first. Otherwise it may contain Giardia which is a bacteria that will wreak havoc on your intestines." I said. I looked back at Jessica and she was wide eyed with her mouth open at what this fella was telling us.

"Oh, so I didn't drink any, I just took a little bit and swished it around in my mouth and spit it out, that's okay right?" He asked, hoping for me to agree.

"No." I said, "It's possible that you guys will be fine but, in about a week or two if you are experiencing severe diarrhea and you have to go to the doctors to be treated for dehydration, make sure you tell them that you drank this water."

"Oh, Okay. Hey thanks a lot pal." he said, as he turned and walked away.

"See, I told you, you friggen idiot..." his friend said to him as their voices faded behind me.

When we arrived at the falls we were alone but eventually other people started showing up with their bag lunches and I was anxious to get away from them. As much as I wanted to be among other backpackers, sometimes day hikers can really get on my nerves. Not all of them but the ones who have a blatant disregard for the rules. They ignore every sign and warning from the rangers because they have this entitled mindset that nature only exists for humans to go out and act like unleashed animals. The reality is that humans are guests in wilderness and extra care should be taken when visiting our national parks.

Approaching Hen Wallow Falls

Noah busted out the binoculars to observe the Peregrine Falcons circling above us while we ate. Peregrine Falcons were reintroduced into the park a few decades ago and today, they can be seen all over eastern Tennessee. 

We pushed on after lunch and suddenly all of the other hikers disappeared. We started to fall into the groove. The connection between man and nature started to occur. The sound of chirping birds was the only thing that could be heard over the noise of the rushing creek. Butterflies crossed the trail right in front of our feet and landed in patches of beautiful blooming trillium. As we walked, single file, our words started to become more infrequent as we all found our place in the woods in our own different way. Sammy likes to master the rock hops at the creek crossings while Noah prefers to continue his quest for the perfect hiking stick, trading up to a better model every so often, testing out the features in between. Jessica stands at the back of the pack watching her children soak up the benefits of being in the wild and occasionally stops to silently take in a view. I walk in the front and pretend I am there alone and I try to find poetic ways to describe the things I am seeing in my head. Eventually I stop when words can no longer express the things I am seeing.
Sammy was frustrated and tired so Noah stopped to give him a hug and some encouragement. 

We reached a difficult rock hop that Sammy had to reluctantly ask for help with. We held hands and helped one another across and we had arrived. campsite #34, 5 miles into the backcountry via Gabes Mountain Trail.

We got camp setup and made some dinner. After we ate, the boys used their remaining energy to run around and play by the creek. They don't always love the long hikes involved with backpacking but they ALWAYS dig being at the backcountry campsites. When darkness started to fall it was obvious to me that no other campers were going to show up. I wasn't as worried about it as I was when we first hit the trail though. Mother nature had cast her spell on me and I felt relaxed. I was, however, super tired so I went to bed alongside the boys at 8pm. I spent the night tossing and turning and waking up every hour to blow more air into my sleeping pad which, apparently has a slow leak in it. At around 3am I finally gave up adding air to the pad and just let it deflate and slept for a good 3-4 hours laying on my back.
The boys did a performance for us while we prepared dinner

The next morning I was the first to emerge from the tent, which is the exact opposite of how things happen when we aren't sleeping in the woods. I sat on a rock and watched the sun come up over the hills and just enjoyed the time to myself. Eventually I walked over to the bear wire to retrieve our food items and learned that we had been visited by a critter the night before. Something had managed to climb up the tree and across the wire and chew a hole in my food bag. After eating 1/2 of a granola bar it moved on to bigger better things but it amused me that in our effort to bear proof our campsite, we often forget about cunning animals like ravens and squirrels who are just as opportunistic, if not more so, than bears. I made coffee and pancakes for the gang as they started to walk out of the tent, one at a time. Noah was the first to come out. He came and hugged me and pleasantly greeted me good morning. He is a really sweet kid for the first 15 minutes of the day. I try to take advantage of it when I can, knowing he will turn into a devil as the day progresses. Eventually, Jessica and Sam joined us and we sat, in a circle, on stumps and rocks, talking about our plans for the day.
The Sunrise. Photobombed by the garbage bag. 

As chance would have it, we got full cell phone reception at this campsite so we had the luxury of being able to check the weather via smartphone. They were calling for 100% chance of rain and storms overnight and into the next day. Our next campsite was 6 miles away, and at an elevation of almost 5000 feet. So, based on the weather report, our best case scenario was we get rained on a lot. Our worst case scenario was we experience unpredictable Smoky Mountain weather at an elevation with high exposure to lightning. After talking it over, we decided it was time to cut the trip short. We would just take our time and hike back 5 miles to the car.

We got camp packed up and let the kids play around for a little longer before heading back on the trail. We got to the tricky creek crossing and, again, helped each other across. This time Jessica and I both wound up with a submerged foot. We wear waterproof hiking shoes but, when you step in ankle deep water, all bets are off.
They say kids don't spend enough time in nature these days. I like to think these kids are the exception. One day they will join the effort to preserve our parks and forests. 

We came to a wide spot in the trail and Jessica pointed out some animal scat.

"Look boys," She said, "It's pretty fresh too. I wonder what animal it came from."

"Bear." I said

We went back and forth trying to determine who made this pile of poop. It was about the size of turd that a German Shepherd would leave so we narrowed it down to coyote or small bear, since the Smokies don't have wolves or big cats it made it easy to narrow down.

As the sun continued to rise over the valley, Sam was feeling energetic and leading us down the trail. He remained a good 20 paces in front of me and, at times, I was jogging to keep pace with him. Suddenly, we rounded a corner and I stopped dead in my tracks and shouted to Sammy.


He stopped and stared at the bear just in front of him on the trail. I grabbed his shoulders and we began executing the steps for handling a bear encounter. We backed away slowly and spoke softly to it.

"Easy bear." I said. My heart was pounding as all of the worst-case-scenarios of a backcountry animal encounter rushed through my head.

I don't think it mattered at this point because the combination of running child and shouting father had already scared him along. He was a large bear cub, probably a yearling, weighing about 50-100 lbs. He headed up the hill at the end of the trail, stopping every so often to see where we were. The four of us remained still waiting for him to fully retreat. The issue with encountering a bear cub is there is ALWAYS a protective mama bear nearby keeping a close eye on things. So, we didn't kid ourselves, we knew that as we watched this cub head up the hill, there was a much larger bear watching us somewhere.
We almost forgot to take a pic. You see the bear in there? 

When the bear was out of sight we passed by quickly and cautiously in a tight group. After hiking on for a few minutes we were all appreciating how awesome the whole thing was. Seeing a bear while on the trail is EXTREMELY rare. The bears out in the backcountry still have a fear of humans so they are VERY good at staying out of sight. Just as I was explaining this all to the boys Jessica shouted out from the front of the group,

"Well, looks like daddy owes me a bear statue!"

A deal is a deal I suppose. I would make that same offer again if I knew it was going to produce another bear sighting.
Nature is really awesome sometimes

We got to the end of the trail and did our usual routine of high fives, end of trail snack and calculating our mileage. This trip was an even 10 miles, there and back, which matches the boys longest hike ever and is their longest backpacking trip ever. As I was sitting at the end of the trail thinking about how much I needed a shower and some greasy food I also felt a much needed cleansing of my soul. It doesn't matter who you are, when you go into the woods for a night, it is maintenance for the mind. And, as I have stated many times before, it is the foundation of our family.

While sitting at the trailhead after the hike down I noticed this sign that I hadn't seen on the way in. I am kinda glad I missed it.