Thursday, August 31, 2006

Day 11

Day 11 was the final day of fiction workshop. It was my turn to be workshopped, and going last was a new experience for me. The last two years I was the first to be critiqued. As "Akers" I am often expected to go first. In grade school, I would be the first to answer "here" in morning roll call (in High School Lisa Agee beat me out), the first to do whatever painful thing the gym teacher would make us do, the first to have to see the nurse for the scoliosis test, the first to get my report card...always first.

But I'm all about equal opportunity, even when it comes to firstness, so I was happy to go last this time. The personal advantage for me, meant that on the last day when I was exhausted and my brain was mush, I'd only have to read and comment on one story since the other one was mine.

I've also thought a lot about the workshop experience--the dynamic, if you will, and I realized that it changes over time. The advantage to going first is that everyone is fresh and gives your work a really careful read. The disadvantage is that they are often still tentative in their comments. The dynamic of going last is reversed: everyone is really comfortable with one another, but they're often worn out by story number ten. I have to say, though, that my group was really coherent and generous right to the end. I got some great comments, compliments, and suggestions. It's the best workshop group I've attended at Bread Loaf.

At the end of the workshop, we presented a bottle of wine to Ursula and a card that we had all signed (the day before, at the Gala Reception and also that morning, furtively, for those who hadn't been at the reception). She lifted the bottle out of its wrappings and said, "Oh, Chardonnay, my favorite! How did you know?" I smiled and said, "I've been serving you all week." It was a funny moment.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the day before, at the Gala Reception, Ursula had told me that she wanted to nominate my story for Best New American Voices, which was a wonderful surprise. Of course, Bread Loaf can only nominate two (total) from the conference and each workshop leader nominates two, so I may not even get past that first cut, but it's still nice to be asked to the dance. I was allowed to revise the story, based on the workshop comments, but since that was on the last day, I had less than twelve hours to do so, along with the final barn dance to set up, a reading to attend, my husband to not ignore, and bottle club to work, nine to midnight.

So. I ate lunch, helped set up the barn (the poets--who weren't workshopping--had already done most of the setup), squeezed in a few minutes of revision before the afternoon reading. Jason Schneiderman was reading, and I did not want to miss him. He was my head waiter the year I waited tables and I just adore him as well as his very funny and poignant poetry.

Dinner was the special, final sit-down dinner with wine and tablecloths and everything fancy. I had hoped to sit with Laila and her husband and daughter, but lost my nerve when I saw they were sitting at the head table--just didn't feel like I had earned that spot yet. I know, I know, chicken me. I should have. I ate the rest of my dinner feeling bad about my decision. But the staff table was nice, too, to be with my hard working costaffers one last time, Michael did his thank-yous and the prime rib was good. (Unfortunately I had requested the ravioli which was "squash" ravioli, but it was sweetened and nutmegged and tasted exactly like pumpkin pie. Just didn't work for me. I can still work up a shudder, just thinking about it. And I'm not a picky eater.) Fortunately Len shared his prime rib. (Sounds sort of Biblical, doesn't it?) And the dessert made up for everything: a fabulous, dark chocolate mousse that was to die for. I should have asked for two.

I worked on story edits during the final reading. I did want to attend. It was David Baker and Sigrid Nunez, and I heard it was wonderful, but I really wanted to make the most of the opportunity that Ursula had generously given me, so I revised. At 8:30 I had to set up Treman for Bottle Club, which means setting out cheese and crackers and opening the liquor cabinet, lighting candles, setting out mixers and generally tidying up. Len made a fire in the fireplace (it was very cool out) and it all looked very cozy.

After Treman was set, I went up to the dance to serve beer and wine and boogie. The staff may not get to dance on the dance floor much, but we dance behind the serving tables, and it's a nice big area, so we'd boogie, pour, boogie, pour, boogie. The DJ was excellent--lots of hip-hop, good sound system, no silences between songs--and the crowd was having fun. By 1:30 a.m. we were cleaned up, by 2:00 a.m. I was back at my computer, propping my eyelids open with sticks to get my final edits done. I usually don't have much luck with eleventh-hour edits, but the excellent and specific comments from my workshop group helped me to target the problem areas. I may not have done as thorough a job as I would have liked (toothpaste in the nail holes, rather than spackle) but I'm pleased enough with the results, and happy to be done.

I still had to print it out and turn it in to the office, but that could wait until morning. My pillow and my patient husband were calling.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Day 10

Bread Loaf, Day 10 began with a lecture by Mark Doty (and if you don't already know how I feel about the man and his work, you haven't been paying attention). I was definitely there, and was not disappointed. (Damn! Where are my notes?????) I'll have to get back to you on recapping the lecture, but suffice it to say, it blew the top of my head off. It was about Whitman and his struggles with form, popularity and ego in his lifetime. It really struck a chord with me. I need to read more Whitman.

After the lecture the fiction staff members started setup for the Gala Reception to be held later in the day, while the poetry staffers workshopped. We had to re-establish the alcohol perimeter (complete with its eight-foot moat--good old Vermont!) that we had taken down for the book signing that ended up being in the barn anyway due to rain. We set up the tables and generally organzied things as well. At noon, I hurried through my lunch and raced off in my vehicle to Port Henry, New York where my husband was to be arriving by train. Yay! Except the train was an hour late, taking us almost up to the reception by the time we got back. Fortunately, my awesome fellow-staffers had finished set-up (minus the alcohol, which can't be left unattended--VT state law) so I was able to attend readings by Eric Puchner (very funny) and Ursula Hegi (excellent, as always). Ursula read from her latest novel, the maunuscript of which she had just turned in to her editor before coming to Bread Loaf.

The Gala Reception went off without a hitch--good food, plenty of drinks, people really at ease with each other by this point in the conference, and the traditional Gala Reception hayride. If you've not been on this hayride, you've not lived. Or, rather, you've not almost nearly died. One of the BL caretakers, Leo, runs the tractor and he starts out calmly chugging through the fields across from the inn. It's idyllic, really. Until Leo kicks his tractor into high gear and shoots forward, dragging the wagon down into steep gullies and up the other side, producing a strange marriage of the roughest wooden roller coaster you've ever been on, and a screaming, giggling roll in the hay. It's really quite the experience.

That evening's reading was fantastic: Thomas Sayers Ellis' bold, funny, innovative poetry delivered in a sing-song slam style complete with gestures to depict his punctuation followed by a great reading by Robert Boswell that was also very funny, and read with perfect comedic timing despite his obviously sore throat.

Day 9

Well, I'm actually back home, recovering, but I'm going to keep my promise and recap each and every day on the mountain.

Day 9 at Bread Loaf was a staff day off. (Yay. This is the first year they've done this and it was very welcome.) Most of us did laundry, slept late, and engaged in other college-dorm-like activities. I had workshop at ten and had a bit more reading/commenting to do beforehand, so I didn't sleep in. Workshop took us to lunchtime where we were having mac and cheese! Oh, the joys of comfort food. They could serve that every day (instead of the endless chicken) and I'd be happy.

I was sitting at lunch with Ru (another staffer) quietly enjoying my comfort food and anticipating an after-lunch meeting with Dorian Karchmar an agent at William Morris, when I got the rushed message, "Stop eating! We're kidnapping Michael (meaning Michael Collier, the director) and taking him to lunch." But the mac and cheese was so good, and I'm not real great at switching gears mid-bite, so I finished my food, found Dorian to reschedule, and met them outside. Lunch was at a lovely restaurant in Rochester (VT) and even though I was full I indulged in a marvelous coffee milkshake from their soda fountain. There was a nearby used-and-new book store, too, and I found three books I couldn't pass up: a book of Ruth Gordon's poetry, a Peter Matthiessen non-fiction and a paperback fantasy for my son.

