Sunday, July 19, 2009

Damn Shoes - Travel Notes from Hood River

Ever since Hotchkiss, I’ve worn Bass loafers. They may look uncomfortable, but after a few weeks of breaking in, they actually fit pretty well.

Unfortunately, Bass has now reduced the number of widths the shoes come in. I used to get Wide, but now they only come in Narrow, Regular and Extra Wide. So I bought the Regulars, and the merchant gave me some shoe trees to use. They work fine as long as I’ve got a shoe horn nearby.

Yesterday, I flew home from the West Coast after having spent a week with a bunch of buddies windsurfing, hiking and otherwise debasing ourselves in Hood River, Oregon. Upon embarking on the plane, I slipped off my newish loafers, pulled on my handy extra thick Intercontinental travel socks (which I keep in my briefcase), and settled in. I was pleased to find that Continental now has DirecTV, and thus whiled away the hours watching Seinfeld and The Office.

Six hours later, I was awoken from a slumber by the pilot announcing our imminent arrival, and quickly began my own preparations as the plane descended. I could tell that my feet were badly swollen by the thinness of the air, and knew that I was going to have a hell of a time getting my shoes back on. Slumped over in my seat, thus began a Thermopylae-like battle.

Now, in order to truly understand the nature of my physical and mental bearing upon landing at Newark, one must understand the nature of the trip that I had just undertaken. Hood River is brutal on both the body and the soul. Over the course of a long half-week, my cohorts and I subject ourselves to all manner of debilitating stresses. Chief among the physical perils is the windsurfing. It regularly blows 25+ knots in Hood River. This time, we got two days in excess of 30 knots, and rumors had it that one afternoon the gusts were over 40. In that much wind, any non-professional windsurfer is regularly catapulted over his board and sail only to be crushed into the rig at mach speed because he is still connected to the whole contraption by a harness. As a result, both my elbows hurt, my left ankle was swollen with a strain, and I had various deep cuts and bruises on my feet. I was sunburnt, with a peeling nose, and had wiry, sunscorched, windblown hair standing on end.

The mental challenge of returning from Hood River is no less daunting. The chief culprit in this case is the late-night debauchery, my own version of which is usually fueled with equal parts beer and vodka. Our exploits are probably tame enough to evoke a scoff from Tucker Max – no jail-time, for instance – but it’s still enough to include hazy memories and vague embarrassment. Certainly, since it’s so far from family, it’s more punishing than at any other time of the year, and is thus capable of leaving one feeling grim. Cumulatively, the feeling can crescendo into a mild spiritual crisis by the last day. It’s kind of like Sunday night in college.

This spiritual challenge is compounded by the simple fact of leaving Hood River. The town and its environs are akin to Elysium for the happy, well-adjusted, active 40-something. It has all of the benefits of an Arcadian dream spot, and none of the detriments of the seething, rat-race infested metropolises where most of us seem to live and work. It makes one think, upon boarding the plane, “what the hell am I doing with my life?” The economic crisis this year has added yet a further dimension to this effect.

So all was not well in the Finlay vessel as I bent over to wrench the shoes onto my feet. Anyone who has ever tried knows that it is frustratingly awkward to wrestle with your feet while buckled into an airplane seat. As patience is not a virtue of many air-travelers, I wanted to be clothed and ready when we pulled up to the gate, lest I hold up any of my plane-mates seated behind me. So I started with the shoe process five minutes before landing. Fifteen minutes later at docking, I had achieved success with my left foot (curiously, the one with the swollen ankle), but absolutely could not get the right shoe on. The whole time, I was cursing and muttering, “goddamn shoe… f_cking shoe…” I was not prepared for the struggle. Sweat dripped off my forehead.

I had to give up. People were streaming off the plane in front of me, and my turn was coming quickly. I slipped the shoe onto the front of my foot like a slipper, but couldn’t step down on it, because the back of a loafer is solid.

The Hood River trip requires the equipment levels of a battalion (windsurfing harness; wetsuits; mountain bike pedals and shoes; hiking boots; fleece; camera), so in addition to a checked, prodigiously stuffed duffel bag, I carried two other bags and an awkward windsurfing harness with me on the plane. I gathered them up and shuffled off the plane.

On the way home from anywhere, the walk to baggage claim is always interminable, but yesterday it was truly hopeless. People stared as I lumbered under the weight of my two bags and harness, limping on my left foot and shuffling and dragging my right foot behind me so I didn’t loose the shoe. Quasimodo was more elegant. Those walking the opposite way down the terminal would steal to the other side of the walkway as they passed me, staring in horror as if I were a stinking homeless man. It would have been humorous if I had not felt the part.

I finally got to baggage claim, and waited another eternity for the bags to appear. Those who’d seen me struggle into the room continued to stare. My stomach filled with a deep, heavy despair. I lowered myself onto my pile of bags and waited.

“Man, that looks painful,” said a man standing next to me.
“Excuse me?”
“That back brace you’ve got,” he said, nodding at my windsurfing harness. “Why aren’t you wearing it? You don’t look too good.”
“Oh no. No no. That’s a windsurfing harness, not a back brace. That’s fun,” I said, face betraying the sentiment.

So I got my bags, struggled to my car and drove home. I arrived at 1:30 AM and the house was dark, all asleep. I’d been on vacation for two straight weeks, but I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I left the bags in the back of the car and crept upstairs.

Oliver’s room was first. I poked my head in the door and there he was, asleep, limbs all akimbo, head poking out of his comforter. I felt better. Walker next, same scene, then Christian. Each time, I felt a similar lift in spirits. I walked into my bedroom and Teresa was likewise asleep, with our dog Sander splayed all about my side of the bed. I leaned down to see if Teresa might be coyly awake, waiting for me to greet her with a kiss. She still slept, so I kissed her lightly on the neck. She stirred. I’d wake her after I’d brushed my teeth and readied myself for bed.

As I walked to the bathroom, I realized that the weight in my stomach had lifted. I was home, and my spiritual crisis was, temporarily at least, over.