Never Going Back

At least I'll never have to do that again, he lied.

If we couldn’t forget the experience of suffering, I don’t think anyone would climb a mountain more than once. Every time I climb a mountain there comes at least one moment where I wish I were doing literally anything else. It’s usually a lot more than one moment—on the way up my internal monologue is often more like:

this sucks I hate this why am I doing this to myself whose stupid-ass idea was it to climb this mountain there isn’t even anything up there I just have to go back down who made this idiotic trail have you ever heard of switchbacks noooo I’m Mr. Tough Guy Maine Trail Builder I just go straight up the steepest part probably wearing flannel and carrying an axe dumb Paul Bunyan ass trail builders ten more minutes and then I stop for a snack no matter what…

But then at some point, the climb ends. Mountains do have that going for them: there’s a clear point where you run out of up and the climbing is over. Descending is also hard but never in quite the same existentially crushing way. Most often on a descent what I’m thinking is some version of “at least I’ll never have to do that again!” This is never true. I’m definitely going to do that again, because when the suffering ends I learn that there is an end to it. Somehow that makes the suffering retroactively bearable. Somehow it makes me forget.

Maybe you don’t climb mountains. How about this instead: if we couldn’t forget the experience of suffering, I don’t think anyone would have more than one child. Mica was our first baby, and we had a whole crunchy-granola birth planned out for him, attended by a midwife at an organic Victorian birthing house in Portland. No drugs would be needed, and no doctors. Birth is a natural part of life, the body knows what to do. The other parents are already roasting my ass in the chat, I know. I know.

It turned out Mica was breech, which the midwife failed to notice while my wife labored and then the labor stalled. We did at least have a nice nap in the birthing house. But in the sudden confusing morning light, there was meconium present. What’s meconium? Baby poop in the womb. It can be aspirated. Why didn’t I know about any of this before now? What does it mean? It means a trip up the road to the hospital and an emergency C-section. Time to go. I stood in a gown in the wait-here room while they took Christina away to get her giant spinal needles, needles apparently so large and horrifying I would immediately collapse and vomit all over the anesthesiologist at the first sight of them. No Dads allowed until after the spinal block. It took a long time. My hands were cold.

Finally they brought me in to surgery and sat me on a rolling chair between my wife and the suction canister, already swirling with gore vacuumed from the incision, all that care for my purported body-horror sensitivities now forgotten. I held her hand, which she couldn’t feel because they gave her too much anesthesia. The gore canister gurgled and another wash of blood sprayed around the inside. There was a green curtain propped up just below her chest, shielding our end of the bed from the demolition site below. I looked around at the doctors and assistants. Everyone was very busy, no one was paying any attention to me. I wonder if I’m allowed to look, I thought. I might not get another chance to see this. Cautiously I stood up, and no one stopped me.

What was happening on the other side of the curtain didn’t immediately register as having anything to do with my beloved human wife’s normal human body. It looked like someone had dropped a very fresh ribeye steak in a laundry hamper, and a bunch of doctors were trying to get it out. Much later I told her that I’d seen the inside of her abdomen, and she asked what it looked like. All I could come up with was: “well-marbled?” I meant that in a very positive way, but she didn’t love it.

Staring at my wife’s meat while a stranger rummaged around inside it for our firstborn, I understood that birth and death aren’t opposites, they’re twins who always arrive together and sometimes death wants to stick around. I won’t ever know what it feels like to be on the birthing bed, or on that operating table, but my experience of that birth was the understanding that it was a coin toss, and I was about to gain a world or lose one.

And to be clear: this was a routine modern hospital caesarean birth. There were no complications, Mica was fine, my wife was up and walking around the next day, it was truly the best possible outcome. And it was also the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced. What kind of maniac would voluntarily do that more than once? “At least I’ll never have to do that again,” I thought, carrying Mica out of the hospital strapped into his car seat. But I knew it wasn’t true. We did it two more times.

You forget. You also forget the first year, the diapers, the bottles, the sleeplessness, all the infant stuff that everyone jokes about because when you’re going through it, it feels like an endless climb up a mountain with no summit. But it does end, or at least it changes enough that at some point you can look back and see the whole climb below, and see that it was worth it.

The first section of the Appalachian Trail south of Baxter State Park in Maine runs for about a hundred miles between the little campground store at Abol Bridge and the town of Monson. It’s the longest stretch of the whole trail that doesn’t cross a paved road or pass any resupply point. It’s called the Hundred Mile Wilderness, although if you live in Maine you know there’s no real wilderness here. The section is criss-crossed by logging roads and passes through the busy Katahdin Ironworks and Jo-Mary Road recreation area. There’s a beach in there that locals drive to with full tailgate barbeque setups, on a hot summer day. But it’s still a long way to hike.

I know this because I hiked it in July of 2020 (A Pretty Weird Time™) and it was a hard hundred miles. The trail is nothing but rocks and roots—imagine putting on a pair of trail runners and then hitting the bottoms of your feet with a ball peen hammer for eight to ten hours every day for a week or so. If you do it southbound, the first half is wet and buggy but pretty flat. Then you climb Whitecap (not to be confused with Sunday River Whitecap or the other Whitecap), and then you come to the Chairbacks.

The Chairbacks are a string of four peaks that don’t look like much on a topo map, but that was the hardest fifteen miles of hiking I’ve ever done. At Cloud Pond I was so exhausted I couldn’t eat dinner, and that night I started shivering so hard I was afraid I had somehow caught Covid. I forced myself to make a cup of hot chocolate and drink it in tiny sips until the shakes subsided and I started to feel some energy returning. The next day one of the through-hikers I was traveling with said he heard me making a hot drink and thought “Man, that guy really knows how to live!” I could only laugh. That hot chocolate was the last idea I had short of “hit the SOS button on my rescue beacon and hope for the best.”

My truck was parked at the trailhead in Monson, and that night at Cloud Pond ended up being my last on trail that trip. The next day my new friends and I covered the sixteen miles to Leeman Brook, where they were stopping. I wanted to get to my truck where I had a comfy mattress and real food, so I begged a few electrolyte drink mix packets and headed off to do the last three miles to the road in the dusk. By this point the skin had been sloughing off the bottoms of my feet for two days, and I was on a rigid schedule of three Advil every four hours just to keep the pain down enough to walk on them. I also didn’t look closely at the drink mix packets, so I didn’t realize until the next day that they were caffeinated. I chugged three of them in two miles. Oops.

But that evening, blasting along alone through the pines at hyper-speed, high on Advil and caffeine and the promise of a big pot of spaghetti ahead, I found myself thinking about Mica, who had just come out to us as trans a few months earlier. I could already see how much more comfortable he was now that he didn’t have the burden of pretending to be something he’s not. All I could think about was how proud I am of him for having the courage to be who he is, even when it’s hard. I thought about how much I wished he was there with me so I could tell him that. Did I cry? I was alone, so who can say.

I got to my truck and peeled off my last pair of bloody socks and the filthy layer of leukotape holding my feet together. I re-bandaged them the best I could, and made a pot of spaghetti in the cloud of gnats attracted by my headlamp. I went to sleep thinking “at least I’ll never have to do that again.” But even then I knew I probably would.

In a couple more weeks I will, but this time Mica will be there with me. I can’t wait.

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