Mid-afternoon I caught back up with Dorian and had a nice discussion about publishing and establishing the writer's long-term career. One nugget: She said that the prevailing first-book wisdom is changing. In a two-book deal, it was often the short story collection that was published first, but the thinking now is that it's better to have the novel published first, establish a readership, then come out with the collection. Luckily, I have both, just ready to go (well, very nearly ready). :)

For dinner, the staff and waiters converged (courtesy of several caravans) at Ian Pounds fabulous, hand-built house for pizza, music and dancing. I left early to go to a party at the Gilmore Guys' house where they had a great bonfire, drinks, and music. I desperately wanted to stay, but wanted sleep more, and so I left and hit the sack by midnight. Boring, I know, but when I wring the most out of every second of the day, I have very little left for the night. I'll have to work on that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Day 8 Continued

After Randall Keenan's craft class (which was fun and useful) I had big dreams of a quick nap, but it was time to head to Treman to set up for our Harley-themed night. We put up posters of motorcycles, made a bar sign for the front door--"The Exhaust Pipe"--turned out the lights and used red, green and blue lights clipped to the bar. We had whiskey sours on the menu (a special drink for the special night) which were very good, by the way. I'd never had one before, but mine hit the spot.

The most fun for me was being the tattoo maven. We had a big selection of temporary tattoos and we offered them to all who attended. It was great fun seeing who picked what to adorn their body and then applying it for them. As one young woman said, "This is the most physical contact I've had all week." I've decided if this whole writing gig doesn't work out I'm going to open a temporary tattoo parlor and make people happy without the commitment or the pain. After all, how many people can claim to have given Mark Doty and Michael Collier tattoos?

(I think I need to write a story about a tattoo artist...there was definitely something powerful about adorning another human body, even if it was temporary adornment. Imagine what it must be like to permanently mark people every single day. To send them out of your shop knowing they'll be wearing your art every day until they die. Now that's commitment. Unless of course you're Cher.)

Another great thing about Harley night was looking out into the crowd and seeing Merrill Feitell and Chris Castellani, and having Merrill tell me she's been reading my blog (Hi Merrill!). Merrill and Chris were both waiters and fellows at Bread Loaf and it was wonderful to see them back on the mountain. They are both fantastic writers, too, so check out their books. Plus, I hear they kicked some serious butt at Bread Loaf poker.

After Harley Nite, we went to dinner, still in our full Harley regalia, and got a great welcome from the waiters when we strutted in. After dinner I made a quick wardrobe change because my dear friend Laila was reading with Carl Phillips, and much as I loved my Harley costume, it didn't belong in the reading hall. Laila read from the beginning of her new novel and it was marvelous, plus she looked absolutely radiant at the microphone. I know it's superficial, but it really does make the reading even more pleasant when the reader is beautiful...and even that word is misleading, because I don't mean the traditional trumped-up-movie-star beautiful, but the beauty of an artist, sharing her/his work and's an aura, an attraction that makes you want to know that person, that makes you wish you had equal talent...the rock star quality. Am I making sense?

After the reading, I had my turn at Barn Pub, which is basically just standing watch at the barn and making sure no one leaves with alcohol or brings in their own. Easy enough. I sat with Isaac (fellow social staffer) and read the next day's workshop stories. The shift ended at 12:30 and so did my day. I had told myself I would party more after hours this year, but I just couldn't. I need my sleep in order to be coherant in workshops and also to keep from getting sick. Maybe if I come back as a scholar someday (read: No responsibilities) I'll party then.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Day 8

The day began with a lecture by Mac McIlvoy titled "Somatic Wisdom." He's one of my new writing heros now that I have heard him read and lecture. (Note to self: next step, buy his books.)

Mac started his lecture by referencing Virginia W. (I'm abreviating because it's nearing the end of the conference and damned if I can remember how to spell Woolf, Wolff, Wolfe, Woolfe...) who bemoaned the fact that she often felt as if there were a layer of cotton between her and the world. Meaning that often we have to focus in order to remember to feel. We can be divorced from our surroundings, tuning out sensory experiences until the world around us becomes just so much moving wallpaper.

This is not a problem I have. I am entirely tuned in, sometimes to the point of it being painful--a sensory overload. My sister had a brain injury a few years ago and the term "flooding" entered my vocabulary, but I had always experienced the sensation, without any injury that I knew of, and wihout any words to name it. In case you aren't familiar with the term, flooding is when the brain has become so full of sensation that it begins to swamp, and everything becomes overwhelming.

In the West (moving back to Mac's lecture) we are moving farther and farther from feeling. We test our children without remembering that feeling the world is just as important. Neither do we teach them (or remember ourselves) to get worked up about language. He read a lot from Anais Nin and referenced her work as very emotional, very feeling-based, sensation-based. "I only believe in fire," she says. (You would have loved this lecture, Linera--if you're reading--I'm getting a copy to send to you.)

He told us to think about children, about how engaged they are in their world. "For example," he asked, "how many of you have reached down to pick up an object off the floor of the little theatre...and put it in your mouth or nose?" Children are all about sensation. We can learn from them. He believes that our first gift is physical aliveness, after that comes intellectual study/awareness.

He proposed we use the word "prehension" to describe the act of being without words, feeling that there is something opposed to "comprehension," a word we all respect and use. (I will be writing more about this next week, because the topic is huge and very somatically important to me.)

We made a quick trip to town to prepare for Harley night, then I attended Randall Keenan's craft class which was wonderful. The class explored what Greek myths and the tabloids have in common and he urged us to write a tabloid headline for one or more of our stories. He also gave us a handout using some famous examples. See how many you can guess:

**Answers below.

1)Mysterious millionaire found dead by pool. Cops suspect filling station owner nad possible mistaken identity.

2)Mad captain destroys self and ship in pursuit of murderous white whale.

3)Old woman emotionally misused by drifter.

4)Neglected wife and chemo patient finds momentary solace in the arms of a dim-witted teen on a moonlit bridge.

5)Woman haunted by owl.

6)Entire family slain by escaped convict while on vacation in Florida.

7)Old woman braves wilderness and elements to retrieve medicin for her sick grandson.

8)American couple in Spain argues publicly about abortion.

9)Kansas girl vanishes! Returns with tale of three gay men, a vicious fag hag, flying monkeys and a wizard with S.A.D.

10)Louisiana Governor assassinated on Capital steps. Conspiracy feared.

11) Rich old farmer gives away all land before death. Children throw him out.

I need to run to my workshop--I'm going up today--but will finish the day's recap afterward. Thanks for reading.

1)The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
2)Moby Dick, Herman Melville
3)The Chrysanthemum, John Steinbeck
4)Floating Bridge, Alice Munro
5)The Owl, Elizabeth Spencer
6)A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor
7)A Worn Path, Eudora Welty
8)Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway
9)The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
10)All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
11)A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Day 7

Okay, so Tuesday turned out to be my BL day from hell. Not any fault of the conference, mind you, but a fault of personal scheduling, and the inescapable syndrome of FMS: Fear of Missing Something.

I had workshop comments to finish after breakfast, then workshop, then lunch with my workshop, which I had to leave early because I had a meeting with the editor of Orion Magazine, a periodical that I just adore for its emotional take on environmental and social issues. It is also gorgeously put together. our meeting was productive, and he said they are taking fiction again, which is good. (I haven't seen any in the magazine for two years, but always thought they would do well by a story, so I'm glad to know they are accepting again.)

