In early 2000, I found myself falling in love with a rare and beautiful woman. We’d known one another for years, but one night, under the influence of Guinness Stout and Fergal the Barman, we talked and drank and laughed and for the first time ended up in a kiss. Truth be told, it was a long time coming. We’d known one another for years — just waiting for the world to give us a chance, but not knowing when or if the stars would align.
I went home alone that night, but I knew something important in my life had changed. I’d long thought that I loved her, but in a moment I saw a clearing in the woods, a chance for a new kind of adventure. Over the coming months we spent more and more time together. She got to know my family and I spent time with hers. Within half a year she was staying at my apartment most nights and our network of friends overlapped as a matter of course. By the summer of 2000, we were very nearly symbiotic, and biochemistry being what it is, our love felt entirely new in the universe. Like something that could stop time.
In June of that year we were looking forward to a vacation together over my summer break. My teacher’s schedule allowed for two and a half months of traveling, but sadly, her part-time administrative job at a sketchy Russian-owned business out in Dyker Heights only let her go for a couple of weeks, and in love or not, I wasn’t going to stick around Gotham City in the summer. Midday in midtown during August is like traipsing through some rough beast’s mouth. If you’ve ever melted into your clothes while waiting for a Queens-bound F-Train during a heatwave, you know exactly what I mean. I hate the heat.
I booked my flight for Seattle and a few weeks kicking around the Pacific Northwest. The plan was to do that for a month or so, and then meet her at Sea-Tac airport for a flight to Anchorage. Through the years she’d heard stories about Alaska and how I’d spent a number of summers hitchhiking, booze-hounding and occasionally working at a remote kayak camp south of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. We wanted to share some of those experiences together. But before that was to happen, destiny had placed a few obstacles (and one great oracle) along a muddy path that began just outside of Forks, Washington —“The Rainiest Little Town in America.”
While at a hostel in Seattle, I’d heard about an amazing hike in the Hoh Rainforest out on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. The idea of nurse trees — toppled giants that are driven down into the earth over decades by ensuing generations of fungi, ferns and future megaflora, often rooting from the very seeds of the fallen Big Leaf Maples and towering Sitka Spruce — was enticing beyond the beyond to the Boy Scout still camped out in my hippocampus. After one night in the hostel, I hitchhiked to Forks where I picked up some last-minute supplies and caught a lift to the trailhead several miles south.
It started drizzling the second I set foot on the trail. But, figuring that it would be, at worst, a nuisance, I pushed on for about 10 miles until, happy and exhausted, I found a clearing with a stand of sheltering trees about 100 meters off the trail. The light rain remained fairly steady, with occasional downpours that foreshadowed my coming days. Still, once camp was established I was able to start a fire and keep it burning by concerted attention — a process that quickly became all-consuming as the rains began a crescendo that would build for the coming 96 hours. My life became primitively simple: find wet wood, build a nest of wet wood that would dry above the fire, then become the fire, then find more wet wood, build a nest and repeat. At first it was fun. Then tiring. Then terrible. My feet were soaking wet, so in a stroke of genius inspired by exhaustion and sleep deprivation, I pulled off my LEATHER boots and sent them down to dry next to the snap and crackle of the pine.
Despite all my efforts, on the morning of the third day, the fire was completely out and the fire pit had become an ashy bath about 6 inches deep. The rain was diluvian, a drenching, big-dropped downpour that stung the skin and threatened hypothermia if one decided to do much sightseeing — as if anything could be seen much past ten feet in that weather. And it just never stopped. Vertical waves of rain. Sheets of rain. Flattening rain. Waterboarding rain. I remember thinking, curled in a wet ball in my tent sometime on the fourth day that the Pacific Ocean, surely, must be running dry. This much water was just unnatural. Impossible. I remember dreaming about having a pint of Guinness with my girlfriend or some mythical Australian traveling partner who would lead me to a dry place, buy the first round and listen as I recounted my nightmare of a hike in the Hoh.
On the morning of the fifth day, I crawled out of my tent to heat up some coffee on my camp stove when the monsoon had slowed to a torrent and I noticed that there were several thousand banana slugs surrounding my tent. Banana slugs are approximately 5 inches long and three quarters of an inch in diameter. They look like animate, writhing, hell-conceived custard. Looking about I noticed with actual terror that each and every one was pointed directly at my tent. They had formed circular ranks, like endless platoons of wet, slithering bicycle spokes and I was the axle. It was as if they were launching a slow-motion assault on my person — with advance recon teams having already slithered into the crevices of my gear. The camp stove being a particularly valued redoubt, which I noticed milliseconds before I screamed like a little girl and threw it high into the air in a panic.
