(pictured above, left to right—Jon Miller, Gary Miller, Jeff Pearlman)
I’ve always fancied myself a rugged outdoorsman—even though I’m not.
This was a lesson reinforced to me early on. Growing up on the mean, gang-infested streets of Mahopac, N.Y., my neighbor and best friend happened to be Gary Miller, whose family arrived in 1978, when we were both 6. Gary and I shared myriad similarities—height, weight, love of KISS, fascination with vomiting snakes. I was probably a little faster than Gary, and Gary was probably a little stronger than me. We spent our boyhoods blissfully playing night tag in our adjacent back-yards, sledding down Emerald Lane on cold winter days, climbing trees and tossing footballs and having sleepovers and selling lemonade and taking in such cinematic classics as The Golden Child and Police Academy III. If someone asks me about my boyhood, I can’t go 10 minutes without thinking of Gary, his parents and his two brothers, Rich and Jon.
Every summer, however, just when I thought I was Gary’s equal, he and his family would go off on some exotic camping trip. In my head, I pictured Gary chopping down trees with an axe, catching enormous fish with his bare hands, starting fires with rocks and gnawing on large slabs of homemade beef jerky. Meanwhile, I’d be attending the YMHA Day Camp, playing, ahem, kickball.
In short, I was no match. Gary was The Man, and I was, well, a wuss.
I digress. Earlier this year Gary and I both turned 40. We decided to take a trip, and after suggesting a few stale ideas (Vegas, blah, blah, blah), I chucked out “How about hiking a mountain?”
Gary was in. As was Jon, who turns 37 next month. I liked the idea, in the same sorta way I liked New Kids on the Block getting back together. Seems interesting, smells wise, but, well, ahem, uh … then we’re stuck listening to this crap.
Anyhow, after a marginal amount of planning, we settled upon scaling Mount Marcy, a Lake Placid-based mountain and, at 5,244 feet, the highest peak in New York State.
I have never climbed a mountain. Not a real mountain, at least. I’ve long bragged of scaling Mt. Washington, but I realize, in hindsight, there’s no fucking way. Mt. Washington is more than 6,000 feet, and I was, like, 12 when I went with my dad, brother, uncle and cousin. I recall reaching the peak, but my guess now is that we parked a mile or so away and walked up a paved path. That can’t count.
Anyhow, this past weekend Gary flew in from North Carolina and Jon drove up from Philly. We arrived in Lake Placid Friday night, and Jon—an experienced hiker/outdoorsman—urged us to set the alarm for 4 am.
“I was kind of hoping to get some breakfast first,” Gary said. I nodded in agreement.
“We really need to start early,” Jon replied. “To beat the crowds, to beat the bugs …”
And so it was written …
The alarm went off at 4 am. I was awake. I had been awake—all friggin’ night. I kept thinking about getting attacked by a bear. In my head, I was walking along, when a big black bear charged my way. I wasn’t sure what to do—do I run, do I stand perfectly still, do I scream back and wildly wave my arms? Either way, the bear claws of face, eats my eyeballs and leaves my remains for the mosquitoes. It doesn’t go well.
We left the hotel at 5 am. Jon had warned about weather and “the elements,” so I wore a jacket, three long-sleeve shirts, jeans, socks and my brand-new, four-days-old hiking boots. Of all my attire, the boots were the greatest point of contention. Initially, I was going to ignore Jon’s list and just got with sneakers. Even the wife, usually cautious in these matters, said, “I’d just wear sneakers.” Then I thought about it. And thought about it. I’d never seen hikers wearing sneakers. Hmmm … I hit up the local outdoorsman store, hoping to pay, oh $50 for a pair. Instead, I forked over (dear God) $160. Ouch.
I digress. We arrived at the base of Mt. Marcy in the dark. The first sign that greeted us was this:
I thought back to my clawed-off face and shuddered. However, I tried to keep this inside. I’m an outdoorsman, dammit. Tough. Strong. Bears? Fuck bears. I’ll eat a bear for lunch! We began the hike. Gradually, I forgot about the animals, and became dazzled by the surroundings. Pure silence, save for the crunching of leaves and the blissful hum of a running stream. The air was crisp, but not too crisp. My backpack—the same one I use for all my book material—was loaded with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and granola bars and a (leaking) canteen filled with water. It was heavy, but I didn’t notice. We walked and walked and walked, higher and higher and higher. My thighs began to tighten, but I didn’t care. My calves ached, but I didn’t care. We had to hop across a wide stream, rock to rock to rock (reminded us of Frogger). About halfway up, the trail became covered with snow. Thick snow. It was surprising, and uncomfortable—but also neat. Every so often my foot would drop into a deep snow hole, then pop back up.
We would stop every so often for food, or a piss break, or just to take in the surroundings. It was pure, 100 percent joy—yet tinged with a bit of sadness. A. I wished my wife and kids could see what I was seeing; B. Why hadn’t I been doing this for years? Why the long wait?
By the time we reached the peak, I was as happy as I’ve ever been. The view was breathtaking, but—truth be told—it wasn’t about the view. It was about reaching the top. It was about sharing something cool with my childhood buds; it was about being away from a laptop; away from Starbucks and CVS and Netflix and whatnot. My feet burned and my pant bottoms were coated in mud and I smelled like old sweat. Yet I was standing atop the world, giddy.
Now, as I sit here in Starbucks, once again typing, once again sipping from a cup of coffee, I long for the outdoors. The three of us have committed to climbing another mountain in 2013. And while I often bemoan the passage of time, I must admit …
I wish 2013 were today.