From there, I went to a craft class taught by Laila Lalami, which was very interesting and informative. She had a handout of excerpts from different authors who write in English but whose characters do not speak English, or for whom English is a second language. There was a wonderful discussion of the politics of using italics to set off "foreign" words, which of course then makes the assumption that anything other than English is foreign, much in the way we always start out reading with the assumption that a character is white and American. She said that certain words are often not translated and/or nontranslatable. The list included: endearments, insults, explatives, idioms, food, greetings, place names, metaphors, proverbs, and an especially fascinating one: animal sounds. In the US, the rooster says cock-a-doodle-doo, in other languages, the "translation" is quite different--"kree, kree" for example.

After Laila's class, I really wanted to hear Emily Raboteau's reading, but unfortunately the weather decided to turn foul. Since we had a major outdoor reception half set up, things got hairy, really quickly. Eleventh hour decision--move to the barn. So we schlepped everything through the rain, against impossible odds (dramatic writing) and re-set everything up. It was a book signing and turned out wonderful, once the staff all caught their breath and calmed down. But then there were two places to break down afterward. When the crowd finally left, the staff sat around and had quick bloody Marys and laughed with giddy exhaustion.

Then we went to dinner and a combination of things came together to send me over the emotional edge. (I feel compelled to mention that I'm not prone to going over the edge, but the combination of academics, physical exhaustion and social overload lead most Bread Loaf waiters and/or staffers to have one day when everything comes crashing down. It's most often intense, but short lived. As I had to give my reading in a mere two hours from my moment of breakdown, I could not afford to be the exception.) Here's how it built: By a purely clerical oversight, my picture was not included on the bulletin board with the other staff photos. I mentioned it to a few people, but we're all busy and that really is a small thing. No worries. But as we sat down to dinner, the head waiter named the staff that would be reading. Everyone was listed, except for yours truly. Oops. Another clerical error. Nothing personal. So I rush to the podium to tell the announcer my name wasn't read, so that he can amend his announcement. "Oh, he said, checking his notes, it wasn't my fault. You aren't on the list." He doesn't return to the microphone.

My God, I start thinking, maybe I don't exist. Am I really here at all? So, barely containing my rising panic about the actual state of my existence, I return to my seat at the dining table, where my plate of food was waiting for me. I think, you're just tired, Mare. Tired and hungry. And I talk down the panic. Then, as I approach the table, I see that someone is sitting in my seat, eating my food. I kid you not.

What can I conclude, but that I am in fact invisible? Mary Akers, The Invisible Woman.

Of course, I wasn't, but the cry I had over it was very cleansing and actually helped to give me some attitude for my reading, which was very successful. I chose humor to read, since everyone here is desperate to laugh, and was rewarded in my choice. The audience was great, very encouraging, supportive, and enthusiastic and the day ended on a high note, thankfully.

Oh, and my picture is now on the board.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Day 6

Day six is actually the day that the entire Bread Loaf campus takes off. Well, more or less. There's still food to be prepared, rooms to be cleaned, people to be directed. "Off" applies mostly to the readings and workshops, but it really is a welcome chance to take a collective breath and catch up on laundry, or reading, or calling home, or any of the other things that hover just beyond our consciousness waiting to be addressed.

The morning was devoted to the Writer's Cramp race: 2.8 miles marked off around the campus. This always takes place the morning after the barn dance--a clever ploy of scheduling that limits the race to only the very hardiest of runners.

The day dawned drizzly and cool, but cleared just in time for the picnic at Robert Frost's farm. I didn't make it to the picnic, but heard good things about it. The staff went to town, ate lunch at A&W, a drive-up hamburger joint with root beer floats that is a local fixture. Then we went to Ben Franklin and bought props for the Harley Night at Treman cocktails.

Oni Buchanan gave a kick-ass visual poetry reading, a portion of which can be found on-line, followed by simliarly kick-ass readings by Katharine Noel and Cheryl Strayed. (Pronounce my name like a sentence, she said: Cheryl strayed.) I would also just like to mention that Cheryl and Katharine both brought their beautiful baby daughters with them. Every year I have attended Bread Loaf I have seen evidence that the staff understand that writers have lives beyond the conference and they are very accommodating and progressive in this. Yet another reason to admire the program.

The evening reading was fantastic. Rachel DeWoskin read from her very funny memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (I hope I've got the title right). Then the ending gave me such a visceral reaction that I cried out before I even realized I had. It was so well set up. Following Rachel, Mark Doty read. I am a huge fan. He has been here all week and is so open and friendly and accessible. His partner is with him as well, and all I can say about that is that two finer specimens of male pulchritude would be hard to find. Then he read and wowed us even more. I'm sorry I didn't get the titles (planning to buy the book...), but there was a wonderful poem about being the only one in his group to hear the call of a bat and taking it as a personal message from the cosmos. He read The House of Beauty is Burning which left me breathless and burning, and a wonderful poem about dogs, retrievers, and Thanksgiving. There was a wonderful section of nonfiction, too. He talked about spirituality and the need to access your own. The Kingdom of heaven is within you, he said, and repeated. But the "you" can be deceiving. He said he prefers to think of it as the collective you. In English, he said, we struggle with this notion of a plural "you" and various regions of the country have dealt with this by employing various plural forms such as youse, y'all, you guys, etc. But it just doesn't sound as good when you try to insert it: The Kingdom of Heaven is within _____.

A waiter reading followed and this year's "crop" revealed themselves to be especially impressive writers.

Bread Loaf really is a magical place. Those of you who have been here before know what I mean. Those of you who haven't...what are you waiting for?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Day 5

The morning lecture was by Josip Novakovich and was titled "Writing in English as a Second Language or The Mot Juste." The most interesting part of the lecture to me was hearing how he had learned English. In school he had to choose between English and Russian, and the Russian class met in the early morning and he wanted to sleep in, so the choice was made for him in that small way. It really made me think about how easily and arbitrarily our lives can be forever altered..."Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."

Josip said that once he began to write in English, he felt that writing without a broad knowledge of the language was actually freeing, and I was taken out of the lecture (again--my mind wanders easily) and reminded of my art school days when some of the best most freeing assignments were actually those that had restrictions. Make a painting smaller than a teacup. Draw with chalk on black paper so that you are only drawing the highlights. Make a pot that is not round, but start out throwing it on the wheel. Often, when we are told what we cannot do, our mind is forced to think in different directions and suddenly soars with thoughts of what can be done within our new parameters. Josip's analogy was a painter with a palette of three colors who can nonetheless combine them and produce wonderful creations. The lesson: Not all limitations are bad. Also: too many choices can be not freeing, but paralyzing.

Another interesting point was that the writer working in English, but as a second language, is not susceptible to cliches, because he or she does not know the English cliche and as a result the descrciptions end up being much fresher. Then Sigrid Nunez spoke up from the front of the lecture hall and said, "Yes, it's like the scene in Lost in Translation when the woman says, "Should I marry him? I asked myself in English: Yes. Should I marry him, I asked myself in Polish: No."

After that I had a lovely meeting with Julie Barer, a really approachable, intelligent agent who has opened her own agency after working at Sanford J. Greenberger. She seems really motivated and energetic and involved with her authors, one of whom is Gina Ochsner. Besides that, she's a lovely person.