I must admit, at that point I kinda cracked. I broke a branch off the tree under which I was “sheltered,” releasing a flood of accumulated rainwater down upon my head as if I was a wailing cat beneath a cartoon window. Undeterred, I took the branch, and while muttering madnesses, started flicking the slugs away, figuring that if I tossed them back 10 feet or so it would buy me another night’s rest before the great blood sucking would begin. Maybe by then the rain would have stopped.
Then I had a moment of clarity, seeing myself as if from above. I was a very, very wet man, with mud-caked hair and a scraggly mud-caked beard — a dead ringer for a Civil War re-enactor from the wrong side. I was dressed in nothing but my skin-grasping thermal underpants, a soaking-wet purple fleece, wool socks and Tevas. I was flailing wildly with a small sapling and screaming curses at non-sentient slugs next to a sagging tent and the remains of my dignity.
In short, I knew that it was high time to get the hell out of the Hoh, rain be damned. In my heart of hearts, I prayed that a benevolent deity would see my suffering and send me what I needed most: a loud bar, a dry bed and that mythical Australian with a fat wallet and a generous ear with whom to knock about for a few days.
I packed my gear (and a few dozen slugs as it later turned out), put on my leather boots (now two sizes too small after cooking next to the fire several days before), and bid farewell to Camp Damp. The hike out took the better part of 8 hours, as my gear had swollen with another 20 pounds of water-weight, the trail had turned into 10 miles of muck and I was as foot-bound as a Chinese peasant girl.
The moment I stepped off the trail and into the parking lot it abruptly stopped raining. I looked up to the sky and thought, “Really???”
Not wanting to wait for the lightning strike, I decided to make for Port Arthur, about one hundred miles to the north on the ring road of the Peninsula. I stuck out my thumb and, just like Steve Martin in The Jerk, managed to catch a ride from a guy who drove me about 500 feet to his driveway. I hadn’t even finished thanking him for the ride, complaining about the weather and calling the blessings of the Lord down upon him when he broke in and said, “Well, sonny, this here’s mah driveway, good luck gettin’ where yer goin’!”
Two gear-scrambling minutes later I was back on the side of the road and it started raining again.
After a few hours someone did finally stop, and they took me all the way to Port Arthur — where I wandered into an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass hostel. It was an old converted sanatorium with an early 20th Century steam bath in the basement. The place was beautiful, yet not an Australian nor a pint of Guinness in sight. In fact, I was the only guest for my three night stay. The proprietress, as it turned out, kept a cuckoo-clock brain well hidden behind her sparkling eyes. And she loved her steam. It was the center of her universe and the subject of most all conversations. She was convinced that everything (from a mild chill to cystic fibrosis) could be cured by the purgative powers of steam if delivered long enough and hot enough, as I was to discover by accepting an offer to “steam off the cold and wet” an hour after my arrival.
After dropping my bags in the attic dormitory, the lady of the house led me to the basement and its art deco steam chamber, the temperature of which she controlled with a true sense of purpose from behind the tinted glass window of the chamber. As indicated earlier, I’m no fan of heat, but I tried to bear it. She seemed to be a lovely, lonely lady in a loony sort of way. But after 15 minutes in the oppressive, liquid heat, far worse than any F-Train fever dream, I tapped on the glass and said, “Please . . . please let me out . . . I’ve had enough . . .”
To which she responded jauntily, “Just a few minutes longer, love! Everything will be fine soon enough! You need a full cleansing! Out, out, out with the bad!!!
She kept me in there until I nearly fainted.
I skipped dinner that night and went straight to bed, arising the following morning actually feeling as if the steam bath may have done me some good. After splashing water on my face and brushing my teeth, I wandered through empty rooms until I found her in on the second floor in a dining area that overlooked the main street of Port Arthur. She’d set up a breakfast spread and I sat down near the bay window. She brought me a giant bowl of oatmeal. It was delicious, something I’d rarely say about oatmeal. I complimented her and she put it down to a healthy helping of honey and, as she informed me with that same lunatic lilt I’d heard the night before through antique glass, “My special ingredient! Two heaping tablespoons of flax seed! Out, out, out with the bad!!!”
My parents may still remember the hurried, urgent call I made from a payphone down the street. “Yes, mom, I’m fine. But, well, I’ve really got to go. I’ve really got to go NOW!”
