Amongst the clearest and most treasured memories of my youth are the handful of roadtrips that I took with my dad, just the two of us. One that sticks out for me as particularly enjoyable was a trip to Pennsylvania where I needed to be on campus early for basketball camp check in the next day.
The day started at the Morgan Manning house for the 4th of July town picnic and fair. Its the kind of tradition I had no idea I’d come to love about the town of Brockport, NY where I grew up.
After hot dogs (Zweigel’s, the only proper hot dog) and my little brother doing the cakewalk and the barbershop quartet of high school teachers we went home, loaded the minivan and got on the road.
On this trip we were in the right mood. We were just relaxed and comfortable and conversation flowed and we talked about life and family, everything and nothing. I don’t remember the details and they weren’t important. We were relaxed, comfortable and alone. It was nice.
It was in fact the counter to my normal level of anxiety. Once when I was 5 or so I was in the bathroom while he was shaving. There were at least 8 of us, often more. As George Bluth said, watch out for hop-ons, you’re gonna have hop-ons. Anyway, with two bathrooms overcrowding was not at all unusual so for me to be peeing while he shaved was not unusual. After a moment of observation he looked over at me, face half covered in thick white foam and half smoothly shaven and said. ‘Are you breathing.’ I wasn’t. He said, ‘it’s okay. Breathe.’ So I did. I’ve always been self-conscious, still am.
We stayed in a hotel that night near the camp. It remains the one and only night I’ve ever eaten at an Arthur Treacher’s. I imagine this was true for him as well. Then we went to a movie. The only thing that lined up with our schedule that was agreeable to both of us was ‘Soapdish’.
For a couple of hours we howled with laughter. A reserved 40-something dad and his jock 15 year old son cracking up at the antics of a cast of eccentrics populating the set of a daytime soap opera. It was downright hysterical, silly and perfect. It was one of the best days of my childhood. It shouldn’t surprise me that the most meaningful and metaphorical journey of my life was a road trip with my dad in a minivan across the state when I was 20.
Side note about my dad; He’s funny. Very funny. It’s a dry sense of humor, not needy, rarely reaching out, but often reactive and precise. I can be manic in my need to get in a funny line at every opportunity, even inventing the opportunities, or sticking a laugh line in as a non sequitur just to get the attention. It comes from a funnier place for my dad. He’s okay letting tons of good enough but not perfect pitches fly past, and then boom, HYSTERICAL. I’ve tried to learn from this, and to some degree I’ve calmed down. He’s such a good editor and knows when funny is funniest. My papa was that way as well.
Fast forward to what can either be referred to as my first Junior year at college or my second sophomore year. I prefer the former, but whatever your druthers.
I, remarkably, was in a night class. I say remarkably because my academic history is littered with classes that I never intended to attend and rarely did. But this was a 3 hour, 1 credit class and I showed up. It was part of a series of single credit, single night classes that were offered in the Human Services curriculum. I’d kind of backed and failed my way into the major, but it was in line with my personal ethics of being helpful to those less fortunate so I went with it. These single night credits were taught by community based professionals in a particular field of service. This night happened to be the Executive Director of the Chemung County ARC. He was a nice if distracted guy who gave us a good history of the movement, the state of the field and the needs going forward. It was interesting and I wanted to get involved.
In the course of the evening Jodi, a less then friendly and somewhat overconfident young woman by my estimation (which was informed by little if any evidence, but firmly believed. Ah… youth) spoke of her experience the previous summer at a camp for adults with developmental disabilities.
It was a camp run by AHRC of NYC, the chapter that was the progenitor of the entire Arc movement. I decided to approach her at the break. Turned out that being male, a decent fellow and willing made me qualified for a position there! Besides, Jodi would be there and I’d at least know one face. Might even get to see another side of her. So the dye was cast and my life turned at that moment and in many ways has never turned back.
After a week or so home from school I was off to the Catskills with my dad. It was a 6 hour drive, one that I’d make several more times over the years. The ride was long and disorienting. I’d never noticed the glorious mountains that buttress and soar over the New York State Thruway as you make your way east across the state. They existed there without my notice for the many trips I’d taken across the state over the years. But when we got off and went onto the local roads it took only a few miles until we realized we were heading to a place neither of us had known existed.