Unfortunately, I missed the afternoon readings by Peter Orner and Toi Derricotte, one of the hazards of being on social staff--you simply can't attend everything. We were setting up for the big dance. We hung lights, opened cases after cases of wine, tapped the keg, cleared the dance floor, and even challenged the waiters to a dance off, thereby ensuring more people would attend the dance than might otherwise. Everything was ready. Except the DJ had trouble with the sound system--not good news for a big dance. There was much sweating and moaning and gnashing of teeth, but we did finally get the music going and the wine flowing, and a good time was (ultimately) had by all.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Day 4

Day Four's morning lecture was "Lyric Poetry and the Problem of Time" by David Baker which I had hoped to attend, but I still had workshop comments to complete before we met at 10AM so I skipped.

When our workshop met, we continued the excellent work from the prior meeting. The level of work continued to be quite high and again it was a pleasure to workshop. Ursula gave us an interesting two-part writing exercise which I will share:

Part One: Write about someone who has made you really, really uncomfortable, angry, unsettled or disgusted. Describe how they made you feel, then as you write, slowly make it more about them and less about your reaction to them.

Part Two: Write a scene in which you take your earliest childhood memory and give it to that character you have just described. It will help you to feel more empathy for the character and see him/her as a human being.

Important Twist: If you are woman, write about a man. If you are a man, write about a woman.

She also quoted Faulkner as saying that the act of writing fiction can be described in three parts: 1-Experience, 2-Imagination, and 3-"Where the hell did that come from?" (I really loved this.)

After lunch, I attended a craft workshop on voice, also run by Ursula Hegi. (I can't get enough.) I almost skipped this craft class and attended a different one because--after the morning fiction workshop exercise--I had reason to suspect that it would be more writing exercises and less lecture and after five days on the mountain I was feeling sort of "thinked out." But I had signed up and reserved myself a space and so I decided it wouldn't be fair of me to skip. And, sure enough, it was all exercise. It was valuable, though, if exhausting on a day when I felt as if I were swimming through pea soup. Here was the exercise:

We arranged ourselves into groups of about six or seven writers. Then she told us to all agree on an emotionally charged situation to write about. After much deliberation (seven fiction writers trying to collaborate was like herding cats). We finally settled on the funeral of a young man who had broken his neck diving into too shallow water. (Other groups had an older man coming out at a family Thanksgiving dinner, an older man being sent to a nursing home, and a December-August romance announced to the children of an older gentleman.)

Then, within each group, we were asked to write a short narrative scene from various points of view. If you were a man, your character needed to be a woman and vice versa. And each character had a different point of view from which to tell the story. We used a collective voice (we), a second-person voice (you), a limited third person voice (he, she), an unreliable narrator, the dead person, and I was the funeral director in third person. After the exercise we read them out loud and it was fascinating to hear how the same story sounded from all the different angles.

After dinner, which was not served by the waiters, as they had the night off, there was an amazing reading by Linda Bierds and Randall Keenan. Linda's poetry was amazing and all had a common thread of being told from the voice of various scientists from history, so it made for a very cohesive reading. There were poems either from the voices of, or about: Gregor Mendel, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Watson and Crick, and others. I really enjoyed it.

Then Randall Keenan delivered a fantastic reading / performance from a great short story titled "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" which, in one of those utterly bizarre coincidences of real life that you could never write into fiction and make believable, I had been singing all afternoon. I very rarely sing out loud in public, but I had been serenading the entire social staff prior to the reading, so it was kind of a weird moment when he said his story title and it mirrored the music in my head. But his reading was amazing.

The staff reading was tonight, and it was wonderful, although I freely admit to a particular prejudice. After the reading, we congregated at Treman (the faculty / fellow lounge) and had drinks, built a fire in the fireplace, and sat around talking about literature and life. These are some of my favorite moments at Bread Loaf, but I was hitting the mid-conference wall and so went to bed at about 11PM.

Day 3

Day three officially began with Robert Boswell's lecture "Process and Paradigm." It was really moving. He framed it by using the story of a young, desperate woman he met while on the road, staying in a hotel. It started humorously and ended very thoughtfully and made me reflect on the morals of co-opting other people's lives and desperations to make our stories. Let's face it, we all do it...and do we do it as a way to make the cautionary tale that Bill Kittredge spoke of, or to find understanding, or to simply entertain? What are the moral implications when we use a real person in our fiction? (Mind you, the whole lecture was not about this at all, but it was a powerful message that spoke to me.)

Here are the crib notes:

1-The Writing Process:

-Dress characters in clothes that make them uncomfortable.
-Throw in some instability; create a shifting ground (alcohol, smugness)
-Bring in a catalyst (a young woman who a story persists)
-Give your main character a sense of obligation (the masculine duty to buy her a drink when she offers to first)
-Offer a backward glance or a sideways reflection (often accomplished through the barest associative details)
-Then do whatever it takes to make the story work

2-Paradigm and Paradigm Shift

-A paradigm is the general collective of principles, patterns, suppositions and practices of a particular culture
-A paradigm shift occurs when there is any revolutionary change in a particuar way of thinking. An example would be a religious conversion.

3-How we think when we think about writing fiction

-conflict should not be imposed from outside, but should occur from within
-be mindful of the limitations of your story
-create a social paradigm in which the character participates (the young woman in the bar had lost custody of her kids--mothers are not supposed to lose their children)
-Tolstoy does this in The death of Ivan Ilych when he says, he was an ordinary man and that was terrible to be. (paraphrased) The paradigm stays the same, but Ivan's position in it changes when at the end, he asks, "how should I have lived?" His young son is there at his bedside but Ivan hardly notices--thus his question is answered.

4-Servants of Mercy

-In the Jean Thompson Story "Who Do You Love?" A policeman named Quinn opens the story by saving a possum from his dog. The possum is ugly and ungrateful and Quinn sees it (as do we) as a gratuitous act of mercy. Later in a convenience store there is a hideous man stealing cat food. His name is Gary and he is the son of Bonnie Livingood. Quinn takes them into his patrol car to talk. When Bonnie falls asleep in teh back seat, he lets her sleep--another act of mercy. Later, when Gary dies in a car accident, Quinn responds to the call first and is the last to leave the scene. Then he goes to see Bonnie and ends up having sex with her. Then, at the end of the story, the paradigm shifts when Quinn goes to find Bonnie later and she looks at him with disgust and tells him that she only slept with him because she felt sorry for him. Bang: Quinn's (and our) understanding of the world is changed.

-Peter Taylor's "A Wife of Nashville" offers a similar paradigm shift, involving race and gender in the south.

5-The Wrap Up:

-Take a look at your stories that are not quite working and examine the social paradigm.
-Search for patterns and use them.
-Ask yourself what social customs you accept without even considering them.
-Then, in the final wrap-up, "Boz" socked me in the gut by saying that he had come to understand that he used that young, desperate woman in the bar because of his interest in what her story could give him. Then, he told us, he had used her again, just now...but somehow--in this social paradigm--he thought he could get away with it. (Which of course, made us all instantly complicit as we had listened to the story of this desperate woman, and had laughed and gone along. It was a very powerful ending to the lecture. Let's just say my paradigm shifted.)

Later in the day there was a reading by Gina Franco (poetry) Allison Smith (CNF), and Michael Collier (also poetry). I missed most of Gina's reading, but I heard positive things about it, and what I heard was musical and lovely. Allison's story was a humorously melancholy examination of her childhood relationship to Jesus and how that ended the day her older brother died. And Michael's was excellent (as always). I was grateful to hear two of my favorites read. One about Spelunking and one about his son's mummified pet chameleon discovered behind the clothes dryer years after he went missing.