In the end, it may have been actual concern for my health, or maybe just a devious ploy to keep me within sprinting distance from her facilities for a few more days, but like it or not, I was stuck there until I could dare another day on the side of the road. Finally, with my guts somewhat back in order, I dropped my payment at the desk and snuck out on the fourth morning. I continued the hitchhike up to Vancouver, praying each step for that amiable sod from Oz who the Good Lord would assuredly place in my next hostel room.
I checked into The Cambie Hostel in Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood that evening, looking haggard and feeling worse. I joked with the kid at the front desk about my desire for a Australian roommate with whom to share the burdens of the trail. Thinking back on it, the way he pronounced vowels through his nose was more All Black than Wallaby, which may account for what was to come next.
The clerk handed me the keys. I lugged my pack upstairs and found the door to my room was unlocked. I turned the knob. The room was dark so I flipped on the lights and was greeted by a jabberwocky of curses that would have uncurled Bluebeard’s locks. The tangled chain of bastards, shits and sons-a-bitches emanated from a crumpled, ancient man in a ratty, overstuffed easy chair. As he cursed he swung his homemade cane above his head in menacing circles.
I flipped off the light, stunned, and felt my way to the bunk bed. I set my pack down on the floor and the old man yelled, “Top god-damned bunk, sonny! I’m 90 fucking years old and I ain’t gonna scramble up that piece of shit ladder every night!”
My arms fell to my side in utter exhaustion. I looked straight up and thought very loudly to God, “This is NOT what I ordered . . .”
Still, my folks raised me to be polite, so walked over to him, extended my hand and told him my name.
“I don’t give a shit who you are. Just sleep in the top god-damned bunk!” he responded.
I sky-gazed again and silently cursed my fate, I thought about heading back to the front desk and asking for another room, but tired as I was, I just sat down in a straight backed chair in the other corner and waited for him to stop screaming and maybe unwind.
Despite the abrupt and unsettling introduction, my roommate Ralph Lewis was one hell of a guy — and he and I forged a friendship over the coming week that is unique in my life. Once my eyes had adjusted to the light, and Ralph had determined to his satisfaction that I wasn’t there to rob him or otherwise molest his repose, we ran through the standard questions of the trail. I told him I was from New York, and that later in the summer I was going to be traveling to Alaska with my girlfriend. I told him about Camp Damp and the banana slugs. For his part, Ralph told me I was a “god-damned idiot to be hiking in the god-damned woods at this time of year.” Then he cackled a laugh at what a fool he’d be bunking with for the next few days.
Ralph was in Vancouver from his home on Lasqueti Island because he had, in his words, “a touch of cancer.” He wasn’t sick enough to be admitted overnight in the hospital so the Canadian heath care system provided him a fifteen dollar voucher to find a room for the night — explaining what this old, sick man was doing in a youth hostel in the first place.
After talking for an hour or so, I asked Ralph if he wanted to go down to the bar and have a drink. He said that he never touched the stuff — and wasn’t planning to until his 100th birthday — and then it would be “a bottle of South African Rum.” I admitted that I didn’t know that South Africa made rum and he assailed me with another barrage of profanity, the central point of which was that I was a god-dammed idiot.
Still, I was hungry and in need of a beer, so I excused myself and headed for the bar. Around midnight I headed back to the room. I was trying to be as quiet as possible not to disturb Ralph’s sleep, but as I walked in, he was awake and pulling on his boots with a look of angry determination. Seeing me he sank back into his chair, relieved that I’d made it home. He said he was glad that he didn’t have to go find my dumb, sorry ass in the gutter outside the hostel. He was, in his words, worried that someone had slipped me “a Mickey Finn.”
After that I stopped grousing with God about my roommate situation. Ralph was beautiful.
Over the coming week, Ralph and I knocked around Vancouver together. He was about five foot four and weighed around 100 pounds, though he showed me a photo taken a few years before that had him at a healthy 150 or so. Touch of cancer, my ass. We made a motley Mutt and Jeff pair, me towering over him, long haired and bearded, Ralph with well-trimmed mutton chops and a thinning, white mane. As we kicked about along the docks, down the alleys, or just hanging out in the room, Ralph told me stories. He told me about being a biker in the first half of the century — he even showed me a ring his gang had given him back in the day. He now kept it in his pocket as his fingers had boned-out with the cancer. The ring read, in big, bold letters: BIKER. He told me about the day the gang gave him that ring, back in the 1940s that signaled him chief. “We all rode Indians. Great fuckin’ bikes!!!”