Other than some summer vacations when my dad was a kid even he had never really experienced the vast mountainous region of New York that stretched from the area city-dwellers called upstate and the northerners thought of as downstate all the way up to the top of the world up at the Canadian border. It was the spine of the state and we lived in the panhandle out west.
My dad is from the New York Metropolitan area, so this vast middle, encompassing the Catskill Mts. and the Adirondacks had managed to be avoided. The long looping curves of the valley roads gave way in an instant to roads that seemed to have majestically green, steep, natural walls. It was like the mountains and there fauna were cradling the pavement that now wove a twisting and turning road that revealed which travelers were local as they bore down on the vast amount of out-of-towners there to feed the economy and reconvene with nature.
Finally, out of the hairpin at the Kaaterskill Falls trail head the roads started to stretch back to long and looping as we arrived in the higher valley.
Tannnersville is a small, humble and charming mountain town that would become my nearest ‘civilaization’ for the years ahead. The directions took us right through and up the mountain that hovered over it, all the way to the picturesque stone church at its peak and back down the other side. We took a right at the General Store/Post Office onto a beautiful, meandering river of a small country road that ended at Colgate Lake.
Rather, it didn’t end it turned to dirt and we continued through a tunnel carved through the forest, looking at each other partly worried and partly as Doc Brown looked at Marty at the end of Back to the future… Where we’re going we don’t need roads!
I can’t honestly tell you what conversations were had on this journey save one. I remember saying it and my dad has remembered it too. I told him that I had no idea what to expect. I told him that I was a little nervous but that I was thinking of it as 90 days and I can endure anything for 90 days. I’ve heard my dad proudly retell of hearing me saying that and he always follows it up by pointing out that after he left me that day he knew a change was coming for me. He was right.
I could most certainly endure what lay ahead. I had no idea that it was the start of a journey with as much learning and growing and failing and succeeding as I could stand bottled up in 5 two week sessions of sleep deprived sleep-away camp that would change my worldview, broaden my understanding of humanity, enhance my ability, grow my confidence, open my eyes to a world that was rich and vibrant and dynamic and revolutionary and introduce me to an instant community of friends and acquaintances who would create and sustain magic on a daily basis, all with the aim of righting a societal wrong and providing people with the opportunity to have the time of their lives. It would keep my otherwise antsy and unsteady and frankly dangerous life of excess in check as I discovered that when you are fully engaged in a thing, 20 hours a day is not enough. It was enough to get the work done, at least usually, just not enough of the experience.
I was enjoying all of it, the joy and the pain, the wins and the losses, the new experiences and the vulnerability I was discovering in myself and the world and I didn’t want it to ever end.
We’d drink and sing and dance and swear and smoke and hookup and breakup. During the day we’d bring people that would never have the chance otherwise to the top of the mountain, whatever that meant for them. If we couldn’t we’d not hesitate in getting to work building them their mountain, to spec, because we were delighted to be given the opportunity. We fought and created cliques, then we broke them and cross pollinated. We created a utopian society their and we thought we were the first ones to do it. I’m still convinced we were the best who ever did.
But on that car ride, a ride that was both familiar and different it turned out that dad was dropping me off at the end of a dirt road in a beautifully landscaped world that was designed to make the world a better place. It certainly did that for me. It was the home that would take it’s place next to the big blue/gray house on Clark St. It became my spiritual and literal home. When I’d leave I’d yearn to be back. When I was there, even in the cold, dark, lonely and depressing winters, I never wanted to be anywhere else. I loved her even more then. Even when it was emptied of all the people that made it what it was. It was even more beautiful to me as it sat stoically dark waiting patiently to be enlivened once again. After the departures, after the work, after our irreversibly changed lives, after the love and the struggle and the ultimate experience, the walls were my companions for months on end and I loved them as I had learned their potential.
I loved everything about that place and I still do. The Lodge was where I was able to make mistakes and miracles and to witness transformations, including my own. Where I learned to push myself and accept who I was. It was the greatest experience of my life to that point and would inform all the other wonders that were to come.