At lunch Cliff and I realized we had a few hours to kill and so decided to go for a hike. We walked about two-and-a-half miles up bread Loaf Mountain and back. It felt great to be weat and exhausted, but not so great when I had to still work the Treman Cocktail hour, smile, and serve drinks. We had our staff pictures taken, went to dinner, and then attended an excellent reading with Robert Hill (a collection of humorous mostly first-person rants), Barbara Klein Moss (who read from a story about two historical interpresters who blur the lines of the past--in college I worked in Colonial Williamsburg, so that was fascinating to me) and Mac McIlvoy read a very impressionistic, jazz-influenced sort of piece that was delivered in a perfect, smoky, sotto voce.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Day 2

This morning's lecture by William Kittredge was great. Here are a few of the highlights:

He talked about his friend Ray Carver (you may have heard of him) who was a snoop and never failed to "pay attention to the world around him."

"The medium we work in is the reader's imagination."

He said in college he read Eudora Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman" and it stopped him in his tracks. Meaning he didn't get it. He was baffled, so he dropped the class.

He belonged to a jock fraternity where the main activity was punching one another on the shoulder.

Sentimentality doesn't happen in life, just in the retelling. Avoid it.

Don't ignore your impulses, they are your strengths. Use them.

There are two types of stories: Cautionary tales and celebrations.

Get out of the way of the story.

"If you don't write every day, at least pick up your manuscript and carry it around, so as to stay in touch."

Conceptual stories don't make good novels because there are no characters to take over the story.

You have to first know what the question is, then find a false answer, then find the real answer, then explore the consequences.

When a reader finishes your story, you don't want him thinking about the story, you want him thinking about his own life.

Stories are the rafts we build and the maps we lay out on the table. (My personal favorite.)

Always strive for that slight, continuous sense of surprise.

After the lecture we had to return the yucky remains of last night's barn reception to the kitchen, pick up things for the big reception to occur later in the day, organize all of that, race to lunch, hurry to finish workshop comments, and then race to workshops. Mine was with Ursula Hegi. She is amazing and I am so psyched about workshopping this whole week. I am ecstatic to be working with her. My whole group seems to be really astute and articulate, too. Of course by the end of the conference we will all be slightly less astute and articulate.

Unfortunately I missed the Antonya Nelson reading because I was preparing for the reception, but Cliff said her reading was amazing. The big Treman reception passed in a blur, but went very smoothly. Dinner was scrumptious--I've been eating all teh wonderful veggie options. Tonight was a portabello mushroom covered in breadcrumbs and baked with a nice butter sauce over top. I love the food here. Afterward I did get to hear Sally Keith read a long lyric poem and David Shields read a humorous essay from his book about living with back pain.

The waiters are having a party tonight, but I'm skipping to keep my promise and update my blog. Thanks for reading.

Day 1

Day 1 was a blur. My friend Cliff arrived. Lunch was good. Social staff worked and worked and worked and worked. What did we do? Honestly, I can't remember exactly, but I have vague memories of smiling, lifting, carrying, cleaning, organizing, smiling, giving directions, pouring drinks, answering questions, smiling, cutting cheese, building a fire, etc. Exhaustion keeps my brain from working well enough to give details.

I did hear an excellent reading by Percival Everett from his new work in progress that was very moving. And I got to watch it from up in the sound room where the tech guys tape everything, which was awesome. Michael Collier gave his always-charming opening remarks. Unfortunately I had to miss Linda Gregerson's reading because I worked nine to midnight at Treman Cottage, being social, smiling and nodding and answering questions, finding things, and being generally as helpful and accommodating as I know how to be. The job of being a Bread Loaf social staffer uses the three main things exhaust me in my normal life: being social, being intellectual (during workshops), and physical labor. I will be an absolute wet noddle by the end of week two.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Day -1

I'm posting early today because the schedule for today is packed. Last night was our last relaxing evening. A few of us congregated in a nearby building with a great view from the roof and drank wine and talked about life.

Today there's driver training to get licensed by the college--I'm hoping they'll just renew my expired one from last year and I don't have to watch that movie again. Then it's off to town for various supplies. We have a Harley Davidson theme night scheduled, so we have to find appropriate decorations. You know how much writers like to pretend they are tough badasses, so we thought we'd have a night just for that. I'll tell you all about my costume later--don't want to spoil the surprise. But I do love to don a different persona. Last year I went as Madonna for our '80s theme night. Which Madonna you ask? The early, Desperately Seeking Susan Madonna with big hair and leather jacket and lots of jewelry. It was a blast.

Then we have to organize all the liquor and get set up for a cocktail hour for the faculty, then break that down, head to dinner, and then we're giving a keg party for this year's waiters who will also be arriving today. I'll be tired and falling into bed by the time it's all over.

Off to stuff conference packets!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bread Loaf Day -2

I say "minus two" because the real conference doesn't start until Wednesday and today is only Monday. Today we pow-wowed with the new members of social staff and practiced mixing drinks...a wet/dry run if you will. There were plenty of willing volunteers.

Before that we had an "informative" class on the Vermont liquor laws, which if I had to sum up in one word I would call..."insane." But whatever. It's a product of our litigous (Is that the right word, spelled right? Help me out here, Cliff.) society. Basically if a person drinks too much he and anyone he harms can sue anyone in the chain of alcohol delivery for crazy amounts and in all likelihood will win. But the person who actually opens his mouth and pours it down his own greedy gullet is not accountable. Hello? Personal responsibility? I think I must be a closet Libertarian who is still not comfortable using the term, but has begun to suspect...

An amazing surprise today! My sister and her boyfriend came by Bread Loaf. Talk about two worlds colliding! I hadn't even known they were in the area (they were camping nearby) but my other sister got a call from her and passed on my location and they showed up right here! It was marvelous to have her here even if it was only for about an hour (I had to go to work--wah). I didn't have much to offer them, but they did take me up on a quick hot shower (campers like those, you know)...such an amazing addition to my day. It has made me smile at random moments all day.

Tomorrow faculty, fellows and scholars begin to arrive. I can't wait to see several writer friends who'll be coming. I'll be workshopping with Ursula Hegi, too, and I'm really looking forward to that. Oh, and I just found out today (sneaking a peek) that Emily Raboteau will be the scholar in my group. I am so utterly psyched!

I will do my best to post something every day of the conference.

Bread Loaf!

It's so wonderful to be here again! The row of bright sunflowers along the stone wall look especially cheery today. The staff arrived yesterday, trickling in. It's really a special feeling to be here when it's quiet (the conference doesn't start until Wednesday). It's a different place when there are so few of us on campus. But it was wonderful to reconnect (hugs all around!) and be in the presence of writer-friends again.

Today we hit the ground running with training sessions and a huge shipment of food and libations to unload. I am ready to work!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Backpacking: Day 1

On our first day in the woods, we set out, about 8AM, shiny and fresh with full packs and glad hearts. (Okay, you know right now that this isn't going to end well...)

We drove to the parking lot and donned our packs after a quick trip to the outhouse for a luxurious last-minute sit-down pee (well, for me, anyway). Boots, check. Matches, check. Food, check. Bear canister, check. Water filter, check. Rain gear, check. Certainly, we had everything we would need.

At the start of the trail we met a generously white-haired, big-moustached fellow in rubber boots and red suspenders manning a team of white draft horses pulling a hay trailer with seats.

"Want a ride?" the fellow asked. "I'll take you both as far as Camp Santanoni for ten bucks."

"Nah," we said, smiling. "Thanks anyway. We're going to walk."

"How long you going in for?" he asked.

"Three days."

"A ride now'd shave five miles off those three days."

"True, but we want to walk it all."

"Well, I'll take your packs for free, then. Load 'em up in here. No charge."