I asked him what the gang was called. He cursed and said, “We were called The Bikers, ya idiot!”
According to Ralph, The Bikers were a helpful bunch. “Kinda like Robin Hoods.” They made sure that “the assholes” weren’t taking unfair advantage of people who had fallen on hard times. I thought about jokingly asking if, “The Assholes” was actually the name of a rival gang, but figured Ralph would find another opportunity to call me an idiot on his own, and soon enough.
Ralph told me about his businesses back when he lived in Vancouver during the war — according to him he’d been “too damn young for WWI and too damned old for WWII,” regrets that seemed to plague him still.
Instead of fighting, he was in the import / export business, working with Western Canada’s large Asian population. “The Chinamen, not the Japs. The way we made a deal wasn’t by a handshake. The Chinaman would give you one of his chopsticks — as a sign that he wouldn’t eat until the he’d made good on the deal. I liked the Chinamen. Smart sons of bitches. Honest, too, if ya treated them right.”
And he told me a little bit about his family. Ralph was “the seventh son of a seventh son.” And by what I could figure, he’d managed to alienate every single member of his family over the years. He didn’t talk too much about his brothers. Each one of them, it seems, had done something or other to screw him, and he barely mentioned his parents at all. But my favorite story took place sometime in the 1930s when his mother called from Toronto to tell him that his father was cashing in his chips. She begged him to come and bury the hatchet with the old man before he died. It was November and Ralph was broke, so he hopped a freight train and rode the rods for several thousand miles, never daring to try and enter a boxcar for fear of the bulls. Though he did try and talk two hobos out of climbing into a refrigerated car through an unlocked hatch. “Bastards froze to death in there, just like I told ‘em they would. Me, I just got real cold.”
Ralph reflected upon those two men, before shaking off the memory. Then he turned to me and said of his father, “The day after I got to Toronto, the old son of a bitch rallied. He was home two weeks later and lived another ten years just to spite me!”
Ralph told me about his cabin on Lasqueti Island and how he’d “wired the place to blow if any asshole tries to break in while I’m gone.” Then he invited me to come out and visit some time. I told him I’d love to, but that I had to meet my girlfriend in ten days or so, and he’d still be in for his chemotherapy. “Well, hell, come on up another time. Bring yer girl. Just make damn sure I’m home first! Or BOOM!!!” And then he fell into a fit of laughter that seemed to go on for an hour. “Boom!!!”
Back in the room one evening, I told Ralph I wanted to talk to him about my girlfriend. She was just about the only thing on my mind when the world quieted down. I told him she was younger than me, and that we’d just started seeing one another, but that there was something about her that seemed more right than anything I’d ever known. I told him that I knew it sounded crazy, but I was pretty sure she’d be my wife someday.
He didn’t call me a fool or an idiot. In fact, he didn’t tell me anything. He just got a bit misty and said, “I’m tired. Shut the damn light before you leave, and don’t wake me up when you come in.”
The talking part of the day had been officially closed by the lion-in-chief.
The next day we were out for a walk, when some old warehouse window sparked a memory of a business deal gone sideways a long time ago. He started to bitch about someone who gypped him out of his money, but he trailed off, until he just stood there looking. Then he turned and pointed down a side street and said, “Kay and me were living just over there. I was boiling mad, but when I went home things were okay. Just fine. Always fine, soon as I saw Kay. Damn it, I miss her.”
After that ghost flew up the old alley, Ralph opened like a levee burst.
When Ralph spoke of Kay all the bitterness was gone. He didn’t curse. He didn’t shout. He seemed to fold into himself. Kay of the powder blue dress. Kay learning to drive a stick shift. Kay by his side no matter what, come hell or high water. Kay on the coast at sundown. Kay of his lifetime for sixty years. Kay whom he’d buried along with so much. Kay who no one would ever know again.
On my last day in Vancouver Ralph said he wanted to show me, “the dammed best burger shop in the world.” After having knocked around Vancouver with him for the past week, I figured it was going to be a run-down, greasy spoon with a waitress named Mavis who he’d known since she was a high-stepper at the speakeasy. Or something like that. Instead we took three busses across town, and up towards the hospital where he was getting his treatment. All the while Ralph kept talking about the burgers and their magical properties. It was when he said, “They cut the damn things square,” that I realized where we were going. I never did have the heart to tell him that Wendy’s was a chain. No harm in that, I suppose.