"Wow, that's very generous, but we really want to walk it, packs and all."

"You sure?"

"Yeah." [foreshadowing alert!] "Part of the experience is to really beat ourselves up. We like that."

Oh, how our words can come back to haunt us.

So...we walked to Camp Santanoni, five miles, no biggie. The camp was amazing. Huge, built all of native wood harvested from the surrounding forest. It was built on Newcomb Lake in the 1800's by a wealthy family as a retreat, and no expense was spared. On the way we passed the Santanoni Farm ruins which had a barn, a creamery, a piggery, a smokehouse, an icehouse, a chicken coop, a turkey run, and lots of cleared land for vegetables. The farm operations stocked the Camp during its heyday. All of these buildings are within the area designated as "Wild Adirondacks" by NY state, and so they are no longer allowed to be privately owned.

But the camp is being restored by the town of Newcomb and it's an amazing job they're doing. It's been placed on the National Historic Register and so will not be torn down. We also got an excellent tour by a young docent who is living there this summer and helping with the restorations. There were plenty of interesting old photographs, too, something Len and I both love.

After the tour, we ate lunch and continued on our way. After consulting with the docent ("wet summer, soggy north trail") we decided to take the south trail around the lake and check out the Fish Rock lean-to there, which had come highly recommended. Upon leaving Camp Santanoni, we would not see another human--nor even footprints--until we staggered out three days later.

If the north trail was soggier than the south trail, it must have been really bad. On the south trail we had to cross beaver dams that had flooded whole sections of the trail...the trail itself was more of a stream with continuously running water...and at one point we crossed a bridge only to be dumped unceremoniously into a marsh. Now what? Well, there was nothing to do but cross it. We took a photograph of the trail--a two foot deep clear line of water surrounded by marsh grass and the very aptly named hobblebush. Even our gaiters were no match for this.

As it would turn out, though, the marsh was actually the easy (clean) part. Not so easy were the long stretches of black mud that sucked you down and threatened to pull your foot out of your boot. As we squelched forward (sschhlock! scchlooop! ssgllickk!) I kept hearing Ross Perot in his nasal twang saying, "That great sucking sound you hear is the sound of jobs leaving North America."

A long, soggy trail does funny things to your head.

But four miles later we were rewarded--Fish Rock lean-to! Ahh. It was everything that had been promised and more. Situated right at a deserted point of Newcomb Lake, with Loons and Cedar Waxwings your only visitors. It was marvelous. We had a lean-to all to ourselves, a fire ring, even a bench that someone had carted (or canoed) all that way, placed right out on the biggest rocks at the water's edge. The night was clear and lovely. We shared a meal of rehydrated Chili Mac and dried fruit. The weather was glorious and warm and we bathed in the lake leaving our clothes on shore. Then, as night fell we watched the stars pop out one-by-one and when the moon set, we lay back and watched the Perseid meteor shower. I saw three shooting stars and Len saw two, so I won (because it is, of course, a contest).

We forgot our soggy socks and dripping boots, our muddy gaiters and sore muscles and all of our responsibilities back home. We reveled in the glory of nature and solitude. It was wonderful.

...Stay tuned for Day 2.

Backpacking: Day 2

Day two dawned bright and lovely. Newcomb Lake was still and flat and the surrounding mountains were so perfectly reflected that had you taken a picture (which we did) it would be impossible to discern which were the real mountains and which the reflected.

We ate our respective breakfasts. Len likes sweet in the morning and so had oatmeal with raisins. I prefer savory and ate my homemade concoction of grits, garlic salt, parmesan cheese and pumpkin seeds. (When I premade the mixture at home I discovered we were out of sunflower seeds and so used pumpkin instead--not nearly as good--but hey--on the trail? You eat it.)

We donned our nearly dry boots and I debated whether or not to break out my backup pair of thick, dry socks. The previous day's walking had given me a blister which I tried to pop using Len's hunting knife, but couldn't. The skin was still too supple and the corresponding pressure of the blister didn't offer enough resistance.

Another troubling development involved my second toe, specifically the toenail. (I know, I know, TMI, but backpacking really is all about the feet.) My boots have been my faithful companions for hundreds of miles in the Adirondacks, the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. They fit well and don't give me problems. But thanks to the combination of that sucking mud and the wetness that finally made it through the seams, my socks were being pushed down into my boots and congregating painfully against the toes. I also wasn't crazy about the way that second toenail floated around when I pressed on it, but we had a lot of ground to cover so I rolled my fresh, dry socks down to the ankle to create a rim that would keep them up, repositioned my gaiters, and pressed on.

Again, the trail was unbelievably wet, often with no way to go around the water; I immediately regretted wasting my dry socks. To cope, we became trail automatons, trudging straight through whatever we encountered. Running water? Meh. Splash, splash, splash. A blowdown across the trail? Psh. Crackle, snap, scrape. Our end point was a pair of lean-tos located on Moose Pond Stream. (So named because it is a stream that empties from Moose Pond and flows north. This tiny bit of information would prove to be very important on Day 3.)

As I said before, this trail was so remote that we not only saw no other hikers, we saw no footprints. No signs of human activity. And the trail crossed two good-sized creeks. At the first creek, Len used his poles and stepped from rock to rock; I opted to take off my boots and socks, roll up my pants and wade across. Icy water is an amazing tonic for poor, tired feet. The second creek (Calahan Brook, three miles on) was deeper with fewer exposed rocks and so we both removed our boots and waded across. The water was moving quickly and it wasn't easy to cross on slippery, rounded river rocks in fast moving water, with an extra 35-40 pounds on the back, but we made it, picking our way across slowly, then reapplied our boots and trudged on.

Shortly after this second crossing, I descended into madness. Specifically, mosquito-madness. Mosquitoes adore me. I am the blood hunter's bounty, a five-star sanguine sucker restaurant, and mosquito meals-on-wheels all rolled into one. When I enter their territory, there is much mosquito singing and dancing. And feasting. The particular hell of this area (affectionately named "Mosquito Alley" by yours truly) was compounded by a resident gang of black flies and the occasional mobster horsefly: they don't leave bites, they leave holes. I wore a bandana (open) over my head, held in place with a hat. Over that I wore my indispensable Survivor buff which is stretchy and conforms to any part of the body. In Mosquito Alley, though, no barrier proves too great for the ravenous hordes. They bit through the double layers of bug-sprayed fabric at my ears. They bit through my pants, my shirt, they swarmed and celebrated. They flew into the space between my glasses and my eyes. Madness, I tell you! MADNESS!!! Bwahahaha. I raced in front of my husband, arms swinging around my head, and speed-walked the trail for the next mile or so. I did not look back.

When the cloud of mosquitoes finally cleared, I waited for Len, whom the mosquitoes do not love as much, and we continued on. And on. And on. I gradually moved into the only emotional state that will allow me to continue hiking when every fiber of my being is screaming Stop, Stop! That state is rage. Rage will get me through anything, I've found. And I was surely pissed. Pissed at the trail for taking so damned long to deliver me where I wanted to go. Pissed at the running water that was everywhere it wasn't supposed to be. Pissed at the thick black mud that never betrayed its depth until you placed your full weight on it, and by god, pissed at the bugs. Pissed at the blowdowns that crossed our trail and slowed us up. Pissed at the heat index that was dangerously high that day. Pissed, pissed, pissed. If I had fallen and broken my leg, I would have risen up, pissed, and walked furiously on.

Let me tell you folks, rage really gets you there.

9.9 miles after leaving the glorious Fish Rock lean-to we staggered into the clearing of the Moose Pond Stream lean-to and made camp. In the way of all great physical trials (childbirth, marathons) we soon forgot our pains and reveled in what beasts we were to have come so far, so well. The nearby creek had a lovely sandy beach where we cooled our bodies and Len discovered the joy of creek-cold water poured over a hot scalp till the water runs cool. (I am honored to be the one to introduce him to this singular joy.)

The lean-to had a scythe and we cut the surrounding thigh-high grass (so grateful to have some work for the body that didn't involve carrying and walking that I sang "Don't Fear the Reaper" while swishing the scythe back and forth) and cut a path to the small beach. We spent the remaining afternoon wetting and rewetting our scalps as the sun blazed down and shone right into our lean-to. We hung our socks to dry and laid our boots upon a sunny rock, tongues hanging out, looking exactly how we felt.

We ate a whole dinner each that night (A Mountain House freeze-dried entree proclaims that it "Serves Two." Hah. Not after our day.) We gathered wood and assembled a fire which we would be too tired to light after the sun went down, and fell asleep knowing that the next day would involve nothing more than retracing our steps and connecting back up with the Camp Santanoni trail. We felt relaxed and secure. In the language of the trail, it would be all downhill from there.

...Stay tuned for Day 3.

Backpacking: Day 3

Day three was the day were supposed to exit the woods, sweaty but exultant, and appropriately "beat up"--as per our expressed wish, told to the gentleman at the start of our trek.

Be careful what you...well, you know.

Our 5:30 AM wake-up call came in the form of a monster thunderstorm. Fortunately we were safe inside our lean-to and could enjoy the cracks of lightning that raised the hairs on our arms and the deafening thunder that shook the lean-to and echoed around in our chests. It was exhilarating, truly.

We rose as the worst of the storm passed and cooked breakfast under the shelter then walked down to the stream to filter water for the hike out. Yesterday's sandy beach was now under water. And the water in the creek was getting muddier by the minute. Ah, runoff, we thought. Of course. From the storm. Well, we'll just have to filter somewhere along the trail.

Over the next twenty minutes, the stream rose at an alarming rate and its flow increased in speed. Muddy whitecaps were forming and the roar began to approach deafening. During one of my tentative approaches, a huge tree trunk came barreling downstream crashing into rocks as it was propelled forward. This was when my morning grits began to roll around uneasily in my stomach.

Still, we hit the trail, retracing our steps and telling ourselves we just might have to leave our boots on to cross Calahan Brook, which would surely also be higher than normal.

Optimism can be a friend on the trail. It can also be your worst enemy.

We broke camp at 8:30 and I braced myself for another trip through the insanity of Mosquito Alley which was, if anything, even worse than the day before: the added humidity fogged up my glasses and blurred my vision as I quickened my pace and swung my arms and cursed the gods that made mosquitoes.

About a quarter of a mile shy of Calahan Brook my stomach made another lurch. I was in front, having not relinquished my Mosquito Alley pace, but I slowed down as I sensed what lay around the bend. Was the ground actually shuddering beneath my boots? Was that continuously rolling thunder I was hearing? I stopped, turned, gave my husband a meaningful look and rounded the bend in the trail that would reveal Calahan Brook.

The small beach of rocks where we had sat to reapply our boots the day before was under a good two or three feet of raging water. The brook was an angry, rushing, twelve foot wide torrent of mud and debris. For ten full minutes we entertained denial and insane optimism as we tried to figure out how we might yet get across. We hiked upstream to see if there were boulders high enough, or a downed tree that we could shimmy along to reach the other side. Reason soon took hold, though, and we realized that even if we made it across this one, there was another creek to cross, and no guarantee that the water was not still rising. Visions of that careening tree trunk I had witnessed morphed into a full-blown fantasy of destruction as I pictured one of us falling in or getting caught mid-stream and crushed before we could get out of the way.

Finally, we did the only thing we could do. We hiked back through Mosquito Alley, back to our starting point, and arrived at noon to reassess our options. I stripped off my wet gear and laid everything out to dry while we consulted the map. Should we wait for the waters to recede, spend another night and hike out the next day? We had an extra day's worth of food, but a quick listen to our weather radio told us more thunderstorms were forecasted. No, we could not wait this one out. The map showed that the trail we were on continued west and eventually met up with a road after about twelve or so miles (we had already hiked three-and-a-half). We could go that route and hitchhike back to the car...except that trail also crossed a number of creeks...should we head that way only to possibly have to turn back again?

As we studied our options, a helicopter flew low and nearby, hovering for several minutes. It was an ominous, out-of-place sound and we searched the sky but could not spot it. Later we learned that a young teenaged boy had drowned nearby. Were we hearing the sound of a body retrieval?

We realized that if we were to get out that day we would have to think of other, less obvious options. The map showed that the trail we eventually hoped to hook up with could be reached by an old logging trail that went halfway around Moose Pond (I would have called it a lake--it was very large, but what do I know about the nomenclature of bodies of water?). And Moose Pond Stream--which had the only bridge on the whole trail right there at our lean-to--emptied from Moose Pond, flowing north. Consequently, no creeks emptied into it from the west. If we were to cross the bridge over Moose Pond Stream and stay to the west of it (not a problem--there was no crossing that bad boy), hug the stream and bushwhack, we would eventually reach Moose Pond, yes? Then we could hug Moose Pond until we reached the old logging trail. It could work.

Old Optimism (ever our pal) took a look at that map and said, "It looks to be about three miles to the lake. The contour lines show it's pretty flat. Let's do it!"

So we did. We redressed and launched off feeling very clever and proud of ourselves and we started to bushwhack. I'd tell you all about that experience, but the thing is, it's pretty murky. And troubling to remember. I can tell you that it was more like seven miles than three, not counting all the swamps and blowdowns and inlets we had to hike around. It was hot, and buggier than I can describe, and the forests were so thick with undergrowth we had to literally fight our way through.

Each small rise or clearing visible through the trees gave us giddy, unreasonable hope. Was it the lake? Upon reaching the rise or the clearing we were invariably faced with but a different obstacle. Two that made our hearts drop into our boots and utter the mother of all expletives, swearing to sit down and quit forever were the immense stands of hobblebush (long, intertwining shrubs that cling fiercely to one another, making passage nearly impossible) and the areas of six-foot high pines so thick that we scratched our faces and arms as we pushed desperately through them.

We took turns giving up and then bolstering each other back to the non-existent trail. We broke out the Tylenol and the ginseng energy packets. We cursed and stumbled and lost our way. The shadows began to lengthen and we did not know exactly where we were. Had we reached Moose Pond--the beacon that would set us to rights? We thought we had, but where was it? Then we lost sight of the stream and could not determine our location even with the compass and map.

It was the combination of my stubborn insistence that we go east--the sun was setting so we stepped on our shadows to ensure we went in a direction that would lead us either to the stream or the lake--and Len's recognition of the characteristic slides of Santanoni Mountain that finally set us right. Oh, and the fact that when we did reach water, it was flowing north--Moose Pond Stream, we told ourselves. It had to be. But even with those landmarks, our optimism had betrayed us. We had thought we were farther along than we were. (We wondered briefly, had we missed the lake altogether?)

When you're charting your own course, it's the small things--the little setbacks that would be easily absorbed under normal circumstances--that prey on your psyche. When your whole body is under duress, and your mind is struggling to keep pace and think clearly through a haze of exhaustion, it's the little things that get to you.

Especially the false hope. Each time we thought we had reached the lake--because we wanted to believe it more than anything, and because we had walked so terribly, terribly far--but found we hadn't, the blow was especially crushing. It was like being dehydrated in the desert and seeing a mirage, running toward it gleefully and then being rewarded with handfuls of sand when you thought you were plunging your wrists into sparkling water.