We each ordered two singles with cheese, a couple of sodas and some fries. When we sat down, Ralph asked if I still wanted to know about Kay. I told him I did. He smiled and drew a scene in the air with his hands. It was a dance hall in the 1920s. He recalled how he was “standing over here, leaning against the bar” when he “saw her standing over there, across the room, talking and giggling with the gals. They were giggling at the boys, drinking punch. Then she looked up at me and I knew it. It was love at first sight, simple as that.”
He told me he knew the band leader, and when they took a break, “I buttonholed him. I reminded him he owed me a favor, which he sure as hell did! I asked him to play me a slow song because I was on the make. One I could dance to. He said he would, but he still held out his hand for two bits. I gave him four. When the band kicked up again, it was a fast one. I was glaring at the guy, but before the end of the song, he caught my eye and winked. He was letting me know when to make my move. I started walking across the room even before they’d started playing and had my hand out for hers before they hit the second bar. She said yes and we were married two weeks later.”
He was above himself and the world. He was in love. The kind that feels like it can stop time.
“We didn’t spend more than a few days apart after that. Not until she died. God I love that woman.”
He shook it off and asked me if I wanted his “other damned burger, cause I can’t eat it.”
I told him what I wanted was to know how they’d managed, through all the hardness, to keep that love alive for sixty years.
“How the hell did you manage it?” I said.
He looked at me with real disappointment. After all this, I was still an idiot who couldn’t see the most obvious thing in the whole damn world. He locked into my eyes with a clear, clean, level gaze and said, “You always remember that the woman that you love is the woman that you love.”
That story always reminds me as much of my girlfriend at the time as it does of Ralph. Maybe because she was the one with whom I was in love when that gem was first tossed into my lap. I’ve been in love since. I hope to be in love another time or two before the big man in the sky does last call. But for five years she and I stayed together and we were helped, not just a little, by the wisdom an old man shared over a hamburger.
The Greeks had Delphi. I’ve got Ralph. I win.
Eventually my girlfriend and I did part ways. But that doesn’t mean that Ralph was wrong. I still stand by his maxim. Such daily, sometimes hourly, self-reflection is a weight-bearing column in the structure of lasting love. It doesn’t guarantee sixty years of bliss, but I’d be willing to wager that one party or the other wasn’t holding up their end in most of the divorces that happen as a matter of course all around us.
Tend love, or love disappears. Like campfires in the rain, if you will.
And we tended that flame for five years. In the end, I learned that living by Ralph’s maxim also meant understanding that your partner still has the right to follow another path. But looking back on those years, from the first furtive kiss to the final parting — and all the love-making and laughter in between, they were filled with the kind of connectedness that helped Ralph stay together with Kay for a lifetime. I’m a fortunate man to have known him, if only briefly and near his end. He may have called me an idiot half a thousand times, but he did pass me his guiding torch. And that beats the hell out of any other gift I’ve received from a fellow traveler.
The evening at Wendy’s was the last time that Ralph and I would ever have a long conversation. I was leaving the following day, getting back on the road towards the rest of the summer. After we finished our fries, he headed up the hill to the hospital for his treatment, and I went out for a drink. By the time I got back to our room, he was already dreaming, so I quietly crawled into bed and fell fast asleep — only to be awakened at 7 o’clock the following morning when Ralph whacked me in the head with his solid oak cane. Hard.
I nearly jumped off the bunk. When I got my bearings I saw that Ralph, all 90 years and five foot four of him, had climbed up so that his feet were on the bottom bunk and his ugly mug was a few inches from mine. He stuck out his hand and gave mine a firm shake.
“Goddamn it, Mike.” he said “It’s nice to know ya. Hope to see you up in Lasqueti some time with your gal. She sounds like a god-damned beauty.”
Then he got down, grabbed his day bag and started heading for the door. And in the exact spot where I’d stared at the ceiling in frustration a week before, Ralph stopped and got very quiet. Then he looked up, sighed, and said, “I haven’t told anybody about Kay since she died damn near ten years ago. Maybe this is what God’s been keeping me alive for all this time. Hell, I don’t know, but it’s been nice thinking about her out loud again. I’m gonna miss ya, kid.”
He reached out his hand again.
I took it again, but more gently this time, and told him I was going to miss him, too, and I still do. Even now when I think about Ralph and Kay, campfires and rain, or of that very first kiss back when I was a much younger man, I reflect that I’ve been given more by this life than I could have ever dreamed to ask.
A few years after our meeting, I received a letter from a neighbor of Ralph’s on the island. She’d gone through his belongings and found my address in New York City. She wrote to express her condolences at Ralph’s passing from cancer.
He was seven years shy of a century.