And each time we had to stop and filter more water it was like admitting failure. We were still not where we needed to be and our punishment was to have to filter more water. Each pump of the handle was a swish of recrimination: Not there yet, not there yet, not there yet. It takes sixty pumps to fill a bottle.

As we struggled forward, our minds took hold of one simple fact: we needed to see the lake. Every other longing receded. Got to get to the lake. Got to see the lake. We must be almost there. We've got to be almost there.

When we finally topped yet another painful rise and saw the lake, it was an amazing feeling. Pick your metaphor, but be sure it includes a group of dirty, wandering outcasts standing on a ridge and viewing the promised land for the first time.

But even that gave us false hope, as we imagined that the rest of the way would be easy going. It wasn't. We still had two hours of struggle ahead of us in waning daylight. A quick consultation of the map showed three inlets coming into the lake before we would reach the old logging road. Each one of those inlets (and there turned out to be four, not three, Mr. Mapmaker, but who's counting?) represented a substantial rerouting that involved hiking downhill to the stream, walking upstream till we found a crossing point, hiking back downstream, and then hiking back up the other side...all while pushing through the aforementioned nasty hobblebushes and stands of aggressive young pines.

After passing the second inlet (or was it the third?) we spotted something bright red far ahead of us at the edge of the lake. "It's a tent," I said, wanting desperately for that to be true. "It's got to be a tent." It was not a naturally occurring red--not Cardinal Red or Wildflower Red, but Polyester Red or perhaps Ripstop-Nylon Red. And lo! We had a new set for our sights: Ripstop-Nylon Red, here we come!

But there were more moments of false hope to get through first. We came across herd trails or the remains of old wagon trails that would give us brief surges of elation, only to have them peter out or wind in hopelessly wrong directions. At one point we entered a clearing and found artifacts from an old Adirondack camp. A potter for ten years in my early life, making 18th century reproduction stoneware, I immediately spotted a shard from an old salt-fired crock, which I kept, adding to my pack weight, but hey, we were almost there! Then I spotted the door from an old wood-fired stove--Manufactured in Buffalo, NY, it proclaimed in a tidy cast-iron font. Suddenly my eyes could see everything that was old and man-made sticking out of the dirt. A tiny, cylindrical, handblown, green glass apothecary tube--intact--was the next treasure spotted. My husband collects small, old bottles; I handed it over with ceremonious pride.

In the previous century a law was passed pronouncing this portion of the high peaks Adirondacks "Wild New York" and any man-made structures were burned to allow the woods to return to their natural state. We had stumbled upon one such site. And there was a road that led away. We were there! We had made it! Visions of Dorothy and Toto flew to mind. Finally, a yellow brick road, and all we would have to do was follow it.

Only it died out, too. And we were dumped back into the woods, near the lake, at the end of another dead trail, some unknown distance from the campsite. It's difficult to convey how literally spirit-crushing such hopes-proved-false can be. But they were. Are.

And summoning yet another round of we're-almost-theres, we pushed on. And finally, finally, we found the real trail and the first campsite. I wanted to fall to the ground in the fading light and take this gift and set up camp, but unbelievably, Len said, "Let's go a little farther. I'm not crazy about this one."

My husband, the man with two heads who speaks in flaming tongues of fire. What had he just said? Keep going? No, no, surely not. Thankfully (for both of us), he was the one carrying the firearm in his pack and not me. I could be writing an obituary right now, instead of this epistle. But I walked on.

200 yards or so later we reached Ripstop-Nylon Red. And to my horror, it belonged to a life jacket bobbing far too ominously in the water at the front of a capsized canoe. I was sure there was a body underneath. As sure as I have been of anything. It was too creepy, too incongruous, too man-made a thing in the midst of our crazy survival adventure to be anything but a drowned human. I couldn't look at it and couldn't look away. Where were the arms? The bloated legs? The hair, floating above the submerged face? There wasn't any. But I couldn't seem to convince my mind of that no matter how I tried.

We set up camp, filtered water, shed our filthy, filthy clothes and boots and shared our last freeze-dried meal as the mosquitoes also feasted in the attractive glow of our headlamps. Then we fell into our bags--well, onto them, as it was still quite hot--and all this while trying not to hear the sounds of Ripstop-Nylon Red, dead in the water, lapping against the shore.

...Day 4 to follow.

Backpacking: Day 4

I think I've put off writing about this day simply because in the grand scheme of the trip, it was fairly uneventful. It was the culmination of the trip, and yet there are no mighty struggles to recount, no hallucinations that I couldn't escape, no extreme obstacles to overcome.

Unless of course you count our battered feet as obstacles. Did you know that enough moleskin can actually keep a floating toenail in place for seven miles of hiking? And that not enough moleskin (never be stingy!) can actually be worse than none at all?

As we dressed for the day, I was able to finally pop the ever-growing blister on my second toe with the hunting knife. (Note to self: add a safety pin to the first-aid kit for ease of blister popping.) Len's left heel had developed a nasty maw of a thing--formed by a hot spot that became a blister that relinquished its skin to the repeated abuse and turned into what became affectionately known as the "gaping pus-hole." (Len's note to self: apply moleskin before the hot spot becomes a blister, and be sure to apply enough moleskin that it doesn't come loose and abrade the area even more.)

Our carrot-on-the-stick, our main reason for wanting desperately to get out of the woods and into civilization is a magical place called the Keene Valley Lodge, a place we go every year to recharge and reboot (literally). The owners, George and Laurie Daniels are hikers themselves and their Bed and Breakfast is as cozy and relaxing as home, without the need to cook and pick up after yourself, and their breakfasts "legendary" too grand a word? Trust me when I say, if there was any way we could have gotten there on Tuesday, as our reservations stipulated, we would have. The Keene Valley Lodge was one of the enticements that helped get us through the woods, and even after we found the campsite on Day 3 at dusk, exhausted and hungry and beaten sore, we briefly contemplated donning our headlamps and hiking the last seven miles in the dark, just to get to the Lodge in time for breakfast Wednesday morning.

As it would turn out, those last seven miles were covered in record time. Later in the week we calculated our total rough mileage (35 miles--a conservative estimate if you ask me, given all the walk-arounds we had to do) and time spent hiking (17 hours) and arrived at an average rate of 2mph. When bushwhacking, we were probably doing good at .5 mph, but on that last day we hiked seven miles in just under three hours--better than 2.5 mph, a good rate with full packs and shredded feet. We drank from our water bottles while walking. We ate our lunch while walking. We made wardrobe adjustments while walking. If we could have relieved ourselves while walking we would have. Of course, since we were decidedly NOT interested in filtering any more water, we drank little, thereby minimizing effluent discharge and allowing us to stop even less.

The trail on Day 4 was an old logging trail. It was wet, yes, and hilly, yes, but there were bridges, it was wide enough to walk side-by-side, and mostly what we did was rehash the previous day's activity as we walked. Already the experience was fading. Had we really done that??

And telling and retelling ourselves what we had accomplished helped to make it real. I'm convinced that the singularly human desire to pin experience down is the origin of all storytelling: retell it, make it real, study it, learn from it, pass it on.

We did make it out, finally. In the parking lot, Len hugged the vehicle. I stripped off my boots and wet socks and lay on the grass with my feet against a fencepost. But we didn't linger long; the world's best cheeseburger, fries and Coke were calling.

...Thanks for reading. Tomorrow I leave for my two-week stint at Bread Loaf. I'll be reporting in from there.